A short story by Michael Burge.
MARILYN GOT THROUGH her childhood as quickly as she possibly could.
She mastered puberty by filling out her plain school uniform before she was a teenager, and inhabited the body of a middle-aged, overweight woman by the time she reached her twenty-first birthday.
Swapping school plaids for sterile nurses’ uniforms only meant Marilyn had more room to fill.
“The unveiling of her flesh was a physical pleasure she didn’t know how to enjoy.”
She maintained her weighty hourglass beneath a cotton waist belt, her figure diminished by the enormous regulation veils she starched religiously and spent more time on than the other girls and their hours of make-up.
Marilyn sterilised equipment twice as long as the other trainees, and never scowled when rostered on for back-to-back ‘Dirty Nurse’.
It was during one such marathon that Matron noted the size of Marilyn’s stout red hands as she carved paths of cleanliness throughout the wards.
Both women had been trained to polarise cleanliness and dirtiness. Matron simply recognised a sterile girl when she saw one, and knew she had little to teach Marilyn when it came to the simple rules of cleaning up after life’s messes, and doing it without fuss. Not with a minimum of fuss, but with absolutely none.
Even past twenty-one, Marilyn slept in the damp room at the end of the verandah in her parents’ house. Because it was only a five-minute walk from the hospital, she thought it unnecessary to pack her things and live in the new brick nurses’ quarters at the top of the hill, where there were always youths smoking against the end wall. They watched for signs of women returning home along the lit pathway from the main wards to the bright, stylishly designed flats, and Marilyn reported such loitering men every time she saw them.
Her parents were almost old enough to be her grandparents. Marilyn was a late, only child and it was the one thing Mum was really concerned about, although nursing proved a rather unexpected safety net to such worries.
Marilyn thrived on night duty. Home was down a quiet lane away from the main road out of town, where a stand of cypress insulated the crusted weatherboard house against the noise of trucks and the nearby school.
In under a week, she mastered the task of sleeping during the day.
Mum would have a mug of hot soup ready when Marilyn returned from work in the morning, and, by nine o’clock, when the world was on its way to school or work, Marilyn was already dozing underneath her satin-covered eiderdown, a small radiator element burning with a constant buzz only feet from her head, which she liked to be kept hot while she slept.
At three, she would wake naturally, turn sleepily away from the radiator to face the fading pony wallpaper, and have another half an hour of rest, rubbing her socked feet together under the sheets.
By five, she sat with Dad beside the fire and he told her the news of the day from his paper while Mum made their only significant meal.
The portions were small. Mum had kept them that way ever since she’d heard the other mothers making ‘fat-girl’ comments.
That was over a decade ago now, but the stringent portions had only shed weight off Mum and Dad, leaving Marilyn expanding into her uniforms and tracksuit pants, a mystery that Mum never solved.
Mum and Dad watched the news at seven and by eight were in bed. Marilyn was already helping both of them to walk, so that work, for her, really started at seven-thirty, getting her parents cleaned and their teeth brushed with a happy banter she used with older patients on the seniors’ ward up the road.
At five past eight, alone at the kitchen table, Marilyn would bite her nails and carve thin slices of cheese off the block Mum stashed in the fridge. If Mum asked about the disappearing cheese, or the missing leftover meat, or the squares of chocolate gone from the old butter tub in the bottom of the fridge, Marilyn had excuses which she swapped and changed to keep her mother off the track.
‘Maggie was hungry’ was usually enough to convince Mum. The little dog, on her last legs for years now, often scored titbits from all three of them.
The best excuse, however, were the Bethany kids who lived over the back fence. Marilyn often pretended she’d taken them a comfort hamper because she’d ‘spied a little one looking hungrily through the wire’.
Mum once mentioned these comfort hampers to Mrs Bethany when both women found themselves hanging clothes on the Hills Hoist on the same sunny morning. The questioning look on the younger woman’s face was so obtuse that Mum misread it for stupidity, and meant to tell Marilyn about it later on, but promptly forgot.
After eight-thirty, Marilyn watched television with the volume turned down so low that she learned to lipread without even knowing it. She especially loved game shows, and she would laugh out loud when any contestant or celebrity made smart comments and put down anyone being facetious or unpleasant. Marilyn would ape them at work whenever she had difficult patients and uncouth family members. The attitude, combined with the uniform, created an aura of unarguable authority around her.
At ten, Marilyn would bathe, filling the tiny bathroom with steam so heavy that she never saw her naked body fill the tiny mirror. She liked the water hot, and had permanent red scalds on her hips and arms from easing herself into the clear lava of her nightly bath.
