Harry reminded himself that aging spares no one but the deceased. This was worth repeating on a day when any alternative to decay seemed preferable.
Things started the way they tended to: slowly. Firstly, the passengers for today’s trip were late. Not all of them, but on a day trip for five elderly ladies and their equally past-his-prime driver Harry, time was surely of the essence.
Jean and Val arrived first, ambling towards the bus in the manner befitting two ladies of advanced age, girth and infirmity, deep in conversation with each other and practically joined at the hip. Watching from the driver’s seat, Harry thought they looked ready for anything this hot Tuesday morning could throw at them; Val carried a huge floppy hat, surely a reminder of her latest trip to Port Douglas, and Jean held a golf umbrella in North Melbourne colours. There was not a single cloud in the sky, nor was one drop of rain expected but there you go. Golf umbrella.
Jean and Val settled themselves up the back of the bus. Jean had had a fall resulting in a broken arm and collarbone two years ago, and she’d had to have the nurse come in and feed and dress her every day. Even when the cast came off she needed a lot of help. And Val had had a stroke the year before Jean’s accident. This sort of stuff was traded around the dinner table at the monthly dinners. I’ll raise you Type 2 diabetes over rheumatoid arthritis. Up the ante with prostate cancer, or come over the top with a hip replacement and a side of glaucoma. You were always pretty happy to have no trumps in the hand you were dealt.
Harry had been living in the retirement village long enough for him to feel part of the furniture. He and his wife had moved there soon after she was diagnosed and he had continued on alone afterward. As a widower he found himself in high demand around the village. He’d lost count of the times he had been asked to hang a picture and then been prevailed upon stay for a cuppa afterward. One old duck had even asked him in to change a light bulb – in a floor lamp! Honestly, the thing was within reach of the average labrador, but there you go. He had changed the bulb then parried the advances and scuttled back to his unit. He constantly reminded himself that being gracious was the key to getting along with everybody.
The remaining three passengers for the outing arrived in staggered fashion over the next twenty minutes; a somewhat motley crew of a whippet-thin petite, a purple-headed tall and a faded movie star with a limp. The petite was Mira, a compact Croatian with some sort of dietary complaint, next was Jude with her amethyst-coloured hair and possible memory issues according to the dinner table rumour-mill, and false-eyelashed Freda last, with her walker. Harry got busy and stowed Freda’s walker under the bus.
Driving the bus was something Harry could easily contribute to this microcosm of society. He volunteered to do the rosters, chose the outings, drove the bus and accompanied whichever residents had signed up on the clipboard at the office, and away they went.
It was a hot day. Harry pulled up in the reserved bus parking at the Botanical Gardens and unloaded the walker for Freda, who by necessity was closest to the door.
Jean was halfway down the steps and decided to ask Val whether she would need her umbrella. There ensued a conversation about the likelihood of rain, then Mira had suggested Jean use her umbrella for shade. Jean turned in the bus doorway and ran straight into Jude who was trying to alight behind her. Being slightly taller than average, Jude hit her head on the doorway trying to doh-si-doh past Jean who was hell bent on retrieving her umbrella.
Harry helped her off the bus where she was swarmed by Mira, Val and Freda who inundated Jude with their concern over the relative seriousness of her injury. Within seconds, Jean was back and grinning, waving her umbrella out the doorway, narrowly missing Harry and oblivious to the consequences of her triumph.
Harry watched as the ladies made their way towards the entrance; Mira was briskly out in front, Jude was slower but with a longer loping stride, Val and Jean were together, one be-hatted, the other endangering passers-by in her attempts to open the golf umbrella, and Freda much more slowly with her walker.
The doors of the bus were hardly closed and the A/C had hardly kicked in before someone was knocking. Five minutes! It had barely even been five minutes. Jean and Val were standing at the door of the bus waiting for him to press the button to allow them ingress. Val’s enormous hat brim flopped up against the window as she peered inside trying to catch Harry’s eye. Jean once again fought the umbrella, trying to get it closed this time presumably, but it was flapping like a carrion crow.
