I remember, once upon a time, catching the overnight train from Melbourne to Sydney – the Spirit of Progress as I think it was called. I was pretty young then and chose to travel by train for the pure romance of it. I was like that then, full of ideas and questions and romantic notions. A sleeper by train, I imagined, was something like the Orient Express – even if I was only going to Sydney.
I remember the night so vividly, towards the tail end of winter I think, the train pulled up at Flinders Street platform one, and in my ear Sarah Brightman singing All I Ask of You, believe it or not.
I had a sleeper and once we were underway and after a quick exploration of the train, I went back to it. I lay in my narrow berth with the blind up so that I could watch the scenery passing by while I lay there reading. At about 10.30 I reckon I got restless. I pulled on a pair of tracky-dacks, a t-shirt, took my book and went along to the saloon car for a change of scene.
To my surprise, it was almost empty. The only other person there was a woman of about my age, attractive in an intellectual way, with rich, tumbling red-brown hair like in the shampoo commercials. She was curled up in a corner reading a book, and what I remember was the very elegant cream silk pyjamas she wore.
I found my own seat and began to read, very aware of her. My book, I remember, was by Algernon Blackwood, and the story I was reading The Wendigo. Funny how you remember such things.
It seems so predictable in retrospect, and of course, the mysterious girl and I were sitting across from each other in minutes, talking at first about our respective books, before moving on – very naturally – to more deep and meaningful stuff – what we wanted from life, what made us happy, what puzzled us, what moved us. It was very intimate, yet entirely without any self-consciousness, she in her silk pyjamas, and me in my track pants.
After about an hour and a half, we parted to go to our respective beds.
The train began to pull into the western suburbs of Sydney 7 am the next day. I dressed, had some breakfast, packed my bag, and prepared to alight. The train rolled into Central station, and there was my friend waiting to collect me.
It was only when I set foot on the platform that I understood the enormity of my error. It was like a gaping maw suddenly opened in me. What had I been thinking? I hadn’t even got the girl’s name. I didn’t know where she was or how I could find her. Suddenly I had to know. I couldn’t leave it like this.
I dropped my bags at my friend’s feet and raced up and down the platform searching for the mystery woman in the cream silk pyjamas. I was frantic, but I never found her.
It’s not really a story of what could have been, though it might appear so. I wish I had got her details. I remember in the days after I was full of remorse, as if I had let slip my great opportunity. I even tried to get her name from the passenger manifest.
In the time since, what she has come to represent is a kind of ideal. I never knew her long enough for it to spoil. I think sometimes it was meant to be exactly what it was – a chance but perfect meeting, pure in its brevity. It opened me up and gave me an idea of what was possible. Maybe it spoiled me, but no regrets.