It was the second last train, due into Blacktown at 11.30 and into Windsor at midnight, a Friday night and more crowded than usual. Two rather seedy men sat in front of me. The one near the window, dark haired and swarthy, had a rather lean and hungry look, something not quite trustworthy about him, a hint of violence, yet not a big man. His companion was fat, gross, sloppily dressed, with very long, black, lank hair which hung down over the back of the seat, nearly touching the knees of the Asian woman sitting directly behind him. I was glad it wasn’t me. He swished it about from time to time, when he changed position.
They carried on a constant conversation, largely emanating from the sinister man in front of me, something to do with clubs and sport, I think, not idle chatter, slightly contentious and making a point, and it was something in its nature that gave me the feeling of unpleasantness about him. And it was littered with the “f” word, not loudly enough to be regarded as disorderly, but a clearly audible, debilitating presence. I contemplated saying a word to him, or to the guard passing through, but it didn’t quite warrant it. Eventually, as the train emptied and gave me the option, I decided to move away from them. A group of lively girls at the back of the carriage had departed, and I went and sat in the space they had left, in the very back seat.
An elderly woman, dowdily dressed, was facing me across an empty seat. “Lovely girls,” she remarked to me cheerfully as I sat down, and I thought how nice that she had enjoyed their presence. A moment later she was on her mobile phone, apparently reporting her progress to those awaiting her at home. She had bought some colouring books, she said, so I imagined that she perhaps lived with a son or daughter and grandchildren. Then I thought I heard her say that she would get off at Blacktown and buy some colouring pencils, but that seemed so impracticable at close to midnight that I assumed I had misheard.
She finished her conversation, put her phone away, and addressed herself to me. What was my name? Did I live by myself? Was I a widow? Yes, she was too, since about four years ago. Now she lived with some lovely people, James and Pat and June and Bill and several more. Curious about her getting off at Blacktown, I asked where she lived — at Quakers Hill (two stops past Blacktown), she said. She had had a lovely day in town, and now she was going to get out at Blacktown and go to the pictures, if only she had the money. That sounded pretty unlikely too, at that time of night. She needed ten dollars.
“Look!” she said, proudly pulling out and handing me a membership card for the Blacktown RSL Club, “I’ve just got it.” I wondered if perhaps there were late night films at the Club.
She loved colouring in, she then told me, reverting to her phone conversation, and she was going to buy some coloured pencils in Blacktown. “Do you like colouring in?” she asked. Well, I haven’t done it for decades, but I supposed I would, quite, if I did it, so I said ‘yes’. The thought of such a peaceful, undemanding activity was actually rather appealing. I had, of course, begun to realize that she was a bit simple. I queried whether she would be able to find a shop open in Blacktown at that time of night, while deferring to her possibly superior knowledge of the area, and her response was a bit vague. It seemed she didn’t really have any idea of the time. She returned to the problem of going to the pictures.
“Could you give me five dollars?” she asked. I didn’t see why I should, and I was glad to have the watertight excuse of only a five cent piece in my purse. I had spent the very last of my money, after a night with friends at the pictures in Leichhardt, on coffee and a piece of white-chocolate rocky road at my wonderful new discovery of a late night café at the end of the Queen Victoria Building, just above Town Hall Station — ideally placed for sitting out the wait for the infrequent evening trains, and incomparably more pleasant than the dreary underground platform with insufficient seats. I then thought of my emergency $5 in the inner compartment of my purse, but I resisted the impulse towards perfect honesty and did not disclose it.
Shortly afterwards she was on the mobile again. Train travel on the Richmond Line is punctuated by the strident signals of mobile phones in all their variety and the scurries of retrieval and the aftermath of subdued or penetrating half speech. Yes, she said, she would be in Blacktown soon, and a nice lady was on the train with her. Then, how were they? — and on to the typically inconsequential phone talk one hears so much on trains, more contact than communication. Then it dawned on my consciousness that she didn’t actually appear to be holding a phone, but just had her hand cupped over her ear, and I realised that I hadn’t noticed her punch in a number. Nevertheless she went through a good copycat performance, not omitting to put the phone away in her bag when she had finished. I wondered if she was really pretending to have a mobile, or simply imitating what might appear to be normal behaviour in transit.
The two unpleasant men had now departed. Would she really get off in Blacktown, I began to wonder, rather than continue on to Quakers Hill, where I imagined she must live in some form of sheltered community accommodation, given the array of names she had recited. What would become of her, looking for a picture show in dark deserted streets? Perhaps even the RSL Club would be closed and there wouldn’t be another train to Quakers Hill for another hour. I didn’t continue to express my doubts, but she provided a sort of answer anyway.
“And I’m not being taken home by the police this time,” she said firmly, after a short silence, “not like the last three times.”
Despite her vagueness about the hour, she knew Blacktown Station when we reached it, and left the train there according to plan. As the police no longer seem to want to intervene in criminal activities such as street drug-trafficking, or to busy themselves retrieving stolen goods, I suppose they might as well occupy themselves driving wandering old ladies home, I thought. A mental picture of her has remained with me, in a dark empty street, waiting in a pool of light near a closed door, as if I really had seen her there, which of course I didn’t, as I stayed on the train.