Archive for old age
She glided into the take-a- way behind the heavily tattooed, boiler-suited, yahoo, from distant England who had loudly declared that he wanted the curry rice – and chips with that. She was dressed in a red hat, green woollen coat, pink gloves, and bright red lipstick that formed a crimson slash across her face. Probably about 70 years of age but I am finding it harder to judge age when I am nearly that myself.
She didn’t consult the menu board but instead fixed her gaze on lithe female Chinese owner and rattled off
“A battered cod, a curry roll, and a generous scoop of chips – make sure it’s a generous scoop now” the last part accompanied by a steely look daring the owner to scrimp. She looked around the shop hoping to attract someone’s attention but all the occupants suddenly found their shoelaces very interesting. Like who wants to get involved in what could be some sort of racist attack. She then flopped down beside me, turned around and smiled. I, momentarily distracted from the floor, smiled back. My first mistake. Never look anyone in the eye. I quickly turned back and started flipping pages of the magazine I had hurriedly picked up. God! It was a design magazine. I loathe design and gardens and houses. All that ‘look at Me’ repackaged as entertainment. But all was not lost. The feature article was the secret sex life of Anna Paquin and I quickly started flicking for the relevant article I knew would be a crock. Really, I just wanted to be left alone. Get my oysters, get my chips, get out of there.
“He tried to get me going at 8.00am”
she said “ He has been retired now for ——-“ She stopped and did what I took to be mental calculations.
“He’s 78 now so you do the sums. He just hasn’t given up in his head. Anyway we got out of the house at 10.00. I normally cook a wee dinner for him but I thought to myself we haven’t had fish and chips for years – its must be 10 years since I have been in a place like this”.
She grandly swept her hand around the shop as if she was a dowager displaying her drawing room
“I have to do all the driving now. He’s practically blind. Can’t see – so I drive him everywhere.”
She seemed to sense that I wasn’t interested but she persisted.
“Yesterday I said to him that we would have to start thinking about when I can’t drive anymore. Do you know what he said? “
She was obviously racking up her attempts to engage me. I didn’t take the bait.
She lapsed into silence and moved toward the pile of magazines as my order was announced.
“Half dozen Bluff oysters, chips, meat patty.”
I grabbed my order and left the shop attempting a small smile as I am not a complete antisocialist. I saw her start to engage the Englishman as I went next door to buy some beverage to go with my meal.
The door of the diary opened behind me and she was suddenly there again.
“Just thought I would pop in and do some extra shopping while I am waiting” she said as she sashayed down the aisle. The assistant caught my eye and raised her eyebrow.
She paid for her purchases before I had a chance to make my selection and a similar line of rapport was carried out with the shop owner.
I stepped up to the counter.
“I see you have met the formidable Miss Tush,” the assistant murmured as I handed over my five dollars.
“Mrs,” I said “She is bringing her husband his dinner from the fish and chip shop next door.”
“Oh no! Miss Tush isn’t married. She lives up in the next town. Walks here every Thursday and buys her stuff. Mad as a hatter.”
“But she told me she drives and has a husband – retired, 70 ish.”
“Nah! She spent some time in the psych ward last year. I’m told that she has her winter holidays there most years. Completely away with the fairies. We deliver her groceries every fortnight. Same order every time. Lovely old lady but — ‘
She circled her ears with her fingers and smiled benignly at me.
Confused and Vulnerable
His hands trembled at his side then, in an instant, they were at his face, picking at an imaginary scab. He nodded and then spoke eloquently to someone who he alone could see. He turned and walked to the back of the room and continued his conversation with the wall, then, spun on his feet and rushed back to me. This had been the pattern for most of the day. He got like this only once in a while but the drinking increased the likelihood of it happening. Forty-five years old; he looked like an old man in his seventies. His trousers, although not stained, appeared to be colored with urine. He had a ripe smell about him but not the ripeness of fruit ready to pick and eat. Rather, it was the ripeness of fruit which had just dropped from the tree and had been lying on the ground for one day to many. Fermenting; on the edge of rotting. Taffy was a strange combination of friend and mentor, though lately he had become more of a pet project. And now he had been accused of molesting. At first I couldn’t believe it of him and then I had seen the muttering, the face picking, the evidence of hallucinations. Then I had guessed that I had not known him as well as I thought I had.
