The Superfish and Olympic Fairy Dust

I woke Monday morning to the glorious news that Mansfield women are not to be trifled with.  At least not around firearms.  25 or so years ago I camped a few nights in Mansfield for the first running of the Man from Snowy River horserace.  High country folk are strong willed and independent spirits.

The BBC Sport website said Australia’s 3 golds had us on top of the International Medal Count at 0630 WST.  Hard not to smile, even in the un-Perth-like wind and rain as I boarded the crowded morning train to work.

The carriage emptied out when it got to the city, and I took the nearest seat by the door.  My tranquillity interrupted by a loud voice that proclaimed “that’s my seat, can I have it please”.  I bristled before looking up from my reading.

“What makes it your seat?  And why is it a requirement in a carriage now only quarter full?” I mentally rehearsed, keeping silent in case my assailant was the usual ice-manic wastrel.

Seeing it was a young girl in some sort of school uniform I quickly got up with a “yeah sure” and vacated to the other side of the carriage.  Taking her seat the girl quickly began interrogating bystanders as to whether this train stopped at Grant Street.

“No” she was told “you had better get off and wait for the next one”.  “No, now that I have my seat I can take this to Claremont and get off there for the next train.  I’m all right thanks.  What do you do?”

And so in a loud, cheerful inquisitive voice she interrogated all of us for the next 20 minutes.  We all put down our phones and books and tablets and newspapers and hung on conversation rarely heard in public spaces.  Not rude or impertinent, just grasping for information and comprehension of how the world around her worked.

“What do you do?”  “What did you do on the weekend?”  “I have a dog too.  His name’s Buster but he won’t come back when I call him.”  “I don’t like sausages”.  “My mum makes me wear these gloves but they make my hands itchy.”

Thanks to Leigh Sales Junior we knew more about each other after 8 stops than most work colleagues learn in a month.  I had thought to get off at Claremont and wait for the next connection to ensure she got to her destination safely, but by then I was in awe of her mastery of the world as she understood it.

She had a system.  Things and places (like my seat) – nearest door and facing platform – that made her feel safe.  She knew her stop and if she had trouble reading all those confusing signs, then just rely on the kindness of strangers to deal with those pesky details.  Whether the stopping pattern of this train favoured her destination, or if one more change was necessary.

Life is simple and cheerful if you are not burdened with world news, crap football teams, unreliable boyfriends and other existential ennui.  We all felt like bursting into applause when this energetic bundle of questions and giggles sadly left us.

My mind had turned to the Almanac’s own Superfish, Kate O’Donnell, and her father’s stories of the worrying business of educating her on using public transport alone. (

I get afraid on public transport occasionally, but I know when not to make eye contact or respond to provocation.  I am no Pollyanna but I sensed a benign shield that would protect her from all but the most drug addled and deranged.

From the loud uninhibited voice, boundless energy and inquisitive appetite I guessed that like Kate my fellow traveller may have mild Downs Syndrome or similar.  But I marvelled at who was disabled – her or we who don’t know the names of our next door neighbours?  She had six new friends in 20 minutes.

Settling back to my newspaper, I asked the lass who sat nearest her if they had met before?  “No” she said, but now the ice was broken there was no stopping things.  Seeing my newspaper open at the sports pages she asked if I had been watching the Olympics?  I passed some comment about the morning’s trap shooting medal, as much to end the conversation with obscure facts as to engage her further.

But I had met my match.  She had stayed up to 4 in the morning watching the Olympics and loved gymnastics and equestrian.  She saw my obscure facts and raised and doubled me down.  We are all powerless in the face of enthusiasm.

I told her how my wife and I (the esteemed Avenging Eagle) had barracked in our pyjamas on Sunday morning.  Me throwing everything at Mack Horton in the last 10 metres like I’d had a tenner on Michelle Payne in the Cup.  Expounding sagely that the near body length we trailed halfway through the women’s swimming relay was “like a hundred metres at this level” then humbly eating every prognostication as the Campbell’s surge made me a (laughing) stock.

