Tag Archives: Aged Care

All the Worst Jobs

A short story by Michael Burge.

JESSIE WANTED TO paint, but she was going to start another load of laundry first.

The day was sunny enough for line drying, and as she soaked in the warm light that belted through the kitchen window, the phone rang.

“Now you’re to tell me everything about yourself. We’ve showered together, so we must know more about each other, to catch up with the intimacy.”

She watched it vibrate, counted the fourth and the fifth rings. One more and the call would connect to the answering machine. She’d hear Helen’s voice saying they can’t get to the phone right now, and she could put on the last load of washing and find her paintbrushes.

But she picked up the phone. ‘Hello,’ the voice said, ‘is Jessica there?’

‘Yes, it’s Jessie speaking.’ It was Terry, dammit.

‘Can you do a shift for me today?’ he said, launching into his shit. Jessie let him speak, picturing the calendar on their kitchen wall, clear of any handwritten scrawl to tell her there was something she had to do more than take another shift.

‘You’ve been to Mrs. Brooks’ before?’ Terry asked.

‘No, I don’t think so,’ Jessie said.

‘She’s fairly memorable. Needs help with a shower, and lunch. I’ve had three carers call in sick today. People are waiting for their showers all over town!’

Jessie could feel the washing machine on spin cycle in the distance. It always shook the house.

‘Okay,’ she said.

‘Great, I’ll text you the address. Get there quickly, okay? I’ll put it on your timesheet.’

‘Is there anything I need to know?’ Jessie asked, but he was gone.

Ten minutes later, she’d put another load of clothes on, slipped a dirty green polo shirt over her head, hung out the washing and was driving up the hill.

The address was slightly wrong. She ended up at the neighbour’s, where a middle-aged woman pointed Jessie across her front yard. Between two magnolia trees was Mrs. Brooks’ side door.

‘She won’t mind if you go in that way,’ the neighbour said, a little white dog at her feet. ‘I often pop in there in the afternoon, just in case she needs something. Say hello to her and tell her I’ll be over later.’

The magnolias were magnificently in flower, candles of fleshy petals reaching up to glimpses of sun through other bare trees. The neighbour watched Jessie, and gave her a little wave of encouragement towards the entrance in the shadows of the house.

She knocked on the wooden frame, but the door was ajar. Inside was dark and the silence gave way to a fluttering sound, like the sputtering of toy car engine. As her eyes adjusted, Jessie saw she was in a dining room, leading on to a bar. One of those Seventies home fantasies, a sunken lounge showing from between brick pillars.

As she moved into the half light, the fluttering grew louder. On the bar she saw the plastic medication cases and the little generator on the floor, a green hose leading up the hallway and into a room from which light spilled onto the brown shag-pile carpet.

Jessie took two steps and someone said: ‘Mind the hose, darlink. Don’t tread on it, will you?’

‘Mrs. Brooks?

‘Yes darlink, come in, but mind the hose, won’t you?’

Jessie trod either side of the snaking line, all the way into the light, where a small woman sat among pillows piled up behind her in a great pyramid, the hose leading up the bed to her face.

Mrs. Brooks looked at Jessie for a moment, adjusting her eyesight.

‘Belinda is ill today? What’s wrong with her?’ the old woman asked.

‘Oh, I don’t know, Mrs. Brooks. They don’t tell us,’ Jessie replied.

‘She’s probably taken her daughter to see that specialist. I told her not to do it, but she doesn’t listen to what I have to say. The girl has pimples. All girls have pimples, am I right? We don’t all have to see specialists about it, do we? We just need to watch how many sweeties we have, am I right?’

‘Yes, Mrs. Brooks.’

‘Call me Baba, please. What is your name, darlink?’


That made Baba frown. She reached for a scrap of paper by her phone, which sat at the edge of the floral bedspread, and wrangled a pair of spectacles.

‘They told me your name is Jessica. Jessie is a boy’s name, am I wrong?’

‘I’ve been Jessie since I was a kid,’ Jessie said.

The old woman tutted. ‘Let me see you, come into the light. Take my hand.’

Jessie was compliant. Baba took her hands, one frail and one with a strong grip, and through her glasses looked deep into Jessie’s eyes.

The older woman’s skin was like tracing paper. Behind thick spectacles, her eyes shot forward with the extreme magnification, pupils darting left and right.

‘You’re only a girl,’ Baba announced. ‘Want to see what I look like?’ she asked, frail hand dropping away and indicating a large framed photograph on the wall by the door. In it, a vibrant woman smiled. She’d been caught in the middle of laughing, eyes glinting and great sweeps of hair falling about her shoulders. In the background, out of focus, Jessie could make out the bar in the other room, glasses and bottles creating a blur of  reflections and shadows behind the woman.

