Thursday, March 25, 2010

Small Talk

He puts his coffee cup down and takes a few moments to answer.

"It's an interesting question you ask, Kath, because up until two years ago I had been working at the university student union for twenty two years before John Howard came and ripped it all to shreds."

I push the box of Lindor balls closer towards him. "It still really gets to me, you know? Having something so good destroyed on a ideological whim and plain mean spiritedness." His chin quivers a bit and it's clear that he's aware of it and tries to smile.

"I might pop out and have a smoke if that's okay with you."

He stands outside, his back to the door, wiping his palms down the side of his trousers.


She sits at her desk, surrounded by neat-but-tall piles of reports, administrative forms, booklets, papers and letters.

"This stuff----" she waves her hands at the wall of paper dismissively "----isn't important. I have to do it but it's not what keeps me here till 7pm."

The door opens and a child rushes in, crying. She takes him to her bosom and strokes his hair. His gulping sobs and explanations soon die down to silent tears as she listens intently, my presence forgotten.

She then asks, "Did he mean to punch you?"

"No," he said quietly. "He didn't mean it."

"Did he say sorry to you?"


"Well that's good, then. It was an accident and I'm sad that you got hurt, but Mrs L will put an ice pack on your back until you feel better, okay?"

He nods and smiles, leaning in for another hug before leaving with the nurse.

She looks at me. "My husband is retired and wonders why I haven't joined him yet but I just can't. He wants us to take a big trip, you know, around Australia or overseas but it's not time yet. Not for me. I can't leave this; I love the kids too much."


I put my note pad down. This is no longer a story being told; this is the suffering of a woman who was orphaned at eight years old, raped repeatedly by the age of ten and a confused and frightened fifteen year old who arrived in Australia alone at fifteen.

We've only known each other for two hours, but we embrace as I awkwardly reach around behind me for the tissue box.

"I need to tell you," she says, over and over. "I need to tell this. I need to get it out."

I nod, feeling small and swamped and worried and useless.

"I didn't ever cry, not once when I was in Somalia or Sudan. But when I got here, I sat in the community centre on my day off and stared into nothing and cried and cried. Now I'm thirty and still the tears are flowing."

I cuddle her eight week old baby boy and we talk of her other three children. No father any more, which is a good thing. "He kept telling me I was stupid and an embarrassment. After ten years, I finally told him to leave. Last week I walked past the cafe and there he was, sitting with a white woman. He never once took me there."

We drink more juice and the baby falls asleep. "I only did six months of school here before it was time for me to work in a factory," she explains. "My English is good, isn't it, because I learned on the job. But I can't read very well, or write."

The baby sleeps on as she haltingly reads Dr Seuss to me. "You're better than you think," I say, meaning it. She smiles, eyes dry and shining. "I'll see you again next week," I say.


He ruffles Milly's ears as we walk past.

Seeing an unabashed dog-lover I stop as I always do, feeling a mixture of pride and fellowship, allowing him to pat her back and stroke her chest, Milly's tail wagging joyously.

His arms are full of faded green and blue tattoos, all badly drawn. "She's a beauty, isn't she? What is she, part-staffy part heeler?"

"Nah, the vet says she's half Jack Russell, half Corgi," I reply, trying to match his battler voice.

"We had a dog that was a dead-ringer to your one here when I was working in the market garden program. Pretty bloody fat though."

He is now squatting down to keep patting Milly, but looks at up at me. "When I was in prison."

I hope I'm not overdoing things when I squat down too, and pat Milly's side. "They're worth everything to us, aren't they?"


She taps me on the shoulder.

"I finally got around to reading your blog the other day. That’s a very cathartic little site you’ve got there. Very open and brave the way you bare your soul."

My ego instantly inflates (I'm a writer!) as she sits next to me in the cafe, effortlessly stylish and always the woman I've envied for sophisticated style and wit. "I can't even count the sessions I’ve had with several different psychiatrists over the years and I’m still on anti-depressants now."

It was then I notice her red-rimmed eyes, and nod. "Me too. It's just like having any other medical condition. Diabetes, high blood pressure, glaucoma or Love Chunks taking fish oil capsules. They work and I'll keep taking them for as long as they continue to work and make me feel normal again."

She pats my hand. "And yet it's hardly something we're going to brag about at a dinner party is it?"

Small talk can be anything but.


Cat J B said...

Kath, you have the humanity in you that I don't. I love to know there are people out there like you, it gives me hope that not everyone is inward turning like myself. I need to work on that, you are an inspiration.

Pandora Behr said...

Superb work. Sitting here, numbed.

Helen said...

Fantastic stuff Kath. I am in awe.

Kath Lockett said...

Cat, you'd be surprised at how many similar conversations you're also hearing. I reckon every day there's a least one person that has a little confession or comment that surprises me. And humbles me.

Thanks Pand. You too, Helen.

Jilly said...

Brilliant Kath!

Jack42 said...

Each story is like a little Lindt Lindor ball of a different flavour. Delightful and leaves you wanting more. I love the way you distilled down each experience into a few words. Thanks Kath.

Melanie Myers said...

I loved that, Kath. I wished I hadn't such a long sabbatical from reading your (or anyone else's) blog. You ARE a writer!

PS I found a copy of your 'Work/Life Balance' at the library the other day. I got it out, of course, and have been doing some spot reading :)

River said...

Wow. You are amazing. I suck at small talk. But I manage well enough at the checkout.

Baino said...

Oh Kath you've outdone yourself here. You know why? Because you are an amazing listener, an astute observer and an incredible interpretor. Beautiful vignettes of life and the people that make it so diverse and incredible. Do you know that at my place of work, not one person in 9 months has asked a single personal question or divulged a single personal thing about themselves, how do 150 people working 12 hours a day in the same workspace manage to know so little about each other. I find it stunningly ignorant.

Kath Lockett said...

Jack to describe me as Lindor ball is so appropriate, in more ways than one - thank you :)

Blakkat, please don't laugh too hard as you read through it. I had to rigorously adhere to the Dummies brand and style of writing, even though at the time I had no WLB of my own to speak of and was battling the evil intentions of my then-boss, Bulldog.

River, I'm sure you could write a book on who you see, meet and notice at a checkout!

Baino, your workplace sounds godawful. Asking personal question is about the first thing I do - whether my companion likes it or not! Buy yourself a (winning) lotto ticket and get the hell out of there.