Fiction

Jacaranda

The woman’s head is at an odd angle, one side of her neck stretched tight like the rawhide of a drum. Carolyn’s skin turns clammy and her breathing shallows as she scans the woman’s body: the cracked, swollen feet; toenails like thick squares of Bakelite; the legs blotched with scabs. Indecipherable letters are splayed across the faded T-shirt. Carolyn’s shoulders quake when she spots the vomit on the woman’s mouth.

The track through the vacant block is well used by commuters but no one else had been there that morning, a few months ago now, when the woman’s body stiffened and arched. Carolyn had watched, fascinated. She had never seen anyone have a seizure and had often wondered what it looked like. It didn’t last long – a couple of minutes at the most. Carolyn stayed until the woman was still, then hurried up the path towards the sound of her train.

On the platform her heart raced as she realised how easily a seizure could be misconstrued as madness or drunkenness. She should have gone to her, called for help, but the sight of the woman’s body contorting and the awful groaning made Carolyn recoil. She had to get away.

Now plastic bags and empty food packages surround the woman’s body. A grimy blanket lies crumpled nearby. Items Carolyn had dropped beneath the tree when the woman wasn’t there.

She takes her phone out of her pocket and calls the police, then checks the time. 7.45. Kim will be at her desk. She steadies her trembling hand, scrolls for Kim’s number and presses the button.

From the path she can see the sign for the Mater Hospital, where she spent two days after her first seizure eight months ago, undergoing tests and staring out of the window onto the street below. She didn’t notice the woman sitting cross-legged under her jacaranda tree.

Carolyn’s body gave out in the middle of an English class. Most of her students have been good about it, but Carolyn is sure that some of them have a name for her, a knowing look they share behind her back. There are things a teacher can’t get away with in front of 26 year 10 students, and incontinence is one of them. Even if you are unconscious at the time.

She worries it will happen again – at work, on the train, on the street. Or worse – alone at home. Now that she’s dependent on public transport or friends to get around, she doesn’t go out much.

Before it happened, she was planning to take a term off from teaching to drive her mum to Steven’s place. It had been years since they’d seen him. They hadn’t even met his kids – her nieces, her mum’s only grandchildren.

At first Carolyn had felt sorry for the woman as she passed her each day on her way to the station, but as Carolyn’s mother became more dependent and her own life narrowed, she began to envy the woman sitting with her back against the tree or lying on the ground with her hands resting softly on her stomach. She answered to no one. She was free to go where she pleased.

Carolyn knew she was romanticising the woman’s situation. Of course, Carolyn was the lucky one. She had a home, a job.

She wondered about the difference between homeless and adrift, solitary and estranged. Did the jacaranda woman have a family?

“Kim? It’s Carolyn.”

“Oh no! Not you, too? I’ve already had two staff call in sick this morning.”

For Kim, the line between working for the Education Department and being the Education Department is blurred. Carolyn was going to say she’d be late, but after Kim answers the phone, she realises she needs to take the day off.

“There’s a woman who’s died near the train station. I have to talk to the police. Perhaps you should call in a relief teacher. To be safe.”

Carolyn wipes her eyes and slips her phone into her pocket. Commuters appear on the path. They stare at the dead woman. Two teenage girls hold their phones at arm’s length until Carolyn snaps at them, “No photos, get to school.” She shakes out the woman’s blanket and lays it gently over her body.

The police arrive and take a statement. Carolyn is free to go, but she feels obliged to stay. She wants to stay. Ambulance officers arrive and lift the woman into a body bag. As they close it, strands of her hair snag in the zipper. Carolyn can’t look away. What happens to homeless bodies?

Her mother’s funeral had been small – a handful of friends. The minister spoke of her mother’s fine needlework, her love of roses. Carolyn sang the hymns and pushed away memories of her mother’s handwritten signs in every room: shoes off, lid down, do not use. The sound of the bell her mother would ring towards the end, when she wanted something.

It’s 8.30 when Carolyn begins to walk home. Cars are banked up along the street. She wants to bang on drivers’ windows and shout about the woman’s death. There’s so much that Carolyn failed to find out. She doesn’t even know the woman’s name.

She stops next to one car and stares through the window. A woman’s face, poised at the rear-vision mirror, lipstick in one hand, turns sharply. Carolyn raises her hand in apology and moves on towards the home she has lived in all her life.

She unlocks the door and steps onto the dusty floorboards, heading down the hallway past Steven’s room. Carolyn doesn’t blame him for taking off as soon as he finished his apprenticeship. She knew he’d never be back.

She enters her own room and throws open the cupboards. Her driver’s licence comes unstuck from the mirror and falls to the floor, sliding under her bed. She lets it go and turns, instead, to the rucksack buried beneath her clothes.

At the transit station, she turns off her phone, pushes it into her pocket and fishes out her wallet. She glances up at a billboard advertising The Sunlander, stopping in six towns along the coast before its final destination: Cairns. She swings her bag onto her back and heads to the ticket box. 

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 16, 2020 as "Jacaranda".

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Karen Hollands is a Brisbane writer and teacher. She is working on her second novel.