Several years ago we came across the following short story in a 1950 issue of the Bulletin. The piece was written by the Australian journalist and author Charles Shaw (1900-1955). Shaw wrote many short stories, and at one time was the rural reporter for the Bulletin magazine. He wrote several books during his career as well as some verse. He is best remembered for his late career best-seller, Heaven Knows, Mister Allison (1952), a novel about an American marine and a nun, stranded on a Pacific island during Japanese occupation in World War II. It was later released by 20th Century Fox in 1957, and starred Deborah Kerr and Robert Mitchum.
Night train to Capertee fictionally documents the experience of travelling on the night mail train from Sydney to Capertee sometime during the 1930s or 40s. I think you will agree that this piece certainly challenges the nostalgic view many have of rail travel in the steam age.
Night Train to Capertee
by Charles Shaw
The compartment held one other occupant, a small man with a seamed face, a large moustache and a battered tweed cap from beneath whose visor gleamed two bright, round, shallow, simian eyes. The rest of him was hidden in a black overcoat whose collar met the tweed cap at sides and rear.
He didn’t move, but I was conscious of those restless, darting eyes watching everything I did. I’d got the window seat opposite him, and settled into it, glad to find the compartment uncrowded but hoping someone else would come to distract those eyes and help me rid my mind of the silly impression that I’d seen him the last time I was at the zoo.
“Goin’ far, mate?” The mouth under the moustache opened in a wide, ingratiating grin and for a moment I thought it was filled with black watermelon seeds, so broken and discoloured were the teeth.
“Capertee,” I answered.
“Aw.” He apparently lost interest, for he hunkered even father down into the overcoat and appeared to doze.
I looked out of the window into the rain and dark gleams along the rails, where electric-lights played with the night. Beyond the immediate platforms suburban electric-trains came and went, and I looked at them and their passengers with that aloof feeling you get in a night train bound for the country. It’s as though you were departing to another world severing yourself from the city and its ways. If there is rain and the night be late the aloofness is more poignant, for you look from your lighted carriage into streets that are suddenly alien and strange, and your train runs through them proudly and imperiously, and you are superior because you look upon the sleeping suburbs with a sweeping and scornful glance, knowing that in the houses and hovels the people cannot look at you. You can, if you have the imagination for it, feel like a tolerant and slightly contemptuous god making a night tour of earth.
At Strathfield the suburbs rushed back into their real form, and poured more passengers into the train. A very fat, deplorably well-dressed young man, deplorably sozzled, fell into the third corner seat and fell into an alcoholic slumber, his pudgy hands rammed deeply into trouser-pockets and his lumpy legs stuck straight out. Next to me came a thin lady of doubtful years with the most determinedly virtuous face I’ve seen on a female, and with her she had a gangling boy and two small girls. All three were neatly-dressed children of excellent behaviour, and they sat beside the lady and looked shyly about them in silence. The boy caught sight of simian eyes across the compartment. He eyed their owner carefully, looked away, looked at them again, then moved protectively, and as though seeking protection, closer to the little girls. The black watermelon seeds were exposed, there was a convulsive heave of the black overcoat, and from it there emerged a maculate hand clutching a paper-bag.
“Yere, have some lollies?”
The boy shot a look at the lady, at the bag, at the watermelon seeds, and then appeared to shrink. The little girls sat like statues, their eyes on the hand and the bag.
The lady said, winningly, “Thank you very much. But really they’re so full they simply couldn’t” –
“How about you, mate?” The bag was thrust under my nose.
Some telepathic wave from the lady impelled me to rescue her.
“Keep you from wantin’ t’ smoke,” said the melon-seeds.
I grinned and crunched.
“Mary Wells,” said the fat drunk clearly, “is a little bitch. She ought to be shot!”
This declaration created an astounded silence. The children’s attention was at once removed from the melon-seeds to the fat man. I could almost feel the lady beside me turning cold. At that instant the door opened and three men entered. The diversion of their entrance and their placing of bags and finding seats, and the railway authorities’ happening to choose the same moment to release the train from its anchors, rendered the fat man’s statement no longer important. The train gathered speed, the drunk slept, the black teeth crunched the lollies, the lady and her brood relaxed, the other three settled down.
I resumed my game of being god touring the rain-wet suburbs by night.
