The novel's real, but the mystery remains

ON A crowded railway platform, two soldiers hoist a woman on their shoulders so she can kiss her sweetheart goodbye. Or perhaps she was the man's sister, saying a last goodbye as he was shipped off to the Second World War.

The photograph is crowded, intimate, spontaneous - and a mystery.

''Who were these people?'' said Michael Heyward, publisher at Text.

He found the photograph 10 years ago on the State Library website. It was cited as part of The Argus newspaper collection, and dated August 14, 1940. But it may not have been published. Searches by The Sunday Age of the National Library website, where microfilm copies of the newspaper have been converted to a digital format, failed to find the photograph in editions published on or around that date.

Heyward said he kept the photo pinned to the wall of his office. ''I always thought it would make a sensational book jacket,'' he said. ''Publishers have fictional cardboard boxes where they store ideas, and I was waiting for just the right moment.''

A couple of years ago, he showed the photograph to novelist Toni Jordan. She had just finished her second book, Fall Girl, and was struggling for something new to write about.

''Toni is extra good at getting inside characters' skins and imagining what characters say and do and think,'' Heyward said. ''Here was the proposition of a single image and the question for a novelist is 'what is the story here?'''

Jordan - in an email from Beijing, where she is on a fellowship - said: ''I had nothing to lose so I stuck it above my desk. I made two or three very brief and not very good attempts over the next 12 months, then one day I sat down and started with Kip's voice [the 15-year-old narrator], right on page one of the novel, and wrote straight through to the end. It took about six months.''

The book, Nine Days, is realised but the mystery remains.

''I'm deeply curious as to who they really were,'' Jordan said.

''It felt quite strange borrowing the images of real people in that way. I hope they, or their descendants, don't mind.''

The Sunday Age hopes a reader might know the story behind this train-side farewell. If the subjects are still alive, they'd be well into their 80s, if not their 90s.

■ If you recognise the soldier and his ''sweetheart'', email sunday@theage.com.au.

The story The novel's real, but the mystery remains first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.

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