‘I took Fieldmarshal for a walk yesterday,’ her friend said over coffee. ‘Turned my back for one second and he lifts a whole chicken from someone’s picnic hamper. The guy was pretty irate when I suggested that if people were going to leave things unguarded on or around grassy knolls – to wit, a chicken, or possibly even a president – what did they expect?’
Farewelling her friend and ambling homeward, she recalled a train trip in her childhood taken to Mount Buffalo with her parents. At the Wangaratta station they had stopped for a meal and she had ordered the fried fish. Her mother generally forbade all things fried so this was a particular treat. Half-way through the meal, her child’s bladder had felt the call. Answering it caused her to turn her back on the table for just a few minutes. When she returned she found a waitress had cleared away her plate.
Those many years later she went to bed, still remembering the crisp batter crackling between her teeth, then melting over her tongue.
The following morning she returned to the hospital, sitting for hours, watching her mother die. She was unable to be there always. She infuriated staff by asking for extra bowls and plates for the chicken soup, sweet buttered pumpkin, watermelon and pineapple cut into cubes, and the odd almond croissant. Once these had been favourites; now the daughter fed them to her slowly, hopefully, hopelessly.
The physio said she must eat; the endocrinologist said she must watch her blood-sugar levels; the gerontologist said she must read to stimulate her neurotransmitters. Sure, the daughter thought. Neurotransmitters.
She grovelled to the nurses, bringing chocolates, magazines, pretty little bags of toiletries, sweet-talking and humouring them, so they would be kind to her mother – her little mother – when her daughter wasn’t there, when she had to go home.
When she left her mother unguarded.