July 2 2015
Outside the air is freezing, so we’re not standing out there admiring the full moon or how close Venus and Jupiter are to each other. We’re inside with the curtains drawn to keep in the warmth of the fire. I’m feeling safe.
Driving up to the farm today Martin and I stopped at the café off the motorway, as we do every week. I sat at a table next to the windows that was catching a bit of afternoon sun. Outside, a woman and a bunch of children were eating through a range of bags, some from the Macdonalds, some from the café. As I sat down I saw a wind spring up and blow some of their bags and containers onto the ground. The woman turned and looked straight at me. I gave her an ‘oops, you may not have noticed some of your things have blown onto the ground’ smile and pointed at the ground. She gave me the finger.
Martin joined me at the table with the coffees and I told him about the woman and the finger. We looked out the window just as one of the children started picking up the rubbish and putting it in the bin. I couldn’t see the woman, but the kids were doing a great job out there. I returned to my coffee. Suddenly there was a face, inches from mine. The woman, snarling, ‘You stupid old c***. You presumptious c***. How dare you tell me what to do.’ And so on. I said, ‘Wow, you are rude’ which led to her repeating her attack then storming off, bumping into a chair which enraged her anew, causing her to turn back to me and attack again. Martin started to try to stop her, which drew her frenzy onto him. ‘I’m not talking to you!’ she screamed.
Eventually she was gone. The entire attention of the café was turned to us for a split second, then everyone turned away, pretending nothing had happened. One person said, ‘Someone forgot to take their tablets this morning’ which, although crude, was welcome support. The whole familiar café was suddenly unsafe, a place of harshness and brutality.
While the repetitive use of c*** was shocking – it’s a word I don’t use at all, because it seems to be no accident that the worst word in English refers to a distinctly female body part – it was the use of ‘old’ that really struck me. My hair is grey, and it needs a cut. I had dental surgery yesterday, so my face is pretty pale, and a little drawn. Was it my apparent age that let her express herself so furiously? She was maybe at the end of her 30s. She had three or four pre-teenage children with her, and a very overweight husband who I only noticed later, leading some of the children to the car. Was her attack a female version of young buck / old bull? Did she need to assert her (what’s the feminine version of ‘virility’? which is defined specifically as ‘having masculine vigour or strength’) feminine vigour by challenging an older woman?
I could say it was just one crazy person but it’s looking like a bit of a pattern. A few months ago I told a younger woman, who I know well, that she had done something thoughtless. She turned on me – also with a far stronger response than my initial comment warranted – and told me to ‘stop being a fool’ when I defended myself from her attack. She stopped short of the actual term, but ‘old’ and ‘fool’ go together, much like ‘horse’ and ‘carriage’.
I have been thinking about it. Getting old. Maybe those aches and pains aren’t just from too many hours at the computer, or too many hours weeding or mowing. Maybe they’re me, getting old. But does that make me vulnerable and deserving of attack?
I’ve been taking my mother – 94, competent and capable but with failing eyesight – around to retirement villages lately. It’s harder for her to get out these days and she needs more people around her. When I’m with her I’m glad that people take care of her, give her a seat, ask her if she’s ok walking up the stairs, tell her to watch out for cracks in the paving. But she is old, and she has special needs attached to having poor eyesight. These are not gratuitous reactions. My age is being seen as an opportunity for attack; hers evokes compassion.
Wow, Kathy! Maybe it’s that in each case you dared to have a voice, instead of silently and invisibly waiting to die! May you continue to confound such expectations for decades more!
Thank you Jonathan. I walked into the cafe this week with some trepidation – obviously the woman wasn’t there. But a couple near me were tut-tutting about some Mcdonald’s trash that had been left on a seat, and I felt like saying, Be careful about who you criticise!