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.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Jenny & Con

Walking down the steps of Marrickville station, sun already strong enough to fry an egg on one of the metal handrails, she saw Con. A big, overgrown toddler… chunky legs and arms, a huge round face, small features twinkling in its vastness… a big tummy and thick neck. Dressed in ironed shorts, a freshly nappy-san’d white tee shirt, his trademark luminous white runners and socks pulled tightly halfway up his calves.

“It’s coming, train’s coming soon” he said to a small Asian woman carrying an imitation Louis Vuitton handbag.

“Not long now, train’s coming” he told a young man with a goatee and white ipod-ears.

“This platform, train’s coming soon” he told Jenny, and she smiled, “Hi Con, how are you?” He took her hand and kissed her on the cheek, asking her “how are you?” staring into her eyes. At this point in her regular encounters with Con she was always struck by his masculine adultness – the look he was giving her was intense, very much like the kind of unflagging attention she used to get from boys she’d gone to uni with who wanted to... well, you know. But that wasn’t part of Con’s agenda; “train's coming from that way” he said, letting go of her hand to point towards Dulwich Hill. “Train's coming now!” he exclaimed as its nose came around the bend.

As it pulled in, a clattering blur of blue and yellow, Con forgot about Jenny; he was concentrating. He stood planted there, his big runners firmly apart on the platform, fists clenched at his sides in anticipation. The guard, leaning from one of the middle carriages – an Indian woman with a long plait over her shoulder – waved at him as she whooshed past. Just as he’d been waiting for her, she’d been watching out for him. Con was known to all the train workers who came through Marrickville, and the bus drivers for routes 423 and 426 all knew him too… he liked buses nearly as much as he liked trains. After he saw the guard waving at him, Con clapped his arms together like a seal, jiggled on his toe-tips and threw his head back, mouth open in a huge smile.

Jenny had only seen the kind guard’s expectant face for a moment, and yet it was enough to see that the woman had been looking out for Con as much as he’d been looking out for her… And it was then that Jenny realised that she also looked forward to seeing Con, to having him hold her hand and kiss her cheek and look at her with his special sort of intensity. And she felt immensely sad, and suddenly very tired. She let herself get on the train with the crowd, sitting wherever. A heaviness set down on her as she realised that she’d spent last night with Muriel, this morning with Con, neither people who really needed or liked her. She was kidding herself with this good citizen, good samaritan bullshit – it was a way to fill in time, hide her loneliness. These were strangers, not real parts of her life, just props. If she moved suburbs she’d probably never think of them again. Muriel would have another neighbour, perhaps less obliging, but really not much different – after all, Jenny reminded herself with shame, she didn’t allow Muriel into the house – Con didn’t differentiate between Jenny and other kind women around the place who gave him the time of day and let him hold their hands. She felt hollow, flattened, angry with herself, and by the time the train pulled into Central it was all she could do to lift herself out of the seat and start her legs moving to get wherever she was going.