It was my morning on duty at the local history museum in Windsor, and I had taken my chair onto the verandah looking onto Thompson Square to read in the sunshine while things remained quiet. I noticed a man, in about his forties, hovering on the footpath and looking across to the other side of the Square. He walked forward a few steps, then back, then forward again, as if keeping his eye on a moving target or trying to gain a better view. I followed his line of sight, and with my short-sighted gaze saw, unclearly, a small figure on the ground near one of the seats on the far side. I thought perhaps it was his child, playing up while he kept his eye on it from a distance. Soon he went on up the footpath towards the Macquarie Arms, and I returned to my book.
But I was soon distracted from my reading by the arrival of, I at first thought, a very young girl of fifteen or so, who I later decided was probably in her mid-twenties. She cast herself onto the front step, near my feet. “I bet you thought I was dead,” she said. She was wearing a checkered flannelette shirt and had her hair in bunches (hence her youthful appearance), the former unpressed and the latter uncombed, although she was perfectly clean. In fact, I hadn’t been thinking anything about her at all — she had appeared out of nowhere — but I soon surmised that it had been she who was lying on the ground in the park, putting on a performance I had entirely failed to appreciate.
Drawing my attention to the roar of the trucks as they ground up the cutting from the bridge to the roundabout, just beyond where she had been lying, she complained that the drivers did it just to annoy her. The absurdity of this notion – they couldn’t possibly have known she was there – was a first indication to me of what seemed to be some slippage in her grasp of reality, aggrandising her significance to other people. I said I thought it was just through having to change gears to get up the hill, but she was unconvinced. She then boasted that when a man had come over to ask her if she was all right, she told him to mind his own business. I was not favourably impressed by this repulse of an offer of kindness, particularly when, as I judged, her behaviour been designed to attract just such attention
She stayed with me, holding forth, for probably two hours, during which time I supplied both of us with a cup of tea from the Museum kitchen, until I was relieved by the person on duty for the afternoon. Her talk was mostly rational, but verging on the deluded from time to time, although in these days of common reference to psychics and astrology, one is hard put to it to know when the threshold from sanity has been crossed.
Did I believe in ghosts? she asked. I said no, but she went on just the same. About a year ago she’d been told that her husband had died, but only a couple of weeks back she was sitting in a car outside a house in which all her friends were using drugs, she was out there getting away from them, when his face appeared at the car window. He spoke to her, then he disappeared. Perhaps he hadn’t really died, I suggested, but she thought not.
Her friends, she said, were always putting her down, criticizing her because she’s cleverer than they are and won’t do the low things they do. All her friends used drugs, she said, but she didn’t. Taking drugs was wrong. She used this word, not harmful, or dangerous. She used to think it didn’t matter, she said, but now she knew it was wrong. Cynically, I wondered if this was a ploy to win my approval.
She spent some time telling stories of her naughtiness at school, and what she saw as her cleverness in provoking the teachers. When the class were told to take out their books, she held hers on her lap under the desk. She was sitting at the front of the class and the teacher fixed his eyes on her because her book wasn’t on the desk. After a bit she demanded provocatively of him, “What are you staring at?”
“I said, get out your book!”
“I can’t see it!”
And so on, with the teacher, of course, getting the worst of it. The repartee she reported was characterized by a capacity to exercise an insolence that stays just inside the line of the insupportable, and this was what seemed to define her conception of her cleverness — her smart answers which her friends could not equal. Eventually I became a little tired of listening to the tales of her superiority to all comers and ventured to suggest that a little more modesty and appreciation of others might be in order, but this was not accepted; indeed, I doubt she got the point.
Mostly, there was something not quite genuine about her tales told against the powers of society that oppressed her, the welfare authorities in particular, which her cleverness, in her view, outwitted. I assumed that she was homeless, or semi-homeless, and subsisting on welfare, but I noticed that she spoke with an educated or middle-class accent, and her speech, to me at least, was free of the uncontrolled use of expletives that is characteristic of the welfare wanderers of Windsor. I wondered what her background might be, and how she came to be as she was; but she would not admit to any parents, positively avoiding answering my probing in that direction. She did, however, speak of relatives on a large property in western or north-western New South Wales, and I gained the impression that she had grown up in the country.
On just two occasions did a true, and appealing, voice come through the monologue of self-aggrandisment. She spoke with a real ring of pleasure about the birds and bush on a western station she knew (perhaps, in fact, her home). And again, she suddenly interrupted her talk and lifted her head and said, “Smell that!” I, too, lifted my head in interrogation, but before I could identity it, “Sheep!” she said, with real warmth and feeling. “I love that smell.” It’s a strong odour that not everyone would enthuse over, though with a certain appealing country fragrance. And that was what it was. A large truck carrying livestock rolled up through the cutting from the bridge across the Hawkesbury, no doubt having come from the north via the isolated Putty Road.
