It was a hot summer morning and the gumtrees in the middle distance had that tick-ticking noise. I was sitting on a chair at a table outside the quietest café in inner Melbourne overlooking a golf course that stretched away up an incline bisected by a tramline. I sat and watched golfers in ragged groups making their way up the green and out of sight. Trams rolled by slowly as if reluctant to disturb the golfers. The coffee was OK, but I wouldn't go out of my way for it. The silence was enough.
The café was on the eastern end of a large square aged-care hospital building. After an hour I wandered around the corner and back into the sliding glass doors on the south side. She had just finished her occupational therapy lesson and was waddling down a long corridor towards the light accompanied by a therapist who looked like a sumo wrestler. Over the reception and waiting area hung a television broadcasting the Third Test, with subtitles misspelling Shane Warne's jokes. We walked slowly out into the sunshine and up a pathway, past a 1940s chapel building and out into Park Street. I drove her home.
I was between Parkville and Carlton all summer long. People complain about parking at the Royal Melbourne Hospital, but I know about a bank of free two-hour spots that are always empty within 300 metres of the front door. I used it a lot over summer. (Clue: behind the Old Melbourne Motor Inn or whatever the graffitied run-down mess is called these days.) Waiting at RMH is easy. There's always plenty to do. I had coffee in the canteen (it is still a canteen despite the baristas and wraps), read the paper, checked back to the ward, and then went out and moved the car to a fresh spot. Still no-one there; yet cars were driving around in circles trying to get a spot directly outside the hospital.
She had had three spells over summer; two falls and a fainting episode. She had stayed in for up to two weeks at a time; this time she was a day patient, to be scanned in one of those tank things. She was finished after a couple of hours and had to lie there for another half hour while the nurse gave her sweet tea to revive her. When she was ready, I brought the car back to the five-minute drop-off outside the front door, brought her down and drove her home.
While she was in hospital I kept an eye on the slanting old house I grew up in, and kept the wildly overgrown garden alive. I stood there in silence in the mid-morning sun watering pots; ancient orchids, geraniums, a rose, a cactus; and in one pot, a spiky grass thing that had not been the original inhabitant but had blown in, killed the first occupant and taken over.
Decades flashed backwards in a vortex. The house straightened up; the garden shrank back to a pleasing ordered geometric pattern, a hideous jungle of ivy sunk into the ground uncovering a garage which rebuilt itself; and a mid-blue Holden Belmont rose out of the ground. It was 1967. I was watering potplants. But they were not my mother's; they were potplants in a trellised outbuilding in the house next door. The owner was Mrs Snaith, and she was away on a summer holiday, probably at her daughter-in-law's beach house. She was very old, and she paid me to keep her pots alive and there were hundreds of them. I climbed the fence each day and walked into the kind of quiet I would never forget. Just the drip of the pots on their terraced shelves, and the hiss of the hose.
My own house had seemed a suburb away even though it was just over the fence. I could just hear the muffled throng of summer-holidaying children. I had wondered why I got the job.