The city circle

I LIVE IN a suburb where no politician lives and therefore the trams run infrequently, often late and without proper brakes. Two, three times a month, when the driver applies a little pressure to the brakes, we are all sent hurtling to the front of the tram like atoms in a particle accelerator. Last month, in a particularly violent trajectory toward the wall (where we are apparently supposed to smash against a plate and separate into our constituent parts) two of us tumbled to the floor. The woman next to me apologised in halting English for falling. A man in a smart suit rushed to her aid. 

‘Are you all right?’ he whispered. She nodded.

‘And you?’ the man said to me.

‘I’m fine, thanks,’ I said.

The man handed a business card to the woman, who was looking thin and alarmed. He handed another to me who, on the other hand, was looking large and robust, with only my clothes and my composure askew. I knelt, then stood and shrugged my suit jacket back into position.

I looked at the business card as the lawyer pressed the woman. 

‘Are you on your way to work? Are you a permanent resident? Do you understand what I’m saying?’

The tram driver stopped the vehicle at the tram stop. He came down to help the woman. When he asked if she was able to get up, the lawyer put his arm out straight to prevent the tram driver from touching her. 

‘For God’s sake,’ he said to the driver. ‘Call an ambulance.’

‘No,’ the woman said. ‘I okay. I have to go work now. Please.’

‘You don’t have to go to work. Everything is going to be all right. The ambulance is coming.’

I knew this scenario from American cop shows. Layers of mystery would unfold from this woman’s unexceptional tumble on a tram. Forty-two television minutes later, drug busts would ensue, or a paedophile ring would be smashed and the cleric would hang himself.

‘No ambulance,’ the woman said. She used the lawyer’s arm to haul herself to standing position, brushed down her dress, then waved away the lawyer. End of crime show plot.

‘Folks, I’m going to have to call in a brake fault,’ the driver called out. ‘Might take a few minutes for the engineers to get back to me.’

Up the other end of the tram another cluster of atoms was forming, atoms who were going to be late for work and who couldn’t decide who to blame – the tram driver, the lawyer, the woman who’d fallen to the floor, the transport corporation, the government. So they got off the tram. I followed. We trooped down the road to the next intersection where the tracks of an alternative route snaked in twin wires towards town.

Ten minutes later we set off on another tram, jammed padded shoulder to breast pocket. I could feel the ribs of the thin tall woman beside me. My arm was pressed against her in the crush. The back of my arm was gently riding her ribs, up and down like I was playing a musical instrument with frets every few centimetres. One fret higher and my elbow would meet her breast. I couldn’t help imagining its curved bell shape moulding against my arm. I glanced up at her face and saw that she was gaunt and beautiful and so heavily made up it was impossible to tell what colour her real skin might be. Her lips, a startling purple. 

Compared to the woman who had fallen, I was tall, but standing next to this commuter I was medium-sized. A medium-sized commuter on my way to a medium-sized job in a medium-sized city that I know too well. 

I thought about how if I stayed in this city long enough I would run into the long angular woman at a party. I would spend some time wondering how I knew her face. She might do the same. We’d smile at each other in an I-know-you-from-somewhere kind of way and we might joke a little and offer to get another drink and then move on to a few words about how we happened to know the person who was hosting the party and then we would come a little closer, laugh a little louder, touch a little more often until the evening was late enough to slip away together discreetly. Or we might each go off and find someone else to talk to, or we might stand together uncomfortably for a while and then separately decide we were tired after a week of work and it was time to go home. But we wouldn’t take a tram. She would call a taxi or hail one on the main street near the party, and I would walk for a while, pretending I was a big man, not afraid of the dark and the desperate drug addicts lurking inside shadows, but further down the road I’d hail a different taxi, one driven by a man from Somalia who would ask whether I knew the capital of Somalia and when I answered correctly couldn’t think of anything else to say.

