Useless Things

by Rigby Taylor

The jacaranda tree's miserly shade had moved on, leaving three men behind. Sweat dripped from eyebrows and trickled down furrowed cheeks, necks and chests.

'Jeeze it's hot! My mouth's as dry as a nun's tit.'

'It seems no one gives a stuff about us in this place, Charlie. I'll never get used to it. Why couldn't I have had a lethal heart attack instead of a bloody stroke?

'We all feel like that, Mal. We're in a velvet prison. I always vowed they'd never get me into one—but I was weak and muddle-headed after the accident, and now I'm a prisoner—not allowed to die if there's a medical procedure that'll bring me back from a peaceful death.' Charlie coughed up a wad of phlegm and spat onto the concrete. 'Suffering's good for the soul, a god-botherer informed me the other day. I told him I hoped he'd rot in a nursing home for twenty years screaming for release from pain and nausea.'

'Good one. What did he say?'

'Nothing. Just walked away to annoy someone else. Have you noticed that women don't seem to mind this place so much?'

'Yeah. I guess it's different for them, Charlie, they're used to having things done to and for them. Ivy, my wife, nearly bankrupted me with her massages, hairdresser, manicures—it seemed she wanted nothing more than to be fiddled with. I've never met a bloke like that.'

A thoughtful silence.

'Most of the old tarts are religious; they're shit scared of dying in case they go to hell, so want to put it off as long as possible.'

'If I had the keys to the medicine cupboard I'd be sleeping the beautiful sleep tomorrow.'

'Leaving me behind. Some mate you are.'

'Don't worry, I'd take you with me, Mal.'

At that moment a delivery van pulled in and parked at the main doors, belching diesel fumes. The men coughed and cursed impotently.

'Seriously, Charlie, is it normal procedure in this place to dump us out in the car park and forget us?'

'Relax, Mal, someone will be out soon. Come on, what's really bothering you? Someone pinched your chocolates?'

'Among other things, yes!'

'Bloody thieving bitches. They pinch everyone's.'

'It's not only that, it's…'

'In the shower?'

Malcolm blushed and looked away.

'Who was it?'

'I…I forget their names, there are so many of them and…and they change all the time.'

'This morning?'


'Yeah, that'll be right.' Charlie wriggled into a less uncomfortable position. 'I overheard the girls sniggering about someone with a huge dick in the shower.'

'Ugly cow! She waggled it around and reckoned I should have it lopped off because it was useless to me now I couldn't get an erection. When I got mad she said I should get a sense of humour. I get so angry it feels as if my head's going to burst. But there's nothing I can do. We're at their mercy. Sartre was right, Hell is other people—especially if the other people are female staff in a nursing home.'

John, whose mind had developed a tendency to wander, snapped to attention and whispered, 'Yesterday, one of them... You know, that red haired one, told Jeff, to lift a full bag of laundry. Much too heavy. When he couldn't she called him a useless poof.' John's right arm began to twitch. He stared at it for a couple of seconds as if unsure to whom it belonged before grabbing it with his left hand to prevent it slamming against the side of his wheelchair. By the time he'd returned it to his lap he was breathless.

Charlie placed his good hand on top of John's, staring belligerently at the still-twitching limb as though daring it to move. 'That's Gloria! She's gotta go! Jeff's the best nurse we've had in ages. He buys me smokes and gives the only decent rubdowns I've had in this place. Most of the bitches couldn't give a tinker's cuss if we all broke out in bedsores.'

'Jeff...' John paused, marshalling his forces. 'Jeff took me…' his gaunt frame began to shake and it was several seconds before he could speak, '…to the shops… in his own time.' Muscle tension suddenly collapsed, the handsome face slumped, his head drooped forward and slack lips spilled saliva.

Charlie pulled John's head back against the headrest and wiped the chin with his bib. 'We bloody have to do something—Jeff's the only man left. No decent bloke will stay the way those bitches treat them.'

Mal shook his head. 'Surely they're not all bad.'

'Name one who isn't!'

'Sister Sue seems nice.'

'OK. But she's the only one.'

'Brenda,' John whispered. We'd never get out of this place if she didn't arrange trips.'

'OK, Brenda.'

By the time Marge came to collect them only five of the staff had failed to earn a reprieve of execution. As she backed towards the heavy door, dragging Malcolm's chair, Charlie called, 'You'll get fat, Mal unless you push yourself around. One arm's no excuse.'

Malcolm looked contrite. 'I try, Charlie, but I just go round in circles, and this thing,' he tapped his left leg, 'sticks out and bangs into everything.'

