It was one of those sunny days with blue sky in Albert Park.
Layla decided to take a trip to the city.
On her way to the No 1 tram, she saw people happily walking, all wearing cheerful clothes. Smiles and greetings were shared and acknowledged.
This was shortly before the outbreak of COVID-19. As soon as she stepped on board the tram, she looked around for a seat. A gentleman shot her a smile revealing his brown teeth. He patted the seat next to him with slender beautiful hands and long dirty nails.
“Come lady sit down,” he invited her. He was well spoken but very smelly.
She hesitated for a few seconds. The passengers’ eyes were on her. Embarrassed, and not wanting to offend him, she took up his offer.
“Thank you.” She said avoiding his gaze.
Trying to hide, she took her book from her bag and buried her head in it. She started reading, to avoid a conversation.
“What are you reading lady?” He got closer to look at the title.
She couldn’t hold her breath for long. His pungent smell was overwhelming.
“Ah, The Power! I read it. It is a page turner. Naomi Alderman?”
He gave her a concise summary in an articulate manner.
“It is about gender imbalance. Women with a flick of their finger, they could kill. I don’t want to
spoil the ending for you,” he continued.
This took her by surprise and got her attention. This man was clearly well educated. She looked a him properly for the first time. Despite his greasy blond hair and unshaven face, she saw a handsome man with intelligent eyes.
He offered a sticky hand for an introductory handshake. Reluctantly, she took it. Making sure the contact did not linger. Out of respect, she hesitated to wipe her hand on her dress.
“You look Lebanese.”
“Middle Eastern” she replied.
He switched into an almost perfect Arabic conversation.
Astonished, she found her self responding to his open-ended questions. He did it tactfully and in a respectful way.
While he barely disclosed anything about himself.
“I am a philologist.” he said proudly.
“What is that?” Layla asked, ashamed of her ignorance.
“I study the history of languages and enjoy looking closely at literature.”
Engrossed in conversation, she missed her stop.
“Good to meet you. I have to get off.” She said in haste.
“Have a nice day.” His melodic voice and bad smell followed her as she made her exit. He could easily have been a radio presenter or done voice-overs, she thought to herself in amazement!
Two weeks later, after their brief encounter, a book under her arm, she proceeded towards Station Pier.
The same gentleman was sitting on the sand. He was bending over paper. Crayons spread out in front of him. He was sketching the docked Spirit of Tasmania.
“Hi“. She waved with a friendly smile.
“Hello” he said in his mesmerising voice.
She sat next to him admiring his work. He looked different and smelled of aftershave.
“Fancy meeting you here.” she said cheerfully.
“I was hoping to see you. You told me you come here often” He looked at the book under her arm.
“Still reading The Power?”
“No.” she replied, “I lost the book on the tram on my way home the day I met you.”
“Shame. I wanted to debate the position of women with you as the novel unfolded.”
He stretched his hand to take her book. She noticed clean and beautifully manicured nails.
“Ah you are reading French this time – Albert Camus. I remember reading this book years ago.”
In perfect French he summarised the book and discussed the author’s philosophy in depth. Eventually she made her excuses and started to walk away.
“Hope to see you again” he said getting back to his drawing.
She felt a strong connection to this person. They didn’t make any plans to meet again. But they did the following week in the same place.
He greeted her warmly.
“Well look at you! Beautiful teeth!” she remarked.
“Just came from the dentist.” he answered with a thumbs up.
“Good hair cut! Your beard is gone!” She looked at him from head to toe.
“It was free.” he boasted.
“I love your shirt.”
“Yep. The lady in the Op Shop was very kind. She gave me things. She said it was designer stuff – I told her I know.”
“You are looking so well.” She complemented him.
“I am not homeless. I have a room in a hostel.
The people there are noisy. They fight a lot. I would rather roam the streets and sleep in St Vincent’s park or the beach.”
Suddenly COVID-19 hit. She didn’t see the gentleman during the lockdown. At the end of the lockdown, she saw him, sitting on a bench in Clarendon Street. All dishevelled, in a tattered track suit, dirty, and wet. Eyes closed, head bent and nose running.
“Three dollars please.” he begged with a sniff and a croaky voice.