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Why the old woman couldn't cross the road


Flora waits to cross the road: detail from 'Damaged in Transit' animated book trailer

Flora waits on the plantation in the centre of the road. She has managed to cross four lanes of traffic and is waiting to cross the other four. She is on an island in a sea of traffic and can go neither forward to her home nor back to the shops.

When Flora first settled in this suburb with Luigi she was young and fit and could race across the road to the shops and back, dodging the traffic, laughing at the fun of it all. Luigi has been gone a long time now, she is 75 years old and the road is eight lanes wide. Where she once danced her shopping jeep across the lanes of traffic when a gap appeared she now moves tentatively. And these days the gaps are fewer and shorter. The unbroken stream of speeding trucks, buses and cars is enough to make anyone feel unsure.

Earlier today she crossed the road to show Mr J. J. Bullfinch, chartered accountant and tax agent, a letter she received from the pension people. It said she appeared to have worked more than ten hours in some fortnightly periods during the last financial year and must therefore repay $10,000.

No matter how many times she counted the zeros, there were still four. In her whole life she had never owned as much as $1000 at any one time. The idea of 10,000 was beyond her. And the letter contained lies; she had not worked for money since she finished her job at the market 20 years ago. She showed the letter to her neighbour who agreed that something must be done, and that Mr J. J. Bullfinch would know how to deal with this matter.

Flora had read the words Chartered Accountant and Tax Agent on Mr J. J. Bullfinch's window many times but had never imagined going inside the door. She had never even peered through the bits of window around the big white letters. She knew accountants did things with money but she found the other words mysterious.

She would treat this trip as an adventure. While she was out she would buy a red capsicum, two onions, and a small loaf of bread. And a box of the mango and guava juice intended for children's lunch boxes. She had seen this advertised on television during breaks in Herd, a documentary about how animals once lived in the wild. She decided she would treat herself and buy it to try.

The shops and Mr J. J. Bullfinch's office were more or less opposite the side street from where Flora lived. Only five minutes away if she scuttled across between the traffic.

There was a safer way. But, it involved walking for 15 minutes in either direction, crossing at traffic lights and walking back to the shops. Then the process had to be reversed to get home again. Younger people seemed to treat this as fun, as good exercise. Pairs of young women wearing singlets and peaked caps strode energetically, backs straight, arms swinging. Others took far less than 15 minutes to speed along the path on their roller blades pushing laughing babies in strollers.

Flora too had used this route, but over the years she had grown tired and heavy, until she felt like an old elephant trudging along the path. She became so weary she considered lying on the path under the trees until someone rescued her. But she kept going and when she reached the lights she waited for the green 'walk' sign that changed to a flashing red sign just as she made it to the little island in middle of the road.

On each side of her, cars with revving engines were lined up like a huge herd of bison pawing the ground, impatient to take off across the vast plains of North America, making the very ground rumble. She had to wait a long time for another green light to tell her she could complete the journey. Then, rested from the wait, she strode across the remaining lanes pushing her jeep in front of her. She felt like an explorer from another time in history but the excitement had worn off by the time she made it home.

Not wanting to face that long, hard journey again she went back to crossing the road at the end of her street. She always chose a quieter time like early in the afternoon before the mothers picked up their children from school and drove them to swimming, ballet or tennis, and tradies were heading home from work.

The mornings were much worse, there were even more trucks and utes on the road. She read the signs on their vehicles advertising products and services such as gardening and dog grooming. Other trucks were full of food, soft drinks and handy pre-cooked meals that the young mothers could just pop in the microwave when they arrived home with their children. She thought about how people used to do their own gardening and dog grooming and most of their own cooking. In those days, there wasn't all this busy-ness.

Today she had left home soon after her lunch, allowing plenty of time to get across the road and back before the peak hour traffic started up. She timed it well and managed to make it to the other side.

