A Handful of True

“G’day, sorry to interrupt, but I’m sure I know you?” I said.

“Don’t think so,” said the heavyset bloke squashed up against the wall of the train.

The three other bulky blokes looked at me as though I’d stepped in something.

These four sizeable male football supporters exceeded the technical design limits of the seats in our suburban train carriage.

They’d been annoying my friend and me ever since the doors opened at Richmond station.

The carriage had been half full, but now it was packed with people heading home after the game at the MCG.

From the scarves and beanies, it looked like Hawthorn and Melbourne had played each other. I have only a passing interest in the sport that dominates my city, but I knew that these two teams were evenly matched.

It was hard to tell from the general conversations which team had prevailed.

The general make up of our carriage was young families and friends all happily retelling their favourite highlights or wishing that “Robbo had hit that shot on the siren.”

It must have been a close finish.

Football crowds can be a mixed lot, but this crew were primarily easygoing.

And then there were the four fat blokes a few seats back from us.

Not easy going.

Loud.

Probably three parts pissed.

Misogynistic.

Homophobic.

Like a swirling ink stain, their influence was colouring the previously happy carriage.

Other conversations became quieter —more private — protective.

“Sorry, you look just like a bloke I used to know,” I said as I leaned over the nearest member of this quartet and offered my hand.

A handshake.

A universal male greeting.

A sign of friendship.

A sign that I mean you no harm.

Except I did mean him harm.

The red-faced fuckwit reluctantly took my hand and tried to crush my fingers for the amusement of his friends.

It didn’t work even though his hand was huge. I went to an all-boys school back in the day, and one of our teachers taught us how to avoid a vice-like grip.

The fuckwit held my hand way too long and looked into my eyes, waiting for my reaction.

“Well, sorry to have disturbed your conversation,” I said as I wrenched my hand free.

“Have a good night fellas,” I said with a smile.

The other three blokes sneered at me as I smiled and walked back to my seat, nearly tripping over a boy wearing an oversized jacket.

“That kid’s going to burst into flame if his dad doesn’t take his jacket off,” I said as I sat down next to my friend.

“Never mind the combustable kid. What the fuck were you doing talking to those Neanderthals? They’ve probably been drinking all day.”

“They were annoying me and pissing everyone off so I thought I’d sort it,” I said while looking out into the darkness.

“What station do you reckon they’ll get off at?” I said.

The question pushed my friend back into our regular routine for a moment.

“Boronia, maybe Bayswater. You know, cashed up bogan territory.”

“Could be,” I said.

“So what the fuck did you think you were doing?” said my friend.

We’d known each other forever, and our friendship had survived the inevitable ups and downs.

Good mates.

Life had been putting distance between us, but we met up over two weeks to attend the film festival every year.

“Have you ever noticed that I tend to fist bump people and rarely shake hands?” I said.

“Yeah, so what?”

I put my hand out, and he took it and shook it.

“I’ve often thought I might be gay and I’ve wondered what it would be like to have sex with you, but I didn’t want to complicate our relationship and I don’t know why I’m saying this. Unfortunately, I don’t seem to be able to stop myself,” said my best friend, who once saved my life when we were kids.

I knew he fancied me, but I’m okay with the knowledge.

Good friends are hard to hold on to.

“If it makes you uncomfortable, just don’t speak. The effect will wear off in a little while. It was only a short hand shake. That bloke down there, on the other hand, he’s going to be telling the stark honest truth for quite a while.”

My friend clamped his lips tightly shut and turned around to stare at the commotion occurring behind him. I’d been watching as we spoke.

The bloke I’d shaken hands with — the one who wouldn’t let go — was in violent conversation with the other three.

The people seated near them had moved further away, and I could hear snatches of dialogue as things seemed to be getting out of hand.

“Yeah, I fucked her. She was begging for it. Your old lady bangs like a dunny door.”

A punch was thrown, but it’s hard to do much damage when you are wedged it tight with a bunch of drunk fat blokes.

“What’s the matter with you Billy, I thought we were mates?” said the fat bloke sitting next to the fat bloke who had been cuckolded by Billy.

“I gave your missus one as well. If you ask her nicely, she’ll bark like a dog. You should give it a try,” said Billy just before this fat bloke tightened his grip.

Someone threw an elbow, and there was a dull thud and an exhalation of air.

The four fat blokes continued to ineffectually strike each other until the train came to a halt, and I expected to see a couple of police officers come bursting in, but they didn’t.

The four portly football supporters got up and staggered off the train. The mayhem continued on the platform as the train pulled out.

“Bayswater,” I said, and my friend looked at me.

“Did you have ‘Bayswater’, I can’t remember.”

