The station is below the level of the street, in a cutting made through the sandstone bedrock. From my usual position at the end of the platform I observe what stays the same and what changes. I take in the tracks and the opposite platform, the sandstone wall behind it, then a steep bank rising up to street level. Above this, coming up right up to the edge of the bank, is the long side wall of a house, and above this, the sky.
The surface elements change: the sky is bright or pale, water trickles over the sandstone or it is dry, people sit on the benches or lean against the wall as they wait for trains. The mood of the station is anticipatory, in-between, restless. Waiting here is an insular activity, despite the common purpose we commuters share. Everyone is in their own reverie, looking down at their phones or vaguely elsewhere, impatient or resigned.
When waiting for a train nothing more is required than presence. This is a stretch of time without additional expectations. Do something or do nothing. Compose thoughts, or don’t. Be attentive, be distracted, the train will arrive regardless.
On the platform this morning some people scroll, some stare, some fidget. I’m one of the starers, making the most, or perhaps the least, of this pocket of time when all there is to do is wait. My attention wanders to the side of the always-locked station building where cautionary posters advise travellers to avoid littering or to stand back from the platform edge. This month’s awkward slogan is Hey Tosser! printed over a photograph of a man with long brown hair and piercing blue eyes, sitting waiting at Central Station (I recognise the tiles). He stares dreamily into the distance as he drops a takeaway coffee cup, which is shown in slight blur as it rolls onto the ground by his feet. In his seated position, the hems of his trousers are pulled up to expose his socks, black dress socks with a white argyle pattern. One is on inside out, revealing the tufts of threads behind the stitching. A secret message leading nowhere, just a minor reward of idle attention.
Caw-caw-caw. A raven’s drawl echoes in the artificial gully of the station. A pair of them live here, perching on the wires, picking out morsels from the bins or the tracks. Even if at first I don’t see them they are always somewhere nearby. Perched on an overhead line, the wind ruffling its chest feathers, the raven calls out again, three unhurried descending notes.
I move my eyes to the side wall of the house opposite, which has an abrupt appearance like the sliced end of a loaf. Over my years of waiting for the train to the city I have had plenty of time to examine this building. The pattern of the rooms is suggested by the windows, two small shuttered ones in the middle would likely be a bathroom, and the larger ones at the back with their blinds always down perhaps the kitchen. But I rarely think about the interior. Instead I focus on the ghost signs on the wall. One of these, wide as a room, in yellow and blue paint bleached pale by decades of sunlight, distinctly reads ‘Shelley’s Lemon Delite’. Next to this is a block of the same width, the sign faded beyond recognition, only the white underpainting remaining.
But now, as I stare at the patch of white paint, I detect the outline of a word in the top corner. Neat, wide lettering, in a red so light as to be barely there at all. LIBRARY.
Faint but distinct: LIBRARY. How had I not seen it before? I have stared at this wall hundreds of times. The overnight rain must have soaked the bricks, heightening the contrast, bringing the faded word into visibility.
This detail is one that leads me back to the 1940s, when the sign was freshly painted. The library was one of the hundreds of small subscription services that operated in the days before free public libraries became widespread and established. Independently run, such libraries loaned books to subscribers for a modest fee. Postal directories of the early twentieth century record the libraries’ names and their cosy or expansive allusions: Book Nook Library, Everyone’s Library, The Moderne, Lucille Library, Tree of Knowledge, The Vogue, The Gem, Fireside Library, Leisure Hour Lending Library, Inner Circle Library… Almost every suburb seemed to have at least one.
Traces of this particular library in newspapers and directories are as slight as the wall sign. The postal directory lists it as the Windsor throughout the 1940s, then the trail goes cold with a terse sale notice in newspaper classifieds in 1949: ‘Library, latest books. £375’.
The sliced-loaf building that once held the library is a home now, its front rooms no longer used commercially. The display windows at street level have been covered with a reflective coating so there’s no glimpse inside, just the image of the street looking back at itself. It reflects the parked cars and the overgrown vacant lot where houses were demolished five years ago and have not yet been replaced by anything new. Walking past on the way to the river, I watch my mirror image move across the windows, as if it is observing me rather than the other way around.
Imagining the reflection and time peeled away, I see the room lined with shelves of books, the bestsellers of 1949. One of these would have been Ruth Park’s Harp in the South,which caused such controversy when it won the inaugural Sydney Morning Herald literary award the year before. Park’s frank depiction of working-class family life in the Surry Hills slums had attracted vigorous debate. Letters to the newspaper either defended it for its social realism, or condemned it for wallowing in depravity and immorality. Now the damning letters read like recommendations. ‘If the story was really written by a woman,’ ran one letter, ‘then I am very sorry, for it destroys all the nice things I have believed about women’s minds’. In 1949 I could have borrowed it to read on my train journey to the city. As I travelled through Central Station I could have looked out the window, towards the very places that the characters’ lives played out.
