This is a sample story from "The Last Wilkie's and Other Stories"
Discreetly—because she knows Malaysia isn’t exactly a gay-friendly country, and knows that Michelle is super paranoid about it—Roisin slides her hand over and rests it on Michelle’s leg. She waits for a response: a little hand squeeze, a sideways smile, an elbow nudge, anything. But Michelle doesn’t acknowledge the hand in any way. She just continues reading her book. After a minute, feeling stupid, Roisin takes her hand away.
Across the aisle, Michelle’s dad has been talking non-stop to her mum—or at her mum, to be more precise—about everything from the geology of the region to the socio-economics of rural subsistence farming in Southeast Asia to the various civil works projects he’s observed out the window. He’s also commented on every aspect of the Malaysian railway network, and of the train itself, which has turned out to be considerably more rustic than Roisin was expecting. Had she known that this 13-hour trip across the country was going to be in an ancient two-carriage affair with no dining car, she might not have agreed so readily to undertake it.
Still, after being in cities for a week, it’s good to get out and see the countryside. In the couple of hours since they left Gemas, the train has stopped at a several tiny hamlets, so small that there weren’t even train stations; passengers just climbed aboard from the grass along the side of the tracks, hoisting boxes, baskets and bags up with them. The scenery is spectacular: dense jungle, sweeping valleys, majestic waterfalls. There are several women in burqas on board. At one point, everyone in the carriage wrapped themselves in white shrouds, laid out small rugs sideways on their seats and did their prayers, bowing and rising, bowing and rising, which was quite a sight. Roisin has never been anywhere so exotic and foreign and it’s all very exciting and she’d love to be sharing the experience with her girlfriend, except her girlfriend has gone all weird on her.
It started pretty much the moment they landed in Kuala Lumpur and met up with Glen and Lee-Ann at the hotel. Roisin has been with Michelle in the company of her parents several times before when they’ve gone to Canberra for a visit, and has observed the strange family dynamics and their effect on Michelle—the silent-but-judgmental mother, the jocularity-masking-anxiety non-stop-talking father, and Michelle’s regression into sullen and non-communicative teenager-dom. And she has been present at hundreds of phone calls between Michelle and Lee-Ann—almost daily, in fact—where Michelle, the high-flying corporate executive who manages an entire department of some two hundred people—and, as Roisin has witnessed, can be a pretty scary boss—transforms into a child, putting on a pouty face and talking in a baby voice: “Hi, Mama. I’m okay. I had a bit of a tummy ache this morning but I had some soup and I’m feeling a bit better…”
But this, now, is something entirely different. Roisin has never felt this shut out by Michelle. In Canberra, they always had a good debrief in bed at the end of the day, laughing about the crazy family and reaffirming their bond. In Malaysia, Michelle has been disappearing into herself. And over the past couple of days it has become pretty extreme—they’ve hardly spoken a word to each other. But they haven’t had any private time to talk anything out, even if Michelle had been willing to. From Malacca, they spent an entire day taking two buses to Gemas, then all four of them slept in a dorm-style room, woke up ridiculously early, and here they are on the train.
Roisin seriously wonders whether she will even still be in a relationship at the end of this trip. If only Michelle would make eye contact, give her some sign that she’s still in there, that they’re still them. But despite all the amazing scenery passing by outside the window, and the incredible experience of being here on this train, Michelle has barely looked up from her book. Who does that? Can she really be that uninterested? Roisin wonders if she really even knows this person.
The lack of a dining car is also a problem. The train left Gemas at seven, so they stumbled bleary-eyed out of bed straight onto it, without time for breakfast. Roisin would kill for a coffee, but at this point, anything edible will do.
The train slows and comes to a brake-screeching stop in a moderate-sized town, one that actually has a train station. On the platform, a woman is holding a basket with some sort of food in it. “Breakfast is served!” cries Glen cheerfully, and hurries down the carriage and onto the platform. Roisin is thrilled at the prospect of food but terrified that the train will leave without him. How long does the train stop here for? Could be only a couple of minutes. He doesn’t have his passport or phone on him. What if the train leaves without him? How would they find him again? It would be a serious nightmare. Michelle is still absorbed in her book and, across the aisle, Lee-Ann is knitting. Neither of them seems concerned in the least.
Roisin has to twist around in her seat to be able to keep an eye on Glen down on the platform. He’s taking ages. He seems to be having some trouble communicating with the woman; maybe he’s trying to work out what she’s selling, or how much it costs. Then he appears to be cracking jokes, which the woman obviously doesn’t get since she doesn’t speak English, and she doesn’t really look like the joking type anyway. He fumbles with his money, still not entirely familiar with the colourful ringgit notes. Roisin clenches her fists.
A whistle blows and the conductor gets back on board. The stationmaster walks purposefully along the platform carrying a green flag, pushing through all the people milling about, shouting something. There is a lot of activity and departure seems imminent.
Come on, Glen. For fuck’s sake, get back on the train!
She prepares to run up the aisle, shouting for the train to stop, that they’ve left someone behind. But Glen finally completes the transaction and hustles back to the train, hopping onto the first step just as it jerks and starts moving. He comes down the aisle of the carriage holding four paper sacks triumphantly in the air. “Fried bananas!” he announces, distributing them to everyone. Roisin takes hers gratefully. He may have almost given her a heart attack, but he did manage to get food. It’s not coffee, but it’ll do.
“Looks like we picked the right carriage!” he says as he settles back into his seat next to Lee-Ann. “I just noticed that the windows don’t open on the other one! Bet it’s hot in there!”
“Actually—Dad, do you want to trade seats?” says Michelle suddenly. “I think the view on this side is more interesting, but I’m just reading my book.”
“Oh! Well. I don’t mind,” says her father. “We can switch if you like.”
Without a word to Roisin, Michelle gets up and stands in the aisle, swaying with the rocking of the train as her dad crosses over and settles himself in beside Roisin. Michelle sits down next her to mother and goes back to her book. Roisin can feel her face flush. What was that about?
“Some people just don’t have their priorities straight,” jokes Glen. He’s referring to choosing the book over the view, but then realises it could also mean something else. He gives Roisin a little pat on the arm and says quietly, “Maybe she just needs a bit of time out.” So he’s noticed that something is up. Well, of course he has. How could he not? It’s been pretty obvious. But it’s still a shock to get outside confirmation. Roisin’s eyes well up with tears. She nods and looks out the window, trying to keep it together.
Glen points at a farm they’re passing. “Looks like they’re putting in a secondary irrigation canal there,” he says. “That’s good planning. It’ll make that whole higher section of land arable in a few years.”
He continues his running commentary on the world outside the window until finally Roisin can’t take it anymore. She needs a break. “Sorry, Glen, just going to the toilet,” she says, getting up and climbing over him. She stands in the aisle for a moment, looking down at Michelle, who now is resting her head on Lee-Ann’s shoulder with her eyes closed. Lee-Ann is staring straight ahead at the back of the seat in front of her, her knitting lying idle in her lap.
Roisin makes her way to the end of the carriage where the toilet is. In the vestibule, two young men are hanging out the door of the train, smoking cigarettes and joking around with each other. It looks like great fun. She pauses, considers asking for a cigarette and joining them. Their glances flicker over her, registering her existence and nothing more, and they go back to their conversation. She is too shy to ask, anyway, and doesn’t speak the language. And there are probably cultural mores about a woman speaking to men she doesn’t know, and, for that matter, smoking cigarettes; she doesn’t know what might be considered inappropriate, so she gives up on the idea.
The toilet is not the cleanest she’s ever seen. Roisin is careful not to let any part of her body or clothes touch anything as she sways with the rocking of the train, hovering over the hole in the floor through which she can see down to the track bed, the sleepers whizzing past in a blur. When she emerges, wiping her hands on her jeans since there were no towels, the two men are gone. She goes to the open doorway and leans out into the jungle.
What a thrill! Trees whip by only a metre from her head. The wind tosses her hair wildly. The old train stretches ahead of her like a great steel beast forging its way through the jungle. She tightens her grip on the handrail and leans even farther out. It’s almost like flying. She enjoys the danger—if she let go, she’d tumble to certain death—but not too much danger: as long as her hands can hold her, she’s safe. The train goes over a small ravine and she looks straight down to the rocky creek bed at the bottom, stifling an urge to shout with excitement.
She wants so badly to go and get Michelle, ask her to come share this amazing experience. The Michelle of a week ago would have. Wouldn’t she? Roisin’s not even sure anymore. And now? She might, grudgingly, if pressed, but then would probably just glare at Roisin reproachfully for being immature.
