A young man in a yellow high-vis vest gets off the 4.04 and hovers by the front door peering down the platform. I look at him enquiringly and he nods back at me in a friendly way. But he stays where he is, hovering. Just as I’m starting to wonder what his deal is, the platform clears. He turns, puts his fingers in his mouth, lets out a piercing whistle and jumps back in the train.
Apparently our suburban train service has acquired an unofficial conductor who’s whistling at every stop.
I ask my workmates if they’ve seen him and they’ve all had some brush with him.
“The train driver can’t see through him,” says one. “So I told him to get lost!”
Secretly, I hope to see him again.
The middle aged man with the beard and the big coat clearly wanted to chat, but I was at the exciting part of my book and had been looking forward to using the train journey to read it. So I replied politely and then disengaged, firmly gluing my gaze to the page
Further down the line, the man got lucky. I was so enthralled with the conversation I stopped reading.
A young bloke with a skateboard got in and the man started a conversation about his neck chains which moved rapidly onto talking about homelessness.
“I lost my f… house, my daughter, my wife two months ago.”
“How are you finding it?”
“F… freezing last night. Terrible.”
“Yeah I know what it’s like. I was homeless for 12 months after my f… step dad kicked me out. Almost died of f… hypothermia a coupla times.”
“Yeah! F… hard to find somewhere dry.”
“Did you know where you can get a free feed every weekend?”
They slipped into talking of ways and means.
Then coming into the junction, the young bloke said,
“I found a place and I’ve been there almost a year. We got two spare couches in the living room. Here, why don’t you take my address and phone number, just come round tonight and we’ll put you up.”
The middle aged man was touched and I, eavesdropping, got a lovely warm feeling in my chest.
“Yeah, yeah! Just show up tonight. I know what it’s like.
“That’s pretty f… great of you.”
My heart was lifted by this conversation yet at the same time I was fearful. What if someone was hurt? What if someone was assaulted or taken advantage of? I was brought up to distrust the kindness of strangers which is sad. But also wise.
But homelessness cuts down your choices
It’s Race Week and I spend the days at Flemington Racecourse station cooking sausages for all the staff there. And there are many there, station staff, security men, racing club hosts, drivers, signalers and maintenance guys, who sometimes have nothing to do all day but tighten the screws on the BBQ and hold themselves in readiness in case a train breaks down or a protester purposely parks on the railway tracks and throws away the car keys the way they did last year. Racing is Australia’s third biggest industry, the Melbourne Spring Carnival its biggest race week and consequently it’s also Metro’s biggest week. A screw up on a race day can seriously dent your credibility as Connex discovered to its cost one year when a train fried itself to the overhead wires and thousands of people had to walk home.
I was bought up by ex-Methodists and consequently I knew little of Race Week until I came to work for the railways. My parents looked askance at drinking and gambling and saw no need for the ostentatious spending of money on fabulous bags, shoes, clothes, make-up, hair and race tickets.
But though I’d never spend that amount of money on self-adornment, I really appreciate that others do it. All those lovely people on the morning train in hats and dresses and suits. They look so important even though they’re probably not. The really important people are probably driven.
I have to admit that I also kind of appreciate the aftermath in a shamefully smug ex-Methodist way.
This Derby Day, I’d cooked 400 pieces of meat and I stank of sausage grease. No need to moisturize that night. I took the train back to the Junction with people laughing, staggering and shouting.
On the platform two young men in beautiful suits and ties were doing the drunken waltz – The less drunk one trying to hold up a more drunk companion who is heading for the ground. Round and round and down and down they went until finally gravity won and the more drunk man had a little lie down on the platform while his mate went off to find – who knows what?
As I plodded up to the station office, I passed another beautifully dress couple in their 40’s doing a similar waltz, he holding up her. She was barefoot and hatless. The air was loud with people yelling “Here I’m over here,” “There are no Taxis, call an Uber” and some of them just yelling. God knows what it was like at Flinders Street and Southern Cross stations where most of the race-goers change trains.
“Someone’s passed out on Platform 4” I told the Station Officer who sighed, and called up the para-medic. Out the back the other para-medic (two are rostered at the Junction every race day. Also three extra cleaners) was out there taking care of a young woman throwing up in a bag.
I stayed in the warm office helping the Station officer deal with the stream of lost hats, wallets, bags and shoes and deal with drunks complaining about trains and asking for cabs and trying not to get too close to anyone so that they wouldn’t be overwhelmed by my eau de sausage.
By the time my train home came, the spare paramedic was down on platform 4 wheel chair at the ready, helping the young man haul his mate to his feet and watching tensely as they staggered round and round the platform until a train came in and took them safely away.
Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve been fascinated by an older man who potters past the station in the late afternoons, wearing a floppy khaki hate and carrying a fine mesh butterfly net.
Recently I managed to speak to him and discovered that he was (1) French and (2) an expert on Australian Native bees. Apparently Royal Park has 90 (yes 90!!, I queried this figure at the time) different species of native bee and now the flowers were coming out he was hoping to find some of them active.
