They had swept Mother under their sideboard minds. Like dust.
‘She seemed quite happy when we left her and the nurses do a wonderful job.’ Susan was certain. ‘We’ve done the right thing.’
‘It was all we could do.’ Judith was more adamant. ‘She hasn’t been the same since Dad died, and we can’t take her.’
‘I said it was only while her legs were bad. Then we’ll see.’
‘How did she react?’
‘Oh, the usual. Said we’re trying to get rid of her, and she wouldn’t live with either of us if we paid her.’
You wouldn’t have left me here, Arthur. You were always good to me. I could count on you.
Of course. I protected you like we did our mates in the War. We looked out for one another.
It was a vascular ward. Mother’s leg ulcers were grim. She said nothing in the car as trees and houses squeegeed past the windows, so they assumed she was taking it well, just a bit tired.
It was lunchtime by the time they settled her. The other patients were eating in silence. Pastel shapes propped up against pillows, too old to play Camille, some with teeth out, spoonfed, relishing a break in the monotony that stretched breakfast to dinner to make up a day. Others fed themselves, slowly, so as to cheat time.
Mother was large and cumbersome, a warm-blooded snow woman. Her legs hadn’t been good for years, and sometimes she resorted to crutches, dragging limbs as lifeless as theatre props. But she climbed into bed with a, ‘Go home. I’m all right.’
Later, when a nurse came to see her settled, she announced, ‘You won’t keep me here. You know that, don’t you?’
‘Of course. We’ll soon have you bouncing ‘round like a grasshopper.’
What do I care about bloody grasshoppers? I just want to go home. All our stuff’s there, Arthur. Your letters, photos. Even your old uniform you wore in the Victory parade when they took you uptown on buses because you were all too starved and thin to stand, let alone march. I was so proud of you.
She kept to herself despite beds being either side, refusing to allow nurses to call her ‘Mrs’. ‘Molly’s the name. It’s what Arthur called me.’
A week later, Susan and Judith visited.
‘Bring me face creams,’ she ordered. ‘Powder and lipstick. I don’t want to look a shocker with doctors coming ‘round all the time. And visitors.’ Then as an afterthought, ‘And me trannie.’
Once they obliged, she applied day and night creams, lavishly, brushing her hair, piling it on top in a little chignon, before lying back on her pillows, plugging in her earpiece, and looking at the magazines they’d left.
In the bed opposite, a frail little woman who spoke no English, sat on the side of her bed, plaiting her long white hair before kissing a photo of her late husband then turning out her light.
It’s mostly at night I think of you, Arthur. You’d have nightmares about the camps, and I’d have to wake you, hug you till you were calm again. But you never talked about them.
Susan and Judith began sorting through Mother’s possessions: furniture, personal effects; weeding for value on the eve of a council clearance – the genoa velvet suite, pile long gone and patches of balding on the arms; the double bed mattress, stuffing congealed into lumps of discomfort; tables and chairs with time-gnawed legs now piled conspicuously on the pavement, embarrassed in the morning light. Unclaimed, unwanted. Kerbed.
Boxes of photographs and papers, they tipped on the kitchen table.
‘You’d better have this,’ said Susan. ‘It’s you as a baby, isn’t it?’
‘Yes. And here she is with Father. Must have been taken before they were married. You don’t keep those smiles for long.’ Laughter welled up between them like bubbles in a fish tank.
‘Here’s their marriage certificate, but there’s no sign of a will.’
Molly watched the woman in the next bed. ‘Your hand’s shaking, love. Why?’
‘I need a smoke,’ the woman clutched and fingered her sheet. ‘To steady me. I’ve had a skin graft and it hurts more than the ulcer.’
That won’t happen to me, Arthur. I won’t let them graft. They can treat me, that’s all. We read what happened to you. Rice poultices on ulcers, gouged out daily with spoons. And the last resort, bamboo saws.
The woman in the far bed arrived unconscious and had gone up for surgery that day. Afterwards, she’d laid in bed, silent and reproachful, but at night she cried out, ‘Why did you take me leg off? You didn’t have to take me leg.’
Beds either side muttered relatives had signed the papers. Gangrene.
‘Has she made a will, do you know?’
‘Father had one, leaving everything to her. Maybe she made one when they married?’
‘No good. She must make a new one. Nurses can witness it.’
‘I’ll ring the Sister.’
‘She isn’t responding to treatment, but she’s adamant about skin grafts.’
‘She’ll have to do as she’s told.’
As the patient trolley passed on its way to the operating theatre, an arm in a nearby bed waved sadly.
Maybe she’s not coming back?
The woman beside Molly raised herself carefully.
‘What’s wrong with you?’
‘Thrombosis. Deep-seated, both legs.’ A frown clenched her brows. ‘They’re awfully sore.’
When the main lights went out, the nurses’ desk lamp threw vast impersonal shadows on the walls. Molly lay back, her trannie on the pillow, plugged in to the dogs at Harold Park. Her eyes weren’t good anymore. She read with a magnifying glass, but print tired her, and she preferred the sound of the outside world.
In the camps, we bet on anything to keep up our spirits.
‘We need to know where we stand. She’ll need money to go into a facility, then she’ll live on her pension.’
