- How it Started
Concerning how a lonely elderly man in a Nursing Home found a friend with whom to talk.
The sun was shining dimly through the mist that lay between my new home and the not so distant mountains. In the garden setting, beams of orange light lit up the trees. The day had been almost breathless; no wind but a gentle breeze that filtered through the leaves. I heard leaves flutter. I felt a deep sense of despair.
There I was in the Moore Park Nursing Home after a visit from my devoted wife, Jane, who didn’t like me being in this place any more than I did. But I was eighty-five, could hardly walk and was incontinent. After a lot of discussion, the family had agreed that being here was the best course for both me and for Jane who was worn out with the strain of trying to look after me. I had been here about three weeks.
Luckily I still had my marbles and we weren’t short of a quid, as we used to say.
But I felt down and almost out. Admittedly the Nursing Home was a good one, built about 1980 in spacious grounds that I found difficult to benefit from since I had to use a walking frame. There was plenty of light in the building, it was carpeted, the furniture was new, but there was a whiff of urine in the air.
The occupants were mainly women, in fact the only men at first were yours truly, Walter, John, and Eric. Eric was an old codger who could only tell you about his health which like anyone’s there, wasn’t all that good. But his memory wasn’t too hot.
In the first few weeks Eric gave me a laugh. In a discussion he suddenly said,”Gough Whitlam was the worst Prime Minister we ever had!” I asked, “Why do you say that?” He replied ”Because of all that rush of new legislation which ruined the Country!” I replied, “Can you tell me one piece of Whitlam’s Legislation that Malcolm Fraser repealed in his eight years as Prime Minister?” “Um” he said.
About three weeks later again he suddenly said “Malcolm Fraser was the worst Prime Minister we ever had!”. “Why do you say that?” asked Walter. Eric said, ”Because he never repealed anything that Gough Whitlam enacted!”John, I am sure, had been a lovely man, handsome with an aquiline nose. His problem was Alzheimer’s. He was about eighty and still unfailingly polite. However, although he might start out speaking logically, he would drift off into non sequiturs
and forget what he was saying. It was very sad, not only for him but for his loving wife who visited him daily.
Walter was in his mid-seventies and had also lost his short-term memory but not as seriously as John. He had, as he later told me, had three wives. He left the first after many years for one of her best friends, and left the second for the woman next door, who put him in the Nursing Home when he got too much for her. He had taken up smoking again recently and was going really hard at it. He wasn’t allowed to smoke inside the building, so he had to do it out on a verandah. There he was joined by Muriel, one of the patients at the time, and they would puff away together for hours, speaking to each other through hacking coughs. I never got close to him. About two months later he died.
Robyn our friendly tea lady went to his funeral, and when I next saw her she told me, ”It was a lovely funeral, his three wives were there and some of his old work mates. One of them told a story about flying to Brisbane with him on business, and having a lunch together after they had completed their work . Walter ordered a large mud crab and ate it with obvious enjoyment and this fellow who was telling the story, said that he’d wished that he‘d had one. They parted and flew back to Melbourne separately where this man had to take his wife out to a dinner.
When they got home their baby sitter said that there had been a man there carrying a parcel which had he had put in the fridge. When they got it out it was a large mud.
crab, and they realised that Walter must have brought it all the way down from Brisbane!
Robyn said, ”They did say a lot of nice things about him at the funeral but it was clear that he drank a lot and played around a bit.” But then she said ,“But I can’t repeat what one of the men at the funeral said.” “Come on “ I said , “you can’t leave me in the lurch like this. Tell me!” Robyn replied “Oh well Mr Marriott, if you insist, but please don‘t tell anyone else.” He said, right at the end of the Service, “Well it looks like the bastard got away with it after all.”
The only interesting man in the whole place was Danny Clancy who did some gardening at the Home and to whom I could talk to through the window of my cramped room, which boasted a small garden plot just outside. Danny was about sixty, of a rangy build with straggling ginger hair, somewhat depleted. He had a perpetual stubble and a part of his nose was eaten away with skin cancer. I soon found out that he had a tough life with a visit or two to Pentridge Gaol. There he had learnt the art of breaking rocks, and he could and did break bluestones with a few blows from a sledgehammer. And could he talk!He was liable to pin your ear for twenty minutes at a time, which I didn’t mind because I had nowhere else to go, but it was hard to stop him or get a word in edgewise. He also worked as a gardener at a girls’ school and I heard later that he was something of an icon there. I found myself wishing that he were on the inside of
the Nursing Home rather that the outside. But I dismissed that thought as totally unfair to him.
After talking for twenty minutes, he would go off working at great speed to weed the garden or crack some rocks. He called me Davo. Not a man to stand on ceremony. He believed in the value of work and the need for achievement and he could be very funny. One day he asked, ”What did Jane do, Davo?”
I said, “She used to work as a marriage counsellor.”
“Oh,” he said, “I’ve done a bit of marriage counselling.”
“Yair. One day the priest at my Church said to me, ‘Danny I’ve a problem where you might be able to help, because I know your views on marriage. There’s a young married couple that I want you to see. Their marriage is in trouble because he’s been hitting her’”.
