story about age

She had trouble recognising her son when he visited. This wasn’t entirely accurate, he acknowledged; Bernie was either known or new. When he arrived at the nursing home, a carer would greet him and indicate if it was a sunny or cloudy day; it referred to his mother’s powers of recall, but those were now permanently altered like some form of mental climate change. He’d walk through to what was laughably called the lounge. He thought they should just call it the television room, as any conversation had surrendered to the stream of information pouring from the massive screen. It looked like a piece of space technology in a manor house, which was what the home used to be. An ugly varicose network of cables snaked from the screen to various dull grey boxes of electronics and speakers, nestled like belligerent teenagers against regency striped wallpaper. Many of the residents would be staring blankly at the screen, blasted by the volume that crept continually higher throughout the day to accommodate the deafest ear. These residents were ironically some of the best-connected people in Melbourne, but most of them had trouble differentiating between the news and drama. He had visited his mother when the twin towers were being attacked and was bemused to see some residents yelping excitedly and laughing at the extraordinary special effects.


Bernie recalled his last visit. His most recent visit, he corrected himself, with a stab of punishment. One day there would be a last visit, revealed as such later. He realised, with a turn of guilt, that he preferred her reintroducing herself. Now he didn’t register in her memory, she relaxed and treated him as a new companion. During each elaborate reintroduction, Bernie interjected with some nugget from her past. She would slow, delighted, turning her head to examine him carefully, as if they had gone to school together, or he’d married her sister before going to war. But he was no longer her son. She was keener to tell him stories now she didn’t know him, so he understood to take each account as just that: a revelation. She constructed detailed accounts about when she’d been a girl. He listened, absorbed, wondering at the intricacies of early memory. Certain smells clicked something in her mind – a key slipped into a lock. He had once brought in a piece of rhododendron bush. He felt a twerp as he noticed the elaborate floral bouquets delivered every Sunday. She’d mentioned rhododendrons that had grown in the woods near her childhood home in the mountains; he’d doubted they were natives. They’d been so hard to find, but he was rewarded when she inhaled the scent. She’d become profoundly quiet; the perpetual alertness within her eyes relaxed and she disappeared for a while. Her world stopped turning. He sat and held her hand, the two of them in the quiet of the library, well away from the television, staring contentedly into the grounds.

A fox poked its nose through the boundary line of trees skirting the grounds. It slunk carefully from cover, turning its neck back and forth like a fighter pilot scanning the horizon. It looked healthy. It probably had a regular path to the bins of the home.

She caught sight of it. ‘I had a pet fox.’

He doubted this. He didn’t doubt the fox, as they’d been introduced by colonial foxhunters. She would have grown up with the escapees, the wiliest, foraging around villages in the mountains in the twenties and thirties before they’d merged into the city. But he’d never heard of a fox being tamed. She meant a fox had lived near them, which meant there’d been a group of them.

‘Did you? What was it called?’

She looked at him like he was deranged. ‘A fox.’

They turned back to the view, but the fox had disappeared. He looked at her and wondered if she was still thinking about it. She hardly ever blinked, as if her brain forgot to remind her eyelids.

‘Victoria said the flour wasn’t right.’ She was talking about years ago. It kept surfacing, like a spring-melt into an ancient lake, spreading flat and unseen over the surface of her consciousness. It would mix in with other thoughts and be inseparable, ink dropped into water, following an inexorable entropy. He squeezed her hand. He wanted to get her talking more, to exercise her language faculties.

‘The flour hasn’t been right for a while,’ he agreed.

‘I told her. The mill isn’t using the proper stone.’

She was talking about the bakery she and her aunt Victoria had run before he was born. She was shaking her head, vindicated but not unkind. She just needed the mill to change back. He could see that.

‘The workmen like the steamed puddings to hold together.’ She gave him an earnest look. He remembered the puddings somehow: country lamb with rosemary. She used to steam them in suet cases and tradesmen would travel for their lunch from nearby towns to get one.

‘What about the pots?’ She’d told him about the pots.

‘That’s right, that’s what I said. Give them in their pot. With a spoon. They can bring them back tomorrow. With their overalls.’

The reference to overalls was a crossed wire. The bakery had failed by extending credit to the tradesmen and when the depression peaked in the early thirties, they’d developed lousy memories. His mother and her aunt laundered work clothes after they’d had to close the bakery. She was confusing the overalls with the bakery. He wanted to get her back to the cooking.

‘What else did you feed them?’

She looked at him as if he’d just arrived. ‘Fruit.’ She smiled at him and touched his face, as if she was going to like him. ‘Foxes eat fruit.’