The boy decided that it was necessary for him to visit the lavatory, probably because a travelling lavatory was a novelty that had to be investigated. These “dog-box” cars are separate units. Once you ‘re in and the train is travelling you are a prisoner until it stops again and an official comes along and unlocks the door. Consequently, the end of one seat is hinged, so that it can be raised to allow ingress to the tiny lavatory built into the “dog-box.” If you are a boy you quickly discover the fascination of going into the lavatory – it is all the more so if someone occupies the hinged part of the seat and has to get up to let you pass – and lifting the cover and hearing the roar of the train come rushing up through the hole out of the black night. You drop dead matches and bits of toilet-paper and whatever else you can find down the hole and are awed by the violence with which they are swallowed up in that menacing roar. Presently you must , for very shame’s sake, go back to your seat, and the passenger on the hinge once more rises politely to let you pass.
Thrice between Strathfield and Penrith the boy succumbed to the temptation, and his elder sister was’nt long in emulating him. This drew attention to the passenger on the hinge, who turned out to be a vague fellow with a whacking great bandage around his head.
“Didjer get that in a naccident?” asked the melon-seeds.
It was a dreadful mistake, for the bandaged one at once sat up and gave the compartment a long, accurately and gruesomely detailed account of an “operation done to me ear” from the initial pain down to the very last drop of pus. He then asked the lady if the children would stand up, which they did, whereupon he opened a bag and took therefrom a vacuum flask and a fearful apparatus of tubes and steel, filled the small tank attached to it with a yellow mixture from the vacuum flask, handed the whole outfit to the young man sitting opposite, indicated the nozzle and a bilb which had to be squeezed, unrolled his bandage, displayed to the dismayed lady an awful-looking red and yellow mass of an ear, laid himself down on the space vacated by the children, inserted the nozzle into his ear, and to the young man holding the bulb said, “Now pump her gently. It’ll hurt an’ I might yell, but you just keep on pumpin’.”
The young man gave us all a wild and terrified look, convulsively squeezed the bulb, and the patient let out a heart-rending screech. The young man dropped the bulb and stared white-faced at the patient, who groaned and twisted on the seat, to the interest of the children. The small man with the monkey eyes leaned forward, raising nothing. The other sober man was plainly affronted by the whole clinical performance.
“Pump,” moaned the patient, his hands clapped to his head. “Keep on pumpin’.”
Like a shot the boy picked up the bulb and held it to the young man, who shuddered and withdrew. With deep concentration the boy pumped, his sisters’ admiring eyes upon him, and at the next yelp from the patient the lady stood up, took the bulb and began pumping. The young man who had first held the bulb fell across me in a faint.
“The water-bottle,” I cried. “Get me the water-bottle.”
“A blasted bitch; that’s what Mary Wells is,” snorted the fat man, turning clumsily in his sleep.
After a time we got some order out of it all. The fainter recovered, the patient rebandaged his head and sat, shaken and silent, on his hinge. The children sat down again and talked lowly together, the drunk breathed heavily, the tweed cap was pulled down over the darting eyes, the rest composed themselves and the train roared into Penrith.
Here everybody except the fat man left the compartment and joined battle with the rest of the train in the refreshment-room, where, after a butting and scrambling, one emerged in possession of a lukewarm meat-pie and a thick cup of so-called tea.
By the time we were aboard again the early reserve between strangers had been somewhat dissolved, and while the tweed cap and the bandaged one shouted at one another diagonally across the carriage on the dreadful financial position of the working man – a discussion in which the “greedy Jew financhers in New York” were promised direful punishments “if ever Jack Lang gets hold of them” – the young man opposite asked me if I was going far. Few people on a train ever directly ask one’s destination – it is always whether one is going far.
“Capertee,” I said.
“Oh, Capertee,” he said brightly.
I now saw that he was a pleasant chap, quite young and candid, obviously a clerk of some sort. I ought to have been warned by the expression of eager diffidence, by the anticipatory glean in his frank blue eyes, but I wasn’t and when he said, in atone at one confiding and slightly boastful, “Know it well. It’s the thirty-third station past Penrith,” I echoed with stupid curiosity, “The thirty-third?”
We now had the attention of the financial debaters, the lady, the other sober man. The fat man slept; so did the children, who were loosely bundled together.
“Yes,” said the frank youngster, and too late I realised he was gloating. “Yes. Thirty-three. After Penrith there’s Log Cabin, then Emu Plains, Glenbrook, Woodford, Blaxland, Warrimoo, Valley Heights, Springwood, Faulconbridge, Linden, Hazelbrook, Lawson – that’s after the poet, you know [I felt that he was wrong] – Bullaburra, Wentworth Falls – friend of mine keeps the pub there” –
“What’s his name?” from the tweed Cap.
