Willa Waters, aged 93
Catawampus. A word I’ve decided to take a real shine to in my old age. I have a new notebook titled Things I Am Sure of that was mailed to me a few days ago. The word of the day was written inside the front cover: Catawampus (adjective): Awry or askew.
As we plod down Main Street in Boonah, with the galumph-galumph of old gumboots around my ankles, my carer hands the notebook back to me. ‘Your life is catawampus, Willa. I’m the one’s trying to put you straight!’ She rolls her eyes. The winter cold makes her nose red to match my boots and her words are icy puffs as she tells me I ‘should this’ and ‘should that’. Should wear sensible shoes for a shopping trip to town. Should stop buying more things. Who died and made her the Should Police?
Besides, I’m in town today to post two very important boxes. It says so on the note taped to them: TWO VERY IMPORTANT BOXES, exactly like that, in shouty capital letters. One box is addressed to 14 Seagrove Way, Boonah, 1965. The same house I grew up in as a child and where I am living now. The other box says 21 Graves Place, Brisbane North, 1990. I’m not sure who lives there. Doesn’t sound a nice place, does it?
Thinking about the boxes makes me a bit seasick and shaky, so I know that I need new gumboots to ground me to the earth. If I am going on this mission to the post office I’ll need my sea legs.
My carer grips my elbow as we walk down the street. Old ladies don’t need their elbows gripped. Do people think we’ll run off, our walkers flapping behind us in the breeze?
‘It’s not a brave mission, for crying out loud, Willa. We are returning boxes to the post office. You don’t need more gumboots.’
‘Goodness. What would you be crying out loud for, dear? It’s not a sad thing to buy boots.’
My house belongs to gumboots: wellingtons, wellies, rubber boots, galoshes, billy-boots, gumbies, rainboots, Alaskan sneakers. Oh gosh, they have such crackerjack names. These are my friends who do things for me, like clomp bravely across town when really I’m shuffling. My arthritic toes hidden and my ankles, with road maps of veins, made strong and sure. What wonderful inventions these gumboots are.
My carer is . . . What’s-Her-Name. What is her name? Reminds me of a cat, always flicking her tail and hissing. Cat. Catty. Katie. That’s her name! I ask her if I own a pair of gumboots that have walked on the moon yet. She says no, and I tell her that’s a good thing because moonboots are still to be purchased. Really, I only say things like this to start discussions. Well, I call them discussions. Katie calls them ‘interjections of insanity’. Whatever, I say. Can we stop at the diner for a cuppa?
Ninety-three is the kind of age that has infinite potential to shock and annoy people. I’m fabulously old enough to wear red with purple, spots with stripes. To say whatever flitters into my head and pretend I haven’t the faintest clue why people are huffing and puffing. To need sensible shoes and then turn around and buy yellow gumboots.
As we stand behind the counter in Lublands, Katie asks why I would do such a foolish thing. I almost forget what foolish thing it is that I’m doing. I look around, as I sometimes do to remind myself where I am. Ah yes, boots.
Shoes peer down at me from racks. Lublands is the last country department store of its kind, a bit like me, standing more or less as it did when Boonah was first settled. The uneven floorboards holding row after row of shelves bulging with jeans and akubra hats. In summer, the fans overhead fight a valiant battle with flies and humidity, but in the cold the shop’s a joy of a huddle. Driza-Bone coats and R. M. Williams work shirts gather like town gossips in every corner. There’s an odd mix of cowhide and fabric bolts. Hankies with crocheted edges sit in folded piles next to men’s work socks and teacups. If Lublands doesn’t sell it, it can’t be bought.
A shop assistant, his buttoned shirt choking his scrawny neck, rings up the purchase on a relic of a machine that still requires punching in numbers.
‘Is that part of the Ye Olde Shoppe thing you’ve got going on around here?’ Katie taunts.
The shop assistant’s nametag is a blur without my reading glasses. I imagine it’s Levi or Jackson. He’s too young to be a Bill or a Ronald. It’s Levi. I decide it’s Levi.
‘You know why I want the boots, don’t you, Levi?’ I lean heavily on my walker.
He appears to consider this new name I’ve deposited on him. A smile plays in his eyes, self-assured yet welcoming, despite this slightly crazed lady in front of him.
With a mostly straight face, I inform them both that the gumboots are so I can admire them on my feet while jogging in the rain. Katie stands erect beside me and adjusts the badge on her uniform.
On a whim, I say I’ll buy the snake-print heels too.
