There’s nothing like a long train ride to finetune your eavesdropping skills (as a writer, I like to call this ‘research’). Catching the Fibrotown Express back from Sydney with the Misters, I was privy to four different conversations involving the males of our species. They went something like this.
The participants: An elderly man and a younger woman, possibly late forties.
The duration: Two hours.
What began as a desultory conversation about the weather, somewhere around Redfern, ranged across a huge diversity of subject matter. She is at university, caring for an elderly father, and passionate about camellias. She leaves home at the crack of dawn to see a dentist in Sydney because she can’t imagine going to anyone else.
He is an immigrant, from Europe, after World War II, interested in politics. They have a lively and engaged debate about everything from the Carbon Tax to manners to her university degree. The subject of what happens to us when we get older came up a lot. The importance of having a hobby or interest.
I suspect their trip went very quickly.
The participants: Three older teenagers, around 17 years old
The duration: Twenty minutes
These three got on in a clatter of skateboards and a flicking of fringes about halfway through the journey. There was a lot of discussion about hair. Specifically about how girls wouldn’t look at you unless you had ‘the full mop’.
One young man outlined his attempts to get back into school – life in the ‘outside world’ wasn’t really working out. The conversation turned to girls, specifically to one young lady who was ‘tuning’ the guy with the biggest hair but whom he was resisting.
“Why?” asked his friend. “She’s pretty hot.”
“She has her V-plates on,” was the response. “I don’t want to be responsible for her losing those.”
Everybody nodded in a serious, understanding kind of manner.
“I’ve passed her on to [another boy]. I’m hoping he’ll sort it out.”
The participants: Two younger teens, around 14 or so
The duration: Ten minutes
As the older teens vacated the seat behind me, these two could be seen to be saying goodbye to some girls in short shorts on the platform. One received a goodbye kiss, the other a tiny wave. Both boys are at that puppy fat-plus-pimples stage that is pictured next to ‘awkward’ in the dictionary.
They slump into their seats just as the train takes off. There is much sighing.
“I really like her,” says one to the other.
“You should totally tell her,” says the other to the one.
There is much back and forth, and attempts to use a mobile phone that has little prepaid credit on it.
“I won’t tell her,” says the one to the other.
“Yeah, right, better to keep her guessing,” says the other to the one.
The participants: Mr4 and Mr7
The duration: About 476 hours
Put two small boys on a long train ride and you have to imagine that at some point the conversation will run out. But it does not.
In between building Lego and intermittent wrestling bouts, Mr4 has many questions and Mr7, to his credit, does his best to answer them (because clearly his mother is far too busy listening to other people’s conversations to listen to theirs) before handing over the hard ones to me.
So I got: “Why do we need to scratch, Mum?” along with “What makes a bruise, Mum?”, “What is coal, Mum?”, “How come there are no more steam trains, Mum?” “What’s the fastest shark in the world, Mum?”, “Why are turtles yellow on their tummies, Mum?” and so on and so forth.
Little boys, little questions, big boys, big questions.