Fiction

A certain stage

Old Mr Harvey didn’t want to move. That is, he was capable of moving in a physical, somatic sense, apart from some arthritis: he just didn’t want – as they phrased it – to relocate from his present abode.

He was getting old. Relativity aside, he was already the oldest person in the street. His son, Lance, who had children of his own, worried that he wasn’t looking after himself. That he might one day tumble down the front steps and crack his head on the pavement. Lance was trying to introduce the idea that his father was at the stage of life when people moved into care of some sort, a retirement village. Lance had done the research. He was talking about a modern place where all the cooking would be done. Where things would get washed and Mr Harvey might play shuffleboard with people his own age. But Mr Harvey liked his lilac house with all its memories. Mr Harvey refused.

Lance enlisted the help of a community nurse – “Call me Voula.” Voula was a health worker whose job was to make sure that old people who still lived independently were coping.

According to Lance, Mr Harvey was not coping. He would have the radio turned up so loud he couldn’t hear the phone. If something spilled on the floor he no longer wiped it up. He would leave tea towels on still glowing hotplates, once filling the house with acrid smoke. He forgot to put the garbage out. He could no longer use a can-opener. He argued with his wife over trivialities. As Lance explained to Voula, his mother had passed away five years ago.

In the course of her duties, Voula came to the house and presented these observations to Mr Harvey. There was a pile of dishes in the sink that looked as though they’d been there a week. The nurse itemised each odd behaviour as if they were tragic flaws in Mr Harvey’s character, as if the sum of the symptoms were a mathematical imperative. Thou shalt move.

Mr Harvey scoffed. Who cared about the garbage? What the hell were tea towels? Just buy another one. All Lance wanted, Mr Harvey claimed, was to get his hands on the real estate.

Couldn’t the old man see the continuing risk of his living alone?

“I didn’t choose to live alone,” said Mr Harvey.

Could he see the benefit of moving somewhere cleaner, warmer, more comfortable?

Yes, he could see that, but all he really wanted, when the time came, was to be carried from his house in a box.

“Things rarely happen the way we’d like them, Mr Harvey. What if you fell and broke your hip and no one came to assist you?”

“My son would help me.”

Lance shifted on his kitchen stool.

“But he has his own life to live, Mr Harvey. He mightn’t be here. You might be lying on the floor for days.”

A floor that hadn’t been swept in
some time.

“I wouldn’t like that.”

“Then Mr Harvey,” said Voula, “all
your arguments aside, what’s really preventing you from making an organised, orderly transition to a nursing home? While you still have the choice.”

“I don’t want to,” said Mr Harvey.

“Why?”

“Yes Dad, why?”

Voula could see that the son and father rubbed each other up the wrong way. There was too much fractious history that was not in her job description to unravel.

“I can’t leave my dog,” said Mr Harvey at last.

Voula looked around the kitchen. The kettle gathered its breath.

“Where is your dog?”

They waited for an answer.

“In the freezer.”

There was a strange moment between Lance and Voula.

“How long has it been in the freezer?”

“Two years.”

“Dad, I thought the vet took Pixie, after she died,” said Lance.

Mr Harvey shook his head sadly.

Voula slowly rose and opened the freezer door. There, behind a packet of frozen peas, was a large, misted-over plastic bag with a couple of dark paws visible through it. And was that an eye peering out like something left behind in Shackleton’s icy hut? Mr Harvey sniffed back a tear.

“I can’t leave Pixie,” he said.

The nurse looked at Lance in mild horror. How long had it been since the son looked in the freezer?

“But Mr Harvey,” said Voula, “we can have your dog cremated and you can take the ashes with you.”

Mr Harvey had to think.

“Really?”

“Of course.”

“I never thought of that.” He paused. “What about my wife?”

Voula cast a second look at the freezer. Lance cut in.

“No Dad, Mum’s buried in Rookwood. Remember?”

“Oh, yes. In the Anglican section. Even though she was a Lutheran.”

“But you can take your memories,” said Voula. “You can take photographs to remind you of her.”

“Yes,” said Mr Harvey. “I suppose I could. And my dog… What was her name again?”

“Pixie,” said Lance.

“No, my wife’s name.”

The kettle started to scream. Mr Harvey began to weep again.

After their tea Voula made some notes in her diary and placed some paperwork on the table that would need completing.

 

When the nurse and his son had left, Mr Harvey picked up the paraphernalia, a handful of brochures advertising various services and facilities for those approaching “the gradual autumn of their lives”, and deposited them
in the bin. He added their cups to the pile by the sink.

For a while he stared out the window. His wife had been the keen gardener and now the yard was returning to its natural state. 

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 22, 2023 as "A certain stage".

For almost a decade, The Saturday Paper has published Australia’s leading writers and thinkers. We have pursued stories that are ignored elsewhere, covering them with sensitivity and depth. We have done this on refugee policy, on government integrity, on robo-debt, on aged care, on climate change, on the pandemic.

All our journalism is fiercely independent. It relies on the support of readers. By subscribing to The Saturday Paper, you are ensuring that we can continue to produce essential, issue-defining coverage, to dig out stories that take time, to doggedly hold to account politicians and the political class.

There are very few titles that have the freedom and the space to produce journalism like this. In a country with a concentration of media ownership unlike anything else in the world, it is vitally important. Your subscription helps make it possible.

Select your digital subscription

Month selector

Use your Google account to create your subscription