The old woman from across the street was much lighter than I thought. Her bulk was added to by layers of clothing. She was actually quite frail, and as I helped her to her feet I realized just how old she was. Lines carved rivets through her cheeks and under her eyes. The powder she had applied to her face was caught in the cracks, and her eyebrows were drawn on.
“Let me help you with your groceries” I said, gathering her meager items together and putting them back in her pull-along trolley. The vegetables were limp I noticed, and the apples which had rolled away were puckered, even from before their tumble across the salt packed concrete.
The hairs on my exposed arms and shoulders stood on end in the tart coldness, refreshing to my feverish skin, but also shocking. After everything was gathered and put back, I easily lifted the basket to the top of the stairs and left it there, hopping back down to assist the old woman in getting up. She was still shaky on her feet.
“Let me help you into your apartment” I said, and before she could argue I scooped up her basket and pushed open the unlocked communal front door. Inside a long dark corridor stretched ahead, a couple of doors to the left and right, and in the far corner, where the shadows were, a tight staircase rose up into the building. I stood back, letting the darkness fade into light, the old woman led the way slowly to the back of the hall and up the flight of stairs. On the first landing she turned right and entered the second door.
It was a house of tiny bedsit apartments, as I’d guessed, and the room had all the comforts a little room in an old house could accommodate. A single, simple metal framed bed pushed into the corner, a basin behind the door, a bar fridge, a hot plate and a window that looked onto the brick wall of the building beside. It was a pretty standard dingy little affair. I put the basket down just inside the door. The old woman sat down gently on the bed, sinking into the thin mattress. She seemed weary and bruised, and so, so old.
“Can I…would you like something?” I asked. The old woman shook her head and waved her papery thin-skinned hand.
“You should go. You are sick” she said accusingly, and I was surprised by her New Zealand accent, so similar to my own brash Australian burr, slightly burnt at the edges.
“You’re a Kiwi!” I exclaimed before I could stop myself.
She looked at me, shrugged her shoulders.
“I was. It’s been a long time since I was down in that part of the world.”
She pushed herself off the mattress and knelt down to put away her groceries, but the distance from her upright position was too far and she groaned, clutching her back.
“Please let me help you,” I said, calmly steering her back to the bed, and pulling the items from her basket. She sat heavily and watched me.
“You’re Australian” she said.
“You’re a long way from home.”
“So are you.”
“Bah. Home. This is home now.”
I looked around at the dark grubby little room and shuddered.
“Have you been in Canada long?” I asked, inspecting the semi-rotting fruit.
“About a year” she said. She pointed at one of the apples, “Pass me one of those would you.” She took a small bite of the fruit, closed her eyes and leaned her head back against the wall.
“Organic” she said, eyes still closed. She sighed.
I looked at the apples. If organic was code for rotten then she was right on. I put them in the bowl above her fridge.
There wasn’t much personality to the room and I was desperate to know more. It had been a while since I had met any other New Zealanders or Australians and I wanted to swap stories. I also didn’t want to go back to my stuffy apartment and watch more episodes.
“Where did you live before you came here?” I asked.
The old woman slowly opened her eyes and looked me up and down.
“Nosy.” She said.
I shrugged. I’d been called worse.
Wearily she pushed herself up from her bed and got to her knees beside it. Under the bed an old leather travel case, scuffed with age was wedged between floor and springs. She drew it out and unclicked the clasps.
I stared at the contents.