This story was published in The Big Issue (#447, 6-25 December 2013)
I went away for two weeks and came back to find George’s home was up for sale. He’d lived in the cream and green weatherboard house for about 30 years, much of that time on his own. And now he was gone.
His health had been poor for as long as I’d known him– schizophrenia and its medication taking their toll. In 1996 I visited George, half-a-dozen houses away, once a week. It wasn’t a selfless act – he had a mid-sized snooker table in that sparsely-furnished house. And, despite his restless darting eyes, he could play, he could find enough calmness to lean over the table, line up the balls and pot them one after another.
I rarely won, content to adjust the numbers on the scoring rack and occasionally sink a red ball. We both saw the humour in the one-sided games and I joked about getting George a tracksuit top with ‘coach’ on the back.
Between games I’d try to learn George’s story. He grew up when this middle-class suburb was a working-class town. He had five siblings (Billy, Mary, Joanie, Nancy and Gloria the Avon lady.) He flew pigeons. He fished in the railyard dams that are now off-limits. He played cricket for the local tech school: left-arm swing bowler.
But sometime in his late teens it all went haywire. He’d hear voices. Russians, aliens. Invaders.
And, so, as his parents died and his siblings married and moved away he was alone in a three-bedroom Edwardian house that had seen better days. He marked his time with the radio and the television, with singing along to Elvis Presley records, with memories of cricketers (Bill Lawry, the Chappells) and footballers (Williamstown’s Max Papley was a favourite, as was Essendon’s Ken Fraser).
Meals-On-Wheels and district nurses were his regular visitors, and his brother-in-law Wally, who would bring around hamburgers one week and fish and chips the next. Wally would also bring his tools and do a little house maintenance.
After the snooker games of 1996 I was busy with work and three young children and only visited George a few times a year: early in the footy season in April, Grand Final time in September, and Christmas/cricket time. To a stranger, George looked a little wild. Greying hair uncombed, big whiskers unkempt, those eyeballs moving from side to side. But he’d grin and say g’day and ask after the family.
One of his in-laws had taken away the snooker table, so George and I would stand at the front door and chat for ten minutes, invariably coming back to tales of Bill Lawry or Ken Fraser.
But, then, after two weeks’ away earlier this year, before the start of the footy season, I saw a large auction sign affixed to George’s high front fence. I asked the neighbours but no-one knew what had become of George. I knocked on his front door, pretty sure the house was empty. I looked through the windows. There’s been no attempt to spruce up the place for auction – still different carpet in different rooms, different wallpaper too. Still not very much furniture. But I caught a glimpse of a record player in the lounge-room. And, in a bedroom, of a large framed Elvis Presley poster – circa the Las Vegas white jump suits of the early 1970s.
On auction day I find George’s brother-in-law Wally biding his time in the lounge-room. He fills in some of the gaps. George had had a stroke two months back. The district nurse found him after he’d somehow crawled to the front door. An ambulance took him to hospital and a week later he was admitted to a nursing home. 61 years old. “He can hardly walk anymore,” said Wally. “And he gets the shakes a fair bit. All that schizophrenia medication. Years and years of it.”
I ask Wally about George’s siblings, saying I knew that Billy had died last year. “Gloria, too,” says Wally. He tells me of another sister who has died recently but I don’t hold onto the name.
The house was being sold to pay for the nursing home bills. Wally gave me directions to the nursing home (“Past the lake and the golf course, just opposite Red Rooster”), right down to the room number, and then I stepped outside for the auction. I told a few of the neighbours of George’s fate and then saw his home sold off by an auctioneer who treated the occasion as if it was a sport, calling the bids like he was calling a horse-race.
A young bloke bought the place, a builder apparently. I thought he might knock it down, put up some units. But a neighbour mentioned ‘heritage overlay’, so I expect George’s home will be gutted from the inside and spruced up on the outside. The high timber fence might come down. Maybe a garden and a picket fence at the front instead of pebbles and concrete and garden gnomes. The walls with the mis-matching wallpaper will be pulled down, the floors with the odd carpets will be ripped up. There will be big skips out on the street.
On a sunny Wednesday I drive to the nursing home, 15 minutes away. I hear voices. A man moaning. I glimpse shrunken bodies in big beds. I smell disinfectant.
George is in his room, sitting up in a chair, trying to spoon sliced fruit into his mouth. He grins and says g’day. A walking frame is between his chair and his bed. I perch myself on the walking frame.
His left hand is unsteady. Putting down his spoon, George says “I’ll have the fruit later.” There are three drinks in plastic cups on his food tray, all with lids and straws. “Tea,” he tells me as he takes a sip.