'If it shrivels any more it'll look like you're sitting there with a boner. Get 'em to hack it off like mine. Less weight to shove around.'

'Good old Charlie,' Marge laughed. 'The only man who's legless before he starts drinking.'

'I could drink you under the table, any time.'

'I'll take you up on that one day.'

'You can take me to bed if you like.'

John's laughter triggered a general strike of synapses and his stranded head lunged forward.

'Marge!' Charlie bellowed.

Calmly efficient, Marge rescued John, turned to Charlie, tightened his harness, chucked him under the chin, kissed him on the forehead and grinned, 'Who's in a bad mood, then?'

Charlie brushed irritably at the spot. 'Stupid cow,' he muttered. 'I'm not a fucking child!

'No, you're a sweet little cherub.' She pinched his cheek roughly, pulled him and Mal inside, set John on track then wheeled Mal off to the dining room. Charlie followed slowly, a smouldering bundle of frustration.

Weak tea and a slice of dry chocolate cake did little to quell the rebellious spirit. 'I'll give you yours, John, when I've downed this tepid muck,' he growled. But Marge returned to hold cup and cake until John's errant nerves sent the signals; chew, swallow, open…

In the dead time before lunch, Malcolm practised moving his chair in a straight line, Charlie dragged irritably on half a dozen cigarettes in the smoking room, and Brenda took John to the Physiotherapist. On the way he tried to tell her about Malcolm, but his vocal chords had gone on strike so he gave up trying, having learned not to waste precious energy fretting. When there's nothing you can do about something, you've no choice but to accept; so he let his mind float free.

An afternoon concert had been arranged and the lounge was filling with the murmur of perfumed and painted old women carefully dressed in their faded best, scrupulously choosing who was suitable to sit next to. Nursing staff wheeled in those who couldn't walk or shuffle, and an awkward scattering of visitors hovered. The few men in evidence sagged in their chairs as though left over from the last show.

Charlie checked the blackboard. 'It's those bloody Swinging Senior Cits again. I'm not going to watch a bunch of old tarts flashing their varicose veins.' He wheeled himself away.

Malcolm, whose eardrums had taken a bashing from the banjo the previous week, pushed himself around in circles in the corridor and John slumped nearby until a couple of nursing assistants tipped both men's chairs back at an alarming angle and raced each other through the corridors. By the time they skidded to halt in the courtyard, Malcolm was a trembling wreck and John was pop-eyed with shock. Charlie was puffing irritably on a cigarette.

'Look what you've done, you stupid bitch!'

John's urine bag had come adrift and the end of his catheter tube had dragged along the floor leaving a wet trail.

'Shit,' the young woman muttered, dragging John's shirt up and trousers down. She heaved a sigh of relief. 'You're in luck, Johnno, nearly pulled your plug. Another centimetre and your essential self would have drained away.' She laughed nervously, retrieved and re-hung the bag under the wheelchair, reconnected the tube and roughly adjusted his clothes while the other woman hosed the urine away.

John began to shake.

Malcolm breathed deeply to quell his nausea. It was the first time he'd seen a white plastic tube sticking out of someone's belly as though it was growing there.

'That's her!' he managed to blurt.

'Fucking Ishbel!' Charlie hissed.

Ishbel turned at the door. 'I hope you're not going to be a sooky girl, Johnno, and go crying to Matron,'

'Arghhh!' Charlie slumped forward, gasping as though in agony.

Ishbel hurried across and lifted his sunken head.

He slapped her hard across the face.

She leapt back, hand pressed against her cheek. 'How dare you!'

'How dare you waggle Malcolm's penis and tell him to have it cut off because it's useless?'

'It was a joke.'

'How many old women have you told to have their vaginas sewn up?'

'Don't be disgusting! That's a woman's…'

'Exactly! We put up with bits falling off, leaky bladders, shit in the pants, having to be washed and fed…because there's nothing we can do about it. We don't even feel sorry for ourselves. But we don't have to put up with being treated like half-witted kids! We're men!'

'All men are babies.'

'We think, feel, have opinions, and try to retain our self-respect—but how the hell can we do that when you make decisions for us.'

'We do not!'

'Yesterday you said only fools watched that crap, and changed my television channel to something you liked. I couldn't change it back because you left the remote on top of the set. And someone's always changing John's radio to pop music, knowing he hates it but can't do anything about it. And the staff pinch our chocolates.'

'We do not!'

'You do! And we should never be the butt of jokes!'

