The following story was written for a West Australian Yarn competition. It didn't achieve the long list. It was the first short story I had written in a couple of years so I wasn't surprised. However, I will publish it here. Perhaps some will have the patience to read it.
The dog follows his nose from message to message. I imagine the smells as colours, how his brain might get lit up if you could see inside, a kind of MRI rainbow.
My MRI was for my brain, me face down like a toppled sack. The dim dynamics of some radio station were barely audible over the clanking and buzzing. Do we all imagine our feet (still in shoes) poking out from that great hole of a machine and the technicians watching?
Fear looms extra large in waiting rooms. We all crush into our seats, the smallest versions of ourselves, letting the juggernaut preside. The clinical cold and the collective emotions paint the walls blue. Every time I go into any medical facility, I ask for blankets. “I feel the cold,” I tell them. I’m blue too, and bony, a new species almost. Perhaps a kind of mammalian crab.
But the blankets didn’t cover my feet. Or the noise of impending doom.
I see now that the dog I was watching has an owner, rugged up warm. Beanies (at least 2), blue jeans and hiking boots. A woman, I decide from the cut of her jeans, walking slowly as though steps ache. As though time aches. Maybe, like me, she feels winter in her fingernails and the deep joints of her hips.
I stop to watch the dog, my free hand rubbing my lower back. Emma says I have lost weight. When she hugs me, her fingers search out my shoulder blades like she’s measuring my wingspan. My flight risk. Maybe she thinks my fall was deliberate – the plunge of an elderly fledgeling from an abandoned nest. It’s not a bad assessment.
The dog scampers through the underpass before her and I stop, leaning on my stick, ignoring the objections from my ribs and lower back. I want to pat him but, after hovering near, he scoots away, rump tucked, ears flapping.
“Sorry!” she calls to me. “He’s a bit shy.”
As she emerges from the tunnel, we exchange polite greetings and then she goes to move past me. It becomes apparent we’re all going the same way. Awkwardness sets around her like a jelly. I know she doesn’t feel comfortable about walking with me. I even understand. That’s how I am with those blank-eyed people at the aged care facility. Emma says I should give them a chance, that I’m being obstreperous. That’s the word she used. To me “obstreperous” has always sounded like a throat lozenge. Reliably sharp but, in that way, also soothing.
The woman tries to walk faster but her movements betray pain. So I loom behind her, a tall ungainly shadow. A shadow with breath and a loneliness bigger than empathy.
“It’s a beautiful day,” I offer weakly to her back.
“Yes,” over her shoulder. She moves to one side of the path, knowing she can’t keep up the pace. I see her rub her thighs. “Winter’s nearly over,” she says. She wants me to overtake but I settle into step beside her, ruthless in my desire for conversation.
I miss Marianne so much – her daily presence. I blame her for my loneliness, anger swarming through my veins in stinging rushes. It’s one thing I can’t talk to Emma about, can’t speak ill of her mother. My silence is a curse allowing the bees inside me to sting and sting.
“Do you live around here?” I hear my question jump out. No point wishing it back. Maybe she won’t answer. But she glances at me, searchingly. Even as she looks, my right ankle rolls a little and she must see how I depend on this wretched stick.
“Yes,” she says. “Just near the park at Wyndamere.”
“Ah,” It’s meant to be a friendly sound but it’s almost like a cough. “Ah yes. I walk nearly to there, before I turn around. I live in that aged care facility… you know, in Bodsworth Street?”
She nods. “The one with the big blue gates? And the three-way fork in the drive?”
“I can’t believe I’m there.” My voice is sadder than crow song and she keeps her eyes to the path.
She’s giving me time to be strong. Time to shove my wretched stick up the back of my shirt in lieu of a backbone. We’re all in this river they call life. And sometimes you get clanged by boulders bigger and nastier than you’d like. Isn’t that true?
I suddenly notice she doesn’t have any eyebrows… or eyelashes, for that matter and I guess she’s having cancer treatment. So she probably understands.
She turns her face into a brisk breeze. Her eyes water and she rubs them, then adjusts her two beanies lower on her forehead. They go right down, covering her ears and the back of her neck, meeting a bright rust-orange scarf.
