Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: News and Features
Room at the inn for Katya, smell and all
My paper lady just died. Christmas always reminds me, anyway, why those peeling inner-city boarding houses generally reviled as slums are actually essential to city life. But my paper lady’s death brings it strangely home.
In fact she died a couple of months back, only I just found out from the corner newsagent, who was her boss. That makes it worse.
She was no ordinary paper lady. I’m not sure ordinary paper ladies exist but if they do, she wasn’t one. A permanently dishevelled, chain-smoking, alcoholic grandmother, she was entirely toothless, hopelessly cheerful and, to the end, unreasonably optimistic.
Let’s call her Katya. Born in Afghanistan to Russian parents well before what history will know as the American War, she nevertheless had a broad Australian accent from having lived here most of her life. These days, as a reffo, she’d probably end up on Christmas Island. As it was, some long, unrecorded tangle of incident and accident brought her to the fibro-fronted inner-city boarding house where she spent her last decade. And her last Noel, speaking of Christmas.
She was still chuckling about it two days later. “We almost died laughing,” she recalled, exactly a year ago, with unfeigned glee. “Shirl’s boyfriend Dave – one-legged Dave? – he was so drunk he got his good leg stuck in a bucket and couldn’t get it out. And the rest of us were so drunk, and laughing so hard, we couldn’t help him. So Dave spent Christmas trapped by a bucket.”
This struck Katya as only fair, for she didn’t really approve of Dave. She had strict standards, in her way, and ran her professional life like clockwork. Every morning before five, come hail or thunder, she’d trundle her trolley through the dark streets, delivering the paper reliably by seven, always chucking it to avoid the drip-line (and the leaking gutter) if rain seemed so much as a vague possibility. She pulled her weight. So Dave, in her view, was a bludger. He’d take and take from Shirl, Katya said, letting her pay rent and food, contributing nothing.
Shirl was Katya’s friend, as well as her housemate and colleague. Sometimes known as Big Shirl – at all of five feet five, she had a good six inches on Katya – she quickly became assistant paper-lady and for two or three years you’d always see them together, often after the paper round, cheering each other along.
Until the fight. It was the only time I ever heard Katya say anything negative, the only time I saw her mope. But Big Shirl had hurt her feelings. “She says I smell like piss,” Katya confided, close to tears. “I don’t smell like piss, do I? Your kids wouldn’t hug me if I smelt like piss. Would they?” No way, I assured her, though said kids later confessed well, yes, there was a bit of a pong – which had been my secret impression, too.
She wasn’t much to look at, our Katya. With a face like a bag of sandwiches left too long in the sun and a figure straight out of the Potato Men (mashed), she’d wear trackies and trainers all winter, shorts and thongs all summer. If she had a win on the pokies she’d spend it all on booze, usually without leaving the pub.
One day she appeared with a bandaged arm, telling me cheerfully she’d drunk so much gin the night before she’d scalded herself in the shower. Hadn’t felt a thing. Thought it was a great joke. For me, even the thought of Katya showering brought a kind of wonder.
But she had her own boyfriend even so. Call him Ron. He may have been the old guy we used to see when we first moved here, collapsing on our wall for a rest and a fag when he’d run out of puff during the short stroll between boarding house and pub. Soon after that he disappeared, being confined – I hypothesise – to Katya’s bed.
She called him “my darling.” As in, “my darling brought me a present.” Katya’s darling drank black-and-tans and snored all night, but when she came in from the pub, or with a free sandwich from a local cafe, he’d roll over and mumble “I love you,” and she’d forgive him everything. Those were the happy times. But nothing lasts forever.
Shirl went first. She got lucky and tripped in the shopping centre, damaging an overweight ankle. The compensation wasn’t much, but it covered a new pair of $20 shoes, a second-hand suitcase (with wheels), an air ticket to visit her children in New Zealand, and her first passport.
The ticket turned out to be one-way, and although Katya got letters complaining of cold – the children, it seemed, as much as the weather – Big Shirl never came back.
Then Katya got sick. Her voice got croaky, and stayed croaky. The doc said it was a lump. Still smoking, she appeared on the street with a rag wrapped around her head like some Peanuts character with gumboils. But she smiled her way through radiotherapy and chemo, and when for a while her trolley stopped trundling, we guessed the boarding house and left peonies on the step.
The end was always coming, as ends do. For us, Katya’s death leaves a hole in the fabric of the street that reminds us, as much as her presence did, why we are so attached to this grunge part of town. Reminds us why there must always be room at the inn.
But for legless Dave, bedridden Ron and the rest of that motley boarding house crew, this Christmas must be very different from the last, when the four of them almost died laughing.
Miranda Devine is on leave.
Illustration: Simon Bosch