The book I have brought with me to read on today’s journey is an ex-library paperback of Shirley Hazzard’s Transit of Venus. I’d rescued it from a table of free goods outside an op shop, where it had been leaning up against a Tupperware container of plastic cooking implements, beside a stack of plates with chipped edges. A red ‘cancelled’ stamp had been applied to the top, fore and lower edges of the pages, so no one would be tricked into thinking it was still the property of Asquith Girls High School.
Encountering it in this way was the sign that my time had come to read it. I thought of the novel’s cult status and the power it was said to exert over its readers as I picked it up from beside the unloved plasticware and read the first few lines. When I came to ‘Purple silence petrified the limbs of trees and stood crops upright in the fields like hair on end’ I closed the book and added it to my bag.
The Transit of Venus, as it follows the lives of two sisters, follows how their fates entwine and diverge. Caro and Grace’s lives differ in course after their shared upbringing, as they bend to, or resist, the forces that constrain them. Caro’s fate is less prescribed, more open to chance and self-determination. As the novel’s protagonist it is her we most closely follow, through the unpredictable turns of her fate.
At the start of the third section, Caro is in London among a more dispersed group of sisters, the thousands of young women who, like her, work in office jobs. Early every morning, across the city, they ready themselves for their day.
Girls were getting up all over London. In striped pyjamas, in flowered Viyella nightgowns, in cotton shifts they had made themselves and unevenly hemmed, or in sheer nylon to which an old cardigan had been added for warmth, girls were pushing back bedclothes and groping for slippers.
On the next page the women move towards the street.
All the girls of London shuddered, waiting for the bus. Some had knitted themselves unbecoming brown Balaclavas, with worse mittens to match. Some held a boiled egg, still hot, in their glove – which warmed the hand, and could be eaten cold at lunchtime in the ladies’ room. At that hour all London was ashudder, waiting for the bus.
This full-circle paragraph, boiled egg at its centre, captures the time of day I am waiting in, morning peak, the platform gradually filling up with commuters. Replace the shudder with a daze, a boiled egg with a phone. I’m holding mine without even realising it, until the urge to check makes my fingers restless. On the transit app the white square of the train inches closer along the map. I can’t help but monitor its position, although the train comes regardless, and knowing only makes me impatient for its arrival.
This section of the Bankstown train line roughly follows the path of Goolay’yari (Cooks River). On the map the two curving lines move in duet, crossing over half way along, as the river flows north and the railway goes west. In this country of waterways, water shapes the path of even the most inflexible of infrastructure. Tides move the river currents towards the bay; on steel tracks trains stream between the city and the suburbs.
The commuters of the suburbs are at their stations, waiting for their morning trains. This kind of waiting rarely sticks in memory but all the time spent here accumulates nonetheless, whether counted across one lifetime, or across just one day. The sum of every passenger’s waiting in this one morning would be years, an accumulation of blank, expectant, distracted, bored or daydream time, readily swept away by the arrival of the train.
The white square on the screen advances and I look up, towards the curve in the track around which trains move in and out of view. A moment later the citybound train appears, the yellow stripe across the front bright against the grey and green surroundings. With it the spell breaks and the wait is over.
In the afternoons I fall into step with the crowd marching towards the train station. We walk fast, funnelling in under the shell of glass panels that encases the lifts and the escalators and forms the station entrance. The station itself is a long way down, two steep slow escalator rides towards the deep tunnel.
I stand to the side as others rush past, letting the escalator convey me, breathing in the cold, sharp, mechanical smell particular to the stations on this underground line. The smell is one I recognise from train stations in Berlin, and every time it works on my memory, as reliably as flicking a switch. Winter cold. My heavy coat. Sugar from a jam donut. Zurückbleiben bitte. These impressions persist for the length of the escalator, until I step off onto the concourse. Down here the atmosphere turns frenetic as people break into a run to reach the ticket gates, no matter whether the train is imminently due or not.
By the afternoon the day has softened everyone into exhaustion or relief. Crumpled shirts, bad posture. People catch up on messages on their phones, or cast zoned-out stares across the grey textures of the station. Its stock-photograph aesthetic could be any station anywhere.
Twelve minutes until the train comes. I walk to the end of the platform, sit on the very last seat, begin to settle back into myself after a day of teaching. The performance of being in front of a class is one that, over years, has lifted me out of shyness and into confidence. But retreating into quiet interiority is always a relief afterwards. Here on the station there’s nothing to perform, apart from the obedience of waiting, alongside the uni students, office workers, and shoppers. However else we might differ, we are all waiting to be on our way.
