I hear trains. That isn’t an admission of something unhinged in my mind, or a euphemism for a kind of illegal activity. It’s just that where I live, on a hill behind the main street of an old town, I can hear trains. Even when I’m putting clothes on the line I can hear the sound of trains coming and going, freight trains especially, as they heave and clatter in and through and on to the other side. As is obvious, it’s a sound I adore.
After 25 years living in Canberra I’d begun to miss it, though I didn’t know that then – sometimes it’s only when you move from one place to another that you realise what’s important.
Perhaps the sound reminds me of being a boy in Sydney and having to catch trains to get to school and back, all of us jammed into the clunky, stinky ‘Red Rattlers’, the windows so hefty that if they suddenly closed they would chop off arms or fingers. So we imagined, or feared. Of course, back then, having to catch trains every day wasn’t anything unusual; it was just part of living in a city.
These days I look on it nostalgically, as though I once lived in a more exciting land, somewhere big and dangerous and overflowing with life. Strange, then, that whenever I return to Sydney, even on a train, I’m filled with terror – that place always reminds me of a snake trying to eat its own head.
So why this love of the sound of trains?
It could be because it just feels old-fashioned, a delicious thing of the past, and for those like me, who find the present a trial, the past can be a good place to go. It could be a reminder of the sort of adventures once discovered in books for children. But trains aren’t necessarily historical.
Look at the sort that can be found in Europe and the larger cities of Asia – those trains are like something out of Star Trek. Maybe the sound is a metaphor. For arrival: the joy of becoming, of making real the new, the hope there is in that.
For departure: the melancholia of leaving behind, of letting go, of saying goodbye. Because it’s somewhere between arrival and departure that life can be found most readily, whatever that life might be. Oh how much there is in a sound.