Story and illustrations by Ia Uaro.
Humour. Socio fiction. Coming-of-age. Love story.
2013 Finalist in Humor
Early November 1999
“This is how you cheat using an Orange Travelpass,” an Irish voice penetrated my gloomy thoughts.
I was standing against the wall outside the Asquith Leagues Club at Waitara, where my training sessions for Sydney’s public-transport inbound call centre were held. This was the second Monday of my training at work. I can hardly tell you about the first week. I don’t remember much. My parents had abandoned me. The shock made me unaware of my surroundings. I had not noticed things.
Looking back, I would label this period “Life as a Zombie”. The walking dead. When my best friends Lucy and Brenna were in Queensland’s Surfers Paradise for schoolies burning the floor dancing to “Walk Like An Egyptian”, I Walked Like A Zombie.
My dog Dimity was the love of my life. But she was at home. And I was stuck here, training. I couldn’t form any opinion about this job yet. My mind was not here most of the time.
The company I signed with was a branch of an American call centre. They had just landed their first big contract in Australia. A government one. Our job would be to handle integrated transport-information systems within Greater Sydney—area bordered by Lithgow, Port Stephens, Goulburn and Nowra—which had two-million public-transport trips a day. We would feed requests into our computer and it would spit out the answers.
So far I had been rather oblivious of my colleagues. Vaguely I knew they were a bunch of boisterous young people. And numerous nice oldies. Those were my first impressions of them. I was totally unsuspecting of how great a role they would play in my life very soon after.
Today before the training some of us chatted outside. I stood silent, dark sunnies on, trying to hide my eyes just in case tears welled up, which after my recent issues was a common occurrence. But the backpacker kids were disgustingly cheerful on this bright, beautiful Australian morning.
Several male voices with Pommy accents responded to the Irish girl. About a third of the new recruits had non-Australian accents, many of them backpackers. I turned to look at them. Before today, I had barely noticed these kids. For whatever reason, perhaps because of that imposing Irish girl, I watched them now. The red-haired girl was in the middle of delivering a dissertation on how to cheat using an Orange Travelpass.
“You must make sure you board the bus only when there are other passengers with you,” she lectured.
“You must hold your ticket up when you step onto the bus, so the driver will see it in your hand. Then you let other people put their tickets in the machine, while you continue to the back of the bus still holding your ticket up. The driver won’t notice whether you put your ticket into the machine or not.”
They all hung on to her every word with mesmerized looks on their faces. Perhaps they were interested in what she was saying, trying to save a few cents of their hard-earned money, or perhaps they were interested in her.
“So one ticket gets you from Lane Cove to the City to Bondi Beach to Manly to Narrabeen,” she concluded. “By bus and ferry unlimited.”
“But an inspector may show up,” piped a Pom. “He’ll check the trip prints at the back!”
“That’s a Travelten,” the girl told him breezily. “With a Travelpass bought from a newsagent, you won’t get into trouble because it doesn’t print the date of first use.”
“Are you that desperate?” An American accent. Handsome black-haired guy. “Are you really using the same ticket week after week?”
“Sheesh,” the girl bristled. “I hate it when you’re being goody-goody. Haven’t you ever, ever been so broke? Now I also have to buy a weekly train ticket from St Leonards to Hornsby!” She turned to the other boys, “There are times we can’t even afford grog, and that’s worse, isn’t it?”
There was a chorus of agreement.
I wondered what it felt like to be this girl. To be that confident and at ease. To have an interesting life that she apparently enjoyed. Travelling. Drinking. Cheating. Not a care in the world. Perhaps I should get a life. Save some money and join Alex, one of my best friends, backpacking wherever he might be. No one would miss me anyway.
This thought depressed me again. Absentmindedly I followed my co-workers into the training room.
“You smell very nice,” commented a girl to my left.
I turned to her with a start. It was the Irish girl. “Sorry? What did you say?”
“Woolgathering, are you?” she grinned. “So early in the morning?”
“Sorry. Yes. I guess. I was lost.”
