The Old Invisible Sankt Olof Express

“Something special. Something almost hyperreal.”

I come to the railway crossing and stop.

No sounds, except the wind in the pine trees. Is the train even coming? How will I know? Should I crouch down, put my ear to the tracks and listen? I’ve seen countless people do this in movies but never believed in it until now.

Then I hear a high-pitched whistle. And the chug-a-chug of the steam train’s engine. Yep, that’s it, I think. That’s the Ångtåget på Österlen I saw 15 minutes ago at Brösarp Station, about to depart for Sankt Olof. And now it’s headed this way.

I cross the tracks, alight from my bicycle and lean it against the fence. Then I pull out my mobile telephone and open its native camera application.

Holding the phone in front of my face with both hands, I turn to landscape view. My eyes train on the screen, in which I see the still-empty railway track and the cutting and the pine forest. Patches of blue in the overcast sky.

At last, sensing that the train is about to round the bend, I press record.

The opening frame from my epic video of a train bawling round a bend just outside Brösarp in the Österlen region of Skåne, Sweden.

The spectacle that unfolds on the screen in my hands is nothing short of mind-blowing.

As I stand there spellbound, the old steam train comes barrelling around the bend in full cry. Its funnel jettisons smoke into the sky with majestic power. Its black fuselage tears through the cutting. Its whistle howls like a banshee.

Within seconds it’s past me, its packed carriages hurtling by. I swing around to capture the caboose disappear around the bend.

Within that brief period—twenty seconds, no more—an array of thoughts flit through my mind.

I think about Paul Theroux’s journey in The Old Patagonian Express. About his maddening companion, Thornberry. I think about Baudrillard’s concept of the simulacrum. I think about my four-year-old son, and wish he was here with me to watch the train careening past.

And I think about my bike trip through Osterlen, which I am about to complete.

Once the train is definitely gone, I press the button on the screen once more to end the video. As I do so, a thrill runs through my body.

I have created a masterpiece of amateur cinematography, that much at least is certain. I will show the clip to my son and he will be awestruck. I shall post it to various social media services and then sit back as the torrent of likes and comments come in.

“Did you take this on a phone? Wow!”

—Nobody, ever.

But as I press the screen, I hear a click. It is the sound my device usually makes when I’ve taken a photo.

That’s when I realise I haven’t filmed the train bawling through the cutting at all.

In fact, I’d pressed the button at the beginning and taken a photo. (I hadn’t heard the click that first time, in the bedlam of the train’s approach). I’d then panned around and taken an imaginary video. And then I’d taken another photo once the action was over.

You can just make out the puffs of steam coming from the engine of the steam train that passed by this very spot. One second ago.

It would be too easy to think of this non-event as an indicator of the mindlessness of modern-day tourism.

I do indeed take a moment or two to reflect on my utter stupidity as I stare in turn at the two photos I had taken. They aren’t bad photos, by any means.

But neither of them features a train. Not to mention a mighty, old-fashioned steam engine. Spewing black smoke as it carves its way through a primeval Swedish forest.

Then I think of my son and feel a familiar wave of self-pity, tinged with self-hatred. A heady combo, that one. A kind of depression-induced cocktail I’d imbibed for over 30 years. (I’d actually stopped drinking more than a year before the day in question. But I still recognised the emotions that coursed through me back then.)

You (adj.) idiot! Time for a drink or six, eh?After three drinks, you can post those two photos on Instagram anyway. And to (sheol) with trains.

—My former (dispomaniac) self.

Yeah, that didn’t happen.

Instead, I ride the final two kilometres back to the village of Ravlunda, where I’d first hired the bike. Then I make my way back to Stockholm.

That homeward journey by bus and train takes around eight hours. By the end of it, I’ve almost forgotten my attempt at cinematography.

But I’d be lying if I said it spoilt my trip. If anything, that imaginary video made my four days in Österlen something special.

Something almost hyperreal.

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