His knees and ankles throbbed dully as he made himself comfortable. That was most of his energy spent and he wouldn’t move again until Debbie arrived. She would chatter inanely and he would pretend to be exasperated by her talk, but secretly he loved having her around. She was like a whirlwind and her enthusiasm annoyed and overjoyed him in equal parts.
He thought about turning on the television but he found morning TV shows to be vacuous, with air-headed presenters pretending to have important opinions on world matters, all the while posing and hoping the cameras loved them. The news channel would be better but he wasn’t sure he wanted to hear about another suicide bomber or threatened rumbles from North Korea. Morris sighed and sipped his tea.
He dozed for what only seemed a second but must have been almost an hour, because the back door was opening and Debbie never got to him before eight o’clock. Funny, he thought, how it was still so dark outside.
‘Hello Debbie,’ he called out.
He thought they were likely to be the only words he would manage to get out once she arrived. He made sure he wasn’t smiling; he didn’t want her to know how much he anticipated her entrance.
‘Who the hell are you?’ Morris asked, his old heart beating a bit faster in his chest.
‘Your carer has called in sick today,’ the man said without introducing himself. He wore black trousers and a white T-shirt with the Senior-Care logo, but missing was the identifying photo ID clipped to his shirt or hanging from a lanyard.
‘Debbie’s sick?’ Morris wondered if the man picked up on the suspicion in his voice.
‘That’s right. Debbie is sick today but I’m going to look after you.’ The man carried a small tray with a white plastic cup on it. ‘I have your morning medications ready for you, and here’s some water to wash them down with.’
’But I don’t like to take my tablets until after I’ve eaten.’ Morris protested. ‘They make me feel sick on an empty stomach.’
The man’s face remained placid but his stance was threatening. ‘I don’t have time to muck around old boy. I’ve come here as a favour to…Debbie, but I have my own work to do. Here, down the hatch and no arguments.’
But Morris did want to argue. He did not like this change to his routine. And he didn’t much like the way this young upstart stood over him like some pretend sergeant major. He was about to voice his displeasure when the man leant over him, clutching Morris’ forearm in an iron grip. There was the trace of a smile on the man’s face as he twisted it. The pain ran all the way to Morris’ arthritic shoulder, and he would have spoken up, but there was anger in the man’s face now, and madness in his eyes.
‘Take your medications right now!’ The threatening tone came through gritted teeth.
Morris began to tremble and tears rolled down his cheeks. Hot urine saturated his groin, but he had no time to regret not visiting the loo earlier. He swallowed down his pills. But there were more than his usual four and they almost got stuck in his throat. He began to gag and the man forced so much water into Morris’ mouth that he felt some of the liquid go up his nose. The tablets went down and he rubbed his aching throat, which brought on a coughing fit. Drips from his nose pattered onto his pillow and he wiped them away with his dressing gown sleeve.
‘See it wasn’t that hard, was it old mate?’
‘Where are you going?’ Morris asked the man as he strode to the doorway.
But he received no reply.
‘You’ll need to change my bedding. I’ve…had an accident. You can’t leave!’
For a second Morris thought about getting out of bed and phoning the agency that employed his carers. He had a good mind to report this man. He could describe him accurately. Morris was sure they would know the man in an instant, especially when Morris mentioned his massive build, and the star tattooed on his neck.
Morris yawned. The thought of getting out of bed seemed like a mammoth task, and perhaps he was overreacting, perhaps the man was too busy for patience and pleasantries. And besides, he’d only peed the bed a little; it wasn’t really soaked. He yawned again and closed his eyes. He truly hoped that Debbie would be back the next day.
Ellie jumped when her ambulance-issued pager went off, she always did. She looked at the small screen and saw it read P1. It was the highest priority and meant the patient was unconscious and not breathing adequately, if at all. At this time of the morning it usually meant someone had died overnight. But either way she had to get moving; there was always the possibility of resuscitation but only if they got there fast.
