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 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 blind up so that I could observe 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 half we parted to go to our respective beds.
The train began to pull into the western suburbs of Sydney 7am 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 girls 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 friends 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.