Sunday, February 22, 2009

Small acts of kindness

Muriel lived next door with her son, Peter, and his various grown children and their spouses who came and went. English wasn’t Muriel’s first language, although she’d never left Australia; she was an Aboriginal woman. At least once a week she’d come home late, a little bit drunk, her keys lost, and cry outside Jenny’s front door “Jenny, Jenny, you there love! Jenny?”

Jenny was always kind to Muriel, bringing her cups of tea while she waited for Peter to either get home or wake up from his heavy drunken sleep. His bedroom was the front one, so only a pane of glass separated him from Muriel’s cries of “Petey, Petey, open the door, it’s Nan, it’s ya mum, you gotta gimme a new key, Petey!” Muriel never swore, and she didn’t seem to feel sorry for herself although she was poor and disabled. Another one of her sons had bashed her a few years ago and left her with a permanently injured back, so now she needed a walking frame to get about. She lived on the pension and was regularly kicked out of pubs; taxis often wouldn’t stop for her. She thought this was because they were all driven by Chinks, who weren’t to be trusted, but then her doctor up at the bulk billing place on Marrickville Road was a lovely Chink, a nice young fella.

Jenny liked listening to Muriel’s stories, liked to enjoy Muriel’s sunny outlook, which was especially happy and generous on pension day, but she couldn’t invite Muriel inside her house… that would be too much, Muriel might never leave, it would be an invasion. So when Peter was out or out of it, and Muriel had lost her key, they’d sit on Peter’s concreted front verandah, the thick leaves of the yucca curling in the middle of the patch of brown lawn below them, yarning, sharing cups of tea and a laugh. She’d rarely leave Muriel alone when the older woman was waiting like this: although she admitted to herself that it was a kind of procrastination she would have felt guilty going inside to stare at her computer screen while her neighbour sat outside alone.

There’d never been a night so far when someone from Muriel's mob hadn’t either woken up or come home to let Muriel in. But Jenny was beginning to think it wasn't going to happen tonight; it was already 1.30. She thought of her spare room with its neatly made up single bed and was embarrassed and ashamed that she didn't want Muriel in there. She told herself "if it gets to 3am I'll invite her in to sleep."

Muriel had been brought home in a little blue car by a woman from the other side of Marrickville, after being evicted from a taxi. Jenny reckoned that Muriel’s accent along with her alcoholic slurring would have made it impossible for the cabbie to know exactly where she wanted to go – she pronounced “Francis St” as "Prancess St” – but at least he’d got her to Marrickville. The woman in the blue car must have struggled to get both Muriel and her walking frame into the tiny vehicle, and – watering her Jasmine – Jenny had to laugh as she saw the car stop-starting up the street, the walking frame's metal legs sticking out of the hatchback, the driver peering at the numbers in the twilight. Muriel never remembered which house it was.

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