Judith’s mother, Becky, had become very frail. Since the death of Judith’s father and her sister’s transfer to Melbourne, Judith had become Becky’s chief carer. She was assisted by the local community service, and to some extent by her husband Michael, but her own children were far too busy to help. Suzi was working, saving up to travel, and Liam was at uni. Suzi and Liam were fond of Granma Becky, but they were not especially close. When they were little, Granma Becky and Granpa had moved from Sydney to Fiji, and the children never made the sort of bond that they did with Granma Jan.
Becky was safe enough inside her own house. Even if she was nearly blind, she knew where everything was. Judith worried about what might happen with the stove, but actually Becky had given up trying to cook anything. She ate what was put in front of her, or she complained about it:
This chicken is disgusting.
It’s fish, Mum.
It was difficult keeping Becky’s weight up. At least it was easy to shift her into her wheelchair.
Most days went something like this. Becky would lie in bed until someone came in and disturbed her, or she would get up and go to the verandah, where she would spill a little birdseed for the birds. On Monday, Wednesday and Friday mornings the community care team would send someone, Rosa or Tamzyn or Amira, and they would make sure that Becky was up and dressed. They would make her tea and give her breakfast. If it was Rosa or Tamzyn, they would brush Becky’s hair, but Becky did not like Amira so much, so she did not let Amira do this. Shoes were a problem on Amira’s days, as Becky could not put them on herself.
I don’t like the crosseyed one.
Amira is lovely, Mum. She really cares for you.
Judith was less fond of Tamzyn, who called everyone dearie. And Rosa was lovely, but she was often late. Amira was reliable, and willing to stay longer than the others.
The carers would make sure Becky had her pills. They would turn on the radio. They would make the bed and clean up a few things. If Becky was feeling talkative, they would talk. They would put out the things for Becky’s lunch, whatever Judith had prearranged with them. Then they would go.
Becky would sit on the verandah, or move into the living room. She would listen to the radio. If sufficiently hungry or bored, she would eat her lunch in the kitchen. Sometimes the phone would ring, and she would talk to whoever had called. It would usually be Judith. Sometimes she would think of a reason to ring Judith.
I don’t need any milk. You don’t need to bring any milk.
On many days Becky would decide to check the mailbox. This was an adventure. It was one hundred and seven small steps from the kitchen table to the mailbox. Many things might happen on the way. The camellia might have flowers. The neighbour’s dog might put his nose through the fence.
Hullo doggy doggy. I’m not going to pat you, it’s too far.
The birds might swoop. Someone might pass in the street. An annoying car might make a loud noise. A stick may have fallen on the path.
If Becky dropped a letter on the way back, it had to lie until Judith came.
Half an hour or more would be consumed getting the mail. Then it could be read with the aid of the magnifying glass. There were always bills. Catalogues could be quite interesting. Sometimes there were real letters, and these would be from friends in Fiji who did not know that Ross had died. Becky did not want to discourage them from writing.
During the afternoon, if it was Monday, Wednesday or Friday, Judith would arrive, perhaps with a bit of shopping, or with Becky’s washing. They would have a chat while Judith tried to get Becky to eat a bit more. Sometimes they would watch TV together, and sometimes Judith would put Becky in the wheelchair so that they could go for a walk. They would go down the street to the park and go round the rose beds, across to the preschool, along the side with the paperbarks and back home again. Or they could go the other way, past the shops, but it was generally less pleasant and involved more gutters, which were a struggle with the chair.
Judith would stay until early dinner time, and give Becky a nice dinner, and then help her to get changed for nighttime, and then leave her to go home to Michael.
If it was Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday or Sunday, Judith would be the one to arrive in the morning, but the routine was much the same, unless they decided to go out. Twice a month they would go to Becky’s hairdresser. There were healthcare appointments, all too often, to deal with breathlessness, failing eyes and ears, broken skin, bowel problems, and so on. Sometimes there were trips to the movies, but it was difficult to find a movie that Becky liked. On days that Judith seldom enjoyed, they would go shopping together. Buying clothing for Becky was a nightmare.
I just want something like my green dress.
Which green dress, Mum? The one with the flowers?
No, it doesn’t … with the collar. With the white collar.
What about this one?
No I don’t like that one. Not that colour.
I don’t want green. It’s the fabric.
Your linen dress?
It’s not linen, it’s…
What about these ones? They’re soft.
They look awful.
