“Excuse me, can you tell me the way to the bus station?”
The old lady was sat on a low wall. Behind her some railings and a small private park like the one in Notting Hill that Hugh Grant and Whatsername climb into – Residents Only. It was autumn; I remember mounds of orange leaves on the pavement: papery, like her skin. Folkestone was not my hometown, but I had lived here once. Four years of a new but growing-old marriage. Four years of walking about in the rain asking God what exactly He had meant me to do with my life, if it wasn’t this, and could He please, please tell me now?
“It’s down this way,” I said. “Are you OK?” She didn’t look OK. Even sitting on the wall, she was wheezing.
“Just a bit puffed, dearie. If you can give me a moment…”
Give her a moment? I was on my way to the shops.
“I’m going that way,” I heard myself saying. “Would you like me to walk with you?”
“Yes, dearie.” She heaved herself up off the wall. I noticed she didn’t have a coat, just a dress and a pale blue cardigan. She did have shoes on, though. Very faintly, alarm bells started to ring.
Luckily it was downhill. We walked side by side, very, very slowly. There were several busy roads to cross. I began to wonder how she would have managed if muggins here hadn’t come along.
“Where are you going, on the bus?”
“Neasden,” she replied promptly. The alarm bells returned. I wasn’t an expert on public transport but it seemed to me that Folkestone to Neasden by bus, late on an autumn afternoon, was not a realistic prospect. I only happened to know where Neasden was by accident. When I was here, all those years ago, I worked with a hippie girl. She had crinkly hair which she said she got like that by plaiting it overnight, and wore those strange trousers with lace-up flies which were fashionable at the time. She told me she got men by jumping on them and announcing “You’re nice. Will you go to bed with me?” Things like that tend to stick in your mind.
Anyway, she had come from Neasden. That was where her family lived. “Where’s Neasden?” I asked her and she had given me that look like, what planet are you from? “It’s part of London,” she said. “But a nice part. Leafy.”
“You might be better off catching a train,” I said. The railway station is turn-left just down here. Do you want me to take you there?” Part of me was registering that she had no handbag either. She paused, looking irritated. My questions often seem to irritate people.
“No, the bus station.”
“Are you going to visit family?”
“I live there.” Obviously I should have known that.
By the time we got to the bus depot dusk was falling. We sat and waited for a while and I was thinking, why am I waiting here with an old lady for a bus that I know isn’t going to come along? But somehow I couldn’t not wait. I was trapped. I might as well go home after this is all over, I was thinking. There won’t be any time for shopping.
“Um, where did you come from?” I asked. I had a feeling I knew.
“No, I mean today – this afternoon.”
“Why do you want to know that?”
“Oh, just…wondering.” I’d never have made an interrogator.
“Running Waters”, she said. It sounded suspiciously like one of those old people places. There were a lot of those in Folkestone. But it was none of my business. If she wanted to go to Neasden, who was I to stop her?
I told her I had to go now and that my husband – what husband? – would be waiting for his tea. She’d understand that. A man must have his tea when he comes home from work, and his slippers put to warm in front of the fire. I wished her luck for the journey and she smiled and waved me goodbye.
I walked off up the road a bit, to the telephone box outside the Post Office. It wasn’t far enough away, really, but it would have to do; keeping an eye on her in the distance, a tiny figure on a bench, looking straight ahead, trusting that the bus would be along soon. I looked up Running Waters in the phone book. Running Waters Nursing Home. I called. I asked if they were missing an old lady, quite short, white hair, pale blue cardigan, print dress. Yes, they were. I was to stay right where I was and they would send someone.
Stay where I was? Why should I? I was an innocent shopper. Had I asked to get caught up in all this?
I stayed where I was. I hid behind the telephone box until the policemen arrived. I even pointed her out to them: Judas, without the bag of silver for consolation.
It has sometimes seemed to me that life on this plane is a process of being destroyed. You arrive with an ego the size of the planet; a boundless ignorance, an entire conceit. As the years go by some cosmic knife, in various human form, comes along and whittles bits and pieces off you. Rarely, a whole great chunk falls away, like land in an earthquake or an iceberg melting. The idea is, I suppose, that at death we are free and clean; prepared to move on, bodiless and ego-less, to our next assignment.
If so, that old lady did me a favour because at one slash, in a single word, she severed a great slice of my self-regard. I was humbled. I was grovelling on the floor of some cosmic court and begging for a forgiveness that did not come. God failed me again.
The policemen marched her straight past the telephone box where I had been hoping to remain concealed. She looked me in the eye and I got it all at once – the hurt, the disbelief, the anger.
“Traitor!” she hissed, as they carried her away.