February 2008


But he was skinny and deliberately drooling down the front of his t-shirt as he jumped up and down on the seat opposite, his eyes dizzy and glazed from sugar.

His elder siblings were “porky”, and aggressive towards kindness from their mother.

I ran my stop-watch: we passed stations and stopped at suburban outposts surrounded by dead land to take in further sprawl. An hour and three minutes, one-way. The people I work with travel this line, these hours, five-days-a-week, turning an eight to five into a seven ’til six.

At the front of the carriage a man yelled into his phone as if the carriage windows were open: “I’ve got a dozen eggs in the bag… Bacon? why would I?… Think, would you? Carrying bacon in my bag is silly! yeah?”

M. and I hid our laughter behind the pages of our serious literature.

His siblings tickled him to stop him misbehaving and missed the cooling towers manufacturing cloud in the shape of elephants and half-eaten apples.

I played eye-spy with my little eye, something they couldn’t see that didn’t hide. It was white, it was white. It was their teeth, I spied.

His brother had red spots and flaky skin in the pits of his elbow that he scratched no sooner than he was told-off for doing so. His sister, the oldest, wore a woolen scarf and ill-fitting Mary-Jane’s, the strap rubbing the blister on the top of her foot. She irritated her mother, who dangled a plastic-bag full of candy canes, biscuits and chocolate frogs in one hand, while she unpacked, searched and re-packed the contents of their luggage with the other. The children sat up in their seats like cobras and swayed on the movement of the plastic-bag.

“I walk everywhere,” said the mother to the near-elderly woman sitting across from her, “and it seems to bother everyone. It doesn’t bother me — can you imagine how fat I would be if I didn’t.”

M. raised an eyebrow without diverting his eyes from the page, reminding me of some strange betrayal of empathy.

His eyes left his book and surveyed a scene in the distance, real or imagined, static or otherwise, and when he fixed his gaze I knew he was either ready to speak or return to the book he was now reading between fits and bursts from the children. It was the latter, so I continued pretending to read, waiting for the big-breakfast cowboy to receive another call.

“… it wasn’t what she didn’t know,” said the mother, as her son lay on his back and tried to kick her, “only that she didn’t know. That was what killed her the most.” She restrained him, only for him to wriggle his foot out of his shoe: “Why are you doing that?” She found some freedom in talking about her friends while strangers listened in unreservedly, unwillingly.

The train pulled up at an old cottage station-house held up by the thistles and flowers of rose bushes. The children ran out of the carriage and left the mother with luggage. Her new friend offered to help, but she refused, and waltzed her way, red-faced, down the aisle, careful not to hit anyone’s arms with the seven or so small bags.

The near-elderly woman, clutching a black leather handbag slung over her shoulder with a cheese-gold chain, turned to her husband:

“I’ve never felt so sorry for someone in-me life.”

Her husband had a set of hairy ears and a nose grown out of proportion to his face. He flicked and straightened the newspaper in his hands, and nodded.

The family were greeted on the platform by a man with bronzed arms and a red face, wearing work boots, pants and a shirt covered in fine white dust. He unburdened his wife of all the bags, then she picked up the smallest of the children, lifting his shirt and blowing a kiss on his belly. He squealed.

In the new-found quietness I could agree with her.

But then the kids behind us started throwing wet paper balls in my hair.

M. turned around and asked, “Can you stop?” Clearly, they couldn’t.

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Today we honour the Indigenous peoples of this land, the oldest continuing cultures in human history.

We reflect on their past mistreatment.

We reflect in particular on the mistreatment of those who were stolen generations—this blemished chapter in our nation’s history.

The time has now come for the nation to turn a new page in Australia’s history by righting the wrongs of the past and so moving forward with confidence to the future.

We apologise for the laws and policies of successive Parliaments and governments that have inflicted profound grief, suffering and loss on these our fellow Australians.

We apologise especially for the removal of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their families, their communities and their country.

For the pain, suffering and hurt of these stolen generations, their descendants and for their families left behind, we say sorry.

To the mothers and the fathers, the brothers and the sisters, for the breaking up of families and communities, we say sorry.

And for the indignity and degradation thus inflicted on a proud people and a proud culture, we say sorry.

We the Parliament of Australia respectfully request that this apology be received in the spirit in which it is offered as part of the healing of the nation.

For the future we take heart; resolving that this new page in the history of our great continent can now be written.

We today take this first step by acknowledging the past and laying claim to a future that embraces all Australians.

A future where this Parliament resolves that the injustices of the past must never, never happen again.

A future where we harness the determination of all Australians, Indigenous and non-Indigenous, to close the gap that lies between us in life expectancy, educational achievement and economic opportunity.

A future where we embrace the possibility of new solutions to enduring problems where old approaches have failed.

A future based on mutual respect, mutual resolve and mutual responsibility.

A future where all Australians, whatever their origins, are truly equal partners, with equal opportunities and with an equal stake in shaping the next chapter in the history of this great country, Australia.

But, of course, don’t forget these folk.