I copied one of my favourite writers, Helen Garner, by taking the train to Ballarat and writing about what I saw, or what made me laugh.
I take my seat on the 9.17 Wendouree Service. I have two older Aussie women behind me, chatting comfortably, and two young women in front speaking softly in Mandarin. They have coppery coloured hair, Asian hair dyed blonde.
We pass the Melbourne Eye, long a topic of derision, and I tune in to the conversation of the women behind.
‘I don’t know anyone who’s been on the wheel.’
‘Have they got it fixed now?’
‘Oh yeah. It’s enclosed cabins, I’d assume they’re air conditioned. For Christmas we gave Mark and Sue two tickets for that and it broke down. Whether they’ve kept the tickets and never used them I don’t know.’
The Chinese women share a packet of Natural Confectionary Company snakes.
I tune back into the older women. One is relaying a story told to her by her friend, Sandra, about Sandra’s husband, Chris.
‘On Thursday Chris plays tennis and he likes to have pasta for energy. A few weeks ago Sandra was going somewhere, so he said, ‘Shall I make the pasta sauce?’ So she left some recipes out. Well, when she got back there was so much mess, all along the bench, along the tiles…how did he manage it? She wondered whether there’d been any sauce left for the pasta!’
She pronounces pasta like the ‘casta’ in castanets.
‘So the next time she got some steaks, there were seven, she froze them individually and put them in the freezer. She said to Chris, when he gets up she’ll show him the meat in the freezer. And he said, ’You think I can’t tell which one it is?’
The Chinese girls examine some Costco receipts. The women behind me chat on.
‘I do a turkey soup, it’s like a meal, it’s so choc-a-bloc! I add some ketchup to give it colour. If your spaghetti’s not saucy enough, just give it a good squirt of ketchup’.
We stop at Footscray Station and I think of my friend Maggie, at home with her new baby boy nearby. The train picks up speed and we pass Sunshine, Ardeer, Deer Park. A car sits in the middle of a flat, brown field, its boot and bonnet open. Horses graze nearby.
‘What’s that thing over there with the knobbly thing on top?’ says one of the women.
‘It’s a Sikh temple’.
The knobbly thing shines gold.
We pass piles of rubbish. Someone rides in a buggy behind a horse, dust flying up behind them.
My travelling companions gossip on, maybe about Sandra, I can’t tell.
‘I think she’s just hanging on by a thread. I mean, I told you all about the son? And the only work he does…’
‘Yes…is train dogs!’
‘I said to her, why doesn’t he join the local council? They don’t do anything most of the time.’
‘She bought herself a car, second hand. Turns out it was stolen, so of course, that’s like receiving stolen goods! She had to go to court, it was absolutely horrifying, mortifying.’
The landscape outside the train is dry. A shallow river, dead trees, brown earth. I see greyhounds in a run. The hills in the distance look purple.
I’ve established the women’s names now, Marg and Di, and I can tell who is who from their voices. Marg is lamenting her husband’s snoring.
‘Then his head goes back and the noise starts. Oh God, so off-putting! His mouth wide open. That little cat we had made a lovely sound. She was snoring, the faintest sound, you could hardly hear it’.
Cactuses line the track side as we approach Bacchus Marsh. At the station, two people smoke in the car park, a woman and a man in a red Billabong t-shirt. As the train pulls out I see them greet a fat boy wearing a black cap, hoody and backpack. The man smiles at the boy but I don’t see the rest, the train is too fast. There are great mounds of these cactuses now. My friends have noticed too.
‘From here down to Ballarat there’s masses of them. Shows how bad the soil is. Dry.’
‘We didn’t see a lot of cactuses at Ayer’s Rock did we? That’s what you’d expect to see’
Eight beaten up cars stand in a field, in a line. A single cockatoo flies across the sky. The train goes along a ridge with the land spread out below, across a dry creek bed. The sky is glary, blue in parts, streaks of cloud. The white sun shines in at me from the right.
Di and Marg are talking about beds.
‘It’s a bit like sleeping on the side of a hill.’
‘I don’t like touching anymore, especially when it’s hot.’
‘Oh God no! It’s dreadful.’
