‘Lookin’ forward to your cup of coffee, Ed?’

‘No money, Harry.’

‘Don’t need any, mate. No worries. I know ’em all down there. Milk and three for you, I seem to remember?’

Ed nods. Or at least I assume he does. I can’t actually see either of them because I’m standing—or, more precisely, strap-hanging—with my back to them on a packed Melbourne tram. Turning 180 degrees will discombobulate too many other travellers. But Harry’s voice is distinctive, penetrating. It seems to rumble the length of the tram. Its rich, gravelly timbre is the decades-long work of truckloads of tobacco and vast quantities of alcohol ranging, no doubt, from the infamous White Lady (milk and meths), various brown paper-bagged ports, and other fortifications to—in good times—conventional pots of beer.

The tram rolls on. With a precision that is the gift and glory of experienced Melbourne tram drivers, our man expertly misses several green lights, closes last-minute doors on desperate, late-arriving fingers, and clangs the bell at random intervals unrelated to the state of the traffic. Students battle their way on board at each stop, and everyone sways and braces as the driver engineers, for no apparent reason, occasional muscle-wrenching lurches—another indispensable skill from the Melbourne tram drivers’ manual.

‘Lotsa university students use this tram, of course, Ed.’

‘Uni-vers-it-y stu-dents,’ Ed says. It’s Monday morning and maybe Ed needs to treat words like explosives, any one of which might blow off the top of his aching head.

‘What I find,’ says Harry to no-one in particular, ‘is I get watery eyes in the morning. Could be the drinkin’, of course. I dunno. I’m seein’ the quack about it next time at the clinic.’

The tram grinds up to the university stop, and waves of students clatter into the roadway with a tintinnabulation of mobile phones. Released from the imprisoning cocoon of bodies, bags and bumping hips, I can now get a look at Harry and Ed.

‘I’m sixty-two this year, y’know, Ed. Sixty bloody two,’ says Harry. He’s a big bloke, blankly smiling, exuding unfocused affability from a ravaged face. Wispy remains of hair sprout from either side of his head in grey tufts. He has a four- or five-day gingery-grey stubble. His gnarled hands are covered in liver-coloured spots. All in all, he looks an unhealthy eighty.

As for Ed, he sits in a sort of catatonic state, nodding every now and then as Harry rattles on about this and that. His stubble is scrubby, his features destroyed by the challenges of the destitute years. In the opposite seat, a dark-suited, corporate-looking bloke desperately ignores them and, next to him, a pleasant-faced, middle-aged woman smiles now and then at Harry and Ed, not realising that they are essentially oblivious of the world around them, merely bumping their monologues and obsessions up against it by chance not design.

Despite the heat, both are in heavy blue jeans to which Harry has added a thick sweater and Ed a duffle coat, boots and a knitted woollen beanie. Wherever they’ve come from on this shining Monday morning, the choice of ensemble was narrow.

‘We’ll go into that shady courtyard for coffee. Remember, Ed?’

Ed nods and his face crinkles under his beanie.

The tram creeps into Elizabeth Street. My guess is they’re heading for St Francis’, where there must be tea and coffee and biscuits for the homeless. For the ‘derros’ as we used to say, though not all homeless are derros. Ed and Harry are derros, though. ‘Dead set’, as they themselves might have put it a few years ago, before they lapsed into monologues and mutterings.

Suddenly, shouting and tumult erupt at the other end of the tram.

‘By Christ,’ says another rough and much abused voice, ‘bloody trams always full as a fart. A bloke can’t hardly fit on the bastards.’

‘Limmo,’ Ed says, showing animation for the first time. ‘That’s Limmo gettin’ on, isn’t it, Harry?’

Harry nods gloomily and announces that Limmo used to run a fleet of limousines—‘that’s how he got the name, like’—until things went bad for him. Partly the ‘gummint’, partly ‘the booze’.

‘We might see Limmo in the courtyard.’ Ed gestures vaguely at the tram windows.

‘Possible,’ says Harry. But his eyes are dead, and it’s hard to know if he’s being laconic or just vacant.

They get out at St Francis’, Harry walking with a protective hand on Ed’s thin shoulder. Up the other end of the tram, a commotion and a curt ‘By Christ’ suggest that Limmo, as expected, is heading for the refuge too.

Missing the green light, we sit there in a silence that is both uncomfortable and sad. Christmas decorations on city buildings present their snow-laden pines and prancing reindeers to the scrutiny of the murderous sun.

‘Bad time o’ year to be down and out,’ says a voice as the doors flap shut.

‘When’s a good time?’ says another voice.

A Salvation Army trooper, who had been watching Ed and Harry with sympathetic interest, says, ‘ “O scatheful harm, condition of poverty”.’ Everyone within hearing looks embarrassed. The tram clanks across the intersection and noses deep into the spangled and glittering central business district.

I look back, trying to glimpse Harry, Ed and Limmo at the gates of St Francis’, but they are lost in the crowds and dazzling light. 

Brian Matthews is a writer and academic.



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