TONIGHT, WITH THE storm thrumming on the window of the café and commuters bowing into the rain as they hurry along the street, another tram story begins – with someone my friend knows. Sometimes, after work, I meet my friend who works in a government department, writing policy on the punctuality and frequency of public transport, and we drink white wine and eat bowls of hot chips and talk. She told me that this man had begun to act strangely in the office. He wore gaudy ties to important meetings. 

‘Great wide lurid things with smiley faces and ducks and fluorescent stop signs.’ My friend shook her head. 

I said I wished someone wore ties that interesting to meetings I attended. 

‘You don’t understand,’ she said. ‘It’s inappropriate. And he wears brown shoes with black suits, and he has greasy hair.’ 

When she mentioned the man’s greasy hair, I wondered how long it was since I had washed my own. Before I could stop it, my hand had reached to my head. 

‘Your hair’s looking good,’ she said, seeing me tentatively fingering strands, checking the greasy factor. ‘Have you had it trimmed?’

I remembered a man with greasy hair on my tram the other week. Strings of greasy hair. Greasy hair with a rancid smell, greasy hair with months of body oil and polluted rain and the fatty residue of meals brushed from the fingers – accidentally of course – and thick flakes of dandruff embedded in the matted ropes. He was standing beside me and the stench was overwhelming. I moved away. After a few minutes all the other passengers had drifted away too and he stood in a vacant space, a tiny chapel on the tram. He was praying, loudly, ‘Jesus Christ, Jesus fucking Christ. Jesus, Jesus.’ 

The space in his tram chapel expanded. He wasn’t holding on to the handgrip and as the tram swayed and sashayed along the tracks he teetered backwards and forwards, the empty space of his chapel moving as the other passengers edged backwards and forwards to avoid him like a raggedy chorus line. I realised I had seen him several times before on this line. Another of my intimate strangers on the tram.

‘Have you got a fucking ticket?’ he shouted. He took a step in my direction and I stepped backwards, on to the foot of someone behind me. She yelped. I apologised. Again. How often have I fallen, stumbled, tripped on trams? How many times have I crashed into people, struck them accidentally with my flailing hand, or pushed my briefcase against them as I juddered forward, propelled by the motion of the tram? How often have I cracked a shin against the sharp corner of a seat, jarred my elbow on the ticket machine, been speared by the tip of another passenger’s umbrella? How many passengers falling, in what seems like slow motion, have reached out and taken hold of items of my clothing – sleeves, jackets, scarves – to break their fall? I have been dragged down and I have scrabbled on the floor. Along the floor. How much of my life have I spent struggling to get up from the floor?

The greasy haired man was pointing at me as these questions crowded my head. I may have been muttering, or at least my lips may have been moving. The tram crowd edged away from me. Greasy man and I were two magnetic poles and the commuters iron shavings being repelled by both.

At the next stop, greasy man turned his head when the doors slid open. Three people hurried off under his gaze, shoulders hunched, their feet taking anxious baby steps. He looked at me once more with loathing.

‘I am the great inspector,’ he roared, and hurled himself off the tram just as the door was sliding shut.

The iron shavings rotated when he was gone. I was the only repellent left. Their bodies rotated away from me and I was left in my own lonely chapel on the tram. At least I still have a job, I thought. I might be mad, but I still have a job.

In the café with my friend, I dropped my hand from my hair and tried to focus on the conversation.

‘I think he’s losing it,’ she repeated about her colleague with the lurid ties. 

‘Perhaps he’s having a style makeover?’ 

‘I don’t think it’s funny,’ my friend answered crossly. ‘So like I said, we’re at this meeting…’

She kept talking while I pondered how linear her thinking had become since she started writing policy. This is why older, more experienced public servants should be given charge of policies that determine movement in the lives of the general public – they have had time for proper thinking patterns to form, time to appreciate and enjoy a vast range of humanity. They understand the cyclical nature of things. Older public servants would at least consider the possibility that a lurid tie may or may not be related to a simple need for life change and that it is wise not to make judgments without hearing the full case. 

‘Then he said he thought I had failed to appreciate the gravity of the situation.’ My friend’s mouth was open. She spread her hands and dropped her jaw and shook her head from side to side, begging me with the gesture to express my own astonishment.

