Sydney Central Station, 8.20 pm.
There’s a curious mixture of legitimate travellers and those on the seamier side of life, with a hair-thin line separating them. People sit disconsolately, surrounded by luggage. A group of furtive smokers has congregated just outside – two young German girls with brand new Deuter rucksacks, a guy in a suit who keeps checking his phone, a middle-aged lady in cocktail dress and heels. Ten yards further along there is a soup kitchen, and the homeless line up to receive a bowl. A guy walks past with no shirt and no shoes – I saw him earlier in the city, in a kowtowing position, on his knees, forehead touching the ground, hands mutely outstretched before him in supplication. Into one of them someone had placed a ten cent coin. Now he’s altogether more animated, swaggering up to take his place in the food queue.
I become aware of someone standing in front of me and look up to see a cop. He’s tall and skinny and has bulging, hyperthyroid eyes. “I wouldn’t smoke there if I were you,” he says. “Not unless you feel like losing four hundred bucks.” Right, OK, I say, and wander across the road to finish my fag. Australia’s draconian smoking laws, which vary from state to state in degrees of incomprehension (no smoking in a public place – NSW; no smoking in a covered area where people are eating – Vic; no smoking unless you’re so drunk that it’s the least of your problems – NT), are selectively applied. There are at least a dozen people smoking outside the station. And the packets are decorated with pictures of various smoking-related ailments – one can order 50 grams of gangrenous foot (“Smoking causes peripheral vascular disease”), or perhaps a pack of 20 pink-tinged toilet bowl (“Smoking can lead to bladder cancer”). It doesn’t stop anyone.
The train is full tonight for the eleven-and-a-half hour slog to Melbourne. I’m already soaked in sweat from walking around Sydney all afternoon, and resign myself to an uncomfortable night. The carriage smells of old socks, and we haven’t even left yet. The conductor’s voice crackles over the tannoy: “Welcome aboard the NSW Trainlink XPT service to Melbourne.” She adopts a firm tone: “Anyone under the influence of drink or drugs, wearing soiled clothing or indulging in antisocial behaviour will be removed from the train and met by the police. You are reminded that smoking is strictly prohibited and there are smoke alarms fitted in all toilets and at every station. If you are caught smoking you will be prosecuted in accordance with Federal law.” On and on and on it goes, the hectoring, the nannying, as the carriage’s occupants sit there being scolded like an unruly class of schoolchildren. “You are reminded that it is an offence to drink any alcohol which has not been purchased from the buffet car. This is a fully booked service tonight so please remain in your allocated seat.”
It’s all nonsense. Pointless, patronising finger-wagging nonsense. As events are to prove.
A guy comes and takes the seat next to me. 40s, very pale skin. He has a gingery goatee and aviator shades on. His arms are covered in tattoos. I make out a vaguely Scottish accent beneath an Australian twang:
I’m just here for the night. Had tae get the fuck out of Dodge, know what I mean? Dunno where I’m going yet. Three times now, I’ve started over, and I’m getting sick of it. She kicked me out. Been together three years, I’d built a patio, spa bath out the back, all that – just want a quiet life, you know what I mean? Yeah – I’m from Scotland originally, but been working in WA on the mines. Welder. So we were making plans, getting settled, but she was always off out with her ‘mates’. Well I know now, don’t I? What sort of mates they were. Bunch of islanders – you know, Polynesians, Samoans and that. Aye, so she was out and I was just clearing out this cupboard and I found a holdall. Didna recognise it, you know? So I open it up, and guess what’s in it? Whole bunch of passports, credit cards, you name it – all in different names. Well, I’m no angel, you know? I’ve done stuff. Never been in the gaol though! But if you want to fiddle the books, take a bit on the side off of a big corporation, fair enough, know what I mean? But I wouldnae steal from a working man. He’s grafted for that, like. So I told her – you’ve got 24 hours to get rid of that stuff, no questions. Well I come back Friday and it’s still there, and there’s a shitty little message on ma phone to mind my own business. So you know what I did? I went to the cops with it. Me! Handed it all in, like. Aye, well now ah’m in the shit, because there’s a bunch of islander lads looking for me. She was just holding the stuff, you know? So I’m up here, but I’ve got nae money at all – only these. D’you know anything about stones? Well these were in the bag and I took them out before handing it to the cops. I reckon they’re worth a bit, but I’ve been up and down the main drag looking for jeweller shops but it’s all watches and shit. I dunno what I’m going tae do now – I’m flat broke. Might jump a train at Southern Cross. Just got to keep moving, I reckon.
