by Zirk van den Berg
Evan’s father had some sort of stroke on the plane over from Australia. He left his home on the Gold Coast a sprightly seventy-year-old and landed in Auckland a seventy-year-old sprout. Mr Herne had always been a beanpole, much taller than his only son, who took care of him after his release from hospital. Wrangling those long limbs into a wheelchair was difficult without some parts dragging on the ground. Evan jammed his dad’s butt to the back of the seat, then strapped the old man’s torso into position. He pushed the elbows back and secured the bony forearms to the armrests. He used one arm hooked under the knee for lift and positioned his dad’s Hush Puppies onto the footrests with the other. Friction should keep them there. He straightened his father’s head, posed him like a puppet, and then the old man was ready. They were going on a picnic.
Evan’s leave arrangements at the bank over the last two months had been something of a saga. First he took two weeks off to host his dad for the ten days of the proposed visit, plus some time to recover afterwards. The way it turned out, he went back to work after three days, asking for his leave to be postponed until his dad was released from hospital. When that finally happened, it was clear the old man may have to stay indefinitely, and Evan asked for every bit of leave he could – annual holiday as well as compassionate and sick leave. To his mind, all three categories applied. His boss said this was not ideal with the April school holidays coming up. Evan replied that ideal was not really an option when your father had turned into a vegetable. Things escalated from there until the boss asked if Evan was sure the old man hadn’t already been a cabbage when his son was conceived. Evan ended up taking unpaid leave. He wasn’t sure he had a job to go back to.
His wife, by contrast, sometimes acted as if she had nothing but a job. She breezed past him, her handbag trailing behind. “I’m late for work. Why are you up so early?”
“No particular reason.”
She was a sight – pale skin, dark hair, mouth lipsticked like a rosebud. She kept her lips to the side when she kissed him goodbye. A closing of eyes, grazing of cheeks, hands briefly finding familiar holds. “Don’t worry about supper for me, I’m probably working late.”
As always, she closed the door too hard. It rattled in the frame. She had a lot of energy. Pauline could do anything. He was sure she’d do a better job of looking after his father. He had asked her, when he thought he could still patch up things at work by returning within a day or so. It was impossible, she said, much as she’d love to. The new brand she managed was about to be launched and there was no way she could take a break now. This was going to be the launch not only of the brand, but of her career in the big time. Evan suspected that she’d be okay anyway, sleeping with the boss and all.
A moment of reason: he did not know that she was sleeping with Ron Duff, he merely guessed. She talked about the man a lot. At first, Evan used to laugh, shimmying around the dinner table, singing help me Ron Duff, help help me Ron Duff. That stopped being funny long ago, when Pauline started putting in these long hours. It was the brand launch, she explained, lots of things to finish. She was tired most of the time, and when they did sleep together she wanted him to do things they had never done before.
Evan wondered if he could tell his father about this. Of course, in the old days, when his dad had been a man like other men, he would never dream of it. But Evan entertained the vain hope that this condition that made his father less of a man also made him more human. As the body had been reduced, the spirit may have taken flight. He looked into his father’s eyes and imagined he saw the light of otherworldly knowledge, or some such thing.
The doctors weren’t sure how much Mr Herne knew of his surroundings. Apparently it was hard to tell with brain damage, or perhaps just hard to tell the next of kin. It was possible that the old man knew everything that went on around him, but was simply trapped in a body he could not control, or he could be completely out of it, with no more consciousness than a greengrocer’s display. He held his head in position and did some reflex things like chew and swallow when he was fed. He wore incontinence pads and soiled them without shudder or shame. He wasn’t alive enough to pick up his pension or dead enough for an insurance payout.
It would’ve been good to have money for a nurse. Evan wasn’t the nurturing kind. There was something fundamentally wrong about changing the nappies of the man who had done the same for you. The thought of looking after someone else’s needs scared him. The ambulance men had simply wheeled the invalid into his house, asked Evan to sign a paper and left, leaving him leaning on the handles of the wheelchair, wondering where to now. At first, he tried to pretend it was a normal visit. He showed his father the room where he’d stay. He took him to the kitchen to make coffee, but found himself embarrassed by talking to someone who didn’t answer. In the end, he parked the wheelchair facing the TV and took his place on the couch, the two of them watching sport, as they had done for years – sullen men separated by their similarities. Theirs was a history of mutual disappointment, distances between them they never managed to cross. Evan had hoped that this visit would be a time of reconciliation, of man recognising and respecting man. But obviously not.
So he fed and cleaned his father and sat with him through the silent hours. Look what my life had come to, he thought. Evan had always been afraid of becoming one of those people his father despised – a weakling, stuff-up or dropout. At first, he thought time and talent was on his side, that success beckoned like next year’s birthday gifts. His fatal error had been to believe that this could be achieved without total commitment, and he could never throw himself into anything. There was always this other man tugging at his sleeve, whispering in his ear that whatever he did either didn’t count or he wasn’t good enough at it. It was like having a heavy shadow that hounded his every step, clinging to his ankles or clambering on his back. Evan was tempted to blame his father for all of it, a man more apt to raise demands than give praise. His son had little positive affirmation as a child. But Evan had left his parents’ home more than half a lifetime ago and you cannot continue to find excuses for yourself; he’s had enough time to make himself in his own image. The failure was his own. And it was complete. As far as he was concerned, his career, his marriage and his dreams for himself amounted to a carton of broken eggs, nothing more.