'You joke about yourselves.'

'Laughing at our own disabilities makes life bearable. Being laughed at, makes it intolerable.'

'Ah, you...'

We hate it when you get impatient and push our chairs for us. We hate having our chairs tilted back so you can go faster!'

'We're overworked and busy.'

'Going somewhere slowly fills in our day. I may have only one good arm and stumps for legs, but I hate having everything done for me. By treating us like dolls you destroy the only thing we have left, our dignity.'

'Ha! Dignity with a shitty bum.'

Ishbel held Charlie's glare for a short second, then looked away. She didn't dare feel compassion. All this old flesh; vacant minds in decaying bodies. Despite scented cleaning agents, always the lingering trace of urine, shit, and vomit. The sad, terminal hopelessness of it all would swamp her unless she held pity at bay. She coped by telling herself the old people had always been like this. To admit they'd once been like her—young, vital and full of hope, would be to accept that they were also her future—too awful to contemplate. The hard line of her lips softened, and she muttered a faint, 'Sorry.'

It was half an hour before the rattle of palm fronds and the chattering of caged budgies freed their spirits.

'Why do women like to bust guys' balls?' John wondered.

'Because they're bitches,' Charlie snapped.

'It's probably our own fault,' sighed Malcolm. 'We don't want women to think we're soft, so we pretend nothing hurts. We lift and carry even if we get a hernia. We fake we're tough and insensitive, and unfortunately, they believe it.' He turned to Charlie. 'How many times have you cried?'

'Hundreds. I'm a sentimental bloke.'

'How many women have seen you cry?'

'None!' Charlie was indignant. 'They'd tell everyone I was queer.'

'What was your job?' Malcolm asked.

'Green keeper at a Men's bowling Club. Lots of members; especially retired blokes. Reckoned it was a sanctuary—their wives were used to having the house to themselves and when their husbands retired they made it clear they wanted it to stay that way. A man can only spend so much time in his shed without going batty so they'd come every day to have a couple of roll-ups, do a bit of cleaning, maintenance, sit around and talk…' As Charlie's smoke-hoarsened voice faded, Mal jolted to attention; worried he'd fallen asleep and was expected to say something.

'Good one,' he murmured, hoping it didn't sound stupid.

'But the women's club took them to court for gender discrimination or something, and now it's mixed.' Charlie sighed deeply. 'No longer a sanctuary. A lot of the guys left when I did. Now they make home brew and drink alone in their sheds. Did you know that in Australia most suicides are by elderly men? They're not sick, just sick of their life.' he dragged on his cigarette before flicking it angrily away.

'Same at school,' said Malcolm.

'What school?'

'I used to teach at Boys Grammar. Only male teachers till equal opportunity and females arrived to make us more civilised; bring a bit of gentleness. Huh! The women wouldn't take after-school sport, so took over drama, art, and music. So the men who liked working with kids in those areas missed out. The boys then started seeing those options as girls' stuff, didn't like it and numbers dropped.' Malcolm frowned, remembering. 'If a kid didn't turn up to a woman's detention she'd send him to a male teacher who'd belt the living daylights out of him to impress her. It changed the place all right. It became…nasty. The staffroom divided into two camps…' Malcolm stared at his useless leg, lost for words. 'I used to think I'd be sorry to retire, but...'

Charlie slung his arm around Mal's shoulders and gave him a peck on the cheek. Mal turned his head and their lips brushed softly.

'I'm so glad you came, Mal. I was going nuts on my own.'

Mal smiled shyly. 'If anyone had told me I'd fall in love with an eighty-four year-old legless curmudgeon, I'd have thought they were insane… but it's happened and despite all the crap I'm happier now than I've been for years.'

'Me too, you gorgeous old hunk. But we don't want to shock John.'

'No worries. He guessed. Told me yesterday. Thinks it's great.'

Charlie sighed contentedly and in a voice lacking its customary venom remarked as if to himself, 'What bugs me is there's nowhere for a bloke to just be a bloke—women are everywhere!'

They pondered the meaning of this.

John, who had been diplomatically pretending to be asleep broke the silence. 'I once asked my wife why women feel threatened by men-only spaces. She got mad. Said I was looking for an argument.'

'There's no rational answer, that's why. But I reckon we've solved your problem, Mal.'

'What problem?'

'Your not so useless bit of flesh. Poor old bugger, your memory's going.'

'It's allowed to, I'm eighty-two and ready for a nap… but how do we get out of this courtyard?

Charlie wheeled himself towards the fire alarm.

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