Baby days

I am feeling rather nostalgic for the days when my adult children were babies.  This has been brought on by the fact that my first-born is turning 38 this month!

The serious little egghead, whom a friend always called Winston, reckoning he only needed the cigar to pass, is now a hefty six foot plus.

 His mother is no longer brunette, nor in possession of a single chin, and yes — those are flares! Well, it was 1973.

This nostalgia led me down the road of his and his sister’s childhood, and to my years as a kindergarten teacher. I still find small children fascinating. 

It also led me to consider sharing with you a short related piece I wrote, broadcast on ABC 1233 regional radio a few years ago. It was then called ‘Ten dollar sweetie’ but inflation takes its toll and I feel $20 is more reasonable now!

Twenty dollar sweetie

The train’s only just left Sydney. A young mother and her child are sharing one seat, right behind me.

Child is whinging, mother is surly. ‘Stop that or I’ll smack you!’ she keeps on saying.

The child is now crying half-heartedly. ‘Keep still or I’ll smack you!’

This goes on for an hour – I can’t concentrate, can’t work, can’t read. How to survive the ten hour trip to Melbourne? She’s obviously too young to be a mother; such impatience, such lack of understanding — why doesn’t she read the child a story or something?

Finally they both fall asleep.

People sway unevenly past them down the aisle to the adjacent buffet car all morning. They lurch back, steadying themselves seatback-by-seatback with one hand, the other clutching a cardboard tray of plastic-clad food and drink.

The trainee announcers on the loudspeaker inform us when it’s time to eat, beg us to re-use our cardboard box for the day’s eating. They go through the entire menu for real meals like breakfast and morning tea, and the entire stock of the buffet for the perpetual in-between snacks, the last offering for which is always on the upwardly inflected triumphant highlight of ‘a-a-n-d … double-A batteries.’ I wonder do these come with cream or tomato sauce?

They are now announcing the next main event — lunch. Orders are being taken. We are obviously supposed to eat our way to Melbourne.

The child wakes first, mutters to herself for a while, then begins to complain, ‘I’m hungry, Mummy!’ Her Mum awakes, hisses a reply. I think I hear the words ‘no money’, but that can’t be right — or else they’re only going a bit further. Surely she wouldn’t attempt to travel all day without any money?

The stream of lurchers is steady now as the hot meals are called to be collected. They return, ease past into seats, click droptables down; crunch of cellophane, tantalising, steaming food smells…

‘But Mummy, I’m hungry!’
The stream lessens to a trickle.
It’s probably a mistake — but I must ask her — I fold a $20 note small into the palm of my hand, stand up, quickly move to crouch beside her in the aisle and whisper, ‘Are you going all the way to Melbourne?’

She frowns suspiciously, but nods, huddled over the toddler, whose Shirley Temple mop of bright red short curls rests against her own long fair hair.

 ‘Look, I couldn’t help overhearing. I brought up two kids on my own; I know what’s it’s like to be flat broke. Would you do me a favour and take this…’ poking the note into her hand, ‘… and buy yourself and the little one some lunch?’

I almost expect a refusal. She colours, but smiles slightly. ‘Oh. Thank you,’ she says, almost inaudibly. She glances down at the red curls. ‘She doesn’t understand… you know …’.

I nod. She’s really quite pretty when she smiles – and up close, awfully young. Could she even be seventeen?

I slip back to my seat. Shortly after the pair go off to the buffet. I am careful not to catch her eye when she returns. Later they trip off again for a packet of chips; they are smiling, it’s a treat.

The afternoon is full of giggles and games; no tears, no whinges, no impatient Mum.

Hard to be cheery when you know there’ll be no lunch or dinner, no snacks, no bread even, just the water, for the ten hours you are condemned to squeeze into the one seat.

I now suspect there was no breakfast either. That would make the prospect of the trip even gloomier; repeated enough, it would make the prospect of your whole life gloomy.

With the clouds lifted, she’s a good mum, plays with the child, banters, encourages her language, joins in her world. With relief I hear there’s a Nanna waiting for them at the end of this journey. No mention of a Dad at either end.

‘You little sweetie,’ teases the mum.

‘I’n not a sweetie — you a sweetie!’ protests the child.

The loudspeaker advises the train’s lost the use of one loco, we’re going to be an hour and a half late; it’s dark, we’re all fed up with this train.

The mum manages to eke another snack out of the $20 to brighten the wait. I worry that I should have given more, but I doubt she would have taken it.

Like all of us except those who’ve been hitting the bar, the child’s now had enough. She’s growing whingey again. ‘I’m hungry, Mummy!’

This time I know it’s the truth when I hear her say firmly, ‘You are not hungry! There is no way you are hungry. What you are, sweetie, is tired.’

‘Not a sweetie’, mumbles the child as she falls asleep.

$20 can buy an awful lot.

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