She goes back to her seat. “Everything okay?” asks Glen as she climbs over him. “How’s your…uh…you know? Are you feeling better today?” Roisin’s had the runs for a couple of days, and of course her girlfriend’s father knows all about it and is asking. Cause, you know, why not.
“Yeah, I’m fine,” she says. “It was only a wee.”
“Ah. So how’s the toilet on this train?” asks Glen.
“It’s not the cleanest I’ve ever seen,” she says.
Glen leans across her and points out the window as another small farm goes past. “Now this is interesting,” he says. “I keep seeing these goats that look very similar to the Boer goats we’ve got back home, only of a slighter build…”
The day wears on. Glen falls asleep. Across the aisle, Michelle is still asleep on Lee-Ann’s shoulder. When Roisin looks across, Lee-Ann turns and their eyes meet. Lee-Ann smiles wanly and nods, then goes back to her knitting.
The scenery, though still beautiful, becomes familiar and tiresome. Roisin gets out a sketchpad and tries to draw, but the movement of the train makes her lines look palsied, so she thumbs half-heartedly through a magazine and wishes she had a book, like Michelle. The sack of fried bananas barely touched the sides and Roisin is starving. The Malaysians on the train came prepared with packed lunches; only the four Westerners assumed there’d be a dining car. The train makes numerous stops, but only in those small, station-less hamlets. She hopes for a proper town with a proper station, where there might be someone on the platform selling food.
In the early afternoon, the train pulls into just such a station. A snack man climbs on carrying a couple of boxes in his arms and some bags slung around his neck, laden with chips and lollies and drinks. Roisin watches intently, waiting for him to begin hawking his wares, but he first sets his boxes down in a corner of the carriage and begins unwrapping and unpacking everything, laying it out on display. Bags of strange pink puffy chips are lined up on a seat, then little bags of lollies. He has several six-packs of juice boxes, which he begins unwrapping and setting out. As he removes each crinkly plastic wrapper, he deftly pops it out the open window. Roisin watches in horror as the wrappers flutter off into the pristine jungle. He pulls a bunch of small paper sacks out of a large plastic bag and sets them up on the seat, then sends the plastic bag fluttering out into the jungle as well.
“Oh my god,” whispers Roisin, her hands on her cheeks.
Glen has seen it too. “Well, you know, when I was a kid, we thought nothing of tossing rubbish out the car window when we went on road trips. We just had no idea. Of course, that would be unthinkable now. I guess it takes a while for those sorts of notions to change in any society.”
Finished setting up, the snack man is open for business. The dad sitting in front of Roisin and Glen goes over and buys a bag of lollies for his son. As the boy unwraps each one, he pops the wrapper out the window. The dad says nothing. Roisin no longer wants anything to do with the snack man’s snacks.
Michelle wakes up, then stands up and stretches. She places her book on her seat and heads off towards the end of the carriage.
“I’m going to stretch my legs a bit too,” says Roisin. She climbs over Glen and goes to the vestibule. The toilet is occupied. She leans out into the wind again, glancing at the toilet door every few seconds, waiting for Michelle to come out.
After a few minutes, the latch turns and Michelle emerges. She looks a bit startled when she sees Roisin. “Hey,” she says, and starts to head back to her seat.
“Michelle!” calls Roisin.
Michelle stops and turns.
“Come here a second.”
Michelle comes back to the vestibule. “What is it?” she asks.
“I just wanted to say hi,” says Roisin. “Hey, you should try hanging out the door, it’s amazing.”
Michelle pokes her head out for a brief look. “Yeah, cool,” she says. She starts back for her seat again.
“Michelle?” says Roisin.
“What is it?”
“Just come here, I want to touch you.” She reaches for Michelle’s hand.
“Are you crazy? Do you know what country we’re in? Do you want to get us stoned to death?”
“Jesus, I’m not asking to make out with you!”
Michelle sighs and rolls her eyes.
“Michelle, is something the matter?”
“What do you mean?”
“You just seem…distant. I mean…like…are we okay? Have I done something to piss you off or something?”
Michelle glares at her. “You know, your needy insecurity is really not one of your more attractive features,” she says, then stalks off.
