He was very old. Grizzled, almost bald, grey-looking. Slightly hunched, but still tall, maybe six foot three. He walked with a slight limp, hardly noticeable to the eye, but when you listened to his footsteps, there was an unevenness.
He stood on the corner, waiting for the lights to change, his head weaving a little, as though perhaps looking around him, but it seemed more than that, as though he wasn’t entirely in control of his actions.
He carried a walking stick, one of those adjustable metal ones, in his right hand, and a shopping bag in his left hand, a bag with just a few items in it, and you could see that his hand was trembling a little. Very old? Maybe eighty, maybe more. I’m not great at judging people’s ages.
The lights changed and that little noise the lights make to say that you can walk now chirped, and the small crowd that had been waiting for the walking green surged forward. The old man stood where he was for a moment, seemingly a little lost. Then, as though he had just noticed the others crossing, he stumbled forward, left the pavement and walked hesitantly across the junction towards me.
I had been waiting to cross too, but something stopped me and I stood where I was, watching him from the opposite pavement. It was a busy morning, and the crossing was close-packed, people weaving in and out of the stream crossing in the opposite direction. The old man, much slower than the rest of them, seemed to struggle a little, as though failing eyesight prevented him from seeing the on-coming people clearly. Perhaps not, but that was what it looked like from my side.
The flow slowed as most people reached the kerbs, leaving him the last person still crossing, and this seemed to panic him, as though he was running out of time to gain safety. He was clearly trying to increase the pace of his shuffle, and he tottered a little as though he was loosing his balance. He had nearly reached the safety of the kerb when he appeared to trip, falling forward.
I stepped forward into the road and caught him. Well, maybe not caught him, more just giving him that bit of support to keep him on his feet. He gasped and looked straight at me. ‘Oh,’ he said quietly. ‘Oh dear.’
‘Hey,’ I said as I moved him closer to the kerb. The lights had just changed, and we were in danger of being hit. ‘Come on, let me help you.’
The people waiting for the next crossing light peered at the pair of us, making way for us to get beyond the crowd. I could see a bench seat twenty metres or so away. ‘It might be a good idea for you to sit down for a few minutes?’
He nodded, and we slowly shuffled down the pavement towards the seat.
I was in no hurry, so I patiently escorted him, a hand on his shoulder. Reaching the seat, he turned slowly and sat, putting the bag beside him and leaning the walking stick against the seat. I sat down beside him.
‘Oh dear,’ he said again. ‘What a fool I am.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘Coming out like this by myself.’ He turned and looked at me. ‘That was very good of you, looking after me like that.’
‘Oh, that’s alright. I’m not in a hurry. Matter of fact I was just thinking I might get a cup of coffee. Over there. That’s where I was headed.’ I pointed to a coffee shop on the other side of the crossing, and he looked and nodded.
‘Well, I’m all right now, thanks to you. I just felt a little stressed, having to rush like that. I’ll just sit here for a few minutes. Go and get your coffee.’
He didn’t look too good to me, and I was reluctant to leave him. ‘Have you got pills you should take?’
‘Oh no. Well, not really. I’ve got pills at home but I don’t carry them with me.’
I watched him for a while, noted the shaking of his hand, his head nodding a little. ‘Look, how about I go across and get us both some coffee. You stay here and I’ll fetch it. How do you like it?’
‘Not coffee, but perhaps some tea? Would that be alright?’ He smiled for the first time. ‘I should have had some tea before I tried the crossing. That would have set me up. Milk and two, please.’
I nodded then, and got up and left him, joining the mob at the crossing, waiting for the green again. Just a minute or so, and off we went, and I thought about how cruel life is, letting us grow old and feeble.
When I got back with the paper cups he looked a lot better than before. His face was a better colour, and he was sitting in the sun with a smile on his face, relaxed and comfortable. ‘Here you go,’ I said. ‘I already put the sugar in.’
‘Ta,’ he said, removing the plastic lid and putting it down beside him. He took a sip and pulled his lips away from the cup. ‘That’s hot,’ he said.
I took a paper bag from my pocket. ‘I got some biscotti too. Thought you might like some.’
He looked down at the biscotti that I had placed side by side on the bag between us. ‘What’re they? Biscuits of some sort?’
‘That’s right. Italian.’
‘Never come across those before.’
‘Try one. They’re quite nice.’
