On the Explorer

Central Station

After Campbelltown farm animals begin to appear in the fields, faces down in the grass.

Everyone knows each other; or knows someone who knows each other. Everyone is a recovering alcoholic. Everyone is dead or dying.

A woman hasn’t paid the difference. The conductor tells her not to worry about it – because it’s Christmas, he says. “Oh, thang-kyou,” she says.

A can of soft drink is cracked. There is a pause, and then it is opened, as if he didn’t want to disturb.

Everyone is dead or dying or died years ago.

New home new home old home boarded and bombed with graffiti. Long houses which in my mind when I see them I attach to the word homestead.

In a field of gumtrees there is a tree house, dark and stuck between two trees like it is an organic extension of them, with a blue port-a-loo outside. (I, at first, instead of writing tree house, wrote true house.)

Field

Dirty cloud and dirty earth and cows cluster on a hilltop like they wait for something other than dusk. (I’ll try to get a shot of a kangaroo for you.)

(The train whistles; the faster we go the more desperate the whistling. I don’t feel like writing, or reading, so I do this.)

Right on time: two grey shadows in the fields like the upturned trunks of trees: kangaroos.

The names of the stops mean nothing for me. I do not know them and so they are only names. For a long time, while we were still in Sydney, the rail line channels through industrial estates, factories and warehouses, or the leftovers of industry. I don’t even know this part of town – I look for signs or buildings or the shape of places to know where we are. These places are empty. I don’t know my city.

I think about the conductor. I imagine him folding his work shirt in a dim motel room, alone, turning on the radio that is built into the bedside table. Or is he going home? Does he have someone to fold his shirt?

Burnt Trees

“It’s out of my hands.”

We pass a muddy clay lake and burnt out trees that a fire has whipped bare.

“It’s out of my handsisn’t it?”

A caravan park where the caravans have been turned into permanent homes, television aerials on rooftops, the caravans stripped of their ability to transport; black forest and then blackened fences and then spaces where homes used to be.

A footy lost over the fence.

One corrugated shed then the remnants of a shed, as if it’s been blown up or blown away.

The buffet has closed but there is hot food left which they don’t want to waste and so everything is half price: plain meat pies are 1.90; pasties are 1.70; sausage rolls are 1.80. To prevent wastage.

“All right love ya. … Love you. … Love ya bye.”

Night

On the way to Surgical 2

When I’m beyond the landscapes I know, I look out the window, trying to pierce the bright reflection of the carriage’s insides, the reflection of my face and the faces of the passengers around me, to get a sense of where I am. Lights flash by. It’s all I see; the rhythm of light in the dark, street lights, headlights, the rectangles and squares of living rooms and kitchens, glimpses into people’s homes. Still lives.

Soon, the train leaves the suburban and for long intervals between stations, the outside is opaque.

*

In high school I wrote an essay on Matthias Grünewald’s Isenheim Altarpiece. I don’t remember if I chose the subject or if it was assigned (either is likely) or what I wrote, nor does it matter as everything done in high school seems negligible and naive once it’s behind you.

But Grünewald’s crucified Christ has stayed with me. It remains with me in the way that art sometimes remains, eroding and fading in my memory, but immoveable.

There’s something about Grünewald’s Jesus. He doesn’t look dejected – like he’s lost a contest he expected to win – like the Christs of my childhood. No, this Christ, pre-Renaissance style, not quite like you and I but near enough, is in pain. He bleeds, is covered in sores, fingers jagged and cramping, his head sunk low. His skin is flaking or has tiny splinters in it – I’m not sure which. I think Grünewald’s Jesus has stayed with me because of this difference.

When I think of it now, I see that this is the suffering of a man, a human, and I know that the artist was a faithless man. A man who knew earthly pain, but not God. For the nonbeliever, the story of Jesus Christ is a story of suffering, a metaphor for all suffering. Grünewald understood this, and painted it.

*

I spot, down in the carriage’s belly, fluoro orange. Three train guards, heavy boots and bright jackets on, move towards where I sit, checking tickets. Mine isn’t valid – I don’t come to this part of the city, I have no need. I shouldn’t have a need.

The guards come up the stairs and ask to see our tickets, so I take out what I have and hold it up. The guard looks at it, feigns reading it, nods and they move on to the next carriage.

It takes a moment, then comes the rush of being 17 again, of doing things like this when we were kids for no other reason than to see what would happen. I laugh to myself, amused at dodging fares in business clothes and at my age and on a night like tonight. And on a night like tonight.