Deb knocked on the door of Room 17 and tried the handle. It was locked. She pulled the set of keys from her lanyard. Patients weren’t meant to lock their doors but Mrs Ciszek forgot, as she forgot many things. If the head nurse listened to Deb they would have disabled the locks by now. She found the right key, turned it and pushed down the handle, breathing in the corridor scent of bleach with the ammonia tinge of adult nappies beneath. Mrs Ciszek’s room smelled like the lavender soap – Yardley’s – that reminded Deb of her own Nan.
‘Mrs Ciszek, it’s Deb. Wake up, time to take your pills.’ She rolled the meds cart inside and flicked the light switch on the wall beside her. The fluorescent tubes buzzed and flickered, lazy, like they needed to be woken as well. She walked over to the window to open the blinds and glanced over at the figure in Mrs Ciszek’s bed.
Oh shit, not this again. The blankets were moving and shifting, two white-haired heads lay side by side on the plastic-lined pillow.
Mrs Ciszek propped herself up on one elbow, spry for a woman of her age. She looked down at herself and pulled the sheet across her wrinkled, flattened breasts. Her hair was a halo of frizz, her eyes blinked. She reached to the bedside table for her specs and put them on. ‘It’s not what it looks like, Rob,’ she said. ‘He needed a place to sleep.’
‘Don’t worry, I’m not your husband,’ Deb said. She grabbed the dressing gown from behind the door and brought it to her. ‘But Mrs Ciszek, we can’t do this anymore. It’s not allowed.’
The figure beside Mrs Ciszek rolled away from them, still asleep, taking the blankets with him. He exposed a back covered with fine, downy hair in a trail to the crack of his arse. How the two of them could fit – much less sleep – in one of those single beds was a miracle in itself. Deb wanted to handle this on her own, but knew she’d lose her job if they found out. She picked up the handset beside the bed and dialled the nurses’ station. ‘It’s Deb,’ she said, covering the mouthpiece, like Mrs Ciszek wasn’t going to hear her. ‘I’m in Room 17. We have a situation. Yep. Like before.’
While they waited for the head nurse Deb helped Mrs Ciszek into her dressing-gown and gave her a little white cup of pills, another cup of water, and watched to make sure that she swallowed both. ‘Say aaah,’ she said.
‘La la laaaa,’ Mrs Ciszek said, and Deb smiled. It was their little joke. Every morning. Other nurses hated the dementia ward but Deb thought it was okay. Sure, they forgot everything, sure, it was like living in Groundhog Day, but they woke up like babies: blinking their eyes at the brand new world. One, Mr Aslam (Room 27) devoured his toast and jam each morning as though it were a miracle. As though a crappy slice of Tip Top, a smear of margarine and a glob of strawberry jam was as good as it got. She didn’t mind at all.
Deb could hear the squeak of Jill’s white leather shoes coming down the long corridor. ‘You know,’ she said, ‘you really shouldn’t let Mr Abrahams into your bed.’
‘Where are we meant to do it?’ Mrs Ciszek said, ‘On the floor?’
That was Luke’s favourite line when she told him the story. They were sitting in front of the TV, watching The Voice, eating pad thai and red beef curry from plastic takeaway containers slick with oil. She picked up the takeaway from Thai It Up on her way home. Luke put the mute button on, even though one of the contestants he liked was singing – the one with no legs who zoomed onto stage in a motorised wheelchair.
‘Are you shitting me?’ he said. ‘She asked you that? Are they getting it on in there? These people are like, what, ninety? A hundred years old?’
‘I think Mrs Ciszek is in her eighties, Mr Abrahams is younger – he might be in his seventies. He’s in good shape for a seventy-year-old guy.’ Deb grinned. Luke thought her work was boring; once he figured out that she wasn’t going to bring him home any veterinary-strength horse tranquilisers or Viagra he wasn’t interested. But he kept the show muted, put his beer on the floor and jumped off the couch. ‘That shit’s crazy,’ he said. ‘Does she even know who he is? Mate, I need to hook up with some Alzheimer’s chicks. They’ll be like – ooh, fuck me, then they’ll forget, and two minutes later, they’ll be like – oooh fuck me, all over again.’
Luke was standing on the carpet, blocking her view, thrusting his pelvis back and forth as he acted out the scene. Deb laughed, but she put down her plastic fork.
‘Yeah, that’s just what it’s like. Just what dementia is like. It’s like porn, Luke, like non-stop geriatric porn.’
‘No, you dickhead. I feel sorry for them. But it’s weird as well, it’s like they’re lovebirds. Young teenagers who are really into each other but don’t know how to act or how to talk.’
Luke sat back down and punched the remote to turn off the mute button. ‘Did you see what Kylie is wearing?’ he said. ‘Where does she find this shit?’
Deb scraped the last bite of pad thai into her mouth, leaving nothing but squeezed-out lemon in the plastic container. ‘Do you want to know the saddest part?’
Luke didn’t look at her, just raised an eyebrow.
