Tag Archives: Aging

Poppy, Jessica Sheridan

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Anthony was awake before the alarm. The volume was set to maximum, or so his grandson told him. But he could never quite catch the sound; just a muted buzz like a mosquito above his head. Sometimes it was louder when he forgot to take his hearing-aid out before bed. That had happened more and more lately. Above him the ceiling fan whirred, around and around. His thoughts spun with it, as far off memories appeared like flashes in the darkness; bright, burning flashes that hurt his eyes.

He sat up with an automatic moan, feeling the strain on his lower back as he pulled himself out of bed. The sky was still dark outside and the whole world seemed to be sleeping. He squinted at the red light in the face of his clock, and thought he could make out the time: 0400. The strain made his tired eyes sting and he reached up to rub them. Behind the blotchy darkness of his eyelids, the shadows still fought to be seen, memories refusing to clear.

Beside him, Margaret snored. It was probably louder than what he could hear, because it never woke him. Softly he rose from the mattress, being careful not to wake her. Even though she wasn’t joining him, she’d laid out his favourite olive-green suit, freshly ironed with razor-sharp edges down the sleeves. Quietly he dressed, and opened the wardrobe door to look at himself in the mirror. The jacket was the last piece of his once-a-year uniform. He slid it over his shoulders, shrugging a few times until it sat properly on his back. The medals pinned to his chest clanged together as he straightened up.

Before leaving, Anthony moved to the other side of the bed and tried to lean down to kiss Margaret, but the strain made his back ache. Feeling deflated he turned to leave, but saw her hand was peeking out from beneath the covers. He gave it a gentle squeeze. Her hand felt fragile and soft; delicate despite the lines that wrinkled them. Not like his own hands. They were coarse and covered with the hard streaks of age. Thick skin coated his fingers and the white scars of callouses were like craters in his palms. He couldn’t remember a time when he had soft hands.

~          ~          ~

‘Put your back into it, boys!’ The ground is like gum. Hard, over-chewed gum with a seal of slime on top just thick enough to cause your feet to slide apart if you aren’t careful. Tony brings his shovel down again into the clay, watching it barely break the earth. The rain is growing heavier, and the sergeant is pissed. Nobody expected the ranks to stretch so far north towards the coast. But the assault is endless. Tony knows it. Bill knows it. Hell, even the Germans across no-man’s land know it. The war is going nowhere fast, so all they can do is extend the line.

Tony lifts his leg to step on the shovel, stomping down with all his weight behind it. Again the ground yields next to nothing, spitting out a crumble of dirt as he lifts the spade away. Despite the freezing rain whipping at his face he can feel sweat pooling in his armpits and under his helmet. He looks up and squints through the mist. Some men have abandoned their packs, leaving them to soak in the mud. Tony knows better. Still the weight is heavy and his back is screaming as he digs the shovel in again.

But it’s nothing like his hands. He’s only a foot or so down into the gunk and clay and already his hands are bleeding. For all the crap they issue as standard, they forgot gloves. Blisters that broke weeks ago have started afresh. His hands burn against the grain of the shovel. The spot at the base of his thumb is grinding along the handle and carving away the flesh. A crevice of callouses works its way along his palms and the skin on his knuckles cracks and bleeds. When he lets go of the shovel he can see his hands shaking in the rain.

~          ~          ~

Anthony skipped breakfast. He could never eat this early in the morning. Besides, he was already so full of memory. On his way to the door he stopped by the kitchen to collect his keys and wallet. He pocketed both, but as he turned to leave he caught a splash of colour beside the phone. He stopped for a moment to look at it; blood red petals spilling out around a heart that left black pollen on the bench, like ash. He swallowed hard.

‘Poppy?’ Anthony turned to find little Lucy shuffling towards him, rubbing the sleep from her eyes. ‘Don’t forget your flower.’

Anthony smiled. ‘What are you doing up kiddo? It’s too early for you. Nan will be cranky.’

‘I wanted to say goodbye.’

Anthony ruffled her chocolate-brown hair. ‘I’ll be back around lunchtime. You’ll barely notice I’m gone. Get back to bed.’

Lucy stood for a few moments frowning with puffy, tired eyes. She was missing a sock and her hair was tangled like a bird’s nest. ‘Will you be ok by yourself? Won’t you be lonely?’

‘Darlin’ I’ll be fine.’ He squeezed her shoulders. ‘She’ll be right. Besides, I’ll have my flower. Back to bed with ya, then.’ Gently he spun her around and nudged her back towards the hallway.

