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Friday, November 30, 2012

Rocket Men (2)

In the first part of this, I said there was an odd thing about that train journey on the Sunlander to Townsville.

   In 1961, the Sunlander had the distinction of being one of the rare air-conditioned trains in Queensland – rare in the sense that we bushies were unused to it. I liked the idea very much. It was about 30 degrees in Gladstone when we started, and we were going even further north, to hotter climes.

   The problem for us was that we were used to living in summer temperatures of 30-40 degrees C (86°-100°F), and the temperature in these carriages was about 17 (63°F). Sitting there without physical activity, I got cold, and was looking for a jumper or blanket fairly soon after starting out.

   I was put in a compartment with a woman and a little girl I took to be her daughter, aged about ten. There was some resemblance between them so I'll assume that. My guess was that they had come all the way from Brisbane, so had already spent about twelve hours on the train.

   The woman was tall and severe looking, and the girl not much different looking from any other of about her age – mousy brown hair and owlish looking eyes – when she looked up at all. She was focused on her knitting, at which she was obviously skilled.

   From the start I sensed there was something wrong. The girl's top lip was periodically beaded with sweat, but her skin looked goose-bumped as if she were cold. I think she was. A faint smell of stale odour exuded from her.

   When I got into the compartment, her mother who had been sitting opposite now sat beside her, and I sat facing them. The mother looked displeased at my presence, which was understandable if they had had the compartment all to themselves up to then. The little girl seemed indifferent, just burrowing down and concentrating on her knitting.

   At one stage the girl asked if she could go to the toilet. With a look of exasperation, her mother refused, and motioned to the knitting. The child obeyed without protest. Not long after, clearly distressed, she put down the knitting and fearfully asked again.

   I was shocked to see the woman raise her hand as if to strike her, but she must have thought better of it, motioned to the door and simply said, angrily "Go!" adding "Get back here soon."

   This was beyond my ken. No mother I'd ever seen behaved like that. I'd seen them angry at misbehaving kids, but not this deep inexplicable rage.

   The girl got up quickly, and disappeared.

   Train lavatories in those days were pretty primitive, even on the Sunlander. For very good reason, there was a prominent sign in all of them:

   Lifting the lid while the train was travelling made a sound as if from the depths of hell – roaring over bridges, screaming, and quite terrifying for little kids, who feared getting sucked down that pipe to where you could see the sleepers and gravel bedding racing by underneath.

   The little girl was on her own. She returned not long after, clutching the handerchief with which she was still wiping her hands, a vague faecal smell now added to the sour body odour.

   Her mother looked at her with anger and disgust, hitting her on the arm, open-palmed, as the child passed in front of her. The girl sat quickly in the window corner and resumed her knitting. The mother also knitted, expertly.

   At times she offended her mother in ways that were a mystery to me, and was smacked on the arm or across her back. The sweat beads on her upper lip came and went. There were many times when I went back to my poem or read a book to avoid the discomfort. What could I do? I felt outraged but I was a kid myself. Grownups were grownups. I couldn't interfere even if I wanted to. Besides, that woman was scary, even for someone like me who could have thrown her out the window. Not that you could open the windows on the Sunlander, unlike the old Rocky Mail.

   At about dark, the mother produced some squashed sandwiches from her bag and told the girl to eat them. Having been prepared maybe the best part of two days before, they looked unappetising to me, but the mother's fare was no better. They ate in silence. The girl ate every bit. I had no doubt she would be punished if she had not.

   She went on knitting, for hours. I still remember vividly those needles flashing in and out of the wool. The train made too much noise to hear their clink, but it would have been perfectly rhythmical. Never at any stage did I have an idea what she was knitting.

   Her mother ordered her to go to the lavatory again, which she did. I was hoping she could freshen herself up a bit, but obviously she was on an unspoken time limit and was no less smelly, poor child, than when she left the compartment. She didn't get a smack this time; just a threatening scowl and was told to go to sleep. Her mother flicked through a magazine for a while as if its contents offended her deeply. (Now, I realise it would have been of some interest to know what it was, but I could barely look at her.)

