I don’t remember the first time I saw Pani Basia, but I do remember the last. She was sitting on a battered chair on the pavement outside my building. Blue lights and paramedics were standing by, hands on hips. It looked like she’d fallen again. I didn’t see her fall, but then I didn’t see her fall the first time. We just found her on her back, struggling, for all the world like a cartoon turtle, except the splash of blood from her head wasn’t funny.
She was on the south side of the street so she must have been on her way home already. Plus it was the afternoon. The rigidity and slowness of her routine had become something of a talking point. About 11 every morning I’d see her on the outward leg. Standing by the window, smoking and gazing down at the street in the habitual pose of the freelancer avoiding work I’d see her almost every day. Tiny shuffling steps, myopic gaze switching constantly from pavement to some hazily distant objective, shopping bag swinging empty, and every 30 or 40 steps the inevitable pause to check her watch. I only rarely saw her coming back; only if I happened to be outside, because she always came back on the other side of the street. I still don’t know exactly where she went that took three hours and yielded a loaf of bread.
We tried to call an ambulance even though she refused with the iron conviction of one who has been refusing ambulances for many years. As soon as she was back on her feet she made a break for it. “There’s an old woman here who’s fallen over.” “Is she conscious?” “Yes.” “Can she walk?” “Well, yes, she trying to walk away from me right now but I’ve got a pretty firm grip on her shopping bag.” “Does she want an ambulance?” “No, not really.” “Nothing we can do.” She couldn’t really walk. If we hadn’t followed her all the way home an arm’s distance away she would have fallen a dozen more times. That bump on her head had done nothing for her sense of balance.
She was running from us the whole time. It took us 45 minutes to traverse the length of the street and turn the corner but she was trying get away from us all the way. I guess we were pretty scary for her. Two impossibly strange people from an impossibly distant generation trying to get their hands on her shopping bag. And one of them speaking a weird foreign language. She watched TV, she knew the score. Even this imminent threat wasn’t enough to prevent her pausing every two minutes to laboriously check her watch. I had the creepy feeling that if I looked I would see it had stopped in 1934, or that it had no hands.
We looked at each other a dozen times wondering if we should just leave her to it, but then she would sway backwards onto my outstretched hand and we knew we couldn’t. We took her all the way home. We stood behind her like orthopedic equipment and stopped her toppling down the steps while she searched for her keys. We followed her shuffle across the hall, the final check of the watch, and the interminable business of unlocking a door using 90-year-old hands. We stood mute as she she went in, creaked the door shut and locked it seventeen times. She didn’t say a word.
In the neighbor’s kitchen we ate the special white Ferrero Rocher chocolates for guests while she tried to get in touch with the daughter. She didn’t live alone, there was a professor who stole some rare books, it was on the news, maybe her son, maybe not, terrible people, her children never visit, on old woman like that, it’s not right. We wondered how long we would have to stay.
I spotted Pani Basia again about two weeks later. She was back on her route. We laughed because we were relieved she wasn’t dead. We followed her movements more closely. She was seen halfway down Karmelicka sitting on a bench. We speculated about month-long trips to visit her twin sister on the other side of the street, annual pilgrimages to the cake shop and lightning three-day trips to the other side of her kitchen. It was only because we’d become so attuned to her movements that I spotted her on that chair surrounded by paramedics and blue lights a few months later. “So, they finally caught her,” said my wife.
It’s been some time since I’ve seen Pani Basia, but I haven’t stopped watching for her. As far as I’m concerned she on her way back from the post office and is expected any time in the next six months.