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Zelda is in Rundle Mall on one of her rare forays into the city. An eye test for new glasses is not something you can organise on the phone. She sails regally through the swarms of school kids, glaring at any who are slow to move aside. It is only when one of them, a girl, stands right in front of her, lips moving, that she realises it is Sarah.

Zelda never gives much thought to her daughter’s step-children, let alone the grandchildren. She would be hard-pressed to recognise the younger ones if she saw them. But she has a soft spot for Sarah. Something about that gawky struggle for self-expression appeals to her. So now she produces what could almost be called a smile.

‘Sarah.’

‘Hi Zelda.’

Zelda becomes aware that the girl’s companions are sniggering and realises that, in greeting her step-great-grandmother, Sarah has demonstrated admirable independence.

Zelda draws herself up. ‘How lovely to see you,’ she says. ‘Do you have time for coffee?’

‘Yes,’ says Sarah, not giving herself time to chicken out.

She feels an unexpected flush of pride at going off with a mad old woman, in defiance of group norms. She looks more closely at Zelda. She is very very old, no doubt about that, older than Gran and Granny Julia of course. Her skin no longer seems to be attached to her bones.

But she is more stylish than Gran. Her clothes are smart, not fashionable, but smart. She clearly takes some trouble over her appearance. She has her own style, Sarah decides.

Sarah has been mulling over the business of appearance for a long time. Her family is hopeless of course. Sometimes they say things that are meant to be kind, but what would they know? Her friends talk about diets and stuff all the time but only because it isn’t cool to admit that you look good. Sarah doesn’t trust them. They aren’t ugly the way she is.

But Zelda might understand, even though she’s so ancient. Sarah finds herself explaining about her troubles. Her teeth, her nose.

Zelda regards her unsmilingly. ‘What absolute nonsense,’ she says.

Sarah is shocked. However dumb her mother and grannies may be, they always treat her with respect.

‘You are young, all your bones are in the right place. You have the beauty that any young animal has, no more no less.’

Sarah considers this.

‘In another seventy years you’ll look back at photos and realise that what I’m saying is true, you were beautiful. So make the most of it.’

Zelda gathers her belongings and levers herself upright. Who was it who said that youth is wasted on the young?

Sarah goes home thoughtful and looks at herself in the mirror. She is not cured, but she has heard that a dash of cold water can be good for the complexion.

After seeing herself in a friend’s post, Sarah has realised that her teeth are impossibly ugly – huge and gummy.

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James has a letter from his grandmother, a real letter with a stamp, delivered to the letter box.

It comes from New South Wales. There’s lots about rocks and crashing waves and the full moon rising out of the sea. It hasn’t really been in the sea, of course. But Gran says it looks as though it has, and it never does that in South Australia. Also Julia’s best polar-fleece jacket blew into the fire and melted in about five seconds. James would like to have seen that.

It’s all interesting, but the best part is about Gran being bitten behind her ear by a tick.

James writes up the story for school.

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Julia, warned that the rented camper van may need water, decides to check under the bonnet. A round reservoir sits above the radiator. She takes off the cap but can’t see in.

At this point, her customary good sense deserts her. She dips her little finger into the reservoir. It is too short to reach the water level so, on an even rasher impulse she sticks her index finger in.

Two things happen at once. Her fingertip reaches water, very hot water. At the same time her knuckle wedges in the opening so that she can’t get her finger out. She bends it as far as she can to get the tip out of the hot water, but that makes it even more impossible to extract the whole thing. She is bent over the front of the van, attached to it permanently, so it seems, by one finger.

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A golden sun rises over the Pacific. But the grannies are oblivious to the beauties of the world outside. They are busy in their tent, and because it’s the new tent, there is a disappointing lack of windows. They are absorbed in the demands of the flesh.

‘Hold still,’ says Julia. ‘Can you pull your ear back further?’

‘Not without pulling it off.’

‘Where are your glasses? One pair isn’t enough.’

The two women rummage through sleeping bags, discarded clothes, sponge bags, newspapers. Anne’s glasses finally turn up, tucked neatly into a pocket of the tent where they have been all along.

With both pairs of glasses perched on the end of her nose, Julia returns to Anne’s ear.

‘Yes I think it is. It’s sticking out more now.’

Anne and Julia live in Adelaide. Ticks, though not unknown, are not part of their daily lives.

‘Oh my god,’ says Anne. ‘What if it’s a paralytic tick? There was a poster outside the office.’

‘That can’t be right. It would be you that was paralytic, not the tick. Although I suppose if it drank enough blood it might be.’

‘Smartarse. Paralysing tick. The sort that kills dogs.’