‘Hard to believe, no?’ Baba said, letting Jessie go and sinking back into the cushions. Jessie didn’t answer. She went for the green folder she saw poking out from under a pile of magazines.

‘Leave that!’ Baba spat. ‘Always it’s the folder, the folder!

‘I need to check your care plan.’

‘Forget it! Belinda hasn’t looked at that for six months. That man, that Terry, he always gets it out and talks, talks, talks about the care plan. I need you to call for some lunch, and go collect it. There’s a menu down here. Get me that and forget about the damned care plan!’

‘Yes, Mrs. Brooks,’ Jessie responded, in the manner she’d been trained to.

‘Do I offend you?’

‘No Mrs. Brooks.’

‘Then why do you call me that, when I have already asked you to call me Baba?’

‘Sorry, Baba.’

‘The name my grandchildren call me. I allow you to call me that, and straight away it’s “Mrs. Brooks” again.’

‘Sorry Baba. Where is the menu?’

‘Oh here, down here somewhere. Throw that away!’ she was pointing to the green folder.

Jessie pushed the folder into the narrow space by the bed. A pile of laminated menus spilled out of the jumble.

‘Chinese today,’ Baba said, reaching for one, ‘and you must choose something for yourself.’

‘Oh, I can have my lunch at home.’

‘You don’t like to eat with me, even when I am paying?’

‘Well, we are not supposed-’

‘Terry won’t find out. What do you want?’

The old woman passed Jessie the menu, slowly turning her shrivelled arm as she pushed the cracked plastic across the gap between them. Jessie saw the red and gold dragons, coiled on either side.

Baba’s upturned wrist slid into view, where six numbers were tattooed in an efficient row, slightly raised off the milky whiteness of the taut underarm skin.

As Jessie looked from the numbers into the old woman’s face, Baba was nodding. Nodding for her to choose a meal, or nodding to say, you’ve seen it, yes?

Baba withdrew her arm, bringing its weakness back into the protection of her other hand, faded thumb brushing the concealed numbers, as she said: ‘I want the black bean sauce.’

‘THERE can’t be many of them left,’ Helen said later that night, as they were wrapped around one another in front of the news. ‘She must have been very young, in the concentration camp. Maybe she went there as a child?’

‘Maybe,’ Jessie said.

‘So, do you get that shift every week now?’ Helen asked, with a push behind the question.

Jessie stiffened, smiled, and turned to her girlfriend. ‘I don’t know. It’s up to Terry. It’s always up to Terry.’

‘Have you asked him?’ Helen pushed again.

‘Not yet,’ Jessie answered, wriggling away and going to make the tea. Helen took the rest of the space on the sofa, and as Jessie disappeared into their tiny kitchen, Helen yelled: ‘Two sugars darl,’ but Jessie was still in the door frame, watching Helen flick the channel over to one of those current affairs shows.

‘SHE’S punishing Belinda, for having a day off,’ Terry said on the phone the next morning, ‘and she’s asked for you again …’

Jessie let out a sigh, was about to speak, then sighed again. ‘Belinda’s going to hate me,’ she said after a moment.

‘She’ll be relieved, more than anything, to have another day off, I should think … (put that file on top and get the rest of them out) … sorry Jessica, we’re having some problems here. Can you go again today?’

Jessie scrunched up her mouth, chewed her lip, and said yes.

‘TODAY, I need to clean myself,’ Baba said, and Jessie nodded. At last, something she knew how to do.

‘Don’t tangle the hose, will you?’ Baba demanded, as Jessie helped her stand by the bed, smelling the fear on the other woman, who guarded her lifeline with her one strong arm.

‘Now Baba,’ Jessie asked, ‘how much help do you need in there?’

‘Stay in with me, darlink,’ Baba breathed heavily as they negotiated their way into the ensuite.

As she lowered the older woman into the waiting plastic chair, Baba clutched at Jessie’s arms, only letting go as the warm water coursed over her frame, exhaling with pleasure as she tilted her head back.

‘Wonderful,’ Baba kept saying, swaying her head under the stream, using all her strength to keep her body upright.

Jessie started on her feet and legs, and Baba allowed her to gently clean down there. At the thighs, the one strong hand wrenched the soap from Jessie’s and Baba growled: ‘Look away.’

Jessie waited, getting her knees wet, until Baba said: ‘Please do the back of my neck and finish with my hair.’

