The 96: 1962

‘Eccolo, finalmente!’
At 7:06am the 96 tram rattled to a halt in front of Beatrice and the six other passengers who all made their way from the footpath onto the road. The tram’s heavy wood and glass door shuddered open and the seven began an orderly climb up the two steps onto the carriage. A man in a suit and hat smiled at Beatrice, tilting his head towards the entrance, shifting his body away ever so slightly to make room for her to pass before him.

‘Tenk yu!’ Beatrice glanced at him quickly, gratefully, and took a deep inward breath as her eyes and hand made for the rail to get on.

At the landing she scanned the seating, then headed to the empty seat near the window, beside a woman with two bags on her lap. ‘Sorri…sorri; skiuz-mi’, she mumbled, looking down, seeing legs and trousers and shoes, red-faced and embarassed.

Beatrice barely looked at the woman she walked in front of as she held out a desperate arm towards the window to steady herself. The tram began to move just as her back touched the seat. She breathed out and after catching her breath, she openned her handbag, looking for the sixpence and pennies to pay the conductor. Getting on and off the tram was anxious-making. She could lose her balance; she could fall onto other passengers; she could fall out, onto the road and get dragged by the moving tram; she could…worse.

Her arms now folded across her handbag on her lap, she held her coins tightly and began to stare out into Nicholson Street, seeing the road and houses and cars and people flying past her in the opposite direction. Now that she was safely seated, she liked the ride into the city. She especially loved going past the Exhibition gardens. The large oaks there took her to the forest trails she walked so often in Lunigiana, to the solitude and peace she felt on the long way to visiting the family’s vegetable plot, or going to church or to a dance, shoes in hand. These large old oaks reminded her of the joy she took in the intense green of her Lunigiana and its hills and mountains: where she was born, where she grew and worked, with her brothers and sisters and her father. Before marriage. Before the children. Before the boat and Australia. Before Federico and his horrible words. The shouting… And. His. Fists.

She sighed noisily but what she could hear was the tram’s engine, that had reached a regular rhythm, hypnotic and soothing, repeating a four-four beat. As she stared out of the window, unseeing now, Beatrice followed this rhythm with a matching if-only, if-only, if-only, if-only. If only I could cook like his mother; if only I was good, beautiful, smart. If only we had money…. If only my sisters were closer; if only my father knew. If only God would save me…

‘Fares please!’ the conductor stood diagonally opposite Beatrice, looking at her. She reached over with her coins. ‘Svunson Striit’ she said as she looked into his face, hoping he would understand.
‘That’s nine pence, thanks Miss’ he said as he inspected the pennies Beatrice had dropped into his hand.

He nodded in brief confirmation to her, then peeled off a thin ticket with his rubber thumb-tip, handing it to her with a smile before continuing down the aisle. Beatrice realised he had made a mistake – she was married, not single – but she was grateful and she wouldn’t correct him. He had understood her. He hadn’t pulled a mocking face or looked at her with pity or contempt. He hadn’t repeated ‘beg-yer-pardon? beg-yer-pardon? beg-yer-pardon? beg-yer-pardon? Like some, who made her head ache with confusion and the pressure of concentration to understand their meaning and to find new words in this language that she was so deficient in. He hadn’t made the other passengers turn to look at her; he hadn’t drawn attention to her accent. He was kind and normal. She turned back to the window relieved and noticed that the tram had turned into Bourke Street.


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