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Terror on the Tracks

Pram19It ends up being the story of two handbrakes. first there was one that didn’t want to release. My wife and I have one of those new-millennium cars that attempts to automate the automotive experience, which means an old-fashioned handbrake crunch is all too yesterday. Instead we have a button. A button that groans a little when it’s called into service and lights up orange. A button that doesn’t intrude on cabin space being eyed off by expansionist drink-holders. A stupid bloody button that failed on the Sunday after the 2009 AFL Grand Final, and set off a chain of events that could have killed our baby.

After 10 minutes battling the uncooperative handbrake, my wife, Tamsin, calls to withdraw from the family catch-up at my parents’ place. I am already there. Her voice resounds with the leaden weariness that is familiar to any parent of a four-week-old. “The car brake’s broken. It’s so annoying. I can’t get there.”

Unfortunately, I know the train timetable. “There’s a train at 10.51,” I offer, feeling as if I’m whipping a beaten thoroughbred over the last two furlongs. “If you can make it, I’ll meet you at Jolimont with an umbrella (whack, whack). It’d be nice if you could (whack, whack), just because this is the only day when everyone’s going to be in Melbourne (whack, whack).” I push. I cajole. Racing Victoria Limited changed the whip rules to counter jockeys like me.

It’s an umbrella sort of day. Actually it’s more of an umbrella-flipping- inside-out sort of day. Rain, occasional hail, wind. Wind like you wouldn’t believe. A friend later tells me that a freak gust blew his driver-side door back on its hinges, writing off two panels. Nevertheless, at this point I’m still thinking umbrellas and some breakneck chivalry for a person who’s endured a car breakdown and a dash for a train, after a lengthy morning of co-ordinating a colicky newborn with a boundary-testing two-year-old, who, in her own words, “rikes being naughty”. I skol a coffee. If they make the 10.51, they’ll be at Jolimont right on 11am.

My phone rings at 10.56. The ringtone is the Yip Yip Martians from Sesame Street, a frivolous false dawn for what is to come. The caller ID says it’s Tamsin. It takes me five seconds of disorienting babble to understand that it isn’t.

“Hello, I’m calling from your wife’s phone. We’re at the station and there’s been an accident. I don’t want you to panic. Everyone seems to be okay but your wife is very upset. She’s here beside me, I’m going to put her on … ”

It’s only about this point I realise it’s not Tam’s voice. For the longest time I’ve just blindly believed the caller ID. The screen said it was her. Why wouldn’t it be? It’s just as the first bolt of terror is striking that Tam assumes the phone, bungeeing me back out of the fire. She’s sobbing wildly, inconsolable. “He hit his head on the rail. He’s awake now, but we’re still going to go to the Children’s Hospital. He’s got swelling at the back of his head. He hit his head on the rail.”

The rail. She’s said the word twice. What does she mean by the rail? It’s while Tam is sobbing out the details of the ambulance’s arrival that I finally work out she’s talking about the railway tracks. Somehow our four-week-old baby has ended up on the tracks.

“What? Harry was on the tracks?”

“The wind blew the pram off the platform. I had the brake on, but the wind must have caught the canopy.”

She’s trying to speak but the sobs are consuming her. “I was trying to control Polly … and then I heard this crash … ”

I charge back into my parents’ house. Within the minute, I’m off the phone and my sister Sam is behind the wheel. I spend the 10-minute drive to the Royal Children’s Hospital cutting deals with gods and devils and supernatural forces I don’t believe in. Sam tries to calm me, saying that if it were life and death, the call would’ve come from a very fast-moving ambulance.

Sam drops me at Emergency and I sweep into an empty reception area.

I explain the parts of the story that I know. The triage nurse tells me that they haven’t heard about it yet. “The really serious ones are rung through in advance,” she says kindly. She points to the spot where the ambulance will pull up outside. “They’ll park there. We’ll come and get you to take you through.”

For the next 35 minutes, my seagull head swivels as I make 10-second checks for an arriving ambulance. It’s long enough to cover all sorts of existential ground. How will we cope with the loss of somebody we never really got to know? Is life to become a series of tragic gaps, the birthday that would have been, the empty Moses basket that he was meant to grow out of? I’m sickened by the knowledge that our baby is in pain; four weeks old and in serious pain. And I can’t stop thinking about Tam. She saw it happen. Jumped onto the tracks to retrieve him. How is she going to get over this?

The ambulance finally pulls in at a leisurely pace. I half-walk, half-run to the ambulance bay. The first person I see is Polly, my darling Polly, who is sitting tall and seat-belted in an adult seat, staring at her mother on a stretcher with Harry in her arms. A friendly paramedic unbuckles Polly and she jumps into my arms for a hug. “Baby Harry pram fell on train tracks,” she says, which is apparently the first thing she’s said for a while. She then has a go at saying ambulance, which is so cute that it sends me into a flurry of tears.

