There’s a bench I like to sit on, with my legs tucked up, pretending I’m just another student on break from university. People always have a smile for me—a young woman in the sun—until they see the sores and the thin wrists and then their eyes slide up and away, up and away as if they have just remembered something important. I grin at them and pick at the scratches on my arms, mindlessly or frantically, depending on whether I’ve had a hit recently, whether I’ve scratched that itch.
While I sit, I watch.
The old woman crouches in front of the Opera House, at the bottom of the wide, sloping steps. Just sits there with her bag of breadcrumbs while the pigeons do their flap walk and peck at her hands. When disturbed they rise up in a chattering mass, sweeping across the square in a swift, amoeboid motion, as if they were all one. Doesn’t matter the weather; rain or cold or strangling wet heat, she’s wearing a knitted cap and jumper the colour of old tea. The bedrock of her face has weathered and crumbled, leaving deep gullies of erosion around her sunken, pallid mouth.
Her shopping trolley is always within reach, plastic bags tied along the side in great bunches, grey balloons that hiss and rattle when the wind blows up from the harbour, fresh, salty tang brushing away the automobile stink of the city.
The trolley goes where she goes, like a friendly dog. There’s soup in there, a red-wrapped tin pressed against the wire, a lumpy bag in the front and an old blanket over the top. But mostly it’s full of jars, some empty, some with lids, tumbled about in the bottom of her trolley.
The trolley jangles and rattles along the roads at night, in between the trendy cafe crowd and the workers getting off the ferry. You can hear it coming, whichever dark corner you’re tucked into, whichever hidey-hole you’ve found out of sight of the police and the Salvos and the drunks and the predators. You can hear her coming down the street, noise and silence, noise and silence as she stops to check the bins along the way.
When she finds a lid she wipes it clean on her dirty jumper, spits on it and wipes and wipes until she’s satisfied, holding the lid up to the yellow light. People walk around her, looking at the cars crawling by, at their phones, at the sky — at clean things, not at the bent old woman in her crusty jumper.
On the steps she tempts the pigeons down with the breadcrumbs. When they’re fluttering in her hand she reaches into her trolley and pulls out a jar. I don’t know how she chooses them, or why. Sometimes, the first jar gets a nod. Other times, she shuffles through them, her gaze distant, searching for the right one. She tucks the jar under her arm so she can unscrew the top with one hand.
Inside is dust. Only dust. She picks it up off the street: from window ledges, from gutters, from benches and dark corners, the tops of signal boxes, the long cracks in the footpath, her own, dirty clothing. I’ve seen her do it. I’ve followed her, watched her gather the dust of the city into her gnarled old hands.
The dust goes over the pigeons held captive in her hands, sifted from the jars with rough jerks, or sprinkled delicately, a pinch at a time. The pigeons don’t seem to mind, though they spend as much time upside down as they do right way up. But they are calm in her hands, as if they have never been wild things at all.
And when the work is done she tosses them into the sky. They don’t rejoin the flock feasting below. They flap off over the city, in all directions, in all weathers.
Where do they go? What do they carry? Messages? Curses?
I watch them wheel and turn, dark shapes against the too-bright sky, absolutely sure of their direction. It’s magnetic, or something like that, the way they know exactly where they are and where they’re going. They can always find their way home.
I can still find my way home. On cold nights I tell myself I’ll go there, to a warm bed, clean sheets, food on the table. Unreachable expectations. Parents with their loving belief, their support, their dreams and the horrifying shape of the future.
I remember my mother painting her nails at the kitchen table. I remember my dealer’s rancid breath last night as he hung over me.
I wish I knew which way to go. I wish the Earth would tell me.
The old woman freezes as I crouch down in front of her, turns with a shattered smile, hand held out towards me, palm inviting succour. But then she sees me, she looks at the sores and the bony wrists and the dirt and she sees me for what I am, and the smile melts away, the hand drops back to her work.
“Where do they go?” I ask.
I think she won’t answer, as the next jar is considered and discarded. But I’m not moving until I know, so I squat there, lapped with the birds’ bubbling calls, the sun hot on my neck.
“Where they’re needed.”
It’s not nearly enough of an answer, so I stay, ignoring the itch and burn of my sores, the sweat prickling under my arms.
She searches for another jar with one hand, her eyes focused on me and there’s interest there that wasn’t before. “Everyone gets one. One bird. One chance.” The jar is shoved back under the blanket.
My fingers reach for the bird. She yanks it out of my reach.
“I just want to touch it.”
“It’s not yours.”
“What’s it got?”
