A Short Story on the Website of
the Red Dirt Writers Society

Paua Shells
by Kim Burnham (Feb 2012)


David and Jane were tired but happy. It had been a longer walk than they had expected to the shore from the station and then back again. They had taken the train from Wellington to Paraparaumu, a small resort town on the West coast of New Zealand’s North Island and journeyed from there on foot.

“It can’t be much farther,” David kept saying. But they did find a small fish and chips place and later, on the way, a school sale of used books. David bought a middle school level text on the geography of New Zealand.

When the two of them finally reached the shore, they soon forgot about their tired legs. The weather was a little cool and gray with clouds but there were few people along the soft wet, dark gray, almost black beach. The gulls flew overhead, occasionally dropping a shellfish onto the rocks away from shore, in hopes of cracking their treasures and devouring the meat within. David and Jane walked along the shore, collecting paua and other seashells.

It was a long walk back, loaded down with the shells and the book that David had bought. But the wait for the next return train to Wellington was not long. Soon they were seated and the train began to move.

“The paua shells are my favorite,” said Jane. “I love the iridescent greens and blues.”

“The fish and chips were definitely my favorite,” said David, smiling.

“Oh yes, just like our son. No matter where the school field trip was, all you could get out of him was what they had for lunch. The apple didn’t fall far from the tree and it was soon eaten.”

“Ha ha,” answered David.

The inside of the railcar grew suddenly dark as the train entered a tunnel. The drum of the rails echoed off the irregular walls of stone.

“It was a great day,” said David as the train emerged back into the light and the green hills to the left and the rocky shoreline to the right came back into view. “Good scenery, good food, a good walk and good companionship.”

“You mean I’m right up there with there with lunch?” asked Jane as they passed another train on the right going the other direction.

“Somewhere between the chips and the tar-“

A muffled thump was heard and the train vibrated. Then it came to an abrupt stop.

Soon the train official entered the car and his face was very solemn. But he only said that they had made un-scheduled stop. He asked the passengers to be patient.

“What do you suppose has happened?” asked Jane.

David frowned. “I don’t – know. I think we hit something.”

The train official listened intently to the walkie-talkie in his hand, then turned to the passengers and spoke slowly and sternly.

“We will all be getting off. There has been an accident. Stay on the train until the police arrive. Then, as you disembark, please be prepared to give them a statement.”

“I think someone’s been hurt,” said Jane.

“Most likely killed,” said David.

Jane shuddered.

“I wonder if someone was playing chicken with the other train,” said David in a muffled voice. They might not have seen our train until they jumped from the other track and then it was too late.”

“We just don’t know,” said Jane. “What will we tell the police?”

“Maybe just about the other train going by. That might be significant. I don’t know what else we could tell them, other than that awful sound and the vibration?” David’s voice trailed off and he looked down at the floor.

After what seemed like a long time, the conductor motioned them off of the train. They picked up their bags and stood in line to get off. As they stepped off onto the running board, they were relieved to discover that the police officer only wanted their names and contact information. Then they were led to a McDonald’s restaurant fifty yards away along a road.

The two of them found a place to sit down and place their bags. They both watched as a young man that they recognized from the train got up and ordered food.

Soon, a middle-aged woman came to their table carrying a tray. She smiled at them and spoke.

“Would you like some coffee?”

They answered in unison and the woman gave them their drinks.

“It’s on the house,” said the woman. “My name is Melda. I am a volunteer with Victim Support. Are you doing okay?”

“But, said Jane. “We’re not victims.”

“Believe me,” said Melda. “We are all victims.”

“What happened?” asked David.

“Someone was hit by the train you were on.”

“I was afraid of that,” said Jane. “Do they know anything else?”

“They’re not saying anything else. That’s all we know.”

The lady soon moved on to talk with other passengers. Soon vans arrived and took all the passengers to the train station in Wellington.

Once they were back in their apartment, David looked at the shells. Part of him wanted to throw them away. Those shells were bought at too high a price, he thought. But the shells did not cause that terrible accident, and it would have happened whether or not we had been on the train and whether or not we had gathered shells. Still, he and Jane put the shells in a drawer and didn’t pull them out until they left leave New Zealand.

They never heard from the police. They checked the newspapers every day until they found the article. The victim was a young woman, age twenty-three. The article did not say why she had been on the track, nor whether she wanted to die, and if so, why. But they did find an article a few weeks later about a train conductor who retired early because he wanted the nightmares to stop.

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