On the last beautiful Monday morning I became aware of something odd going on in the garden outside my station. There seemed to be lots of people wandering about dressed in sheets???. So I pottered down to investigate and discovered some lovely young ladies wearing draperies lurking round in the trees.
“We’re Wattle Nymphs” they told me and kindly posed for a picture. The whole thing had a very 1920’s vibe which was confirmed when another young woman showed up with a camera and told me they were making a film based on a series of photos from 1921 called Wattle Nymphs. http://www.anbg.gov.au/campbell.wattle/
Filming finished the modern Wattle Nymphs floated away across the railways line still in their draperies and drove off in a four wheel drive. Not so 1920’s there.
While standing on the barriers at the Junction with a work mate, an elderly gentleman in a scruffy suit and tie comes up and asks me my name.
“Hello Sister Jane, I’m His Royal Highness Emperor Ross and Master Commander of the Universe, ” he says shaking my hand.
“Well done and thank you, you are now shielded, sister.”
He turns to my work mate and shakes his hand. ” And you brother, what is your name? You are exuding the probity, responsibility and moderation appropriate to a man in your situation. Well done, brother.”
He proceeds regally out onto the street and goes through a similar process with the officials outside. Probably it’s politically incorrect to giggle at those who reality is different to yours, but he is such a charming old guy and he leaves us with a smile on our faces.
It’s the Station Master’s last day. He’s been with the railways since age 16. I remember going to school by train. We school girls used to flirt with and giggle over such spotty young station officers. (Though I was on the other side of the city so I never giggled over him) The SM is full of stories of the old days. When he started they used to pay people in cash (I remember cash pay packets too because I too am ancient.) All the little stations were manned in those days and the station master was given a pistol when he went to deliver everyone’s pay. (There was a famous payroll robbery at Fairfield station during this period) They had a shooting range under Flinders Street Station where they practiced. (shades of Hot Fuzz?) “As a young bloke I used to help my SM deliver those pays,” says our retiring SM. “To be honest I was more worried about him with a gun than any robbers. He was a terrible alcoholic.”
They had some kind of special meeting at the youth mental health clinic yesterday. At least a dozen dazed looking young adults with protective parents in tow came through.
One sweet faced, and clearly heavily medicated, young indigenous man wanted to chat and asked me all about myself. It was he who told me of the mental health clinic. He was there with his dad, and his dad’s mate and they were by far the most disadvantaged looking group of the whole lot. Their clothes were dirty and shabby and the older men had that toothless, scrawny, underfed look that the chronically poor get and hands covered in homemade tattoos.
The young man told me about his mob and sleeping at the Salvos, the father, who was Irish, told me how he’d been at the local juvenile detention center on – an ironically named- Care and Protection Order back when he was 14
Suddenly the dad’s mate who’d been sitting quietly reading one of the books from the children’s library, jumped up and started rushing around, picking at the scabs on his hands and looking for somewhere to wash them. By the time the train arrived, he had his top pulled off and was scratching his already very scratched looking back with a piece of stick.
But they were all lovely polite folks and the young man was so very glad to have his father there to support him.
I’ve always been a bit smug/ proud of the fact that the brother of my Great Great Grandfather was transported for theft in the 1820’s, made good brewing beer and sent for the rest of the family, including my direct ancestor in the 1830’s.
The other day I was talking to one of my regulars who I’ve dubbed the Bolshie Lawyer. This a very casually dressed man who does legal aid cases. He comes from a very privileged background where he went to Melbourne Grammar, Melbourne Uni and was probably put down for membership of the Melbourne Club and the MCC the day he was born. He has the jaded view of the Melbourne upper classes that comes from long familiarity and we were discussing a well-known local politician.
“I was at school with him and he was a (insert uncomplimentary noun here) even then. So full of himself and his family. And mines been out here much longer than his.”
I couldn’t help bringing up my own ancestor then and the date 1824.
“That’s nothing,” said B.L. “My ancestor was a free settler and came out in 1810.”
That was when I asked him the surname and discovered his ancestor has a suburb and a railway station named after him and had built what is a now National Trust property. Definitely outclassed. Serves me right for such unearned pride.
And we must always remember our pioneer ancestors helped steal the land and destroy the tribes. So is it pride or shame we should feel? Or a complicated ambivalent mix of both that turns us away from the past entirely and reminds us to try and do better in the future.
An odd incident this week. A kid on a bike – maybe about 13/14 – came riding past the station and slowed to a stop.
“Hello! Do you recognize me?” he called out. “You used to yell at me and my friends for riding on the back of trains.”
I’ve been doing this job for 14 years now and I expected abuse at this point.
“I was only trying to save your lives,” I said defensively.“ It’s a very dangerous thing to do.”
“Yeah! We’ve stopped doing it now,” he said
And he turned round and cycled back up the hill.