He found things for himself to do around the house, chores he tried to convince himself were necessary. One day, he parked the wheelchair in the shade and started weeding between the roses. A voice came from the neighbour’s yard. “How are you this fine morning?”
Evan straightened up and saw the woman from next door, fat and frumpish, staring at his father. “I don’t know if he can hear you. He definitely can’t answer.”
She didn’t say anything for so long that Evan wondered if his father’s affliction was contagious. Her eyes were fixed on the man in the wheelchair or some distant thing. “I was a nurse once.”
“Oh… I didn’t know.” Evan didn’t know anything whatsoever about the woman. Her husband ran a hardware store that was open seven to seven. Grown children came to visit sometimes. She spent most of her time indoors, appearing only to fetch post or put out garbage, always in a nondescript dress and the same tatty pink slippers she had on now. Everything about her seemed to have outlasted its useful life.
“How long has he been like this?”
Evan told her what the doctors had said. They got to talking. He said his mom had died the year before, his only sister lived in England and they were still talking about what to do long-term, whether to sell the place in Queensland and where their father would live. “In the meantime, he’s here with me.”
“It must be hard on you.”
There was no denying it.
“Maybe I could help.”
That afternoon, she came over to give the old man a bath. Her name, Evan learned, was Marie. She blushed as she said this, embarrassed by bearing the name of Jesus’s mother and her younger self. She removed the old man’s shoes and socks. She unbuttoned his father’s shirt and Evan helped her get it off. Then he wrapped his arms around his father’s bony chest and lifted the old man so she could take off his pants. Evan could still not get used to seeing his dad’s private parts and having it exposed in the presence of a strange woman was unsettling. It was his father, after all. They shared the same genes and did she perhaps think that he, too, looked like that or had the same billy-goat smell? They lifted the old man over the edge of the bath and lowered him into the water. “I’ve done this a thousand times,” she said. She worked efficiently, soaping and rinsing. Her big behind stuck out, her breasts hung to her knees, her arms wobbled. She breathed through her mouth. “All done.”
She showed Evan how to place towels on the wheelchair and put the man on it, so they could wrap him up and dry him off. Part of the job was done in the bedroom, with the paralysed man lying on the bed. They dressed him in clean clothes and put him back in the chair.
After that, she came every day in the morning and late afternoon. She started staying longer, only going home for lunch. She did not want to eat with them. The routine was cosy, but dreary in its monotony. Evan suggested they take his father out to the mall, have coffee perhaps. Marie said rather not, she didn’t go out much. It took Evan a while to establish that she hadn’t been to a public place at least a year, maybe much longer.
She filled a chair in the lounge, her head sunk between her shoulders. Her voice was small. “You know what people called me when I was a child? Pretty Marie. It was like my name, nobody ever just said Marie.” She patted her lips as if to silence herself. “I never want to see any of them again.”
Evan thought about that for a long time. He was glad he knew it and wished he didn’t. If they couldn’t go to the mall, he decided, they would go where nobody else would see her. He thought of discussing it with her, but decided against it. It would only give her more time to come up with excuses.
The next day, he put on jeans and a T-shirt as soon as Pauline’s car had disappeared around the corner. He packed the chilly bin with sandwiches and fruit, boiled eggs and meatballs. He put coffee in the thermos, milk and sugar in screw-top jars. He packed plastic plates and cups. Everything went into the boot of his car, along with a picnic blanket. Then he locked the front door behind him and pushed his father down the garden path, out along the pavement and up to Marie’s front door. He had never been to her house before. He rang the bell.
He heard her before he saw her shape through the frosted glass. She only opened the door at a slit. “Yes?”
“Come, we’re going on a picnic.”
The door didn’t open any wider.
“The weather’s still good. Who knows how many good days we’re going to have before winter sets in? And I thought my dad’s been at home all these weeks, maybe we should take him somewhere… go where there’s nobody else, just the three of us. And then we have a picnic.”
She looked at Evan, the man in the wheelchair, the sky. No believable excuse came to mind.
“I really need to get out and I can’t handle him alone. Please come. Please.”
She opened the door a bit. Evan could see a grandfather clock and a passage. “You’re not being entirely fair,” she said, already half turned away. “Give me a few minutes.”
“I’ll put my dad in the car so long.”
Evan put his father on the back seat behind the driver and strapped him in. The wheelchair went into the boot with the other stuff. He listened to the radio while he waited.
Eventually, Marie came out in a baby blue print dress and flat brown shoes like row boats. “I can’t sit in the front.”
“I want you to sit with me. He’s not going to be much company back there.” She had to move her seat back for the seatbelt to fit. Evan saw her bite her lip and shut her eyes. “We’re going to have fun,” he said. “You’ll see.”
