About the Author
Ashley Hay is the internationally acclaimed author of the novels A Hundred Small Lessons, The Body in the Clouds, and The Railwayman’s Wife, which was honored with the Colin Roderick Award by the Foundation for Australian Literary Studies and longlisted for the Miles Franklin Literary Award, the most prestigious literary prize in Australia, among numerous other accolades. She has also written four nonfiction books. She lives in Brisbane, Australia.
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
Railwayman’s Wife 1
SHE SITS, her legs folded beneath her. The fingers of one hand trace the upholstery’s pattern while the other hand holds the pages of the book.
It could be any day, any year: call it 1935, 1938, 1945, or somewhere decades away in her future. Perhaps it’s the day after her wedding, the day after her daughter’s birth, the last day of the war, the last day of her life. Whenever it is, Anikka Lachlan is reading, swallowed by the shapes and spaces made by rows of dark letters on pale paper. She wets one finger, not slowly, but absently, and moves it to turn the next page.
From outside, across the roofs of this small town, comes a sharp line of noise—a train’s brakes and the squeal of wheel on rail, metal on metal. Ani looks up from the page but at nothing, and at nowhere, as if the room she’s sitting in and the rest of this whole cacophonous world do not, at this moment, quite exist.
The sound fades. The silence holds. She looks down, and finds the next word.|Railwayman’s Wife 2
THESE ARE the sort of people they are, Ani Lachlan and her husband, Mac. They are people who make a fuss of birthdays, people for whom no effort is too great in search of the perfect present, the perfect tribute, the perfect experience. Even during the war, when their daughter, Isabel, had asked—impossibly—for a bicycle, Mac found the bits and pieces to craft a tiny ornamental one, to see her through until a proper one could be sourced, and saved for, and procured.
And so in late 1948, on the weekend before Isabel’s tenth birthday, Ani and Mac take the train up the coast to Sydney to find her next birthday present—she’s asked for something magical. All morning they rummage in dusty shops near Central, until they find—in the last quarter hour before their train—a dull cylinder with an eyehole at one end and a round dome of glass at the other.
Mac holds it up to one eye, the other eye closed, and the kaleidoscope transforms the overfull shop into a series of mosaics. Now it’s a stained-glass window; now a fan of Arabic tiles. Now it flares into brightness as he angles the tube towards the shop’s open door. He hands it to his wife, smiling. “You’ll love it,” he says, watching her turn the tube, watching her transform the busy mess of the shop. Its drab brass looks heavy against the glow of her skin.
“Yes,” she says, turning the tube to make another image. “Yes, she’ll want this. She can make everything she looks at into something beautiful with this.” No better present for their Bella. Mac pushes the coins across the counter to the old lady who stands there, wrapping the gift in a thick sheet of paper the color of a pale-yellow dawn.
“For a present?” the shopkeeper asks, tucking the parcel’s ends neatly into themselves.
“For our daughter,” says Mac.
“Turning ten,” says Ani.
The old lady smiles. “So many ways of seeing things,” she says, patting the paper. “I hope they are all beautiful, the things your little girl sees.” And she wraps the tube again in heavy brown paper, tying its ends with string, like a bonbon.
Ani smiles in return. “You should see where we live,” she says, touching Mac’s arm while he packs the parcel into his bag. “Most beautiful place in the world.”
Mac blushes, partly at the extremity of his wife’s words, and partly because he loves it when she says this. Because he was the person who took her there, the person responsible for delivering her to this beauty. In a scratched and spotted mirror behind the counter, he sees them standing together, Ani a little taller, and fine, like the saplings that grow down by the beach. The paleness of her hair is so uniform that she looks as if she’s been lit from above. And there he is, Mackenzie Lachlan, solid next to her, his head thick with hair that looks blond next to any but hers. Her reflection smiles, and he turns to catch the end of the real thing. That’s what illuminates him, that right there.
In the shop’s darkness, a clock chimes, and he grabs her hand again. “Train, love.”
The shopkeeper comes around the counter, bows her head with her hands pressed together like a prayer. “Then a safe journey back to your home and your little girl,” she says, standing by the door. They fly out to the street, past shop fronts, across roads, around corners, up stairs, and onto their platform. As they swing into an empty compartment, the engine gathers steam and lets out one perfect cloud of white, one perfect trumpet of sound, and begins to move off.
“We’ve got a good loco in front of us,” says Mac, leaning over to watch the big green engine take a curve. “Home in no time—it’s a thirty-six; nice run down the line.”
