Don Donovan: Simple greeting that's painful to answer

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Demons and dragons abound and make growing old bloody lonely.

He'd often wondered whether if Beethoven had heard all the bleeps from the checkouts he might have found inspiration for a 10th symphony. Photo / Dean Purcell
He'd often wondered whether if Beethoven had heard all the bleeps from the checkouts he might have found inspiration for a 10th symphony. Photo / Dean Purcell

'So how's your day been?" The checkout girl didn't look at him; probably didn't yet know whether she was serving a he or she. She said it to everyone as they passed her.

He deliberately didn't answer. She ran a tin of rich red tomatoes (chopped) over the scanner window, a bleep to match all of the other bleeps bleeping from similar checkouts, 12 of them, lined up in a row like exit doors of a shearing shed. He'd often wondered whether if Beethoven had heard those sounds he might have found inspiration for a 10th symphony. Probably not.

"So how's your day been?"

Should he tell her? If he told her she would miss morning tea. That's what was really on her mind. "So how's your day been?" was just a rote incantation. She'd get a brick load if he told her.

What if he told her about last night, for example? Only three hours ago he'd rolled out of bed, his body aching in every joint.

Should he tell her how, at his age, you never got out of bed refreshed, you just ached.

The peripheral neuropathy that had been worsening for some years was so nasty this morning that the moment his feet touched the floor it felt as if he were walking on small, sharp chips of marble. Damage from the disintegration of the protective sheath covering each nerve, rather like rotted plastic insulation over a copper electric wire.

Should he tell her about a night of demons and dragons? Unconsciously re-enacting the quadruple bypass of four years ago; frightful images of a pulsating heart in an open chest, the diseased arteries cut away while a machine, relying on a tenuous electricity supply, took over its function, hijacking blood before it got to the heart, processing it remotely, then restoring it to the circulatory supply while a surgeon whose skill came with all the baggage of human frailty as well as ability, stripped veins from his right leg in four places and used them as grafts in place of the old tubes.

Might he apprise her of the scene change to a wife whose courage in the face of a double mastectomy made him feel cowardly?

Or how he ached for the health of his children and grandchildren; no child should die before its parent. His unachievable desire to take any of their sufferings to himself?

"So how's your day?"

Would this child care that he woke several times in the night his mouth dry as if full of blotting paper wondering whether that was a symptom of the type two diabetes he'd been diagnosed with two years ago? (As was the peripheral neuropathy, but he'd had that for far longer believing it to have been induced by chemical particulates from surrounding farms and the diesel traffic that passed his front gate).

What about dying? Who would go first? If she went first where did she keep the bed linen? Where was the handbook for the washing machine? What should he do with her clothes? Who did you call when you found a lifeless body in the next bed? What would he say at the funeral? Would he break down? Would he survive alone?

And if he died first? He hoped in his nocturnal phantasms that she wouldn't be fleeced by lawyers; that she would know where the money was. That she could keep the place going. That she wouldn't fall (she sometimes fell) and break her hip with nobody there to help. The dog lying loyal beside her, the cat, disinterested, leaving in search of food and warmth.

His sleeping, waking, half-sleeping, half-waking fuddled mind had tracked down the years last night. People he'd worked with; 42 years of working; duty; sacrifice. People who'd ill-used him. Thankless people. People he'd loved and lost: so many old friends dead. He couldn't talk to them; share memories, laugh. Old age is bloody lonely.

What if he told her of the awful shock of waking when you thought it time to get up but then saw the green figures of the bedside clock showing 3.15am and then you went back to sleep only to awake again and find that the figures had changed to 3.25am and you groaned and turned restlessly never expecting to sleep again until you woke once more to find your whole torso bathed in sweat, your rib cage cold and slick, the sheets wet, clammy, revolting?

Would she understand the relief of morning despite the aching body, the painful feet? Could she appreciate how, only now, three hours after rising, were the comforting realities of the day washing away the fearful fantasies of night.

"D'you have Fly Buys?"

He clicked into the present. Yes, the little blue card in his leather wallet. She took it, did something with it, then immediately handed it back.

"Credit card?" Yes, the maroon coloured MasterCard.

"Pin or sign?" He tapped in the numbers. She gave him the receipt. He thanked her.

"Not a problem. Have a happy day."

He walked a step or two away as the next customer confronted the checkout girl. "So," he heard her say, "How's your day been?"

Don Donovan is an Auckland writer.

- NZ Herald

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