They drove out west, to Titirangi and north along Scenic Drive to Muriwai. He had music on. They didn’t talk much. When they came to the parking lot by the beach, there was a camper van, but nobody to be seen. Evan got the stuff out of the boot. “I hope the weather holds.” It had clouded over. They strapped his father into the chair. She took the chilly bin and the blanket, he did the pushing. They found a firm strip of sand close to the water and it was easier to move the wheelchair than Evan had expected. “Shall we go further along?”
She had the blanket draped around her neck, the chilly bin in one hand and shoes in the other, her bare, broad feet in the sand. “I’m like a camel,” she said. “We can go as far as you like.”
They went on until Evan thought it would be unlikely for them to encounter anyone who might come to the beach later. Then he scrummed the wheelchair through the softer sand higher up the beach. It was hard going. He found it easier to turn his dad around and to pull instead of push. “This is good.” He parked the wheelchair and held his head next to his dad’s getting an idea of the view the old man had. “We can put the blanket here.”
They sat on it and watched the sea, at a loss now that there was no immediate need to do anything.
“I used to come out here with my parents,” Marie said.
“My father and I came fishing once or twice, when I was about ten. I don’t think he liked fishing.”
“I liked being with him.”
“My kids only come to see me at Christmas and such. My birthday.”
“I don’t know if I’ll ever have children. Pauline is very career oriented. Not me. I’m a… a failure, I guess.” He was surprised to hear the words he’d thought so often. How did they escape from his mouth?
“You’re too young to pass judgement on your life. There’s lots of time yet.”
“You’re one to talk, locking yourself in your home… It’s not like your life is over either.”
“Sadly.” She had been eyeing the chilly bin for a while and finally took a peek inside. “You’ve got lots of things in here.”
“I didn’t know what you’d like.”
“My favourite foods are those that fit into your mouth and those you can bite so it does.”
“Not fussy then.”
“God, do I look like I’m a fussy eater?”
“It’s okay to like food.”
She was being sarcastic, but he didn’t bite. “I don’t care what you do, you can eat all of that yourself and ask me to stop for takeout on the way home.”
She let the black sand trickle through her fingers, waiting for the topic to be lost against the backdrop of life. “We must watch that sand doesn’t blow into your father’s eyes.”
“I don’t think it’s windy enough for that.”
They fed the old man first, then they ate. Marie was obviously embarrassed to eat in front of others. Evan tried not to look at her and to make it clear that he didn’t. He watched the beach and the sea and clouds, the gulls that gathered nearby. She said she liked the meatballs, his mother’s recipe. They talked of this and that, exchanging observations about inconsequential things, pointing out features of the landscape and asking for help in identifying distant shapes, or sharing their preferences in food and films. Sometimes they were silent. Evan enjoyed that there was no pressure. Marie started to sing softly, in a startlingly beautiful voice. It was a song Evan had never heard before, or at least did not recognise. She sang it all the way through and stopped. It was a thing complete, tied off and let go to blow in the breeze.
Evan tipped out the last few drops of coffee on the sand. “I hope it doesn’t rain.”
They both looked at the clouds. “Maybe it would be best to head back.”
They packed up and Evan took the wheelchair. The tide had come in, covering the firm sand they had come on. “This is going to be difficult.” He turned the chair around and started pulling his father across the beach, the wheels cutting deep moats in the soft sand. It had been stupid to come so far, Evan realised. He might not be able to get his father all the way back. He struggled on. He was getting short of breath and heard his heartbeat in his ears. A few steps further, he slipped and fell. It occurred to him that this was the story of his life, all over again. He remained sitting on the sand.
He shrugged. His palms were red from the pressure on the handles. “Sometimes it feels like I’ve been lugging him around all my life. This weight of expectation, of history… all this humanity I have to drag along. It’s like an alien thing I can’t get rid of. It’s wearing me down and I wish I could be free.”
She knelt next to him. “Sounds like the way I feel about my body.” She fingered the bone-white handles of the wheelchair that stuck out behind the old man’s shoulders like the stumps of angel wings.
At that moment, an opening formed in the clouds, letting through a shaft of light that beamed down on a wave about to break, picking out the undulating line just as a fringe of foam was beginning to form on top. The surge of water was an uncanny green, streaked with ochre, translucent among the drab greys that surrounded it. It pulled itself to greatest height and toppled into white turmoil, rushing the beach all a-sputtering.
It was one of those precious moments when you could believe anything.
Evan looked at his father. “This would be a good time for you to get up and walk.”
They went around the front and watched at the man in the wheelchair as if that could really happen. He sat there, breathing evenly. His face was impassive. He may have been laughing, crying or oblivious.
After a while, Evan spoke. “I think it will be easier if I carry him.”
They loosened all the straps. He squatted in front of the wheelchair and Marie helped to tip the limp figure onto Evan’s back. He locked his hands beneath the old man’s behind and straightened his legs. His dad’s feet nearly dragged in the sand. Leaning forward, Evan started piggy-backing his father, staggering under the weight.
“Think you can make it?” Marie asked.
“I believe so,” he said. And he did.
Copyright Zirk van den Berg 2009