by Irwin Hirsh
(First published in Larrikin 16, June 1988, edited by Irwin Hirsh and Perry Middlemiss)
Wendy and I arrived back home from my GUFF trip on Friday morning, the 18th of December, and using that quiet efficiency for which he is known Carey Handfield had us booked for a Xmas dinner at his and Jo Masters's place within 24 hours of our arrival. Also within that first 24 hours we'd created one hell of a mess throughout our dining and lounge rooms. Two of the bags we had been living out of belonged to my parents and they were leaving for Bali in two days. Plonk! and suddenly the bags' contents was everywhere. Three of the boxes we'd sent home had arrived, and their contents were also on the floor. I did my calculations. "Wendy, we sent home 51 kilos of books, and what you see there is only 14 kilos of it," I said. "Gulp!" was about the response.
"We've got to do something about this mess Irwin" Wendy said, a short while later, and I, with my usual prioritising competency, stacked the four months' worth of mail into neat piles and incorporated our Duty-Free-bought-in-Hong- Kong-Compact-Disc-Player into our sound system. I stood back and surveyed the scene. It was no neater. The spot where we had placed our duty-free buys was now a mountain of packing materials. Defeated by my attempts, I put on a CD and sat down at the stacks of mail to do four months' of catching up.
"I wanna go back!" cried Wendy as she lay on our bed. "Why did we have to come home?"
"I don't know," I murmured as I lay down next to her. Soaking up the familiarity of the mattress beneath me I added "But at least we're back in our own bed."
Suddenly I sat up. "Dudley's dead."
"How do you know?"
"Well twice Dad asked me if we could look after their place while there were away. And each time he said 'Water the plants and feed the pet.' He said 'pet' not 'pets'. I wouldn't have noticed if he asked me only once." And after a bit added, "Why couldn't they tell us?"
Before we'd left my parents had been talking about putting down our version of Man's Best Friend. "He's growing old, he's sick and he's really starting to suffer." But the bottom line really got to us "And we can't go away because of him." As late as the day before we left they were repeating that line. "'A pet is for life,"' we car-sticker sloganed.
Our first postcard home was addressed to Dudley. Referring to the photo of the corgi sitting on the Queen's lap it began "Here is a photo of a dog which is treated almost as well as you are," and ended with an under-lined "See you when we get back." With all this in mind Wendy went on the offence the next day. With all the efficiency of the kindergarten teacher that she is, she put her hands on her hips, loudly tapped her right foot, and with a steely stare popped the question. "Okay, what happened to Dudley?"
Fortunately that bottom line never became an issue. Fourteen and a half years had taken its toll. He was going deaf and blind, he'd lost control of his bowels, he seemed to be in total agony and he couldn't negotiate any stairs. My sister thought she'd found the solution to, at least, the problem of living in a two-storey house, and being left alone when my parents went away; Dudley could live out his days at her place. But the vet saw problems with that proposal. Dudley's bowel problems demanded that he be left outside - unfair on a dog that was always allowed to sleep inside - and that at his age it was unfair to make him get used to a new home. Standing there in the surgery my mother gritted her teeth and made the decision, quickly, before making the decision was agony. It was two weeks before we got back, but not even my father or sisters got a chance to give the old boy a farewell hug.
Any sadness here was balanced by the joy we felt after we'd visited our grand- mothers in their old peoples' home. First we saw Wendy's grandmother. We weren't sure what to expect as while we were away she'd suddenly had to undergo a repeat of the operation which a year before had made her decide that at 87 she couldn't live by herself anymore. There was no need for any worry on our part, the strength that had always made us say she'd live to 120 had come to the fore. She was bouncing around, excited at seeing us, asking us questions about our trip and all. We asked about her operation. "Oh that" she shrugged it off with a wave of her hand. The only bad point was when she again introduced us to her friend, the same person she seems to always be sitting with. "I know them," her friend said with a tone of voice which was saying "you tell me that every time."
Then we wandered around to the wing where my grandmother lives. In three or four years she has never been better. For the first time in that long the conversation didn't consist of us hearing about how sick she is and how many treatments a day she has and what time of day those treatments happen and...and ...and... For the first time in years our conversation had some variety, and with each turn we got more excited about the change that was happening in this old lady. In the past she'd always been unwilling to go out of the building with a list of excuses which indicated a basic insecurity with the world outside, with one fear building upon another. Ask her to go out for a walk or come with you to visit one of her new-born great-grandchildren and you'd get a great long spiel about how there is not enough time between, say, her asthma treatment at 11 and lunch at 12 for such things. Now here she was telling us how she and a friend would regularly go out for walks. "We don't have much time in the morning because I have treatment at eleven o'clock and lunch is twelve o'clock. So we don't go far, just down the street a little. But in the afternoon we go for longer walks."
The next day the phone just ran hot. Debbie and Steve tried ringing for 45 minutes but just kept on getting an engaged signal and decided they'd get to speak to us sooner if it was face-to-face and came around for a visit. The phone would have been going for hours more but at five o'clock we went out, locking the door behind us. First we went to Simon and Bronwyn's for Xmas drinks. Simon is one of my oldest friends, one of the two people I still see from our college days. He and Bronwyn introduced us to all the people in the room, who all oohed and aahed at the list of places we'd visited and who asked us impossible-to-answer questions like "What was the highlight?" Being tired and coming down with a cold I wasn't in the mood for meeting new people so I escaped to the kitchen to reacquaint myself with Tony. We started by working out that, yes, the last time we saw each other was at a party on the last day of college, and from there we condensed two lots of four years of life into an hour's chat.