The unveiling of her flesh was a physical pleasure she didn’t know how to enjoy. The brush of a towel across a nipple was a genuine pain. The lick of soap between legs was acknowledged like the unwelcome blade of a knife which slips when you’re chopping vegetables.
At ten-thirty, Marilyn corseted herself into a fresh uniform, listened for the breathing of both parents in the darkness by their door, locked the house from the cold verandah and strode up the road for an eleven o’clock start. If there were youths against the wall of the nurses’ quarters, she would acknowledge them by name.
‘Good evening, Nigel Parry,’ or, ‘I can see you, Michael Bridgeman.’ She took their sniggers as a sign of their pathetic caught-out embarrassment.
On the ward, Marilyn placed her black leather bag beside a cold upright locker, hung her bright red woollen cape on a hanger inside it, and scrubbed her hands in the hallway. She had already shamed the evening girls into such accurate handover reports that she need not even speak with them.
Simply looking at the duty list and the immature handwriting, which listed medications given and vital signs taken, was enough to bring a slow wince to her face.
An inspection of sleeping patients would take at least ninety minutes, more if there were corrections to be made to charts or a post-operative patient to check on.
Marilyn had no compunction in reaching out and closing a waking patient’s eyes with one hand as she lifted their stomach dressing with another to check for bleeding. Her face was taut with such silence as she did so, that the patients – fear mixed with anaesthetic – found it easier to say nothing while the nurse asserted herself on their bodies.
In the corridors, Marilyn refused conversation unless it was in response to a doctor’s request. If Matron asked for updates on an overnight car accident victim or other deaths to report to family members, Marilyn had a special file for these which she would place on Matron’s desk around six in the morning so that a meeting with the senior woman was guaranteed after Marilyn finished at seven. Those little meetings were the highlight of her day, and she did all she could to manage them.
She would greet Matron with a smile, not broad enough to suggest an easy night shift had just passed, but with enough flair to be considered a ‘trouper’ or a ‘stick’. Matron would usually offer Marilyn a coffee, brought by another nurse, quite often one who’d trained with Marilyn, now forced to see how much Matron favoured the hardworking and the devoted.
Matron was a paragon of duty, yet nothing baffled her more than the size of this excellent twenty-five-year-old nurse. If the weight got any worse she would say something. Other girls always scored a biscuit at a meeting with Matron, but never Marilyn.
If someone had died, Marilyn had invariably gone to school with them or someone they knew, or went to church with their cousin or ‘knew the family’, something Matron could not, since she was appointed from the larger hospital on the fringe of the city half a day’s drive away. It was Marilyn’s mission to make her a local at these regular morning meetings, which usually saw Marilyn home as late as eight or even eight-thirty, with something to tell Mum and Dad about. Dad would say he was sure his daughter would ‘have the great woman’s job one day, so the old battle-axe better look out!’
This routine went on long enough for the girls Marilyn trained with to drift off into sporadic maternity leave, which knocked many of them off the rosters and out of the flats, sometimes with more than a hint of scandal associated with one of the youths who gradually became ruddy-faced men.
The flats very quickly looked much less modish than they had been. The bricks suffered stains from the flat concrete roof and the creosote on the eaves, and eventually one half of the building was earmarked for demolition when ‘funds could be found’.
BY the time Marilyn had her own office, it was much like her bedroom – isolated at the end of a verandah and damp, since Maintenance never finished the guttering.
The office was a reward for attaining the position of Night Supervisor by the age of thirty, the youngest promotion of its kind in the hospital’s history.
There was no new uniform to expand into, only a chrome-plated badge which Marilyn ordered from the town jeweller and collected on her day off.
She was unprepared for the grizzly smile of the young man she’d been a year ahead of in school, who looked at her through the smoky glass of a recent refurbishment.
It was an unusual look which Marilyn did not recognise, and read as a slight retardation.
“Pam slapped both hands onto Marilyn’s leg in an innocent, jaunty motion which Marilyn recalled like a bolt of lightning.”
He fetched her badge, which had been sent away for engraving, and proudly held it up for Marilyn in his gloved hand. She checked the spelling, retrieved her purse, and curtly said: ‘Yes please’ to the plush velvet drawstring bag he proffered with his other hand.
‘You’ve done well,’ he said, ‘out of everyone we went to school with, you’ve done the best,’ he added, sniffing at the last minute, signalling that he didn’t much like taking on the family business that had been in town for sixty years.
