Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Women on a train

My six-year-old daughter and I were on a train. We had two seats in the middle of the carriage, my daughter against the window. Across the aisle sat a rough looking woman with her face downturned, the brim of her hat pulled low, her arms tightly crossed. She held the aisle seat, and the three other seats in her section were empty. A woman coming onto the train lightly brushed past her as she went to take one of the window seats. The first woman started screaming. "Don't touch me!" she shrieked, "I hate anyone ever touching me!". She yelled and carried on while everyone looked on, flabbergasted. Then she stood up, crossed the aisle, and sat next to me.

My daughter huddled into a small ball against the window, and her face went still. "I'm scared," she said softly. "How can we get off the train without touching her?"

I didn't know, but told her not to worry, we'd work it out. At each stop, the train became more crowded: people coming home from a musical, a rugby match, a football game. Some men were loudly drunk, and started a fight at the other end of the carriage. My daughter huddled even smaller, and I sat there anxiously running through possible scenarios. How would I get my daughter off the train? Would the woman yell at us? Would I be able to speak calmly, or would I get scared and shout right back? Should we go a few extra stops, hoping she'd get off first? Could we climb over the back of the seat?? Am I a total coward?

Across from my new neighbour sat another woman. As the train filled up and I worried away, she began to weep. I don't know if she was anxious about the fierce woman, or the crowd, or something else entirely. But she sat there with tears rolling down her cheeks, which she tried to hide as she carefully wiped them away with a tissue.

And the woman who had been screaming just minutes before leaned forward, asked if she was okay, and patted her. 'I get that way myself sometimes,' she said. And suddenly it felt completely normal for one woman to weep and the other to sit there, smiling tenderly and nodding at her from time to time, and my fears evaporated.

Who was the screaming woman, I wonder. What had made her so volatile, so touchy? And where had she found such wells of compassion for a stranger on a train?

A gentle silence hovered over us until our stop, when both women, one still teary, the other surprisingly compassionate, moved their legs and bags and carefully eased us – touching and all – into the crowded aisle.


  1. Alison, it's extraordinary what of life happens on a train ... or a tram!

    For four years I had been accumulating stories in a little leatherbound notebook from my tram and train journies around Melbourne. I would take it with me wherever I went, and from time to time, when such things happened--the dramatic and mundane--I would note down the date, the tram number and a small account of whatever had struck me. It became a wonderful little book that I secretly hoped to do something with one day. And then on vacation last year, I left it behind in a rented cabin and have never seen it since. I still feel sad about it!

  2. Shelley Knoll-MillerSaturday, June 12, 2010

    "Who was the screaming woman, I wonder. What had made her so volatile, so touchy? And where had she found such wells of compassion for a stranger on a train?"

    It's often the way, isn't it. Those who often feel overwhelmed by their emotion are the first to reach forward and pat a knee and say
    "I know, I know."
    And they do. Few people rant publicly because it's fun. They do it because they FEEL so much.

    "I get that way myself sometimes,' she said."


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