I came to the railway crossing and stopped. No sounds, except the wind in the pine trees. Was the train even coming? How would I know? Should I crouch down, put my ear to the tracks and listen? I’d seen countless people do this in movies but never believed in it. Then I heard a high-pitched whistle. And the chug-a-chug of the steam train’s engine. Yep, that’s it, I thought. That’s the train I last saw fifteen minutes ago at Brösarp Station. And it’s headed this way.
I crossed the tracks, alighted from my bicycle and leant it against the fence. Then I pulled out my mobile telephone and opened its native camera application. Holding the phone in front of my face with both hands, in landscape view. My eyes trained on the screen, in which I saw 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 was about to round the bend, I pressed record.
The spectacle that unfolded on the screen in my hands was nothing short of mind-blowing. As I stood there spellbound, the old steam train came barrelling around the bend in full cry. Its funnel jettisoned smoke into the sky with majestic power. Its black fuselage tore through the cutting. Its whistle howled like a banshee. Within seconds it was past me, its packed carriages hurtling by. I swung around to capture the caboose disappear around the bend.
Within that brief period—twenty seconds, no more—an array of thoughts passed through my mind. I thought about Paul Theroux’s journey in The Old Patagonian Express. About his maddening companion, Thornberry. I thought about Baudrillard’s concept of the simulacrum. I thought about my four-year-old son, and wished he was there with me to watch the train careening past. And I thought about my bike trip through Osterlen, which I was about to complete.
Once the train was definitely gone, I pressed the button on the screen once more to end the video. As I did so, a thrill ran through my body. I had created a masterpiece of amateur cinematography, that much at least was certain. I would show the clip to my son and he would be awestruck. I would post it to various social media services and then sit back as the torrent of likes and comments came in.
“Did you take this on a phone? Wow!”—Nobody, ever.Tweet
But as I pressed the screen, I heard a click. It was the sound my device usually makes when I’ve taken a photo. That was when I realised I hadn’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.
It would be too easy to think of this non-event as an indicator of the mindlessness of modern-day tourism. I did indeed take a moment or two to reflect on my utter stupidity as I stared in turn at the two photos I had taken. They weren’t bad photos, by any means. But neither of them featured a train. Not to mention a mighty, old-fashioned steam engine. Spewing black smoke as it carved its way through a primeval Swedish forest.
Then I thought of my son and felt a familiar wave of self-pity, tinged with self-hatred. A heady combo, that one. A kind of depression-induced cocktail I’d been drinking for over 30 years. I’d actually stopped drinking more than a year before. 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 rode the final two kilometres back to the village of Ravlunda, where I’d first hired the bike. Then I made my way back to Stockholm. That homeward journey by bus and train took around eight hours. By the end of it, I’d 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.