by Sydney Srinivas
It was 12:30, Tuesday afternoon. I was on my way home after work and had to change trains at Epping station. At that hour there are hardly any crowds at most of the suburban stations in Sydney. There was to be a half hour wait. I had some reading material, this time a story. It was a boring piece with the result my attention was drawn to passers-by. Very close to me were an escalator and a lift. People who came out of these passed in front of me and settled around me. I was startled when the lift door opened, and an old man stood there. He would have been more than ninety years old. It was a summer day with the temperature outside hitting 33degrees. He wore a jumper and a jacket on top of it. Shoes decorated his feet and there was a cap on his head. He could hardly walk by himself and had a walker. Slowly he drifted towards me and stood in front of me.
“What time does the train come?”
“Where would you like to go?”
His words were not very audible. It appeared that he could hear well. I said, “There is an express train from platform 1. It will be here in half an hour. A shuttle service will leave from platform 2 in about fifteen minutes.”
He simply sat by my side. I began to wonder – where exactly does he want to go? By Sydney does he mean Central station? There are at least half a dozen stations in the Sydney CBD. To help him better, I asked him,
“Where exactly in Sydney do you want to go?”
“I have to go to Kent Street. The owner of the newsagency there owes me fifteen pounds. I will collect it from him and then go to Sydney High School. I will have coffee with Walter.”
I was surprised. It is more than fifty years since Australia switched to dollars. He says he has to collect fifteen pounds. Of what era is he talking? I sat worrying.
“Will the train come now?”
“Yes, it will.”
He was not convinced. He slowly stood up and asked somebody who sat behind him the same question. He was restless. When this was happening, it seemed that the railway controllers were observing him from a glass cubicle. A lady staffer came out and asked him,
“Sir, where do you want to go?”
“Where are you coming from?”
“I live close by.”
“Well, where is your ticket?”
He just grinned. Obviously, he did not have one. It appeared that the staff was used to such cases. Now, a male staffer came out and asked him,
“What is your name, sir?”
“Where do you live?”
The staff member searched the walker that the old man had brought and pulled out a plastic badge.
“I do not see much here. Everything has got wiped off. I see only a telephone number.” He took the badge to the cubicle and telephoned somebody. The lady staffer too went into the cubicle.
The male staffer came out and declared, “Your name is Gregory Stone. You live in Windsor. Your address is 53 William Street. You left home this morning to buy a newspaper.”
The male staffer went back to the cubicle. Then the lady staffer brought a small piece of paper on which she had printed his address and phone number and stuck it to the badge. I felt for the old man whose stature had been reduced to that of a stray dog. What a downfall, I thought. But Greg sat silently unmoved by all this. The lady staffer turned to me and said,
“Please keep an eye on him. Don’t let him wander away. A train is approaching the other platform. I have to receive it and send it away.”
Now the old man was really restless.
“When is the train coming?”
“Wait a minute,” said I.
How did he come all the way to Epping from Windsor? I wondered. It is a distance of twenty-five kilometres with no straight train connection. Did he catch a train to Central and change? Has anyone misled him? Did he get into a sequence of buses instead?
“How did you come to this station?”
“I walked; I live nearby.”
I was totally lost and had no words to say. I asked him this question more than a dozen times afterwards. Every time I received the same answer. I did not notice at all. In the meanwhile, my train had come and gone. The lady staffer came back to him.
“When does the train come?”
“You are not boarding any train. We have informed the police. They will take you home. Please wait.”
Greg said nothing. I could have withdrawn at this point but did not. I wanted to find out more about him. I asked him,
“Who lives with you in Windsor?”
She could be his wife, daughter or even granddaughter. I did not have to wait long. Two police officers, a man and woman came to us escorted by the railway staff. The policeman asked me,
“Do you know him?”
“No, I only met him here.”
He then addressed Greg, “Sir, we have come to escort you home. Are you ready?”
Greg said, “Train, train.”
“No, you are not catching a train. We will take you home.”
Then I intervened, “Is it okay if I joined you on your way to Windsor?”
“Normally we do not allow this. If this gentleman or his relatives do not mind you can join us. However, we cannot drop you home from Windsor. We may have to go somewhere else from there. It depends upon the orders from the control room. Please telephone the relatives and find out.”
I was glad that the police did not totally overrule my request. I saw the telephone number on the badge that the old man had in his walker and telephoned on my mobile. A lady received the call. She said she was Mary. I put forward my request.
“Not a worry. Please come along. It is good if he is accompanied by someone other than a policeman.”
