5.52pm. We pour into the train at Flinders Street, a large field competing for seats. The train is crowded. At 5.54, right on time, the train lurches into motion. Strap hangers brace themselves. Those of us who are seated sink inward into passivity. It is the end of the day.
5.56pm. Richmond Station. Dozens leave our compartment, scores replace them. The carriage is fuller than before. A forest of people grows up around and before me.
A snarl, a growl. It comes from somewhere near the front.
Faces lift from phones and the throwaway gossip paper: What was that? Who was that? Who are you looking at?
The sound is a voice, a localised explosion of menace. Faces turn, necks crane, a space opens around the voice.
Fucking VC! Get back to fucking China!
The space around the sounds widens. I can see a man, Asian, not young, in an aisle seat. Next to him in the aisle stands a short stocky man, not Asian, who glowers at him. In the window seats sits another Caucasian. He shrinks towards the window, away from the protagonists at his side.
The train has started to move. South Yarra station is 100 seconds away. One hundred seconds in which two men play out their scene before an audience of around 100 witnesses.
Asian shit! What the fuck you doin’ in our country? Fuckin shit!
The view is clearer now. There is plenty of space around the men.
Shouter is about thirty, Asian man about sixty. His head is bowed, his thin grey hair hangs, a frayed curtain about his face. Inches distant, Shouter’s arms bulge from his short sleeves, his muscular face and his bullet head twitch. Spittle speeds the sibilants he screams into the older man’s face.
Why don’t you fuckin answer?
Asian man lifts his head. He says nothing. Shouting man’s fists are balls of bone. He lurches with the movement of the train.
We one hundred witnesses lower our heads – in fear? – in shame? – and say nothing.
I know that I am frightened. My heart thumps in my chest. I am afraid of physical pain. I am cowed by all forms of aggressive behaviour. I know that shouting man is my problem and it is I who must act.
What weapons do I have? Words, perhaps. I begin to rehearse some words:
Excuse me mate. You might want to know the CCTV camera is operating. (Really? I don’t see any camera.)
Better tone it down mate. People are calling the coppers on their mobiles. (They are not. Like me, they are all looking the other way.)
Please don’t talk to him like that. (Please bash me.)
One hundred seconds pass. We arrive at South Yarra station. Shouting man swaggers from the carriage, muttering.
No one approaches Asian man, no-one speaks to him of our silence, our abandoning him.
One hundred weeks after the event, I am still rehearsing words.