“No. I don’t think we settled on a station.” Which was very honest of my friend. Mind you, just at the moment, he didn’t have a lot of choices. So honesty was going to follow him around for the next half an hour or so.

“You did that, didn’t you?” said my friend.

“Yep.”

“Have you always been able to make people tell the truth?” said my friend. “Fuck, that explains a lot. That time Brother Michael told us all that stuff about what it was like to be a Marist Brother. That was you.”

“He really gave me the shits. Served him right.”

“I liked him a lot.”

“I know you did, and if you had acted on your feelings, he would have eaten you alive,” I said.

“After his outburst I changed my mind about him.”

“I’m glad. It was a huge chance to take, but I couldn’t just stand by and see him take advantage of you. You were my friend.”

“I still am.”

“I know you are.”

We talked some more about the movie and what we would like our lives to be like in the coming year, and my friend didn’t notice when the urge to tell the unvarnished truth fell away.

When we got off the train and walked to our cars, we said goodnight and my friend hugged me. Hugging wasn’t one of our things, but I got the feeling that it would be from now on, and I’m okay with that.

Train Sleeper

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“I’m sorry Mr Bennett,” she didn’t look that sorry, “but a shared sleeper is all we have left. If you must travel on that day, you will have to share. If you can put your trip off for a day or two you can have your pick of the solo cabins — they are more expensive, of course.”

“I have to be there on Friday, so it has to be the overnight train on Thursday. I’ll take the ticket, but tell them to stock up on decent whisky. I’m going to need it, and so is my sleep buddy,” said Sam

“You will have some time to yourself because your fellow passenger won’t be boarding until Ararat.”

That’s a few hours of peace, thought Sam, who was looking forward to reading the new Michael Robotham novel he purchased just for this journey.

The Overland sat quietly at platform 2, waiting for its passengers.

Train travellers are an interesting bunch. Many of Sam’s fellow passengers shared his dislike of planes and airports.

Trains rarely involve a full body cavity search, lack of legroom, surely security and godawful food.

The Overland, beautiful named, is a throwback to a time when people travelled for adventure, and the cost was not the top priority.

The train company asks that passengers arrive thirty minutes before departure. They are met by a company employee dressed appropriately, including a wide-brimmed Akubra. Passengers wait patiently next to their assigned carriage until the porter opens the doors. Find your cabin, stow your bags and head for the bar, maybe a snack. The evening meal is delivered to your room and so is breakfast, but a man needs snacks and a stiff drink.

Sam chose the upper bunk — first in first served.

He opened his book but decided to enjoy the view. In a few short hours, darkness will descend. 

The hustle and bustle of Spenser Street station at peak hour provides lots to look at. City workers heading home. Their tired countenance is even more disturbing than their morning gaze.

 

Suburban, country and interstate trains all share this massive station.


The train sounded its horn and slowly pulled out, right on time.

“If Mussolini were alive, he would be proud,” said Sam to himself. Right-wing arseholes are obsessed with trains running on time.

The train travelled slowly as it negotiated the rail yards with its twists and turns. The wheels and bogies complained loudly at the frequent changes of direction.

The train travels slowly for the first hour until it clears the suburbs of Melbourne. Some would say that the view is uninspiring, but Sam enjoyed the sometimes rusty and occasionally grubby nature of these old industrial suburbs. They reminded him of his childhood. His father worked skillfully with his hands, and on rare occasions, Sam was allowed to accompany him to work on weekends, when the bosses weren’t around.

Rust has its own distinctive aroma as do grease and dust and sweat, all ingredients of a working-class employment.

Once in open country, the train accelerates, and Geelong approaches rapidly.

Past Geelong and the country flattens out. The early settlers called it ‘Pleurisy Plains’. Anyone venturing out during the areas vicious gales was sure to contract the infection. 

The flatness comes about because it is a larval plain. The local Aborigines have lived here for so long that their oral history talks about the distant volcano erupting some twenty thousand years ago.

Through the gloaming, Sam could just see Mount Elephant — its indigenous name is ‘Hill of Fire’.

It was getting harder to see the countryside as the train pulled into Ararat.

The massive, now empty, rail yards looked like an old car park that no one used anymore. All a bit grim.

There was a country train on the other platform as Sam’s train pulled in. The passengers gazed at his train, no doubt wondering where it was headed and what the passengers were headed to.

After the train pulls out of Ararat, a strange thing happens. The mileage signpost suddenly drops about 30 miles. After asking the porter, Sam found out that the interstate train travels a longer route to get to Ararat than the regional line. So now they are on that track. Sam wondered who thought that going the long way was a good idea, but why people do the things they do, gives Sam a headache.

