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The best time to embark on a long train journey is a little before sunrise or a little before sunset...
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The best time to embark on a long train journey is a little before sunrise or a little before sunset. On a recent trip to Bendigo, I set out to the train station in the pre-dawn. As I walked through the dark streets, the air felt as thin and vicious as a knife. My fingers turned red in the cold. A fluorescent sign, glowing green in the darkness, gave the temperature as -1°C. It was a relief to board the train and sit in its heated comfort, where I watched the pale blur of my face reflected in the window grow slowly less distinct as the sun rose.
The city fell away easily, replaced by paddocks and bushland. The early dawn light flickered over distant hills, revealing a landscape touched all over by frost. I saw a solemn little pony in a blue jacket watching the sun rise. A trio of kangaroos bounded through crisp, glittering grass. The train’s windows framed each scene and made everything seem like a brief, wondrous painting. Even the tortured weeds that grew on the wayside on either side of the tracks were gilded and beautiful. As the landscape slid by, the gentle motion of the train lulled me. By the time I arrived in Bendigo, the sun had found its strength and the frost was gone.
A week later, I took the same journey in the other direction. The day had been spent pleasantly: we had lunch at an odd, sprawling bakery in what I suppose must have been a former petrol station. The building was large but the space inside unaccountably cramped, dominated by a glass counter full of sandwiches and pastries, behind which the very young, very harried staff took orders. Still, the bread behind the counter looked good: rye loaves with crusts the colour of caramel, blunt, rustic baguettes, sturdy boules scattered with seeds. I ate a forgettable soup of zucchini and basil, very good bread with sweet butter, and a dense fruit bun, rich with apple and cinnamon.
After we’d finished, we walked to a beautiful secondhand bookshop, where I bought a mass market edition of The Price of Salt. Later, we went to the ballet, something I like very much, and sat not far from the stage. In the foyer, I saw a boy looking shy and proud in a black suit and burgundy bow-tie. The performance finished with not much time for me to make my train, so we hurried to the station and I boarded with a handful of minutes to spare. I made my way to a quiet part of the carriage, away from anyone else. It was late afternoon. Soon it would be sunset. The train shivered for a moment, and then pulled from the station in the direction of home.
The trains which connect the regional areas to the city are not like the suburban trains. They still have a whiff of a now-extinct way of travel, a hint of a more refined era. The seats are comfortable. The windows have curtains. Each carriage has a water station with little plastic cups and at certain times of day, a cafe bar sells refreshments. As I sat and read, its offerings were recited over the train’s PA system: sandwiches and wraps, hot dogs, pies, muffins, chocolate bars, tea and coffee, soft drink…
It was pleasant to switch between Highsmith and the world out the window, pleasant to watch the shadows lengthen as the sky changed colour and began to grow dark. I saw a group of cattle begin to run, tossing heavy heads as they lolloped after each other, moved by some deep, bovine sense of joy. I saw a kangaroo sit up on its haunches to better watch the train go by. I saw a spotted pig switch its tail and truffle its nose through the earth, as the sky turned pink and elaborate above it. My bag was heavy with a loaf I’d bought from the bakery, and now and then I caught its scent: the hoppy smell of yeast, the sweetness of sun muscats, and the clean, bright scent of rosemary.
Quite suddenly, it all seemed to come together: the golden light out the window, the pleasure of what I was reading, the good, honest smell of the bread. I thought then about how I would like to drink a glass of wine, something cold and white and dry. And although I could not, thinking about it was almost as good as having it.
Good things to read
The ingredients for a perfect summer dinner party: “ Sometimes in the day’s menu, as in a decorative scheme, loveliness is enhanced by repetition. As a second curve emphasises the grace of the first, so strawberries at supper carry out with great elegance the strawberry scheme of afternoon tea…” – via Lapham’s Quarterly
“It’s embarrassing to want things, especially on the internet, where you don’t really want things until you do,” writes Daisy Alioto in a recent piece on displaced desires and why Instagram isn’t fun anymore. – via Dirt
Ruby Tandoh on the finicky joys of the yeasted cake. – via New Yorker
In case of interest
I’m looking forward to being part of this year’s Melbourne Writers Festival, where I’ll be in conversation with Hannah Kent on her lyrical new book Devotion at Geelong Library and Heritage Centre, and with Sophie Cunningham on her latest work This Devastating Fever at Sandringham Library. Tickets are free, but you’ll need to register to attend.
One more thing!
I recently came across About Endlessness, a strange and beautiful film by Swedish filmmaker Roy Andersson. It unfolds through a series of vignettes on the absurdity, beauty, and banality of being human. Carefully composed frames create thematically intertwined, dream-like scenes. There is a feeling of stasis, of emptiness. Visually it’s a little like an Edward Hopper painting but with the pared back colour palette (blues, creams, greys) of Maria Svarbova. I watched it greedily and recommend you do too.