Marilyn thought of something to say, but stifled it, then another thought popped into her head, and she left that alone too, game show-type retorts which she’d never used anywhere other than the hospital. All she could get out was: ‘Thank you, Brian Ward,’ as though naming him would thwart his unwelcome familiarity.
As she walked away he wondered how much arse any woman had a right to. Still, he thought, she’s more of a looker than Lynne. Lynne was his now ex-wife and the mother of their two children, who’d left for the city last weekend.
Mum had told Marilyn all about it, and she’d had it from Merle at the Bowling Club. Merle was Brian Ward’s godmother.
Driving home, Marilyn remembered what Brian’s look reminded her of. She put it right out of her mind, until at five past eight that evening it came back to her: the face of Pam Cooper, maybe ten years before, in the storeroom where they kept the cylinders of laughing gas.
While running her bath, Marilyn revived the tinny smell of the tanks as Pam handed them to her, only Pam was always slightly careless and had dropped one. It had fallen against a shelf, which twisted the tap and shot a spray of laughing gas over both of them.
Pam broke into giggles first, in disbelief more than anything. She’d fallen to her knees, knew to turn the tap off, but hadn’t quite managed. Marilyn had tutted, put her tanks down, and went to help. By the time she turned to Pam the other woman was collapsed over a pile of sterile linen, gripped with silent mirth.
Marilyn hadn’t meant to giggle too, but the gas dragged it out of her. She shook her head, trying to be free of it, but Pam slapped both hands onto Marilyn’s leg in an innocent, jaunty motion which Marilyn recalled like a bolt of lightning running through a feather.
The two women fell about for only a minute, but in that minute Marilyn was touched more than she’d ever been in her entire childhood.
As Pam gathered her wits and stood, Marilyn saw her breasts in the shadow of her collar, right through the join of her bra to the top of her stomach.
The sight haunted her now, as she slid into the bath.
Pam had three kids to a real estate agent. They’d visited because Mum had it from Coral at cards that Pam was ‘going to leave That Man’, and Marilyn had told Mum to tell Coral to tell Pam she was ‘welcome anytime with the kiddies.’
Marilyn had to stop the kids dipping their bikkies in their tea. She’d told them it was ‘bad for their toothie-pegs’, but they still did it. She’d held the little girl and Dad and Mum had a boy each on their knees, but the little lady didn’t like Marilyn’s broad, hard lap.
Pam hadn’t worked since leaving the ward. She’d swapped starched uniforms for an array of stylish polyester outfits purchased during the abundant early years of her marriage.
Marilyn couldn’t get to the wedding because she’d made sure she was rostered on for a double shift to avoid seeing Pam walking down the aisle with That Man.
Around their dinner table, Marilyn waited for news of when Pam was leaving him, but the slightest mention of ‘things’ brought a tear to Pam’s eye, and before Marilyn could go for a hug Mum jumped up with one of her ‘don’t you worry now love’ consolations and Dad had taken the boys out the back to the shed. Marilyn was left to watch the little girl, who insisted on pulling at Marilyn’s shoelaces, the way Maggie had when she was a puppy.
Only Maggie was long dead. Mum hadn’t even given a cuddle or a kiss when they put the little dog in the ground inside an old floral pillowslip.
Marilyn had nearly slapped Mum for taking away that chance to hug Pam. Her hands had been so close to both women, but nobody wanted them. Not even the little girl had wanted them.
That was years ago now. Pam hadn’t left That Man. Marilyn sometimes saw the station wagon parked at the supermarket, and caught glimpses of Pam between the aisles, but her jealousy over that stolen hug always prevented her from saying hello.
So Marilyn slid her head into the searing heat of the bathwater, peeling off the memories she was sure would dissipate in the chilled air long before she surfaced.
SHE was elected to the board of the new nursing home units being developed at the hospital. There was a fundraising ball which she avoided by pretending her mother was unwell, and when the paperwork included mention of That Man, now a fully-fledged property developer, Marilyn ensured his submission never saw its way to any meetings.
Funds were raised in excess of budget projections, enough to see the old nurses’ quarters demolished after years of languishing as storerooms once the provision of trainee accommodation was no longer required.
This allowed the extension of the planned nursing home to include the state’s first independent living units, each with its own garden, fronting onto the main road into town so that the oldies had no need to bother anyone to come and go, but someone was always there ‘if they got into any strife.’
Matron’s last function was turning the first sod as construction started on a stunning autumn morning. By the time the official photograph was displayed in the outpatient waiting room, Matron had departed for her Fijian holiday, two weeks of ‘Sun, Surf and Sand!’ booked through the local travel agency, the first year the town ever had one.