The scents of soap, shampoo and moisturiser revived them from their watery struggle. Jessie held a mirror so that Baba could do her own hair, and the steam and toiletries softened her eyes enough for Jessie to see the real woman for the first time, within the glow of cleanliness and comfort.

After a slower journey back to the bed, after which Jessie ran a hand along the hose line, Baba smiled and said: ‘Good girl, my thanks to you,’ and rested back into the pillows. ‘Belinda has gotten into bad habits with the showers. That was wonderful.’

‘Good, Baba.’

‘It’s ugly to be old, no?’

‘Oh …’ Jessie left it hanging.

‘Now you’re to tell me everything about yourself. We’ve showered together, so we must know more about each other, to catch up with the intimacy, no?’

‘Yes, Baba.’

‘You have a ring. What is your husband’s name?’

Jessie was prepared for it, and had already looked away, but straight into Baba’s eyes in the photo, which were even more searching. The moistness in the air left her, and she swallowed.


Baba inhaled, was about to speak, but swallowed it.

‘I would like a cup of tea and an egg,’ she said instead.

Jessie nodded, and followed the hose to the kitchen.

By the time the egg was done there was music coming from Baba’s room. Jessie put the meal onto a tray, selected from a stack on a beautiful chiffonier loaded with family photographs. Children. Grandchildren. Husband. Family get-togethers. Baba was the centre of the energy in all of them, drawing everyone to her side, always exhaling with laughter.

The classical music beckoned her back. Baba was upright in bed, leafing through a magazine, and sniffed at the breakfast.

‘Perfect, thank you darlink,’ she said, indicating that Jessie should also sit.

‘I have gotten rid of my husband,’ Baba announced, between mouthfuls, ‘are you shocked?’

Jessie smiled. She’d been thinking about painting when she got home.

‘They’ve taken him away, and now I have this house to myself for the first time ever, but, as luck would have it, I cannot use it as I wish,’ and she flicked the green hose.

‘My neighbour thinks I am off to the nursing home too,’ Baba added, indicating the woman next door with a dismissive wave, ‘but I am going to stay as long as I can. I’ve heard her, talking to my son. She thinks he likes her. Women like him. He’s very good looking. Did you see the photographs? Do you think he is good looking?’

‘Yes, Baba.’

‘But you are camp, no?’

‘Ye-es …’

‘He must be very good looking, if a camp woman thinks he is good looking, no?’

‘I suppose so, Baba.’

‘Camp is not really the right word, is it? But I cannot think of the right word. The word for a camp woman?’

Baba chewed and Jessie span her thumbs around each other.

‘You might have told me, before we showered together. But I’ve decided to like you, you should know. Now tell me what it is you do? None of you girls are really nurses, so what do you do when you’re not showering old women?’

‘I am an artist,’ Jessie said, in the usual tone, positive but not sure.

‘I am an artist also,’ Baba said, with real delight, ‘you see that one behind you? That is one of mine.’

Jessie turned to look at it. A young woman, head to one side in a pale yellow dress. Not looking at the viewer, but over your shoulder. Over hers, a window and a forest.

‘My sister,’ Baba said, slurping tea.

‘It’s beautiful,’ Jessie said, immediately drawn to the brave tracts of paint that told the story of that face. Much of the rest of the image was hastily sketched, as though the speed was designed to capture some distant impression before it disappeared forever.

‘Killed at eighteen. I did it from memory. Ilse was already weak when the train arrived, but I was strong. I carried her body as far as I could. They took her from me, before we went into the showers …’

When Jessie turned back, Baba was playing with the shells of her egg, moving them around the plate. She was lit from the side, like the girl in the picture, eyes glistening.

‘You can have the picture, when I go,’ she said, pushing the tray away.

‘BUTCH,’ Helen blurted from the bathroom, ‘didn’t you think of saying that?’

Of course, Jessie thought.

‘And she’s what? German Jew, or Austrian?’

‘I didn’t ask.’

‘So did Terry say if you’d get that shift from now on?’

Helen’s tone was wheedling. Jess watched her through the frosted glass of the bathroom door, shirt lifting above her full, round thighs.

‘Darl? Did Terry say-’

‘No,’ Jessie said, interrupting, ‘but I’m getting more shifts next month.’

‘Fucking straight boy. Can’t he just sort it out so that you get the shifts they said you were supposed to get when you started? We’re trying to pay a mortgage here …’

I know, Jessie thought, drifting into the living room.

When Helen caught up with her, she slipped her arms around Jessie’s sides and hugged her. ‘Jess, my girl,’ she whispered, kissing the back of Jessie’s neck and swaying her from side to side.

