The nurse arrives at your home. Squeaking the gate on rusty hinges, she takes the steps to your front door and in those steps registers car-tyre sounds on a rainy street and the two-week-old newspaper on your verandah, plastic flowers in pots, and biscuit-factory smells from up the street, that once sweet, have now turned sickly through overexposure. In a year the biscuits will be gone and the sugar mill in Pyrmont too, and the dockyards and goods line, and the little shop around the corner whose sign proclaimed: ‘Quick Buttonholes Done Here’. All salt-of-the earth types to be replaced by renovated apartments, cafés and restaurants.
And in the knock at your door is the wait, the slow introduction of worlds: mine to yours, yours to mine, greetings between us, and once inside momentarily blinking in the half-light of closed blinds, adjusting eyes and ways of being, each to the other.
The stories we nurses know—you couldn’t make half of them up—are based on a premise of dignity, valued lives and practical notions; the discourse varies as the situation demands. There was fiction in the floridness of Ero, who is seventy years old and describes herself as Empress of the World. In buoyant tone, she declares: ‘You may call me Your Highness.’ Yeah, right. It is Ero’s plan to build a grand structure to rival the Parthenon and already she has started talks with the casino in relation to the matter. She was recently homeless and aren’t there a lot of them, slowly receding from the world and spilling into old age, wandering streets and refuges as though to follow some noble, antediluvian tradition. In the City Women’s Hostel, someone I’ll call May is eighty-two years old and tells me her parents sold her sister for ten quid to back a horse. ‘My real mother is Gracie Fields. She had to sneak into the country to see me.’ We find May a home and each of the nurses treats her with the grace of fields, fields of grace, filling up her syringe driver, enquiring about nausea and comfort and the marvellous feat she has accomplished in transforming a pillow slip and a stuffed toy frog into a pair of slippers. May is a seamstress and talk of illness and dying means nothing much to her. They’re abstract terms—and didn’t the abstract painters attempt to produce work that had no identifiable reference to the visible world, creating instead that which had a claim to exist in its own right?
In those whose health was more certain, the fiction, we knew, was in gaps of things unsaid, the traces of family and friends left behind by a person, and not wishing to answer to any of this: it was left to others to invent, interpret or discover after death. Michael, whose dying wish was that his family not be notified of his passing, finds the law makes no allowance for such requests, and efforts are made to track down a next of kin: a man who, when eventually found, thunders into the crematorium, demanding the coffin be opened so he can see his father.
‘We’re not allowed to open it,’ the funeral director says. ‘It’s against the law in a crematorium.’
The man yells, threatens, demands, so that the funeral director says he’ll see what he can do and departs. I’m thinking, Don’t leave me here with him. Even in death Michael’s peace is questionable. They do open the coffin and whatever it is that Michael’s son sees calms him a little as the queue outside the chapel shuffles impatiently, rattles the door, because we’ve taken up more than the allotted thirty minutes. Well, at least that’s something, I think, Michael asserting his claim to more than the allocated time there in his final departure.
In this line of work I was often put in mind of Judith Wright’s poetry:
South of my day’s circle
I know it dark against the stars, the high lean country
full of old stories that still go walking in my sleep.1
This is the nurse’s lean country: the streets and homes of Redfern, Glebe, Kings Cross—double-tiered worlds of overtones and undercurrents, subcultures of those disaffected, different, of disparate views. One man whose happiest days were as a chimney sweep: ‘You put the steel ball down with the wire chain and it bumps against the side. Then the wire brush, you put that down and then the scraper.’ And now here he is surrounded by nicotine walls, unwashed dishes and a chimney sweep’s blackened face. He wears a faded boxing-kangaroo T-shirt that harks back to a claim that Australia won the America’s Cup once.
