Steve Brooks stood
shivering on Flinders Street Station, at 10:11 PM, regretting his decision to work overtime
"Oh Jesus!" he said after
taking a sip of the god-awful vending machine
He glanced at his
wristwatch and saw that he had been at the station for nearly
twenty minutes. The train should be here soon...I hope!
he thought. But, as though reading his thoughts, the station
attendant wandered down from his box a few metres away to say,
"Word's just come through, the train's been delayed outside
Camberwell another forty minutes."
Steve gave the attendant a
wry smile, thinking, So what else is new. The damn trains
have never run to schedule in my lifetime, and I'm nearly
When at last the train did
arrive Steve shambled forward and collided with the door. "What
the...?" he said. He staggered backward, wondering why the
electronic doors hadn't opened.
Seeing the blood-red
colour of train and the funny thin, sliding doors, he realised,
"My god it's a red rattler!" The red rattler or "Tait trains"
were Victoria's first suburban trains. Introduced in 1921,
they had lasted sixty-one years, till in 1982 the government had
finally phased them out.
"But I haven't seen one of
these old rattlers since," Steve said. He had to stop to
consider for a moment before saying, "Since the early 1980s. A
good fifteen years. Surely they're not bringing them back into
He remembered wistfully as
a boy doing the "red rattler crouch" in winter. The rattlers
had seats set out in pairs facing each other, with one small
door, sliding open to the left between each pair of seats. By
the 1960s the rattlers had been in use forty years and their
catches were all shot. So as the train hit a bend the doors
would all suddenly slide open. Or if already open slide shut
with a bang rather than a rattle. So when it was freezing or
raining it was necessary to hold the door shut and people would
place themselves strategically around the carriage to try to
cover all the doors in the compartment. But since an arm would
soon be aching, it was easier to crouch down in the seat and put
up your left foot to hold the door shut.
Steve smiled as he
recalled seeing whole rows of accountants and professional people
on the way to work all demeaning themselves by doing the "red
rattler crouch" in preference to freezing. Suddenly having to
sit up to allow the doors to slide open as they came into the
next station; then they would crouch back down, left foot raised,
as the train pulled out again.
As he stepped aboard he
smiled to himself and said, "The red rattler
"Yes, I remember it too,"
said a voice in the carriage.
Startled, he turned and
saw a familiar face. "Tod Savage," Steve said in amazement.
"I haven't seen you in...?"
"In yonks," agreed
"It must be fourteen or
fifteen years, since the red rattlers were." He paused for a
second, "Were supposedly phased out."
"Yes, it has been a long
time, hasn't it?" said Tod walking across to him. "Funny, it
only seems like yesterday," he added wistfully.
Tod started to sit next to
Steve. Then as the train lurched into motion all the doors
slammed open with a crash. Tod said, "Sorry to be unsociable,
but I'd better sit over here." And as Steve crouched down in
his seat to hold the door shut with his left foot, Tod sat
diagonally opposite him on the other side of the paired seats,
"God only knows what this
thing'll sound like going through the underground?" Steve said.
"I seem to recall these rattlers were, supposedly, phased out
before the City Loop opened in the early '80s."
"It'd probably sound like
an endless creeping barrage," agreed Tod. "With the already
deafening rattle amplified by the tunnels...But I don't think
we're going to find out."
"What do you mean?" Steve
asked. Then he realised the train hadn't gone out toward
Richmond to the nearest Loop entrance. Instead it was going down
Flinders Street, toward Spencer Street.
thought Steve. It's weird
enough to find myself on a red rattler in 1997! But a red
rattler to Spencer
Aloud he said, "I haven't been to Spencer Street Station since
the early 1980s."
"Who has?" asked Tod
Savage. "That's when the underground Loop opened, remember?"
"Yes, but..." began Steve.
He stopped as he realised what Tod meant. "Of course, they
built one of the Loop entrances in the wrong spot."
"That's right," said Tod
with a mirthless smile. "The first is between
Richmond and Flinders Street, so the other should have been between
and Spencer Street
"But the idiots placed it
one station further out," Steve said, watching the pink and white
neon-topped towers as they rattled down Flinders Street. "Between Spencer Street and North Melbourne Stations."