Jessie put her arms over her head and reached for the short hairs on Helen’s neck, running her fingers along one of her favourite places.

‘All we gotta do is get you regular shifts, and I can take you away for a dirty weekend, can’t I?’ Helen whispered.

‘Yeah,’ Jessie said, with the vague hope it could be true.

‘SHE’S asked for you again,’ Terry mumbled, the sound of filing drawers scraping open in the background.

‘What about Belinda?’

‘Belinda’s a permanent. I can reassign. Mrs. Brooks is going into a nursing home as soon as a place can be found. It would just be temporary. Okay with that?’

‘Okay,’ Jessie said, ‘and-’, but he was gone.

Baba was twisted in her sheets with the blind down when Jessie arrived.

‘Did you see the television in the garage?’ Baba croaked, voice hoarse, wiping her eyes as Jessie filled the room with light.

‘No, what’s happened?’

“I didn’t want to make a fuss. Worse things have happened in this world. Much worse.”

‘The police left at five and I have not slept. Thought he could steal my television! Hah! Crept in here, after two. I woke. I can hear a bird land, in my sleep. I knew there was someone in the house. He trod on the hose, all the way up the hallway, and I pulled this,’ she brandished her metal walking stick, still lying across the bed, ‘and turned the light on when I could hear him breathing in the doorway, and I screamed at him that I would kill him if he didn’t go straight away.’

She was shaking the stick, just like she’d done for the police.

‘Dropped the television in the garage. I know who it is. It’s one of Belinda’s nephews, I am sure of it. He knew exactly where to come, and which door to use, and what to look for. She doesn’t have much money, none of them do. Poor people always covet what others have, and I don’t have much. If they’d only asked me I would have given it to them. They didn’t have to come creeping around a poor old woman’s house in the dark. I might have killed him.’

‘I should call Terry,’ Jessie said, remembering her training.

‘Don’t bother him, he’s a busy man. The police have been. She called them,’ Baba said, pointing to the neighbours, ‘I didn’t want to make a fuss. Worse things have happened in this world. Much worse.’

‘A report will need to be made, Baba, that’s all.’

‘No!’ and it was final. ‘Now dear, I need some real food. She’s been bringing me the most dreadful cups of tea from her filthy kitchen. Make me a cup of mine, please. I’ve spent the night shouting. My voice is gone’. She drew on the oxygen like a suckling child, eyes wide.

With tea inside her, Baba went for the menus. She ordered three kinds of rice, and butter chicken.

They ate in silence, Baba coating the insides of her mouth with every mouthful, the excitement of ordering draining from her face.

‘Every day, I taste less and less,’ she said, dejected, ‘I used to make Indian food. Better than this … nonsense,’ she threw the fork away with a clunk. ‘Now, tell me what you paint, Jessica?’

Jessie’s face warmed with the attention. ‘Just about everything,’ she said, ‘but not much lately. More when I was young.’

‘But you are still a child,’ Baba said, patting the bedspread. ‘What do you like to paint?’

‘Well, it sounds weird, but I paint people on the train, when I go to the city. I like to paint them when they don’t realise I am looking at them.’

Baba leant back with a long sigh: ‘Ah, yes. Candid. Mysterious. The real person, no?’


‘And you have not done this for many years. You have given it up because you have lost your faith. You have become a woman and you have no confidence in yourself. You have married, or at least given yourself to someone. To this … Helen, and she does not understand that an artist needs to find herself.’

‘Yes,’ Jessie whispered.

‘That was how it went with me and my first husband. Hermann thought he knew everything there was to know about me, until I gave him the slip in Paris. The look on his face,’ Baba said, laughing, ‘when I came back to get my Mother’s photographs! Like a rabbit who thinks it’s a fox. He avoided the camps. Never understood them. He found another woman,’ she shrugged, dismissing the vision of the man forming in Jessie’s mind.

‘Tell me, do you ever think of taking a man? Don’t you ever have any normal feelings?’

Jessie stiffened. She realised her mouth was open, drinking in what Baba had been saying. Now everything was washing out of her again.

‘I’ll clean up,’ she said. She left without saying goodbye. There was nothing in the care plan that said she had to.

‘HOW many shifts am I going to get, Terry? I want you to tell me now and I am going to write them into my diary,’ Jessie said to him across the desk.

‘Um … let me look, Jessica. You’ve been a casual for how long?’ Terry said, fumbling.

‘Six months. I trained with Belinda, and she got regular shifts after three.’

