No one had wanted to do Friday drinks but her, so Meg hid how much she wanted it, hid the disappointment that they were setting up for the site visit on Saturday, which would take hours, or going home to husbands and wives, or caring for babies.
The tram wasn’t crowded for a Friday. She found a spot in a tip-down seat before it turned jankily onto the wide bitumen boulevard, past the city fringes and the apartment blocks towards home. She wasn’t alone. She was never alone. A woman across from her with flat damp hair stared deep into her phone. A gaunt man in a tracksuit somehow took up three seats, his eyes darting around trying to latch on to something. He had a can of something on his lap, an energy drink or sugary vodka mix or both. Like everyone else, Meg avoided his gaze.
She’d have her Friday drink, she thought. She was moving. Here’s to the future, always somewhere ahead, coming at us at speed. She’d drink a little at the place with the pokies, sit out on the windy concrete terrace and have two pots of Carlton Draught and two stale cigarettes from the pack at the bottom of her bag, one after the other, and a man just like this one would stare at her, perfectly still, a butt burning to nothing in his hand. Meg would ignore him and she’d stare out over the empty road, tobacco buzzing behind her eyes. She’d have a few pints and sit alone somewhere else with her book, re-reading the same lines again and again. She’d go to that gig in Fitzroy, and she’d run into Clare and Kim there, though they didn’t know each other, and she’d walk through cigarette smoke and alcohol blur like a cloud of impulse. She’d get the wrong tram home, a number she’d never seen before, not a number but a strange foreign symbol, and it would take her deeper and deeper into the city, an amalgamation of all the cities she’d lived in, all the cities she’d loved. Meg fizzed, giddy under the fullness of the weekend moon.
She was not moving. This tram, the one half full of sickly pale commuters in the dying afternoon light, hadn’t moved for a few minutes. Everyone else had already registered it, the stillness, the flatness. Heads turned, people looked up from their phones irritably. They weren’t at a stop or lights, just halted in the middle of the road. Meg looked outside. The sunset broke between the trees, over the children’s hospital. No one moved. Should we say something? Ask the driver? Who should do it? Shouldn’t it be someone at the front?
“Will someone ask what’s going on?” The man with the energy drink or vodka. He moved his hand. Vodka lemon, Meg saw. “Someone at the front?” he said. “Come on, fuckin’ hell.”
A quiet, uncertain voice from somewhere: “Why don’t you ask?” The man didn’t answer. He just looked down and started tearing at his fingernails.
The intercom crackled and the driver said they’d be here for a while. There was an obstruction on the tracks. “If you want to get out here you can walk a few blocks to another tram. The 57 or the 19. But this one’s not going anywhere. Police are on their way but they’ll be a while. Sorry.” The doors creaked open and the cold air drifted in and the bats sang in the air. A teenager with a children’s backpack stood up and disappeared into the night and a few more followed. After a minute Meg got up too and stepped out into the night.
Behind the tram was a line of about eight more, all with people standing in the light of the open doors. Meg walked to the front where a small crowd gathered, including the driver, all looking at the inert body on the track.
At first Meg thought she was dead, the girl on the tracks, lying with her arm under her head like a pillow, her hands pressed against the concrete. But then she saw her eyes were open, sorrowful, alert eyes darting around at the crowd. A sallow, calf-like teenager, long thin body, pyjama bottoms and a white singlet, her shoulder blades sticking sharply out from under her grubby white top. Meg looked at her fellow passengers, but they all dutifully avoided eye contact. How would they get home? How would they get to their pubs, to their loved ones, to their movies, to the little pockets of time that were theirs and theirs alone?
Finally a woman met her eye, the woman with damp hair who’d been sitting across from her. She was wearing a dark jacket with a little embroidered insignia on it. A travel agent. The woman threw her shoulders and arms up in a quick, small gesture, as if to say, someone should do something. She gestured at the girl on the tracks and at the median strip of low, flat, wiry grass struggling through the city’s dirt, at the hospital beyond. There was a burgeoning awareness, a few more pairs of eyes, an air of collaboration.
It wasn’t Meg who acted first. A skinny man in a grey business suit took his hands from his waist and leaned down over the girl. He took one filthy foot and looked up at the others. Meg took an arm. Someone else took another. And someone supported her head. Others just put a hand in, vaguely beneath the girl, lightening the load of the group infinitesimally, and others simply observed, surveyed, instructed. The girl’s prone body barely resisted, her eyes showing she didn’t understand.
Finally the group brought her back down on the thin grass of the median strip. She showed no resistance, resigned to being moved. But her reaction didn’t matter, as no one looked for it.
When they’d put her down, the group looked at one another. It had been the tram driver holding the girl’s head, Meg realised. He climbed back aboard. They all climbed back aboard, and the tram whined into gear. Meg found her seat, the same seat. She waited for some kind of acknowledgement, camaraderie, of eye contact even, but none came. This is the way of the city. The man with the vodka premix raised his can, pausing it in midair before bringing it to his lips. She would have her Friday drink.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on September 9, 2023 as "Obstruction".
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