Are the Trains Late?

I made the mistake the other day of communicating to Sleepy Jack Hanrahan the gist of a farcical little scene I’d witnessed on the new Sydney tram. His response was, “Yeah. Funny people are always happening on trains, light or heavy . . . Which reminds me.”

And not waiting for an invitation, he launched headlong into the following.

One afternoon not so long ago I was sitting in a suburban train bound for Sydney. Just before Lidcombe, thinking of the virtues of a multicultural Oz (as one is wont, isn’t one, around Lidcombe?), I made the mistake of mumbling the word “Australia”. All at once the young woman next to me gasped and stiffened, fearful perhaps that I was some fugitive axe murderer about to let fly. When nothing bloodthirsty eventuated, she cast a few furtive glances around and under the seat, no doubt in search of lurking implements of mayhem. I have to assume that, finding none, she must have put my muttering down to mere eccentricity, for she managed to ignore me for the rest of the journey. Just as well, too, since in my bag was a complete set of enlarged Cleudo weapon replicas — lead pipe, candlestick and the like — together with a piano-sized bust of Miss Scarlett.

Now, I don’t suppose anyone actually relishes being looked askance at in trains. Yet I must concede that I’ve always enjoyed my share of oblique observation of others on public transport. To me it seems right and proper to drink in as much as you can of the old human panorama, provided you do it discreetly.

Anyway, as engaging as I know you found that short voyeur’s prelude, what I really want to relay is a far more piquant yarn. It concerns an oddball I used to run into about 20 years ago on the Epping line.

We were just pulling out of Strathfield station one afternoon, when we heard a blaring cry from the carriage door: “Are the treens leet?” Then a pause, then once more, “Are the treens leet?

The voice in question was distinguished not only by its volume, but also its timbre, which gave the impression that its pent-up energy came forth through clenched teeth.

It wasn’t too difficult to identify the source: a thickset man of about 30 with a daft look on his face, who, upon entering the carriage, flung himself clumsily into a seat and proceeded to talk repetitive nonsense in a loud voice. He was still gibbering when I alighted 15 minutes later.

His crazy behaviour — which regularly began with that question, enunciated so dementedly — led me to the not very “wild surmise” that he was from some part-time sheltered workshop. Personally, I found it all quite entertaining, and began to look forward to his Monday appearances. (He only surfaced on Mondays.) Luckily, he was as much a creature of habit as I was, and always boarded the same carriage.

My only personal contact — one-sided though it was, since I declined his patently earnest offer of conversation — took place one day when he plumped down on arrival in the seat in front of me and immediately turned round with a frightful leer to deliver his grotesque refrain.

When I ignored him, he arose briskly from his seat, and sought company elsewhere, shouting, “Silly old codger. Silly old codger.” All this, I might add, was accompanied by a series of high-pitched giggles.

On another occasion he hurled a rolled-up newspaper across the line at West Ryde, aiming at the afternoon commuters on the opposite platform. This time it was maniacal laughter echoing down the corridor.

As a rule, though, his outbursts were not addressed to anyone in particular. This was fortunate, for that particular carriage seemed always to carry a number of solid, sober looking men (depressed stockbrokers, no doubt), any of whom if so accosted could have given quite an energetic and effective account of himself. Even so, his main expectation of a reply seemed to be of males, though he did once bellow horribly at a young woman fraught with imminent child, who, had she been made of less sterner stuff, might well have caused a headline-making disturbance of her own.

What ultimately became of him? Did he do more harm than good, and get placed in restrictive care? Maybe he patronises the Liverpool line instead — or the Manly ferry? Or did he retire wealthy, having sold his life-story to Sixty Minutes?

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