The bent old lady nervously looks around in the leprous light of the streetlamp and trundles her wheelie-frame to the Automatic Teller Machine. Again she glances over her shoulder, then lifts the lid of the basket attached to her walking aid, revealing an old handbag. She reaches in for her purse.
"Hello, Granny," a cocky young male voice says behind her.
She lets the lid go and slowly stands, as erect as she is able. Three scruffy teenagers crowd her. Their eyes are hidden in the darkness, but their bodies signal menace...
She just couldn't close the big suitcase, and there was still such a pile to be packed into the other one! With a sigh she removed a dress, but still no go.
She sat on the lid, but one osteoporotic old lady made no difference. Drat. I need help, she thought. She pulled herself upright and pushed her wheelie-frame out the door. This was a boon for her mobility, with a large carry basket doubling as a seat.
She knocked on the door at No 5.
"Oh Maude, how nice, come in, come in," Ronnie boomed. Leaving the frame outside, she entered his domain. Everything was as tidy in the bed-sitter as only an ex-Warrant Officer Class 1 can make it. Army photos shared the walls with prizes won in his clay-pigeon-shooting days. And there he was striding from the tiny kitchen. Big, solid, his moustache bristling, he smiled down at her. "How'd you know I've just put on the kettle?" he asked.
"Lovely! But then I must return to packing. I was hoping you'd sit on my suitcase lid."
They both laughed as he patted his protruding belly. "I reckon my weight should do it."
The kettle called, and he hurried back into the kitchen. He returned in seconds with two steaming cups and a plate of biscuits.
"So, ready to go?" he asked as they sat down.
"No! I'm staying for a month, it's a lot of packing."
"Well, it's not every day baby daughter turns fifty. Well done!"
Again they laughed, then swapped stories about great-grandchildren. At last Ronnie accompanied Maude back to the end of the row of units and sat on the lid of the suitcase for her.
"Now, call me again if you want help," he said as he left.
He's wonderfully fit for seventy-eight, and such a good friend, Maude thought, fondly watching his solid back.
At last, everything's packed... I hope! Maude stretched tired old arms, then decided to have a bite to eat. I'd also better set up breakfast. After all, the taxi was booked for 6:30 a.m. As she turned towards the kitchen, she noticed that it had turned dark outside.
Then she thought: The taxi driver will need money. She checked her purse: about eight dollars. Nowhere near enough, even with the pensioner discount.
I'll borrow a bit from Ronnie. Otherwise it's to the hole in the wall. She shuddered at the thought of braving the main street at night. The young hoods called her and her kind 'soft targets'.
She had most of her money with the Credit Society down the road, but kept a bit for emergencies at the Bank. So, she set off behind her wheelie-frame.
Ronnie's windows were dark. The bluish light on the pole outside shone on the blank faces of his white curtains. As always when he was in bed, the top of the front window was open an inch.
Into bed with the chickens, as usual, she thought, disappointed. A year ago, Ronnie had actually proposed to her--preposterous, to a seventy-five-year-old!--but the difference in sleep patterns was the main reason she'd said 'no'. She rarely went to sleep before eleven. Anyway, it would have been discourteous to disturb him, just because she hadn't thought ahead.
The main street looks alien at night. Far from each other, occasional parked cars sleep by the gutter, still and quiet. The widely spaced streetlights cast yellow, funereal pools of light, deepening the shadows between them. Lights also glimmer from shop windows, through stout security steel mesh, reminding her of the predators about. One of their joys is to break shop windows. Another is to harass helpless prey. Like me.
She'd love to stop for a rest, sit down on the lid of the basket for a minute, but daren't take the time. The sooner she is back home the better.
Slowly, she pushes the wheelie-frame up the slight hill, puffing from exertion, past the ghosts of shops, into the next patch of yellow light, then through it into darkness, and at last here is the bank with its teller machines. 040223 she thinks, her birth-date, which is her PIN number. Fearfully she looks around, once, twice, but all seems still. She stops, and opens the basket to get her card.
And here they are, the human offal who prey on the helpless. She has long ago planned a strategy for this situation, but she is terrified now. She feels a warm wetness between her legs as fear opens her bladder, but she schools her face, her body, her breathing, like long ago, on stage.
There are three of them. She smells their unwashed bodies, and the unpleasant odor that comes from the skin of heavy smokers.
The tallest speaks again, "Withdrawing a little dough?"
She is surprised at how calm she can make her voice. "My daughter in Sydney has died, I'm flying to her funeral tomorrow." Fear can be misread as upset due to grief. "I need money for the trip."
"I'm so sorry!" The spokesman's sarcasm is scathing. "A little donation to us, and you can go."
She doesn't believe for a moment that she'll escape without violence, but time is life. "I'm sorry, a little is all I've got. I've got oh, about $75, and the machine only gives $20 and $50 notes."
"If you're lying, old duck, I'll cut you to bits," the red-headed one growls. Suddenly, he holds a knife in his hand.
"Well, I'll withdraw $60, and you can look at the docket. It lists the amount remaining. $20 for each of you?"
The streetlight glints off the bare scalp of the fattish one. "Go for it, Granny," he tells her.