The police took Greg to the lift and then to the front of the station where their car was parked. I followed. I sat with Greg in the back seat and the car fled. It was a police car. So, the traffic rules and speed mattered little. I thought I would have a dialogue with Greg. But that was not to be. He was too tired and was snoring in no time.
Soon the car reached his home. A lady in her thirties came out to receive Greg. This should be Mary, I thought.
She said to me, “Thanks for coming along. Please come in. I am Mary and I was the one who took your call. “
The police were in a hurry. As they were driving to Windsor, they had been asked to go somewhere else. They took Mary’s signature on a piece of paper, said “See you” and left.
Greg had no difficulty in walking towards his house; there was a ramp from the road. Even within his house he was able to walk from room to room with his walker. Mary asked him,
“Where have you been Greg?”
“Had been to Sydney.”
“What did you do there?”
“I had coffee with Walter, could not go to Kent Street.”
Mary and I laughed. Greg went into a room, never to appear again. He was too tired and would have slept.
I asked Mary, “Why do you allow him to go out like this? It could be a bit dangerous, I am afraid.”
“We are aware of it. However, it is sometimes difficult to control him. He insists on going to the newsagent nearby and buying the daily paper from him. He is very adamant that he has to do it himself every day. He does not allow us to be with him.”
“Surprising. Does he read the paper?”
“No, he cannot. He just folds it and keeps it on the pile.” Mary pointed to a pile of newspapers. “Sometimes when he goes out like this, he misses his way. Many people in the neighbourhood know him. If they see him, they bring him back. Sometimes the police bring him back. That is why I always see that there is a badge with the address in his walker. Only today I learnt from the railway staffer that the writing on it had faded. In any case, he does not go farther than two or three streets. What has happened today is a surprise. Luckily, he found you.”
“He told that he had to collect fifteen pounds from a newsagent and also had to meet someone by the name of Walter.”
“He always says so. It seems he knew a newsagent, George, on Kent Street and may have been his partner too. All this happened before I was born. My granddad feels that Greg himself owes him fifteen pounds. We do not know whether George is still living. Walter used to drop in here many times but died ten years ago. Whenever Greg speaks of these two friends of his, we all have a good laugh. But he cannot tolerate our laughter.”
Then Mary told me about the family. Greg was a school teacher in a primary school till he retired on his pension. The house was his. He was twice married; his first wife had divorced him. The second wife died about ten years ago. He had four children – two sons and two daughters. She was the daughter of the last son James who too was divorced and lived with Greg. As for Mary, she stayed with Greg to take care of him. James, a carpenter by profession hardly came home and he had his own life. The other children had scattered here and there and paid no attention to Greg whatever. In some sense Mary was solely responsible for him.
Greg had led a normal life but was behaving funnily over the last five or six years. She had tried to admit him into an old people’s home. He violently opposed it and expressed his desire to die in his own house. It was then that she gave up her attempts.
It was time for me to go home. My wife had already called twice. Mary offered me a cup of tea which I had to refuse even though I wanted it. It was a quick walk to the train station, and I was on my way back home. I thought about the old man again and again. Yes, I, the railway staff and the police asked him all sorts of questions – where did he come from? Where was he going? How did he come? He uttered something. I laughed at his answers. So did many others. If someone had asked me the same sort of questions about my life, could I give more meaningful answers? At a physical level, yes. At a deeper level, I do not know.
Sydney Srinivas has published several books, stories and articles about scientists in his language Kannada, in Indian magazines. These include visits to Woolsthorpe Manor, the birthplace of Isaac Newton and Down House, the place where Charles Darwin lived.
Of late, he has taken interest in the Australian folklore ; and has started writing them in Kannada (spoken in the State of Karnataka in India). Three of the ten have been accepted for publication. Srinivas plans to publish an anthology of about twenty-five of his stories.
Born, 1946 BE (Bangalore University), ME and PhD (Indian Institute of science, Bangalore, India).
Worked as an academic in the School of Aerospace and Mechanical Engineering, University of Sydney (1981 – 2012). Taught several courses and carried out research into Computational Fluid Dynamics and Optimisation. Author of many papers and textbooks. Have been a visiting faculty at many universities in Japan, Germany and USA.
Author of biographies of Srinivasa Ramanujan, Albert Einstein, Isaac Newton and Charles Darwin in English. Have also written nine biographies of scientists in Kannada. Published many short stories in Kannada and numerous articles about science and music in periodicals. Regular speaker at Sydney U3A on scientific topics. Co-host of the Kannada radio program, Sydney Kannada Vani over 2RRR in Sydney.