“So I went up to their place one Saturday morning and found the two of them together. I said, ‘Father wants me to talk to you two’. So I got them to sit down at the kitchen table and I told them my views on the sanctity of marriage, and the importance of give and take and so on.
When I finished the young bloke said, ‘Is that all you have to say?’ I said, ‘Yair’.
He said, ‘Well if that’s all you have to say, I’m going down to the pub’. I said, ‘If you take one move toward that door, son I’m going to drop ya’. He said, ‘You and what army?’ and I said, ‘Try me. I’ve had more fights than you’ve had hot dinners Mate’. So he sat down again.”
“’What’s more’, I said, ‘if I ever find out that you have touched one hair on the head of this lovely little girl, I’m going to come and do you over properly.’ Then I left. The Father tells me that they are happy and still married and every Christmas they send me a card. So there you go: marriage counselling. I’ve done all that.”
I had, over the years, become used to a shortage of men to talk to in the various art classes that I attended. There were very few men. As this couldn’t all be as a result of their early death I concluded that men are not very inventive or as outgoing as women in their pursuit of something to do and more likely to be stuck in front of the TV.
Because there were no men that I could talk to I started conversation with the women in the Nursing Home, Dorothy being the first. But I easily got sick of her predilection for only talking about herself or her family. She would refer to her family members by name without any lead in as to what relation they were. I found this infuriating.
I used to talk to Velma, who was largely confined to bed having suffered terrible arthritis for years and who told me she had had every operation known to man or woman. She was the one who alerted me to the interesting fact that apart from her, the people in beds usually had their minds working while the ones who walked freely often didn’t. But she tended to rattle on a lot.
She had had a hard time with her illness which had caused great pain over many years. She had resorted somewhat to the grog and like me had a bottle of Scotch buried away which was replenished regularly. She was sharp of mind and was in her mid-seventies. Velma was the one to tell me to look out for Glenda because she was unreliable. I thought that most of the women got on with Glenda but Velma said she didn’t trust men. Glenda was pretty worn by this stage, grey hair, as you would expect , but deep wrinkles on her face and neck. She used a walking frame.
Erna was a lovely old lady in her nineties and completely on the ball. She was petite with inquiring eyes and a head of tightly curled white hair. She had to use a walking frame like me but was still able to get around comfortably. She had no major illnesses, only the handicap of age. She was well versed in her family’s history and had written quite a library of booklets, tables, charts, whatever about her ancestors, peers and descendants. She had a constant stream of visitors, mainly grandchildren and great grandchildren. It was clear that she was very much loved by her family.
Rasa was in her late eighties. She really had no option but to use a wheelchair. She had a striking, face with hair that was not yet all grey. She too had an acute mind plus an ability to sum up things very neatly. She was interested in art, politics, travel and was alert to everything that was going on. She had a computer in her room and did the most remarkable art on it. She had been an artist almost all her life and had worked in oils, pastels and watercolours but now was unable to use her hands sufficiently well and had turned to the computer. Because of my interest in art I got on well with her. I almost saw her as an elder sister and wished that I had known her in her prime. She was liked by everyone. She was visited regularly by her daughter. Her son came less frequently.
A late comer as I found out was Linda. An impressive woman in her eighties, she had her wits about her, but was physically handicapped. She used to be a musician and a notable one at that. I Googled her and found that she had had a long career including teaching. I didn’t get to speak to her much.
Those people seemed to be all I had and I longed for some intelligent male to talk to.
I struggled out of my room one morning, the clouds were low as was the temperature. I felt trapped and wondering how to fill in the rest of the day, and not really happy that my family had finally put me in this place.
I felt way down and started wondering whether I would take resort to my bottle of Glenfiddich and the rest of my medication to finish myself off. I managed to pick up a bit and struggled to the veranda to fix myself a cup of tea.
“G’day,” said a strong male voice and I looked around in surprise to find a bald, wrinkled, erect man with an unusual hooked nose, deepset eyes, a moustache and goatee beard sitting in a wheelchair and who must have just arrived. He later described himself as having eyes like pissholes in snow. He was physically a lot different from me. I am short and stout ,less follicle challenged than he and I drive a walking frame. I soon found out that he had an unusual mind.
“I’m Al”, he said, “Albert McCormack. You look as though you have your wits about you. I’m glad to see another bloke around here who I can talk to.”
“I’m David,” I said, “David Marriott.”
“G’day, Dave.” “G’day, Al.” The words came out together. It seemed like we had instantly recognised a common bond.
Al said, “I just got in here yesterday. Can’t say I’m all that thrilled with the place. Why are you here?”
“Arthritis is so bad”, I said. “I can’t walk and what’s worse I’ve got a leaking bladder.”
“Stiff,” said Al. “How old are you?”
“I got the OBE five years ago.”
“It stands for ‘Over Bloody Eighty’.”
”Oh,” he said. “I’ve got five years to go. I’m in here because there’s no-one to look after me. I can’t walk, I’ve got a bad ticker and I can’t hold my piss either.”
“We make a great couple,” I said, “but maybe we’ll be good for each other.”
“I hope so,” said Al. “There isn’t much competition.“