The Peacock Mosaic

The Visit


 
It is a hot Sunday afternoon. My little sister and I grumble as we climb into the back seat of my Dad’s VW station wagon. The car has been sitting in the sun with the windows wound up so we feel like we are stepping into an oven. The vinyl of the seat burns the back of my legs and the metal buckle on the seatbelt is too hot to touch. I can hear the incessant drone of the cicadas as I open the window and try to catch some breeze. It is a forty-minute drive through the suburbs of Newcastle to visit our great grandmother. We call her Nana.

‘Please Mum’, I whine ‘Can’t we go for a swim instead?’

My mother promises to take us for a swim in the ocean bathes after our visit if I promise to stop whingeing.

She then adds in an irritated tone ‘How would you like it if you were in a nursing home and nobody bothered to visit you?’

I brood silently, thinking to myself that I doubt Nana really cares if we visit her or not. I don’t think that she has any idea who we are.

Nana is in a room with three other ladies. The lady in the bed next to her is tied to the bed rails by her wrists. She writhes around making strange noises that frighten me. My mother sees my concern.

‘She’s ok darling. She is just tied to the bed to stop her from falling out.’
She doesn’t look ok to me.

My sister is doing a drawing for Nana, having spread out her pencils and paper on the linoleum floor. The room smells of disinfectant and baby powder.

My Great grandmother stares at me with vacant watery eyes. I am eleven years of age, she is ninety-four. She is the oldest person I have ever seen. I want her to live to be one hundred so she can get a telegram from the Queen.

I start awkwardly to tell her about some of the things I have been doing at school. I’ve been writing a family newspaper and have been voted class captain. She gives me no response.
My mother starts to tell us stories about how hard Nana has worked in her life.

‘She used to take in people’s washing and ironing, and of course there were no automatic washing machines in those days. After Nana had her babies, the midwife would sprinkle flour on the floor around the bed to try and catch her out if she had gotten up before she was supposed to.’

I imagine Nana’s footprints in the flour.

‘When your dad was a boy, he lived with Nana and his mum and brother and sister after his father had died.’

I know the story of how my grandfather had died in a TB hospital in Sydney and how it had taken Grandma three months to save the train fare for her little family to return to Newcastle and to Nana’s house.

‘They were so poor, your father had no shoes to wear to school. On hot days he would stand on the fig leaves that fell into the playground to avoid burning the soles of his feet on the asphalt.’

I stare at my beautiful white leather sandals with the silver buckle.

‘They all lived in that tiny one bedroom house in Islington, with a variety of Aunts, uncles, husbands, cousins.’

I think of old Auntie Aggie who last Christmas sat chain smoking and saying rude words with a voice like gravel, and how lucky I am not to live with her.
Then I have an idea.

I had learned a song in choir this week. It was old fashioned and I wonder if Nana might know it. I ask Mum if she thinks I should sing it to her.

My voice starts out small, but I grow in confidence.

‘After the ball is over, after the break of morn.
After the dancers leaving, after the stars are gone
‘.

After a couple of bars I hear Nana’s voice, and feel afraid that I have upset her as tears start to roll down her cheeks.

‘She isn’t sad darling’, says Mum, ‘she’s happy.’

Nana smiles at me across the vast abyss of timelessness and memory.
Together we sing and sing and sing.

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