Katie spits out a half-formed word that sounds like ‘gah’. Her face takes on shades of red and her eyebrows knit together. Lovely. My work here is done.
Levi laughs and extends his hand so I can shake it, which I do with vigour because by golly there should be more people like him.
I make Katie put the yellow moonboots on my feet before we leave.
‘You mean the gumboots?’ she says.
‘Yes, those. And try not to make a fuss about it, dear. Putting gumboots on an old lady’s feet is hardly an act of the Military Order of the Purple Heart.’
With a tip of his head, Levi hands me the shoebox with the snake-print heels, and the other box with my old boots. As for me, I march out of there a queen, new yellow gumboots on my feet, my head held high. The national anthem plays in my head, or it would be if I remembered the words. In truth, the boxes balance on the seat part of my walker and we hobble out together.
Katie is outraged, a state she prefers to be in. ‘Why do you use that walker anyway? They have these new walking aids now –’
Boys rush past, kelpie pup following. Noise and dirt, push and pull. I always thought a group of boys should be called a gaggle or a clutter. At that thought I stop.
‘Are my boys coming today, Katie?’
She tries to move me along. ‘It’s Caty. Short for Caitlin. Pronounced Cat-ee or Cat-leen. It’s Irish, remember? And you ask me about your son every day.’
‘So, tell me again.’ I plod after her, the new gumboots slip-slopping around my ankles.
‘Your son is all grown up,’ Katie snaps.
I glare. ‘What? Already? But, they’re coming today?’
‘You have one son. And no, not today.’ Katie marches her sensible black shoes all the way to the post office. We line up with farmers who smell of earth and freshly cut hay. There are toddlers clinging to women in boots and jeans. Boonah might have self-driving tractors and robotic thingamabobs, but it smells mostly the same as it did when I was a child. Carrot farmers still farm. The world still needs its veg.
‘Katie! Tell me they’re coming.’
She shifts her weight. ‘Cat-ee! And . . . it’s not my place to say.’
‘Say!’ Maybe that’s said a bit loud, because Katie stops and so do others.
She pulls at the neck of her blouse. Behind her hand she hisses, ‘You don’t get on with Eli, remember? He hired me and I’ve been looking after you for donkey’s years now. We’re packing up so you’re ready when there’s space in that nursing home.’ She mutters, ‘The sooner the better,’ thinking I can’t hear her.
At the mention of a nursing home, I get indigestion. ‘They would never move me into a Plastic-Sheet Home! And I have two boys, Eli and Sebastian!’
‘They’re called nursing homes and the only son I know about is Eli.’ We are at the front of the line now, so Katie doesn’t say any more.
A lady behind the counter frowns as Katie hands her the address labels.
‘Two boxes were delivered to us a few days ago by mistake. Someone just dumped them in the backyard and –’
‘No, no.’ I wheel my walker closer. ‘We need to deliver them!’
Katie talks right over the top of me: ‘– one of these addresses isn’t correct, and the other box is probably some silly thing Willa ordered off the radio again. That right eejit radio presenter, Marta, has a lot to answer for. Anyway, we’re here to return them. There’s two big boxes in the back seat of Willa’s old car.’
Post Office Lady studies the labels. ‘Boonah, 1965 and Brisbane, 1990, hey?’ Then she winks at me. ‘We’ll deliver them. You want me to have Gerald get ’em out of the car for ya, love?’
Before we can answer she yells, ‘Gerald! Get out here and make yerself useful.’ She turns to us. ‘I’ll take good care of this. Oh, and Willa has more mail.’
Post Office Lady hands us a bulging yellow envelope that Katie dumps in her handbag before I can ask about it.
Gerald peeps his face around the corner. He’s pimply and greasy looking, but nods in approval at the gumboots on my feet. Katie directs him to where she parked my car down the street. She stomps off after him saying, ‘The antique thing. 2019 model. You’ll notice it.’
I catch bits of their conversation as I try to keep up with them.
‘And you can drive it?’ Gerald bounces along beside Katie.
She dismissively waves a hand. ‘My grandfather taught me long ago. A most useless skill, I thought, until I was hired on the basis that I could drive one. Willa doesn’t trust anything “newfangled”.’
‘Wait. The boys. You said we don’t get on? I’m sure I want to get on. Katie?’
She turns around, waiting for me. When I catch up she puts a firm hand on my back. ‘You really want to know? Fine! Eli told me you’ve been estranged most of his life. As I understand it, he’s recently returned from the States to manage your affairs and try to get you into that nursing home.’
