Across the road stands an empty and neglected house. The curtains in the main bedroom are torn and I have never known otherwise. The gutters at the front lean towards the left and can no longer hold the downpour of rain. A large tin shed stands at the back of the property, its swinging doors wide open and bent, revealing a dark cavern with nothing inside. There is no light, no life, no love left in this house.
On the nature strip are the vestiges of a shared lifetime: a 1970s kitchen table with three fawn vinyl seats, a striped folding beach chair, an occasional chair, a plastic bin, an esky and a milkcrate filled with the detritus of a meagre life. They have been left for the annual council clean up and after this, there will be no sign left of the lives lived there.
When I moved to the village six years ago, I occasionally saw the old couple sitting on the veranda of the house. The husband mowed the lawn, took the bins out and did a little gardening here and there. He still drove his small car to town, although plenty of people were worried about his fast-declining driving skills. His wife, however, mainly spent her days indoors. From my study, I would see her get undressed for bed at 9pm sharp.
The couple were private. They had lived in the village all their lives and had a couple of trusted neighbours who would look in on them. Otherwise, they kept to themselves. It didn’t help that the old man was deaf and cut off from world. I would nod or wave from across the road but that was my only interaction with them.
Most weekends their grown-up children would visit with grandchildren in tow. They began to take over the mowing and one day I noticed that the old car was driven away. The son could see that old man was dangerous on the road. Everyone on the street breathed a sigh of relief. Then, I noticed other changes too – home help arrived a couple of times a week and after a while, nurses.
The first time an ambulance came, I feared the worst. I found out from neighbours that George (I finally learned his name) had a ‘turn’ during the night. I was wondering how his wife would cope but at 9pm I saw her getting ready for bed as usual. A day or so later, George was brought home and life resumed more or less as normal.
The ambulance began to arrive regularly to take George away. I saw less of him in the garden and he rarely sat out the front anymore. Neighbours who had known them for decades began to rally. Some took out and brought in the bins, other did some shopping or dropped off meals. The chemist brought their medicines and nurses visited routinely now. I was beginning to wonder how long this could last.
The last time that the ambulance arrived seemed no different to all the other times. But George never came home. The doctors decided it was time for geriatric care management, a euphemism for moving to a nursing home. The family arrived at the house and things began to move rather quickly. Neighbours informed me that a place had been found for them at a residential aged care facility on the NSW Central Coast, a long way from where they had lived all their lives.
One day I noticed that no lights came on at 9pm and the house stayed dark. Family began to arrive at odd times to clear out the house and garage, removing anything salvageable in their cars. Finally, all that was left was were the few items on the footpath.
I look at these forlorn leftovers and feel downcast. Is this what awaits us all? Cherished memories sitting at the kitchen table wiped away with a wet cloth and put out for council collection? It is almost too much to bear.
I wonder how the old couple is now and whether I will ever hear news about them again. I know they never wanted to leave this pretty little village that was home to them for over 90 years. Perhaps they are stronger than I think. I hope so. And I hope they can sit side by side for as long as they have left with one another as they once did on their front veranda.