‘Right …’ he trailed off, flicking a pen on the edge of the desk between them. ‘Let me have a quick chat to Barb. Help yourself to a coffee and a bikkie,’ he said, disappearing.

The office sported yellow walls with bright blue trim around the doors, desperate little attempts at nicety in a building squeezed between a funeral home and a brothel by the railway station.

Jessie walked between the tiny offices. One woman on the phone gave her a wave with her little finger, and a younger woman on the computer in the room near the kitchenette gave Jessie a guilty, then a haughty look, before getting back to the pretence of being busy.

The coffee was instant, a tin of it as large as the urn, which had been steaming away unnoticed since lunch. The mugs were yellow with blue flowers. Blue and yellow was the theme of the whole place, denied by the brown brick of the main wall. Jessie made a cup of tea, bags so weak that the milk turned the whole thing hot and pale.

Outside, there was a smokers’ spot in the stairwell. Jessie’s arrival sent the pigeons flapping up to where one of the sex workers was emptying the bins into a skip. She was beautiful. Asian. She waved at Jessie after swearing at herself for missing the bin with a big white plastic bag. Jessie waved back.

‘Thought you might be out here,’ Terry announced, bringing a file under one arm. Jessie offered him a cigarette. He held his hand up like a stop sign, but his eyes went into the pack and had them counted in an instant. He licked his lips and looked at her.

‘I’ll get straight to the point,’ he said, ‘it’s good in a sense that we’re out here, because I can be candid with you. I took your case up with Barb,’ he flicked his hand over his balding head, sweeping the strands of hair back in place, ‘and we talked about you, at length.’

Jessie dragged on her cigarette, looking away. She knew the tone.

She’d heard it ever since high school, from teachers; from Dad, from Mum, from her older brother; from the matron of the training hospital she left after only a month; from the woman at the dole office; from the TAFE college counsellor; from the boss at the gas company she spent eight months with; from the crew leader on the roadwork stint she worked at for over a year; and now it was coming from Terry.

‘You know we’ve been planning to move into more basic client care, transport to and from the shops, or a doctor’s appointment, or just meal preparation and socialisation, etcetera?’

She nodded, watching the brothel windows. The Asian woman was cleaning the inside with a tin of spray and a pink cloth.

‘Well, we feel that you’d be more suited to that kind of work than anything else. Barb looked up your training records, and she saw that you scored the highest in those learning modules. You’re obviously good at it, so if you were willing to wait until we’ve landed some clients in that area, then you’d be the first one we’d be calling up to work.’

He almost convinced himself, and she gave him the moment, gave him hope that she’d say yes, while she stubbed out her cigarette on the brown tiles at their feet.

Then she looked at him, the same look that had labelled her as ‘vacant’ by people in a similar position to Terry, but was just the face of a woman who knew a job had, yet again, been taken from her.

Thinking she didn’t understand, he continued, pitching his voice lower, and speaking slowly.

‘There is some concern about your suitability for personal care with some of our clients. The showering. The dressing. You know what I mean. Most of our clients are women, elderly women of a certain generation. For them, to be helped to shower is an act of great intimacy, you learned that in your training?’

Jessie nodded.

‘What about your male clients?’ she said.

‘Well,’ he said, offended, ‘we hope to be getting more later in the year, but right now, in your area, there are only female clients available for our casuals. I’ll send Belinda to see to Mrs Brooks tomorrow.’

‘Okay Terry,’ Jessie surrendered, ‘catch you …’

‘She’s off to a nursing home soon, so no doubt Belinda will be keen to wish her well on her way,’ Terry said to her back.

But Jessie was already gone. He watched her go, then caught sight of the Asian girl, now trying to clean the outside of the windows, and just making them worse, in his opinion.

JESSIE unconsciously fingered the corners of the new pad of paper she’d bought at the art shop on the way from the office to the railway station.

Inside the first leaf was her sketch of three women sitting at the other end of the carriage on the journey home. Jessie still had the marks of the ochre pastels on her fingertips, and on the edges of her pants pocket.

When Helen got home last night, dinner wasn’t on and Jess was clearing the garage. She’d unpacked all her boxes that had been under the house ever since she’d been living by herself last year.

She knew Helen would be cross but not able to show it, and she knew if she rustled up cheese on toast, Helen would relax with a beer in front of the news and ask no questions, and Jessie had been right.

The morning sun filled one end of the garage with warm potential.

The washing machine was on spin, and would be finished in a few minutes, then Jessie would hang the clothes out and get to Baba’s by nine.

For now, she breathed evenly in the dusty light, rubbing her hand down the door frame. Helen had showered and gone long before.

