This is a story that I read at Project 52’s Story Club, a fantastic event where people read amazing things at your faces. It occurs every month, much like my feelings of inadequacy!
EDIT: I recently read this story as part of the ‘Sick As’ reading at the National Young Writers Festival 2013, which was an absolute blast.
Unless your job is romping joyfully with puppies in a bouncy castle made of heroin and boobs, everyone has those days where you just don’t want to go to work. Maybe there’s a heavy workload and tight deadlines. Maybe you drank seven bottles of wine in the park the night before and yelled at teenagers about Captain Planet. Maybe the moon is out at the same time as the sun, and that makes you grumpy – and a bit scared. Regardless of the reason, one of the best ways I’ve discovered to overcome this funk, is by thinking back on the most horrifying jobs you’ve ever had. Not just the dull monotony of your high school fast food experience or the casual awfulness of telemarketing. I’m talking about that one workplace that isn’t so much a memory, but more of a deep pain that you carry somewhere in your ballbag. The idea is that this experience was so utterly soul destroying, that whatever you are currently undergoing feels like a jaunty walk through a cupcake.
For me, this was a summer job that my uncle kindly got me at a retirement village in North Sydney. Thin decrepit skeletons shuffling around and smelling of death and whisky – and that was just Milsons Point. No one really needs me to explain why a retirement village is upsetting, unless you are the kind of person who is uplifted by the idea of a place where people slowly lose every memory dear to them before dying. But I thought I was prepared for that level of sad. I’d practiced my understanding face in the mirror and developed a soothing tone to speak with, inspired by that movie The Horse Whisperer which I’ve never seen, and fundamentally misunderstand. And yes, these people were old, batty and sad but what I didn’t bank on, was the fact they were old, batty and sad rich people.
Much like a pickled onion, rich old people are like them. My primary job, after washing industrial loads of dishes, was to serve food and then remove the scraps. Sometimes I served tea. As a polite young man bought up in a house and not by sea-wolves, I felt infinitely qualified to do this. According to the aged tycoons populating this village, not only was I unqualified, but my method insulted every dead Anzac. Like in every ABC period drama ever, I would be sassed by old ladies for serving tea on the left side rather than the right, or not bowing as I exited the room or not pointing the multi-coloured mush they ate towards the sunset. Furthermore, because they were cashed up and possessed only a tenuous grasp of time, the majority of the residents drank like Hemingway all through the day. Or perhaps because they were old and in a retirement village, they knew exactly what time it was and not one fuck was given. While this might sound fun to you, this just means that when I served breakfast at 7am, many of the old people were a horrifying mix of fighty drunk, shouty drunk, sad drunk and most disturbingly, amorous drunk. And as anyone who’s worked in aged care knows, the delightful myth we propagate about old people not having sex is completely made up. In fact, there’s a huge problem with the spread of STI’s in old folks homes. But I’m not even talking about that – they can do whatever they want to each other. But because they all are stinking drunk, mostly blind and I am kinda pretty – I had to fend off the inappropriate gropings of old men all day. One dude motioned me over, got me to bend down, and then whispered in my ear
‘I can see your nipples.’
The worst thing was, after that I realised that he could actually see my nipples, as my shirt was indecently sheer.
There were of course some lovely people there, who were always perfectly delightful and polite. There were also the genuinely mad ones. Only two are really worth talking about. One was a lady named Beryl, who no matter what, always looked absolutely immaculate. Pearls, dusty mauve Chanel suits, a perm that could repel bullets. She also wasn’t allowed cutlery, because she tends to go for the eyes. When I served, she would sit bolt upright in her chair and stare unblinkingly at me, only her head moving fractionally as she tracked me around the room. Her mouth would quiver slightly, due to the intensity of her frustrated rage.The other was a lady named Fran who adamantly claimed she was a Polish princess and would make ‘special tea’ out of pot plants and pot pourri. I liked her a lot, because while she was off in a whole other world, it was a great world and she was happy there. Also, there was the outside chance that she was a Polish Princess, and she might leave me her castle in her will.
All I’ve done so far is set the scene. I’ve created a challenging ambience, a shitty backdrop to stage an amateur musical society’s version of ‘Cats’ on. Because while getting up at 4am every morning and coming to this place was depressing and hard, I was getting paid for it and I thought I could deal. Until Olga happened.
Olga worked in the retirement home as a nurse. Nurses are generally the most bad-ass, tough as nails, admirable people in the world. Olga was something else entirely. When I think of Olga, she’s always smoking the bitter end of a cigarette. Even though I understand that she couldn’t have been smoking inside, the complex pit of wrinkles and deep yellow stain that took the place of her mouth seem unimaginable without a cigarette in it. Olga had an accent which I can only describe as ‘generic Russian spy’. And she was the most depressing woman in the world. Perhaps because of the constant imaginary cigarette or more likely due to the sheer unholy weight of melancholia physically weighing her mouth down, Olga only ever spoke in clipped sentences. And it was awful.
‘Good morning Olga, how was your weekend?’
After waiting just long enough to make you think she mightn’t have heard you, she would exhale a long breath of stale smoke and then look at you from these dull, yellow eyes. Oh, and I apologise to the entirety of Russia for my attempt to mimic her accent.
‘My weekend was… not distinguishable.’
‘Bye Olga, I’ll see you tomorrow.’
‘Perhaps… perhaps you will.’
Olga got into my head in a bad way. I started having nightmares about her looking at me and saying things. I’d hallucinate her dry, joyless cackle. She was one of those people who only laughed when there was bad news. One day I was serving a resident tea and blood started gushing out of this old ladies mouth. I was horrified, and ran to get the nearest nurse. Unluckily it was Olga, who listened impassively as I explained the horrific nature of the medical emergency, took another drag on her cigarette, meditated silently on the problem and then while stubbing the butt out on the window pane, said ‘Ah, she always does that. I’ll get to her in a minute.’
By the time I came back, another nurse had tended to the woman, and I discovered the problem was actually a minor dental issue, rather than the lung rupture or heartsplosion that I’d diagnosed her with. But my problem with Olga and the job wasn’t just making me depressed and dispirited – I was scared. I developed an eye tic and once woke up in the night and vomited randomly after dreaming of Olga doing the crossword. I thought that maybe I’d calm down over the weekend, but knowing that I’d have to go back for another week of terror kept me sleepless and nervous. My skin went an interesting shade of translucent.
As I went in to work on the Monday morning, I honestly prayed that the train would derail itself or the place would burn down or my eyes would start bleeding spontaneously just so I wouldn’t have to go through with another week. I’d never felt so bad in my life, my fear and depression seemed to be manifesting at this early hour of the morning as some kind of feverish fugue and prickling pain in my neck. And when I got into work, one of the nurses, a lovely man who was saving up to buy a $9000 kareoke machine because why not, looked at me and kinda screeched,
‘What the hell is that on your neck?’
I’d thought I had a rather vigorous pimple, so was understandably abashed when he called over all the nurses and doctors to have a look at it. When I kept protesting that I was fine, he looked me in the eye and said ‘Listen, if there’s one thing you learn to spot a mile away when working in this place, it’s necrotic flesh. And that’s what the wound on your neck is.’
It turned out that I’d been bitten by a White Pointer spider, whose bite actually kills off your flesh, a bit like gangrene. If not cut out and treated with antibiotics, even the smallest bite can actually spread and kill you. If I get stressed, sometimes you can see the place where the bite was on my neck. So, it turns out that it wasn’t just my emotions that were making me feel bad, but also a bunch of poison. Things had gone from bad to worse, no?
But actually, the point I’m trying to make, that I’ve laboriously made my way to, is that the moment when I was told that I had to go to hospital instead of working at that retirement village, was probably the happiest I’ve ever felt in my entire life. The most pure explosion of joy to have even been transmitted to me via the medium of speech.
|I HEART POISON.
And that’s the lesson I want to impart to you all. A rare glimmer of hope in the seething pit of hardship that we call existence. Miracles can happen. Good things happen to good people – and also to people like me. I want you to go forth tonight with the knowledge that next time something awful happens to you, when you’re in a horrifying position that seems inescapable, you too might be lucky enough to get bitten by a flesh eating spider, which will somehow solve your problems.