We crawl out of Central and slowly make our way past bricked-up warehouses and inner city housing. We don’t get far. After ten minutes or so we stop at a suburban station where two cops are waiting on the platform. They board the train and proceed along the carriage, checking the rows of passengers. They linger at the Scot for a moment – something about him isn’t right – but he doesn’t fit the description they want, and on they go. Everyone appears hopelessly respectable, and they enter the next carriage. The conductor, a short woman with a page-boy haircut and fussy walk, intercepts them and points towards carriage D. Through the carriage door I see them escorting a couple off the train – a young guy in shorts and T-shirt (perhaps it was soiled?) and a woman who is clearly very angry. The cops talk to them on the platform for a while, the woman’s voice rising in shrill protest. The young guy sits passively on a bench nearby, occasionally interjecting feebly. This goes on for a few minutes, the woman arguing with the conductor, the police ready for trouble. Eventually bags are collected off the train and the couple are escorted out through the station, the woman shouting and pointing at the conductor. Passengers crane their necks to see what is going on outside the windows, but there’s nothing to see – the couple have gone. There’s a jolt, and we begin to move again. After a few minutes the conductor’s voice comes over the tannoy again. She sounds stressed. “We apologise for the unscheduled stop. Passengers are reminded that anyone found under the influence of drink or drugs will be removed from the train. We’re very serious about this, as one couple have just found.” The Scot next to me – no angel, as he says – raises his eyebrows archly and goes: “Oooh!”, and we both laugh.
I read for a while – Graham Greene’s “Travels with my Aunt”, which seems fogeyish and archaic. There’s a black man in it who speaks of himself in the third person and is little more than a crude caricature. The book was written in the late 60s, and is peppered with a slightly self-conscious amount of hippyish slang in the mouths of certain characters, as if Greene was trying to reproduce a language he didn’t entirely understand. Not his best, by a long shot. I head to the bathroom, and when I return I notice that there are a different couple in the seats behind us. My Scottish neighbour leans over, and with his head conspiratorially close to mine – although there’s not much chance of him being understood as he’s speaking pure Glaswegian – mutters: “Coupla smackheids. Watch yer bags.” Apparently some other passengers in Coach D complained about these two, so the conductor decided to move them. Presumably she considers myself and the Scot to be less squeamish about the company of junkies. And that’s what they are alright – there’s no mistaking it. The pallor, the whining speech, the furtiveness. I eavesdrop on the conversation behind me:
Where’s the cigarettes? Give them here. My mum bought them for me, so just fucking give me them. It’s not my fault the other people complained. I’m running out of medication for my schizophrenia. Yeah I can smoke on the platform at the next stop. Don’t tut at me – you’re always tutting at me. 5 years I looked after those kids, then 18 months with you and they end up in the system. So don’t you tut at me. Give them here! Fuck!
The conductor comes back and talks to them in a low voice. The gist of it is that she’s done them a favour by moving them and if they don’t behave they’ll be put off the train. Slowly it dawns on me the full measure of incompetence that is going on here. She put the wrong couple off the train at the previous station, because the junkies were in their allocated seats. No wonder the woman was so angry. I mention this to the Scot, and he laughs mirthlessly.
