BUFFET CAR BRAVADO
Nomadic no longer, I still read about wanderlust. The refurbishment of the Spirit of Progress, glamorous interstate train of my boyhood, kindles memory. When I first ride it at thirteen, paddocks of silvery grass shiver, that wan morning light breaking over imagined campfires of desperadoes. Riding free, wearing the long overcoat of sad belligerence, I rehearse, embellish, my burgeoning tale of speeding back in custody to an arse-whipping, to bolster my status among schoolmates.
I had crossed the NSW border, presaging a fascination with reaching termini in my waltzing Matilda future, sense the cop’s shadow as I stoop to a drinking fountain after confessing my flight from home to the last driver who gave me a lift. Nearly broke, I ration stolen cigarettes I lie about to the cop, dream whirligig dreams in an unlocked cell before he escorts me at dawn to rendezvous with the famous train, a juvenile delinquent hobo riding the rails, an atmospheric scene in the movie in my mind.
He whispers in the buffet car lady’s ear, laughs, before warning me about the fate awaiting escapees. No handcuffs, but bacon and eggs on railway china, the condemned allowed to order whatever he fancies. At war with loveless parents, I consider slipping away if the train stops, buggered whatever I do, wishing we flew on VR’s golden wings to Sydney instead of back to Melbourne.
My mother would criticise the buffet lady’s dyed hair, pencilled eyebrows, mascara, bright lipstick. Tousling my begrimed hair, earrings and eyes shining, this lady listens to a sorry tale. My tough self-image teetering, words almost choking into tears, I pretend to swallow the wrong way as she responds with more toast, a hunger about the way she watches me eat, gushing that if I were hers, oh, how she would love me, voice swooning with pity, for me, herself, for the boy she never had.
As she talks I love the way she calls me ‘love’, yearn for her to ask me to live with her in The Rocks, in the shadow of the great bridge, perhaps work together on the train, but know this thinking is kid-like, wish she were my mother, wish I could swap mean adults, life’s grief, for her, wish I could shave, wish my socks didn’t stink as we speed clickety-click towards parental wrath, their maelstrom of misery in that wasteland where, amazingly, people affording the price of touring on the refurbished train now live.