Ben was four-years-old with a new friend and an old hero. His hero, Batman never out of his sight, until today when he’d left it with his new friend. His new friend was ninety-four-years-old and lived in Asher House Cook aged care home with twenty-three others of similar age and varying degrees of fragility. He took Batman with him to his day care centre trip to the aged care home, part of a new initiative called the Full Circle program.
When she picked him up later his mum asked him about the trip.
‘I have a new friend called – I forget – but she’s my friend, she loves me. I gave her my Batman.’
He had so many Batmen, Batmans…what is the plural of a superhero, she thought, ‘he won’t miss one.’
As Rose was put back to bed after tea that night the carer found a small black plastic cape, a small black plastic sword, together with a tiny black and yellow figure.
‘These are dangerous to have around you, Rose, where did they come from? I’ll get rid of them for you.’
‘Don’t you fucking touch them!’ snarled Rose, who was promptly sedated for the night in fear of her becoming unmanageable. Rose was one a group of women residents nicknamed the ‘violent crumbles’, assertive, feisty and frail.
The next morning a slightly groggy Rose found Batman and tried to snap the tiny sword into the even tinier hand, and gave up, tried to fit the cape. She’d have to wait until someone came by and ask them for help. The young woman who came by, she thought she had been called Nigella but also thought that can’t be right, it didn’t look like that on her name tag. The young carer was lovely thought Rose, and she did help her with the Batman figure.
‘I didn’t take you for a superhero fan’, Nigella teased.
‘Well,’ said Rose ‘I do like a man with superpowers, but I’d prefer him lifesize and to not wear a cape. I do have a new friend though; he came with that school group yesterday and gave me his toy. It’s more than a toy though isn’t it? What is a toy to a small boy? I’ll tell you what a toy is to a small boy’.
‘It’s a friend, a confidante, a companion on wild adventures, someone with whom one shares heroic stories and feats of bravery, a co-conspirator in plots against one’s parents. So, he didn’t give me a toy, really did he?’
‘No’, said Nigella, entranced.
‘Do you know what he gave me?’ asked Rose. ‘He gave me a reason to make a cake.’
‘Hey – you have a Batman too Rose, I can see it!’, cried the four-year-old a week later.
‘Yes, and do you remember, of course you do, you’re four, you left Batman here to look after me last week.’
‘Batman’s good at looking after people, he’s my favourite.’
‘Well,’ said Rose, ‘he did such a good job and he helped me in the kitchen to make a surprise.’
‘Where’s the surprise?’
‘I’ll ring my bell and Nigella will bring it out.’ She rang the bell, and the carer, who’d helped Rose with the Batman cake, brought it out, complete with yellow and black icing, and a printed list of the ingredients in case of allergies.
The day care staff checked the list, pronounced the cake safe to eat, despite the colour scheme resembling a radioactive warning. Maybe there’s something in this Full Circle program after all, the day care director thought as she posted photos of the day to Story Park. Cake, kids, and older people, smiling, laughing, Batman in a different place in each photo.
Rose’s new friend pestered his mother to take him to see Rose on the weekend. She put him off so often, yet he persisted. ‘No’, she said again, and so he took himself off to see Rose. He was at the front door struggling to turn the key and hang on to his backpack. He couldn’t do it, and so she found him crying with frustration. The backpack was filled with clothes, toys, snacks, and a drink bottle with a loose top.
‘Why did you pack pyjamas?’
‘I’m having a sleepover at Rose’s home.’
Two hours later she pulled into the carpark at Rose’s home, ‘Yes, that’s right Mum, this is where she lives.’
She rang a bell, they were allowed in, to be told by a uniform it wasn’t visiting hours. She explained, the uniform listed visiting hours, she reasoned, heard the hours again, raised her voice, so did the uniform and then she noticed her four-year-old was not beside her, she cried out. The boy’s face appeared around a partially open door, ‘I found Rose, Mum.’ Showing a rare moment of wisdom, the uniform found some errant paperwork to be shuffled into order.
‘Rose, I’m not coming for a sleepover.’
‘Just as well young man, there’s barely room for me and Batman.’
The two women chatted; the young mother opened her phone to show Rose the pictures of them all with the cake.
‘These are lovely photos, you know I moved Batman around, and wondered if anyone noticed.’
‘Well, he did,’ they both laughed, ‘Rose you’ve not been hungry today?’, indicating the untouched meal, unopened plastic container of fruit salad, plastic cutlery still wrapped in the serviette.
