© HELEN TOWNSEND 2013
Nellie held her stick tightly as she climbed the hospital stairs. She gripped the rail, pausing every few seconds to catch her breath. Damn being 92, damn even having to think about stairs although she knew how to do it so she didn’t look like a lame woman, but rather, a woman with hauteur and a certain style. That style came, strangely, from the roundness of her deformed hip as well as the straight line of her back and her head held high.
And her clothes. The deep cherry red angora coat, the green and cherry scarf, her best black pants and her beautiful little straw hat. She’d had them for years, She loved colour and she’d always looked after her clothes. Poor Patricia, her own dear daughter, how could she have let herself go? No dress sense, no proper vanity to speak of.
She stopped for another breather at the top of the stairs, then walked across to the nurses’ station.
“I have to see Doctor Suleiman. I’m donating a kidney for my granddaughter, Eliza James, and I need to fix the time for the surgery.” She smiled at the young man on duty. She had danced with young men and they had danced with her. She had been able to dance without the stick, the limp from her polio incorporated in the sweep and bow of the dance. Ah, those old dances – so beautiful. But this young man barely looked up at her. He was not thinking of dancing.
“He’ll be in his office – on the right – along there.” He pointed, but it was as if she didn’t exist. She leaned on the counter for a moment longer, gathering up her breath and watching the bustle of a hospital – the doctors, nurses, the visitors with their flowers, trolleys to deliver the afternoon teas, patients in their hospital gowns in wheelchairs, but in all this, no-one looking at anyone else. Nellie started off along the corridor, swinging her bad leg out in front of her, then putting her stick down with a decisive thump as she balanced herself. As a child she’d hated herself for being lame, but she had struggled relentlessly to walk. They said she never would, but she did. But then, she hated the way she walked, her awful stick like an extra leg.
Her father had said, “Walk like a dancer Nellie.”
She didn’t know how to do that and neither did he, but the words stayed in her mind and worked something in her body. One Saturday, at the oval where most of the town assembled to watch the boys play football, she had heard a woman say, “I’ve never seen a lame girl so graceful”. So, she thought, I’m more graceful than girls who aren’t lame. It was a vanity, but vanity was hardly a sin. She thought it a virtue.
“I always wanted to be a dancer.” She’d say that to make people notice her graceful walk.
She had always covered the thump of the stick by singing. Singing as she went to open the front door, singing as she cooked, even singing as she went down the street. She’d rather be known for being a singer than a girl with a stick. And she had a lovely voice. Lots of people said that but even so, you couldn’t sing all the time. So as she went into shops, she always gave a loud and cheerful “Yoo hoo.”. Mrs Smith at the grocer’s used to say, “I always know when Nellie’s coming.” Better she say that than say she heard Nellie’s stick.
But hospital intimidated Nellie into silence. She felt the rule of hospital silence from her long hospital stay when she’d had the polio. Her mother was allowed to visit only once a week and then, they had to talk in whispers. She had felt so alone, longing for Mummy, longing for Daddy. Daddy had only came once. She knew it was because he could not bear it. She’d heard him sobbing in the corridor after he’d kissed her goodbye. She’d wept into her pillow.
When the girl in the bed opposite had died, they had taken her body away. Nellie remembered the drawn curtains, the whispering, the clatter of the gurney as they wheeled it out, the sheet drawn over. Then Nellie had done something, she didn’t remember what – and the nurse had smacked her, hard and mean. More than 80 years later, Nellie still carried the fear of the smacking nurse.
Panting a little, she stopped when she saw the name “Dr M. H. Suleiman” on the door opposite. She gathered courage and knocked. Suleiman opened the door and she smiled at him. He smiled back, but there was worry in his eyes too.
“Of course you remember me,” she said, sitting down. “I’m donating my kidney for my granddaughter Eliza.” She liked these dark men from faraway places who smiled politely and spoke gently.
“You can’t donate a kidney Mrs Clarence. We talked it over last week. You’re 92.” He smiled. “That means your kidneys are 92 as well.”
“My mother didn’t die till she was 100, and it wasn’t kidney failure that killed her.”
“At your age any operation is a risk. And this is a major procedure,” He spoke slowly and patiently. “We’d be concerned you may not survive the operation.”
“I wouldn’t care. I’m 92. What does it matter?”
“It matters to us,” he said.
