On the Train

  • By Robin Barker
  • 16 Mar, 2017

In an open carriage on the Eastern Suburbs line, two young men sitting side-by-side talk with boisterous enthusiasm, leaning so closely into each other that the brims of their hats almost collide.

They are dressed in dark suits, white shirts, dangling waist tassels and sturdy lace-up shoes. Their beards and side-curls are pitch black. The pallor of their faces suggest lives lived indoors.
Identical black leather satchels with brass locks lie across their laps. Oblivious to everyone else in the carriage, they wave their hands around and argue with gusto over what seems to be a point of religion.

One of the young men is tubby but solid with a round face, full cheeks, plump lips and a booming American accent.
His friend has a narrow face, rimless glasses and very pink lips. His accent, a lively throaty one, is now harsh, now soft. He’s holding a book with looping characters written across the cover,  a finger slipped between two pages for easy referral.

A woman wearing an olive-green high-waisted frock, thick stockings and white sandals is sitting next to the tubby man. She holds a bunch of purple hydrangeas and a big plastic carry-bag. The stiff curls of her dusty brown hair rest motionless and wig-like around her face. Her eyes are wistful, her expression one of resignation.

When the tubby man pauses for breath she touches his arm and whispers. ‘Excuse me, are you a Rabbi?’
The young man places a hand on each thigh and swivels slightly in her direction.
‘No, no.’
He gestures to his friend. ‘We’re students, religious students.’
‘Ah’, the woman nods thoughtfully at her sandals and looks at him again.
The student gives her a quizzical look. ‘Excuse me for asking, but are you…Jewish?’
‘Yes, but I’m not religious.’ She shifts the hydrangeas from one hand to the other and studies the floor.
He turns his palms up and shrugs. ‘No matter, it doesn’t matter.’
‘I live next door to the Rabbi though. With his lovely family, his lovely children – ‘
He nods gravely. His friend studies his book.
The woman shuffles her sandals, clears her throat and whispers, ‘I would like to, you know, become religious.’

The young man's voice, unlike the faint voice of the woman, is loud and unrestrained. He is obviously unembarrassed about discussing his religion on a train in front of a curious audience.
He dives into his satchel and brings out several brochures and presses them onto the woman.
‘What we say is, start with something small. If you try to do too much too quickly it's too difficult and you’ll find you’ll give up.’
The woman smiles and nods, casting flickering glances around the carriage.
The young man warms to his theme. ‘Do you, for example, light candles on the Sabbath?’
She shakes her head staring into his face.
His voice booms away but his smile is gentle and his eyes are kind. ‘Now that is a good place to begin. On Friday evening before dinner you light two candles and say a blessing over the candles. Here -.’
He opens one of the pamphlets and they look at it together. ‘See, then the candles are left to burn out by themselves.’
‘Yes, yes, I see.’
‘Simple things,’ he says again. ‘One step at a time.’
‘Excuse me for asking but – where are you from?’
‘New York, I’m in Australia for a year. I’ve been here nine months so far.’
‘And your friend?’
‘Aha, he’s from Israel. He’s descended from a family of original settlers from Poland.’
‘My family also was from Poland.’ The woman smiles shyly at the other man who nods and puts his book into his satchel.

The students are now standing above her. Despite their different builds, they look like twins in their hats and suits, clutching their satchels in one hand and the overhead rail in the other as the train pulls into Town Hall station.
The woman places her flowers on the vacant seat next to her and puts the pamphlets into her plastic bag.
‘Thank you,’ she says.
‘You’re welcome. Remember, small increments,’ says the young man from America.
‘A little bit by a little bit,’ says the young man from Israel.

In no time at all they are sucked up into the crowd milling around the doors waiting to step off the train.
The woman smiles and picks up her flowers.


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