Her smile broadened—an engaging smile that reached her eyes and produced a very deep dimple on her right cheek. She had very neat, not very white teeth. She had curly bright red hair tamed with a twist and a chopstick-like hair ornament at the back, and cute little freckles on her prettily-shaped uptilted nose. Blue eyes.
“I’m Sinead,” she introduced herself. ”From Dooblin.”
“Yes. I noticed the accent.”
“I saw you outside. Dark sunglasses on. Trying your best to look aloof and unapproachable.”
I choked. If only she knew why! “Nothing like that. I—I’m Sydney.”
“Hi Sydney. You smell very nice.” She inhaled. “Very subtle. You’re good at choosing a perfume.”
“Not me,” I became flustered. “Mum. She knows things like that.”
“So, you travelling? How do you find Australia?”
“Grand! I loov Australia,” she kissed her fingers, blowing a kiss. “Quite an education. We work and we travel.” She gestured towards her backpacking buddies, some of whom sat nearby. “That’s Pete. He’s from Boston. I met him while working at Mt Buller. We were ski instructors last winter. And that’s Lindsay from London. I met him while Pete and I were planting baby pine trees for the Forestry Department around Tumut. Do you know where that is?”
I shook my head.
“Do you know Batlow’s apples? Tumut is a small place near Batlow. Well, your Forestry people planted new pine trees in the mountains there near the end of winter. Gosh, it was so cold! But very good money. Shame about that job, the team moved to work on Kangaroo Island. Too remote for me to go along...” She sounded wistful. “Then we headed north. Hard to get a job though. We’ve been spending and spending. Until this job.”
“So you’ll do 1300500 for the Sydney Olympics?”
“No no no. We backpackers are temps. Casuals. They took us on to support the opening of 1300500’s Hornsby centre. They guesstimate we’ll assist for the first three months. The plan is, when permanent employees get some experience and speed, we temps will be dismissed.”
“You’ll have to find another job?”
“Not here. It’ll be getting cold here. What’s the use of being in Australia if we don’t feel warm? I’ve had enough cold at Mt Buller and Tumut. And hell, I’m from Ireland! I’ll go to the sunshine. Queensland.”
Next we had to be quiet because the trainer, humorous Matt, started speaking.
“Most inner streets of a suburb are designed to get a bus every half an hour. So that when they hit the main corridor on their way to the City their combined frequency is every five minutes. Think of it like small creeks flowing into a river.”
I had lunch with Sinead in the Leagues Club café. I had a turkey sandwich. She had hot chips—and nothing else.
“When you travel you have to be really careful with your spending,” she explained. Right. Seemed like if she bought something to go with her chips, she would have less funds for booze. “Are you from around here?”
“Yes. Beecroft. Been there all my life.”
“Northern Line. Eight minutes’ train-trip away.”
Our location was confidential, perhaps out of fear callers would bomb us for giving out wrong information. But since it was more than eleven years ago and they have since moved away, I guess it wouldn’t matter anymore if you knew where we were, right? The training did take place at the Asquith Leagues Club, but my office was going to be on George Street, next door to Hornsby Library, several minutes’ walk from Hornsby Mall’s water clock—our emergency meeting point in case of fire.
The suburbs Waitara and Hornsby belong to the green and leafy Hornsby Shire, Sydney’s northern gateway if you are travelling north to the Central Coast or Newcastle. Vast and sprawling with residential suburbs and eucalyptus forests, Hornsby Shire is located 25km from Sydney’s city centre and 130km from Newcastle. It has a population of 160,000, roughly 22,000 among them in the suburb Hornsby and 11,000 in my suburb Beecroft.
“I’m staying at Lane Cove,” Sinead volunteered. “That’s by bus from St Leonards. With the English boys. Lindsay and Mark and Gareth. Pete—you know, tall, black hair, green eyes? He used to travel with us, but he’s so lucky he has relatives here in Roseville. He’s staying with them rent-free. So he can afford to pay proper fares. Did you hear him this morning? He’s the only American. I hate it when he starts to moralise. ‘Pay proper fares. Drink only when you can afford it’,” she did a poor imitation of his accent, “Where’s the fun in that?”
