Richmond Line 2000: 17. Mobile Phone

            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.

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Richmond Line 2000: 16. Three Girls

            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.

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Poem: Moon-o

When I was young,

I used to wait

For the moon to rise,

But it rose too late.


I forgot how to look,

I forgot how to see,

I lost my grip

On the world, lack-a-dee.


I gazed at the worm

As it turned in the earth,

And forgot there was ever

 A thing called mirth.


I pondered the face

Of each man and boy,

And forgot there was ever

A thing called joy.


Then one fine day

Someone laughed at me.

 I opened my eyes

And began to see.


I skipped and hurried

Along the track.

The moon had risen

Behind my back.


So let’s dance in the moonlight

And drunken be,

And fall down sozzled

By the moonlit sea.

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Richmond Line 2000: 15. Pregnant Wanderer

            Somehow or other I was on Blacktown Station at half past midnight, in the cold. A man was lying on one of the seats, asleep or in a coma. A security guard came and roused him, and organised him into a train standing on the other side of the platform, and drew my attention to it too. Thank God for the security guards to give us some assistance; there is no one else to do so on our stations at night. Without him I’d have missed the last train which comes in from Seven Hills, but this time it was apparently waiting at Blacktown. There was quite a collection of people already settled in the upstairs compartment, where I betook myself, glad to be able to wait inside.

            A young woman, Westie-looking, that is, check flannelette shirt, tracksuit pants, a bit scruffy, came along the aisle and accosted me. Could I give her $2 for a taxi home from the station?

“That won’t get you far, will it?” I queried, forking out. But some other people had given her money too, she said, and some food, a sausage roll and chips. They were so kind, she added, making me feel somewhat deficient in generosity, which perhaps was her intention, her technique. I left it at that.

            She moved away, but when the train started she returned and sat in the seat in front of me (actually behind, we were facing backwards), and engaged me in conversation, then appeared to go to sleep. She was seven months pregnant, she told me, and was getting off at Windsor, but had to get to a caravan park at PittTown, some ten kilometres away. As I get off at Windsor, I pretty much accepted my fate then and there, that I would be driving her home. Nevertheless, when we alighted at Windsor I maintained the fiction that she might get a taxi, and there actually was one waiting on the forecourt.

            “Go and ask what it costs,” I said.

            “Twelve dollars,” the driver told her. She said she had four, and he was non-committal.

            “Come on,” I said, “I’ll drive you home.” I then remembered that I was very low on petrol, and hoped that it would see me through the twenty kilometres or so needed to get me there and back.

            “You’d have thought he’d take me,” she said of the taxi driver, with modest righteousness, “seeing I’m pregnant.”

            In the course of the train trip, the short walk to the car, and the drive to PittTown, the details of her story were laid one on another, creating an ever more involved picture of disorder. As she looked in her late teens (she was in fact 23), I’d assumed this was her first pregnancy, which made my attitude to her more protective than it might have been if I’d known it was her fifth. She’d had her first child, a daughter, at fourteen, and this child lived with her mother (the child’s grandmother) in a caravan at PittTown, where she was now going. Her husband and three other children were living in public housing in Balmain, where she too had lived until four months ago when her husband threw her out. She didn’t offer any explanation as to why he threw her out, neither did she express any resentment or blame. After that she’d lived on the streets for several months, down Liverpool or Campbelltown way, where, I gathered, she’d been visiting that day; but she had recently joined her mother in the PittTown caravan. I wondered privately who was looking after the other children while their father was at work; but it turned out that he was unemployed, solving that problem.

            She brought up the hardship, the cold, of living on the streets. As she was receiving my help I thought I had a right to give some advice and told her that she should have used her dole money to buy a sleeping bag. When travelling in my youth, often hitch-hiking, I did plenty of sleeping in odd places, and was always reasonably comfortable with a sleeping bag. Indeed, even now I feel rather nervous travelling without one, just in case I get stranded somewhere. However, I didn’t tell her all this, but I said that she should get organized and share a house. Rooms in a shared house are as cheap as $70 a week around Windsor, although as she was so pregnant it might be difficult to get one now. People sharing probably don’t want to take on a new baby, at least before they know the mother well. She should have done it earlier.

            As we’d walked to the car in Brabyn Street, she’d told me that she thought she might go to one of the churches in Windsor. ‘Yes,’ I thought cynically, ‘they’ll feel an obligation to serve you free, unlike the taxi driver.’ I suggested she try a very vigorous evangelical sect, whose meeting place was in the next block, as likely to be an enthusiastic resource. She believed in God, she told me, although people said it was superstitious. She thought that people needed to believe in God in order to do the right thing, which, put baldly, the experience of the last thirty years has made pretty much my own view.