They’d smiled and kissed on the threshold, and Helen had forgotten to check if the neighbours were watching.

‘TERRY told me Belinda is coming back today, darlink,’ Baba said, lifting herself against the pillows, a little confused at seeing Jessie so early.

‘He must have made a mistake,’ Jessie said, wrangling the oxygen hose.

‘Always making mistakes,’ Baba tutted.

Jessie pulled a face and nodded in agreement.

‘At least you’re early. My son is coming today,’ Baba announced. ‘I want to shower, because he hates smells in the house,’ she added, reaching for Jessie’s arm and launching herself upward.

As she did, Baba noticed the smudges of ochre on Jessie’s hand.

With her angular thumb, Baba drew the last of the pigment across the taught skin of Jessie’s palm, looked into the younger woman’s eyes, and emitted a low chuckle that began as a tremble deep in her frail trunk.

‘Ah-ha, it begins,’ Baba said, wagging a finger, her face stretching into a smile.

And so, they started their silent water dance.

‘Belinda will be back on Monday,’ Jessie assured, as Baba covered herself from neck to knee with towels. Three days ago she’d only covered her waist.

‘I’ll be long gone,’ Baba said, lifting her shoulders impishly as the water started to course over her.

Jessie watched her in the reflection of the mirror, but as the steam rose it made Baba disappear.

It was not an unfitting transition, but Jessie needed more.

As she helped with Baba’s feet, she noted the shapes of the toes, the kinks that gravity had worn into the old woman, and the way her bones still allowed a waist and bust of sorts, but only the barest of both.

As she helped Baba dry her face and hair, Jessie was drinking in composition and form: the Teutonic facial structure, the signs of deep betrayal in the jawline, the traces of pain around the eyes, the pride still visible in the nose, and the coquettish locks of hair, some still black as night, others faded like the last of a summer’s day, soft as haze.

Jessie held the mirror, but knelt on the floor so that she could catch the head from another angle, a portraiture technique she’d teach one day, but didn’t realise in that moment.

‘Do my hands, child,’ Baba whispered, shaking one flexible limb towards the bottle of moisturiser.

Jessie clasped the old woman’s hands between hers, the balm soothing them both.

It was cold, and Baba giggled at the sensation, which quickly gave way to warmth. Jessie worked their fingers together, dragging them back and forward, the whiteness of the balm disappearing until there was nothing between them.

Baba’s head rested on the back of the chair, a rolled white towel supporting her neck, her jaw dropped in deep relaxation.

Jessie turned their hands over to rest palms up in the light. Without thinking, she wiped a dollop of moisturiser that had escaped on Baba’s upper arm, and slid it across the tattooed numbers.

Baba didn’t flinch.

9780645270525‘Helen told me there were lesbians taken to Auschwitz too,’ Jessie whispered.

‘I know, darlink,’ Baba said softly, ‘but we didn’t talk to them. They did all the worst jobs.’

From Closet His, Closet Hers: Collected stories.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

I’m a day job superhero

keep-calm-and-don-t-quit-your-dayjobA Writer’s other resume.

I’VE been writing full-time for six years, but I don’t think I’ve ever actually told anyone I am a writer.

The jobs of wordsmith – writing, rewriting, editing, selling, waiting – have occupied so much of my time that I have gone through two (diminishing) eyesight diagnoses. If I was a Hipster using a real typewriter, by now I’d have RSI…

But what I do carry is a certain amount of shame about my vocation.

“All-you-can-eat free popcorn is not a great deal after all.”

I know exactly why this is. Firstly, I have not had any of my major works published or performed (yet). Secondly, I still suffer from the illusion that it’s one’s day job – that which you get paid for – that is the only acceptable answer to that most difficult of questions for anyone who has not chosen a safe career: “So, what do you do?”

I worked on a print floor in my last year of school, and waited tables to put myself through university, but I don’t count these as real ‘day jobs’.

Day jobs are those employment periods you undertake to survive while keeping dreams alive. The Queen of day-jobbers was New York writer Helene Hanff, who floated her writing on the greatest number of day jobs I’ve ever encountered in a creative.

I’m proud of my day jobs. They’ve saved me from hunger and homelessness, and given me great inspiration for writing.

So, here it is – my ‘other curriculum vitae’ – another way to look at what I’ve done with my life.

Male applicants considered

When I moved to London a friend lined me up with her employment agency, who leapt at the chance to have a man on her books. I only managed to type 36 words a minute (40 was the minimum), so was sent to walk the halls of HarperCollins publishing in west London as a mail trolley boy. Most annoying moment: being so close to real publishers on a daily basis, but having nothing to submit. Career defining moment: deciding I was meant to start writing seriously.

