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Dreaming of India

Margaret Barbalet

Nicola had walked the dog too far and it was now late afternoon. Sun everywhere but at an unknown angle.  Her mother’s dog, an old spaniel, was fading, the sloppy untrimmed paws paddling next to her.   The city, Adelaide spread out below her, a mass of cubist roof and walls and jumbled garages to the sea, her side just one side of what she could see.  To her right the hills rose up like mounds on a plate, green olives, pale grey: Dorrit, she thought to herself.   She was on the edge of a city that seemed to stretch forever north up to the bare plains of Modbury then Salisbury and further north, Elizabeth, Gawler, Clare.   To the south, through Morphett Vale, Christies Beach, then Aldinga, Myponga, Willunga, Yankalilla, the old indigenous names that chipped and clanged like bells, like gamelan, the lion-like hills, with their generous pale brown curves that rimmed Taringa, what the tourist brochures now called the wine coast.

To the west, the suburbs spread out like small white blocks dropped on the floor of a playpen, all the way to the sea, out past the flatness that became the airport, the escape route from the place,  even now a sharp white glimmer that hurt the eyes. But this was at least a city she knew, or she thought she knew.

After all what could change here: she was born here, she came away and came back and every time she did it was the same and not the same, more built-up, more fat chic houses, the colour of sun-dried bones, more doomed Small Box hedges around sharp new houses with garages where once sitting rooms had been, a space for 4WDs where once people had chatted, cars so big you had to had to clamber up into their seats using your arms above your head, hands curved to grip the bar like an ape.  The driver’s seats were so high, she mused, you’d never see a toddler on the drive until it was under the wheels. The front of these houses had rows of tiny plants. Neat as a pin.

Nothing out of place. But come back after a year, as she often had, or now, several times a year (her mother now in a nursing home) and these new front gardens would be a mess: two plants dead out of a line of ten, unnoticed stick men, weeds where the nature strip had been. The gardens came with the new little houses.  Plonked down, no one noticed the Small Box shrubs might need water. Perhaps, she thought idly, they don’t notice, either, when they are dead.  Water was expensive now and rationed.

She was staying on now.  Taking the dog into the nursing home to see her mother brought her mother’s rare bright smile, a smile that lit up her dark blue eyes, making that ancient face beautiful.   Nothing else could bring that smile, nothing she herself did.

The dog was panting at her feet, so tired she now slumped to the ground, paws outstretched.

‘Alright,’ she whispered, ‘we’ll catch a bus’.  When it came she waved her Senior Card and settled at the front. She wasn’t sure the dog had ever been on a bus before, but obediently the old tan and white body hopped up the steps with weary enthusiasm. The dog looked pleased, and she made sure the leash was tight and the dog almost unnoticed under the seat. She sat right at the front. It was warm.

She must have been asleep.  In the dream they were in India and her mother was full of delight. It was almost dark.  The empty bus was traveling but she had no idea where she was.  She pressed the red button and hopped off at the next stop.  She would have to walk to clear her head.  She would have to re-orientate herself and walk home.

The day her mother entered the nursing home she wore a suit, a smart slightly dated outfit of jacket and trousers. Frail and thin, on her the suit looked elegant.  She was beautiful and her clothes had always suited her.   Nicola and her oldest brother, who at least helped, had told her she was only going into Respite Care. In her heart Nicola hoped it would be respite: a bit of a break to allow her to rest.   What a weird word respite was the second syllable spat out like the venom it was.  What her mother thought she could not imagine.  When her father had died at almost ninety,  three years ago, everyone had said Your mother will have to go into care now.  But they did not know her mother.

At the back door under the carport they had helped her out of her wheelchair into the front seat and her brother carefully strapped her in.  She carefully put her mother’s suitcase into the boot. Her mother was not wearing any of her rings or jewelry. They all knew that it would be stolen as it always was, even in the best places. This was the nursing home where several of her mother’s contemporaries had ended their days, the best in Adelaide everyone said with large pleasant rooms, views, ensuites and space.

A little way into the car journey her mother who could no longer speak began moaning.

‘What’s wrong?’

‘Ah ah ah.’ The sounds became worse. One hand pulled at the safety belt.

‘She doesn’t want to go.’ She whispered.

‘Nonsense!’  Her brother pulled over to the left and turned off the engine.

‘Arn't brea…,'

Her brother got out and opened her mother’s door and adjusted the seat so it was half way to reclining.  She smiled at him.