She produced the little card she carried with her. Organ donor, it said. On the back she’d written Eliza’s name, the name of the hospital and KIDNEY TRANSPLANT in capitals. Why not now? She argued. Why wait till she was dying or dead? You’d think a clever doctor would understand a simple thing like this, but Dr Suleiman slid over her objections. Then he stood up and opened his door for her, smiles and a handshake, but no sense in it.
She felt a little dizzy as she continued along the corridor, not quite certain if this was the hospital of her childhood or Eliza’s hospital. Had she walked up the stairs or caught the lift? Dr Suleiman was walking in front of her now, his nice black curly hair, his neat doctor walk. He had a flower garden on his back with a big red hibiscus in the centre. How strange! She was tempted to reach out and touch his flower garden with her stick.
Her children, the children. It had taken her a little time to take to her own children, to feel she loved them. But now they were always in her mind, a child in her bed from long ago, children in the flower garden, maybe at the front gate or on the school bus. Then, the child married, the child who fought so bitterly with both husbands.
Her children’s children too, those grandchildren and some dear little great grandchildren whose names and faces were a little fuzzy. All of them! Her job was to keep them together, keep them going. Eliza, her favourite granddaughter who was Patricia’s little girl. Eliza, who so loved to dress up and had become a singer. She had sung in England, in Europe. Yet her own dear mother, poor Patricia, she didn’t have clue. She was such a good girl, Patricia. No, not a girl, a woman. Her awful second husband had made things so difficult that Eliza had come to live with Nellie, so long ago when Eliza was just 12 years old.
She understood it now, this business of children, maybe a little late for her and Patricia. Still there it was, no mother was perfect. Husbands, she had been lucky there. Oh, so lucky! But only the second time round.
Tom, Tom, Tom – she wouldn’t have swapped that husband of hers for any man. She and Tom thought they couldn’t have a child so they’d been children together. If people had known, it would have scandalised them, their flirty butcher, having a bath every Saturday night, the two of them sitting together in the steaming water in the dark bathroom. Oh the naughtiness of it! Dancing round the house naked to the dance band on the radio. Then chocolates in front of the fire, squabbling over the caramel, Tom popping it into her mouth after he’d teased her with it. And reading children’s books to each other in bed – fairy stories, scary stories. What fun they had had – love and sex and warmth and pleasure. Deep, deep pleasure, the sort that people never talked about, where mind, body and soul met. The children had been a surprise, a shock, changing the life she and Tom treasured. It took time to adjust.
“Toodoloo,” she said brightly as she saw Dr Suleiman going into the ward, but he didn’t hear, didn’t turn. He still had that garden on his back, god knows why. She’d given up fighting with people in the last ten years but she couldn’t give up on Eliza. She wouldn’t. She walked along the ward to Eliza’s bed, planning a secret revenge on Suleiman. She’d make a large placard, a big colourful one to replace the little card in her purse. My kidney to Eliza James with the phone number of the hospital. Then she’d step out in front of a small, slowly moving car. She didn’t want to be squashed, just made unconscious in preparation for the operation. She imagined Dr Suleiman’s kindly face, his superior smile fading, as he recognised her in the operating theatre, his gasp of amazement as he saw her fine, shining, healthy kidney.
“Got you!” Perhaps her last words. How beautiful. Kidneys for breakfast. She’d always liked them, especially with bacon, although this illness of Eliza’s had spoiled her appetite in that respect.
“Yoo hoo, Eliza my darling.” Poor Eliza, all tied up with tubes and wires to that hideous machine but with a beautiful blue scarf round her head. She was pale, but so beautiful. Was the scarf one of hers? The silk one Tom had got her? It’d be 60 years old, a good age for a scarf. She’d bring the blue silk bedjacket next time she came in. She waved her bunch of dark red dahlias at Eliza. “Are these the ones you wanted? You’re the only one who ever appreciated these hideous old things.” She bent over and kissed her, then, faint with the effort, she sat down quickly.
Suddenly, Dr Suleiman was there again. Like the jack-in-the-box she’d had as a child. No, Martin had had it when he was a child, Martin next door. She’d married him when they grew up. It had been a childish fancy for them both. It had gone bad, very bad indeed. It was strange though, that Martin’s jack-in-the-box which had always popped out so listlessly, should have had the same face as Dr Suleiman popping up beside Eliza’s bed.
