“THIS IS THE ELEVEN-THIRTY V-LINE SERVICE FROM WARRNAMBOOL TO SOUTHERN CROSS STATION.”
Ouch. Extremely loud and incredibly close.
“THIS TRAIN STOPS AT TERANG, CAMPERDOWN, COLAC, BIRREGURRA, WINCHELSEA, MARSHALL, SOUTH GEELONG, GEELONG AND FOOTSCRAY BEFORE TERMINATING AT SOUTHERN CROSS STATION AT ABOUT THREE P.M.”
I should have picked it was the deaf guard today. I saw him on the platform shuffling luggage and bicycles into the front of our First Class carriage. First Class. You’ve gotta smile. For the extra nine dollars I get the luxury of looking at the backs of heads rather than playing kneesies. And I have a fold-down table that looks like it’s moulded from papier-maché but, since it was moulded around the time I was born is clearly much sturdier. Sturdier than papier-maché and me, both.
“THIS SERVICE WILL DEPART IN THREE MINUTES. NON-TRAVELLING PERSONS SHOULD NOW LEAVE THE TRAIN.”
Why does he have to be so loud? There’s another guard, a woman, that you can hardly hear at all. Is there a volume dial? Can someone texta an optimum rotation point?
Oh, hello. Here comes the mandatory first time traveller. Frantic eyes searching for seat numbers. Where are they? She’s looking down. Must be a movie-goer. Oh, now she’s looking up. Yes, it’s like an aeroplane. There they are. Above the windows. A25-Window A26-Aisle.
But there’s a devious trick. V-line logic is not exactly Apple-like in its user-friendliness. The numbers do not advance down the carriage like house numbers in Warrnambool streets, alternating left and right. Instead they zigzag in groups of four. 1 and 2 on the right. 3 and 4 on the left. 5 and 6 behind 3 and 4 on the left. Then over the other side for 7 through ten. On first encounter it seems completely random. The best one can compute is that the smaller numbers seem to be down the front, and the bigger ones down the back.
Invariably, I am tempted to offer help but my assigned window seat is about half a metre too far away to make easy conversation with someone in the aisle and anyway…
“PASSENGERS ARE REMINDED THAT CARRIAGES ‘A’ THROUGH ‘C’ ARE FOR PASSENGERS WITH RESERVED SEATS ONLY.”
Yes, but where is A47? You’ll have to wait until Mister Claxon is through. All other sound is temporarily extinguished. The ravens on Cannon Hill are silenced. The screeches of the swarming pink-crested cockies in the Timor Street pines are obliterated. The huge diesel engine, ten metres in front of seat A25, seems to have curled up and died.
“IF YOU ARE HOLDING AN UNRESERVED TICKET – IT LOOKS LIKE A CREDIT CARD – PLEASE GO TO CARRIAGE ‘D’ AT THE REAR OF THE TRAIN.”
The seat hunter has turned back and is lost to my vision. She is someone else’s opportunity now.
A phone rings. They always ring.
“Yes. I’m on the train.” Most people in the carriage were, like me, born well before the iPhone. We all feel the urge to shout. YES, SHE’S ON THE TRAIN!! Of course, we each lack the certainty that others would join in the chorus. It’s the 21st century, we remind ourselves. Definitions of privacy have been updated.
“I know. I know,” she says. “I’ve talked to them. You have options.” She pauses to listen then interrupts. “I know you’re upset, but listen to me…” Obviously she is not being listened to. “You’re not listening, Tiff.” Tiff? Is her other child named Jpeg?
The train lurches like my VW Golf on takeoff. They say it’s a characteristic of these double-clutch gearboxes. Doubtless a train built in the 1940s doesn’t have such a modern gearbox. Do trains even have gearboxes? Must Google that.
Sunlight streams in my window as we clear the abandoned railway sheds. It refreshes the screen of my Kindle. Passengers with iPads need to ask for seats on the shady side.
“I’m just saying, Tiff. You need to understand. You have options.” Sounds like Tiff doesn’t wish to understand.
I will fall asleep soon. Always have a nap before Terang. I can rely on Mr Claxon to wrench me back into consciousness with his “SHORTLY THE TRAIN WILL ARRIVE IN TERANG. NEXT STOP TERANG.” Soon we pass by the rear of the Gateway shops, the university on the right.
“Yes, I know it’s worrying you. But you need to hear what I am saying.” A whole carriage can hear what she’s saying, but we are no longer offended. We feel for this mother who is obviously trying to calm a worried daughter. “I talked to the student advisor.” … “Yes, I know you did.” … “It’s not as bad as that. You have options.” … “Yes you do.”
Mount Warrnambool slides by. The microwave towers give it a modern spiky hairdo. I drift off.
“PASSENGERS SHOULD HAVE THEIR TICKETS AND RELEVANT CONCESSIONS CARDS READY FOR INSPECTION.” I usually try to stay awake until we get through the inspection, but perhaps the blood sugar levels are lower than usual today.
We are somewhere beyond Panmure now. Squared-off paddocks. Cows dart off in common fright as the diesel thunders past. Cows must have attention deficit issues. The trains go by six times a day. They always get a fright.
“Tiff, Tiff. Listen to me please. I talked with the student advisor. You can switch to another course. You could even come home to Warrnambool for this semester.” … “Yes. You can study at the campus here. Then you can transfer to Commerce next year.” … … … “No, don’t do that. Wait until I get there. I’ll be there by four. We can go to the advisor together. We can work it out.”
There is desperation in this woman’s voice. We feel for her. And for Tiff. It is the second week of semester. When I worked in student affairs, we knew that getting first years through that first fortnight was vital. It was the fortnight of highest dropouts.
I want to help. To tell Tiff that she is not alone. Indeed, that as isolated and bereft as she feels, she is surrounded by thousands in the same harassing readjustment. There could be unity in their common struggle. Away from home for the first time. All her relationships tenuous or plain wrong. Everything new, much of it unwelcome. Information overload. Income underload. The Uni so complicated and bureaucratic. Two lectures already missed because she couldn’t find the right building, let alone the lecture theatre within. And the first assignment is due tomorrow. Just shoot me now, Mum.
“I know it looks bad, but we can work it out dear. Just hang on till I get there.” … “Yes, four.” … “No, don’t do that, Tiff. Don’t even say that, Tiff. You have options. You really do.”
Pain blankets First Class. A parent’s agony and helplessness infuses our souls. If only we could go and hug this mother. What is wrong with us that we sit silently, hovering over our electronics. At least I say a prayer for Tiff and her mother. God knows how, or even if, it all worked out.
“THIS TRAIN HAS BEEN FITTED WITH AUTOMATED DOORS WHICH WILL NOT OPERATE UNTIL THE TRAIN COMES TO A COMPLETE STOP. PLEASE CHECK THAT THE PLATFORM IS AVAILABLE BEFORE ALIGHTING.”
Oh, to be certain that there is earth beneath our feet.