The writing life: 2

The professional stickybeak and the train of thought 

Writers are professional stickybeaks, eyes on stalks, ears flapping, ever on the look-out for the telling vignette, the odd detail, the weird seed that might one day flourish into a full-grown literary plant. We don’t need to know everything about a real-life situation or person—in fact too much knowledge often stymies things; we just need the intriguing glimpse that might fire the creative brain. And nowhere do you get more intriguing, diverse, fertile and unmediated glimpses into the rich, sordid and simply weird potential of human life and human nature in the all-too often-antiseptic modern Western world than on public transport—particularly on trains. Commuters in a hurry to get home complain of the overcrowding, the discomfort, the slowness of our city rail transport, especially in NSW; but for a writer, such rail journeys are a positively Dickensian cornucopia of bizarre and tragi/comic delights. 

One day, on a crowded Western Suburbs train, a man got on and stood swaying just before me. ‘Can you move over, please, I’ve only got one leg?’ I looked at him–he seemed to have two–but moved over, thinking, hey, he looks like he could easily get angry..he had fierce spiked hair, a scowling face, tattoos on powerful arms. He sat down with a grunt, squeezing in next to me and another person. Then he leant down, rolled up his trouser leg–and there, quite plainly, was an artificial leg. With another grunt, he proceeded to hoist the leg out of its socket, where it joined the stump of his lost limb. He fiddled with it for an agonisingly long time, during which time all the eyes of the people in the carriage were fixed on him in a kind of horrified fascination. He fiddled and prodded and poked, adjusting the leg, then finally strapped it on properly, rolled down the trouser, and sat back. His face was grey. I was ashamed of my shrinking-away, ashamed of the complexity of emotions..especially when he closed his eyes then and almost fell over, his eyes rolling in his head. People were not sure whether to be sorry or embarassed or fearful. Was he stoned or drunk as well as legless? God, the dreadful puns you think of..though you try to push them away! He got up for his station, leaving his bag behind; when the person on the other side of him, called out, look, your bag, and handed it to him, the one-legged man said, ‘Hell, mate, I’d lose me head if it weren’t screwed on. Already lost me leg–really be a shame if I lost the head too, eh?’

The looks on the faces of the other passengers then! 

Another time, on comes this old lady on an eastern suburbs line. All dressed in black, with a tight grey bun, faded shoes, several plastic bags variously hung about her, frantic eyes. She sits down next to me and begins fussing around too, looking in her various bags–then brings out two brown paper bags. One has a heap of tissues rammed in any old how–the other a neatly folded little white mountain of tissues. She proceeds to spend the rest of the trip taking the untidy tissues and very carefully, very neatly, folding them and refolding them and stowing them in the other paper bag. I can’t take my eyes off what she’s doing; I think she sets about it as briskly and practically as though it were some capricious fairytale task imposed on her by an ogre, a task she’s determined to finish. No-one else however is game to look, just in case she howls at them or something. But she doesn’t look up, not once, and keeps folding and folding. I don’t see the end of it. I’ve reached my stop. 

Another day, another journey, another western suburbs train. Several stories: here, a pair of young bloods eye off two uniformed off-duty cops sitting calmly in one of the seats, chatting amiably together. The young bloods desperately want the cops to watch them, to notice them, but they don’t look, their casualness is so calm as to be almost studied. The cops are talking of holidays plans, of Gold Coast flats, of ordinary things; the revolvers in their holsters look weird next to how ordinary they are. Put these guys in a T shirt and jeans and no young blood would notice them; a uniform, a gun, makes them quite other. The young bloods are getting impatient; their voices are rising, they’re talking wildly, of vaguely illegal activities, just to get a reaction, any reaction. The cops don’t care. They pay no attention at all.

Another vignette, city circle train: a girl gets on, totally stoned, so stoned it’s painful to watch. She’s very young but wasted (in more ways than one), and sways down the aisle with a plastic cup in one hand and a piece of paper in the other, with a sign scrawled on it saying, Need $2 bus fare to get home. She stops at every seat, sways there silently holding out her cup, her pathetic piece of paper, looking a hundred years old and yet fifteen. No-one puts any money in; everyone stares straight ahead; she stands there, swaying, no reaction from her either. A kid calls out clearly to her dad, ‘Dad, what’s wrong with her? what does she want?’ and the father talks quietly, briefly, obviously untruthfully to his daughter; his gaze slides away from the junkie, from the other people in the carriage, and we all know what he’s feeling. 

Another beggar: a young man with a piece of paper again, this time reading ‘I am deaf. I need $1 to get home.’ People snort; but further up, there’s a woman who’s been conducting a vigorous sign-language conversation with her friend. Everyone watches to see what will happen–but he sees them, and discreetly turns the other way, retracing his steps. I wonder what he’ll do now.

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