A familiar knot of uneasiness was forming in the pit of Lilian’s stomach. A vague churning; like sounding the alarm, her body’s early warning system was begging her to respond. The flush of adrenaline meant her limbic system had activated, triggering a slightly raised heart rate, a tightness in her lungs, and a cold sweat beginning to form all over. She could name it these days – proximity-induced anxiety.
Author: Allison Duncan Page 1 of 3
When I started, it was with a hopeful sense of purpose.
Fears for 28 missing in bushfire-ravaged Gippsland
Or, I Wish There Was A Different Word That Better Expressed Exactly What Hope Is
Give sorrow words. The grief that does not speak whispers the o’er-fraught heart, and bids it break.
There has never been a better or worse time for fiction than right now.
The only thing missing from her list was a colander.
There should be other beds in here, but there aren’t. My health insurance buys me a room to myself, so I’ve got it, but it looks like at least two other people have been wheeled into a corridor somewhere to make it happen. I’m not sorry. I like the privacy. I want to be alone.
With all this space, you’d think I’d have a bathroom, but I don’t. I have to get out of bed, stagger across the excess yardage of this room to the door, cross the hall and use the shower and toilet facilities in the corridor. It’s like friggin’ Beirut in that corridor. Not that I’ve been to Beirut. Or Mogadishu. Or Baghdad, or any other place that people without any experience of a warzone liken to normal, safe things that aren’t anything like a warzone, in their efforts at hyperbole. Anyway there’s stuff happening in that corridor that makes me long for the cold sterility and endless synthetic flooring of my private room.
So that’s where I stay, and stare at the long wall of timber panels that look like they should be storage, but aren’t. It’s very weird. This is a weird room. Maybe because the last one I stayed in was – and I can’t believe I’m using this word to describe a hospital room – cosy. And not just by comparison. Its cream walls had faintly art deco sconces and the floor had a kind of bald carpet that muffled the sounds of people’s shoes. Here, people squeak in and out without mercy. And in that previous room, I had tables and shelves, filled with flowers and knick knacks from home. But it was a longer stay, and six weeks ago, and the first tidal wave of bad news. People rise to the occasion.
There’s nowhere to put flowers in this capacious room, no furniture except my bed, my IV trolley, my wheely table, and the crowded bedside table with its stupid phone with the tangled cord. Mum is the only one who calls on that phone, everyone else just sends me a text. But when that phone rings and I reach for it, the cord is so tangled that the entire thing comes with the receiver. The weight of it falling off the table creates a medical emergency as I try to catch it and am punished with crippling pain from the enormous incision down my abdomen. It’s not Mum’s fault. But it’s a stupid phone. And a weird room. And I want to go home. And not have this happening to me. And.
I’m not allowed to go home. Not until I can master the sadistic toy that the physio gave me. It has a tube, and a clear plastic housing that contains three coloured balls. When I say coloured, they’re all blue, but one is pale blue, the next is a middling shade of blue, and the last is dark blue. When you blow in the tube, first the light blue ball hits the top of the plastic housing. If you blow hard enough the next one also hits the top. But you have to blow really hard to get all three balls to the top in the one breath. And right now, it’s just not happening. Crippling pain, and all that. The things they come up with to measure your progress. Blowing into a tube will determine my fate. Like a random breath test. Ha! Fucking sadist.
It’s Christmas Eve. This – indicates hospital room – is not a Christmas tradition of mine. This is a first. Well, it’s obviously not my first hospital room, but it’s my first Christmas Eve spent in one. Not something I want to turn into a tradition. Once is definitely enough.
They try to make the best of it. They had some awkward carolers come visit. Volunteers, I suppose. A bunch of strangers file into the room and admire all the space. ‘This is a big room, isn’t it?’ and smile at you like you’re the lucky one. Then they start singing at you, trapped in your bed and tied down with tubes and attachments, a captive audience. Because nothing says ‘festive season’ like people you’ve never met invading your private space to shout glad tidings and joy at you, after an assault on your body carrying off parts of your organs and all of your remaining sanity. Anyway.
