March 2013

  • Patrick Allington

The homeless couple

It’s been a slow process, finding out what the local homeless couple looks like. That’s partly because I don’t want them to think that I’m fixated on them (although I might be) and partly because I’ve come to believe that there’s something about them that’s literally blurry.

I’m constructing a mosaic of them in my head, a work-in-constant-flux. At last check, they are in their mid-fifties. The man is short and thin, wiry as a wild rabbit. His beard is neither Unabomber-crazed nor Alex Perry-chic. He dresses in blue worker’s attire, like somebody who services air-conditioners (which, for all I know, he may well do). The woman favours knee-length dresses, perhaps with a muted floral print, and white cross-trainers. She’s slightly taller and broader than the man, and carries a fawn-coloured handbag slung across her back. She walks with a ferocious purpose but, caught from behind, she has a gait, one hip askew.

I see them nearly every day. Most often, I spy them in the early morning gloom when I’m out walking with my seven-month-old daughter and the dog. We pass each other on opposite sides of the street I live on, separated by a moat of bitumen. Or sometimes I trundle past them as they go about their business under the rotunda in the small park where they sleep. It’s a lovely park, with grass, trees, a row of decent tennis courts, a playground, all set behind a hardware store and horseshoed by suburbia: large blocks, stone-clad houses, some with upper levels tacked on like ill-fitting Lego. The park has no showers or toilets. Presumably, there’s a tap somewhere.

Some days, although I do not actually see them, I catch sight of their belongings loaded into his-and-hers supermarket trolleys, held fast by tarpaulins and twine. Once I saw them trying to pull the trolleys from the rotunda to behind a small brick building that sits in one corner of the park. They raced each other, straining furiously, but neither of the trolleys actually moved. It didn’t occur to me to help.

Occasionally our encounters are otherworldly. One morning, pre-dawn, I was certain that they were walking directly towards me, thirty or forty houses away. When they disappeared into thin air, I couldn’t help but take it personally. Another time, near midnight, their voices levitated past my bedroom window, harsh, indistinguishable mutterings punctuated by frequent — and more clearly enunciated — ‘fucks’ and ‘bullshits’.

As a fully paid-up member of that great twenty-first century con, the equating of empathy with action, I’ve been asking myself all the virtuous questions: Why do they live rough? What’s wrong with our society? What do they eat? Where, if anywhere, do they wash? What happens if one of them needs a dose of antibiotics or even a couple of Panadol? How on earth do they source gluten-free muffins?

But just as often I find myself wanting to know other, more personal details: Are they a couple — I’ve never seen them kiss or hold hands — or are they, as I suspect for no especially good reason, brother and sister? What do they chat about? Where were they born? What are their names?

My curiosity peaked the morning I noticed them jammed into the phone box around the corner from my house (I was shocked, not least, by the fact that the suburb still had a phone box). Who were they speaking to so urgently at 6.30am? Their parents? Their children?

Last week, a development: for the first time ever, we passed each other on the same side of the road. Simultaneously gawking and averting my gaze, I probably employed dead fish eyes. There wasn’t room for all of us on the pavement, but, given the bemused looks the baby and the dog gave me, I may have exaggerated my gallant swerve onto the dirt nature strip.
‘Good morning,’ I said as they hurtled past.

The woman gave me a full nod but didn’t speak. The man, without breaking stride or altering direction, thrust his torso at me.

‘Jeezus,’ he said, waggling a finger at the pram. ‘The least yer could do is give the dog a ride.’

And then they were gone, leaving me inexplicably and unreasonably thrilled with myself.




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