Her car fishtailed as she pulled out onto the dirt road. She hardly paused as she reached the highway, and with no traffic in sight she hiked up to one hundred kilometres per hour, maintaining that speed until she reached the outskirts of her small town.
She was first to arrive and keyed up the roller door, opened the ambulance and fired up the radio and Mobile Data Terminal screen. She entered in her login information and the patient details appeared. Her partner would take a minute longer to arrive so she radioed communications and eased the ambulance out of the bay. As soon as Erica got into the passenger seat she hit the lights and sirens and they drove off.
They didn’t need the GPS to show them where they were going. Morris Harrop was not a patient they would have termed a “frequent flyer,” but he’d been in the ambulance a few times, mostly after falls and once following a suspected stroke.
Ellie and Erica braced themselves for the corner, and again, further up the road for an old man who pulled his Ford Focus out in front of them without looking. It was a pretty common occurrence. This was a retirement town with almost half the population over sixty years of age. Ellie flattened the accelerator pedal as she passed the old man; all the time praying he wouldn’t decide to turn in front of them. They made it, and sped away with the siren howling all the way to the coast.
The sun was bright and had taken some of the chill from the air. The traffic was lazy at this time of day. The workers had long gone and the kids were already at school. Most of the traffic belonged to the older residents going shopping.
There was a car parked outside Morris’ house. He lived alone so it was probably his carer. Ellie pulled across the driveway and leapt from the truck. She and Erica pulled their bags of equipment from the side door and quickly went into the house.
It only took one glance to see that Morris was dead but Ellie listened for a heartbeat while Erica checked his pupils.
‘Fixed and dilated,’ Erica said.
‘No heartbeat and his peripheries are cold. No rigor yet. Let’s put the MRX on him just to be sure.’
They placed the ECG dots on his skin and watched the monitor display; asystole, nothing to shock, certainly dead. They stepped away from the scene without touching any of the surrounds. This was almost certainly a natural death but the police would still prefer no interference, just in case.
Ellie looked at the young carer; she can’t have been more than nineteen or twenty. Her face was pale but her eyes were red. She blew her nose noisily.
‘Are you okay?’ Ellie asked.
The girl began to sob. ‘I really liked Morrie. He was an old grump but he was special.’
Ellie touched the girl’s shoulder. ‘They are all special. Did he have any family?’
‘No, none that I ever heard about. His wife died about ten years ago.’
‘When did you find him?’
‘At about nine o’clock. I was called early this morning to say my shift was cancelled but I don’t know why. I think it was a mistake, so I came around to see Morrie anyway. If it hadn’t been for that call I may have been able to help him.’
Ellie shook her head. ‘He was very old. I think it was his time. I’m so sorry.’
‘It’s so cold in here. I usually get here and put the air-conditioner on so it’s warm for his shower. Silly old bugger used to worry about how much it cost to run, but now he’s died in the cold.’ The girl began to cry again.
Erica led the girl to the kitchen and poured her a glass of water. When she returned she began packing their gear in the ambulance while Ellie radioed communications.
‘The patient is deceased,’ she said.
‘SAPOL are on their way,’ the voice on the radio announced.
Ellie gave a small smile. Merv had been working communications for a much longer than her six years as an ambo, but his tone never changed. He spoke in a lifeless monotone, as if he was stoned, or drunk, or both; his voice epitomised deadpan.
‘Thanks Merv. Have a fun day.’
But Merv only grunted in reply.
The police had to come from Kadina, a town almost twenty kilometres away, because Moonta had no station anymore; cutbacks had played a huge part, the low crime rate was another factor. Old people didn’t tend to get up to much mischief. It was just a formality for the police to attend and oversee transportation of the body. Morris had co-morbidities, not unusual for a man of his age. His doctor would be there shortly to sign a death certificate. Then the old boy would be off to the funeral home only six or so blocks away.
The carer was sitting at the kitchen table, head in hands, but no longer crying. Ellie left her with her thoughts. She strolled to the dining room and looked around. It was so typical of an elderly person’s house. There was a china cabinet filled with all the personally precious items collected over the old man’s lifetime; now they were probably headed for the local charity shop.