Taffy lived alone in a ramshackle shack by the sea. Unheated, unlined, unpainted, and unmanaged, it was everything that one would think a bachelor’s habitat would be. But Taffy was none of these things. He lived a solitary life but he preferred his own company.
It was said of Taffy that he had once famously swum the length of inland New Zealand. He had been enamoured by the Burt Lancaster character Ned Merrill in The Swimmer. Ned swum back to his home through the neighbourhood swimming pools and Taffy decided that he would do the same but on a much larger scale. Of course, just as Lancaster never swum from one location to another without getting out and walking a ways, Taffy planned to do the same. He realised from his wanderings that most small towns and country schools, like their larger counterparts, had swimming pools. It was Taffy’s intention to travel form Bluff to Cape Reinga via this route with a little overland wandering between waterholes. He never realised that this feat would attract the imagination of the people of the land. But then Taffy never thought anything much of what he did would be of any interest to anyone else.
He had asked to be buried without any fuss. He didn’t want the ceremony to overwhelm who he had been. Just a simple casket, no flowers, no music. He wanted his body to be cremated and the ashes spread in the three harbours in the South Island. Bluff, where he had watched many an oyster boat bring in his favourite food. Otago, where the hills reminded him of all the women he had lusted over in his long life. Akaroa, where he dreamed of life in France and all the possibilities of living in another land. Although he had asked for this, he thought that his wishes would never be honoured. His sole surviving relative was a son, long neglected, and unvisited. His son (according to Taffy) was a born-again, do-gooding, bloody meddling Christian, who had never done a decent days work in his life and was unlikely to do anything that could be construed as worthwhile for his ageing father. I think that I had become a surrogate son. He called me ‘Boy’ and was constantly laughing at my efforts to emulate some of his feats. And now this.
The new, politically correct, world had been particularly hard on men. They are reviled by hard-nosed, rejected women who think that they are cesspits of violence and sexual perversion. Men cannot be trusted to be alone with a women or small children in a room because they will surely tear off their clothing and violate any bare flesh in the near vicinity. Their leisure time is taken up with looking at pictures of naked women and children and when they sleep, their dreams are filled with body cavities screaming out to be filled with a penis. Taffy didn’t tell me the details of what he had been accused of – I had to get that from the kindly social worker who, although well-intentioned, had already lost the respect of Taffy.
“Bloody woman. All she wants to know is how my Mum and Da treated me when I was a kid. When I say that it was fine, I was happy, everything was fine, she just shrugs her shoulders and rolls her eyes, then sighs. I don’t think she believes one word. Stupid bloody woman. What does she think I am? Some kind of nutcase.”
Actually, the bloody woman did think that Taffy was disturbed and his curious behaviour did not dissuade her from that opinion. However, she did think that he had committed the offence with which he had been charged.
“They get so they can’t control themselves any more. They have these feelings which they know are wrong, and, for years they suppress them. Its like a rage. They bottle it up and the bottle just gets to small for all that rage. One day it starts to crack and on that day they commit their first act. It might be small. It might be just looking at a child and imagining what it would be like. It might be buying a book and looking at the pictures and it might be enticing some child into letting him fondle them. That’s what Taffy did. Got this little girl in a playground and then started in on the fondling.”
I blanched at her story but I could not get my head around Taffy doing something like that.
“That’s what the ones closest always say. He couldn’t harm a fly. He was such a nice neighbour. He was a pillar of the community. Then they find all the pornography and the filth and suddenly they re-evaluate how they judge people. Its tragic that these people slowly erode away our faith in others.”
