SOCIETY: by Lucy SullivanNews Weekly
Lone girl on the train a child of our time
, September 1, 2012
Queensland Rail’s The Sunlander leaves Townsville at mid-afternoon on its way south. It is an overnight service and the dining-car provides very acceptable meals at appropriate times.
I duly made my way there as night fell, to find every table occupied but also empty seats at each table, so I had my choice as to whom to join.
Mostly they were middle-aged or elderly people in twos and threes, but at one table a teenage girl sat alone. After a brief hesitation, she became my choice.
She had something of the appearance of Kylie Minogue in her youth, blond curling hair to below her shoulders, quite pretty. She had a plate of food before her which after a time I realised she was not eating.
She was not hostile but rather grateful for my approach, but subdued, so it was up to me to start to talk. In the circumstances, the easiest approach was to ask her about her journey and thence herself.
At each stage the corollary assumptions I made from her brief answers were wide of the realities of the life of this lost child which slowly emerged.
She was going to Gladstone to stay with her aunty for some months. As she looked about 15 and this was the very end of the school holidays I asked if she was going to go to school there. She looked quite non-plussed at the question — obviously this was not among her plans — but then said perhaps she would.
She had come from Magnetic Island, a rocky, not a reef, island just off the coast from Townsville, a favourite day-trip destination and also a holiday resort. She lived, not with her family, but with a friend. They had gone there together, and in this day and age I assumed she had run off with a boyfriend. It then transpired that her mother was on the island too, so I assumed that she was there because that was where her mother lived; but no, her mother had followed her there, and the friend she was living with was a girlfriend.
She told me she had four brothers and sisters, and I foolishly, to sustain the conversation, launched into a panegyric on what a nice security it is to have several siblings, particularly if parents die relatively young and before one has children of one’s own.
But when I later asked where they were and what they were doing, it turned out she didn’t know where any of them were. There was no mention of a father.
She was unable to volunteer anything when I asked about her subjects at school. Did she like history, or English, but these seemed words devoid of meaning. Did she like reading?
There was a pause and then she gathered something up from inside her: “There’s one book I liked,” she volunteered. What was it? I asked, expecting just about anything but the answer I got, which was – Heidi.
This was almost heart-breaking: this child, apparently cut off from society and from even the mediocre offerings of today’s school system, had the innate good taste to respond to a children’s classic, possibly the only good book ever to come her way; and even more touching in that it is the tale, like Pollyanna and Anne of Green Gables, of an orphan child whose innocence and spontaneity warm the heart and win the love of the unwilling and crusty guardian to whom she has been sent.
Still searching for the person inside her silence, which did not feel deliberately non-communicative, I asked her what she enjoyed, what she liked doing, but it was as if this was a concept she had never entertained. A blank.
Trying to prompt her, as she had chosen to live on a scenic island, I suggested, did she like nature, or swimming or the beach? But this drew no gleam of recognition. Could she really have so little sense of self? Can neglect in childhood do this?
I privately hoped that her aunty, her mother’s sister, perhaps a retired lady, would soon be giving her some of the attention she lacked; but no, the aunt worked, so it seemed. She would mostly be home alone. Would she be welcome? Of course I didn’t ask, but she gave no clue as to their feelings, if there were any, for one another, or why she was making this move.
As she wasn’t eating, I made some comment on the food on her plate. Her response was to offer me some chips, which I accepted as the least I could do. I finished my meal (her food was still little touched) and rose to go.
She then made her first and only voluntary contribution to the conversation: “Thank you for your company,” she said – about the one thing I would have been incapable of saying at a similar age, for we were embarrassed to speak in formulae.
Yes, the politeness was pleasing, but what sort of society have we made, that gratitude must be expressed for minimal courtesies and personality disappears in rote phrases?
In describing this encounter I am aware of the dangers of misinterpretation, but cannot really believe I was deceived.
Dr Lucy Sullivan has written widely on literature, cultural matters, family, taxation and poverty.