By Madeleine Leung
‘This land, this red land, is us; and the flood years and the dust years and the drought years are us’– John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath
‘Grace!’ calls a voice from across the crowded living room, filled with the collective laughter of the guests, ‘Grace, come and bring the grapes over here!’ In the corner, a young woman obligingly plucks a bunch from the numerous displays adorning the room. ‘That’s my daughter, Grace, the town beauty to be sure!’ the proud gentleman whispers to the young man beside him. ‘ As smooth and rosy as the grapes we grow here on the block! Here, try some!’.
Obligingly, the girl sets the dish of grapes before them, her purple skirt whirling as she twists to the window seat. There she remains, twisting ringlets of chestnut hair between slender fingers as she looks over the acres and acres of vines on the block which her family have worked so hard for.
It’s evident that the rows of vines are the family’s pride and joy. After the First World War, blocks like these were given to soldiers by the government ‘for services rendered’. For years and years, couples in the Mallee dug the trees from the red soil, and braved the dry inland heat, until finally the fruits were born.
‘We had nothing,’ the man exclaims to the guests, ‘and look what we have now: the most beautiful block and the most beautiful girl!’. Then he laughs with such mirth that all the decorations and arrangements of grapes shake, a juicy one intermittently falling to the ground with a faint splat.
A sense of contentment is palpable, gazing through the window at the aisles of creeping greenery. The image from the window is completed by the young woman, her slightness of figure and rosy cheeks the gift of youth. There she sits, the smiling admirations of young men falling around her raindrops lips, and the anticipation of a dance with Patrick hanging as lightly around her head as the cloud of sweet perfume.
In the centre of the room, the gentleman laughs as he feeds guests grapes and retells the story of the tough red soil, his smiling wife at his side. Over a platter of ruby grapes, Grace meets Patrick’s eye; it’s a moment of youthful bluss, as though no one else exists.
‘Now this really is a very difficult case, and the Aged Care Assessment Team had to get involved’, the geriatrician states. ‘Grace is a 63-year-old lady with multiple sclerosis, full time carer for her elderly father, and, both completely incontinent. It’s tragic; her husband Patrick used to help out but he died in the Kerang train accident last year. They’re living out on a fruit block of all places! Our aim today will be to convince them both to enter a residential aged care facility; they are just not coping at home.’
The front door is left unlocked, so the geriatrician and the medical student enter unannounced. The dimly lit house smells strongly of disinfectant, as though someone had doused the house in it just prior to their arrival. A layer of dust and grime covers everything in the living room, from the numerous elaborate picture frames to the clearly unused sofa. No welcome greets them, the house eerily silent as though no one is expected, nor has been expected for a long time.
With a start, the student notices the elderly lady sitting in her wheelchair at the window. She’s lost in a world of her own, gazing out at the gnarled, dry branches, set out in lines for acres and acres. Through the worn fabric of her faded purple dress, her thin shoulder blades create wings, and her gaunt neck looks barely strong enough to hold her head of thinning grey hair. She turns a hollow cheek and haunted eye to the strangers in front of her.
‘Me and Pa are just fine here’, she mumbles, ‘Just fine.’
‘Grace!’ the old man calls across the empty house. ‘Grace, come and bring the grapes over here!’ Grace ignores him.
‘When Pa and Ma came out here after the First World War, they dug the red soil with their bare hands,’ she says to no one in particular, her words a hollow echo of someone else’s pride. ‘We’re not leaving’.
The geriatrician opens her notebook. ‘Stubborn’, she writes, ‘difficult’, ‘?mental state.’
Blankly, Grace catches the eye of the student across the empty table. ‘You don’t see what I see’, she says. ‘Would you like me to get your glasses?’ the student asks, but Grace just shakes her head. And so the two leave, tripping over a bunch of porcelain grapes as they go.
Featured image by user eflon at Flickr.