‘Bill goes to bed first, always. During the night he manages to get the sheet all twisted over, tucked in under his legs, oh my God. So I just got another one and keep it folded in half. I don’t have my feet under. He said ‘What’s that for?’ I said ‘It’s like a tug of war in the night over a bit of sheet!’ So it’s just easier.’
Sheep graze on a steep hillside dotted with clods of upturned earth. A woman leans over her flower bushes, pruning, looking for bugs.
Di and Marg discuss a cologne called ‘Grey Flannel’.
‘Bill sprays it in our bedroom. If he did it in the ensuite it’d be OK, there’s a fan and a window, but now he does it in the door of our clothes cupboard, oh my God, I can hardly breathe’.
I feel sorry for Bill, with his snoring and sheet-tangling and cologne spraying. He’s not here to defend himself.
Now they lay into the other husband.
‘Look at Tony, he looks disgusting. I said to him once, you’re not wearing that t-shirt. It makes you look six months pregnant. And I can’t point the finger, I’m fatter than I’ve been in a long time, but I’m not as fat as that!’
We’re in outer Ballarat now, the rooves tell me. We pass a footy oval at somewhere called Russell Square.
At Ballarat Station, a slim bright-eyed older woman in a green cardigan walks along the platform and greets a man and boy. She looks like an interesting person, I think, well-travelled and well-read. I wish she was my Grandma. I wish I still had a Grandma. I wish I had spent more time with my Grandma while she was with us.
I walk up Lydiard St and into Central Square Shopping Mall with a vague plan to buy leggings.
Up the escalators to Target, Taylor Swift sings over the speaker system. ‘We! Are never ever ever! Getting back together’. I try on several pairs of black leggings in the change rooms – one style is made in Cambodia, the other in Indonesia. It’s confronting to see yourself in your undies from three different angles. I decide on the Cambodian ones.
A mum with dark hair wheels a trolley in the toy section, her son in the built-in seat. The trolley is piled high, a ‘Frozen’ kid’s sofa on top.
‘Pick a dinosaur, Peter,’ she says.
Peter starts pressing the buttons on different dinosaurs, making them roar.
‘This one! It goes roooooaaarr!’
‘Oh Peter, pick one from the top row. It’s not your birthday.’
I see Peter later at the checkout. He looks at his second rate dinosaur with tears in his eyes.
I walk past Federation University, which I’ve never heard of, and put some sunscreen on at a bus shelter. Yellow leaves blow across the road. A P-plater drives by in a hotted-up car, number plate SLAMDD.
I go in search of a vintage op-shop I’ve heard of, ‘Dee’s Goods’. At first I walk the wrong way and need to turn around and retrace my steps. The streets are wide and lined with trees. A black staffy lies in a driveway, eyeing me as I walk by. When I get to ‘Dee’s Goods,’ which is now called something else, I stand out the front and take a few photos. A man comes out, tall with thinning red hair and an open face. ‘Hullo! You’re taking photos of the old buildings are you?’
I tell him the shop looks pretty, quickly putting my camera into my bag, feeling busted.
‘Well, thank you!’ he says. ‘There are so many beautiful buildings in Ballarat. I think it’s cos the council values them. I’ve been to other places where the council just tears them down, but not here.’
I go into the shop and poke around the racks of clothes. He talks, happy for company.
‘If you’re interested, come and look at the old back courtyard, this place used to be a butcher. I was drilling this concrete the other day and I thought, wow, this is probably a thick slab of concrete but no, it was about this thin’ – he shows me with his fingers – ‘so I’m thinking, this was all just sawdust with a thin layer over the top.’
He tells me that he and his girlfriend have owned the shop for a year but lived above it for fourteen.
‘It used to be just a step above an op-shop,’ he says, ‘but now we’re going for the more high-end vintage.’
As I browse, he calls out
‘Y’know, as you’re walking around, if you see a building you really like, don’t be afraid to just knock on the door. People around here really like showing off their houses.’
I ask him where the best place for lunch is. He dismisses the café next door – ‘nice coffee but the food’s too dear’ – and suggests a place in town.
‘We’re all pinching our pennies!’ he says cheerfully, when I agree that I’m looking for something cheap. ‘Enjoy your day roaming around!’
