Two quiet boys sit opposite her. One sniffs and coughs. That one looks as if he needs a soft bed and a warm drink. The other one curls his hand over his mouth. He doesn't join in the ribaldry, he giggles, his steady eyes measuring levels of embarrassment whenever he looks at the woman hiding the bottom part of her face behind the covers of a book, a woman who could be the age of his mother or a favourite aunt or a prim member of the neighbourhood congregation. Laine sees over the top of her book these are church boys, boys from a church school. She gazes at the boys sniggering at the foodstuffs which in their imaginations bear a faint resemblance to the things adults do to and with genitals. God in their belief may have made them, but foodstuffs pose an obstacle to his better protection of them. The sniggering bursts suddenly into outright laughter. The mere mention of salami makes them laugh. Laine, flipping over a page of her novel, wonders when these dear boys will discover bodies. Bodies. Not anything passing as a symbol of Christ's body. But venal warm pliable - real - bodies. She stews. The boys stink. The sun steams up the heated carriage. When will the boys give up vegetables for bodies?
The train rushes down the line past platforms filling with women hovering over bags and babies and bags and bags and toddlers and strollers and bags and little old mums and bags and bags. Men, too, men whose biceps snap, their tattoes prickling blue on the cardboard yellow of their skin. They have attitude - ripped jeans, stubbled chins, fists with a sharp jab or two battling the nothing in front of their faces. They bend their knees to take up space on the old brick platforms. And there are other men, too, contrasting men whose stomachs slide up over the waistbands of their cheap tracksuit pants. Their bodies bulge under lumpy acrylic sweaters. These square no chins on which to grow a stubble.
The boys on the train, boys in uniform, boys in the uniform of a private school, the kind of clean faced boys who, in certain situations, are quietly well mannered and cheerfully polite, double up in pain over their cracked jokes. They praise with groans and snorts the worst funniest smuttiest dirtiest ones, for these boys don't intend comedy. Perhaps they're learning with God's guidance the game. Of bodies without books. Are they understanding warm bodies? Laine's eyes hold for a fast instant a cameo of a mother talking to her beaming toddler.
Wilderness tips lies on her lap, a sharp toned but not quite jagged edged book by Margaret Atwood, a Canadian writer famed for her cool distance. Laine steadily gazes at wooden fences abutting the railway line. Sinking behind them are low roofed red brick houses, windows subsiding blankly without reflection. Tall eucalypts ring a sporting field. A bit of grafitti sprayed on a high galvanised iron fence says less art and more despair. No gardens flourish. No orchards blossom. No hedges thicken to form borders. Reality, virtually skint of embellishments. In effect, that is, scoured clean to make elbow room for something functional, and Laine lifts up her novel about the wilderness to put it between her and the barren suburbs.
The small boy, the pretty boy, the one with the half Malay half Anglo flat featured beauty, laughs and laughs. He lifts his knees and he throws back his head and he crows, Eat my chocolate balls!
Shut down, shut up, shut tight. In the far corner of another line of vision, a woman arches her back, raises a long arm and, eyes steady, she slinks across a room to smack red lips on a red lipped pout, then eyelids droop, one eye winks, the mouth murmers, Turn up the music, turn down the lights, and Laine blushes. Squeezed, like a Chinese woman's foot. Or is she a ventriloquist's doll? Turn up the music, turn down the lights, who said that? Her heart drums. From throat to crotch, a fiery gasp rips through her. Too hot in her brand new winter suit, her cheeks flushed, she rests her hand on her overcoat, and Laine Macready is hoping no one sees through her to where she's not quite herself. If she's not herself, who is she? Marilyn Monroe? Marianne Faithfull? When Fi Hindmarsh whispered down the phone line, Turn up the music, turn down the lights, Laine tittered. Grace Jones wouldn't titter. Anyway, she's black and Laine's pink and Laine had a silly giggle and the signal phrase of Fi's first seduction of her made her ridiculous and coy. Perhaps her mouth resembled Michelle Pfeiffer's when she was acting wifely piety in Dangerous Liasons, and Laine agreed, they should meet at the cottage Fi owned in Leura. Laine, anticipating the passing of the hours before meeting Fi, hears the sound of boys and the low hum of the train, and she discovers her eyes have settled on the weave of the cloth of her overcoat, her hand lying on it, the skin sun marked and thinning, and the ring on her middle finger is winking. Laine, watching the ring glint, believes she never wanted to be Kathleen Turner, she prefers the idea of serving coffee to a detective whatsisname in Twin Peaks. Is anonymity pure?
