Folding the newspaper with dramatic emphasis the elderly woman fixes me with a determined glare. “Ridiculous all this hysteria from the media, regards the heat wave. What do they expect? A constant 20 degrees? It’s summer after all!”
At first I wasn’t sure if her statement was rhetorical, or indeed there was an expectation for me to respond. Fortuitously, the awkward moment is interrupted by the arrival of the waiter. “Your sandwich sir”. I smile a vague apology in her direction and give the meal my full attention.
I’m sitting in New Farm Deli. It’s lunch time and it’s packed to the rafters. Most of the diners are sheltering inside, endeavouring to escape the full blast of the hot summer day; the press of such a large number of bodies making it only marginally cooler inside than it is on the terrace. At least there, a zephyr-like breeze is in evidence, enough to lift lank fringes from perspiring foreheads.
In spite of the oppressive humidity, the old lady looks coolly elegant, her white hair piled high atop her head. It’s held fast by a clasp bedecked with fragrant frangipanis. She wears a linen shift the colour of watermelon and waves a silk fan languidly back and forth in front of her face.
‘’Well?” she demands, the imperious tone betraying her impatience at my cautious evasiveness. Reluctantly I abandon my lunch. The face before me is finely boned and austerely beautiful. Why is it I seem to attract the ire of irascible old ladies? I would wish myself anywhere other than being seated here in the company of a determined old bully.
“It does seem to be a lot hotter than normal, at least for such an extended period of time,” I say unthinkingly. My interrogator interprets this unfortunate response as a deliberate challenge to her point of view.
“Nonsense!” cries the old lady snapping shut her fan, then thinking the better of it, immediately opens it again with a graceful flick of her wrist. Fanning her flushed angry face with vigorous staccato movements she continues, “As I said: it’s summer and a Queensland one at that. It’s always hot.”
Not wanting to incense her further, I remain silent and give my hero sandwich the full attention it deserves – although I may well have been ingesting sawdust for any pleasure I received from the eating of it.
Moments pass in awkward silence before my tormentor says in much softer accents, “Why, I remember as a girl, summers so hot the bitumen would melt, the heat of the sun turning it to a gooey sticky mess. You would lose your shoe to it if you weren’t careful. Some days the heat so intense that crows lacked the energy to caw and the only sound heard was the angry whirring of a grasshopper in flight.”
I find myself smiling at her reminiscences for I too remember the western summer sun liquefying the tarmac of the roads. It was great sport to chase ones terrified sisters with great oozing lumps of tar, the threat of depositing it in their hair causing them to run shrieking to our mother for protection.
Perhaps the woman has a point: those summers of my youth were long and hot, regularly reaching an energy sapping 110 degrees Fahrenheit, 43 Celsius by today’s measure. The only respite from the sun’s intensity were wide shaded verandahs and the delicious sweetness of cold watermelon.
No one had the luxury of air-conditioning and the great vulgar halls dedicated to mammon – shopping centres – where the great unwashed gather in overwhelming numbers to escape the summer heat, were horrible things of the future.
Perhaps society has become more effete and we are less robust than our parents and our grandparents, therefore more susceptible to the vagaries of climate.
Maybe we are too ready to accept the lurid headlines in the papers and the televised news, screaming “the end is nigh” and that global warming or (to use the more modern description) climate change is responsible for every hot day, cold day, drop of rain and falling snowflake.
On the televised news last night, I saw a young reporter approach an old man on Queens Street Mall. Shoving a microphone under his nose, she enquires breathlessly, “How are you managing in this heat wave?” The old fellow smiles and after moment of thoughtful consideration, says, “I’ve seen worse love. It’s just weather, sometimes good and sometimes bad.”
My amused reverie is rudely interrupted. “You young ones need to toughen up and employ some common-sense at staying cool,” says the old lady with a return of her usual asperity. I’m back in the New Farm Deli. The woman not done with her forceful opinions continues, “It’s been my observation young people don’t wear enough clothing in summer. All that flesh exposed to the relentless and ravaging sun. Small wonder you’re discomforted by the heat”.
Perhaps sensing my patience and good manners are almost at an end, she suddenly stands and in preparation for departure, begins rummaging through her Chanel tote. She is remarkably tall and with her long attenuated limbs, I’m suddenly struck by her resemblance to the octogenarian model Carmen del’Orefice.
After a few moments of fussing, she pulls forth a pair of sunglasses and car keys. Smiling broadly she says ”Well thank you for indulging an old lady in the grip of bad temper and for not telling her to bugger off for being an opinionated old bore.”
I am immediately and completely disarmed for her smile is wonderful and belongs to a woman who despite her advanced age is confident of her beauty and the ability to still charm.
”Not at all. It’s been most interesting,” I protest untruthfully. I’m surprised how transforming a beautiful smile can be and how quick one is to forgive or overlook the boorish behaviour of an attractive person.
“Oh! I don’t believe you,” she says laughing. And then shockingly, an eyelid drops slowly over a brilliant blue orb. She affects a roguish wink, “Just between you and me , this relentless sun is for exoskeletons. We endoskeletons should stay inside with a cold drink, lots of them; and in my opinion, all of them Gin and Tonic!” With those words and a wicked laugh, I’m left mercifully alone.