Eliza’s machine was panting, panting, breathing and sighing, just like Nellie. She took Eliza’s hand, her poor dear hand, bruised from all those tubes. “Darling, my darling. Don’t think of marrying Suleiman. We’ve had so many husbands in this family. A plague of husbands! I married twice, your mother too, your brother just the once, but your uncle three times. This chair is comfy – I’ll have a little zizz, just for a moment or two.” She put her head back and started snoring.
Dr Suleiman looked at Eliza as Eliza picked the crumpled dahlias out of her grandmother’s hands.
know she gives you trouble, but she’s amazing just getting here.” All her life, her grandmother had been old, but now she became older by the day.
“She does not give me so much trouble,” said Dr Suleiman in his prim Lebanese accent. Eliza loved it, the halting formality, the carefully pronounced words, his warm eyes. “Except the time she hit at me with her stick. It was painful and not fair of her. But I worry for her safety in coming here on the public buses and crossing the roads.”
“She doesn’t care about being safe,” said Eliza. “She is my Grand Mother. She’s the giant kidney, the filter of life.” She glanced at the dialysis machine. “Far better than this.”
“In my culture, proper care is taken of the elderly,” said Dr Suleiman stiffly.
Eliza and Dr Suleiman often argued mildly about culture. She had told him that Australia had retirement places and nursing homes, which were usually horrible, but Lebanon had terrorists, and maybe that was worse. He was aggrieved by this remark, but gentle in his rebuttal, which made her ashamed of saying it in the first place. She’d wanted to have intelligent conversations with him, but her desire to score points got in the way. It was because she was tethered and he was free. She liked his tight black curls, his dark, dark eyes, and his gentleness. But he didn’t understand life, despite all his experience in dialysis and transplanting kidneys and helping people live their painful lives. She had begun to think that perhaps she didn’t understand life either, especially her own. But at least she knew there was more to life than kidneys.
“A transplant is most difficult,” Suleiman said. “There is a list of precedence and you have just started on dialysis. There are important questions for the matching of the tissue types.” He started to explain about tissue matching, but she cut him short. She imagined him at a dinner party, speaking with passion and charm about kidney transplants. Someone would have to tell him.
“You can have a normal life with dialysis,” he said. “Almost normal.”
“Not quite, but normal is different for everyone.” Normal for Suleiman was wearing his flowery Hawaiian shirt with the red hibiscus to show he was a cool young doctor, which he knew he wasn’t . Everyone knew he wasn’t, but it was kindness to participate in the illusion because kindness was needed here on this ward where lives were saved, but mutilated at the same time.
“My tissue type is sitting there,” she said, indicating her gently snoring grandmother. She drew her hand across her throat like a knife and made a guttural sound.
“Suleiman…” she mocked him.
He looked at his notes, and then at her. “You are looking much better,” he said.
Tears were prickling in her eyes, but she smiled them out. “Your social workers have got me a little pension and tell me they’ll find a little flat. So, when I leave here, I’ll find a little life. Don’t worry about me.”
“Make peace with your family. That may be more important than a transplant even. Please, I don’t want to pry, but this illness could help that.” He paused, gathering his courage. “And you! You should have a big life” Then he felt embarrassed by being so personal. Being personal was the job of the Social Work Department. “You are brave, but it is hard alone. You may be out of hospital next week and then you only come here for dialysis. After that, you have home dialysis, and you get some life back.”
“Some life,” thought Eliza. She didn’t tell him that she had already made peace with her family. Her mother had taken a long time to forgive Eliza for choosing to live with Granny when she was 12. Then Eliza had taken a long time to forgive her mother for not forgiving her. All up, 15 years. Her mother had phoned her when she heard about her kidney failure and Eliza had refused to speak to her. Afterwards, she wished she had, but by then her mother refused to speak to her. Finally they had spoken and they had both cried, but even then, harsh things had been said. Now her mother was going to come, but she hadn’t offered Eliza a kidney.
She couldn’t imagine Suleiman’s family behaving like this. It’d be “Please pass the hommos, lovely tabouli, thank you. We’ll all go to see the belly dancers on Tuesday. Yes, of course, you can have my kidney.” Civilised stuff. An older culture, even if they had terrorists.
