Monday, September 13, 2010
Jenny was one of fifteen of us; we were all street kids. We lived if you could call it that, in a shipping container on the docks in Sydney. Jenny was the youngest among us. She was eight-years-old when she came to the “Palace” in the winter of 1965.
Well, to be more accurate the other kids found her, she was hungry, afraid, and on the streets, alone. The rest of us had all been in that place. Not one of us had been there at aged eight..
I was eleven going on twelve, when I crash landed in the group, the second youngest in our little band, Jenny was the baby. That’s the name she was given, ‘Baby Jenny’. It stuck.
The eldest, and our unofficial leader was Jamie, he was sixteen.
The first Christmas she was with us, Baby Jenny was still in shock, and would allow no one to touch her. She spoke rarely, and when she did, it was angry stuff, things most people wouldn’t expect to hear from such a baby. We expected it, we’d all lived it. We knew with an age old knowing, not to get too close until and unless she invited us in.
Thanks to a bunch of dock-workers we had a wonderful Christmas that year. These guys had wings hidden under their dirty blue T-shirts. Well, at least I told them that and often. They were good people. On Baby Jenny’s first Christmas Eve, these winged rough-heads arrived with boxes of goodies for all of us.
There was more food than any of us had seen in one place in a very long time. Tinned Hams, fresh pineapples, cherries and plums. Turkey and Cranberry sauce … all the trimmings. Fifteen red t-shirts all large sizes. Paper plates, and plastic knives and forks, a can-opener. A Cooler packed with ice, a radio and spare batteries. A crate of beer and bottles of Coke.
Jenny had a special gift. It was a baby doll. All done up with booties and bonnet, lacy frills, a soft little body and a sweet little face. Jenny’s first reaction was typical of her, she said, “Terrific just what we needed, another fuckin’ mouth to feed.” She took it and placed it on her sleeping space.
Jenny had cried herself to sleep every night for the five months she’d been with us. She would allow none of us to touch her or offer comfort, to attempt to do so caused a panic attack, frightening to witness.
That night, we all huddled around the radio, drinking the beer and singing our version of Christmas carols, none of them repeatable. Trust me.
We were fed, content, and a little overwhelmed and unsure at the kindness of these people.
Typically we questioned the motive behind it. We all wanted to believe that maybe, just maybe, they had done it for no motive other than the wish to make this Christmas a good place for us to be. It was an alien experience but a welcome one.
We all had our designated sleeping places, a patch of floor that became our own. The boys formed a barrier between the females and the exit. Taking turns at staying awake on guard. Us girls took our turns as well but always one of the guys stayed with us. We had our own little family going here. Only at the time we didn’t recognize it that way.
That night we were all drunk, including Baby Jenny. It was around 2.00 am Christmas morning I guess when I felt something was wrong. Whatever the something was it wouldn’t let me sleep. I couldn’t place it immediately. It was a strange sense of something missing, and it troubled me. Jamie was on watch, I climbed over the others and hunkered down next to him. Jamie smiled at me and said, “You too hey, Sassy?”
“Yeah, I guess--what is it? Something’s different.”
We sat a while just listening. Then Jamie said, “Oh shit! It’s Jenny, she’s not crying!”
My heart was in my mouth. Jamie grabbed the torch and we played it across the others, several of them were already awake, and wondering what the hell was happening.
Jenny lay on her side, sound asleep with both arms wrapped around that doll so tight there was no space between them. That was the first time I had cried in a very, very, long time. I glanced at the others, without exception we were all affected the same way. No one wanted to look at anyone else, shit we were supposed to be the toughest kids on the block! Hell … we were the only kids on the block. That Christmas was the first day of Jenny’s childhood. From then on, Christmas became Jenny’s birthday.
We all became the proud protective parents of a nine-year-old baby girl.
I’d like to tell you that a miraculous change came over her.
I’d like to tell you that she ran around all warm and fuzzy singing songs from 'The Sound Of Music.'
I can’t tell you any of that, because this is the real world.
That is not what happened.
What did happen, was sneaking and slow, almost impossible to see at first.
The changes were far more apparent in the rest of us. If possible the boys became even more protective. Some of the girls liked it. I resented it like hell.
