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Somewhere between arrival and departure.

Somewhere between arrival and departure.

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 mainstreet 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 twenty-five 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 good-bye.  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.

(First published in Panorama, The Canberra Times, 15 March 2014.)

In Melbourne recently we came across one of those stores that sell stuff like Star Trek figurines, Tin Tin T-shirts, and comics about ridiculously buxom superheroes. I didn’t really want to go down the stairs and into the store, but they say that compromise is a good thing, so down the stairs I went. Within minutes I was staring at a certain hard-back picture book. According to the strip of red across the top it was the thirtieth anniversary edition. My heart stopped, partly because I was seeing this book for the first time in years, and partly because the number of those years really must be thirty.

And the book? Gnomes by Wil Huygen and Rien Portviliet.

Yes, that’s right. Gnomes.

Back home I went over to my mother’s house and found the family copy. As expected it was a little worse for wear and the pages smelled dusty. But it was the book, my book (although strangely my brother’s initials are in the front). Feeling like I’d rediscovered the most useful instruction manual in the whole wide world, I returned to my place as quickly as I could. It was a cold and blustery day, which seemed apt somehow. So with a coffee brewing nicely I started turning the pages my innocent little fingers would have excitedly leafed through all those years ago.

Every page I recognised, every illustration. Here’s a male gnome on a pair of scales, a caption noting that the adult male gnome weighs 300 grams. Here’s a winter scene: ‘If snow has fallen he straps on long-distance skis [which] are absolutely necessary, otherwise he would sink right into the snow, especially when it’s fresh!’ And here is a gnome family’s underground house – how I’d loved this illustration, especially the basket for the pet mice.

Goodness knows why I had adored all this. For some reason it was very important I knew that a gnome wedding is a simple ceremony except among the nobility. That gnomes ‘indulge in pipe-smoking and do not shun mildly alcoholic drinks’ – is that the sort of information a young boy should have in his head? And how about this: ‘to cure depression and general listlessness (doesn’t happen very often) they use St John’s Wort tea or the tea drawn from the white fibres of a walnut’. Huh?

But maybe it wasn’t useless at all. In the pages of this magically illustrated book was a world that I could understand, a world that made perfect sense. It made perfect sense to learn that spiders are not especially friendly to gnomes ‘but a gnome will never destroy a web, because that might bring bad luck’. It made perfect sense to be told that gnome children use the winged seeds of the maple to play at being dragonflies. However, I was never (and still am not) that thrilled to learn a favourite troll pastime is to hold a captured gnome against a revolving grindstone. Quick, turn the page!

Perhaps what I really wanted all those years ago was a magically illustrated book called Humans so I could learn about how the world fitted together. Coming to think about it, I still wouldn’t mind that particular book.

Maybe I should write it.

Then again, why bother when I’ve just rediscovered Gnomes.

(First published in Panorama, Canberra Times, June 21 2008)

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