According to the overhead disembodied woman, I'm on the Flinders Street. Direct. Train to. Flinders Street.
To get to the train I have walked past the sign that points the direction to Puffing Billy, the local steam train. I hear Billy's toot as I go about my business during the day. I hear him at night on the weekends too, where for a rather expensive amount of money you can ride the train and have dinner and drink wine.
This version of train travel is decidedly less sexier, but as Puffing Billy doesn't travel to Richmond I have to take my chances with Metro. The train has just taken off, and I'm thinking how genteel Belgrave train travelling is compared to the Sydenham line now that I am living out the other side of town with all the other whiteys. But then a feral bunch of little delinquents get on a few minutes after I do, saying "fuck" really loud. As the train starts up they disappear, doing the obligatory walk-between-the-carriages-while-the-train-is-going-to-show-how-fearful-you're-not thing.
Metro Trains has refitted the carriages so that the seats which were once facing outwards, catering for disabled and elderly people have all now gone, but the plates on the wall that say "Please vacate these seats for elderly or disabled passengers" are still there, referring to seats that are not.
The ferals come back again. They are children, really, 14 or so (which betrays my age more than anything else I could say. I was like that, with a subterranean fear stored in subterranean shadows and a close-knit group of friends which enabled me to adopt an armoured persona that would yell from one end of the carriage to my friends at the other because I knew it unsettled the boring middle-aged beige freaks that sat in the middle and let me down by their conformity and deflation). The ferals loudly get off the train at Upper Ferntree Gully.
The man sitting diagonally opposite me (and who I see later, walking past me at the football at quarter time), looks vaguely familiar through my astigmatism. One of my eyes is more blurred than the other lately, so on the pretext of rubbing the blurry eye I get a quick squiz at him to see if really he is the husband of a woman I went to primary school and high school with. No, it's not someone I know. He is rubbing his hands together and looking a bit wistfully out at the rolling terrain rushing past between Ferntree Gully and Boronia stations. I wish to know what he's thinking about.
Now he gets up and moves so that he's facing the same way as me a few seats over, reading the crappy MX newspaper, which nevertheless once published a version of this post here. I get a bit paranoid and wonder if he moved because I was looking at him. He is wearing a green scarf with baubley bits on the ends.
Three teenagers, 13 or 14, get on and stand in the doorway. They begin a discussion about what will happen if they open the doors while the train is going. The kid who's standing on his skateboard rocking backwards and forwards is pretty authoritative about the matter. His dad drove trams, he says, and the mechanics are the same on trains ~ the train will automatically stop if you open the doors all the way. His friend looks dubious. It's pretty funny if you open them a little, though, the kid says.
The train is heading in to Bayswater Station. I'm in familiar territory here in Bayswater. Years ago my grandma lived a bit further back and several streets over. The three teenagers get off, and the train leaves the station and passes over Mountain Highway, which always brings back my childhood. I travelled many times down that road with my cousin, my auntie and uncle. They lived further up Mountain Highway, the den of childhood imaginative delights where we created out of our own minds, in the space and freedom of the school holidays, entire family groups with complex interactions. We were singers in a famous band. In summer we swam in the pool in our nighties. Once, we pretended we were orphans who lived in the ferns that ran down the side of the house. Crossing Mountain Highway on the train makes me a little nostalgic for a weekend at Andi's circa 1978.
The guy sitting next to me bar one is multi-tasking his iPhone, playing music through headphones while playing a card game on the screen. A cursory glance around the carriage shows a majority of people tied to their phones in some way, either through headphones or with heads bowed in reverence to their screens.
A lady gets on with her blonde curly boy. He is about two, and I smile at him and he smiles back and then he says, "A byss? A byss? A byss?" and then whacks himself in the head. A comic. He's adorable. He and his mum play, and we all smile at each other, and then he says to me, "A titutt!" I feel both pleased by the interaction and sad at my incomprehension, and then they get off at Ringwood.
Kids are a safer bet to smile at without them thinking there's something to mistrust in you.
For a second I think the pretty dark-haired young woman with the red lipstick and red jeans is looking at me, but then I realise she is looking at herself in the window's reflection next to my head. The sky is starting to darken. She is looking at me. She's looking at me, and then she's looking at herself.