“Maybe he’s concerned you’ll get into trouble.”
“He always is. But then he’s old. He’s 22, you know. All the others are under 20. Come on, follow me, I’ll introduce you to them.” She dabbed her mouth delicately with a paper napkin.
“They’ve been curious about you. The very pretty, very silent girl.”
Oh? Had my silence made me stand out? How embarrassing.
Before long I found myself in front of a group of boys. A tall and very handsome blond hunk stood next to the tall and handsome American. There was also a scruffy dude with brown, curly hair. Another one with very short blond hair looked stern. They gave me inquisitive stares. I did not know what to say.
“This is Sydney, guys,” Sinead cheerfully introduced us. “Kevin. Pete. Gareth. Lindsay. Kevin’s an Aussie.”
I nodded to their “Hi”, “Hey”, “Hello”, and “How do you do?”
“I’ve seen you at the station,” short-haired Lindsay told me. This guy was of medium height, gym-honed, with piercing silver eyes. I was to find out later that he never, ever smiled, although at times he would laugh. Shiny blond hair covered his muscled arms. “But you catch the train from the wrong platform.”
“Wrong for you,” Sinead interjected. “She has to go to the Northern Line.”
“Join us for drinks after work,” Lindsay moved in. “Then it’ll be the right platform.”
I looked at them warily.
“After work?” Sinead pressed.
“Um—I can’t. I’m not 18 yet.”
“Ahh, a baby... But that’s no problem,” Kevin said with a devastating killer smile. Later I was to find out that he was 19, a student of Pure Physics at Macquarie Uni, partied hard and changed girlfriends on a regular basis. “We adults will get the drinks.” He winked.
“Then we’ll all go somewhere to get foxed,” Lindsay added.
I contemplated them. Perhaps they could see my apprehension, because Pete—the spunk with blue-black hair—came closer. This guy exuded calm. He was not as athletic as Lindsay, but with his height and magnificent broad shoulders he radiated strength. And there was grace in his movements. It was in the way he walked and in the way he tilted his head. I felt the hair rise on the back of my neck.
“Have you ever been totally drunk?” he asked in a very pleasant voice. Questioning eyes. Very, very alluring eyes. Deep-set. Exquisitely shaped. Beautiful brows. Long thick lashes. I felt entranced, lost in his eyes.
I shook my head.
“Wanna try it?” he asked slyly.
I shook my head, feeling really, really worried.
“Then stay away from this bunch!”
Ohh... he only meant to scare me away? For a moment he had given me a bad impression of him. Whew!
“Confound it Pete!” Sinead punched him. “You’re such a wet blanket!”
He stepped back but looked unfazed.
“Ignore him. Pete’s a killjoy, a goody-goody prude,” Sinead told me. Really? What was he doing, hanging out with this lot himself? “We’ll convert you yet. We’ll have you hitting the pubs and cutting loose with us soon.”
“Just look at her,” Pete warned Sinead. “You’ve frightened her.”
“You did,” Sinead retorted.
“Did too. No need to force your stitched-up wowser values on the rest of us. Now sod off!” Sinead glared at him before whirling back to me. “Sydney? Come with us? It’ll be mighty fun!”
“I—,” I took a deep breath. “I don’t think I’ll try it. Yet. Um—I’m not ready.”
During the next training session my eyes kept darting towards the gorgeous American. At one point he looked straight at me and made eye contact. I shivered but refused to look away. He nodded imperceptibly.
That afternoon I saw Sinead and Kevin laughing aloud together, arms around each other, as they climbed the steps of Waitara Station. When we reached the platform Pete was already up there, loosening his tie.
“Too hot for you, mate?” Kevin asked him.
“This is the first job I’ve had to wear a tie for outside the States,” Pete grumbled. “Today sure is hot.”
“You’ll get cooked next month!” Kevin informed him cheerfully, before continuing his outrageous flirting with Sinead.
I took the train home from the wrong platform, from Waitara to Hornsby and changed to a Beecroft train. I thought about Sinead’s invitation. Was I a coward? How was I going to get a life if I was a coward? But was life about drinking for the sake of drinking? How essential was getting totalled for its own sake? Could a person have fun without alcohol?