And then there’s Paul, who at our first meeting announces: ‘I’ve got the cancer. I shouldn’t be here. They gave me six months.’ It’s a clapped-out boarding house in Redfern. He’s had a knife held to his throat twice in the past month because word got out he helped collect the takings for the manager. Can’t make it up the stairs to the bathroom and the guttering leaks into a bucket at his door when it rains. ‘Let’s see if we can’t do better than this,’ I say, but he has no real expectation of it. Paul’s six months is eight when I meet him, soon becomes a year and then two as his world unfurls like something from a chrysalis. After and between the gaps lies truth, or at least a version of it that I’ve come to understand.
In the loading of the syringe driver, the palliative care nurse shows deft and clever hands. Snaps the morphine vial, twenty-one gauge needle clipped onto syringe, drawing the physical calculations of analgesia, muscle relaxant, anti-spasmodic, and then a more comfortable dressing, something for the rash, the fluid amassing on the lungs, conversations with the local doctor, the specialist, considering options, choices, expanding the world and opening it up to someone who sees everything closing rapidly around him. And in the same registration of a wet newspaper on the verandah is the noticing of small things: a little more breathless, slight loss of weight, the fading of hope in a man’s eyes.
Paul’s knowledge of the world is reflected in a belief that he doesn’t deserve much, though he wouldn’t put it like that. It’s more practical, of the streets, rough-edged. His thieving days are behind him—that’s a young man’s caper— but he still considers himself one, only now he’s stealing time. Back in his day it was the child who was charged with being neglected, so for many it wasn’t long for the paperwork to mount up. Within a few years Paul was given a one-way ticket to Children’s Court, where he learned pretty quickly the lie of the land.
He was chased around the courtyard of Albion Street by Neddy Smith as the guards and other kids cheered them on. Paul had been given ten pounds by his mother, told to hide it under his tongue as insurance to give the guards in the event of trouble. Neddy was in charge of hot water and ran a racket deciding who’d get a hot shower and who got to shiver under the cold. He’d got wind of the ten pounds and set out to get it for himself. Paul survived that day, because as he said, ‘I was skinny as a flea and as fast as a rabbit.’ After that Neddy, at thirteen, employed others to do the chasing.
Later it was a ricocheting act in and out of boys’ homes then rapidly jail: Long Bay, Grafton, Bathurst, Lithgow, an alternative travelogue to New South Wales. Once in Auckland. Paul always liked to stay one step ahead of whatever happened next, coal-black eyes scanning the horizon in anticipation of either trouble or the arrival of a supply ship. The first key to something that was his and wouldn’t be taken from him was one I gave him to a third-floor unit in the high-rise of Waterloo, his new home. He looked down at that key as if it were a find from an archaeological expedition.
By then I had moved from community nursing to working with homeless older people, sorting out housing, linking them with community and mental health services, here and there a hospital, social networking the old-fashioned way with furtive attempts made to remember purpose and meaning. Our office was a converted pub, what had once been the Mount Lachlan, in Elizabeth Street, Waterloo, and all the oldies knew it. The liquor licence had been sold but it still had the layout of the hotel and there were stools, a pool table, plenty of bar counter to lean on. The doors opened up on a Tuesday and Thursday to Paul and May, Ero and Michael, all the others. Sometimes the steps inside would be tentative, one man offering a confession and apology for the time he was ejected and given a lifetime ban from the place in 1978: ‘I was three sheets to the wind at the time. Sorry. Would it be all right if I came back?’
Paul worked the kitchen, serving tea and helping with the dishes. In jail the kitchen was always the best job: fresh bread, the biggest servings and the thoroughfare for every kind of contraband. Meanwhile his limbs were swelling. Walking was painful and more medication in various concoctions was added to the mix. He’d get cranky with those who didn’t chip in with their money or who left their plates for others to clean up, or with May for not putting in her hearing aids. ‘Look at my new slippers!’ May would bellow, for the sixty-forth time. And there’d be another frog and a lost pillow slip staring back up at you. ‘My mother was Gracie Fields.’ Is that right?