Once she was gone, Anthony turned back to the blood red poppy by the phone. It waited for him silently on the bench, and he knew he had to take it. Gently he picked it up, twirling it a few times between his fingers before sliding it into place among his medals where it belonged. Anthony angled it so the red face stared out at the world, the petals curled over like eyelashes. He patted his chest before finally walking out the door.

Outside the air was brisk and the streetlights were still glowing overhead. He could barely see the stars past their light. Once in the car Anthony strapped himself in, being careful not to crush the flower. He reached up to adjust the rear-view mirror and found his reflection looking back. His face was criss-crossed with age, etched into his skin like scars. Creases pulled down his cheeks and there were lines like crow’s feet in the corner of his eyes. They scratched away at his youth, making him look angry and frustrated. The man was a stranger to him. ‘She’ll be right,’ he said softly, watching his reflection say it with him before turning over the key.

~          ~          ~

Tony watches the officer scribble his loopy signature onto the form. A spring breeze ruffles a pile of other applications towering on the fold-down table. A single paper weight shaped like the globe sits atop the papers from almost every man in town. Tony realises he is fidgeting and moves his hands to his sides, curling them into fists. The officer raises a brow at the paper in front of him. ‘You’re writing is a bit shaky there, son,’ He points out.

Tony stares ahead and lifts his chin. He can feel the eyes of his mates watching him from near the oval’s old fence line to his left. He thinks he can hear Bill laughing.

‘Especially around this part where you’ve put your date of birth…’ His voice trails off and Tony knows that the officer has figured it out. The jig is up. He forces himself not to look across at his mates.

Tony swallows hard and tries to sound confident, but his voice still breaks like a child when he speaks. ‘I don’t know what you mean, Sir?’

The officer puts down his pen and lifts the tiny globe to file Tony’s application with the others. ‘Welcome to the army, son. Next!’

Tony clenches his fists to keep his composure as he turns away from the table. But his eyes meet Bill and his goofy face perched on the wooden fence and Tony can’t help but smile. He tries to walk but ends up running towards the boys with two thumbs up. They welcome him in with congratulations and pats to the back.

‘You looked like a bloody guilt-ridden criminal when you handed in your form, though,’ Bill chortles, holding his hands up and pretending to tremble in fear. Tom and Clancy laugh.

‘I thought he was gonna catch me out.’ Tony can feel his cheeks flushing red with embarrassment. ‘I was nervous.’

Bill rolls his eyes. ‘Yeah but you didn’t have to seem so obvious about it. Sam and his brother made it in no worries, and they’re even younger than you.’

Tony shrugs, reaching up to scratch the back of his head. He looks down at his feet. ‘I know, but I’m pretty sure that officer knew I wasn’t eighteen. Asked about my birthday and everything.’ Tony frowns. He didn’t even know what would happen to someone caught lying about their age to the army.

Bill slides down off the fence, landing steadily on his feet before smacking Tony across the back. ‘Get a grip, mate. She’ll be right.’

~          ~          ~

The road was long and the sky was black and he’d lied. Anthony was lonely. He didn’t know why, but he always went alone on this annual pilgrimage. He’d never let Margaret join him, and for some reason she understood even though he didn’t. The drive just felt like it should be made in solitude. Even the highway was empty. He flicked on the radio, but it was droning away with pre-breakfast talkback featuring lonely hearts, truck drivers and bakers.

Anthony caught the poppy looking at him in the rear-view mirror. Its face was wide open now, like it was watching the world pass by as he drove. It sat so comfortably across his heart that for a fleeting moment he lost his loneliness and let himself remember.

He pulled into the carpark at 0520. After turning a few laps he found a spot, but it was at the far end. He checked himself one last time in the mirror, straightening the red companion on his chest before swinging open the car door and stepping out into the brisk air.

As he shifted his weight onto his left leg he felt that familiar twang of pain in his calf, and sank back into the car to rub the cramp out. He could feel the old injury that drew its way down the back of his leg, from his knee to his heel. The white scar was barely visible anymore, but to touch it was different. Anthony could always feel that line of tissue, just a subtle bump on the skin that would never fade.

~          ~          ~

The metal is hot but the pain is searing. Tony had promised himself he would never shed a tear on the battlefield, but he has broken his promise. His lungs explode with screaming as the jagged piece of shell begins to cool deep in the flesh of his leg. He can feel tears running down his face, mixing with the rain and the dirt and the sweat. Somewhere behind him, another mortar makes its mark on the ranks.

