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I have taken on a new role at my day job – a three-month secondment, based at a different location. I now begin the week by parking at a train station, then board two consecutive trains. The second train leg is more exciting than the first – emerging from the city tunnel to the glittering stage of Sydney Harbour. Despite the early hour, the Opera House is already showing off to my right. A great expanse of blue is to the left.
There is much activity on the water: a magnificent ocean liner squeezes itself under the Harbour Bridge, being harried by a blue tug boat. Near Lavender Bay, there’s a huddle of kayaks in a loose circle on the slight swell.
The early Autumn sun throws stripes on us weary passengers as pylons of the Bridge fly past. I look for signs of bridge-climbing tourists but realise it is too early.
At Milson’s Point, I watch a window cleaner prepare abseiling ropes on the roof of a building. I reflect on his dexterity as the train takes me further away from the comfort of my bed. Someone coughs behind me. Their breath dampens my neck. I immediately resent this nameless person, surprise myself at my sour reaction.
The next day, another carriage full of unfamiliar faces, the now familiar scenery zipping by. Across from me, a man holds a sleeping child while working on his laptop and recharging his phone. I smile at his resourcefulness in the small space. On waking, the girl says ‘ I love you, Daddy’. Did I hear my fellow observers sigh?
By midweek I choose another train line, to see if it shortens the trip. It doesn’t. Two women conversing in Spanish behind me is the only sound this morning. I listen to the unfamiliar lilts and inflections. Grateful that I don’t understand what they are saying, affording privacy for them as well as me.
After the next stop, I’m sandwiched between a man’s hip on my left and a woman’s on my right. I feel bone on bone with each movement of the carriage. She is glancing away, perhaps embarrassed by our proximity, her hair still wet from the morning shower. The scent of shampoo is an invisible wall between us.
Early the following Monday, neat rows filled with grumpy faces greet me. I consider the lives that were lived over the weekend as I change trains at Central. The second train is standing room only. My carriage empties out over the next two stations. I breathe freely again, resisting the urge to run up and down the carriage after being so cramped.
A stale armpit hovers above me on the trip home. Commuters are quietened by the oppressive heat, from their long day’s effort in our cutthroat world of progress. The train weaves precariously close to station platforms as we whizz by, passengers swaying with the carriage.
I read the last pages of my book in snippets, like intermittent sips of water on a hot day, not wanting to give myself a stomach ache if I try to quench my thirst in one massive gulp. I’m sad already for the loss of companionship this book has provided on my varied commute.
Next morning the carriage occupants are completely still; everyone facing the same way, heads down; reminds me of a church congregation. There is a weariness in the air. It’s midweek. The suited man next to me is counting out coins. I imagine him as a little boy with his lunch money for the school canteen.
By week 6 I have a strategy to alleviate the constant sitting down: park the car early and walk to the next station. I feel myself unpeeling from the working day as I reverse my steps on the homeward trip, witness the sky darkening above me. A whiff of maraya reminds me that I wouldn’t experience this from the sealed carriage, that there is a certain freedom in putting one foot in front of the other…
Friday afternoon and the train is as lively as a bar, the week already being shrugged off like a loose skin. As we cross the Bridge, a young man gets down on one knee in the aisle and asks his companion to marry him. She nods and smiles sheepishly, cheeks reddening.
We are all cheering and smiling, strangers bound by the moment. I can almost hear the champagne corks pop as we hurtle towards the city tunnel.