Marilyn snorted at the application forms which had been left on her desk, and dropped them with That Man’s development proposal behind her filing cabinet.
The Recruitment Officer, a new position filled by a thin man in an office next to the Matron’s, was simply not up-to-speed with the running of this hospital.
As she predicted, there were no applications for the job, and, in due course Marilyn was offered it by the board. Her only request (even though she’d been offered none) was that the Matron’s office be repainted.
She was sent a colour chart, and since she refused to respond to it, the walls ended up a mustardy colour left over when the Recruitment Office was adapted from an old private room the year before.
Her name appeared on the door in neat black letters.
She never took the time to notice that her old office, immediately upon her vacating it, became a storeroom which Maintenance earmarked as ‘damp’.
Within Marilyn’s first year as Matron, the nursing home was completed, nursing training was phased out and replaced by university courses in the city; the maternity ward was under threat of closure as a result of the Area Health Service’s creation by the state government; and Pam had applied for a job on the wards.
Dad had a lot to say about the Area Health Service. Marilyn let him rave on about it, and all the politicians on the news, even though he often forgot the Premier wasn’t Neville Wran now, because Dad got angry if you corrected him.
Marilyn fingered Pam’s application. There was a passport photograph on it. She had aged, but was still the girl with the laughing gas. Marilyn insisted on interviewing all applicants, despite the Recruitment Office sending around a memorandum that this wasn’t necessary.
Pam looked better in person, shook Marilyn’s hand vigorously, complimented her on the promotion, and admired the old Matron’s indoor plants. She wore a nice scent.
They caught up on news, and Marilyn let Pam tell her about her divorce and the custody battle even though Mum had it from Mavis at the Women’s Club, who’d had it from That Man’s mother, that he only wanted one of the boys but ended up losing custody of all three of them to Pam.
Marilyn made sure to smile at the up-to-date school photos. The boys looked like That Man but the little girl was Pam all over. Their teeth were good, but that must be the fluoride in the town water more than any warnings about bikkie-dipping.
Marilyn told Pam there was a job going as long as she was willing to start tomorrow as a casual, including night duty. She must have been desperate, because Pam accepted on the spot, which meant Pam’s mother from the city had disinherited her again and was not paying for any private school fees for the middle boy.
When Marilyn stood to call for a coffee, Pam hugged her suddenly.
‘It’s been hard,’ Pam said breathily.
Marilyn’s instant reaction was to push away, but her face was smothered in that scent, and all she could do was pat her flat hands against Pam’s arms while unconsciously looking inside the other woman’s handbag which had collapsed open on the chair, a few overdue bills on display.
Marilyn’s bath time was now eight o’clock. With no more night duty, arrangements had changed somewhat. Mum and Dad now watched the seven o’clock news in bed, meaning that the house was quiet by seven-thirty.
That night, with the scent imagined in her nostrils, Marilyn pulled Pam to her again so that the other woman’s body pressed against her breasts. In truth Marilyn imagined Pam relied on the breadth of her bust.
More than That Man could offer was Marilyn’s breathy mantra as she touched herself.
Before any pleasure could emerge, she stopped, sat up in the bath, and tutted as she saw water dripping onto the floor.
THE first Strange Fellow arrived in Emergency about six months later. He’d walked in, apparently, from the railway station, looking more like a sweaty wino than someone who was sick. Marilyn read the report of the Night Supervisor, a very young woman from interstate, and tried to decipher the shocking handwriting. There was no diagnosis recorded, and no report from the attending doctor. It was highly irregular.
Three days later the young man checked himself out and simply disappeared.
Marilyn wasn’t aware of the pattern until Dad mentioned something he’d seen on the television. She listened to him this once because he’d said a word with such animation that it echoed around the small kitchen. ‘Homo-sex-you-alitee,’ he said. ‘Why they even bother to talk about it I don’t know.’
Mum chimed in that Sonya from the CWA had it from Beryl in the high school office that one of the teachers was a ‘well known homo-sex-you-al’ and no-one knew what to do about it.
The next day Marilyn looked through the files and found there had been five Strange Fellows admitted within the last few months.
Two of them had died on the ward and three had been released, undiagnosed, within a week. She’d seen at least three of them. She’d helped to lay out the body of one, and tried to contact his family in the absence of any details in his personal belongings. The matter had been referred to the local police to resolve and Marilyn had never heard the outcome.
