Gayelene Carbis

A Woman from Carnegie

I used to see her on the tram or train, her jeep brimming with books; plastic bags
tied to the side flapping in the wind, noisy little sounds that caught your ear and
made you turn your head. The bag lady threw Shakespeare into her monologues;
knew Wordsworth and Keats and Byron; pieces of poetry; and there she was
pushing her jeep at a Streisand concert, her white hair wild, her big blue raincoat
wide open, a misshapen dress tent-like and loose round her stomach, her face
flushed from weather and walking. She walked miles. I used to follow her. I tried
to ask where she went to school, where she lived, where she’d grown up, but
nothing I could say could contain her. She was garrulous; a gruff manner, a rough
voice; and anything in her mind might come out of her mouth. There’s no room
now on trams or trains for jeeps and I haven’t seen bag ladies in ages. But you do
wonder where they’ve all gone; why I was so filled with fascination, and fear.
I had a best friend at uni who used to say if she ever wrote a thesis, a Masters,
a PhD, she’d do it on bag ladies. Kate Grenville’s Lillian had haunted her. I never
thought to ask her why. Yet I understood it too, at another level. Another friend,
also from uni, told me no matter what, she’d never leave her husband. She’d had,
she said, a mad mother and an absent father, who was an actor. She’d known
poverty as a child and she was never going back there. She could still remember
being six years old and doing the shopping. Lying awake at night thinking about
money. She was forty years old and still afraid of ending up a bag lady. There used
to be bag ladies and mad women on the tram and I’d be there in my short skirts and
stilettos and I’d look at them and they’d look at me and for some reason I incensed
them. My sandals and my lipstick. I’d always smile, as if I was benevolent,
and they’d snarl at me and start screaming obscenities and I’d feel like erupting into
this insane laughter and it was so hard to stop. I’d be forced to move and I was always
frightened but trying not to show it. I can still see the bag lady in her big blue raincoat,
pushing that jeep round Colonial Stadium where Streisand was. I haven’t seen her for
a very long time in this suburb, but I still think about all the things we share.

Gayelene Carbis
is an award-winning writer of poetry, prose and plays. Her first book of poetry, Anecdotal Evidence (Five Islands Press 2017) was awarded Finalist – International Book Awards, 2019. Gayelene’s work has been widely published/performed in Australia and overseas. Gayelene teaches Creative Writing at universities, schools, and Sandybeach.

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