The wall opposite the window was covered with photographs, as was the chiffoniere and the piano top. There was a black and white photo of a baby in some kind of elaborate gown, but Ellie presumed it was Morris, probably at his Christening. There were a few of his wedding day. His bride looked like a young Elizabeth Taylor and a younger Morris gazed at her with love or longing.
Ellie sighed with sadness. Every time they had a death on the job she felt a bit empty. The feeling would pass soon enough. She heard voices out on the street and knew it would be the police. Before she left she took a final glance around, but then looked back a second time. There was a recent photo of a man in his late thirties or early forties with jet-black hair and tanned skin. The photograph was in a plain wooden frame, sitting inharmoniously amongst the ornate and aged pictures. It was so out of place it made her shudder.
When Erica called her from the doorway Ellie jumped, Erica laughed and called her a “twat,” and suddenly the picture was forgotten.
Four more call-outs took up the rest of the day; two were long distant trips, and by seven that evening Ellie was too tired to remember the strange moment. She turned off her pager and poured a glass of red wine. Her two dogs sat on either side of the couch. There was just enough room for her to sit between them, but before she could be seated her phone rang.
‘Hi Ellie, what are you doing?’
It was her friend Sylvia. They had both worked as nurses in the surgical ward at the regional hospital in Wallaroo, a town that, along with Moonta and Kadina, made up the Copper Triangle. Ellie had quit when her dad became ill more than six years before, but the two had remained close. Ellie smiled at the sound of her friend’s voice.
‘What are you doing?’ she asked again.
‘I’ve just finished my ambo shift. I’m about to have a well earned drink.’
‘No, come out with me!’
‘Oh no Sylv, I haven’t even taken my uniform off. I’d need to shower before I’d feel human and I don’t think I can be bothered.’
‘Are you on call tomorrow?’
‘Um…’ Ellie could guess where this conversation was going.
‘You’re not are you? So there’s no reason why you can’t get ready and come out.’
‘No reason except that I’m tired and I really can’t be arsed.’
‘Please Ellie! I really want to go out and no one wants to go with me.’
‘Maybe that’s a hint; you should have an early night too.’
‘I’ll pretend you didn’t say that. We see life and death everyday, you know we shouldn’t waste a second.’
‘Oh please! Don’t try to shame me with your righteous philosophy when I’m tired. My body says rest, I say “okay.”’
‘Your body is being stupid. Come on Ellie, there’s a good DJ on at the club and when I drove past just now the place was packed.’
‘Seriously Sylv, I don’t care it’s packed with naked Chippendales, I can’t be bothered.’ She glanced at her corgi and retriever who were both dozing. ‘And I’ve spent no time with Hannah or Tyrion today.’
’Don’t worry about your dogs tonight. This is more important, and Nick’s car was there.’
Ellie almost dropped her wine glass and red droplets splashed her uniform. ‘Damn!’ she cursed.
’You see! You do want to come out.’
‘I don’t even know the guy.’
‘Well this could be your chance to get to know him.’
‘Sylv, I really have to go. I’ve just sloshed wine on my greens and I need to wash them before it stains.’
‘Perfect. Have a quick shower and I’ll pick you up in twenty minutes. Wear something stunning.’
‘No…’ but the line was dead. ‘God damn you Sylvia!’
There was a line up at the club door and a freezing wind blowing up the street. Seeing the waiting crowd did nothing to improve Ellie’s mood. She and Sylvia had argued during the drive but once they reached the halfway point Ellie gave up. She had to make the most of the evening, but she wasn’t happy.
Ellie looked at all the young girls wearing shoestring tops and mini skirts. They didn’t seem to feel the cold. They looked like painted dolls. They didn’t seem normal.
‘Most of these are kids,’ she complained to Sylvia.
‘I know but they are probably eighteen. They all look younger the older we get.’
‘My dad would have had a fit if I dressed like that.’
Sylvia frowned at her and said, ‘don’t rewrite history Ellie. You wore less clothes than that back in the day.’
