The ginger cat languishes in the best chair on the nursing home verandah, purrs loudly and occasionally preens himself.
A ray of sun plays on his fur, making it shine, and trickles onto the paved verandah floor and over to the garden bed of brilliant pink azaleas and maiden hair fern. A locust hums in the gum tree in the centre of the lawn. It is an idyllic day.
Inside the building, the sun shines only occasionally. Where it does, it lights the wide expanse of highly polished corridors, the neat counterpains on the beds, and brings a sparkle and a flash to the fish pond in the large television room.
There is a squinch of rubber soles on linoleum, and the tap tap tapping of a stick as a young nurse guides an old man down the hall and onto the verandah. She watches as he sighs into the second best chair on the verandah, next to the cat. She pats a rug around his knees, adjusts the shawl lying on the shoulders of an elderly woman sitting in the third best chair, alongside the man, and leaves them.
At the same time, the man and the woman turn towards each other and smile. He leans over and strokes the cat. The three are very comfortable together.
Mr Reynolds is a godsend. He is such a gentle man, and so full of interesting conversation. My days now seem to revolve around our times on the verandah, for he has changed my life. With him, I feel so warm.
The man and the woman are both quite small, shrunken with age. Their bodies respond slowly now, but their eyes are bright and flit over the details of their landscape. Their expressions change in unison, and with the conversation: sometimes twinkling over a story, or growing still with a thought from the past.
I have lived here for twelve months now, and a mixed up time it has been for me. I felt a freedom when I was first shown my very own room. Suddenly I had a space of my own. Always until then someone else had made the running for me. Mostly it was my husband who set the pace, sometimes with my welfare in mind, but mainly for his own reasons. In his self-centred way he made all the decisions, and didn’t ask what I thought. It was the same when the children left home. Nothing really changed.
He was a person who swept all before him. Yes, he was efficient. And capable. But he never seemed to have time to spare for little things. He was just a spinning top. I looked after the children and the house, but he put his stamp on everything. Everything was his creation, not mine. I was always an extension of another’s life.
He died suddenly and of course there was a void. Take a huge personality like his out of the equation and there has to be loneliness. I lived with my daughter for a while, but I felt I was in the way, and when my chest got worse I had the excuse I wanted to get a place of my own. Even though by then it had to be a room only, with 24-hour care.
So I really enjoyed my new room, putting my bits and pieces around, and ordering curtains and bedspread to match, just to my liking. It was pleasant to have quiet times too, when I knew no-one would interrupt, or be demanding.
There are always nurses, of course, but they’re nice here, and very insightful when it comes to seeing that you want some time to yourself.
There is a clatter of teacups and a rattle of a trolley coming down the hall. The two old people stir in expectation of a cup of tea, and a scone with jam and cream. Today they are remembering their childhood. Spinning stories of school time, of Christmas, and holidays. Of parents and siblings. Of joys and sadness. Their faces shine with involvement and appreciation. The tea is always hot and strong, and peps you up so the conversation keeps on rolling.
The solicitous tea lady and her cups have rattled down the hall again. There is the sound of muffled crying in the bedroom across the way, and the voice of a nurse reassuring a bewildered new resident. Cooking smells give away the secret of tonight’s menu: baked lamb. A cleaner swishes a mop, and clanks a bucket.
A loud insistent voice shatters the calm, and a pudgy woman in a flannelette nightgown with bare feet and curlers in her hair rushes past. ‘That patient should have been discharged yesterday. We need his bed!’ she yells at the top of her voice, and indicates a man sitting at the far end of the verandah. He is oblivious to the fuss, and continues staring into the distance. The woman is the former matron of the local hospital.
The couple near the cat watch on. Then they laugh. They have seen this sad circus before.
Well I suppose I enjoyed my solitude for perhaps a month, when I began to feel the need for some company. The occupational therapist suggested a game of Scrabble in the television room. That really appealed to me, for I love word games. But I found that the other residents and I parted company when it came to the game itself. The therapist tried valiantly, but it seemed that I was the only person in the room capable of putting a couple of letters together.
It was a shock to learn that most of the residents were afflicted mentally in some way. Many of them had dementia, it seemed, or had simply let themselves slow down. Their faculties certainly left a lot to be desired.
That discovery left me a very lonely woman. Except for the nurses, I was in an intellectual desert. Of course, the staff members didn’t have much time for long conversations, although they did what they could.
