The actress, the tram and grace (in the last line)
Australian actor Anna McGahan on the day she understood grace
I was earning well in television, at least by my previous standards of student poverty. But the money, which had seemed so necessary for my security before, now felt like it had been given to me for the sole purpose of handing it out to people on the street, like spontaneous open invitations to join the adventure I had suddenly realised I was on.
I couldn’t look at money in my wallet without wondering who God had in mind next. I would find myself on the St Kilda sidewalks at 5 am, the sky still dark, placing rolled up green-and-yellow cash notes (held together by a tiny handwritten proverb and a bobby pin) beside the hidden faces of people sleeping on the street.
I would have taxi drivers chase me onto the wardrobe trailers on set, attempting to give back “tips,” poor assistant directors looking at the both of us with confusion. I learned how addictive it was to give, and I learned how painful it could be, too. The glory of foolishness.
One weekday, I left the house with a fifty-dollar note in my pocket, and I was informed by that magnetic little voice that it was not mine to keep. On the Number 16 tram that morning, I was ready to ditch the burden. I kept my eyes open, listening for the yes. A scruffy-looking man came along the tram, wild-eyed and lanky.
Two dollars for a can of coke, miss? Was this him? Should I just give it to him? He sat at the back, chatting away to himself.
Go sit with him.
I meandered down the tram, trying not to look suspicious. We ended up talking for twenty minutes – about the hostel in which he lived and the people who come to visit him. He told me he was a very good runner and had won many ribbons.
Eventually, he got off the tram, asking me emphatically to drop by for a cup of tea one day. He gave me his address and smiled. I had waited and waited for some indication, but apparently the money wasn’t his.
Later that night, on the other side of town, I was heading to the cinema on another old tram. The light was leaving, people in suits piled up against one another. I had almost forgotten the day’s mission. I was thinking of art and crushes and clouds. About ten minutes in, a young woman stood up in the middle of the tram, distraught.
Has anyone picked up a wallet? It has a fifty-dollar food voucher in it. I really need it.
She was almost crazed in her desperation, about to break down. No-one spoke or moved on the packed tram. The voice hummed: There you go.
I played with the fifty dollars in my pocket. It took me a number of stops to gather the courage to edge down the back of the tram towards her. I was freaking out. She was thin and grubby. Her hair was pulled back tight, and she wore an oversized jersey. There was such pathos about her posture.
Have you found the wallet?
I handed her the money from my pocket, not sure what to say. It felt illegal. She looked at me strangely, then hugged me out of nowhere, heavy in relief. She told me that the wallet had four-hundred-and-fifty dollars in it, and she’d been about to go and find some accommodation before it had disappeared. Her breathing normalised and she nodded at me, teary.
I sat down nearby, shaky.
God bless you, the man beside me whispered as he stepped off the tram.
I realised as he said it that I was a fraud. I had parted with very little, relatively. That day, I’d been given an envelope of a week’s worth of per diems – an allowance for actors working away from home. Worth a few hundred dollars, they were sitting in my pocket in a little plastic bag. I had the resources on me to meet the girl’s need completely, and out of self-preservation, I didn’t.
The voice pushed me. Pulled me. Battered my heavy pocket. As I got off the tram, I gave her everything. I muttered something disposable – It’s going to be okay – and she looked me in the eyes.
Are you sure?
I waved her off, embarrassed but relieved, and immediately got off the tram. I had no idea where I was, but I found my way to the cinema. Maybe I did need that money. I would miss it. And yet, right then, I felt so light. I imagined the girl in a bed somewhere, and I prayed that this was what the money would be used for, and I thanked the little voice for letting the money find her.
The very next morning, I got on the Number 16 tram again. It was crowded, and I stared out the window, sort of detached from it all – I was still replaying the events of the previous night. I had enough credit on my tram card to at least get where I needed, and a soft contentment was sustaining me. I was listening to a song, lost in it.
We pulled to a stop, and to my amazement, the girl – the very same girl from five suburbs away – stepped onto the tram. I blinked. It was definitely her. Same jersey, same forlorn stare. What was she doing so many kilometres away? She could have climbed onto any tram at any time of day. But here we were again. Had she come to find me? For a moment, I had in my mind that she might be some angel. Was this some test – and had I passed? The voice was giving nothing away.
She came towards me. I opened my mouth to greet her, smiling, but nothing came out. She was looking at me, straight in the eyes, without recognition. It was as though she had never seen me before.
Do you have any spare change?
I stared at her. What?
She searched my face, blankly waiting. I shook my head. I didn’t have any spare change. I had nothing left in my wallet at all, because I had specifically given everything to her.
She moved onto the next person.
In that moment, I started upon the slow road to understanding something of the nature of God.
The voice of God sang me a song, laughing and crying for the heart of humankind. It had not been a trick or a test. Yes, I may have learned a thing or two about the broken drug and alcohol culture of Melbourne’s needy, humility in giving and the “correct” ways in which to offer help, but it wasn’t really that kind of lesson. It was a parable.
He had waited twenty-four years for me to recognise him, standing right in front of me. He had given me everything he had. And up until that day, all I’d ever done was beg strangers for more change.
An extract from Metanoia by Anna McGahan. $24.99 RRP. Published by Acorn Press, an imprint of Bible Society Australia. Available at all leading booksellers.
Koorong books link is here.