Jan. 24, Tuesday:

Note: I’m now traveling in Australia. My husband and I have, to our great delight, stumbled upon some fine surprises here–a dragon dance in Melbourne’s Chinatown, Australia Day, even (honest!) a kookaburra sitting in an an old gum tree. Laughing.
This story, however, concerns a dark surprise we both wish we could forget. It’s not a pleasant report, but…it is a report.

It had been a fun day of escape from the city with my Australian friend Audrey. Paul and I had ridden the old-timey train Puffin’ Billy, legs and arms out the window like kids, chugging through the gentle hills between the suburban towns of Belgrade and Lakeside. We’d had an up-close and personal encounter with native birds at Dandenong Ranges National Park (I still have scratches on my arms from where the cockatoo roosted), and walked through the adjacent ferny rain forest. Finally, we’d shared shrimp (prawns) on the Barbie at Audrey’s house.

It was late, and there was just a bit more than an hour to go before Melbourne’s train service closed down for the night. There was a train in the Noble Park station when Audrey dropped us off, and we ran for it, but missed. The next one was delayed; it was nearly 11 when it arrived. We stepped into a all-but-empty car, and were glad to find a metro cop on it; Audrey had warned us that the Packenham Line was one of Melbourne’s more dangerous at night, and that it was always good to share a car with somebody official.

We were pleasantly drowsy when we finally pulled out of the station and headed back toward Melbourne. We saw no ruffians, so when the cop left the car two stops later, we figured we still had nothing to fear.

We were just easing into the tenth little station from Audrey’s, Caulfield, when the train jerked to a halt, and our car was filled with smoke and a heavy stench of burnt fiber. The platform outside was filled with teenagers, shouting obscenities and running back and forth. Paul and I sat in our car, alone and suddenly quite awake.

The electricity flickered out.

We looked at each other, then out the window at the suddenly dark night. A clean-cut young man with a backpack stepped into our car and sat down. “Somebody’s gotten electrocuted,” he said, his voice quiet, his accent American. “He’s on top of the train.”

The smell snapped into focus: burned hair; singed flesh. A Viet Nam War stink; I’d endured it many times during that lost year more than 40 years ago.

“He’s on top of the train?” It didn’t compute. Then I realized the train’s electrical source was above it here, in the wires, not down on the track in a “third rail” as it was in New York subways.

The man with the backpack shook his head. He looked dazed. “I can’t imagine what he was doing up there.”

Beyond the window, the girl who had screamed, “What the fuck! What the FUCK!” collapsed in the arms of a young man and wept. A kid went to his hands and knees and vomited. Yet another shrieked into a cell phone, “Where the fuck are you? Why in the bloody hell aren’t you here yet??

We stepped out onto the chaos. A young man clambered up the side of the car in front of ours and vaulted onto the roof. Firemen stood about, ready but impotent, their faces grim; a pair of policemen turned the corner onto the platform. In spite of myself, I glanced up to the roof of the next car: a man lay on his back, his leg tangled in the antennae that rose to meet the wires above. His face was half-turned my way; it was young, handsome, strangely peaceful.

He was absolutely still.

His friend, the climber, sat beside him, close but not touching, his own head in his hands.

I glanced at the kids on the platform. Nineteen years old? Twenty? They were out of junior high, to be sure. Maybe in college.

The firemen congregated; the police–now there were three or four of them, the youngest not much older than the kids themselves–stalked the platform. The two young men atop the train remained side by side in their eerie separate-but-joined composition.

“Kids do stupid things,” Paul said gently, his hand on my shoulder.

A young man wearing only shorts—was it the boy I’d seen vomiting at the side of the train, minus his shirt?—paced the platform on the other side of the small station. He turned and half-smiled at the youngest cop and made a remark. The policeman and one of his fellow officers stormed through the ticket-check machines. “You have a problem with me?” the young cop said. He reached out a hand to the kid—the cop had a tattoo on his inner forearm, I noticed–but rather than roughing him, the cop took his arm and eased him aside, and spoke to him civilly, quietly. The kid calmed; the young policeman soothed.

Another, older, policeman called for eyewitnesses. “If you saw what happened, come forward. If you weren’t a witness, leave the platform.”

We left.

Paul and I and the man with the backpack followed signs through a pedestrian tunnel, and out to where buses and trams were supposed to be found. Two trams crossed paths in the street in front of the station, their wheels in track grooves, their antennae sliding over the terrible overhead wires, and Paul sprinted after one. It was headed for downtown Melbourne.

The three of us boarded.

The man with the backpack was from California, a newly-graduated engineer now living in Melbourne. Through the long ride into town, the three of us stitched together a conversation—about how he got here, why we were here, where he worked, where we were going next; a conversation that was too genial, too bright, meant to help him stop gulping, to quell my thoughts of parents called in the night, to give Paul control, to exorcise the ghost of fetid smoke; a conversation that had nothing to do with hysterical girls or angry boys or a young man lying tangled in wires atop a train, where a friend sits silent vigil, head in hands, and nothing will ever be the great, drunken fun it was a mere hour before.