The pages of the report pertaining to Inquest No. 51/1003 – ‘Inquisition before Coroner sitting alone’ – are held together by a split-pin fastener that’s been in place so long its rust has pressed into the paper. There are sixteen foolscap sheets including a doctor’s report and six witness statements. And then, at the back, there’s a diagrammatic sketch of train lines and platforms, gradients and curves.
It’s a strangely beautiful document, a long and elegant blueprint marked with careful measurements and annotations. The blue is exactly the deep, rich tint that I relish in anything from paintings and pigments to butterflies and bowerbirds. It’s the colour I love the most.
But this blueprint marks out the end of a man’s life. It explains an accident in a railway siding on the east coast of Australia, just after midnight on May 22, 1951. This accident killed my grandfather, James Hay – ‘Jock’, he was called. More than sixty years later, I study it, seeing for the first time the circumstances and mechanics of what happened.
There needn’t be anything remarkable about this; families transmit different stories in different ways, and not everyone seeks out documentations of decease. But I had spent a solid chunk of time – seven years, on and off – writing a novel about a railwayman killed in an accident at roughly this time and in roughly this place. I had a written a story – The Railwayman’s Wife – sparked partly by the moment that was mapped across this two-foot strip. And I had consciously avoided seeking out the facts of Hay’s accident as I did, because I wanted to be certain that I was imagining a fiction. I wanted the liberty of making things up. (I say that, but I had made my man a Scottish emigrant, like Jock Hay, and kept him home from the war, like Jock Hay, too.) Now, in the quiet rooms of the New South Wales’ State Records Authority, it was laid out in front of me, sickeningly fast and brutal.
The inquest’s report gave me the night and the men, their shifts, their operations. Most vivifying, it gave me conversations between Jock, the assistant stationmaster, and George Lacey, the porter at the nearby station. Jock had been discussing whether he should park – or ‘cut off’ – the four cars his goods train was pulling before he collected another four from the siding. The assistant stationmaster thought he should; my grandfather thought he needn’t. It was, as the stationmaster’s testimony records, ‘wet and windy’ and ‘a very dark night’; it was the kind of night you’d want to get something done as fast as possible and not faff around with so much shunting.
‘Will I go down with you, Jock?’ the porter asked as Jock headed out – he’d decided, after all, to cut off the trucks and just take the engine.
‘It’s no bloody good us both going down to pick up four trucks,’ Jock said. And there was something in that little expletive that gave me a sense of my grandfather as a real person – nodding to the assistance offered; pragmatic about getting on without it. No need to get a mate wet, even if you might use the help. I could see him stomping off towards the door and the weather.
‘I just said, “OK, mate,”’ said Lacey.
And so Jock Hay cut his train and took his engine and left his trucks. About a quarter of an hour later, Lacey saw the trucks’ brakelight heading down the track and presumed Jock had chosen to take his whole train into the siding after all. But the four trucks were loose and on the run. I followed their journey on the blueprint map: four trucks weighing 550 tons travelling almost 500 yards down a 1-in-50 grade. I heard the sounds of the night and the yards: ‘There’s always a lot of noise in the engine, particularly when shunting,’ Jock’s driver pointed out, ‘and I was not aware of the trucks approaching from the rear.’ I unravelled the discussions of brakes and the impossible task of teasing out what Jock should have done, might have done, had been known to do, alongside the later examination of airpipes and taps and blocks. Everyone vouched for his competence and experience, but however it happened, four trucks got away down a gentle slope, ambushing the engine from which they’d been detached; ambushing everyone in or near it.
By the time of the collision, they were moving at 15 miles per hour, and the violence of their impact derailed the trucks Jock was there to collect, hurling them forward. He ended up under one of the runaways, his body sliced and pinned beneath a bogie – but there was no light in the siding, and it was raining heavily. It took his driver, his fireman, some searching to find him.
‘I felt the deceased’s pulse and his heart and there was no movement or life in them,’ said his driver. ‘He never spoke.’
I don’t know why I’d expected less brutality; I don’t know why I was surprised by the story’s power. But I was grateful that I hadn’t looked beyond the family’s shorthand of ‘shunting’ when I sat down to invent first the character of my railwayman and then the means of his death. The night it was and the uncertainty of what had happened or why; the breathtaking description of the body as it lay across the tracks: these things were bigger than anything I had invented and their actual mess and bloodiness would have overshadowed and realigned so many parts of my invention.
But there was something else. Because I’d never thought about my grandfather as a real person – he’d died twenty years before I was born – it had been easier to imagine my alternate railwayman. Now, he had a voice, a personality, and a last, busy burst of activity on a dark and stormy night. It felt good to hold that apart from the novel I’d worked to make whole.
What I would have appropriated, however, was that long strip of blue paper and its diagram of disaster. I would have redrawn it for my railwayman’s wife and let her sit and puzzle over the impossible space between its precise measurements and the crunch, right there, of her husband’s death. I would have let her draw some connection between the darkness of its colour, spotted with almost golden markings, and the pitch of the night sky that arced across her narrative.
This reductive and practical report in the blue hue of mid-century copying: irresistible for a writer with a bowerbird soul.
Ashley Hay’s latest novel, The Railwayman’s Wife, was published by Allen & Unwin in Australia in 2013 to critical acclaim. She is the author of five previous books and she contributes to a number of publications including the Monthly, Australian Geographic, and the Australian. Ashley is also editing this year’s Best Australian Science Writing anthology, which will be published this coming November.