The evidence of Tam’s distress is inked down her face in vertical stripes, the mascara thick and black near her eyes before trailing into softer greys closer to her mouth. She is helped from her stretcher, and Harry is placed gently in a hospital crib. His eyes are closed. The lump on the back of his head is enormous. Tam and I hug that desperate, nerve-jangling hug that the staff of the RCH must see every day. It’s only at this point that I get the full story.

She’d arrived to find a near-empty station platform, assumed that she’d missed the 10.51, then heard the boom gates at Victoria Street and realised she could still make it. She applied the pram brake, a couple of clicks as always, and with Polly hurtling around like a free-range chook, she reached to control her. The next sound she heard, amid the dinging of the boom gates and the whistling of the wind and the excited chatter of her daughter was the crash of something hitting the train tracks.

She says she scarcely remembers moving. She was just suddenly down there among the rocks and the rails. The pram was upside down, with Harry face down on the rail. There are no restraining straps for this type of pram, but the zip-up weather cover had fortunately prevented him from being flung clear. He was crying. Along the tracks, Tam could see the approaching lights of the 10.51.

She then noticed that there were three people on the platform. Two were middle-aged women, seated in the station’s undercover alcove, but one was closer by, a 20-something male on a mobile phone. Tam laid Harry carefully on the concrete of the platform, and then laboured with the pram, lifting the godforsaken too-light-but-still-bloody-heavy thing up to head height. She’d had surgery the day after giving birth to stop some postnatal hemorrhaging. This wasn’t in the recovery manual.

“Can you help me, please?!” she shrieked. The young man looked at her, registered the strangeness of seeing somebody on the tracks, but made no move to abridge his call, let alone assist. The two women rushed over and did their best, especially with Harry and Polly. With one eye on the kids, and one on the approaching train, Tam somehow jumped and pushed and levered her way back to safety. “Mummy so brave,” is how Polly tells it, with theatrical relish. “Train coming, whoooosh!”

Fortunately for us, the distance between our station, Dennis, and the stop before it, Fairfield, is short, and non-express trains do not achieve huge speeds coming in. There’s also good visibility, and the driver of the 10.51 saw Tam on the tracks and managed to pull up before the station platform. She was also the one who calmed Tam, called the ambulance, and identified that Harry had some swelling on the back of his head. Needless to say, the gratitude and goodwill we have for that Connex employee is inversely proportional to the feelings we have for the 20-something on the mobile phone. He disappeared in the next big gust.

At the hospital, we settle in the resuscitation room, watching Harry as his head metamorphoses into the shape of ET’s. Nonetheless, the mood is relatively buoyant. His observations are good. He isn’t listless. He seems to be hungry. The doctors give him some oxygen, but don’t ventilate him. His behaviour seems to be typical for a baby his age.

The doctors stress, however, that the CT scan will tell the story. He’s wheeled upstairs and placed on a football field of a table that reminds us how absolutely tiny he is. I’m asked to leave the room, but Tam is allowed to stay. Harry cries as he’s wedged into position. What else can he do?

“Don’t panic if we take a while,” the operator tells us on the way out. “It’ll be at least half an hour before we’re back with results.”

We start to get worried when it’s more than half an hour. By now it’s nearly 3.30pm, 4 1/2 hours since the accident, and we’re both just exhausted. Sam has taken Polly home for a sleep, but beforehand has delivered me a burger and fries – enough to establish a fatty base-camp for my nausea. It ticks up to an hour. Still no news. I ask at the desk whether there’s any explanation for the delay. The nurse points to our young female doctor. “She’s on the phone to them right now. She’ll be in in a sec.”

She takes an age. By now it’s not just the trans fats in the burger. The air is too hot. The cubicle is too small. Tam and I take turns cuddling Harry and worry that he isn’t crying enough for a baby who hasn’t fed in more than five hours. Finally the curtain opens and the young doctor arrives. Then another doctor. Then a social worker. Then a pastoral-care person. As soon as I see the size and nature of the entourage I don’t want the doctor to say a word. She looks at her notes and crouches down, establishing herself at our level. Don’t say it, I think, over and over. Please don’t say a word.

Then she says it. She tells us that the scan revealed bad news. She says that there is a large cranial fracture on the top left-hand side of the skull. She says that there is bleeding on the brain. She looks at our precious baby’s head and with quiet, professional sadness states that “there is plenty going on in there”. We find out that the neuro-surgeons have been called, and that they will be in soon to tell us more. Tam and I both burst into tears. The doctor gestures towards the social worker. “You might like to talk,” she suggests.

“I’m really, really sorry.”

There follows a dismal couple of minutes sitting in the company of a well-intentioned social worker who, in this case, was unfortunate with her timing. Tam and I have not yet had a moment alone together. “It’s a lot to take in,” the social worker keeps saying, and given it could be anything on the spectrum from full recovery to death depending on what the neurosurgeons say, she’s right on the money. Unfortunately, her being with us is not helping with the taking in, and we eventually find some blithering words with which to ask her to leave.