‘I did not.’ Ellie rubbed her heating cheeks and looked away.
Sylvia waved to the doorman; he was a friend of her brothers, and he beckoned them in. ‘You old girls don’t need to show ID,’ he commented with a grin. Ellie gave him the finger and he laughed.
The pub was pumping. It was a small venue and the music seemed to bounce of the walls.
‘This place is too noisy!’ Ellie complained.
‘What?’ Sylvia screamed back.
Ellie shook her head and went to the bar on the other side of the room. She had to hip and shoulder past enthusiastic kids, dancing like they were throwing fits. Sylvia followed but paused to dance to the chorus of a song that Ellie only vaguely recognised.
‘Isn’t it about time you grew up Sylvia?’
‘Isn’t it about time you lightened up Ellie?’
‘Do you want to sit back there? It looks quieter. We might be able to talk without screaming.’
Sylvia shrugged, picked up their drinks and led the way. Ellie collapsed into her chair and kicked her shoes off under the table.
‘Don’t go to sleep on me,’ Sylvia said in a facetious tone.
‘I’m here aren’t I?’ Ellie replied between gritted teeth.
‘Yes you are, and thanks. I really needed to get out tonight.’
‘Don’t mention it,’ Ellie said dryly. Sylvia seemed tense. Her mouth was fixed in a grin, or was it something else? After a moment Ellie asked, ‘are you okay?’
Sylvia stared at her drink and ran a finger around the rim of the glass. ‘I quit my job today.’
‘Oh, you know what it’s like. I’d had enough of that bitch in charge. She rubbed me the wrong way first thing this morning. By lunch time I couldn’t think of a single reason to stay.’
‘What will you do?’
‘Oh, I don’t know, something easy that doesn’t involve so many frail egos, maybe aged care, or work in a pub.’
‘There are drunk egos in a pub.’
‘Yeah, well perhaps a stint in aged care. There’s an assessor’s position going at one of the in-home care departments. It sounds really cushy and the pay is pretty good.’
‘You couldn’t have known about this job just today?’
Sylvia smiled coyly. ‘Maybe I did already know about it.’
‘You’d been looking for an escape.’
‘Maybe. Drink up, I feel like dancing.’
Ellie groaned as she followed her to the dance floor. But once they were moving to the beat Ellie had to admit she was having fun.
Almost an hour had passed when two things happened almost simultaneously. At a break in the music Ellie’s phone rang, and from behind her she was tapped on the shoulder. She dropped her phone and only just saved it from being stepped on by a lad jumping on the spot while he waved his hands in the air, calling out to the DJ to play a song she’d never heard of.
She checked the phone screen. It was undamaged but she had missed the call. The ID came up as Peer Support. They always called following a job involving a death. From behind Nick asked, ‘did you have a bad case today?’
An involuntary shiver ran down her spine, but it wasn’t unpleasant. He had that effect on her. Ellie smiled and turned to face him. ‘An elderly patient passed away, but it was still sad.’
He nodded and Ellie knew that as a cop, he dealt with the same scenes as she did, and some were harder than others to get over. She and Nick had never had a proper conversation, just a bit of chitchat in the usual course of jobs that involved police and ambulance staff; car accidents and domestic violence mostly. He gave her a smile and she felt her face flush. She wondered if it was legal to smile that way. It turned her to jelly.
‘Can I get you a drink?’
Ellie shrugged and scanned the room for Sylvia. Her friend was now dancing with two women from the local veterinary hospital. ‘I have a drink somewhere.’ She looked over to the table at the back of the room.
‘You shouldn’t leave your drink unattended; anyone could spike it. I’ll buy you a new one.’
Ellie stifled a giggle but Nick saw it.
‘I’m sorry,’ he said. ‘I don’t mean to come across like a cop. It’s just that you should be careful.’
‘No, you’re right. I just don’t think anyone who is going to bother trying a date-rape would pick me. I’m a thousand years old and there are plenty of younger more vulnerable girls in this pub.’
