The two Susans never met, but for a few moments, in this room, they existed for us in a most unusual way.
Our group had been meeting for more than a year.
Every Wednesday night, come rain hail or anything else for that matter.
The group was a little larger on this cold and frosty night. Someone had turned the heaters all the way up, and for a change, I didn’t complain. I could not get my hands to warm up. The noise from the heater was distracting but so was the potential chattering of my teeth.
A kind soul had switched on the urn, but the bloody thing took forever to warm up, and I was seriously caffeine deficient.
The noise of it warming up was also irritating, but I was prepared to forgive it as long as there was coffee at the end of it.
“Don’t bother mate. The bloody thing’s cold.”
The person putting a dampener on my caffeine ambitions was Paul. He is young and enthusiastic, two things I like; me being not young and occasionally enthusiastic.
“I’ll whack the kettle on, it’ll be faster.”
“You sir, are a legend.” My caffeine ambitions were back on track.
I knew almost everyone in the room with the exception of the older bloke sitting a couple of seats up and a teenage girl sitting about eight chairs around on my right.
New faces were nothing new. This group was a lot like that, even on a bitterly cold winter’s night. Word got around that something interesting was happening and friends of friends just turned up.
I’d been pasting up my latest book for the print edition, and I was glad to be out of the house. I love writing, but I dislike the stuff that goes on around it.
My back was a little bit sore, so I gave it a bit of a stretch while Paul put coffee and sugar in our cups.
For some unknown reason, no one had grabbed the comfortable armchair, so I staked a claim in the age-old tradition of throwing my scarf over it — tribal customs of the Hills people.
The caffeine was just starting to seep into my system when the group came to order. I’d spent the previous few minutes in conversation with various friends, doing the weekly catch up. Everyone wanted to know where my beloved was. “Crook as a dog, and it serves her right.”
“That’s not very nice,” was the oft-repeated reply.
“She knows that those bloody grandchildren of ours are walking Petrie dishes, but she will hug ‘em.”
“Grandmothers cannot help themselves.”
“Grandmothers, who are nurses, should know better.”
I wasn’t getting any sympathy, so I packed it in.
“Please say hello for us and tell her to get better soon.”
My beloved is very popular. Sometimes known as the Rainbow Warrior, she is about the height of the average sixth grader and has a heart as big as anything large that you can name. No one takes any notice of me when she is around, and fair enough too.
There was no set topic for this particular evening’s discussion, and the subjects bounced around the room quite energetically.
I was happy to sit and listen for a while, so I hid behind my coffee cup and soaked up the atmosphere.
I really do like these people. They don’t waste time talking about insignificant things. They feel the way I do; this time is precious. We spend the rest of the week wrestling with the world, and then we come here where it is safe, and people show each other respect. All opinions are valued.
It isn’t always discussion.
Sometimes people tell stories.
We have some excellent storytellers.
Like the night that our moderator told the story about his boss winning a full-size, fully operational ocean going dredge, in a poker game.
That story was hard to top, but a few of us gave it a try. I’ve had a couple of goes, but people know that I just make shit up. I can tell by the way they look at me. Mind you, as long as I can keep a straight face, I get them going. Especially the new members, the ones who haven’t been warned about me yet.
“You really came here direct from the airport, all the way from the US, just to be here tonight?”
“No Luv, I just made that bit up. Gotta keep things lively?”
“Don’t worry about him, you’ll get used to it, he does that all the time.”
Not ‘all the time’, just every now and then. When the spirit takes me, so to speak.
The two Susans turned up very late in the evening. I say ‘turned up’, but what I mean is, Betty was talking about a friend of hers who had died relatively young. She was diligently describing her, and I got the feeling that she admired this lady and she was missed. Apparently, she had a bit of style, dressed well and liked to spend time in classy little cafes, the kind that is hard to find these days since the advent of annoying American coffee houses.
She was just about to tell us what had caused this lady to die when Kate jumped in, “The woman you are describing sounds just like the mum of my friend from high school. How did yours pass?”
“Blood clot,a few days after an operation. Worked on her like crazy but they couldn’t bring her back. What about yours?”
“Mine took her own life six years after her daughter stepped in front of a train. I was there at the time, and so was our friend. The daughter put her red headphones on, turned and waved at us and calmly stepped in front of the 4:05 to Finders Street. I could not believe what had just happened. I ran to where her body landed, and I put my arm around her and sobbed. The ambulance guys had to pull me away. It took a little while, but it destroyed their family, and after battling her grief for six years the mum had had enough, and she left us too. I’ve never forgiven myself for not seeing it coming. I keep thinking that I could have said something, done something.”
“It’s not your fault kid.” I heard myself say. “When people feel the need to leave they will find a way, and nothing you say or do has anything to do with that decision.” She seemed to understand, but it was obvious that she had carried this guilt for a very long time.
After a moment, the two ladies looked at each other and, at the same time said the same thing, “What was your ladies name?”
“Susan.” The two voices spoke as one, and a chill went up my spine.
My group members were not describing the same person but the details of their lives, with the exception of their passing, were close to identical. What were the chances of that?
