It was Tuesday, my nice quiet free day of the week. I was just walking through our newly renovated shopping centre, when I heard a woman shouting loudly, angry and distressed. As I looked over I saw two security guards standing nearby, obviously the targets of her emotions. They were not treating her badly, just looking very stern.
Then as I drew nearer, it was clear that this woman was one of our neighbours, an old Greek lady without much English, whom we suspected was suffering from encroaching dementia. She was bent over from a life of hard work and avid gardening, a wide-as-high, gesticulating figure ramming her walking frame at the two men in between volleys of abuse.
The two men were following protocols, standing back watching, but they meant business. I approached them, explained I was a neighbour and asked if I could help. The older man said she had been accused of shoplifting by a nearby proprietor, and they showed me the garment in the box of her walking frame. I assured them it must have been because she had forgotten to pay, just as the shop owner arrived with a receipt for her enforced payment.
Throughout the explanation and revelation and the owner’s arrival, the tirade continued. Maria was not one to be vanquished. They were all ‘stupid boys who should not be rude to an old lady’, expletives added randomly. Unfortunately the shop owner was also not one to be mollified and was insisting that the police be called, as she had stolen something every time she had been in, in the recent weeks. This escalated her into ‘You LIAR’ at top pitch. Then she tried to give money to the security guards so that they would go away.
Eventually I managed to persuade them all to let her come home with me and I promised to talk to her husband. Suddenly the guards were ‘you nice boys, you my BEST friends’ and much patting of their arms. Not so the shop owner. For his eventual acquiescence, even after having lost the sales of at least four garments, he was ‘stupid rude CHINESE people, CHINESE should not be allowed to come to Australia’…..and the three men melted away leaving me trying to look as if I was not her daughter, relation, neighbour or co-conspirator.
As soon as the path was clear of the men, she tried to get rid of me, insisting that she was going now to meet her friends for coffee. The only way I could get her into the car was to keep reminding her that the Police would come if she didn’t. I was only just still able to see her behaviour as symptomatic, as she then decided I was the Police, and all the way home in between making huge signs of the cross and muttering ‘Opa, Opa, Opa’ she was growling at me, asking me how I knew where she lived, who was I, telling me to take her back to her friends. We turned into our street and as we passed our home, she pointed and said very pointedly ‘That is where Mister George. Georgie is NICE’.
I agreed, took her home and left her to wait for her husband.
In the afternoon when his car was home, I returned. Nothing was forgotten or forgiven. She flew out of the back door screaming at me to ‘Go away, you get out of my place, you don’t come talk to husband BITCH.’ The walking frame was ramming dangerously close to me but her husband remained inside. As I started to leave she was satisfied until I knocked on the window and called him out. He stood quietly and I tried to be as gentle as I could, but he just looked at her with his eyes full of tears and nodded to me without a word.
Feeling as if I had just crushed something precious, even though logic informed me not, I spent the week reflecting on love and compassion and the struggles to just be human and do our best, and wondering about people’s stories that others never know.
On Sunday at 8am there was a loud screaming on our front veranda. It seems ‘Australian BITCH’ had stolen Maria’s keys and she was here to get them back from me with violence by walking frame if necessary. Furthermore she was going to tell the Police, and every neighbour what a bad woman I was. ‘And you, you stay away from my husband….because you talk to him I KILL you’.
Symptomatic I knew, situation needed calming – yes, but I have to admit that my parting admonition was not only to reinforce the message she needed to understand. There was also a low, wee bit of immediate cheap satisfaction as well, as I reminded her not to steal things from the shop again. I went inside and shut the door and did not see her until the following Tuesday.
As I drove past the bus stop, a short, wide-as-high figure with a walking frame was struggling her way on to the bus that goes to the shopping centre….