‘She just couldn’t breathe,’ he said crossly over his shoulder to his sister and started the engine.

She flinched in her seat: he is finding it as hard as I am.

They settled her mother into a big room with a view of the gardens and the leafy street beyond. She kissed her mother  and left.  Her brother had an appointment in the city, he said, and needed to drive in that direction.

‘I’ll walk,’ she volunteered.  It was uphill and would take the best part of two hours.

She set off in a vaguely north east direction back towards her mother’s leafy suburb on the foothills of the city. The day was calm and sunny, perfect spring weather for Adelaide.  She had left her mother in the best possible room in the best possible nursing home in the state.  But did her mother know that?  What did her mother think?  She had never known that:  just that the smile, that burst of blue light with stars, was not for her.   Walking a short way across an oval out on the flat green, the sky higher than ever above her, Nicola realised she was crying.  They had done it: her mother was in care.  She headed uphill.

But it had not been Respite.  Her mother was still there, going downhill slowly.

Nicola, dutiful daughter, the only daughter, visited every day.  Her mother had asked her not to come more than once a day, disliking devotion.

Nicola had learnt to avoid the late afternoon.  Last week, a niece had brought her mother an armful of Lupins.   Her mother had smiled with intense delight at the bolt of blue, a roll of indigo.

Getting there after lunch, Nicola smiled and her mother had waved her hand at the tall vase that held the Lupins and frowned, making a cross face.  Nicola understood instantly that the water needed changing.  She set about it: arranging flowers was part of knowing how to behave.  When her aunt, her mother’s sister, retired she had been given a book about Ikebana, the Japanese art of arranging flowers. That aunt had entered her own flowers in competitions held on North Terrace. Her mother’s voice in a heat wave rang in her head: ‘Plunge them in, up to their necks’.  Roses, the heat, the water, the shade.  She had refreshed the water in the tall vase, and her mother had relaxed with satisfaction and waved her hand approvingly.  But it was not a smile.  They settled together. She complimented her mother on her smart blouse: the colour suited her.

The staff knocked and surged in at 3.15.

‘Time to change, Mary.’

Her mother protested, making inarticulate sounds and tapping her wrist watch.  The two staff turned away, pulling out her mother’s pyjamas from the cupboard.  Outside the sun beat down it was late October and light would last for another five hours.  Standing up Nicola had made her way to the door.  Her mother cried out.

Nicola walked to the end of the long corridor pretending she couldn’t hear.  Visitors were not allowed in the room while patients were changed or showered. She had asked her mother in the first week if she wanted her to complain. Her mother looked at her directly and muttered,  ‘No, only make it worse.’

When she went back into the room her mother was tucked up in bed beneath the covers.  She waved her hand defeated, and Nicola left.

Now, two months later, with the dog padding at her side on the long way home after falling asleep on the bus, she realised they would be going past the nursing home on the way up the hill.   Without thinking Nicola set off across the road and in through the big gates, past the wisteria-covered pergolas over benches where no one ever sat, past the rows of knife-like irises.  She knew the codes and pushed open the heavy main door and turned right towards the lifts.  No one was about. From the dining room came the low chatter of dinner.  Her mother had eaten there once, but now ate alone: her advancing MS meant food fell out of her mouth.  How could anyone bear that?   From the other side of the hall came the familiar bedlam of the locked dementia ward. They were supposed to be worse at dusk weren't they. The alarm bell was also ringing which meant, she had learnt,  that someone was dying or on the way, and all staff would be bolting towards that room.

The dog seemed to like the lift, settling at her feet. She had brought him in before and he adored her mother so perhaps he was remembering.

Three doors down the corridor was her mother’s room and she pushed open the door. Her mother was sitting up in bed, almost dozing even though the light was on and the television blaring on the wall opposite.  Her mother started and sat up, looking surprised.

Without thinking, without stopping, knowing it was madness Nicola lifted the dog onto her mother’s bed knowing it wasn’t allowed, knowing and not caring that it was after visiting hours.  Her mother beamed at the dog and then up at her, that special smile that lit up the dark blue of her eyes, stars in the evening gloom.   The dog was equally delighted, licking her mother’s hand, feathery tail wagging. Her mother patted the dog who settled tired, next to her, his head on her bony legs.

She left them to it.

A bus arrived outside on the main road soon after she arrived at the stop and she climbed on and  mumbled knowing the driver wouldn’t hear.

‘India please.’

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