Two Sundays later, as he made coffee, Bernie realised he wasn’t visiting his mother enough. The realisation had a guilty shadow. He remonstrated with himself in a practical way, thinking of ways to keep Sundays free. She’d die soon, and his fledgling grief would burgeon. He wasn’t prepared, and realised numbly that no one ever was.

His wife was sleeping and the warm lure of her threatened to derail his intentions. He blinked and made a decision.

After he left the city toll roads, the country gave way to more trees and the air cooled. He curled the car around the impressive drive and slid it in next to the car belonging to the nursing home’s manager. ‘Aged care facility’, she called it. He couldn’t remember her name. Bloody hell, he thought. I’ll be in here soon.

He spotted the carer with the bubbling red hair as he walked down the main hallway, and she gave him a hug which he’d learnt was her generation’s way of greeting. She smiled at him. ‘Thirty degrees and we’re forecast a balmy cloud-free day.’

He walked into the lounge. His mum raised her head when he came through the doorway. Her face registered surprise because he was too young to be a resident. He smiled at her and stayed put; he’d learnt that she needed time to acclimatise.

He scanned the room to see if he could recognise anyone. There was a new resident sitting by a window, staring onto the lawn. She was rocking and fiddling with a hanky. A new resident meant someone had ‘gone on’, as the manager called it. Elderly care facilities were a finite resource that struggled to accept a bow wave of applicants. He wondered who had died. He hoped, not unkindly, for the retired policeman. The men fared worst, being unpractised with family leaving them. The old fella usually had a weepy, disoriented air, as if people who spoke another language had kidnapped him and he couldn’t tell what they wanted. He’d never understood how to use an electric razor and his palsy meant he couldn’t use a blade, so he often had a part-mown face with patches of white lawn under his chin and around his mouth. Bernie couldn’t locate him. Walking his beat in heaven, hopefully.

The new resident was fixated on the garden outside the window. He moved over to her and knelt down. ‘I don’t know your name,’ he said.

The woman turned to look at him and smiled. ‘Are you new here too?’

‘I worry if I’ll remember everyone’s name,’ he said. ‘Just call them ‘dear’.’

She chuckled and grinned like it was a conspiracy, then examined him as if she may find some clue. It was an intense scrutiny. He relaxed and let her work out what she wanted to say in her own time. She was frowning at his eyebrows.

‘The custard has skin on it,’ she said eventually. She didn’t sound bothered, and turned back to the view in case it might change when she wasn’t looking.

‘Is that good or bad?’

She turned back and stared at him as if she may have been going too fast for him.

‘Oh, it’s good.’ She was using her eyes to back this up. ‘I like it.’

He nodded. ‘Good job I asked.’

‘Can I have some more?’

He looked around and put a finger to his lips. ‘I’ll see what I can do.’

He stood up and put a hand on her shoulder, and she turned once again to the view.

A fragile, ghostly woman was pacing as he made his way back to the doorway. She was so extraordinarily frail, Bernie imagined one day she’d simply break and they’d have to assemble the pieces in her room for her visitors. They would arrive and be given a box, scratch their heads and try to patch the woman back together again. In the meantime, she burned up thousands of calories, her electrified white hair doing an about-turn at each end of the room, slightly later than her head. It gave her the appearance of a runner trying to escape a cloud of moths. She never looked to the sides; just a dogged, even gait with her sight focused firmly on the wall, until she repeated her vertical tumble-turn and brought the far wall into her sights.

The carer who had greeted him came and stood next to him in the doorway. He took in her red corkscrew bangs and experienced a wave of longing for his sleeping wife.

‘Your new girl,’ he said, nodding his head at the woman staring out the window.

‘Emily. She was a Prof. Like you.’

Bernie nodded. ‘Apparently your chef’s a dab hand at custard. She was telling me.’

‘I’ll pass it on.’

They regarded Bernie’s mother.

‘She’s ready for you, Bernie?’ He noticed she had a habit of making statements sound like questions, and vice-versa. ‘I can bring her through to the library if you’d like.’

‘I’ll take her. Thanks, Joanne.’

She beamed at him for remembering her name and resumed her duties. He walked over and sat down next to his mum, held her hand and waited for her to introduce herself. It didn’t take long.

‘Hello. You’re here to fix the news, aren’t you?’

As an opening line, he had to hand it to her. ‘I can try. What would you like?’

‘Not me.’ She blinked, owl-like. ‘Biden.’ She turned to look at the television, thankfully muted.

He laughed and squeezed her hand. ‘Joe Biden?’

‘Yes, Biden…’ She struggled. ‘… Bin Laden. Yes. The black man.’

‘And why does he need it fixing?’

She gave him an obvious look, like he must have been absent without permission. She shook her head. Everyone had heard him say it. They kept repeating it on the television.

‘He said he didn’t like this news.’

Bernie nodded sagely. ‘Shall we take a walk?’

