Fiction

The signal line

GEO AND WES didn’t talk on the fifteen-minute drive from the airport, although that in itself wasn’t unusual. When they arrived at Royal Hobart, Geo hung back as Wes scanned the board for Psychological Medicine. It was Geo’s first time at the hospital since their mum had passed, and he didn’t need to look to know the oncology clinic for outpatients was on level one.

They found B Block on level three and followed a sign down a narrow corridor to the Department of Psychiatry. The posters on the walls alerted them to the change in clinical environments: Warning This is a Hospital Watch Area; NO EXCUSE FOR ABUSE; Verbal & Physical Abuse WILL NOT BE TOLERATED; If You Display Offensive Behaviour You Will Be Asked to Leave.

A female officer stood guard outside the ward. She tensed as Wes approached.

‘Alice,’ Wes said with a small nod.

Her hand motioned to the radio mic clipped to her shirt. ‘Martin’s inside with them now. I’ve been told not to let anyone through.’

Wes rested a hand on Geo’s shoulder. ‘My brother just got in from Italy. We’re hoping he can help with translation.’

Geo shifted away.

Alice’s gaze came to rest on Geo. ‘That’s lucky.’

Wes ran a hand over stubble shot through with grey. In the fluorescent light Geo couldn’t tell if he’d been on the job for a week or had stopped taking care of himself. In the two years he’d been away it seemed his brother had aged a decade.

Wes strained to see through the small window in the door. ‘Sally said none of them speak English?’

Alice shrugged. ‘They were pretty hysterical when we picked them up. One’s heavily pregnant.’

Wes cleared his throat. ‘Alice…help me out here.’

In that moment, Geo understood: Alice’s instructions weren’t that nobody should be let through, but that Wes shouldn’t be let through. Embarrassed, Geo pulled his phone from his pocket, searching for a distraction. The SOS at the top, strangely apt, reminded him he hadn’t yet replaced his SIM. He glanced up to find Alice pushing open the door.

‘Be good, okay?’ she said to Wes. ‘Border Force arrived five minutes ago.’

Wes swept into the ward, and Geo hurried after him. Confidence had returned to Wes’s step now he was free to do his job.

When they turned into the unit’s processing area Geo pulled up in surprise. The Italians were scattered about the room, their distressed chatter echoing off the walls. A handful sat in front-facing chairs, but the majority were gathered in small groups. The first thing that struck Geo were the heavy coats, jackets, scarves and gloves. These people were dressed for winter, not summer. The second thing was that apart from the pregnant lady who sat alone, they were all elderly.

On the opposite side of the room a doctor was in heavy discussion with a uniformed man, the letters ABF stamped across his shirt in yellow block letters. Martin Bowden, Wes’s partner and best mate since their general duty days, stood with them.

The only person who showed any composure was a man speaking to a nurse a few feet from Geo and Wes. The man held a battered fedora pressed to his chest. The nurse leaned in to catch his words, but clearly didn’t understand anything he was saying.

Wes approached them and addressed the nurse. ‘My name is Detective Rosenberger. How many are there in the group?’

‘Twenty-seven,’ she said briskly.

‘And none speak English?’

‘Not that we can tell.’

The din behind them grew louder.

‘Then why have they been brought to the psych ward?’ Wes asked.

The nurse hesitated. ‘Communication’s limited to hand gestures and drawings. It’s too early to say.’

‘You must be thinking something.’ Wes’s eyes narrowed.

The nurse skewed a glance at the Italians huddled in the chairs. Her expression hardened. ‘We think they’re trying to tell us they got here by train.’

‘From Italy?’

She gave a curt nod.

‘You believe they’re insane,’ Wes said.

‘Alzheimer’s dementia is possible. Delusions in middle-to-late-stage patients aren’t uncommon. But it would need to be true for all of them.’

‘So it’s rare?’

‘I’ve never come across a case of mass delusion in Alzheimer’s.’

Wes huffed. ‘It has to be one or the other. They’re either mad or delusional. Surely?’

The nurse gestured to the Border Force officer. ‘Then what’s he doing here?’

