by Peter Byrne
A Short Story
(Swans - March 22, 2010) It's not that I didn't want to do something for her. We're not like that. I'm not like that. I don't wish to be like that. But what to do for her? She stopped me again in the morning outside my front gate as I started for the station. I knew she wouldn't take money. I'd offered her some before. Twice in fact. Of course it was foolish of me to pull out my checkbook the first time. Where would she cash a check? Would she have identification, a bank of her own? All that. She seemed to be homeless, though in the middle of London she had to have some connection to someone or something. God knows where she slept. I suggested the social services to her, but she didn't want to hear about them. Their mere existence seemed to horrify her, as if they were vermin that might chew her up. But that doesn't mean she wasn't getting help from the social services. It could have been just why she hated them.
At first I wondered why she'd picked out our house. After all there are thousands of dwellings in London set in gardens. The fact that we don't have a pet dog she would have to beware of could have been a consideration. With the trees thick just inside the garden walls, there's considerable cover for anyone waiting for us to exit. That was why the trees and shrubs were planted in the first place -- but to give us cover or, rather, privacy, in the house and garden. Well, things change. That was then and now interlopers can lope in the green shadows beyond the walls. The best laid plans of mice and men.... How did that go? A great leap forward down a rat hole? When those trees were saplings no one talked about the homeless. Everyone had a fetid niche or a dungeon cell somewhere, mercifully out of sight of a good address like ours.
Another reason why she could have zeroed in on our house was the lane that runs beside it. The lane is one of those urban irregularities that crops up in London and leads only to a backwater with garages, a couple of mews flats wedged in by developers, and an old stable. The lane allowed her to get off the main road that passes our gate and to lurk unobserved without leaving the vicinity. Not that she's surreptitious, but a targeted interlocutor might well take to his heels if he saw her coming. She's bold and strides about like some kind of official inspector with authority behind her.
When I got up the next morning I went out behind our house. There's an old garden table I can put against the wall and stand on to look out. She was in the lane pacing back and forth, straight as an arrow, like someone preparing to deliver an important speech and running through it in her head one last time. Official inspector? More like someone with a mission, her mind on a goal that you're not going to talk her out of. And that was at seven thirty, before I'd had my breakfast on a London morning full of cloud that looked like dirty bed linen.
But the principal reason she'd chosen our house surely was because of the front gate. I always leave it open. It's not carelessness or inconsistency. I don't believe in closing gates. Marie, my wife, has always gone along with this caprice but never stops claiming it has something to do with my growing up in the 1960s. She can't understand why I had the iron gate hung there -- it wasn't cheap -- if we weren't ever going to close it. I stopped trying to convince her a long time ago that leaving a gate open wasn't the same thing as not having a gate at all. In fact it was so long ago that I'm not so sure anymore there is a difference.
But this strange woman clearly caught on to it. At least that appeared to be her main reason for selecting this householder as a partner for serious conversation. For that seemed to be what she was after, real talk. The second time she approached me and repeated that she needed help I listened for a couple of minutes while she outlined her discontent with our particular planet and only then reached into my trouser pocket. I wasn't going to make the mistake again of going for my checkbook inside my jacket. I pulled out the ten-pound note I always kept handy. It was the inner London standard tenner, the one you give to a likely mugger, before smiling broadly and hurrying on. Now the woman, standing straight as always, looked down at the bill in my hand with absolute disgust.
Let me explain. It wasn't the look that the shrewder panhandlers cast on an offering. Those guys are saying this sucker has bitten, so why not shame him into upping the ante? They look with a poker face on whatever you've come up with as pathetically little. They've weighed the value in a flash and know just what they can buy with it. They cherish your contribution, but want more.
The woman's look, however, was pure revulsion, not for the denomination of the bill, but for money itself. She didn't want to live in that world and felt I'd insulted her by assuming she did. With anyone else I'd simply have said: Come off it. You live on money just like the rest of us. We all need it. Just now you probably have a better use for this ten spot than I do. So, take it, and, well, have a good day. And while she stood there nonplussed, blushing, eyes downcast on the bank note, I'd have hurried away and not missed my train.
But who's going to tell this woman to come off it? She wants something from you for sure. It's not clear what exactly. First of all, as I said, she wants to talk to you. I mean she engages you in conversation. There's no way you can nod and murmur your way around her. You've got to stand there and deliver. The morning of the ten pound note she laid out her grievances with life more fully than on our meeting over the inopportune checkbook. She said things just didn't square up on this spinning globe. There were words but there were no listeners. There was transport but no place to go. There was more food than appetite. No one could wear out all the clothes that filled store windows. The whole universe was bulging with time, millennia of it, but no one had time for her.
I could hardly just concur solemnly, or add an oh-you-are-so-right. She would have squelched any small talk with another look of disgust. I did the next worse thing than to offer any. I asked her if she was depressed. That cooked my goose as far as she was concerned, at least for that morning. She rose up even straighter and showed her teeth in a disdainful grimace. Apparently she was not depressed. I backed away, gave a little wiggle of goodbye with my fingers and ran for the nine-fifty to Victoria.
