Twice upon a Time

 

Once upon a time, an old man travelled by train from the goldfields to the great city. The old man took his seat and looked around. Seated at a remove in a row parallel to his sat a younger man with a bony face, his features stony and set hard. His limbs were a living art gallery of tattoos; unlike all others aboard the train he wore no mask and, when asked to show his rail pass to the conductor, he did not speak, did not move, but showed no ticket. The old man felt a sense of implicit menace, not only on account of the younger man’s scowl, but in his very silence, and somehow in his unseasonable short pants and t-shirt, as if he declared he was tougher than others,  rugged up against the cold of the day.

 

Nobody challenged the Man of Silent Menace.

 

 

About twenty minutes into the journey the old man smelled smoke. It wafted his way from the parallel seats. He stood and looked for signs of fire. He found none. No-one else seemed perturbed. The old man hoisted his backpack and walked out of that carriage and into the next. He left behind him the smell of smoke and the Man of Menace, and we too leave them now, as they play no further part in our story. The old man walked out and into a different story.

 

 

In the next carriage the old man found an empty corner where he sat down and started to read. He heard a voice and, wondering, he looked up. He didn’t catch the words for he was an old man, but he thought he heard ‘looking stylish’.

He turned in the direction of the voice, which was feminine in register, and he found himself facing a young woman who had, indeed, addressed him. The young woman was slightly built, her hair was red and she had freckles dotting her face and arms. Her face was covered, as the man’s was, by a mask. An open laptop computer sat on her knees.

 

 

The old man, surprised, because few over his long lifetime had remarked favourably on his ‘style’, asked the woman: Did you speak to me? I’m afraid I didn’t hear clearly.

I said you look stylish.

Golly, thought the man.

Thank you, said the man.

Yes, the cool jacket, the beret. Especially the beret.

 

The man thanked her again, and asked, (because he was interested in such things), What are you writing?

A story, she replied. I hope it will become a novel. Would you like me to read you some?

The old man said yes, I would. Thank you.

 

 

The old man thought, What a fearless young person!

The young woman now picked up her computer, her pink tote bag, her backpack and a fluffy jacket and removed from her corner diagonally opposite the man’s, and sitting herself down opposite him, almost knee to knee, started to read.

 

 

The young woman read musically and expressively. Her story told of a father and his young daughter. The father, a magician, delighted his daughter with the magic he practised. He created a world where her mind dwelled in fantasy. The father commanded his daughter never, never to open the trunk which contained his magician’s materials. His tone was tender but firm. The man departed, leaving the trunk in the care of his daughter.

 

 

The daughter felt tempted. She too wished to work magic, for she knew that despite the doubts of many, magic was real, its actions were everywhere to be seen, if only one had eyes to see.

 

 

The temptation was stronger than the daughter’s resistance. In truth she did not try to resist; she wanted to do what her father did, she wanted to know what he knew.

The girl opened the trunk.

 

 

At this point the storyteller closed her laptop and looked up at the old man with a question in her gaze. For his part, the old man had fully entered the world of the story and was sorry that it had stopped. He felt surprised at himself for, being a prosaic old man, he held no belief or interest in the world of magic. He said, I like your story. I liked the atmosphere you created and I’m interested in your characters and in how their relationship will play out. If I had been reading this story I would want to read on. I’d want to learn what happened next. There will be consequences of the child’s action, and I imagine, of the father’s trust or  his trial of the child.

 

 

The young woman smiled with pleasure. 

 

 

The old man ventured: I’ve published a few books.
Wow! Where can I find them?

You can check out my blog.

Your blog! Wow!

 

 

The old man asked if she was a student. She said I’m doing a degree in Creative Writing and Film, at uni. The man asked the author where she had boarded the train. She named an exquisite mountain village in the vicinity. She went on to describe the farmlet where she and her fearless brother were raised and still live. She spoke of the animals, all of which bore names, she spoke of her creative parents – musicians – who passed on the gifts of music to their children. She said, Dad mowed a maze into the acres and acres of grass behind the house. We grew up in enchantment and imagination. As she spoke she glowed with recall of a childhood of wonder.

 

 

The old man thought the woman’s lived idyll somehow echoed the idyll she created in her story. He asked, do you make music too? Oh yes, we all do, we play and sing. I’m in a band. We’re going to cut an album. I write my own songs. Would you like to hear one?

Yes. Choose a sad one.

 

 

In asking her to sing to an audience of only one, the man was testing the limits of the young person’s boldness. But she gave voice, sweetly, to the story of an intimate friendship which ebbed and flowed in pain and closeness and ended in estrangement. I hate you/ I love you – she sang. The old man found the song and the singing unexpectedly pleasant. He anticipated the usual tuneless jingle and the usual trite lyrics, but this was bright and sweet and heartfelt, without becoming mawkish. He said as much.