Wes stared across the room, but said nothing.

‘It’s morning in Rome,’ the nurse said. ‘The weather app says it’s six degrees. They’re dressed for it, wouldn’t you say? Their wallets contain Euros, electronic identity cards, Italian health cards, driver’s licences. They aren’t local. They haven’t escaped from an aged-care home.’

‘What are you suggesting?’ Wes’s tone was belligerent.

The nurse threw up her hands. ‘If they’ve been separated from a tour group, where are their passports? Their travel documents? Not one of them has a single Australian dollar.’

Wes fell silent.

She shrugged. ‘Maybe they’re telling the truth.’

‘What about the train?’ Wes said. ‘Explain the train.’

‘Transcontinental rail isn’t my field.’ Her tone was acid. ‘These people are disoriented, not delusional or insane.’

Geo whispered to Wes, ‘Are you sure I need to be here, man?’

The nurse was suddenly unsure of them. ‘I’m sorry, who did you say you were?’

‘Detective Wes Rosenberger,’ Wes said. ‘This is my brother, Geo. He speaks Italian. He can clear everything up right now. Geo, ask this gentleman how they got here.’

The Italian man who had been trying to converse with the nurse was still standing nearby. Easily in his sixties, he wore a faded suit over a frayed white shirt. The suit might have once fitted well, but now looked a size too big. The fedora in his hands was as weathered as he was, but he projected a certain dignity.

Geo cleared his throat. ‘Ciao, mi chiamo Geo Rosenberger. Forgive my poor Italian. This is my brother, Detective Wes Rosenberger. Come ti chiami?’

‘Giacomo Pedroni,’ the man said.

Di dove sei?’ Geo asked.

The man replied in his native tongue. ‘Inform your brother we are Italian citizens. Today we boarded a train in Orvieto bound for Roma. Now we are here. Please tell me where this is?’

Geo stared at him.

‘What did he say?’ Wes asked.

Geo shook his head. ‘He’s delusional. There’s no other explanation.’

Wes frowned. ‘Tell me what he said, not what you think.’

‘His name is Giacomo Pedroni. They’re Italian citizens. Today they boarded a train in Orvieto bound for Rome. Now they’re here. He wants to know where here is.’

‘Go on. Let’s see his reaction.’

‘Are you crazy?’ Geo laughed. ‘These people are elderly. If he thinks he should be in Rome and I tell him he’s in Hobart, he’ll have a heart attack.’

‘Lucky we’re in a hospital. Tell the man where he is.’

‘It isn’t my job.’

Wes rolled his eyes and said to Giacomo, ‘Tasmania, Australia.’

Giacomo’s expression fell. He turned to his compatriots with slumped shoulders and waved them over. ‘Come around. Please. Per favore vieni qui.’ A quietness settled in the room as those furthest away shifted to nearby chairs.

Giacomo gave a resigned shrug. ‘It is true. Siamo in Tasmania, Australia.’

The group erupted in shouts, everyone gesticulating wildly. A seated man laughed in disbelief. Wes’s partner, the other detective, Martin, glanced in their direction, shook his head and returned his attention to the doctor and Border Force officer.

‘They’re sincere,’ Wes said.

Geo let out a nervous laugh. Nobody got on a train in another country and got off in Australia. ‘If they’re sincere–’

‘Find out who he is,’ Wes said sharply. ‘Why are they letting him speak for them?’

Geo tapped Giacomo on the shoulder. ‘Scusi, Giacomo. Spiegare…you are talking for these people. Did you offer to speak on their behalf?’

‘I am the mayor of the town from which we come.’

‘I understood that,’ Wes said. ‘Ask him for his ticket.’

‘Ten bucks he doesn’t have one,’ Geo said.

‘Ask him.’

Geo turned to Giacomo, ‘Posso vedere il suo biglietto, per favore?’

‘The conductor collected our tickets.’

‘Convenient,’ Geo said in English. ‘The conductor collected their tickets.’

Giacomo sensed Geo’s scepticism. ‘He collected everyone’s ticket. It seemed strange at the time because in Italy the ticket is clicked. But I didn’t question it. The conductor too seemed strange.’