‘Mrs Ciszek is still married. Her husband still comes to visit her once or twice a week, and sometimes she even remembers him. This morning she thought I was him. She started coming up with excuses, as if she knows what she’s doing is wrong. Jill said we need to tell her husband about the situation with Mr Abrahams.’
‘Wow, that’s fucked,’ Luke said, taking another swig from his beer, not taking his eyes off the screen. ‘Wait till I tell the guys at work this one. Demented old ladies, huh? Who’d have guessed it.’
There was a police officer at their staff meeting the next morning. She kept her hat beside her on the table as she spoke about what constitutes assault and what constitutes consent, how the police determine whether someone is even capable of giving consent. She tapped her fingernails on the top of the table as she spoke. Deb sat on her hands to keep from biting her nails. Her stomach felt queasy. She’d gone to bed after dinner, after cleaning the kitchen and making Luke his lunch to take to work the next day. She felt a heaviness, a lethargy that she couldn’t trace to one particular thing. Luke stayed up late, his eyes flicking between the screen of his phone and the TV.
‘The issue is,’ the director of the nursing home was speaking now, a pale woman with pearls the size of eyeballs hanging around her neck, ‘the issue when both parties have dementia is that it is difficult to determine whether consent has been given. They might have forgotten. The aged care bodies realise that this is an issue and are drafting some guidelines for dementia patients and sexual behaviour, but at the moment we have nothing but our own sense of right and wrong to guide us. Jill, do you want to speak to this? As the head nurse on the dementia floor, do you think that this is a consensual situation?’
Jill took off her wire-rimmed spectacles and made a show of folding them beside her notebook before speaking. Deb knew her supervisor was loving this moment: being the expert. She tented her fingers and started in on the stages of dementia that Mrs Ciszek and Mr Abrahams were in, their vital stats, family situations. Deb wanted to scream. Everything they were saying, none of it touched on the most crucial part. The two patients – brain-riddled as they both were – wanted to be together. They sought one another out. They made one another happy. Something in this bleak place gave them joy.
They wrapped up deciding that Jill would speak to Mr Ciszek, and they would set up individual counselling sessions for Mrs Ciszek and Mr Abrahams. ‘We can’t keep them apart in communal areas,’ the director said, ‘but we’re going to make sure they are not alone in their rooms together. There are a whole raft of OH&S issues as well as ethical and moral, not to mention possible criminal, implications here. As a temporary measure, we are going to move Mr Abrahams to a different floor. That way we can mitigate the situation.’
The meeting wrapped up and the participants all shuffled their papers, clicked their pens, drained their mugs. The police officer replaced her hat and Deb saw a small wave of relief pass over her features. That was done. Jill came over and put her hand on Deb’s shoulder. Deb could smell the coffee on her breath. ‘I’d appreciate if you could alert Mrs Ciszek to the situation this morning, tell her that Mr Abrahams is moving, just don’t tell her where.’
Deb shook her head. ‘Why do we have to keep them apart? I think she’s going to be really upset, Jill.’
Jill closed her eyes and Deb could see where she had applied her taupe eye shadow unevenly that morning, more on the left eyelid than the right. She opened her eyes.
‘Were you just listening?’ she said. ‘Earth to Deb! You know why we have to separate them.’
Deb nodded and washed out her mug in the sink, scrubbed her hands and left to begin her shift. She filled the meds cart and pushed it down the hall, her mouth dry. She left Mrs Ciszek’s room for last.
Her phone vibrated in her pocket while she was giving Miss White insulin. She went to the toilet to put the needle into the sharps bin and checked the screen. It was from Luke, a text.
Goin to the pub after work, it’s Dan’s bday.
She swore under her breath. He had forgotten that her auntie was coming round for dinner. She was visiting from Canberra. Deb peeled off her latex gloves. Maybe he didn’t forget. Around her family Luke got nervous and talked about himself too much. On her birthday he’d been drunk and started telling the story about how his mum used to lock him in the outside dunny when he pissed her off. One time she forgot about him and he was out there all night, he’d unravelled the toilet roll on the cold concrete floor and fallen asleep on it. He was ten. Luke laughed at this but no one else did. He grew quiet and put his arm around Deb, taking a swig of his beer.
‘Who’s up for another round?’
Luke’s mum moved to Thailand when he turned seventeen. They visited her on their first trip overseas together – a few months after they started dating. Deb was nineteen; Luke was twenty-three. His mum had skin like leather from the sun and long fingernails with designs that changed weekly. Palm trees, leopard print, rainbows. They were often wrapped around a can of Tiger beer, or the arm of one of the middle-aged, sunburnt and balding tourists she met at the bar. The men never stayed around long, she confided to Deb one night. ‘They all come here for a young Thai girl with a tight pussy, not an old lady like me. I don’t know why I stay. Can’t imagine going back.’
Deb actually felt sorry for her then, in spite of everything. But she also wanted to get out of there, away from the smells of burning rubbish and fish sauce and tiger balm; away from Luke’s mum. Luke was sweet about it: he changed the flights so they could leave early. He let her drag him away.
