|I’ve not made much of my life, by any official
standard that you’d care to mention anyway. Didn’t invent
something life changing, write a book that lifted the consciousness of
a generation and I was always a bit short on the moral fibre. So no I
don’t think there will be much of a write up in The Times. A more
human memory I hope will be held by the people that knew me. I had a
life as full as I could make it and friends to share it with. Truth is
I had a ball almost from start to finish, and there’s not too
many can say that I don’t suppose. I did my best and celebrated
whatever came my way, eventually.
I wish some of those friends at least were here now, for this last part. I wish Cat was here, I need to see her. It seems like weeks, but maybe not. Fuck it Eva you are losing your mind- was she just here the day before yesterday? Perhaps I should do those marks on my wall like I saw in that film Papillion with Steve McQueen.
I don’t know how long I have been here exactly, time blurs round the edge, but that perhaps is a good thing. Even one day here with my senses raw and alive, like they were once upon a time, would be enough to send me to hell. Something to be said for too much TV and complete and utter boredom perhaps- you don’t feel so guilty checking out. Dreaming. Remembering what it was like, before.
They seem to think you don’t need friends when you are old. Ship you off somewhere away from home and expect that you’d just accept it. I don’t have much choice, so that is that in any case. But they seem to think that you no longer have emotions or need to cry, or laugh, or talk about crap with your mates, or just sit next to and hold hands with in this god awful place.
Not when you are old! Then you cease to be yourself. Someone turns the lights on and starts sweeping up stale popcorn. ‘End of the show folks, make your way to the Exit.’ And all the while you are still sitting there in the theatre in a folding chair waiting for the crowd to shout for the encore, the epilogue, and for your chance to say ‘And in summation…’
Regrets? Aah, I’ve had a few dozen. And one in particular that damn near got the better of me. Oh come on now, don’t start all that again, you’ll have one of those nurses patting your arm and tellin’ you to ‘look on the bright side, its fish and chips for tea on a Friday!’ Maybe I will save a fork at lunch, slip it into my bag for use if someone tells me to count my blessings. Take that as a life lesson from Eva!
Papery thin lids close, the slight figure in a too big chair sinks a little. Her hands, shaking slightly, dig deeper into the folds of her woollen cardy grasping at the tissues that are balled inside. Her legs cross each other, the slippers on her feet barely touching the utilitarian carpet underfoot. Inside the room, far too warm for the climate, many similar figures sit quietly; perhaps they have nothing left to say, or perhaps no one to say it to. The TV screen on the wall shows pictures of the world outside the residence, news or soap opera no one is quite able to tell. It matters not in any case. No one can hear it.
Lunch, afternoon tea, supper: all pass through time and the blinds are lowered against the sky. End of another day. Hands lift her from the chair into another with wheels in which to travel the polished floors to her bed, where an early evening cocktail of drugs eases her from dress to nightie to under the covers in a seamless movement.
Beside her bed the small table displays the distillation of her material life and Eva smiles sleepily at the photographs before she shuts her eyes. Something to be said for attempting to cast the central roles of your dreams at least. Her thin limbs barely indent the cover, a small wave in a grid of white lines and corners. Eva breathes out heavily and falls away.
Days follow nights and she finds herself spending less time in a chair and more in her bed. Sometimes there are people around her, talking words she doesn’t bother to decipher, but mostly she is left alone to drift into someplace else. Somewhere warm and dark where her joints don’t ache anymore and her mind stops thinking. Whole parts of weeks when she travels in an out of sleep, woken only by the clanking of the trolley, the seemingly incessant needs of the staff to top her up with water, pills, soft food and then more pills. The square bit of Australia that is now all she can see of her adopted home shimmers outside the window. Orange dirt and spindly paper trees are now beyond her touch and her smell.
Another fading day dawns and she is aware of a conversations above her bed, though less keenly than the one that is replaying in her own head. Celestial conversations seem so much more real now.
“Eva, wake up Darl! Come on love, someone’s here to see you!”
Even after all these years she can’t help herself, can’t stop the spike of emotion, and it is a sharper Eva than has been seen for weeks that stares back at them. Her mouth moves a little; perhaps it has forgotten how to form words.
“Let’s sit you up eh? Get you decent to receive your visitor?”
Dimly in the back of her mind there is a chuckle about decent and Joe not being words she would ever have wanted to put together in those long ago days, but she finds herself struggling to move while hands do buttons and comb her hair at the same time.