We then wait for the neurosurgeon. It’s the worst hour of my life and I spend it alternately crying, embracing Tam, soothing Harry and texting siblings and parents. At some point, the emergency consultant, a specialist called Sandy, stops by to console and consolidate what has been said so far. Except he makes things sound better. “It’s a tiny amount of bleeding inside the lining of the brain,” he says of the scan. “I didn’t even see it at first.”

“Is he going to … live?” I ask fearfully, wanting to be free from the worst of our nightmares.

“From my experience,” the specialist says carefully, “this is not the sort of situation that is

life threatening.” He’s calm and reassuring. He oozes competence. He’s like a knight in mood-improving purple pyjamas.

Suddenly, it’s like the ill wind has finally blown itself out. The neurosurgeons arrive and they agree with Sandy. It’s not a big bleed. “We were expecting bigger, given how it was described on the phone,” the younger one admits.

The more senior neurosurgeon is the brother-in-law of a writer who is one of my best friends. He was best man to one of my former housemates. His mum is in a book club with my mum. I know him to say hello to, and actually call him “Stinger” as I shake his hand. He apologises for the circumstance of our catching up. I fall into small talk in the same way as I would at a party, which con-vinces me that I would small talk on the scaffold.

Stinger examines Harry, examines the scan. He confirms that it’s a small bleed. He tells us that there is no real build-up of pressure on Harry’s brain, because the cavities in a newborn’s skull allow for fluid to be released. He informs us that Harry won’t need immediate surgery. He then says the greatest sentence I’ve heard in my almost 37 years. “Really, given how things look at the moment, I’d imagine he will make a full recovery from this injury.”

Harry spends two nights in hospital, laid out on the vast acreage of a child’s bed, with Tam and I alternating between Polly at home and the seat beside him. At some point I ask a nurse how to turn the seat into a fold-out bed and she laughs. “We’re all very much looking forward to the new Children’s Hospital,” she says. Harry is rarely out of my arms, and when he dirties his suit I receive some donated clothes from the nurse. “Who needs Santa when I have Grandma,” his suit says. I’m still so overcome by the whole experience that I find myself telling him about Santa, and how much fun it’s going to be, and how I’m going to be incredibly good at sneaking into his room, and how he’ll be in his mid-teens before he knows it’s been me all along. And so I spoil Santa for him – or if not for him, then for any other kids who are eavesdropping at the door.

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And that was it. the end of our baby-on-train-tracks ordeal. Or at least we thought it was. Three weeks later, I turned on my computer, opened my web browser and saw the lead story was “Baby survives hit by train”. I rocked back in my chair, unsure whether to venture into such maudlin terrain. Eventually I did, as I suppose I was always going to. The pram toppling over. The mother flailing to catch it. Then the nightmare that had replayed for me every time I’d heard the Hurstbridge train go by in the past 20 days. The train really going “whoooosh”. The sickening contact. The woman making her awful split-second decision to step backwards and save her own life. The terrible, contorting agony that descends on her. The certainty of what she must know she is about to confront.

Except it was a happy ending there, too. The baby somehow rode the impact, the pram pushed along by the train with its occupant gripped tightly by the restraint. And this time the hero was a teenager, climbing under the carriage, facing up to God knows what, providing the good-news horror story that would nourish the tabloid media for weeks.

My brother texted me the follow-up news the next day. “Other train lady being chased by Oprah producers!”

Except, of course, she isn’t the other train lady. We are the other train lady. Now, when occasion comes to tell friends or family about Harry’s ordeal, eyes fly wide and they start jabbering even before the first sentence is out – “What, the one on the news?” To which we have to offer quick reassurance that ours was a different train incident, one where the train was coming but didn’t actually strike the pram, one where the baby did suffer a head injury but Oprah didn’t find out about it.

I hope that doesn’t sound like some sort of sick competitiveness. We’re very happy to be the other train lady, and are deeply thankful both babies are okay. The fact that I can smile, almost laugh and say mock-jealous “What are we, chopped liver?” jokes says I’ve almost recovered. It’s now a story for Harry to hear and re-hear as he grows into the childhood that was so nearly taken from us all. And if he hears it from his sister, this is how it goes:

Polly: Daddy, baby Harry’s pram fell on train tracks.

Dad: Yes, poor baby Harry. But Mummy was very brave.

Polly: Mummy jump on train tracks. (Imitates jump) So big!

Dad: Yes, she did do a big jump.

Polly: Baby Harry’s hat fell on train tracks.

Dad: That’s right. Harry’s hat’s still out there on the train tracks.

Polly: (Pause) Daddy, Polly’s corn chips fell on train tracks, too.

And when I hear that, I know that we’re all okay.

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Harry, aged 5.

Terror on the Tracks – Good Weekend