He took one and put it to his mouth. ‘It’s basically an almond biscuit,’ I told him.
He crunched down on it, and chewed reflectively. He nodded. ‘Yes,’ he said. ‘Not bad. I don’t usually eat biscuits. Bad for you. Too much sugar. But I like these, with the taste of almonds.’
‘Good,’ I sipped my coffee and then took the other biscotti and sat back, my free arm along the back of the seat, enjoying the sun. ‘So look, I’m Barney.’ I held out my hand to him.
‘Joseph,’ he said, taking my hand and squeezing it quite tightly.
‘G’day, Joseph,’ I said formally.
‘And g’day Barney,’ he replied. ‘Lovely to meet you. Thought I was a gonner for a while there.’
‘Very glad you weren’t.’
He smiled, and sipped his tea, then closed his eyes and let his head lean back, his face bathed in the winter sun. He was very still for a while, and I sipped my coffee and took another bite of my biscotti. It really was a lovely day. Clear blue sky, just a gentle breeze.
He suddenly jerked forward and opened his eyes. ‘D’you know what I was just thinking?’
His face wrinkled in a smile. ‘I was just remembering that I was young once.’ He turned to me. ‘Well, we all were, weren’t we. But I was meaning young and virile.’ He paused again, as though giving himself time to work out what he was going to say.
‘While you were getting the tea and coffee, I was watching a pair of lovely young women going by. You know, as I get older I love beauty more and more. I love watching beautiful young women, boys too.’ He paused as though remembering.
‘When I was young, say from about nineteen years old, I could look at women openly, and show by my face what I thought of them. And they loved it, I could tell. I never had any complaints.’
I chuckled. ‘I wouldn’t do it now,’ I told him. ‘You’d get arrested. People would say you were a pervert, a dirty old man.’
‘That’s what I mean. In those days I was probably seen as a danger to all the girls, as though I was going to seduce them all. Probably would have, given half a chance. I guess I was a bit of a looker in those days, and I could charm the birds out of their trees. But nobody minded. The girls seemed to like it, look back at me with a secret smile as I passed. I had a few triumphs in those days, I can tell you.’ He had a twinkle in his eyes.
‘Well, gives you something to savour, doesn’t it, having all those memories?’
‘Oh yes.’ He closed his eyes again as though doing exactly that, savouring his romantic memories. He suddenly leaned forward again and took my arm. ‘There was one, Christine Gilpin… boy, she was smashing. One of the first girlfriends I ever had. Should have married her, really, but I always did have a wandering eye. It wouldn’t have lasted. But she was terrific, long golden hair, lovely lips, eyes like diamonds. Sounds like so much rubbish, doesn’t it? But I’m not exaggerating at all. Married a friend of mine ten years later. I was broken-hearted… for about two weeks.’ He let my arm go, and smiled again, re-living the moment.
‘I suppose you married someone,’ I said. ‘In the end. Kids, perhaps?’
‘Oh yes. I married Angela Trevisco, and we had three kids, two boys and then a girl.’
‘Okay,’ I said. ‘You’ve had a pretty good life by the sound of it.’
‘Angela left me for my best friend at the time. Bastard! Left the kids with me, and I had to bring them up by myself. It was tough.’
‘Wow. I bet it was.’
‘That’s right. But that’s all in the past. No, what I was thinking of was that when I was young and possibly dangerous to women… at least their fathers thought I was a danger, their mothers too… you might not believe this, but I did have a couple of their mothers as well. Good job the fathers never found out.’
I smiled. I was wondering if he was just making all this up, but he sounded as though he was telling the truth.
‘Anyway, when I might have been dangerous, nobody cared if I gave the girls the eye, or a bit of a whistle. But it’s a different matter now, now that I’m old and useless and could no more harm them than chase after them. Oh no, if anyone caught me looking at beautiful women now, as you said, I’d be hounded out of town as a lecher, as a pervert.’
He stopped then, and his head fell forward, looking at his hands in his lap. He seemed suddenly sad.
After a silent minute, he turned his head to me and winked. ’So now I have to look without seeming to,’ he said. ‘On the quiet, like.’
I nudged him. ‘You old dog,’ I said, and he laughed.
‘Boy, there are some lovely girls about these days. And the shorts they’re wearing!’
‘Better keep it under your hat,’ I told him, and he snorted.