It’s New Year’s Eve and I’m about to embark on a four-hour train trip home from Every Country Town You’ve Ever Visited. It’s been a few years since my buttocks have graced the Scotch-Guarded seats of a V-line dog-box. I’m pleased to find that the seats are still Scotch-Guarded (it saves me Scotch-Guarding my arse), and that blue, disposable head-bibs still adorn each seat-back, eager to absorb the scalp sweat and dandruff-paste molasses of the masses.
I’m saddened to find that the carriages do still smell like a joyous marriage of elderly banana and elderly citizen.
My mother has spent the morning singing coulda-shoulda-wouldas about the finer points of her Christmas potato salad.
“I should have bought the spuds from Safeway. The ones at Coles always look all right, don’t they? And then they’re just a bit floury. Do you think if I’d cooked them the day before they would have held together better? Next time I think I’ll cut them into halves instead of quarters, before I cook them. Do they cook much slower if they’re twice as big, do you think?”
I don't appear to be expected to answer any of these questions. By the time my train arrives at the platform, the glaze across my eyes is rivalled only by that of Sunday’s Christmas ham. “Sounds like a plan. Make sure you keep me updated on the potatoes, Mum.”
I heft my bag up towards the overhead luggage rack, misjudge the distance and perform a special manouvre known as “Trying Not To Drop Your Twenty Kilo Suitcase Onto Your Head While Simultaneously Making A Noise Like Brian Blessed In Heat”. Having achieved the requisite skinned knuckles and pinched nerve in my lower back, I tenderly lay my suitcase on the floor instead. I then tenderly kick it in the handle, and tenderly shove it as hard as I can into the far wall.
I settle my vulnerable bottom onto the impregnable seat and wait until the aged foam moulds perfectly to my weight. Once I can feel the tip of an errant spring hovering dangerously close to my anal sphincter, I know I am in position for the trip. I pull out my book. I have nothing to do and no children to look after for a whole four hours. Apart from the threat of having my rectum perforated by an industrial strength Slinky, it’s the perfect situation.
The sliding door of the compartment opens and a woman with a toddler bustles in, multiple plastic bags swinging from each of her elbows. I glance up from my book, and immediately recognise her from primary school. Fuck. It's Courtney Creeley. Teacher-biter; prep-kicker; hurler of fists; swears of a calibre only matched by Deadwood twenty years later. There’s no polite way to say it, Courtney Creeley had been a complete and utter child-cyclone.
An atheist prayer: Please don’t remember me please don’t remember me please don’t remember me just because I’ve had the same hairstyle since primary school I can’t look that similar –
“Went to Abbey Street Primary, didn’t you?”
I look up. “Sorry?”
“Abbey Street. I was a year below you. Courtney Creeley.”
“Oh right, yeah, I went to Abbey Street.”
“Small world.” The town we are in has 700 people. I nod. Courtney hefts the toddler onto her lap, and drags a water-filled baby bottle from one of her many plastic bags. “You be good and quiet, right, sweet girl?” she says to the already silent toddler. The little girl nods, accepts the bottle, and continues to fiddle with a weathered plastic frog. I look back to my book. “You goin all up to Melbourne?” says Courtney.
I look up again. “Yeah, I live there now.”
“Yeah, I work in a library.” I hesitate. The words in my book are reaching up to me like snakes from a basket, coiling hypnotically around my eyeballs and dragging my gaze back down to the page. I just want to read my book. “You live in Melbourne now too?” I say politely.
“Sort of,” says Courtney. “I been all over the place the last couple of years. Got pregnant with this one two years ago, I was fucked up. Drink, drugs, you name it. Fucked.”
I look longingly down at my book, and then meet Courtney’s eyes again. She nods. “Mum took me in hand, laid down the fucken law. Said I had to give all that shit up quicksmart if she wanted me to look after the baby. So I stopped, all cold turkey apart from smoking, and that was just normal cigs. I was a big girl, thirty kilos I put on.”
I glance out the window. There’s hours of this journey to go. Courtney Creeley. I wonder if I can fake getting off the train at an earlier station, and then I remember my oversized, novelty suitcase.
“Got them to put me under for the C-section,” says Courtney. “No way I wanted to be awake through that crap. Treat you like a bloody meat puzzle, doctors. Anyway, Mum took Elora for a year, then I took her back and went up to Jason’s in Melbourne. Jason’s the father. Said he’d have me back if I came without Elora, but I thought he’d come good soon as he seen her. Turns out he was just as much of a fuckwit as when he got me pregnant, bashed my face up so bad that night I couldn’t hardly see.”
“Jesus,” I say. My mind flicks back over my own past relationships, where the highest level of violence has been low-decibel arguments and moderate amounts of sulking.
Courtney shrugs. “Worthless piece of shit. Elora and I ended up at the women’s refuge on a mattress that night for a bit, but they were all about rules and shit.Wanted me to go to the police. So we nicked out the back window one night and hitched a bit of the way til I got onto Mum, and she gave me train fare the rest of the way home. I was pretty fucked up, got back on the booze after Jase did that. Mum said she’d take Elora off my hands if I wanted, raise her with my little sister and stuff.”
“What did you say to your mum?” I think of my own reliable fortnightly paycheck, and how I get pissed off if it’s a few hours later than usual. My book has slid a little to the left and rests half on the seat next to me.
“I’m not the best mum, I didn’t never want to be a mum. I’ve fucked stuff up and got in with the wrong people. But she’ll always get fed, an’ she’ll never get hit. I’d kill anyone who touched her.” The little girl leans against her mother and plunges a chubby hand down into Courtney’s cleavage. Courtney pulls it out firmly. “Hands out, Elly. You want boobs, you gotta ask nicely.” She looks up at me again as the train grinds to a stop. “We’re off here. Me sister’s got a hearing, we’ve brought up her fare home again.” She hefts the little girl onto her hip and heaves to her feet, plastic bags banging into the door of the carriage. “Course, I love her now,” she says, and plants a rough kiss on her daughter’s blond head, which the girl scrubs away with a grin. “Said to me mum, I said: ‘She’s either gunna make me or she’s gunna break me.’ I reckon she made me. Have fun in your bookshop.”
“Library,” I say, but Courtney’s already swung the door of the compartment shut. I pick up my book and stare at the top of the page.
The door of the carriage squeaks open again, and I glance up. A well-dressed man enters, carrying a prostethic leg over one shoulder. The leg has a boot on it.