Slipstream

UTS_Anthology_2013

Slipstream was published in  The Evening Lands,  UTS Writers’ Anthology 2013.

 

My friend is in danger. By the time you finish reading this he’ll be dead. Don’t feel any pressure, he’s been waiting for this moment.    Gabriel has been coming here a lot lately. It’s where he comes when he gets unstuck. Mostly, he sits on the bench, ten steps from where you’re standing now. He sits for a while, looks for a sign, waits for the moment to come.

He needs the right person—no one too soft, too traumatised. He can tell on sight if someone has been abused or violated or swindled. It’s something in the way they walk. He senses their hyper-vigilance.

It’s all about timing. If the right person doesn’t show up or his mood changeswhen the parts don’t come togetherhe’ll stand on the forbidden side of the yellow line and wait for the next train to take him home.

Gabriel would like someone to push him, bump him, nudge him over the edge. You’ve heard of pushers? I don’t mean drug dealers, but a person who pushes someone in front of a train for no reason. Anyone could be one, acting whenever the feeling takes them, just for the thrill. It doesn’t happen that often now there’s CCTV, but the potential is still there with each approaching train. Gabriel would prefer to be pushed. It would make it easier for his mother; she’d say it was an accident, a mistake, no one’s fault.

Most passengers avoid Gabriel. Until you, that is. He checks the platform and there you are staring at him. He looks at you and the air feels suddenly humid.

Gabriel doesn’t like having too many people around. Don’t get me wrong, he can be very sociable with strangers; there were over two hundred at his exhibition opening last year. It’s the people he does know that unnerve him. Lucky for him train stations are as mutable as his moods. For instance, right now, it’s calm as a chapel. Yet five minutes ago there were dozens of people standing soldier-stiff behind the yellow line. Workers staunchly claiming their place on the platform, trying not to eye off their fellow travellers, yet too aware of their smells. The young executive wearing cheap aftershave. The pretty receptionist with wine-breath. The teenagers who’d shared a joint after school. They’re all safely on their way now. Most heading home to parents or partners or pets. Others to the gym because they live alone.

You were ready to board when the train sidled up. You even dog-eared this page. The carriage doors opened right in front of you. You looked in and hesitated. A group of private schoolgirls inside hugged giant cased instruments like amateur gangsters. But you didn’t get into the carriage with them. The platform emptied and you stood still as people moved around you like iron filings.

Gabriel thought you were going to board. Was sure you would, but here you are. It’s the sign he needed. It’ll be dark soon. The station’s empty now apart from you and him and me of course. It doesn’t give him much time. Just ten minutes till the express comes.

He’d like to come over right now and tell you how grateful he is. He’d like to scoop your hair up and let the evening breeze cool your neck. He imagines the smell of your hair. Green apples. He’d like to cup your thin face in his hands and apologise, then kiss your forehead. He curls his hands into fists to stop them coming over to touch you. Sit on your hands, he thinks. That’s better, good hands.

I’m looking after him today. I tell him you’re the one.

‘Yes,’ Gabriel says aloud. The incision in the silence surprises you.

He’s been waiting for you. You won’t judge him, you’ll go home and know it wasn’t your fault, know you couldn’t do a thing.

‘Yes,’ he says again.

He’s relieved you’re here. There’s a pact between you now. An understanding. He combs his fingers through his hair. Slowly, he removes his wallet from his back pocket and places it on the bench. He walks toward you and stops. Gabriel looks into your eyes. He undoes the chain around his neck, holds it in his palm and kisses it, then walks back to the bench and places the chain next to his wallet.

•••

Have you ever boarded a train and just kept going? Not a country train for a weekend trip—a regular commuter train. A train that was meant to take you to work, or to school, or violin practice.  But when your station arrived you didn’t get up. Something inside wouldn’t let you move and you stayed put till the doors slid together again and you watched unfamiliar stations fly past, wishing they’d never stop.

Ever just stared out the window, avoiding your sudden reflection in tunnels, staying on and on till you reached the end of the line when you had no choice but to get off?  When all you could do was cross the platform and get a train back to the city, each station bringing a little increase in panic until you finally arrived at Central and worked your way up the escalator.

Ever walked into your open-plan office just in time for morning tea, armed with a box of iced donuts and a sick-neighbour excuse, wishing you were still on the train?

•••

Gabriel thinks that you’re an artist. An angel. An artist-angel. He’d like to tell you you’re beautiful. He doesn’t want to frighten you, he wouldn’t hurt you, he’s not like that. He’d just like to watch you sleeping, because it’s so difficult for him. He won’t take the pills the clinic gave him. He can’t deal with the drowsiness, the formlessness, the absence. He took them for four, maybe five months. Couldn’t paint, couldn’t get out of bed, couldn’t be here.

