To get from my house to Redfern station you cut between two of the high rise public housing buildings that cluster on the edge of the city. It’s a grassy space, dotted with park benches, and in the mornings when I walk through it on my way to work, a group of elderly people do haphazard tai chi on the tennis court to the music from a tinny radio. I get the train to work so I go that way every morning. I moved to Redfern about a year and half ago to live with my boyfriend, the first time I walked to the station there was an old lady sitting in the sun on a park bench by the path. She was there the next day as well, and the next.
Growing up in the country I knew all the neighbours by name, but living in Sydney I’d gotten used the rushed anonymity of the city, in the same way I’d gotten used to being surrounded by cement and the constant noise of cars. But it seemed silly to see someone every day and just walk past, so I started saying good morning. The old lady seemed pleased, she smiled back, and we started greeting each other every day. There was often a twinkle faced man with her, sometimes I’d see them walk slowly along the path arm in arm. When I walked past their bench the lady would hit the man, to remind him to say hello.
At the time my boyfriend was getting the train to work and we’d walk hand in hand to the station every morning. When my boyfriend started leaving early and walking to work the couple greeted me as usual, and then started saying something in broken English, but I didn’t understand. Next day they were ready, and asked where the boy was, and I don’t know if it was my words or my smile they understood, but they seemed relieved. It made me happy, to greet this white haired, smile-ready couple. I’d look out for them, and when the old man was by himself he’d tell me where his wife was, shopping or at the market the Salvation Army runs across the street.
The last few weeks the couple haven’t been there, and I’ve been worried. I’ve looked out for them. I thought maybe the man was sick, the lady seemed too indomitable and permanent to be unwell. A few days ago the man was standing near a different bench, he greeted me, and then he kept on talking. I didn’t understand. His wife. Hospital. He exaggerated a frown, “kaputt, you understand?” He made a crucifix with his fingers and there were tears on his face, and then I did understand. He stepped forward and we hugged and he cried.
We stood in the sun between the towers and he kept talking, I tried to follow but mostly I didn’t know what he was saying. I knew it was important that he said it though, and that I was there. I didn’t have any words to reply but I had had a face that looked worried and sad, an arm to hold. I tried to follow. He’s going back to Minsk, he has a sister there. There is a son in Australia. “Your son?” No, but he speaks English. 85 years. She was a good wife. He gestures to the bench she always sat on. Smiles. We hug for a long time.
I buy a sympathy card. I want him to know how important his wife was. I think that maybe the son, whoever he is, can translate.
Your wife had a beautiful smile. It made us happy every morning, when we saw you both. We’re so sorry for your loss. Our thoughts and prayers are with you.
Rosie and Arthur.
The next morning the Tai Chi people weren’t there, the man was by the tennis court doing arm exercises, he stopped and I walked over the wet grass to where he was standing. He hugged me and I took out the card. “Was ist das?” I took it out of its envelope, to show him the carefully chosen picture of lilies and the words I wrote in my favourite blue pen. “Thank you.”He was sad again, and smiling and I knew my face was reflecting back the same thing.
He started talking. He speaks German, it’s very hard in Australia when you don’t speak English. He was an auto designer, did I understand? I nodded. He asked what I do and I tried to mime “Student,” by writing on my hand with my fingers, thinking it might be easier than “Call Centre.” He’s going soon, in a plane, his fingers take off from his palm and fly across the sky to Belarus. In three days or three weeks, three something anyway.
“Good frau,” he smiled at me, tapping my arm, “good wife.” When I turned to go he gestured to his heart, and then to me and I did the same thing. Then I ran over, to give him another hug and he kissed me just like my Grandpa used to.
We talk every morning. His name is Otto and his wife’s name was Rosa. I tapped my chest – “Rosie!” He opened and closed both his hands five times . Fifty years.
Today I was running late, but I kept my eye out for my friend. He was on the tennis court, part of the circle of people exercising, he was touching the ground and then stretching his arms up, standing right where the shadow from the tower met the sun, he was stretching into the light.
My friend is an old man who’s lonely now, and broken hearted, and in a strange place where he can’t speak the language. He must have planned on making a better life here, but not anymore, not without the person who made it home.
He’s my friend and the things I gave him were little things: a smile in the mornings, a hug, and words he can’t read to carry across the sky. But they were important, like a tiny grassy space in the middle of the city, like your face turned towards the sun.