Friday, May 30, 2008
A train journey into night
I posted the first draft of this story on our Geelong Visual Diary blog, but here is an improved version telling what happened to Peceli and me two nights ago on a trip to Melbourne and back.
A train journey into night
‘You will be detrained,’ said the female conductor in a moderate voice that not everyone heard.
I had never heard that word before. Others like it ‘the train will terminate at Southern Cross station’ I’ve heard many times.
The train trip to Melbourne and back seemed like a good idea at the time. The day return off--peak pensioner tickets were only about $5 each and there wouldn't be the problem of searching for a car park in the city. Peceli and I left the car outside North Geelong station and caught the 12.35. The trip was uneventful and I read the Fiji Marama magazine. We are an ordinary couple - an Australian country woman who had married a Fijian Methodist minister over forty years ago - just ordinary commuters on a train as we usually drive up to Melbourne.
We reached the Uniting Church offices in Little Collins Street by 2.5, late because Peceli insisted on buying a bottle of water. The workshop was on migrant congregations especially Fijian and Indonesian. When we were given electronic tags to open a door, I held my peace except to say, ‘Don’t you trust God to look after you?’ as I breathed deeply, the low ceiling crowding me in. The ground floor of the Uniting Church Centre seemed like a rabbit warren and I felt like Alice going down the rabbit hole. At least we did not have to go up several floors in a lift.
In G3 we were a small group of eight but the conversations were lively, sometimes theoretical, but honest and as down to earth as we could make it. It was good to meet with Indonesian Uniting Church ministers and hear their stories. We didn't have a break but there was coffee on tap. I kept looking at the small windows and brick walls beyond. We finished early so at 5.40 we were given a delicious dinner before leaving, throwing our electronic tags into a box and going out via a secret passage.
Outside the darkness of the sky contrasted with the lit-up gloss of Collins street. Peceli and I strode along quickly to find a tram stop and a tram going towards the Southern Cross station. As it was still peak time the tram was crowded with city workers going home. We were in time for the 6.28 p.m. Warrnambool train which would reach North Geelong about forty-five minutes later. At the Southern Cross station I looked up at the iron structures of the roof and noticed blue stars. The shape of the roof resembled the picals of a gigantic turtle. I had never seen it like that before.
There were five carriages on the Warrnambool train for those who had reserved seats and the front carriage was particularly for Geelong commuters. With three minutes before departure it was almost full but we found two seats together when a cheery blonde woman moved seats to sit between two young men. They seemed to know one another anyway. My feet were sore and I really wanted to get home quickly to take my tight shoes off. The seats were arranged so that we faced three other travellers but we soon nuzzled into our books and magazines without speaking. I still had the Marama magazine from Fiji to read and my notes on the workshop to edit.
That was the default situation for commuters on a train - just as a computer goes back to Times Roman point 12 perhaps - we each were on a journey ‘alone’ without reference to people whose thighs touched yours and knees sometimes bumped. I was glad for the companionship of my husband.
The train left Southern Cross on time but about ten minutes later, after North Melbourne, the train stopped. Well, that happens often. Through the window I scrutinized graffiti squiggles on a wall so it seemed that we were in a narrow section of the tracks or under a bridge. Some kids had taken serious risk to spraypaint their art. No one talked and there was no music as we waited to move again.
Then a female conductor moved along the aisle, stopped and announced, 'We have to stay put for a while. There has been a trespasser on the railway line and we have to change drivers.'
What did that mean? The middle-aged woman with bright blonde hair rang her mobile, and then said to us, 'My ex. A policeman. He said something must have happened. The driver may be in shock for some reason.' She spoke animately to the young man with a cheery face, scruffled up hair, rings on his fingers and a purple T-shirt with a logo about ironing. The quieter young man wore a formal suit and white shirt. The young woman next to me was engrossed in her novel.
We waited again. The only sound was that of the heating system starting up again. It was probably about 10 degrees outside.
Another period of time elapsed and the conductor walked up the aisle and said calmly, ‘ A person is deceased and we will have to wait for the police and the coroner as this is now a crime scene. The train is not allowed to move.' Then she paused, and I wondered if she realised that she had told us too much. She went on, 'We might have to stay inside for three hours before being detrained.'
The darkness outside now seemed like a Henson photograph though our carriage was well lit up. The air seemed hot and dense, and the people grew larger, filling the carriage. My skin was clammy, but my throat dry, and I just looked at Peceli as he knew how I panicked easily. Lucky Peceli had bought that bottle of water in Collins Street so we each took a swig. I wanted to breathe clean air, step outside but we were not near a platform but somewhere between North Melbourne and South Kensington stations. All the trains would be diverted away from this area, though some will pass us for a short period, some official told us. I knew now that the train doors were all locked.
