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Subterranean interrogation


Melbourne Central StationA stranger approaches. Melbourne Central train station, a Saturday afternoon. Heading towards 4.30pm.

'Excuse me,' the young man says quietly. I meet his brown eyes, behind his spectacles. We stand at right angles to each other.

Pondering how many coins I have in my pocket I note the man's tidy dark hair, neat olive T-shirt, well-fitting jeans, and coloured sneakers.

Maybe he just wants to ask about the next train.

He is perspiring a little, above his top lip.

Carefully he says 'I need to try to conquer my ...'

But I miss the last word, due to my poor hearing, the man's accent, and the noise of the platform. Twenty metres away a group of teenage girls giggle about something. An automatic voice announces a departure on Platform 2.

Did the man say 'shyness'? Or 'phobia'? Or 'condition'? I remember once being asked, at Queen Victoria Market, a handful of survey questions by an overseas student practising his English. Perhaps this man is attempting something similar.

'Can I talk to you?'

It is a bare question, naked in its simplicity, moving in its humanity.

The man relaxes a little when I answer. A hint of a smile on his lips, in his eyes.

'You are waiting. For the next train?' he asks.

I say Yes and ask if he is also waiting.

'I am going to work. Here in the city.' The words are neatly placed, like train carriages.

'What sort of work do you do?'

'Kitchen hand. In Swanston Street.'

I ask if he works in a café or a hamburger place or a Japanese restaurant or an Indian take-away but my sentence is too long. He stands puzzled.

I ask again, but with less words.

'Chinese take-away,' he replies. His perspiration is receding.

'A Chinese take-away,' I confirm, imagining the man among pots and pans and woks, among knives and peelers and spatulas. Among meats and vegetables and spices.

The automatic voice announces the next train for Platform 3. The flock of teenage girls further down the platform giggle again. They sound like birds in trees.

I ask the man if he is studying.

'Yes. I am studying hospitality at TAFE.'

'Hospitality at TAFE,' I repeat.

'Yes.' He smiles. Confidence in his eyes.

'Is it a one year or two year course?'

'Two years. I am in my second year.'

I am about to ask if he hopes to become a waiter or a chef or a café owner or a motel manager, when he shifts the conversation.

'Your train is coming now.'

The lights, and the breeze, of the 4.29 emerge from the city loop tunnel.

'Thank you. Thank you for talking to me.'

He puts out his right hand and we shake.

The train pulls in. The man turns and walks away. I watch his olive T-shirt and his tidy black hair recede into the distance as he walks to the escalators.

Soon after arriving home I prepare the family meal. I chop and slice and dice. Carrots, shallots, onion, tofu. I toss them into the oily wok. Stir and fry, stir and fry. I add noodles and cashews. Sweet chilli sauce.

Working in my kitchen I imagine the man going up, up into the world from our subterranean conversation. Up, up into the daylight. Up, up to conquer.

Vin MaskellVin Maskell has written for The Age, The Big Issue, Best Australian Essays (2008) and now Eureka Street. He published a collection of his short narratives, Jacaranda Avenue, in 2003. 

Topic tags: Vin Maskell, hospitality, train station, indian student



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Existing comments

One of the best things I have read on Eureka Street. Thank you

Kevin Prendergast | 13 October 2010  

Vin, What an uplifting simple story, beautifully written, elegant and ennobling. My heart sank at the thought of what the young might want and that sense of putting yourself on guard on how best to deflect any unreasonable request from unwelcome strangers in the street. Perhaps we are too much lost in a our world to see the simple beauty in the people and the world about us. Perhaps it doesn't occur too often and our caution is wise. And perhaps the message is that if we are too cautious we risk not seeing much of the beauty about us when it does shine forth.

John Edwards | 13 October 2010  

nice yarn, a poem really. neat as train carriages is brilliant

peter roebuck | 13 October 2010  

Just lovely.

MBG | 13 October 2010  

What a delicate & word precise, heartfelt & also slightly jolting story - which really feels like an experience. That is why it is so well written, because I could have been there, probably have been. I would like to think I would have behaved as nobly & as ordinarily as Vin's train anticipating character. I like to think I would have. This seemingly simple short story illuminates the connection our humanity offers us.
Vin, you are such a fine writer. I've been a fan since your footy story about your brother. I read your stories & hold my breath, & afterwards I just breath out a long sigh & feel more grounded. Thank you.

Chris Phillips | 14 October 2010  

how beautiful; both the writing and the tale. thank you for contributing to this young man's sense of belonging, and encouraging one of my cherished pastimes- conversing with strangers.

loulou | 15 October 2010  

Beautiful. not only for the story it tells but its sparseness of words.

Ann Nolan | 15 October 2010  

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