 

 

The young woman was greatly pleased. She confided in him about her current girlfriend, throwing in, as if to assure the old man or herself – but I’ve had a boyfriend before her. We were together for four years. I realised I’m not binary.

 

 

The old man asked, Would you like to hear a poem? It’s a poem about a weeping man, he said. Probably a sad man, like the person in your song. Yes, please, she replied.

 

 

The old man read to her Les Murray’s poem, An Absolutely Ordinary Rainbow. The young woman listened without moving, stunned by the music of the lines and the breadth of the poet’s understanding.

 

 

Wintry sunshine lit up the little freckles on the woman’s arm. The old man recalled with love his freckled sister as a little girl and the lines their mother used to quote: Glory be to God for dappled things…

 

 

The train pulled into the platform. The passengers disembarked. The old man said, Make sure you tell me when your book is published, then he turned left. Taking up her pink carry bag, flinging her pack onto her back and draping herself in her fluffy jacket, the young woman turned right.

 

 

In the half-light of dusk in the cavernous space of the railhead the old man set out for the long escalator which  rose up and up and brought him to an elevated level. He exited the building, looked about him, realised he was lost and returned to the roofed space. Here he took a downbound escalator (this is really a ‘descalator’, he thought to himself) and rode to the platform level. Still lost, he looked about him, wondering.

 

 

Before him stood a young woman. The woman was slightly built with fine freckles and reddish hair. The two exchanged surprised smiles.

The old man thought, this is twice upon a time. The man asked, Which way is Spencer Street?

That way, she said, extending an arm.

Thanking her, he turned to go.

Behind him a voice asked: Would you hug?

Would I hug, he wondered.

She opened her arms wide. The man felt diffident, unusually awkward. Uncertain of today’s etiquette, too-conscious of how others might see him, he held her by her bony shoulder blades while she held him firmly for a time.

Goodbye, they said in unison.

While Reading my Book of War


Seated on the tram, reading on a spring day
 at noon, I’m distracted by a pink robe passing close to me. My eyes lift to a young face, pale and wet with tears. No sounds, just a face folding beneath its weight of pain. The rest of the person is young, thin, female, quite tall. She’s partially covered by a pink polyfleece robe. Beneath the robe two pale legs stretch down to feet in thongs.

The girl looks about seventeen. Her features are Chinese. I check her for external signs of physical illness and detect none. She’s just a young girl silently weeping. Happily she’s not alone; standing close to her a taller girl clasps her gently. The second girl looks about the same age. She too is Chinese. The comforter’s free hand rests against the back of the  weeper’s head. She bends the head tenderly forward and rests it on her shoulder where it stays a good time.

The two stand, lightly enfolded, bracing against the far side of the tram. They ignore free seats close to them. The tram moves on, leaving behind them the beachside where they boarded. Were the two swimming? What grief or pain or random unkindness of life brought them from the beach?

Ten minutes pass. The weeping face lifts from time to time and faces the tram, unseeing. Tears trickle. No words pass between the girls. The two have not moved from their station at the opposite side. A fair youth seated legside looks up and stares briefly, perplexed. His mouth opens, falls shut. Respectful of private suffering, he turns away. I too feel prompted to help, but diffidence holds me back. What’s more the friend seems to be comfort enough.

Watching for my own stop, I look up at intervals from my book. A few stops out from my destination I look up and find the wall opposite empty. The girls have gone, pink robe, bare legs and tears, and all.

 

Grace on a Tram

I caught the tram this morning. Truly caught it. Chased it like a mad thing, dodged traffic banked up behind it, weaved, sprinted, kept balance. Climbed aboard, collected my breath, took a seat and took in my surroundings. And pleasant surroundings they were, for seated opposite me was a colourful and pleasing sight: a young woman, slim, with wavy lime-and-blond coloured hair, who sat and ate a banana.


Her lime-blond hair matched her bright lime socks. At her hip hung a patchwork cloth bag, alive with colour. Her black patent leather ankle boots gleamed. Just above the orifice into which banana descended and disappeared steadily before my fascinated gaze, a small nose ring looped between her nostrils. The young woman was thin but not starved. She worked steadily at her banana until she came to the moment of social truth (for some, the moment of crisis), the end of the banana, the moment when the skin demands of the eater a decision.

I watched. Would she ditch with a deft flick the peel beneath her seat? Might she instead reach into her bright bag of cloth for a plastic bag? The young woman (I decided she was nineteen years of age) did neither. She simply sat, and the peel sat on her lap, dying.