‘To the bus stop?’ She was frowning hopefully. He fielded a sickening lurch in his stomach at this reference to leaving. ‘Anywhere away from here,’ she used to wail, pitifully.

‘Or we could go to the library? I need to look for books.’ He made it more specific. ‘A particular book. You could help me.’

Her face lit up. ‘Then you can fix the news?’

He helped her stand because this prospect gave her momentum to see them to the library. When they reached it, finding it empty of people, the book had been forgotten. He steered her to the window and chose the wing chair that faced the trees. She nestled down and watched him settle on a piano stool he brought over.

They gazed out to the boundary demarked by the trees.

‘If you can fix the news,’ she said clearly to him, as if this was an interesting idea, ‘maybe you can stop the letter. Stop it arriving.’

‘Letter?’ He’d become used to replying at an even gait rather than pondering.

‘I thought it was… odd. The post had been. I mean, postie comes at midday. But they arrived in the afternoon. After…’ She slowed. ‘Or was it a Sunday?’

‘When was this, Mum?’

She looked at him, but the link didn’t register. Maybe she just thought he was being cheeky, or familiar.

She frowned, a full frown that hurt her. ‘After the war.’

He realised what the letter had been. An official letter. His father had been back on leave before the end of the war. They’d conceived him, their only child. Then his father had flown back to the Singapore Straits and died in combat two months later.

‘Sunday,’ she said. ‘I remember now. They were in uniform.’

He nodded and held her hand. She wasn’t upset, just reliving it for the ten thousandth time. It had been during the war, but for her, the war ended that day.

‘They come after you’ve been to church, you see, with the letter. Such a beautiful signature. Then they tell the priest to visit.’ Her eyes were bright. ‘It does help. I was pregnant.’

She’d be gone one day and he’d miss her dreadfully. She’d gamely tried to be both mother and father to him and he reckoned she’d done a good job. The only job where trying makes a bigger difference than luck or skill.

The quiet made time for them.

‘I can’t fix that news,’ he said softly.

She shifted her gaze to the trees. ‘No.’

As they sat, a fox reappeared. Bernie couldn’t tell if it was the same one they’d seen before, but he realised his mum had spotted it because she tightened her grip. It moved fractionally into the open, its legs bent ready to flee. It crept forward slowly and sniffed the grass, almost in the sunshine. He realised it wouldn’t leave the shadow afforded by the trees.

‘What do you call a group of foxes?’

She considered the question carefully. ‘A rare and lovely sight, beautiful to behold.’ She turned as he laughed and gave him a bright smile. ‘Or,’ she said, still looking at him, ‘a skulk.”

He nodded. Of course. A skulk. He was continually surprised at what was still organised in her mind even though she couldn’t remember him as her son. The fox was sniffing the air, but like her capacity for recall, he knew it was going to fade away.

‘I had a fox,’ she said.

‘I remember.’

‘How could you? You weren’t even born, Bernard.’

He trapped an involuntary cry in his throat and covered it with a cough, but he couldn’t stop fast, fat tears. He wiped his face. ‘I remember you telling me, Mum.’

They watched the fox sniffing the breeze until it melted into the boundary. The outline of the trees brushed the wind while he mustered exhaustion.

She looked ready for a snooze.

‘I love you, Mum. Got to travel back soon.’

She squeezed his hand.

‘Can I take you to the lounge, or do you want to stay here?’ Usually he decided for her, but the question seemed reasonable considering her sporadic awareness.

‘I’ll stay here for a while. It’s nice and quiet. I could have a nap.’

He made his goodbyes as he stood up and bent down to kiss her. She looked up at him and held his face, smiling.

‘Don’t be afraid,’ she said. ‘On a Sunday. If you get a letter. I’ll be okay.’

He sat down too fast, looked at the floor, and the world stopped turning.

‘We all have a full life,’ she said, ‘no matter how long.’

He nodded dumbly. She’d caught a long wave of consciousness, lucid and clear.

‘Your father and I…’

He waited. She smiled reassuringly at him, and he realised with absolute certainty he’d always remember her expression. She didn’t finish what she meant about his father. Or maybe she had. He wondered if the memory of the letter arriving had actually been, as he’d thought, for the ten thousandth time. He began to doubt it, and dawning awareness told him that for his mum there was a long solid recollection, unbroken by anything, even sleep. It was one event, stretched out over decades.

She returned to the view and settled.

He left without saying goodbye to Joanne, knowing she’d understand. He sat in his car staring at the masonry of the nursing home. A stone lintel offered itself to the elements, patient, unyielding and reliable. He acknowledged that his mother’s expression of reassurance and the image of this lintel would now be permanently glued together in his mind, perhaps waiting dormant for some confusion in his own old age. He started the car and headed back to the city.




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