I resented the implication that as I was a female, and in consequence of not having been born with balls, I had to live by their rules. Not this little black duck. Damn what an ego I had back then. Sassy by name and sassy by nature.
The guys were not at all sure if I was going to hug ‘em or slug ‘em. So distance was kept. Me being me, had already worked that one out way ahead of time.
Keep ‘em guessing. It worked well, for a time.
Jamie, well, he would just laugh his damn fool head off at me. Then give me a swipe on the rump for good measure. I think the bastard enjoyed watching me fire up and lash back.
The days and nights were not all sunshine and roses. Yet compared to what we had all escaped from, ‘The Palace’ was pretty damn good. We had a roof over our heads to keep us dry. We didn’t go hungry much at all. Sure we didn’t have feasts like Christmas all the time, but we ate. The shopkeepers would give us a box of fruit, most of it edible; in return for sweeping up or washing windows, we would earn food, or a few bucks to pool together to buy the necessities of life. Beer and cigarettes. Simple yes? Stupid? Very.
We bathed in the fountains of Kings Cross, or Hyde Park in the summer months.
Or we wandered down to the Botanical gardens and went for a swim. I loved the summer, there were more tourists around who appreciated a guide. I was a scruffy one, but hell, I was a fast talker with a great smile who really knew this town. The street life was always easier in the months between December and the end of April.
The changes in Jenny became more visible over that summer. She laughed out loud, often. She still didn’t like to be touched, but didn’t recoil quite as much if you sat too close to her. That doll went everywhere with her. If we wanted to sleep without one eye open we treated that doll with respect.
Jenny began to talk more. At first it was just asking stuff, regular questions, like, um “What’s for food tonight? Can we afford to get some Coke?”
Just stuff. After a time I noticed Jenny trying to make sense out of one of the newspapers we used to sleep on. It hadn’t occurred to me that she didn’t know how to read.
I had left school at eleven years of age so I was no genius at it, but I knew enough to help her sound out words; the rest of us made time to help her with the alphabet.
Jamie went to the newsagent’s shop and offered to work in back, in exchange for some pencils and crayons and kid’s books. The owner of the shop was so cool. He let Jamie keep his pride by doing a little tidy up every Saturday. In return Jenny had a huge supply of papers, crayons, books, and letters of the alphabet.
Pretty soon she would have us all sit and listen while she read the latest headlines from the paper out loud. We were her willing captives. Hell … it was great just listening to her voice.
We had a couple of blow-ins, the following year. That would be the year I turned thirteen, 1967. As a rule when one of us left for any reason, we’d wait a month to see if they needed to come back. If after that time they chose to still be gone, well then we’d talk to the girls on the street.
The street girls were our eyes and ears. If they spotted a likely candidate worthy of living in “The Palace” which is what we lovingly labeled the container--the girls would make sure we got a message.
Most of the run-aways in our experience were just kids who didn’t like the boredom of their home life. They were the thrill-seekers. We had no space or patience for that bunch. We called them the ‘Circus Freaks’.
The street girls were acute judges of who was bored and who was hurting. We never referred to the girls as hookers or whores. They deserved our respect and hell that’s exactly what they got.
Anyone that disrespected the girls, by extension disrespected us. We had earned a reputation on the streets for not taking kindly to anyone who was found guilty of that particular crime.
Judgemental? Hell, yes! We felt we had earned that right, and were naive enough to believe we had the right to uphold it.
The blow-ins came to us, which in itself was unusual.
First up, a female around fifteen or so, who went by the name of Juniper, for God’s sake, what sort of damn name was Juniper?
I guess she fancied herself as a flower child. We had the market cornered for flower children, she had heard that we were pacifists, who believed in free-love. Shit! Free love my skinny-ass, ain’t no such animal. As for being pacifists ... he-heh… sure we were! As long as nobody threatened any one of us.
The boys seemed taken with her, eh-hem. Testosterone tended to get in the way of sense in my way of thinking.
To be fair she had big tits and huge blue eyes or vice-versa. I was probably jealous as all hell. At the time I thought it was just intuition that told me she was trouble with a capital T.
