MONITOR

It’s been pushing upwards for a year or more. Doesn’t rush, but doesn’t fall either. 

Being a chronic over-thinker, I associate the higher figures with increased dis-ease. Hopefully not disease. But you don’t know. That’s why it’s called The Silent Killer. You don’t know the pressure has been building, building. Then something bursts, and unless you’re lucky, that’s it, game over. Or it bursts free and lodges somewhere important and you’re worse than dead. The Butterfly and the Diving Bell. Even typing that tightens my chest.

But is it a silent assassin if you can feel the creeping vice of tension and almost hear the rustling tendrils of anxiety? If the danger is not knowing the tension is climbing, and you know you are anxious, does that mean you aren’t in danger?

The doctor suggested a monitor. Twenty-four hours with a sleeve and a box the size of three stacked cassettes, connected by a piece of soft tubing; a synthetic umbilical cord. 

It’s set, the nurse said as she fitted the business end to my upper arm, to take a reading every half hour. Right, OK. And every hour overnight, she added in a voice that invited me to say ‘Phew!’. I didn’t say anything as I was busy noticing the slightly clammy snake of plastic slithering across my back and round to the box at my hip.

Felt odd, having something medical attached. Waiting for the big squeeze. And the device itself, a lump under my untucked shirt. If I’d brought headphones I could have pulled off the Walkman thing, easily. Just relax, were the nurse’s parting words. If you move your arm or tense, it’ll beep to say the reading has failed.

I was on the ring-road when the contractions started. I tried to relax my arm, dropping it into my lap like a prosthesis. Compression builds until the thump of blood is quite loud. It’s not painful, just a bit unpleasant. With eight hours on night-shift and sixteen at two per hour, there’ll be another forty or so of these. 

Beep. 

Shit. Must’ve moved my arm. The little box thinks for a moment and tries again. My free hand grips the steering wheel tighter.

Already I’m focussed on the moment where the release begins. The sleeve relaxes in beats. I notice I’ve been holding my breath. Take a couple of deep ones; probably worth staying aerated.

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It’s put me into an odd space, this innocent little recording device. Forced me to adopt its cycle. When is the next one? What will the data show?

I should ignore it, but I can’t. I’m tense. I’m waiting. It’s going to happen, but when?

Probably shouldn’t drink, but what-the-hell. Couple of glasses of evening red. By half-past ten I’m wrung out. Tense and wary. How will it be to sleep with this thing grabbing my arm every hour? Quite a lot to do tomorrow, errands galore. Need some sleep. Half a sleeping pill just to help me get off. I feel sheepish but promise myself I’ll own up to the doctor when I see her next week.

The night isn’t so bad. In fact, I resent coming to consciousness in the morning as the anxiety jags straight back up.

Late morning there is a space for reflection. I realise that the feeling of waiting, of marking time until the next event, is deeply familiar. It’s a frozen place; not necessarily cold but immobile. It’s a waiting place, but not with particular expectations. There’s a level of dread, but it is diffuse and difficult to pin down. Something’s coming; cortisol says ‘tense’. There is only the now; a kind of rigid stillness that is alert and ready to be alarmed. 

I notice how every time the gentle vibration signals another squeeze, I jump. It’s such an old response there are no words. The reptilian brain, the ancient brain, the reactive brain, whose early programming sneers at thinking and defies overwriting.

So I wait, for twenty-four hours. Can’t think about anything, can’t write. Fold washing, load the dishwasher; music plays but I’m not hearing. The periodic lub-dub pulsing in my upper arm is the metronome of this day. Not until much later, does it occur to me that I was incapable of imagining an end to the process. Marking time, standing on the spot; it’s not a choice, but a state. Like a rest on a music stave, it signifies an absence, not relaxation.

The power of the metaphor rocks me a little. It’s a truth that can be felt. I see from a different angle why I’ve always been useless at planning. Can’t look ahead, don’t set goals, reticent to take initiatives, risk averse. But really good at monitoring, at waiting. At enduring. Stillness on the outside, tight inside with a dull throbbing undercurrent of fear. 

