Richmond Line 2000: 14. Aboriginal Rights

Back in the days when I didn’t know about joining my own kind in the end carriages for a peaceful trip, I was travelling home a bit later than usual in the middle of the train. I had, however, already established my preference for the three-seater rather than the two-seater side of the aisle. People tend to choose window seats first, then the aisle seat of a three seater, and then the second seat of a two-seater, so one is less likely to end up with no spare seat space in a three-seater. However, as it was lateish, about eight o’clock, the carriage wasn’t crowded anyway, and I had my three-seater to myself to begin with.
At Central or Redfern, a youngish man came into the carriage and flung himself onto the seat beside me in a rather invading manner, lounging and spreading more than is normally polite behaviour beside a stranger. He then, somewhat truculently, produced a bottle in a brown paper bag. I supposed it was beer, which I think is still forbidden on trains. At least, it’s not commonly indulged in.
He was still spread out across the seat when, a station or so further on, three obvious Aborigines bustled into the carriage and sat in the seat behind us. Their effect on my neighbour was electrifying. He immediately sprang to the alert, sat up straight, and tried to hide his bottle. The threesome had also produced bottles in paper bags and, spotting his attempt to hide his own, hailed him as a fellow drinker. This made him even more nervous. “Yes, mate! Right, mate!” he said heartily but with a hollow ring, and at the very next station he gathered up his bag and himself and hastily departed.
I was distracted from my reading by these developments. I had just turned to a new article in Quadrant, or perhaps it was IPA Review, and its title, in large letters, advertised that it was about Aboriginal Land Rights. With the trio of sociable Aboriginals behind me, I wondered if it would be politic to turn the page quickly, but I was reluctant to be intimidated by an Aboriginal presence, and, I thought, with shameful racism, ‘They probably can’t read anyway.’
I was wrong, and almost immediately I was accosted over my shoulder. “Aboriginal land rights?” What did I think of that? ‘If they can ask,’ I thought, ‘I can say what I think’, and I told them my opinion, which is that if Aboriginals are given land it should be to own it as individuals like everyone else, not a Utopian pretence of community ownership. They seemed to find this quite acceptable, and settled down to continue in conversation for as long as our joint journey should last.
They were remarkably different in age, appearance and quality. The oldest, a robust and gregarious personality, was probably about sixty, with a fleshy face, lots of grey hair, and a full grey beard. “I’m a black Santa Claus,” he said, later on in the journey, to a little boy staring at him from across the aisle, and it was not a bad description. The next in age, fiftyish, looked rather thugish with a scar on his face, and was the most taciturn of the three. Indeed, I wondered if he perhaps felt a little aggrieved at having so little part in the conversation. The third was quite young, probably in his late twenties, and looked very like Frank Sinatra. He was not much darker skinned than a dark Italian. He became the most talkative after the way was opened by Santa Claus, and really didn’t want to stop talking at all, so I found out quite a lot about him, and really nothing about the others.
He had grown up in Wellington, on the western plains of New South Wales. He hadn’t liked school and had left at fourteen. That was a pity, I said, and he agreed. There was now something he would like to be, but I’ve forgotten what, for which he needed more education. His mother had died recently and he was very sad about it, and for her because he felt she had had a sad life. I told him that a girl I work with comes from Wellington, and that, unaccountably to me for so tenuous a connection, made him quite excited. It reminded me of my young husband’s excitement, years ago, on meeting an Australian girl in Harpenden who knew the Manning River, even though he’d left Taree feeling it was the last outpost of the world.
This encounter occurred in the months preceding the vote on an Australian Republic, and all three were against it. Frankie explained: The Queen is for everyone, whereas politicians are looking out for themselves or for just some of the people. ‘Good heavens,’ I thought, ‘here is an Australian Aboriginal repeating the view of the butler in Goldsmith’s Vicar of Wakefield’ : Don’t trust the nobility or parliamentarians who want to get rid of the monarch, because it’s the monarch who protects ordinary people from the powerful, viz nobles and members of parliament, whose profit is at their expense. That wasn’t an argument I’d heard put by the Australian anti-republicans, but certainly reflected on the “Republican Model” we were asked to vote for.
The conversation was humming along very nicely, giving our top deck of the carriage quite a convivial atmosphere. Frank Sinatra was inclined to serious talk which black Santa tried to lighten, and a young man further up the carriage showed signs of wanting to join in. Then suddenly, as the train drew into a station, Black Santa leapt to his feet in consternation, followed by the others. They had been enjoying the talk so much that they had missed their change at Blacktown, and were halfway down the Richmond Line. “Where are we? Where are we?” they chorused, and then, in dismay, “Where are our bags? We left them on the platform!” They made haste out of the carriage in a noisy shambles, and the train pulled out leaving them still in disarray. I hoped there was someone there to direct them back to where they wanted to go. It can be a long wait between trains on the Richmond Line at night, and they had a long way back to their bags.

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