Hazel lowers herself into the armchair by the window. A slight ache burns down the front of her thighs, as if she’s been on a long bicycle ride.
She looks about the room. Single bed, three framed photos atop a sideboard and a small television she no longer enjoys watching, thanks to her failing eyesight. Sometimes she puts the volume up though. The noise, at least, is company.
She closes her eyes and imagines that her son is visiting. Chris will drag a chair in from the common room and he will tell her how Kimmy is going with the new baby. How he’s not keen on being called Poppy or Grandpa. Five months old now? No, Mum, almost seven and got some heft on him. He’ll be a footballer one day. Hazel smiles, thinking of how chubby little Chris was. Hazel will remind him of how much he loved chicken cacciatore when he was young, telling him to add two slippery fillets of anchovy to the recipe.
A nurse enters Hazel’s room. Hazel’s certain she’s never seen her before. She’s tall, has bright pink hair. Hazel can’t catch what she says behind the face mask.
“Where’s Olivia?” Hazel asks after her favourite nurse.
“She’s just a bit off-colour, love. My name’s Josie,” says the nurse. “I’m here to give you a little test. Sit up.”
Hazel gags as the paddle is pressed against her tongue, but it’s nothing compared to the frightful jab up each nostril.
“It’s a bit stingy, isn’t it, love?” Josie squeezes Hazel’s thin forearm with her gloved hand and Hazel finds it a little shocking, this personal touch from another human being after so many weeks.
Hazel has a dull headache that makes her eyesight worse than usual. She’s propped up in bed, huddled under the floral quilt donated to the nursing home by the local craft ladies. Josie sails in wearing a surgical gown. Besides the mask she also has what looks like a shower cap over her pink hair and bags over her shoes.
“Your daughter called, Hazel. YOUR DAUGHTER.” Josie stands a few feet away but bends to be more on Hazel’s level. “She says HELLO and she LOVES you. And she wants me to tell you that Monty – YOUR CAT – is okay.”
“She’s probably overseas again,” says Hazel, wanting Josie to know she’s loved and there’d be a reason for Andrea not visiting her in so long. “She’s a big traveller, you know.”
“No darling, I don’t think she’ll be going anywhere for a while. REMEMBER?”
“Oh, of course,” says Hazel.
When Josie comes to collect her lunch tray, she guides Hazel to her chair by the window.
“What’s this then, Hazel?” she says, pointing outside.
A few people are gathered with their backs against the brick wall. Hazel leans forward, peering the best she can. Her fingertips find her mouth. Could it be Chris? And Tracey? Hazel gives a little whoop of joy and claps her hands together.
Her daughter-in-law approaches the window and Hazel presses the palm of her hand against the cool glass. When Tracey places hers against the outside of the window, Hazel is sure she feels her warmth. Tracey is saying something, perhaps asking her how she is, and Hazel nods, enunciating the words, rounding her lips. “I’m well. I’m well.”
Chris steps closer to the glass too, holding up a computer screen of some sort, and she sees a wash of russet hair. Andrea. Darling heart. She’s probably sitting on her deck, glints of the blue Queensland sky dappling the edges of the screen. Chris grins at her, slowly closes the case back over the screen and returns to the wall. Hazel realises that Kimmy, her granddaughter, is beside them, although her fair hair looks softer without the usual brash gold from the pool’s chlorine. Kimmy’s baby, little Nicholas, is clamped to her chest. Hazel’s great-grandson. He’s swaddled against the cold so all Hazel can see is a shock of black hair rising from his cocoon. Kimmy brings the baby up close to the window and although Hazel can’t really see the sweet thing’s face, she smiles extra hard.
How cold they must be. Hazel wants to yell her thanks, tell them that it’s time to go home, they have a long drive ahead of them. She’ll be fine, she wants to say, but her throat is tight. Her voice is too puny for such things, not like it used to be, booming through the house to Finish drying the dishes, you rascals or Do your homework, Andrea, I won’t write another note. Instead she waves them goodbye, but they only wave back, so she makes little shooing gestures, sorry that they might think she wants them to leave, that they won’t realise it’s just that she’s worried about them freezing to death or becoming bored. She looks down at the plastic cup of tea with a lid and straw by her elbow, at the sealed bowl of fruit and plastic spoon, and she makes a small noise of frustration that they can’t come in for a tea and biscuit. “Sorry,” she mouths through the glass. Chris puts his hand to his brow and Tracey looks up at him, strokes the back of his head.
Hazel doesn’t like to cry in front of others. Nobody wants to see their mother, their grandmother, cry. Instead she closes her eyes and takes a deep breath in. She feels her diaphragm creak. Opening her eyes, she sees her family are still there. Tracey waves again. Hazel throws them three kisses and closes her eyes, waiting a little longer before opening them. Kimmy shifts the baby to her other arm. Hazel settles back into her chair as though to rest and shuts her eyes once more.
She breathes through five cycles this time, slowly, like she learnt at yoga at the senior centre. In for four – thinking of the time Andrea was so sad when her doll lost all its eyelashes in the bath – out for four – when Chris ran up the beach, terrified of the scuttling ghost crabs. She breathes in again, deciding she’ll give Kimmy some money for a clothes dryer or a rice cooker or something useful.
When Hazel’s eyes finally open, she sees that they have left. The yard is quite empty except for a lone fern, its withered leaves trembling in the breeze.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 29, 2020 as "Hazel".
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