Three months after I arrived there was a young man in a wheelchair. He had car injuries but he was still very alert, and he was a real gentleman with all the old people, however vague they seemed to be. There was no-where else for him to go at the time, and he and I became quite friendly even though we were poles apart in so many ways. I did enjoy our conversations. Lucky for him, and sad for me, he got a place in a rehab centre just a few weeks later. That meant I was alone again, sitting here on the verandah with only the cat for company. I did miss him. Terribly.
The elderly couple ease themselves from their chairs now, and make their way to a sunnier corner of the verandah. The man is tap tapping with his stick; the woman holds the shawl tightly around her shoulders. At this spot, near a display stand of pot plants, the nursing home gardener has set out a watering can and a small container of implements. The man and the woman take turns watering the pots which are a riot of annuals. They loosen the earth around the plants and scatter fertiliser granules. It is their private garden.
Mr Reynolds arrived three months ago. At the first opportunity, my favourite nursing sister brought him around to the verandah where I was sitting, and introduced us. I could see immediately that he was such a nice man. He had suffered a bad heart attack – his third – and he was left in a very frail condition.
His brain was quite intact, though. We hit it off immediately, and we have been sharing our days ever since.
The shadows are lengthening a little, and a middle aged woman makes her way along the verandah, and finds the couple at their garden. She is the man’s only daughter, and it is obvious that she enjoys her father’s company, and is glad of his friendship with the woman. She has come straight from work and stays only a short while. She has family responsibilities at home.
I think I’m in love. It might seem ridiculous at our age, but why shouldn’t it be so? Does love have to mean an overwhelming urge for sex? Why can’t it be a comfortable feeling. A sharing and a happiness? Can’t that be love?
The sun rises and it sets at the nursing home. Some days are bright, and some wet and cool. The private garden is in full bloom, and commented upon by staff and visitors. The lady and the man share the limelight, and enjoy their flowers. They are blooming themselves.
I am feeling more happy within myself than I have been for many years. It is so wonderful to share one’s days ... Mr Reynolds and I have so many common interests. Comfortable is the word. Perhaps it is our time in life to some extent, for there is no need for competition. No need to impress. Simply a shared requirement for peace and companionship.
The piano tinkles softly in the television room. A community volunteer is playing ‘The Rose of Tralee’, and a dozen residents sit in a row of ergonomic easy chairs, memories stirring.
Today there is a chill breeze on the verandah and clouds are scudding across the sky. The annuals in the private garden are almost spent, and the gardener has taken away some of the pots. The lady and the man draw their winter woollies closer, and amble into the television room where someone has set a log fire not far from the piano. It has only been weeks since they met, and yet it has been a lifetime.
Mr Reynolds isn’t well. They took him to hospital for a check up a week ago yesterday. I asked the nurse to tell him not to worry about the garden. I would look after it while he is away.
The lady wandered over to the cat lying there, as usual, on its chair. She bent painfully, and stroked the soft ginger head. She smiled and spoke quietly to the animal, as though in reassurance. Then she sat down in her own chair, with the second best seat empty between them. The lady looked at the empty chair and then out towards the garden, unseeing.
Ants were swarming on the poppy seeds in the nearby sprouting troughs. A knife thin breeze edged its way onto the verandah, and the cat stirred and stretched itself before gliding towards the warmth inside. The lady remained still.
Day after day she sat on her chair. Only occasionally she moved – mostly to scratch with a garden fork around the last of the petunias. The grey sky lingered, and a fine rain brought a liquid shine to the leaves of the poinsettia grove. Each morning and afternoon a staff member placed a cup of tea and a scone on a small table beside her chair, but on each occasion the liquid grew cold and the scone developed a hard crust in the crisp air.
The doctor came to see me this morning. He came especially. Especially … to tell me that Mr Reynolds had died in his sleep. Mercifully, he went quickly, the doctor said. It was another heart attack, but this time stronger, and lethal.
I feared this. Inside myself, I feared this …
It is so horrible. Poor Mr Reynolds …
What shall I do now? What can I do?
He was such a nice man. A gentle man. I keep imagining I can still hear the tap of his walking stick on the linoleum ...
The young nurse squinches along the hallway to deliver a bowl of fruit to B Wing. There is a whiff of urine, overcome by a disinfectant smell. The notice boards on the wall speak about a bus trip to town and a visit from a local choir, and there is a display of brightly coloured drawings from the primary school. The woman in the water bed in Room 6 is restless, and in pain. A chaplain speaks to the matron about next Sunday’s church service, and Mrs Jeffries has her hair set.
On the verandah, the lady with the shawl dabs a tear with the corner of her lace handkerchief. She then moves from her customary position to the second best chair, next to the cat.
© June Saville 2008. Not to be reproduced without express written permission of the author.