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Fiction

Hanging on

In memory of David Myers, 19422007

 

HENRY SAT DESPONDENT in The Golden Bowl. The restaurant was empty because he was early, and he was early because he had nothing much else to do. By noon Henry was hungry: hungry for food, hungry for company. Thirsty too. Most of the customers came in for lunch at one or one-thirty, civilised Italian style. But Henry was there when the doors opened at noon, and sometimes before. He sat there browsing through the paper. A bottle of wine stood on the table, already opened, breathing, Henry already stuck into a glass, and still breathing too.

Dr Bee came in not much later. They grunted at each other, greetings of a sort, of a sort given when breath was short and civilities eroded with familiarity.

"Keeping busy?" Henry asked. "Prowling the shopping malls?"

Dr Bee claimed the shopping malls were the site of contemporary erotic adventure. The flaneur of Franklins. The boulevardier of Bi-Lo.

"Too sick," said Dr Bee. "I lay in bed and planned my own funeral."

"Alone?"

"Just a funeral," said Dr Bee. "Not a suicide pact."

"Ah, well," said Henry. "I suppose it's something to pass the time."

"Churchill spent the last decade of his life planning his funeral."

"There you are then," said Henry. "It gives you an interest in life."

"True," said Dr Bee.

"Though it sounds pretty terrible to me."

"It may sound terrible but you're still going to need one," said Dr Bee.

"Face that when I come to it," said Henry.

"Somehow I doubt you will be able to."

"We shall see," said Henry.

"Most likely you won't," said Dr Bee.

They picked desultorily at the marinated olives. Dr Bee poured some olive oil on to a plate and dipped his bread in it.

"Olive oil reduces cholesterol," he announced.

"Ah," said Henry. "So you're not leaping into this funeral. You're still attempting to stave it off."

"It has to be cold-pressed olive oil," said Pawley, joining them. "And extra virgin."

Dr Bee gave a lascivious laugh, lapping his lips round the phrase. "Extra virgin." Retirement had not reduced his lasciviousness, as he kept reminding them.

 

HENRY HAD LEAPT at it. Early retirement. The alternative had been an increased teaching load. Worse than that, his old personalised courses had been scheduled for termination – the few that were left. The future was group teaching. Or first-year tutorials. It appealed to none of them. "If it had been group sex?" Dr Bee pondered. But it hadn't.

They had all taken it. Early retirement. Various incentives had been dangled before them, which they took. But they would have gone anyway.

And they did.

And now Henry felt bereft.

He reached down and rubbed his leg, swollen and painful from deep vein thrombosis. The industrial disease of international writers and airport academics.

"How's it going?" Pawley asked.

"Bloody nurse," said Henry.

"Which nurse was that?" Dr Bee asked.

"The one who did my blood test. She waved the needle at me and said, 'Little prick.' So I said, just as a joke, you know, 'It's not that little.' And she jabbed me. Viciously. Look at that bruise."

He rolled up his shirt sleeve to reveal a large, purple haematosis.

"Nothing changes," said Pawley. "Enticement followed by humiliation. Just like the old days. But without the sexual act in between."

"I'll pass," said Dr Bee. "I have no more wish than the nurse to gaze on your anatomy."

Dr Bee was depressed. He glowered malignantly at the world around him. He picked up Henry's newspaper and turned to the obituaries.

"I remember the first thing my parents used to turn to in the local paper was the death notices. It gave them some satisfaction. Indeed, the only satisfaction they ever had, as far as I could see. Somebody else off the board. Somebody else's funeral you could make a point of not going to."

There was a certain satisfaction in funerals. Especially of former colleagues. Either in refusing to attend, or in attending and catching a sight of the wives and mistresses and boyfriends and partners and offspring that had been concealed over the years. Hearing the ambiguous tributes delivered by other former colleagues who would hopefully soon be following them. But even they were getting less frequent, funerals and former colleagues, as one by one the former colleagues dropped dead.

"In the past," Dr Bee said, as he found himself saying more often since there wasn't much future to talk about, "in the past when I felt like this, I would go out and buy new clothes. Raise my spirits that way."

"You still can," said Henry.

"No point," said Dr Bee. "I wouldn't get the wear out of them."

"Wouldn't get the wear out of them?"

"Before I died. It would be a waste of money."

Henry poured a drink with shaking hand. Shaken. "That's a defeatist way of looking at it," he said.

"Doesn't mean it's not true," said Dr Bee.

"Exactly," said Pawley, who had taken his early retirement up the coast. "Got to face reality. A few weeks back there was a pair of pied oyster catchers on the beach. They just sat on the sand near the water's edge. I looked at them and they looked back at me."

"Perfect communion," said Dr Bee.

"They're an endangered species," Pawley added.

"Like us," said Henry.