Deb pushed her cart to Room 17. She knocked and swung the door open. Mrs Ciszek sat on her vinyl-covered armchair. The telly was on high volume with one of those American talk shows – The View – where highly groomed women gather and peck at the news like a pack of crows.
‘Good morning, Mrs Ciszek,’ Deb shouted. She walked over, grabbed the remote and turned the telly off. Mrs Ciszek looked at her and her face lit up. ‘Good morning!’ she said. ‘You look tired, dear.’
Deb pulled up a chair beside the vinyl armchair. ‘I’m okay, how about you? How are you feeling?’
‘Good, good,’ Mrs Ciszek said. She leaned over towards Deb as though to tell her a secret. ‘I might go ice-skating today.’
Deb smiled. ‘I don’t think so, it’s 30 degrees outside. Did you use to ice-skate, when you were a girl?’
‘I grew up in Mazury, Poland,’ Mrs Ciszek said, ‘where the lakes freeze every winter. On ice I go very, very fast.’
‘Is that where you met Rob?’ Deb asks. ‘In Poland? Or did you meet him here?’
Mrs Ciszek looks at her, tilting her head. ‘Who?’
‘Your husband. Mr Ciszek.’
She shrugged. Deb passed her the white paper cup of pills. The cup of water.
‘La la laaaa.’
Deb took the cups and stood to carry them to the bin. She sat back down and put her hand on Mrs Ciszek’s arm. There was the buzz of the air conditioner and disembodied voices from the TV from the next room.
‘Do you know who Mr Abrahams is?’
Mrs Ciszek looked confused.
Deb tried again: ‘Abe?’
She smiled. ‘Yes.’ Deb felt a shiver of something – joy? – pass through Mrs Ciszek’s small, shrivelled body. She wanted to rip a chunk out of her own thumbnail.
‘The head nurse, Jill, is moving Abe to another floor. You can’t keep going off into one another’s rooms, sleeping together. It’s dangerous, in your state. And I’m afraid it’s just not allowed.’
Mrs Ciszek looked at her. Her mouth hung open, and Deb could see the place where her false teeth ended and her real teeth began. She blinked, her eyes watering.
‘Why would you keep us apart?’
Deb thought about Luke. About how, after sex, he always turned his back to her. He didn’t like to be touched while he fell asleep.
‘Mrs Ciszek, you’re still married to Rob. You forget this; you have dementia, so it’s complicated. We’re trying to come up with a better solution. But for now, please don’t be upset. Just for a while, you can see Abe in the dining hall, in the common rooms, but you can’t go off alone into one another’s rooms.’
Mrs Ciszek worked her jaw. She pulled up her dressing-gown, which had fallen off one of her shoulders, showing a thick, beige bra strap. Deb had no idea whether she understood anything. She felt that familiar lethargy again. She wasn’t suited for any of this. None of her training prepared her for this task.
‘Why not your husband? Why not Rob?’ Deb said, as much to herself as to Mrs Ciszek, not expecting the old woman to respond. She stood, her keys jangling as she did, and walked towards the cart. She pushed it to the door. She almost didn’t hear Mrs Ciszek’s response, which came just before the TV was switched back on, a creak before an onslaught of sound.
Deb sat at home in front of the TV, flicking through channels. A figure skater popped up on the screen – clad in tan tights and a sparkling leotard – spinning and leaping through the air. It was the Winter Olympics and this skater from Romania wore heavy makeup and a fierce look in her eyes as she leapt and scraped, glided and lowered, rose across the ice. Deb had never been on ice, but watching this small figure skater she could imagine how Mrs Ciszek must have felt. The wind rushing past her ears, the cold air on her cheeks.
She went into the kitchen. She had rung her auntie earlier, cancelling dinner, saying she was tired. Auntie said she understood but Deb heard the tightness in her voice. It wasn’t often that she came to visit. Deb ate three Weet-bix for dinner and made a cup of peppermint tea. She took it to bed, flipping through a magazine of Luke’s, a copy of Tracks where all the guys wore wetsuits and all the girls were taking theirs off. She woke in the middle of the night again, the screen flickering in the next room.
Luke was home. He was on the couch, asleep. The remote had fallen to the floor and she switched the TV off, put the throw over him and watched him cough and turn in his sleep. As he coughed she could smell what he’d taken in: stale cigarettes, rum and Coke, a late-night kebab. His face was creased from the corduroy of the couch, marked with narrow red stripes.
Deb grabbed her keys and walked out into the still night. There were hardly any stars, and the air was jasmine-heavy and humid, as though it might rain. She started her car and backed out of the driveway, drove out of the cul-de-sac and down the street. She didn’t know where she was going, she just had to go, to steer something in a direction she chose.
She thought of Mrs Ciszek’s words, as she had opened the door to walk out of Room 17 that morning.
After she had asked, ‘Why not your husband? Why not Rob?’
‘I don’t know him, so how can I love him?’ Mrs Ciszek had asked, not turning in her chair to watch Deb go. ‘Maybe I forget. Maybe I never did.’