It’s grey and dull in the city. Everything is damp, and dampness permeates bones, turning them cold. The bustle of the city in winter is drawing the homeless and the down and out into it’s central heart. The Auckland City Mission is close at hand, and I think the busyness makes you feel less lonely, although the skies are so dark.
I saw Mary three times last week. I know that she wasn’t around town before that, because I would have seen her. She has such a familiar gait, with a half-limp from a swollen left knee. She rolls her jaw listlessly as she walks slightly diagonally up and down Queen St. I saw her twice on Monday, once on Wednesday and then twice on Thursday and Friday. Mary isn’t her real name, because that wouldn’t be fair, but it doesn’t matter now, she doesn’t recognize me anymore.
I first knew Mary when I spent a summer working for the Merivale Womens Refuge. That was a long time ago now. I ran a school holiday programme for the kids that were staying there at the time. All but 2 were Maori and Pacific Islanders, mostly from South Auckland and further south. One family of four kids were in the refuge for the second time. The youngest was 5, and the eldest 11. All up there were about 12 kids over the summer. Mary had a baby. A small, underfed baby. Her bronze skin was sallow and saggy over tight little elbow bones. Her nose was always encrusted with snot carelessly brushed away. She was the cousin of another of the women staying at the refuge; all of them from gang families, making a break together.
In between the first time I knew Mary and the second time, the baby disappeared. The second time was in Mt Eden, during the summer. She was wandering aimlessly but fervently.. scalping for money mostly, and rarely food. Because it was warmer, suburbia is an okay place to beg – depending on where you are staying, a central suburb like that is easy to get to. It’s when you’re homeless that you head for the city – there are more places to hide, to sleep, to shelter.
So, the second time.. Mary recognised my face and knew my name and was shameless about identifying her need. She wouldn’t take the food I offered and wanted the dollars. I was hard-hearted, thinking about her baby and refused to empty my wallet for anything other than food for her mouth.
The third time was in the city a year later. She recognised my face but my name had fallen through umpteen cracks.. she had lost weight and gained a limp. She still approached me with open arms and dry, acidic breath, damp armpits on a humid day.
Last week Mary didn’t recognise my face or name, and she was wearing the same knitted wool jersey she had the last time. I was waiting for her to ask me for the money, to accost me with her human smell of decay and desperation. She did not and I felt criminal. Around her mouth were dry white flakes, and her teeth black. She walked vacantly through the crowds of corporate suits, stains running down her clothes, wind and rain in her hair. I suspect that the gaps are getting bigger in her mind.
I don’t know what to do with Mary’s story.