There are few things I loathe in life more than being crammed inside a packed train carriage at 7:30 in the morning, surrounded by things I just don’t want to deal with at any time of day, let alone first thing in the morning: being practically able to taste what someone had for breakfast, last night’s whole head of garlic, a latte – skim, I think, maybe one sugar – or that last cigarette, as their breath wafts gently across my face, caressing my nostrils with its warm, silky aromas of… ewwww! Some people have the most rancid breath! Other people, I’m convinced, bathe in vats of après-rasage or cheap perfume which is offensive enough, but far less offensive than someone who’s never experienced the pleasure of personal hygiene products. There’s almost always someone whose iPod volume is on the ‘split eardrums’ setting; someone having a phone conversation at the top of their voice; someone in a suit – usually pinstripe – throwing a broadsheet newspaper all over the place (though not for much longer!) and someone else, also in a suit, who you can just tell plainly doesn’t need to be wearing a suit, but they’re so taken up in the whole corporate thing that they think they’ll look better than everyone else if they wear a cheap brown pinstripe suit and beige shoes… wanker. The person closest to you almost always has half a tub of product in their hair, conjuring terrifying mental images of the train coming to a sudden halt and you inadvertently making contact with their head and being stuck there for the rest of your collective lives. There’s almost always someone who pushes to be first through the doors, first to their onboard location of choice and don’t think for a second that they won’t squeeze the life out of themselves just to fit into the tiniest available space! Wherever there’s seating for three, you’ll find two seated at the extremities and a large, comfortable-looking space in the middle that’s almost impossible to get into, if you can get to it at all… and funnily enough, I had an onboard adventure recently that began just like this.
Here in Sydney we’re lucky enough to be ferried from place to place on exotic double-decker trains, similar to the suburban trains in Paris and, I suppose, elsewhere. CityRail’s fleet of rolling stock is a hodge-podge of vaguely similar designs, with some cars older than me, other cars introduced as recently as last year, but they all share more-or-less the same basic layout. There’s a kind of mezzanine-esque level – ‘the vestibule’ – as you enter the carriage, a long bench-type seat along each of the two longest walls and four or five steps leading to the upper and lower decks. I try to avoid the upper decks because… well, just because. I’d also rather stand than go anywhere near the lower decks. For reasons I’m yet to fathom – and I refuse to believe it’s simply because they’re at the bottom – the lower decks seem to be a magnet for all manner of undesirables: more of those people with zero sense of personal hygiene, empty bottles, pages of discarded newspapers strewn all about; when it rains the lower decks become rivers on rails; when it’s hot, it’s hotter down there than anywhere else in the world and when it’s cold enough up top, it’s colder still below stairs! Plus, all that looking up at platforms whizzing past does weird stuff to my eyes, so I just stay away.
Anyway, long story getting longer, for the nearly twelve years I’ve lived in Sydney I’ve invariably gravitated toward the vestibule – there’s almost always room to stand and you’ll occasionally even get a seat, plus there’s a much more efficient escape route from the vestibule than from the upper and lower decks. So I get on the other morning and it’s one of the newer carriages, with not so much individual seating as five or six backrest-shaped pads along both sides. Five or six very narrow backrest-shaped pads. I don’t know where these things were designed, but the extremities of the average Sydney rail commuter rarely fit within the outline of the backrest-shaped pad! Luckily the bases of all five or six backrest-shaped pads, though also somewhat akin to a seat-cushion in shape, essentially form a bench so it’s reasonably pain-free to get yourself comfortable when the train’s not full.
On this particular morning, however, the train was filling up pretty rapidly.
Readying myself for my usual standing position by the door least likely to open more than once or twice, I spied, with some suspicion, that one of the very narrow backrest-shaped pads appeared to be unoccupied. There was a girl in obvious officewear on each side and no one in between them. It was like one of those slow-motion sequences from a movie – tens of seconds seemed to pass as I moved stealthily towards it, turning any number of scenarios over in my head. There had to be a reason it was vacant: there’d be rainwater leaking onto it or a giant blob of chewing gum right where my right buttock would come to rest, or there’d be coffee spilt on it, maybe even some partially dried vomit? What would I find? As I continued the never-ending trek from door to empty seat, eyes darting side-to-side to prevent any vulture-like old women from snaring my catch away from me, I felt just like the hero of the piece diving in slow-motion across the path of a bullet while crying “Nooooooooooooooooooo”… but nothing. There was nothing there. Just the backrest-shaped pad on the wall and the seat cushion-shaped pad below it. What’s going on here? I looked around suspicously. Nobody looking back. Nobody making a move. Hmmmm…. it does look very narrow. I know I’ve lost a bit of weight recently but… hmmm… not sure… three-point turn… reverse in…. lower the butt… I should have a wide load sign back there… wiggle it… just a little bit… aaaaaah. And relax.
I was so relieved at having made it into the available space without nearly as much trouble as I’d expected that I almost missed the girl to my left politely shuffling over to make a little more room. “Thanks”, I smiled, thinking it was only right to acknowledge her small act of kindness. I was all aglow – how wonderful that people still do nice things… when suddenly, “tut… tut”, shuffle shuffle, from the girl to my right. I was still smiling about the girl to the left when I caught a glimpse of the girl to the right looking me up and down, most displeased judging by the expression on her face, tutting and cursing as she violently wrenched her handbag off the seat beside her and dumped it with an audible thud on her lap, before shuffling herself over to the right another centimetre or so and going back to her Facebook status update. Now I understood why that spot had looked so narrow – she’d reserved half of her own seat for her bigger-than-Ben-Hur-handbag and half of my seat for half of her own body.
As I continued to smile, I pondered what had just happened. Was it so terrible that I’d wanted to sit down, just as she was doing? Maybe I should’ve asked her to move over a little more so I could put my wallet or my man bag on the seat beside me, just to make a point? Maybe I should’ve thought terrible thoughts about her Facebook status update being full of spelling and grammatical errors (although I daresay it already was)? Maybe I should’ve just said “thank you so much, I’m so sorry to inconvenience you by asking you to put your bag on your lap and sit on your own seat rather than mine”… but I didn’t do any of those things. In fact I didn’t do or say anything at all. I didn’t have any nasty thoughts or think ill of her in any way. I just kept smiling. I don’t know what happened. Maybe the imagined theatrics of getting to the seat in the first place, as if I’d just macheted my way through an overgrown jungle, somehow lessened the blow of her callous disregard and venomous facial response? But… no! No, no, no, this won’t do at all! Without my over-thought and sometimes extreme reactions to everyday situations, I won’t have anything to rant about!
Later that day, to appease myself somewhat, I posted my own Facebook status update about what had happened. Thankfully, it was the cathartic moment I needed. I finally realised that however much I’d smiled throughout the events of those few moments, the reality was that I was gonna sit on that damn seat irrespective of who or what was in my way. And sweetheart, if that girl was you and you’re reading this now, I have only one thing left to say: you really should be very grateful that I’ve lost a bit of weight or you’d have lost more than just a seat for your handbag!