"Exactly," Pawley agreed. "I got to wondering if they knew they were posted as endangered. I know that we are, though it's not been posted anywhere."

"Oh, it has," said Henry. "At the university. Dead white males. Spelled out loud and clear."

"Posted for extinction," said Dr Bee lugubriously. "Open season."

"Nature tells you these things," said Pawley.

"We already know," said Dr Bee. "We don't need nature telling us."

Pawley shrugged.

"I do," he said. "It's calming. We could be scheduled for extinction and no one would raise a murmur till we'd gone. Been eliminated. Then they could express a certain satisfied sadness about it. But we'd be gone. Like all those other vanished species. We were nowhere. Then we were here. And then we were gone again."

"I don't find that at all calming," said Henry.

"Realistic, though," said Pawley. "At our age you've got to be realistic. Keep the house clean. Do the dishes before you go out. Don't wear ragged underwear. You don't want to be found dead on the beach and have everyone discover how squalidly you lived."

"I have no intention of being found either dead or alive on a beach," said Dr Bee. "Anyway, I can't see that it matters once you've dropped dead."

"Reputation," said Pawley.

"How you wish to be remembered."

"I wish to be forgotten," said Dr Bee.

"You won't be if they see your ragged underpants," said Pawley. "I think it's worth buying new ones even if you're not going to get full wear out of them."

"And how will you be remembered? The man with feet of clay?" Dr Bee snapped, glowering at Pawley's R.M. Williams boots, mud-spattered and unpolished. The rural life.

"I don't want to be one of those sad old men with highly polished shoes," Pawley explained. "You see them, desperately keeping up appearances, blazer, cravat, golf jacket, polo shirt, trying to look like anyone still cares whether they live or die, trying to look like they're walking purposively somewhere. But they're not. They've nowhere to go. Nothing to do. The shoes are the giveaway. Nothing else to do but polish shoes. Who would ever polish their shoes unless they had nothing else to do? Anyway, people mainly wear trainers these days."

"Hideous," said Henry.

 

THEY LOOKED THROUGH the menu. They read the specials board. They read through them again and tried to figure out what they could eat without ill-effects. Except for Dr Bee who was on a new medication. He showed them the pill packet. "I take a couple every night. Prophylactic measures. They give me the stomach of a twenty-year-old."

"They don't," said Pawley.

"I can eat anything without any ill-effects."

"That you know of," said Pawley. "But they're just suppressing the symptoms. You don't have the stomach of a twenty-year-old any more. Or any other organs. They're all clapped out."

"I no longer have indigestion all night."

"Indigestion is nature's warning," said Pawley. "It lets you know you're eating the wrong things. You suppress the symptoms, you'll end up poisoning yourself. Give yourself ulcers. Diabetes. Colon cancer. It's the same as sexual appetite. Better be nauseated than ..."

"Than what?" Dr Bee demanded.

"Than all those terrible things that happen to you when you think you have the genitalia of a twenty-year-old."

"Safety in numbness," said Henry.

The new female wait-person came over, all cheeriness and lack of reverence.

"So what is it today, boys?"

"Boys!" Henry said, hollowly. "Oh that we were!"

"Good old boys," she offered.

Dr Bee glowered, giving his best shot at being a bad old boy.

He ordered garlic prawns followed by veal parmigiana. Henry went for linguine vongole. Pawley ordered sardines. Entree size.

"That it?" she asked.

"That's it," Dr Bee snapped.

"Just piss off and leave you alone?" she asked.

"Got it in one," Henry assured her.

"Given up the vegetarianism?" Dr Bee asked Pawley.

"Up to a point. Got to stay alive. Can't be a vegetarian if you're dead. Sardines are a source of Omega 3. Natural health. Better than taking pills."

"I threw all my pills away," said Henry. "I couldn't stand it. Every morning. Realising I was going to be doing this every day until I died. Just to stay alive. Counting them out. Breaking the soluble aspirin in half. Trying to remember which I'd taken. I bought a medicine box and within weeks it wasn't big enough. In the end I got so depressed I threw the lot away."

"And became immediately better," said Pawley, all New Age therapies from his coastal retreat.

"I damn near died," said Henry. "Doctor had a fit when he checked me out."

"He damn near died too?" Dr Bee asked.

"He's not that well," Henry agreed. "We compare symptoms. Everything I've got he seems to have had."

"And you still go to him?" said Pawley.

"He's still alive," said Henry.

"Even if in ill-health."

"But I figure he knows how to stay alive."

"Or to stay ill," Pawley persisted.

 

HENRY SHRUGGED. HE poured a glass of mineral water and took a couple of warfarin tablets. Pawley produced his CoQ10. Dr Bee showed them his packet of Pariet.

