Charlie Hind knew that something was wrong as soon as he saw her. He knew she was in crisis, and later found this crisis had started the previous morning. No one had noticed. Most people wouldn’t know how to notice. Charlie wasn’t most people.
He knew Vicki only slightly, and knew of her problems. Once Brisbane’s best-known beggar, she now sold magazines on the streets of the city. She had overcome her mild autism to take new pride in earning her money. She had moved off the streets to live in a small flat with her boyfriend.
Charlie winced as he remembered the boyfriend, a guy who liked to threaten women. Including Vicki. Something told him the abuse wasn’t the problem this time.
He caught Vicki’s eyes, and saw the confusion there. She stopped and smiled, recognising him. He saw the fear go out of her, and recognised her plea for someone to listen. He smiled back, and the trust between them formed.
“Hey Vicki,” he said. “How are ya darlin’?” She moved a little closer, with her familiar shuffling action. His previous suspicion of crisis confirmed, he took a half step toward her. Her normal defensive retreat did not happen this time. Her smile of recognition turned to a thin-lipped smile of great sorrow.
“Good,” she said, and again moved a little closer. Her deep voice had an uncharacteristic emotion to it. The slight rise of tone in her usual, single syllable response indicated she needed to talk more. The tears forming in her eyes, and the slight tilt of her head, were not typical reactions for her.
Through the smile, he could see great sorrow, and found this strange. She had never moved this close to anyone that he could remember. He reached out, and touched her upper left arm. She did not flinch away, as she would any other time.
He recognised that something terrible had happened in her life. His voice was soft and clear, and he spoke with calm and assertive control. There was a genuine compassion, which surprised even him.
“What’s the matter, darlin’,” he asked, “has someone hurt you?” The single tear in her right eye now flowed down her cheek. He noted with curiosity that no tear had formed in her left eye. He made a mental note to look into a reason for this later. Right now, he realised that something terrible had happened in her life.
She did not seem surprised by the kindness in his voice. Rather, she seemed to expect it.
“My friend Wayne died,” she said. Again, that uncharacteristic emotion in her voice surfaced. “He died yesterday morning. Internal haemorrhaging.” He had never known her to string more than six words together before, and never with such clarity or complexity. He marvelled at how she had opened up so freely.
He gently squeezed her arm, with a firmness that would allow her to break away if she wanted too. She did not attempt to do so. He saw that she had not finished speaking, and he allowed her to continue.
“He was sick yesterday morning when I went to work. He was dead when I came home. Internal haemorrhaging.” She looked to him for reaction.
“Are you OK now?” he asked. She nodded yes. He continued. “Did somebody come to help you last night?” Again, she nodded. Another tear in the right eye. He tried to remember if she had a counsellor, but didn’t know. He knew he had the number for the magazine she worked for on the speed dial of his mobile phone. He had lots of such numbers.
He used gentle force as he guided her to a bench where she could sit down. She allowed him to do so, offering no resistance. He had an unopened can of Coke in his carry bag, and offered it to her. She accepted it, and her face now showed gratitude that someone was listening. His voice remained calm as he spoke again.
“I’m just going to call the girls at your office. I’ll get them to come down and see you. They’ll help you get things sorted out.” She smiled and nodded, and sipped at the Coke.
He made the call, and asked for the welfare worker at the magazine. He also phoned Peggy, another magazine vendor, accepted by all the magazine vendors as a mother figure. He told the story to both women, and they agreed to come straight away.
He continued talking to Vicki, and was surprised at how intelligent her conversation was. In the past, she would mutter one or two words at a time, and look at the ground as she spoke. Those times, she always stood, and shuffled her feet in nervous anxiety. Today, she was calmer than he had ever seen her. It was obvious she was in shock, yet there was something else…
He had once grabbed Vicki’s now ex-partner by the throat. Charlie had been ashamed, and had apologised a short time later. He had not done this for many years, and never since. He had received recognition, and a major award, for his peace and humanitarian work over the past few years.
On that particular day, the ex-cop had come out in him. The guy had been walking around the streets, threatening and abusing female magazine sellers, and women in general. Afterwards, Charlie had drunk himself into oblivion for three days, unable to face the shame he had brought on himself. Peggy had made him come back to his senses.
The welfare worker arrived first, and Charlie explained the situation. He left Vicki, knowing that she would get the care she needed now. Vicki reached out and touched his arm as he left. He had never known her to do that to anybody before.
As he walked away, he reflected that it was lunchtime on a Friday afternoon. Hundreds of people in the city centre had passed them by. Thousands of people every day walked past Vicki as she sold her magazines. None of them could know what was happening to her. Today, or any day.
He hoped Vicki could get past this. She had.