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Sunday 11 October 2009

Old Man Praying

Posted in: NZ Writing
By Steve Attwood - 30th July 2006

I saw an old man praying, in Starbucks, on Karangahape Road.

There was reverence in his cadaverous face at that moment, and when he took off his cap his hair drifted in long white cirrus, gracing shoulders that were showing, too sharp, too thin, through a tidy hand-knitted jersey.

And there he stood, eyes closed, cap clasped in blue-vein hands, giving thanks for coffee in a paper cup and a thin white-bread sandwich. His lips moved silently.

Prayer said, he returned his cap, sat, meticulously unfolded his paper napkin and placed it across his lap. He ate in small bites. Chewing long on each piece, as if contemplating the nuance of flavour; perhaps divining the origin of the mustard, the quality of the ham, the craft of the baker. Perhaps not. Perhaps just dreaming. 

His meal finished he folded the napkin neatly and placed it in the plastic sandwich case, which he re-clasped before setting it, precisely, in the centre of the table. Then he wrapped his hands around the coffee, cupping its warmth into him for long moments before taking one, two, deep swallows and setting the cup aside.

I’d finished my own coffee and was heading to the toilet when he rose and walked carefully, wobbling like a Thunderbird puppet, in the same direction. At the urinal he fussed with his penis for a long time before his urine came in fits and starts. The effort of waiting, checking, shaking and zipping seemed to exhaust him. As he stood at the basin washing his hands I could hear him panting, his breath misting the mirror in there-and-gone-again pulses.

He would have sat, I think, at a table again, to rest, but the restaurant was full and, with no coffee to justify his claim on a space, he hesitated only a moment before turning to the door, which I held for him.

“Thank you son,” he said, placing a light hand on my shoulder. “Very kind.” And then he was gone, lost in the Saturday brunch crowd that enveloped him, hassled and hurried past him, and bundled him away toward the bus stop.

He was praying again when next I saw him.

“Come straight in when you get here,” I had been instructed by a man calling himself Bill whose voice snagged unsuccessfully at my memory. “I’ll be home all day, come any time.”

A new power point was required in an old weatherboard cottage that sat, tidy but showing its age, in a street comprised of restored homes of the same era. On the gate, a brand new “for sale” sign.  The cottage, given its location in a small side street just off Ponsonby Road, would be a bargain, but it was clear a lot of work and money would be needed to have it equal the appeal, and value, of its neighbours.

He was sitting at an old table in a dining area just off a lean-to kitchen at the rear of the house, a meals-on-wheels package placed before him. Same knitted jersey, same hands clasped in prayer. I was intruding.

“I’m sorry, shouldn’t have come at lunch time, shall I come back later?”

He looked up and smiled.

“Oh, no lad this’ll wait. Let me show you where the plug’s to go and you can get on. I expect you’re busy.”

Bill led me toward what I guessed would be the master bedroom. These old cottages all had much the same layout. As a local sparky I made a good enough living servicing the needs of new owners of “doer uppers” who wanted better wiring, more plugs and improved lighting.

“Don’t mind James,” he said, as he reached for the bedroom door. “If he’s asleep he won’t hear you and if he’s awake . . . well, he won’t mind the disturbance, you’ll see.”

The bedroom was dark, despite the single bulb in a yellowed shade hanging from the centre of the ceiling, and the filtered light coming through the tree-shrouded window facing onto the street. A new lamp stand, modern, quality, but out of sorts with the room, sat unlit at the bed head.

“James,” he called quietly, “there’s a lad here to put in the plug.”

There was no answer or movement from the huge old bed, where I could barely make out the occupant propped up on pillows on the side furthest from the window.

Bill leaned over the bed, searching for and taking the hand of the ancient man who was nestled there. Nicotine fingers caressed James’s wrist in a professional way, lingering for a moment that was clearly as much a check for pulse as it was loving touch.

“Ah,” a smile from the gloom by the bed, “he’s just asleep. It’s behind the bed that we need it. We want to plug the lamp in there. I don’t want any more cords across the floor from the plug by the door, there’s too much in it already.”

