muscled love

trainOn NYE I caught the train from St Peters in to Town Hall at about ten in the evening. Flynn and I got into the end carriage and sat down on the same bench as two burly, mean-looking blokes. Of course, I was immediately forced to eat my own prejudice, for the moment we sat down the man next to us introduced both himself and his friend to Flynn, asking him what our plans were for the night. I didn’t catch their names. The man closest to us was missing some teeth. I could not focus on the conversation he was having with his mate as I couldn’t tear my eyes away from the couple sitting opposite us, who were clearly travelling with these two.

He was swaying in a two second lag behind the train. His head drooped like it was too much weight for his neck to bear – almost like heroin-dropsy. He was very tall, angular; the kind of skinny where the absence of fat lets you see the inner workings of the body, like looking through a glass-bottom boat. All the veins, tendons, beating pulse-points, much of which was covered with a full spectrum of inky tattoos. He was bald, or very closely shaved. Shorts, white singlet, longish white socks falling down, sneakers.

With him was a woman I don’t think I will ever forget. She was biggish and wore short denim shorts and a tight pale pastel green singlet. She had thongs on. Her hair has stayed with me the most. I think it must have originally been blonde and she’d died it dark. Her light roots left the impression that her hairline was receding.

She loved this man. He was clearly coming down with something. I offered her my water for him but she politely declined. He tried a swig of lemon ruski instead, which she balanced delicately underneath her seat and in one smooth motion forced him to lie his head in her lap, his feet lifted above him against the carriage wall (this on the advice of our toothless friend). She had fake fingernails, which I watched as she soothed him.

Once he closed his eyes she joined in the conversation with the other blokes. A name was mentioned by one of them, to which she quickly fired

“What do you think of him?”
“Yeah, he’s a bit of a scumbag. Why? Do you know him?”
“He’s the father of my daughter.”
“Oh, well…”
“No, I think he’s a scumbag too. I should know. He slapped me around for four years.”

Now, my memory has failed me here. She did not say slapped but said instead a word that took my breath away. With this one exchange, and with the man she held in her arms, her life was filling the carriage like gas, a train-shaped snapshot of muscled love and survival.

I wish that I’d heard her name.


These last couple of weeks have been bound up in writing the final essays of my undergraduate degree and as a result the life-shots that I have witnessed have been bottled up to bursting point.

Perhaps the most heart-rending occurred a couple of weeks ago at Redfern station. I was on the Kings Cross platform, walking to a bench with my ear-phones in, when a slightish boy wandered past me in a peak cap. I think he might have said something to me through the ear-phones but I took him, to my discredit, for a lad and kept walking. Once seated, I had bent my head over some book when he wandered up to me.

I wish now that I had made more of an effort to remember him physically. The details are only an impression. It was an impression of neglect. He had acne. His face was thin and when he spoke it sounded like puberty had only let his voice drop half of the way. There was something anxious about his limbs, as though he was one of those cartoons who are surrounded by small double lines to denote frantic movement. He was completely devoid of aggression: there was no menace in the way he bore himself; it was almost as though the thought of threatening someone had never occurred to him (and if it did he would disregard it).

Of course, this impression is affected by what happened after he approached me (wouldn’t it be fascinating if we could recall our impressions moment by moment, without the retrospective colouring of memory, and explore how our prejudices develop [what it is exactly that triggers them: a peak cap or slouch, a tone of demand or smell of misfit]).

I took one of my ear-phones out just as he asked for change to catch a train home. I handed some coins over and, rather than disappear, he took a step aside to the payphone that stood next to the bench. He used the coins to make a call to his Mum.

I wrote down some grabs of this one-sided conversation.

Will I still be able to get new shoes today Mum?

Can you meet me at the station?

Can you still take me to the doctor?

What time are you meeting your friends?

OK, bye. Love you.

With that conversation any previous, rashly-concluded understanding that I had had was obliterated.

He was just a boy without enough money to call his mother.

old age

What is the relationship between realness and age?

I was sitting in the train this afternoon and there was a hipster-boy dressed completely in variations upon red. Less than a metre away from him stood a very tall, slightly stooped, sparsely-haired old man, dressed in variations upon grey.

The impression was this: if you stuck a knife in both of them, or opened some secret body-valve, air would have come out of the hipster and blood would have come out of the old man.

chest pieces

I woke up a couple of nights ago with this thought:

What if every sternum was a door that you could swing out to reveal the six precise memories that have had the most formative influence on a person? What if you could reach your hands inside and take them out, one by one, and roll them between your fingers?I imagine that these six memories would be concentrated, like juice, to resemble something like chess pieces that you can roll around in the palm of your hand. Imagine if you could handle the chest-pieces of another person to discover who they were, rather than trying to negotiate the said/unsaid of language (and our heinous ability to understand our own selves and then communicate that understanding).

Every time I get the train now I stare around the carriage and try and guess what each commuter’s chest-pieces would be. Would one chest-piece for the bikie be his first tattoo? Or would one for the woman in the three-piece business suit, who is incredibly small and slender, be the moment she realised she could never be a professional ballerina?

Only this morning I was struck by another question: what if these six pieces were lined up before you the moment that you died?

If I was to die today I would have sitting before me

  1. the moment I knew that I had played something perfectly on my cello, which felt like molding water in mid-air.
  2. floating weightless in the ocean and holding onto the boy that I loved, whose eyes were the same colour as the sea.
  3. the last time I saw my grandpa, my idol, who was dying in a hospice.

I’m not sure what my other chest-pieces would be. And, of course, my current chest-pieces may be replaced, in time, with other formative experiences.

This idea is going to need some stretching.

the gaze

Getting the train I often have the intense mushroom-cloud sized desire for all of the inter-carriage doors to open simultaneously to create one unbroken line through which you could see an unbroken line of commuters breaking out into spontaneous dance. Like this. But in a train.

This morning I saw, again, older women pulling themselves along invisible cords, helping each remain upright whilst they negotiated the moving space.

I saw a Chinese man walk on with a set of oversized purple headphones, which looked like metallic ear-warmers. They acted as a sort of frame to the plum-coloured birthmark that had seeped across his face.

I saw a just-beyond-middle-aged couple walk on, hand in hand, both slightly overweight in matching too-tight striped polo shirts. They held hands even when they had seated themselves and whispered into each others ears like schoolchildren.

I stared at my shoes self-consciously for a lot of the trip – I was suddenly aware of how ‘the gaze’ is perpetuated in a train carriage in a way that is almost impossible in any other space.

‘The gaze’ is that social contract by which, by making eye contact with a fellow human being, you both acknowledge their presence and the fact that you are co-existing with them in real space and time.

This may be why we so seldom make eye contact – how much easier is it to look at a screen/book/train map than accept the responsibility of being within a metre of another human being? It avoids the absurdity of standing within breathing-down-your-neck distance whilst straining to contain yourself within your own space-bubble. Make eye contact and it may pop, leaving you naked and exposed to the conversational elements.

I suddenly realised this morning, sardine-squashed in with 17 other breathing bodies, that the mirror-like train doors only multiply this absurdity onto an almost grand scale. I couldn’t look at the doors without catching the reflection of another gaze. I found my eyes sliding over people/mirror-people like an eel.

I felt almost ashamed at my complicity in propagating these space-bubbles.