Catering experience essential

If you can’t get a traineeship with the BBC, and you weren’t in the Cambridge Footlights, you can still have a career in London entertainment if you start as a post-production runner. Like ‘sandwich artist’ is designed to net desperate creatives, so ‘post-production runner’ entraps desperate media wannabes… it’s basically catering for the fabulous people. Most annoying moment: not having enough ciabatta to serve lunch to a hungry media maven. Career defining moment: resigning in order to find a job making programs instead of catering for them.

The misunderstood usher in Edward Hopper's 'New York Movie'.
CINEMA LEGEND The misunderstood usher in Edward Hopper’s ‘New York Movie’.

Good screen presence preferred

Ushering is the staple income of performers – it’s so close to the stage and the screen you can smell it, yet it’s far enough away to keep you driven to find your break wherever you can take it. South of the Thames in the genteel village of Greenwich I took to ticket collecting and didn’t look back. Most annoying moment: realising all-you-can-eat free popcorn is not a great deal after all. Career defining moment: seeing movies so many times I came to understand they’re full of the kind of mistakes media students routinely get shamed for.

Vegetarians need not apply

I came home from England, came out, and landed in career no-man’s-land. When the applications went nowhere, I went to the local Coles supermarket to work in the delicatessen. Refreshing the grey surface of trays of liver has never been as exciting. Warning for shoppers: deli staff give you nick-names based on your lip-licking, hungry-eyed facial expressions. Most annoying moment: having to hide in the cool room to avoid my high school classmates and teachers. Career defining moment: my Food Handling and Hygiene Certificate.

Willing to travel

It got me out of liver and shaved ham, but the travel industry was undiscovered country of its own. Daily struggles with brochure sorting, accounting systems, and fakey-fake customer service saw me come undone about the time I was let go because they only needed someone to cover the pre-Christmas rush. Most annoying moment: having to remind the boss that giving discount deals only to straight people was actually illegal. Career defining moment: seeing the new girl with the Ivana Trump hairdo go to lunch and never come back.

Mature outlook a positive

Suddenly widowed at 34, career dreams down the toilet, I joined the ranks of return-to-work mums and the recently redundant, caring for older people living in their own homes. Most annoying moment: when I realised the system was so stacked against many older people there’s almost nothing you can do to really help them. Career defining moment: it’ll come to me one day.

Good night vision a plus

Taking punters’ tickets at the door, playing with sound and light in enormous accoustically-perfect caverns, telling stories with drama and comedy, and often getting a round of applause… well, cave guiding was a distracting day job and fitness program in one. Most annoying moment: the petty jealousies and power trips of the public service… can’t pick one. Career defining moment: fooling entire Ghost Tour groups into believing we were completely lost.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

Care, incorporated

Waiting for a real helping hand (Photo: Chalmers Butterfield).
WAITING & WATCHING for a real helping hand (Photo: Chalmers Butterfield).

A Writer’s next day job.

BY the time I felt ready to work again after the death of my partner, I was drawn to an industry which seemed at first glance to be all about offering an old-fashioned helping hand. While I took time away from writing, acting and designing, I accepted a job as a carer for older people living in their homes.

Across four years, what I discovered was life enlarging and shocking, and, of course, I eventually wrote about it. This article was published by Australian Ageing Agenda (Intermedia) In their March-April 2010 edition.

Reflections of a carer

Former carer, Michael Burge, highlights the unintended consequences of government-funded community aged care.

Dan* lives alone in a cottage with a stunning garden. To his neighbours he’s like thousands of elderly men, gardening and feeding the birds. But Dan lives with a secret – he’s in the advanced stages of Alzheimer’s disease. That kind young man who used to call in and see him once a day was not his son, but me, when I worked for a church-owned community aged care organisation.

It took a few days to realise Dan has dementia but I guessed after we had the same conversation three times in a row. When I visited Dan, I would make his lunch and prompt him to dress. Apart from weekend visits from his retired daughter, who’d ask me for care tips, Dan was on his own.

I also cleaned for Ken and Betty, a war veteran and his wife. Ken had problems walking and was permanently catheterised, not that you would have known. As Betty was worried about losing him to a nursing home, she tried to hide all outward signs of his conditions from me.

Cameron lived with his son. Fond of telling me how many properties he owned, he bragged about securing maximum care at budget prices, since his son worked in the health system. Despite family support and excellent health, Cameron felt totally entitled.