Nellie opened her eyes. “That Suleiman won’t take any notice of me.” She said it loudly. She could see him and his flower garden over at the next bed. Eliza took her grandmother’s old hand, so spotted and crinkled, like the dahlias she had brought.
Granny had always played up her oldness, along with her boldness and her vanity. Old, stylish and funny was the persona she had presented to Eliza, along with her navy and white spotted hankies, Chanel no. 5, scandalously worn during the day, pigskin gloves for driving, the mysterious garment called the stole when she went out in the evening, with the equally mysterious gentlemen who were just for fun, not like her true love, Darling Dead Tom. She had shown Eliza her varicose veins, all the time boasting of the fine young legs she had had. Of course Eliza knew there had only been one fine young leg, given the other was withered, but Granny grandly disregarded facts in the flow of her story. She had confessed to using black hair dye, but set it against tales of the lustrous black hair that grown below her waist when she was sixteen. She showed Eliza the thick, sensuous plait she had cut off when she turned 21. She kept it in a silver box, hidden in her underwear drawer. Eliza remembered it, tied with a faded pink ribbon.
For all that, it seemed to Eliza, that she had never known her grandmother. She felt connected to her in the deepest, most primal way, but she felt she might not know her at all.
Tell me about you, she wanted to say, but Granny would never fall for that.
“Tell me about the war,” she said. Granny would tell her stories, but that was a little different.
“1942, right in the middle of it. I was 20. I think I’ll make it to 100, like Mother did.”
I won’t, Eliza thought with sudden despair. She’d read that on the net when she found out her kidneys were failing. She’d read everything about kidneys. Then, for two years she had ignored it, thinking she could stop it happening, it couldn’t happen. She was getting sicker and sicker, but she felt she had some inner magical insurance, that if she continued her normal life – singing, boyfriends, getting smashed sometimes, having too much salt on her eggs – those things she had always done – her kidneys would rally to match her life. But it had gone unfairly wrong and her kidneys had failed – the one thing she willed not to go wrong. Actually, not the one thing, there were lots of others, but the kidneys were the big thing.
“Tell me about 1942.” She could feel the harsh desperation of her own voice, a plea for the Eliza she used to be and the Granny that used to be. She needed refuge from the blood sucking machine that kept her alive, but made her weak and sick. She felt the begging, whining, unhappy 12 year old Eliza whom Granny had saved.
Nellie had never told Eliza about Martin, not even mentioned him. She’d tell her now even though it was a hard story.
“Mother took the death notice when they came to the door. I’d only been married six months and I only lived with him two months before he went away. But he was so cruel, so terribly cruel.”
Nellie remembered her mother calling her. Distress, relief, both there in her voice. Then, mother had been almost formal. She’d gone into the front room and sat down on the lady’s chair, waiting for Nellie to follow. Nellie only went as far as the door of the dark front room and stood there, watching her mother nervously fiddling with the telegram. She knew her mother would observe the proprieties of his death, that she would find a way to accommodate Nellie’s relief and her own relief that Martin was dead and gone. Then they could talk about what had happened before.
“Martin has died. An accident.”
Nellie had thought how strange it was to die of an accident in the middle of the war.
“He was knocked down, in the street in Cairo.”
“They didn’t say.” But Nellie imagined a camel, a big yellow camel, like the stuffed one she’d had as a child. It seemed funny, but she couldn’t laugh. Martin, with his bedroom eyes and smooth talk, cruel Martin with his flaccid jack-in-the box. She felt a moment of sympathy for him, but only a moment.
Her mother held out the notice, but Nellie shook her head. She had told him not to write to her or contact her after the last terrible leave. With this notice he’d ignored her. She felt a momentary flash of fury, but of course this wasn’t from him, it was just about him. Then her grandmother came in and they couldn’t talk because Grandmother believed you should never speak ill of a husband and never speak ill of the dead.
With a histrionic gesture, Nellie had pulled her handkerchief out of her pocket and threw it on the floor. No tears, no grief for her dead husband. She rushed down the hall, out into the yard and saw her bicycle leaning against the laundry wall, offering a perfect escape. She pulled her swimming togs off the line. They were slightly musty and damp from when she’d gone to the baths yesterday. She went back into the house and found the crochet hat Aunty Sue had made for her, grabbed a shilling from the milk money and went out the fly wire door which creaked as it closed.
