The three young women joined the train together, the earliest of the evening peak-hour trains. Two sat in the seat immediately in front of me, and one beside me in my place at the window. The two in front sat half turned round, towards each other and to the girl in the seat behind them, to include her in their conversation. As I could not avoid being a listener, it was fortunate for me that their conversation was consistently pleasant. Unusually, it was also judicious, tolerant and assured. Most of the talking, about eighty percent of it, came from the girl in the middle of the seat in front, whose position was also central — she was the lead speaker, as it were, and the other two were the chorus. But that is not quite correct, for although she carried and defined the conversation, they took distinct and separate positions in their responses to her.
I am tempted to say that “the speaker” was a beautiful girl, but her looks did not come into what is normally meant by this label, in that they did not have that deceptive character that one feels disguises the reality of character and which Dostoievsky’s Idiot identified as intrinsic to beauty. She was clear-browed with straight brown hair, clear-eyed, firm-lipped and chinned, with a pleasing regularity and cohesion of feature, which had, and required, no obvious assistance of make-up. In fact she was a girl of exceptional and serious beauty, though not serious-faced. The noble character of her looks was brought out by its contrast with that of her companion at the window, whom I shall call “Chorus 1”, and who was pretty in a “cockney” way as compared with her “county”. Her nose was turned up, her lips rather rosebud, cheeks pink, lashes emphasised, pierced ears, blondish hair, the whole definitely assisted by make-up.
By contrast of another kind, the girl next to me, “Chorus 2”, was on the plain side, one of those faces led by the nose and forehead, and falling away to the chin, which are lowish on charm and character, an impression which may be entirely wrong. While plainness may yet be “county”, her appearance suggested ordinary rather than privileged origins. Although she thus appeared unequal to the Speaker on both social and cultural grounds, she was in no way neglected by her. Indeed, the conversation was directed at her rather than at her prettier neighbour, despite the awkwardness this entailed of turning to the seat behind. Nevertheless there was something of assertiveness or defensiveness in Chorus 2’s manner, as if she was touchy about her status.
The Speaker’s voice and speech were also exceptionally pleasing — in the lower range of female pitch, well-modulated, and an educated Australian accent without pretensions. I did not remark the voices and speech of the other two girls, so I suppose they were just average for the Richmond Line, Australian in the normal range.
I gathered that all three worked in banks and were in their first jobs, after leaving school only the year before. The Speaker and Chorus 1 had permanent positions in the same company, while Chorus 2 had a temporary job in the Commonwealth Bank. She was defensive about her temporary status, although she put a good face on it. When the two in front referred to one of their co-workers as “the temp”, she picked them up on it, saying she hoped she wasn’t so called behind her back at work, instead of by name. She brought up the possibility of becoming permanent in order to reject it, because the hourly rate is less. “Of course,” the others said, affirming their knowledgableness of the system of higher rates for casuals to cover sick and holiday pay.
Perhaps both Choruses felt a need to defend their equality with the Speaker, although she certainly gave no sign of consciously asserting superiority. When she, in passing, referred to having got Chorus 1 her job, the latter immediately challenged it. “No,” she said, very definitely. “You didn’t get me my job. I got it. I went into the interview and I got it. And Amy didn’t.” She was not going to accept that her achievement was lesser, although the Speaker had, perhaps, been instrumental in getting her the interview.
For quite a large part of the trip, the Speaker’s talk was of the trials and tribulations of having two little children in the house. I didn’t immediately decipher the relationships which would explain why they were there, but I eventually concluded that her older sister, and perhaps brother-in-law, with their two children, a girl of two and a boy of four, had moved, temporarily perhaps, into the parental home. She was full of the irritations of their ways, and gave convincingly realistic descriptions and imitations of their behaviour and speech.
She was particularly indignant at the way their behaviour deteriorated whenever their mother came into view. Such observation is, of course, familiar and traditional, and is usually taken to imply that the mother has spoilt them. She, however, appeared rather to blame the children for exploiting their mother. The two-year-old, for example, might be playing perfectly contentedly in her grandmother’s care, but would break out into cries of “marmee, marmee, marmee” if she caught sight of her mother. She herself had had her evening spoilt when she’d settled down to watch a video and the little boy came in and began asking, “Who’s that? What’s that? What’s he doing?”, distracting her with questions.
“You just don’t realise what its like with little children,” she told her companions, “they want attention all the time.” Inwardly I agreed, thinking it a good object lesson, but her companions were having none of that. “I just love children,” said Chorus 1, agreeing to disagree, and Chorus 2 agreed with her. They liked having children around, they did not get bored and irritated by them, and they would not resent being interrupted by them. They did not approve of her attitude. Nevertheless her account was more humorous than seriously complaining. In response to them, she took stock of the difference of attitude and surmised that she was irritated because she was the youngest in her family, while her companions had younger siblings. And she did, indeed, give the impression of being a loved youngest child; not spoilt, but with a confidence of acceptance and approval borne of being surrounded by warmth and appreciation. This, in fact, appeared to be what made her the lead speaker.
For me, I was surprised and pleased at how adamant the chorus of two were that little children are not a nuisance, in this age when it has seemed that many young women view children chiefly as handicaps to their careers. The Speaker, too, despite her documentation of the unremitting demands they made, was clearly absorbed and fascinated by her niece and nephew, by what she criticized.
As the train branched off to the north, it became evident that they all lived at Richmond, where it terminates, or beyond. Working in the city meant a long journey to work, of well over an hour on the train. Discussing morning routines, the Speaker said that she gets up at 5.20 (an hour before sunrise at that time of year), to be in time to catch the 6.20 train. That would get her to work at about eight. Chorus 2 thought that this was an unnecessarily long preparation time. “I get up at five thirty, and I have a shower, and I’m further from the station,” she said, reprimandingly. This seemed to me a rather fast schedule.
Getting up before six o’clock always feels to me pretty inhuman. If catching the seven o’clock train at Windsor, I get up at 6.10 having bathed the night before, only have a snatch of toast and buy coffee from the thermos of the newspaper lady at the station, and I feel that this is pretty efficient going. And I wouldn’t want to do it more than my three times a week. What hardworking committed young women they were, I thought, and what a contrast with the long-term unemployed young man, far from atypical, who so outraged a friend of mine who works in the job network. Offered a job starting at nine in the morning, he said he couldn’t possibly start before eleven.
After a pleasant trip, I had to leave them at Windsor. A few days later I was again on the early train, and the Speaker was there with a different companion, just behind and across the aisle from me. By contrast, on this occasion her companion did most of the talking. I was too far off for listening to be compulsory, but again it appeared to be conversation, not natter. A snippet I caught concerned the problems of a friend, a Christian from a family of Catholics, whose father likes her to go to church on … I didn’t catch the occasion, which sounds pretty inconsequential. The companion’s voice carried fairly clearly, but I could not decipher the Speaker’s low tones at that distance; only their pleasant modulation registered.