‘Tony!’ A familiar voice is calling out to him. Dust still falls from the air. He can’t see anybody. Another shell flies overhead, whistling through the sky. Blood is drizzling from the hole in his calf, where the metal sticks out like a shark’s fin. He can’t stand, he can’t breathe. Tony lifts his arms, trying desperately to reach down to his leg. Suddenly Bill catches him by the elbow and grips him tightly. Tony clutches him back, digging his nails in as the pain begins to poison his body.

‘Tony?’ He tries to keep his eyes on his friend as Bill pulls him away from the rubble. His toes are beginning to grow numb and he starts to feel his mind wash away with the blood and rain. Someone passes Bill a cloth and he tries to stifle the bleeding, but it just pushes the metal deeper.

‘We’ve got you, Tony. Don’t worry mate, you’re gonna be fine – get a stretcher, get him out of here!’ Tony can sense movement all around him now, as men climb over each other in the narrow crack of the trench. Some offer dirty bandages and ripped uniforms, but Tony is losing consciousness. The last thing he can remember is being propped up in the elbow of his best mate. ‘She’ll be right, Tony. Just hang on.’

Somewhere in the distance, foreign rifles begin their fire.

~          ~          ~

 ‘Would you like a poppy sir?’

Anthony stopped abruptly. He was almost through the gate when a young woman with a basket of freshly cut flowers spoke to him with a smile. He blinked at her, his thoughts still far away.

Her eyes travelled to his chest where the string of badges crossed his heart. ‘Oh, you’ve already got one I see.’ The girl pulled back her hand awkwardly, the blood-red flower dancing between her fingers. Her face softened as she looked back up at his face. ‘Thank you.’

Anthony felt uncomfortable, but smiled in reply.

At last he passed into the courtyard. Here it was silent, like the darkness. Even the birds stopped their usual morning calls. A few light-poles lit the area, revealing the many tired faces that had risen before the sun to be here. Babes slept in the arms of mothers and fathers, old men stood in groups wearing suits and polished shoes, grandchildren clutched their parent’s hand and stared about with wide eyes that fought sleep. Hundreds of faces standing with him, and still he felt left behind.

A flash upon the stone wall caught his eye, and Anthony turned to see a large photo of familiar faces standing in a trench, covered in dirt and sweat and fighting grins. The image melted away to form another; men training in Egypt and laughing at a camel. Somewhere behind the crowd the projector changed again, and this time the image of men lying in beds covered in bandages illuminated the wall. Picture after picture of people, all in black and white, and all more familiar to him than anything else.

Anthony touched the poppy at his chest, angling it towards the photos.

At 0530 the lamps slowly dimmed and the black dawn swept across the courtyard. The slideshow of memories upon the wall ended with the words ‘Lest We Forget’ and even the children grew sombre. Anthony looked to the head of the memorial, standing alone within the crowd.

Somewhere, a bugle sounded.

 

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The Time Machine, Elizabeth Robson

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It was a very long time ago for some but not for all. She only married him for his horses, so she said. She was a girl from the city and he was a boy from the bush. She attended Art School and soon found her calling as a teacher and he bred horses and cleared the land.  They met by chance; a mutual friend, so he wooed her with his brash looks and country drawl. They were both young and impetuous and it wasn’t long before they were married. He sold his horses and took up cattle and wheat farming along the foothills of the Moonbi Ranges. She had dreamed of living a life on the land and she threw herself into that role. She reared children and fought fires and cried when the floods came and I never once heard her complain.

I push open the first door, step through and let it close, slow and heavy. I cannot open it now from the inside without a key. Once inside the vestibule I notice as I always do the marble-topped, side-table against one wall. It stands alone and looks rather conspicuous in this small space. On the wall above the table, is a small oil painting, or rather a reproduction, of Drysdale’s ‘The Drover’s Wife’. I like the painting because the woman in the foreground appears strong and determined as if she has made her decision and she will suffer the consequences without yielding. I have heard others speak of this woman as ‘sturdy and resolute’ against a world that shrivels and dies. In essence, the idea of survival through inner strength permeates the underlying significance of the image. As I study it, I realise what an interesting choice of painting someone has made. It says far more than words could ever do.

On the table are a visitor’s book and a china vase sprouting plastic flowers. I have never signed the book and for a fleeting moment I think about what I could possibly write within those pages. Maybe not the usual: ‘Had a lovely time, a most relaxing stay. Food was great and the company fabulous.’ I look at the painting and smile. Not today. Ahead is a second door, similar to the first. It too is solid and weighty. I step forward and turn the handle, lean into it and move through into a sun filled room. A warm rush of air with the scent of urine and antiseptic blanket me as I stand clutching flowers and a plastic grocery bag.

