I had been sitting waiting for a friend to arrive but she had just texted to let me know she had been delayed and wouldn’t be able to make it. In the half hour I had been waiting, I had been watching a young girl I had noticed when I first arrived. Something about her had drawn me. She looked so alone.
She was sitting on the floor against a wall with her arms wrapped tightly around her legs, her head resting on her knees. Her hair hung forward hiding her face. She had been there for some time, not moving.
I wondered if she was sleeping, she was so still and quiet. But she had an air of despondency about her. Too old to be an underage runaway, but not by much.
This was not a particularly safe place for a young woman to be sitting on the floor alone, seemingly unaware of her surroundings. She looked vulnerable. She had a small backpack next to her.
She was not holding on to it, so it was easy pickings for any chance thief.
Although my friend was not now coming, I continued to sit there watching the people move through the atrium. It was a thoroughfare between the busy shopping precinct and the central business district – two busy parts of the town and the entrance to the station.
People were crisscrossing it, heads down, hurrying steps, focused on their destination or task at hand. Others were loitering, no other place to be, just filling in time.
I noticed a couple of scruffy young lads eyeing up the girl I had been watching. They started edging towards her, trying to be inconspicuous, but failing badly just through their obviousness, eyeing the girl and looking around to see who was watching, whispering to each other, plotting their approach. Nothing good was going to come from this.
“It’s not my problem,” I told myself. “I should just go. She is probably just waiting for a friend like I was.”
But the vulnerability and look of despair that came tumbling from her continued to concern me. There had been a time in my life when I had been very depressed. I was lucky to have had family and friends around to help me through it.
The boys were a few feet away from the girl now.
I couldn’t let it go. Standing, I moved purposely towards them. The boys saw me coming, hesitated and turned away, waiting to see what I was going to do. I stopped as I reached them and gave them ‘the look’ as my kids, now adults, called it. I didn’t need to say anything, the look said it for me. I had mastered that look during my years as a divorced mother to three headstrong boys and as a high school teacher. I didn’t have to use it often, but it was very effective when I did.
The boys chose, very wisely, to slink away.
The girl was next. I quietly sat on the ground next to her, careful not to crowd her, leaning back against the wall, my arms resting lightly on my bent knees, relaxed and looking out over the concourse. She didn’t acknowledge my presence in any way; I wasn’t sure she was even aware of me being there.
Still looking out, I started talking softly, introducing myself, letting her know that I had seen her sitting there and was wondering if she was okay. She didn’t respond. I sat quietly again, just being there next to her. We must have sat there for about half an hour before she lifted her head a bit and looked at me with a sideways glance. The look of hopelessness in her eyes touched my heart.
“Why are you here?” she demanded. I thought about what to say.
“You looked lonely, and this is not a good place to be sitting alone. I thought I would keep you company for a while,” I said. She continued to stare at me with that sidewise glance, her head still resting on her knees. “You look a bit lost, are you okay?” I asked her. She put her face back down on her knees, her hair hiding her again, but I caught sight of the tears as she turned her face away. I could see her shoulders and back shaking as she cried.
I moved to sit in front of her rather than by her side, shielding her, close but not touching. Sitting cross-legged and leaning forward. “What can I do to help?” I asked.
I waited to see if she would respond. After some time had passed with no response, I started talking quietly again.
I told her about my aborted meeting with my friend, about what we had planned to do that day. I told her a bit more about myself, just talking to fill the silence and giving her time to recover. “So,” I said eventually, “do you have anywhere to go, anyone that you want me to call for you?” She looked up with such a look of despair, tears awash in her eyes and just shook her head.
“So,” I said again, “is that nowhere to go or no one to call or both?”
“Both,” she whispered.
I waited to see if she would say anything more.
She mumbled about breaking up with her boyfriend and that she had had to leave the flat she shared with him and now had nowhere to go.
Through her mumbled ramblings, I gathered he had persuaded her to move in with him a year ago, against the advice of her friends. Her boyfriend had been possessive and she hadn’t realised how controlling he had been and how isolated she had become.
He had stopped her seeing her friends and they had all moved on. She didn’t have any family she could call on. She was so tired and scared, she couldn’t think what to do. She didn’t have any money for a room or for food.
It all just poured out. As she wound down, her shoulders sagged, exhausted.
I sat quietly for a few moments, thinking. I didn’t have any ideas to offer her, but I did have some connections. I told her about my friends and how they may be able to help her if she would like me to contact them. I waited.
