As the historic train left Adelaide, the novelist considered the journey ahead with muted excitement. They were all minor V.I.Ps he supposed, in their own way, or else they would never have been given the coveted seats on the first through train to Darwin; Those in his carriage, of course. The real V.I.Ps, in the forward coaches, The P.M. and other senior Politicians; and the Governor General, soon, it was said, to become interim President, were the immediate prey of the flock of newsmen and TV journalists.
He considered his fellow travellers. There were twelve of them in his sleeper. He, Harris, was a current best selling author, famed for winning all the major prizes in one year and the darling of the broadsheet critics. The others? There was a Bishop and an Actress (room for a witticism here, he supposed. Oh no, They preferred to be called Actors nowadays which made the jokes even more obscene); An Opera Singer; a female Pop Singer (imagine Them in a duet!), A female tennis champion; A syndicated Columnist and a radio Shock-jock, an industrialist, a senior public servant; a Nobel Prize winning scientist, and last, but probably not least, a mysterious military looking man; possibly Special Branch or ASIO, thought Harris, to keep an eye on them.
Harris was paired with the Columnist in his two berth compartment; both writers, he supposed. The same logic seemed to apply to the others – the Opera Singer with the famous actress; the pop singer with the young tennis champ. The Bishop had been paired with the Senior Bureaucrat, The Industrialist was in with the Scientist (the Corporations invading Academe, thought Harris). That left the Shock-jock and the suspected secret policeman. If anyone needed an eye on him it would be the Shock-jock from what Harris remembered of his Talk-back program.
Most of the time they sat in the observation car between the sleeping compartments and the dining car. The important V.I.Ps had their own luxury lounge, but they shared the dining car, relegating the lesser vips to Second Sitting. As yet, they were all strangers to each other, though the scientist and the industrialist were possibly nodding acquaintances. Mostly they sat in silence, watching the last of the fringes of Adelaide fall behind them. Farming country followed, vineyards perhaps, but they knew that within hours they would experience the vastness of Central Australia, bush giving way to desert, the hugeness of the continent overwhelming the consciousness of the shore-dwelling city folk.
They soon fell into a routine, forming little groups, revealing or concealing according to their personalities, and seriously concerned at establishing a pecking order. Harris, by nature a loner, nevertheless observed with the keen eye of the novelist; filing away impressions which his subconscious would resurrect in his later works. He thought idly of Agatha Christie’s Orient Express, and he toyed with the idea of fictionalising their present circumstance,, just for the fun of it, he thought. How would it go?
Not a Murder; No, that would be too close to the Orient book. As the miles rushed by, a plot suggested itself to him. He would imagine, and observe the social dynamics of the various members of their little group. Twelve was not an unmanageable number — Eleven, really, because he intended to leave himself out of the equation.

While Harris was wrestling with the problem of the overall plot of his story-line, events threatened to overtake him. The opera singer and the pop star, united by music, formed an unlikely alliance. They shyly admitted to each other, an envy of the other’s opportunities, even of each other’s voice; the pop-singer of the Diva’s power to fill a large theatre with her magnificent voice, without the aid of a microphone, and the opera-singer, the pop-star’s opportunity tor an audience of thousands, and an income that made her a millionaire.
Enmities developed too. The shock-jock made the inevitable reference to the Bishop and the Actress jokes which went down like a lead balloon (his cliche, not mine thought Harris). T e young tennis star was offended by the clumsy and old fashioned advances of the industrialist and the gay scientist entered into a lively feud with the shock-jock when he realised that this was the perpetrator of a homophobic sponsored phone in.
Harris observed that the Columnist was doing much the same thing as himself. He was quietly gathering material for a much more immediate deadline; next week-end s column. They acknowledged each other with a nod, but they didn’t chat. They were much too busy.
The military man was also an observer, but much more active in a quiet way. He flitted from group to group; unobtrusively participating in conversation, prompting even. An agent provocateur? wondered Harris; if so, he was very smooth.
The miles rolled by. Nights came and went. The Columnist snored and Harris suffered. There were comings and goings in the corridor. The Orient Express had nothing on this muse Harris. He became philosophical. Insomnia is only a problem if you expect to be asleep. Harris resigned himself to wakefulness. The columnist fell blessedly silent at last and Harris started to toy with the plot of his journey-novel. What about a title? Danger to Darwin that had a race ring to it but what could the danger be? He had already decided against Murder. What else was there? Scandal? Yes, but that could be a sub-plot. No, it needed something more meaty. Physical danger? A train crash? Possible, but it was, to be hoped, highly unlikely. An act of God? That was hardly fair on the Bishop. Murder was out, but how about an assassination. Knocking off The P.M. and the President Designate, would ensure film rights, let alone a best selling novel. The American market lapped up that sort of stuff. Maybe it was true all things are possible to an active imagination at three a.m. Wide awake now, Harris reached for his ever handy notebook and switched on his tiny reading lamp. Now how would it be carried out. An ambush? A crazed gun-man? Why would anyone bother to assassinate an Australian politician. Maybe it would be a mad monarchist going after the putative President. No, Australians don’t take their politics that seriously. How about a suicide bomber, they were in fashion on the world scene. But no, screening by the military man’s colleagues had been very thorough Harris was sure that all the passengers had been very carefully selected. Still, a bomb would be an ideal weapon
Would they mine the track? Or would the bomb be on the train? The security men would have been all over it with sniffer dogs, but Harris remembered reading that some of the newer plastic explosives were odourless. The story began to take shape in Hams s mind. He began to scribble rapidly in the little notebook. It was found in the wreckage.
Somewhere, someone, miles away, pressed a button. A radio wave activated a relay, and the front of the train disintegrated. Harris, and three others in the rear carriage, survived, though, when he had sufficiently recovered, he had a lot of explaining to do.

H.St.V.Beechey © copyright 03/08/2001