There was also a brochure, which she had to fish out from behind her filing cabinet. On the front was a man riding a horse, his face a skull, and he carried a scythe. On the top it read ‘The FACTS – AIDS is God’s way of ridding the world of Homosexuals’. It had been left under her office door, like many things were, overnight.
There were quotes from the Bible. Even though she hadn’t been to church since Dad stopped going in 1970, Marilyn remembered some of the words, and the angry face of the Minister, a man that Mum loved as much as she loved Dad, if you believed everything she said about him.
Marilyn left the brochure in the bin outside her door where it could be seen, and wrote to the Area Health Service for more information.
Before she got a reply, eight more Strange Fellows were admitted. She heard two university nurses gossiping about it in the new staff lunch courtyard (created when her old office was demolished). She told the girls off. One of them had the gall to say: ‘But they’re infectious,’ before Marilyn calmly told the girl to come and see her at the end of her shift.
The girl never turned up. The Recruitment Office sent a memorandum informing Marilyn that she had resigned.
The next morning, Marilyn attended the doctors on their rounds, politely replacing the ward nurse by asking her to ‘special’ Mrs. Dillinger while the old lady started what was to be her last day.
Doctor Devine nodded to her and matter-of-factly went about his business in the way Marilyn had trained all the doctors to communicate with her nurses.
One of the Strange Fellows was in the third room, the curtains drawn around him on all sides. Devine lowered his tone while he checked the man’s vitals, and inspected a large purple lesion on his neck. The man was in obvious pain. Devine did not cope well with obvious pain. He usually managed a smile if there was hidden pain, one of those disarming, Mediterranean smiles which made everyone else smile too.
But not today. He muttered about an increase in morphine, monitored hourly, and greeted Mr. Daytona in the next bed with a broad ‘good-morning.’
Marilyn stayed behind the curtain with the Strange Fellow. His arm had slipped from his side and she tucked it up into the sheets and nestled his head properly in the pillow. He roused from the painkillers enough for her to see his blue eyes, young blue eyes and a shock of blonde hair above the limp frame that was like Dad’s when Marilyn helped him onto the commode.
On the bedside table there was a card trimmed in pink tinsel and a single, fading rose in a Vegemite jar.
The blue eyes were lost to recognition, but Marilyn looked into them nevertheless. She pushed the hair to the side and patted the jaw near the lesion, but not close enough to make more pain.
When the letter came from the Area Health Service Marilyn called a staff meeting. It was a bright day, so at the last minute she rescheduled to the staff courtyard, leaving only two nurses on the wards for thirty minutes.
When they had gathered, the great gossipy crowd of them, Marilyn walked from the garden into their midst. In the sudden silence she spoke.
‘We will treat these men like they are suffering any communicable disease. Remember your malaria training, those of you who have been malaria trained, and use universal precautions for that. If anyone has any concerns with my directive, then I will accept your resignation before the start of your next shift, effective immediately.’
She addressed maintenance on their afternoon tea break, with a simple request that was to be completed before the end of the week: the conversion of the now unused third operating theatre into a special ward for patients selected by Matron. Any queries would need to be directed to her, otherwise work was to commence that day.
The next month, a Strange Fellow died in that room with his family at his side. His sister came to see Marilyn afterwards. They were staying at the motel on the road out of town, and she wanted to thank Marilyn before they left.
‘We heard you weren’t turning people away …’
‘No dear,’ Marilyn said, ‘we don’t ever turn people away.’
When Mona from the supermarket had this from Beryl at the hospital canteen, neither lady declared they would be telling Marilyn’s mother if they saw her at the Bowling Club fundraiser.
THE interstate Night Supervisor resigned that year, and to her surprise Marilyn saw Pam’s application on her desk and signalled to the Recruitment Office that if there were no other internal applications then the position would be offered without external advertising.
She’d seen little of Pam, but knew this new job meant the daughter was also destined for the expensive private school. Pam had been a permanent on night duty for three years now, the pros and cons of which they discussed the few times they crossed paths. Marilyn always took the lead in these conversations, letting the other woman know that night duty was not a career dead-end or a soft option. Marilyn certainly avoided ever being touched again.
She found the funds for a new office for Pam a few doors down from her own, with similar black letters for her name on the door. Annoyingly, the company who made the letters didn’t make exactly the same ones anymore.
Dad got lost the next year. When Marilyn came home Mum was frantic on the verandah and they both got in the car even though Mum was in her dressing gown. They found him down by the river trying to open his bowels under the bridge, crying because he couldn’t. For the first five minutes he didn’t know them, and Marilyn saw the look on Mum’s face in the rear vision mirror, a mixture of love and horror, with Dad’s sobbing head in her arms.
