Wednesday, June 06, 2012
Thirty Five on Ninth
The door bell rang at 5:30pm.
"Who could that be?" asked Sapphire, as all her friends 'visited' by email, SMS, facebook and Skype during week nights.
It couldn't be Love Chunks as he never loses his keys and was never home at such an early hour.
Maybe it was Anne, the Kiwi maternity nurse from the 1st floor who very kindly passed on the trashy English gossip mags that her friend passed on to her that I then pass on to someone else.
Nope. It was a tall elderly gentleman, holding a newspaper, some letters and a small bag of shopping.
"Excuse me madame," he said in perfect but heavily-accented English, "Is this the ninth floor?"
"Sorry no, monsieur," I replied. You're one floor out. It's upstairs."
"Where are the stairs?" He looked unsteady on his feet and confused.
"I'll be back in a tic," I called out to Sapphire as I grabbed my keys and shut the door. "Let me take you."
I followed him up the stairs, deciding that if he slipped on the fancy marble I might be some kind of pudgy cushion that would soften the impact. Gripping the handrail tightly with the plastic bag swinging against the wall, progress was slow. Once on the ninth he said, "I live up here and have done so for over thirty five years."
My polite smile faded: now it was my turn to look confused. I know all the neighbours directly above us, and had never seen or heard of my this tall old bloke before.
"Are you sure it's the right building? There are five here and every third floor allows us to move between them and what with the lifts being repaired one after the other, it always means that one of them is out of action and...." my voice trailed off when it seemed pretty obvious that my inane Aussie-accented chatter was too much to comprehend at such a puzzling time.
I reached for his bag of shopping and mail. "Let me take those." He handed them over, appreciating the time to stop and think for a bit.
"Madame, I'm in 18A."
"Ah, we'll you've found yourself in 20A. Your lift is out of action this week, so you had to take ours and walk through, you see and our floor - the eighth - is one of those connecting floors."
He clearly didn't see. "Let me take you," I said, for the second time that day.
The connecting doors were locked. "Sorry monsieur, but we'll actually have to walk outside to the very front entrance, use the lift in Building 18 and walk through from the other side."
His dark winter coat covering a rather posh-looking fine wool jumper and tailored business shirt seemed far too much for a 25C day, yet it was me that felt under-dressed in my grubby jeans, black rubber thongs and mens' t-shirt.
"Do you mind if I read the letter boxes in the foyer first?" Of course I didn't mind. His walk was getting progressively slower now and he tottered uncertainly over to the wall lined with shiny stainless steel boxes. "Ah yes, there I am. Ninth floor."
In the lift we formally introduced ourselves. He was a long-retired Director from the UN's International Labor Organisation and a native of Cyprus. "We helped a lot of our people get work and homes in your country," he said, "More than anywhere else, in fact."
On the ninth floor, we both peered at the tiny label under the door bell. Yes, this was the right place. Still holding his gear, I waited, wanting to make sure that he could open his door and that nothing - I wasn't entirely sure what - awful was lurking inside.
He didn't invite me in, but for some reason I followed. His apartment was decorated in the cloying baroque style beloved of far wealthier - and much older - people. It was impeccably clean with flocked wall paper, brocade arm chairs and every French-polished surface was covered in silver framed photographs of family members. He saw where my gaze had travelled to. "My daughter now lives in Paris and my son is in Istanbul. My grand kids are scattered all over the world; at colleges in the US, working in Britain, travelling through Asia and my four great grandchild was born last month in Malta...."
There was a note pad and pen by the living room door and I hastily scrawled my name, address and phone number on it. "Monsieur, this is just in case you ever get lost, or need anything from the shops or, just, er need some help."
He peered at it before slipping it into his coat pocket. "I have a housekeeper who does all that for me since my wife passed a year ago, but thank you all the same."
"No worries," I said, before realising how strongly Aussie and incomprehensible that must have sounded. Looking towards the living room window to the Jura mountains on the right and France straight ahead I realised that the size and room structure of our apartments were identical, as was the view outside.
"I like watching the planes come in," he said, gesturing to the sofa. "I often sit there and see if I can tell who they are."
"Me too," I nodded.
He took my little note out of his pocket and looked at it again. "I've lived here for over thirty five years." His voice was now whisper quiet.
Muttering more inanities that basically encouraged him to call me any time, I closed the door behind me, my last glimpse of him sitting on the sofa looking up at the sky, criss-crossed with aeroplane vapor trails.
He's been disoriented a couple more times since then, both on my floor and the one above. His family are going to have to travel over, get together and make a few inevitable decisions soon. Ageing is cruel and often lonely and, sadly, out of our control. No-one deserves to be lost after a lifetime.