I wasn’t immediately aware of the small family which chose seats at the end of the carriage forward of where I was sitting on a late morning train. But soon a persistent high level of activity caused me to look up and register their presence. The volume of sound came from the mother who was still on her feet in the space between the facing seats, apparently rooting about in a bag. The children were not visible above the back of the seat, and the man was slumped low beside the window, only the back of his head in view.
The woman’s hair was an artificial hard, bright yellow, and she had one of those rather pinched, unwomanly faces which today seem to say “welfare class”, where once it would have been “working class”. She eventually retrieved a small container and, still on her feet, began lifting her T-shirt and spraying under her arms with extreme vigour. She then got to work on the man, pullling up his slightly resisting arms to do the deodorizing job. Their whole little area seemed to be filled with spray. Her next grooming job was her hair, and this was also publicly and expansively performed, with no effort at privacy or discreetness.
Meanwhile, she kept up a constant flow of instruction and admonition of man and children. He had little or no interaction with the children, so I assumed he was her partner but not their father. Her tone of voice, her accent, was peculiarly graceless, ugly, mainly as a result of a total flatness of affect. ‘What sub-culture of deprivation does that way of speech come from?’ I wondered. It seemed scarcely possible that it could be a natural accent of any functioning social group. By contrast, and one wondered how it could happen, the children seemed to speak quite nicely, with a proper human intonation. Later it occurred to me that her speech might be the chronic version of that slowed-down flatness one hears in teenage boys who are using marijuana heavily. Perhaps she had been a sufficiently heavy drug-user in the past for her nervous system to have failed to recover.
When the man turned his head, I saw he was a rather comely, masculine Aboriginal. She grumbled at him persistently, and quite aggressively, but was quick to let him know that his words in self-defence offended her. Counselling on assertiveness has had its greatest success among the least amenable sections of society, and aggressive attack, imputing offence, is used to pre-empt objections to one’s own offensive or “inappropriate” behaviour. Her disfavour increased, and eventually she grasped his hair and began forcing his head down sideways. I became alarmed that domestic grooming in public would be replaced by domestic violence in public, but the man, despite his powerful features, remained entirely mild and submissive, and there was no further escalation.
With their considerable collection of bags, they seemed to be on a family expedition for the day. They left the train before we reached the city, a busy little group — having provided me with a small glimpse of domestic peace somehow surviving the ministrations of a woman who was obviously deeply concerned with her little family group, but whose behaviour offended against all the normal niceties that one sees as essential to oiling the wheels of harmony.