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Authors: Cate Kennedy

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BOOK: Like a House on Fire
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Mr Moreton's never asleep, even at 5.30 a.m. when I clock on.

‘How are you today?' I say to him each morning as I spray and wipe his perfectly clean mirror.

‘No good,' he whispers, his frail pigeon chest sucking the air in. ‘You don't feel like just bringing me in one ciggy, do ya, and wheeling me out there onto the verandah?'

He jerks his head towards the courtyard visible from his double-glazed window; a Rotary-sponsored rose garden manicured to within an inch of its life.

‘I'm sorry, Mr Moreton. Matron would kill me.'

‘Yeah, I know the feeling.'

I linger a few minutes, and we chat, his wheezing laugh threatening, always, to turn into a coughing fit.

‘I know you're a friendly girl,' says one of the nurses in low, embarrassed tones when she stops me in the corridor a few minutes later, ‘but it's best not to fraternise too much with the patients. If you're a cleaner, I mean.'

‘Right,' I say. ‘Sorry.'

‘Just do your work.'

‘Sorry, I will.'

I trudge, my face burning, down towards the corridor of elective surgeries. It's OK, I tell myself. At the end of the summer holidays I will have saved enough for three months in Europe, where I will walk the streets of Paris and London, absorbing culture and life and fraternising with whoever I like. Down in electives, bed after bed is filled with miserable girls with two black eyes and post-rhinoplasty noses swathed in bandages.

‘My parents gave me this for me twenty-first,' one honks dolefully as I spray her mirror. ‘If I'd have known it was going to hurt like this I wouldn't have had it done. Just look at my eyes.'

She gazes over my shoulder into the mirror with the fretful, restless scrutiny that has caused all this fault-finding in the first place. You can't tell if she's pretty or not because of the swelling and bruising, and the black rim of blood around each nostril. She sighs and climbs back into bed with her magazine. The room smells of nail polish and expensive bunches of flowers. Soon the hospital, I'm told, is going private, and every wing will be like this one, with glistening white ensuite bathrooms and upmarket floral bedspreads in every room.

Down in the oldest public wing there is an ancient bathroom slated for demolition, with three huge enamel baths inside. Rust-coloured marks streak the surface under the chrome taps, where millions of leaks have dripped year after year after year, and whenever I glance in and see them I think of sick patients in the old days, lying awake in their beds listening to that nocturnal dripping like a relentless echoing clock, marking their time left.

Each idle post-op girl, surrounded by hothouse flowers, watches me with the same bored, incurious gaze as I move about their rooms, spraying and wiping. I pump mist over the immaculate mirrors, catching sight of my own reflection there — my unreconstructed nose and studiously neutral face. Like these girls, I'm filling in my own allotment of time here, except that when I leave, it'll be to buy that plane ticket to London, and be gone. My hand holding the yellow cloth rises and falls, cleaning pointlessly, searching for a splash of toothpaste or cup ring mark on the laminex's spotless, glossy surface.

‘You know what I've found,' Dot says as she passes me in the corridor, pointing to my blue spray bottle. ‘Don't even use those commercial cleaners. Metho and newspaper, that's the best thing for cleaning windows and mirrors.'

‘But, Dot,' I say, ‘don't you sell all those cleaning products?'

‘I do,' she concedes. ‘But it's the cosmetics I believe in.'

That morning at tea-break, she slides a catalogue and an order form in front of me as if it's already a done deal. ‘And have a look at the jewellery,' she whispers, tapping the catalogue eagerly. ‘So reasonable.'

Marie puts down her teacup and gives me a shrewd look. ‘Do you think you're ready for more responsibility?' she asks.

I look up from the page of friendship rings. ‘Well, I guess so. Yes.'

‘Can you operate a floor polisher?'

I've seen the ones she means — the massive hydraulic polishers in the storeroom.

‘What about Noeleen?'

‘Her back's giving her trouble.'

‘OK, I'll give it a go.'

