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The Sleeping Car
Bombed on sedatives for the first time
since Mogadon and other synthetic spells
knuckled me under the disturbed gravel
and bloodwood sleepers of a ghost train’s
twelve-hour passage, I entered again
the sleeping car – a box of light among
crashing bins stacked high with narcotic
mushrooms like shredded leather, with acid
blistering the bins’ rusted flanks –
a mobile drug lab, its windows dripping
with condensation.
                              The train emerged
from a half-circle in the mountainside
like a blacksnake drawn from its hole
to have its head cracked off by a five-
plaited hand. That day I went to sleep
under a screen-printed banner of Avalon
billowing like a Crusade flag
from the car’s low ceiling and woke up
choking. Merlin hammered his staff
for attention, his beard flecked
with saliva and vomit, then lowered
the spoor of trolls and the powdered
lanterns of glow-worms into my eyes.
But it was the conductor and dispenser
of chemical horror who pulled the train’s
emergency cord as it rounded a hill
planted sparsely with the bones of users.
He came from the caboose, its red lamp
lighting his hair where he’d been standing
like a misplaced figurehead
and put his mouth on mine.
Bombed on sedatives for the first time
since strychnine and white tablets conspired
to switch tracks and redirect the train
to its terminal among condemned milk
and killing sheds, I sleep to relieve my body
of the weight anxiety’s had me wearing
for years like a metal neck-brace. In the pub
I try to restore my pulse and breath
by draining and filling a paper bag
with petrified air, my blood topped up
with Emu Export and nicotine. Now
it’s bad dreams on prescription, not fungus
and speed that have attached themselves
to the rails and oil-mottled stones
of the line I ride or lie beneath. Sometimes
I collapse to sleep under the tracks
like a mole in a coma; sometimes
I flag a train down and crash
in the sleeping car that breaks the long dark
linkage of brewery carriages.
There’s a legless engineer up front
with a Hank Williams voice and a predilection
for leaning half-cut from the cabin
as fire-blackened trees over the cutaway
fly at him. The Standing Dead, he calls them,
his branch-whipped face turned into the sun.
Passing over me with a sound like a blade
being ground on a spinning stone,
or sparking to a stop where I hang my thumb,
he blows the whistle on addiction, shovels
empty beer cartons into the furnace,
and shunts through cairns of rock-slides
and bones. You’ll be right mate! He shouts
through the smoke and the banging of the bins.
Open your window and throw those pills
to the shithouse! So I make poisonous rain
from a handful of sedatives, hang upside
down over a blur of wood and gravel
like an alcoholic cuscus ripping beercans
from their rings, replace one dependency
with another, the blood and the booze
going to my head, slugging my way
through each tranquillised,
unmapped station of withdrawal.