Read This and Be Smarter

‘Platform 14’

by Sandra Goldbloom Zurbo

Westerly is the premier literary journal of Western Australia, publishing since 1956. Westerly produces poetry, short fiction, and non-fiction from around the world, with a focus on the voice of Western Australian authors. Westerly publishes two print editions a year and digitally year-round.

Sandra Goldbloom Zurbo is a Melbourne writer.

‘The man in the picture’ was published in Westerly 41.4, Summer 1996.

Five-forty, Platform 14. Spencer Street Station is eerily quiet for peak hour. Few passengers are waiting for the Williamstown train, for any train.

Arrival and departure announcements made by the chief stationmaster are heralded by tinny, chiming notes of the chromatic scale, disturbing this strange peace at irregular intervals.

Doh mi sol doh.

“The Fra . . . ton . . ain . . . eavin . . . om . . . lat. . . orm . . . ix.”

Dusk has almost faded. Cumulus clouds, flocculent and plump, have built up and filled the sky: inky blue in the north, the hard grey-blue of steel in the west. Behind their billows, a narrow, brushstroke arc of clear, pallid blue lingers. A lone cluster of purpleblack clouds flaunts the remains of pink-tinted edges.

Lolly wrappers and styrofoam cups and crisp autumn leaves are tumbled along the railway tracks by a gusting northerly. A soft-drink can is bounced, rattling, across the sleepers and gravel between the rails. At the east end of the platform, the walkway to the Crown Casino, an ugly, concrete construction, is bedecked with creamy yellow light globes which sparkle brazenly against the brooding sky. As far to the west as the eye can see, myriad railyard lights glow, an endless field of fireflies.

Across the tracks from platform 14 is a carpark. It is surrounded by a Cyclone wire fence, six feet high and mounted a further three feet by two taut strands of barbed wire, one atop the other. Inside this enclosure, scores of cars stand idle in neat, colourful rows. A maroon Jaguar cruises the lane parallel to the fence, rising and falling gently on its perfect suspension as the driver navigates the speed humps; a white van, other vehicles—reds, yellows, powder and navy blues, one turquoise—travel at moderate speeds as drivers search for a parking space. Spotlights beam watchfully over the parked cars. The eyes of two cameras, secured to the top of lamp-posts, also do their work.

The wind turns a little to the west.

Solitary punters, with uniform dreams of good fortune, demeanours nonchalant or urgent, furtive or excited, proceed on foot, walking the few metres from the carpark to the casino. Hands in pockets, heads tucked into coat collars against the intrusion of the biting wind. A few walk in groups, swaggering braggadocios, their faces twisted into grimaces of forced hilarity.

Unnatural quietness blankets the carpark, too; the motors of the cruising cars are inaudible from the platform. No voices or laughter of hopeful gamblers reach the waiting commuters, though the distance between platform and carpark is short. Perhaps the north-westerly is blowing the sounds away, down the tracks to the casino.

Looming above the far side of the carpark, at its southernmost edge, is a shed with a corrugated iron roof. The building, well over seventy metres long, is dark and menacing; no lights glow in its small, barred windows. The atmosphere is penal: wire pen, watchful cameras, glaring lights, and the long, internment-like shed. The concrete, prisonlike casino. The wind. The absence of human voice.

With a brisk pace to her step, a young woman wearing a long black coat, her ginger hair flowing behind her from beneath the rim of her chic velvet hat, appears at the top of the ramp leading to platform 14. She makes a sharp left turn and strides the length of the platform—the click-clack of her high heels on the bitumen audible only in the immediacy of her passing—until she reaches the open door of the stationmaster’s booth. There she stands, in the security of his presence, and places her black leather briefcase on the ground between her ankles. She stares straight ahead, into the carpark, making no eye contact with anyone.

The sky is black now. The evening grows colder as the wind turns inexorably to a westerly. Commuters waiting for the Williamstown train button up their coats, turn up their collars, wrap their scarves more snugly around their necks. Spencer Street Station, with its open platforms, offers no protection from the westerly’s bluster.

Doh mi sol doh.

“Lil .. . ale . . Lily .. . ain .. . on .. . lat.. . ix.”

The stationmaster’s voice is cracked into little pieces, smaller than syllables, by the static of the public address system. Or is his voice, too, being carried away on the wind, two and three letters at a time?

Doh mi sol doh.

“Dan . . . ong, de . . . ar . . . ing … ” and so forth, every few minutes.

After each announcement, silence falls over the station, interrupted only by another fractured proclamation, and the arrival or departure of trains. Dandenong and Frankston trains have pulled out; Upwey will depart momentarily. Running footsteps break through the quiet, perhaps on platform 11, the Upwey line.

Silence, but for the wind humming in the overhead wires.

Without warning, shockingly, the voice of Marlene Dietrich singing Lili Marlene—in German—fills the entire station. No static fractures her voice; the wind does not bear it away. Dietrich is instantly recognisable: husky, sultry, with an undercurrent of mockery. Who is playing this song? Why? Is it an entertainment provided for passengers by the stationmaster to alleviate the bleakness of the evening? Do my fellow passengers on platform 14 hear her? They appear not to; certainly none respond. They continue to stare into the distance, or down at their feet; some snooze. One reads a newspaper, another a book. A young man, his eyes vacant, licks chip grease and salt from his fingers. An elderly woman consults her watch and peers down the tracks. A man wearing a football beanie and matching scarf jiggles his leg while thwacking his rolled-up newspaper into the palm of his hand.

This song, so familiar, so moving, sounds frightening here on this eerie night. Below the platform, steel tracks glint in the beam of halogen lights. The cameras, ominous now, continue their surveillance. The iron-roofed shed appears more forbidding. Cars cruising the carpark are transformed into sentries on patrol. The platform feels more bleak, the evening spectral.

Dietrich sings:

Vor der Kaseme, vor dem großen Tor
Stand eine Lateme und steht sie noch davor. . .

In the blink of an eye, they are there: hundreds of Jews, trapped in cattle cars, their fingers gripping the wooden-planked sides. They are shoved and crammed into the old carriages, right there on the rails in front of platform 14. A brilliant white tallit, a prayer shawl, ripped from the shoulders of one of the devout by a protruding nail, flaps wildly, crazily, in the wind, beating against the side of the carriage where it has become stuck, from whence it seems to be attempting to make its escape.

The prisoners cry out to loved ones from whom they have been separated; they call to neighbours. Some pray. Horrified, I cover my ears against their cacophony.

Wenn sich die spdten Nebel drehen
Wed’ ich bei der Lateme stehen
Mit dir Lili Marlen, mit dir Lili Marlen.

It is over; Dietrich has finished.

Slowly, the train bearing its cargo of Jews pulls out of the station and vanishes, as vapour, into the Spencer Street railyards, into the field of fireflies.

“Wi . . . ms . . . own . . . ain . . .”

The stationmaster’s voice and the sibilance of brakes are startling. Weeping softly, I pull my coat around me as rightly as I can and board the five fifty to Wiliamstown. Ten stations, and I will reach my home.

The State Library of Western Australia promotes literacy for all ages. To this end the ‘Read this and be smarter project’ has been developed, providing a short piece of writing from Australian publications every Monday to Friday to read on your commute or lunch break.

Westerly acknowledges all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as First Australians. We celebrate the continuous living cultures of Indigenous people and their vital contributions within Australian society.

Westerly’s office, at the University of Western Australia, is located on Whadjak Noongar land. We recognise the Noongar people as the spiritual and cultural custodians of this land.

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