‘It’s been there all night,’ Julia observes dispassionately, ‘and you’re not dead yet. Not even paralysed.’

She dabs a generous measure of eucalyptus oil onto the tick.

Anne is not completely reassured, and after breakfast she goes back to the office for another look at the poster.

Paralysis ticks, it announces.

Clinical signs:

slowing down on a walk and/or sitting down regularly

Is that why she was so puffed climbing Gulaga yesterday? She certainly felt like sitting down regularly.

reluctance/difficulty standing up or jumping

Jumping?

unsteady or wobbly gait

Anne remembers the trembling state of her knees by the time they got down to the bottom of the mountain.

fast or labored breathing, coughing

vomiting/retching/salivating

Salivating?

Ring the Narooma vet straight away.

Anne backs away from the notice board.

With a picnic of crackers, avocado and cucumber the two women set off along the coast, rock-hopping and scrambling. The wind whips around them and the misleadingly-named Pacific roars alongside, forbidding conversation and even, after a while, thought. They cross long stretches of beach but neither of them is game to swim in that thunderous surf. They stop for lunch in a sheltered bay and find a deep rock pool. The water is freezing but clear, and the sun is out, so they plunge into the water. Anne’s immersion time is about thirty seconds, but Julia lasts some minutes.

‘Heaven,’ she says, rubbing herself dry.

‘By the way,’ she says later, through a mouthful of lunch. ‘Did you check up about the tick?’

‘Woof,’ says Anne.

‘Woof?’

‘They only affect dogs.’

‘Didn’t they mention humans?’

‘No. Unless the Narooma vet treats humans as well.’

‘Perhaps it’s about death. Only dogs die from tick bites,’ Julia says. ‘Not fatal to humans.’

‘I’ll let you know.’

‘Or not.’

HINTS for talking to a person with HEARING IMPAIRMENT

– ONE-TO-ONE is much easier than groups

– AVOID BACKGROUND NOISE. It helps if we turn off the music and I have my back to the noisiest part of the room.

– GOOD LIGHTING ON YOUR FACE. Don’t sit with your back to the light. And don’t cover your face in any way. I needs visual cues and clues.

– GET MY ATTENTION BEFORE SPEAKING. If I miss the beginning it’s extra hard to catch up.

– SPEAK MORE SLOWLY. Then my poor brain has a chance!

– SPEAK CLEARLY – DON’T SHOUT OR WHISPER. Both lead to distorted sounds.

KIDS BE LOUD AND BOLD! Young people are hard to hear because their voices are lighter and higher pitched.

– BEST IF WE AREN’T EATING. I can’t hear you if I’m chewing and I can’t hear you if you’re chewing! We should be able to get in a few words between mouthfuls.

– CHECK THAT I’M KEEPING UP. Jokes are hard because the teller’s voice changes, the conversation speeds up and everyone laughs. I love it when someone checks if I got it.

– REPEAT OR REPHRASE IF NECESSARY. Names are especially difficult because there’s no context so I can’t guess. Spelling them out can help.

– USE MIME AND HAND GESTURES. Go on, it can be fun!

– ONE CONVERSATION AT A TIME. In group situations or meetings I’m lost if people start to talk over the top of each other.

 

WHAT IT’S LIKE TO LOSE (SOME) HEARING

– it’s tiring! I have to concentrate much harder. I work overtime to filter out the background and to make sense of sounds that are distorted or barely audible. A lot of it is guesswork and that depends on context. But conversations may jump all over the place.

– it’s like being in a foreign country where you don’t speak the language, you work hard and depend on all sorts of non-verbal cues

– hearing aids make conversation possible but they don’t restore the original clarity. The quality of sound is not as good. They whistle and are tinny. And the background noise is amplified, which can be overwhelming.

– my deafness is the sort that means the loss of higher frequencies. That makes many consonants hard to hear, which can mean that I’ve got the shape of the word but have to guess which version I need – pair? bear? mare? wear? dare?

– accents unlike my own are difficult. I know it can look like intolerance. But the intonation and stresses and vowel sounds are all different. The above hints help.

– it’s hard to jump in when I’m not completely sure what the conversation is about or what’s already been said. Will I sound stupid and/or inappropriate? I keep quiet more often than I used to, or withdraw, especially from noisy situations like parties.

As with every challenge, cheerful allies make all the difference. So THANK YOU!

Remember how Adelaide Days became Fables Queer & Familiar and then became a radio serial (read by me) on Radio Adelaide??
Opportunity!
The Community Radio Network is now making the serial available to all member stations as a 55 part sound file. So you can ask your local station to play it!
For details see podcasts

If you’d like to hear a different story of mine (along with some other great Wakefield Press readings), try The Storycast
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