Sometimes on Saturdays or Sundays Michael would come too. They would sit around the table in the dining room. Michael would be jolly, and would talk to Judith, always with an effort to include Becky in the conversation. When that flagged, he would try to get Becky talking about her time in Fiji, or even earlier, her time as a buyer, her time as a young mum with two daughters living at Coogee, or even earlier, how she was courted by Ross, what she was like as a schoolgirl, what it was like to be born in England and come to Australia on a ship. When that flagged too, he would go out into the yard and mow the lawn or tend to the garden beds. Judith would wheel Becky outside so she could watch and tell him what he was doing wrong. At lunchtime they would sit down again, and then stagger through a long afternoon together — a walk to the park, perhaps a bit of TV. Michael liked to watch sport, but Becky did not.
By six in the evening Michael would be jumping out of his skin with boredom. It was better in some ways on the days that Judith brought Becky over to their house. The two-way trip, the slow loading and unloading, greetings, the chance that Suzi or Liam would be present, all helped to fill up the time. Michael could help for a while, and then he could retreat into his study to do some work without feeling that he was cutting short Becky’s time with Judith. It would be Becky who would say I have to be home soon, it’ll be getting dark, better not to stay too late. Sometimes Judith would take her back by three in the afternoon, and then spend a couple of hours or more before leaving.
It was all very hard. When her Dad had died, Judith had cut back to a four-day week so that she could be with her Mum more often. Then Becky had a nasty medical event and was in the hospital for three weeks before they let her out. Judith took time off work. Then Michael had a health scare of his own and Judith had to take more time off because of that, and after that the department couldn’t really care whether she came back or not. All her projects had been handed over to younger officers and she was really just expected to case-manage. All the problems and none of the glory. Judith might have worked her way back in, but Becky never quite got back to where she was before, so Judith was always distracted. Then Becky had a little fall, and the doctors realised that eyesight was a serious concern, and bone density and activities of daily living. Judith had to take more time off work. She was thinking of dropping back to three days a week when Becky collapsed while shopping. The ambulance came at once, or it might have been fatal. The next few weeks were very bad, and Judith could not work. But it was when it appeared that her Mum would not die that Judith resigned.
Michael supported her decision. Becky was sick. It would take a lot of care to get her back into her home. It was worth trying. He didn’t like Judith being too stressed. She couldn’t do everything. He was just getting back on top of things at work himself. That was okay.
You gotta look after your Mum.
He meant that it would not be long.
That was two years before. Since then Becky had grow more pale, weak, breathless and peevish. She had been in and out of hospital three more times. The end was not exactly in sight, but it was close.
It was then that Judith had her idea.
Judith knew well the photo of her Mum and Dad on their honeymoon at Seal Rocks. The photo sat on Becky’s dressing table in an oval silver frame. It was quite large, and had been hand coloured in delicate pink and green and blue. It was a favourite of Becky’s. Whenever conversation flagged, Judith knew she could revive it by saying I love that photograph, Mum or You and Dad look so young in that photo, Mum. Then Becky would remember her honeymoon. In those days there was nothing at Seal Rocks, not even seals. Here Becky would almost laugh. They stayed in a fisherman’s cottage, practically alone. Becky thought Ross was mad to take her there, but they loved it. So wild and free. Later they took the children with them back there.
Judith remembered Seal Rocks. The best holidays she and her sister Megan ever had were there. The first starfish she ever saw. The first possum. The first dolphins, dancing in the waves. She and Michael took their children, and it was still beautiful and wild.
Not like when Ross and I first went.
No, Mum, yes, it must have been wonderful that first time. But it is still wonderful.
One year — just once — Ross and Becky and Michael and Judith and the kids all went to Seal Rocks together. They rented a lovely house over the beach, and swam all together in the crystal sea.
It was good to talk about the photograph, because all these good memories poured out, but sometimes this was sad.
I miss Ross, Becky would say, and her head would droop onto her chest.
So Judith’s idea, gradually formed, was that she and Michael would take Judith back to Seal Rocks one more time. They would take the photograph with them, and they would take a photo of Becky holding the photograph at the same place.
When Judith told Michael the idea one evening after dinner she was quite nervous that he would reject it out of hand. He looked at her as if he was struggling to know how to respond.
The rocks haven’t changed, Judith explained.
Michael smiled a sad smile at that.
Do you think Becky would like to go?
Yes. No, she’ll say it’s all too hard. But we can do it. We should!
Michael pointed out all the things that would be difficult. The chair. The distance. Judith, justifying her idea, cried a little bit. Michael put his arm around her. He thought it was a good idea, even if it would be difficult. He could see why she wanted to do it.
