On the train

The train comes in through wisps of autumn fog. The doors open and puff out warm air that smells of stale takeaway food. Passengers alight. The train will be leaving again in ten minutes.

Zelda is leaning against an iron pillar in no hurry to board the train. She cannot see the man leaning against the other side of the pillar, nor does she know he has had a dull headache all day, that he doesn’t feel all that great and is hoping he won’t have a fit on the train.

She can see a young man and an older man sitting on the iron bench. She knows they’d sit further apart and rearrange their bags for her if she walked towards the seat purposefully. But Zelda sometimes prefers to look at people rather than talk to them because people give her much to think about.

She follows the two men onto the train and turns with them into the left part of the carriage. They sit apart on the seats backing onto the window and she takes one of a pair of seats to their left and at right angles to the window. From this position she can watch them without turning her head.

She can see that the young man is turning the pages of a book and sneaks a look at the cover—the Lonely Planet Guide to India. From where she is sitting she can make out the page headings and the names of the cities. The man is in his twenties, very thin and dressed in a tartan shirt and faded jeans. He doesn’t look like a book reader to her, more the sort of  person who’d grab a free MX from the PICK ME UP bin and open it at the sport section. Probably on his way home to eat as he watches the footy replay. Not much of an eater, either, she thinks, looking at his thin arms and wrists. She doesn’t know his name is Mick.

The middle-aged man is called Bob, although Zelda does not know this. He is wearing cords and a hand-knitted navy pullover and looks to her like the sort of accountant who has piles of manila folders on his desk in a little shop-front office in a suburban street. He looks dejected, his arms clutching an over-full plastic carry bag as if to stop its contents spilling out. Zelda thinks there are clothes in the bag, nighties and dressing gowns that he’s taking to his wife in hospital where she’s had an operation that needs several days to recover from. He’s bringing her clothes home to wash and he’ll return them tomorrow. Now he has to go home to his children who have been minded by their grandmother who is not too well herself and does not really like minding children.

She still hasn’t noticed the man with the headache, and he’s out of her line of sight now, having turned right when he entered the train and taken a seat at the end of the carriage. Now he picks up a discarded MX and flips through the pages to take his mind off his headache.

Bob, the dejected, slumping man, clutches his carry bag and leans back swivelling his eyes left to read what he can of the Lonely Planet Guide to India. He assumes the young man plans a trip to India but, as he’s not in the habit of inventing stories about people he sees on the train, that’s all he thinks about him.
Mick is aware of Bob looking at his Lonely Planet Guide to India and wonders why he doesn’t bring something of his own to read on the train. Mick considers thrusting the book into the man’s hands and saying something rude like, ‘Why don’t you have a proper read of it’, or better still, ‘Why don’t you buy your own bloody book?’ Mick, as you can tell but the others don’t know, is at the end of a long, tiring day.
The man with the headache looks at a photo in MX of a derailed Indian train lit by a red sunset, a chaotic scene of twisted metal, people crying, trucks, ambulances, even a camel. The man once had a fit in a city street and pedestrians walked around him, eyes averted, as he lay on the pavement. But as he never remembers anything about his fits he does not know about the pedestrians.

Now she knows what Mick is reading, Zelda changes her mind about him. She decides he is a student and has travelled lots, backpacking around Asia and Europe. Maybe even Afghanistan or Palestine. He is planning to go to Nepal or Bhutan, the sort of places young people with backpacks go. Places where even old people are offered drugs in the street. She thinks of her travel photos arranged in boxes with index cards labelled Argentina 1982, Alaska 1976 and so on. At night she sometimes chooses a box to look through, Norway 1992 or California 1985 before she goes to bed.

On the other hand, she thinks Mick might not have been to India or anywhere else much. He might be the sort of person who usually reads the sports pages in the MX and that’s what he’d be reading now if the PICK ME UP bins hadn’t been empty. He might be reading the Lonely Planet Guide to India because someone left it on a seat at the station and it seemed silly to leave it there for someone else to take.

Perhaps he works as a builder’s labourer and he’s on his way home to his wife and the baby that came as a surprise and a burden to them both. He probably has dogs, big dangerous dogs that bark all day when he’s at work and that will get out one day and attack a small child in the street.