"So whichever way the
trains enter the Loop,
they always bypass Spencer Street Station," Tod finished for
"Which explains why I
haven't been to Spencer Street Station since the
"Exactly," said Tod. "A
Street used to be such a
beautiful station. The second largest in Victoria; the fourth or fifth largest in
Australia. Yet because of a bungle by four state
premiers during the twenty year planning and building stage --
Henry Bolte, Rupert Hamer, Lindsay Thompson, and John Cain --
that none of them noticed the error, Spencer Street Station has
been reduced to a ghost station."
"God only knows what it'll
look like after a decade and a half virtually out of service,"
They heard the clatter of
doors up and down the train rattling open as the train roared
round the sharp bend from Flinders to Spencer Street. Then, "My God!" said Steve as they finally
pulled into Spencer Street Station. "It's even more dilapidated
than I expected."
Dust and detritus
ankle-deep covered the platform. The station sign had broken
free at one end and hung down, almost touching a wooden
"Surely no one can
actually work here anymore?" Steve said, trying to peer up into
the attendant's box on the platform. He thought he could see
someone moving about in the dully-lit box, but couldn't be sure.
"Oh well, I guess we'll never know."
But instead of starting
again almost immediately, the train stayed put. And a
metallic-sounding voice boomed over the intercom: "Due to a minor
electrical fault, the departure of the train on platform number
five has been delayed for at least fifteen
"Oh no!" said Steve.
"It'll be well after midnight when I get home."
Tod Savage only shrugged
his shoulders resignedly. "I'm not worried," he said. He
picked up a newspaper from the seat beside him. "I've got my
paper to read. Would you like the sports' section? I seem to
recall you're a sports fan. You can see how the Aussie
cricketers are doing against the West Indies."
"No thanks, I think I'll
get out for a few minutes and stretch my legs. I've still got a
long train ride ahead."
"Yes, a long train ride
ahead," agreed Tod.
Steve opened the rattly
door of the Tait train and stepped out.
When he stepped down onto
the station his feet sank to the ankles in dust and detritus.
He was tempted to turn round and step straight back into the
"My God!" he said. He
stared in horror at the eight to ten centimetre thick layer
coating the platform. Dust, orange peels, rotten fruit,
discarded candy wrappers, and plastic and Styrofoam cups covered
the platform from one end to the other.
"What a stinking mess," he
said. He wrinkled up his nose at the smell of death and decay
as he tentatively took a step forward. "How could it have got
this bad since I was here last?" Then he thought, Still it's
close to fifteen years since I was here last. Since anyone was
here last? But then as he continued forward he thought,
But in that case, why did the train stop here tonight?
Street has been a
ghost station since the early '80s. No trains are supposed to
stop here anymore.
To assure himself he
looked round and saw the red rattler behind him and thought,
Well at least some trains must still stop
Tentative of every step,
as though afraid of what he might step in, Steve continued
forward. He sniffed at the musty air, sneezed, and thought,
Well it certainly smells as though no one has been here in
over a decade.
Despite wanting to look
down to watch where he was stepping, Steve forced himself to look
up, to avoid any allergic reaction to the puffs of dust that
sprayed up each time one of his feet touched down. It's like
walking on eight or ten centimetres of talcum powder, he
"Talcum powder containing
rotting oranges, apples, and dead birds," he said aloud. He
stared in horror at the carcases of half a dozen sparrows and one
great sea-gull, which he had almost stepped on. My God it
has to be over a decade since anyone else has been here. Maybe
I'm crazy to be walking in this? He thought, wondering if
it were dangerous. Maybe I could catch
Then as something long and
black scuttled out from beneath a potato crisp packet centimetres
in front of him, to disappear down the side of the platform under
the train, he thought, Or be bitten or stung by
Despite his lifelong dread
of spiders and other hard-shelled creepy-crawlies, he forced
himself onward. He carefully sidestepped any of the long,
gossamer threads of spider web that hung down seemingly by the
million from the rafters of the platform canopy.