If they were prepared to get completely hammered and have sex too, would they also take drugs? Was being high on drugs the only way to achieve true liberation? How lasting would that be? If I went out with them to drown my sorrow, what guarantee was there that I would not wake up in anguish as I had been doing lately?
I drove to Freshwater Beach and surfed by myself, needing the adrenalin
One of the early chapters
The Bloody Bus Just Drove Past Me!
“The bloody bus just drove past me!” I yelled on my phone to Nicholas at the administration desk. Although it wasn’t considered a profanity in Aussieland, earlier I could not bring myself to use the b-word. It definitely took Sydney’s public transport to force it out of me. “I’m going to be late!”
“Sydney... you shouldn’t…” This week my rolling shift began at the indecent hour of 6am again. “You’ll lose your Attendance bonus.”
“I know I know. Can’t help it. Sorry.”
This was a Saturday morning in December. I had planned to take the N80 bus because the first Beecroft train would arrive in Hornsby at 05:56. I still had to run up the station stairs, and cross the George Street pedestrian bridge to my office. Fat chance I could make it.
I was furious with the N80 driver. Nightride buses were supposed to help customers while the trains stopped between midnight and early morning. I had planned my trip meticulously. But I had stood there in my bright jacket—impossible to miss!—waving, and the inconsiderate bus driver ignored me!
Unhelpful people should never apply to be bus drivers!
I sat on the first train feeling sooo upset.
My miserly office only paid the lowest minimum Australian salary. They gave us various bonuses if we were disciplined and good at what we did.
Attendance bonus was yours if you didn’t call in sick at all, and were never late even for a single minute.
Adherence bonus was yours if you logged in to take calls the precise minute you were supposed to.
If they monitored you, and you gave out accurate info in a polite way, you received the Quality bonus.
If you received the Quality bonus, and your Average Handling Time was less than 106 seconds, you would also get the AHT bonus.
But if you did not pass the Quality, you wouldn’t get the AHT bonus, no matter how fast you handled the calls.
This Saturday, because of a nasty bus driver, I lost my Attendance bonus for the month. It meant my pay would be nowhere near decent.
As I logged on a few minutes late, I noticed a spill-proof computer mug on the desk next to mine: ‘PETE’s. DO NOT TOUCH’. Its handsome owner was talking on the phone, his tenor voice soothingly pleasant, and his tone of speaking lovely. Somehow it calmed me down a bit.
My manager Justin called me. He talked for 15 minutes because he was obliged to admonish me for arriving two minutes late.
My mood worsened when the Newcastle Line trackwork victims whinged. The maintenance crews were required to check the tracks on a regular basis to avoid accidents. There was always trackwork on some line every weekend. Except on election days.
A very rude young boy shouted, “You say your (bleep) trackwork bus from Gosford is every ten minutes? I don’t (bleep) believe you! Are you (bleep) sure?”
“Would you talk politely or would you like me to terminate the call?” And buy some soap to wash your mouth before the next call.
“I just don’t believe the bus is so frequent when your train is only every half an hour,” he argued.
“The train has eight double-decker carriages. The bus is way shorter.”
“Yes. When a train runs, 2000 cars stay home.” There. What was so hard to understand?
Next, “I want to go to Silverwater!” an arrogant lady demanded.
“Which part of Silverwater please, Ma’am?”
“Just show me how to get there! You should know! Why do you work there if you have to ask me?!”
“Anywhere in Silverwater, Madam?”
Right. So I whipped up a travel plan to get her to Holker Street near Silverwater Road. The address of Silverwater Jail. I hoped she would be very happy there. Have a nice life!
But then a meaner lady (two in a row!) wanted to go to Frenchs Forest, address unknown.
“But Frenchs Forest is very big, Madam. Bigger than the City. Where specifically, please? So we can send you to the correct location.”
“You should tell me where it is!” she snapped. “It’s your duty! Call your supervisor! NOW!!!”