We would've gone on for a while more but Wendy and I had to excuse ourselves and zip off to the Stalactites Cafe to join a dinner crowd organised by Justin Ackroyd. We arrived half an hour late, in part because we still thought of eight o'clock as being three hours after sunset not an hour before, and just as the waiter finished taking orders. We sat down at one end of the table where it was easy to have conversations with Cath Ortlieb, Nick Stathopoulos, Jenny Chudeki and Justin, when the latter two announced to us that they were now living together.
"We know," I said.
"In fact we were the first to know," Wendy said. "When we saw Perry and Robyn in Rome they told us you were living together and all we could say was 'We know'."
"We probably knew that you two were living together even before you realised it," I continued. "It was toward the end of September that Wendy told me that 'Justin looking after Perry's place meant that he went there twice a week just to make sure everything was okay."'
The looks of response to our prophetic skills were as expected.
Soon Nick and I were discussing some fan fundery politics. Our chat was broken by Wendy and my attempts to get a menu. The waiter was reluctant to allow us to be so privileged as to add to his bosses' profit margin. "It's too late," was the way he put it.
"What do you mean by that?" I asked.
"It's too late," he repeated
"But you're open 24 hours. How can it be too late?"
"It just is."
"But how can that be?"
"I've already taken the order for this table."
I pointed to one of the many empty tables around us, "You mean to say that if we were sitting there you'd take our order? That's ridiculous!" I made a move to change tables, at which point the waiter relented.
That little tete-a-tete was the cue for Cath to tell us some of her shopping stories: "I wanted to buy some Pecan nuts once, but I couldn't remember their name. So I was describing them to the shopkeeper, and she said I wanted walnuts. 'No,' I said. 'Walnuts do funny things to my ears.' And she came straight back with 'Well, don't put them in your ears then."'
Talking with Marc Ortlieb, who was sitting just out of comfortable chat range, was hard work but I felt it my duty to bring Marc up-to-date with some of the more important bits of fannish news. "The biggest news is that Hyphen 37 is out. I saw a copy just before coming home."
"I've already got a copy."
"Already! Gee, that was quick."
"Yes, and Walt has asked if I can pass on a message to the Honourable Race Mathews." It's not every day that someone halfway across the world asks you to contact your state's Minister for Police.
And with that the conversation took a turn and I was finding out about some of the goings-on in State politics while I was away. It's odd how such things go.
I also learnt that Susan Renouf, Australia's favourite bit of plastic, had split up with her latest husband and that the press were having a field day reporting all the court antics and such. Somewhere in all that we heard Mandy Herriot mention that she sometimes picks up a copy of The Toorak Times.
"Why?" someone asked, more-or-less on behalf of all of us.
"I'm trying to work out why it exists."
Someone else offered the straight-forward suggestion that it exists to propagate the views of some of Melbourne's right wingers but I butted in: "Mandy, surely it only exists so you can pick it up."
Mandy seemed to like this reply, but Marc wasn't so sure: "Irwin, does that mean that if Mandy didn't read it the rag wouldn't exist?"
"Sure. I never see it, so as far as I'm concerned it doesn't exist. Do your best not to honour their views I reckon. What keeps those people going is an audience."
Other conversations ensued. Cath and I discussed bad airline experiences, Wendy and Justin gossiped about various British fans, and Marc and Mandy talked about the Good O1' Days when they both lived in Adelaide. Down the table was Lucy Sussex and over the noise and space between us she managed to tell me that there was a neat photo of me in SF Chronicle. That short chat convinced me that there is no way I'm going to try to have a conversation with any of the others further down the way.
All this was punctuated by the waiter doing us a favour by bringing the food we'd ordered, and later complicating things by bringing the bill. The only thing which is worse than the loud noise and missed opportunites for easy conversation which is created by large dinner groups is the confusion generated as people try to work out exactly how much their dinner cost. At least that's the way it usually is; this time things went extra quick, though my viewpoint is coloured by the fact that someone's miscalculation meant that I ended up paying 80 cents less than I should've.
"Hey look at the pretty money," Wendy said as I handed in my twenty dollar bill. "How much is that worth in Australian currency?"
Walking out Wendy sarcastically thanked the waiter.
"That's all right," he said. "I didn't want to serve you at first."
"Really! I never would have guessed," Wendy replied, not having changed her tone.
Outside Lewis Morley and Marilyn Pride thanked us for the postcard we'd sent them, Andrew Brown mentioned that he'd moved house, Stephen Boucher was going on about the printer the editors of Thyme use, and Lucy Sussex told me how she wanted to be the first on her block to have a Conspiracy report published. "I asked Mark Loney and Michelle Muijsert if they wanted it and they said 'Yes, our deadline is Friday.' It was a Monday, but fortunately I was sick on the Thursday, so I wrote it then. And it took them two months to publish it."
Monday we went out to Wendy's work to catch up on all the news and information she would need before the next kindergarten year begins. "The new Treasurer is really tight," we were told. "I asked him for a cheque so I could buy the sausages for the end of year barbeque and he wouldn't give it to me unless he knew what it was for, and the exact amount."
Wendy just sighed, "Sounds like it'll be a fun year."
"Well Wendy," I said, "all you have to do is tell him you want a cheque made out to So-and-So Travel Agency for $2100. Give him the information he wants and we'll be able to finance a trip back to Europe."
Later on we were told that in the previous few weeks there had been a rumour that Wendy had been taken ill again, gone back into hospital and died. "We even got phone calls about it. Mothers from your kids from last year, and even the previous year had hear the rumour. Luckily we had just received your postcard from Paris, and with that in my hand I was able to convince everyone that nothing of the sort had happened."
Walking to the car Wendy noted that we could go back to Europe. "It's not as if they'd miss me," she said.
"And with a bit of luck it's the new treasurer who started the rumour. Let's go for it."