The day before we left for Bencubbin I raced around town getting ready for the trip. It was hot, and surely would be hotter in the wheatbelt. We needed food and drink, but mostly the latter. I thought Robin needed new pyjamas to cheer things up a bit. I raced into Myer where they had a sale, and found stacks of cheap cotton summer pjs in bright prints: cherries, flowers, stripes and checks. I bought a couple of sets, and headed off, but once out in the street I thought some more and turned around and went back to buy some for Caitlin and me. One set each of stripes and checks. After that I ran off to get a decent car before the rental company closed.
That night I spoke to Cait on the phone. Mum was not looking good. It was getting harder to get her morphine right. She was irritable a lot of the time, eating little, constipated unless Cait dosed her up with laxatives (which would mean bad times for Cait) and understandably anxious about where she was and what was happening.
The next morning I was about to set off when Cait called to say the trip might not happen. Robin was completely morose and unresponsive. Cait had called a nurse in to look at her. I said I would come to Alice as planned, and we would make a final decision then.
I was ridiculously cross, but understood her response. Why would she want the royal progress to Bencubbin when it signalled her death. One thing that was completely clear all the way through her dying: she did not want to.
I tried to calm myself on the drive to from East Perth to Alice Street. When I arrived the nurse was on the verandah talking to Cait. She was a new nurse, and she did her best to get a hold on the history. We learned that the regular nurse had visited the night before and had made what I thought was a mistake in asking Robin if she was depressed. Of course she was. Now.
She looked awful. Her face was swollen and misshapen. She was slumped in the bed she hated. She did not look like she was going anywhere.
She had about two and a half weeks to live. I did not know whether it would be good for her to go, but I wanted to do it, and thought it might be good. Cait was less sure I think.
So I bullied Robin into it. She agreed to give it a try.
The nurse seemed to think it was okay. It couldn’t make her sicker. She told us that if Robin died while we were travelling, just call them. If she was too uncomfortable, come back.
We laid her on pillows and sheets across the back seat of the big air-conditioned hire car. The weather was not too hot, and looked like it would stay reasonable for a few days. We had everything we needed for the trip. Oxycontin, anti-depressants, laxatives, vitamins, vodka, whiskey, beer, adult nappies, sheets of plastic, the wheelchair, maps, spare catheter bag, buckets and bowls, towels, limes, potato chips and camera. Cait grabbed a six-pack and ripped the top off the first bottle as we backed out of the driveway.
It was a pleasant drive through the hills, some of it very slow when we got stuck behind a dam-repairs caravan on the Goomalling Road. Robin was low but seemed comfortable. We stopped now and again to make sure she had water and whatever drugs were due.
We were booked into a cabin at the caravan park but needed to get more beers and decided to call at the Bencubbin pub to get them. As we pulled up outside the old building Robin brightened up, recognising the place straight away from her low viewpoint on the back seat. This was a place of her earliest memories, a place she visited in the back of a spring cart when her parents took trips to town. She had been there only once or twice in her adulthood, and not for many years.
It turned out that the pub was locked up for the school holidays. As we were about to drive away to the caravan park, however, we spotted a man watering a nearby patch of grass. He looked like a down-at-heel Tony Perkins. I pulled up and asked him if there was any way we could buy beers.
Yes, he had a key to the pub. He asked me to follow him. Cait stayed in the car with Robin and I followed this rather strange man around the back, through a series of unlit lean-tos to the interior of the pub, and then into one of the darkened bars. He seemed as uncertain about it all as me. He showed me the fridge and told me to choose what I wanted. There wasn’t a huge selection, and I didn’t have much cash on me (eftpos was out of the question) so I quickly helped myself to a six pack of Cascade. He didn’t know the price, and I don’t think he could read, but he showed me the list. I paid up and found my way back through the dark labyrinth to the bright wheatbelt daylight.
I collected our keys from the Mt Marshall Shire office, and we settled at the caravan park, which turned out to be a large graded area of gravel (no caravans), with an ablution block and laundry, and two newly installed dongers. We had the larger one. It was two bedrooms, separated by a kitchen-living area and a bathroom.
We bathed Robin and dressed her in her new pyjamas, and settled her for the night. While she slept and Caitlin and I sat drinking and watching the sunset in our new pyjamas, the inhabitant of the other donger, a locum district nurse, came and introduced herself. She said she had seen us in the car outside the pub and realised our situation. She told us to ask if we needed help with Robin, which was reassuring. She knew the area and the people, and told us that the fellow at the pub was an odd but harmless young man who used to live in the nearby scrub before he had been persuaded to move into town and do odd jobs for the shire. (I’m not sure if that included selling secret beer to travellers.)
The next day we drove out in the direction of Beacon, a town on the edge of the goldfields desert, wanting to find the old farm.We passed a brilliant salt lake. The whole area is salt thanks to over-clearing. By then Robin was uncomfortable and we couldn’t stop to explore, but I have returned to the area a couple of times since then (in 2009 and 2014) to take photos.
At one point we stopped on the road to give Robin her Oxycontin and water, and a car pulled over and the driver offered assistance. We were coping, but grateful. By then the whole town must have known who we were and what we were doing.
We couldn’t find the site of the farmhouse, but found the farm boundaries on the old Beacon Road (which our grandfather had built during the Depression). The red dust of the road had settled on the sheep, making them glow golden in the sun as they bounded away from the car. I was disappointed that I couldn’t find an entrance to the farm, but Robin seemed happy just to be there.
That evening, Robin slept while Caitlin and I sat under the huge sky drinking neat vodka and watching the sickle moon sliding beyond the horizon.