On the train I could hardly concentrate on the newspaper. There was the usual stuff and I went through my usual mental motions and put it in the usual boxes, pro and con. I always look at both sides of a question. Marie says the habit doesn't come from the 1960s but from the hangover after them -- the last thirty-five years. Could be.
The story on Cuba was easy to deal with, some good, some bad, and worth thinking about for a cheap holiday. The latest from Palestine and Israel was harder to straighten out. Why can't they get together? I put it in my box for goddam-messes, something I don't like to do. It's, well, messy. I then peeked inside, to page three, for a bit of light relief. Some TV personality had filled the small screen with his pale buttocks and there'd been a mild outcry from civic standard bearers. I slapped him into the vulgarity box, but connected it to the one I keep for freedom of speech. By the time I stepped off the train I'd regained my equipoise. The world was still going to hell in one of those hand baskets but I felt I was on top of it with a great view.
All the same, before I walked out of the station, there in the heart of London, only a shout and a scream from Buckingham Palace, I stopped a moment -- can you believe it? -- to see if the woman was around. Of course she couldn't have been. She was miles away in the lane beside my house polishing her speech by the old stable. Or maybe she did something else during the day. She appeared to be the creative rather than the studious type, a woman of action, but still the idea came to me to call her attention to our local public library. I used to spend whole days there when I was a boy -- the 1960s again -- reading about Che Guevara and Mao Tse-tung. I even joined the demonstration to insist they put the Little Red Book on the shelves.
But that's another story, an old, buried one. The point is this strong-minded woman could browse at her leisure among the books and pick up some notions that would broaden her outlook. There are plenty of lighter items in the stacks nowadays. As it turned out, I never had a chance to pass on my tip. A weekend intervened. The woman apparently kept British office hours and held the Friday-Monday period sacrosanct though, I should think, from her unbending viewpoint the two-day break would have been inadequate in one way or another.
In any case Marie and I found ourselves discussing her, the woman, on Sunday morning. Marie accused me of being obsessed with the person, as she called her. I said it was Marie who brought the subject up. She said that when a man's libido fell off with age he went after pieces of fluff, not middle-aged Cassandras. There was something wrong with me. I said that she shouldn't talk about women like that. Where was the feminist I married? She gave me two fingers and turned on the TV.
It was just as well as I could see our perennial tug of war coming. This always turned on the reason why we never had children or adopted any. And about whether it had been wise to rule out household pets in order to show our friends and fellow militants that we weren't giving up a full family life only to go down on our knees to a dog or cat or even a budgerigar. Marie had a fine line about couples that ridicule baby talk only to chirp with their canary. I'd come back with a reminder that we weren't too old to adopt a child. The idea actually repelled me, but since I knew it horrified Marie I'd toss it at her occasionally to cap an argument.
This morning, Monday, the woman was there again as I went through the gateway and then for the first time ever turned around and closed the rusting iron gate tight. I kept walking briskly in the hope of bringing her along behind rather than having her stop me cold with her ancient mariner glare. She did follow, obviously having something urgent to impart. It turned out to be end-of-the-world tidings, original only in concerning her future status exclusively. She not only wanted help; she demanded warm sympathy as her sacred right. I still had adoption on my mind and oddly -- since she had to be fifty-five or sixty -- recognized immediately that was exactly what she envisaged. As an eager volunteer for adoption, she would be content with nothing less than a couple of attentive parents.
I took off then in a nervous jog for the train station. She stood on the spot satisfied, as if she'd just delivered the ultimate hammer blow and felt that any amount of applause was justified. I wouldn't be surprised if she took a bow there in the street once I was out of sight. In the train I realized I'd forgotten to buy a paper.
I sat in my seat tense, imagining a vie-à-trois with that woman entrenched on our side of the gate. Sometimes she'd side with Marie, sometimes with me, taking care in either case to stir up maximum trouble. The neat partitions between our domestic differences would crash down and we'd have to think through to new positions. We'd be plunged in a continual slanging match over first principles or the three last things. Eschatology would trump our playful routines of spite. For heaven sake, we'd be back in the 1960s without the music or the sex. We'd be prodding and pushing the world into a new shape from morning to night hoping our arrogant gray-haired daughter would honor us with the glint of a smile. No thanks. I was a responsible citizen with a house and garden. I'd only just got my mortgage under control and had my eye on a cute country cottage.
Before leaving Victoria Station I phoned the office and told them I had to attend to an urgent matter. The young man at the police station desk was a pleasant surprise. He'd been to a good university and was nothing like those dullards we used to call pigs in 1968. The woman, he thought, was on some sort of daytime release from a mental institution. They'd get her free time cancelled and see to it she was kept under lock and key all day in the future.
Out in the air again I felt better and bought a paper to keep abreast of what was going on in the real world. I took it into one of those comfortable chain breakfast places that we used, for some reason, to boycott. You can't beat realism. Coffee is coffee.
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