She carefully negotiated around the tables in the North Melbourne café, steadying herself on the backs of chairs. She squeezed onto the banquette at the table next to ours. Initially I felt a bit invaded, given there were heaps of spare tables in the café.
She ordered a large cappuccino and a bowl of fries. Almost instantly she was holding court with the middle aged business men who'd arrived at the table to her right. Couldn't help overhearing snatches of this elderly woman's jolly banter. She was Maltese, as was one of the business men she was regaling. Seemed she was entertaining them, rather than just talking.
After the lunch rush, the men returned to work, or wherever. My friend briefly left the table and I could sense this woman trying to get my attention.
"Do you live locally?" she asked. I couldn't ignore her overture and my response was all she needed to engage me in a chat. It gave me a chance to study her. She had a weathered complexion and thick, steel wool hair, cut short and practical, a bit awry from sleep on one side. She wore a loose black t-shirt and slacks. No bra. No upper teeth. The lack of teeth made her speech a little difficult to discern so I gave her my full attention. Her eyes twinkled, her face was creased into a permanent grin, as if she expected to see the funny side of something.
She'd lived, raised her three children and worked in North Melbourne all her adult life after emigrating, aged 21, from Malta in 1954.
"I survived World War 2, you know. Lived through it. Can you believe this cafe used to be a Commonwealth bank?" she asked, shaking her head in amused disbelief at the changes. "Have you got children?"
She told me about her son in St Kilda who'd just turned 60. "He looks out for me," she said. One daughter lived in Sydney. She shrugged at my sympathy about her daughter being a bit far away. "What can you do? You'll never guess where the other daughter lives," she said. "Go on, guess"
"Broome," I said. By some fluke, I guessed right. She looked at me like I was magic; a clairvoyant. She was very impressed.
She told me she'd complained to her daughter. "Why do you have to go so far away? 'Well where did you come from, mum?'" Her daughter had reminded her. "What can you do?" Another mirthful shrug and shake of her head.
"You've got everything you need around here," she told me; "schools, hospitals, shops. Do you drive? I never learned to drive. No need."
"Are you finished here, Margaret?" the waiter asked, about to clear her table.
"They all know me here," she told us proudly. "I come here for a coffee, sometimes a bowl of chips on a Friday. That does me for dinner."
She stood to leave, again holding onto the chairs for support. Worrying she might fall, I suggested a walking frame might be a good idea. "Never!" she said. "I'm all right like this, if no one's watching me!" A twinkling mock-chide.
"Sorry," I said, covering my eyes. I had been staring a bit.
A coughing fit halted her progress.
"I was hit by a car, you know. It was a terrible accident. More than 20 years ago now. They thought I'd die but God was full up. It wasn't my time. He had other plans and here I am. I had a tracheotomy after my accident." Amused and incredulous at her own luck, she indicated the faint scar on her throat. "It still makes me cough a bit sometimes, but I get over it. If no one's watching," She wagged a finger at me. She took a couple of steps then paused at the next chair.
"Do you live alone?" she asked. I told her I had a husband waiting for me at home.
"Ah," she said. "Remember. You don't know what you've got until it's gone. I'm here now, but it's very quiet at home. I keep busy, but..." She waved the thought away and continued her slow exit from the cafe.
Margaret made my day. I've added her to my list of inspirational octogenarians, while remembering those who weren't so lucky