The kindness of strangers
(Raw and Unedited – True Account)
I’m crushed against the wall of the train as he takes the empty seat next to me. He’s intoxicated; the smell of alcohol emanates from his pores as well as on his breath. He’s sitting too close. I angle my knees as far as possible towards the window, the intrusion jarring – he’s not an overly large man but now the lack of space in my seat seems disproportionate.
“You like football?” he asks.
Angling my head in his direction, I take out one earbud. I had just pressed play on my Podcast. It’s a 48-minute train ride from Perth Station to Butler.
“No.” I give him a polite smile and briefly meet his eyes. They’re glassy, the whites of his eyes are yellow. His breath is unpleasant, and I avert my gaze.
“I’m sorry, I have to study,” I tell him. “I don’t mean to be rude, but I have to study for my course.” I turn to the window, my earbud snugly back in place.
I feel him staring at me, his gaze a heated sear across my skin. I’m dressed casual, black jeans, scrunched style flat boots, and what my kids would call a ‘mumsy’ floaty blue and white top that falls loosely from my collar line.
He’s talking to me again, and I pretend not to hear him. I’m not a rude person, and have met and conversed with the most wonderful strangers. But immediately I know this man was different.
His elbow digs into my ribs, and, surprised, I take out one earbud and turn to him.
“Where you going?” he asks.
“Butler.” It’s the station at the end of the Northern train line. “Where are you getting off?” I ask automatically.
“Clarkson.” It’s the stop before mine.
“You live in Butler?”
“Yes.” The lie falls easily from my lips in response to what I consider an overly personal question from this stranger. My initial response to polite conversation with a fellow passenger has been smothered by an instinctual warning to be careful with this one. It’s not just the alcohol, I’ve been around and fended off my share of drunk men, but something about this man, about the way he’s talking, about what he’s saying, the… energy radiating off him, sets my nerves on edge.
“You like to drink?” he asks.
“No, I don’t drink.”
“I’m allergic to it,” I tell him.
“You don’t drink?” he repeats.
“I had a few beers today,” he says. But from the way he’s slurring his words, he’s had more than a few… and maybe something else.
“You should take up drinking,” he says. “I want to have a drink with you.
“I can’t,” I say. “I’m allergic to the preservatives in the wine. It makes me sick. I’m sorry, but I really must study.” My tone is firmer, and I slip my earbud into place and turn away.
This time the elbow to my ribs comes straight away.
“I want to talk to you,” he says. And there’s an edge to his tone that causes me to take out my earbuds and put them into my handbag cradled in my lap.
“You know 50 Cent?” he slurs. I shake my head, no, and avert my gaze from his piercing yellow-tinged eyes.
“You don’t know 50 Cent?” He seems surprised. “The rapper. He got shot.” He makes a gun with two fingers holds it against his own forehead then touches his fingers to my forehead. The feel of his fingers on my skin sends a trickle of unease down my spine.
“The rapper?” I clear my throat. “Yes, I’ve heard of him.”
“He got shot. He’s like me. He kill or be killed.”
He continues to talk, his slurred words and accent make it hard to follow. But I understand enough. He’s out of jail, his father had him on home detention in Queensland so he didn’t kill someone. Or be killed. His dad shaved his head. He lifted his cap up and showed me his curly black hair that had been trimmed short.
“I like you,” he says. My chest tightens and I don’t meet his eyes.
“You blonde, so beautiful. How old are you?”
I don’t want to answer his questions.
I can’t see how I can avoid it.
Not without making him angry.
Instinct tells me to tread carefully. I’ve heard the edge in his voice, how his demeanour changed when he spoke of his father, his life. How he wanted to kill… knives, guns.
“I’m forty-six,” I say.
He raises his brows in surprise. “You ten years older than me.”
“Can I get back to my study now?” I ask, picking up my earbuds.
“I wanna talk to you.” His tone is abrupt. “You don’t drink?” He seems intent on repeating this, as though he doesn’t quite believe me. “Your husband drink?”
“Occasionally,” I say, relieved I can mention I have a husband.
“Your husband drink, but you don’t,” he says. “I like you. I want you to teach me how to be better. Teach me how not to drink. You on Facebook?”
“No,” I lie, clutching my bag on my lap.
“You not on Facebook?” Again he’s surprised, then his eyes narrow. “Why not?”
“It takes up too much time,” I say. “I’m busy studying.”
“What you study?”
“Courses,” I say vaguely. “What do you do?”
He stares straight ahead, and a muscle that runs along the side of his jaw twitches. His reply is almost incoherent to me as he talks about his cousin who asks strangers on the street for smokes, about going to jail, about living on the street. His demeanour is different now, and immediately I know I’ve asked the wrong question. He looks at me in a way that makes me even more uncomfortable.
“You been to Queensland?”
“Yes,” I say.
“Where you go?”
