Parallel lives

First published in The Age, 23 April 2005

As the 8.37 from Newport was pulling into Spotswood station the automatic voice inside the train said, in perfect digital harmony with the orange telex message that blips across the ceiling of the carriage, “The next station is Toorak. You are now approaching Toorak.”

I looked up from my book and saw the oil tanks of Hall St were still on my right and the railyards just before Hudsons Rd were still on my left. As the train stopped I saw, as usual, the weatherboard house with the five red letterboxes, the red geraniums and the pots of bamboo. I saw no leafy streets, no especially expensive cars and no high-walled mansions.

Every morning train commuters are told by The Voice which station the train is pulling into. It’s the fourth technological intrusion of the train journey, after the soul-less experiences of the ticket machine, that validating thing that beeps and burps and the disembodied announcement from the platform which greets each new train.

Still, the anonymous female voice on the train is always a voice of assurance. It lets you know where you are heading just in case the dullness of the morning routine has eroded your memory of such details.

On the odd occasion The Voice has been slightly out of kilter with its surroundings: one station ahead of itself, or one behind. But its tone never changes of course. The Voice has no sense of being wrong. This shows that even The Voice can be human.

On this particular morning, though, The Voice was not just out of kilter. It was on another line. It had gone over to the other side.

The train pulled out of ‘Toorak’ and headed for Yarraville, which turned out to be Armadale, now home to a boutique art-deco cinema, The Sun, and a classic old dance hall, The UDC Ballroom. Did the Yarraville commuters realise they were boarding a train on the wrong side of town? Did they know they were about to be taken for a ride?

Seddon became Malvern and Footscray became Caulfield where, instead of changing trains to go to the basalt plains of Sydenham you could change and head for the beach and bay of Frankston.

The Voice was now seriously disoriented but still it gave no hint of anything untoward. It was as sure of itself as it ever is. (Just as we humans can be, for are there not times when we too are oblivious to our own mistakes and keep on traveling through life regardless?)

I looked at my fellow passengers for a glimmer of bemusement about this east-meets-west displacement but their faces appeared unmoved. Maybe they were too busy listening to iPods to hear The Voice, or too happy reading books to see the orange telex messages. Maybe I was the only one in on the joke, if indeed it was a joke.

The 8.45 departed Caulfield (Footscray) and crossed the river to Carnegie (the almost deserted South Kensington) and headed for my stop.

I had never been to Murrumbeena before and was looking forward to a new urban experience, to a glimpse of another life, of a life I’d never had. Alas, Murrumbeena turned out to be a mythical place.

Stepping onto Platform Five at North Melbourne I saw the same billboards, the same TV timetables, the same people rushing for the  next City Loop train.

The commuters who continued on my train were presumably still heading for Hughesdale station (with its new, massive roller-coaster roof) or that age-old meeting spot opposite Young and Jacksons, Oakleigh Station.

Heading for my office, I wondered about the people traveling on the real Caulfield line that morning. Was The Voice on their train in a parallel universe too? Were they being told they were approaching stations on the Williamstown line instead? Were they looking out windows and trying to match foreign place names to familiar surroundings?

If anything, the morning made me realize there is more to Melbourne than the one train line that takes me to and from work each day. It made me remember that for a few of my primary school years I sold The Herald at Mentone station. It made me remember that I tried to memorise the stations between Mentone and Flinders St on trips to the children’s hospital with my mother.

And it made me think about the train commuters in those other suburbs, over there, in strange places like Murrumbeena. I wondered what they see each morning instead of  Westgate Bridge, the Maribyrnong River and Flemington Racecourse.

I guessed they too have graffiti on the fences facing their train line, and that they catch fleeting glimpses of clotheslines and vegetable gardens and sheds and basketball rings. (In one backyard between Spotswood and Yarraville there is a fair dinkum full-size windmill. Is there anything like that on the Caulfield line?)

I wondered, too, whether they ever imagined what I sometimes imagine: The Voice getting abstract and saying things like, “You are now approaching Despair. The next station is Despair.” Or “The next station is Boredom. Passengers for the Futility line, please change trains at Boredom.”

Such imagining suggests The Voice might have a mind of its own. Maybe on the morning of its supposed mistake The Voice was expressing another human trait: it merely wanted to be someplace else for a while, just as many commuters wish they are heading elsewhere.

I didn’t catch the train home that afternoon but the next morning The Voice was back on track: cool, calm, correct. Spotswood was once again Spotswood (the house with the five red letter boxes was still there), Footscray was Footscray and North Melbourne was North Melbourne.

I pushed myself up the ramp at Platform Five and headed for work, but part of me wanted to be in another place. A voice inside my head said ‘The next station is Murrumbeena. You are now approaching Murrumbeena’. If only it were true.


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