Grace of God

The woman had been shopping.

Her vision was blurring, her head as light as a helium balloon, as she struggled to put one foot in front of the other, conquering the wet cobblestones step by step.

Home. I must get home.

She repeated the mantra again and again. Her dizziness returned. Her body was aching and her face was wet, the flimsy unopened umbrella trailing at her side. Maybe this was it. Death had finally come.

She fixed her one good eye on a fuzzy metal box ten feet in front of her. It kept fading in and out of view.

Estes olhos, these eyes. Get there. Rest. You’ll be fine.

Finally, after an eternity, she slumped against the large grey object. Her thin arms skidded on the aluminum top, her grip weak but keeping her upright, bent over the electrical juntion box, her upper torso twisted, her head resting at a strange angle on her  handbag. It was an old lady bag, black and scuffed whitish grey at the corners.

The walking stick clattered to the ground on the wet sidewalk around her, the cobblestones shiny with the morning rain. The plastic shopping bag slid slowly down and opened like a flower on the limestone cobbles, but instead of revealing anthers or stamens, it produced three or four fruit yoghurts, a rounded loaf of bread, and a large bottle of something. Old lady food.

The old lady closed her eyes, willing her legs to hold her up, the dovecot from the utility company temporarily saving her from another fall.

Further up the hill, a middle aged man was striding down the other side of the street. He’d been on embassy row, and was looking left and right, he seemed to be hunting for a cab. This area of Lisbon was a mix of wealth and misery, embassy staff, Mercedes sedans and expensive suits mixed with pensioners in low rent flats, scraping to eat and heat themselves in the cold damp winter months.

The 1974 Portuguese revolution had frozen the rents, and thirty seven years on there were tenants on embassy row paying thirty dollars a month for three room apartments. With no financial scope for renovation, both the tenants and the buildings slowly died. The dead were taken away and the buildings torn down by property developers.

The old lady heard voices, faraway voices that seemed filtered by a wall of cotton wool. The man was coming toward her, and there was a woman’s voice too.

“Are you alright? What happened?”

“There’s blood on her nose. She must have fallen.”

“Are you ok? Where do you live?”

The old lady started slumping down. Her legs folded and her arms finally gave in.

“She needs to sit down. I’ll get a stool from the hairdresser’s.” The speaker was a middle aged woman, heavyset and with tinted hair, a junior version of the Marge Simpson beehive.

“No, lay her on the sidewalk. She’s about to collapse.”

Another woman had arrived.

“I’m a nurse, what’s the matter? Are you ill? Where do you live?” she asked the old lady.

The old lady could hear the three voices in a haze, but she couldn’t talk. She tried to open her mouth but her lips were like two pieces of rubber, stuck together. She forced her eyes to open, the right one crooked and unresponsive, and saw the man, glasses, thinning hair, and a blue suit. A crazy tie with fish on it. She felt his hand grab her upper arm and grip her just as she fell.

The man and the nurse lowered the old lady onto the damp sidewalk, turning her so that her back was resting on the building wall. Her eyes were open now, left eye straight, right eye skew. Her plastic framed glasses amplified the glazed stare.

“What’s your name?” asked the nurse.

The old lady tried again, but no sound came out.

“I’ll dial 112,” the man said. He fumbled with his cellphone, speaking into the hands free.

“Corner of Sao Domingos and Buenos Aires. Send an ambulance.”

“How old are you?” the nurse insisted. “Do you live alone?”

The old lady was holding her head up now, her black dress had ridden up to show black nylon stockings wrapped around the stick legs.

“I’m ninety years old,” she said hoarsely.

The man handed her a whiten linen handkerchief.

“For your nose.”

He helped her open it and dab the blood. From a tear on her right knee, dark blood was oozing through the frayed stocking.

“You fell,” the nurse said. “Where did you fall?”

“I felt weak. I used to fall sometimes on the street. Then I went to hospital. The doctor said I’d had an AVC”. The old lady used the fancy Portuguese term for stroke. Sounded so much more palatable as a Cardio-Vascular Accident. No one had problems anymore, only issues.

“She told me to get a walking stick.”

“Where’s your family? Can we call someone?” A young man had joined the throng, the street corner was beginning to look like a barbershop choir. A Spanish guy stopped on the corner.

“Puedo ayudar? Que pasa?” he put some Spanish papers on top of the dovecot an leaned in to look at the old lady. The others looked quickly at each other. No one in Portugal expects help from Spain.

“I live alone. I’ve had three eye operations. I live just up the road. I’ll be fine now.” She could feel the color returning to her cheeks, flushing hotter with the blood.

“What did you have for breakfast?” the nurse again.

“Bread. And coffee. I’ve been a widow for thirty-three years,” the old lady offered.

A cop arrived from embassy row. Maybe going off duty. The Spanish guy picked up his papers and left.

I haven’t had this much company in years, the old lady thought.

The cop was taking charge, displaying his training to deal with emergencies.

“I’ll call an ambulance.” He pulled out his police radio and pressed a button.

“I did that about ten minutes ago. They should be here momentarily.”

“I don’t want an ambulance, I can go home by myself now. It’s just up the road,” the old lady said. “I don’t need to go to hospital. Will they take me to hospital?” Her voice slightly elevated now. No one wants to go to hospital, and after a certain age, it’s the antechamber of death.

“Dona Antónia, the ambulancemen will do some tests, check your blood pressure, that’s all. And then you’ll get a ride home.” The nurse was also being official.

“Where’s your family?” the cop asked. “Who can I call?”

“I live alone,” the old lady repeated. “I have a son, he lives in the Castelo,” referring to a neighborhood on the east side of town, by St. George’s castle. “He’s sixty-six. And I have two grandchildren. One of them is thirty-seven.”

 “Well, they should take care of you,” the beehive woman preached. “At your age, you shouldn’t be all alone.”

“I saw my son last week. He’s a good boy,” the old lady said defensively. To any mother, a son is a son, even at sixty-six.

“If any of you senhores have anything to do…” the cop suggested.

The middle aged man did. He said goodbye, and told the old lady to keep the handkerchief. She was gripping it tightly as she said goodbye.

The man walked off down the street and turned the corner, heading down to the lower part of town, down to where the ships used to weigh anchor for India, five hundred years before. He was thinking of something he’d read in the paper the previous week. An old woman had been found dead in her apartment. She had been dead for nine years. She had a nephew, who had tried a couple of times to ring her doorbell, and once to get the cops to bust the door down. The police said they needed a court order, and it was too much trouble. When the door finally opened, the smell was atrocious. A little dog lay dead at her side.

Ai, que é uma tristeza, a velhice! the beehive woman had said. Getting old is such a heartache!

That’s why today always has to be the best day of my life, the guy with the fishy tie thought to himself, as he stared at the storm clouds rolling in across the great estuary.

Up the cobblestone street, the large basalt blocks of the old roads of Lisbon, split by the steel tramlines, shiny with rain,  an ambulance passed him. It was yellow and blue, with the letters INEM stencilled on the side. It blared its siren once to get a white van out of the way and continued up the road. The middle aged man turned and watched it make a right at the top of the hill, skidding round the corner into Buenos Aires, blue lights flashing.


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