The Girl on the Train

Regular writer Shirley McHugh shares an experience that changed her, and one which invokes the injunction of the Year of Mercy, “Be merciful as God is merciful.”

I boarded a train in Sydney recently and sat in the quiet carriage, facing ‘the wrong way’ near the space reserved for wheelchairs.  I took out my book and settled down for a comfortable read. Then a young woman who looked like a school girl leapt through the door and took up her place on the plinth surrounding the wheelchair area. She plugged in her phone and very soon began to sing ‘rap’ in the way one does when one forgets other people can hear.

Within about ten minutes, she got up and went out through the door and just as suddenly arrived back screaming, “I’ve lost my medication. Help me, someone. I’ve got.....” She frantically emptied the contents of her bag on the floor and eventually found her medication and dosed herself.  In the meantime, a smart young woman of about 30 sitting in a seat across the aisle from this lass, leaned over and asked if she was all right.  Being told she was, this other young woman then very kindly asked the girl to sit with her.  Again, the girl insisted she was OK and remained seated on the floor.

At Woy Woy, the young woman got out. I looked at the girl opposite me and I could see she was still distressed. There were tears running down her face and she kept looking down at the phone.  I spoke to her and I said, “You look very upset, is there anything I can do for you?” and she said, “You know, I have just left my baby daughter. I can only see her once every two weeks for an hour and I just love her and I just want to be a mum and I can’t” and then she came over and through the shattered glass of a very battered phone, she showed me her little girl.

I said, “You’re not very well, are you?” and she looked at me with great big eyes in a very white face and said, “I’m just not right in the head. I have to get my head right.  My little girl was a methadone baby and I had to go to court two days after she was born to give her away while I got better. I’ve really tried but it’s hard.”

I asked her if she had anyone to talk to and accommodation to go to when she left the train. She said she had a fiancé who “loves me to death and is the father of my child”.  He was prepared to send her to a secure place for 12 months to get well, again.

She then said, “I need to get my teeth fixed, I can’t eat.” With that, she opened her mouth and I felt I had been punched in the stomach. Inside her mouth was a charred hole, full of black, broken teeth like lumps of coal, lying beside a railway line. I felt ill and I just hoped my face didn’t betray the shock, nor the anguish I felt for her plight.  I asked her if she suffered pain from her mouth and she nodded and said, “You know, I used to be pretty.”  I leaned over to her again and said, “You still are pretty and you are pretty special. You just have to get better and you must get your mouth fixed up.”  I told her where she might go – having been married to a dentist and occasionally working in his surgery, I saw many shocking mouths, nothing, however, like this. I felt devastated for the girl.

Anyway, as the journey progressed, in bits and rambling pieces, I heard her story.  Whenever her mother had men in her house, the girl − let’s call her “Mary” − would be kicked out, from the age of nine. She said she often went hungry and was often, “picked up”, whatever that involved.  She finished by saying, “I never had a chance.  I want to give my little girl a chance, but I don’t know where to turn. I just don’t have a family to help me.”  I felt overwhelmedby my own helplessness. Mary was not begging, she was not asking for pity, she was merely stating her situation.  I have never felt so touchedor so useless.

As we neared Broadmeadow station where we were both getting out, I gave her the number to ring CatholicCare. She gave me her fiancé’s phone number and as we stood at the door to get out, she turned to me and embraced me and said, “Thank you for helping me.”

She then alighted from the train, her fiancé was there waiting, she turned and waved to me and called out in front of everyone, “Thank you, Shirley, for everything,” and she disappeared into the night.

I walked to my car, got in and I just sat there and wept and wept − for a life ending that had scarcely begun, for a soul lost in the midst of many. I will never forget her.

I rang CatholicCare the next day to see if she had rung and she hadn’t. I rang DoCS to see if they could trace her and I haven’t heard back from them, so I sent a text message. I wait and I am still weeping, not only for her but for all those young victims of drugs who live lonely and desperate lives. I thought of Francis Thompson’s words, “Thou canst not stir a flower without troubling a star” and I wondered, have we become star struck? Are the big issues too big to tackle? How many flowers wither, unopened, through lack of the light of human love and understanding?

My eldest daughter rang just as I walked into my house and I told her about Mary.  She was silent for a while and then she said, “I suppose, Mum, we spend so much time matching our tablecloths with the napkins, we forget the real issues.  When all is said and done who really cares what matches what in the light of such aloneness?” Who indeed?

Partners in Recovery (Australia-wide) facilitates support locally for people living with persistent and severe mental illness and complex needs. P 1300 656 608,

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