I find his recommended café and eat lunch while reading the Weekend Courier. The front page article is about a new treatment facility for ice users to be built in the region. Next to it, a photo shows a Ballarat woman preparing to take part in Australia’s first Ginger Pride Rally.
I take the number 14 bus to Delacombe, just for the ride.
A woman in a rainbow dress stands on her porch, on the phone, laughing. Pigeons squat on the powerlines.
On the bus, a woman drinks from a McDonald’s cup and holds a brown paper bag. ‘Thank you’ she says to the driver, twice, as she gets off.
Two tough looking men sit opposite me. ‘Thanks mate’, one says to the driver as he steps out the back door.
We pass a carpet wholesalers, the Ballarat race track, empty and awash with sunlight. Past a primary school, pairs of children in maroon shirts walking around an oval. One blonde girl watches the bus drive by.
This feels like the rough end of town, cream brick houses with dry front lawns. Two people get on, a woman with a baby in a pram and a lean man wearing shorts and sunglasses. The woman has large earrings that say ‘Love’ and wears pink Havaiana thongs. She pops a mint in her mouth and chews. Her skin is similar to mine, with lots of moles.
I get off near the cathedral. The railing fence is covered with hundreds of coloured ribbons dancing in the wind. On one is written: ‘In memory of Philip Barwick. Aged 14 Years’.
The train home is full of school kids. I sit near two boys sharing a four-seater, one blonde, one dark. The dark one wears a navy school jumper, navy shorts, grey socks, black shoes. His jumper has a crest, Ballarat Clarendon College, with Year 12 2016 embroidered below in gold thread. He has hairy legs, dark eyebrows. He is handsome and confident, like a young king. His friend wears sports uniform and drinks a coffee Big M.
They discuss phones.
Handsome: ‘I’m going to weigh your phone, weigh my phone, and then subtract the weight of my phone from your phone, and that is how much extra weight your arse is hauling around every day’.
A little blonde boy sits behind the four-seater. I see him staring out the window while the train waits at the platform. His mum is outside, looking sorrowful. She waves and touches her face as the train pulls out. The boy waves back. I catch his eye and smile.
A few minutes into the journey he gets a phone call. ‘Yep. Uh-huh. OK, Yep. Bye.’
He bites into the skin of an orange, breaking it open with his teeth. His homework lies in his lap, a sheet with the heading ‘Source Analysis’. It looks complex for a kid of his age. The sharp smell of orange hits me, delicious, sweet and zesty. I want to ask him for a piece but of course I don’t.
The V-line conductor walks along the train checking our Mykis. The boy searches in his bag. ‘Sorry’, he says to the inspector, head down. ‘You’re right buddy, I saw you touch on anyway,’ says the man kindly and moves down the train.
The outside world is bathed in late afternoon sun. People yawn. An old man sleeps with his mouth open while his two female companions look at photos on their phone, Sovereign Hill, the man posing in front of a miner’s hut. Now he pulls his cap down over his eyes to keep out the sun. He looks very old.
An eagle hovers over the dry grass out the left side window, looking for prey.
Handsome writes a formula down on his maths cheat sheet. I remember creating a cheat sheet back in Year 12, using tiny writing to cram as many formulas as possible on to a single page.
I think of the mint the girl on the bus had and take out one of my own. The smell reminds me of my Grandma, why exactly I don’t know. Did she eat breath mints? Or was it Minties?
As we approach Bacchus Marsh station, Handsome packs up his papers and calculator, shoulders his bulging back pack and walks to the door. The little blonde boy checks under his seat and follows suit. I want to see if someone is there to collect him but he walks out of sight.
It is quiet without the school kids.
I consider moving to find some other conversation to eavesdrop on, but can’t be bothered and stay put. No one sits near me.
We pass a bus depot where drivers chat in the fading light, a dam with two black swans floating on its surface. The sky is a soft blue now, a few clouds sitting above the horizon. I finish my second mint too quickly. I want another one but decide against it.
At Rockbank Station I take out my camera and snap a few photos, exposing myself as an artistic weirdo or tourist to my travelling companions. I try to peer over back fences but they’re too high and the train is rocketing into the outskirts of Melbourne.
I see the gold top of the Sikh temple in the distance and remember Marg and Di fondly. I wonder what they’re doing now, and whether Di and her husband will use separate sheets tonight.