‘How so?’

‘He spoke poor Italian. Your Italian is better, although that is being disrespectful to you. But this conductor…era incomprensibile.’

‘Get me the train details.’ Wes reached into his jacket for his notebook and flipped it open. ‘Number, platform, departure time, arrival time in Rome. Anything he can remember.’

Giacomo provided the information with the help of those who were regular commuters on the route.

Six-­thirteen Trenitalia per Roma termini,’ a woman sitting to the side said. Her arms were crossed over a hessian bag. ‘We take it the first Monday of every month to visit our daughter’s family.’

Piattaforma tre,’ the man next to her agreed.

‘The first train of the day is not direct,’ a man two rows back offered. ‘You have to change in Orte.’

The woman swivelled around and wagged her finger. ‘Except this train did not stop.’

The man nodded. ‘This train today was direct. From Orvieto to here; wherever here is.’

Geo translated as Wes scribbled everything down.

‘Hobart,’ Wes uttered.

‘Wherever Hobart is,’ the man said.

The pregnant lady at the end of the middle row cradled her belly, and glanced across at Geo. ‘The regular train has six carriages. This train had two. That is why I was concerned.’

Wes’s eyes narrowed. ‘Why did she board the train if there was something different about it?’

The lady listened to Geo’s translation. ‘Everyone was getting on,’ she shrugged. ‘It was the correct time. I get on the train every week with these people.’

‘I don’t like it,’ Wes murmured. ‘I don’t like it one bit.’ He underlined something in his notebook. ‘One more question. At what point did things not seem what they were? When precisely did they realise they were no longer in Italy?’

Geo shifted uncomfortably. ‘You’re not buying this, are you?’

‘I’m interested in what they think.’

Geo repeated Wes’s question in Italian. Giacomo ran his hand over his fedora before replying. ‘When the door opened and the conductor ushered us out of the carriage. I knew then. I knew the platform was not an Italian platform. And I knew the train was not an ordinary train.’

‘In what way?’ Wes asked through Geo. ‘I mean the train, not the platform.’

Giacomo muttered something Geo didn’t understand.

Scomparso,’ another man said, joining the conversation.

The woman behind him agreed. ‘Digli.’

The man who laughed earlier waved his hands as if to suggest the situation belied belief and was undeserving of discussion.

Giacomo tightened his grip on his hat. ‘I knew it was not an ordinary train because when the doors closed, it rolled forward…and vanished.’

Wes’s hand froze on the pen. ‘Did he say what I think he said?’

Geo hesitated.

Giacomo lifted the fedora to his head and adjusted the angle. ‘Scomparso.’

Wes sighed and flipped closed his notebook. Martin caught his attention and waved him over. ‘Mi scusi,’ Wes said, and crossed the room.

Geo and Giacomo watched him join Martin, the doctor, and the Border Force officer.

‘They are trying decide if we are an immigration situation or a psychiatric situation,’ Giacomo said to Geo. ‘Tell me I am wrong.’

A wave of tiredness swept over Geo – either jet lag, or being in the same room as his brother for too long. ‘You are not wrong.’

‘They can see we are from Italia. But the situation is impossible. Tell me I am right.’

‘You are right.’

‘You speak an interesting style. Sometimes basic. I understand you perfectly…but basic. And sometimes natural. Perché?’

‘I am presently living in Roma. My mother was Italian.’

Hearing that Geo too had arrived from Rome, the passengers behind Giacomo agitated to life. Perhaps this person could attend to their complaints? One of them, a man with a thick moustache, cried: ‘We need food. We haven’t eaten since this morning.’

The man next to him jumped to his feet. ‘Ignore this fool. He ate an hour ago. My situation is critical. I have not yet had my espresso. Show me your machine. I am a barista. I can relax the situation for everybody.’

A woman squeezed between the two men and placed her hands on her hips. ‘If you are the police I want my phone call. You say this is Australia? Pfff. What is your name? I know people. Make no mistake, when I speak to them I am blaming you.’

As the crowd echoed their agreement, Giacomo turned back to Geo. ‘You returned to Australia when?’

