Stepping out of her midnight blue corolla at ten pm, Abigail’s sneakered feet instantly sunk into the wet clay.
“For fuck’s sake.” She muttered.
She walked across the car park on the balls of her feet, unsteady like a toddler taking his first steps. Her heavy bag swung about her shoulder threatening to throw her off balance with each step.
At the back entrance of Oaklands Aged Care Facility, Abigail wiped her shoes against the jutted-out bricks of a nearby window pane, leaving globs of sand-coloured clay pasted to the edge. It would dry there, making Jim the groundskeeper furious when he sees it. Abigail chuckled to herself imagining the old codger in his wide brimmed hat and khaki green shirt cursing at anyone who would listen about having to hose that whole facade down and then having to clean the window with spray and wipe to get rid of the water marks. Like the residents cared if there were water stains on the glass. Most of them couldn’t even see past their own noses.
At the doorway, Abigail lit a cigarette and inhaled deeply, filling her lungs with a final injection of nicotine for the night. She was down to only four smokes and after this packet, there would be no more. Daisy had become increasingly vocal about Abigail’s smoking, ever since her principal died suddenly of cancer. Abigail’s daughter couldn’t possibly understand the difficulty in giving up something you’d done for more than twenty years. But, for Daisy’s sake, Abigail was willing to try.
With her final exhalation, Abigail watched the smoke cloud above her head before dissipating into the night air. The staleness of smoke hung like an invisible aura as she swiped her keycard and pushed through the door.
In the staff room Pete sat at the computer tapping away on the keyboard.
“You’re late.” He said without looking up.
Abigail glanced at her watch. It was true, she did walk in a few minutes after ten, but Pete had no right to call her on it. He was just a carer like her, not a manager or even a nurse.
Ignoring his remark Abigail asked, “Where’s Toni?”
“She’s been here for fifteen minutes already. She’s helping Sandy put Dora to bed. She had another fall today.”
Abigail chewed her bottom lip, resisting the urge to snap at Pete for letting Toni do his job for him. He was on the afternoon shift with Sandy, it was his responsibility to finish up the arvo tasks and then hand over to the night team. But if Toni wanted to take on the extra unpaid work, that was her problem, Abigail reasoned. She walked past Pete to the lockers and threw her bag into an empty hole.
Abigail left the staff room without saying anything more to Pete and made her way to the kitchen to make a cup of tea. She would wait until he and Sandy had left before catching up with Toni and checking the hand-over log.
Stirring sugar into her tea Abigail couldn’t help but mull over Pete’s remarks. She had decided long ago that she didn’t like any of her colleagues. If they weren’t snitching on one another to Barb, they were cavorting together like a gaggle of teenaged girls, always gossiping about someone. If it weren’t for the connections she had made with many of the residents, Abigail doubted she would still be working as a carer. She found their stories – though repetitive – fascinating. Old Dora has been a women’s rights activist in the seventies, and even Frank, though rough and completely sexist, loved a good yarn about his time in the war. It was all amazing to Abigail, who, even though she had spent years traveling around Australia with her ex-husband, Marty, felt as though she had barely even left the small town of Oaklands.
With her milky sweet tea in hand, Abigail made her way back to the staff room. The sensor lights flickered as she traversed the thickly carpeted space, highlighting the faded walls in desperate need of a fresh coat of paint. A television chattered in muted tones from a distant room, keeping someone company as the rest of the floor slept.
Rounding a corner of the passageway Abigail saw a grey figure hunched over a walker. He wore old slippers that dragged against the carpet as he shuffled. An olive green dressing gown was draped over his curved shoulders.
“Frank!” Abigail called.
The old man kept shuffling, leaning heavily forward. As she caught him up Abigail touched his shoulder lightly. He stiffened what little muscle remained of his upper arms and swivelled his head toward her, eyes wide like a cat startled by a loud noise.
“What?” He growled.
“Where are you off to at this time of the night, Frank?”
“What’s it to you?”
“Well, it’s quite late. Everyone’s sleeping.” Abigail kept her voice measured. Frank was oftentimes unpredictable, struggling like many of the residents with a touch of dementia.
“Hmph. Can’t sleep. Not tonight. The fuckers will get us while we sleep. Slit our throats from ear to ear.”
“It’s alright Frank. You’re not in the field now. You’re in the hospital, safe and sound, remember?”
Frank eyed the empty space above Abigail’s hair line. She watched his jaw clench with tension as he tried to place himself in the right time, the right country. When his body slackened and his face began to relax Abigail gave Frank a gentle nudge and guided him around in a semi-circle, making full use of the width of the hallway. Frank’s door was adorned with a poster of a fighter jet, a memento of his time in the Air Force. All the doors were decorated with a personal symbol which gave the residents something to recognise so that they didn’t end up walking into the wrong room.
