The Vietnamese girl with a tired face boarded the train at Campsie station and asked herself:
“Is this train real?”
Her eyes were dull and glazed over and her head tilted slightly to one side. She was missing a sock and the little brown one she was wearing poked through the front of her left leather sandal like a soft curious mouse. Her hair was oddly neat, deep black strands of calm atop an unkempt mind. She was wearing a strange white hat, as though someone had spooned a dollop of double-cream on top of her head.
She went up the stairs and she saw a woman sitting by herself, so she walked over, sat next to her and placed her hand on her lap.
The Greek woman was sitting alone with a freezer bag of carrot sticks in her lap. She wasn’t eating them, just fiddling with them through the plastic. She knew she was just bringing them along to assuage the guilt she had about these unplanned fortnightly éclair trips of hers. La Renaissance Pâtisserie at Circular Quay. Even memories of an adulterous husband couldn’t keep her away.
He used to take her there when they were still together. She was the one who took them there first, showed him the cafe, and wanted him to be amazed with its wondrous cakes and pastries. He wasn’t as excited about it as she was, but that could be said about a lot of things.
The girl was so small and quiet that the woman didn’t notice she was next to her until she sat down and put her hand on her thigh. The woman flinched and the carrots dropped to the floor.
The Greek woman didn’t know what to do, so she tried her hardest with her hands, frilly flower-print dress and sheer force of will to keep to herself, in the hope that the girl would go away. She was feeling very uncomfortable with having a stranger’s hand on her thigh so she slowly shifted her weight onto her knees, and then her onto her feet, and lifted herself up in that ungainly way overweight people move their bodies.
Then a hand shot out and grabbed her wrist, strongly.
The Greek woman looked at her in shock, and was herself shocked by the girl’s face. Suddenly smiling vaguely, her eyes drifting away every few seconds, the girl had the appearance of a person not quite sure what she was looking at.
She tried to pull her wrist away, but the strength of the girl was startling.
The Greek woman looked around and clutched at her dress nervously, looking around to see if anyone else was around to witness the scene. She had become deeply accustomed to blame, but never quite so publicly.
She looked at the girl warily, waiting for her to do something, anything. She sat back down on the seat, still watching the girl. When she seemed unresponsive for a few minutes the Greek woman hoped everything had naturally resolved itself and pretended that she was alone again.
“Why are you ignoring me?” The girl’s voice startled her again.
“Why are you ignoring me?” she repeated, looking at nothing in particular.
“But you weren’t saying anything.”
“I have some friends at Erskineville.”
The Greek woman didn’t know how to react.
“They’re really friendly. Every time I visit we always have fun.”
“Oh, that’s nice,” she said, awkwardly.
“Actually, they’re my only friends now. I used to have a lot of other friends, but,” she looked around nervously, “slowly they…they all turned into spies.”
“Oh- oh really?”
“Yes, spies for them. They are always watching me. They used to my real friends, then slowly one by one they’d visit me at night and with their eyes all red and they’d sit at the bottom of my bed and scream at me to give them all my money. If I didn’t have any money they would scratch me.”
The Greek woman was starting to become very alarmed. She noticed red, raw scratch marks on the girl’s arms.
“Are you ok?”
“No really, do you need any help?” she asked, her voice trembling slightly.
She smiled, “Today was the last day they could ever get me. I’m never going back. I’m safe now.” She thought she heard a note of triumph.
“That’s great, I guess,” she said shakily, unconvinced. “Where are you staying now?”
“Oh I told you, with my friends at Erskineville. They’ll keep me safe.”
The train shook slightly as it passed by Marrickville Station; the older timber railway sleepers were not as stable as the newer concrete type.
The Greek woman stole a glance every now and again at the girl, who had retreated back into her own world. The orange rays of the setting sun were in their eyes, and although she had to hold up her hand to shield her face, the girl looked straight into the sun. The orange glow washed over her skin and deepened every one of the slight creases on her face into a wrinkle, making her seem like an old tired woman.
She looked exhausted.
The Greek woman suddenly found herself feeling quite sorry for the girl-
“I’m okay, really,” she said, apparently reading her mind. “Don’t worry about me. The world is full of friends, and all of them are waiting.”
The train slowly rode the tracks into Erskineville Station, and the girl looked out of the window and smiled. She stood up after the train had already stopped and took her time walking out, almost getting caught in the closing doors.
The Greek woman watched her walk away on the platform and then up the stairs, to a separate life she knew she would have no part in. Every step the girl took away from her, she felt a strange urgent need grow and grow, telling her to shout out and grab her, to try and cling on to the first real relationship she had felt in a long time, however brief. As the train left the platform, a brief sadness touched her heart as she realised she would probably never meet the girl again.
But maybe she would.
She would have loved to buy her an éclair.
She walked up the station steps, taking two at a time (every second step was booby-trapped, of course) until she got to the top, where she did a little jump onto the concourse. She walked towards the farthest platform, Platform One, but as she walked down this set of steps she didn’t skip any; the traps don’t work on the way down.
The colours of the beautiful mural greeted her and invited her in, as they always did, and she began to laugh in the welcoming glow. Smiling faces leapt out from their colourful houses in the walls and colourful painted children began to peel away from the stone and dance around her, and she danced with them, laughing more and more. She reached out to try and touch them, but she knew she never would, and she didn’t care.
She was with her friends now.
The people on the platform stared at her uneasily, but even they could not deny that her joy was real.