‘Huh,’ I said, not too worried that I had missed the actual point. Like a reliable service, I knew the next one would be along soon.

‘And then,’ she went on, ‘when I went to my head of department to…’

‘This guy, tie guy, he writes policy too?’ I interrupted.

‘Yeah, forest management.’

‘And he’s how old?’

‘Fifty, maybe sixty. He used to be brilliant at policy. Everyone hated what he did – the greenies, the logging industry. He always got it right.’

I imitated her gesture of astonishment back at her. The open palms, the hanging jaw, the eyes wide.

‘Well,’ she said defensively, ‘if one of the groups loves the policy everyone will think you’ve been lobbied.’

Lobbied – such a strange word. I thought of being hallwayed or verandahed. Porched. My friend, whose policy fails to ensure regular safe trams on my route, continues with her story as I tick off more words. Porticoed. Entranced. There, I knew I would find a proper word. The man may have been entranced. I realise I am muttering the words aloud and my friend is staring at me. And you can see that now I’m telling you this story in present tense as if it’s happening at this moment, even though I was using the past tense before, and before that I was in the present. Maybe this is happening now, or maybe the actions are completed. Or maybe I am imagining it all. Forward motion is rarely what it seems. We spend half our lives in the future while still thinking about the past and vice versa, in an endless loop of longing and regret.

‘I just thought I’d talk to you about him,’ she continues, still staring. ‘Because you have, you know, experience with these…with…things.’

‘Being mad, you mean?’ 

‘Don’t be stupid, you know what I mean. You’ve had a nervous breakdown, you know the signs, don’t you? Are they, like, what’s happening to this guy?’

I want to reach out with my hands in the most exaggerated motion I can to imitate her previous gesture of astonishment. And I want to lean forward and snarl or bark or spit in her coffee or do something equally disturbing. But I am a responsible man in a responsible position. I don’t do things like that.

So I lean back and say to her, ‘Everyone has a nervous breakdown. Sometimes they’re little and hardly noticeable. Sometimes they’re catastrophic. Eventually, we all go under. Every time I get on a tram I see someone heading for a breakdown. We’re like machines, we can’t just keep going on. We break down, then we get repaired and back on the tracks. Even you, one day you will have one, even if you don’t realise it yourself.’

I can see she’s trying not to smirk with disbelief at the idea of herself being shunted off to the depot for an overhaul. And maybe I am being too smug. Maybe my policymaker friend won’t break down at all. What would I know? All I really know is that everything would be more straightforward if I could spend my days riding the City Circle tram, the old W class clanker that trundles tourists around town for free, around and around, with a conductor on board whose only job is to help.

‘Did you write the policy on the City Circle trams?’ I ask my friend. She pauses, startled by the change of subject.

‘That’s the Tourist Authority,’ she says. ‘Not Infrastructure. I work in Infrastructure.’

She starts gathering her bag and coat. ‘Got to get back to the grind,’ she says, smiling.

‘Yes, I think your forest man is heading toward a breakdown,’ I say.

Once more she does the astonishment gesture, but this time her head waggle has a new knowingness about it.

‘I knew it,’ she says. ‘No really, I knew it.’

She gets up and goes, paying for us both on the way out to the street where the storm has passed and the wet black footpaths are softly steaming.

I often call the City Circle tram to mind, the gentle pace of it, the tourists hopping on and off. I’d like to pass the carefree image of the City Circle on to the greasy haired man, or even to tie man, who might have already boarded the wrong tram. He probably feels like he’s going places, he’s got speed and modern technology on his side. At the same time he might be looking at the floor, starting to realise that it’s a new kind of floor in a new kind of tram, flat and slippery and deceptive. In this city, you feel like you’re riding high and easy, but there’s a suddenness about things that always surprises you. Up the front, the driver is about to apply a little pressure to the brakes. My friend blows me a kiss and walks off to her car park. I want to call after her. I want to tell her about the future.

You hit the wall, you disintegrate, you put yourself back together again. 

No lawyer in the world can help you with that. 

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