He introduced me to a friend from the clinic a few weeks back. Another train buff. Ralph asked us over to see his model railway. He lived in his parents’ garage, a mattress in one corner, a raised wooden platform in the middle. Railway tracks ran over the platform, across miniature inner-city suburbs out to satellite towns and the Great Dividing Range. We bent down to watch the trains fly past at eye-level. In the centre stood a tiny station with a pedestrian bridge and little plastic commuters. You were there, leaning against the guardhouse wall, reading, waiting for the express to come.

Ralph’s mother fussed about, getting us cinnamon teacake while electric trains rattled around and around. Ralph had one good leg, the other was as skinny as your wrist and stopped short of his knee where he had a prosthetic strapped on. He told us he’d lost it from jumping in front of a train two years earlier—that in the half-second he was falling, he’d smelt his mother’s porridge and heard her say, ‘More, Ralph?’

Ralph jerked his prosthetic leg behind him and twisted his body up to demonstrate how he’d looked back at the platform when he’d imagined his mother’s voice, and when the train hit, only one leg was on the track. The papers said it was an accident, but everybody knew. I asked if he still liked trains. ‘Blood oath’, he said, then hobbled to the garage door with us to say goodbye.

Gabriel knows that’s the real danger. Messing it up. There’s no way out then. A one-legged guy has Buckley’s of getting himself in front of a real train again. Not with all the do-gooders that help get him around safely and whatnot. The reason someone jumps is because they want to get it right. No one can help Ralph now, his circle of keepers are too cluey, they’ve got him doped up and tucked in and playing with toy trains for life.

Gabriel walks over to the pedestrian bridge crossing the tracks. He looks back at you to make sure you’re watching. He knows not to think of his mother. Anything but. I remember when he took all his mother’s pills and she had to get his stomach pumped. She increased her sedatives after that, installing a heavy metal safe on the floor of her walk-in wardrobe to house them. I tell him to think about you instead.

He’s worried it will change your life. I tell him you’ll be fine. You’ve got resources. Just look at your clothes. Your leather satchel. Your strappy shoes. You’ve got a job, a post-graduate degree, a good therapist—she’ll help you ‘process’ it. It’s better that you haven’t got off scot-free. You have your secrets. Did the schoolgirls upset you before? Did they remind you of the talent you let slip? Prodigy was a common word used around you, wasn’t it? You had potential. Talk to Gabriel about it—he knows what it’s like to be very good, but know you’ll never be great. He’d like to hear about your debut appearance at the Town Hall. You were twelve, or was it thirteen? Your father liked telling people he had a concert violinist in the family, even though it was your first recital. Remember when he turned up back stage with a pretty velvet dress he’d borrowed from his boss’s daughter? But when you put it on, you had to hold your stomach in so tight it cramped. Your father tugged and tugged at the zip, cursing as the teeth bit into your skin.

You went on stage in the too-tight dress, sucking in so hard you could hardly breathe. Everyone that came to hear the prodigy went home wondering what all the fuss was about. You didn’t eat any chicken sandwiches after the recital and even though your father tells you it was first-night nerves, he wears his disappointment like a lead suit. Later that night, once everyone has gone to bed, you sneak in to the bathroom and stick your fingers down your throat until you gag and splutter and tears run down your cheeks. It takes fine-tuning and a lot of practice, but you find a new way to make your fingers work magic.

Are you interested in Gabriel? You think he’s handsome, bohemian. Someone you could be attracted to. An experiment. You find it hard to keep your men don’t you?  Never mind, he says you’re it. You’re the one.

He likes this station. He can smell jasmine now. Have you noticed the award stuck in the stationmaster’s window? ‘Garden Station of the Year’ it says. This summer, everything’s dying from the heat, but he can still smell jasmine.

You look at my friend on the bridge. Come over. Let me introduce you—you’re about to have a huge impact on each other. I’m sure you’d like to meet, properly, at least once, though there’s not much time. I’m glad it’s you. You are just what he needed. Most try and stop him. If I thought you couldn’t handle it, I’d tell him to come back another time. I’ve stopped him before. He’s been told he shouldn’t listen to me. But I tell him his psychic reflexes are good today, he can make up his own mind.

Are you ready? The train will be here soon. Gabriel’s got his spot on the centre of the bridge. He’s calm now, sitting perched on the wooden railing like Humpty Dumpty. He can hear the whistle on the tracks. Everything’s going to be all right. I repeat, everything is going to be all right. He can see the train coming. And he can see you on the platform. He tries to get your attention.

You’re reading.

•••

 

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