“Leura – his name’s Joe – Katoomba, Medlow Bath, Blackheath, Mt. Victoria, Hartley Vale, Bell, Newnes Junction, Clarence, Lithgow, Bowenfels, Marrangaroo – like kangaroo only with Mar on it – Wallerawang, Irondale, Piper’s Flat, Portland, Cullen Bullen, Ben Bullen and Capertee. How’s that!”
“Strike me fat,” marvelled the tweed cap.
“Yes,” said the performer modestly, “and I could go right on to Mudgee if you like.”
“I’ll bet you could,” I said, with slight sarcasm. He leaned back, the financial debate was resumed, and I looked out at the wet sides of a cutting rolling by, the train by this time labouring up the grade of the Blue Mountains. Later, I took the trouble to check the young man’s list and he was right to the last Bullen of them all.
The train had two engines hauling it and on the curves ahead I could see both of them. The headlight of the leader cut through the rain and both jetted forth clouds of steam. I could hear their cylinders coughing and their driving-rods pounding over the rails, and every now and then a fire-box door opened and lurid shadows danced on the white pillars of steam. They looked like great black monsters out of the Pit, butting their gleaming shoulders against the wall of the night and thrusting it aside. Bushes, trees, posts, stones, cutting-walls swam into the blaze of the headlight and vanished and all the time the steam poured forth and the shudder of the giants at their labour roared along the train. The curve straightened; I lost them and looked again at my companions.
“I’m going back to Mudgee,” volunteered the frank young man; “but not for long. Work in a store there. But it’s no place if you got ambition.” He looked at me, to see whether I had any of it, I suppose, and apparently assured that I had and therefore knew that Mudgee was no nursery for it, continued, “Never get on be sticking there. What I told the girl-friend. So I bin down seeing about a job in the State Lottery Office. Look like getting it. The girl-friend, her old man knows the member for the district. Man’ll have a chance working there. Get somewhere. Mudgee’s no place if you got ambition.”
I had a vision of the population of Mudgee being stifled in a bog, but it was cut short by the sober man, a rather saturnine fellow whose most-distinctive piece of apparel was a red-and-white bow tie.
“I was told Mudgee was a good town,” he said, somewhat violently and restlessly, as though fearing he had been imposed upon. “They told me it was a good town.”
“Depends,” said the ambitious man cautiously.
“Well, they told me it was a good town,” insisted the bow tie.
“All towns is good towns if you’re doin’ all right,” put in the tweed cap.
A long-drawn hoot from the engine cut the discussion short, for it caused the bandaged man to start and lean sideways, trying to peer out the window.
“Katoomba,” said the ambitious one confidently. “Know ‘em all.”
“What? Katoomba!” The bandaged one became anxious.
He reached down his bag and opened it. A dead silence fell as we watched the fell preparations. Out came the vacuum flask, out the apparatus with its tubes and steelware and bulb. Off came the lid of the tank and in went the yellow fluid from the flask.
He stood up in the carriage, looked grimly at the children and at the lady. The lady compressed her determinedly virtuous lips and ignored him.
“We’ll have to stand up,” he said, to the ambitious man. “If you stand on the seat there, we’ll manage.”
Before he could evade it the ambitious man held the apparatus and the bulb; the bandage came off, the awful ear was exposed. Like one in a trance the ambitious man got up on the seat, hanging on to the luggage-rack with one hand, juggling the contrivance. The sufferer inclined his head and inserted the nozzle, the bulb was squeezed, there came the cry of agony, I felt the lady next to me tremble, the children stirred and mumbled and the train came to a long, clanking stop.
The ambitious man got down from the seat, handed the apparatus to its owner, sank weakly to the cushions and said “Katoomba.” It was one o’clock in the morning. Another three hours to Capertee.
After Katoomba the train lost one engine and put on speed. All of us were lulled to sleep. I remembered seeing an electric sign of some sort flashing, and the next thing I knew was being violently shaken and the bright, simian, eyes glaring at me from between the watermelon seeds came the significant message, “Mount Vic, Dig. Wanna cup o’tea?”
It was exactly what I did want, and all of us except the fat man and the two little girls got out and scrambled along the platform. When I reached the refreshment-room there were solid ranks of travellers between me and the refreshment. I danced anxiously up and down, but it was hopeless, and when somebody cried “All aboord, pleez!” I gave up and was swept back to the train in the crowd.