George’s hair is combed back and his whiskers are gone. He looks neat, almost shiney. Spruced up. He is wearing a blue and gold Williamstown footy club scarf. A teddy bear beside the large television is adorned with a red and black Essendon scarf and a Williamstown beanie. On the television, installed by Wally, celebrity chef Iain Hewitson is in a studio kitchen nimbly cutting and dicing and cooking. “Nice braces,” says George, of Hewitson’s signature item of clothing.
There are two large black and white family photos near the television: one of Wally’s wedding – “That’s Mum and Dad on the right.” – and one of George as a little boy, playing with two sisters. On the bedside table is a colour photo of George, aged about 30, playing acoustic guitar, and a black and white team photo from his cricket days at the tech school. “That’s me,” says George, when I bring over the team photo. George, eyeballs going back and forth, shakily points to a mop-haired smiling teenager at the end of the front row. He starts naming team mates but I can’t keep up with his memories.
I put the photo back by the bed and we gaze up at Iain Hewitson. I hear a voice groaning down the corridor. I look out George’s window to a suburban street, a no through road.
Beside a wall clock that seems to be ticking slowly the sparse room has two A4 sized movie posters in the one frame: the early 1950s movie Calamity Jane starring Doris Day and Errol Flynn’s late 1930s version of Robin Hood.
I think of the Elvis Presley poster I saw through the window of George’s old home, and again on auction day, and hope it won’t end up with the old carpet, in a big skip.
Then George says, out of nowhere, “Bill Lawry made 282 in the district final in 1964. Batted the other team out of the game.”
I’m old enough to vaguely remember the last of Bill Lawry’s playing days in the late 1960s and early 1970s. “He made a lot of runs, Bill Lawry,” I offer to George.
Then we look up at Iain Hewitson again. He’s cooking from a balcony at Bondi Lifesavers Club now. Bright blue skies. Big red braces. I think about coming back one afternoon when the footy’s on, when Essendon’s playing. George would be talking about Ken Fraser and his 1960s team mates while we’d be watching modern-day Bombers Paddy Ryder and Jobe Watson, but that’s okay. I know those old Bomber names. Even some of their numbers.
I ask George about Wally and his wife. “They’re good,” George says. “They take me for walks in a wheelchair Wally bought.” He mentions another brother-in-law and regular visitor, Stevie.
Iain Hewitson’s finished cooking at the Bondi Lifesavers Club. A new program’s about to start.
I shake hands and say goodbye to George, half-promising to return in a few weeks. By the front door I pick up the nursing home newsletter, which mentions some activities for its 30 residents: ‘morning melodies’ once a month, short bus trips to the beach and the lake, ‘music with Mario’ in the common room.
Back at home I walk past George’s house and wonder if morning melodies or music with Mario includes Elvis Presley songs. I wonder if George would sing along.
There is a sad, but perhaps not surprising, postscript to this story.
I visited George’s nursing home in early December (for the first time in a while, admittedly), only to learn that George had died in late November. He was 61 years old. The combination of a stroke he suffered previously and the decades of medication for schizophrenia had, it seemed, finally taken their toll. The official cause of death was pneumonia.
“He was a nice man,” said the male nurse. “Always singing.”
“Elvis songs?” I asked.
I gave a copy of The Big Issue to the nursing home staff and then visited George’s sister, Mary, and brother-in-law, Wally. We toasted George with a drink of his favourite beverage, Pepsi. Mary showed me a picture of George in the nursing home with one of the Morning Melody singers, an Elvis impersonator. I also got to hold George’s hat-trick ball from his junior cricket days with Yarraville in the mid-1960s.
Wally drew a map of the cemetery and a few days later I found George’s headstone, which has a picture of goalposts and a footy.
I also returned to Mary and Wally’s and gave them a copy of The Big Issue.
RIP George Hayes 1952 – 2013
What a lovely tribute to a neighbour.
Hey VIn, 2009 I spent three months commuting to Warrnambool each weekend (whilst working in Melbourne and living in Ballarat) to spend time with my Grandma who had a major stroke just after Easter and died early July. I hate those places and hope I have a neighbour like you one day. Excellent tribute and my favourite details of the tale are these lines:
– He fished in the railyard dams that are now off-limits.
– He starts naming team mates but I can’t keep up with his memories.
– I hear voices. A man moaning. I glimpse shrunken bodies in big beds. I smell disinfectant.
PS: “Tender documents. Gentle stories” is the perfect description for this type of item. Love sharing history and tenderness in our stories.