Beware of the letter S 

by Jan Aitkin © 2015

By the standards of the tiny quiet suburb of Bexmore, my friends Millie and Maudie were probably the quietest people there. Their small wooden two bedroom cottage stood in a tiny neat garden, a remnant of the 30s or 40s or even earlier. One could imagine men with mutton chop whiskers and women in long skirts sitting on the verandah while the kids played marbles on the gravel path. They were both in their 80s, something I knew from helping out with some official paperwork one day. Otherwise they were not forthcoming about themselves and what little I knew of their lives came from odd remarks dropped in passing. They did not seem to have anyone in the way of late husbands, children or even brothers and sisters although I did have the impression that their modest home had been inherited from a parent. They seem to have lived locally for many years and had seen their neighbours move on to be replaced by a new wave of people like me who found cheap housing in this backwater away from the urban clamour.

By and large they did not interact much with the newcomers, seeming to be content with their own company and routine. I lived a few doors away and got talking to them over some misdirected mail – somehow we just hit it off. They made me some jam, I passed over some magazines. Every so often we had a cuppa in their kitchen. This room was so original it could have been a display in a museum – lino on the floor, Bakelite radio, prehistoric frig, white enamel sink with brass taps and old cheap pink and blue china. It was all spotless but meagre and there was no surplus in the cupboards.

It was clear that they did not have much more than their pensions and any unexpected expenses or changes in their income were a real worry for them. This was brought home to me one day when, out of the blue, Millie came and knocked at my door and asked for help. It seems they were having a visit from some man 'from the government' about their pensions and they did not know why. Having had my share of wrangles with the bureaucracy, I told Millie I would be happy sit in on the meeting.

The man was due to arrive quite soon so I just had time to get to their place and have a quick look at the letter which announced his coming. Sure enough it was from the department which handles pensions – the name changes often so let's call it Family Frugal – saying that Mr W Rogers was coming to discuss their pension entitlements. This did not give me much to go on but I did check that they both received Old Age Pensions and that they had only a few hundred dollars in the bank.

Mr W Rogers duly arrived on time – no parking problems in our poor street – and was ushered into the vintage lounge room and parked on the old velvet sofa. He fussed around with his papers and Millie, Maudie and I perched on various old cane chairs waiting for something to happen. At last Mr Rogers asked a few questions about who was who and wondered a little about my presence. Maybe he thought I was a social worker. I claimed to be a friend of the family without going into any details. He then embarked on a series of questions, mainly directed at Millie, about their personal details – who owned the house, did they have a will and so on. I did not see where this line of questioning was leading and Millie was clearly upset and giving very sparse responses.

And then came the wonderful moment: Mr Rogers said 'What I really want to know is, are you a couple?' Millie looking utterly perplexed replied: 'A couple of what?' I managed to keep an utterly straight face while Mr Rogers sat open-mouthed. His thought processes were plain to see: I don't think I can explain to these very old ladies what I REALLY mean…' And the advisors to Queen Victoria had had the very same problem many years before. Hmmm, he said.

Mr Rogers wore a slightly baffled frown while stuffing his papers into his folder and telling Millie and Maudie that his pension survey was complete and there was no problem with their pensions. He made important busy noises and raced away leaving the three of us looking both relieved and surprised. Especially Millie and Maudie. As we relaxed over the cup that cheers and a celebratory ginger biscuit, Millie mused over these events. 'Well, that's good, I suppose. He did ask some funny questions and they were rather personal. But our social worker who got us the pensions all those years ago told us to keep ourselves to ourselves and not to tell people too much. And we haven't, have we Maudie? You know, we met at school, Maudie and I, and we've always lived here together, and looked after my Mum, until she passed away.

