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Authors: Cate Kennedy

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BOOK: Like a House on Fire
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‘I thought you'd finished school,' she'd said, and I'd answered, ‘Yeah, I have,' and she'd stood looking at my book with a perplexed air.

‘Oh,' she'd said abruptly, ‘right!' almost flinching with shy goodwill.

Now I watch her carefully counting change for Noeleen out of her purse, and until this moment I've felt annoyed at this nickname and the thought of them discussing me — impatient to be in a world, instead, where reading a novel in public isn't a cause for comment.

But I suddenly change my mind. It's the purse that does it; it's so worn and well used compared to the elegant grey wallet I got for my eighteenth. That, and the care with which the two of them handle those coins.

I pull the catalogue towards me and tick boxes on the order form, adding up as I go. I reach the total which entitles Dot to the Christmas Gift Bonus. I keep ticking, until she's eligible for the coveted Gold Seller twenty-four-carat stickpin. That's two shifts' worth of salary I pull from my grey wallet, as she holds out an envelope, speechless. Ten hours of spraying and wiping, crawling on hands and knees scrubbing at rubber streaks, upending ash bins and gagging, mopping chlorine into shower recesses, mindlessly buffing laminex. That's a lot to pay for some tacky jewellery and April Violets body lotion, and we both know it as I hand over the money.

I wait around to see the look on Len's face when she tells him. His expression, I think to myself, will be worth it. Here's another mistake I make: I think Len will be chastened, satisfyingly disconcerted, forced to eat his words. When he hears, though, he is radiant with pride. As he congratulates his wife it strikes me for the first time that, with their odd shifts, this fifteen-minute tea-break is one of the few times the two of them see each other all day.

‘All things going well those earrings will be here in time for you to wear them to the Christmas party,' Dot assures me.

‘Terrific,' I say.

She and Len glance at each other again and grin, and I've got my money's worth, after all.

I work backwards today, from the elective-surgery ward down to the nurses' station and recreation room, because I don't want to run into the matron unless I have to.

‘There you are!' says Mr Moreton when I get to his room.

‘Well, at least someone's happy to see me.'

‘Get a telling-off, did ya? Just for talking to an old man?'

I shrug, like it means nothing, like I'm a nonchalant girl on her way to Europe and real life.

‘Don't worry about it.' I hate the way I'm keeping my voice low and furtive as I tidy up his newspaper and spray the table. ‘Heard any news about your daughter coming with her kids?'

‘Yeah. Tomorrow, they reckon.' He sighs, takes a quavering breath.

‘What's wrong? That's good, isn't it?'

‘Well,' he says, hesitating like it's my feelings that should be spared. He glances up at me, and I'm struck by the sharp blueness of his eyes. ‘It is and it isn't. It'll be because they've given her the word.'

I wait, thick-headed and confused.

‘She's interstate,' he says softly. ‘She wouldn't come unless I was on me last legs.'

I look at him, and his bony, carved-thin shoulders rise and fall. ‘I'm not complainin',' he says, his eyes on the empty garden outside. ‘That's just the way it goes.'

It's easy to start work half an hour early the next day. The night staff give me tired, vague smiles as I head to the staffroom to change into my uniform, and I can just see the rim of the sun rising on the horizon like a burnished disc as I slip into Mr Moreton's room.

‘What's this?' he says, blinking at his watch in the gloom when he sees me. ‘It's only just gone five.'

‘First cab off the rank today,' I say, and nudge the door shut with my foot. ‘Man with important family visitors. Do you reckon you can get into your wheelchair?'

He looks at me. ‘Of course I can.'

I feel the sinewy old muscle in his arm as he lowers himself, and the remnant strength as he leans over, hauling his breath in, to put on his own slippers. Then he sits back up, and I stow his towel and toilet bag, and we're ready.

Nobody stops us as we wheel down to the deserted Menzies wing, nobody even notices us. Mr Moreton whistles when I steer him around the scaffolding and through the door.

‘Now that,' he says, ‘is what I call a bath.'

I just smile as I turn on the taps and let the water thunder into the tub. Back in his room by six, I'm thinking, and no one the wiser.

‘And it's so clean,' he says, shaking his head.

‘I know,' I say. ‘I cleaned it.'

‘You little champion.'

There's an awkward silence as we both look at the steam curling off the deep, waiting water.

‘I can wait outside if you'd rather, and leave you to it with the stepladder there,' I say, ‘or I can give you a hand in.'

‘Up to you. Don't want to embarrass you.'

‘Let me give you a hand then.'

There's nothing to it in the end, just a steadying grip to help lift him up and over the rim.

In the water, he cautiously releases his hold on the sides and lets himself float outstretched, eyes closed against the rising steam. I stand there, holding his pyjamas and dressing-gown, terrified he'll have a coughing fit, or that someone will burst in.

‘Do you know,' he says, ‘I haven't had a bath in I don't know how long. Used to having to sit on a plastic chair in the shower. Or stand there clutching those bloody grab rails. Haven't been like this for years.'

‘Like what?' I say. My heart is jumping into the back of my throat.

‘Weightless,' he says finally. ‘Completely weightless.'

I keep my face neutral and preoccupied as I hurry him back along the corridors to his room. He's pink-faced and loose-limbed in his fresh pyjamas and comb-ploughed damp hair.

‘The doctor never puts his head in till 8 a.m. at least,' he says. ‘What is it now?'

‘It's 6.25,' I answer. I see a nurse passing at the end of the corridor and look down. Shouldn't have worn my mauve uniform. Should have worn my own shirt and pretended to be a relative. But nobody stops us. It's still too early.

In his room I hold the mirror while he runs his electric razor over his cheeks and chin, putting a hand to his chest to pull the slack skin on his neck taut, observing his own reflection critically as he finishes.

