Thomas and I usually sat astride our bikes at the railway crossing. Because it was near enough to town, it had those red and white striped boom gates that lowered at the approach of a train and the metallic warning bells, tink-tink, tink-tink, an arrhythmic metronome. The day’s silence would be broken by the repeated admonition of the bells and the gates would lower like a parental warning.
It was our boundary marker. This was as far as we were allowed to go. Our house was at the edge of town but close enough to taste the wheat and cow manure of the outlying farms.
We waited for the freight trains to pass by, feeling the cadence of the wheels through the earth after the asthmatic growl of the diesel engines. When we were younger, we counted carriages: one, two, three, four… fifty-five, fifty-six. The dull brown coal trucks smeared in the mineral intestines of earth’s darkened guts; the varied boxes of shipping containers arranged like children’s building blocks in random colours and shapes. They came and went as a procession. We would wave to the driver who replied with a blast of the air horn.
As we grew older we would lie with our ears to the track to hear the thrum of the approaching engines vibrate down the length of the track.
Thomas, four years older than me, dared to ride his bike across the track and wait on the other side for the train to pass through. I still felt the sting of shame at defying my parents.
He would pick at the loose gravel and attempt to throw it between the passing carriages at me on the other side. More often than not he would simply hit the side of the coal car, but he soon developed an eye that could chuck a stone through the gap, skittering away at my feet. More than once he hit me in the head.
The railway was my boundary. For Thomas it was a pathway. With each train that passed, I watched my brother move further and further away.
The night of the argument, Thomas threw words like stones. He had seen too many trains pass through in the day, heard their passage in the night, to be bound to a small country town.
Thomas drove away in anger. I chased him on my bike. He crossed the railway line and the bells began their warning. I watched his tail lights strobe between the carriages. The flashing red signals of the level crossing stopped and the tink-tink of the bells ceased, replaced by the fading red taillights of my brother’s car and the cloud of dust raised as a curtain between us.