For the next 20 minutes she spitefully dobbed my ineptitude and unhelpfulness to Justin. Since she refused to be put through to Your Say, our feedback section, these 20 minutes added to my handling time. There went my AHT bonus.
It did not stop there. Next, harassed Justin assigned me to assist her again, assuring her I had been fully trained to do so. Grudgingly she granted me the dubious “honour” of advising her about every single bus that went to Frenchs Forest.
“I plan to buy a house in that area,” she announced now, “I haven’t decided on what street it’s going to be. It will depend on your advice.”
Ohmygod, now I’m a real-estate adviser?
“How about we mail you the buses’ Region Guide for Frenchs Forest, Madam? Also all bus timetables there. You can peruse them carefully and decide for yourself.”
“No, no, no! Don’t you try to get out of this! You’re being paid to take this call! Now just tell me what’s available!”
So I read her departures and arrivals of every single direct bus as well as every combination of buses—both government and private buses—for weekday mornings, weekday nights, Friday nights, Saturday mornings, Saturday nights, Sunday mornings, Sunday nights.
Of course she just had to ask, “And where would I catch a taxi if I missed them? Where’s the nearest train station and major bus stop?”
“Have you written down all this information?” I asked.
“Yes yes, just tell me the nearest place for a taxi now!”
I was dying to transfer her to Pizza Hut. But I duly advised her that the nearest train station was Chatswood. She then demanded I read the departures and arrivals of trains and Nightride N90 bus between Wynyard and Chatswood.
Next I had to advise her that the main bus corridor was Pittwater Rd in Dee Why. For this, too, she made me read the schedule of the nightride 151 bus between Wynyard and Dee Why. Weeknights. Weekend nights.
“Right,” she said after all that, “What bus was it again that went direct?”
“But you said you’d written them down.” Ma’am, I’m about to kill you!
“No. No… I think it will be better if you send me that Region Guide after all. And all the bus timetables of course. Please take my mailing details now. My name is Fu Lyn …”
I looked away to the streets of Hornsby, visible from our northern glass wall, remembering Winston from Pennant Hills High School. A brilliant Chinese Australian, he was one of the most pleasant people alive, even when we always badgered him with questions. If only Mrs Fu was half as nice.
Mrs Fu then felt justified to end her call with the following farewell, “I’m very disappointed with your service today. Not good customer service at all. In the beginning you deliberately pretended not to know anything about the services in Frenchs Forest so you could get rid of me. You’re such a lazy person you tried to get out of your duty to provide me with information. I’ve spoken with your manager and reported your refusal to help a customer seeking assistance. People like you should never get a job in customer service. You’re a disgrace to your company and to Sydney’s public-transport provider. I’m extremely appalled at you.”
She railed on and on in this condescending tune for the next ten minutes while my bruised heart was screaming, “Daddyyyy... can you see me? Can you see me now? Would you allow this person to batter your daughter to pieces? Daaad... take a look at me now. How can you let this happen to me? Daad... you promised to always be there for me. I need you now. Dad, heeelp!”
“I hope my words will stay with you and help you improve, because I feel very sorry for all your customers. I pity those unfortunate people who call this number and get you on the line. I’ve never before encountered such a lazy and deceitful customer-service person such as you.”
Very thorough, was she not? Blah blah blah. Ra ra ra. Mrs Fu was simply unstoppable.
“You’re also disgustingly incompetent. You dawdle when delivering the information, taking over an hour of my very precious time. Do you know I get paid over 200 dollars an hour at my work? Would you care to compensate me? I don’t think so. I hope never to talk with you again.”
Though reaching the end of my dwindling patience, I closed the call with a cheerful “No worries. Thanks for your call!”
Surprised? It was obligatory to thank callers, even revolting torturers, or you lost your Quality bonus. I had become so robotic I even hung up my home phone automatically saying “Thanks for your call!”
I logged off the phone despite having missed my allocated break. Hang my Adherence bonus! I had been abused by a malicious woman. I was feeling very sorry for myself. I had nobody to talk to while somewhere in the world my parents were blissfully happy. How could they be?
