Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Travel without a ticket

During my seven days at The Writer's House, Varuna, in the Blue Mountains of New South Wales, I felt at times overwhelmed by a sense of my inability as a writer, by my fraudulence. The experience led me into memories.

I travel without a ticket. My concession card has long expired but I keep it tucked inside my blazer pocket in the hope that every time I flash it past the stationmaster at the gate, he will not notice and will wave me through.

For a year we travel like this, my sister and I. From Parkdale railway station beside the sea to Richmond and its factories in the middle of which, in a green oasis of garden and trees, sits our school.

It has become something of an art this business of concealment, with many different strands and possibilities. Every day as we stand on the platform waiting for the train we look to the ground for cast off tickets. There are some, which are useless. They have a pink stripe or a bold print declaration that marks them as tickets once used by someone in a special category, different from ours. We need tickets that belong to concession-eligible students and there are plenty of these around if only we are lucky.

I also have a store of these tickets in my blazer pocket. I use them at the other end of my journey. I have become adept at walking past the station man with a cool air. I toss the ticket into his open hand along side all the other people who do likewise. It is important to get into the middle of a large bunch of people. This way the station man does not have time to look too closely at out tickets, my sister and I, when they fall into his hand. Concealment comes in numbers.

Anxiety is at its height at these times. That climactic moment, as if in a movie when the ticket man looks down at your ticket, drags it out from the pile in his hand and looks at its past-its-use-by date and sees that it is a ticket for a journey that stopped four stations before in Malvern, or sees that it is a ticket that should have been used last year, and recognises that you are a fraud. He calls for you to stop within the crowd of strangers, selects you out as a non person, a person who is not worthy of such travel. It gets worse.

In my imagination my sister and I are held hostage in the station master’s office until the police arrive. I am not so young and foolish these days as to imagine that we will be sent to prison for our crime, nor am I worried about what our mother will say. She does not have money to give us to buy our tickets. She must know that we travel on imaginary ones. She never says a word about this to us and we know not to tell. She has worries enough about finding money for food.

Nor do I worry about what the nuns might say. The nuns are more tolerant of poverty than many, and since we have started to travel to school from Parkdale, since our parents have separated and the nuns know the story from my older sister - who once planned to be a nun herself but they would not take her on the grounds of insanity - since then, the nuns have been kind.

They turn a blind eye to my partial uniform, to the fact that my indoor shoes are worn out and should be replaced, to the fact that I hold my pinafore together with a safety pin. They turn a blind eye. But I wear these things badly in my mind and it is my fellow students who torment me with their stares, like the anonymous throng of people scurrying from the train. I see them in my mind’s eye when the ticket man calls to us to stop – ‘that’s not a proper ticket’ – when he grabs me by the wrist as if he imagines I will attempt a quick get away. Then it becomes the single eye of the anonymous crowd like a giant eye blinking down from the sky that stares with accusation and criticism. It is a look I have seen in my mother’s eyes when she disapproves. It is a deadly look, the look of the curse - the curser looks upon the cursed, and the cursed one is damned forever.

Can you imagine? A year of this? A year of traveling on trains twice a day, of sitting in the middle carriage, hands on our laps, our bags at our feet, sharing the bag of lollies a school friend and her sister who live in Bentleigh buy at the shop in the tunnel of the Richmond railway station on our way home.

I wonder that they do not resent us. We do not reciprocate. We do not buy lollies. We do not have money to share. We sit together in a huddle, white gloves in summer, brown in winter, demure schoolgirls chattering about the day’s events. Four of us travel together but two of us are frauds. Two of us do not have a ticket.

I watch the doors at every platform when the train comes to a halt. I watch for the men in grey – the ticket inspectors. I have a plan laid out in my mind. The ticket men will prepare to walk into our carriage. We will see them as the train pulls into the station. As soon as we see them we will stand up, make a sudden excuse to our friends, grab our school bags and leave. Then we will take ourselves to the toilets in the middle of the platform, well away from the exit gate and the stationmaster and wait for the next train, but we will not take the next train or the train after that. We know that ticket inspectors get on and off from one station to the next. It will take at least five or six more trains before the ticket inspectors have exhausted the stations and we will be able to complete our journey without detection.