The dying of a banana peel is swift in onset. The peel, once devoid of the flesh that shaped it and gave it purpose, quickly shrinks and darkens, losing all meaning. Its yellow bloom gone, it darkens, collapses and becomes an elegy for its own shabbiness.

So the three of us sat there for a while, the lady, the banana peel and the watcher. Throughout, the winter sun shone bright through the window of the tram, transfiguring all. My eyes watered for brilliance, and my bones thawed.

After a time a man entered. Tall, wide and round, the man moved slowly into our space in the back section of the tram. His shabby clothes were black, his curls were black and his skin was black. He lowered above us for a time, directing his gaze where no eyebeams might intersect. His fleshy lips moved soundlessly. His hairy right hand clutched a sheaf of papers upon which columns of figures descended in lines from the top of each page to the bottom. The pages had the grey, slightly smudged look of photocopies. I peered at the pages, curiously. The man held them as a child might clutch a Teddy Bear, a talisman held close, disregarded, but not to be surrendered readily.

The man finished looking at nothing and lowered his fleshy self onto a seat between and opposite the lime- banana woman and me. We three found ourselves at the points of an equilateral triangle. The man, oblivious, muttering like the scriptural Hannah, was not a prepossessing person. His bulk projected itself towards the woman, towards – who knows? – possibly into her space.

I guessed she might feel intimidated. I half expected her to rise and remove herself. I watched tensely. The man’s free hand rose, coming to rest close to his ear. He spoke. His speech was not directed, the speech, I surmised, of telephony. I looked up and between his splayed fingers no telephone was seen. The tram lurched, the man lurched in his seat, his clothing shifted above his large belly. His naked flesh, baby-like, helpless, pleaded his innocence.

Now the young woman moved. She leaned forward and sideward, her angular face closing on the man’s. She said something I did not catch. The man did not catch it either. The woman’s lips moved again and I was able to read them.  I saw the words, Can I help you?  The man saw, or heard, too.  After some time he spoke, now facing the young woman, his back to me. I had no clue what he said or asked. But the woman was nodding, Yes, yes, all the way to the city.  You’re on the right tram. Her face, still close, relaxed and opened widely into a smile. The girl nodded again, her smile shone upon the man. Eyes locked, the two sat for a time without moving.

At length the man sat back in his seat and relaxed, unfolding himself, pouring himself liberally into the space left around him by peak hour riders keeping a fastidious distance.

The sun lit the man’s tight black coronet of curls. Those curls crouched as a perimeter around his bald patch that I could now see gleamed in the morning light.  The tram rode on a short space, then stopped. The young woman rose and walked towards the exit. I did not want her to leave, not yet, not before I could thank her, bless her.

The tram stopped, the woman descended and I watched as her slim form weaved a colourful path through the city crowds.

Autumn notes: Man on a Tram

Peak hour, crowded tram. Deep in my book, head down in a forest of winter clothing, I sense rather than see the form that moves in my direction. The form sits down at my side. The face that I glimpse is dark, a face of bones and wrinkles like ravines. The hair, a crown of silver curls, strewn or scattered, falls in accord with the whim of wind or gravity or inertia.

The man is short and narrow. His slim haunches scarcely fill half of the empty half seat at my side. He looks about my age, but, reckoning with an educated eye I decide he’s two decades younger. Ragged black clothing speaks of neglect. The silver hair smells of cigarette smoke. A whiff of breath speaks of last night’s grog. Surrounding him, standing or seated, commuters armed and painted for the day in the City, all in their groomed elegance, escape into screens and music. The forest towers above and about him. The man lacks all accoutrement and adornment. He sits with his stillness, the smallest adult.

The man sits with his back to me. I return to my book which absorbs me for a mile or two. A rattle of a flat voice at my side brings me back to the tram. The voice speaks a question: Alfred Hospital? Before I can compose a response the slim young woman facing the black man speaks, It’s close, I think. I’ll look it up. The young woman interrogates her phone with quick little fingers. Her hair is light brown, her face nearly pink, her glasses, large and round, giving her the look of an undergraduate continually astonished by the adult world. Her eyes are small, shiny, slanted.

Yes, she says, it’s the stop after the next one.

The man’s voice rattles: Medical appointment.

The young woman leans, points further down the track, over her shoulder: Commercial Road. The man sits as we all do, in the young woman’s face, in uninvited intimacy. Her voice is kind, her gaze at the man, steady, frank, unafraid.

The rattle again: Dunno what the doctors will tell me.

I hope you’ll be alright.

 

 

The thin man rises just as the tram lurches to a stop. He glides toward the door, correcting for the lurching with a deft swing of hip and thigh that is effortless and graceful. He dismounts and disappears.