Blurry-eyed and depressed, I ran to the disabled toilet in anguish. I locked the door, closed the toilet lid, sat down and cried. And cried.
One heap of a mess. That was me. I had been there at the office every day, battling my depression. Tears could still well up when I thought of my parents.
I was scared of being home alone. I dreaded my loneliness. Feared my suicidal thoughts. To keep playing with a full deck, I had to get out of the empty house and keep working before uni started.
With my limited talent and abilities, hardly any appealing career path was available. This job sucked, but at this stage of my life I was not ready to cope with anymore changes. I had no mental energy to enter a new work environment. Or to face contemptuous strangers. I had to stay within the current sphere because I felt safer with the devil I knew.
Soon fury began to stir and flare. Tears subsided. I was now angry with myself. I shouldn’t let hostile people shake my composure. Shouldn’t have allowed a mean bus driver to make me cross. Shouldn’t have disintegrated when aggressive customers insulted me. I was above all that! Nobody would ever, ever have the power to make me swear again. No customer would bring me down.
I would not allow them!
Chin up. I would face my problems. I would not hide, cowering and morose. They would not beat me.
Sadly, from the 5,219 calls I had taken, the majority of torturers were of my own gender. I decided not to copy them. I was very determined to grow up NOT to be difficult like them. I would be kind and wise. And I could not wait to be a wonderful old lady of 70...
I looked into the mirror and cringed when I saw my mutinous eyes. Taking a deep breath, I tried to soften my expression.
The open-floor call centre was accessible either from the rest rooms through the reception, or through the busy break area with its internet café and table-tennis room. I was intensely private. To evade nosy co-workers’ interrogation I opened the opposite door.
Pete was sitting right in front of me, long legs stretched out from the reception’s black-leather sofa. He made eye contact, scrutinising me with an expressionless face but thoughtful eyes. As always I could not help but notice how beautiful his eyes were. Along with the rest of the package, actually. With skittering heart I nodded and strode briskly to the centre door. I swiped my electronic security pass and went in.
Our American management introduced a system called E-time. Excused time. It meant agents could take an unpaid break or go home early if the floor was over-staffed when we were not busy.
Not busy meant there was no possibility of a call queue. Also no special events, games, concerts, bushfires, flood. No wild wind hitting signal wiring. No hurting soul committing suicide on the rail track.
Businesswise, E-time was a sound cost saver. Only willing agents volunteered to take it. Ranging from 10 minutes to many hours, we took it to go shopping, watch movies at Hornsby cinemas, or simply go home.
“Yellow pages,” I requested with fake cheerfulness. That was where they recorded E-time.
“No deal,” red-haired Nicholas replied. He was monitoring the call volumes and the graphs showed we were on red. “It’s Saturday, our busiest. No way can we give agents E-time. Sorry.”
Just my luck.
Tall and slender Justin approached me with a beaming face. Some managers had an abrasive personality, but Justin was your friendly Aussie kind of guy—down-to-earth and always helpful. Very gay, too.
“Tough one, wasn’t it? Poor Sydney. I feel for you. Some of these customers are pains in the butt. Man, you guys earn your money. The good news is, though you may have lost your AHT bonus by that long call, and Adherence bonus by having to talk during your scheduled break, you’ve definitely passed your Quality for the month! Ryan was monitoring your calls then. He was very impressed by your handling of Mrs Fu. Well done!”
Wonderful! I mentally gave myself a pat on the back. With the Quality bonus in, I just saved myself from being the lowest-paid Australian. Oh Dad, weren’t you happy for me?
I sat down and logged in.
Soon I became aware that my co-workers—who on other days sat elsewhere—were gossiping about Sinead. As Sinead had the weekend off on this roster, her followers didn’t camp around me. Except for Pete, who was still on his break.
One of the gossipers was Monashi. Unlike several other Indian agents, Monashi seemed to think it was cool and very Australian to use a swear word in every sentence. She even swore—while pressing MUTE—when callers were difficult. What if the expletives slipped the MUTE state and got to her customer’s ear?
“So our single agents, managers, and IT guys have been hitting the pubs frequently?” elderly Susan queried.