Laine Macready stands up. One boy twists in his seat to let her pass. His knees poke boney points through his trousers. A thin Tim or a skeletal James, this one, not a Vassely. Vassely is an obese boy. The other boys, the banality of their brains fully exposed, smeer his name with vaseline. Laine pulls her bags off the long seat, and she hooks her coat over her elbow. Down the line, the other boys' food-with-rude went on and on, apples polished, cherries nibbled, eat my chocolate balls. Without any difficulty, foodie jokes break over their teeth, and the sweet faced boys screw the hour from city to plains.
Laine struggles with her bags. She is too wide. Her bags make her too wide for the aisle. (Damn!) An embarrassed smile loosens her lips. She blushes, and she frowns at the tops of her bags to avoid catching sight of any irritation flickering between her companion boy commuters. Laine is sweating. Would they have a go at her? From the loneliness in her heart, Laine'd written to Fi: To write a letter to a friend is the same as sending a call across the tops of trees to an unchanging person forever flipping up the lid of a letter box after the postie has walked down the street. From my big city wilderness, a street divided by traffic just as a river ploughs through a paddock, I relay my calls, and I'm the unchanging one peering through the slit to see if there is an envelope marked in black by your crabbed hand. Vassely stands up to make enough space for Laine. She sees he has hazel eyes. She sees no hint of malice in them. The boy is absolutely polite. Laine believes he is condescending. She loves Fi Hindmarsh.
In Wilderness tips boys got their thrills by peering through bushes at a group of young women who went skinny dipping, the sun hot on bare shoulders whitened from long white winters. And the boys gawped at unclothed women who knew they were being watched. But these young women didn't make themselves beautiful by shrieking and spreading their hands over their breasts and thatches. They ignored the boys. They leapt and splashed and soaked up sunshine. She knew some Canadians who loved the Australian wilderness. The 'bush', a yellow wilderness, its seasons described as 'wet', 'dry', 'when the wattle blooms', 'when the fish spawn', and 'when the willy wagtail nests', welcomed them. These Canadians loved to walk along its tracks to skinny dip in pools under rock ledges and swaying gum trees filled with birdsong. They heard it as a silence. Saw the silence as yellow. Yellow, spackling through russet, dun and parchment green. They recited the colours. They were amazed by the colours. So unlike the breath white, eery grey and arctic blue of the Canadian wilderness. Which is proof enough to her wildernesses may be coloured differently, but boys are the same all over the world, varying only by degrees of condescension . Laine longs to be on the moon.
Boys group round the train door. Laine's bags drag on her arms. Her suit jacket hitches uncomfortably. Unlike the ones in the cabin, these boys stand quietly, patiently waiting for their home stations. She stands behind them and watches the train slide past a cement block, then stop. One boy stands aside to give her free passage to the opening door. Laine senses he is looking her up and down. His voice is strained with bewilderment when he says under his breath, Werrington!? Only dudes get off at Werrington! A trembling whips up her spine. She steps onto the platform. The soles of her shoes strike cement. She strides to the exit gate. Through it. The trembling stops. She almost dissolves, Laine Macready spinning a jingle Ive been a dude. From Redfern to Werrington, I've been a dude! And her heels roll over loose gravel.
An earlier version of From Redfern to Werrington, I've been a dude! was published in Australian Short Stories No 49, and Carolyn has read the story at several venues.
Redfern is the railway station that feeds the University of Sydney, and Werrington is the station for the University of Western Sydney, Nepean. The campuses are separated by the travelling time of one hour by train.