‘Stop saying nursing home! It gives me the heebeegeebees!’
‘The word “heebeegeebees” died around the year 2000!’
I press my lips together and tap a gumbooted foot.
‘I’m trying to think of something snarky to say to you, Katie. But at my age it might take a while and I haven’t the time. Think of it yourself and pretend I said it.’
She’s outraged all the way past MacBean’s Diner, where guests eat fat-fingered chips and squirt sauce on pies with mushy peas and watch us pass. ’Cause that’s what you do in country towns, you watch folk pass. Boonah is full of mismatched people, an extended family that bumbles along together. I imagine news of me travelling from High Street Organic Foods at one end to Franny’s Florist at the other. The butcher, the baker and the hot-chip-maker get a five-minute chuckle and a casual, ‘How about that Ms Willa Waters? Daft cow wearing her gumboots into town again.’
They probably don’t say the bit about the daft cow. They probably don’t talk much about me at all. Which is a shame. I thought I might be talk-worthy one day.
I spy a wooden bench and almost succeed in lowering myself onto it for a rest when Katie hooks a firm arm around my middle and walks me the last few feet to the car.
She’s still huffing as Gerald takes one of the soggy boxes from the seat.
He whistles slowly. ‘Would ya look at this car! I think my grandfather had one of these. You don’t get many like this anymore.’ He notices a placard that hangs from the rear-view mirror. ‘Special permit and all?’
Katie nods. ‘Boonah will let you bring them into town on weekends only. Keep to back roads. No driving on highways. Better off as displays in museums, if you ask me.’
Gerald kicks at a wheel. ‘Get a load of those rubber tyres. Is it a manual with a gearstick?’ He balances the box on his hip and peers in through the passenger door.
‘Ridiculous, that’s what it is. Here, take the other box.’ Katie rips off the notes about them being Very Important.
‘They don’t weigh much,’ he says, balancing them in his arms.
Then the strangest thing. A gust of sea breeze stirs, out here, in the middle of a town surrounded by paddocks and hills.
Both boxes are dripping from their corners and when the drops touch the pavement they become sand, but neither Katie nor Gerald seems to notice. There’s a white postcard-sized label on the top of each of them that I know reads: One ocean: plant in the backyard.
As I stop to taste the salty air, a little girl walks towards me. She points at my gumboots, asking her mother a question that I don’t hear. I wave, and she waves too. The girl reminds me of someone, and I stop. Now, what was her name? Super . . . Willa something. Hmmm. Oh, I know – Super Gumboots Willa! From behind their mother’s skirt pops a younger girl. A sister? Sister is an achy word.
As I look at the older child a sudden panic grows in me. ‘She’s lost! Katie, do you see that girl? We have to help.’
Katie ignores me.
I don’t know why I say Super Gumboots Willa is lost when she is right here in front of me, but there is a strong tug on my memory. This child and I have met before, I’m so sure of it. I stare at her gumboots, trying to piece something together. I pull my new notebook out of my pocket and flip through the pages, trying to find her name.
Before I can, the girl’s mother pulls her and the little sister away and then they are gone, disappeared, as if they were never there. The sea breeze vanished with them.
‘Where was this box found?’ I ask, but no one answers. ‘Where?’ I stamp my gumboots in the sand. My goodness, that’s a lot more sand than before!
Katie takes my arm. ‘Now then. Don’t go getting upset. The gardeners found the boxes under the mango tree in the backyard when they were mowing a few days ago.’
‘They are two Very Important Boxes. Are we posting them?’
‘No need to shout. Returning them, yes.’ Katie tries to pull me towards the car door.
Gerald walks off with the boxes.
‘Wait! I think I need them.’
He is halfway down the street already. I riffle through my notebook again. Things I Am Sure of. Yes, there it is.
1. Post two Very Important Boxes on 1 June 2050.
‘What’s the time, Katie?’
‘Time to get in the car.’
‘No, I mean the date.’ I stomp my gumboots again. I knew they were going to be a good investment.
‘Ugh. Look, step down here, closer to the car. Put your notebook away. Mind the walker. Mind your – Let me. Just. Would you . . .’
‘First of June 2050, so help me God!’
I’ve done it, then. I’ve posted them. Katie’s worked up to a fine lot of snorting beside the car, where she pretends to help me get in and I pretend I don’t need any help. What a lovely state of being outrage is.