Jenny hated her from day one. She confided in me that Juniper scared her.
Jenny began hanging around me like a second skin from the day ‘Juniper’ arrived. I liked the feeling of her trusting me to look out for her. I liked it a lot.
I watched Juniper like a hawk. So much so that she complained to Jamie that I didn’t like her.
That was her first mistake. Jamie told her in everyone’s hearing if she had a problem with me, to damn well tell me about it, and not anyone else stupid enough to listen. Whew! Man, that felt good. I sat there and watched her squirm. Jenny got a fit of the giggles, and ended up with her head in my lap cackling like a chicken. That distracted me and everybody else. I didn’t touch her in response, I was afraid to change the moment.
Jamie looked at me with a huge grin on his face. I recognized it as pride.
Jenny finished laying her egg, and started up with the hic-ups which set her off again. The laughter was contagious and we all caught it.
Juniper was clearly not impressed. She said nothing, not then. When the laughter settled I half expected Jenny to be embarrassed and move away, she didn’t. Jenny sat up and snuggled in under my arm. I was so shaken I didn’t know how to respond to her. She took care of that by picking my arm up and draping it around her shoulders. I swear she sat there glaring at Juniper with a look on her little face that clearly said, “Ok bitch, now say something!”
Juniper was clearly humiliated. I felt smug, the bitch had earned it.
We all settled down, and put the radio on in time to listen to the top-forty countdown. It was a ritual we never missed. The music kept us connected to the rest of the world. The news on Vietnam, began awakening the political awareness in all of us, even Jenny at the tender age of ten, had an opinion on it.
Two days later I was in taking a dip in the fountain, it was reasonably early in the morning and a Sunday. Hyde park wouldn’t get busy for at least two hours yet. Jamie and the other boys were laying out under the trees drying off. We weren’t stupid enough to swim bare-assed. Not in daylight hours. So the drying off ritual included a various assortment of clothes, summer was our cleanest time.
Jenny as always, wasn’t too far off; she’d saved some bread scraps and was feeding the pigeons, she laughed out loud at their antics. It gave her pleasure, and made the rest of us smile.
I heard her scream, and turned in time to see Juniper slap her viciously across the face.
I don’t remember getting out of the fountain, or running. Jamie was almost there at the same time I was, only not quite soon enough.
I do remember grabbing that bitch by her hair, and slamming her to the ground.
I do remember punching her over and over again.
I don’t know what would have happened if Jamie hadn’t pulled me off.
She was pretty messed up. My right hand was bleeding and swelling rapidly. Jenny sat quietly … too quietly. I walked over to her slowly, terrified that she had broken and retreated back inside her safe place. She looked up at me and put her arms up, the way a baby does when it wants a hug. I picked her up and cradled that baby, and rocked her in that ageless rhythm that must be part of female genetic makeup. We both cried. Jamie offered to carry her back home, I refused, although I think Jenny would have allowed him to. By the time we got back to ‘The Palace,’ Jenny was asleep. I laid her down, curled up next to her, and I too fell asleep.
The pain in my hand woke me. I think it was broken. Doctors and hospitals were a definite no go zone … you didn’t run from the terror we had run from, and then do something stupid, like go someplace where too many questions would be asked. Jamie and I decided we would go down to the first-aid clinic on the docks. These guys wouldn’t say anything. I was in discomfort so what the heck? Nothing ventured, nothing gained.
I got real lucky that day. Big-Mike was on duty. He and I were sort of friends, I never did understand why people were so damn afraid of him—he was a Teddy-bear. Mike took a look at my hand muttering something about “Bloody females!”
He was so gentle. He bathed it, and strapped it and said, “You silly little bugger, Sassy girl. I thought I taught you how to duck?” For once I didn’t have a smart-ass response to throw back at him. Mike said, “It’s broken, Sassy, you should go to the hospital.” I guess the look on my face took care of any more of that hospital nonsense. Mike said he’d drop by “The Palace’ later, with some aspirin, and for me not to use my hand, and keep it in the sling he’d provided.
I’ll always be thankful that I didn’t take my flick-knife with me on bath days.
