Sometimes early on cold Saturday mornings, you’d go fishing just for something to do. It was an excuse to disappear from home and to be on your own for a while away from your family. You’d pack your bag the night before, set your alarm, get up, get dressed, make the tea and you’d be on your bike. All this as a gloomy sun tried to rise and the rest of the house lay sleeping. Myth has it that fish bite best early in the mornings but I don’t think we ever caught a thing. That never stopped us from getting up in the cold, early on Saturday mornings.
By the time I’d pull in to Wally’s house after a slow ride down the hill through a fog that was gunna sit on its arse in the valley all day, half his family’d be up getting ready to open shop, packing away the bread, the milk and papers. His mother’d be in her pink dressing gown, tightened up on my arrival. She always questioned Wally half asleep about where he was going, why and when he’d be back. He either ignored her or just groaned at her and that seemed to be the history of their relationship. It would always end with Wally’s Mum calling at him as we went out the door, “And when are you going to do something about that hair?” She seemed to have wanted a son who wasn’t like South Albury boys, one that she would like the look of sitting next to her at Mass. But that was who Wally was. He was a freckled boy with long straight red hair quarter way down his back in a feather cut of ‘74 that at 14 was about the loudest statement you could make of not cooperating. She was a good Mum, she went before mine but Wally and her really didn’t seem to get on that well.
Mark would come fishing with us too. He was Wally’s best friend; they’d grown up together in South Albury. I’d been in the East all my life till now growing up on my side of the railway. South Albury boys were a bit rougher than us but they weren’t mean like North Albury boys who just loved to bash the shit of you if they caught you in their part of town. West Albury boys were always too busy planning their careers to have anything to do with any of us. Any friendships with us were a risk to their professional development.
Wally and Mark were Catholics too, so I’d known them from school and from church but it wasn’t until this year that we’d become good friends. We’d built a raft at Mark’s place that summer and floated it down from Mungabareena. The river adventure had bonded us. ‘Stereo’ as Wally called Mark, was a bit of a goon, tall and lanky with a country twang and a home job haircut, hopeless at school and a bit picked on for his clumsiness. He was the adopted only son of two very large parents, which made for a very unusual looking family at Mass that drew even more attention to him. But he was also very likeable and useful for his father’s tools and for his father. Unlike our fathers, Stereo’s Dad would help us out, even get excited by our plans. I don’t think that raft would have ever floated or even stayed in one piece without the help of Stereo’s Dad.
But Stereo always insisted on bringing his little dog with him when we went fishing, yappy little thing, ‘Tiger’, ‘Spot’ or a name like that. Wally would always complain, “Why are you bringing that thing?” I could see his point, the dog was so small Mark would carry it all the way on his bike because its legs couldn’t keep up with us and when we got there it would just shiver and shake in the wet grass looking like it’d wanted to go home anyway.
We’d drop our bikes at the end of the road in the long grass by the railway tracks and start the long walk down to the river. The destination was always the other side; fish bite better on the other side. There we’d throw in our lines, make a fire and smoke Viscount cigarettes and talk the morning away, Wally always telling Mark, “You’re dumb Stereo”. He did tell really stupid jokes that only he and his Dad thought were funny. Needless to say he had a great friendship with his father.
To get there we’d walk along the railway line to the bridge that crossed the river. Trains were always going through, it was the main line between Melbourne and Sydney. Depending on how early you were up there’d be The Southern Aurora and the Spirit of Progress flying through to Melbourne and the Albury to Melbourne Express-all-stops. You knew the times they came through simply by birth of living in Albury. There was nothing surer than the Southern Aurora pulling in at the station on your way to 6 o’clock Mass. Unpredictable were the goods trains and the shunting that went on across the border. You just had to keep your eyes and your ears out for them. If you placed an ear on the tracks they reckoned you could hear a train coming for miles.
The track raised itself onto a platform in anticipation of the rise up to the height of the bridge. We’d dawdle along here hoping for a train. When it did come, you’d dash to the nearest workmen’s landing and hold on tight to the rails with a rushing breeze in your face that was fun. Can’t think that it was too much fun though for that poor dog under Stereo’s arm. No wonder it shivered and shook all the time.
