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Fiction: "Anxiety" by Goldie Alexander


Laura’s mounting anxiety first shows up as a lack of interest in their annual overseas holiday. Over breakfast her husband Richard, who still enjoys traveling, asks, "What are you so worried about?"

As she—really not sure, just a "feeling", something she can’t quite explain—says, "What if our plane goes down? It’s happens in other places."

"Our chances of being run over by a bus are far more likely." He looks up. "How about Fiji?"

She shakes her head.

He turns the paper to a fresh page. An ad for Moorish Spain catches his eye. "How about there?"

"All those African refugees begging on the streets." Her voice is flat. "I don’t think I could stand it."

He sighs loudly. "Suppose the same goes for Turkey."

Her answer is to rise from the table and begin stowing cutlery into the dishwasher. Though Richard has little patience for Laura’s growing anxieties, after grumbling for the next few days about what he calls her "sticky-stay-at-home-ness", he gives in. Apart from closing her eyes when he drives too fast around hairpin bends, Laura finds the west coast of Tasmania peaceful.

Her girlfriends are more understanding. Though her generation has all the time in the world to float between golf, gardening, mah-jong, and bridge, they know that where youth is optimistic, age brings with it a certain melancholy, a knowledge that if life has so far has been kind there’s no guarantee it will continue, and the chance of catastrophe increases daily.

"You’ve probably been anxious since you were little," opines Caroline, Laura's closest friend since they shared a desk in Grade 4 at Essendon Primary. "But with Richard away so often, and having to raise Skye on your own, plus a full time job, you were too busy to do anything about it."

"Maybe," Laura agrees. But all she recalls is a relatively carefree childhood. She was the girl who caught trams to and from school all by herself at the age of eight, who did wheelies on her bike without hanging onto the handle bars. Laura was the teenager who crept out of the house at midnight to sit beside bodgie boys who drove too fast, smoked unfiltered cigarettes and drank beer straight from the bottle. She was the daughter who never thought too much about her parents not being around until both died in the same year. Even when her daughter, Skye, suffered tummy upsets, colds, fevers, and chicken pox, it never occurred to Laura that the child wouldn’t get better.

She rarely worried about Richard’s job, which involved driving vast distances along dangerous highways, never panicked about a possible break-in, fire, or flood, nor—when Skye got her license—worried about her driving home after midnight.

The anxious moments have appeared out of left field. Now anything can produce a spasm—traveling to an unfamiliar destination; a small bump in her thigh which turns out to be a compacted muscle; the increasing difficulty of remembering names; observing how quickly her friends seem to age; the optician telling her she is developing cataracts; preferring subtitled foreign movies.

Laura worries endlessly about Richard. Is his cholesterol too high, his blood pressure rising, his heart sound, his prostate becoming cancerous? A shortish man inclined to put on weight, when he perches on a ladder to prune a tree her heart stays in her mouth. An early riser herself, if Richard sleeps too late, Laura checks to see if he still breathes. She imagines herself suddenly alone. She has several widowed and divorced friends and they complain of loneliness. How would she cope? How would she manage her finances? Has she left them to Richard for far too long? How ill prepared is she for a possible future without him?

Too many things produce anxiety: the last economic downturn and how that influences their self-managed super funds; creaks in the house might signify dry rot, termites, or cracks in the foundations. What if she or Richard were to become ill? Are they paying a high enough premium to cover a prolonged hospital stay? What about remaining in their double story house? From what she can gather, there are two schools of thought: one claiming that climbing the stairs will keep them youthful, the other pointing out that a damaged knee or a broken hip could spell disaster.

Their closest friends are either selling their large houses and moving into apartments or renovating. If their suburban blocks are large enough, some even build a second house as a hedge against recession. Some have even bought into gated communities or villages aimed at the over fifty-fives, though Laura doubts if anyone that young and able would actually move in there. Investing in more property sounds like a good idea. ‘You can always rent out property,’ her friends argue. All this produces uneasy tremors. Why aren’t they tackling something similar? Does this mean that they’re not properly prepared for extreme old age? Some nights, dreams involving illness and imminent death, wake her. She sleeps so badly, Richard has started bedding down in the spare bedroom. Is this also part of the aging process? Certainly her generation regards words like ‘old’ and ‘elderly’ as in poor taste. Nevertheless even if fifty is now forty, sixty now fifty, seventy now sixty, too many friends have had heart problems, strokes and cancer. Such a dismaying number have died, her old phone index, the book she maintained for thirty years, has become a family memoir.

The world has shrunk since Laura was young. She secretly finds social media—Facebook, Messenger, Twitter, etc, etc.—distasteful. Why bother to display all your private stuff for the world to tap into? Young people no longer talk face to face, they’re too busy texting. What about all those refugees? Why is this country so insular? At the same time it would be too easy for a home grown fanatic, or someone on a tourist visa, to set off a bomb on the Flinders Street Station steps, even the Bourke street mall. Maybe Richard is right when he claims she spends too much time watching the news, too many hours listening to endless misfortune, is too often tuned into a twenty-four- seven information stream. "It’s all doom and gloom," he points out. "Happiness makes bad copy. Politicians use it to collect more votes."

Is it an inevitable part of aging that brings on so many attacks of anxiety? She looks this up. What she reads suggest it could be due to a sharp drop in hormone and serotonin levels. Whatever, it ensures that too many mornings she wakes with dread in her heart, though there is no reason to feel this way. Sometimes she finds herself gasping unexpectedly for air, as if normal breathing has become too difficult.

In those few moments she feels quite hollow, as if her body is about to fold in on itself and disappear. Her head throbs. Everything around her, the entire world, seems to have escalated to a point of frenzy. No wonder she feels left behind. No point mentioning this to Richard. He’s perfectly content pottering around the house and garden, checking his share portfolio and catching up with old buddies to complain about crooked politicians and CEO’s and the vagaries of younger generations. Instead she continues to confide in her old friend Caroline, who says, "Laura, do something about it."

"Like what?" she asks gazing around her friend’s newly renovated kitchen that was so expensive Caroline hardly dares cook in it.

"Talk to your GP."

Laura makes an appointment at their local clinic. Doctor John MacKenzie, who looked after the family since Skye was a baby, has recently retired. His young female replacement insists that Laura call her Emma. Emma listens carefully, tapping on her laptop, as Laura talks. She records everything Laura tells her before saying, "Many folk find retirement hard to handle."

But Laura had given up her part time job five years previously, so she finds that comment patronizing. Until now she has had no problem filling in her days. She stares at the laptop on an otherwise empty desk, and misses John Mackenzie’s comforting clutter.

Emma continues to tap. "No grandchildren?"

Laura shakes her head. She doesn’t know how she feels about grand-mothering. Will she match up? Surely that will be one more thing to be anxious about.

"Well..." Emma reaches for a prescription pad. "I recommend a mild anti-depressant. You might think about counselling. We have an excellent therapist."

What if there’s something in her past she’d rather not recall? She says, "Maybe I’ll try the anti-depressant…"

But all those pills manage to do is constipate her. If anything, they exacerbate her anxieties.

In an abortive effort to laugh her out of it, Richard rents a DVD called “High Anxiety”. Though Laura chuckles aloud, she secretly disapproves. Chronic anxiety is no laughing matter. She agrees with Richard that she has nothing to be anxious about. For a couple in their early seventies, apart from a few aches and pains, both are remarkably healthy. They have enough to live on and more. There is no reason for Laura’s discontent. It’s when her thoughts flit from one anxiety to another, though they’re often subliminal, certainly when they’re least expected, like coming across an unexpected dust-devil, that most upset her. Sometimes she’ll catch sight of her reflection and see a stranger unravelling, much like a kitten playing with a ball of wool. Mostly she keeps a grip on herself. There’s nothing to be worried about. Is there?


But just to prove that some anxieties aren’t imaginary, one night she arranges to go to the theatre with Nanita who now lives on the other side of the Yarra. Laura had been surprised to hear from her. Though they once worked together, they’d never been close, never liked each other all that much; however, Nanita has been recently widowed and Laura hadn’t known how to refuse without seeming heartless.

