When I catch the train to work in the morning, I usually travel in the second carriage, since I discovered, after some months of suffering uncomfortable seats, that the newer carriages are usually at the front of the train, and that they are also emptier, probably because the terminus platform at Richmond is entered at the rear of the train. The first two carriages, by an unwritten rule, seem to be used by more middle-class passengers. But on this particular day I happened to be travelling to the city in the late morning and for a change, and because I didn’t expect a pressure of passengers at that time of day, I varied my habit and boarded one of the middle carriages.
It turned out to be one of those awkward carriages in which you can’t turn the seat backs over, so that half the seats are always facing backwards. This is no one’s preference, and the forward-facing seats are always filled first. I went upstairs as usual, and found that all the forward-facing seats had been taken, so I sat by the window in the first of the backward facing ones, on the western side. This position, in fact, has a special appeal on the journey into the city for one looks back to the mountains, with clear vistas across the open stretches between Vineyard and Riverstone, and between Schofields and Quakers Hill. I love these expanses of grassland, where there are glimpses of creeks and lagoons, and from time to time cattle are grazing, and I always lift my eyes from my book to contemplate their distances.
In the seat in front of me (that is, next towards the rear of the train), were a youngish couple and a little girl of about four. They were of that darkish cast of features that in Australia today could be Indian, Middle Eastern, or Mediterranean, but were of a skinny build which suggested not the latter. The little girl was jigging about, on and off the seat, kneeling and looking over its back at me, and eventually she came round and sat beside me. While I was not unwilling to talk to her provided it didn’t go on for too long, I have some reservations about this promiscuous sociability in young children, which may not be in the best interests of their personal safety. In the psychological literature it is associated with institutionalisation or neglect. But in her case there was no evidence of coolness in her parents’ behaviour towards her.
After a couple of stations, two ticket inspectors made their way into the carriage from the rear, the direction in which I was facing ¾ dumpy middle-aged women who also could have been of any of the nationalities listed above, Mediterranean included. They moved up the carriage without incident, but came to a halt just beyond me, out of my line of vision. A woman was without a ticket, and the man accompanying her was becoming very heated. Their story, which sounded plausible, was that the man had bought his ticket, expecting his wife to buy her own, but she, having gone off somewhere briefly, assumed that he had bought hers as well.
The ticket inspectors proceeded with their usual routine of asking name, address, and phone number, and requesting a number to phone to confirm their validity. I know this is normal as I once received one of these phone calls myself when my son was caught without a ticket. The man on the train, still unseen by me, was already angry and swearing, and the procedure of questioning infuriated him still more. He was particularly outraged when, after giving her name, his wife was asked, “Is that your correct name?” I was inclined to sympathize. If she had deliberately lied, would she be likely to say, ‘No’? “Aren’t you supposed to get married?” he demanded furiously, as if this had some bearing on their interrogation, which I suppose it did, but I didn’t see it at the time.
The inspectors persisted in their task, neither raising their voices nor desisting from whatever it was they had to achieve, nor remonstrating with the man for his rude behaviour and increasingly foul language. This was escalating badly, and when it progressed to the sort of vile American expletives I first encountered in a James Baldwin novel, I felt that as a responsible member of the public it was time to intervene. Of course I hadn’t yet seen who I was dealing with, but I imagined an out-of-control, temporarily degraded, non-ethnic (i.e. Anglo-Celtic) Australian youth.
Turning in my seat as I spoke and choosing my words carefully, I said in a tone of authoritative disapproval, “For heaven’s sake will you stop that language!” Even as I spoke I saw that I was addressing a furious, dark, probably Aboriginal face. ‘Oops!’ I thought, ‘You’re in it now, so you’d better stick with it.’ I don’t think I have ever been quite so glared at in my life.
His response was one I’d first heard thirty years before from some little boys on a London bus (though not directed at me): “This is public transport so I can say what I like.” As a result, I’d thought of the appropriate refutation long ago: “No,” I now said firmly, “you can talk how you like in private, but in public you’ve got to talk decently.”
That set him back for a moment, but he soon recovered. “If you don’t like it, go somewhere else,” he retorted.
“No, you go somewhere else,” I replied equally forcefully. I turned away, wondering what would happen next. There was a lull. Then, unexpectedly, he got up and stamped past me down to the end of the carriage, down the stairs, and out of sight. This left the ticket ladies to finish their business with his wife, and move on. They made no comment to me, nor acknowledged me in any way.
Five minutes or so later, the angry husband reappeared up the stairs, still scowling, and made a muttered comment which included the words “F…ing old bitch” to the dark man in front of me, who rose and followed him through the carriage (although I hadn’t noticed any communication between them previously), and down the steps at the other end. It was only then that it occurred to me that his departure had had anything to do with me. My words, “No, you go”, had been purely gestural in reply to his, but apparently he’d done as he was told. In that case I could accept his insult as some sort of quid pro quo for his surrender. I was a bit put out at being called “old”, though it is true that I am partly grey-haired and perhaps that had given me my commanding status. Perhaps, too, he had been glad of a way out from the hopeless chivalry of sticking up for his wife against officialdom.
The man who had been sitting in front of me soon returned, but not his furious friend. He and his wife did not appear to hold my intervention against me and, on the contrary, engaged me in conversation, turning round in their seat to chat. The man was very proud of his little girl’s strong character, as he saw it, and related a tale which made his point, about having his head shaved, scissors and a hat, but I’ve forgotten the connections. We also talked about the trials and tribulations of train travel, such as the train failing to stop at a scheduled station and being carried on to Westmead or Parramatta — not something I’ve experienced, although I have had to unload at Blacktown because of a change of schedule. It was all very affable, but came to an end at Parramatta, where they got off, and I went back to my book.
My one regret, later, was that I didn’t give them some advice to pass on to their friend, whose anger was so unproductive. It is more sensible, and productive, to be polite to grass-roots officials and let them do their job, and then write to the office with the power to adjudicate, if one has a reasonable case. A fine is a sickening blow to someone on a low income, but people on welfare pensions, as these probably were, travelling in the middle of the day, get cheap fares. To deliberately risk a fine is sheer folly, and I was inclined o believe their story. Of course, writing is not so easy for everyone, and one can only expect clemency if it is a first offence.