We were all a little bit stunned by what we had just witnessed, so we sat in silence.
Eventually, our moderator said, “I think that we are going to remember this night for a long time to come. Some conversations just stay with you.”
He was right.
Eventually, people began to stir, and a few of us expressed our amazement at what had just happened. We gathered up our stuff, put the chairs away, emptied the glacially slow urn, and hoovered the carpet. Almost everyone had gone home by the time I reached the front door. It wasn’t my job to turn off the light and lock up, so I had time. I turned and looked at the now emptying room and thought about the two Susans.
I had a few things to tell the missus when I got home, but she was asleep, so I told the dogs.
They were happy to see me, and they listened intently while I told them the story.
I climbed into bed, and so did the dogs. We fought for a bit of space while I thought about the tenuous grip we have on this glorious life of ours and I wondered if my story would end up in a room on a cold winters night somewhere, sometime.
She was average height for a girl and slightly more than average when it came to being ‘pretty’, although you would never hear that from her.
She would become a mum, but at this moment, she was single and hopeful.
She loved walking through the crisp autumn leaves, and she imagined the sound to be something like walking through confetti on a wedding day.
She knew her day would come, but she was in no hurry.
When she married and had a family of her own, she would cook with pride, but she would never get carried away. Cooking, for her, was one of the ways she showed her love. The fancy stuff was for those who pushed themselves forward; the shiny ones who ended up on reality television shows.
Even as a young woman she exuded an air of calmness and her choices were always conservative, but inside she was more than the warm skirt and cable knit jumper she was wearing on this cool autumn day.
Her heart wanted more, but she wasn’t sure what ‘more’ meant.
More, seemed to her, to require a depth of courage that she was not sure she possessed.
Her clothes were a good example of her thinking.
She longed to wear trousers.
Trousers had long been the symbol of equality.
“Men wear trousers and so can we.”
The thought frightened her a little.
She tried it once, but everywhere she went, she was sure that men were looking at her disapprovingly.
They weren’t; they were admiring her appearance, but that wasn’t what she saw.
The anxiety outweighed the excitement, so she went back to her comfortable skirts.
She consoled herself with the thought that she had good legs, and legs could be seen to advantage in a skirt.
A bloody fingerprint on my credit card made the store clerk hesitate for a moment, but I guess he wanted to finish his shift with a minimum of fuss because he put through the transaction, handed back my card and wished me a good day, all without a single change in facial expression.
My facial expression, on the other hand, could be described as a grimace. Not the bloke in the McDonald’s commercials, but the one where you are in a lot of pain and it has to show somewhere, even though you don’t want it to.
There was a chance that a bloody fingerprint was a part of everyday life for this bloke. Maybe, he even kept a chart of how many he encountered in a shift.
There it goes again — my mind.
Probably a side effect of losing so much blood.
It’s difficult to think clearly. Fortunately, a lot of thinking is not required. All I have to do is slow down the bleeding enough so that I am still alive at this time tomorrow. The meeting isn’t far from here and no one takes any notice of a slightly disreputable character in this part of the city.
Melbourne is good that way; ‘big money’ and ‘down and outs’ mix freely, as long as they don’t get in each other’s way.
The bandages and gauze were enough to cover the wound, but at some stage I was going to have to find the courage to stitch it; was not looking forward to that.
It was Sunday and the tourists were out in force.
Lots of kids, and mums and dads.
Cameras and carry bags, giggling teenage girls and puffed up teenage boys, none of them interested in me.
Twenty-four hours is not a long time in most people’s lives, but it was to me, especially since I acquired that hole in my side.
Once it was over, if I was still standing, I was going sort out the bloke who perforated me, but till then I needed a quite place to sit.
I turned down one of the myriads of laneways that criss-cross Melbourne and I come across a sign that said the Conan Doyle Society was meeting for an afternoon of mediumship. The sign gave a start time, but I had no idea what time it was because my wristwatch was lying in pieces not far from where the fight started.
There seemed to be a bit of activity so I entered.
The building was ancient and I passed through an open doorway — crafted about hundred and fifty years ago.
The walls were brick and there was a faint smell of dust in the air.
“Don’t worry about the dusty smell. It will dissipate in a little while. The building only gets used on Sundays. Ghosts play here during the week.” The lady who told me this was about sixty years old with a smile that suggested that she had left a trail of broken hearts in her wake in her younger days, and now, for all I knew.
The windows of the building were vaulted and filled with clear leadlight. The floors were Baltic Pine and the plethora of humanity that had trodden on them had sculptured them into hills and valleys around the tight knots in the wood.
Timeworn padded chairs were being laid out in rows by helpers who looked as old as the building itself.
A tiny lady, who was not much bigger than the chair she was carrying, said to me, “Sit here young fellow. You’ll get a good view. You look like you could use a good ‘sit down’. You sit here and I’ll get you a cup of tea.”
“You haven’t got something stronger than tea, have you lady?”
“No, but I know how you feel. I could go a good snort myself.”
I laughed and my side hurt.
The cup of tea had milk and about four sugars in it. I didn’t mind.
