by Kate Mahony
Suzanne recognised the suitcase first before she saw the woman in the bus shelter. She had seen the woman before, a woman in her fifties, with the same battered brown suitcase at her feet. Her quiet voice asking passers-by if they had ‘a dollar to spare.’ Sometimes she would add, ‘for the bus.’ Suzanne often handed her some coins or a $5 note. She liked to think of herself as generous to those in need. She supported a number of annual charity appeals.
Tonight, a once in a 50-year storm had been predicted, with gale force winds up to 120 kilometres per hour. Torrential rain would flood the streets. Up on the 10th floor engrossed in catching up on some files, she hadn’t noticed the wind building up. Nathan had phoned to advise her to leave straightaway. It was going to get worse soon.
Outside the rain pelted down. Uncollected rubbish bags whirled among the office blocks. The wind bent back the windscreen wipers on her car, forcing Suzanne to stop to fix them. She had spotted the woman then and crossed the road, the icy wind buffeting her face. The woman sat on the bench in the partly open shelter, her legs encased in a sleeping bag.
‘You shouldn’t be out in this storm,’ Suzanne said. ‘It’ll get worse.’
The woman stared at her.
Suzanne looked around her and spotted the nearby railway station. ‘Why don’t you go into the station and keep out of the storm there?’
The woman hitched the sleeping bag higher. ‘They toss you out when the last train leaves.’
Surely a few hours might be better than nothing?
The woman leaned towards Suzanne. ‘I’d go back home if I had the money,’ she said softly. ‘Take the bus.’
Hundreds of kilometres away. ‘Could you get a room in a hostel?’
The woman shrugged. ‘Costs plenty for just one night. Not worth it.’
Suzanne’s wallet was in her briefcase in her car. ‘Wait,’ she said.
She hurried to the car. She fumbled for her wallet, noticing how frozen her fingers were.
As she was about to close the car door, an idea came unbidden. She could take the woman home with her. Just for one night. She could put her up in the guest bedroom, downstairs, off the rumpus room. They’d eat a meal together, the family and this woman, before she spent the night safe from the storm in their warm guest bedroom. And in the morning after breakfast, Suzanne would drive her back down town. If the woman still wanted to return to her home up north, as she had said, then Suzanne could pay for a bus ticket for her. She locked the car door and waited for the traffic to stop at the lights further down before she crossed the road again.
Except. Other thoughts drowned out the first. What if the woman freaked out being in a strange house and ran about in it the middle of the night when Nathan and she and the children were asleep? Took a sharpened knife from the wooden set in the kitchen and attacked them? Set fire to their house and ran out into the streets? At the very least she might ransack all the drawers and cupboards looking for cash. What did she know of this woman? Nothing. Her own family’s safety was paramount, Suzanne decided.
One stray car driving slowly towards her trapped her on the side of the street once more. And then another thought came to her. The woman herself might not want to be driven by a stranger to an unknown house in the suburbs? To spend a night kilometres away from her familiar place on the streets? With strangers?
Reassured now, Suzanne decided the right thing to do was give the woman some money. She crossed the road finally and paused on the footpath near the woman. The woman seemed to look up at her with a hopeful expression on her face. Suzanne fumbled in her wallet and found a lone $20 note and one $5 note. Not enough for a room, enough for food and a hot drink at a café though. ‘For you. Please try to stay out of the storm.’
The woman took it without saying anything in return. She crouched down further in her sleeping bag and closed her eyes as if exhausted.
Feeling dismissed, Suzanne returned to her car. She drove off, trying to concentrate on getting home safely to the warm log fire and welcoming glass of wine. But all she could think of was the woman with the suitcase in one of the city’s worst storms and a sense she’d let her down.
Kate Mahony’s short fiction has been published in among others, Bonsai: Best small stories from Aotearoa New Zealand, Mayhem, Fiction Kitchen Berlin, Flash Frontier, The Blue Nib, Blink Ink, Blackmail Press, Meniscus, Peacock Journal, The Cabinet of Heed, and the Pure Slush Love Lifespan Vol 4 Anthology. She has an MA in Creative Writing from the International Institute of Modern Letters Victoria University, Wellington.