With Frank tucked back into bed, Abigail made her way to the office, picking up her now cold tea from the hall table whence she’d set it.
Frank had a pretty bad reputation at Oaklands. Most of the residents avoided him and the carers complained about him incessantly. He was rude, abrupt, careless and sexist. His family never visited anymore. Rumours spread quickly when he first arrived that he had been an abusive husband and father. His daughter only came to visit him at Christmas, and Abigail could see in her absent stare that she was pretending to be anywhere else the whole time she sat with him.
To Abigail, Frank was like her own father. A war veteran who was mostly absent through her childhood. Her memories of him were clouded by stories from her mother.
“Your father was a good man, Abigail.” Sheryl had said to a sullen teenaged Abigail, a year or more after her dad had died.
“He was the strong, silent type. But oh, he was so happy to have a daughter. I think he was drunk for a week after you were born!”
Sheryl had wiped a tear from beneath Abigail’s ballooning eyes, red rimmed from crying. She ruffled the top of her daughter’s head, the way Abigail imagined her father might have done, had he been there.
She’d been suspended from school that week, caught smoking behind the sports shed with Richie. Abigail was in love with Richie, but he’d blown her off after the smoking incident. His father was the local cop and he held weight in the town. Abigail watched him march into the Principal’s office, his leather boots making silent indents in the linoleum floor. He was an intimidating man and so it came as no surprise that Richie was quickly returned to class unpunished, while Abigail, with no father to defend her, was sent home as punishment.
She hadn’t even bothered to tell her mother the truth about her leaving school. She just never went back. Abigail got a job as an assistant at the local council office and helped pay the bills with what little money she earned. Marty was a town planner commissioned for a new housing estate. They were married less than a year after meeting and Daisy was born a year after that. Marty moved his family every two years chasing work, and chasing women, as it turned out. When she returned to Oaklands years later, it was with no husband, no job, and a seven year old daughter to support. She had nothing to fall back on. The job at the Aged Care Home was only meant to be an interim measure, until Abigail could work out what she really wanted to do.
“Frank’s been wandering again.” Abigail said to Toni, who was now seated at the computer.
“Hmmm, he does that” Toni replied. “Been through the notes yet?”
“Nope, coming to do that now. Anything to worry about?”
“Just the usual. Dora had a fall. She seems okay, just a little stiff. Doc’s coming tomorrow to examine her.”
Abigail and Toni made polite conversation while reading over the notes.
The next hour was quiet and the two women kept mostly to themselves. At eleven-thirty Toni stood up wearily from the computer, stretching her arms above her head. She yawned noisily.
“Are you going to have a sleep?” Abigail asked. “I’m not tired yet so if you want to sleep, you can. I’ll do first response to any calls.”
Toni glanced at the clock and nodded.
“Okay, well, just wake me if you need anything.”
Toni shut down all the internet browsers she’d had open and logged off the computer. Abigail resumed folding the linen she had brought in from the laundry as Toni slipped out of the room without another word. The door to the sleep-out alongside the staff room creaked open and then clicked closed. It was only a small room, previously a storage closet, with only enough space for a single bed and not much else. But it was dark and quiet, all they really needed to fit in a few hours of sleep.
Abigail busied herself with the laundry. While most of the other carers took every opportunity to sit on the internet, Abigail was somewhat of a dinosaur when it came to technology. She still used a flip phone which Daisy was mortified about. Whenever Abigail pulled her phone out of her bag when they were together, her daughter’s face would scrunch up like an overripe passionfruit and she would grumble under her breath.
“Mum, when are you going to upgrade that phone? It’s practically ancient.”
Abigail took little satisfaction in embarrassing her daughter, but she couldn’t much help it. She didn’t have the money for a new iPhone like everyone else. All her money went into Daisy’s schooling, her dance classes, her wardrobe and her own phone and tablet. What little support Abigail got from Marty wasn’t enough to sustain the lifestyle demands of a thirteen year-old.
“Shush you. I know how to use this phone. What’s the point in getting something new that you’ll just have to teach me to use?” Abigail teased, trying to brush off the hurt of her daughter’s embarrassment.
With thoughts of Daisy chasing around her brain, Abigail mindlessly folded all the laundry and begun ironing some of the residents clothes. It was the shrill of a call bell that brought her suddenly out of her reverie.
Even without looking at the switchboard, Abigail knew it was Frank pressing his buzzer, demanding her attention while everyone else slept.
Abigail walked down the hallway and stopped at the fighter jet. The door was slightly ajar and the sounds of the old man shuffling about the room came through the crack. She pushed the door open.
