Just a breather. Charlie Johnson is half-way down, resting on the landing to quiet his temple roar, now louder than the trains below. He pulls for oxygen, falls short, pulls again, holding hand rail, looking back at nineteen blurry steps from the ticket office; nineteen grimy stripes of garish advertising. He breathes again, feels the air catch, and the roar ease. These old lungs. Seven doctors can’t be wrong, can they? ‘Course they can. He looks at nineteen more steps down to the city-bound platform. His heart sings… His grandson David Broughton, sitting, nose in a magazine. ‘Guitar Player’? What happened to the Superman comics?
Charlie calculates - David is fifteen. He has caught the train down, visiting from his central NSW boarding school, and his grandfather is spiriting him away. Charlie heard the morning radio forecasting a big Sydney Harbour swell, and this western-suburbs family has a long-standing tradition; big swell, train to town, ferry to Manly – best ride around. Now, Charlie is pulling air like water from a well. At fifteen, I was holding half-breaths, cracking the twenty-two, popping rabbits so the Johnsons could breathe easier through the big Depression. Another step. Can’t let the boy hear me puffing like a broken-down steam engine. No need for that. Another step, silent singing, Whispering grass, don’t tell the trees…
Inching down, he sees the line shimmering in summer sun, heading east, where dark clouds are brewing. In another swirl behind his eyes, he is twenty-five, crouching, silent... Quiet breathing Digger, the jungle has Japanese ears. Charlie falls back often; doctors’ diagnoses have provoked twisted sheet nights, and uneasy days of foreboding. The long descent pulls another trigger… That bloody unsecured ladder, the factory floor coming up fast, and then - counting the intensive care breaths beneath closed eyes, hearing every damned word the unknowing doctors said. They were wrong twenty years ago, so why not now? The past is open, clear, while the future closes in, cloudy.
At the last step, he is startled by his reflection in the station-hut window. He’s puffy from steroidal treatment, sweating, bent over his lungs. He straightens “Gotcha!” Charlie, the trickster “Good to see you mate.” But in his grandson’s greeting eyes, wide in shock, reality is razor sharp. Bloody doctors.
Charlie ushers David into the window seat, and collapses hard next to him. In antique creaks, grinding groans, the old train stutters, asbestos brake smell lingering. The ‘Red Rattler’. Charlie caught them at David’s age. And they’re still in good shape.
“Settle in, mate.”
“Long trip I suppose, Pop. Red train, all stations.”
“We have all day.”
“Are you sure you’re OK, Pop?”
Charlie snaps “I said so, didn’t I?”
David flinches “Ok.” Back to his magazine.
Damn. Who am I kidding.
The train rolls a rattle-trap rhythm.
Charlie breaks the discomfort “Hey, mate, I’ve been wondering, what are you thinking of doing? You know, after school?”
“Dunno. Mum and Dad reckon uni - but I think I could make a go of the guitar.”
“Ah, guitar. Yes. Well, I don’t know anyone who’s actually been to university.” Charlie lets the subject simmer through Seven Hills.
At Granville, David yawns “Jeez, Pop, this train is taking forever.”
“You see that building? Big grey thing, green roof? Your great Uncle Frank and Aunty Jane had their wedding reception in there… Some wag ‘mislaid’ a piglet on the dance floor...” Charlie chuckles “…Real to-do about that!”
They laugh. Charlie coughs – unambiguous coughs.
“I’ll bet there was, Pop.” David is uneasy, anxious.
Recovering, Charlie muses “Yep. Good times, mate. They make it all worthwhile.”
The train shudders, David shifts in his seat. “Any slower we’d be going backwards.”
Charlie looks away “We’ll get there.”
The train stops, past Petersham, not yet Stanmore, and the clouds open. David sighs, slaps ‘Guitar Player’ on lap, “This is unbearable.”
Charlie, too loud. “For Pete’s sake, don’t wish it away David. It’s gone in the blink of an eye.” “Oh - oh, I’m sorry Pop. I know.” David, softer, “I do, you know.”
“It’s alright.” Charlie sits his workingman’s hand on David’s knee, shifts subject, “I was thinking, not that I’d know, but if you do go to the university, there’ll probably be other musos around. And you know - you’ll always have a home down here with Nan, you know, with - us.”
“I know Pop, thanks…”
“Just - know it, mate.” Charlie pulls closer. “Whatever happens, you have a home.”
Beneath a renascent sun, the ferry bucks and plunges across the heads, a rough-riding rodeo nag. Charlie breathes salt air, sitting on the outside bench. He’s watching David standing at the bow, swinging a wild sideshow clown grin, catching sea spray. Charlie sees the near-man in David, and falls fifteen again.
Endless moments, momentary forevers, futures beyond my ken, seemingly limitless possibilities, and yet…
David turns, wide-eyes, fly-away hair. “This makes it all worthwhile.”
Charlie smiles, finds air, enough to sing “Whispering grass, the trees don’t have to know.”
“I wish this ride would last forever, Pop.”
“So do I, mate.”