After this experience Millie, Maudie and me became quite family. My parents had died early and my sister and brother, with whom I had an OK but not close relationship both lived in other states. My last relationship had faded and failed so my main friends were women I worked with plus one particular woman who had been my best mate since school. The addition of the Ms, as I now thought of them, was a pleasant thing in my life. They were like a couple of old aunts with whom I could visit, share a cup of tea and have a little moan about life and work. They were always sympathetic and would check out my house if I needed a tradesman to come or if I was away for work. In return I would bring them small presents of special food or anything else that I thought they would like. They always demurred and said 'Oh, you shouldn't have, dear!' but I knew that really they enjoyed a little something extra.

One of these small bounties was a replacement TV. Their old set, donated by a departing neighbour, had been on the blink for some time, apart from the fact it didn't pick up all the channels and was black and white! One of my workmates mentioned they were upgrading their set and offered the old one around. I pounced. So an obliging husband brought the old one over and set it up, even to the extent of fixing the aerial so it got all the channels. Wonderful. The Ms were quite thrilled and took to watching television day and night.

They became quite knowledgeable about current affairs and often regaled me with vivid stories about what was going on in the wider world outside Bexmore. Now this new source of information brought in its train a rather interesting problem. The Ms were quite aware of their advanced age and the health problems that might come to them. And they began to worry quite a lot about hospitals, being separated and especially of being kept alive on machines. They told me they were very opposed to this – they must have seen a very compelling program on the subject. I made soothing noises about the unlikelihood of this happening but Millie in particular was not convinced. I even discussed living wills but Millie was no believer in the power of paper!

One day she told me that she had worked out a way to deal with this problem. She has seen a program where a person had been tattooed on the chest with the words: DO NOT RESUSSITATE. Now that should be clear enough she said – I think it means no machines – you could have it quite high up your chest – then they couldn't miss it, and it wouldn't wash off.

I was utterly bemused. I pointed out that tattooing was painful, costly and not easy to find. But Millie had started to think of the logistics. She explained that next time she went shopping she would drop in to the local shops, where there was in fact a tattooist and she would talk to the man about how much it would cost.

Now our local shops were a left over ribbon development – shops whose rents were now cheap and were occupied by all sorts of small enterprises and there was indeed a small and I feared rather dodgy tattoo parlour. I was rather nervous about Millie doing any deal there by herself so I offered to go with her and Maudie to help. Maudie refused point blank to go. She was deeply not in favour of this whole enterprise.

So off Millie and I went to the premises of Inky Pinky Tattoos where we met the man in charge, Trojan. Call me Tro, he said, putting out an ink stained paw. He looked like a retired bikie but his manner was gentle and I had found that even the roughest men were usually kind to old ladies.

Now, what can I do for yuz, ladies? Looking at me – how about a snake on your ankle or your boyfriend's name on your arm? Or somewhere else? Well, I said, I am not your customer, Millie is. Tro was understandably taken aback. Ah, but, but…I've never worked on an older lady… I'd be worried about your skin; I'd hate to hurt you. Is there any legal reason, I started to say. No, no, said Tro. All care, you know. And we disinfect and all that, no, but…

At that point Millie took over. Listen, young man. This is what I want. She whipped out a piece of cardboard from the rolled oats packet on which the words were printed in a wavering hand: DO NOT RESUSSITATE. I want this written on my chest, up here, she made a descriptive line on her frail upper chest, so they won't keep me alive in hospital when I'm nearly dead. The only word for the expression on Tro's face was flabbergasted. He then frowned deeply. Listen ladies, how about I make you a cup of tea while we talk about this.

So the deal was discussed. Tro pointed out that working on such thin skin was difficult but he could do a line more like a tracing so the needle didn't go in far. He showed us the needles, perhaps to try and warn Millie off, but all she did was nod. Then he talked about the pain and suggested that he should do one letter at a time. That seemed like a good idea, she might reconsider after the first one. Then came the question of cost: Tro said that he charged hundreds of dollars for a normal size job but for Millie – he wasn't sure. Look, how about I make it $10.00 per letter – that would be pensioner rates.