‘Well, there’s no sense wasting any. She’s got more than she needs now, and we want to add on a family room.’
‘The Sister’s been very helpful. Mother didn’t know what she was doing at first, but apparently, she was polite to the solicitor, even thanked him for coming.’
Molly handed the nurse her brush. ‘Do my hair, please, girlie.’
‘You want to look pretty, do you, Molly? Is somebody coming?’
‘Yes, Arthur. So I want to look my best.’
You always looked good to me, Moll. The thought of you kept me going.
Come visiting hour, she lifted her head off the pillows, craning and peering at the doorway.
Grandchildren arrived with token flowers and sweets. ‘We know barley sugar’s your favourite, Gran. And the flowers will look nice on the cabinet.’
Susan and Judith sat smiling beside the bed, clasping their handbags.
Once they went, time slowed to a glacier till they came again.
They only come out of duty. We don’t know what to say to each other.
That’s how people reacted to us when we came home. They didn’t know what to say.
On the bedside cabinet, jars of face cream sat unopened, lipstick and powder lay in the drawer, unused.
When night came, only the sound of distant clatter in other wards broke her pattern of sleep. Sometimes a nurse would stand by the bed, holding her hand. ‘How old were you when you married, Molly?’
Arthur was a good man. He didn’t talk much. Too many bad memories, but he was a good man all the same.
Her voice punctured the shadows around the bed. ‘I missed him when he enlisted. I was only sixteen but already sweet on him. We were married when he came back.’
‘And how long ago did he die?’
‘Thirty years. Maybe. He had Parkinson’s. Used to shake the whole time. Legs like dried twigs, brittle.’
The little foreign lady had gone home to her family. The woman with the skin graft had had a birthday party, nurses and relatives crowding around the bed singing. Then she’d gone home.
Molly looked across at a woman sniffling into her pillow. ‘What’s up, love?’
‘I’ve got them in the groin now. Thrombosis. They thought they’d got them in the legs. Now they think they’ll have to cut in the groin. It’ll be worse, I know it will.’
Arthur and his mates had no pain killers, like today. Doctors had to make do with whatever they could.
‘Don’t change my dressing!’
‘But Molly, we have to. Come on, be a good girl.’
‘Leave me alone. Don’t you touch my leg, not the bad one.’
‘Molly, I’ll only have to call Sister. Do you want me to call Sister? She’ll be cross.’
Tears slid snail trails down her cheeks as she tried to push the hands away. ‘You don’t know how it hurts.’
In the morning, they would change the beds. ‘Oh, Molly! No!’ The whole ward heard but pretended they hadn’t.
‘Leave it. I don’t care.’
‘Don’t be silly. Come on, roll over.’
‘Leave me alone!’
The transistor lay on the pillow soothing music. She would doze during the day, opening her eyes from time to time to watch those passing. The magnifying glass lay untouched, instead, glasses orbed her eyes to enormous proportions, making her glare like a bird of prey. Suspicious.
The new patient beside her called the nurse. There was hurried whispering. ‘I’ve tried to put up with it, really I have. I can’t take it much more. It’s making me feel ill.’
‘We know, and we’re so sorry.’ They left her with a surgical mask.
When they came to do Molly’s dressings, the woman put on her mask and the nurse held her professional breath as she drew back the covers. ‘Sister, can you come here, please? See, the toes and heel?’
When the early morning tea trolley rattled from bed to bed, she asked for hers with milk and two sugars. She would start as the trolley came through the door, although her bed was well down the ward.
‘Where’s my tea? Girlie, my tea?’
‘It’s coming, Molly. In a minute.’
Arthur? Why won’t they give me my tea, Arthur?
‘Molly, don’t be naughty. There are other people wanting their tea, too. You have to wait your turn.’
The trolley rattled up to, stopped, then passed her bed. The cup sat on the drawers beside her, untouched. Her bird eyes watched the trolley go the length of the room and come back to collect the empties.
When it reached her again, she said, ‘Why won’t you give me my tea?’
‘But we did, Molly. Look, there is it beside you.’
She sniffed it warily. ‘I’m not going to drink that. It’s cold.’
‘That’s too bad, Molly. It was hot when we gave it to you.’
Arthur! Arthur, did you hear the way she spoke to me? Say something to her Arthur, I won’t have her talk to me like that.
‘It’ll be a shock to her. But I can’t see any other way,’ said Judith. ‘It’s not as if she’s active anymore.’
‘Well, we’ve signed the papers,’ said Susan.
‘I suppose it’ll come off just below the knee.’
‘They won’t tell her, of course. It’s best not to.’
That morning, there was no tea, merely a cardboard sign above the bed saying: NIL BY MOUTH.
I’m coming, Arthur. Soon. You’ll wait for me, won’t you?
She heard the sound of the trolley and remembered the first time Arthur had taken her out.
Do you remember, Arthur? We took the tram down William Street and as it rattled along, you sat holding my hand. I was wearing my new, blue dress and felt like Rita Hayworth and you said, soon as you were stronger you’d take me dancing, and I looked into your deep, brown eyes and said, ‘You don’t say much, but you’re a good man, Arthur.’