Waiting for a safety that never came.

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WATCH

Got a new band put on the watch yesterday. The old one had curled up from years clasping my wrist. Looked all right on the outside, but inside it was worn and stained, the leather disintegrating under the surface. Looks horrid, Cal said, cracked and scaly. It reminded me of my legs. Old man’s legs with papery skin. Running about a tennis court doesn’t result in fresher, younger epidermis. Not to look at anyway; it must be doing something for the muscles, surely.

Played a couple of mixed doubles matches, standing in for a chap who’s injured. Last week the opposing team were all so young you could see the outline of school uniforms on the tennis kit. I did all right for someone giving away multiple decades; the sets were even but we lost by a few games on count-back. It not being my team, I didn’t care much as long as I played OK, which I did.

Afterwards there is supper. A couple of Men’s teams were outside singeing sausages and drinking beer. We were inside with cheese and crackers and dips and grapes and lemonade. Someone’s mum put this together, I thought.

They were nice kids, and not quite as young as I thought. Three in first year uni and one in second. He was the captain. I asked what they were studying and one, a girl built like a willow-wand but with the heaviest serve of all the women, grinned and challenged me to guess. I got two straight off and one with a bit of help. Smartarse. But I could not guess Twiggy. 

Politics, she said. How depressing, I thought, but didn’t say.

Got home and limped to the shower. Three close sets on a Thursday night. Jeez.

Horizontal at last, but legs aching so much I couldn’t sleep. Got up and did a few laps inside the house, trying to avoid cramp. Kept the lights low, to fool myself I was a few laps away from Lethe. Clocks grinned in the gloom as I passed them. Reckon they were mocking me. Eventually I took half a pill. Fuck it, I need sleep.

A Sunday morning game with a mate has become a ritual. Sometimes I manage to beat him, mostly he out-runs me. Younger legs and years of playing competition squash. He’s an executive. Knows how to get the job done. Last week it was a war of attrition; at six-all we agreed on an honourable draw. This week he rolled over me. My body was still grizzling about the mixed doubles. Recovery times lengthen, relentlessly, until you tear or break something and it ends. Now that’s depressing.

But I love it (though less when I’m crap, like Sunday).

When I got home the boy asked, could you not play next week as it’s my birthday?

There was a hesitation. I was thinking, the party is not until the afternoon, what’s the problem. A childless moment that passed. Sure, I said. We’re having pancakes, he said. Excellent.

It’s a significant birthday, though he won’t let us talk about the obvious. Thirteen. That last syllable serves up all kinds of complications, and soon he won’t want to spend time with his boring oldies. Tempus fugit says the smug new band on my watch. Shut the fuck up, I snarl. But somewhere I feel hourglass tears falling.

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Springboard provided by pinklightsabre

HAT

My father’s hat had a plastic bag over it.

He was from the era when men wore fedoras. This one was olive green with a darker ribbon where brim meets dome. Is there a name for that junction? There should be. The place where the veranda joins the roof. The top part warms, protects, hugs the skull. Lots of headwear does that; it’s the brim that makes it a fedora. Shade for the face, shadow for your expression, an edge to tug briefly in greeting, accompanied by a slight nod (but no smile).

A dark green felt hat, a going-to-work hat. With a plastic bag covering the crown to protect it from dirt, drizzle, passing bird droppings. A raincoat for his hat.

As the plastic aged it became discoloured, tinted like nicotine-stained fingers, matching his right hand. The plastic became creased, less flexible. More set in its accustomed pattern, less able to change or move. 

After he died I removed the dead plastic skin. It disintegrated into flakes of dirty snow. The felt was revealed, untouched by three decades (one of wear, two of wardrobe hibernation). The colour was deep, vivid. At the crown, the creases were neat, well-formed. I pictured his face; sagging skin and the asymmetrical gouges of time. A younger face had worn this hat, maybe the age I was now.

