We went to a railway museum the other day, an outing to celebrate Charlotte's birthday. There were lots of engines and carriages to see. We could climb aboard some of them. One particular carriage caught my eye: an old rather drab brown passenger carriage, an old 'red rattler'.
“I used to travel to work on a train just like this one,” I told the girls. "These trains used to run through Sydney years ago. I always used to stand by the door. The doors were always open even when the train was in motion. The train used to sway this way and that, lurching all over the place, groaning and moaning. When I stood by the open door, I felt like I was standing on the edge of nothing. I had to hang on tightly. I could easily have fallen to my death.”
“Weren’t you scared, Mum?”
“Yes,” I confessed.
“Why did you travel next to the door when you could have sat on a seat inside?”
“I didn’t want to push my way through the crowd to get off the train. I wanted to be the first one to step onto the platform.”
The younger girls don’t have much experience of trains. Actually, they had their very first ride on a train only a couple of weeks ago. Sophie is twelve years old and she’d never been on a train. I guess that sounds unusual. When I was a child I went on trains all the time. When I was Sophie’s age, I used to travel alone on the train to school.
My school was quite some distance from home. It was a private school, an Anglican girls' school with nuns. I wasn’t religious at the time. I knew hardly anything about God and nuns. I found both fascinating. Nuns more than God, I think. I liked to watch The Flying Nun on TV. Anyone remember that?
There was a very pretty young nun at my school. I’ve forgotten her name but not her smile. She shone. Do you know what I mean? My friends and I often wondered: “Do you think Sister has any hair under her veil?”
A couple of years ago, I suddenly remembered those Anglican nuns. I wondered again: Are there still Anglican nuns? Are there still nuns at my old school? Do they still wear habits? I decided to do some Googling. A few clicks of my mouse and I found myself at the school website looking at old photos.
I discovered the nuns belong to the order of The Sacred Heart of Advent. I doubt I knew that as a child. To me, they were just ‘the nuns’. The nuns no longer teach in the school. They all seem to be very old. No new vocations? And they no longer wear their habits. Their long tunics, scapulars and veils are long gone.
But the girls still wear a school uniform. It looks just like it did in my day: a navy blue dress with a very white collar. I wonder if the girls still have to wear a straw hat and gloves.
I hated those gloves. The weather was very hot in summer but still we had to wear them whenever we were in public. And that meant when travelling to and from school on the train. I once tried removing my gloves while I was waiting for my train to arrive.
“You can’t take your gloves off!” said my fellow student in horror. She wasn’t a new girl like me.
“But how can I eat with gloves on?” I asked.
“You can’t eat in public!” The girl was again horrified. “It’s against the rules.”
Against the rules? I soon learnt all the rules. There were lots of them. There was a rule about hats. Hats were just as important as gloves. Without a hat, a girl was not decently dressed. One day I forgot to put my hat on as I left home. I was nervous all day. Would someone discover I’d broken the rules? Would I get into trouble?
When the school bell rang at the end of the day all the other girls headed towards the hat hooks. What was I to do? I must admit I did consider taking someone else’s hat. I know that sounds bad. What would the nuns have thought of me? But I was desperate. I must have changed my mind about becoming a criminal. Instead when no one was looking, I darted out the door and ran towards the school gate. Perhaps I could get to the train without anyone seeing my bare head.
But then I heard a shout, “Sue! Where’s your hat? You’ve forgotten to put it on!” I ignored my friend’s call and ran at record pace to the station. I felt so relieved when I was safely hidden inside the train.
In those days the seats in the passenger carriages were arranged in rows that stretched the width of the train: two rows facing each other with a door at each side. These doors didn’t have handles on the inside. We had to lower the door window as the train approached our station, and reach for the outside handle so we could get out. Sometimes the windows would get stuck and refuse to open. If that happened I had to climb over the back of the row of seats to the next section of the train and try another window. I wonder if they were any rules about climbing over seats in my school uniform.
My daughters were still thinking about me standing next to the open door of a fast moving train.
Sophie had noticed a handle on the inside of the door of the red rattler carriage. “Couldn’t you have used the handle to close the door, Mum? You could have slid it across.”
“I couldn’t have done that!”
Close the door? No one closed train doors. If I'd done that it would have looked like I was frightened of falling out of the train. An open door? No big deal.
The truth: I wasn’t brave enough to close the door.
Sophie looked confused. She didn’t understand. It didn’t make any sense. She’s right.
We do some stupid things sometimes, don’t we?
Image: me in my navy blue uniform with the very white collar. I'm obviously not wearing my straw hat. But was I wearing my gloves?