Hungry and irritable and seeing nothing to love in my fellows, I made ready to come heavily with sarcasm or cruelty on the first of them who spoke to me. They bundled into the train, the children sleepy-eyed and as fretful as myself, the bandaged man aloof and alien, the others little more than blurred shapes from whom the heat of the compartment brought steam and an odor compounded of wet clothing and tired bodies. Against my hip pressed the bony hip of the lady next to me, and I had a wild desire to take her hand.
“We could put a rug over our knees,” I’d say, “and then nobody would know. I’ve always loved thin women of thirty-odd,” I’d say, “because their virtue is a banner before the world and” – my thoughts stopped abruptly, for a large paper-bag was under my nose, smelling hotly of meat and pastry and gravy.
“Got in first,” said the young man of ambition, “an’ reckoned I better grab a few pies for everybody. Go on, have one.”
I swallowed my contemplated sarcasms with the first rich, pleasing, luscious bite at the pie. The bag was passed round. The tweed cap prodded the fat drunk, who was still asleep, and he came awake with startling suddenness, looked wildly round like a lost soul who had suddenly found itself on a dark and barren planet in outer space and demanded, “What train’s this? What train’s this?”
“Mudgee mail,” replied the ambitious youth.
“It ain’t the one they shot Mary Wells on,” added the tweed cap, and fell into demoniac laughter and choked on his pie and made a general exhibition of himself. This awoke the smaller girl who sat up and cried at the top of her voice until the lady gathered her on her thin lap and hushed her. The other children did’nt stir.
The now-sober fat man ignored us all, dropped the window and put his head into the streaming night. Then he drew it back and said, “Aincha got any sense? What train is it?”
“Well, I gotter get out at ‘Wang,” he asserted, with faint belligerence. “I gotter get out there.” He looked slowly round the compartment, giving each of us a close scrutiny from his little eyes, then he stood up, turned his back on us all, reached down a bag from the rack, fished in it, brought forth a bottle of whiskey, found the thick glass in its iron ring on the carriage wall, poured a stiff dose of whiskey into it and drank it quickly.
The atmosphere at once acquired a new bouquet. The fat man put the empty glass on the seat, re-stoppered the bottle, slipped it into his overcoat pocket, replaced the bag on the rack and settled into his seat.
“How far t’ ‘Wang?” he asked civilly enough. (Wang is an abbreviation of Wallerawang).
“We just left Mount Vic,” said the tweed cap, and added, pointedly, “You’ll just about make it on y’r whiskey; that’s if y’ don’t go sharin’ it with anybody.”
The fat man looked at him and his blank face slowly took on a look of intense hate. It began somewhere about his mouth and spread slowly until even his ears were red with it.
“I bet you could go your share,” he said slowly.
“Y’ can stick it,” said tweed cap, with a snap like an angry terrier.
The imminence of drama silenced the carriage, except for the roar of the train. The fat man turned slowly in his seat and eyed the other from the tweed cap to the muddy shoes, and the hatred on his face was a thing to wonder at. He shot to his feet with astonishing agility: violently wrenched the bottle from his pocket and thrust it so fiercely at the tweed cap that its wearer bumped his head violently on the back of his seat as he jerked it back.
“Have a ruddy drink,” wheezed the fat man angrily. “Have a ruddy drink an’ don’t have so flamin’ much t’ say about it. Go on, have a ruddy drink. I wouldn’t see a poor, half-starved – go short of a drink.
The fat man instantly appealed to us. “Here y’ are. He made a song-and-dance about it an’ when a man offers him a ruddy drink he don’t want it.”
He turned back to the little man.
“I got no time for mugs like you,” he gritted. “You have a flamin’ drink or” – he made a threatening grimace.
The little man’s hand reached out and captured the bag of pies from the gawking man of ambition. He brought it forward under the fat man’s attention.
“What y’ want mate,” he said sweetly, “is somethin’ in y’r guts. Have one of these.”
“You have a drink,” insisted the fat man, with some diminution of his rage.
“You have a pie.”
Out of the night the engine hooted at us.
“Lithgow comin’ up,” said the man who knew ‘em to the last Bullen. We glanced at him impatiently and warningly.
“You have a drink.”
“You have a pie.”
It looked like deadlock, until the fat man suddenly took the paper-bag, at the same time as the little man took the whiskey-bottle. My own pie had disappeared to the place appointed for it.
