Sleeping City
Belgrave Station, Melbourne. © Tim South
...he began to talk of more trivial things, as if he was embarrassed at having told such personal matters to a stranger.

I stayed in Zurich for two weeks, and enjoyed the many museums and art galleries it had to offer. There was so much to experience of the monumental history and culture of Europe - in a short time I saw centuries of mankind at its most God-like, and its most despicable. It was also when I was seeing the sights of Zurich that I began to spend some lengths of time completely distracted from my grieving...

But I found that when I was done with the adventures of the day, and had returned to my hotel, I would think of her. So often I would leave the hotel again, and wander the streets in the dark. Where had the years gone? We were so happy for so long, our contentedness was almost like sleep. Then the doctors told us what was happening to her, and our lives fell to pieces. And after she was gone, the pain came like a storm.

So I went from city to city, like a fugitive. The organisation of travel and accommodation was time consuming and often very complicated, but I almost looked forward to the difficulties. Although I often changed my mind about where I went, I had decided even before I left England that a visit to the Cathedral in Cologne was something I couldn't overlook. Most of my travelling was done by train, and this time I had spoiled myself and booked a first class sleeper car for an overnight journey. Before boarding the train I was having a light supper at Zurich Main Station, when it was announced over the tannoy that there was an unavoidable delay in departure, for an unspecified time. Needless to say, the groans of most of my fellow passengers were to be heard along the platform. I did not welcome the news, of course, but I had no specific commitments, so as long as the delay was not too long it was merely an irritation.

But as time passed, it began to appear that the problem was more protracted. Conductors and engineers were moving briskly back and forth along the platform beside the Cologne train, and their inclination to answer the questions of the passengers was rapidly disappearing. I kept looking up at the large railway clock, as the hours passed.

Eventually the officials had to face the inevitable. The tannoy announced that there had been certain mechanical problems with the rail apparatus, and there would be no departure that evening. Arrangements would be made with all possible haste. The announcement was made in English, German and French, and each time different parts of the crowd would react with angry words and gestures. I vaguely took note of which passengers were my fellow Englishmen, wondering if I may need to make an ally for any reason.

The rail company made it clear that they could not provide hotel accommodation for an entire complement of passengers, but an offer of per diem was made, and a list of suggested coffeehouses and hotels provided. I decided to spend the time at one of the cafés, as I did not have any urgent need to sleep. It was already past three o'clock in the morning, and we were assured that the train would be on schedule for the next evening. My cases remained on the luggage van, and all I took was my spectacles, passport, travel documents and a small amount of money.

I wandered the empty streets until I found a small café, not too far from the station. Inside it was warm, and smelled of freshly roasted coffee - they assured me they would remain open all night if I wished, so I took a seat, chose a two day old newspaper from a pile on the counter, ordered a café au lait, and prepared myself for a long sitting.

I had not been there for long when another chap entered the café. I recognised him as one of my fellow Englishmen from the Cologne train - he was wearing a homburg that seemed too large for him, and this had stuck in my memory. He carried a battered leather satchel, and was wearing a slightly shabby astrakhan coat. He was short, with a moustache that was so fair it was almost invisible. I could not guess his age.

"I say, you're taking the Cologne train, surely!" I called out. He looked over toward me.

"You're quite right, old chap. What a damned inconvenience. Luckily my appointment can wait."

"Well then, why not join me!"

We ordered more coffee, and began to talk of the superficialities of our lives, during the dark hours of that morning, two travellers talking while a city slept. He was from Islington, but lived in Lucerne, and was making a two day trip to the small town of Delbrück. To begin with, he gave no specifics about his journey. The air was cold, but still, and as the day dawned, the light slowly grew along the grey streets, and the shopkeepers emerged to sweep their doorsteps, then place their signs and wares. The noises of the city awakening created a gentle distraction, and perhaps this encouraged the man to tell me the more intimate details of his story.

"I take this trip every year, but I don't tell anyone about it. I visit the grave of someone who gave me happiness, maybe more than anyone else in my life. I always place something there, usually a rose... but if I go there on the anniversary, there may be others visiting. I go on the anniversary of a special day we spent together. It seems fitting. I go in the morning, then spend the day in the town before returning..."