As his stomach began to
rumble, he thought, Yes I guess I am long overdue for my
dinner. Looking round the platform, he saw a brown metal
vending machine and said, "I wonder if it would still have any
candy in it?" And whether it would still be safe to eat!
he thought as he wandered across toward the glass-fronted
He stared in at the
assortment of candy bars, potato crisps, and corn chips. Some
of the bags had burst open, their contents scattered through the
metal coils of the machine. "But the others look all right," he
said. He started to hunt through his coat pockets uncertain if
he had any change with him.
"After all, as long as
they're still in their foil, they'll last forever, won't they?"
he said, wondering if it were true. "They might be a bit stale,
but I've eaten stale chocolate bars before."
For a moment it looked as
though the decision would be taken out of his hands, as he
struggled to find any coins. The new vending machines on
Flinders Street Station could take $5 and $10 notes as well as
coins. But there was no slot for notes on this rusty machine.
It looks at least fifty years old! Steve thought.
Machines clever enough to handle notes only go back a few
years. In this country at any rate.
Then he located half a
dozen twenty-cent and fifty-cent coins in an inner coat
"Well here goes nothing,"
he said dropping a fifty-cent coin into the slot. The coin was
already rattling through the works of the vending machine when
Steve heard a rustling inside the machine.
"What the...?" he said.
Steve peered through the grimy glass as the rustling continued.
After a moment he detected movement in a bag of corn chips near
the bottom of the machine. He bent down until he was at eye
level with the bag....
Which suddenly burst open
to reveal the long-whiskered snout of a huge brown
"Jesus!" cried Steve. He
jumped backwards in fright and fell over in the thick carpet of
dust, which cushioned his fall, but sprayed up over him as it
fell back to earth.
"Oh God!" he cried as he
burst into a fit of sneezing for a few seconds. You bloody
idiot! he cursed himself as he quickly climbed back to his
feet, ever wary of other scuttling things that might be lurking
beneath the dust. Rats are omnivores, he reminded
himself, not carnivores. They mainly live off fruit and
nuts. Forcing himself to look at the rat in the vending
machine he added, And corn chips when they can get them.
Rats won't eat meat unless they're starving. And even then they
usually won't attack humans.
"Isn't that right?" he
said to the rat. At the sound of his voice it looked up at him.
Then after a second it went back to nibbling the large yellow
corn chip which it held in its front paws.
"Well I suppose I'd better
forgo any snacks from this machine," said Steve. He pressed the
reject button twice and scooped out his fifty-cent coin. At the
sound of the coin ejecting the rat looked up and squeaked from
fright, but stayed where it was. Obviously reluctant to give up
its cache of goodies until certain it was under
"Relax. Go back to your
meal," said Steve pocketing his money.
Leaving the vending
machine, he walked over to the back of the wooden attendants'
box. Upon which were plastered numerous timetables in glass
frames. "1980, '81, '82?" he read the dates off the timetables.
"Well they certainly haven't been changed in a decade and a
He looked up at the back
of the attendants' box in dismay. Once one of the highlights of
Spencer Street Station had been the cheery yellow plaster tiles
covering the outside of the attendants' box and the walls of the
ramps up to street level. Now most of the tiles had fallen off
and lay broken in the dirt on the platform, leaving behind
squares of hard mortar where they had been. Or else the tiles
were cracked or broken, or coated in thick, green fungus. "All
because four state premiers, and maybe a dozen ministers of
transport, were all too dumb to pick out the fact that one of the
entrances to the underground City Loop was placed in the wrong
spot!" Steve cursed them aloud.
He reached out to touch
one broken tile, but quickly pulled his hand away as something
scuttled around inside the crack.
"Surely no one actually
works here anymore?" said Steve. But an announcement came
over the intercom earlier? he thought. But then he
realised, That could have been piped through from
Station. As happens with
small country stations where it's no longer regarded as cost
efficient to have staff located.
He had started to go to
investigate, but suddenly felt an itching in his bladder and knew
he had to relieve himself. Let's hope I've got time before
the train leaves! he thought. It will be
by the time I get home as it
is, without missing the last train and having to camp down in
this rat's nest.