To the right are small clusters of dining tables. At one, two women sit facing each other, one holding a ragged, brown bear with a bright blue ribbon knotted around its neck. She looks as if she has been crying. A nurse places a small plastic cup in front of her and a glass half filled with water. The woman sits still then suddenly lashes forward with her hand and knocks the water and the pills onto the floor. The nurse mumbles something about the RN being called and bends to clean up the mess. The other woman seems oblivious to the scene unfolding in front of her and appears to sweep invisible crumbs from the vinyl tablecloth with her fingers. Neither speaks. A light glows softly from a large tank near where the two women are seated, and a big laminated sign is blu-tacked above it, reminding the residents not to feed the fish.

 To my left is an open area with windows running along one side, over-looking a grass and paved courtyard. Red and brown leaves fall from a Tallow tree in the centre of the lawn. A man is standing near a small clothes line. He bends and picks up a piece of clothing from a basket and clumsily pegs it to the line. He bends and repeats the action. After he has pegged several pieces up he begins unpegging them and places them back in the basket at his feet. He stops what he is doing and wanders off towards the high fence surrounding the courtyard and stands looking out. A gentle wind stirs his hair and leaves circle his feet. I wonder what he is thinking.

Inside, a horseshoe of upholstered chairs are occupied by other men and women, some dozing in the air-conditioned warmth, others peering as if seeing their surroundings for the first time. No one speaks. Words are lost here.

Mindful not to make eye contact, but smiling pleasantly, I search the room to see if she is seated in one of the padded chairs facing the huge, flat-screen TV, against the far wall. Images flicker vividly between ads as muffled dialogue and music penetrate the space. It is a Sunday and it has been a month since my last visit.

Towards the side of the room I see her. She is about my height but hunched and twisted slightly in the chair. Her hair is ruffled as if by some draught and her hands lie folded loosely in her lap. She is dressed in dark slacks and a light-blue, zip-through jacket, crimson slippers on her stockinged feet. She stares, not at the screen with its flashing images and droning sounds but out of the window near where she is seated. She has the look of an expectant child but something else has settled there – some sense of foreboding, loss maybe.

‘Hello. How are you?’ Pause. ‘It’s Liz.’ Pause. ‘You’re daughter, remember?’ Pause. Take a breath. ‘You’re looking well,’ I say, as I notice she has lost weight and looks quite drawn and pale. ‘Here, I brought you some flowers.’ She looks up startled for a moment, then wipes her mouth with a tissue. ‘It’s ok. You look like you could use some company.’

‘Where did you come from? Are the others here too?’ She sounds surprised and peers around me.

 ‘Nope, just me. Do you like the flowers?’ I dangle them in front of her face hoping she can make out some familiar-looking shapes amongst the oranges and yellows. She doesn’t look impressed but stares hard through the smudged lenses of her glasses. She points a shaky finger towards me.

‘Where did you come from?’ ‘How long did it take you to get here?’

I pull up a chair next to hers. I sit. ‘Not long. I came from Newcastle. It takes about an hour. I just came over to see how you were.’

‘You shouldn’t have come. It’s too far. Will you be staying long? You can stay the night if you like. You’ll have to find Bill. Do you know where he is?’ Questions are fine. It’s the answers I hate.

‘I’m sure he’s about somewhere.’  I contemplate briefly whether or not I should remind her that her husband, my father, died three years ago. ‘So, what have you been up to?’ A vacant, silly question really. I didn’t need to ask it to get the answer. What has my mother been up too? Let me guess, shall I? Sleeping? That’s a given and eating soggy, steamed fish and plastic mashed potato while sipping a thick, milky drink through a straw. Oh and how about the lashing out at staff and the few vulgar insults she tosses around when things aren’t going quite her way, especially at sun-down. She looks at me, curiously and asks:

‘How old are you, Elizabeth?’ Not unexpected. This is a question she tosses around every few minutes. In fact it’s a question she’s been tossing around for many months now.

 ‘How old would you like me to be?’ I smile at her but she frowns and sighs. This is the dilemma: if I tell her how old I really am she becomes upset because she has no comprehension of real time anymore. At the last visit she seemed quite content to think of me, her daughter as thirty-something. That could possibly make sense. It would mean that she was possibly in her early sixties; again, quite reasonable. However, time moves swiftly in this incongruent world and the lines have shifted once again. I must tip-toe very carefully. This is how the conversation will swing today:

‘I’m forty-seven.’