Sam’s cabin mate did not appear, and the train had been travelling for long enough for him (he assumed it was a him — even these days, Sam could not imagine a woman wanting to share a cabin with a strange man) to have found the right sleeper berth.

The first part of Sam’s journey had been peaceful, so why worry about the fate of his fellow traveller.

Sam climbed onto his bunk and read his book, but soon turned out the light and snuggled under the covers. The rolling motion is a cure for most people’s insomnia.

He was facing the door when it opened, and a medium height man wearing an overcoat padded into the cabin. He left the door slightly open, which allowed a subdued amount of light to penetrate the darkness. Sam had not pulled the blinds, but on a moonless night, there is only pitch black in the Australian outback.

The new passenger took off his coat, revealing a crumpled suit with no tie. The man was travelling with only a small bag. He reached into the side pocket of the bag and produced a bundle wrapped in an old cloth. The bundle went out the window, and the sound of rushing air diminished when the man closed it and climbed onto his bunk. He didn’t snore, but before long Sam could hear the sound of heaving breathing.

That same rhythmic breathing was still to be heard when Sam woke instinctively as the porter knocked on his door, breakfast trays in hand.

“Thanks, mate, I’ll take those,” said Sam and the porter did not glance nor comment on Sams lack of suitable attire. Porters see it all on sleeper trains.

Sam put the tray for the mystery traveller on the small table and his tray on the bunk. He managed to climb up without putting his foot in his breakfast. He was pleased with this achievement and proceeded to consume his eggs and toast while unfolding the newspaper. Somewhere, the train had picked up the early edition of the Adelaide Advertiser, which seemed fair as they were closer to Adelaide than Melbourne, but Sam would have prefered the Melbourne Age, even if it was a bit hard to unfold at this hour of the day.

The articles rolled out the usual tales of local and international mayhem, which surprised Sam because, from his experience, people in Adelaide didn’t know there was an outside world, apart from Melbourne which they hated. Forever in its shadow, Adelaide folk take any chance to compare themselves favourably, usually around Australia’s favourite religion, sport.

One item caught Sam’s eye.

There had been a shooting in Ararat.

A young husband had come home from work and found his wife in the arms of her lover, a small-time gangster from Melbourne. There was a photograph showing the front of a house illuminated by police floodlights. A neighbour, dressed in her dressing gown said that it had been going on for months and she felt sorry for the husband, “Such a nice young man. Works all the hours that God sends. Gets home late after commuting to Melbourne. He deserved better than her, God rest her soul.”

The wife died in the arms of her lover, and the lover was in a critical condition. The writer alluded, ever so subtly, that even if he did survive, his philandering days were over.

The husband and his Great War revolver were still missing when the paper went to print. The gun came back from France with his grandfather. A Webley six-shot revolver, an officer’s weapon.

The passenger’s tray was untouched when Sam climbed down, washed, dressed and waited for the train to pull into Adelaide Parklands Terminal.

Sam will need a taxi because for some reason they built the terminal away from the city, which means that it does not go to the beautiful old Adelaide Station.

Sam wasn’t trying to be quiet as he performed his preparations for arrival, but the passenger did not wake.

When the porter came for the trays, Sam told him to come back as late as possible, “This bloke needs his sleep. He’s had a rough time. Don’t wake him till you absolutely have to.” Sam slipped the porter a ‘fifty’. The porter smiled and promised. Sam made a note to add the ‘fifty’ to his client’s bill. The rich buggers can afford it.

Sam didn’t mind having a train trip to Adelaide, but all his business could have been handled by email or on the phone, but this law firm only wanted face to face meetings. It seems that they don’t trust computers. Their bill was going to be huge, but they didn’t seem to mind.

The taxi was waiting when Sam stepped out of the station, the air as hot and dry as he remembered.

“City, please driver. Rundle Mall,” said Sam.

“Might take a bit longer at this hour mate, peak hour and everything,” said the driver.

Sam laughed, “I’ve seen your ‘peak hour’ son. It lasts about ten minutes.”

Usually, Sam would have reminded the driver of what was likely to happen to him if he did the old trick of driving ‘the long way around’, a popular ploy of taxi drivers worldwide when they sensed an ‘out of towner’, but on this trip, Sam didn’t care. It was all on his client’s account.

“Just make sure I get a receipt and don’t get greedy,” said Sam.

The passenger woke to the sound of the porter and his gentle nudge.

“Sorry, sir. I left it as long as I could as per your friend’s instructions.”

“What friend?” said the sleepy man with the ruffled suit.

“The one you shared the cabin with,” said the porter, “he left this for you.”