Crossing the bridge was different. You weren’t allowed on the bridge so there were no safety platforms to encourage it. All the signs warned of extreme danger but the real fear for us was being spotted by someone and reported to our parents just for being there. They never knew exactly where we went fishing.
The bridge had a steel sided frame that rested on foot wide girders spaced about six feet apart. The girders rested on cement pylons dug deep into the riverbed. In between these girders there was lots of nothingness down to the racing freezing river. The first section of the bridge as you left land had no sides on it at all. The saving grace walking along here was that the sleepers were closer together and it was a quick and easy walk over the water. But if you got stuck here with a train coming, we reckoned you’d have to make a choice between a dash back to land or a jump, fully clothed and overcoated into the cold of the river and risk loosing your rod or your life. The only other option was complete surrender to the oncoming train.
Once you reached the frame of the bridge you’d continue walking on either of the two sets of train tracks but on sleepers placed more awkwardly apart. You could swap from one track to the other if you wanted to or if you needed to but it was a slow balancing act across a girder that took time, time you couldn’t bet you had. In between the two tracks, again, all that nothingness down to the racing, freezing river.
All the while you crossed the bridge, your head was down watching your footing and seeing the murky waters below. You just hoped to Christ that a train wasn’t coming.
One time, a train had not long gone through so we reckoned it was as good a time as any to cross. We did the ear to the rail test and there were no trains to be seen, heard or expected, and the lights said red.
We were on the bridge about half way over, talking a lot to quicken the trip. We heard it first. It was coming from the South. We stopped, looked up; the lights above our track had gone to green. It was coming on the track we were on. From when we first heard it blowing its warning horn on approach to the bridge we had a bit more than 30 seconds to get out of its way.
I was thinking we’re going to have to jump. Mark was hysterical, his eyes were red and watering, he had his dog to worry about. He yelled to get into the side of the bridge but there was all that nothingness to navigate and little time to get there. Wally saw another option, to get down underneath the railway track. I went for this, to hide from the train. Jumping would be at the last minute. Not so easy for Mark who had his dog under one arm and his rod and his bag in the other, his two hands were needed. Wally yelled to leave the dog and I began to see images of the splattered animal and realised why Mark was really panicking. That dog was not going to save itself.
Wally went down first and fast at the nearest girder and we helped Mark down last with Spot under his arm. We crawled in under the railway line and huddled on a beam directly under the railway track, our hands hanging on to the sleepers above us with our feet dangling in the air over the river. If we had too, we could still jump. The noises, the screaming horn getting louder and louder as the train quickly approached. We had to look up because of the way that our bodies were crouched. As soon as it hit, and Mark was only just under, I closed my eyes and just hoped that it would be over as quickly as it had happened and that we would all still be there after it passed with all our limbs intact. The last thing I saw was the sudden darkness above as the passing train covered the gaps of light coming through. The noise was deafening, metal on metal a foot from our heads and the bridge vibrating heavily in our hands and through our bodies. It was a long train and it seemed to go on forever. Then, the just as sudden deathly silence at the end of it. I opened my eyes and there was light and we were all still there, our limbs intact.
“Fuck! I thought we were goners.”
“I don’t know how we just got out of that”
“That was so fucken loud.”
Mark was now shivering and shaking more than his dog. If that dog had fallen from under his arm it would have flown straight into the river and I suppose that it couldn’t swim any better than it could run. Mark had come the closest to death or his dog did anyway if Wally had had his way. Now that it was over, it was all a buzz of excitement.
We’d gotten out of it. Something very exciting had just happened in our lives, something less predictable than school on Mondays and church on Sundays and the Southern Aurora pulling in at the station on your way to 6 o’clock Mass. We had saved our own lives. We had a story to tell, something had happened to us.
I’m sure that was why we went fishing down there, not because it was where the fish bite best but because of the bridge and the challenge that it placed. We were growing up and our parents were telling us not to take risks with our lives and that was exactly what we were attracted to doing. We were just beginning to play with our lives, as our lives. That was why we got up early on cold Saturday mornings, not for the fish that bite best on the other side of the river but to play with our lives.
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