July 2012


Meek no more

By Helen Garner

The teenager in pyjamas on the dawn flight from Newcastle, entranced by her reflection in a magnifying mirror, spent the trip applying a full face of make-up. From her headset issued the standard tss tss tss, but at such savage volume that the white-haired old man beside her, in pain, had to lean right out into the aisle to read his book. Passengers in nearby rows, young and old, stood up in disbelief, then subsided with their hands over their ears.

The seniors on the airport shuttle marvelled that no one had objected. Our excuses were feeble. She might have told us to shove it, but would she really have decked us? We laughed; but privately I refreshed my resolution to stop taking these things lying down.

Cut to David Jones’ first floor women’s wear department, just after ten on a weekday morning. I wanted a couple of long-sleeved T-shirts and a good jumper that would last: I was ready to spend at least a hundred dollars, maybe even two.

I drifted along the racks of black, grey and fawn garments studded with blobs of aggressive cobalt blue. This was Melbourne winter. I was used to long, gruelling searches.

But soon my reverie was punctured by a surge of low-grade generic pop, sickeningly loud, with a bass line that caused the floor to shudder. The only other customers were a handful of middle-aged women. They too bowed forward, hunched against the sonic onslaught, turning their faces in protest towards the unstaffed counter. I watched the music sweep them across the floor and down the escalator.

The young assistant, when I found one, was flinching and baring her teeth. “I hate it too,” she shouted. “There’s no supervisor. You’ll have to go Customer Service on Level 4.”

Customer Service doubled as the Bridal Registry. No supervisor there. A complaint? They could get someone on the phone. What, not face to face? No. They handed me the receiver. No, she said, I couldn’t sit with her in her office. She would come out to me.

She arrived promptly, a pleasant 35-year-old. I introduced myself as one of six potential customers who in as many minutes had been driven out of women’s wear by the music. Did the management realise that mature women who came to the store to spend money would prefer music conducive to the dreamy state in which adult sartorial choices are made? Would she please change the music that was playing downstairs, or at least turn the volume down?

Unfortunately, she said, the store could not adjust the music, for it was programmed by a computer located at some far point in DJs’ national empire. Indeed, the same music was playing at this moment in every single women’s wear department in every DJs store in the country. Why didn’t I like it? Who, I said, wants to be battered by songs about wild sex when they’ve come to buy a T-shirt on their way to work? She laughed. No, there was nobody I could write a letter to – but I could always visit DJs’ website and send an email. A website! No, no, she said, putting her hand on my arm – they answered every email. I would get a personal reply.

I slouched off, frustrated once more in my lifelong desire to announce grandly to a person in authority, “You have just lost a customer.”

Out on the mall, though, I suddenly recalled with glee a splendid clash I had initiated one afternoon the year before, on a suburban train to the city. At Newmarket I stepped into an almost empty carriage and settled into a seat with my new Times Literary Supplement. I noticed a tiny Asian girl behind me, and a few seats in front a soft-faced teenage boy with a pushbike. Opposite me, two mulleted thugs were sprawled with their feet on the seats, guzzling beer and cursing voluptuously in raucous voices. As they drained each can they hurled it along the aisle or onto the seats further forward. They got louder and more foul-mouthed as we rolled along. They boasted coarsely of their achievements in violence, their hatred of cops, their contempt for their slack ex-girlfriends.

We three other passengers had plenty of reasons to act invisible. I was the least physically vulnerable, but my old chalkie’s heart was doing somersaults under my raincoat. When a full beer can sailed through the air I spat the dummy. I knelt up on my seat and said sharply, “Hey, you. We don’t want to hear that sort of talk. Take your dirty mouths down to the other end of the carriage.”

A frightful pause. My cheeks were burning. I turned back to my quivering newspaper and pretended to go on reading. The men got their second wind. They began to mock and jeer. Who did I think I was? They could sit anywhere they fuckin’ liked and there was nothin’ I could do about it. Yet as they spewed abuse they were gathering up their jackets and the remains of their slab, and blundering away down the aisle. I kept my eyes on the print. When the bigger, older one passed me, he bent and pushed his face between mine and the paper. “Yeah, you can read your literary magazine, madam,” he sneered, “but what you got to understand is this. Times. Have. Changed.”

We others stayed silent in our seats. The train drew into Southern Cross. The tiny girl kept her counsel, but the boy got up and stood beside me. “Excuse me,” he said timidly. “Can you tell me how I can get my bike out of the station? Is there a lift?” I didn’t have a clue, but I turned my full attention to his problem, because I knew he was trying to show me that in my ridiculous stand I had not, after all, been completely alone.

Helen Garner

Helen Garner is a novelist and nonfiction writer. Her most recent books are her diaries Yellow NotebookOne Day I’ll Remember This and How To End a Story.

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