Riding on trains with boys

Allison Tait blog
Posted on July 17, 2011

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.

Conversation #1
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.

Conversation #2
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.”

Conversation #3
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.

Conversation #4
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.


  1. Mom Blog by Texasholly

    Fun! I would like to hear more…notes next time??? hahaha

  2. Megan Blandford

    Love this – boys covering all the big issues. Brilliant.

    And by the way, did those teenage boys really say they passed a girl on to another to ‘sort her out’?! We think society has come so far, but listening to any teenage conversation shows that it’s really still all the same.

  3. Georgie

    I had fun reading this Al! Thanks for eavesdropping. gxo

  4. Jackie K

    That was great! Excellent conversations all.
    I cannot answer a single one of your boys’ questions…

  5. Annette Piper

    You’re right – you can’t HELP but overhear these conversations in such situations. I love the 17 y.o. boy’s discussions – having a 13 y.o. (almost in the next category you list) its refreshing to know they do grow up!

  6. ricketyjo

    Brilliant, thanks so much, this was really entertaining!

  7. InkPaperPen

    Oh yes. We had to eavesdrop as part of our creative writing 101 homework at uni!

    The hair/girl pick up connection is interesting, if not baffling. But the little boys are much more philosophical! Would be very keen to know how you answered their questions. I struggle with my answers “Why don’t we eat pet rabbits if we eat other rabbits” is just one question that has stumped me today

  8. Toni

    I think I’m an avid people-watcher, so I’m always fascinated by semi-public conversations.
    And I love how people have a real need to connect, even if it’s a few minutes on a train with a stranger.

  9. Mumma's Mini Mes - Kym

    Hi lovely to find you! Boy have I been missing out! I love the last one, so true! It is like my daughter, but she doesn’t even need some else to talk to, to have a conversation all day!

  10. Donna

    I have to say I often passed the time on my MANY hours of public transport over the years. I am a bone fide people watcher and eavesdropper and still carry around tidbits in my mind for future scenes in novels (that I am yet to finish!). Love getting insights into other people’s lives – some call it nosy, I call it fascinating (or research, love that term!)

    Your writing really makes us feel as we are there for the journey too – love it x

  11. Diminishing Lucy

    Oh Al, this makes me want to make all male species skip from age seven to “elderly”. Your boys conversations, whilst I am sure they drove you mental, sound enchanting.

    The stages in the middle are far too scary.

    V plate buck passing? Oh my, what do I have to “look forward” to?!


  12. Tenille @ Help!Mum

    I’ve spent far too much time on trains going back and forth to Sydney. Sometimes, one of the perks was the eavesdropping. Sometimes though, it was better to stick with the iPod.

  13. Kate

    Chronic. I feel bad but other people sometimes seem so interesting. Love the v-plates comment. Teenage boys are very funny. Sounds like a great train ride!

  14. therhythmmethod

    The smaller they get, the more I like them. How do they go from turtles tummies to V plates in only a decade?
    Good eavesdropping skills. I’m very impressed. Did you take notes?

  15. Jo

    Little boys, big questions!

  16. Ms Styling You

    I love this – getting to eavesdrop voyeuristically through you. I’m a chronic starer. Is ok unless I realize my sunnies are not actually on hiding said stares.
    PS. Now scared for my daughter and her vplates! And my son’s lack of mop!

  17. Karen Collum

    That’s just awesome, although since my MC is a 15-year-old boy I may need to ride that train to pick up some of the vernacular. I have a feeling I might be just a tad out-of-date… “Rock on” and “totally, dude” just don’t seem to cut it anymore 😛 Eavesdropping is so much fun and I love the snippets you’ve shared with us.

  18. anjwritesabout.com

    Just laughing at the last convo that went on for 467 hours…sounds about right! And, yes, shocking eavesdropper…when not chatting in convos worthy of other eavesdroppers 😉

  19. The Mummy Hat

    Oh I love to ease drop! My other favourite is to watch couples on dates and guess how long they’ve been together, it’s a game hubby and I have been playing for years!

  20. Mrs BC

    V-Plates?! What a wonderful term! I do enjoy eavesdropping, but mostly spend my time thinking that I am not emotionally equiped for public transport. Sad, really.

  21. Amanda

    Oh how wonderful! I love train and bus rides for exactly this reason. They can be so enlightening. I must tell my husband to stop cutting the small boy’s hair so short though or he obviously won’t have a chance with the girls. And I would like to know the answer to the fastest shark question, please.

  22. Tucker

    I admit t. I am a chronic eavesdropper as well. these convos made me so happy to read. is that creepy? perhaps so… oh well (:

  23. joeh

    Guilty! 40 years of train commuting to work listening to others all the way.

    Why is the turtles belly yellow?

  24. thepowmill

    I don’t think I have stopped talking long enough to listen to other conversations much over time . Now , I am just deaf enough to get the conversation neither in full nor accurately. Listen while you can .

  25. Marion Williams-Bennett

    These conversations are brilliant and left me wanting to know more! I can see them leading to wonderful stories.

    My favorite characters are the puppy fat boys. You should totally tell her!

    It’s summer here and I am finding the beach to be a great source for conversations. I lay on the blanket and here all kinds of good bits…like “I found my SECOND grey chest hair” said my a very tan, very large man in a Speedo.

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