I can’t remember the name of where we stayed, and it makes me aware that I have moved passed uncomfortable and into fear. Any other time, I’d have been able to tell you that we stayed at Coolangatta. I’d have been able to easily tell you the many places we’ve visited along the East Coast. But now, my mind is blank. I’m conscious of my heart pounding loudly in my chest.
“Currumbin,” I blurt out, even as I know this is wrong. This is somewhere we visited. The wildlife park.
Talking about Queensland triggers more stories of his father, of his house detention. Of killing. Of being killed.
“I’m like 50 Cent,” he declares again. “I’m going to New York. You smoke?” he asks, and I struggle to keep up with his slurred stories, and quickly fired questions. There’s a pause and a certain look he gives me after each question. As though daring me not to answer him.
As though daring me to judge him.
I keep my face carefully neutral. “No.”
“You ever smoke?” he asks.
“No.” Again, the lie comes easily. I smoked for years when I was in my twenties, but I don’t want to talk to him.
I don’t want him to talk to me.
While he’s been talking, my eyes have been subtly scanning the passengers around me. He’s speaking loudly, they can’t help but hear him. A lady with a baby in a pram in the priority seats two rows ahead gives me a sympathetic glance, and a clean-cut man dressed in a business shirt makes eye contact with me as he steps off the train.
He knows I’m in trouble.
He gets off the train.
Seven stations to go.
The man next to me is talking continually, about his cousin, his cousins in Africa. About how he’s like 50 Cent. About knives. About killing…
“Where you get off?” He asks, even though I’ve answered this question before. I consider lying. But then what? Would getting off at a different station make any difference? And somehow I get the feeling he’s testing me. Daring me to lie. To catch me out. Looking for a reason to make him angry.
“Butler. And you’re getting off at Clarkson,” I say.
“Nah,” he says, and his slow smile makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end. “I’m getting off at Butler.”
The intake of my breath is audible, and now I know I’m in trouble.
“How long you wait for your bus at Butler?” he asks.
“I’m not catching a bus,” I say automatically. Not thinking. Because my mind is racing. What am I going to do when I get off at Butler? And he gets off with me. And this goes from the train into the world outside. Into my world. Already this conversation has escalated and I’m in way over my head.
“You drive?” He asks, and I nod absently.
“You give me a lift,” he says.
My mouth is dry, adrenaline is coursing through my veins. “No, no, I can’t,” I say shaking my head. “I can’t.”
He stills. His eyes narrow, his gaze piercing. “Why?”
Why? “Because—” my mind races. Refuse. But keep him calm.
Keep him calm.
“I have to pick up a friend.” I say the first thing that comes to mind. It’s weak, there are likely a hundred better excuses I could have come up with, but it’s said now. I hope my voice is even and doesn’t show the fear that’s building rapidly inside of me.
I’m fiddling with my earbuds, my heart beating a rapid staccato in my chest.
“What’s wrong with ya?” he demands, and again, I am aware of the anger simmering just beneath the surface. I sense this situation could turn on a knife’s edge. I don’t like the way he’s looking at me. The things he keeps repeating. The way he tells me he likes me, then says he wants to kill. How he says he wants me to take up drinking so he can have a drink with me, then in the next breath tells me I have to teach him how to give up drinking. Teach him how to be a better person.
I have the sense he’s fascinated by me in some way, yet… hates me at the same time. Perhaps it’s my gender. Perhaps it’s the fact I’m white and blonde. Perhaps it is neither of those things and something else entirely. Maybe it’s because I am simply here.
And there was an empty seat beside me.
He’s talking about football, and I tell him I don’t like sport.
“Did you play sport at school?” he asks.
“Basketball.” It’s a fairly neutral subject, and better, in comparison, to the ones we’ve just been having. Keep him calm.
He asks me if I’ve heard of someone and I tell him, ‘no’.
He’s surprised, and suspicious. I hear it in his tone. “You like basketball and you’ve never heard of—” he repeats the name of someone who is clearly a famous star.
“I said I played it at school. I never said I followed basketball. I don’t like sport.”
That’s only half true. But I’m operating on sheer instinct now. My heart is pounding against my ribcage, and my mind is running over what’s going to happen when I get to Butler Station.
I’m alone. I have nothing to protect me with, no defence.
He’s bigger. Stronger. Aggressive.
He’s admitted to carrying a knife.
And he wants to kill… or be killed.
Does he mean me or someone else?
And does it even matter? If the words were designed to make me feel fear… it has worked.
I’ve never felt more alone.
What is going to happen when we get to Butler?
Three more stops.
A man steps into the carriage, he’s older than me, wearing a yellow and orange high-visibility work jacket. He meets my eyes almost immediately, and I watch his gaze take in my situation. He must be able to read the desperation in my eyes, the silent plea for help, because he takes a seat across from me, angling his large frame so that it’s facing me and my tormentor.