‘Well I must be a thousand years old too, because you are the prettiest girl here.’
Ellie laughed and Nick dropped his gaze. She had the feeling that he hadn’t intended to say that out loud. His embarrassment made her bold. ‘Tell you what old boy, I’ll get us a drink. Beer?’
‘The draught on tap is good.’
Ellie elbowed her way past a huddle of girls, using the bar as some kind of backdrop for their phone selfies, and got the drinks. Then she followed Nick. He stopped briefly to introduce her to his mates. They had cop written all over them, and the tall redhead she’d talked to at length following a serious car crash the previous month. They’d been waiting for the retrieval chopper at the time. He gave her a friendly “hello.” The others just stared.
Nick kept walking and they sat at the same table she had shared with Sylvia. Ellie eyed off her abandoned drink, which now had a cigarette butt floating in it; quite a surprise since smoking was banned in all but the pub’s courtyard.
‘See,’ Nick said with a grin, ‘your drink has been tampered with.’
‘Yep, you’re right,’ she replied with a laugh. ‘So what brings you out in the middle of the week?’
‘It’s Con’s birthday. Otherwise I wouldn’t have bothered. I have a six o’clock start in the morning.’
‘Ouch! I have a sleep-in planned.’
‘Lucky girl! I have to wait until next Monday and then I have four days off.’
‘Oh well, you can be smug then and I’ll be the jealous one.’
‘So is that why you’re out tonight; because it’s your day off tomorrow?’
’No, not really. My plans for this evening involved a glass of red in my jammies and couple of episodes of True Detectives with my dogs for company.’
‘Sounds good. So what happened?’
‘Oh, Sylvia quit her job today so she wanted to celebrate.’
Nick gazed at the people on the dance floor for a moment. He pointed to Sylvia. ‘The tall girl in the gold top?’
‘Yes, that’s her.’
‘Isn’t she a nurse?’
‘Yes, we used to work together.’
‘So you were a nurse too?’
‘Yes. Technically I still am, until I fail to renew my registration and CE. I have to nurse a minimum of 450 hours in five years. I cover shifts when staff are on holidays for the local nursing home to make that up, but mostly I work on the ambulance.’
‘You had enough of nursing at the hospital?’
Ellie nodded and took a sip of her beer. ‘Just like Sylvia. There are serious management issues at our local hospital, but don’t go there.’
‘I can imagine. I’ve heard a few stories. So you like being an ambo?’
‘Yes I do, but I don’t know how long I can keep it up for.’
Nick frowned but said nothing.
‘I’m not paid. I do it voluntarily.’
‘That must be hard. How do you exist?’
‘It was okay for a while but my money tree has stopped bearing fruit. I’ll have no choice soon but to get another job.’
‘So why did you take it up in the first place?’
‘My dad died a few years ago and I felt a bit lost. Working ambulance filled that void.’
‘What sort of work will you look for?’
‘I don’t really know. I haven’t given it much thought. I guess I assumed my inheritance would last a bit longer.’
‘SAPOL have a website which includes non-operational positions. Here, I’ll write it down for you.’
He scribbled on the back of his beer coaster but as he handed it to her one of his mates at the bar yelled out something lewd, followed by a wolf-whistle. He put a hand to his forehead and uttered an apology.
’You don’t have to be sorry Nick. If the rolls were reversed Sylvia would have done the same thing if I’d given you my number.’
‘But I didn’t give you my number.’
‘Well…no, but they obviously thought you had.’ Ellie was aware that her tone was huffy, but she couldn’t help it, his comment had upset her.
‘I’d love to give you my number,’ he said quickly, ‘but only if you promise you’ll call me.’
She grinned at him and picked up her glass, aware that her cheeks were glowing, but not caring.
‘Sure,’ she said as she clinked her glass against his. ‘It’s a deal.’
Another comment was fired from the bar. Ellie glanced at Nick but he was staring at his shoe. His smile aped her own. Her breath came out as a giggle. It had been a long time since she’d felt so happy.