Most beautiful place in the world. He feels Ani tuck herself between his body and the angular edge of the train’s wooden window frame. The warmth of her arm brushes his own as he turns the pages of his newspaper and mutters the names of the countries in the news—Burma, Ceylon, Israel, South Africa, two new Germanys. By the end of the second page, he feels her heavy against him and knows she’s going to sleep through this patchwork of suburban backyards, their clotheslines, their veggie patches, their hemorrhaging sheds. She’ll sleep through to the slice of the journey she loves best, when the train surges through one long black tunnel and delivers her onto the coast, the northern tip of Ani Lachlan’s most beautiful place in the world.
“I’ll wake you up when we get there,” says Mac. And she nods, squeezing his hand. She sleeps quickly, deeply, on trains, as if their rhythms and noise were a lullaby. He watches her breathing, feels the air from her mouth on his shoulder.
They cross the Cooks River, then the Georges, pushing south. Through the window now, thick bush rushes by, transformed into fragments and segments of trees, palms, grasses, birds, and sky as if they’d been poured through the kaleidoscope too. His eyes flicker and dart, trying to isolate a single eucalypt, the fan of a palm, and then they close. His newspaper drops to the floor as the landscape changes from eucalypt forest to something more like a meadow—almost at Otford; almost at the head of the tunnel—and her fingers, light, begin to pat his arm.
“Not often I get to wake you.” She smiles.
“Almost there,” he says. The engine is puffing and blowing, pulling hard, and the train presses on towards the archway that’s been carved to open up the mountain. “Now,” says Mac, taking his wife’s hand. “Now,” his mouth so close to her ear. They’re in darkness, the sound monumental, the speed somehow faster when there’s only blackness beyond the windows. And then they’re out, in the light, in the space, in the relative quiet.
And there’s the ocean, the sand, the beginnings of this tiny plain that has insinuated itself, tenuous, between the wet and the dry.
It’s a still and sunny day, the water flat and inky, the escarpment colored golden and orange, pink and brown. As the train takes the curves and bends of its line, the mountain’s rock faces become great stone monoliths that might have come from Easter Island, and then the geometric edges of some desert temple. Here are the hellish-red gashes of coke ovens; here is the thin space where there’s only room, it seems, for a narrow road, a narrow track, between the demands of sea and stone. And here is the disparate medley of place-names—simple description, fancy foreign, and older, more original words: Coalcliff, Scarborough, Wombarra, Austinmer. And then Thirroul.
They pass the big glass-and-wooden roundhouse in Thirroul’s railway yards—Ani’s favorite building is how he thinks of it, although it’s where his every working day begins. As the train slows, they’re almost home.
The engine lets out a long whistle and pulls into Thirroul’s station, its low waiting rooms set back from the platform’s edge and the Railway Institute and its library on the opposite side of the tracks. Ani reaches for Mac’s hand, and steps out of the carriage. The air is thick with salt and ozone from the unseen ocean nearby. Arranging their bags, they begin their slow walk home, east towards the water, south up the hill, east towards the water again, and halfway along Surfers Parade. From the steps to the front door, the view is all mountain and water, while behind the back fence, and maybe a mile farther south, a headland rules off the space she’s told him she regards as the edge of their world.
“A mile south of that pine tree, sitting in our yard like a pin in a map for X marks the spot.”
“Then I leave the world on any train run to Wollongong,” he protested once. “I go out of your world in the course of every day.”
“Out of our world, yes, but you’re very good about coming home.”
When they first came, newly married and more than twelve years ago now, they’d climbed the mountain too, straight up the cliff face to the summit of the scarp, where they turned and stood, gazing east over the limitless blue.
“Nothing there,” said Mac quietly, “nothing at all—until you hit Chile.” The tops of the trees below looked like crazy paving, and among the grey-green of the gums were the odd cabbage-tree palm, the odd cedar, the odd tree fern an almost luminous green among the eucalypts, the turpentines. In late spring came extra punctuation—the fiery scarlet of the native flame tree; the incandescent purple of the exotic jacaranda.
They’d watched a storm come up the coast that day, clambering down the track in its noisy wetness, and arriving wild and muddy at the bottom. “I’ve got you.” Mac had laughed, wrapping his wet arms around her. Then closer, quieter—“I’ve got you now”—and he held her fast with a kiss. She’d squirmed then, anxious at the embrace in the open air, and he’d laughed at her for it, hanging on. Hanging on.