At different times, over years, the nurses visited Paul and May, Michael, others too. Paul didn’t know why the nurses did it, kept looking to catch them out, so accustomed was he to there being a sting in the tail of any deed. He hadn’t seen or offered much evidence of goodwill himself and was studying it like a new language, conjugating verbs and meanings, trying to understand syntax and parsing, often looking perplexed. Yes, but why do they do this job, the nurses? I didn’t have a ready answer. Money? A lifestyle? Status and prestige? Because they wanted to. An answer at once accurate and incomplete.
Sometimes when we’d talk about family or friends I’d tell Paul fleeting things of some activity we’d had: a birthday celebration, Christmas, picnics. He’d want to know more; I think he tried to picture himself in the scene but couldn’t quite form it in his mind. He’d ask the whys and wherefores of some small thing my colleagues, my family or friends and I had shared: food, outings, an odd job done here and there.
‘But why would they do that for you?’ he’d ask.
‘I don’t know.’
‘They didn’t want anything in return?’
‘Not as far as I could tell.’ (It did make me think, though.) ‘And when you did that for them, what was it you were after?’ ‘Nothing, really.’
‘You just did it?’
We would often look at each other in complete bewilderment. An aside thrown in here and there: at Long Bay one Saturday, there’s a screening of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. One man gets shot, another is stabbed in the back. The shot rings out on the screen and the stabbing takes place in the darkened theatre. A knife through the back of a man’s chair. No one sees anything, knows anything, and the few murmurs are because the movie has had to be stopped. It hadn’t occurred to me before, but I didn’t know you could stab someone through a chair.
As Paul’s health deteriorated, the palliative care team shaped the pieces carefully, not quite knowing what the whole looked like, working by intuition, experience and knowledge with no cardboard jigsaw box to guide the final image. Every time it was different and often there was no complete picture. Perhaps such pictures are what the abstract painters had in mind. Nonfiction can do that.
Paul died in hospital, and at the end it was all bodily fluids and rickety, sharp bones, scaffolding left in a place that was once bricks and mortar. By then life was more of an exhalation—ketotic breath carrying away all the stories. That’s how it can play out. Driftwood passes on a slow tide, and here and there bumps against a sunken tree that has itself only a distant memory of soil and earth but nonetheless has carved out a new purpose.
As children we used to play a game called tracking. The kids in the street divided into two teams and one lot would set off with a piece of chalk in hand to etch on the footpath a route—unplanned, unknown—that, after an interval of twenty minutes, the second team would follow. Detours were set up by the advance party—a small subgroup sent with a spare piece of chalk down a cul-de-sac or around the block—all with the aim of delaying the second team and frustrating their goal, which was to catch up with the first. Chalk arrows branched out over adjoining suburbs, down to the creek, across the railway station and back again. Invariably during the game team members would wander off—lost to boredom, or a preferred option of kicking a ball, or for more prosaic reasons such as their mother would kill them if they didn’t get home right now. Sometimes the arrows returned to where we began. On other occasions the creek or a new distant park was destination enough. But it was never really about the destination, nor was it like other games where winning was of paramount importance. The essence of tracking was about the setting out, steps on the footpath, avoiding dogs and speculating on the inhabitants of houses we passed on the way. Leaving a chalk mark, no matter how temporary it turned out to be. It was in the collective going somewhere without necessarily knowing where that was.
If someone asked me now why nurses do what they do, what’s in it for them, my answer would relate somehow to our tracking game or to Robyn Davidson’s book Tracks, that wonderful canvas of expanse and possibility. The nurse as nomad, but without the camels. And instead of geographic distance the travelling would be in the narrative, a thousand and one Scheherazade nights, large and small epics, light and fleeting touches of spoken and unspoken text.
This is the lean country of Redfern, Glebe, Kings Cross that each day wakes, stretches limbs and blinks through half-closed blinds past a rusted, squeaking gate.
Ruth Melville’s fiction and non-fiction work has been published in Island, Tirra Lirra, Meanjin, the Big Issue and The Australian.
Image credit: Sardaka