No no no! Not like this! Why did he have to see me like this? I don’t suppose he has ever seen anyone as old as me! He won’t know what to say. I am as old as the hills and he of course is still a young buck. Don’t come in Joe….
Still fighting the very opposite emotions that are welling in her eyes Eva catches a small breath at the knock on the door; it is almost too much for her heart. Unbearable to imagine what he will think, the horror she will see in his eyes as he takes in this frail weak old woman, so far from even the curvaceous, to put it kindly, middle aged floozy she had been. And yet to cast her eyes one last time of that beautiful face! To see him standing there, the man whose very presence framed her history, and for a last chance to tell him she had always loved him. Maybe even a little too much….
The door swings wide open and her eyes, so dim now, struggle to focus.
There are moments of sheer happiness and sheer devastation both, whole conversations in embraces that need no words.
A cracked voice finally welcomes her visitor. “Cat! Oh Cat!” Tears trickle down the creases in her face, if she could have sobbed for relief in true heroic chest heaving fashion she was sure she would, but that, like everything, seemed too physical for her body. Instead she remains still, save for a gasp of air. Eva surveys her, well, friend would be too small a word, but nonetheless it is all she has. Younger than her, Cat has still that vibrancy of muscles that work hard and a body that does what it is told for the most part.
“You can stay a while... I’ve been waitin’ for you, please”
“I am here, of course I came!” Cat’s voice trails off. Her body, releasing some of the tension of her drive with a sigh, sits down in the bedside chair. The urgency of the warning given by the nurse had sent her into a spin that afternoon in her little flat, and although she’d not had occasion to drive so much of late, she had floored it to the nursing home. And now here she was and finding herself taken aback at the sight of Eva not herself, so distant and transparent she would have said, if that didn’t sound ridiculous. “They said you’d been ‘weakening’, yes that was the word. I came as quick as I could Eva - this place is so far away!”
Eva used to laugh loud, enough to scare birds from the trees, or maybe that had been him. So many reruns in her mind had made them all true. She smiled as broad as she could. “Weakening is that it? Thank you.” She had not spoken so many words in weeks, her head was dizzy. Lying back against the pillows, she barely whispers. “I can’t stay here.”
Cat winces a bit. It had been touch and go getting this place at all. ‘No Pension, no provision’ - maybe they should have heeded that bit of financial advice sooner. “Perhaps we can find another place ay? Nearer me?” Her eyes look back from the window to her old friend, half sized, lost in this bed somehow.
But the shake of her head was definite enough, thin fingers point to the table next to the bed.
Silently Cat opens the small drawer opens to reveal a pile of papers, letters, pictures, and on the top a printed flyer held down by a stone worn almost shiny. Her stomach turns just as the reason for her visit steps out into the hard white light of the ward.
Natural Burials in the bush outside Melbourne City limits. Earth based blessings arranged; contact Raven Wing on 5648393.On the back Eva had written the names of those she wanted informed, and some to be invited to come and sit in the trees for a little while and say goodbye. Shared friends, old colleagues, and a family member from back home, a few still from overseas, even a bass player in a local band she’d struck up a reasonably convivial on off relationship with in her 50’s. Though he was away discovering himself in a yurt somewhere, and frankly Cat didn’t bother much to give him the time of day. No ‘proper men’ as they’d always said with something of a sigh when, late at night by and large, they’d considered those who had stayed a while. Some even til the bottom of the bottle.
Perhaps their standards had been too high? Their expectations too unforgiving. Or not enough. Who was to say? At the bottom there was listed a predictable selection of songs Eva wanted played. Who the hell was she going to get to play those ancient numbers? Brief visions of old Bob from the bar in dragon embroidered flares flashed through her jittery mind. In truth Cat was spending time in thoughts to avoid getting to the bottom of the page, to a last instruction that she could see through blurry eyes, which was an inscription for a stone. Eva Rambled On. If you hurry you might catch up.
Swallowing hard she finally looks up. The gaze she receives back is unrelenting. “Oh Eva…no. You can’t…” Several sentences start and go nowhere in particular, things about ‘pulling round’ and ‘a bit of a blip’. She has to lean forward to hear the reply.
It takes a while for the words to be spoken, pauses in which Cat wondered if she was ever going to start again, but in the end a summation of sorts. “I want to go, Cat. I remember most of it being like a summer’s day, I was truly happy, yes, and you were there for most of it. But now it is done.” Frowning at the sadness and she had forced out into plain view, Eva whispers ‘sorry’, but there was no space for debate now, she wanted something else from Cat. “The picture, will you?”