Now, as Ani makes a pot of tea and hides the precious present, Mac watches the sun set, remembering that kiss, that discomfort, and the messy embraces that came next. The shapes of the shadows, the colors of the world begin to shift and change towards nightfall and he longs for the gloaming, for one more walk in the wide dusk of a Scottish summer and an unexpected kiss in the braw open air. But it’s too far away, the other side of the world, and too many years since he left. Kisses now tend towards the perfunctory, the habitual, with the occasional moment of surprise, spontaneous or remembered. It’s just life, he knows, rather than anything particular or sinister. Still, he’s glad for recollections, and the privacy of imagination.
From the corner of his eye, he sees a flash of color against the growing dark, and it’s Isabel coming home from a friend’s house by the shore. He whistles three times, twice low and once high and long, so that the sound slides back to the pitch of the first two notes. Even through the gloom, he sees her stop and steady herself before she whistles in reply. It’s power, to whistle your girl home, he thinks, opening the gate and feeling her hug hard against his body.
The next weekend, on Isabel’s birthday, after breakfast and the present, Ani slides the birthday cake into the oven and the family walks to the beach with the kaleidoscope. It’s a clear morning, the sky very high and light, with a band of clouds, thin and white, tucked in beyond the ridge of the mountain. Isabel stands with the brass tube of her gift, changing the world with the smallest movement of her hand. “Like magic,” she says, and Ani and Mac smile. She loves birthdays; the present, the cake, and always an excursion—a milkshake in Wollongong, she wants, and they’ve promised to take her after school, one day in the coming week.
“Maybe chocolate,” she calls now, “or maybe chocolate malted. Or would it be more grown-up, now I’m ten, after all, to have caramel?” She dances circles in the sand around her parents, looking at this, at that, with her precious new spyglass while they head towards the silvery smooth pylons, the fractured segments of joists, that are all that remain of the old jetty, pushing inland above the line of the low tide and out to sea the other way.
“We should’ve given you a telescope, love,” Mac calls to his daughter. Then: “Looks like there’s someone sitting up there on one of the poles.” And the three of them pause, peering ahead, the sun warm on their backs as they separate the shape of a man from the shape of the weathered wood.
“You know, I reckon that’s Iris McKinnon’s brother,” says Mac at last. “One of the drivers said he was home. You remember, love—he’s the one published the poem during the war. We took it round for Iris, do you remember?” He shades his eyes, more a salute than anything to do with glare. “Wonder what he’ll do now he’s back here? Not much call for a poet in the pits or on the trains.”
Offshore, a pod of dolphins appears in the face of a wave, curling and diving as the smooth wall of water curls, and breaks, and surges in to the shore. Isabel laughs, and the dolphins rise up and jump and dive again.
“They look like they’re on a loop,” says Mac, “like something at a carnival, spinning round and round. And another!” he cries, as a dolphin leaps clear of the sea. “Always there’s dolphins for you, my girl, but still no sign of my great white bird.” Mac’s fantasy, on every coast he’d been on: to look out towards the horizon and see an albatross, bobbing gently and at rest.
“Maybe for your next birthday, Dad,” Isabel calls, whooping as another dolphin somersaults from a wave’s sheer face.
On the top of his pylon, the poet has seen the creatures too, leaning forward towards their movement, leaning back as they plunge down into the blue.
“There’s got to be a poem in that,” says Ani. “If I was going to write a poem, I’d write about dolphins. They always look so happy—and it’s always such a surprise to see them.”
Mac laughs, grabbing her hand with one of his, Isabel’s with the other, and skipping them all along the sand. “It’s a grand omen for Bella’s tenth birthday—that’s what it is. Now, I want to pop home and try a slice of that lovely cake.” And he starts to run, his two girls—as he calls to them through the wind—hanging on to him and flying across the sand like his coattails.
But as they reach the rocks and begin to climb up to the street, he pauses, looking back along the stretch of sand. What does a poet look like, up close? he wonders. Would he look different to how he looked before the war? Would you be able to see some trace of his occupation about him somewhere, like loose words tucked into his coat pocket? Mac strains to pick out the shape of the man’s hat, his head, his body way off down the beach. And how will he get down? The incoming tide is roiling around the bottom of the uprights, white flecks of spray bursting as the water breaks.
“Do you not want your cake then?” Ani teases from the top of the cliff, hurrying him up. And Mac takes the stairs two at a time, breathless when he reaches the grass.
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