“What a body needs.” She flings it into the air. “Hope, luck, some little bit of fear, which is always useful. Depends on the person.” She watches its flight, sucking the remains of her teeth.
“How do you know what goes in? What’s in the jars?”
She lifts her hand in front of my face, rubs her fingers together. “The hand knows.”
I stare at the bulbous knuckles. Magic? “Bullshit.”
She laughs, a wheezing like the rasp of a seagull, coming in from the harbour. “You think I’m going to tell you my secrets?”
“Yes. Who would I tell?”
“Go away.” But her face makes a liar of her.
“What’s in the jars?”
“The detritus of life.”
I frown at her. The word sounds wrong in her mouth.
“You know what I mean?” she says. “Cast offs.”
“I know what detritus is.”
She reaches into her trolley and tugs out a hunk of stale bread. The pigeons wash against her feet in a tide, a moving, shifting ocean of feathers.
I look out over the square in front of the opera house. Midmorning, there aren’t many people here. Fitness freaks puffing past. Mothers with strollers. Tourists snapping pictures of the Opera House sails. They say that dust is mostly human skin.
A jogger leans on a bench, bent over, drops of sweat marking the pavement. Determination raining onto stone, cast off from someone who has more than their share. I imagine reaching out to catch a drop in my palm, absorbing that determination into my skin.
I imagine my life changing with it.
“Give me a bird.”
“It’s not for the likes of us.”
“Why not? Why do all this, if not for us? Who needs it more?”
“Why fuck your dealer in a dirty bathroom?”
I shrug. I have long ago been laid bare, long ago walked away from pretence. “What else is there?”
Her look pins my lie like a dead butterfly. “You ever made a cake?” she asks.
“You mean baking?” I remember home economics at school: mucking about and not paying attention, throwing flour at my best friend. The teacher told us off, said these were skills we’d need if we wanted to eat. I’d told her that was what restaurants are for.
“We’re the paper. Greaseproof.” She cackles. “Nothing sticks to us. The burned bits, the glue that holds the cake together, it don’t stick. We’re apart. We’re the layer between people and what’s beneath.”
“What you keep your back to, that’s what.” She reaches for my hand, looks at the scabs and the dirt. “Those sores, those eyes, that’s the sign of it. What it is, what it brings. It comes out of us, but in just little bits, and the world can bear it. Can’t come out all at once.”
I watch her bend down for another pigeon, her old back crooked, wispy, colourless hair peeping from under the dirty cap, the sour smell that is sweat and age and urine, and I think, you’re wrong. I remember chemistry lessons, running solutions through filter paper. “We’re not greaseproof. The paper stains.” I rub my arms, feel the scabs under my fingers. “It stains.”
She grunts. “Might be. That worry you?”
I pick at a scab on my wrist. “No.”
“Think you can stick it out?”
I think about dark doorways, and cold nights, and hunger aching in my guts; dirty needles and fucking on a concrete floor to pay for my next fix. I think of sending hope into the city, and luck, and just a touch of fear. “Yes.”
She hands me a bird. It’s not for me. I can feel a static buzz, gritty dust that doesn’t stick to my fingers, that sifts between the feathers. “It is always pigeons?”
“Can be anything. Were rats, once, but there’s not as many of them now. Them ibix—” she kicks out at a tall white ibis, scrounging for crumbs among the pigeons like a scrawny headmaster among flocks of fat children. “Them are no good. Got to be small. Cats is okay, but there’s not so many, here.” She looks at me with her cracked agate eyes. “You like them birds?”
The pigeon sits in my hand, unafraid, eyes dreamy-distant, pink toes clutching mindlessly at nothing. It’s a warm thing, a live thing, little pulse of life under my thumb. “Yeah.”
She nods and reaches for it.
I hand it over. It’s not for me.
She flings it into the air. I squint against the glare, following it until I can no longer convince myself it’s there. When I look back, she’s watching me.
“There’s a baptsy church down Redfern way that gives out bread on Friday nights. You bring it here, okay? And jars. Any jars you can find. They got to be clean, mind, so wash ‘em well.”
She pulls back the blanket. The light shines up, rainbow colours on her face, and for a second, just a second, she is beautiful, the carved rock of her face serene, endless, ancient, before the blanket snaps back.
“You remember. They got to be clean.”
The pigeons rise up in salute, kissing my cheeks with fluttering wings and for a moment I am a goddess, winged. I push through the crowds. Nobody sees me. Their eyes slide up and away, from my dirty clothes and the sores on my face and the grease in my hair. There’s a new road beneath my feet and I’ll follow it, and carry the stains of the world on my skin.