‘Got it? Wait here for me. When I get back from the supermarket we’ll go home.’
‘Yes, of course I’ve “got it”. What do you take me for, stupid woman?’
I bite back a retort and spin away from my husband of fifty-one years so he won’t see the welling tears. ‘Okay, darling. See you soon, then. Enjoy your coffee.’
I stride off to Woolworths to buy the groceries and wish—oh, how I wish—the prayers I utter daily will be answered soon. A miracle? Too much to hope for.
My husband Joe’s decline has been gradual. The vigorous, athletic, strong, happy, loving man is much reduced: thin, bent, crotchety and querulous. He tests me. Our lives have become routine—something we’ve always abhorred—with weekly visits to the doctor, the supermarket and walks along the beach. He still enjoys the walks with our little dog, Jake. Jake is good for Joe.
Recently Joe had become aggrieved with supermarket shopping; he is rude to the staff and other customers, ordering people to “Get out of my way, you ignorant fool” as well as forgetting what he’s placed in the trolley. If I attempt to return unwanted items it escalates into a showdown, so I take the easy option. At least our eight tins of canned tomatoes will fulfil our needs for months. And I can be thankful he hasn’t started wandering yet.
I pay for the groceries and gird myself for the reunion at the coffee shop as I push the trolley along the noisy mall. Sounds are amplified, clattering off the shiny marble-effect tiles, the flat walls, the endless glass windows. I feel overwhelmed by the sensory input: all the pushing, hurrying, anxiety-laden people.
‘Pull yourself together,’ I chastise myself, ‘it’s just the shopping centre, for goodness sake. Oh god. Where is he?’
The table at which I’d left him has been vacated and is now filled with a family of overeaters. My skinny bent husband has been transformed into a family of four obese individuals tucking into their pizza and chips. Where is his empty coffee cup and the apple–cinnamon muffin? It would have been toyed with, reduced to crumbs, mostly untasted.
‘Excuse me,’ I say to the barista, ‘did you see my husband leave? He was sitting where those people are. I was as quick as I could be…’ I tail off.
‘Carly, did you see the old gentleman leave table twenty-four?’ the barista calls to the young waitress, the one with the brightly coloured gel nails and over-painted face.
‘Yes, he said he was going to meet his wife.’
I mutter a ‘thank you’, leave the trolley at the counter and rush upstairs to the centre management office.
‘What is he wearing, Mrs White?’
‘Oh, um, beige trousers, red braces, a flannelette shirt with small checks—red and white—and a pair of brown shoes, he likes them well-shined. Oh yes, and he had a dark green cardigan on too. He feels the cold nowadays…’
I sit on the edge of the hard-backed chair in the unfriendly reception area; I hear the announcement over the loudspeaker. My heart pounds in my chest, my breath shallow. I feel the familiar cold sweat of dread. Breathe, breathe.
‘He’ll turn up, Mrs White. They always do,’ says the artless receptionist in an effort to reassure me. I force a tight smile. ‘We’ve called security and we’ll ring the police for you if he hasn’t been found within thirty minutes.’
‘Half an hour? He could walk onto the highway in that time! Oh, I can’t wait here. I’m going home, he might remember the way. Thank you for your assistance. What? Yes, of course, it’s 0432 987 654.’
I flee down the stairs, bizarrely remembering to collect the trolleyful of shopping; why does it matter? I rush to the car hurling the groceries into the back and dutifully return the trolley to its bay. I drive carefully from the car park, out onto the main road and turn right to head home—I wonder how I still manage to concentrate—with the rising panic and flooding adrenaline. The mind is a curious thing.
I am his rock, his security, his link with reality—whatever he has left of it. Am I alone to think this? Am I being selfish and self-righteous? Does he wonder—ever—who looks after him, washes his clothes, shines his shoes, reminds him to shower and to brush his teeth, feeds him, ensures he takes his medication?
I arrive home to find a police car parked outside. The young constable is talking to a furious old gentleman.
‘Oh thank God,’ I say. My knees start to wobble. I lean against the police car, hands shaking.
‘I came as soon as I could, Mrs White.’
‘Yes, thank you, officer. All okay now…’ I can hear the frantic Jake inside, barking.
‘Why did you leave me there, you awful woman? What would have happened to me if I hadn’t known the way home? I could have been run over; I could have been kidnapped; I could have been murdered! What have you to say for yourself? And it’s not okay! The police are eating out of your hand now, are they? This is a conspiracy; I’ll report it.’
‘Come on, Joe, darling. Let’s go inside and I’ll make you a mug of tea. The policeman was just doing his job. I thought we’d arranged to meet at the coffee shop—my mistake—and then you must have thought I’d left you behind. Silly thing! Would I do that?’
‘Take your hands off me. You are a… a… goddammit I can’t remember the word.’
We walk to the door where Jake greets us with enthusiasm, bouncing up and down, grinning with delight.
‘Hello, mate,’ says Joe; he bends to pet our dog. We go into the house, I settle Joe into his favourite chair. I put the kettle on, take two teabags from the pantry, place them in mugs. I turn on the television; I know he’ll watch whatever happens to be showing. I return to the car and bring the groceries indoors.
‘Hello darling!’ says Joe as I walk back inside. ‘How lovely to see you. Been shopping, have you? What are we having for dinner? I’d love some sausages and onion gravy.’
‘Well then, just as well I bought some, isn’t it.’
‘I missed you while you were out. You know I get lonely here on my own. I am frightened of becoming lost. Can you help?’
I squeeze his hand. I think back over the years we’ve shared, the children we’ve raised, the grandchildren we’ve welcomed, the work we’ve undertaken and been rewarded for. At least he still remembers the children although the eight grandchildren confuse him. I hate it when he snaps at them. Has it all been worth it? Life takes wild turns when least expected. Our friends: some don’t call round often; some are dead; others confounded by Joe’s disease; some constant—those I love.
We sit in front of the flickering screen watching Family Feud—it seems appropriate—drinking our mugs of hot, refreshing tea, eating my homemade Anzac biscuits.