Anna and I were on the tram, on our way back from a meeting at Odyssey House. They had proposed a program for her rehabilitation that made my heart light up with hope, but she was not looking pleased. I wanted to see her smile, that gorgeous grin I'd adored since she was 5 weeks old. So I suggested we get off at the top of Collins Street and have a snack at the McDonalds there. It worked. She might self-medicate with some pretty heavy stuff to deal with the storms and the monsters inside her head, but she could still be tempted by a cheeseburger.
We sat at a table on the footpath so she could have a post-Happy Meal smoke. This was last year, when I still believed if I could find just the right words, if I put all my creative energy into crafting a path for her, I could persuade her to walk (or indeed take a tram) towards a future I imagined.
Anna was crunching through the last of her fries when a tall young woman in a very short denim skirt stopped at our table. 'I don't usually ask this but ... could you ladies spare a couple of dollars?'
The girl was shivering, even though it was a warm spring day. She wore a jaunty, if rather grubby, white beanie atop her long dark hair.
'Sorry,' I said, 'I gave the last of my coins to the Big Issue guy over there.'
This was true. I'd learned not to carry much cash, because Anna had to stop and chat to every beggar and busker we passed. Having a street person actually approach her was gold for Anna. 'We could buy you a meal,' she chirped, rising from her seat and waving towards Macca's door.
'Oh ... thanks,' the girl replied, 'but I don't eat that shit.'
Still, she didn't seem in a hurry to move on. She had several dark scabs on her bare, skinny legs, and a large rose tattooed on her left forearm. She shook our hands and introduced herself. ‘I’m Tiffany.’
'How about a ciggie?' Anna suggested.
‘That’d be nice.’
Anna said to me, ‘We’ll sit over there so we don’t blow smoke on you.’ She led Tiffany to the table furthest away from me. Willing myself not to stare at them, I got out my phone for a round of Red Herring. Something good for my mind ... which, I can tell you, I desperately needed because my brain was about to implode. I kept Anna in my peripheral vision because I was afraid she would get up with her new friend and leave. She’d done it often enough before: invented some reason to get out of my sight and then vanished, from cafes and movies and our own home. For hours and sometimes days I’d have no idea where she was. Time after time I’d try her phone and it would go straight to voicemail, and that was a special ring of hell.
From the corner of my anxious eye, I could see she and Tiffany were deep into an animated conversation. Tiffany was sitting straight and tall, gesturing with a dancer’s energy. She smoked urgently, holding the fag firmly between her thumb and forefinger. Suddenly she stubbed it out and got up. So did Anna ... and they walked towards me.
‘Do you know where there’s an ATM?’ Anna asked me.
‘Why do you need an ATM?’ Perhaps there was a bit of an edge to my voice.
‘I just do!’ she fired back. ‘It’s my money.’
So it was. She had her Centrelink, plus a small income from a trilogy for kids we wrote together when she was in high school. I wanted her to save that, for a course she might want to do. And she’d need to rent a little apartment, once she’d finished at Odyssey House, when she was permanently sober and equipped with the life skills to get a job.
‘I’m from South Australia,’ Tiffany said. ‘I just got in this morning.’ Thus she explained her lack of knowledge of Melbourne geography. There was no need for Anna to explain. She has a university degree, but her navigational IQ is in the negative numbers. She can get lost at the Broadie shopping centre, trying to find her way back from the toilet to our table in the food court.
‘Come on.’ Anna grabbed Tiffany’s tattooed arm. ‘We’ll find an ATM ourselves.’
‘No!’ I was on my feet before she could get away. ‘There’s one across the street, in Collins Place.’
As we headed through the upmarket mall towards the gold and black triangle of a Commonwealth ATM, I pleaded, ‘Don’t give her much. You can't afford it.’
‘Muumm!’ Anna was horrified I had said that in front of Tiffany.
‘Hey,’ Tiffany said. She sounded serious as she put her arm around Anna’s shoulders. ‘You know how lucky you are to have somebody watching your back? Somebody who actually cares about you?’
Anna’s glanced over at me. ‘Yeah, I know. I do know.’
Tiffany sat down on a bench. And I, figuring Anna would return for her, sat down beside her. I decided I liked Tiffany. I couldn't resist giving her some motherly advice. ‘Tiffany,’ I said, ‘you gotta learn to smoke like a girl.’
‘What? Oh ... well ... I am in transition.’ She looked a little deflated. I hadn’t meant to hurt her feelings.
‘You're beautiful,’ I said. ‘And your voice is great. It's just that one thing.’ I held up the forefinger and middle finger of my right hand and raised them to my pursed lips, to show how a woman smokes.
Tiffany’s mood brightened. ‘I guess I could watch some old Audrey Hepburn movies.’
Just then, Anna sat down on the other side of Tiffany and handed her a 20-dollar note. I was relieved to see it wasn't more. Tiffany thanked Anna warmly. Then she turned to me and gave me a hug. She was kind of bony. But her hug was long and tight, and it felt wonderful.
As I write this, I know for sure I never would have chosen this journey for my beloved child, or for me. Yet if I hadn't been forced to take this trip, I would have missed out on meeting a lot of good people.