            It later emerged that not only were her mother and daughter living in the caravan at Pitt Town, but also her sister and sister’s partner, all for $170 a week. Both the latter were unemployed too. I suggested that with all that welfare money coming in (about $900 a week for the lot of them), surely they could rent a house rather than a caravan. Three-bedroom houses rent for as little as $180 a week in this area.

            As this shows, I have taken, advisedly, to giving advice to mendicant recipients of my bounty, mainly so as to make it a human rather than a mechanical exchange, and also so that, as the receivers, they can’t feel, inappropriately, that they have entirely controlled the encounter. When visiting the Australian Bureau of Statistics, in the vicinity of the Town Hall, I am often accosted by beggars, sometimes two or three times in a day. A woman who pushes a small child in a stroller both there and near Redfern Station, has singled me out several times. I’ve seen her over a number of years and the child never seems to get any older. She asks for money “for food”. Once I advised her to buy potatoes for maximum food value for money, but I don’t really suppose she cooks. When young people ask me for a fare, I sometimes suggest they repay it to someone else some day.

My companion could easily, I felt, have held down a service job if she had improved her clothes a little. Throughout our encounter she was nicely spoken, with a good accent, a pleasant intonation, no bad language. But her skills were, instead, exercised in getting free goods and services by throwing herself on the tender mercies of others. Why should she be coming home so late at night, with no money? If she could organize her day and her money to go out, could she not also do it for her return? But by coming home so late she greatly increased her chances of cadging a free lift – at an earlier hour she wouldn’t have stood out so clearly as needing assistance. And twice she had neatly expressed her expectations of charity.

She did, however, keep up the decencies. When it turned out that I would drive her she offered me my $2 back. I said, “Don’t worry.” We drove into the caravan park, on the far side of PittTown, down on the Bottoms, along a long, dark drive to a turning circle among the caravans, where I stopped. “This is an old car,” she remarked as she got out, then added, “God bless you.”

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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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The Unchosen

I watched Carol climb a tree,
She looked down and she called to me,
“If you could see what I can see
You’d forget the world’s a-pine-o.”

I watched William hoe a beet,
I sat down in his favourite seat.
He looked round to smile and greet,
“This whole garden’s mine-o.”

I looked out of a window high
And watched the clouds go sailing by.
“Get back in your hole,” they said to me,
“You’re not one of the gifted free.
Don’t spoil our fun with your wingeing cry
And your blighted, thwarted eye.”

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There was an old lady who couldn’t forget,
She had a big house and a badminton net,
And children came from miles around
To play on her green grass ground.

Her husband dwelt in heaven on high,
She knew that she’d join him when she’d die,
So half of her heart was with the dead
And sadness was in her head.

And this gentle old lady’s sadness mild
Was wisdom to every little child;
O when she dies, may her death be kind,
For she’s left such a lot behind.
I don’t think she’ll find what she hopes to find,
And she’ll leave such a lot behind.

O children, go looking in other parts,
Although her grieving touched your hearts.
There’s a great wide world of ice and snow
Where love can perish and anger grow,
And the sun can rise up so big and red
It drives all but gratitude out of your head.

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Richmond Line 2000: 13. Rooty Hill

The Richmond Line has something of the character of a branch line, heading off to the north after Blacktown, while most of the trains go on further west to Penrith, Emu Plains, or the Blue Mountains; so it is not uncommon for people to find themselves en route to Richmond by mistake. This usually happens late at night, which is a most desolate occurrence because of the substantial interval between trains and thus the likelihood of a long wait before a return train to Blacktown comes through.

These unwilling passengers are usually several stations up the line before they realise their error, and when they do their reaction invariably follows the same pattern, which is always rather funny to observe. A relaxed figure, slouching on the seat, is suddenly electrified into alertness and erectness, head swivelling, looking wildly around; and then a general appeal to other occupants of the carriage — “Where am I?” Their plight usually elicits helpfulness and humour, and the mistaken traveller bundles out at the next station with instructions to catch the next train back, no one knows when.

On a pleasantly memorable occasion, an attractive girl dozed off, and her dismay on awakening in the wrong place was responded to jovially, with a bit of flirtatious mockery, by a group of youths a few seats away. The whole atmosphere of the carriage became quite convivial.

