Dec 112023

‘I’ll bet you think I’m homeless.’ The man looks up from his phone as the speaker settles herself beside him. Unable to stop himself, he glances at the bag she drops by her feet. ‘And probably demented.’ She grins. ‘You have no idea how many people get up and move away when I sit down. Gives me a good laugh every time. Sometimes they offer me money. I never take it, of course, well, mostly not. I can’t help it if people assume. My age, and the bag I suppose. Old woman. Big bag. Uh oh. Homeless. Lost her marbles.’ She chuckles, reaches forward, takes a small paper bag out of the big one, settles it on her lap.

He looks back at his phone.

‘I’m not, you know. Homeless. I have my own place. But I like to get out, see a bit of the world, meet people, have a chat. You meet all sorts here in the park. And you can get a good cup of tea at the café.’

He says, ‘Mmmm,’ eyes on the screen, his thumbs beginning a frantic dance.

‘I like my place well enough, I suppose. Not what I expected though, at this time of life. I thought we’d have a place with a bit of garden, a view. Well, nothing like a dead husband to put paid to those dreams. After he died I discovered his super was not quite worth what he said. Stripped down, it was, like him. No flesh on his bones by the time he went. Cancer. And he was a big body of a man you know, solid. Looked like someone you could trust. To rip you off, as it turned out.’ She snorts. ‘Don’t you worry Marge,’ he used to say. ‘Everything’ll be hunky dory’.’ She shakes her head. ‘But, you know, the unit, it does have a view of sorts, if you lean over the balcony and look towards the city.’

The silence which follows is intense enough to prompt the man to look up. His companion on the park bench is gazing at him, head on one side, mouth pursed slightly. He blushes, looks at his phone.

‘Well,’ she says, ‘You seem to have a bit of flesh on you. Not fat. I don’t mean fat. Muscle. You probably work out. That’s what exercise is called these days isn’t it? Working out? In my day that meant doing arithmetic, or solving a problem, like how to make the housekeeping stretch beyond Wednesday, or how to get grass stains off the back of a skirt. Hmm. Yes. Working out. In a gym probably.’

She narrows her eyes and nods. ‘I’ll bet you have quite good muscle definition, a six-pack even.’ His stomach tightens. She chortles. ‘You’re probably wondering how come I know so much about it. Well, I watch American Ninja on TV, and I saw that movie with Channing Tatum. I like to watch those fit young bodies. Always did, truth be told.’ He risks a glance. She is looking into the distance, hands resting on the small bag in her lap. His stomach relaxes.

‘Of course.’ She turns back to face him. ‘In those days no one went to a gym. The men got their muscles in other ways. Hauling stuff, mostly, the men I knew, in and out of trucks, up and down stairs, on building sites or down at the docks. A bit of boxing maybe. Not like the men in suits, scrawny little buggers collecting the rent and selling insurance and working in offices. God knows what they did for muscle definition.’ She looks at him sideways. ‘We women paid attention, you know. We knew what to look for. Strong buttocks, strong shoulders. Means the same now as it did then I’ll bet.’ His thumbs are still. He stares at his phone.

‘Here,’ she says. He looks up. She is holding a muffin out to him. ‘It’s alright,’ she says, ‘I got it from the café on my way here. Still in its wrapper. I always get extras in case I need them. You never know who you’re going to meet. Maybe a homeless person.’ She laughs. ‘No way you’re homeless though, not with that suit and those shoes. Probably have one of those lovely big flats overlooking the river. Though I have wondered if there might not be a bit of a smell sometimes, you know, from the river, on hot days. They say it’s still polluted.’ She holds the muffin up again, raising her eyebrows. He says, ‘No thanks. I’ve just had lunch.’ He looks down at his shoes. She shrugs. ‘Alright. I expect you are watching your weight. We need to, don’t we, as we get older. Not that you are old. Around forty maybe?’ He makes no reply. ‘Of course, people look so much younger these days. Diets. Botox. Cosmetic surgery. I never tried any of that stuff, and I stopped watching my weight. No point in watching it was there? It did what it wanted whether I watched it or not. And Mick, well he liked a bit of something to get hold of. Kids take it out of you too, of course, specially us women. Bellies all wobbly, boobs ending up down around your navel, your bits every which way. Not something you’ll ever have to worry about of course. Not the boobs I mean. Maybe the belly if you don’t keep up the gym membership. Kids?’

He stares at her. ‘Do you have kids?’ she asks. ‘Oh I’m sorry. Didn’t mean to get personal. I was just thinking. He looks about the right age. Couple of kids maybe? School age? Girl and a boy most likely.’

He shakes his head. ‘No.’ he says. ‘No kids.’ She raises those eyebrows again. Proffers the muffin, which he takes, hardly realising.

‘Oh? Well, time enough I suppose,’ she says, ‘Kids keep you young, if they don’t drive you crazy or turn you grey before your time. Mine were pretty good really. Stayed out of gaol. Gave me a computer so we can skype. Showed me how. And a phone in case I get into trouble when I’m out. They’ve got good jobs now, though exactly what they do is a mystery to me. Time was when you could understand the jobs people did. Not anymore. I bet that if I asked what you do for a living it would be something I’ve never heard of, or something like hedge fund manager or digital marketing manager, or IT specialist, those jobs people talk about in TV shows. Your job title’s probably on your Facebook page. I haven’t got one. Can’t be bothered. All those pictures of what you’ve eaten and selfies if that’s what they’re called and where you’ve been and lists of all your friends and funny symbols. ‘
Before he can stop himself, he says, ‘Instagram.’ She peers at him. ‘What?’ ‘Pictures. Usually on Instagram.’

‘Oh,’ she says. ‘Instagram. Yes, of course. That’s the one where people kill themselves trying to take the best selfie. I’ve seen it on TV. You have to laugh don’t you? Dying trying. Well, maybe not such a bad way to go. Maybe I should get myself one of those selfie-sticks, you know, and go looking for some good views. Do you like your job?’

He surrenders. ‘I do. I’m a nurse. I work in A and E.’

Her eyes widen. ‘My goodness,’ she says, ‘A nurse. Never had men as nurses in my day. I still get a bit of a surprise when it’s a man who comes to take my blood or check my wee or something. Not that I mind. I certainly wouldn’t mind having you take my blood. Goodness. A nurse. I had an aunt who was a nursing sister, in the days when they wore those big stiff white veils. She was a tartar, but even she was in awe of the doctors. Except for one, the one she worked for in his surgery, after she left the hospital. Everyone thought she had it on with him, though no one ever said. Nurses and doctors. So many doctors are women these days. I wonder if they harass the nurses the way the male doctors did, or still do. I never had much trouble with harassment myself. And I looked pretty good in my day, let me tell you. But when I was about eighteen or so I gave a couple of blokes a swift knee to the balls and word got around. Another muffin?

He shakes his head, indicates the uneaten muffin in his hand, straightens his shoulders and stands up, sliding his phone into a back pocket.

‘Off then, are you? Time for your shift I suppose. Hope you don’t get too many emergencies.’

He nods and walks away, back straight, determined not to look over his shoulder.

Later that day, on his balcony overlooking the river, he says to his friend. ‘It was as if I was hypnotised. Once she got started I could no more get up and leave than I could fly. And I kept answering her questions.’

‘Put a spell on you, huh?’ His friend says.

‘Something like that. The muffin was nice though.’ He pauses. ‘Do you think the river smells weird?’ His friend sniffs the air, shakes her head, and holds out her glass for a refill.