I was so close to home... so close I could see it. From the station overpass, I'd followed the skyline to my house and up to the moon above, before I started down the stairs towards home. Then I stopped at the landing in the middle. A woman seemed to be struggling with a large suitcase. It appeared she'd dragged the case down one flight, where the effort had exhausted her, leaving her stranded in the middle, draped and panting over the railing. Both myself and another guy heading downstairs stepped to her aid, offering to assist with the luggage. The woman gratefully nodded thanks to us both.
'Have you got it?' the guy asked, and I nodded, and looked back to the woman for the first time. As I picked up the red suitcase, she attempted to look at me, struggling, it seemed, even to lift her head. She panted as she thanked me, through visibly chapped lips, and looked to be struggling even to draw enough breath for the second 'thank you' which she desperately spat out.
'No problem...' I sneered, telling her to relax and take her time, as I took the bag downstairs, allowing her some time to compose herself. I flipped the beige tag on the bag with my thumb innocuously as I placed the bag down, revealing the name 'Mimi,' and a local landline number along with a mobile number. Turning back to the staircase, I saw that the woman had struggled to move beyond the landing I'd left her on.
'Sorry...' she wheezed, the effort of just lifting herself from the railing and speaking in tandem seeming to drain her of energy. She attempted a few steps down, before her panting resumed, and she needed to sit on the stairs to recover further. She took a swig from a water bottle she carried, some of which I could see had previously spilled over her shirt.
I could have waved goodbye at that point. I should have bid her a good night and contined briskly away. But I didn't.
'Take your time,' I said, feigning a smile. 'Rest for a while.' I waited by her suitcase. I glanced up at the woman, against the darkening sky. She kept attempting to stand, but her rotund form threatened to topple her in the opposite direction with each attempt. I sighed, telling her again to relax, and regain her energy. What was I doing? Why was I still waiting, dumbly, next to this woman's heavy red suitcase?
It took her a long time to make it down the remaining maybe twelve steps. I tried not to make it too obvious that I was monitoring her progress, though not sure what action I would have taken had she actually stumbled forward as she appeared so likely to. When she reached the bottom of the stairs, panting even more than she had been before, I suggested another period of recovery. She told me I was kind, and asked my name.
'Dann,' I told her, through clenched teeth, watching a dark blue ute circle the mostly-empty parking lot. The woman told me her name was Vanessa, and I glanced again at the tag on the bad, with little extra thought. 'How far do you need to go with this bag?'
'Just to the carpark,' she told me. I asked if she was parked close by. Perhaps, I could walk this wretched bag to her car and see her on her way. 'Yes, just in the carpark,' she repeated in answer to my question. I looked at the few cars, wondering which I'd be stopping at before I went home.
Weak, but apparently with some strength regained, Vanessa stood, without saying anything further, and took some exploratory steps towards the carpark, looking around, peering behind the steps we'd just spent so long traversing. 'Are you waiting to be picked up by someone?' I asked, after she didn't seem to be making progress to any particular car.
'No,' she said. I waited for further explanation, which I was worried wasn't going to come, until Vanessa moved distressingly close to me. Leaning in to my face, she said, without emotion, 'This is embarrassing. My car is on the other side of the platform.' She smiled widely.
I closed my eyes for a few seconds. 'Are you sure?' I asked. 'The other side of the platform is all bus stops...'
I sighed, and asked if she was sure that her car was on the other side, and if she would like help to move her bag back across the bridge. "Oh!" smiled Vanessa. "You're too kind. Why are you so kind?"
I told her to come on, suggesting we use the long, winding ramp, rather than the stairs for the return journey. As I wheeled the case to the start of the ramp, Vanessa started toddling off in a different direction. I called out to her, telling her it was this way. She didn't acknowledge the error, and I started up the ramp to the first of several landings on the ramp leading upwards. Noticing her lagging behind, struggling to keep up with the pace I'd deliberately slowed, I slowed further. Catching up to me, Vanessa took another break, leaning against the rails of the ramp. When she started moving again, I let her lead, noticing that the effort was causing her to sway. I didn't open conversation. Vanessa started to a few times, only asking if I minded helping her. Hearing the effort of combining speech with movement, I cut her off each time, telling her not to worry.
By the time we'd made it to the top of the ramp, Vanessa was visbily staggering, to the point that I'd lunged forward a couple of times, thinking I'd need to at least steady her so she didn't fall into the concrete bridge we were walking on. When she stopped to lean against the glass panel overlooking the train tracks below to recover from the climb, I nodded in the direction of the darkness at the opposide end of the bridge.