   The kid huddled in the corner, with some sort of shawl or tatty rug over her, closed her eyes and didn't move. The cabin lights were bright but she wasn't risking any charge of disobedience. Finally, the lights were dimmed and her mother and I settled down.

   I was pretty restless and was awake most of the remainder of the night. After all, I had exciting days ahead. I must have slept a little because I was disorientated. It felt like that sun was rising in the west and we were going back the way we had come.

   By dawn I knew we weren't far out of Townsville, and I wondered if the other two were going right through to Cairns.

   I soon had an answer to my question, and of everything unpleasant I had seen, then came the episode in this experience that imprinted most deeply in my memory. The mother and child were both sleeping deeply until well after sunrise. The woman woke with a start, peered out of the window and realised we were nearing Townsville.

   She peeled back the shawl from the legs of the sleeping girl, and delivered four very hard stinging slaps; the sort that echo in a confined space like that. "Get up! We're nearly there. Get UP!"

   That was her morning greeting and wake-up call for the little girl, who sat up quickly, blinking her owly eyes in the bright North Queensland sunshine. She didn't look at her legs, striped with bright red marks. They were not the last vicious smacks she got for phantom sins in the next few minutes.

   Not long after, the Sunlander pulled in, and the pair got off, the daughter propelled along before the mother.

   By 9 AM I was in the Townsville City Pool. I was still disorientated and it seemed to me the sun was where it should be at 3 PM, but the big clock at the end of the pool didn't lie. I don't even remember how I got to the pool, but there were memories I badly needed to wash out of my system.

   The sun behaved itself and rose in the east only when I got to Magnetic Island. I was glad it had sorted itself out. But I sometimes wonder about that little girl, who if she survived her childhood would now be about sixty. Would she turn into that monster if power came into her hands? 

   As to her sadistic mother – frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn.

Rocket Men (1) | Rocket Men (2)


  1. How deeply depressing. Sometimes I see mothers or fathers in town, perhaps in the supermarket, who are treating their kids really harshly and it is hard for me not to say something. I try to smile at the child or defuse it all, occasionally. It DOES take a village to raise a child. The child will grow into a member of society, for better or worse -parents do NOT own their children. Now that we no longer have such extended families, the child has fewer examples of adult behaviour, fewer people to turn to.

    Recently we had broken our journey at a scenic lookout to have lunch. Another car arrived and a couple with several small children, who were obviously excited by their journey, scrambled out. As I walked past them the father was saying "..and I'm gunna be really busy so if youse kids play up I'll be belting your arses". This was to a little sweet faced, fair haired girl of about six. SOB! Adults just squash that open eyed, world loving innocence and turn it into surly, closed face meanness.

    It's a horrible but true story you've written there, bringing the situation to life too well for comfort.


    1. My concern was based on something more sinister. Out of sorts, or with kids misbehaving, some loving parents might smack their children, or threaten to, or believe in its efficacy to a limited degree.

      In this case, I saw nothing but pure irrational malice by an adult towards a child who was doing nothing wrong. The violence was an instrument of naked power and no thought of an alternative to controlling the little girl even if she had been at fault.

      The woman had a deep psychological problem, and the child was the victim. Children - all people - who are unjustly treated bear the worst emotional scars, I think.

      That's a distinction I would make anyway.

  2. Oh yes,in the story you told the woman sounds like a psychopath. That poor little girl. I'm just saying that bruising behaviour to children does happen constantly and even when the parents 'love' the child. No wonder you remember this incident so well -so disturbing, even frightening.

    1. What really hurts children is injustice, as I said before. I've seen boys who wouldn't shed a tear at the harshest caning for something he got caught out at cry at the mildest punishment when they really honest-to-god 'didn't do it'.

      It always raises the question of responsibility for me. Was the mother responsible for her actions if she was simply repeating behaviour learned from her childhood? In a court of law she would be guilty of child abuse, no doubt.

      But in the end, the buck has to stop somewhere, or there is no rule of law. just survival of the 'fittest', as in maximum security jails.

      I know it happens all the time, or something similar. But as far as I knew, it didn't happen in our little township in 1961. Not like that.


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