It was 1996, and I was 25 years old. (Actually it may have been a year or two before or after – I don’t remember – but it’s not important to the story.) I worked at a place called Plessey SA, now called Tellumat SA, and I used to take the train to work.
Here’s where it happened:
As my workplace was situated almost equally between two train stations, I disembarked at the safer of the two, Retreat station (near the top of this map), then walked the rest of the way and crossed over the railway line just before getting to work. What doesn’t show on the map is that the track isn’t guarded – it’s just on some bushy badly maintained land, but on the other side of the road running parallel to the track on the right, it’s the middle of suburbia and there are houses all the way along there.
I always walked quickly, and was on my way to catching up with several slower walkers, but hadn’t quite reached them yet, when I reached the point where I needed to cross the railway track.
But to my dismay, a woman was making it difficult for me to pass, which was getting urgent as a train was approaching. There was only a narrow pathway through the bush where I needed to cross, but the woman, who looked like one that we called a “bag lady” in our childhood, was wondering around, slowly and deliberately, and appeared to be intoxicated, immediately in front of me, blocking my way.
Eventually I got a gap to pass, and as I did so, she laid down on the track right beside me. She lay on her stomach, with her head on the Tellumat side, and her legs sticking out on the other side. The train was approaching fast by this point, and only then did I realize what she was doing.
As I passed, she looked up at me, and we made eye-contact briefly. And the look in those eyes was so sad… It was a look of desperation, confusion and resignation all at once. I tried to think of saving her, but the train was less than twenty meters away and approaching fast. So fast, it was irresponsible of me to cross the line so close to it. I thought about trying to pull her to safety, but estimated that I had less than two seconds to do so. Had I tried, I might not have succeeded. Maybe she would have pulled me down, and I was afraid. My own survival instinct kicked in, and so I did the only thing I could think of doing: I turned. I walked on as fast as I could. I did not look back.
I was less than ten meters away when I heard the awful sound, a sound that is hard to describe. It was like something between a gunshot and a thunderclap, but brought with it the terrible truth of what it did to that lady’s body. One moment she was alive, and the next, she was not. I don’t know if it was only her mid-section that was minced and dragged for several meters, whether her arms and head were left mostly intact on the one side – her legs mostly on the other, if those parts were spun around and dragged with the rest, or if they shot out in either direction, as the train cut her to pieces. I didn’t want to know.
But everybody walking in front of me, who I had almost caught up with, who had not seen the old woman lie down in the path of the train, all of them – and there were several – turned back to go and gawk. Like gawkers around an accident scene, they all went to have a look. I tried to tell them not to, but I had no words.
I wouldn’t say that this has haunted me, but it is something that I think of occasionally. What did she think of in those last moments? Was it all about bringing herself to do it, or was there a moment of hope when our eyes met? Sometimes I wonder if she said a little prayer, something like “Please God, give me a sign. Show me that somebody, anybody still cares and then I won’t do it.” And yet I did care for this desperate stranger. If only I had realized what she was doing a few seconds sooner, maybe I could have tried to stop her. But I realized too late, and the risk of trying to save her was too great. She was already on the track, and the train was right there, looming in front of us, bearing down on both of us as I crossed the line, and hesitated when our eyes met.
It’s weird that years later I became depressed. I even threatened suicide once or twice, but the truth is that was just a cry for help. I never even thought it through; never thought about how to do it. I can not imagine a pleasant way to kill yourself, but neither can I imagine a worse or more unpleasant way of ending your life than by laying down in the path of an oncoming train. (Maybe it’s different if there’s nobody left who cares, and you don’t care about your corpse having any dignity in a coffin.) But if you must do it, please don’t take your last moments to look into the eyes of some random slob who will forever after wonder if he could have saved you.