The insults of age had been piling up for so long that I was almost numb to them. The husband (when I still had one): “You’re not going out in that sleeveless top?” The grandchild: “Nanna, why are your teeth grey?” The pretty young publisher tottering along in her stilettos: “Are you right on these stairs, Helen?” The flight attendant at the boarding gate: “And when you do reach your seat, madam, remember to stow that little backpack riiiight under the seat in front of you!” The grinning red-faced bloke who mutters to the young man taking the seat beside me: “Bad luck, mate.” The armed child behind the police station counter unable to conceal her boredom as I describe the man in a balaclava, brandishing a baton, who leapt roaring out of the dark near the station underpass and chased me and my friend all the way home: “And what were you scared of? Did you think he might hit you with his umbrella?”
Really, it is astonishing how much shit a woman will cop in the interests of civic and domestic order.
But last spring I got a fright. I was speaking about my new book to a university lecture theatre full of journalism students. I had their attention. Everything was rolling along nicely. Somebody asked me a question and I looked down to collect my thoughts. Cut to the young lecturer’s face surprisingly close to mine. “Helen,” he murmured, “we’re going to take you to the medical clinic.” What? Me? Apparently, in those few absent moments, of which I still have no memory, I had become confused and distressed; I didn’t know where I was or why I was there. He thought I might be having a stroke.
The rest of that afternoon I lay at my ease in an Emergency cubicle at the Royal Melbourne, feeling strangely light-hearted. I kept thinking in wonder, I’ve dropped my bundle. All scans and tests came up clear. Somebody asked me if I’d ever heard of transient global amnesia. I was home in time for dinner.
Next morning I took the hospital report to my GP. “I’ve been worried about you,” she said. “It’s stress. You are severely depleted. Cancel the rest of your publicity tour, and don’t go on any planes. You need a serious rest.” I must have looked sceptical. She leant across the desk, narrowed her eyes, and laid it on the line: “Helen.You. Are. 71.”
I went home and sulked on the couch for a week, surveying my lengthening past and shortening future.