Dot's looking at me hard, blinking. ‘If you could just fill in what you want before you go, I can get the order off in time for the Christmas discount,' she says.

I am caught in the high-beam of her earnest gratitude, the undiluted optimism of her pale blue eyes. Dot's husband, Len, can't take her home business seriously, she's told me. He doesn't think she's got what it takes to sell enough jewellery and make-up to be eligible for a Christmas bonus gift.

I've met Len. He often joins us at morning tea on his way home from the night shift at the printing works, and his coiffed ducktail matches his wife's beehive in a way that makes me wonder where they met and in what year.

‘The corridor down to surgery,' Marie says. She hands me a bundle of steel wool. ‘For all the wheel marks,' she adds.

The hand controls of the hydraulic polisher judder and jar out of my grasp as the spinning discs hit the floor and grab. It takes off like a bronco.

‘Use your hips, girl!' says Noeleen, as I let it go in a panic and we lean against the wall, weak with laughter.

She's right. When I nudge the polisher along with my hips and keep my arms held tight at my sides, I can get the thing under control. I waltz the linoleum corridors in big sweeping arcs, walking backwards, making everything shine, singing top-forty songs to myself. There's the good clean smell of metho where Dot's polished the glass doors, and the deafening whine of the machine like white noise, erasing the tedium.

Then I get down on my hands and knees and scrub with the steel wool at the black rubber streaks left by the wheels of the surgical trolleys. Sometimes, even as I'm scrubbing, a new trolley bangs through the doors, and I crawl out of the way to give it room to lay a new purposeful trail of black streaks for me.

Six more weeks, I think to myself as I go, and I'll be cashed up and out of here
.

I look up from the floor and smile briefly at the nice South African male nurse who takes the patients into surgery on the early shift. His uniform's blue and mine's an ugly mauve, clearly designating our status in the hospital pecking order, but he's still asked me to the staff Christmas party. The other cleaners, when they hear this, behave as if it's a doctor–nurse romance from Mills & Boon. They speculate on what table we'll all sit on, what they'll wear, whether there'll be door prizes this year. When I say I'm not sure if I'll go, they look at me flabbergasted.

‘But it's
free
,' Dot says, ‘and there's a whole three-course meal!'

‘That nice young man asks you to go, I reckon you go,' says Noeleen. ‘He's from overseas somewhere, isn't he? Play your cards right and you might get a trip OS!'

I'm already going overseas
, I want to say to them.
I'm saving up and I might never come back.
But they're all smiling so brightly, so encouragingly, that I nod and tell them I'll be there.

And I say yes to Tony, the nurse, because of the way he holds the hands of the sore and sorry nose-job girls and tells them, ‘Look at you! You're going to look gorgeous!' He turns them to blink hopefully at their woebegone, bruised reflections in their mirrors, smiling warmly over their shoulders at the transformed vision they long to see.

‘Honestly,' he says, ‘in a week or two you won't know yourself,' and I watch them smile back, tremulously optimistic again, under this small kindness.

Mr Moreton asks me every morning about the cigarettes.

‘Please, darl,' he says. ‘I'm gasping for one.'

I look at him, sitting sleeplessly in bed in his stiff new pyjamas, racked with coughing that threatens to squeeze the life out of him. He tells me the specialist has been to see him and given him the bad news, as he calls it.

‘Weeks or possibly a month or two,' he says. ‘You know what these fellas are like. I told him, they used to
give
us smokes in the army. They were regulation issue back then.'

I don't know what to say. ‘It seems pretty ironic, doesn't it?'

‘These things happen,' he says. He surveys his empty hands bleakly. ‘I marched, last Anzac Day,' he adds. ‘Hard to believe, isn't it?' He looks morosely out through the sealed window to the courtyard garden, where the five iceberg rosebushes struggle to survive their pruning. His fingers move restlessly against the bedsheets and each other. ‘Anyhow, me daughter's coming down to see me. Bringing the grandkids.'