Out the window to the right there is a descending sun covered with cloud but bright enough so that I can't look directly at it. The sky is medium grey. Though muted, the covered-over sun still shines through the droplets of rain collected on the glass.
We are at Nunawading Station, a congealing mass of dull suburbia. The word is Aboriginal and means "battlefield" or "ceremonial ground".
Two middle-aged woman are talking. I can only hear snatches of their conversation. One is wearing a fluorescent yellow raincoat and is indignantly saying lots of sentences that begin with "I". "I know she was there!" she says, and I wonder what it was "she" did to piss this woman off.
A man is standing in the doorway of the carriage talking on his mobile phone. "Yeah, I'm heading to the city for the rugby," he says in a South African accent, looking out the door as he talks. "It's the last game of the season," he says.
There is a break in the clouds, a little one. A patch of blue peeking through the grey.
"Monday will work out fine," the man says into his phone. It sounds like he is arranging a time for someone to come and collect something from him. Maybe drugs, but more likely something he's selling on eBay. He's out on Saturday evening, he says, but Sunday could work, too.
A group of teenagers get on. One is wearing a pair of those embroidered ugg boots I've seen on eBay. Fashion trends have been crossing the ocean from England and America ever since the introduction of cinema and radio. A new hairstyle begun by one person with gumption starts it up, and then everyone else follows suit. Soon you're a mug if you're not wearing a hairstyle that six months ago would have had you seem a pariah if you were. Ugg boots are a pretty fashionable streetwear accessory in America. In Australia they have always been an uber daggy form of wear that only bogans and people like me who don't care wear in public. But that seems to be changing.
The South African guy has sat down and is looking at his phone. He looks up at the ceiling, as if he's asking some sort of question, and then nods, as if the air provided him with the answer. Anthony does that sometimes. It's very endearing. It feels intimate watching this man do that though, like it's a very private act that I've walked in on.
RMIT University is advertising on the wall above the South African
guy's head the the fact that they provide Australia's first degree in
sustainable systems engineering. "Many talk about sustainable
engineering. Few will do it," they say.
Wow. The sky has cleared. The sun comes through a crisp and brisk yellow. The lines of everything are so distinct in the beautiful winter light.
We slow down before reaching Camberwell Station ("change here for Alamein," Disembodied Woman says). There are a few large rocks next to the retaining wall. The rocks look like sandstone, but for a second, when I first glance at them, I think they are giant discarded bread rolls.
Camberwell Station is pretty. Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries filmed some train scenes here in its inaugural season. Along the top of the wire fence that separates the train line from the rest of Camberwell is rolling barbed wire, like something out of World War 2. The only war going on round here is the one between The Corporates and The Rest of Us.
Why aren't we all standing with our noses pressed up against the window watching the sunset that has begun dazzling outside the window in the sky between Camberwell and Glenferrie? There is something comforting and reassuring about such beauty that nobody can coopt or buy. It's just there.
A man with a yellow and black Chirnside Park Football Club parka gets on at Glenferrie. He has a grey and pink fluorescent backpack and spends the whole time looking at his phone.
"Where are you off to?" a naturally-greying woman in a grey coat asks a dark-haired woman with an Australian accent with possibly Sri Lankan heritage. "Oh, I'm off to the city. I'm going once a week. I'm still in the honeymoon phase, enjoying all the coffee and cake I can get in Melbourne. I'm meeting my husband there. He works in the city," she says. "Do you miss it?" the woman later asks. "I miss the research and the people I worked with," the dark-haired woman says. She is wearing a tweed jacket in a pinky orange colour that I don't like much. They got on at Glenferrie and sound like they must work at Swinburne. That's the place I went to to last year participate in a study researching the effects of a particular substance on anxiety. They paid me $100 for the time involved in taking blood tests and doing questionnaires.
"... so again, there's not the exchange of ideas," the dark-haired woman is saying. "Hopefully George will support it too if he comes," the other woman says. "I used to say to people ..."
She is drowned out by Disembodied Woman overhead. I'm at Richmond Station, and this is where I get off.