After four days in Sydney, it was time to leave. With suitcase, laptop and oversized handbag in tow I waited for my connecting train. It wasn’t long before the quiet and peaceful platform, that had been mine, was transformed as the chaos, that is a big city train station, began to gain momentum. The stage - exhibiting a varying array of players from the corporate and fashionista worlds to surfer and charity store recyclers - began to fill as everyone took their place.
As the train arrived and doors opened, I shuffled on board relieved to find a seat quickly
the other travellers and corporate commuters. As I positioned myself and all my luggage as unobtrusively as possible, other travellers with larger suitcases and more hand luggage entered, plonking themselves wherever, and however, they could.
A man sitting opposite caught my eye. He was not a traveller needing excessive space for luggage. In fact, he didn’t even have a briefcase. He appeared to be a regular, early morning commuter of no great importance. However, with small backpack still in place, he positioned his medium framed body and spread his legs wide over two seats in an attempt to deter other commuters from settling next to him. With his arrogant stance, he chose to ignore the fact that it was Monday morning and the beginnings of peak hour on a Sydney train.
With most passengers now on board, one of the last to enter was a barefooted woman, head down, examining her hands, lost in her own private world. While others indulged the arrogant man taking up two seats, the barefooted woman seemed to be the only one amongst the carriage full of travellers that would quietly dare to challenge his authority.
Middle-aged, and a face showing the hardship of life, she stood barely five feet tall and appropriately thin, wearing a flimsy, lace wrap-around beach skirt, grubby, short-sleeved t-shirt and no shoes, mumbling ‘tally ho’ to herself as she entered. My eyes were drawn to her incredible mousy-brown hair. Had her clothing been different, her hair may have almost been 'designer hair'. Short, thick and somewhere between wavy and curly. As I examined it from across the aisle, it looked like incredibly well-woven dreadlocks almost felt-like in appearance. But the bare feet and mumbling gave the truth away.
Four seats ran down each side of this train section. Opposite me, a traveller with large suitcase protruding into the standing room space took one seat, the next seat free, and Mr Selfish spread evenly over the other two seats pretending not to notice the throng of people that were also hopeful of a seat on the crowded train. A pole, standing halfway between the four seats, ran from floor to ceiling. As the barefooted woman shuffled into the carriage, head down looking at the contents in her hands, she headed straight for Mr Selfish seemingly oblivious to the unspoken body language he was expressing.
The woman’s focus didn’t leave the contents of her hands as she headed for one of Mr Selfish’s two seats. It’s hard to know whether she was actually aiming for the one free seat adjacent and got distracted, or not. However, she ignored it and chose to begin easing herself into the small space between the pole and the spread legs of Mr Selfish, to sit uncomfortably on the edge of one of his two seats. She didn’t seem fazed by the man that refused to move his legs, avoided eye contact and wouldn’t move a muscle or surrender one of his seats to make room for her.
I sat watching, smiling to myself wondering how this was going to play out. Would he create space for her? Would she realise there was a free seat with room on the other side of the pole and move? Or would they both travel uncomfortably without surrendering to the other?
He waited thirty seconds before he could ignore her no longer. Incredulous to the fact that she was almost sitting on his knee, wedged between the pole and his leg, Mr Selfish turned his head and looked at her. Was it a look or a glare? It didn't matter, she seemed as unaware of his look as he had been to the other people on the train needing a seat. She was too much for Mr Selfish. Instead of having two seats to himself in a crowded train, he had an unclean woman almost sitting on his lap. He rose indignantly and moved further into the packed carriage most likely hoping to replicate his stance elsewhere without challenge. Meanwhile, the possibly homeless and barefooted street woman had just won a battle she didn’t even know she was having.
With Mr Selfish gone, the woman quickly used the space to empty the contents of her hands on to the now empty seat beside her - a few coins, many grubby, rolled up train tickets, and an old tissue. Suddenly, her mumbling became louder. "...tally ho..." she said. I wasn't sure if I'd heard her right. Did she mean, "Come on train, let's go?"
"...tally ho...my ...," she said again but not quite loud enough for me to work out exactly what she meaning.
She continued to rummage through the small pile of what others may consider rubbish as her voice slowly became louder.
"My Tally Ho ... papers. You didn't give my papers back," she said to someone unseen. She repeated herself and began to glance toward the doors of the train that were still open waiting to begin the coming journey.
“My papers!” she yelled. “My Tally Ho papers. You didn’t give them back!”
Commuters pretended to ignore the woman while some secretly looked out the corner of their eyes to see what she was doing. Others chose to look out the window and pretend they didn’t hear the strange ramblings getting louder and sounding more agitated.
Suddenly, time seemed suspended. The commuter drinking his coffee moved in slow motion as he raised the paper cup toward his lips; as did the man placing a briefcase between his legs in preparation for the initial jolt of the train; the woman taking a book from her bag to read on the journey, and the squirming agitation of the street woman as she realised she may be about to lose her precious Tally Ho cigarette papers. The tension in the carriage was palpable.
A buzz announcing the train doors would soon be closing rang through the carriage. With an obstacle course of people and luggage between her and the only exit available, she began to make her move. A false start on the closing of the carriage doors brought her precious seconds of time.
Again, she called in a louder voice, "My Tally Ho papers. You didn't give my papers back!"
It felt as if the collective breath of the train travellers was now being held as she quickly grabbed her pile of treasures and began to charge for the doors. I heard the woman beside me, a fellow traveller with oversized suitcase, "O, oh." Suddenly, our barefoot, grubby street woman with the amazing hair started yelling one final time, "Hey, you didn't give me back my Tally Ho papers."
With as much speed as she could muster, and full of purpose, she was off! We were all watching now as the click signifying the doors were about to close sounded again. Those that stood between her and her Tally Ho papers had the choice to move out of the way or risk being bowled over in her panic.
Who would win? The closing carriage doors or our unusual woman?
In slow motion, we watched as she sprinted for the exit. The clunk of the closing doors echoed through the timeless carriage. We all watched now with baited breath as she bolted towards the exit. With millimetres to spare, she swung her body sideways to slip through the tiny opening like Indiana Jones or James Bond in a race against time.
She had made it. How I don’t know! A collective sigh of relief could be heard from those she left behind. Now standing safely back on the platform she again began to yell anew for the perpetrator that had absconded with her Tally Ho papers to return them. As the train pulled away from the station I watched the slightly dazed, barefooted woman with amazing hair look around her unsure of which way to go but, no doubt planning her next move.
To this day, five years on, I’ve often wondered if she got her papers back.