That was for sure! A tangle of cords and double plugs sprouted from the wall; leading to a heater, up to the dresser where there was a toaster and electric jug, under the bed to power an electric blanket, one to a small television on a tea trolley, and two more to a collection of what I could now make out beside the bed as an assortment of medical gadgetry, one of which I recognised as a morphine pump.

As predicted, James slept through the whole procedure. I ran wires and installed a pair of plugs, one each side of the bed, swapped the electric blanket cords to one, plugged the new lamp into the other and flicked it on, revealing the room. The ceiling was plaster, aged by generations of nicotine; walls, a 50’s wallpaper divided two-thirds of the way up with a dark-varnished picture rail; this matched by a tongue-in-groove floor and a heavy wardrobe and dresser, both with brass fittings. Everything was tidy and clean, just old.

On the dresser, next to the toaster and jug, was a photo of two young men in army uniform, one clearly a few years older than the other. The younger, I recognised as Bill. I assumed the other was James. They looked alike. I went in search of Bill.

He was washing dishes in the kitchen, but stopped, dried his hands and led me to the table.

“Will you have a cup of tea?” He was panting slightly. “I don’t think it’s done any more, to give tradesmen tea, is it? But if you’ve time, you could have one while I write a cheque. How much is owed?”

“I’ll write you out an invoice, the pad’s in my van, I’ll get it and, yes, tea would be nice, thanks. Milk, no sugar.”

It was well past lunchtime and I was hungry. I grabbed my lunchbox, the invoice pad, and a six-plug power board and went back inside.

“Do you a deal Bill,” I said. “Let me sit and have my lunch here with that cup of tea and I’ll throw in this power board. It’s got a surge protector, and a fuse for each point. Much safer than that fire hazard you’ve got running all that stuff in your brother’s room.”

“Brother?” Bill smiled as he took my account and wrote a cheque, adding $50.  “For the power board,” he said. “Charity isn’t necessary. We seem to live poorly, I know, but we’re just not the throw away types. If it works, we’ve kept it. If it doesn’t, it’s replaced. Our needs have always been simple.” He sat at the table and sipped on his tea. “We’ve done well enough, James and I, and could easily have done more to brighten this place up, but there’s always been family – my nieces and nephews, his sister - none of them manage money well. I’ve lost count of how often we’ve rescued them. A holiday, a good one, once a year, though neither of us can travel now, clothes when we need them, always good quality, and enough on the house to keep it together and dry, that’s all.” The long speech started another bout of panting, interrupted by a new voice from the hallway door.

“Stop underselling yourselves Bill, you know that’s not all. Truth is, what the family doesn’t get, the church does.” The man turned to me. “I see James’ new lamp has a plug, about time. You must be the electrician, I’m Frank.”

He was the most unholy vicar I’d ever met. Young, wild hair, a tattoo poking above the dog collar, ear piercings, Sam Hunt stove pipes and black Docs.

“St Mary’s organ restoration fund has had more from these guys than they’ve spent on this place in the fifty five years they’ve been here together.”

“Fifty eight,” Bill corrected, “be fifty nine in four months. James says he wants to make the golden wedding. But, he hasn’t got more than a month or two left in him, let alone more than a year.”

There was neither bitterness nor sadness as Bill said this. It was just a plain statement of fact. “Not ‘brother’, you see,” he added, smiling at my puzzled look, “lover. Met on the boat bringing troops home from North Africa, been together ever since.”

A bell silvered.

“Three o’clock on the dot,” Bill said, “He’ll want to pee and freshen up. Be back in a minute, and then you can come in Frank, he’ll be pleased to see you, always is.”

Frank poured himself some tea and sat with me at the table.

“James will take communion once Bill has spruced him up. I call in once a week. Bill still makes it to church every Sunday, but, as you can see, even making tea gets him to panting. He has emphysema, James has cancer. Bloody cigarettes. The Army issued them to soldiers in World War Two and it’s been pretty much a pack a day each ever since. Until a month or two ago it was a race between them as to who’d go first. But now . . . Well, Bill is right, it’ll be James. The morphine pump. They never seem to hook them up ‘til it’s near the end.”