I wondered what her role was in this. Was she there to help Taffy or there to extract some damning evidence? I asked Taffy but he couldn’t answer the question. He was also silent on the accusation itself.
We went swimming that afternoon. I dived into the pool and worked out my tired shoulders with two quick lengths. The water was full of chlorine and my eyes stung. I watched Taffy. He lowered himself gently into the deep end of the pool and swam, crab-like for a length before he assumed his familiar breast stroke that had taken him from the bottom of the country to the top. His arms looked terribly old. The skin on the underside had begun to sag and you could tell where the muscle had once been strong and rigid and now was a little flabby. His stomach had that old man look about it, still muscled, but now stretched to the side as though his insides were slowly leaking out. His wet hair showed the bits of pale white scalp beneath were the covering was starting to thin and when he reached me after ten lengths he was quite out of breath.
“I didn’t do it you know,” he said between breaths. “They have it all wrong. The little girl will clear it all up. I know she will.”
With that he stretched out and swum to the side of the pool, pulled himself out, and disappeared into the changing room. I followed him onto the changing room. He was sitting in the corner, slumped over, staring at his feet. I touched him lightly on the shoulder and he looked up. His eyes were glassy and a tear slowly ran down his stubbled cheek.
“I can’t remember. I just can’t remember what happened. One minute I was sitting there talking to her and the next I was alone. I just know that I would not do something like that.”
I put my arms around his shoulder and he stiffened and drew away from me.
“Old age. It’s a terrible thing.”
The old man awoke with a start. He muttered to himself. It was hard enough getting into the arms of Morpheus at his age but to be awoken by something after a few hours of precious sleep was beyond the ken. He thought he heard voices and laughter coming from the shed out the back. He shone the torch that he kept by his bed over at the clock. 2.30 A.M., the arms said. He thought to himself what a bargain that clock at been, and how good his eyes were at his age. His hearing was pretty good too, but he preferred to feign deafness sometimes. Amazing what you heard about yourself when people thought you deaf. Then he heard the noise again. A sort of snuffling and murmuring that could be a possum but could also be human. His shed held his precious tools and papers. Someone had broken into it a while back and a chest of ship’s tools had disappeared overnight. Tools that had shaped boats which were now but history in the seaport where he lived. Tools that he had bought from the old country. Tools that had shaped first sail and then steam boats that had transformed this country. He thought he heard the sounds coming closer. Coming into the house. He would deal to them. He reached over for his stick thinking he would give them a sound thrashing. He might be ninety-four but he still could deal with a mischievous thief who was so cowardly he had to sneak around in the dead of night, stealing an old man’s possessions. There were a lifetime of memories out in that shed. He hoisted his sturdy frame to the side of the bed and as he was pushing himself to his full five foot nine, the carpet slipped out from under his foot and he felt the sickening pain as he fell to the floor.
He came to and he still had his flashlight gripped firmly in his hand. He had wet himself, probably from the pain and shock, and he was very cold. He looked at the clock again. He had been unconscious for over an hour. He could not hear any sounds from the shed now. He tried moving but every movement caused a terrible, terrible, pain to shoot up his leg and side. There was also an ominous grating that suggested bone against bone. It bought a wave of nausea. He must have broken something, he thought. I cannot move, but I can reach over and get my stick. If I can hook it through that pillow I could perhaps drag it across and then lever myself up onto it. Then the blanket. Half an hour later, after passing out again, he had the pillow and blanket. Now, at least his top half was warm, and his hip wasn’t grinding into the floor. Now what, he thought. I guess the daughter will come looking for me when I don’t ring in. He usually rang every morning before she took off for work to tell her he was OK. She was a good girl but their relationship had been strained until she and her husband moved into their own home. She had lived with him into her thirties after Mary, his wife, had died giving birth to the dead baby that would have been her younger brother and his heir. Oh for someone to pass his wisdom on to. Then she had married, a late war bride. He could never work out why the son-in-law never liked him but his daughter always stood by him. If he missed the occasional call, she said she would get a neighbour to bang on the door until he just had to answer it. But he had never missed a call in the decade or so he had been doing this.