‘Oh, I’m hungry, just with my hand’, she brought it out from under the bed covers, ‘the cannula had come out during the night and when the nurse, carer cleaned it and fixed it she also bandaged my fingers too, so I’ve not been able to open anything. They get so busy, and some of the others need more help than me, so I was waiting until someone came along.’
‘Let me help if you want to eat now?’
The uniform came along as she buttered Rose’s bread, muttered something about as long as you’re being useful you can stay, and vanished. Batman and the boy sat eating one of his snacks. They left halfway through visiting hours, there were no other cars in the carpark, maybe there’s another car park she thought, not believing it for a minute.
That night she and her husband talked about it and agreed Rose would be invited to lunch next Sunday, she’d call in during the week on her way to work, ask Rose and if she wanted to, make all the arrangements, no doubt there’d be paperwork.
There were four Sunday lunches with Rose, and to everyone’s surprise ‘lunch with Rose’ was the highlight of their week. Rose revealed she was an historian.
‘When I started studying history, I was told that history brings people alive, now I rather think that people bring history alive. If I were on Mastermind, my special subject would be ‘Australia in the 1950s’. I spent ten years absorbing that decade, followed by forty years studying, interviewing, writing, and talking about that one ten years, four years to each year of the Fifties. I have read every edition of the capital city newspapers of that time, countless regional papers. How smug we were then in our splendid isolation. Sunday lunch is not a time for politics though is it; it’s a time for stories and maybe a small glass of that red wine?’
He fetched her wine and as he walked around beside her to pour it, she fell against him, asleep. He gently sat her up and propped her up with cushions from the lounge on the chair beside her. Her feet slipped out as he moved her, her long skirt caught slightly, an ankle bracelet, tearing the hem of the skirt.
His wife googled Rose Peters and found her Wikipedia entry, read bits aloud.
‘Rose Peters PhD, dux of her school, university medal, captained the university debating team, Rhodes scholar, arrested during the Springboks tour.’
He said, ‘and now she’s asleep in our lounge room.’
‘Don’t worry, I don’t think she’ll be too much trouble today.’
‘I’m not asleep,’ said Rose, ‘and what are all these fucking cushions doing around me?’
‘Rose said ‘fuck’’, said the four-year-old.
‘It’s a grown-up word,’ said his mother, ‘Rose is a grown-up, you’re not so we don’t want you to use grown-up words.’
‘I can use four-year-old words?’
‘That’s a perfect explanation, ‘said Rose, ‘I must remember that for when I’m next told not to swear, corrected by unctuous children with guitars singing lyrics of which no one who went to school for even a year would be proud.’
‘Rose, your bracelet, it caught on your skirt, would you like me to mend it?’
Rose gathered her skirt and took a close look at the tiny tear, ‘don’t worry about it, she said, ‘that bracelet has caught so many times the whole hem is double stitched. Nigella wants to mend it so let’s do that shall we?’
‘It’s unusual,’ said Ben’s mother, still on her knee beside Rose, ‘may I have a closer look?’
‘Of course,’ said Rose, bending to unfasten the clasp.
‘Why it’s a bear, so delicate!’
‘We’re going on a bear hunt,’ cried Ben as he skipped from the room, ‘it’s gunna be a big one…we’re not scared, we’re not scared.’
‘There’s a story here isn’t there?’
‘The bracelet was a gift from Nelson Mandela,’ laughed Rose. You might remember he came to Australia in 1990. He gave a thank-you speech to hundreds of us who had protested apartheid at the Tent Embassy at Old Parliament House. I was introduced to him and he gave me this bracelet, it was a pendant then. I hate anything around my neck so had it made into a bracelet.’
‘I asked him why, here in this tent, surrounded by the bitter evidence of our indigenous people’s struggle, he’d given me a gift?’
‘He was so patient,’ said Rose. ‘He waited so long to answer I thought I had offended him, then he smiled and explained.. The pendant was made and given to him by an Anishinaabe elder in Vancouver who made jewellery to show how we are all connected on Mother Earth, how everything is connected. He told the jeweller that when he heard of the lobbying, while he was in jail, of the Canadian Prime Minister and the protests in Australia, he felt the connections, that relationships are integral to freedom.’
‘That’s why he gave it to me, “I think you feel it too,’’ he said.’
‘It’s even more precious to me now I am at Asher House.’ Rose smiled and looked up at Ben’s dad and said, ‘would you put those cushions back, I could do with a few minutes with my memories.’ And she was asleep as he put a blanket over her knees.