Saturday, July 24, 2004

people stalkin'

A strange thing happened the other week.

(warning: long post follows)

There's only one bus a week where I live. It's actually the daily schoolbus--one of those old-fashioned yellow ones with metal seats--but it does one special "shopping trip" every Thursday for those of us poor suckers who don't have a car. It goes around all the beaches and then into the main town half an hour away, then in the afternoon it comes back. We sometimes take it to town, but usually just get it down to my parents place about five minutes away up on the main road, as it's too far to walk.
There's half a dozen regulars: me and the baby, a bunch of old ladies going into town to do their weekly grocery shopping, and a baby-faced man who could be in his twenties or thirties, it's impossible to tell. The bus driver, who is also the schoolbus driver, talks your ear off if you let him, no doubt grateful for an audience over five years old.
It's always the same. The bus picks us up outside our house and I sit somewhere halfway up, behind the old ladies, and eavesdrop. The young bloke gets on at the shops and the driver always says to him, “Where to?” and the boy always says, “There and back.” As he went past me last week curiosity got the better of me and I said, “So, you don’t have a car then either?” and he grimaced and said, “Lost my licence.” He always sits up the back, in jeans and carrying a little backpack, wearing dark glasses, eating an apple.
The bus driver stops outside my parents' gate and they are waiting, standing beside a basket of lemons and a small chicken-shaped jug propping up a sign saying “10c each”. My parents reach into the bus to take my bag and help me down, because I’m wearing the baby in the pouch. Sometimes, if one of us has a cold, my dad greets us wearing a mask, the kind you'd wear if there was a nuclear war. Imagine him: knitted beanie, leather jacket, jeans tucked into gumboots, and a mask. I sense the old ladies peering out curiously. At least it's not summer: in summer he stomps around wearing full beekeeping overalls and the beekeeping hat with a veil; he’s very sensitive to flies. (I happen to think that’s why we fought so much when I stayed there in the summer; because he was all hot and bothered and cranky all the time.)
On the way home last time a very tall, thin old woman gets on at the turnoff to the lake and sits on the edge of the seat across from me. She's wearing a knitted cardigan with a belt over a long skirt and heavy woollen stockings and has a suitcase and small basket at her feet. She enquires about the baby, who is sleeping, and asks where we've been today so I explain about our Thursday ritual. I show her the purple pants I knitted him last year that my mother has helped me finally sew up. The old lady peers into my green plastic grocery bag full of eggs, limes and continental parsley, which my parents have given me. I tell her Harley loves to watch the geese and chickens and the ancient horse around at my parents’ place. She looks thoughtful and after a moment she says, “Do your parents keep bees?” And I say, “Yes, and it's the most beautiful honey you'll ever taste,” and she gives a sly smile and says, "Ah, well I know who you are then."
"Why?" I ask, surprised.
"No, that's all I'm going to say," she says and turns away. The busdriver glances at me in his mirror and grins. I feel my cheeks going pink, for some reason. The boy sitting up the back munches his apple, not listening, not caring, staring out at the fields racing past his window.
When we get to my street she asks where number eighteen is and the driver pulls up there. But she waves him on. "What number are you?" she asks. I tell her. She says she'll get off there, too. The driver and I look at each other and he shrugs. When we get there she gets off and the driver blocks my way and tells me in a stage voice he has to tell me something about the new timetable. He watches her walk off up the hill and says, "She's a bit--you know."
"Oh," I say. Does he think she is dangerous or something?
The next day I walk past number eighteen on the way to the shops. She is gardening. "Hello," she says. I ask her if she's just visiting here. It's strange that she didn't know where number eighteen was, and yet here she is gardening, not exactly something you'd do at a rental.
"Oh," she says. "I'm a volunteer; I do organic gardening." She gets up and comes over to look at the baby, who is sleeping in the stroller. "I'm from Adelaide. They wrote to tell me an elderly lady needed a hand with her garden, so here I am. I'm Clara," she says, offering a trembling hand.
There's someone more elderly than you? I think. I introduce myself. "What did you mean about the honey?" I ask.
She laughs and says, "Oh, I'm a friend of your neighbour Sally. She wrote to me and told me there was a young lady with a baby living nearby who had given her a jar of honey."
Oh, so that’s it. Sally’s husband recently brought around a spare bed they had, for my spare room, for visitors, and I gave her a jar of my mother’s honey as a thankyou.
I promise to drop in next time I'm passing, but I forget. The next day there's a knock at my door. It is Clara.
"I’ve come to take your washing down," she announces. I thank her, but tell her I'll do it later. This time Harley is awake, lying on the floor playing, and when he sees her he becomes very still at first, staring at her, then gets extremely excited, his fists thumping against his belly.
"That’s funny," I say. "He doesn't usually get this excited about strangers. It's like he knows you from somewhere."
“Ah.” She nods. "Babies recognise other babies, and the old." She turns to the baby. "Oh, yes, you've got a lot to tell me, haven’t you?" she smiles. After a while, she goes and after a while Harley calms down again.
The next day she turns up at my door again. She carries her little basket from which I can see knitting needles protruding. I make her a cup of tea and she educates me about organic gardening. When she leaves, she puts her arms around me and the baby for a long time. Normally I have a large self-space, but there's something very peculiar happening, I am finding myself very drawn to this lady; I don't know why.
I decide to go up to visit her the next day. Outside her house there’s a man and woman getting out of a four wheel drive with a couple of toddlers strapped inside.
I walk up. “Hi, I was just wondering if Clara is in today?” I say, assuming this must be the family of the elderly resident. “Who?” the woman says.
“Clara, the lady who’s helping with the gardening?”
“I think you’ve got the wrong house.”
“No: she was staying here, helping your elderly relative out.”
“No,” she shakes her head. “We’re the only ones here. We’ve just been away for the week.”
I point to the flower bed, where the fresh bulbs Clara had planted are poking skywards. “She was putting those in,” I say.
“I planted those last week,” the woman says, and frowns at her husband as though I am possibly dangerous. I am confused; maybe I got the house wrong. I could’ve sworn it was this house. I want to go ask Sally what the story is, but she's away for the school holidays.
When I get home, the lock on the back door comes off in my hands. The real estate agent says they’ll send someone to fix it, but in the meantime I sleep with my phone and a knife next to the bed.
Haven't seen Clara again since, though.