His daughter found him at 8.00am. She had a premonition that something was wrong. She often had premonitions, but this morning’s was strong. She used her spare key and found him unconscious, on the bedroom floor. Soaked in urine, so that at first she drew back from him and muttered ‘Oh Dad’ under her breath. Then she saw the rise and fall of his chest and knew that he was breathing, although it was shallow. He was shivering and he looked so frail and for the first time she was aware of how terribly old he was. She tried to get him back into the bed but he shrieked every time she moved him and she saw that he must have broken something by the funny way his leg was pointing. She telephoned the ambulance.
He woke in a strange hospital bed and surveyed the world around him. He was in a single room and in a hospital. His snoring and nighttime yelling had forced the hospital staff to put him in ‘the side room’. A narrow window to his left framed a view to the North East Valley and the University and Teachers College part of the city. The greenery of the hills contrasted with the blue sky. His room was painted that institutional green that was supposed to calm. He was propped up on his bed with his broken hip and leg encased in plaster and splints. The doctor had told him there was no chance of a replacement hip at his age and because of his other health conditions.
“You would not last the length of the operation. We consider that your best option is a wheelchair.” This would mean he could no longer go on living in his own home and his daughter had made it clear she would not take him back again.
“I couldn’t support you any more Dad. I’ve got the job and John would not have you living with us again. I’m getting on myself. I just couldn’t lift you anymore or supply you with the level of care you would need. I’ve looked at a few rest homes and decided that Birchfield is the best. You would have your own room and they have nice grounds. I’d come and visit every week. It’s for the best.” How many times had he heard those words ‘it’s for the best’. The daughter had said that as she burned all his precious possessions that he bought at the Friday auctions. She said that when she and the husband moved to their new house on the hill. The words still echoed around the incredibly hot hospital room. The bedside table had the cards from the grandchildren and flowers from neighbours. The RSA man had come and given him some chocolates and a kind word. The unopened box of chocolates still lay on the floor where they had fallen. The stupid man didn’t even stop to ask if he liked chocolates. Had been allergic to them since his teens. Silly fool. Funny how he still thought of himself as young. His thoughts drifted off to Harrington Street and his shed. He had called his home ‘The Anchorage’. It had been his and Mary’s refuge since they had come to this country. It had stayed his anchor when first Mary and then his daughter had left. One dead and one plucked like an egg from a warm nest. He had all his memories out there, in the shed. Memories and the roll of money that even his daughter knew nothing about. That had been his real fear when he heard the noises. Not the tools, though they were valuable, but the roll of money. His daughter had found the $2000 in $20 bills in his old overcoat in the wardrobe in his back bedroom, but she didn’t find the more substantial roll out in his shed. Who could he trust with the knowledge of that? Twenty-five years of saved pension and egg money. That and the Lodge money. Encased in waterproof wrapping and wedged in the back of the shed, under a floorboard beneath the coalscuttle. He drifted off into sleep thinking of the Anchorage, of Mary, of warm nests.
They watched as the shed finally crashed to the ground. Flames hungrily engulfed the new feast of timbers as they settled. A pall of white smoke rose to the sky and they shielded their eyes and ample bodies from the intense heat.
“I always thought he had a huge pile of money buried around the house somewhere but we have searched every nook and cranny and there was just no sign. I even had all the chimneys cleaned at considerable expense, but nothing. I reckon he frittered it away on all that junk he had in the shed. Just useless junk from second hand sales. You know Dad used to go to the sales every Friday after he retired. Always bringing home junk which just sat in the shed.”