‘Oh, that's great. When are they arriving?'

‘Not sure. Tuesday, maybe. After this round of tests, anyway.'

‘Mr Moreton, I'd smuggle you a cigarette — really, I would if I could. But I'm only here as a casual and they'd sack me in a minute.'

‘Saving up for something, are ya?'

‘To go overseas.'

‘Yeah, I didn't think you were the kind of girl looking for a lifetime career cleaning tables. Not that there's anything wrong with cleaning. It's all work, isn't it?'

‘Yeah, it is.'

He coughs again, and I hear the rattling undercurrent in it, like an old engine that won't turn over, a battery that's nearly flat.

‘I'd kill for a smoke, though,' he says when he can speak again. ‘Seriously. It's not as if they can hurt me now.'

I'm remembering my directive about fraternising, but I hate standing here beside his bed, like some official. I sit down and peel off my glove, pick up his hand. It's like a bundle of twigs. That hand, I tell myself, held a rifle, tried to stop itself trembling with terror, worked all its life.

‘Are you right for everything else?' I say.

‘Yep, I am. I'm right. Don't mind me.' The fingers squeeze mine.

Suddenly Marie's at the door. ‘Can I see you, please?' she says, her tone like permafrost.

I stand up quickly. ‘Sure,' I say breezily, smiling at Mr Moreton as I leave.

Marie's furious. The matron's seen me lingering in here and has sought her out and spoken to her.

‘You clearly haven't got enough to do if you've got time to sit around annoying the patients. Here.' She thrusts a canister of cleaning powder at me, a scrubbing brush. ‘You can go down and clean the old bathroom out from top to toe.'

‘The what?'

‘The bathroom in the Menzies wing.'

I stare at her stupidly. ‘But it's about to be demolished.'

‘Next week,' she snaps. She has her chin up, outraged at my inexcusable lapse, my insolence. ‘Now get down there and do it and stay out of Matron's way.'

‘But …'

‘She came and
found
me,' she says in an enraged whisper.

What, slacking off in the storeroom?
I want to say, but instead meekly take the Ajax and brush from her and traipse down to the old bathroom. I have to step over builders' scaffolding and drop sheets to get in there, and someone's already disconnected the sinks and levered some broken tiles off the wall with a crowbar. It's ridiculous — I'm cleaning equipment that will be in the skip next week. Still, I take a deep breath and turn on the old tap to rinse out the first bath, which is so deep I have to climb into it to really scrub it clean.

I'll look back on this and laugh, I think grimly as I scour away at the rust stains. I don't owe these people anything. I can just finish in January and walk away with my three thousand dollars and my passport and get out of here
.

There's a big high-pressure shower hose on the wall, and when I'm finished I swill it over the ceramic surfaces of the baths till they're gleaming, ready for the wreckers to tear out and dump. Then this wing will be rebuilt into shining private rooms, fitted out with the moulded seamless shower recesses Dot mops every day, all laminex and mirrors, all reflective surfaces everywhere. After this, I think idly, I'll go down to the function hall and polish the parquetry floor there until it's so buffed and shining that Marie will be called to account if someone takes a tumble on it at the staff Christmas party. Perhaps someone could sue her.

‘I'm getting close now,' Dot tells me, waving the order form gaily at morning tea, after Noeleen's bought two bath-oil-and-moisturiser pamper packs from her catalogue.

It's a week till Christmas and I've been up a ladder, dustily hanging festive green and red bunting along the corridors and suspending plastic holly decorations in the doorways with sticky tape.

‘A dab of eucalyptus oil on cotton wool,' Dot advised in passing, ‘will get that off later.'

‘Have you asked the scholar if she's seen anything she likes?' Noeleen says to her jokingly now, fishing in her handbag for her purse.

That's their nickname for me now,
the scholar
, ever since Dot saw me at the bus stop after work one day last week, reading a novel.

BOOK: Like a House on Fire
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