by Peter Friend
Three days later it happened again -- knock, knock, knock at Tom's front door,
just as he was brushing glue over a papier-mâché hill.
Probably that bloody social services woman again, wanting to drag him along to a
Seniors' Sing-Along or some such witless nonsense. Couldn't she get it into her
thick head that people came to a retirement village for a bit of peace and quiet?
He yanked his door open, ready to give her a good earful.
And stopped. It wasn't her at all; it was one of them alien interviewers, looking
twice as ugly in real life as they did on the television. Still, he'd seen worse. He
wasn't scared at all, not like some folks.
"Morning," he said, because Ruth had always insisted on being polite to strangers.
"We may talk please, random human," it said, each word in a different voice.
He snorted. "Me? I've never done anything you fellas would be interested in.
And I'm busy. This place is chockfull of silly old fools with nothing better to do
than gossip all day -- go interview one of them."
That got a reaction, not from the alien but from the other residents, watching
through their half-open doors and lace curtains. Served them right.
"You are random," the alien told Tom in three voices, and waved a hundred dollar
note at him.
"Well, why didn't you say so before?" he said, because he was always happy to
help out folks with more money than brains, no matter what planet they came
from. "But I've got glue drying in here, so we'll have to talk while I work."
The alien waddled inside on three stumpy legs. Tom poked his tongue out at his
neighbours and closed the door just to spoil their view.
"What is this thing?" the alien asked, pointing its head at the benches -- well,
pointing its front end at least, because it didn't seem to have a head as such.
"A model railway. Haven't you fellas seen one before?"
"Model railway," it parroted back to him in his own voice.
For a moment he thought it was making fun of him, then realised this must be how
it always talked, by copying people's voices.
"Yeah, like a real railway, but . . . um . . . with models," he said as he spread green
sawdust over the sticky hill. "Sorry, don't think I've ever needed to explain it to
anyone before. Even little kids get the idea straight away."
The alien pulled out a shiny gizmo from somewhere and suddenly a little black
and white movie of an old Wild West train appeared in mid-air, puffing smoke as
it rolled past. The alien fiddled with the gizmo and the little train reappeared on
Tom's model railway, right on the tracks in front of Pumahara Station, then
"Understanding," said the alien. "Miniature reality."
Tom laughed. "Yeah, you got the idea. That some kind of hologram projector,
huh? Mighty nice. Sell a few billion of them to us dumb humans -- make
yourself a fortune."
"Why?" it asked, peering at the rails.
That had Tom stumped for a moment, because if the aliens didn't understand
money then why were they handing out hundred dollar notes?
"Why?" it repeated. "This reality, why? True or imagining?"
"Oh, now I get you. Yes, it's all accurate, just like the real places were at the time.
See, over here's Pumahara Railway Station, that's where I met my wife-to-be,
Ruth, one Saturday morning back in '63. This red brick building is the tea room
where I saw her for the very first time -- she was eating a huge pink Lamington
and getting coconut all over her face -- I fell in love at first sight. Walked right
over to her and told her so, would you believe it? And she raised her pretty little
eyebrows, said 'hmmmph,' stood up and boarded her train. Sensible girl."
"Train is human mating ritual?" the alien asked.
"What? No, no. But then again, I suppose for us it was, in a manner of speaking.
I came back the following Saturday morning and there she was again, eating
another Lamington --chocolate, but just as messy. This time I made a slightly
better impression, enough for her to tell me her name was Ruth, and that she
visited her parents back in Paenga Kore every Saturday. I mentioned I just
happened to be catching the very same train. She didn't believe me for a second,
but nevertheless most graciously allowed me to accompany her on board and to sit
across the aisle from her. Three hours later we arrived at tiny Paenga Kore
Railway Station -- that's the little green-roofed building over there in the far
corner. And she invited me to stay for lunch with her parents."
The alien shuffled over and examined the green cardboard railway station intently.
"This long ago one journey. You recall such many details."
"Oh, not just the once. We made that same journey nearly every Saturday for over
a year while we were courting. That train was slow and noisy and blew soot all
over our clothes, but nevertheless . . . sitting there, holding hands and staring out
the window without a care in the world . . . it was magical.
"When Ruth passed away a couple of years ago, I wanted something to remember
her by. We were married forty years -- and damned good years they were too --
but of all our time together, those train journeys are what I like to remember the
most. So I went down to the model shop in the mall and . . . well, to cut a long
story short, the result's in front of us. I got a little carried away perhaps -- never
intended it to take up most of the lounge -- but that's ok, I don't get many
"The research is the hardest part. Back in '63 I didn't care tuppence for the train
itself, only for the pretty girl on my arm. A couple of them trainspotters down at
the model shop told me it was a K Class steam locomotive, and that's confirmed
by an old snapshot I had of Ruth next to it. But the carriages aren't so easy to
work out. I know they were second-class 56-footer day-cars, almost certainly built
in the late thirties. But that's the whole problem -- there were hundreds of them,
and by '63 they'd been repaired and redecorated and refitted so many times that
. . . well, the model over there on the track, it's close, but it's not quite right."
The alien peered at the carriage and started fiddling with its shiny gizmo again.
"See, here's an old photo of Ruth," he continued. "Isn't she lovely? That shows
the seats and a window, and as you can see, the window size doesn't match the
model. And here's the only other interior snapshot I've got, the two of us grinning
like idiots because we'd just got engaged -- that's a better one of the window and
the luggage rack, but it doesn't --"
He stopped. A flickering image of the train carriage floated in mid-air, looking
just like his model at first, although larger, and then the windows stretched to
match the photos and intricate tiny luggage racks appeared inside the windows.
He crowed in delight. "That's a mighty fine party trick. You can change
anything? Can you make that paintwork a darker blue, and not so glossy? Yes,
that's it. And I remember the seats were vinyl, imitation leather in shiny green,
yes, but a little yellower. The seat legs were chrome, with rusty screws. And the
floor was a splotchy white and brown linoleum; Ruth always said it looked like
dried bird poop, and made me promise we'd never have linoleum in our home. Oh
heck, just listen to me babbling on, I'm the silliest old fool in this whole place.
You fellas didn't fly a zillion light years across the universe to listen to this
"Thank you," said the alien.
The carriage shrank, and dropped into Tom's hands. He only caught it by reflex,
expecting just a hologram, but somehow it had become solid, real. He peered in
the windows and saw tiny figures of Ruth and himself, exactly like in his snapshot,
and all of a sudden he found himself crying.
He wiped his eyes and blew his nose, doubly glad that he'd closed the front door.
He hadn't cried since Ruth's funeral. Wouldn't want the neighbours seeing him
"Thank you," he snuffled, then realised the alien had gone.
Gently, he placed the carriage onto the rails, half-expecting it to crumble to dust or
disappear, and discovered without surprise that it was perfectly scaled to match the
rest of the train -- yeah, that alien knew more about model trains than it had let
on, that was for sure. He tried to roll it behind his K Class locomotive, but there
was something wrong with the carriage wheels. He turned it over for a closer look
and discovered the wheels had no axles and couldn't turn, and that made him
laugh and cry and laugh all over again.
"Doesn't matter," he muttered to himself, and softly rubbed the carriage's dark
blue paintwork. "The train itself was never the point. The memories are all that
* * *
The aliens clustered around the tiny train, stroking it and each others' heads,
sharing the human's memories. Then they shrank the train and carefully
positioned it amongst the billion other objects in their portrait of Earth. There was
much to contemplate in this piece, especially the train's mysterious place in human
culture. Still, the train itself wasn't the point. The memories were what mattered.