She taught Mum how to change his incontinence pads and give him the fig paste to keep him regular. The pads came from the supply in the nursing home, and Marilyn justified it by reminding herself that she’d been her parents’ sole carer for many years now, and she knew how much money that was saving the Area Health Service. Plenty more than the cost of a bag of incontinence pads every week or two.
Strangely it was Mum who went first, in her sleep. Marilyn didn’t find out until after work and Dad was rambling about the house looking for a feed with Mum dead in the bed, having passed while doing up one of her shoes.
Marilyn called the undertakers, not the ambulance. She knew what was needed, and not to waste resources. Mum’s body was cold, beyond laying-out. No chance to make her nice with a clean towel rolled-up under her chin. She held Dad away as he questioned why these men were taking a large black bag across the kitchen on a trolley, full of his wife of fifty years.
One of the undertakers told one of the wardsmen at Emergency that ‘there was shit all over that house, from the front door to the bedroom.’
Until Dad went, Marilyn didn’t grieve for either of them. There seemed no need while Dad kept searching for Mum as though she really was still alive and just on her way home to him. Marilyn believed it too some days. She’d stopped putting him to bed and just locked him in the kitchen with the oven turned off at the circuit, thinking Mum’ll take care of him.
Luckily, before autumn was over, he suffered a lethal stroke sitting up in a chair at the table.
Marilyn had two days off.
Pam had the news from one of the night girls. To their unspoken shame they’d missed the mother’s funeral because no-one knew she’d gone until well afterwards. Marilyn hadn’t said anything, after all.
There was no mention in the paper, and the funeral parlour said they couldn’t give out any personal information. ‘The only family member has requested no funeral,’ was all they said.
Pam thought about it before going to work that night. It must be tomorrow, because the roster said Matron would be in late.
Heading to the cafeteria for a coffee at four in the morning, Pam let herself into Marilyn’s office. The room was brutally empty. In the half light, Pam spotted the one photograph on Marilyn’s desk, her Mum and Dad, with Pam’s two boys on their knees, all smiling.
Pam collected three of the girls at nine and they headed for the cemetery with takeaway coffees, laughing about staking-out a funeral.
The day was one of those squally days bringing in the winter, and the damp red leaves of maple trees flecked across dark gravestones.
After thirty minutes, during which they listed everyone they knew who was buried in there, the hearse finally arrived followed by a noble-looking funeral car. These girls, all now pushing fifty, pulled their shawls and scarves over their heads and walked in a phalanx towards the car. One of the funeral men met them half way, his arms outstretched, trying to explain before he opened his mouth: ‘She won’t let us take the coffin out until you leave.’
‘Can I see her?’ Pam asked, exhaling a thin anger.
He shook his head. ‘It’s what she wants.’
They shrugged, and retreated. Marilyn watched them go, her cheeks burning from crying, until the stupid orange car had turned back onto the main road into town.
They put Dad next to Mum and Marilyn stood for an hour after the grader did its work, before the man came to tell her they had to use the car for another funeral.
THE road out of town was widened over a ridiculously long period for the next three years, and the old hospital sign was replaced with a new one that no-one could read, all slate and corrugated iron.
The jeweller Brian Ward was killed by a truck on the highway as he was walking back to his car with a jerry can of fuel from the new service station.
Marilyn laid-out his tubby little body and after spotting the gold wedding band, rang the wife who was now living in the city. Lynne remembered Marilyn, and said she’d tell the kids, who were all out of university by now, a lawyer and two teachers, ‘not the least bit interested’ in coming back to the town of their birth, or their father’s funeral, Marilyn suspected.
She had the house repainted, during which the workmen found a box of magazines in the wall of Dad’s shed when they patched it. They laughed at the mouldy old muscle-man porno, and left them for Marilyn to find months later when she tried to clear some things out for the op-shop.
She pushed them back under Dad’s work bench, meaning to deal with them on garbage night.
Things were moving on the new ward at the hospital, joined to the Edwardian building with a state-of-the-art covered concrete bridge over the road into the hospital grounds. There were meetings to attend and sometimes she saw Pam, who was also on the board of the nursing home and fundraising for the blood bank.
One morning, on arriving in her office, an envelope greeted her written by hand. The contents yielded no evidence of the writer, but said, simply: ‘There is nonsense going on here at night and if nothing is done I am going to report the people involved to the Area Health Service.’