Dad’s little act of love was typical. He lugged in a portable flat screen TV and a DVD player, so that Nick and I can watch Love Actually tonight. One of our actual traditions. Dad had to purloin an extra wheelie table to accommodate the set up. I couldn’t spare my first wheelie table. They expect me to eat dinner, so I need a place to pretend to eat off. It’s a charade we all enjoy. And good to know that with Beirut happening in the hallway and two ailing people possibly ousted from this room, spare wheelie tables can still be purloined. Perhaps I am the lucky one.
The reality of which might slowly be uncovered.
Gradually, as if via drips from a leaking tap, things might turn out to be ok. Perhaps starting tonight, when Nick will give me my Christmas present early, allowing my ear lobes and throat to sparkle and glint in the sunlight of the following day – at home. Later still, when the cancer is eradicated the first time, and then a second time. And continuing, years later, when this Christmas Eve is just a bad memory – awkward, lonely, and painful – but undeniably laced with gratitude. When the scars from the incision are fading, but the ghosts of the past still haunt the blood tests of ordinary life.
They opened me up in hospital and took some things out. They unwittingly put other things in, that I didn’t have before. Some of them are things that I still carry, without even realising. But the load gets lighter, and the future less improbable as time goes on.
So perhaps that’s what my Christmas story is about. Hope.
‘Try to be patient honey, getting in a strop isn’t going to help.’ Gary’s wife was fiddling with her phone in the passenger seat, tapping with a flat finger while she swiped up, down and side-to-side in a rapid pattern comprehensible only to herself. The display on her screen whizzed past in a slideshow of machine gun images as she switched between Facebook (pics of the packed bag, captioned ROAD TRIP! with champagne glasses emoji), Instagram (#vacay #girlsquad #blessed) and the group message app (En route. Flat white. CU soon xx). Every so often her nails clacked on the screen and she cocked her wrists at increasingly unnatural angles to avoid chipping her extravagant nails. They were painted a glowing shade of green not usually found in nature but more than likely ironically named ‘mint’. There were sparkly diamantes embedded in the varnish.
‘A strop? A str-?’ Gary checked himself, took a breath. Mariana was headed off on a girls’ trip to New Zealand, and him getting worked up about traffic, or anything else for that matter, would likely mean his ears would burn for the next five days while his marriage got a good working over by the ‘girls’ – all in their fifties – over cases of Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc and plates upon plates of cheeses and olives and artisanal breads. Nope. Better to stick with the brownie points for dropping her at the airport.
There was no changing lanes while these bastards refused to let you in. He waited patiently, indicator ticking, while a bus manoeuvred from one lane to another, and then snuck in behind it. The big orange buggers could provide good cover if you timed it right.
Mariana broke into his thoughts again. ‘Now, don’t forget Max’s pills. And I left his food in the freezer, the individual portions just need to be zapped for about 45 seconds. But blow on it first, he won’t eat it hot.’
‘Yes all right, I know.’ The instructions for the dog were far more involved than any advice she’d left about the kids. Their two silent teenagers would only appear when they needed food, money or a lift somewhere, and he’d been parenting them for close on nineteen years, so holding the fort there was no issue. But Mariana did usually see to the dog.
The traffic was moving a little steadier now, he might actually be able to drop her off and be at work by 10am. That would be something. He’d been dodging the GM for a few weeks in the hopes that next year’s sales forecasts wouldn’t need changing after the market shocks of the weekend, so he’d probably better get in first and have Sabrina run the report again – BEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEP!
Gary touched the brakes and Mariana’s phone flew out of her hands and onto the floor.
‘Fuck! ARSEHOLE!’ Gary exploded. A taxi had cut into his lane just as they were merging to exit towards the airport.
‘Jesus, Gary, it’s ok, we’re ok!’
‘Did you see that? Bloody taxis, I swear to God…’
‘It’s ok, we’re nearly there, just relax hon.’ Mariana’s voice was muffled as she bent her head under the dash to retrieve her phone. ‘Ah shit, I’ve lost a diamante.’ She held her fingers up to scrutinise the nails. ‘Damn.’
Gary pulled the car into the drop off zone outside the international terminal. ‘Well at least we made it in time, and in one piece. Except the diamante.’ He leant over the give Mariana a kiss on the cheek. ‘You right with your bag? I can’t stay here long, that bloke in the vest is going to move me along. Got your passport?’
