By Reece Pye
He got on at Dandenong, of all places. I didn’t pay him much mind at first; I was already too deep in The Cider House Ruleswhen he came and sat next to me. He seemed just like any other passenger, except in the way he sat with his back facing me, his head bowed, playing some game on his phone. Him in his filthy black tracks and his equally filthy grey hoodie, which at the time seemed appropriate enough, and only more so in retrospect.
While he wasn’t wearing earphones, he still increased the volume all the way up, attracting the attention of several nearby passengers, who, like me, were trying to discern what the countless explosions, crashes, and laser sounds were all about. Like me, they probably didn’t have a clue, because to them it was just another one of those innocuous, mind-numbing video games best suited to a child.Not a grown man on the train—even if he did get on at Dandenong and dressed like a twelve-year-old wannabe gangster.
Before long everyone, including myself, stopped taking notice of him, and I returned to my book, wondering how much harder it was now going to be trying to digest the dense, mostly exquisite prose of John Irving while a mobile version of World War III was apparently taking place right beside me. Though I did succeed in reading for about another five minutes without letting the ruckus deter me completely, it was around the scene where Melony shows Homer the portrait of an obese woman performing fellatio on a donkey that I—along with the same small group of passengers, as well as a few new onlookers—was drawn to the man in the stained tracks and hoodie once more.
‘Effin talk to me again, ya old bitch!’ he cursed into his phone, and was then rather quick to add, ‘I’ll pour a bottle a Tabasco sauce in yer ass. How does that sound?’
As he said this, I turned away from my book and listened both keenly and anxiously for a reply from the person who was supposedly going to have a bottle of Tabasco sauce poured down their anal cavity, but none came; just more of the exceptionally loud explosions from within the game world. As I returned to my book, the train slowed down and approached the next station. Once it came to a full halt, the man immediately stood up and walked over to the opening doors, as another dozen or so passengers began flooding into the carriage. All of them had no choice but to brush past either side of the hooded man as he leaned his head out. Not so that he could exit, but so he could glance down either side of the platform, whether it be at someone, something, or maybe nothing at all.
In the short time he abandoned his seat, a young Asian woman in a black silk dress took his place next to me. I inspected her through the corner of my eye. I was suddenly conscious of my increasing heartbeat, which, in my experience, is nothing but a physical acknowledgment that the equilibrium in which I live most of my life is about to be compromised.
‘Oi, I was sittin’ there,’ a voice said. Turning my head slightly to the right, I could see him now making his way back toward the seat. Towards me.
The girl quickly stood up as the train started off again and stepped aside as he neared her. But in the eyes of the hooded man, she had already committed a crime that couldn’t be rectified with a meek apology.
‘See that?’ he said, pointing down at a knapsack that was protruding from under the far edge of the seat, and that I had failed to notice until now. ‘What does that look like?’
‘Sorry,’ the girl said, and despite there being not a hint of resentment in her apology, her voice alone was enough of a trigger.
‘You’re sorry?’ he spat, as he reclaimed his seat. The girl leaned back against the carriage wall behind me, gazing sheepishly down at the floor. Still, this wasn’t enough to deter the hooded man.
‘It’s civil rights, bitch,’ he declared, the pitch of his voice loud enough that most in the carriage now diverted their eyes toward him—although I was sure that some of them were looking directly at me. ‘Do what ya told or go to jail. Your choice.’
This was where the girl decided it was time to respond. ‘Oh, shut up,’ she said.
‘What?’ I could feel him shift his entire bodyweight around on the seat as he turned to face her. ‘You’re a woman and your tellin me to shut up, are ya?’
This warranted disgruntled groans from some of the nearby passengers.
‘Yes,’ the girl replied.
‘Mate, just shut it,’ called out a voice from the other side of the carriage.
The hooded man immediately whirled his head around. ‘Huh?’
‘Shut it,’ the voice repeated.
‘What?’ He stood up, throwing back his hood to reveal a bare, dome-shaped skull that glimmered white in the light cast by the panels overhead, though his skin was unequivocally dark. ‘What was that?’ And when there was no immediate answer, he raised his voice. ‘Speak up, ya mutt!’
From the other side of the carriage, a man rose from behind the cover of several dozen bewildered faces. He was broader, taller, and his bulging tattooed arms seemed to hover on either side of him like smaller henchmen. ‘Keep goin, bro,’ he said.
He was perhaps indigenous, if he was anything, and at first glance appeared, like the now unhooded fiend, to be on the cusp of baldness himself.
‘Yeah?’ said the hooded man, taking a step forward. ‘Ya wanna go, huh?’
‘I’m Aboriginal,’ the hooded man said in a most guttural voice as he took another step forward, beckoning his opponent. ‘The heck are you, goon?’
‘I’m Maori.’ The Maori started toward the hooded man then, people on both sides of the carriage pulling their outstretched legs inward as the challenger pushed his way forth. As he drew closer, the Aboriginal chose to hold his ground beside me, removing his hoodie and flinging it to the ground as the Maori came within striking distance of him.
‘Let’s go!’ the Aboriginal bawled, and lunged forward, driving the top of his head into the Maori’s chest, screaming as he tried to force him back. Why he thought this would be an effective strategy I can’t say, but it wasn’t long before the Maori tossed him aside, and into one of the seats that had been vacated seconds before the clash, pinning him down as he began to unleash a succession of ferocious punches into the back of his head.
With his opponent unable to retaliate in any way—other than to scream his rage into the patterned seat – the Maori let him go and retreated several steps, clearly in anticipation of Round Two. It was at this point the train stopped at the next station. The Aboriginal launched himself at the Maori again, using the same hopeless method as before, and a handful of people fled the carriage. If I still didn’t have such a long way to go, I might have done so myself; though at this point my sole concern was whether I should take out my phone and begin recording behind the cover of my weathered paperback.
I barely had enough time to slip my hand down my pocket before the Maori held his wailing opponent back by the throat, and cracked him in the nose with a quick, hard jab. The Aboriginal tumbled backwards, landing on his back with a thud, fresh blood smeared across his lips. Though he was quick to scramble back to his feet, he didn’t make another advance; instead, he snatched his hoodie and bag, then let out a deep, animal-like roar.
‘Get the fuck out,’ the Maori said, pointing toward the open doors.
But his opponent remained still, glancing back and forth along the carriage. ‘I swear, it’s gonna be effin World War Three soon!’ he cried, eyes swimming, his bloodstained teeth laid bare as he gnashed them together. ‘And youse are all gonna be dead. All of youse effin dead goons! ALL OF YOUSE!’ Then he turned and hurried out into the open, just as several officers rushed toward him from the other side of the platform.
As the train carried on its inevitable journey toward the city, several people glanced out the window as the Aboriginal began to scream. I watched the Maorireturn to his seat and, as the carriage gradually returned to silence, a woman took the vacant seat beside me. I was about to turn and look at her, and realised that my book had fallen shut in my lap. I picked it up and opened to the page where I left off. I don’t know if it was necessarily my intention to continue reading in that moment, it seemed that simply staring at the words was enough.