Frank knew the routine. He got up and made a fresh cuppa just as Bill came back through carrying a towel and flannel, which he tossed into a laundry basket near the kitchen door.

“He’s ready.”

“Do you mind?” Frank asked, handing the cup to me and picking up a small satchel. “Bill looks a bit shaky today, he’ll spill the tea. Can you take that in to James on your way out? Besides, he’ll want to meet you, you know. Hell to pay if a visitor comes in that James misses out on.”

The room smelled fresh, a lingering perfume of lavender soap rising from a still-warm basin sitting on the tea trolley beside the telly.

“Please stay,” Frank said, “This won’t take long and then he’ll want to talk.”

The vicar placed a stole about his neck and removed small flasks of wine and water from the satchel, and a silver container of communion wafers.

“This is my body, given for you. This is my blood, shed for you for the forgiveness of sins, do this, in remembrance of me.”

The short ceremony over I carried the cup of tea to James’ bed.

He looked up. “Why are there two plugs?” The old man’s voice was surprisingly strong. “We decided on one didn’t we Bill. One was enough. We’ll only pay for one you know.”

“You needed two,” I countered. “I’m sorry, I should have asked Bill but, this room, these plugs, you were in danger of being burned in your bed!”

James winked, and then laughed. A good strong laugh.

“Oh dear, oh dear,” he said, eyes watering. “Tea, pass that bloody tea.” He gulped a mouthful and recovered his breath. “O dear. I’m sorry lad, I was having you on. Oh your face. Bill, did you see his face?”

“You’re a mean old bugger who’s going to hell,” Bill laughed. “And you needn’t think I’m going to poke a hand through and pull you up to heaven when I get there.”

“Heaven!” James chortled. “You silly queen. What makes you think you’re going there? We’re a couple of old poofters, and last I heard, poofters don’t go to Heaven. Besides, I bet they bloody wouldn’t let me smoke in Heaven. Hell will be preferable I think.”

This outburst exhausted James and he sank back into his pillows.

“Thanks lad,” he said more quietly. “Appreciated. Nice to know there’s still some Christian blokes in the world. Well, I’ll sleep now.”

“Thanks for staying to chat, it meant a lot,” Bill said, as we left the room. “I knew you’d be the right man for us when you held that door for me at Starbucks.”

“But that was months ago! How did you know who I was?”

“Name of your firm was on your overalls son. I’m old, not blind or stupid.”

Frank followed me outside.

“Thank you,” he said. “You’ve made their day. Apart from ‘professional’ visitors like me, the district nurse and the meals-on-wheels folk, a few gay mates are their only visitors.”

“But family surely.”

“They’re takers, not givers. Be lucky to see them at the funeral.”

“It’ll be sooner rather than later won’t it?”


“Do you think he will go to Hell?”

“Because he’s gay you mean?”

I thought of my wife and her devout Catholicism, what she might say.

“Well, your hear it said, don’t you.”

“You hear it said, yes.” Frank waved back toward the house, the meagre but tidy garden, the fading weatherboards. “You know, those two have lived a life of faith and Christian charity that few these days will equal, and yet a third of my parishioners would have me deny them communion! But I like to believe that, before very long, tucked into a corner of Heaven somewhere will be a couple of old queens trying on angel robes and bemoaning the lack of cigarettes.”

“Me too,” I laughed. “Me too.”

I called on the old fellows regularly after that, whenever I was passing and there was time for a cuppa and a chat. Sometimes Frank was there, sometimes the district nurse, in the evenings there’d be occasional visits from gay friends.

One afternoon I met Emily, an elderly woman who brought fresh scones. Turns out she had been engaged to Bill just before he was sent overseas.

“Still love him, you know,” Emily told me. “He’ll always be my soldier boy. But, even then . . .  well, sometimes you know. I wasn’t surprised when he came back to tell me that the engagement was off. You could see in his eyes when he looked at James that love was there in a way he had never been able to look at me, even though we were quite comfortable together. If it hadn’t been for the war, we would have married, our families expected it. But he would never have been my husband, not in that way.”