“A year ago I had a nice house, a wife, and my health,” I hear myself saying. “But within 6 months of each other, they were all gone.”
“I’m sorry,” she says quietly but doesn’t volunteer more. I can see she’s breathing hard, focusing on the slight hill we’re ascending.
“You don’t expect divorce at my age. And then, after Marianne left, I had my fall. I was found in my room but I fell down the stairs out the front. I remember waking up at the bottom of the stairs. I remember that clearly, and looking for my key in my pocket. I must’ve dragged myself inside somehow. I remember trying to get on my bed, too. But I couldn’t. I guess I was lucky somebody found me.”
“Oh dear, that sounds awful! Who found you?”
“My daughter found me two days later. Isn’t that terrible? I mean, to do that to her? I must’ve looked a sight – all banged up and passed out. I feel terrible she saw me like that.”
Emma’s face when I woke in the hospital bed still haunts my dreams. Over her mask her eyes were damp and deep as violets. Her warm hand massaged my sad claw.
“I’m sure your daughter is very relieved that she found you!” She is emphatic and I’m grateful for her kindness.
“And you?” I try to lighten up. “Are from this area originally? I mean, were you born here?”
She shakes her head. “No,” she’s a little breathless still. “No, I only moved here about 10 years ago. I come from Brisbane… well that’s where my extended family are. But I’ve lived in lots of places – China, Mexico, briefly in Hong Kong. What about you?”
“Hong Kong, hey? I spent three years working in Hong Kong. I really loved it there. But no, I’m not from here. I was born in India, same hospital as Spike Milligan! That’s my big claim to fame.” She laughs along with me. “My father was working in Ahmednagar – part of the British consulate. But we moved back to England when I was three. I don’t remember much of India. Apparently I had an Indian nanny who wanted to keep me when my parents left. Imagine the life I could’ve had!”
“Ah, I thought you had a bit of British in your accent. When did you come to Australia?”
“I met my wife in London… my ex wife. She’s Australian. She came to England as Australians do, to find her roots, I suppose. Or drink more tea. I found her working in a funny little bookshop in Earl’s Court. We bonded over Leonard Cohen. Her name is Marianne. It was perfect. Or perhaps prophetic.”
“I love Leonard Cohen!” she says. “More his poetry than his music. My grandfather gave me a book of his poems. It’s among my favourites.”
“Oh yes. He’s an amazing writer. So we bonded. I would’ve lived in Antarctica if Marianne had wanted me to. Anyway, thirty years later and… here I am. Still.”
Still. The word hangs loudly. Does it refer to time? Or motion?
I step carefully around a puddle, thinking how I’m stuck in that stuffy place’s clockwork. I feel my life settling to stillness. In the puddle I am upside down and bottomless, a zig zagged outline, vanishing grey.
“What’s the dog’s name?” I ask.
“Terrence,” she says. “We normally call him Tezza. So, after your horrible fall, you moved into the aged care facility?”
“Yes,” I tell her. “The doctors said I couldn’t live alone anymore. They haven’t really figured out why I fell. My recovery has taken several months during which time my daughter helped me sell the house. I wasn’t really up to doing it and so the decisions that were made were… I would make different ones now. I hate that aged care facility. I don’t feel old enough for this to be my life.”
Just then my ankle rolls again and I narrowly save myself from falling face first into a garden bed of seaside daises. I try to pretend it was nothing but I see her touch her phone in her jeans pocket.
We are nearly at my turning point now. I can see the Wyndamere Park like a green sheath, holding sunlight in the middle distance. I want to tell her she’ll be fine, whatever her story is. I feel so sure of it.
Instead I say, “Well, this is about where I head back. I have a routine, you know? But it’s been so nice to chat with you and meet Tezza. Maybe next time Tezza will let me pat him.”
She smiles. “Lovely to meet you. Well, we didn’t exchange names. But perhaps I will see you around. I hope so.”
“My name is Robert. And yours?”
“Sandi.” She turns and begins to walk away. “Bye!”
“Thank you, Sandi. Oh! Before you go… what hospital were you born in?”
She turns and grins. “Same hospital as Henry Lawson. See you next time!”