The porter handed him a postcard with a photograph of The Overlander crossing Australia’s longest rail viaduct, just outside Geelong. On the back, written in a clean hand with a newly sharpened pencil were these words:

Dear Mr Park. I’m sorry your missus cheated on you. I know your heart is broken and I know that you will come to regret what you have done, but I do understand. A bloke can only take so much, and betrayal is about as bad as it gets.

It’s not my job to turn you in, but if you hurt anyone else I will come and find you, and you will regret breaking my trust.

P.S. I hope you took the remaining bullets out of the gun before you threw it out of the window. 

Keep your head down and don’t make me regret my decision.

The distressed Travellers’ Club

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I turned up at my local train station on my birthday to find that they had removed the ticket machine.

In it’s place there was one of those confusing new Myki (Mouse?) machines.

Unlike most travelers I only travel occasionally so I don’t carry tickets with me.I only had a few minutes until my train arrived so my ancient brain had to work this out in a hurry.

The machine had slots for coins, paper money, credit cards and eftpos.

That’s a lot of pressure!

I decided on eftpos. I put the card in and it said EFTPOS, which seemed like a good start. I stood there and I waited, but EFTPOS was all it said. I went back to the main screen and selected “Buy a MYKI card”. The machine said “Do you want to top up your MYKI card?” Well no, actually, I want to buy one.

At this point the computer generated voice came over the PA telling us that my train would be along anytime now.

More pressure.

I decided to do what all ancient people do, I asked the nearest young person how this thing was supposed to work. He looked at it and said he didn’t think it was going to give me a card.

Wise words.

I pointed out that there was a “Buy a Myki card” option. I pressed it again just to show him, and again it asked me if I wanted to top up my MYKI card.

“You’re stuffed mate”.

Yes, I was.

Visions of a $120 train ride spun through my head but I needed to be on that train, and it was my birthday, no one would give me a fine on my birthday………… would they??

When I got to my destination I knocked on the ticket box door because I could not get off the platform without a ticket. Naturally it was “change of shift time” but surprisingly a young man opened the gates for me and a young girl blocked them with her body and a trapped gentleman (of Indian extraction) used the opportunity to escape (he had been standing in front of the gates for several minutes waving his MYKI card in the air but amazingly the gates would not open for him!)

I was momentarily distracted by the flash of the escaping Indian but I did notice that the girl who blocked the gates from closing did not even look up from her iPhone, she simple moved her body slightly so as to stop the gates from closing.

It seems that there is no age discrimination when it comes to the fraternity that is ‘the distressed travellers’ club’.

I thanked the thoughtful member of the younger generation but I don’t think she heard me. Her job was done and she was back to waiting for…… the next train, her boyfriend? I guess I’ll never know.

I wandered over to the ticket window as I figured that I was probably going to need one of these mythical MYKI cards. It was indeed a ‘change of shift’ so the young fella who let me out was now heading for the door and a brand new person was going to serve me in “just a minute”. I didn’t mind waiting it had been entertaining so far and I was looking forward to what happened next.

The lady behind the counter eventually spoke in that voice that quickly tells you that she has said this several times before……….. the card was going to cost me $6 (this seemed a bit rich as I was not going to be allowed on a train without one so now I’m paying for the privilege of paying to get on a train! But, this was no time to rock the boat.)

The lady cautioned me against putting too much money on the card in case I lost it. I guess she thought that I looked like the kind of bloke who lost stuff which is not true. It is true that I forget stuff which I guess is the same as I sometimes forget where I put stuff. Anyway, the lecture on the wonders of the MYKI card continued until we got to the part where I felt I should ask a few questions. As I opened my mouth she pointed to the gentleman standing behind me and said, “George will answer all your questions”.

This was the first time I had noticed George.

Wow, this whole process has a ‘division on labour’. That’s so cool!

George did indeed ‘answer all my questions’ but nearly had a heart attack when I tried to take my card out of the machine before the green arrow appeared. “DON”T!!!!! If you take your card out too soon the next person will get all the money on their card!”

Very good advice, thank you George.

I got the distinct feeling that the staff thought that the whole system was insane and was designed to take money away from poor gullible people like me. “Remember to touch off otherwise the next time you touch on it will charge you for a whole day” I wonder how often that is going to happen, sounds like a real money spinner.

So what did I learn?

I learned that people will still go out of their way to help you and some of those people get paid and some just do it even though they have no idea who you are; they just know that you need help.

I wasn’t feeling all that well when the journey started but by the end of it I was reminded that every day is an adventure, whether we like it or not.

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She can smile……….. she knows how to use the damn thing.

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When all else fails, ask a young person……….. “You’re stuffed mate”.