23 December 2008

Midnight granny

They were four young things, tweenie Australians out on the town, two from Perth giving their impressions of Canberra to a couple of locals as I drove them all home. A deserted freeway skirting Parliament House, the Prime Minister’s Lodge and the Mint. We owned Canberra.

“You’ve got the city planning down nice,” one said, “but it’s so far from anywhere.”

That was just great, I thought, coming from a sandgroper. Perth is three day’s hard driving across deserts and several State borders.

“It’s two hours to the beach,” said another. “In Perth it’s fifteen minutes max, and we can watch the sun set over the ocean.”

Fair call.

“Canberra’s public transport sucks.” The first one was on a roll. “The capital city and it sucks arse.”

No argument there, either. Canberra’s public transport consists of infrequent buses meandering through strings of suburbs. People sometimes accuse cabbies of going the long way, but with the bus system here, you get the maximum journey time for your money. And it stops running at midnight, long before the drunks get really ratty.

In fact, apart from the rare worker such as a baker beginning his shift, or a public servant burning the midnight oil when the government’s in a jam, it’s pretty much all drunks after midnight. Anyone else out at this hour has their own car.

So I was astonished to see someone waiting at a bus stop, getting on for two in the morning, after I delivered my four passengers home. It was a quiet night to begin with, and by now we cabbies were really scratching for fares. Luckily there were only a dozen or so cabs still on the road, so it kind of evened out.

I pulled up at the bus stop, and could hardly credit the sight. A little old lady, great-grandmother age, walking stick, sensible shoes, big handbag and floral dress.

She teetered over the kerb to me. “Are you a taxi?”

“Yes, hop in.”

Easier said than done, and I jumped out, scurried around the car, opened the door for her, tucked her in, made sure all was secure and closed the door.

“I can’t tell if it’s day or night,” she said, and then named a suburb about five minutes away.

Maybe she was blind, but she seemed to know where she was as we owned along Adelaide Avenue. “Turn here,” she commanded, not that I had any option for the address she’d given me. Canberra’s like that - there’s only a certain number of ways you can get somewhere, and if you don’t make the turn, you’ve got a long drive and a cranky passenger to recover.

I figured she was befuddled, as folk my age and up so often are, and when she mentioned that her knee and her back were hurting bad, I wondered if she had had one pain-killer too many earlier in the day. She spoke with an accent as she repeated her address a few times, and I reassured her that this was exactly where we were headed.

It was a small house on a pleasant street, garden overgrown, narrow driveway, letterbox vanished in the foliage. But it was the right address, I was sure of it.

She peered out uncertainly at the house in the headlights, and when I flipped on the side light to give more illumination, she nodded.

“That’s fifteen dollars fifty,” I read the meter for her.

“Fifteen dollars? So much!”

She was living in another time and place inside herself, a time when fares were cheaper, maybe measured in shillings and pence. “Fünfzehn Reichsmarken fünfzig,” I almost said, but instead, when she emptied out her purse, I picked out four gold coins and left her the silver. Not a note in sight. I’d go backwards on this fare, once I paid half the meter amount to the owner.

“Let’s get you out.”

I opened the door for her, made sure she had everything, and torch in my teeth, provided one arm to steady her and the other to carry her handbag as we tottered together along the narrow garden path. She peered about uncertainly, but when we reached the steps and she automatically latched onto the handrail, I was relieved.

It took some painful movements to get up the four cement steps, but we got there. She looked at the porch and declared, “This is not my house.”

The house in her mind was half a world and half a century away, so I suggested she try her keys in the door. We had a job finding them in her complicated handbag, but a flash of metal in the torchlight, and there they were. Naturally they fitted, and we opened the doors. I turned on her hall light, and she beamed happily as I passed in her belongings, finishing up with a gorgeous silk scarf. I’m very sorry I didn’t ask her to put it on for me, because there would have been a beautiful lady beneath it, but the thought didn’t come to me until later.

“Thank you so much!” she smiled. “Merry Christmas!”

“Merry Christmas!” I echoed. It might have cost me four dollars and half an hour, but for a Christmas gift, no diamond ring could have given either of us as much pleasure.

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