“Where are you going?” they asked. Her reply, “Rooty Hill”, sounded almost a joke in itself, of which she was aware — the ridiculousness of going to a place called Rooty Hill! To add to her concern her dad was meeting her there, and here she was several stations down the Richmond Line. However, she got out her mobile phone and seemed to have been able to rectify matters before turning out at silent Schofields. I felt she might have done better to wait for Riverstone where there might be a station master about. I doubt there are any security cameras at Schofields, and anyway it is hard to imagine what help they could possibly be in an emergency. One would be well and truly robbed and beaten up before any one watching them, if indeed they are constantly invigilated, could come to one’s aid.

My son was caught out with the opposite mistake and, falling asleep, was carried on westwards when he should have got out and changed at Blacktown. It was very late at night, the train was going right through to Katoomba or Lithgow, and he didn’t wake up until Woodford, more than halfway up the Mountains. It so happened that I was leaving for overseas the next day, and I had just finished packing and got into bed at about half past midnight when the phone rang. Could I pick him up, as there were no more trains. It was a very dark, quiet drive up to Woodford and back, nearly three hours all told. If he’d thought, he could have gone on to Leura and stayed overnight with friends, but of course his immediate reaction was to jump off the train before he was taken any further.

I have never yet been carried on in that way. I was once, in the afternoon, briskly awakened by a security guard a bit before Riverstone. As we were all turned out of the train there for some reason, I felt I could have been allowed to sleep a bit longer. A little old lady was drunk and very sound asleep, and was quite kindly ushered off the train and placed on a platform seat, with instructions given to a station attendant to put her on the next train through.

The closest I have come to missing a station was on the train from London to Winchester, a few hours after my arrival and suffering jet lag, on the occasion when I’d also missed my sleep before the flight through getting my son from Woodford. I arrived in London in the early morning and took the train about midday. I don’t think I have ever fallen so deeply or suddenly asleep before or since. One minute the train was moving through the inner suburbs of London, and the next I was gone, utterly and entirely. This was particularly annoying as I’d really wanted to look at the countryside in that exotic wintry land. The next thing I knew I was woken by the ticket inspector and it was forty minutes later. I was due to arrive in ten minutes and I would certainly not have woken without that disturbance. As it was, I had trouble staying awake, and switched off briefly a couple more times before we got there. I could easily have ended up in Devon, leaving my friend waiting and puzzled on the platform in Winchester. I didn’t have a mobile phone.

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Richmond Line 2000: 12. Language and fares

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.

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Richmond Line 2000: Billy Bunter Lives On

They were sitting in the seat behind me. He was recounting his exploits in defiance of teachers at school, to which she listened appreciatively, perhaps with a little diffidence. His tales, oddly, were the classic schoolboy japes of the first half of the twentieth century —pranks designed to disconcert and humiliate the teacher and give the boys a laugh ¾ a bucket of water propped above the door and sousing the entering schoolmaster, tacks on his chair, string tied to the duster to whip it away just as he reaches for it. It went on, a virtual monologue, from Blacktown to Town Hall. It was all so outrageous that I was disinclined to believe any of it. I felt it must be fantasy.

One segment of his narrative intrigued me, however, as a departure from these traditional tales, more attuned to today’s failures of authority which reflect less a physical exuberance in the happily underdog than a zeitgeist denial of the possibility of unequal status of pupil and teacher. According to his story, he was in the habit of arriving at school early, and making himself a cup of coffee in the still deserted teachers’ staff room. Even at this I felt unsettled, for in my childhood the teachers’ room was sacrosanct. Teachers came to the door to speak to us and no pupil was ever invited inside. I recalled an occasion when I walked home from school rather than retrieve my lost purse from on top of a cupboard where it was in full view from the doorway of the empty room, so strong was the taboo. But he was surely revolutionary even for today. When eventually challenged by a teacher, his repartee, as he recounted it, was a model of insolence, protesting his perfect right to whatever the teachers had.

I would have liked to check out his appearance, but I could not see either of them without very obviously twisting round for just that purpose. I pictured him, from his rather uneducated accent and his boasting disdain for the classroom, as an early school leaver, perhaps unemployed, in jeans and flannie (flanellette shirt); and her, from her reserved manner of answering, as probably older, an office worker. So I was quite taken aback when, after hearing her bid him good-bye, I saw pass me, on the way to the stairs, a young girl neatly dressed in school uniform and hat (probably a private school) with her hair childishly in bunches. This prompted me to turn and look at him. Equally unpredictably, he was a young man, well into his twenties, in full office garb with tie.

I was left wondering curiously as to what could have motivated him to fantasize those high-jinks-of-schoolboys tales from the school-story literature of half a century ago — William, Billy Bunter, and all that. Possibly they never happened anywhere, anytime, but they still apparently had a hold on at least one modern young man’s imagination.

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