“Yup,” Thomas clarified. “We have Friday social drinks.”
“A hard night’s drinking will end with pairing within the group,” Monashi added. “Sometimes they can’t even (bleep) look at each other the next morning!”
“Agent-manager pairing is against our workplace policy!” Susan protested.
“Who’s going to play law enforcement on consenting adults outside office hours?” Thomas countered.
“Sinead drinks the hardest and f(bleep)s the wildest!” Monashi announced. “All the boys are (bleep) crazy for her! They all wait to see who’ll be chosen to get (bleep) lucky. It’s (bleep) pathetic.”
“Wow,” Susan was wide-eyed. “You never know, do you? Sinead’s not a flirt. Here she’s very decent and friendly. Smiles at everybody. She respects us oldies.”
“She’s enjoying her backpacking heaps,” chipped in Thomas. “Said she was going to uni in Dublin and would be sober by then.”
“She likes to choose her own moments,” Susan commented good-naturedly. “It’s up to her who to drink with. Or to be with afterwards.”
“It’s been Jack,” Monashi gleefully imparted her broad knowledge of others’ private lives. “Earlier it was Kevin and some of the (bleep) managers. But Pete’s often around her at the office.” One shapely eyebrow arched, “You think?”
No one could exclusively own Sinead who valued her freedom. I remembered her flirting with Kevin while Pete looked on with possessive eyes. Did he have a thing for her? Foreign agents loved to flirt with the locals, but Pete sort of sat with expressionless dignity near Sinead. Now, why would I bother about other people’s lives when I had my own to live? This flitted through my mind as they gossiped. Until Pete returned to our pod and silenced this line of conversation.
Noting Pete’s permitted-only-on-weekends casual clothes, I remembered him complaining that this was the first time he had been forced to wear a tie outside the US. Absently I wondered what he was doing working at a call centre. Or in Australia, for that matter.
And I wondered what my fun-loving rowdy co-workers would be doing after work. I loathed my isolation, yet feared mingling with others. I was not a fan of my appalling self. In my misery I could hardly relate to people and, being 17, I still had a legal excuse to dodge their invitation. I did not want them too close to see the real me. I could not be like Sinead who was enjoying life immensely with lots of friends. Lots of sleep partners too, by the sound of it.
I did not judge people or begrudge their choices. Before my parents’ divorce, I’d only hoped to save myself for that special someone who might happen by, strolling into my life. Since it was obvious true love did not exist, shouldn’t I go party and throw my reserve to the wind? That was what my friends would do with their freedom—instead of endlessly taking photographs or sitting among my roses drawing cartoons.
But I lacked courage. I was terrified of getting hurt. A coward, still.
With and without friends, I was a loser.
One of my callers wasn’t a coward though.
“I want to get happy tonight,” she confided in a hush-hush tone of someone imparting a secret. “I’ll go pubbing. But if I don’t pick up a guy, how safe is Campbelltown Station after midnight?”
It was a secret. I was the only one privy to her thoughts. Her first time to step out? Alone? She sounded cute, shyly deliberating her wild night out but determined to carry it out. Who was she rebelling against? Strict parents? Revenge against a faithless partner? Or simply to break free from boredom?
After my shift I walked fast to the station. My Northern Line train—the red line on Sydney’s Rail map—departed Hornsby from platform 3. While waiting, I saw Pete going down the stairs to platform 1 for his North Shore train to Roseville. No Sinead today, they had different rosters.
Pete lifted his hand to wave. His beautiful eyes still looked at me in thoughtful assessment. I had the impression he was trying to really look at me. As he held my gaze with his appraising one, I felt stripped of all pretensions. Time stood still. I felt, he saw me. He knew what loneliness was like. I sensed he understood what it took to present a dignified front when all you wanted to do was howl at the moon.
Had he seen me running from the pod in a terrible state? Had he sat at the reception area waiting for me out of concern? How mortifying! I was normally cautious and shy about showing others my feelings.
Heat rushed to my cheeks as I jumped onto my train.
“The ferries don’t go on the Bridge.”
They go under it, in case you didn’t know.