Taking no chances he set
off at a run past the attendants' box without looking round to
see if it was occupied. As he ran the centimetres of dust
puffed up around him, causing him to wheeze and
Let's hope it's not so
bad at the upper level? he thought racing up the lamp as best he
could, sliding back occasionally in the dust. All the fast-food
stalls were locked up for the night. But that's only to be
expected, Steve thought, knowing it must be nearly
midnight. But he noticed the wire guard-rails were
heavy in rust and thought, Surely they couldn't open them with
that degree of rust?
Just a few more
paces! he assured
himself as his bladder almost released. Then he was pushing
open the squeaky door of the men's room, relieved the upper level
was less grimy than the lower.
He grimaced as he
struggled not to let loose until he had unzipped and taken out
his penis. "Finally," he said, relieved as he let go at last
toward the rust-stained urinal. Well this certainly hasn't
been cleaned in years! he thought, trying hard not to gag on
the overpowering stench of stale urine and faeces from the
cubicles behind him. In the half dark of the one working light
in the room, he scanned the rust-pocked chromium of the urinal in
"This was once such a
beautiful railway station!" Steve said as he finished
It was only as he was
zipping up again, that Steve had the feeling that he was not
alone. Turning to his right he saw a tall, pale figure standing
at the other end of the urinal in darkness.
"I'm sorry," Steve
apologised, "I thought I was...."
He stopped to stare in
horror at the sight before him....
A brittle, yellowy
skeleton on the brink of collapse from decay, standing up as
though it were using the urinal. One hand in position to hold
its penis out. Although it had no penis or bladder to empty,
and no urethra to empty it with.
"Holy Jesus!" cried Steve,
startled by the reverberant echo of his words in the cavernous
As the sound of his cry
rang out, the aged skeleton started to twitch as though coming to
"Oh Jesus!" said Steve
watching in horror. Too terrified to run, he stood rooted to
the spot, expecting it to step down off the iron grate and turn
Instead the skeleton began
to shudder and slowly collapse in on itself; so fragile with age
that even the echoing of Steve's voice was enough to send it
crashing into a pile of dust across the metal urinal, iron grate,
and tiled floor.
As the skeleton collapsed
Steve started running toward the door. "I've got to get back to
the train," he said, "there's no way I could possibly stay in
this hellish place overnight."
In the dim night he
tripped and slid halfway down the ramp, before managing to get
back to his feet again. Then -- not bothering to rub himself
down -- he raced down to the platform level, back toward the
As Steve approached the
small, glass-fronted door of the attendants' box, he saw a
blue-uniformed Vic-Rail officer bent over the wooden bench along
the back of the box. The man was poring over a plethora of
faded timetables scattered across the desk.
Tapping gently upon one of
the glass panes in the door, Steve said, "Excuse me, do you
"Yes?" said the attendant,
turning round toward him.
"I wondered if...?" began
Steve. He stopped in horror, staring in disbelief at the sight
"Yes, what is it?"
demanded the rotting corpse wearing the blue
My God, I must be
Steve, staring in shock at the yellowing skull from which a few
mouldering strips of dried flesh hung. A baby-blue eye stared
from the left socket, the right socket empty, but for a large,
yellow-white maggot squirming around.
"What is it?" repeated the
lich. It took a lurching step toward the front of the
"Holy Jesus!" cried Steve,
turning. Too quickly, so that he fell and sprained his left
As he fell the dead
railway worker stepped down from the box and reached out a
rotting hand toward him.
"No! Get away from me!"
Steve shrieked. Despite the agony in his left ankle he pulled
himself to his feet. Then he started half running, half limping
down the station toward the red rattler.
Oh my God, I've got to
warn Tod! Steve
thought. What kind of insanity of death and decay have we
got ourselves into?
"Tod! For God's sake,
Tod!" shouted Steve as he lurched down the
"Hey, wait up!" Steve
heard the voice of the lich call. And behind him he heard heavy
footsteps and the puff-puff-puff of dirt and detritus
spraying up at each step as the corpse staggered after
"Tod! For Christ's sake!