Mariana laughed loudly as she climbed out of the car. She opened the back car door to pull out her wheelie bag and spoke to him through the open door. ‘I’m fine, the bag’s easy. It’s all good honey. You’re amazing, you know. One minute you’re all tetchy and the next you’re making jokes as you drop me off. Love you babe.’
Gary was sheepish. Such displays of affection were appreciated but habitually rare in a twenty year marriage. But he wasn’t sure what was funny. ‘Love you too. What joke?’
‘The one about the passport! Trying to get me all worried. I’m only going to New Zealand!’
Gary stared at her. ‘Hang on. Wait! Did you not bring your passport?’
‘What? No! Of course not! I don’t need it!’ She was still laughing, but a little less confidently.
Gary pulled on the handbrake, shut off the ignition and stepped out of the car. He walked around the rear of the car just as one of the hi-vis-clad workers started towards him, clearly concerned that an errant vehicle was going to be clogging up valuable stopping space.
Gary stood on the kerb with Mariana. ‘Maz, love. Be serious with me now. Have you got your passport?’
She was looking at him uncertainly now. She adjusted the handbag slung over her shoulder and re-gripped the handle of the wheelie suitcase. ‘No. I’m only going to New Zealand. I don’t need my passport… Do I?’ Her face started to fall in confusion.
Gary brought a hand to his face and dragged it down slowly, pulling down the sagging skin and burnished stubble until he was quite sure that this moment was not, in fact, a dream.
‘Maz. New Zealand is a different country to Australia. You need your passport.’
‘I do? Are you sure? Oh my God… Fuck.’
‘Oh my God.’
‘You can’t stay here, you need to move your vehicle , sir.’
Gary turned to the drop off zone attendant. ‘I know mate, we’re just having a mild crisis here, can you give me a minute?’
‘You need to move, others are waiting…’ The man in the vest pointed to the traffic starting to back up behind them.
Mariana looked stricken. ‘Oh shit, what am I going to do?’
‘Go inside, talk to the airline, I’ll get going now. If I don’t move now you have no hope. I’ll go get it.’
‘I will. Go find the girls, see if you can delay your flight, whatever you can do. I’ve got to get going. You might still make it but I have to leave now.’
‘Ok. Oh my God. I can’t believe… Oh my God. Alright honey. Thank you. Thank you. Gary?’
Gary was climbing back in the driver’s side door. ‘Yes love?’
‘Love you babe.’
‘Love you too.’
As he pulled back out into the traffic, a Nissan Micra tooted its high-pitched indignation. Gary’s tyres squealed as he accelerated away, middle finger raised at the end of his outstretched arm through the open car window.
Grandpa could fix just about anything. He worked for the railways as a communications technician and throughout his life developed skills in carpentry, woodturning, electronics, building and lock-smithing, just because he could. He had a workshop in his garage, where tools hung in the right place on a painted backboard and where blood blisters were inflicted on unsuspecting fingers by old-fashioned vices. Coffee tables, side tables, bookshelves and chests were cut, sawn, created, assembled and finished off in that workshop, and my siblings and I would play with the sweet smelling curls of the wood-shavings until we shredded them into dust. Later, those shelves and tables furnished our shared flats as young adults, fresh out of home. I can still breathe in that smell and recall that garage. Everything in there, including grandpa’s dark blue overalls, was spattered with varnish, paint and woodworking glue, adding an astringent tang to the deeply dusty, woody scent.
Behind the door of the garage hung an old canvas bag with a cord threaded through its top as a drawstring. The bag was filled with tennis balls, the grey bald kind, and a few fluffy yellow ones, and it was where we checked for the suitable tool for whatever game we might need to play in Grandpa’s backyard – tennis, cricket (both kinds – French and Australian), Brandy, ‘keepings off’ – as long as we met his terms of avoiding hitting the apple tree, plum tree, crabapple tree or vegie garden, the last of which was seasonally replete with my favourite red and yellow tomatoes, which could be filched at any time with his blessing.
