I could not understand what we were doing there. These dark draughty halls that you entered though equally dark corridors, the windows covered with thick drapes that scarcely let in any light from the setting sun. We had arrived straight after school. No time to get out of our uniforms. No time to do anything but drop our bags and my sister had us back on the bus, onto the train and into the city.
‘Room 6A,’ my sister said over to herself as she led us though corridor after corridors checking at each door for the right number. I knew we must have found it when we came to a room whose door was open, wide open such that we could not even see the number and filled with people.
I say filled, half filled perhaps, people seated in chairs, mostly young people, and children my age, lined up in rows, each with their backs to us as we walked in behind them and took our places in the last few chairs still vacant.
I could not understand what I was doing there, the youngest of my four siblings to come along. I had not thought to ask my sister why we were there and what we had come for. We would be safe with her and my brothers sat on either side of me their knobbly knees white at each bend.
‘Welcome,’ a woman said to the room and people stopped their chatter and looked to her expectantly. ‘I see we have a few newcomers.’ All eyes turned to the back to look at us. They looked at us with inquisitive eyes, no smiles more curiosity as if to say, and what brings you here, what are you here for?
I would not have answered such a question if anyone had directed it to me. At that moment I could not understand what I was doing there.
‘We have quite a deal of business to get through tonight,’ the woman said. All eyes turned back to face her and we were left once again facing a montage of backs, hunched shoulders, cardigans draped over chairs, and the hush of expectation. ‘We might start with your stories. Damien, would you like to start?’
There was the scraping of a chair against the hard parquetry and a boy not much older than my older sister stood beside the woman in front and looked at us with a nervous expression on his face. He looked as though he had been caught unawares, as though he was wholly unprepared for this position which he had now taken up in front of us in the draughty room above the clocks at Flinders Street station, but he cleared his throat to speak.
My name is Damien,’ he said. ‘My mother is an alcoholic.’ Damien told us then about his life as one of three children, born to different fathers and each living each day with a mother who drank all day long and in between drinking she slept or ranted. ‘Sometimes she hits us,’ Damien said, ‘but it doesn’t bother me much any more. She’s not strong, and now I’m bigger I just push her away. But the two little ones get scared. And she used to hurt me bad when I was little. She used to make me cry.’