Picking up on Superfish’s technique she asked what I did, and the disclosure that I worked in community mental health had her safe revealing she had “some autism and ADHD” and travelled across the city by public transport every day to a special school in Hamilton Hill.

We talked about the Syrian refugee Olympian who was swimming in the 200 metres just a few months after swimming 3 hours for her life when her refugee boat capsized.  And the American fencer who was Muslim and wore a hijab and campaigned against homophobia and where she could stick that epee’ if she ever met Donald Trump.

She looked about 16 (everyone under 30 does to me these days) and I said I never would have guessed as she looked really good and sounded very smart.  I asked if she shared her passions and interests with anyone, because loneliness and isolation were at the root of so much unhappiness and mental illness.  She said she didn’t have many friends, but her grandma shared a lot of similar interests (or so grandma said) and they talked a lot.

She blushed and I guessed that no one ever really gave her compliments and that it was only the Superfish that had given her the courage to talk to a stranger on a train.

And that I thought was the Olympic Spirit, and the old aristocrat Pierre de Coubertin was right when he said that “the struggle was more important than the triumph.”

The Olympics and the money and abuse of power and myriad forms of corruption appal me and fill me with cynicism for 206 weeks.  And then for 2 weeks I am a kid again barracking for Ron Clarke (collapsing at altitude) and Steve Holland (I can remember the mid-morning Adelaide bar we watched disconsolately from) and RIc Charlesworth (how can you beat everyone and lose to New Bloody Zealand?)

For 2 weeks every four years I am a kid again and all things are possible.  The Superfish and the autism girl and the Mansfield six-shooter just reminded me.


  1. E.regnans says

    Beautifully realised and beautifully described, PB.
    Connections and meaning.

    On we struggle. Together, alone.
    You and Mathilde are singing from the same song sheet.

  2. Nice one PB.

    I have a new favourite already. Catherine Skinner, the gold medallist trap shooter. What a delightful, unaffected, pleasant personality she is. Her conduct, in holding back any celebration of winning the gold medal until her opponent had finished, even though her lead was unassailable, was magnificent. (Toss headed swimmers take note). Her interview after winning the competition was very Michelle Payne. Loved it.

  3. Great story PB
    Interactions such as this are such a reality check. We become so self absorbed in our own bubble that we forget there is a world out there that really is quite amazing and full of wonderful people.

  4. That’s a great yarn PB. Like you I enjoy those moments within a week that jump out and give you something, generally where and when you didn’t expect anything.

    Really appreciated your “Life is simple and cheerful if you are not burdened with world news, crap football teams, unreliable boyfriends and other existential ennui.” Yep.

  5. Neil Anderson says

    If ever my son who has Aspergers attempts to ride the last train to Freo, I hope you are there to protect him from the ‘real crazies’ . It’s amazing the knowledge stored away with people like the girl on the train and all it takes is for someone to open up the sports pages and become a good listener.

  6. Peter Warrington says

    Great observations. Thanks for sharing!

  7. “The Olympics and the money and abuse of power and myriad forms of corruption appal me and fill me with cynicism for 206 weeks. And then for 2 weeks I am a kid again…”

    On a lower level I feel similar about the AFL for 6 days a week, and then for 2 hours I am a kid again.

    And the sad and depressed morning peak trains in Melbourne could sure do with more disruptors like Leigh Sales Jnr. Nice story beautifully told.

  8. Phillip Dimitriadis says

    Nicely done PB,
    Yusra Mardini’s story is one for the ages. I also suspend my cynicism to watch events I wouldn’t normally watch for the the other three years and 50 weeks. Keeps it fresh I guess.

  9. Fantastic PB ( I also thought of Kate straight away when I started reading ) this sort of story has so much meaning and learning something we all can never have enough of

  10. Luke Reynolds says

    Fantastic Peter, thanks for sharing that wonderful interaction.

  11. Great work Peter.

    Btw, Not many newspaper readers sprawling their arms wide on trains anymore.

    (I’m not long off a train tonight……a morbidly quiet trip departing the Richmond Train Station.)

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