Gathering up her courage she knocked on Mr J. J. Bullfinch's door and he opened it. Now she recognised him — the round smiling man she sometimes saw in the delicatessen buying his lunch and chatting with the shopkeeper about cheeses or cold meats. 'Come in, come in,' he said. He read the letter she held out. 'Yes, we must do something about this.' He pointed to a chair, 'I am expecting a client but you sit here and read a magazine until I have a window of opportunity to squeeze you in.'

She thought this sounded very uncomfortable but she sat and waited.

When he was free he asked her some questions and said, 'Leave it in my hands. They have made a mistake. I will be delighted to take care of it for you.' She felt very lighthearted as she did her shopping, adding some treats, sliced hot salami and a piece of good cheese to celebrate.

When she reached the road she saw streams of traffic in both directions, endless lines of cars, trucks and buses, colours flashing by to a roar of sound, a ferocious stampede of traffic.

She waited, hoping for a gap to appear. Suddenly one did. The two lanes nearest her were miraculously empty for quite a distance. The large vehicle belting down the third lane would soon pass, and there appeared to be nothing in the fourth lane. She breathed deeply and bending over her jeep shoved it ahead of her like an armoured vehicle of war.

She moved across the two empty lanes as fast as she could, almost too fast. The driver of the tour bus in the third lane sounded his horn and swerved his vehicle into the fourth lane to avoid her. Horrified faces gaped from its windows.

She shrugged her shoulders as if to say how else am I to cross the road to get to my own home? When she pulled her jeep onto the central plantation she felt like crying at the thought of tackling the four lanes of traffic coming from the other direction.

What was she to do? Mr J. J. Bullfinch would surely rescue her if he knew of her plight. He would stride out into the traffic and it would stop when he raised his right hand. But why should she imagine he would come? He hardly knew her. She was alone, sitting on the grass shaking from the shock of being nearly hit by a bus.

She sat for a long time until she felt hungry. The sky was beginning to darken. It was close to tea time. She rummaged in her jeep and took out the bread and — ah! — the salami; thank goodness.

Luigi came into her thoughts. She remembered sitting with him by a river somewhere. Just the two of them eating a picnic under a huge gum tree. Was he really so young and beautiful? But that was so long ago and he had been dead a long time. He could not help her cross this road.

The juice was not as nice as she'd expected so she drank only half. She tore off a hunk of bread and ate it with salami.

Enormous trucks passed with a rush of wind. She pulled out the green garbage bags lining her jeep, tore them apart and used twigs to attach the plastic to the tree's lower branches. Now she had a curtain to shelter her from people's eyes, and a bathroom of sorts.

She was glad of the dark as the thin stream of her urine flowed towards the road.

Might her neighbour realise she had not come home? Did Flora tell anyone she was visiting Mr J. J. Bullfinch? She wrapped her scarf around her ears to keep out the traffic noise and, exhausted by her day, fell asleep propped against the rough bark of the tree trunk.

The traffic sounded quieter when she woke in the morning. Of course, it was early. She would pack her jeep and be home in a few minutes for a hot bath and a nice rest in her bed.

When she unwrapped the scarf from her ears and looked at the road she saw and heard the traffic, four lanes belting along in each direction. The gaps between vehicles were becoming smaller by the minute. It was much worse than at the best of times on normal days. She could not cross or even go back the way she had come. She could do nothing but wait. A newspaper rolled up in plastic landed nearby and she read it over her breakfast, more bread, more salami and the remainder of the juice.

The day went on. A child threw her a bag of Minties. She dodged a tartan travel rug and a plastic bottle of water that a woman tossed to her. The traffic flowed, roared and passed. A bag of Easter buns landed at her feet. She had food and drink, her rug, an umbrella, a waterproof groundsheet and a tiger-striped cushion. She could wait.

The traffic buzzes, rumbles and roars past without a break. She waits and waits for it to stop. 

Mary Manning headshotMary Manning is a Melbourne writer. This story appears in her collection Damaged in Transit which is published by Spineless Wonders and will be launched in Melbourne tomorrow night, Thursday 22 November. Image is taken from Evelyn Araluen Corr's animated trailer for Mary's book.

Topic tags: Mary Manning, short story



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