After a year of traveling in this way I have an entrenched sense of guilt, the danger of being caught.

I struggled with this throughout my seven days of writing at Varuna, the writer's lament. In time I shook the monkey from my shoulder and wrote like a train, but it only came after the pain of remembering.


Ann ODyne said...

oh I was relieved to get to the "wrote like a train" part.
A train without inspectors too I hope.
You are certainly not alone in feeling like a fraud in certain situations. I think this happens a lot.
Even as an adult, one can, during particularly good times, feel a dark cloud above one's shoulder, bringing a message "any minute the grownups will arrive and put a stop to this".
A while ago I was a guest at Government House, officially presented to the Governor, and later during the coffee mingling I said to an important looking man that I was a fraud, and must be the only person there who lives below the poverty line. He roared laughing and said he didn't have a job and it was his wife's achievements that got him in.
Everything is smoke and mirrors, even for our Governor.

india flint said...

gripping stuff, me dear.

Reader Wil said...

Well, Elizabeth, that is quite some story!! it's well written and it reads like a "train"( if that expression exists).Thanks for this story!

Come Back Brighter said...

Oh wow, I was with you all the way on this -- I probably would have snapped at anyone who interrupted me before I finished reading it!

You are most definitely not travelling without a ticket now.

Mim said...

How clever you both were! Clever and wily. In an adventure story, you're heros. But those fears can still live inside us. A strong piece of writing.

Tommaso Gervasutti said...

Dear Elisabeth, thank you for your comment on "Tales". There are more memories to come triggered also by David King's own powerful record of his memories...

As for your guilt travelling with expired tickets...Here in Italy I would behave like you and feel not only guiltless but in the right.
I have a month ticket, a pass, as a civil servant, being a teacher, but it's very expensive and the Italian railways are a mess, in these days travelling by train to school where I teach and back is an adventure...snow and ice have destroyed the already weak and disorganized Italian train network system...now after two days snow has turned into rain but inexplicably Gothic delays continue and cancellation of trains so one leaves home to go work and never knows if he will reach destination and, even worse, once at work one never knows when he will be back home, the manager of the Italian network service invited us travellers to leave home with a blanket and some sandwiches!!! So we would do right no to pay tickets for ages after this!

Elisabeth said...

Annie, thanks for your support. I can just imagine you at government house, you'd be the Mary Poppins type perhaps, with a brolly for poking into uptight people's ribs.

You're right of course, underneath it all, most have doubts about themselves. I wouldn't trust the person who didn't.

Thanks India, Reader, Will, Jay and Mim. It's always heartening to have my writing acknowledged. It makes me feel less fraudulent.

Davide. Your Italian transport system sounds worse than ours. People joke about the number of daily cancellations of trains here, leading to that same sense of uncertainty about whether you'll make it to your destination or not and when.

I read somewhere about an honours system in buying tickets on transport. I think it was in Russia. The person interviewed said he would always buy a ticket because he considered that public transport belonged to him. I suppose if it really felt that way you might be inclined to buy your ticket even without the ticket inspectors.

I always buy a ticket now and insist that my children do likewise. I could not bear the anxiety.

I often wonder that I could bear to be without a proper ticket for so long when I was young. But I have no memory of ever being caught. This may have kept me going.

Bonnie Zieman, M.Ed. said...

Hardly a fraud when it comes to writing, dear Elisabeth. You have concrete experiences and memories to add weight to feelings most humans seem to struggle with - that of being a fraud or imposter. These feelings are rooted in shame and unworthiness - and in this hierarchical, consumer-driven world to be poor as a child seems shameful somehow.

A really wonderful harkening back to a time of your life that could help us understand the feelings you were experiencing at your writing retreat.

The content was riveting - but I would read your writing about almost anything.....It is smooth and seductive, like silk.

Happy holidays.

