Leaving: Excerpt from Oleanders Are Poisonous
High Commendation in the 2015 Monash Short Story Writing Competition
I hear Samuel get up before five o’clock and start knocking about the house like a blowfly. He’ll be trying to find stuff to keep himself busy: cleaning up last night’s tea cups, turning on the washing machine, cutting the whistle of the kettle short before it reaches its shrill peak. Then the back door slams and I picture him outside, watering the tomatoes, feeding the chooks. Most of these things he usually does in the evening, after work, after dinner when it was cooler.
He wouldn’t have slept much last night; today we get Mum’s official test results. Honestly, we know what to expect; the doctor already warned us, months ago. I mean, her symptoms are obvious, we’ve just chosen to skulk around them for too long, like wary felines skirting a dog on a chain, knowing she isn’t really dangerous but taking no chances anyway. Not that Mum is a dog. She’s great … was. But we never know when she’ll suddenly crack it over something pitiful like the sauce bottle being gummed up. Or what to do when she blanks out mid-sentence and gets frustrated to the point of tears when we can’t guess what she’s trying to say.
I reckon it started even earlier. Before Samuel. People say it was grief over Dad. Was it possible to go back to normal after something like that? I sometimes wonder if it was caused by having me so late in life. ‘I was a young forty-two,’ Mum always says. But I know my birth was difficult: ‘They had to resuscitate me.’ I don’t know why she told me that. It gave me nightmares.
Anyway, I’d always thought it was something else. And turns out I was right. Now it’s grown so bad, some days she has trouble remembering her own name.
Mum is in her bedroom, probably puzzling over the monumental choice of what colour handkerchief to take with her. I’m sitting, fluffy-haired at the kitchen table in my dressing gown, eating toast and honey when Samuel slumps into a chair.
‘I can’t do this,’ he says, hands knitted into a cap over his head.
His hair is so short it might as well be shaven — a hangover from his early years in the police force. Spell fastidious. In our town nobody would bat an eye if he turned up in jeans and a flannel shirt to work, but he never would. It’s uniforms all the way. Rules are rules.
Samuel’s voice sounds like it’s struggling for escape, like water trapped in a folded hose. I pause, toast halfway to my mouth. This indestructible bull of a man, this six-foot-something copper who always takes care of everyone else’s troubles, legal or not, actually needs someone to lean on. But me? A fifteen-year-old?
I think about how it took me forever to learn to keep my mouth shut around Samuel and accept that he likes to lay down the law at home as well as at work.
‘It’s only a bloody window. Fix it!’ I yelled, ten years old and full of rage because living with him the past two years didn’t make him my father, and he shouldn’t have been bossing me around, even if he was going to marry my mum.
‘You watch your mouth, young lady.’
‘No! You watch yours.’
‘I know you’ve been through a tough time but that’s no excuse to be churlish to your elders.’
I laughed then, more out of fear than churlishness. ‘Elders? What are you, a church minister?’
I knew I was pushing it but I couldn’t stop myself. I didn’t break the window on purpose, did I? He rounded on me with his height and bulk and I backed down. When he lowered his voice to a growl, it scared me even more.
‘That’s enough. You’re ten, not two. It’s time you learned to act your age. Just because you have a roof over your head now, doesn’t mean you’ll have one tomorrow.’
‘Will so!’ I whispered the words behind his back as he left me to ponder what he meant. I hadn’t liked the sound of whatever it was. Was he going to chuck me out and keep my mum? Send me to boarding school?
Okay, it was years ago, and I’d copped several smacks to the back of my head during that time, but he never mentioned it again. Still, words like that stay with you.
It strikes me now just how much he really loves my mum.
‘Samuel? Do you want me to come with you?’ Please say no. Please.
He’s buried in his own thoughts. ‘So she forgets to turn the oven off sometimes — come on, everyone does that.’
A string of honey leaks from my toast onto my plate. I wipe at the puddle with my finger then suck on it. Samuel looks up, absently watching my motions. His eyes have a faraway look in them but I suddenly feel weird, my finger in my mouth like that. Ever since my boobs decided to put in a late appearance — poof! A sudden growth spurt, literally overnight, I swear — they’ve made me feel strangely self-conscious about anything that might be remotely sexual; mostly due to the ogling from boys at school. Not that Samuel had ever, would ever, look at me that way. God, no. I’m lucky to get a hug from him. Even then it’s one quick squeeze and his hands grasp my arms, ready to push me back again. An army sergeant embrace. Or cop, in his case.
The lounge room clock chimes eight a.m. I drop my toast and sigh. ‘Okay. Give me a minute to brush my teeth and get dressed.’
Just inside the entrance to the hospital clinic, a table is laid out with stuff made or donated by the Ladies Auxiliary: packets of coconut-covered rum balls (I can’t figure out why they called them rum balls when there’s never any rum in them — why not just say coconut balls, or chocolate balls?), a multi-coloured tea cosy, notepads, crocheted baby booties in soft pinks and yellows, other bits and pieces nobody really wants. A note is sticky-taped to a bank-issued money tin: “Honesty Box”.
Mum hangs back to pick up a crocheted clothes hanger that’s fallen on the linoleum. She used to be crazy about knitting. Huh. Crazy. Poor word choice. I still have some of the jumpers, beanies and scarves she’s made with love — if not taste. Now all of her knitting morphs into some weirdly knotted mass, which looks like the mould that grows near the back fence after we’ve had a few wet days in a row.
‘Not as good as mine,’ she declares loudly, waving the hanger.
‘Put it back,’ says Samuel. I know he doesn’t mean to be harsh. He’s just tense.
Mum obeys and he drags her away by the hand.
The clinic’s waiting room is stark with its easy-to-clean chairs, floors and walls. As we sit, Samuel’s denials continue. ‘So what? She walks into a room and forgets why she’s there. I do that myself. It doesn’t make me crazy, does it?’ He pats Mum’s hand, which he is holding tight in his fist. I’m not sure if he’s talking to himself, or to me, or to Mum, so I keep quiet, my heart constricting for his pain. Our pain. I want to say something supportive, to tell him it isn’t all that bad, but the socks in the freezer, the oven mitt in the toaster and the hairdryer left blowing away, getting hotter and hotter on the bathroom sink won’t let me. I’m secretly glad the months of ongoing tests are coming to an end.
‘Early-onset dementia,’ says the doc. Nothing specific. Not Alzheimer’s, not Parkinson’s, not some twenty-six-letter-long word none of us can pronounce. Just dementia. Plain and simple. And its progression has sped up. He doesn’t know why. It happens — some are slow, some are fast. ‘You can have more tests done if you like, but they’ll probably be inconclusive.’ He says it right there in front of Mum.
Samuel and I look to see her reaction. She sits stiff and upright like she’s in Sunday church, a compliant smile on her lips. Maybe she hasn’t heard what the doctor said.
I try to catch Samuel’s eye, hoping he might break through to her. He pats her hand again. He’s still holding on tight, as if letting go will send her floating off into the awful world of madness he’s trying to keep her from. ‘Dee, did you hear what the doctor said?’
‘Yes, I did.’ She pats him back like he’s the one being given the bad news. ‘I might be losing my memory but I’m not deaf.’
In the car, on the way home, a false bravado hangs like dirty laundry no-one wants to air. Samuel talks about buying fertiliser for the vegetable patch and things they need at the chemist. I want to shake them both. To make them tell me what we are going to do. How do we handle this? I struggle to find the right words, ones that won’t tip things into anger or upset. It’s easier to keep my mouth shut.