Millie considered: I can only afford $10.00 every fortnight. We haven't got much after the bills. At this point I could have offered to pay but I really did not want this plan to go ahead so I kept quiet. Tro pondered this and said: look, that would be OK, if you come in during the week when I am not so busy, and we could do one letter every fortnight…how about that? The deal was done. We went home to Maudie to announce this news, which was not well received. I offered to take some time off for the first session, just to make sure everything went according to plan.

So next Thursday at 9am Millie and I knocked on Tro's door and got ready for the first letter. In the meantime Millie had worked out that rather than have DO NOT, it would be cheaper to have DON'T – one letter fewer and $10.00 less. Tro grinned and said he'd throw in the apostrophe for free. He washed down Millie with enough antiseptic for major surgery and set out with massive concentration to trace out the D, going no deeper than he had to. Millie flinched a bit but sat very still. After Tro gave us all sorts of warnings about how to treat the wound and keep it clean we were on our way. I said jokingly that she'd need a shot of whisky that night to keep the pain down. She pulled a face – I don't like whisky but Mum used to have a glass of sweet sherry on special occasions – that would be OK, so we stopped at the pub where they still kept those brown bottles of sherry for ye olde drinkers.

I dropped in the next day to see how she was getting on. Maudie was fussing over Millie and treating her like an invalid and the wound was weeping as expected but looked OK. Half a bottle of sherry was gone, for medicinal purposes no doubt.

So this process wound on over weeks and finally months. I kept a pretty close eye on it all but I was sure that Tro was doing his best and Millie seemed to quite like the excitement and seemed to be healing well. Luckily she didn't need any trips to the doctor over this period or there might well have been some explanation needed.

Finally we, or I should say she, got to the second letter S. There had been some argy bargy about whether we needed this S. Millie felt that one would be enough as the doctors and nurses would get the drift anyway, and Tro wasn't too sure how it was spelt, although he did have a battered dictionary on hand to prevent clients making major errors in their spelling – tattoos are so permanent. But we all finally decided that correct spelling was the way to go so S number two was inked.

Now perhaps something went wrong with the hygiene regime, perhaps Millie's old body was reacting to the mild trauma of the wound but the second S did not heal. It suppurated and red infection spread around it. Despite painful splashes of iodine and lots of bathing it continued to get worse. At this point both Maudie and I got really nervous and a trip to the doctor was called for. Millie was angry and resentful especially when the doctor insisted that she be admitted to hospital. I thought this was overkill, to coin a phrase, but the doctor, a nice enough old bloke, insisted and called for an ambulance. Millie was running a temperature by then, and finally fetched up in a hospital ward with Maudie and I beside her.

We hated leaving her there and it was worse the next day when we went back. She was clearly much more ill and almost delirious. Maudie was beside herself with worry and she had really hated being at home by herself. As she kept on saying sadly, but we've never been parted, the bed is so cold without her.

Next day was worse. We talked to the doctor who looked grim. I think it may be golden staph. Bloody hospitals, I hate them. My words, not his.

Millie died the next day. The words on her chest had not been needed. The staff gathered round, utterly amazed at the tattoo. We don't do that you know, especially if the relatives tell us what the patient's wishes are, the Nursing Unit Manager told me. We just try to keep them comfortable and pain-free. She was visibly upset at the idea that such a drastic measure as the tattoo might be seen as necessary.

Maudie was crying beside the bed and I asked the staff to give her some time to say goodbye.

After this the end came quickly. I organised a simple funeral, just me and Maudie, a few near neighbours and Tro, who was devastated and swore he had done everything to keep the wound clean. Maudie of course did not survive long. I looked in on her each day and one morning no more than a month later, she didn't answer the door so I let myself in. She was curled up in bed clutching Millie's old nightie to her chest; she had passed away during the night. Another small funeral. I missed the Ms a great deal – they had become part of my life. Later I discover they had left me their small cottage in their will.

Tro had become quite a good friend and I went down to have a beer and a chat with him.

Ya know, he said. I have a real problem with the letter S now. I really have to force myself to start inking it. I'm beginning to wonder if I'll have to leave the game. It's really getting to me. Beware of the letter S, that's what I say.

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