NSW Seniors stories: On the Three-Twenty-Four
FOUR carriages. Bummer. It'll be packed, standing room only to Wollongong.
No matter. Nothing can diminish the euphoria Hazel feels after a visit to the Art Gallery. Happens every time - the experience of communing with artists through their works. She leaves the gallery invigorated, restored and ready to take on the world. Today is no different.
They squeeze into the only two spaces available, hands grasping vertical poles and feet spread to maintain balance. Either side of them seated passengers avoid eye contact, wriggle self-consciously and focus on their devices. Two young Asian men rise, gesture a hand each towards their vacated seats. Larry and Hazel smile, gracious in their thanks.
'You people shouldn't travel in peak hour', rasps a loud male voice through the crowd of standing bodies. 'What're ya doin' anyway? Old geezers should keep orf trains until workers are in their offices or've gone home.'
Hazel places a plump soft hand on Larry's tense knee. Fear of confrontation spreads like an electric current through the compartment. Who will be galvanised enough to respond? Should someone call the guard?
The speaker is hidden from the view of Larry and Hazel who decide by osmosis not to react. Opposite, unseen by Larry and Hazel and next to Raspy Voice sit Bob and Heather, silver hair and lined faces marking them too as targets of his rancour.
Hazel fills the silence with an unspoken reply: I'll tell you what we've been doing - I've been to Artexpress. Awesome senior school artworks. Each Thursday Larry returns to his former workplace as a consultant. Lunches with colleagues. Last week...
What the disgruntled speaker cannot see is Larry's kindly demeanour. A tall man, shoulders slightly rounded. His head and face smooth, eyes conveying empathy. Hazel, deceptively docile, nestles her plumpness beside her husband. Skilled in social work, she feels able to handle any dysfunctional person, any confrontation. Perhaps not today with no back-up. Her elation melds into the subdued mood of the carriage.
Then a woman's raised voice: 'Yeah. No oldies on trains until nine or after three.'
Nothing. Not a sound. Hazel whispers to Larry, 'So what happened to encouraging older people to stay in work. What ...'
Larry leans close, 'Shh. They sound drunk. Keep out of it.'
The mass of commuters, like flotsam on a pond, shifts and shuffles to make way for luggage and travellers boarding at Wolli Creek, the airport link. Someone stands for the young woman with toddler in a stroller. She sighs a thank-you as bodies separate to make way for her. Larry smiles and wriggles his fingers towards the child who swivels his head to stare into a trousered leg beside him.
The protestors seem to have been muted by the mass of bodies around them. The crowd thins at Hurstville as suburban passengers alight.
'They're the ones that shouldn't be on this train,' Bob whispers to Heather.
Four of those standing, those without luggage, move to the body of the carriage. The protestors become visible to Larry and Hazel. An unkempt couple slumped against each other, eyes closed. Bob and Hazel beside them smile across at their fellow seniors. Larry raises his eyebrows and shrugs his shoulders. Hazel grimaces then returns their smiles.
An inner clock wakens the dozing couple before Sutherland where they rise and shuffle their way to the exit. Raspy Voice mumbles 'Catch an earlier train next time, old timers.'
And you catch a city train, mutters Hazel to herself.
Like a slowly deflating balloon the atmosphere in the compartment relaxes. Two of those with luggage take vacated seats, four remain standing, their attention devoted to smartphones.
'Copped a serve there mate,' Bob looks at Larry.
'Yes, first time that's happened.' Larry is pleased to hear his own voice.
'Don't I know you?' Heather leans forward. 'You walk your dog on Woonona beach, a daxie.'
'And you have the barking beagle.'
'Right,' chuckles Heather.
'Actually...' Larry's eyes roll as Hazel, re-invigorated, launches her 'What do you think about asking Council to change the southern half of the beach to a green zone? Give the dogs a place to run, leash free.'
'Great idea. Would legitimise what's already happening,' Bob chortles. The child in the stroller stirs, falls back to sleep.
'I've already written to Council and had a reply. Policy is to be reviewed later in the year and they'll seek community input. Have to keep an eye on Council's website and Facebook page. That's the tricky part.'
Fellow passengers add 'Good on you.' And 'Need you older guys to keep tabs on things.'
Hazel could name many millennials active in social issues. But that doesn't mean we bow out, she thinks, amid continuing friendly banter.
The train has reached Thirroul where both older couples alight. During the eighteen minute wait for their connecting service the chatter continues. Larry and Bob compare notes on their respective Men's Sheds.
Heather answers Hazel's query on her volunteer job in aged care. 'It's one-on-one stuff. There are heaps of people not as active as we are, but their brains remain alert and curious.'
'And don't you think that's the key ... to the notion of ageing positively, I mean? Maintaining your curiosity?'
'Yes definitely... and that's what we focus on. Taking someone to a gallery exhibition, a concert, to a garden show - whatever - helping with family history research. I take my laptop on some visits and we google away. Sometimes we take a train to the city. It's really an easy outing if you choose your times.'
'Oh, I love the trip usually. Plenty of reading time, especially in the quiet carriage.'
The connecting all-stations service arrives. The conversation continues to Woonona where Larry and Hazel leave the train.
'See you on the beach,' calls Heather.
On the drive home Larry says 'You haven't said anything about your gallery visit.'
'Inspiring, as usual. Tell you more over dinner.'
* Julie Davis's On the Three-Twenty-Four was first published in the Seniors' Stories, Volume 4. Loan copies of the book are in libraries across NSW. The book can also be downloaded for free from seniorscard.nsw.gov.au.