I went for an espresso in Little Italy and then – the real purpose of my trip; why else would anyone take the Landsowne bus? – I bought a loaf of bread, some salami and some mortadella.
I got home just before noon, and she was sitting at the table in my back yard under the umbrella. This, in order, was the composition of my double-take:
My dearest, home early? No. Prowler? Unlikely. Tired, sick, lost? Perhaps all three.
Hmm; nobody sits in my back yard who doesn’t live in my house, or who is a neighbour or a friend. She was slender; honey-coloured hair; round glasses; shopping bags by her side.
Never seen her before.
But it was hot and she looked frail, and there are boarding houses in the neighbourhood where older people live who need a little help, even if you would not know those houses or those neighbours unless they were pointed out to you.
And I always remember the woman from one of the houses who wandered off and got lost one winter and was found dead the next day in a snowbank.
Exposure, hot or cold, is a killer.
So I said hello. She looked up. There was no sign of fear or agitation in her eyes; perhaps not even curiosity.
“Are you okay?”
Her voice was delicate, wispy, maybe tentative.
I asked if she was sure she was okay. She said yes again. But this stuff is never so simple.
I asked if she was lost. She said no. I asked if she lived nearby. She said yes. I asked her where she lived, because if she did not know where she lived then this was a different situation. She waved a hand: down the street, around the corner.
One of the boarding houses, then.
It occurred to me that the man who walks by my house two or three times a day, talking to himself in a voice too loud, was probably one of her housemates.
Her bags looked heavy. Perhaps she was simply tired. Yes, and nothing at her age is ever simple. “Would you like a glass of water?” She said, “I don’t like water.” Who does not like water?
I encouraged her. “Lemonade?” Her eyes
widened in hope. She said, “Beer?”
It didn’t look like her wish for a beer was
chronic, but I am always charmed by the expression of appetite. If I had no beer, I was not done.
“Are you hungry?” Yes. “Would you like a bite to eat?” Yes. “Can I make you a sandwich?” I had, after all, come home with mortadella, salami and bread. She said yes.
So I went inside and made a sandwich, and wrapped it in waxed paper, and there were cherries in the fridge, sweet and cold, and I put a handful in a dish; not as good as ice water, or lemonade, but the cherries are in season.
She thanked me.
I thought about sitting down and talking to her but all she’d really said, apart from “beer”, was “yes” and “no.” So I went back inside. I had things to do, even if I was not sure of what to do about her.
When I looked out a little later, she was eating the cherries. Slowly, calmly, queenly.
And when I lwent to look a second time, she was standing patiently at the door, the dish of cherry pits held in both hands like a sacrament.
Before I could say anything she said, “More?”
I got her more because she wanted them, and maybe she needed them, and maybe I needed to give them to her.
I wondered what else to do.
In the end I did nothing. She might just have been tired, and in need of a rest, and who was she to stop me from being kind? I also felt no need to assert myself on the assumption that she might be dotty or helpless. But I saw that she hadn’t eaten the sandwich. Didn’t she like it?
She said no.
The last time I looked out, the dish was on the table and the cherries were gone, and so was she, and the sandwich was being eaten by a squirrel.