There was a shift from silence to murmuring. Though some travellers were still in their own world of reading, notebooks, or sleeping, five out of six of our little group engaged in conversation, particularly the guy holding a magazine of glamour women. He was a Deakin student in Public Relations and Journalism, the blonde woman was his mother, down from Queensland to catch up with family. She had only come on the train to talk with his son. The other young man was also a Deakin student and currently on workplace assignment with the Age. He had a cutting from today’s paper with his byline, with a photo of two laughing Aboriginal girls I had glanced at earlier at breakfast time. I now read it more carefully - a nice positive article on page 11.
‘Good for Reconciliation Week,’ I said.
About a school at Healesville re-opening. There was much talk about editing, taking photos, and I asked about copyright and downloading photos on the internet.
The photo guy said,’ I have my name embedded in my photos – not that anyone can see it, but Google can, so I ask Google to delete any of my pictures used without authorisation.’
Peceli started drawing the scene inside the train with a pen, using my A4 sketchbook, and then the book was passed around. Someone asked what my scribbly sketch of the bridge over Yarra St was and this let to a discussion about Westfield.
The guy said, ‘I did the PR writeup for the development.’
I said, ‘I was one of the protesters against Westfield bridge. I can’t stand huge super size developments.’
None of us were talking about the ‘thing’ on our mind. What had really happened? Who was killed? Did he or she jump, or just wander onto the tracks? Or was a graffiti artist talking risks? We were just guessing.
Announcements came over the speaker periodically and the conductor kept informing us, minimally, about how long to wait. ‘If you want to move back into another carriage because of the smoke, do so.’
Peceli said, ‘I thought smoking is banned on trains.’
The smokers had been sent right to the front of the train up the front of our carriage. 'I can smell pot,' said the garrulous guy and his mother gave him a gently slap. Apparently it was a compromise this time because some people were starting to panic without their nicotine fixes. The conductor said, ‘There is free coffee from the snack bar which is now open.' She must have been really stressed under her calm manner. Her brown hair was tied back but curly strands had escaped and hung down her forehead. Her hands were clasped tightly together as if in prayer.
I realized that many of the travellers would not have eaten dinner, though Peceli and I were okay. ‘Where is it?’
‘Back about four carriages.’
The panic was kicking in and Peceli talked about moving to a carriage where there might be a bit of space, but the three people in front of us were entertaining us with their chatter, the garrulous guy and his mother telling hilarious anecdotes. The girl beside me was onto her last forty odd pages of her book.
'Let's go for a walk and get some coffee,' suggested Peceli. Taking our bulky bags - mine a grubby shoulder bag made from tapa design, Peceli with his camera and stuff inside our son's travel bag. We traipsed through the carriages of the motionless train, past people sitting quietly without panic but a few were sitting on the floor in the in-between carriages areas one looking uneasy and scared. We met a couple of Geelong women we knew. Two older women had their knitting out and bundles of wool were flung on their laps. I joked with them, 'Well, at least you both came prepared!'The V-line coffee was sweet and hot. There was not the usual stumble along the aisle on a moving train with your coffee as this train was stationary, very much so.
Through the window I stared at the flickering scribbles and scrawls of graffiti on a cement wall. We were all ignoring the reality of what had happened at the front of the engine - police officers and forensic people with a body. Instead we chatted in a kind of desperate escapism, observed others with their various books – Anatomy of a Dog was one of them. The Da Vinci Code was put down after three pages. A man with a book with flowers on the back cover. Many city workers had their laptops open. Some academics perhaps were grading papers or editing their own. Not everyone had shifted like us into talking ten-to-the-dozen with strangers. Many were still ‘alone’ on an interior journey.
The girl next to me by the window closed her final page and sighed. She had dark hair and wore spectacles. I had not interrupted her at all, but now we started a conversation. The young guys of course asked her about her studies. Her answer raised more questions, but ait was a course to do with bones and muscles. She said she was originally from Canada so this fact elicited travel stories from the blonde.
After the first hour had gone by, I went through my eight pages of notes from the workshop adding words, making some sense of it, but I was really thinking about the ways a large group of people manage a situation where they have no control or means of escape. For now, there were 350 people trapped for perhaps another two hours yet most people I observed seemed to manage okay though some men were getting noisily drunk down at the end of the carriage. Peceli was quietly drawing another view of interior of the carriage but kept looking at his watch. I was now nearly 9 p.m. He rang our son on the mobile, just telling him we would be rather late home, but sparing the details.
