There is a story in Helen Garner’s 2016 collection of short stories Everywhere I Look titled ‘The Insults of Age’. She rages against the condescension masquerading as kindness directed towards her: ‘Are you right on those stairs, Helen?’, ‘How was your shopping, ladies?’ and the final un-take-backable ‘Helen. You. Are. Seventy-one.’
My first ‘insult of age’ happened three years ago.
While I was living in France, a friend and I visited the Scriptorium – a museum of ancient manuscripts – in Avranches, Normandy.
‘Good morning, ladies,’ said the nice young woman at reception. (How does she know we aren’t French?)
‘Bonjour,’ we said. ‘Deux billets, s’il vous plaît.’ We’d show her who’s not French.
She smiled sweetly.
Do you have a senior’s card?
The looks on our 57-year-old faces told her everything she needed to know.
She tried to backpedal immediately, but the damage was done. Stupid Scriptorium. Stupid Avranches. A cloud descended on our day that only a chocolate almond croissant and a decent coffee could lift. And anyone who has been to France knows how hard it is to find a decent coffee.
It was the first of many tiny barbs reminding me that the 17-year-old’s eyes through which I still see my world are surrounded by crow’s feet and laugh lines.
In ‘The Insults of Age’, Garner passes through forlornness to liberation at the realisation that her recently acquired invisibility brings with it the relief of no longer having anything to prove.
The world bristled with opportunities for a woman in her seventies to take a stand.
As she lists the many forms her newfound liberation takes – shouting on planes, fighting for a place in queues – I found myself revelling in her refusal to play by the rules.
I have been a chronic rule-abider for most of my life.
But I too have found myself taking a stand in public places. The first time was in a post office. The lunch hour queue was long, made longer by the training of a new staff member. A man behind me started ranting and I – newly employed in a job for which I was almost entirely untrained – turned to face him.
‘She. Is. Training,’ came out of my mouth. ‘Have you never had to learn something new?’ His mouth snapped shut. He stood in the queue meekly until it was his turn. And from that day forth, the ladies in the post office always greeted me warmly. My inner monologue had somehow found its way into the external world and it felt good.
This is not to say I’ve turned into the unfiltered eccentric my children tell me I am. (I keep that persona for their benefit alone.) There have been plenty of times since then when I have stopped myself. I still remember with regret standing behind a man in another post office (clearly hotbeds of dissent) as he berated the small, polite woman behind the counter for her perceived incompetence. His tirade lasted on and off for five minutes. She, like the other employees, was of Asian appearance; a fact that fed into the man’s diatribe.
I glared at his back, heaved and sighed and ultimately said nothing. When my turn at the counter came, I apologised to the woman in a VERY LOUD VOICE for the man’s appalling behaviour. Even now, I remember the incident with regret. In my heart, I know I failed her.
The most recent unfiltered public expression of my feelings happened last weekend at 3.30 in the morning.
I was standing at the door of the apartment downstairs in my dressing gown and slippers, my wingman by my side. We had been listening to the occupants’ domestic argument for half an hour when we decided, somewhat fearfully, to take direct action. We didn’t know what kind of reception awaited us behind that door. An inebriated young man opened it and apologised for the noise.
‘Everything’s okay now,’ he said.
‘Is she all right?’ I said.
‘No I’m NOT,’ came a slurred female voice from somewhere inside the apartment.
‘You can come in if you like,’ said the young man. ‘I promise you everything’s ok.’
I declined his offer, saying ‘Just keep the noise down.’ As he started to close the door, in a voice loud enough for them both to hear, I said, ‘And don’t hurt each other.’
In the frantic pace of our daily lives, we often tend to our own needs (in this case, my need for sleep) and fail to see what’s going on for others. My world has been as inward-focused as most. Now that I’ve found my inner unfiltered eccentric, I’m going to let her loose in public more often. Sorry kids.
Just like Helen Garner, I have discovered that the world bristles with opportunities for a woman of my age to take a stand. I plan to go ahead and seize them with both hands. And get loud.