It was Emily who phoned me a few weeks later.

“Can you come round to the boys? There’s been an accident.”

I got there at the same time as the ambulance. Bill was sitting on the front porch, his leg at an awkward angle, his face more cadaverous than ever.

“Leg’s busted,” he gasped. “Came out to get paper. Lost my breath. Dizzy. Fell badly. Thank God Emily came round when she did.”

The ambulance took two patients to hospital. James had heard Bill calling out for help and had tried to get out of bed, tearing the morphine line from his arm.

“We’ve decided to look for a place in a home together,” Bill told me from his hospital bed a week later. “Old bones struggle to heal. I’ll be crippled with this thing. Besides, I’m pretty much at the stage where I need the oxygen mask all the time. Can’t manage James now.”

“Where is he,” I asked. The bed next to Bill was empty.

 “They took him across the road to the hospice two days ago. Palliative care they call it. A place to go to die. But James didn’t want it, he wants to be where he can be with me.”

“I thought you could do that, in the hospice I mean, share a room, a bed even.”

“Could if he was my wife,” Bill said. “Rules you see. Have to be married to get a room together. But the hospice was prepared to bend the rules. I would be across there now if his family hadn’t said no.”

“Family! But what right have they . . .  I mean, they’ve never been near him have they?”

“Oh they showed up pretty bloody quick once it was clear James wasn’t going to be more than another week or two dying. Suits them to have him in the hospice away from me. Strict access, they’ve told the hospice, family only.”

“But you’re his partner!”

“Not legally. Under the law, James is single. His sister is next of kin. The hospital is sympathetic, but the law says she has more rights over him than I do. And she says James doesn’t want to see me.”

“But that isn’t true. James will want you there.”

“Oh he does, the nurses have told me! But James is in and out of consciousness now, and very confused. He’s not capable, the family says, of making decisions for himself, of knowing what’s good for him, so they’ve taken over. They’re religious you see. Want James to confess his sins and repent so he’ll go to heaven.”

Bill sagged back in his pillows, resting a moment, straining for breath.

“Oh, and of course, James’ estate counts for a lot too. They’ve already told me they’ll dispute his will, which leaves everything to me apart from $50,000 for St Mary’s. And the law’s on their side. The years count for nothing. Legally, we’re not family, he and I. The relatives will claim it’s not right for blood family to be left out of the will, and I’m too old, too bloody sick and too tired to fight it.”

“Well I will,” I said. “Give me power of attorney Bill, and I’ll fight it for you.”

And he did, and I did. A team of lawyers, theirs and ours. They’re still fighting. I won’t give up. It’s the principle of the thing. But James, he died a few days later with Bill never getting in to see him in the end.

We sat together at the funeral, Bill and I; him in a wheelchair with an oxygen bottle strapped to it, feeding the air he needed to stay alive. They at least allowed that. But it was the family’s minister who conducted the service, at their church, not St Mary’s, and no-one mentioned Bill, or the fact that James was gay, in any of the eulogies, the family wouldn’t allow it. So we sat at the back of the church, a group of us. Frank, Emily, the district nurse, the meals on wheels people, some of Frank’s parishioners who knew Bill from church, the palliative care nurse, a woman from the Cancer Society. Later, we went back to the old house, where a small crowd of Bill and James’ gay friends joined us and we had a wake of our own.

Bill’s in the hospice now. It won’t be long before he goes to meet James.

We had a small party with him last week, celebrating the passing of the Civil Union Bill. James and Bill, it turns out, had donated a lot of money to the campaign.

“Too late for us,” Bill said. “But for others . . . well, hopefully it’ll be better.”

When his time comes, Bill wants his ashes placed in James’ grave in the Returned Servicemen’s Cemetery and a joint headstone erected. Ironically, as a returned man himself, Bill is entitled to a grave there of his own, but the rules say only servicemen’s wives can have their ashes placed in with their husband’s.

The lawyers are fighting that too.

© Steve Attwood. All rights reserved welcomes short-format writing based on the joy of being gay or lesbian, whether it be verse, essays, anecdotes or personal insights.
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Steve Attwood - 30th July 2006