The heroic conductor continued to update us but at no stage did she even ask to see our tickets. Some people would not have even purchased a ticket.
Then a voice came over the speaker. ‘Shortly the train will go to Footscray station and there will be buses waiting. If you would prefer to return to the city, there will also be a bus.'
The student in the suit rang his mobile, spoke for a while, then closed it, and told us. 'I'll go home though I'll have to get up about 6 a.m. tomorrow to come back for my work experience at the Age.'
The train slid into action ten minutes later and soon we reached the next main suburban station of Footscray. Passengers were standing about the platform there. The ripple effect of the incident meant that many trains were delayed for hours.
There were no buses waiting. we would have to wait for maybe forty-five minutes we were told. I remembered then that many of the travellers still have a journey of three or four hours to their destination at Warrnambool in the western district. The smokers leapt out onto the platform, Peceli and I after them, to get fresh air. I didn't care how cold it was. We talked with strangers, asked questions, gave answers. One V-line man in a fluoescent jacket told me that the train should have stayed put for five hours but V-line had argued with the police that you just can’t maintain order with 350 people locked in.
For one moment I wanted to look at the front of the engine, but dismissed the thought as bizarre like ambulance chasing.
An express bus to Warrnambool was the first to arrive and a bit later, the welcome news for us rose in the frosty air. 'Another bus is ready. Geelong Express. Go straight away if you want that bus.’
Many people went into cave-man default this time, rushing, running, pushing, shoving, ignoring the young, ignoring the elderly, to reach the welcoming door. Peceli and I ran also. Although we wanted to get to North Geelong, this was near enough. A $10 taxi ride would get us back to North station and our parked car. Half-way into the bus we found two empty seats together. It was a luxury bus, the kind for long tours. We left three hundred people behind, still waiting. We had quickly forgotten the garrulous talker, his mother, the other students who were going to small stations, small towns.
Cruising along the freeway, the driver welcomed us as if we were a pensioners' tour, then later he announced that we would be taken to Werribee station to catch the train to Geelong! What? We were on the freeway going home!
Some travellers were loudly talking into their mobiles, one guy abusing someone the other end about not wanting to meet him. A young woman was yelling loudly about her numerous bad relationships and abuse. We were in a different space now from the orderly discussions we had had in the front carriage. A talkative young woman, who seemed in need of her medication, who wouldn’t let up about there being three dead at the ‘incident’ as she had heard the police talking, she said. Now this gave me a really bad feeling of despair for the lives of people who see no other way but suicide. Was there one person or three? Our minds raced and speculated.
I remembered a Geelong woman, a writer of sweet poetry, her mental deterioration and the railway line near Lara. At that time 'railway lines' became encoded to me as associated with suicide. There is no heroism in such a death.
A young man across the aisle from me leant over and said something about it all being a tragedy. He was right. We had mostly been thinking of the inconvenience of the 'incident'.
Was a train really waiting there? This might mean another wait though. The bus driver changed his mind ten minutes later and took us straight down the highway and we would be home at last. Several people on the bus actually wanted to exit at North and the driver drove into the side lane and dropped about eight of us at the traffic alight opposite North Geelong station. We really thanked the driver.
We had forgotten to thank that female conductor who had looked after us for those awful two hours on the stationary train though I did pat her on the shoulder as a gesture of thanks'
Our old maroon car was still there with only two other vehicles left. Ws I glad to see the old car with the mismatched bumper and the broken tail-light.
What a relief it was to get home by 11 p.m. five hours after leaving Southern Cross Station in Melbourne. Our son was still up, watching TV. He said, 'Don't your remember the night I was four hours late coming back from Melbourne one night! Stuff like this happens.'
I switched on to the Geelong radio news and also the ABC news but there were no stories about the train accident or the death of a man with no name, though there were the usual stories of other tragedies.
Next morning I bought the Geelong Advertiser and read a small column headed ‘Rail commuters angry at delay‘ or words to that effect. Actually I don’t recall many people our end of the train shouting and abusing V-line staff, but someone on the bus had said it happened and the female conductor has been called some vile names. The heroes of the night certainly included that woman, the police, the coroner and then I thought of the traumatised train driver. There was mention in the paper of a man who had jumped in front of the train. A phone number was given for any passengers who had been inconvenienced.
Was there a phone call last night or a knock on a door by a police officer to inform relatives, his mother, father, sibling of the death? We will not know about the man with no name.
I made three cups of tea and noticed my favourite colourful mug was broken. Somehow it did not matter.