With fellow passengers there are only ever clues, never the full story. The details of clothing, overheard conversations, the way facial expressions change: the train is an exercise in observing and being observed. Mostly this is an absentminded kind of observation that is readily forgotten as the journey ends or continues. Of all the train journeys in my life I can only readily call to mind a few people who through some extremity, by either being threating or kind, have remained in my memory.
Other more momentary encounters I find in my journals, from train trips when someone demands my attention enough for me to break off what I am otherwise writing.
15.04.2015 A man ends his phone conversation well, better go do something with my life, seeya.
23.06.2016 A woman with a bunch of yellow gerberas, replying to messages about a bogged car.
06.05.2017 A teenager with horror makeup, a black button over one eye, stitches drawn on her cheekbones, who talks with her friend about free comic book day, which is today.
Compiling them this way is an intermittent record of clues: people’s clothes, what they say, how they act. The same kind of details arise in Lauren Elkin’s No. 91/92: notes on a Parisian commute,a record of her commutes over her teaching year, originally tapped into the Notes app on her phone during her journeys. It is a dossier of momentary intensities and commuting micro-dramas, captured as she rides the bus to work in the morning and back again in the evening. These entries chart the city’s moods in concert with her own. Like Georges Perec’s An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris,from which she draws inspiration, it’s not the substance of the observations themselves that reads as significant, so much as the space that’s opened up for attention to them.
Back here on the platform I see myself as others might, a woman sitting at the far end near the tunnel entrance, looking thoughtful or maybe just sad, her long hair escaping from the pin that tames it behind her ear, her hands pushed into the pockets of her blue jacket, a 70s-style cardigan with white piping along the edges. I release my hands from these pockets to unzip the bag between my feet. Leaning down I reach in, rustle around, and take out a book.
It is a copy of Julio Cortázar’s Bestiary I have borrowed from the library and, opening it, I see that it is marked by the pencil underlinings of a previous reader. I try to ignore them but find myself drawn to their logic. Why underline ‘Night would never come’ on the second page of ‘The Southern Thruway’? Then a few pages on, ‘the hours began to blend together, become one in the memory’? An essay about time and how it stretches under waiting, perhaps.
‘The Southern Thruway’ is set inside a traffic jam on a French motorway. The delay is of such magnitude that days go by with the cars barely moving, and soon time starts to disassemble. Days turn to weeks, but no one can keep track, none of the characters who are identified only by their age or profession and make of car, be it the two nuns in a Citroën 2CV, ‘the boys in the Simca’, or the protagonist, an engineer who drives a Peugeot 404. Around the gridlocked cars the stranded motorists organise into groups. Envoys move between the different factions that have sprung up along the length of the queue, bartering for food and water. As the weather changes and cold winds and snow come, the Simca boys rip the covers off their car seats to make coats. Wrapped in these makeshift coverings, they stand on the roof of their car, looking towards the unattainable horizon.
The story nudges the real, never escalating into complete ridiculousness, but pushing the bounds of the possible enough just to stretch them. When I drive I often console myself with the fact that no one has been stuck in traffic, or in a particularly tight parking spot, forever. ‘The Southern Thruway’ exercises the fear that underlies this sensible thought.
I look up from the book, towards the beige textured panelling of the roof above. Something as dramatic as this gridlock could be happening above ground right now, as I sit waiting on the platform. Once down in the underground I give little thought to what is happening on the surface. It was this sort of mindset that Harry Beck, the designer of the London Underground Tube Map in the 1930s, had in mind when he drew up his chart of the underground network. Before this railway maps set the stations within topographical or geographical features, but Beck realised that what was more important to navigating the system was the relationship of the lines to each other. His map was a circuit diagram of potential movements and interconnections.
Commuting feels like this sometimes, like I’m energy moving through a circuit. The flow of movement depends on the time of day and my mood, and how neatly I choreograph changing trains. Sometimes everything glides and I’m within the city’s currents. Other times I just miss, get stuck, go too far, or some disruption interferes. For an experience that is in many ways so predictable, it is equally open to chance. I can never be sure quite which kind of journey it will be until it happens.
A sound arises from the mouth of the tunnel, a whistle I envisage as ghostly lines, trails emanating from the darkness. They curl through the station, winding around everyone waiting, animating them to gather their bags and move to stand behind the line at the edge of the platform. The whistle is at my elbows too, dusty, cold and high-pitched. It urges me to close the book, tuck it away, and make ready to depart.
Cortázar, Julio, Bestiary, Harvill Press, 1998.
Elkin, Lauren, No. 91/92 : a Parisian bus diary. Tablo Tales, 2021.
Hazzard, Shirley, The Transit of Venus, Penguin, 1980.
Park, Ruth, The Harp in the South, Penuin, 2009.