Roisin is ready to be off this train. She has no concept of where they are or how much farther they have to go, but the seats are uncomfortable and it’s hot and she would prefer to not use the toilet again if at all possible. She needs to be alone with Michelle, to talk to her, ask what the fuck is going on. Michelle was the one who was so keen for the four of them to go travelling together. So what is she so pissed off about now?
The train pulls into a large town and a group of about twenty schoolkids get on. They’re all wearing Garfield backpacks and school uniforms, which for the girls includes head coverings. They stand in the aisle, chatting and laughing. At each of the next several stops, a succession of small hamlets, a few of the kids get off the train to be met by dads waiting on motorbikes. The kids hop on the backs and they zoom off into the jungle. Roisin leans her forehead on the window, watching them disappear, and wonders what their lives are like. They all look pretty happy.
Roisin falls asleep for a couple of hours. When she wakes up, it’s starting to get dark. There is no electricity on the train, so it gets dark inside the train as well. Too dark for Michelle to read anymore. The Muslims on the train do their prayers again, now just silhouettes bowing and rising in the shadows. This time, instead of seeming exotic to Roisin, it seems kind of spooky.
The train pulls into a large station, and Roisin spots a man on the platform with a small cart, selling something to eat. Glen sees him too. “I’m going to go get us some food,” he says.
“It’s all right, Glen,” says Roisin. “I’ll go this time.”
She goes to the end of the carriage, descends to the platform and approaches the man. He’s selling bundles of banana leaves with something inside them. “What is it?” she asks. He says something she can’t understand. She shrugs and says, “Four, please,” holding up four fingers. He puts four bundles in a plastic bag and she forks over some ringgit notes, keeping an eye on the train for signs of impending departure.
Just as she takes the plastic bag, the conductor finishes chatting to the stationmaster, throws his cigarette to the ground and blows his whistle. He grabs the handrail and swings up onto the step. The stationmaster walks along the platform holding up his green flag. Roisin can dimly make out Lee-Ann’s head through the window, engaged in conversation with someone, presumably Michelle. Is anyone keeping an eye out to make sure Roisin doesn’t get left behind? Would they even notice if the train left without her? Would they care? Would they try to find her? Well, they’d have to, really. Her passport and all her belongings are on that train. She doesn’t even know the name of this town.
All she wants is some sign from Michelle that she still gives a fuck. Is that so much to ask? Is that being insecure and needy? It doesn’t seem all that unreasonable. The conductor is standing in the doorway of the carriage, glaring at Roisin. He knows she’s supposed to be on the train. He nods at her curtly, irritated. Why is she just standing there? She ignores him, staring at the window framing Lee-Ann’s head. The conductor shouts something to her, holds up his arm to show his wristwatch. He looks conflicted. She shakes her head at him, keeping her eyes fixed on the window, waiting for someone to look out and check on her.
She just wants to scare Michelle a little. If the train starts moving, Michelle will realise that Roisin’s not back. She’ll look around suddenly, worried. “Wait!” she’ll shout. She’ll run to the conductor. “Stop the train! My girlfriend isn’t back yet!” Roisin can jump onto the steps at the end of the last carriage and make her way triumphantly up to the seats, to everyone’s relief.
People on the platform are staring at her. The conductor shouts something angrily, shrugs, and gives a wave to the engineer. The train lurches and starts to move. Roisin knows she still has a good fifteen or twenty seconds to leap on. All she has to do is run a few steps, catch the last handrail and swing herself up. The train picks up speed. She can’t see Lee-Ann anymore, the window has moved too far along now. The conductor is leaning out the door, receding into the distance as he looks back at her. Every muscle in her body is tensed, ready to spring. She triangulates the trajectory of the last handrail against the acceleration of the train.
As the end of the train reaches her, she takes a couple of steps towards it, but then stops. She has miscalculated. It has picked up too much speed. There is no way she can make it.
She watches the back of the train disappear into the darkness. When she can no longer see it, Roisin starts laughing. The people around her recoil as if from a mad person, except for one old woman in a headscarf, who drags a red plastic chair over and guides Roisin into it.
The old woman walks off, shaking her head. Roisin looks around at all the people watching her. They’re waiting to see what she will do next. She reaches into the bag and pulls out one of the bundles of banana leaves, unwraps it to find a clump of sticky rice with nuts and shredded coconut. She takes a bite. It’s delicious.
Well, whatever else, at least she now has plenty to eat.