‘Oh, rubbish! You are not! How old are you really?’ She rubs her frail brow with frail fingers. I notice the chipped, pale pink polish on short, filed nails, obviously a favour from one of the staff. I smile to myself, thinking how horrified she would be if it were brought to her attention. She lived for her horses and cattle – no room for girly delights.

‘Okay, I’m twenty-five,’ I lie.

‘Twenty-five? Really? Oh.’ She looks at me and nods. ‘That’s nice.’

 

When I was twenty-five, my parents retired. My father had sold the farm and instead took up fishing with as much gusto as droving cattle.  Mum was content to end her teaching career and threw herself into her pottery and drawing. She was also an avid reader and enjoyed discussing the latest novel or Art Australia magazine that had recently arrived in the post.

 It wasn’t noticeable, not at first, but over time books seemed to take longer to finish and there was always some excuse about not finding the right glaze for a particular pot. Her studio became messy and she spent more and more time lying in her chair on the veranda, paper half read. I visited them both whenever I could but then came the phone call.

My father was scared and shaken, to say the least. He had never witnessed such hostility and confusion before. There were no obvious tell-tale signs. The piece of timber she wielded was her rifle and she meant to destroy whoever stood in her way. The valuable china and glassware on the side-board didn’t stand a chance.

When I finally arrived, the bruises down my father’s left side and the look of incredible grief in his eyes said enough. It wasn’t long before a diagnosis was made and for the benefit of both, they were moved.

 

I remember the shopping bag. ‘I brought you some more underpants and some singlets. You didn’t seem to have many, last time I was here. I will have to get someone to put some name-tags on them before they go astray in the laundry.’

‘You didn’t have to do that. You keep them. I have plenty.’ She dismisses the underwear with a curt flick of her hand and reaches for her walker.

‘Where are you headed, mum?’ I bundle the flowers and shopping bag under one arm and push myself up and out of the chair with the other.

 ‘I need to go to the toilet’. She hauls herself up on tremulous legs and looks vacantly about. Her spatial awareness is diminished now that she only has sight in one eye, and she frequently forgets that she can’t see particularly well out of the other.

‘Okay,’ I say, ‘let’s go to your room, then.’ I take hold of the front bar of the walker and begin to guide her through the maze of chairs and slippered feet and walkers and sticks. She pushes forward with great gusto and grumbles under her breath when she becomes snagged on furniture or unfortunate limbs that are left unattended by their owners. ‘Whoops! Sorry! Just hang on a sec, mum. Okay, this way – no, no, this way. That’s it. Turn. Turn! Sorry!’

Finally beyond the corral of chairs, we head down the corridor towards her room. The décor is soft and comfortable. We could be in any four-star hotel if it weren’t for the polished, timber hand-rails and brightly decorated name plates on the doors. We stop in front of an open doorway half-way down the hall.

‘Is this my room? But I don’t stay here do I?’ She looks worried and shuffles to a halt. ‘Where are we, Elizabeth?’ If there is one question I hate more than any other, it’s this one.

I try evasive action. ‘I see it’s nearly lunchtime. Bet you’ll get something good today. A Sunday roast, maybe.’

Head tilted, she looks at me and asks, ‘So how old are you?’

 ‘Twenty-one.’

 ‘And how old am I?’

‘Eighty-three.’

 ‘I am not! Tell me the truth.’

 ‘Okay, thirty-five’

‘Am I really?’

‘Yes. No. Look – let’s go in.’

The afternoon moves slowly, creeping its way into dusk as I sit in a padded chair next to the woman who is my mother. The light plays games with her hair; thin and white, it glows softly against the pallor of her skin. Soft, jowly flesh crinkles along her jaw and thin, dry lips softly part. Her eyes are closed as she slips in and out of fretful sleep. Soon she will wake and I will be gone. The demons that she fights in the witching hour of the early evening are not for a daughter’s eyes. These are monsters she must slay single-handedly.

I prepare to leave. I wave down a nurse with keys jangling on rounded hips and ask to be released. She smiles and says, ‘Thanks for coming. See you next time,’ as I slip past her and into the real world. When my mother wakes she will not remember that I have been there. She will not remember the flowers or remember my age and one day, in the not-too-distant-future, she will not remember me. I should feel comforted in the knowledge that for my mother, time does not travel forward. Life for her is a time machine that only travels into the past – her past, and she will grow more youthful as her body fails.

 

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