Momo Luna S!gnals said...

I started reading and couldn't stop untill the end. You're a good writer: you caught my attention and reached the heart. The last sentence.....powerfull, it struck me.(i hope i use the right expression)

Happy holidays and i wish you a great 2010!

Sweet greetz.

Dan said...

Elizabeth: I'm a new follower, and I struck it rich finding this wonderful memory. Your narrative took me right with that little girl in the train. She's a survivor, and learned more than how to travel without a valid ticket. What a enchanting gift you gave to us all. Thanks, and I'm already looking forward to the next one.

Jim Murdoch said...

I enjoyed this very much. I think it really need to be a part of a larger work - it feels like an excerpt from an autobiography rather than a standalone piece of writing - but I suppose with a little rejigging it would work on its own. The one thing that I would have liked to have seen answered was how far your home was from your school. If your mother sent you out without any money was it feasible to walk that distance? And what changed after that year? Was more money coming into the house by that point so that you could afford tickets? Like I said, this feels like it should sit in the middle of something else but I've a feeling that I'd be interested in reading that something else whenever it gets written.

Elisabeth said...

Thanks, Dan. we seem to have the Catholic link there, at least so I gather from your last post, though I may be wrong there.

Certainly my childhood experience under Catholicism is something that I use in my writing. It has its symbolic equivalence in many other forms of authority and children tend to spend their lives, their childhood lives at least even into adulthood, trying to wriggle out from under its weight.

You're right, Jim. I think it does need to be part of a larger piece. It's something that I've written about before. It's one of those resonant experiences that have stayed with me, not quite screen memories, but evocative of many other experiences, for me at least.

We could not have walked to school. to travel by car from Parkdale to Richmond would take at least 30 minutes depending on the traffic. I'm not good on distances but the space between Parkdale and Richmond would have to be at least 25 kilometers. We always walked when we could.

What changed after that year. Not a lot, I can tell you, but that's another story.

We moved back with my father and so yes, there may have been more money coming in. I don't remember cheating on trains after that year.

Leslie Morgan said...

Oh, Elisabeth, did that strike me where I live! All the Catholic angst and guilt and weight on a child . . . who later tries to write, but has to relive this STUFF before the words will flow to the fingertips. And the heavy pregnant moments while we wait for doom and disaster to strike us. Beautifully done. I thank you. I'm glad Dan found you, presumably through my blog. I've had to lighten up just a little during the holidays, but I'm going back in my soul to Salt Lake City in the new year.

Elisabeth said...

Thanks, Limes, for your kind words. I look forward to hearing more from you in the new year.

June Calender said...

A very compelling story told with grace. Thanks for giving it to us.

Rikkij said...

E- I love that you would travel this way. I find it a little sad that you now could not bear the anxiety. Sometimes, I think we should grab anxiety by the collar and throw it down, then help it up and take a walk with it, letting it know who is boss but not shying from it. I find your writing beautiful and alluring. I too, grew up in Catholic school with nuns. Now that's anxiety! Take care~rick

Lisa said...

Hello Elisabeth, nice to meet you. Please accept my rather late Season's greetings.

Nice story and look forward to reading more.

Elisabeth said...

Thanks, Bonnie, for reassuring me on the stuff about fraudulence. I know it's essentially about shame and the way it undermines us but it nevertheless continues to hold me in a vice like grip at times, at least in my memories.

Thanks, Momo, too for your kind words here. Christmas greetings to you, though I think I've already passed these on to you via your blog, at least I hope I have.

Thank you also, June for your kind words and Rikki: what an interesting thought - 'grab our anxiety by the collar...and let it know who's boss'.

Thus far I've never managed it, at least not when it counts, but I shall try. You're right, growing up with the nuns, did not help. Thanks.

And finally here, thank you Ocean girl for your belated best wishes. For me they are not so belated.

We still have one Christmas lunch, another one, that will take all day with my husband's family to go. Therefore not until after tomorrow can I say that Christmas is over for us.

And then there's that infernal count down to the New Year.

Roll on 2010.