25 August, 2007 by rhesus12
Last week I went into the Upper Hutt library to check the net and read a book. I was sitting there when an old woman carrying several plastic bags asked me if I’d seen her tall fat nephew around.
I had a quick look down the aisle but before I could answer she asked me how many pens she had in her handbag. I wasn’t sure so she reached in and put 13 in my hand, one at a time, making me count each in a clear voice. She said she was trying to find her friend (“a schizophrenic bitch”) and arrange a lift home with the nephew, who at the time of the pen-counting was already 3 minutes late.
Her name was Sheryl and I liked her immediately – I’m not usually too good in sudden public encounters with the mentally ill, but for some reason it was all kind of exciting and relaxing at the same time.
She wrote her first name on my business card, with the words “Poneke Rugby #1 Supporter” and gave it back to me. She was real keen to hear about my life, especially my wife and children. I didn’t want to complicate the already rather one-way conversation by saying I had neither, so I made something up and changed the subject.
Sheryl liked my jacket and assumed I’d been to university. She told me about her daughter the lawyer in Timaru, currently unmarried, and holidaying in Australia. Her daughter was a person, who, like me, “didn’t associate with scum”.
The tall fat nephew showed up, obviously embarrassed. He had dark rings under his eyes. Sheryl dismissed him with a haughty wave and told me to give her a lift home. Before I could react, she put the plastic bags in my hand and started striding determinedly out the door. There was a class of young kids waiting outside, and Sheryl’s animated gait heightened the teachers’ protective instincts. So we drove out to an Upper Hutt suburb by the river, near where I went to intermediate.
I heard much about Sheryl’s life, and she obviously knew she wasn’t in top social shape. Her ex-husband (she’s divorced) had been a high ranking public servant in prison catering and this was clearly important to her.
After a while her obsessive desire to know and repeat exact dates and locations (my birth date, my maternity hospital) looked like some sort of compensation mechanism: you can’t be mad if your memory is sharp. And you can’t be scum if a university graduate is driving you around and no schizophrenic bitch had a husband with a fancy job title.
She spends her days looking after her severely ill son. She said he suffers from alcoholism but “wouldn’t put his hand up” for help, so he stays in bed all day and night.
And that was that. She carried her bags into her dark house with the curtains drawn and a passerby gave her a long look as she crossed the road.