It is Tuesday, Blue Day, and the world is shrinking. What does the hole in the ozone layer matter when my arteries are blocking up and springing leaks all over the place? I am rotating slowly with the earth, suspended in an aged care vacuum, and waiting to die. Seventy-six years have drifted past and now it’s over except for actual breathing.
I am already entombed in these four walls. Three of them are beige, one is glass, placed so that I can survey the world I used to live in. I have always hated beige. Beige is the absence of real colour. It is the default of the colour-blind, a flat, can’t-be-bothered beige. This then is the diminishing reality of me. Two doorways gape into the outside world, occasionally disgorging something interesting.
Shelly brings in my breakfast tray. Bang. She puts it on the wheeled table then shoves the whole lot in my direction. The tepid coffee slops onto the toast plate. I’ve been here a week and the toast has been drowned every day. I wonder if she does this to everyone, or just me. I am getting paranoid too.
“There ya go, love,” she says, without noticing the soggy toast. “Enjoy.” I do not answer her, at least not aloud. I have come to realise that giving my voice to this withered world merely acknowledges its reality. If I acknowledge it then I must do something about it, so I am silent.
In my real life, I would shower before eating breakfast, but now I am on a Shower List – the morning lottery between nurses, and bathing is no longer a choice, just a chore to be put off for as long as possible.
It is a sign of the universal atrophy around me that I am excited by the arrival of breakfast. Meals punctuate the day, providing a brief relief from the weight of my breath. I survey the tray: coffee, porridge, toast and scrambled eggs, all between lukewarm and cold. Alas, the orange juice is again in the left top corner of the tray, well beyond the flabby flop of my left hand. No Vitamin C today.
I have been struck down, bisected – and am now left with a sentient, proactive Right and a blubbery, unwilling Left. Perhaps I exist as some sort of bizarre political statement? Or simply payment to the piper who smoked for thirty years with delusions of immortality? Most of the time, the Left no longer exists for me in this world. I glance down to check upon its continued passive presence, foetal, lap-curled.
With my right hand, I raise the cup to my lips, pursed to receive the milky brew. They do not think we should have too much caffeine. Perhaps they think there is a risk of dancing or other manic behaviour. I used to have a keen sense of humour but that has been struck down too, faded into the beige.
My teeth mock me from their glass across the room, and I do not eat. No one should ingest that violent shade of yellow, or lap at that soggy texture. Not eating makes me feel powerful. Safe. Besides, nourishing this shell is akin to speaking from it. Without encouragement reality fades.
“C’mon, pet, eat up!” My morning nurse Naomi fills the doorway, falsely, gratingly jolly. “You’ll fade away to nothing, you skinny thing!”
There is a loud crash next door, the sound of cutlery hitting a wall. This is followed by cursing. Naomi disappears.
“Take this god-awful slop away, woman! I wouldn’t feed this crap to a dog!”
My neighbour is Oscar, known as Ocky. I’ve seen him wheel past my open door several times. These glimpses tell me that he was once a strapping lad, as my mother would say, but is now just another husk on wheels, flesh and sinew whittled by age. But this one has some juice left in him, by the sound of his voice. Cranky old coot. I feel some envy.
As he quiets, I become aware of lowered voices outside my door.
“… not adjusting well to her move into care …”
“… depression, not eating … psychiatrist?”
“Not yet …. Let’s give her another week to at least try to speak. There’s no organic reason why she can’t …”
“How about trying Claire?”
Who is Claire? They think I am deaf now too. The registered nurse on duty comes in, gaily brandishing a tiny plastic cup full of pills.
“How are we this morning, Mrs. Barton?”
We? Are they suggesting that I have Multiple Personality Disorder now? I do not meet her eyes.
“Here you go, love.”
I am definitely not your love.
The drug cup is put in my hand. Obediently, I lift, tip, and pouch the pills in my right cheek. She does not stay to watch me swallow – it does not occur to her that I am smart enough to disobey. My right hand retrieves the wet pills and buries them in the yellow mess masquerading as eggs. I hope they don’t feed the leftovers to the cat.
* * *
“Stroke the bird’s tail!” called Claire. “Don’t yank its tail feathers out, Mrs. Thompson!”
It is later, post-Shower, and I have discovered that Claire is the Diversional Therapist here. She is an excitable young woman, perhaps in her thirties, with a hyperactive enthusiasm which almost compensates for the pervading apathy.
A bamboo flute warbles from the boom-box on the table, as Claire drags four women through strange, slow postures, calling it Tai Chi. Five more of us, in various stages of decay, simply watch from the sidelines.
Bland, everything in here is beige-bland. As if in our old age, we must return to the milky neutrality of babyhood. My restless eyes search for some sign of imagination in the room. Beige on white, everything framed by chrome handrails, and just the acrid green smell of disinfectant pervades everything, even the morning coffee. If I dropped my cup of so-called coffee on this colourless floor, it would be invisible. I am tempted to test this theory.
But after morning tea, Claire unpacks a box of paints, pastels and generous sheets of paper, spreading these haphazardly over the dining tables. Colour splashes the room. Despite my determination to rise above this place and resist its hooks, I am intrigued. Art? With this lot?