Beryl had a degenerative joint condition, yet she handled the stairs on our weekly shopping trips with a mountain climber’s courage. I got used to the frowns from passers-by who saw a carer forcing her, rather than a woman choosing to participate in her own rehabilitation.

Klaus lived in squalor on booze and chocolate while his meals-on-wheels dinners went off in the hallway. He refused to get out of bed when I said I wasn’t permitted to take him to the bottle shop. This got him off out books and back into ‘no man’s land’.

WAITING AND WATCHING (Photo: Ahmet Demirel).
WAITING & WATCHING for solutions to home care (Photo: Ahmet Demirel).

Exposing the gaps

Carers are not there to judge, we’re there to do what our clients cannot. Trained in the practice of ‘person centred care’, we won’t do up a client’s buttons if they can still do it for themselves. Interfering might lead to ‘learned helplessness’.

Filled with such euphemisms for an old-fashioned helping hand, home care is touted as the ideal in aged care. Millions of taxpayer and private sector dollars are pumped into this growth industry every year, and the demand is only growing.

Expectations of home care are very high. It looks good on paper – after all, it’s about nurturing people facing one of life’s most challenging periods. But after working in home care for four years, I came to realise it’s just a safety net, and it’s full of holes.

So many older people are estranged from their families, or have outlived them and most of their friends. If you believed everything older Australians say about their baby-boomer children, you’d end up confused over which generation was the more demanding, but it’s clear someone is capitalising on this lack of intergenerational care within families.

Carers are deemed competent in infection control, manual handling and occupational health and safety. After warnings about old vacuum cleaners and hand washing, they do a couple of buddy shifts with experienced carers, then work relatively unsupervised in the field. Nurses are dubious of carer’s skills, yet they are turning away from aged care citing low pay and demanding conditions.

Department of Veteran’s Affairs (DVA) clients get the most support, but they’re coded according to where they (or their spouses) served, in addition to having their needs assessed. This sometimes leaves the impression that some DVA clients are not getting enough care, whereas others seem to receive more than they need.

Experiencing the consequences

There can be few things more important than the care of people, but governments have a habit of throwing money at home care and regulating the system from a distance.

Operating from a charitable, benevolent or customer service standpoint, home care organisations fill the gap by providing broad safety nets in highly populated areas. These nets are stretched between middle and senior management, padded with charitable status tax-breaks and strung out by government funding.

Clients are netted at very vulnerable times. After a traumatic experience, such as a hospital stay because of a broken limb, they are contracted into the system. Many home care organisations eventually stream clients into their own residential care facilities.

I was recruited into a home care organisation at a vulnerable time in my life after the sudden death of my partner. Return-to-work mums were my most common colleagues. We were often full of doubt about our abilities and found it hard to get the promised hours out of our supervisors. They usually gave us just enough to keep us off the unemployment statistics but not enough to pay all our expenses.

After a promotion into the training department, I could see how the supervisor’s hands were tied by a system with a high number of needy, casual staff delivering minimal care hours to the maximum number of clients. It was also obvious that satisfying government regulation drew heavily on available funds.

Carers were commonly sent to new clients without knowing they had dementia and without the appropriate training to provide effective care. Clients were routinely kept in the dark about which day and time their carers were coming, unable to contact their service coordinator. The time supervisors spent with clients was regularly reduced by management, allowing important care needs to be overlooked.

Whatever reasons management had for this, the result always pushed the clients further from the centre of the care process, and contributed to an extremely high staff turnover. The hypocrisy of my employer not sharing its broad tax relief with employees was startling and I too eventually resigned.

NOT WAITING “Old age ain’t no place for sissies” said Bette Davis (1908-1989) (Photo: Alan Light).

An alternative approach

If the choice was up to me, I’d provide incentives for families to care for their own relatives, and pay Dan’s daughter for the one hour a day he needs. I’d cease planning which care facility I wanted to stream Ken into and I’d support Betty to care for him. I’d means test the system to filter out Cameron. I’d allow Klaus’s carer to take him to the bottle shop. I’d clarify the system which seems to define care needs based on service history for DVA clients. I’d aim for changes to free up resources for people who have limited funds and no family, like Beryl. I’d also make caring a real career option for employees.

Despite the fact that I am a fully trained and there are a plethora of aged care positions in the paper, I’ve chosen to work in a different industry since I left my previous employer. Aged care doesn’t offer an unconditional helping hand anymore. If it could, then the safety net might truly catch people.

*All names have been changed.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

This article appears in Michael’s eBook Creating Waves: Critical takes on culture and politics.