Marilyn got herself a coffee first, then phoned Pam’s office to ask her to pop in before leaving, ‘today, please.’
She showed Pam the letter the minute she came in.
‘It doesn’t make any sense,’ Pam said, totally innocent. ‘What do they think is ‘going on’?’
‘Perhaps you need to see if your staff are happy?’ Marilyn suggested.
‘I will,’ Pam said, shrugging, ‘but I can’t think what it could be.’
The next morning there was another note, reading: ‘It’s disgusting and something should be done about it’. Marilyn called Pam at home, apologising for waking her up, but alerting her to the new situation.
‘How are things?’ Marilyn asked.
‘The kids are all well,’ Pam recounted. The boys were both in the city, and the little girl had only a year or two left at school. Pam sounded distant. ‘I have done some asking around, but no-one’s saying anything.’
Marilyn attended work that night at about midnight. Fooled into her route from the old days, she found herself unconsciously seeking out her old office, but the new entrance to the hospital was on the other side.
Just as she decided to go back, the sight of people inside through the plate glass of the new ward mesmerised her. Here and there, moving between rooms, were staff going about their business. Some patients were awake in the light of televisions. Nowhere was there anyone unhappy or a sign of discord, only a hospital quiet and functioning as it should.
Then she spotted Pam, walking across the enclosed concrete bridge, then running, then moving her arms and a ball left her grip. Across the way another nurse hit the ball with something like a bat. Distant laughter, girlie laughter.
They dispersed. Marilyn tutted. Then she saw Pam again, not bowling now but walking at pace, checking on rooms. The hallways ran on and on and Pam travelled quickly along them.
Marilyn knew the look of someone being furtive. Pam turned a corner, disappeared for a moment against the dark lunch room, then appeared again under a light, checking to see if she was being followed. Marilyn assumed she was about to keep walking, but she turned back towards the lunch room and didn’t reappear.
Marilyn’s mouth was dry and she could smell laughing gas.
She started running without knowing, back towards the entrance, rose thorns dragging across her fat stockinged legs. Then she realised that if she were to get around the other side and into the hospital and back along that corridor to the dark lunch room, Pam would already have shown her breasts and it would be over.
In her bedroom at the end of the verandah, Marilyn rubbed herself for an hour before she climaxed for the first time in her entire life, hitting her head hard on the headboard as images of Pam swirled in her vision and the wet between her legs spread to her hand.
‘If you want to know the truth,’ Pam said the next day. ‘I’ve been letting two young staff work on their uni assignments while they’re on the ward. It doesn’t happen every night, and I keep a careful eye on it.’
Despite her explanation a third note came the next week, followed the next day by Pam’s resignation.
Marilyn grappled invisibly when she read the letter. Pam’s office was already empty. The Recruitment Office had already processed a request for final pays. Marilyn repeatedly looked up Pam’s number until she knew it by heart. She rang once and when the daughter answered, Marilyn hung up.
Pam must have gotten a new car because she never saw the orange station wagon these days.
Marilyn drove down the street where she thought they lived, but there was no sign. She’d gotten the house wrong, or the street, or both. Pam had never invited her over and the Pay Office would not release any details.
MARILYN joined the Quota Club but stopped going after three meetings. She’d never heard such nonsense and the older women looked at her with a kind of indifferent sympathy. The younger women were too young to know who she was, and when one assumed she was new in town, Marilyn pretended to go to the bathroom and never went back.
The Recruitment Officer had his leaving party, annoyingly, during the afternoon, and it spilled out into the hallway outside Marilyn’s door. There were balloons and streamers and someone brought her in some cake. Towards the end of her shift, he popped his head in.
‘Must be something in the cordial,’ he slurred, ‘but I just wanted to tell you, Matron … Marilyn. I wanted to tell you how much we all appreciated that you didn’t, you know, turn anyone away when the crisis was taking off.’
Marilyn protested with her body, but he persisted: ‘You were one in a million Marilyn. We owe you a lot, and we’ll never forget you.’
He was almost cross-eyed, but she could finally see what had always bothered her: the shiny hair, the pursed lips, the swagger.
She simply smiled and nodded, until his drunkenness drew him back into the corridor where the music was blaring and people were laughing.
When she left she had to pass through the bedraggled remnants of the party. He saw her leaving and waved with a knowing nod. She froze her face and disappeared.
She took a week off the next January and went to the city. Dad had always talked about the Australian Museum and the fossils.
She paid the money for the bus trip and booked a hotel, right on Hyde Park, and, after catching a taxi to the Museum, was piqued to see it was only across the park, and blamed the taxi driver.