Something about the stranger in the hi-vis vest in this moment is familiar. As though I know him somehow, but at the same time knowing without a shadow of doubt I’ve never met him before. Nor him me. Yet his very presence is a comfort. A father figure.
Throughout the journey, I’ve observed the other passengers shifting in their seats, flicking uncomfortable glances my way.
But no one steps in.
Men get off the train. They turn their heads my way, a brief glance of compassion before they get out at their station.
I don’t blame them. My tormentor is fearsome, and he’s clearly drunk. And very loud. Maybe they have families, a reason to not put themselves at risk.
But now my tormentor is not just claiming to be like 50 Cent.
He is claiming to be 50 Cent.
My sense of awareness of the danger of my situation escalates. He’s talking, and I don’t know what he’s saying, but I’m nodding, doing my best not to anger him.
Next stop Clarkson.
“You’re getting off at Clarkson,” I tell him when I hear the announcement, wishing it to still be true.
“No,” he sneers. “I’m going to Butler. You’re going to gift me a lift in your car.”
I tell him, ‘no’, repeatedly, dodging questions about where I live, if I would take him and introduce him to my husband. I tell him over and over again, politely, but firmly, ‘no’. I’m looking at the camera in the ceiling. If something happens to me, I want them to be able to review the footage and know I was aware of the danger of my situation.
I’m frightened. I know it’s written all over my face. In my eyes. The way I’m clutching my bag like a lifeline.
I hope this isn’t the last image anyone will have of me. A short replay of grainy footage aired over the nightly news.
Genuinely fearing it will be.
Because what are my options? I get off at Butler, and he follows me. I decide I will walk directly up the stairs to the guard station. I know he will be talking to me constantly, just like he’s doing now. Will he get angry when he sees me walk there? How will I explain my situation quickly to the guards without him reacting? What will he do? Will he pull the knife he’s told me he has? Does he have a gun too? He’s delusional. He thinks he’s a famous rapper and wants to kill… or be killed. What is he capable of?
And even if the guards act quickly, escort him out of the station. What if he waits for me as I walk to my car? What if he follows me home? Oh god, my family. My kids… my precious, precious boys…
What is this man capable of?
My mind is racing with a hundred scenarios, none of them a solution. None of them guarantee my safety.
The stranger – the tradie across from me – is paying attention. Makes a comment to a nearby male passenger regarding something my tormentor has said.
My tormentor notices, and I hold my breath for a second.
How will he react?
Will it anger him?
It silences him for a moment.
The train pulls into Clarkson Station.
The doors to our carriage slide open.
Time slows down.
I hold my breath.
He asks one last time if I’ll give him a lift.
“No,” I reply as firmly as I can.
Passengers start to disembark the train.
“Maybe I’ll see you around?”
“Maybe,” I say.
He glances at the stranger – the tradie – across from us.
The tradie is making it clear he’s watching him. Closely.
My tormentor lifts out of his seat and leaves the train.
As the doors close, I watch him through the window, almost convinced he will change his mind and come back. His arm sliding between the doors before they’ve fully closed, forcing them to spring back open.
The train pulls slowly away from the station.
My hands shake first.
Followed by my whole body.
I glance at the stranger.
“Wow,” he says in a way that conveys he knew exactly how precarious my situation was. I’m too choked up to do anything but nod.
“Don’t worry,” he said. “I wasn’t going to get off the train.”
He wasn’t going to get off the train. He wasn’t going to leave me alone with that man.
And that’s when the tears came. The kindness of a stranger.
I knew without doubt the tradie had been the difference.
My tormentor had been aware of his attention and in those last seconds at Clarkson station, the tradie’s silent alliance with me had been what swayed my tormentor to get off the train.
The stranger says he could tell how scared I had been. How he has a daughter who is sixteen and not allowed to take the train after six p.m. She argues with him, and he tells me I have just proven his point.
I tell him I am forty-six, and it’s two o’clock in the afternoon.
When is it safe?
I did everything right. Everything we are taught to do – as women – to be safe. I wasn’t in a compromised condition, didn’t flirt, wasn’t dressed in any way provocatively, even though none of those things should make any difference anyway.
I was lucky.
I’m grateful for that.
I am also very aware of how quickly things could have taken a turn for the worse.
How many don’t get the chance to tell their story? They no longer have a voice.
But I do.
In this moment, I am their voice.
Women shouldn’t have to live in fear of doing something as basic as taking a train. Or a bus.
What if there was a number I could have texted to let the conductor or Transperth authority subtly know I was in trouble? To get security?
What if there was a number that other passengers could have texted? Would they have acted then instead of simply getting off the train?
I don’t claim to have the answers.
I only know there is a problem.
More needs to be done to ensure the safety of women.
Maybe all I can do is draw is add to the many, many people already drawing awareness to this issue.
To tell my story.
To encourage others to tell theirs.
And maybe, just maybe, if we make a promise to each other to not look away.
If we all pull together.
We can save lives.