END OF THE LINE
I was jolted awake, not physically, almost...psychically.
The rhythm of the train had changed, at first imperceptibly, but within seconds it was shuddering, and then, with a sickening sound, seemed to almost become liquid.
I looked over to Angela, her mouth was open and her eyes were wide with fright, “What is it?” she screamed — but we both knew.
Time seemed to suddenly slow down.
The carriage tilted sickeningly and instantly the air was filled with screams and yelling, then the screech of metal on metal. Something heavy crashed into our carriage from behind and our heads were jolted with the impact as we felt ourselves plummeting at a crazy angle.
And then the carriage stopped dead.
Suddenly the air was full of flying bodies, mine included.
In slow motion I saw bodies careening into each other; seats; and the wall at the front of the carriage.
I tried to grab something solid as I flew through the air, but my fingers wouldn’t hold anything tightly enough. With a numbing thump I ploughed into the mass of bodies plastered against the wall, and in turn someone ploughed into me.
I woke in darkness. There were cries, groans, moans, hysterical screaming, and names being called all around me. I tried to move away from the mass without levering off anybody, but I soon realised that the person beneath me was beyond caring.
“Angie!” I croaked as loudly as possible.
“Here,” an eerily listless voice said from my left.
“Are you okay?”
Alarmed I asked, “What’s wrong?”
“I don’t know,” a breath, laboured.
“Hold on, I’ll come to you.”
I felt my way over squirming bodies, calling her name as I went. There were protests and curses from people. I tried to avoid standing on them, but it was difficult in the dark and there were bodies everywhere.
“Angela!” I called again.
“Here,” she said, almost in my ear.
I reached out and touched someone. “Is that you?”
“Yes,” she said unemotionally. This scared me more than if she was screaming.
“Are you hurt?”
“My legs are trapped under something,” she replied matter-of-factly, as if they were someone else’s legs.
I put my arm out, felt her and moved my hand down her body until I felt the frame of the seat.
“It’s a seat,” I told her. “I’ll try to move it.”
I pushed: it seemed extremely heavy. I felt around in the dark again, groping in front of the seat, away from Angela, and found the reason for the weight.
There were at least two bodies on the seat, deathly still. I felt stickiness on my fingers and knew it was blood. It seemed to be all over the seat. In selfish panic I heaved at the bodies and managed to tumble them out of the seat and past me.
“Ben?” Angie’s voice caught my attention through the cacophony of moans and other names being called out in the darkness and confusion.
“Yeah Ang?” I replied, grunting a little as pain shot up my arm. I’d obviously taken a whack on my shoulder without being aware of it until now.
“Can you get it off me? I’m scared. I can’t feel my legs!”
“Okay hon, I’m nearly there.”
I grabbed the seat and heaved as hard as I could to dislodge it, it seemed to be caught on something, but I couldn’t see what.
“How you doin’ Ang?” I asked, breathing hard.
“I’ve been better,” she said attempting to rally.
I was relieved by the --- it sounds silly to describe it like this --- but, colour that was returning to her voice. It was like I could almost see her returning to me in the darkness, where as just a little while ago there’d been nothing.
“It’s stuck on something, I’ll have to rock it. I think I can take most of the weight, but it might hurt a bit.”
“Okay,” she said tremulously.
I heaved again, taking the weight of the seat and rocking it from side to side, my shoulder protesting with the demands made on it.
Suddenly, with a screeching sound, the seat came free. I fell backwards and put my hand out to break my fall. It splotched into something wet and sticky. By now I knew what it would be.
Now I had the seat, I didn’t know what to do with it. If I let it go it might slip down and crash into someone.
“Only be a second darl,” I told her.
I felt around with my free hand and found the seats opposite were still intact and unoccupied. I dragged the one I was holding and dumped it on top.
I made my way back to Angela.
“How are your legs?” I asked.
“Still numb,” she replied.
I felt down and ran my hand along them – no blood that I could feel, and they felt ‘normal’.
“I think they’re okay,” I said. I took her shoes off. “Can you feel your toes?”
She gasped when she tried, but first one foot, and then the other responded to the signals from her brain.
“I’m starting to feel them!” she said through gritted teeth, then started crying, “Oww! Ben, they hurt!”
“That’s probably a good thing really babe,” I said, trying to reassure her.
She laughed a choking, bitter laugh, “oh good. As long as it’s a ‘good sign’.”
“Can you stand up?”
“I don’t know, I’ll try.”
I could feel her stir, and grabbed her arm to support her. She started to rise, then, with a gasp, collapsed back to a sitting position, moaning.
“It hurts! It hurts!” she yowled.