We've got to get out of here!" Steve shouted. He pulled open
the sliding door and half fell, half leapt into the blood-red
"Got to get out of here?"
echoed Tod Savage, obviously not understanding.
"My God he's following me!
That damn thing is following me! It can't be far behind me!"
cried Steve. Yet when he sat up, with Tod's help, there was no
sign of the mouldering station attendant.
"But he was..." began
Steve. He stopped as he heard the whistle to start the train.
Looking down the platform to his left he saw the lich, no longer
interested in him, standing three or four carriages away, raising
the white flag in its left talon to start the train rattling out
of the station at last.
Realising Tod had also
looked back at the sound of the whistle, Steve asked, "You saw it
too, didn't you?"
"Of course I saw him,"
said Tod, sounding unconcerned. He returned to his seat and
picked up his newspaper again.
"How can you say you saw
that...that thing and then sit there reading?" demanded
"Relax, it comes as a
shock to all of us at first."
"What comes as a shock?"
demanded Steve. He stared in disbelief and horror at two
skeletons sitting further down the carriage.
Seeing his friend's
terrified look, Tod handed him part of the newspaper and said, "I
think you'd better read that."
"But what about them?"
"Oh don't worry about
them," said Tod. "They're perfectly harmless. They're what we
call the Older Ones...."
"Older Ones?" echoed
Steve. He stopped, shocked, as he read what Tod had handed
It was the obituary
section of the paper. Circled in red ink was "Steven Jonathan
"I'm afraid you never even
made it to Flinders Street Station tonight," explained Tod.
"You were cut down by a red sports car crossing over the
intersection at Swanston and Flinders Streets."
"Never made it...cut
down...?" muttered Steve in disbelief. Yet the obituary
repeated what he had just been told.
"This is what you might
call the death train. Express from Spencer Street to Heaven, Nirvana, Mecca,
or wherever you believe in."
"What if you don't believe
in anything? If you're an atheist?" asked Steve thinking, I
must be going mad! Or lying in a coma in hospital dreaming all
"Then you're doomed to
ride the red rattler to Spencer Street forever. That's their trouble," said Tod
nodding back toward the two skeletons. "The Older Ones just
never know when they've reached their station."
"But why a red rattler and
why to Spencer
"Why not. The red
rattler is a dead train -- no longer in use. Likewise Spencer
Street Station is now only a ghost station. So what better way
to travel to Heaven, Mecca,
"But why...?" began Steve.
He stopped as he noticed that instead of going on to
North Melbourne, the train was turning off. "We're heading
into a siding..." he said. Then he realised, "No, a tunnel.
We're going down into the underground Loop after all."
Then he quickly realised,
"No, it's much too large to be the claustrophobic
Loop. The walls of the Loop almost touch the sides of the train."
Whereas this tunnel seemed to have metres to spare all around the
At first there was near
total darkness within the tunnel, for perhaps half a minute or
so. But finally Steve called to Tod, "It's beginning to lighten
up at last."
"Yes, I can see," agreed
"We're coming out into..."
began Steve. He stopped in amazement at the great array of
twinkling yellow lights. Like some kind of gigantic Christmas
lights display, yet many times vaster than any Steve had ever
He stared at the lights
for a moment before realising, "My God, they're not lights,
"Of course they're stars,"
agreed Tod. "We have to pass through them to go up to
Nirvana or wherever you plan to get off. It's nothing new to
me; I've been through this before."
Unable to take his eyes
away from the sight of the star-lit heavens the red train was now
travelling through, Steve asked, "Don't tell me you're one of the
atheists doomed to travel the red rattler to Spencer Street
"Good heavens, no. I
died two years ago and went on to my reward. But I was sent
back to help you through your ordeal."
"Then this is the only
departure place from Australia?" asked Steve.
"Oh no, there's about
twelve spread round Australia. This is just the only one in
As they spoke Steve hung
out the open doorway of the train and watched the twinkling stars
whiz past. Suddenly he was almost blinded as they approached a
great luminous ball of yellow-white light.
"My God, looks like we're
heading straight into the sun!" cried Steve. He collapsed back
into his seat, tightly clenching his eyes against the
"Relax," said Tod, "it's
just our first stop."