“What, who’s there?” He spun his whole body around as fast as his old bones could manage.
“It’s me, Abigail. You rang your call bell.”
“What call bell? What the hell are you talking about woman?”
Frank was clearly out of sorts, perhaps even a little confused. Abigail took a step further into the dimly lit room and reached her hand out to steady the scrawny man.
“What the fuck are you doing, you should be in the kitchen, Leanne!”
Frank reeled back, raising his right fist while steadying himself against the wall with his left.
“Leanne? What are you talk-” Abigail had only a second to try and calculate what, or rather who, Frank was talking about before she felt the force of his bony knuckle meet the side of her head. She staggered backwards, a searing pain shooting through the left side of her face. Abigail instinctively put her hand to her head and felt the warmth of blood oozing thickly from a cut at her temple. She glanced at Frank in disbelief, but the man staring back at her was just a shell. His vacant eyes bore into hers with as much confusion as she felt herself.
Abigail darted out of the room and ran to the office, kicking the door closed behind her. She sat in the far corner, clutching at her head. Her pulse thrummed in her ear, hot and loud. She couldn’t move. She just sat, motionless. Each time she closed her eyes she saw a leathery fist clench and thrust toward her. She tried to reconcile what she’d said or done that might have triggered his behaviour. She searched her brain for a shred of training in what to do in this situation, but all she could see was that white fist pumping through the darkness.
Every fibre of her body told her to walk out of the building, get into her car and never come back. Shock kept her fused to the chair, waiting for the answer to come to her. Waiting for the impulse to collect her bag and leave. Like she’d done with school, with her marriage.
She hadn’t heard the door of the sleep-out open and so was caught by surprise when Toni came wandering into the office, bleary eyed from sleep. She took one look at Abigail and rushed over to the other woman.
“Abigail, what happened? You’re bleeding!”
“Frank. He was in a state, just punched me out of nowhere.”
“Holy shit. Are you alright?” Toni cupped Abigail’s face and pointed her chin upwards toward the light.
“I’m going to call Barb, this is unacceptable!”
Toni got up and made a start for the phone, but Abigail reached out and pulled her back.
“Listen, do you want to go home? You must be really shaken up. I can handle the shift myself, or call someone in to replace you.”
Abigail looked at her colleague then, for what felt like the first time in the many years since they’d worked together. She noticed a faint ring of blue that encircled Toni’s hazel eyes. She noticed the deep creases etched into her temples from years of smiling too wide. She saw the wisps of grey hair that the other woman had tried, unsuccessfully to hide behind her ears. Toni was no different to Abigail. She was just another mother, another wife, another human trying to do her best in a world that seemed to want to beat you down at every opportunity.
Abigail opened her mouth, which felt dry and tacky.
“No, no, it’s all right. I’ll stay. It’s too late to call Barb.”
“To hell with it, I’ll wake her up. You’ve been put in danger and I won’t stand for it.”
Toni’s fierceness shocked Abigail. She pushed herself up from the chair and walked to the bathroom, splashing ice cold water onto her burning face. She wiped away the remnants of blood, now drying tacky in her hair line. Her eye was beginning to swell and Abigail patted at it gingerly. She stared at her reflection, long and hard. She didn’t recognise the woman she saw, the woman she had become. Weathered from worrying about her teenage daughter. About money. Years of loneliness oozed from her pores. What had she done with her life? Who had she become?
Abigail patted her face dry and went back to the office. Toni was at the desk filling out an incident report.
“I spoke to Barb, she wants you to complete this form. And, ah, well she wants you to stay here, at work.”
Abigail watched a swarm of crimson creep above Toni’s collar; she kept her eyes trained on the paperwork. Clearly, Toni didn’t agree with Barb’s decision.
“It’s okay Toni, I’m happy to stay.”
Toni looked up then, meeting Abigail’s eyes. As they locked onto one another, something passed between the two women that Abigail had never felt before. A single tear pooled in her good eye as she recognised the feeling. The feeling of loyalty. Of friendship.
“Come on Toni, we better just go and see if Frank’s alright. He’s probably just as confused as I am.”
As they padded down the hallway side by side, Abigail’s heart thudded violently against her rib cage. Her palms grew damp and too warm as she clasped them behind her back and then, clutched at the hem of her shirt.
“We should grab breakfast together when our shift ends.” Abigail said, distracting herself from the fighter jet looming larger as they inched closer to the door.
“Yeah, I’d like that.” Toni replied.
At the door, Toni knocked. After a few seconds of waiting, Abigail pushed the door open and they both walked, hand in hand, into the silence.