The show ending just after ten, it seems only natural to extend the evening at a nearby cafe. Since they last met, Nanita has gained weight, limps badly, and needs a hip replacement. Her clothes are shabby and her hair, once a wonderful natural bronze, is now straggly and dyed a curious crimson. They chat about this and that. Nanita swallows a mouthful of cake before saying, "After Robert lost his super we had to sell our house and move west. Now I can’t afford to move back. You wouldn’t believe how many blackies I’ve got around me." She sniffs disapprovingly. "All thugs and hoons. Knife you before you know what’s happening. We’re letting too many in."

"Blackies?”

"Darkies, Somalis, Ethiopians. You wouldn’t believe the trouble they cause. All very well for people like you who want more refugees coming to this country. You don’t have to live next to them, do you? And what about all those Moslems we’re letting in? Aren’t we just asking for trouble?"

"Not all of them surely…"

But Nanita is off on her own tangent, "They’re no better than ebola and should be shot."

Laura swallows and tries not lose her cool. "It’s only a few who cause problems…"

"Then why don’t the others stop them? You don’t hear them raise their voices. Do you?"

"Maybe they’re just too frightened…"

But Nanita’s mouth is set so tight, Laura decides not to argue. She would like to point out that these recent migrants, having come from war devastated countries. often only understand violence as a solution to their problems. Though she sees Nanita as hopelessly racist, maybe there is a grain of truth in what she says. After promising to stay in touch, and Laura insisting on paying for their coffee and cake, they part. And, reluctant at this hour of the night to tackle public transport, Laura steps into the street to hail a taxi. At least five race by before an empty cab comes past and she catches the driver’s attention. He is extraordinarily tall. She can tell he’s at least six seven or eight, and she is struck by his thin bony features, his dark, almost black skin, and a baseball cap almost hiding frizzy hair. Though she usually slides into the passenger seat, it is possibly Nanita’s influence that makes her mention the address and climb into the rear. He grunts and the car takes off. 

Does he understand that she wants to be driven to an eastern suburb? She repeats her address. In return she receives another nod and grunt. Obviously the man doesn’t speak English. But if he doesn’t understand her, how will he know where to go?

As he turns into a one way street leading due south, her heart pounds in her chest. She knows this is the wrong way. This is totally wrong. What if he’s trying to kidnap her? Her mind flutters to media reports of Somali students being molested by local gangs and vice versa. She can’t help recalling Nanita’s acid comments about "darkies" and "Moslems". What if this driver has decided to punish her for other people’s racism?

"Wrong way," she calls in a voice she recognizes as tremulous. He doesn’t seem to hear. Or if he does, he doesn’t respond. Only now does she realize that climbing into the rear was a mistake, there’s a glass window between them.

Sweat breaking out under her arms, every nerve on edge, she waits to see where he is taking her. The car continues in a southerly direction. The further they go, the more frightened Laura becomes. She bangs on the glass and repeats her address. The driver turns, nods, but continues traveling south. When he takes a corner too fast she falls back into the seat. Now thoroughly frightened, she reaches for the door... is almost ready to open it... to jump out...

Then realizes that he is in fact taking another route that also leads to her suburb.

It takes her heart a long time to slow down.