Grandpa had his teeth removed when he was young – possibly as young as 14 – and oh, how he loved to take out his dentures and flap his bare gums at us to provoke shrieks of terror and mirth combined. ‘Give us a kiss!’ he’d mug, and us, just little kids in awe of our incredibly old grandfather, screamed and ran as he grinned maniacally. He’s chase us down the hallway like the most hilarious and benevolent Igor.
I’m not sure why he had his teeth removed: if I had to guess, I’d say Grandpa’s assessment of the cost/benefit analysis came down on the side of practicality. He’d have seen being toothless as preferable to a lifetime of paying for fillings and visiting dentists. Mind you, he told us it was so that he could eat all the lollies he wanted, which he did. He would do a special trip to a wholesale outlet once a week and would come home to fill up his lolly jars. There was never a time when a sweet treat was unavailable. He always, ALWAYS had a roll of peppermints in his pocket or about his person, and when other adults weren’t looking he’d whisper conspiratorially, ‘Want a pep’mint?’ When my mother, grandmother and aunt went through his clothes after his passing, they found peppermints in every pocket of his trousers, cardigans and jackets. It prompted both tears and laughter, but it was also completely unsurprising.
Grandpa was down-to-earth, had a strong work ethic, and a deep-seated sense of justice. He didn’t like anyone to fuss over him but he was happy to heap praise on us grandkids. He rewarded me with gold coins for every A grade I achieved at school, and joked that I would send him to the poorhouse. He had principles and wouldn’t stand for nonsense. He was a teetotaller and at mum’s 21st birthday party he accidentally got everyone drunk because he didn’t trust anyone to run the bar but himself. My father, just starting to court my mother, did the right thing and alerted grandpa to the over-generous measures of alcohol he was dispensing and averted potential disaster.
Grandpa was a passionate Hawthorn supporter. He spent many years with my grandma sitting at Glenferrie Oval watching the Hawks play, and in later years watched them on the telly. Grandpa’s hearing wasn’t great, so he always had the volume up REALLY loud. Unfortunately, for years he had heart problems, including angina, and sometimes the footy would become so exciting he was worried about having a heart attack before he would find out the result. Grandpa set up a system in which Grandma would listen to the footy on the wireless inside while he worked away in the garage. He would check in with her at the end of each quarter, ‘What’s the score, Ed?’ If all went well with the Hawks, he could go ahead and watch the 6.30 replay without incident.
It was his heart that gave way in the end. We didn’t realise that for many years he was taking care of my Grandma, Edna, and had kept her dependence on him quite the secret. He’d done the shopping, the cooking and attending to all the business of the house without anyone cottoning on. He loved her dearly, and on their 50th wedding anniversary he made the only speech I ever heard from him. A man of so few words publicly, he presented her with a medal, made in his own workshop, an award for putting up with him for fifty years.
On the morning he died, Grandma Edna was feeling cold, she just couldn’t get warm. He brought her a cup of tea in bed, and when he felt that her hands were still so cold, he said, ‘Move over Ed, I’ll get in and warm you up.’ And then his gruff old heart stopped.
There’s a lot that’s inexpressible about my love for my grandpa, just as it is difficult to describe a piece of music like Fauré’s Requiem. A requiem can be maudlin and depressing, but this one is neither. When the melody of Part VII: In Paradisum played at the funeral, and Grandpa’s casket glided back behind the curtain, there was such a finality about it that broke my heart; I gave way to grief. But when the music plays now, in it are carried these precious memories of him.
I don’t know if my childhood memories are as true for others as they are for me, but they are part of my narrative, and the indefinable sense I have to this day, of my dear gruff Grandpa. Fauré’s requiem once made me let him go, but now it brings him back.
This post was originally published by the author in 2014 at https://alphabetinmyipod.wordpress.com/
I rounded a bend. This section of the park was about five hundred metres from the road, with a broad grassed area. There were plantings of shrubs and trees in little islands between the walking track and the road. Obscured from the road but visible from the path (if you happened to be walking in this direction), an actual human person seemed to be lying prone at the edge of one of the plantings. I turned to see if the matching puffer people were still in sight but they had disappeared from view around one of the many curves in the path. They probably hadn’t seen the figure lying on the ground from the direction they were walking on the path.
I looked from the figure on the grass and back to the two dogs on the leash in front of me. An internal debate began.