At some stage, she told me she had had four children, but they had all been taken from her, and these days of course such a thing is possible. It added another dimension of tragedy. I was prepared to believe this but again I suspected a wavering of reality when she said that when she arrived at the hospital to have her last baby, they injected her with drugs, and then after the birth they took out all her own blood and replaced it with a blood transfusion. This, she said, was so that no one could tell that they had drugged her, and this was in some way a plot to ensure she could not keep her baby. Her description could have been a misinterpretation of the sorts of things often done to women giving birth, without explanation. But what became of the baby? Does this sort of thing happen?
Near the end of our talk, another, unexpected facet of her circumstances was revealed. It seemed that she had to report to the police every day, and again a note of genuineness, but this time one of frustration, almost of desperation, came into her voice. “I’m just so tied up,” she said, “I can’t move.” Yes, I thought, I can just see why. It’s because of your insolence, your smartness, towards authority – police and social welfare workers now, instead of teachers. What you congratulate yourself on as your cleverness is what is causing all your problems. If you could just act politely and submissively, you would get away with everything, with your nice speech and manners.
When my afternoon substitute arrived, she immediately departed, apparently not inclined to award her sociability to the newcomer. In a way, throughout I had sensed that there was an unspoken bait, to me as an older woman, to offer my personal help to her; but I declined the lure, because I sensed the professional. Later I described the encounter to my friend, Jean, who is usually a good source of local information, and she suggested that the girl was one that several women in Windsor had responded to, had tried to help, but in the end got nowhere. She was thought to come from “a good family”, but nothing more specific than that. I have seen her twice since, once on the platform at Windsor station, and once walking along The Terrace away from the river, but not to speak to and with no sign of recognition.
Windsor had responded to, had tried to help, but in the end got nowhere. She was thought to come from “a good family”, but nothing more specific than that. I have seen her twice since, once on the platform at Windsor station, and once walking along The Terrace away from the river, but not to speak to and with no sign of recognition.
A year or two elapsed between the above account and Jean mentioning that a girl, one of the welfare crowd, had hanged herself from a tree along the riverbank. Jean’s house looks out onto the river and the riverbank park, at the point where The Terrace turns away from the river and the park continues along the river, hidden behind the houses built on the rising levee bank. There, out of sight from the road, the local derelicts, the River Rats as they are called by the Museum volunteers, sometimes gather and the homeless camp. Early in the morning, she had noticed ambulances and police passing along the track below her house, and she later heard that two of the girl’s druggie friends had found her, and were fighting under the tree about whose fault it was that she’d killed herself when the police came. It reminded me of Hamlet and Laertes fighting in Ophelia’s grave over who had loved her most.
The husband or son-in-law of a friend of Jean’s, who is in the local police, said that, really, the dead girl had done herself a kindness, because she was so tied up with drugs and alcohol that she was going nowhere. Those words, the being tied up and going nowhere, recalled to me, with a pang, the words of my girl at the Museum, so that I felt it must be her.
A week later, in the late afternoon, I called on Jean and happened to enquire about the progress of a new development, a huge house being built overlooking the riverbank park. She suggested we walk round to view the monstrosity, already nicknamed the RSL, but not so very bad, I thought, when I saw it. This took us along the riverbank where the girl had died, unavoidably raising the mental query as to which was the tree. Beside the new bicycle path we saw that a tree had been sawn off, a double trunk, the remaining stump only a few inches above the ground. Leaning against it was a bunch of dead flowers wrapped in paper with a note attached — “We miss you From Sarah and Michael”. All of the tree had been removed, no trunk lay on the ground, nor were branches strewn about.
If this was the tree on which the girl hanged herself, who had cut it down, I wondered? Surely not the Council. Her friends would be unlikely to have a chain saw or to be either competent or tidy. Could there be some archaic tradition of cutting down the suicide tree, unknown in my academic world, to which authority, in the form of Councils, silently conforms? Or perhaps there might be a tradition specific to Windsor and the other MacquarieTowns, along with some other surprising survivals, transported from eighteenth century England but never taking root in later settlements in Australia – the baffled sociologist can hypothesize many possibilities. Perhaps her family (with tree-felling skills) came from the country and took it, someone suggested, when I recounted our discovery.
Carol, in an old Windsor family solicitors office, who has many official and semi-official contacts, was the person to ask. She was fascinated and said she would find out. Within a few hours she was back to me. No, it wasn’t the Druids, she said. The tree had been cut down by Council at the request of several elderly ladies whose houses look out onto that stretch of the river. They had been distressed by the events there, and didn’t want to be reminded by the tree. This at first sounds straightforward enough, but the willingness of a Council to comply so unprogrammatically is redolent of persisting strains of traditional uneasiness in the face of suicide. The tree was half dead anyway, it was said in justification.
Of course my girl at the Museum may not have been the girl at the centre of this tragedy. I will be watching out for her around the streets of Windsor from now on, because I know that any number of negative instances does not afford a certainty.