I was at the local markets last Saturday.
I love markets. Everyone who is anyone wanders through at some point and you meet the entire cross-section from our world. I was going to wash my hands at one of the sinks that hide in the edges of the stalls when I met someone new.
I’d followed this particularly slim woman to the sink I use and slowed so I didn’t crowd her. She reached into the bag she was carrying, cupped her other hand under the dribbling tap to catch water and then tried to get the little black and white cat she pulled from her bag to lap from her palm.
The cat was obviously thirsty but was also uncomfortable at taking water from her hand. I was too close to fade away unobserved by then and was worried I’d scare them if I didn’t say anything.
The woman hadn’t noticed me because she was concentrating. Despite my best intentions, her wide eyes told me I’d startled her. I tried again.
“Does she need something to drink from?”
Hesitantly, she smiled. I saw she was the other side of slender. A long way the other side of slender.
“She’s my baby….”
She said it hoping she wasn’t about to be ridiculed. She had the air of expecting to be chastised for bringing a cat into a public space and hiding it in a public market.
I smiled again.
And I did. People who have experienced serious childhood trauma often go through life without making close ties to other people because PTSD can make it too hard to trust. Cats (or dogs) are so much easier because they just want to be loved. They don’t care how we might be feeling. They don’t mind if we find it too hard to talk to other people. They don’t nag us if we don’t eat.
They just love us.
I could see she loved her cat. She needed her company. She needed to be with her. I could imagine how many times she’d been told off for trying to take it on a train or a bus. How many times taxis or ubers had knocked her back when they realised she had a furry companion.
If she was blind, no one would question a guide dog because they would see that she needed assistance. But no one can see when the disabilities we carry are in our minds as the result of wounds we never asked for or deserved. We get judged. We get shamed. We get laughed at.
I wasn’t laughing. I tried again.
“Do you think she’d like a bowl?”
I don’t have words that can capture the look of pure gratitude that filled her hollow loneliness and replaced the certainty that she was about to be told she shouldn’t have a cat in a market and had to leave.
“I’ll find you one.”
I bought an empty container from a food vendor, filled it with water and took it to where she hunkered on the concrete with her little cat cradled docilely on her lap. She took the bowl, sat it in front of her little companion and we both watched as she started to lap.
I looked again at this woman’s gaunt features. I could see the way her bones pushed through her shirt.
“Are you alright?”
She said it too quickly. It wasn’t an answer, it was fear at being judged. Again. I smiled. I sat close to her cat. Not close enough to her to be concerning, just close enough to comfortably talk.
“I’ve got a cat too. He’s 15 now.”
“What colour is he?”
“I call it silver… sounds better than grey.”
“Where did you get him from?”
“Once upon I was a single parent with two daughters about to hit puberty. I wanted to teach them about responsibility so I took the oldest to a cat shelter on her 14th birthday. There were kittens everywhere, little fluffs of fur bouncing off the walls, chasing each other, coming up to her and running away. I left her to pick and wandered over to a little grey sitting with his face in the corner and his back to the world. I wondered why. He stiffened when I picked him up. But then slumped as if it was just too hard to be scared anymore. When I could see his face, I saw that his whiskers were burnt off, his lips, nose and face were singed. About then, the shelter’s owner came over. ‘He only came in a little while ago. Some kids were using a barbecue lighter on him. I’m going to euthanise him as soon as my assistant gets in’. He snuggled into the crook of my arm as she talked and I thought… no. So as my daughter got chosen by a feisty black and white bundle of mischief, I chose a kitten who came to be known as Lucky.”
“Is Lucky your cat now?”
“No. Lucky had 12 good years and was never scared again. My cat was one of the kittens he had with my daughter’s cat…”
“I got mine from the shelter too…”
I’d already guessed that. Her cat reached out to my hand, sniffed my fingertips and then had some more water. I looked at the oh so slender woman and saw that a certain stiffness had gone out of her shoulders, lines had slipped from her face, fear had wandered away from her eyes.
“So…. are you all right? Really?”
She smiled and our eyes looked into each other and this time her answer was real.
“I’m good enough….”
One of the things I love about markets is that it’s a place where I can talk to anyone. So I do. A lot. I’ve met a number of my brothers and sisters there, adults who were once children like me, a child who grew up surrounded by the sex trade because our parents were part of it.
I used to be baby sat by women from my parent’s world and had times at Brisbane’s Ekka being towed around by one or another, listened to them tell stories of the abuse that came their way from harsh men, felt the fear that stopped them from approaching police who were bent and only too happy to take a little bit extra from a vulnerable girl for themselves, earned my first pocket money washing well used sheets and towels from my parents’ brothel, lived in a time when I was automatically a criminal because I was a child living with mum from the money she made from trading sex, experienced the change as decriminalisation took hold in NSW and became a full time part of the machinery by the time I was 19, married another child from the trade and was 27 before I could imagine anything different.
I don’t know if the woman I just wrote about was one of my brothers and sisters from that world. Her deep trauma base was obvious to me because I know so many of my siblings who have been so afflicted. I didn’t probe because it wasn’t the time or the place to discover any more. I do know that she reminded me of my brothers and sisters who experienced abuse in that situation and the depth and the horror of her isolation is something I’ve seen far too many times.
I’ve known it myself.
I’m a lucky one. I walked out of my parents’ brothel for the last time thirty one years ago. I spent my next 20 years at University in study focussed by my desire to understand what I’d just lived through. I immersed myself in every way of understanding how life, culture and government decisions shape and limit the life options available to all of us. I learnt what I needed to know. I tried to share what I’d learned.
I needed another ten years of healing. I began to search for, find and listen to the stories of my many many brothers and sisters who I hadn’t known existed for such a long time. I worked to grow strong enough to be able to speak the truths I’d lived through and then set about discovering how to tell them.
It’s time to share our stories.
There are over 80 million kids in the world today from more than 40 million women who trade sex. With a little luck and assistance from people who care about the children of tomorrow, I’ll be telling the Australian part of our reality.