Judith spoke to Becky the next day when they were together.
I can’t go to Seal Rocks! Becky said at once. What a silly idea! Judith, you are just being silly.
They had quite a fight about it, but Judith persisted until Becky fell silent.
That night, Michael seemed surprised when Judith brought it up again. Again he pointed out the things that would be difficult. The chair. The accommodation. Judith became cross: hadn’t he said it was a good idea?
If she could wait til the end of the month it was a good idea, Michael suggested. He had a couple of things to do first.
Judith went online and what do you know? The house they had rented all those years ago, the year they all went together, Ross and Becky and Michael and Judith and the kids, was available at the end of the month. So they booked it.
Once that was done, Michael was fully on board. As was his way, he made a list of things they would need and started to pile them up at the back of the garage. They tried, but could not get Suzi or Liam to join them. Good-o, only one spoilt child on this trip then Michael said, referring of course to Becky, but Judith laughed and said What about you?
She was very excited — Michael warned her not to get too carried away — but Judith felt that they were doing something very special for Becky, and she was positively singing her way through the laundry, feeding, bathing, all the drear daily routines that filled up her days. It annoyed Becky.
Just stop going on about it, silly girl.
It was Michael’s idea not to make too much of the photograph plan. Judith smuggled the old photograph into the car once Becky was strapped in. She had it wrapped in bubblewrap and stowed in a shopping bag. She thought about it all the way north.
They had to make a slow trip. Becky sat in the front next to Michael, where it was easier to get her in and out.
You’re going too fast! … Why are we following this wretched truck? … I don’t think we’re on the right road at all.
They stopped twice on the way. Becky refused to go to the bathroom, but she also refused to have anything to drink. It made Judith anxious, and that made Michael irritable. It was late in the afternoon when they wound their way through the bush and came out into the view of the beach, and by then Becky was sleeping, the wind rasping in and out of her slack mouth.
Well, I won’t take a photo of that, Michael said. He had borrowed a fancy camera from his brother for the trip.
Take some photos of the beach.
It’s all shadows now. I’ll do it tomorrow.
The driveway was steep and it was a challenge getting Becky out of the car and into the chair. Once in the chair, she could only be wheeled as far as the front door. There were stairs between the entrance and the living rooms. Becky had a tantrum.
I can’t climb up there!
Judith’s pleading did no good. They had to wheel her out, and find a way around the house to the back, hoicking the chair backwards over the flagstones and copper log retainers.
Here we are, Mum. Isn’t this nice?
Would you like to go to the bathroom now?
Too late for that.
Michael set about unloading the car while Judith washed and changed Becky. The sky slowly deepened to a serene inkiness, and the stars came out. They had sausages for dinner.
Once Becky was in bed they could laugh about it.
In the morning, everything seemed much better. They sat on the verandah for breakfast, and the kookaburras came down to share the bacon. Becky said that she had slept well. She liked the kookaburras. Kookaburras just like that had visited her when she went to Seal Rocks with Ross.
Judith pointed out the rocks in the distance below.
Do you remember them, Mum?
No, I don’t remember.
Yes you do. Those are the rocks where you were photographed with Dad.
No they aren’t. That was at Seal Rocks.
We’re at Seal Rocks, Mum!
Becky squinted and stared over the rail.
I don’t remember.
I’m not sure if your Mum can see that far, Michael said. He took some photos. Then he did the washing up while Judith began the tricky business of preparing Becky for a trip to the rocks. But Becky was not difficult. She said she could go down the stairs, and she did, sideways, both hands clawing the rail, with a little rest half-way down. They drove as close as they could to the rocks. They manoeuvred Becky into the wheelchair. Michael took some more photos. He was taking it all very seriously, fiddling with the buttons and dials, squatting and stretching to find interesting angles. Judith thought it was sweet of him to take the trouble.
They got into difficulties as soon as they came near the beach. The path quickly became too soft for the chair. Michael tugged it along backwards for a while, but Becky started to complain, and Judith was scared that they would tip her out.
We can walk, can’t we? Michael did not want to give up. Come on, Becky, it’s a lovely day. We can go as slow as you like.
I’ll wait here. You two have a walk.
Judith pulled out the photograph. Its silver frame flashed in the sunlight. Becky was amazed to see it. Judith explained. Becky craned and blinked. She could see the rocks.
That’s a silly idea. But she allowed Judith to pull her to her feet. With Michael and Judith holding her elbows, Becky walked towards the rocks.
