Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Night In The City

WE all suddenly decided to go into town. The papers were full of this ‘White Night’ event that had attracted vast numbers into the city in the past. We all thought we would see what all the fuss was about. Buildings lit up, apparently, with colourful imagery projected onto their walls, and family friendly events in different pockets of the city. Part of the appeal of the event was the long hours: 7PM-7AM. The downside would be the crowds.
You were excited about leaving home in the car with your older sister at a time in which you would normally go to bed. You assured us you would make it through to early morning. On the way you were filled with childlike curiosity and wonder at people in other cars, and shopfronts, as dusk descended upon the city.
We parked opposite the museum and briefly watched a trapeze act. Then we caught a tram into town. By now it was past 8 o’clock and fairly dark. All four of us walking the city streets like we owned them. Tram-less, and car-less, walking in carefree fashion in the middle of normally busy wide streets was a pleasant novelty. Russell Street, Swanston Street. All the way up to the State Library, and then around the bend to the Old Melbourne Gaol. It was here I told you about Ned Kelly, except I didn’t say how he died. Your sister tried jumping in sync to the illuminated skipping ropes. You were more or less happy to watch.
Then we visited your uncle’s studio on Hosier Lane and looked at his fabulous paintings. It was here, under the studio lights, that we all saw S’s swollen eye. Earlier in the day she scratched her cornea on something, and we realised her complaints were founded. The nurse at the Eye and Ear Hospital said it would take some time to see her, so you and I left, with mother to look after S, as well as use of the car.
We walked solemnly to Parliament Station, the city still very crowded. It was midnight by now, on a Saturday night when any self-respecting parent would ensure their seven year old daughter was at home, asleep. But this was ‘White Night’. And besides, we hadn’t factored in that we would be going home by train.
Yes, the train. This was when the adventure started. I had my arm around you at the station, both of us worn out after a long day and a lot of walking. You still seemed dreamy and cheerful, although quieter and more placid in the early hours. We saw that the train would only be six minutes. We played a game, you might recall, where both of us guessed in which direction the train might be coming from.
I’m pretty sure I summed up the mood of the carriage quicker than you did. But hey, I am older. A group of young men at our end, fairly placid and calm, and an outspoken group at the other end, more on edge and irritated and restless, their ‘leader’ pacing the floor of the carriage like a panther enclosed in a cage at the zoo. Abuse began to be hurled. The young agitated guy, about 20, wearing a black hoodie and dark tracksuit pants, was challenging the main guy at our end for a fight. For the next twenty minutes or so the atmosphere in the carriage was electric with uncertainty. Would a fist fight break out? Would someone get their face mangled in front of both of us?
You seemed to be at least partly aware of the danger at this point. You wanted to sleep but you were unable. Your head was nestled into my chest but your eyes were wide with expectation, if not fear. I sat there, cringing at the language: ‘I wanna smash your fuckin’ face in. Do you want me to fuckin’ hit you now?’ I wanted to protect you from the words. Everybody seemed to be aware of us, or you, in particular. There were a number of young people, mostly males, looking at the floor, or sitting there awkwardly with the plugs of their iPod’s jammed in their ear.
This main guy, the aggressor, would go back to the other end of the carriage shouting out with bravado to his friends, and then come back to our end with further vitriol. It didn’t occur to me to stand up and protest about the sheer injustice of having an innocent and beautiful girl witness such ugliness. But it did occur to me to change carriages. Mostly, though, I just wanted to will it all away.
I counted the stations for you. You kept asking ‘how much longer to go?’ One of the participants, on the more passive side, sat right next to us. I doubt you even noticed this. And this is where the ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’ factor came into play. Read it, when you are older, and think back to this scene. In the Harper Lee novel Scout’s mere presence has an influence over the lynch mob who are after the black man, Tom Robinson, who Scout’s father is protecting. The sight of this little girl, about your age, meant that the awful men, with their sinister aims, recoil at their objective, and wander away feeling foolish and regretful.
All the players on the train the other night were looking at you. You, clutched to my stomach, having your back rubbed and patted the whole time, up and down, up and down. You, as Scout, showing them how wrong they were, the old story. It takes a little kid for them to realise they were about to do something wrong.
Well, honey, that’s not quite true. You made them abandon it for a while, that’s all. But that’s something. Your presence spared all the people on the train some spilled blood and heavy atmosphere. The people hiding in their mobile phones and staring at the floor. Those others like the two of us looking bewildered and uncertain. The aggressor walked over to the people on our side again and said he would wait until Coburg Station. That’s where the big statement would be made. Did you hear him say this? That he was going to ‘smash (his) fuckin’ face in’ when they got off the train at ‘Coburg’? Well, if you did, you might have had the same thought as me. ‘That’s our stop.’
I nudged you when the train left Moreland, the preceding station. We were not going to hang around. The doors opened and we were out of there. I was the first to see the police ten or eleven carriages away. They moved fast when I spoke to them. We crawled through the quiet but now eerie streets. We were so glad to be home. Turning the key in the front door, the phone rang. It was mother to say they would be hours yet. At least they would have the car.

Life is full of sobering experiences. There will be other times that you will find bewildering, or cruel, or confusing. You cannot be protected forever. But just the other time, on this awful, confronting night, I am happy to say you were spared the worst, and I’m so glad you still do not know the sight or sound of fist smacking flesh.

No comments: