Hidden in plain sight

I want to share with you a story about a woman I met over 10 years ago while working as a home care helper.

While in Sydney finishing my degree I was looking for a job to support me a little; I saw an ad for home care workers; the hours were very flexible and I really enjoy meeting new people. It seemed like a good deal as I pretty much thought I was signing up to provide basic cleaning or go on quick trips to the shops for dear old folk who needed a hand. In reality, while some of my jobs kind of fit that bill, most were not like that at all. In fact, many clients were receiving the home help as part of their disability or broader health care services.

What happened was eye opening to say the least. This type of work slowly revealed, person by person, suburb by suburb, worlds previously hidden from me. Worlds hidden in plain sight.

Tucked neatly behind a row of fancy shops and trendy cafes in Bondi, one of Sydneys most famous suburb, lives a woman, Annie*, in her late 30’s or early 40’s perhaps (its hard to tell).

If she had wanted to, she could have opened the east facing kitchen window of ground level bed sitter apartment and heard, not too far in the distance, the soothing crash of waves on that long stretch of gleaming sand that is Bondi Beach.

She does not do this however, perhaps because she is an alcoholic in the truest sense of the word. I visit her weekly over a period of about three months to “clean” her apartment. Upon my first visit, I am utterly confused – the curtains covering her small windows are closed –  peering around her dim, almost dark home, I try to decipher what the shapes before me actually are.

As my eyes adjust, I realise that we are standing in Annie’s living area. Piles of things are haphazardly arranged on a table, there is a dresser covered with ornaments and dust, and clutter all about the floor, which we side step as we turn left to face the three other “parts” in the back half of her sitter. Into the small kitchenette I stare at what is undoubtedly contributing to the smell which pervades her tiny home, an odd and awful smell – rotting food. A bin overflows, a sink full of dirty dished covered with I don’t know what, open tins of cat food strewn about the floor, a tiny table littered with rubbish. I am hired to “clean” this apartment? I don’t know how, it doesn’t seem possible.

As I stand staring aghast into the kitchenette, Annie politely gestures to our left showing me where she sleeps – a double mattress on the floor opposite her tiny bathroom (which I cannot bring myself to even glance at). Her bed immediately reveals what must be another significant source of the stench – her urine soaked bed sheets.

The woman standing next to me, Annie, is pleasant, clearly drunk, but pleasant and polite, friendly even. All I want to do is say a kind farewell, and walk straight back through the chaos that is her home, rush out the door and step back into the sunshine and happiness that is bustling Bondi. But I am here to do a job. I “clean” a little, washing a few dishes, praying that I don’t contract something awful from touching her putrid things. Then she asks if I would help her take some laundry to the dry cleaners  down the street and across the road. Ok, I say. I’m not exactly sure why she needs assistance with this task but I oblige. She collects a few dresses, nighties and stuffs them into a garbage back, occasionally asking me if I think they need washing? Yes, yes they do need washing, I say. They reek of urine and I don’t know what else. They most certainly do need a wash.

Once out onto the street, I quickly become aware of why she needs my help – she has great difficulty walking. Stumbling, tripping and ambling along, she holds my elbow to steady her.  She also clearly cannot safely cross the single lane street to make it to the dry cleaners in the laneway over the road. I assist her in all this, everything taking a surprisingly long time.

Once back in the apartment, she seems rather satisfied and content to have completed that errand. I check my watch, The hour’s service allotted to her is not quite up, but I pretend it is, say farewell, and rush to my car, wishing I had brought my swimmers and had a little time to take a quick dip in the ocean and cleanse myself from the stale and filthy air of her home.

On subsequent visits Annie shows me her wedding photos – she looks beautiful. Later, I find out her family, her husband and two primary school aged daughters live nearby. They seem like lovely people.

How did she end up like this?

On my last visit, before I leave the job altogether, she takes me to one of those nice, trendy cafe’s. She shouts me a chai latte and ducks into to fancy gift shop next door. She selects a stunning card, and scrawls her thanks in it. She hands it to me with a grateful smile. I am moved by these gestures. In my heart, I pray for her well being and recovery.

How did she end up like that?

I cannot visit Bondi anymore without thinking of her.

*not her real name

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