Zelda’s also had time to have a good look at Bob so she’s decided he’s a salesman on his way home to chops, potatoes and a green vegetable, probably frozen peas, followed by apple charlotte and custard. She knows his teenage children need this sort of food to keep up their energies for sport and social activities like sex or spraying graffiti on buildings along the train track. He probably works somewhere in the suburbs and had to go to town today for an appointment to do with renegotiating the mortgage payments he cannot afford with all the costs of putting teenage children through school and supporting his wife who does not go to work and hardly leaves the house apart from shopping and driving the children around. He didn’t bring anything to read as he hardly ever goes on the train and is not in the habit of taking things to read when he does. That’s why he reads other people’s books over their shoulders.
Passengers get on the train at Richmond and take spare seats near the man with the headache who is leaning back now, eyes closed. One woman moves up the carriage away from him as she thinks he’s on drugs. The man’s headache is getting worse and he’s thinking about lying down on the spare seat.
Bob has left the train at Richmond and gone home to his wife who is not in hospital. Nor does she stay home all day waiting for him to return. Bob thinks she works part-time in a small supermarket where she enjoys sharing street gossip with the regulars, but in fact she spends her days at the casino gambling away an inheritance she has never told him about. She makes sure she is always home to tell him about the supermarket where she does not work and to prepare him a meal like tonight’s curry from Gas Cooking for the Whole Family, made from leftover roast lamb and served with boiled rice she shapes into little mountains in eggcups and tips onto the plate. There are side dishes of sliced banana dipped in desiccated coconut and sultanas from the packet.

Bob hasn’t thought about the train since he left it, and as he never noticed the man who is about to have a fit, he does not think about him either.

Mick finds a map of the Rajasthan area and thinks of Hanna, that deliciously scented girl with her straight-as-a-ballet-dancer’s back. Beautiful Hanna who’d worked with him in the clinic and promised to come to live with him in Australia. There had been two phone calls then an email to tell him she’d married a builder in her cold town 500 kilometres north of Stockholm. He never heard from her again. He has a photo of her drinking orange fizzy from a bottle, sitting on the wall of the deserted palace that an emperor built for his concubines. Beautiful Hanna with her sweet smile, her small face, her tiny, high breasts.

He tries to stop thinking about Hanna as it makes him too sad. He thinks instead about dinner. He’ll probably buy Chinese takeaway when he gets off at Gardenvale.

He doesn’t feel like cooking scrambled eggs again.

Zelda sees Calcutta on the top of the page and thinks of the beggars fenced off at Howrah Station lying across each other, some with fingerless hands reaching out between the bars. Of stepping around the man lying naked on the platform, his brown penis resting softly against his leg like a little creature. She thinks of her work there helping beggars to die with dignity and love when their lives had neither, and of her own brown baby, born in Calcutta one month, dead the next. She wonders if her baby was buried in a grave, burnt in a floating ghat on the Ganges or placed on top of a tower to be pecked at by vultures.
She felt too lost in Calcutta’s chaos to find her baby’s father, to find anyone to ask what had happened to her baby. Now she thinks she should have tried harder and that it was a cop-out to come home and not tell anyone about her man and her baby. She should have tried harder.

She considers getting off the train at Prahran and walking to Borders to buy a new novel to read in bed but decides she’s tired of fiction. Instead she’ll buy takeaway beef vindaloo with rice and a lime to squeeze into her gin and tonic, then she’ll go to bed early with a medical journal.

Mick and Zelda are jolted back into the present by a commotion in the next part of the carriage.
‘Is there a doctor in the train?’ someone calls. ‘This man needs medical attention. Can anyone help?’
Mick and Zelda stand and look at the man who is lying on a seat twitching, throwing his arms and legs about, writhing, his eyes closed. He is dark-skinned, maybe Indian, thinks Mick, thinks Zelda.
‘He is having a fit,’ she says.

‘I’ll call an ambulance to pick him up at the end of the line. That should give them time to meet the train.’ Mick takes out his phone.

They move towards the man as they speak. She puts her hand into the man’s mouth and pulls his tongue forward. Mick puts a folded coat under the man’s head and straightens his twisted legs.
‘I’ll stay with him until the end of the line,’ Zelda says, sitting close to the man’s head as if to comfort him with her presence.

‘Can you get home from Sandringham?’ Mick asks. ‘Is that where you get off?’

‘I have got home from places much further away than that.’

‘So have I,’ he says, sitting at the man’s feet.

It is dark now as the train waits at Sandringham for passengers. It will leave in ten minutes. A young woman gets on and takes the seat by the window. She picks up the Lonely Planet Guide to India and wonders who would leave a book on the train. She flicks through the pages thinking how much more expensive India has become. She checks the cost of the toy train to Darjeeling and wonders why she had ever thought it would be fun to crawl up those mountains for hours in a train like Puffing Billy. Like a bloody kinder­garten kid on an outing. She would have done better to share a taxi. 

Mary Manning is a Melbourne writer and teacher of professional writing at CAE.



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