Wednesday, August 26, 2009

sick sick

If you hang around the Bondi Junction rank, as I do, you run the risk of picking up people who are so old and ill they're almost a medical emergency in themselves - albeit one that only wants to go home. One afternoon last week I come around the corner to find the rank - unbelievable! - empty but as I roar up to the front my heart sinks. There's a young woman wearing the uniform of a shop assistant (chemist, probably) standing there supporting an old one with white hair and a stick. Well, nothing for it but to be nice. I lean over and open the door, take the walking stick, while the chemist shop girl eases the old girl into her seat. Can you take her? she asks anxiously, her eyes searching mine. She's got money. I realise she's probably done this before and at least part of the relief of her anxiety involves successfully off-loading the problem onto someone else. Yes, I say. Of course. She hands me an address scrawled on a piece of paper. This is where she's going. I glance at it - Bondi. Not far. Can she talk? I ask, but the chemist shop girl is already closing the door. We're just through the lights when she shows that she can. I feel strange, she quavers. There's something wrong with me. I'm so cold. She has vivid blue eyes and, when she lays one hand upon mine, which is resting on the gearstick, it is as cold as ice. Where are you from? she goes on. Will you take me home? I have money. I tell her yes, I will, and where I'm from and then ask her the same question. Sweden, she replies, with a slight drawing up of her body and some pride in her voice; and I see she would once have been a beauty of that imperious Nordic kind. Then the quaver returns: There's something wrong with me ... and so it goes until, as we near her place, somehow her incapacity recedes and she shows herself quite capable of giving precise directions. Once outside the block of units where she lives (alone, she has told me several times) her helplessness returns and grows. She cannot pay but simply hands me her purse, which has about $80.00 in it. I resist temptation and carefully take out a 20 and put back a 5 - it's a 15 buck ride. Evidently she cannot now walk, will not take her stick, but grasps my hands with both of hers and insists I take her up to her flat. This is just what I don't want to happen but ... well ... I guide her to the fence and install her there while I park, turn off the motor, lock the car. We stumble sideways, inchwise, up the path to her entrance and then I see there is a security door. And she can't find her key. I'm not a patient person at the best of times and now I start to lose it. I ring the other bells, 1, 2, 3 until someone answers, and begin to explain the situation. Suddenly I hear this completely different voice, harsh and authoritative, behind me: I don't need help from anybody! The kind neighbour buzzes open the door at the same moment as Greta Garbo finds her key. I can tell from the look on her face that she knows she's made a tactical error and that I will never take her up to her apartment now; but she makes one more attempt to wheedle me inside. When that fails she draws herself up again proudly and, without deigning to use her stick at all, walks off up the hallway towards the lift, or maybe even the stairs.

Increasingly though I've taken to avoiding that rank in favour of the one outside the Tea Gardens Hotel just up the street on the same side. For some reason you wait a shorter time there and also pick up a different kind of fare - less of the shoppers taking their supermarket bags down to Bondi or Tamarama, more of the day trippers returning to homes in distant suburbs. She's one of those, a dignified old woman, beautiful, with tinted glasses perched on a great hooked nose, dark skin and a surprisingly intimate manner. I'm going to Ramsgate, she says. Do you know where that is? I do, but I'm less certain of the way when she says: Can we go by the sea? I want to look at the sea. This plea, for that is what it is, is delivered with a shrug and a certain air of - what? Insouciance? She doesn't think I'll know the way and she can't remember it herself. But her desire to see the sea is a constant and recurs all the long journey until at last we are on The Grand Parade at Brighton Le Sands and the flat blue waters of Botany Bay recede from us into the east. Then she looks out and falls silent. She is Armenian, with Romanian and German forebears on her mother's side; but French speaking and from Egypt, where she lived until we got fed up with the wars and came here. Perhaps it was a mistake. Her children are all grown up; her husband had a bad car accident two years ago and lost a leg, necessitating a move to the house where they live, not by the sea, which she clearly does not like. And now she herself is, as she puts it, not just sick but sick sick; on her way back from visiting one of her doctors: I have many doctors, you see. There is something about her, in her dignity and her beauty and her elegant forbearance, that makes me want to weep; and this feeling grows as we carry on talking about this and that, driving through clotted traffic towards a great bloody sunset over the western plains. She soon picks up that I write and extracts from me my name, which she repeats several times, filing it away in her memory. When I say there might have been Spanish blood on my father's side, because he was dark in that Cornish way, she says that the true Spanish were blond haired and blue eyed and the darkness came from the Moors. Who had certainly visited Ireland and perhaps Cornwall too. And that the original Turks were like that also, until the Arab conquests. And, further, that there was peace between the three religions of the East (she doesn't count Buddhism or any of those, she means Jews, Christians and Muslims) until the influx of European and especially German Jews, with their snobbism, changed everything. They disliked the real Jews, you know, she says. They wouldn't even say they were Jews. They called them Arabs. Plus this: religion is a private thing, it is between you and whoever you think god is. We leave the sea at Ramsgate Beach and she directs me through a maze of apartment buildings back of the strand, then behind a sports ground to a row of nouveau brick houses facing west towards a dark line of she-oaks and paperbark trees - probably a remnant of the lagoon that would once have stood here. You see, she says resignedly, while we reverse back towards a completely undistinguished single story brick bungalow surrounded with bare concrete that she didn't recognise the first time we passed. As she pays me (cash, $56.00) and I write her a receipt, I notice a ring on her right hand with a large purple-red stone, and remark upon it. She looks briefly at it: It's nothing special, she says. A tourmaline. But I like it. I leave her standing precariously, leaning on her stick, looking at that graceless, anonymous house as if at her own tomb.