“Okay, okay,” I crooned in her ear, my arm around her shoulders. “Did it hurt like something was broken, or just hurt?”
“I don’t think anything’s broken,” she said, “but it hurts like hell!”
“All right, we’ll rest a little longer, then try again, okay?”
“Yes,” she murmured.
We sat in the dark, my arm around her shoulders, her hand in mine, as we listened to the horrible sounds around us.
“Are we going to get out of here?” Angela asked quietly.
I gave her shoulder a hug as I said; “Sure, we’ve been lucky – as it goes.”
The darkness was greying slightly and I could start to make out our surroundings a little.
It wasn’t attractive.
I looked over to Angela and could just make out the pale oval of her face. She was obviously looking around too.
“It’s so low!” she said in my ear, sounding awed.
I looked over our heads, and saw what she meant. The ceiling, which before the crash had been nearly three metres high, was now far less than that, and had been the reason I’d been unconsciously crouching as I’d been moving around the carriage. Seeing this as the light grew brighter seemed to confirm the enormity of what had happened to us, and how lucky we had been, unlike some of our fellow passengers.
There were bodies strewn throughout the carriage, some jammed between the seats and the ceiling, some on the floor. I realised the dark patches I saw here and there were blood, and shuddered.
I looked over to Angela’s face. Her mouth was open in shock; her eyes open wide.
“Oh Ben,” she groaned.
“I know babe,” I said, pulling her close, trying to shield her from the gore that surrounded us.
“We’ve gotta get out of here,” I said turning to Angela.
“Can you stand?” I asked her as she climbed shakily to her feet.
She gave me a determined look and I supported her ‘til she stabilised. She winced and one leg gave way a bit, but she persevered and was finally standing, crouched under the crushed ceiling.
“Okay?” I asked.
She nodded, biting her lower lip. “I’ll be okay,” she said, a catch in her voice.
“Good,” I said as encouragingly as I could, “come on let’s go.”
“Which way?” she asked, looking around.
I followed her gaze to the pile of people at the front end of the carriage.
A couple of less injured people were helping each other rise, or extricating themselves from the jumble of bodies.
“I think the only way is up,” I said, disregarding how stupid the song title sounded just then.
Angela nodded and we turned towards the back of the carriage.
The going was difficult. There were seats, luggage and bodies scattered all over the carriage. We found a couple of people who were dazed but apparently not too badly hurt. We urged them to come with us to find a way out of the wreck.
An older lady, whose nose looked as though it had been broken, and was still bleeding profusely, said she’d wait for a rescue team. She said she didn’t think she was able to make her own way out.
Try as we might we couldn’t convince her to join us.
I dragged a handkerchief out of my pocket and handed it to her. She smiled gratefully and we wished her luck as we set off again, Angela holding firmly onto my hand.
“Will she be alright?” she asked, looking back.
“I dunno,” I replied. “I guess so, I think the worst is over. We could probably wait too, but the sooner I’m out of here the better.”
She seemed to accept this and fell silent as we picked our way through the debris.
Soon there were six of us. Angela and I led the way. I moved luggage and seats as I went.
We didn’t encounter any more people the closer we got to the back of the carriage, they had obviously been thrown forward and I guessed those who had travelled the furthest probably accounted for most of the dead.
We reached the end door, and just as I feared, it wouldn’t budge. Another guy was with us and both of us heaved and kicked at the door, but it didn’t even look like moving.
“The windows!” a woman said, casting about for a likely escape. The windows in front had smashed on impact, but incredibly the ones further up had remained intact.
The carriage had plummeted into some sort of culvert or gully apparently. The windows on the side where we’d been sitting were jammed up hard against a bank, its red clay gouges showing where the carriage had scraped its way along before slamming into whatever had stopped us.
The windows on the other side revealed the side of a goods carriage jammed hard against ours.
“Maybe there,” I said, pointing to the window just near where we stood. The angle of the other carriage was slightly offset to ours and there was a narrow gap.
“I’d never get through there!” a woman, not exactly slim, exclaimed in horror, eyeing my proposed escape route with extreme doubt.
“Once I’m out I’ll help you,” I told her tersely. I wanted to get out of this chamber of horrors; I had no time to argue.
“Okay,” she said dubiously, backing away from me as she registered my expression, her gaze returning to the narrow opening.
I climbed onto the windowsill, and, balancing on it, slid my hands up along the roof of the other carriage. My fingertips found a small ridge that ran along the roof. I dug my fingertips into it as best I could, then, testing it, let it take my weight.
“Okay,” I said over my shoulder, “I’ll climb out and make sure we can get free. Once I’m out I’ll yell, and you can start making your way up. I’ll help you up.”
