The end of an era
An election, a neighbour, a dog
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On 8 September, the morning after the federal election, I walk two hours from my new place in Balaclava to my old street in Kew. I’m going to see my 86-year-old former neighbour, Maria.
There are two reasons for my visit. The first is that Maria’s German shepherd–doberman pinscher cross, Tina, is in the animal hospital. Maria, who is Hungarian, has never had children. She has no family in Australia. If Tina is going to die, then I want to buy Maria a puppy. Because I think otherwise Maria will die herself. Secondly, I first met Maria on our street in 2007 the morning after the Rudd government was voted in. I’d gone outside to see if the world looked different, and Maria had called me to her gate, Tina growling at me from behind it. Going to Maria’s gate changed my life. She became my muse and one of my greatest friends.
Six years later, the Rudd government has been voted out. I don’t know what I’m looking for this time, but I figure I should bookend the era with Maria.
I walk up Maria’s steps. The succulents in her front yard wink into the sun. It’s a gleaming day. A plastic frog by the door ribbits loudly when I step near it. It’s one of Maria’s many security devices. She figures if anyone sneaks up to kill her, she’ll hear the ribbit but the intruder will think it’s just a frog.
I ring the bell and hear Maria coming down the hallway. Usually she is talking to Tina, saying, “Yes, yes, you know who is this.” But this time she’s silent. She stops at the door.
“Pronto Laila!” I whisper to her. Pronto is our code word. Laila is not my name, but it’s what Maria calls me.
I’m nervous because I’m late. Sometimes when I arrive late, Maria tells me, “Better if you go. And never come here anymore.” But this time she sounds happy as she says, “Yes, I know that’s you.” Maria opens the door, and then the security screen. The closest thing Maria’s ever had to a party since I’ve known her was when she had some men put iron bars on all her windows. “Tell me,” she says, “you find that hocus-pocus?” I hold up a loaf of Continental Pasta Dura bread from Bakers Delight. It’s the only bread Maria eats. “Yes! Very good. How you know? Every time you know when I got only two slice of the Pasta Dura and you bring! Come, we have the lunch now. I make the potato like you never eat in your life.”
I ask her how Tina is.
“She’s still at the animal hospital?”
Maria and I eat at her table. She has made potatoes, sausages and “lettuce salad”. We have yoghurt and pickles on the side. She is in exceptionally good spirits. She asks me, “Tell me, you went with the boy to make the voting?”
“Good! Very good! You should to go with him. He is serious gentlyman. He don’t like to do some stupidity. Good you went on the voting with him.”
“Yeah. What do you think about the result?”
“I knew the Rudd would win.”
“Maria, the Rudd didn’t win.”
“I see the speech, he is very happy. He speak for long time, laughing, and the people cheering for him very loud. One hundred per cent he is the winner.”
“No, Maria. The Tony win.”
“No, you idiot! The Rudd was winner. I saw it on the television. You never know nothing.”
“Maria, if Tina should die, will you let me get you a puppy?”
Maria’s eyes fill with tears for an instant, her voice shakes. “No. I never will have the dog. Never anymore. Only Tina.”
“Is Tina going to be OK, Maria?”
“Ten days she is gone. I was playing with her, holding her, patting her. And the girl at the hospital, very nice, she playing with the Tina, patting the Tina, we kissing her. I tell her, You is good girl, Tina. Mummy love you, Tina. And she is very happy. She never know what happening. She is very old. She can’t stand up. Her feet hurting her. But she is very happy. And then the nurse give her first injection. She is tired. But still happy. I am patting her. Holding her. Kissing her face. And then coming the next injection. She move. Once. And then the Tina is gone.”
“Oh Maria. I’m so sorry.”
“Tell me,” Maria croaks, clasping my hand, “you think the Tina knew I love her?”
“Maria, there was no doubt about it. You did everything for her. Everything.”
“Everything I eat, I give her half. She sleep in the bed with me. We sit in the garden together. Now I can no more sleep in the bed because I am thinking she is there. And I can no more go in the garden because she is no more in the garden. You think I was good to the Tina?”
“The Tina is free now. I was worry. Because if I die, then the Tina trapped in the house for long time. Maybe starving, crazy. Now the Tina is safe. Maria can die now.”
“Let me get you a puppy.”
“I said no puppy! Never anymore!”
“What about a cat?”
“Never again the cat!”
“What about a guinea pig?”
“What is this guinea pig?”
I bring up a picture of a guinea pig on my phone. Maria takes a long hard look at it. “Yes. The guinea pig. I want very much.”