'That's where you parked?' I indicated. 'Over there?'
Vanessa may have nodded, I wasn't sure. By now, she seemed completely depleted of energy. But a plan had formed in my mind. If I could guide her into the station building, perhaps I could gain the attention of the ever-present station staff or even the group of police officers I'd noticed earlier to leave her in their care.
'Tell me when you're ready to keep going,' I told her. She nodded, took a few steps, then stopped, swaying, and collapsed, her water bottle falling to the ground. I lurched forward, and propped her up. Vanessa's mass was significantly more than my own, though, and I struggled against her weight, able only to stop her fall, and lower her instead to the ground where she sat. She sat in silence for a while, before trying to get up, telling me something I couldn't decipher, and offering me her closed fist, an action I didn't understand the meaning of. Failing at standing, she remained leaning against the glass wall.
Looking into the station, I tried to gain the attention of station staff, but, for once, I couldn't see them pacing inside. 'Tell me something,' Vanessa slurred from the ground.
'What?' I asked, still looking into the station. 'What do you want to know?'
'Tell me a joke,' she smiled, her tongue, swollen, perhaps, appearing to get in the way of clear speech. I considered that this is how the dying speak in action movies. I reeled one off which I had read on my work's pathetic Yammer joke community. She made a sound that I suppose was laughter, before she looked up. 'Hey... What's your name?' I told her, and as she started to tell me her name, I cut her off, telling her I remembered her name. Before I'd even finished, she asked my name again, and for a joke.
While I'd been on the look-out for staff inside the station to wave over, I'd noticed a young guy with a BMX spending a while ordering from a vending machine. He spotted me in what must have appeared a strange situation. He asked if I needed help. I nodded discretely. He asked 'You want me to call the cops?'
From the ground, Vanessa unleashed a sudden, gurgling growl. I looked down, then back to the guy 'No,' I said, loud enough for him to hear. 'Can you see the station staff around? Just wave them over.'
'No!' Vanessa gripped my pants leg. 'No, don't call the cops!'
I told her that I wasn't, but said that I'd waved to the station staff. 'Maybe they can think of somewhere better for you to sit for a while...' I said, seeing station staff inside, finally. I wasn't sure if they'd noticed me waving to them, but thought I saw them look over, and sharply away.
'You can't!' Vanessa gurgled. 'You can't get the police...'
She kept talking, and I said stuff quietly, still trying to wave the attention of the staff. Behind them, I saw the boy on the BMX appear at the other end of the platform, pointing in my direction. The crew of police officers I'd passed when I first arrived at the station followed his directions over to me. I don't remember what the group asked, but an officer, waved me away while some of his colleagues kneeled down near Vanessa.
'I'm Nathan,' he started. 'What happened here?'
I told him I'd found Vanessa on the stairs, and offered to help her with her bag, and that I thought she'd exhausted herself carrying it, but that now I wasn't sure.
The officer asked for my name, and told me his again. He asked me if I knew the woman, to which I said I didn't. I heard his colleague asking Vanessa 'Who is Mimi?' The officer asked me where I had been, and where I was going, and I told him. He asked for identification, and I had to explain why my license and passport both had my previous address on them. He told me he was conerned about the woman's mannerisms, and asked me if she was using drugs.
'I don't know, man,' I said. 'I only met her ten minutes ago...'
'I just came from down the road,' I heard Vanessa complaining behind the officer.
'You're good to lend a hand,' the officer told me. 'By the way, my name is Nathan. Keep up the good work.'
I, finally, said goodnight, and walked quickly back down the stairs. I didn't look back or even listen to what was happening on the bridge behind me. Once I got home, though, I did take a look through my binoculars, and saw that the group of officers was still tending to the woman on the railway overpass. Watching from afar, I recalled a couple of previous incidents, also on public transport, where I'd assisted people, several years ago. A couple of times, people had reprimanded me when I reacted negatively to the exaggerated displays of gratitude shown. A quote has stayed with me: 'Why do you even bother to help if you don't want thanks?' Again tonight, I wonder why I do. I always thought it was, in some holistic sense, required of humans. Wasn't that the point of an infamous Seinfeld plot at some point? I was never a fan, so I don't know. But as recently as last month, members of what my colleagues refer to as my 'Tram Club' mocked me for helping a mother lift her child-laden pram onto the tram. Maybe they were right to do so. So little benefit come from helping people, and usually there is some annoying burden too.