There wasn’t a question which one. An inspired moment it had been when Cat had taken that photo on her phone all those years ago and yet a moment just past it seemed too. Since then it had been printed, framed, taken out, crumpled under pillows, reprinted, cried on, reprinted - a circle they had been round too many times to even consider counting. Now she removed it from the old leather frame and placed it in Eva’s hands, her eyes still wide. She knew that look, the one that had come to Eva’s face so many times.
“Yes, he was bloody gorgeous!” Cat sighed and smiled, thankful of familiar, comfortable ground to sit on. The story an old record treasured and replayed a thousand times, revelling in those all too few but precious times when life had truly smiled on them in the form of Joe Byrne and Ned Kelly. “Him and Ned, well there have never been a pair of finer men! May I?”
No answer needed, Cat slid herself onto the bed next to Eva and shuffled down so they could both look at the face grinning back at them. Young and handsome Joe’s slightly quizzical expression only made him all the more appealing. Like he asked a question you wanted to spend time answering. In great detail. Repeatedly.
Eva’s head fallen onto her shoulder Cat put the stylus back to the start “Remember that night when you turned up with them in Jerilderie! The middle of the night it was….you looked like you’d been in a wind tunnel from that horse ride, and him…well he couldn’t keep his eyes or his hands off could he? Hardly signed into the hotel register at all before he was running up the stairs with you trying to keep up!” She could feel the small frame against her body, barely covered bone shaking just a little.
Cat squeezed an arm behind the woman next to her. “I am not leaving you Eva, they can go whistle. I will put a chair against the door if I need to…we’ve a story to tell. Now where was I? Ah yes… the fabulous Joe Byrne! Well I had a night to remember myself, is a wonder there wasn’t an earthquake warning in New South Wales that night! But oh how we cried that next morning! Shut up the hotel and just wallowed for weeks…Not a guest invited in nor a sheet washed neither. We must have watched those crime scene clips a thousand times on the news. That old Mr Woodward of yours huffing and puffing, and those little glimpses on the cctv from the bank in Deniliquin. Christ even in grainy black and white they looked good enough to- well to do pretty much anything with. And we did didn’t we? With hardly a ‘how do you do?” Cat chuckled a bit “We were shameless ay? So why did we never lock the door to stop them leaving in the first place?” Cat shook her head at such foolishness on their part.
There was no answer from Eva, and non-required. Cat knew both their parts anyhow. The stories of bicycles and damp knickers, cash machines and seeing him again after years had gone by, chatting up a gorgeous young woman in the bar. She could talk all night if truth be told, the flow only interrupted this time by a nurse wanting to check vital signs.
Cat raised her head to say rather more decisively than she felt “She is sleeping- I will come and find you when she wakes if you like?” Busy ward rounds being what they are the nurse smiled and moved quickly on to the next.
Continuing in a more conspiratorial tone she whispered “We are going to have to be quiet now, no more cackling from you ok?! Oh Eva, I will never forget your text when he came back. Looking just as hot at a few decades earlier, only perhaps our jaws were even lower to the ground. Couldn’t believe they came to find US could we! I always loved how he said you let him forget all about being a bank robber, a fugitive, a hero and let him just be a man. Just be Joe Byrne. Jeez but that was enough I’d say. I wish he could have stayed, wish they both had.”
There was a few moments silence as Cat realised that she would be alone with these memories all too soon, a thought she found herself considering in such stillness that another came racing to the fore “…Eva?…oh Christ! Eva? You didn’t mean now did you?” There were only almost half breaths, barely perceptible. Seconds when she wondered if there was to be another. Her own heart beating fast Cat resisted the urge to shout for a nurse with some force of will, stopped herself from leaping up and crying for help. The truth was she knew that her job was to stay, just for a bit, to protect her from those needles, pills and monitors, to let her go.
Old instincts of her mother and all those before her had her rock just gentle, half the refrain of a lullaby floating in her mind. “I will see you again, we will see each other again, don’t you doubt that. Hush now, I got you.” Cat wiped her hand over her cheeks, a watery smile as she was talking, as much for herself as the woman so still now beside her. “We will run like we used to, in that summers day Eva! The sun in our hair and flushed cheeks from laughing and no one to tell us otherwise, those angels will just have to turn the other way. And Joe he will be waiting for you. I can about see him now. Oh Jesus…Eva, safe journey, go well my friend. Goodbye.”