Mentally, I have divided the residents of “Paradise Gardens” into two distinct groups: the Droolers and the Non-Droolers. Regardless of salivary status, we are all corralled into the dining room for this event, and I get my first good look at life’s wreckage as a whole. There is a predominance of women, and a corresponding dearth of men, drooling or otherwise.
But Ocky is parked next to me at the table, too larger-than-life for his wheelchair. He gives me a one-sided grin – ha! Someone else is stroke-struck, but he still has his left. If you put us together, closely side by side, we might make a whole person.
“What a bloody waste of time,” he announces. I am drawn to his dry, crackly voice. There is a glow in his grey gruffness, and I note that he does not dribble – a definite plus in a man.
Claire cranks up the volume on the boom-box, and her musical selection segues into the classical domain. Vivaldi’s “Spring”, a Bach Brandenburg, then onward to Mendelssohn. She instructs us to draw, paint or do whatever we like to the music. Free choice, and I momentarily forget my resolve to stay uninvolved. The temptation is too great.
* * *
“You must have synaesthesia, Mrs. Barton!”
Not another disease.
She holds up my sheet of paper, thickly coated in the deep burgundies and swirling mauves notes of Bach. I have clearly made a faux pas in revealing something of myself on this paper.
“What does she have?” asked Ocky, mystified. “You’re not a doctor, are you?”
“Look at the way she’s used colour and texture …” Claire tried to explain. “Synaesthesia is really rare … but it’s not a disease, it’s a gift. The senses sort of cross over. Some people can hear and smell colours, taste words and numbers. I have it, and I’ve never met anyone else with it.”
I hang my head. I have never told anyone about my extra colours and patterns. In my relief to have an outlet to express myself, I have revealed too much. The panic rises in my throat and I feel like I have been tricked.
“What else do you see in colour?” Claire is eager with curiousity. I am mute, with heat in my face. “Days of the week?” She prompts me and I nod, reluctantly. “I knew it!”
In fact Tuesday’s blue is shimmering around me. Tomorrow is mustard yellow, so I have to make the most of today. Tuesdays have potential, but Wednesdays just are what they are.
“Do you see people as colours too?” asks Claire.
“Like auras, you mean?” interjects Ocky.
“Sort of, for some people … shapes and textures sometimes, not just colours,” explains Claire. “I don’t see people that way, but numbers are my thing …” She rattles off descriptions of her favourite numbers. “Three is crimson, seven is silver-grey and nine is a fantastic deep blue with ripples …”
The music has shifted to something more contemporary. I can hear metallic blue and green together in jagged syncopation. Smooth, and then serrated chrome. Emboldened by Claire’s interest, I try to draw the jazz I can hear. Everyone is watching me, and now I think I like it.
“That’s great, girl,” says Ocky, and I can hear the admiration in his creaky voice.
* * *
It is a week before Claire comes in again, and I am impatient to play with the paint again. Meanwhile, Ocky has started to call me “Justine” and visits me several times a day.
“What colour am I, Justine? Can you see it yet?” He is almost, but not quite, annoying. How can I tell him we are all as grey and insubstantial as ghosts in this place? He brings me a purple flower this morning and I find myself smiling at him unexpectedly, noticing the way his silvery hair sweeps back from his temples.
I don’t see him as another husk anymore. In my eyes he has filled out, become substantial, with his laugh-lines and lively fury. soft-centred dark chocolate, bitter-sweet. He says what I am thinking.
It is Tuesday again, and I paint the day a vivid, electric blue when Claire puts out the paints and paper sheets. She wants to see what I do with a fast rock beat, so she puts on some energetic Pink, and I immediately hear multicoloured bubbles bursting rhythmically against the beige air. “Nah, nah, na-nah nah, so what? I’m still a rock star …”
Claire is all yellow starbursts today, as she flits from table to table, delivering staccato compliments on each artistic attempt.
“Good to see you smiling, Mrs. Barton!” she says to me. I hadn’t realised that I was smiling. I am acutely aware that only one side of my face moves now, so I keep the whole thing as still as possible.
Ocky is watching me paint when I smell the telltale ammonia close by. An Accident! Is it me? Oh no … no, it’s not me. It must be Ocky. Shame reddens his face, which collapses into itself until I can’t see his eyes. He mumbles something that sounds like an apology.
Without planning it, I lay my good right hand on his arm.
“Ocky, you’re gold. Pure gold,” I say, my voice hoarse from disuse. For a moment his eyes lift again, and the lopsided grin returns, even as the nurse wheels him to the bathroom.
I imagine the beige melting from the heat of all these new colours.
Comments from Michelle Wildgen, finalist judge:
The fresh element of synesthesia and the overall voice attracted me to this story. That voice is witty, dry, and not so much ornery as justifiably vexed: the art therapist is “an excitable young woman,” the narrator acknowledges that “It is a sign of the universal atrophy around me that I am excited by the arrival of breakfast.” And the synesthetic approach makes for a fresh depiction of character as well: “I don’t see him as another husk anymore. In my eyes he has filled out, become substantial, with his laugh-lines and lively fury. Soft-centred dark chocolate, bitter-sweet.” There’s a sharp, effective mix in here of arch wit and true emotion, and I could have listened to this narrator all day.