It was late summer, the heat dry and intense. She skirted round the main street and climbed the hill out to the northern road, past the straggling poor houses on the fringes of town, with their dogs and tribes of ragged kids sitting in the gutter or playing ball on the road. Nellie put all her strength into pushing the pedals. It was hard to keep a rhythm with one leg shorter and weaker than the other. Bang crash, bang crash, bang crash, she said to herself, the old chant she and Dad had invented when he was teaching her. He’d never let her out of anything. He insisted she walk, swim, row and then ride her bike. She learned to jump, to skip, but never to run.
“Never mind Nellie,” he said. “Running games are out of fashion!” It wasn’t true, but he said it with his schoolmasterly certainty and a father’s conviction.
The country was silent, except for the crunch of her tyres against the gravel and the familiar squeaks of the bike. The road was white and bright ahead, the paddocks bleached by the hot summer. The sky was a hard blue dome and the crows were arkking Martin Clark is dead, Martin Clark is dead.
Nellie wasn’t ashamed of the happiness under these words. She had wished him dead. When he’d gone to Egypt and she’d come home to live, she’d even imagined the death notice being delivered. But the horror of what he had done to her was still potent, the past haunting her.
It took a long time to bike out to the big dam. On Saturdays it was always crowded with families and other picnickers, noisy with chatter, shouts and splashing, an air of anarchic exuberance. Now it was deserted and silent except for the buzz of the insects. She felt the emptiness as she took off her dress in the wide open paddock and stood naked in the sun, looking down at her breasts and the triangle of her black pubic hair. Her body. It had been hard won after her polio, then stolen again by Martin. She felt the sadness of Nellie the dancer who never was, the endless struggle of having to create herself.
She’d never been a girl to lose heart, but standing there naked and all alone, she felt as if she did not exist, she, who had worked so hard for a large existence.
“I’m done,” she thought and wondered why she felt such despair. Martin Clark was dead.
Slowly she put on her damp swimmers and waded tentatively into the water which was black and icy as it always was. As she swam out she felt her skin pucker into goose bumps. She swam far out, into the middle where it was so deep that no-one had ever touched the bottom. Some said it was fifty feet, others a hundred.
“Goes through to China,” her father always said. If she sank now, no-one would know, she’d never ever be found. She felt a little frightened, but her fear gave an edge to the sense that this was an occasion.
She waited a moment and then upended herself and dived down and down, colder and colder. The dive could not have been much longer than a few seconds – she wasn’t much of a swimmer, but it felt a long time in that cold black water, remembering she had loved Martin before she’d hated him, that she could forgive him dead what she would never have forgiven him alive. By dying, knocked over by the yellow camel, he had given her licence to reclaim herself.
She burst to the surface, with a great gasp.
“He was a bad man,” she said to Eliza, “But then I knew I could walk away from anything.”
“I can’t,” said Eliza with sudden bitterness. “I can’t walk away from this.” She was staring at the dials on the machine.
“You’ll find a way,” said Nellie. “You were such a strong child.”
Eliza shrugged. The childish strength she’d relied on to stop her kidneys failing had been stupid.
Her grandmother fell silent, Granny who was never lost for words. She sat and looked at Eliza and Eliza looked into her old rheumy eyes. It may have only been seconds, maybe it was a minute. It felt like a long time, long enough for Eliza to feel her grandmother’s dive, that dive into the cold black water. Then it was there in her own body. She felt it in every part of her, singing in the silence.
Dr Suleiman stopped Nellie on her way out. He was standing in his flower garden again –it was all over his shirt. He seemed upset. “Please, please,” he said, “do not think again about the donation of your kidney. I have every greatest respect for you, but the State Department of Health would allow such a thing. I could not in my conscience do it.”
She would have loved to slow dance with him, the way she and Tom had slow danced naked on Saturday nights. Wet, beautiful, sometimes shivering, the way the dive had promised.
“You’ve got lovely eyes just like Tom,” she told Suleiman. “Except his were blue.”
She wasn’t sure how she got to the ground floor. Eliza had been so little when she came, so strong and stubborn and naughty, all the things Nellie loved. Tom would have loved her too.
As Nellie came out the hospital doors, she saw Tom’s old truck, number plate JX 43, Clarence butchery written in red curly writing on the side over a picture of a fluffy lamb. She waved and stepped onto the road. Fancy him coming now.