‘You know, I never wanted to live past seventy-five,' he says, ‘till the day I turned seventy-four.'

As I put away his shaver in his toilet bag I see an unopened bottle of aftershave with a sticker saying
Happy Christmas, Grandad!
still on the box. I raise my eyebrows enquiringly.

‘Why not,' he says when he sees me holding it up. ‘Pass it over here!'

It's the recklessness in his voice that decides me.

I help him change his pyjama top for the shirt and sweater he has hanging in his cupboard, and I hold out my hand to help him into his wheelchair again.

He looks at me shrewdly. ‘Where are we going?' Looking great in his shirt and jumper, like anyone's grandfather, like someone who'll be checking out of this hospital any day now.

‘AWOL,' I say. It's true too. I know as I wheel him out the door that we're crossing the point of no return, way beyond any casual fraternising I could explain away, but nobody sees us as we pass three rooms on the way to the exit door leading to the courtyard and, anyway, I can't let him down now, not when he's shaved and changed and keeps clenching and unclenching his hands with anticipation.

It's awkward manoeuvring the two of us around to depress the lever on the door and open it, and there's a sucking sound as the airlock is broken when I lean into it. A draught of fresh air blows over us, and I worry that the cool air outside will bring on a coughing fit, but Mr Moreton takes a deep, careful breath with his face up to the weak sunlight, fumbling for the brake on the wheelchair as we reach the tanbarked square of garden, then settles his hands in his blanketed lap with a sigh.

He watches me with gleaming, expectant relish as I tap out a cigarette from the packet in my bag and pass it to him, then dig again in my bag for the lighter. When I bring its flame to the tip of the smoke in his mouth, his hand grabs mine and holds it. Then I feel the grip relax as he tilts his chin and exhales like he's been holding his breath for a long, long time. He lowers the hand with the cigarette to his knee with calm, slow relief.

‘What can I say?' he whispers through a wreath of smoke. ‘Your blood's worth bottling.'

I smile and check my watch, my own hands shaking. It's almost seven.

‘Just don't inhale too deeply and start coughing,' I say.

‘No chance of that,' he mutters, bringing the cigarette back to his lips as if he's blowing a lingering kiss. He's like a different man with a cigarette in his hand. He gazes affectionately at the rosebushes and beyond them, off to the distant hills visible between the hospital's east and south wings.

‘You look very nice,' I say.

‘Do I? I feel bloody great,' he says, stretching with a contented yawn, and there's a little zephyr of morning breeze that washes over us, warm and fragrant with the faint scent of blossom, and I'm about to speak again when the propped-open door slides slowly shut behind us on its hinges. There is a terrible echoing click as it closes on its own deadlock, and I recognise the sound as soon as I hear it. It is the sound of a plane door closing without me, ready to taxi down a runway and take off for London. Suddenly I very much doubt I'll be going to the staff Christmas party, either.

‘Was that the door?' Mr Moreton says, his eyes fixed on the hills.

‘I'm afraid so.'

‘So we'll need to find another entrance?' His carefully combed, side-parted hair and the prickles of white whiskers he's missed on his face send a piercing, protective ache through me.

‘Yeah. But don't worry, it'll be fine. You can take your time now.'

‘Don't you worry,' he says. ‘I am.'

He gives the butt one last regretful glance and throws it onto the path, where I stub it out with my toe.

‘Ready when you are,' he says.

I wheel the chair to the far corner of the courtyard and down past the pathology wing, around the corner, skirting rows of garbage skips, and up the path beside accident and emergency. There's no chance of slipping through unnoticed now; the hospital's come awake and nurses and doctors are walking in briskly from the staff car park, eyeing us curiously, as I make my way past a locked door and yet another emergency exit, also locked.

‘We'll have to go in via the front,' I say to Mr Moreton. ‘There's no way round it.'

‘Don't worry,' he says. ‘I've been to the front and survived once already.' I'm laughing as he adds, ‘I'm real sorry, though. You'll lose your job, won't you?'

‘I couldn't care less about the job.'

‘What about you going off to London and all?'

‘I'll just go a bit later than I planned. It's not like it's going anywhere.'

‘Sorry to make you run the gauntlet, though.'

‘Nothing to apologise for,' I say.

I'm around the corner now, wheeling the chair on the long sweeping stretch of pavement leading to the black glass doors of the impressive entrance atrium. The two black ash bins stand sentinel at either side, but someone else will be hosing them out this morning.

‘Here we go,' I whisper, bending to Mr Moreton's ear. The woody, clean fragrance of his Christmas aftershave makes me want to cry.

‘Eyes front,' he whispers in return.

We start up the wide concourse with its landscaped box-hedge border, morning light hitting the tinted glass of the doors and heads turning to us as we approach. Mr Moreton's shoulders go back and his chin lifts and we're clipping along now, left right left, there's no way I'm going to do him the disservice of skulking in, it's up and over the top for us.

Down in the kitchen the other cleaners will be pouring their cups of tea out of the urn now, Marie remarking coolly on my absence, and Matron will be waiting for us, I am certain, at the nurses' station, in the no-man's-land of the hospital's thermostatically cool interior, its sterilised world of hard surfaces, wiped clean and blameless. Someone else's jurisdiction now.

Mr Moreton feels it, I know he does, because I hear him start humming ‘It's a Long Way to Tipperary', which dissolves in a hoot of laughter then a coughing fit, and I reach down and grab his frail hand again till it's over. Then we push on, both of us smothering laughter, and this moment is the one I remember most clearly from the year I turned eighteen: the two of us content, just for this perfect moment, to believe we can go on humming, and that this path before us will stretch on forever.

Tender

BOOK: Like a House on Fire
11.29Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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