They each nodded and murmured, their eyes looking up dubiously at the narrow gap.
I squeezed up into the gap, using my fingers to help pull me up. It was tight and I wondered how well the women would do, but I’d worry about that later, for now, I had to get myself out.
My feet scrambled about as I searched for leverage. I found a small foothold on the carriage wall, and pushed myself up, first with my feet, then with my arms.
And then I was out.
I dropped onto the roof of the goods carriage, relieved to be out of that hellhole. I took a deep breath of fresh air, in through my mouth, and blew it out through my nose. I was trying to blow the smell of blood and gore out, but I didn’t have much luck.
I took a brief glance about me and was horrified by what I saw.
Our carriage was under another goods carriage, which had spewed out its contents onto the ground and our carriage beneath. A couple of spot fires were burning here and there, tendrils of smoke drifting up to smudge the mist.
What is it with fires? How can they come to life so easily in situations like this, but be so reluctant to start when you’re lighting a campfire?
“What can you see?” I heard Angela call up to me, jolting me from my daze.
“It’s a mess!” I called back to her, looking down into the carriage. The faces that looked up at me reflected the surreal nature of what we’d just been through. Dirty, bloody, tear streaked faces, eyes screwed up against the brightness of the morning sun, searching my face for signs of hope and escape.
“It’s a tight squeeze, but I reckon you’ll be right!” I called down to them as encouragingly as I could.
Angela grabbed the window frame, about to climb towards me.
“What!” she snapped, a hint of anger in her voice now, apparently able to read my thoughts.
As much as I wanted her out and safe with me, she was the only one of the women I knew and whom I could trust would listen to me.
“It would be good if maybe you could help some of the others out first, you know, I think some of the ladies might need help.”
“But what about . . . ?” She looked back at the others and her look of anger was replaced by one of resignation.
“Okay,” she said sulkily and moved out of my sight. Her place was taken by the, ah, plump lady.
Jesus, I thought, it would be her.
I smiled encouragingly at her and said, “Okay, let’s go!”
I remember thinking that a tub of Vaseline might be handy about then. Still, I thought, she had to come sometime, and it was probably best to get her over and done with.
She climbed shakily onto the sill. I straddled the two carriages, a foot on each roof, and bent down, trying to reach her out-stretched hands.
“A bit higher!” I called to her.
“I can’t!” she said, looking up at me apologetically. Then she gave a bit of a shriek and rose up enough to reach my hands. I could see the man (John, as I found out later) pushing her up by her butt.
The woman giggled, despite the predicament and said over her shoulder to John, “You’re the first man to have his hands on me bum since . . . I don’t know how long!”
I could see John smiling beneath his load, though the smile was fleeting, she would have been pretty heavy and I don’t know what John had been through since the train crashed.
I pulled as hard as I could; the woman really wasn’t built to fit through such a narrow gap. Initially she was coming up easily enough, but then, progress ceased.
“I’m stuck!” she yelped, looking up at me helplessly.
“Can you wriggle?” I asked.
“I’ll try,” she said, looking apologetic.
She wriggled, but nothing happened, then she looked down and started wriggling again and started rising, I could see three sets of arms pushing at her feet, not particularly gently.
Finally she made it to where I was and I helped her onto the roof. For a moment she just lay there panting like a beached walrus.
I became aware that the sound I had heard in the distance, and was now getting louder, was sirens, and I looked toward the noise. I could see headlights cutting through the morning mist.
My sense of smell was slowly clearing and I was beginning to distinguish the various odours around me, some identifiable, others not.
There was one familiar one that I couldn’t place immediately, but didn’t have time to dwell on it as the next evacuee climbed onto the sill.
The next couple of women managed to get up onto the roof relatively quickly -- and then I was helping Angela. I hugged her to me when she got to the top, so glad and relieved to have her with me.
The odour I’d been trying to place was stronger now, and suddenly its name yelled itself to me – PAINT THINNERS!
My head spun frantically, searching for the source. I saw drums lying against the bank on the other side of the goods carriage. I turned to yell a warning, but as I did there was a huge WHOOMP! and the day lit up in a flash of light.
We were swept off the roof of the carriage by the heat blast and plunged to the ground where I remembered no more.
I hear Angela cry out in the darkness and reach for her, holding her against me.
“It’s okay babe,” I croon, “just a dream.”
We both have nightmares; often in mine I see John’s face, with that little smile. Angela says she’s sick of me grabbing her in her sleep and dragging her towards me. Sometimes I don’t even remember doing it.
The autopsies revealed there were twelve people who had smoke in their lungs – twelve people who were alive until the fire choked them . . . or burnt them.
We haven’t been on a train since.
Copyright: Mark Burton 2008