His face was cracked as a paddock in drought, but he was still a handsome man.
Here, standing at the cash desk in my little shop, he launched into a rambling yarn. I’d heard it before, but I laughed, and he was happy.
He limped down the aisle of soaps and toothbrushes towards the freezer to peer at ice sculptures of bacon rashers and chops.
He came every day.
He also did the rounds of the entire retirement village, wheedling an extra appointment with the physiotherapist, flirting with the hydrotherapy pool attendant, or offering sympathy to the cleaner who’d recently lost a child.
Everybody loved him. They laid a red carpet of morning teas and chatter whenever he happened their way.
You knew where he was because he left his lovely old brown haired dog Scamp tethered outside.
We had never seen his wife. She was an invalid who kept to herself; very ill and very private, he said. We understood that he was devastated about the pain she suffered, and feared for her future.
He talked about how he washed and cleaned for her and about intimate little services he needed to perform.
* * *
One morning that spring I woke with a start as an ambulance siren screamed into the distance.
You don’t often think about the human content in the dash of an ambulance. Unless you happen to know who’s involved.
It was a surprise when we discovered what had happened. It became obvious that our residents had heard his deep throated laugh for the last time, and the word spread like wildfire.
We wondered about his wife, but we knew they had grown up children, so we told each other she’d be all right.
* * *
Not long afterwards I looked up from dusting tins of baked beans to see a young woman helping an older person from a car. They moved slowly across the footpath and into the shop, and I rushed to offer a chair which I kept behind the counter.
‘This is my mother, Cara.’ The lass was showing off one of her favourite people, and I could see why.
Pain and sorrow sat alongside the possibility of humour in this lovely old face. Deep brown eyes and a French roll of silver grey hair. Her smile faltered as I met her gaze, and she looked shyly towards my vinyl floor.
When Cara finally spoke her voice was a hoarse whisper, and I realised this had been the source of her embarrassment.
Three other residents came in for their sausages and soap powder and clustered around when they discovered who she was.
‘He was a great bloke!’ one old man exploded.
‘It’s not the same without him around.’
‘Why haven’t we met you before?’
Well might they ask, I began thinking …
Cara left the shop with an invitation to morning tea at Grace Bevan’s unit down the road.
A moment later though her daughter returned by herself.
‘Mum’s been so lonely, and I’m trying to get her out and about. She’s spent far too much time at home, and I live so far away.’
‘I’m sure everyone will be pleased to get to know her. And there’s an occupational therapist you know. She’d help. They have bus trips …’
‘Thanks. That’s probably just what she needs.’
* * *
It must have been a month before I saw Cara again. She appeared around the corner, leaning heavily on a walking frame, having hobbled all the way from her unit.
The lines of her face now turned upwards with joy, and the dark chocolate eyes were vibrant.
This in a ringing tone of warmth and happiness, tinged with only a shadow of her former fractured voice.
Cara sat on my chair near the counter, and I introduced her to everyone who came in.
Mind you she’d already met some of them herself – at the book club and down at the pool.
* * *
Cara soon made a habit of holding court while sitting on my chair.
She was already secretary of the book club and she became the life of my shop, carefully including the lonely and alone in her plans, and generally making a difference.
Her presence really was a fresh breeze. A breeze that should have wafted our way long before.
I'm past my 70th birthday and undaunted.
So far I can look back on probably a dozen different phases in my life, all producing deeply felt experience:
- A barefoot carefree childhood in an Australian seaside town
- Work as a young journalist in the days of hot metal and male chauvinism
- Dipping my toe into real life in Sydney the big city
- Marriage and precious motherhood
- A second career in corporate public relations management
- Another marriage and disillusion
- Battles for financial justice in the law courts
- Re-jigging a career
- At 60 my first university degree (Creative Writing and Australian History majors)
- Fighting sometimes lost causes
- Sneaky aches and pains of the approach of age
- Living on a pension.
All fodder for writing and a valuable background for the development of what could become one day an incisive point of view.
My blogs may become a way of answering the question: 'What's next?'