We trundle on, into the night. After a while the carriage lights are switched off, and the only illumination comes from people’s mobile phones. The African ladies next to us draw shawls round themselves and nod off. At Wagga Wagga several passengers leave the train, and the Scot moves to a spare seat further back. A young lad in his teens with a skateboard gets on and comes to sit next to me. He’s got that same bleached shaggy hair and baseball cap as the lads on the sailing ship – clearly a ‘look’ amongst Aussie teens. His friends have come to see him off, and stand the other side of the glass making faces, the girls blowing kisses. As the train begins to move two of them run alongside, the taller one taking off his shirt and whirling it round his head, running along full pace beside the train, grinning and whooping. The teenager doesn’t know where to look – he’s both touched and embarrassed, and checks around to see if anyone else has noticed. It’s one thirty in the morning in Wagga Wagga and these lads are giving their friend a proper send-off. As the platform drops away behind us the two small figures slow and then come to a halt at the barrier, the one still waving his shirt, and the teenager looks out of the window for a long time after them, then pulls out his phone and scowls at it, blinking hard.
I dozed off somewhere in the wilds of New South Wales, because when I awoke he was gone. The junkies behind me were having a row about money. They hadn’t got any. The conductor came back and told them off for disturbing the other passengers: “If I have another complaint about you I’ll put you off the train at Albury.”
“Noooo – please. We’re sorry. We have to get to Melbourne.”
“I’ll ask you again. Have you taken any drugs?”
“Only my medication for my schizophrenia. It’s not my fault that I’ve got a condition.”
“Well I don’t want to hear another peep out of you until we get to Southern Cross. And you smell of cigarettes. If you smoke on this train again, you’ll be off.”
The conductor departed, and the two of them resumed their row, sotto voce. I’d had enough, and spotting a spare seat up at the front, got my bag and moved to it. Ten minutes later the conductor came back into the carriage, and spotting me occupying a previously empty seat, shone a torch at me:
“Where did you get on?”
“Well what seat is on your ticket?”
“The one directly in front of those two junkies that you decided to place behind me. I’m sick of listening to their bitching, they smell, and I don’t fancy getting robbed. So I’m sitting here now.”
“Oh.” She looked a bit taken aback. “OK. Well there’s someone else getting on at Henty. But she’s on her own. So you can stay here.”
“Super. Thanks very much.”
Henty, NSW – 3.00 am.
Sorry… sorry. Did I wake you? I don’t know what seat I’m in. This is 4E? OK. Sorry. Yeah, going to Melbourne. Actually Geelong – my mum lives in Geelong. She’s looking after my daughter for a few days, but she’s been really naughty so I’m going down early to pick her up. Britney. She’s two. Everybody reckons I’m too young, but I’m 19! It’s cos I look young. I’m always getting ID’d. And people are so judgemental. Yeah, I had a row with my partner. Yeah, it got a bit physical, and it’s like a line you cross, you know? And you can’t go back. He’s 19 too. He lost his job and now he just sits on the playstation and I have to do everything. And I’m pregnant as well. Look! Does it show? Some people want to feel. I’m spending fifty bucks a week on tomatoes. Just craving them. I’ve got loads of different kinds at home. Well it’s better than chocolate! Oh my god, there’s a man being sick. I think it’s that junkie guy. I’m scared of junkies – always think I’m going to get stabbed or something. Did you ever see Twilight? I read the whole series. Always loved reading – I wish I could study literature or creative writing, but it’s too late now I suppose. The Vampire Diaries. No? Oh I love that show. You know Huge Ackmann got skin cancer? Oh look – the conductor’s coming. I reckon she’s going to chuck him off at the next station. You’re from London? Really? No way! I thought you were an Aussie. You don’t sound British. Not like those crime dramas where it’s all “Cor blimey” and “bloody hell”. Oh wow, London. I’ve never travelled. I wanted to go to Bali but it’s too humid, like Darwin. Not London though – I mean there’s not much to see, is there?
Southern Cross Station, Melbourne – 7.40 am.
The junkies are smoking furiously on the platform beneath a huge No Smoking sign. Passengers are waiting around for their luggage from the goods wagon, which is being brought out one bag at a time, by one man. The train crew changed in the night when we crossed into Victoria, and the new conductor, a harrassed-looking middle-aged lady, is having a rant to one of the other crew members: “Five complaints! Five! Why the bloody hell the NSW team let them travel I don’t know. Yeah, I called ahead for security to meet us here but of course there’s no sign of him. Well I thought he was dead! He was face down in the corridor covered in vomit, and when we sat him up he had four different bank cards in his pocket – all in different names!”