At about midnight, Robin woke and we made some sandwiches and sat around the little table eating our supper. Afterwards we took her outside in her wheelchair, and sat and watched the bright uncountable stars.
The next day we bathed and dressed Robin, and went to the Bencubbin Cemetery where Robin’s grandfather was buried. “You might as well leave me here,” Robin told us. She always had a bleak sense of humour, but also managed to make us feel guilty. Her grandfather had died during the thirties, and he and others who died at that time did not have headstones. (The shire installed them since.) We remedied this by carrying handfuls of marble chips from the edges of the graveyard and spelling out his name in the dust.
After checking out of our accommodation we drove to the town of Trayning, where Robin had been sent to board at the Josephite convent as a child. The convent was gone, but the church was still there, all locked up. As we wheeled her around on the hard-packed orange dirt she said, “This has been the best journey.”
From Trayning we headed for Merredin, where we had a booked two rooms in a B&B. It was the full-on doilies and lace disaster, but comfortable. While Robin slept in a double bed which we lined with a plastic sheet, Caitlin and I lay on twin beds in a room decorated in an attempt at orientalist Agatha Christie. It was hot, and we drank vodka with limes under the overhead fan. And we joked and laughed as we do when we are together, but this was special. Caitlin was exhausted by caring for Robin for a long time, and it was good to relax. But the the whole thing seemed a bit weird. What the hell were we doing there?
Having run out of vodka, we made sure Robin was safe, and walked to the Merredin pub. They didn’t do vodka, so we had some beers and went back to our room. When Robin woke up we went back to the pub with her and had a meal, and took her for a walk around the old Merredin Station yard. Most of the surroundings were familiar to her.
We wheeled Robin to the IGA liquor store to buy vodka but it had closed at 6 pm. That was disappointing.
After settling Robin in her bed back at the B&B, Caitlin and I were persuaded to sit and watch Poirot with the fairly useless caretaker of the B&B. We had a cup of tea with her, but had been drinking for most of the day so it was a bit of a trial.
Robin woke up the next morning with a case of sandy blight in one eye, something that plagued her as a child and which was probably brought on by the flies we had encountered. Poor thing. That on top of everything else. I bathed her eye and we got ready to hit the road. The caretaker was not very good at taking care, but said some of the right things. I think she was a bit disturbed by the presence of someone who was about to die, and by the way that we were dealing with it.
We drove back to Alice Street without incident.
Robin died less than three weeks later.
Caitlin called me on Friday 25 January to say that the nurse had visited and did not expect Robin to last much longer. I rented a car and headed up to Alice Street.
I made myself a bed at the foot of Robin’s, and Caitlin and I took turns in attending to her. She could not drink or eat and we had to soak large cotton buds in water and hold them in her mouth to give her water. She was on a morphine pump, and I hoped that this was sufficient to keep her unaware of thirst or pain.
We did not expect Robin to last much more than 24 hours. On Saturday, the family, brothers, sisters, grandchildren and all, gathered around. We brought in pizza. Robin lived on, and eventually, after viewing glimpses of the Australia Day fireworks from the top of Alice Street, everyone went home.
Sunday continued much the same. The nurse visited. People came and went.
I kept up skype conversations with David at home in East Perth, and then skyped with our daughter Sophia early on Monday morning. She had just returned to uni at Norwich after spending the weekend in London with friends. I had woken from my bed on the floor quite early on a lovely morning, and I took my laptop into the garden and started chatting with her at about six am.
David joined us in the chat at about eight. I went in and out to check on Robin, but could hear her breathing beneath the morning birdcalls.
It was all very peaceful.
Not long before nine we disconnected.
A few minutes later I heard Robin’s breathing change and went in. I woke Caitlin and we sat by the bed, Caitlin on her left and me on the other side, each holding a hand and talking to her. Her breaths were further and further apart, and then they stopped. I looked at the clock. 8:55. Being new to this, however, we weren’t entirely sure, and there followed some comical moments as Caitlin fetched a hand mirror, and held it up to see if Robin was still breathing. She wasn’t, but the movement from her electric pressure-relief mattress (which she hated) caused her to move, which was rather disturbing, so we turned it off.
We phoned Dan, David and other brothers and sisters, and I made a Skype call to Sophia. We called the Silver Chain nurse who organised the paperwork for the death certificate and counted up the leftover morphine vials.
There was a problem. A single vial was missing. No eye contact was made between the three of us while we searched for about five tense minutes, under the bed, among the objects on the dressing table and and trays of medication, swabs, tissues, rosewater sprays. We had to move bedding and pillows, and check under Robin’s body. It was a great relief to find it where it had fallen, behind a curtain screening a wardrobe.
Caitlin and I helped the nurse to bathe Robin, and dress her in a nightdress that was split at the back so that the undertakers could remove it later.
The rest of the family arrived. We called the undertaker and talked to him about “arrangements”. Robin would be cremated privately following a funeral service at St Matthew’s in Guildford. We would place her ashes in Bernard’s grave at a later date.
Later in the afternoon the undertakers arrived with their station wagon. The nurse had warned Caitlin and me that we might not want to be in the room when they placed Robin in the body bag, because it could be a grim affair, but we stayed. We then followed as they wheeled her out to the car. It was a hot still public holiday, and neighbours respectfully watched from their windows.
I stripped the bed, flung the hated electric mattress onto the back verandah and made a bed for myself in its place. I am sure Caitlin would have been fine moving in there straight away, but I told myself I was doing it to help clear the sick and death room atmosphere. In fact, it was probably helping me more than her. Caitlin and I had a splendid couple of weeks together, planning the funeral, getting drunk, talking and laughing.
Four years later, I returned to sleep in the same spot, alone in the house, waiting for someone to come and buy it.