He paused for a moment, and stared into space, perhaps reliving the memory.

"The joy of her company gave me happiness, but she was the cause of anger and shame as well. I used to believe that it was the effect she had on everybody, but whenever I talked about it with others, they seemed to be reluctant to discuss the matter... Perhaps they wanted to avoid telling me that I was deluding myself. They never liked her."

"Was she your sweetheart, then?"

"Oh no... I don't think so... But if I only had one day of my life left to live, of all people I would choose to spend it with her."

Outside, a truck slowly shouldered its way along a narrow alley, and for a minute its roars held up our conversation. He watched it go, then turned to continue.

"But we had a falling out. The nature of our lives meant that we had to see one another every day. Each day was an exercise in avoiding her - it was such a burden, to feel the angst of avoiding someone, particularly one who had made me so happy. It went on for a long time... Then, she moved away. Was she running from her troubles? I don't know. But it seemed to take away any chance of resolving the bitterness between us. It was such a relief, that I no longer had to avoid her, but something was lost, I feared, forever."

I felt somewhat uncomfortable with the conversation, yet at the same time it seemed that in some small way, by putting it into words, he may have been looking for an opportunity to heal himself. But he did not elaborate on the dispute between them, and I wondered if it had caused the shame of which he spoke.

"A year later, she died. I don't want to tell you how. But then, of course, she truly was lost forever."

He stared out of the window for a minute or so. Then he opened his satchel, and after a brief search, he extracted a photograph, and passed it to me. It was a picture of the large drawing room of a house, with four people - two young men holding tennis racquets, an old woman, and a small girl, sitting, posing for the camera. The girl was pretty, with a happy, ingenuous face.

"I can never decide whether or not I should keep this," he said. "It hurts me to look at it, but it's all I have left. I try not to look at it."

I placed it on the table, and he stared out of the window again. I didn't say anything. Then, in an abrupt manner, he began to talk of more trivial things, as if he was embarrassed at having told such personal matters to a stranger. It was now the middle of the morning, and after further superficial conversation for half an hour or so, he declared he would take some exercise, and observed that he would no doubt see me at the station that evening. He shook my hand awkwardly, without looking me in the eye, and left.

I remained at the café, and thought a little about the things he had told me. I tried to imagine what had happened between them - but there seemed to be too much that one could read between the lines...

Some minutes after he had gone, I noticed that he had left the photograph behind. It seemed easy enough for me to restore it to its owner at the station, so I decided not to run after him. I realised I was then able to look at the photograph properly without being rude. As I gazed at the face, I began to see fun in her eyes, fun and love, a face that said, I like being with you the most. Perhaps I began to understand...

That evening, at the station, I walked the length of the platform a few times, but could not find the man I had talked to, so I gave the photograph to the conductor. Whether or not my companion had wanted to discard his picture was not for me to say, so I enjoined the conductor to make every possible effort to find him before consigning it to 'lost and found'. The train was boarded and departed without incident. I knew that I would easily make up the sleep I had lost, despite the jostling of the sleeper car. Sure enough, I lay down in my bunk, and was asleep within a minute.

Sometime in the night, from within the dark folds of sleep, there was a keening that seemed to go on forever... my consciousness struggled, and finally emerged to hear the train's whistle - into the night, as the train rushed along, its whistle held on, as if it was calling to something or someone that it could not find, flying along the miles and miles of hidden towns and countryside... Then the whistle of the train and the carriage rattling on the rails disappeared back into sleep...

The next morning, as the train moved slowly towards the Cathedral and into the station at Cologne, I gazed out of the window and reflected again on the events of the previous evening. For some reason, I kept thinking about the sound of the train's whistle. I have no idea why it had sounded for such a long time. But it echoed in my mind, its endless song - or perhaps not a song, but an elegy... as if the steam engine was giving a voice to his sorrows. Perhaps it is heard like this every year, when he journeys to Delbrück to remember that day they spent together.

December, 2011

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