"I just have to sit for a moment," she says, flopping down onto the lid of the basket. "You boys have given me a nasty shock. I'd love a joint!"
All three laugh in surprise. "A joint?" the tall one asks.
She looks around furtively, and lies, "I've got three marijuana plants in my back garden. Oh, well hidden! And some nice cured leaves inside. Tell you what, it's a far better painkiller than the doctor's."
"Sounds interesting," the fattish skinhead says.
Maude stands, gets her card and goes to the machine. "Hey, when we're finished here, you can come to my place and pick all the leaves you want. And we can share a joint inside." She pushes buttons by the dim green light of the machine. It whirrs, returns her card, then three red notes.
The tall boy snatches them, passes one to each of his mates.
The machine whirrs again, spitting out the docket. Maude gives it to the redhead. "There!"
He pulls a tiny torch from a pocket and studies the docket before screwing it up.
"I live in the units in Donald Road. Only five minutes for you, but I'm afraid I can only walk slowly," she explains apologetically.
The four of them go at her painful pace. "What are your names?" she asks, sounding friendly.
"I'm Dave," the tall one answers. "He's Rusty," that's the redhead of course, "he's Monk."
"I'm Maude," she says.
"Sit on your thing, I'll push you," Dave offers.
That doesn't suit Maude's plans at all. She wants to seem exhausted when reaching home. "Oh no. I'm in constant pain, arthritis you know. That'd be agony," she lies.
"I'd never have believed it, a Granny on dope!" Rusty marvels. He has put his knife away.
Maude manages a laugh. "Oh, that's not all! I go to one doctor after another, and they prescribe nice stuff for me, amphetamines, oh, lots of stuff, and I pay for it at pensioner rates. I've got a cupboard- full of little pills that'll send you spinning."
"The druggie Granny of Donald Street." Monk laughs.
Maude has a momentary vision of the three yobbos inside her tiny flat, breaking up the remains of her precious furniture, and sees her still body in a corner, unconscious or worse. She shudders, but fortunately they are between streetlights, the boys don't notice. She forces herself back into role. "I just have to stop at the next light," she gasps. Actually, with all the adrenaline coursing through her body, she feels ready to run. But she struggles to the light and sits, chatting.
They are off again at the same sluggish pace. They reach Donald Street and turn into the entrance to the units. The row of blue lights illuminates closed doors, black lawn. Most of the windows are dark, only a few have a golden glow.
"You shout and I'll kill you," Monk whispers, his tobacco breath enveloping Maude.
"Monk! I thought we were pals," she answers with a soft wail, and he backs off.
She makes her walk even more painful and labored, then flops onto the seat of her wheelie-frame, right under Ronnie's window.
"C'mon, it can't be far," Dave urges.
"Oh, it's my heart!" she explains, clutching her thin chest. "Monk gave me a shock, when I thought everything was all right. Tell me, boys, do you often harass old ladies?"
Dave laughs, coarsely. "Only when we find one stupid enough to go out after dark."
"Well, I figured kindred sprits don't hurt each other," she answers gaily. "Anyway, boys, my unit's the last one in this row. There's an alley beyond it, you go there to get to my garden. When you're inside, you'll find three big tubs behind the gate, with bushy plants. Rusty, you can use your little torch. Look behind those bushes. That's where my marijuana plants are. I'll catch up with you."
Rusty and Monk are off at a run, but Dave stays by her. "I'll walk with you," he says.
Maude is intensely disappointed and feels a new stab of fear. Somehow, she finds the strength to smile up at him, and manages a convincing, "That's nice!" She shuffles along, as slowly as she can.
Obviously reassured, Dave speeds up.
The other two are at her front door, then beyond it.
Suddenly, there is an immensely loud Sergeant-Major bellow, "HALT!"
Ronnie steps out from the alley, cradling his double-barreled shotgun, the one that won all those prizes. He's in pajamas and slippers, but is nevertheless an imposing figure. His moustache almost glows in the bluish light.
The two boys come to a sudden stop and back up. Dave turns with a snarl, but Ronnie shouts, "One step and I'll shoot your leg off!"
"He can do it too," Maude tells him calmly. "He could shoot off your little finger without touching the rest of you."
Doors are open, gray heads poking out.
"Maureen, can you please ring the police?" Maude asks the nearest.
"It's all right, I already have," Henry announces.
"You three, lie on the ground," Ronnie commands.
"Or what, old fart?" Dave answers defiantly, but Maude notices that he is keeping very still. "Shoot us and you go to jail too."
"Look son. I'm seventy-eight. I shoot you and in court I say you were attacking me. I have nineteen witnesses who'll swear I'm telling the truth. Can you imagine any jury that'll convict me?" He gently waves the shotgun.
The three hoods lie on the ground, and a car can be heard in the distance.
After the police have taken them away, Ronnie asks, "Maude, you with drugs?"
She laughs. "You know I used to be an actress. But were you really willing to shoot them?"
"I've prepared for such an eventuality ages ago," he explains. "Not lead, saltpeter. Stings for weeks! I may be old, but I'm not soft in the head yet!"