Sta sera,’ Geo said.

Giacomo pointed across the room. ‘And that is your brother?’

‘He understands a little, but he does not speak. That is why he brought me with him.’

‘You arrived tonight? By plane?’

Si,’ Geo nodded.

‘That is nothing. We arrived by train.’

A faint cry drew their attention: the pregnant woman leaned back, a pool of fluid gathering beneath her chair. The nurse hurried over, followed by the doctor.

Wes and Martin came over to where Geo and Giacomo were standing. Nobody stepped forward to support the young lady. It appeared she was travelling alone.

‘Border Protection’s taking it,’ Martin said to Wes. ‘They’re bringing in a geriatrician to rule out psychosis, but assuming everything checks off, they’ll be repatriated.’

‘Where will they stay?’ Geo asked Martin.

‘Here. They have the beds.’

Wes nodded. ‘It’s a sequestered environment.’

Geo shook his head, watching as Giacomo left them to weave among the group. ‘I’m no expert, but that man’s not psychotic.’

Wes snorted. ‘You think they arrived by train?’

Geo said nothing.

‘We’re late,’ Wes said, and marched off.

Geo caught up to Wes at the elevator. Neither of them spoke on the way down. When the doors opened on the ground floor, a man with a hipster-length beard rushed at Wes with his mobile held out like a dictaphone. There was an infinity symbol tattooed on the underside of his right wrist in green ink. 

‘Detective, can you confirm that a group of illegals are presently being held in the Psychiatric Unit?’

‘Get that thing out of my face,’ Wes snapped.

The man was undeterred. ‘Can you confirm they’re from Rome?’

Wes pushed past him.

‘Is it true, detective? Is it true they arrived in Hobart from Italy by train?’

Wes pulled up short. ‘Who are you?’

‘Rory Griggs, reporter for BorderlessTIMES.’

‘Where did you get your information?’

Rory shoved the phone closer. ‘So it’s true?’

Geo thought Wes might strangle him. ‘It wasn’t Rome, it was Orvieto,’ Geo said.

Rory turned his attention to Geo. ‘Did they arrive by train?’

‘Don’t answer that,’ Wes said curtly.

‘Yes or no?’

Wes brushed up against Rory. ‘Turn that thing off.’

‘Easy now,’ Geo said, sliding an arm between the two men. He admired this reporter’s pluck, but he was marching his face right into Wes’s fist.

Geo ushered Wes towards the exit and pointed Rory away. As they passed through the automatic doors Geo heard Rory speak into his phone. ‘The detective neither confirmed nor denied that a group of Italians on a train from Orvieto to Rome disembarked in the old Hobart yard.’

The situation shifted from comedy to plain weird when Geo and Wes arrived at the car to find a folded envelope beneath the windscreen wipers. Geo slipped it out and read the handwritten message on the back.

‘What is it?’ Wes said from the other side of the car.

Geo raised an eyebrow and tossed the envelope across to his brother. ‘Hobart became interesting while I was away.’

Wes snatched it up. His face reddened as he skimmed the note.

To the detective of this vehicle. I am the proprietor of Phantom Time Books @ 148 Elizabeth Street. I have information of complete and absolute relevance to the case you’re currently investigating (train, Italians etc.). Please visit with me urgently. C Labuschagne, President of APRCTAS (Anomalous Phenomena Research Commission of the Tasmanian Academy of Sciences).

‘Who the hell are these people?’ Wes scrunched the envelope into a ball and climbed in the car.

Geo got into the passenger seat and fastened his belt. He watched as Wes scrawled something in his notebook. ‘What happened to you?’ he said.

Wes ignored him.

Geo shook his head. ‘Three years ago, a situation like this? Are you serious?’

‘Drop the commentary, okay?’

‘I’m just saying. A situation like this and you’d be popping.’

‘Yeah, well, three years ago Mum was here.’

Geo frowned. ‘What’s Mum got to do with it?’

‘It doesn’t matter.’ Wes slipped the notebook into his pocket, and started the engine.

Geo said nothing, and stared out the window.

They drove away from the hospital up Argyle Street.

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