The chairs continued to come out through a small door, the same door that the cup of tea had come through and I wondered how many more rooms there were to this place.
Within a little while, the hall filled up with people and soon, none of the forty-odd chairs were empty.
Before the cup of tea and the kilo of sugar, I had been feeling quite sleepy, but now I was wide awake.
The lady running the show stepped to the microphone, which I had not noticed and welcomed us all.
She gave a particular welcome to all the ‘newcomers’ and looked directly at me. She introduced the two people seated behind her and gave their names, but I was not taking much notice.
She mentioned that this group had been meeting for about one hundred and twenty years, under various names, and that its current name dated from a visit by the renown author at the turn of the previous century.
A few people nodded and the tiny lady who had supplied my cup of tea said something out loud and the woman at the microphone agreed with her.
Things were getting interesting.
The lady sitting next to me didn’t seem to mind that I looked like I’d been in a fight; which I had.
The speaker introduced one of the people behind her, a Trevor someone, and he spoke to the assembled crowd.
He walked across to one side of the hall and asked a woman if she would like a reading. She said yes, and the fun began.
Trevor described a man in fine detail and asked the woman if she recognised this person. She promptly burst into tears and a box of tissues appeared out of nowhere. Trevor gave her a moment to compose herself and then he went on with a bit more description and ended with a message. “The gentleman wants you to know that it is okay with him if you want to get married again, and could you please make sure that the rose bushes get pruned.”
The proceedings went on for more than an hour and the two people on the platform took turns to read for various members of the audience.
I was enjoying myself, but the ‘over the counter’ painkillers were beginning to wear off and I had a monster headache.
I was feeling sorry for myself when I realised that this Trevor character was speaking to me. “May I come to you, sir? Yes, you, the gentleman with the coat and the upturned collar.”
“Yeah, I guess so.”
“Can you speak up sir, so the audience can hear you, also I’m a bit hard of hearing.”
“YES, I GUESS SO. Knock yourself out.”
“Thank you, sir. May I have your name?”
“Thank you, Sam. I have a woman with me; she’s presenting in her late sixties wearing men’s work clothes, and she has grey hair. Can you place such a person?”
“Not at the moment, but I had a girlfriend who looked like that a few years back.” I enjoyed the laughter from the audience, but Trevor only smiled.
“She’s carrying an AK47 in one hand and a banana in the other. Can you place that?”
A cold shiver went down my back.
“Yes, I think I can.” I was in shock.
“She’s wearing Army boots and one of them is laced with string. She says that she always carried a banana because she never knew how long it would be between meals. She wants you to know that the wound in your side will result in your death if you don’t have it seen to today.”
Trevor stopped talking and every eye in the hall turned in my direction.
Trevor continued. “This lady is telling me that killing people is not the way. Even though she was defending her country against invasion, nothing good came of killing the soldiers that came under her sights. She says that she has met up with them, ‘over there’ and they have made their peace. The soldier who killed her has done the same. She wants you to know that love is the only way. If you try to hold out, without treatment, to make that meeting tomorrow, you will die from your injuries. Oh, and she said that you should eat more bananas and ring your dad once in a while. Can I leave that with you, Sam?”
“Yes, you can, and thank you.”
I’m not sure why I thanked him; it just seemed like the right thing to do.
The meeting disbanded and food appeared out of nowhere and conversation broke out in several places.
The chairs disappeared as fast as they had arrived and we all stood around eating cake and drinking tea.
I was probably half dead at this stage, but I have to say that those were the best scones and jam and cream I have ever tasted.
I found Trevor and told him about my ancestor who had valiantly and vainly fought the Soviet invasion of her country in 1956. I wasn’t born yet, but family legend had her name up in lights. My ancestors were mostly ordinary people living ordinary lives, except for the convicts who started our line here in Australia; and then there was Maria, the freedom fighter.
Sixty-three years of age.
She could field strip and reassemble an AK47 in the dark.
The AK47 was, and still is, the weapon of choice of the freedom fighter, but for all its virtues, it is not very accurate at range, but somehow Maria became the best sniper in her group.
Sadly for Maria, the Resistance was not able to hold out for very long. It was all over in a couple of days, and at the end of it all, there were only broken dreams and a family legend.
Things got a bit fuzzy after that, but I do remember waking up in the emergency ward at the Alfred Hospital.
I had become quite a celebrity.
Apparently, a diminutive older lady had carried me in on her back, saying that I needed attention for a knife wound.
She disappeared, but not before she rearranged the chairs in the waiting room.
“You’ll get more people in if you spread them out like that.”
The Triage Nurse was okay with the new arrangement and she didn’t think that any of it was particularly strange.
I guess nurses get to see some weird shit in the course of a day.
I was laid up for a while and I had to spin an interesting tale to get the cops off my back, but eventually they said I could go home.
The following Sunday I went looking for that laneway, but the doors were closed and there was no one about.
I’m not discouraged, though; I’ll go back next week and see what happens.
I get the feeling that I’ll never look at a banana or an AK47 in quite the same way, ever again.