She looked up again and shrugged before laying down with her head on her bag, curling into a ball, sobbing. I reached out and put my hand on her arm, just to make some physical contact with her. Then I called my friend. She was part of a community outreach team so would have some ideas of services available.
She agreed to come down and talk to my girl. I sat there waiting for her to arrive.
Two policemen came over to check on what was going on. I told them we were fine and I had a friend coming down to meet us. I mentioned her name. They were satisfied and wandered off again but I could see they kept us in sight. I got other glances from people passing through. They got the ‘pointed questioning raised eyebrow’ look. I had mastered that one, too, and found it to be very effective in getting people to mind their own business!
I stood as I saw my friend finally arrive. I told her what I knew about the girl.
She had a few ideas of services available; none sounded promising or inviting. It seems young women, or men, with no dependent children are not a priority for services.
I was trying to block the thoughts that had started in my mind. I had a house with plenty of space and I had money. Why couldn’t I take her in? Trying to tell myself that it was a bad idea wasn’t working. I thought about what my boys would say. That didn’t work because they would say that was typical of me – too much heart and not enough self-preservation!
My friend, who knew me well, was looking at me questioningly, knowing what was going on in my head. She raised both eyebrows, as if saying ‘Well?’ She had a self-satisfied smirk on her face. I didn’t like it or her very much at that moment!
“I’ve been telling you for some time now that we need people like you who could provide a supportive home environment for lost kids, like this girl,” she said. “You have so much to offer and you are just rattling around in that big house of yours. Take the risk and just do it.”
“But I don’t know anything about her,” I hissed quietly.
“You do. You have been ‘reading’ kids like her all your life. You are great at it, trust your own judgement,” she jokingly ‘hissed’ back. With that, she got up and left.
I could hear her sniggering as she walked away with a finger wiggle wave over her shoulder, leaving me alone with my young girl and my thoughts. She was laughing at me.
The young girl sat up quickly, panic evident in her voice as she asked: “Where is she going? I thought you said she would help me.”
I could see her giving up her last vestige of hope.
I sat down again, silent for a few moments, thinking about my life, and who had been there to help me when I needed it. I had lived a privileged life by many standards; although not rich, I had had loving parents, who had died too young. Although divorced, I had three great children, all now living their own lives.
My self-centred husband had been a mistake, particularly when he decided he wasn’t cut out to be a husband and father. The prat! I had worked hard all my life but that work had been fulfilling. Now retired, I was a little lost, had time on my hands and lots left to give.
It seems sometimes fate or destiny chooses the time and place for two paths to cross.
I held out my hand to her, waiting until she looked at me and tentatively reached out her hand.
“Here’s the thing,” I said. “There aren’t many services out there for young people. But, I have a spare room in my house and I am offering it to you, if you would like to take it while you find your feet again. You don’t know me, but I can call a couple of people who could vouch for me.”
“Why would you do that? You don’t know me,” she said repeating my words back at me. “What if I rip you off, steal from you or something?”
“Are you going to?” I asked.
“No,” she answered quickly. “I might be homeless but I’m not a thief. I will get back on my feet, get a job and find someplace to live. I’m just so tired at the moment.”
I smiled at her as I said: “Well, the offer is there. No strings attached. I do expect you to treat my home with respect and there will be some rules but we can negotiate them as we go. This is a first for me, too. Working through how we do this and building trust will be a two-way effort.”
I waited while she mulled it over. I could see her trying to work out why I was doing this, what the catch was, and what other options she had. She was shuffling about, starting to sit up a bit taller, a bit more lightness in her face and body, but still wary. “Where do you live?” she asked. I told her my address. She thought about that.
“That’s quite close to the community college,” she murmured to herself. I waited some more, sitting quietly while she processed her thoughts. “Thank you,” she said quietly. “I would like to take you up on your offer. I won’t let you down.”
She stayed with me for almost a year while we worked together to get her back on her feet and moved into her own flat. My sons were a bit shocked initially but really came through in providing practical support to both of us.
She was my first but not the last young woman who has since moved through my home. It seems I still had a lot to offer … even in retirement.
About the author
As a public servant, writing was a big part of Jasmine Thompson’s working life, but it wasn’t until she retired that she tried her hand at creative writing, using her imagination to create stories. Retirement opened up a whole new life, when she joined Tawa U3A and their choir and writing group. Now living with her husband in an independent living retirement village in Kapiti, singing and writing continue to be an important part of Jasmine’s life.