The fat man sat down, a pie in his pudgy fist. The tweed cap poured a mild portion into the glass. I looked round the compartment, meeting looks of relief queerly mixed with disappointment. The tweed cap absorbed the whiskey lingeringly, but my eyes were on the fat man, for with the end of their talk his hatred had returned and I could see his eyes glaring malevolently at the floor. He disposed of the first pie, reached into the bag, took another, looked at it with a queer, blurred light in his eyes, then turned and reached across and squashed it firmly into the face under the tweed cap.
As the train rattled through the Lithgow yards, slowing for the station, we got them apart and put ourselves as a barrier between them while the little man went into the lavatory and cleaned the pie off himself. Instead of being appalled by his act, the fat man was elated by it.
“That stopped him. That stopped him,” he chuckled, full of glee.
The lady astonished us by saying, “It served him right. He had far too much to say.”
The train had stopped.
“Who’ll have a drink?” the fat man asked happily.
“By God,” declared the bandaged one, “that’s just what I could do with.” He took the bottle, upended it to his mouth, gurgled twice, wiped the bottle with his other hand, returned it, wheeled, grabbed his bag of surgical implements, opened the door and with “So long all,” disappeared into the maw of unconscious Lithgow.
The train was moving as the little man came from the lavatory, the watermelon seeds showing where the top-half of one lip was lifted. We watched him anxiously as he went quietly to his seat. He sat with his hands on his knees, watching the lights of Lithgow go past, and all of us had a sensation of tenseness, for we were convinced he was merely waiting till the train got clear of the station.
As much of his face as could be seen between cap and moustache was a pasty white, and the little simian eyes shone in it like live coals. His knotted little hands clenched and unclenched themselves on his knees. I saw his tongue flicker along his lips. Then he arose, looked out of the window, seemed to draw himself in, spat with a cold viciousness on the floor of the carriage, turned and looked at us.
“I see we lost the bloke with the bung ear,” he said mildly, and sat down again.
This anticlimax went through the carriage like a sigh. I could feel everybody withdrawing into themselves, becoming strangers again. Even the man with the red-spotted tie, the most silent and immobile of us all, seemed to draw off into some further distance of his own, where no doubt he brooded on the deep question as to whether or not Mudgee was a good town. And the train roared on.
At Wallerawang there was a slight aftermath. There we lost the fat man, who, as he departed, looked at his enemy and said, with a queer hopefulness which rather startled me, “Well, so long. Reckon I’ll run across y’ somewhere; when y’ ain’t got a mob with y’.” He was gone before anyone could reply.
In this place we got two young girls. Lively young things full of apology for disturbing us, and with those strange and seemingly vapid half-finished sentences accompanied by giggles and significant looks at each other and sidelong looks at the males in the vicinity. Both wore macintoshes which they promptly threw open to reveal sweatered torsos from which nature stood out in a way nobody could ignore, and they repaired whatever damage the night and the rain had done to their faces, and stole looks at us and conversed in spasmodic gasps. Their entrance had galvanised both the ambitious young man and he of the red-dotted tie, who now sat up with bright eyes and smiles ready to break out at the slightest hint of encouragement.
Being married and elderly I pulled my hat over my eyes and pretended to doze, using this stratagem to study those supple torsos and the shapes pushing against the sweaters. The lady beside me was leaning back with closed eyes, one child in her lap and the other two huddled against her in slumber. Opposite me the simian eyes under the tweed cap flashed from the girls to the young men and back again, missing nothing. By the time the train was running through Piper’s Flat – the ambitious young man announced it, of course, through no piper greeted us – the opening gambits had been made and responded to, and the four were together at one end of the compartment. I was astonished by the suddenly-developed conversational powers of the wearer of the red-dotted tie, who now seemed to have decided that Mudgee was likely to be a good town.
Some such thought must have occurred to the tweed cap, for from under it, harshly and suddenly, as though determined to drown all other sound and thought came, “They got a brewery in Mudgee, but the police sergeant there is tough as hell.”
While I was trying to estimate the nuances of the advantage of having one brewery as against one tough police sergeant, the train slowed and a voice cried “Ben! Ben! Who wants Ben?”
This was discovered to be a porter, out in the wet darkness being sardonic in his misery, for it appeared nobody wanted Ben (Bullen), and the train gathered speed.
I realised that Capertee was at hand and was glad of it, for the advent of the girls had somehow divided the passengers into two groups, and the ease with which the young men had left us for other interests reminded me that it was dark and wet outside, and I would probably have to wait until dawn on a lonely and deserted country platform.