Me: Should I go over and see if the person needs assistance? What if they’re injured, or incapacitated? They might need CPR, and that is fairly time-critical.
Voice in Head: You’re going to do CPR on a stranger? Here at the park?
Me: Well, I don’t know! I should at least check if they need it.
Voice in Head: No, keep walking. It could be an elaborate trap to mug you.
Me: Even though I have two dogs?
Voice: It might be the dogs they are after: people steal dogs, you know.
Me: What, even these ones? One of them is about to keel over from old age and the other looks kind of stupid. A face only a mother could love, surely?
Voice: People steal all kinds of dogs, I’m telling you. Besides, if you went over there, the dogs might go ballistic and attack the person and make things worse. You could get sued.
Me: I think you’re being ridiculous, it’s only humane to check on someone lying on the bare ground in the middle of the afternoon. Besides, if they want to mug me, I have nothing.
Voice: That’s worse. They might get angry that you can’t give them anything, and murder you out of frustration.
Me: Well, again, I have the dogs.
Voice: For protection? Bah ha ha ha. That’s hilarious. You think these two are going to protect you? One of them is deaf and demented and the other is more concerned with leaving a trace of wee on every blade of grass between here and home! Good one.
Me: Ok, but you just said the dogs might attack the person. You can’t have it both ways.
Voice: Yeah, I was kidding. I was hoping you’d just keep on walking and we’d leave this dead dude lying here and get home in time for Family Feud.
Me: Dead? You think he’s dead? What if I need to ring the ambulance or the police? I should have brought my phone…
Voice: What, you didn’t bring it? What if there had been an instagrammable opportunity on this walk? These dogs have Followers, you know. You have an audience to satisfy. I can’t believe you didn’t bring your phone. Idiot.
Me: All right, all right. But since I gave up tracking my exercise with all those apps, I decided I didn’t need to take my phone absolutely everywhere. I thought I’d be able to enjoy ‘the moment’ more…
Voice: Pffft. ‘The moment’. You sound like a damn hippie.
Me: Shut up! What are we going to do about this? waves hand at possible corpse
Voice: Ask this guy.
Me: Oh, ok. This guy.
At this moment a rather strapping young man approached. Bedecked (yes, bedecked) in running clothes, he was keeping up a good pace while no doubt enjoying a thought-provoking podcast via his earbuds. I flagged him down.
Me: Excuse me, I’m sorry to interrupt your run.
Guy: Oh, that’s ok. removes earbuds from ears
Me: There’s a person lying down on the ground over there…
Guy: Oh really?
Me: … and I don’t know if they’re ok or not–
Guy: Oh, ok.
Me: … and I’m too scared to go over there on my own…
Guy: looks suitably macho
Me: … would you mind coming over with me to check on him?
Voice in Head: Did you just say you were too scared? What are you, a little girl?
Me: Shut up! Look, I am a petite woman. I could easily be attacked and overpowered. I’m being cautious. Look I’m just trying to put this guy in the picture quickly, and now he’s going to help!
Voice: Yeah, maybe he’s a murderer too, and it’s all a set-up. You’re about to be gang-murdered.
Me: That’s not a thing. And see, he’s helping.
The jogger and I left the path, me dragging two confused dogs behind me. We cautiously approached the figure, who was still lying motionless on the grass. The dogs displayed a supreme lack of interest. I waited a moment for the burly bloke next to me to make contact with the individual, and when he didn’t take the initiative, I spoke.
Me to corpse: Excuse me, are you ok?
Guy, coming to the party a bit late: You right mate?
Corpse: rolls over and frowns at us Yes, I’m just having a sleep.
Me: Oh, ok. Sorry to disturb you.
The jogger guy and I backed away apologetically, as though we were the ones behaving strangely. After I thanked the jogger for his help, we resumed our opposite paths. I pointed the dogs for home and power-walked away.
Me: Who the fuck takes a nap, in a park, in the cold?
Voice In Head: A hobo. A weirdo. A homeless person… I could go on.
Me: Yeah. At least he wasn’t dead. Or a mugger. Or a murderer.
Voice: Yep. That whole thing was worth it.
Me: Shut up.
Voice: You shut up.
Me: I don’t even like Family Feud.
Voice: flips me the bird