When he finally draws up outside her house, she’s so relieved, she hands him a fifty dollar note and tells him to keep the change.

~~~

About ten days after meeting Nanita, she is in the shower and almost absent-mindedly checking her breasts when she feels a small lump. Suddenly alert, she checks it again. Yes, definitely a lump. She thinks back to her last mammogram. Nothing had shown up as untoward. Nevertheless, as soon as she’s dressed, she reaches for the phone to make an appointment with Emma only to find out this is the doctor’s day off. Thus all the endless twenty five minutes it take Richard to drive her to another surgery—which has now become a multi-service twenty-four clinic—she’s quite sure she is about to lose a breast, about to go through chemotherapy, radiotherapy and everything else that happened to her friends who had the big C, many since having died.

Richard stays in the car where he waits patiently for her to emerge. In the surgery, a young Indian called Becca asks Laura to strip off her shirt and lie down on the couch. Becca feels Laura’s breast with cool practiced fingers, and finally says, "I think it’s wise to have another mammogram and an ultrasound."

Armed with a referral, a grey faced Richard drives Laura to the hospital where these will take place. And all the time she tells herself that her anxieties haven’t been needless, that part of her unconscious had always predicted this calamity. The technicians are kind but they can’t stop Laura’s inner panic. She supposes that she’s had a good life, and if the worst comes to the worst, she should be grateful that unlike a previous generation that she’s never had to live through war, famine, tsunamis, hurricanes or other catastrophes. Her generation has had the best of it. In fact she’s almost prepared to hear the worst, when the female technician takes pity on her and says, "We’re not supposed to give a diagnosis but I think it’s just a cyst. We’ll give it a squeeze and you’ll be right after that. They’re quite common at your age."

As Richard drives her home she’s quite light headed with joy. "See," he says. "That wasn’t anything to be anxious about, was there."

She doesn’t mention that he’d been equally upset. That should have been that. But being anxious has now evolved into a bad habit like nail biting, picking at one’s cuticles, or clearing one’s throat. They continue, though with slightly less impetus, until forty-two year old daughter Skye announces she is six weeks pregnant. Richard is delighted. He’s almost given up on ever becoming a grandfather. But the news sends Laura into a major spasm. She knows the dangers of late pregnancies. Checking the statistics she finds that the incidence of complications rises to 19.29 percent for women aged between thirty-five and thirty-nine years. Older women have more chance to develop high blood pressure, hypertension, fibroids, bleeding in the third trimester, a low lying placenta, gestational diabetes and deliver prematurely and need a caesarean. So when Skye produces a healthy baby boy his parents name Jaxson, no one is happier than the boy’s grandfather. Or more relieved than the boy’s grandmother.

Thus it seems only natural that when Jaxson is nine months old, Skye should pick up her old IT job two days a week to help pay off their mortgage. And who better equipped than Laura to drive to their inner suburban suburb to look after the baby. Mind, Skye has certain strictures—such as a baby never being left to cry even if it’s a whimper before dropping off to sleep. Or being offered any new taste sensation in case of some unknown allergy. She is instructed to watch out for anything that might hint at cot death, choking or fever, and told to check the sleeping baby at ten minute intervals.

Laura does her anxious grandmotherly best, and Jaxson grows into such a healthy toddler, it seems to her that if she runs through all the dreadful possibilities that can happen to a child, that these will propitiate the gods, act as a preventative, a kind of supernatural insurance, and they’ll leave him strictly alone.

Skye increases her work to three full days. Sometimes Richard joins Laura, but mostly she manages alone. She doesn’t like to complain that her shoulders and back ache from carrying a heavy child. She misses catching up with friends and playing golf, but she how can she give up being useful when Skye so obviously needs help? When she’s too tired to carry the child, when her arms and shoulders ache from lifting him, she pushes him to the local park beside a café where other children and mothers gather. It takes Laura a few visits to ascertain that those who appear to be grandmothers are mothers, while those that look like young mothers are really the children’s nannies. Not that anyone actually speaks to her apart from the pleasant women running the cafe. While Jaxson plays happily with other toddlers, the women sip low-fat lattes, continually text and talk very loudly. Most of the conversation seems to involve new purchases, inadequate cleaning services, recalcitrant husbands and malicious relatives.

Keeping a constant eye on Jaxson, her anxieties now focussed on any accident, or god forbid a pedophile, Laura eavesdrops. Some of what she hears is worrying. Though these women are the same generation as Skye, they have no concept of what can happen when things go wrong. She hears stories, dreadful stories about mortgages so high any interest increase will force a sale; about businesses built on a financial knife edge; about the housing market potentially going sour; about a middle class couple relying on handouts to feed their family. Is Skye facing such a disaster? Lately, her son-in- law Dylan is very closemouthed. What if his firm is going bad? Is this why her daughter looks so tired? Is this why she sometimes says she would rather stay home with Jaxson than go to work?