Juniper, would be grateful too, if she’d known.
Jenny turned a corner that day. She recognized for the first time in her young life, that people cared about her enough to bleed for her if necessary. It changed her. She became a little more adventurous, more confident somehow.
Not hugely so, but enough that she was able to ask and sometimes insist on her own way. Like I said not huge, but a damn good beginning.
I’d always wondered what it would be like to have a sister, Jenny became that, and in some ways she became my child as well, even though I was only older by four years.
Time passes as it does, people either grow or wither and die on the streets. Jenny grew. She wasn’t as strong as some of us. But given love and time to heal I was hopeful that she would toughen up.
I worried constantly that she depended on me, on all of us, too much. Jamie and I talked quietly about how to go about helping Jenny to stand up on her own.
We were both worried that she wouldn’t make it if one of us decided it was time for us to leave ‘The Palace’. We had no idea what to do about it, except to ask her what she thought about things, to encourage her to think for herself, on her own terms.
Jenny was growing prettier as she grew, her body fleshed out, and her beautiful eyes started to lose that haunted look. Her blonde curly hair grew long and thick. We had no hairdressers available to us. We improvised as always, Cassie, one of the other girls, was pretty nifty with a pair of scissors. Besides the ragged urchin look was in … and we all fit that bill.
Christmas and summer of 1969, arrived with a rush. We celebrated Jenny’s eleventh birthday. Several of the gang had left in the past few months, it unsettled Jenny, more than we expected or hoped for. She again became clingy and fearful, change would always be something terrifying to Jenny. The known world made her feel safer, no matter how bad it was.
I would be sixteen in April, and I had grown restless, and unsettled. I knew I wanted more from my life, I didn’t have any idea what. I just knew that if I stayed much longer, I would cease wanting more, I would remain, I would age and die on the streets without hope or a dream--like so many others did.
Jamie sensed it in me, he didn’t pull his punches, he just said,”If you need to go, just do it, just go Sass … for pity’s sake don’t drag it out!”
It took me years to figure out why he was so terribly angry. Shit, I can be thick as two planks sometimes!
I knew it was time, my main concern was Jenny. Such an ego, huh? I guess I had figured she wouldn’t make it without me on board.
Jamie, Jenny, and I went into the gardens, I needed her to be someplace calm when I told her I was leaving. It didn’t make a hell of a lot of difference. She stood with her pretty eyes full of tears, and begged me to stay. Saying no to her was one of the most difficult things I have ever done. But I did it.
I promised both her and Jamie, that I would see them again. We made a pact, to meet once a year, on the first day of Summer, which here in Australia is December 1st. We were to meet outside the Opera house, at noon.
We kept that pact. Some years we missed. When our lives took us away to different places for different reasons. But almost every year for the last Thirty-Nine years, at least two of us would arrive. Sometimes as many as five of the old crew would be there. It was strange and sad and wonderful, to laugh about the old times, and talk about the new.
Last year there was just the three of us, joking and laughing, hugging and crying and getting drunk as skunks. Jamie has developed a paunch, and lost most of his hair. Jenny looked well, much too thin, and brittle, but well.
This December 1st, there will be only Jamie and I.
Last Tuesday September 1st Our Baby Jenny committed suicide.
The reasons why--I can’t touch yet.
This week has been angry … I wanted to lash out, I wanted to inflict pain. I have screamed and railed at a God that could allow this to happen. I have shut myself away, not wanting to be touched. I resorted as always to humor, my first line of defense. The pain, it will lessen someday … maybe. My memory of a nine-year-old kid with pain in her eyes will stay.
I have written this over and over again. Too angry to express what I needed to say. I have yet to cry. That will come. I wanted there to be more than just Jamie and I thinking about Jenny at the funeral tomorrow. I hope that some of you will perhaps read this, and just for a moment give thought to the woman she was, and the child she never had a chance to be. The doll, will be buried with her.
Thank you, for allowing me this indulgence. I promised myself that I would reprint this on the Anniversary of her death. It is today. I wanted someone , anyone, to think about Jenny…and perhaps feel sorrow at her passing.
Posted by Suzannah Burke at 7:04 PM