I could hear Paula before I saw her. A fantastic big roly-poly voice, like a female Winston Churchill.
I was at Dublin airport waiting to catch a plane to Marrakech.
I could see a group of people standing around the source of this wonderful voice, holding court in an airport eatery. She’d launched into a story and everyone was in the palm of her hand.
I made my way through and finally saw her: this short, squat little woman with a black shock of hair, thickly drawn-on eyebrows and a fake tan that hadn’t made its way into the wrinkles on her neck, so as she looked around at her audience, white skin showed through like brambles running from her chest to chin.
She wore a white heavily starched shirt with the collar popped, gold chains, hound tooth pants, and knee high tan boots. He eyes were dark brown and wet.
She was an alluring woman, but make no mistake, she was a terrifying.
Suddenly, without even looking at me, her hand shot out and grabbed my wrist.
“Who are you? Where are you from?”
Ah? I’m Jonny, I’m from Australia.
“Oh, how marvellous, and where are you going?”
“Us too. Holiday. Why are you going?”
Need to buy a rug.
“An Australian, in Dublin, flying to Morocco to by a rug? Stupidest thing I ever heard. You could get a fine rug in Galway. I’d take you rug shopping in Galway, I’m a Galway girl. You’d get a good deal too because they know me; they know Paula.”
I soon learned that Paula was travelling with her niece Arwen, who bored her to tears.
“I’m going to address the elephant in the airport, Jonny. Gay or straight?”
I didn’t think the question was fair, so I answered it without answering it, in this way I do; I do my thing, Paula.
“What does that even mean, Jonny? Jonny! Jonny. All signs point to gay. Sorry to say, sweets.”
We boarded the plane
Paula was in the front row of the Ryanair flight, next to a monstrously tall man who had obviously booked and paid extra for the spot to get the extra leg room. I thought maybe Paula had booked the spot so everyone would see her on their way in.
I took my seat, somewhere in the late 20s and by the window. The flight took off.
Moments later, the very tall man was at my row, informing me that Paula had arranged for us to swap seats. I went down to the front of the plane. She had folded down the seats the flight attendants use when the plane takes off or lands, and was hosting a soiree midair.
Inviting people to her party as they went to the bathroom, but if they didn’t hold their own, she’d send them right back to their seats.
“Try a Ryanair! It’s cheap vodka and cheap champagne. They disguise each other’s flavour.”
By the time I’d landed in Morocco, I’d never been more drunk in my life.
Later, I caught up with Paula in Morocco.
I spoke to her about her life, and about how impressive I found her. She said:
“A thing happens in your 70s. It takes getting used to, but I’m good at it now; I can do wild things now and I won’t ever get in trouble.
“When I’m acting up, the worst thing to happen is that people with an average sense of humour, step in and start speaking in a most perverse sweet-tone exclusively reserved for the elderly – a tone that says, ‘I’m not here to manage you, but i don’t think you’re competent, so I’ll help you.’
“And they try to help me do things in spite of what I desire.”
I’ve always found spectacular women like this. ‘Well-travelled women’ who know exactly who they are and what they want in this world.
Paula was obsessed with the theory of the singularity, and believed that if the machines take over, they’ll be kinder to women than men ever have been, and made an unrepeatable remark about how she could prove it from her own sex life.
I met a woman called Bunny in New York who shamelessly talked about husbands she’d outlived and the money she made from the institution of marriage (“Historically, the benefit goes the other way”).
Then there was the 65-year-old DJ in Melbourne who had previously been one of the most feared and well paid Madams in the kink scene. DJ-ing, she told me, “is easier on my wrists”.
There is something about these women.
Helen Garner wrote in her essay, The Insults of Age: “Really, it is astonishing how much shit a woman will cop in the interests of civic and domestic order.”
Later she describes pulling the pigtails of a badly behaved school girl, and the new found freedom in the invisibility her age has bestowed on her: “You have nothing to prove. You can saunter about the world in overalls”.
In the age of Iris Apfel, Vivienne Westwood and fashion models entering the business in their 60s, the world is changing for women in the latter years. But somehow I still feel it’s reserved for the chosen few.
One of my closest friends is Angela. People have called us Harold and Maude.
Over lunch she asked me what it was with gay men and old women being such good companions, and before I had time to reply she answered for me: “The world makes you think you’re becoming us. The patriarchy doesn’t like you much either. And like us, you learned how to pretend, countering sexual shame by being teacher’s pet.
“Like us, you’ve spent time obsessing over the retention of youth because you believe it will help you find love and help you to survive. You’re not commercially viable, so you have to be funny or really tragic to get any attention. Women like me used to be called witches and burned at the stake, gay men have a similar history.”
While I don’t think it’s fair to compare the ways in which people are disenfranchised, what she said got me thinking about the intersectionality between gay men and older women.
An older women can do just about anything and become a gay icon. We love them for being defiant, true to themselves and unapologetic. For setting themselves free in the way we’d love to free ourselves.
Maureen was another great friend, living in the heart of Kings Cross.
She flirted with me, told naughty jokes and stories, and communicated so clearly how she felt about herself and herself in the world.
She said to me, “I don’t feel as old as I’m told I am. People have a fixed opinion of what it is to be 80, 40 years before they get here. Focus hard enough on something and that’s what you’ll get, good or bad. A lot of 80-year-olds give the rest of us a bad rap. Not me. I’m old and a girl, but not an old-girl, a wise person will understand the difference.”
I started making more time to see her, initially thinking I’d be giving her my time, but I soon learned she was giving me hers.
Everyone wanted to see her. Friends in New York would fly her over for a party, then she’d be off to Coonabarabran for another event, then to France, or New Zealand.
She told me one day that these visits were to do with a list she’d made.
Maureen had written down the names of all her friends she thought would die soon and in what order. So she spent her time visiting them. She was very impressed with her accuracy, she thought she could have saved an insurance company a lot of money.
“I’ve become a full time harbinger of death Jonny, and I love it”.
She was generous in her interactions, but also had a way of standing her ground and refused to suffer fools. She had more life and energy than someone a quarter of her age. Her stories were rich and endlessly entertaining. As was the relish with which she’d make a crude remark and watch as the listener digested it. She fully rejected the idea that women of a certain age become invisible, and defied every societal expectation placed on her.
In the short amount of time I got to spend with Maureen, I had decided I must write a play about her. When I told her my intention to write Maureen, The Harbinger of Death, she said something like, “Oh, what a fantastic idea! It’ll fill theatres, totally sell out and get rave reviews, I’m sure. But who will play me? Cate Blanchett? I don’t want anyone too pretty, Cate will do just fine”.
When I told her I intended to play the part, she said, “Oh, that really would be something special. Let Cate down easy, won’t you. She’ll likely be very disappointed.”
Maureen; The Harbinger of Death, is a celebration of those who refuse to be invisible in a world looking the other way. A story about death and an affirmation of life. It asks people to reconsider the way they think about the other, to question the ubiquitous.