After letting them in, Harry retrieved his paper from the console and continued to nut out 11 Across of the latest cryptic: “Loves soared wildly”, six letters. Adores. Harry had finished two more clues before he heard the next knock, feeble though it was. Freda was flushed and breathless but all smiles.
The ladies compared notes on their quick trip to the gardens while Harry resumed the cryptic. 32 down: “Cockney hand as well”. And. He was on a roll and just about finished when Jude showed up close to an hour later, looking relieved and flanked by several of the gardens staff: a gift shop attendant, two men wearing gloves and holding various gardening tools and a woman with plastic gloves and a portable rubbish collection.
Jude explained the presence of the strangest street gang ever assembled: she had got lost trying to find her way back. She couldn’t remember which entrance the bus had arrived at, and all the nice workers had tried to help her as best they could on absolutely zero information. She couldn’t even tell them what the bus looked like. Seeing her safely boarded they made brief, sympathetic eye contact with Harry as they waved goodbye to Jude and returned to their labours.
The hour was up and Mira wasn’t back. The minutes continued to leak by.
The ladies tried to offer some explanations – Mira loved plants and had a lovely garden. Jude worried aloud that perhaps Mira, too, had gotten lost. Harry thought, or worse.
He had just determined to go look for her when Mira appeared, dabbing at her face with a lace handkerchief and scurrying towards the bus. She scrambled aboard, if a tiny ancient Croatian woman can be said to scramble without causing affront to her sensibilities.
Mira was puffing and bright eyed but took her seat ably and continued to mop at herself with her hanky, talking volubly in her buzzing accent about the fairy wrens she had spotted near the Japanese Maples, and how watching them she had lost all track of time.
Harry took the ladies onwards to their next stop: lunch. The walker unloaded for Freda, Val’s hat left upon a seat and Jean daring to venture out without her umbrella, they all disembarked. Upon entering the cafe, Mira made a beeline for a waitress and began to enumerate her many digestive complaints including lactose, fructose and gluten intolerance. She was strident. The waitress hurried off to the kitchen to talk to the chef looking harassed and frightened. Of a tiny Croatian woman. Harry understood completely.
The group sat down at a nearby table and within seconds Jude tipped over the water pitcher reaching for a menu. Much dabbing, exclaiming and apologising later, they eventually ate their meal – although Jude received the wrong one. Rather than send it back, she laughed that most of the time she had forgotten what she’d ordered by the time it arrived, so it really didn’t matter.
Mira’s meal arrived, gluten-, lactose- and fructose-free, but soon found she could not cut it. She tried a number of times to get the attention of the harried waitress for a sharper knife but the waitress seemed afraid to make eye contact. Harry finally intervened and cut the meal for Mira in order to save the waitress from further harassment. Harry was just starting on his coffee and cake when Freda realised she had left her pills on the bus, and would Harry kindly open the bus for her? Of course.
Returning to the table, Harry saw that Val had received a text message from her granddaughter. Well she thought she had, because she didn’t know how to read it. The phone was duly passed around the table for input from all and sundry, and in the process someone apparently activated voice recognition. At least, that seemed the most likely explanation as to why the remainder of the lunch was punctuated with phrases such as “I didn’t understand your request”, “Invalid command”,“What would you like me to do?” Val eventually tossed the phone in her bag and zipped it up.
They asked for the bill. Mira set about complaining to the waitress that the meal was not good enough. Harry pointed out that she had absolutely demolished it and received a piqued look in return. On their way out Jean headed to the bathroom but failed to notice a carpeted step, took a tumble and caused great commotion in the cafe. To the relief of all, she was unharmed, but Harry helped her to the bus and they piled onto it for the last time that day.
They pulled onto the street, only for Jean to realise she had forgotten to pay. Harry parked the bus, took her money inside and apologised again to the waitress who was really just so happy to see them leave.
As Harry garaged the bus, he reflected that he was lucky to be physically fit, sound of mind and really very capable. This was not a nursing home but a retirement community, and living here you realised that once you got past seventy there were varying degrees of compos mentis and physical ability.
It was cruel really. You started life on top of the world. If you survived the first thirty years without misadventure you were practically bullet proof. And then started the slow decay. But musing on the day, Harry knew he was fortunate. They were all, each of them, on borrowed time.