The kangaroo paws reach into the spring sky, grasping and murderous red. The white concrete brings out the greens of the native plants, standing at attention in rows outside the aged care home. There is nothing natural about the garden outside Ursula’s window. She craves a weed. A climber grown astray. Not for the first time, Ursula craves wildness.
The title ‘aged care home’ is a misnomer, though. The fastidious professionalism, from the director to the women who empty the rubbish bin in Ursula’s room once a week, doesn’t imply care. It’s workaday, the daily grind, nine-to-five stuff, this business of aging. And the pristine garden, the plastic and stainless steel hospital beds, they aren’t a home. The lino and the Ikea armchairs in the day room, the cheap magazines on the coffee table, already creased by tens of thumbs before yours, the whole facility is a big waiting room. What doesn’t kill you just hasn’t finished yet.
Ursula has a plan though. She keeps it close to her chest, holds it tight with a secret smile. She bides her time like the other residents, but she’s not waiting for death. She’s waiting for an opportunity.
The days unfold with aching regularity. Rosters are drawn for feeding the lonely goldfish; bridge tournaments are started and abandoned. Jigsaw puzzles lay unfinished on side tables, crucial pieces missing. Pieces are missing from the residents, too. Richard Harper stares at a romance novel, nonplussed. Dorothy Baseldon thumbs remote control buttons experimentally as consternation erupts in front of the television. Ursula grinds her teeth savagely.
She’s been plotting for months. Since her family last visited. They were going on an overseas trip they said, off to Bangkok, yearning to use Wi-Fi in foreign climates, to stay in hotels where everyone speaks their language. People don’t know how to escape these days. But Ursula does. Ursula will run free, until she reaches the ocean. She will hold its timeless heart in hers, with her feet in the surf.
That visit was in August. Now, October, they’ve forgotten her. Never mind. Ursula is busy.
It’s a beautiful day and Ursula is up early, heading for the cards listing each resident’s prescription behind the door in the little office. Twice daily with food, one four-hourly, not to be taken orally, the runes and rhythms of deceptions for death and decay. Quietly, quickly, she will swap the prescriptions. While chaos reigns as the staff sort out the mess, Ursula will walk right down the hallway and out the door into the fresh spring air.
But now there’s a glitch in her plan. The system has been—she dreaded the word—automated. Each patient’s medication regimen locked in the unknowable heart of the computer; before breakfast, after food, before retiring, on the hour, twice daily, four times hourly, never during a full moon. Ursula watches as the computer system sends the staff scurrying; three times daily, four times hourly, at low tide, never while sleeping. No sooner has the morning round been completed than the staff must start on the afternoon round. The influx of managers and impatient IT experts overseeing the new system blocks Ursula’s path to freedom.
She has all but given up hope when Mrs Metcalf dies. Mrs Metcalf had lived at the home for what seemed like forever. The home misses a beat when she passes, and by the time it shakes itself and carries on, Ursula has slipped out of her cardigan and into the leather jacket that replaced the medication cards behind the door in the little office. She swipes a security card from the office desk and a bunch of flowers from Mrs Metcalf’s bedside. Finally, she ambles around the side corridor and uses the card to slip into to the day care centre, where elderly outpatients come to be confused by entertainers and crafts.
“Aunt Mary!” she cries, handing the flowers to a withered-looking biddy. “I came to wish you happy birthday.” She beams at the woman, whose confusion is mingled with joy. A short conversation later, the woman is convinced she is indeed Ursula’s Aunt Mary, as are the day shift staff. Ursula graciously declines the invitation to stay for morning tea, and walks out the door.
She knows exactly where she’s going. She walks as quickly as her unsteady legs allow, offering a gleeful farewell to the murderous kangaroo paws. She climbs aboard a bus and pays the bus driver with a handful of five-cent pieces, gleaned from last year’s Melbourne Cup sweep, when Geraldine went around collecting bets of silver coins, buttons and empty spools of thread in the bowl of a sunhat.
On the bus, Ursula sinks gingerly into a seat by the window. The world is bright and sparkling and made just for her. She lets freedom fill her lungs. Her cheeks ache from grinning.
When she arrives at the beach it’s quiet, somnolent. The sea breeze is fresh and wet off the sparkling water, carrying stories of foreign shores. Ursula walks along the sea wall, breathing in the world. This is what the life is for: for breathing and walking, for singing.
At the skate park young men throw themselves about without a care. One rockets down the ramp and falls to the concrete. Ursula’s gasp slips out before she can catch it. But the boy leaps up laughing, walking to join his friends in the shade with a languid stride. They are subject to a different form of gravity than Ursula. They must be. They move with a strange grace. Believing themselves indestructible.
Ursula knows she isn’t indestructible, but her heart yearns for wildness. Before she knows what she’s doing, she’s walking over to the young men.
“I don’t expect one of you would let me borrow a skateboard?” she says. Her voice sounds so old and small. The group freezes. Men too young to fear death. Old enough to go to war.
“I mean,” Ursula tries again, puffing her voice up in her lungs. “Maybe I could give it a go?”
One of the boys steps out of the silence and smiles. He’s tall and wears undisguised curiosity under the brim of his cap. Looking at him, Ursula is filled with the memory of youth, the taste of salt on the tip of her tongue, sun and long careless afternoons.
“I’ll hold your hand, if ya want.” The boy beams. Ursula’s heart is, ever so gently, wrapped up in the blanket of his simple confidence.
He puts the skateboard flat on the concrete surface where it sits looking innocuous. Ursula can barely bring herself to step onto it. But the boy extends a hand out to her, nodding his head, as if skateboarding is the most natural thing in the world for an eighty-four-year-old woman on the run from the Department of Aged Care. His face, so open and bright, belongs in this world of clear skies and vast blue oceans. She takes both his hands firmly. The world stops moving. The group of young men, the seagulls in the air, the waves roaring up to shore, they all freeze as she plants her trembling weight, one foot at a time, tentatively on the board.
The skateboard slips out from underneath her and shoots forward; reality races to get up to speed all at once, and the young man catches her with a neat hop. A wordless cry escapes her as her stomach lurches, and she meets his eyes.
“Whoops!” he cries, as though she were a toddler learning to walk. She catches a glimpse of the man he will be, the father he will become, a decade or so from now. “Not bad for a first shot though.”
He leaves her quivering, fetches the skateboard and sets her up for another try.
Half an hour later, Ursula is cruising around the skate park slowly, still holding his hand, balancing perilously on the board. Eventually she thanks the boy, blinking away the happy flecks of salt water that leak from her eyes.
“Nah, you’re right,” the boy says. “You did good.” He walks away with that leggy stride and rejoins his fellows.
The sun follows its resolute path across the sky and gradually the shadows grow long and distorted. The young men at the skate park disappear and a group of school children replace them, and eventually they leave too. The beach holds the ebb and flow of humanity, seeking sun, seeking the wildness of a body of water too huge to look at all at once. Too big to hold in your heart.
Ursula sits on the sand, wearing a cheerfully blooming sunburn, slurping a child-sized scoop of rum and raisin ice cream. In front of her the Indian Ocean opens its arms full of promise. Adventure beckons.
She slips off her canvas shoes and steps into the surf. The wet sand is cool and hard under her toes, and when the water comes in she feels the little eddies of grit and sea life brush past her and back out, into depths too big for memory. The ocean pulls like an inhalation and holds her, as strong as that boy’s arms, deeper than age. Timeless.