They did it in stages. At one point they had to lift Becky up onto the rock shelf, and Judith was scared that they might break her. Whenever Becky stopped for a rest, Michael went back for the chair, carry-dragging it up to them so that Becky could sit down for a while. Sometimes they could roll a short stretch in the chair. Michael was running with sweat by the time they came to the spot that Judith thought matched the photograph. They wedged the chair into position and sat Becky down.
The sun was high in the sky. Judith pulled out a flask and gave everyone a drink of water. It was a perfect day, just a little bit of breeze taking the heat off.
Do you remember this place?
I don’t think this is the place. I think it was over there.
It looks the same to me.
Michael took photos of Becky holding the photograph.
Then they struggled back to the car, Becky whinging until she ran out of breath, then gasping, then making Judith scared, her hands were so cold. They drove back to the house, but left Becky resting in the car for a while rather than move her inside. She had a sleep.
No more big adventures for Becky. She spent the rest of the weekend inside, watching the birds and worrying about her house.
I left the lights on.
You didn’t leave the lights on.
I didn’t lock the windows.
I locked the windows.
Judith and Michael were able to leave her for a while for a swim. Judith searched for cockleshells. She found some, just like the ones she found before, when she felt young.
The drive home was a little better. Becky took a toilet break at Hexham, so no accidents. When they got home, Judith took Becky inside and showed her that the house was safe. Michael was exhausted. Once they had sorted Becky out and driven home and unpacked the car, all he wanted was to go to bed.
That week, Michael spent a lot of time in the evenings in his study. Judith could hear him cursing as he worked out how to download and edit the photos. He didn’t want her to see them until he was finished. After about three nights, the noises from the study were happier. Finally, he waggled a USB stick at her.
I’ll get these printed.
Judith wanted to see.
You’ll have to trust me.
Next day, after work, he came in with a parcel of A4 prints, and an oval photo frame not too different from the one Becky had.
There were twelve pictures:
Becky on the verandah, watching the kookaburras watching her.
Judith wheeling Becky.
Becky’s gnarled hand, like a blue vine, above the wheel of her chair.
Tracks in the sand.
Judith’s hat resting by a little rock pool.
The chair atop a rock, outlined against the sky and the sea.
Waves crashing on the rocks.
A careful daughter wiping her mother’s lips.
A little green crab with red claws.
Judith with her hair blowing in the wind.
A photo of mother and daughter holding the 1930s photo of father and mother.
Becky sitting where she had once stood with Ross, sixty-one years ago, with their photo cradled in her lap, and a shy smile on her pale face. Overhead, a white gull floated in the blue sky.
They’re beautiful, Judith said. They put the last photo in the oval frame, and it was perfect. She could hardly sleep that night, waiting to take the photo to Becky. She hugged Michael to her, waking him up.
Next day, Becky was not so easily impressed. Judith showed the other photos first. The kookaburras went over all right. She didn’t like pictures with the chair. Her hand looked awful, her face looked awful, Judith looked like she hadn’t brushed her hair.
Well, I hadn’t, had I? Too busy looking after you!
In the end, Judith hardly wanted to show the final picture, but she did.
There, there’s you just where you were all those years ago …
What’s that in the sky?
It’s a gull, but doesn’t it look lovely?
What’s that doing there?
It’s gliding. Never mind about the gull — look, it’s just like the other picture. See, the island is the same —
There’s no gull in the other picture.
Judith pulled up away from Becky for a moment.
You know what I think, Mum? I think it’s Dad. I think he saw us come all the way to Seal Rocks to remember him, and he came down as a seagull to be in the picture with you.
There was a short silence.
Dad? Becky said in a melancholy voice. She pulled the photo up to have a closer look. I don’t think Ross would be a seagull.
Of course he would, Judith said, desperate to make the idea stick, he knows you like birds. He couldn’t come as a cockatoo, could he? Not out there.
Becky said nothing for a long while, until Judith thought that she had forgotten what they were talking about, but then she said Where are we going to put them?
She meant the two photographs, the old and the new. She meant that they would not both fit on the dressing table.
Michael will hang them together on either side of the mirror, won’t that be nice?
And that is what Michael did on the next Sunday. Judith was so pleased. Becky looked at the two pictures.
Thank you Michael, you really are a lovely boy.
They all looked with satisfaction at the pictures on the wall.
It’s the same place, you see. I went there with Ross when we were just married, on our honeymoon. And that’s the same place.
Judith and Michael smiled at each other.
That’s not a bird, you know. That’s Ross, coming down to be with me.
© 2018 Craig Bingham
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