She couldn’t find the fossils but saw the skeleton of a man sitting in a chair with one of a dog sitting next to him, and thought of Dad and Maggie, but couldn’t let the feelings out and had a hot chocolate in the cafeteria.
Some kiddies pointed at her and she lip-read them saying: ‘Look at that fat lady.’
SOMETIME that year one of the older nurses was talking about Pam. She’d had surgery in the city. They’d found cancer. Chemotherapy. Marilyn asked Devine what he knew, even though it’s ‘not usual to request such information’. He did not smile, said she had two months, was going to die at home.
Marilyn couldn’t ring.
The morning of Pam’s funeral she sent a bouquet of flowers. White freesias and lavender, specially requested. The exquisite bouquet sat only metres from Pam’s coffin.
Retirement meant a party, and Marilyn could think of no way to avoid it. She endured with cups of cordial, and people endured by only coming for twenty minutes then excusing themselves back to the wards, since if anyone would understand that, it was Matron.
There was a letter from the board and the Area Health Service, which spelled her name incorrectly, which was repeated on her last cheque so she couldn’t bank it for weeks until it was sorted out.
THE next year, Marilyn went back to the hospital for the annual fête, and, as she passed from the white elephant stall towards the chocolate wheel, two young people spoke her name.
‘We’re Pam’s kids,’ the boy and girl said, probably the middle boy. Both tall, like That Man.
‘Oh yes?’ she said, freezing over.
‘How are you, Aunty Marilyn?’ the girl said, a vision of her mother.
‘Well,’ Marilyn said, turning away.
The chocolate wheel was not in its usual place by the rose garden. She’d say that was why she excused herself and moved away so quickly, if anyone asked.
TWO years later, Marilyn found herself in a ward of the new hospital on the fringe of the city.
She’d felt wobbly digging weeds out of the front lawn and a neighbour drove her into emergency after finding her slumped against the fence.
‘Don’t be ridiculous,’ she said in the blur of nurses’ hands and arms over her on the gurney as she was thrust into the ambulance.
She waited for her surgery for over forty-eight hours, during which she managed to clean the four-bed room with paper towel from the nurses’ station in the hallway, pulling her intravenous drip along on its trolley behind her.
She straightened the charts at the foot of each bed, and checked the vital signs of an older woman opposite.
Two hours later, as Marilyn predicted from the weak and intermittent pulse, Mrs Crabbe died. Her body was discovered when the morning nurse came on duty.
As Marilyn was wheeled into theatre, an Asian nurse with a clipboard asked her: ‘Please tell me what procedure you having done today?’
Marilyn was so shocked by the question she could only indicate her stomach with a vague wave of her hand.
The nurse nodded to the orderlies and signed the form for her.
As she lost consciousness, Marilyn noticed there was dust on the chains of the fluorescent lights above the operating table.
HER hands felt for the drainage bag at her side. Nearly full. Very little feeling in her toes.
Bowel cancer, she guessed.
For a day afterwards, she felt the pain, sending out its threads into her body from her belly.
The face of the familiar Asian nurse came and went and then came no more. Marilyn was sure she heard the other nurses referring to her as Butterfly, but that couldn’t be right.
She must have been asleep when the doctor came to see her on his rounds the first time.
The next morning she heard him pass the end of her bed and speak to another patient. When Marilyn tried to speak, Butterfly descended and started sponging her face.
That afternoon, they wheeled her into a private room at the end of the corridor, the sharp light startling her so that she had to shut her eyes.
She slept a little before dinner, wondering if she was still nil-by-mouth. Her arms had become so numb she couldn’t feel for the drip on the back of her hand. She would ask someone about that.
Surely she shouldn’t be so sleepy?
The anaesthetic must have been too strong. She’d ask the doctor if perhaps she’d been given too much, and shut her eyes against the feelings rumbling up from inside.
In her will, Marilyn left instructions for her burial in the plot with her parents. The arrangement had been made so long beforehand that it predated a new council regulation about plot numbers, and space could not be found anywhere near them.
Knowing there would be money in the estate (the house was already on the market), the funeral director asked for special permission to bury Marilyn on top of both her parents.
Mrs. Bethany, who still lived by herself behind Marilyn’s house, had it from Colleen Bradman at cards, whose son worked for the excavation company with the cemetery contract, that for a brief moment, as they lowered Marilyn’s coffin, it seemed about to break through the smaller ones below.
‘Make it quick,’ the funeral director had apparently said, as he locked eyes with the digger operator.
© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.