I put it on. It bent my ears like a puppy and I felt myself shrinking like Alice nibbling the mushroom. Just a child wearing his Father’s clothes. A slight shudder as I removed it and put it on the mantle, facing outwards, brim curving over the edge. But it had too much presence and kept drawing my eyes back from the endless jumble of clearing and discarding. Too much of my Father’s silent judgement. 

I put it into one of the garbage bags filled with charity shop clothes and then took it out. Shoved in like that it would get crushed. So when the bag was full and tied, it was placed on top like a fallen monarch’s crown, the olive almost matching the green plastic sack. Unfamiliar without it’s plastic protection yet brimful of memories. Off to be bought for a couple of dollars and a new career adorning another head. But this time exposed to the elements, living a less protected life.

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Feature image: Detail from John Brack’s “Collins St, 5 p.m.” [National Gallery of Victoria] See the painting here

CHRISTMAS EVE

It’s early on Christmas Eve, just after seven. Still and overcast outside; mild but it will warm up later. Not too much though, the high thirties days are promised for later in the week. This year we get a temperate Christmas.

The house is quiet. Lulled by the low cloud, birds have slept in; their morning chatter drifts through open windows. Inside it’s silent. The boy is still abed and Cal has gone shopping for Christmas supplies. I’m going early, she said, it’ll be nuts by nine o’clock.

Silhouetted against the window is the tree, dark against the grey-blue sky. Even in the semi-dark I can see the drooping fronds. If there was more light I could see the tree’s sagging shoulders and wilted waist.

Cal ordered an Oxfam Christmas tree. It’s well covered with decorations and tinsel, but they don’t hide the desiccated limbs and browning pine needles. The tree arrived on a stinker of a day—a hundred degrees in the old currency—and never recovered. Always striving for perfection, Cal wanted to buy another one and start again but I couldn’t face the dismantle-rebuild, the floor covered with scented hypodermics, so I said no. As each day has passed I’ve felt more mean.

In the afternoons when the summer sun slams through the window she looks sadly at our dying tree but it’s too late to do anything now. Maybe it’s a metaphor for the boy transitioning to adolescence. He’s holding tenaciously onto ‘believing’ and we’re going along because we’re no more ready to surrender the innocence of childhood than he is. A part of me, a hard-nosed bit, wants to announce to all and sundry that this will be the last year of  Santa. Never liked the materialistic old bastard anyway. But I won’t, and even as I write I’m working out how to stop the boy reading this, because he is entitled to his naivety, to his participation in this December ritual. Shit, his Daddy has even played Father Christmas and got paid for it!

Decorating the tree is a Mother and child thing in our house. My contribution is to hang a couple of Christmas LP covers on the wall and a string of lights in the front window.

When I hung the lights this year, there was the usual awkwardness of tangled wires and the nervous tinkle of the glass globes knocking together. As I hooked them around the edge of the frame, they tapped against the glass, a rhythm evoking memories. We used to be on your family Christmas tree, they whisper. A spindly fake pine made magic by the deep, vivid colour of the decorative candlelights. These lights are as old as I am, still intact and still willing to cast their fifties glow into a different suburban street.

When I turned them on this year, they flickered then went dark. I carefully went around the perimeter, pinching the globes into their sockets. After all, they’ve been sitting in an old suitcase in the garage all year. Touching each candle seems a way of re-connecting with them, bringing them to life. When I get to the last globe, a red one (they are the best—deep scarlet with a glowing heart) it breaks into my hand. I’ve squeezed too hard and the glass, a half-century old and more, has fractured. Oh. There’s some anguish in my voice. Cal comes in to check I’m all right.

It’s OK, I say, but there’s a tightness in my throat. She hears it and says nothing. I hold out my hand with the crimson shards. The family Christmas lights, I just broke one. She nods. You OK? I nod back. We’re both thinking of my mother’s death, in April but so long ago. That’s quite all right in one way, but the death of the lights somehow hurts.

I scrabble around in the box, so old it is a collection of bits of cardboard rather than a container, and find a couple of loose globes from another, long defunct set. I screw one into the string and flick the power point. The lights burst into life, except for the odd one. It remains dark, but completes the circuit.

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