Vi Gets Old
She awoke. It was not a pleasant awakening. Soiled dreams drifted through her consciousness. Memories of falling, failing, no flying. Her limbs ached. Her head throbbed from last nights red wine. He clumsily threaded her aching limbs into the ancient robe – a legacy from her late husband and staggered out into the dimly lit kitchen gradually brightening with the light from the dawn. She finally managed to get the gas on the stove going and filled the kettle and places it over the gently hissing blue flame. She could smell the faint odour of the gas and it gave her pleasure to think of times gone by when she had cooked breakfast for the family – the noise of them drifting through the house as they prepared for the day.
Turning on the minimum of lights she wandered off to perform her morning ablutions.
As she ran the brush through her greying hair she thought, momentarily that something was wrong. Had she forgotten to let the cat out last night? Was it a noise from the front of the house or just the old wood shifting in the changing heat? She shrug’s and returned to looking at the sad sight in the mirror. Bags under her eyes, pallid complexion, more lines where it seemed only yesterday there was a clear complexion. Looking closer she saw the beginning of a turkey neck. God! Where had all that time gone? She smelled something funny. It must be the cat! She didn’t think she could face cleaning up after it again. Maybe time to get rid of the old companion. It was so sad when old age started to show through smells and little accidents.
She shuffled back down the cold corridor that separated the bathroom from the kitchen. As she entered the kitchen she instantly knew what was wrong.
Her brand new electric kettle ($62.95 at the Warehouse) sat on the top of her two year old gas stove, slowly sizzling and emitting an acrid cloud of blue smoke.
How would she explain this to her children? Already they were looking at retirement home brochures.
Images flashed through her mind.
A blue – rinsed old lady wheeled down a long dark corridor, soiled nightwear on prominent display. She screams incoherently for her long lost cat. She screams “Where are my children?” although she can no longer recall if she has children, a cat, a husband, a life.
I met him in the street as I arrived for a visit to my own daughter. He was eighty years old and had nothing but a used bus ticket and four dollars in change in his pocket. And he became my friend.
I arrived in Adelaide to see my new granddaughter and daughter and partner and found the old man wandering alone in the bus terminal, confused. He had the look of a lost dog. He almost whined and lay on his back with his legs in the air, exhorting me to rub his belly.
I had time to spare and a relatively-decent knowledge of the city, so I asked him if I could help. He shoved a piece of paper into my hand.
“This is the address but I can’t work out where it is. How can I get there? Can you help me find this? It’s my son”
The old man hadn’t spoken to his son in twelve years. Reminded me of my own relationship with my father, since deceased, and mother still going strong at 92 but ensconced in a rest home. On that piece of paper was the return address in the corner of an envelope of a card what I took to be his grandson had mailed to him. The date stamp looked to be about ten years old and you could see that it had been folded, unfolded and then refolded many. Many times.
Other than the address – which he later told me he had clutched in his hand the entire trip from Sydney to Adelaide , the man had arrived with nothing but a used bus ticket and four dollars in change in his pocket.
We hopped into a taxi and I supposed that this was some guilt pay back thing for me but I was going in the general direction so –
We arrived at a modest Adelaide house, blinds down, lawn dying in the intense heat like most Adelaide houses in mid summer.
I waited in the taxi as the old man walked up the porch steps. It wasn’t his son that answered the doorbell, but instead a boy in his late teens. Probably the grandson. I had my fingers crossed.
They exchanged a few words on the porch – I couldn’t make out the conversation – and then the young man took the old man into his arms. They embraced for over a minute before the boy took his grandfather’s hand and led him into the house. Just before closing the door, they both paused and looked back at me: a look that told me that everything was going to be okay.
I turned. A passer by, who had obviously been eavesdropping on the old man and my conversation smiled at me. Just then the front door burst open and the old man tumbled backwards down the steps, desperately trying to clutch onto the banister. A large, oafish man, dressed in a grubby white singlet that I had come to know as a wife beaters singlet, stood at the top of the stairs and yelled down at the prone figure.
“And don’t ever try to come back again, you desperate old bastard.”
With that he stormed back into the house, the slammed door the only testament to what I had witnessed.