Seeing my bag emerge from the carriage I seize it and trundle off down the platform. Southern Cross hasn’t changed. I make a beeline for the coffee shop and get an enormous flat white. Heading out onto Swanston Street I see my usual bench has been occupied by three people surrounded by luggage and a pram. They are most definitely bogans – the Australian version of a chav. They wear bits of high street sportswear, one of the women in bright pink sweatpants with frayed trouser cuffs and an oversized little-girl nightie. She is bull-necked and enormous and she’s swearing like a fishwife at the guy. They are on their feet, circling each other, yelling abuse, faces scarlet with rage. Some disaster has befallen them – burned out of their house? Evicted? Benefits cut off? Who knows. Here they are, on the street with nowhere to go, and she’s very angry about it. Beside them a baby in a push chair cries. It is one of the most depressing scenes I’ve ever witnessed. And around them commuters stream past on their way to work, averting their eyes.
“Hi!” There’s a voice at my elbow. It’s the girl who got on at Henty. “Oh my god, these people. They scare me. Bogans, we call them.” Standing, I see just how small she is – barely five feet tall. She looks terribly young. “I just tried to buy some smokes in the 7/11 and they wouldn’t serve me. Have you got a spare one?” I duly oblige. It’s windy, and she can’t get the lighter working, so she ducks her head inside her T-shirt – which says Beyonce on it – exposing her pregnant belly as she does so. The bogans are actually chasing each other round the bench now. Where are the cops? Probably off harassing smokers, or escorting perfectly respectable passengers off trains because they were mistakenly in the wrong seat. I despair of it.
“I never want to turn out like that,” says the girl.
“You never will,” I say. And in her eyes I see gratitude.
Kyneton – 10.37 am.
Given that I left Katoomba at 10.15 am yesterday, I’ve spent the last 24 hours on trains. I’m sticky, short of sleep and have a banging headache. The green pastoral land of Victoria whizzes past outside – merino sheep at a trough, cattle lying in the shade of the trees. Occasionally there’s a billboard for the local elections – around here it all seems to be Donna Petrovich for Macedon Ranges. She beams out from the billboards looking like a rather dowdy housewife. I saw another one somewhere up north, of an old white guy in a suit, which said simply: “Integrity. Experience. Common Sense.”, and I immediately formed a mental picture of some town councillor who’d been in office for as long as anyone could remember. The Victorian elections are in full swing, with a series of adverts on TV like public safety films, which is in fact what I initially took them for. One particularly disturbing one was a recording of a phone call to the emergency services. A distressed woman. Her baby wasn’t breathing. The ambulance staff try to reassure her, but she’s sobbing down the line. And after this harrowing footage comes the punchline: “Under Dennis Napthine’s premiership, funding for health care services in Victoria have been cut.” This was followed by another advert saying that you were legally obliged to vote, or face a hefty fine. I await scenes of brutal assaults with the caption that police funding has also been slashed. “Oh, you voted Labor? Who’s gonna help you now?”
Kyneton drowsed in soporific sunshine. I trundled my backpack through the botanical gardens, taking a shortcut, and stopped under a tree for a while with rosellas – a kind of parakeet – chattering overhead. Down Ebden Street, past the gym that plays country and western (I assume it’s local radio, and it makes quite a change from the usual pumping dance music), the fire station (Fire Hazard: Very High), across “historic” Piper Street at the hotel, then down and into the driveway. Pepper the dog pranced on her hind legs and turned several circles – I suppose she thought she might not see me again. It’s rather touching how an animal can become fond of you… and we of it. She’s so timid, but she knows I’m alright. Now she lies at my feet in the sunshine, having followed me from room to room all morning, occasionally pushing her white furry snout under my hand to be stroked, which she responds to with a satisfied pigletty grunting sound. It’s good to be back.