I call the RSPCA. They have one guinea pig. And they’re open for another two hours. I realise that this is a matter of life and death.
“Get dressed, Maria. We are going.” I call a taxi, and Maria puts her shoes on and her hair up in the other room.
The taxi arrives. The driver gets out and helps Maria into the back. She tells me to sit in the front with him. His name is Aadesh and he’s Indian. He’s very tall. We tell him that we’re going to the RSPCA and ask him if he can wait for us while we go inside to get a guinea pig.
As we fly through the bright streets to Burwood East, Maria and I smile at each other in the rear-vision mirror. She waves to me. “I am very happy,” she tells me. “I like very much this guinea.” She turns to Aadesh. “Tell me, driver, my girl here very stupid. She think the Abbott win the election.”
Aadesh shakes his head. “Rudd lost. Abbott won.”
“No!” exclaims Maria. “But the Rudd was so happy!”
“How do you feel about the result?” I ask him.
“I drive a taxi before. I drive a taxi now.” He smiles.
We arrive at the RSPCA. Maria and I rush across the grounds, seeking the guinea pig. Maria is getting nervous. She keeps a tight hold of my hand and I keep reminding her to watch her step.
We find the rabbit and guinea pig enclosure. Maria pushes through the families who are milling around the glass. We look at each hutch. White rabbit. Brown rabbit. Speckled rabbit. White rabbit. Black rabbit.
“Where is the guinea?” asks Maria desperately.
Back at the front desk, a woman looks it up on a computer. “Oh, it’s just been put on reserve by a family.”
“You have no other guinea pigs?”
“No, I’m sorry.”
“What about hamsters?”
“No hamsters. But we have a lot of rabbits.”
This is bad. I got Maria’s hopes up. This is worse than if we’d never come at all. I ask her if she’d like to go to a pet shop.
“Go! But we have very short time. I think maybe our driver has left us.”
“He hasn’t left us.”
“If he has left, we are finish.”
Aadesh is waiting in the car. We explain the situation. He recognises its urgency. He cuts in between cars and speeds through yellow lights. Meanwhile, I am looking up pet shops on my phone and calling them to see if they have guinea pigs. The first one we stop at has no guinea pigs, no hamsters, only rabbits. We race on. Maria leads us to a pet shop where she used to buy Tina’s food.
“Tell me,” says Maria to the middle-aged woman working there, “you got the guinea?”
The woman looks confused for a second. “Guinea pigs? Oh yeah. Heaps of ’em.” She waves us over to a glassed-in area. It is swarming with guinea pigs. Maria inspects them.
“Very good! I like very much this ugly one.” Maria points to a sort of palomino guinea pig.
The pet shop woman asks, “So you’ve got your guinea pig enclosure?”
“No, I like the animal to run free in the home.”
The woman looks alarmed. “You can’t have a guinea pig running free in your home. It’ll chew through all your cords. Through the fridge cord. Everything. It’ll get into the wiring. And you won’t be able to catch it.”
Maria looks up. “He bite through the cord?”
“He’ll get into everything.”
Maria shakes her head. “No guinea. I don’t need the trouble.”
“But Maria, you can keep it in a little house of its own. We just have to get one from here.” I sense we are on the way back to defeat.
“No. I don’t like the guinea be prisoner. Tell me, what else you got?” Maria looks at the terrariums, where the reptiles are. “I like to get one frog or snake.”
“You need a licence for those,” the woman says.
We go into the bird enclosure. It’s full of tiny cages. Birds squawk at us. “I like this one,” says Maria, pointing to a small, blue, parrot-like bird.
“That one won’t let you touch it. It’ll bite you if you try,” says the woman.
“I am good with the animal. I will wait. And it will be the friend.”
“I suggest you get another one.”
“No. I take this nasty blue one.”
“It’s from India.”
“Ja, like our driver.” I buy the blue bird for Maria. She holds it in a small covered cage on her lap as we drive back to Kew. The sun is beginning to soften in the sky. Maria says to Aadesh, “One day I like to pay you to take us far away to my husband’s grave. You are the good taxi driver. You do this?”
“Of course,” he says.
Back inside Maria’s house, Maria releases the blue bird into the lounge room. It soars to the ceiling and then lands on the curtain rod, looking down at us. I worry about the bird poo and feathers that will undoubtedly cover Maria’s floor. But Maria isn’t worried. She whistles at the blue bird. It cocks its head as though it understands her. I hug Maria goodbye and head home to Balaclava.