"Oh, that it should come to this," Henry said. He poured the wine. An Italian Pinot Grigio. Now they were having to drink less they once in a while went for something more expensive than the house white from the Riverina. And Henry claimed Italian wines had fewer allergens than Australian wines. Anything to reduce the negative impact of lived experience.

"Here's to life after retirement."

"Don't call it retirement," said Pawley. "Never use the R-word. No point in letting people think we're finished. Once they think you're finished you're out of the game. Never another invitation. No more international visitors. No one taking you to lunch. No more overseas travel. No more domestic travel. No, Henry, never surrender anything. You mightn't like the university."

"Couldn't stand it," said Henry.

"Doesn't matter. You don't have to actually go to it anymore."

"Never went there that much anyway," Dr Bee remarked.

"Exactly," said Pawley. "So keep up the connection. Ask them to make you an honorary associate. Or an emeritus chair. Whatever you can get. Never say you're retired."

"I never thought I'd hear you say this," said Henry. "You were always dying to get out."

"True," said Pawley. "But no need to make it easy for the buggers. Don't want to make it look as if we're ready for the knacker's yard. Call it a change of emphasis. Focused on writing, now."

"I don't know," said Henry. "It would be like taking one of those adjunct professorships they hand out to clapped-out bureaucrats and disgraced politicians."

"Still time to disgrace yourself," said Dr Bee, "if you feel your novels haven't sufficiently done that."

"Anyway, they don't mean anything."

"Your novels?"

"Adjunct professorships. It would be embarrassing to have one. Mark of obloquy," said Henry. "No, I am a writer. Free at last to write what I want."

"What's the point of trying to write a best-seller now? At your age?" Pawley asked.

"Fame, recognition, wealth," said Dr Bee, derisively.

"He's far too old for that. It would kill him. Sex, drugs and air-travel. All the perils of celebrity.

All the things he thought he wanted. At Henry's age they'd prove fatal."

"I don't know about that," said Henry. "I'm no older than you."

"Exactly," said Pawley. "My body can only just handle the drugs I can afford on my superannuation. If I had unlimited wealth, can you imagine what would happen?"

"I'm willing to take the risk," said Henry.

"AIDS, heart-attack, thrombosis, syphilis, blackmail, divorce, alimony, palimony, addiction, madness," Dr Bee listed.

"Nonetheless," Pawley persisted, "don't give up the university, otherwise you'll end up with nothing. It's like fishing."

"Fishing?"

"A good spot on the river. Don't let it go. Don't let someone else grab it. The point is not to give the impression we've given up."

"Why not?"

"Why let the administrators and accountants and time-servers take over?"

"They already have."

"Don't surrender to them, Henry. Don't give it away."

"They're welcome to it."

"You're making a mistake. You don't want to be seen to moulder."

"I'm not mouldering."

"You don't want to look like you're past it."

"I am past it. As far as the university is concerned."

"So am I," said Pawley. "And have been for years. Decades. Longer even. Way past it. The world has passed me by. Hopefully. But there's no need to draw attention to that fact. I'm keeping my honorary associateship and my library card. And my shared room. Even if I never go into it. Can't fit into it anyway, there's five of us sharing. But the point is, we don't want people thinking we're old and finished and washed up. As they will if we say we're retired. They'll dismiss us."

"Dismiss us from where?"

"From notice. From participating. From life's grand designs."

A chill wind blew along the street, driving leaves and blossoms and plastic bags before it.

"Personally," said Dr Bee, "I can see little point in going on. Except to make sure I get more back from the pension fund than I put in. That gives me a certain satisfaction."

"The secret of staying alive is to do something every day," Pawley said. "It doesn't matter what. As long as you do something. It doesn't need to be a lot. Just sticking a stamp on an envelope. You don't even have to write a letter. Do that another day. Address it another day again. Just as long as you retain an interest in staying alive."

"I'm not sure I do," Dr Bee said.

"I was asked to write an article on staying alive," said Henry.

"How far have you got?" Dr Bee asked. "It could give a new meaning to the concept of a deadline."

"My acupuncturist said: 'Coming alive, Henry, not staying alive. Take the opportunity to come alive.'"

"She's quite right, of course," said Pawley.

"She also said: 'The gift the dead leave with us is the message to live.'"

"Jesus," said Dr Bee.

"Jesus especially," Pawley agreed. "But other teachers, too. Come alive, Henry. Let the dead bury the dead. Reorient yourself. Abandon the negative. Love life."

"It's hard to imagine what for," Dr Bee said.

"That's the challenge of it," Pawley assured him. "To discover the meaning of life. To live it to the full."

"Golf?" Dr Bee inquired. "Kayaking?"

"Enjoy, as the wait-people say," said Henry, holding up his glass.

"That's the spirit," said Pawley.

Selected for Best Australian Stories 2007


From Griffith Review Edition 17: Staying Alive © Copyright Griffith University & the author.

Griffith Review