One hot day, a day so hot she later wonders at what possessed her to venture out of the air-conditioned house, Laura decides to take Jaxson to the local reserve. He’s been teething all week and maybe playing with other toddlers will distract him from sore gums and inflamed cheeks.

All hot and bothered from the two kilometre walk along a street lined with dusty privet hedges, they arrive to find the park dry as dust, eucalypts gasping for water, the ground covered in withering grass. No birds. Nothing stirs except a north wind maliciously tossing the highest branches about. They are all alone. No else has been stupid enough to venture out in this heat. Jaxson’s hair sits damp and limp on his forehead. Laura is visited by her usual anxiety. She should never have taken the child out on such an unpleasant day. What if this makes him sicker? 

As the wind gathers enough strength to blow more dust into their eyes, she wheels Jaxson into the café and orders an ice cream cone for him and an iced coffee for herself.

"Go… go…" Jaxson yells. Since learning to walk, he hates being confined to his pusher and she has to cajole him to stay in it while they stroll to and from the park. She undoes his straps and lifts him out, allowing him to roam freely around for a few moments. Only a very few moments. Yet it’s while she’s searching inside her purse for change, that the child suddenly vanishes.

It takes Laura a long moment to realise he’s no longer there. She runs outside. The sun beats down on her head like a furnace. She runs into the park, trips over wooden ramps, stones, uneven tufts of grass, panting heavily as she reaches the jungle gym. Her heart pounds. No Jaxson. No sign of him anywhere. Except for herself, the park is empty. In the distance a bank of dark clouds lowers itself onto the city as a coming storm gathers impetus. She screams Jaxson’s name. No place has ever seemed as inhospitable, nothing has ever blossomed this feebly. Her grandchild is nowhere to be seen. Only that hot wind blowing in with determined, almost demented, ferocity.

Is this it? Is this the catastrophe she’s anticipated these last few years? Is it a prophecy she’s been too dense to understand? This must be her punishment for being so needlessly anxious about petty matters. Now she has really something to panic about, she feels totally useless. Yet the child can’t have gone far. His little legs quickly become tired. She forces herself to stop, to think, to look carefully around.

The park is an odd triangular shape, edged by three roads and backing onto a laneway which empties into several backyards. The child could have run in any direction. Her panic has spread and the women from the café are helping in her search.

"Call the cops," the taller one pants and runs down the back alley calling the boy’s name.

"Jaxson… Jaxson… where are you…"

The wind picks up Laura’s cry and tosses it carelessly back. "Jaxson…Jaxson…"

Surely the gods are mocking her for being so stupidly frightened in the past about nothing in particular. Surely this is life’s ultimate irony. Right now, even within her terror, it enters her mind to almost laugh at her previous anxieties, they seem so trivial. But where can the child have run? His little legs can’t manage long distances.

Unless someone has picked him up, he must be somewhere close…

As she races up one street, then turns back to run up another, panting so hard her breath rasps in her throat, able, in spite of a gammy right knee that threatens to give way, to continue running, it strikes her that if she finds the child totally intact that she will never again feel anxious about intangibles, never ever again, swears it inside her very being, promises whoever is up on high that she is truly punished, and will never be such a scaredy cat worrier again...

On the main street, steel tracks split the busy road in two, and a tram trundles towards her. Her heart is about to jump out of her chest. She can’t see… can’t see anything… is the boy anywhere there… is he close to the tram?

She races over the road… misses the tram by centimeters… glimpses the driver’s horrified face… and is just in time to grab the toddler by his arm. Picking him up she runs, sobbing, gulping, to the other side of the road and stands there checking that he’s unharmed, her pulse pounding so hard she’s sure she’s about to have a heart attack. 

Bile rises into her throat. She’s about to throw up. But at least the child is fine… he’s here… he’s in one piece, not run over… he’s here safely with her and she will never, ever, ever let him out of her sight again.

The toddler bursts into loud sobs. "…Cream…!" Tears trickle down his cheeks.

An old man waiting at the tram stop has seen everything. His tummy bulges over shabby pants, but his tie fits neatly under his collar. "Poor little bugger’s lost his ice-cream."

"Yes… he ran away… couldn’t see him…"

"Well, thank goodness you did," he replies as if a run away toddler isn’t new to him. He looks down at the crying child. "Maybe another ice cream will help soothe those tears?"

"Yes." Still trying to catch her breath, she clutches the boy’s sweaty hand. "We couldn’t find him… he ran away… that tram… came so close."

He nods lightly. "Little boys like to run. This young, they don’t have much sense."

Settling Jaxson on her hip, she takes a tissue out of her pocket and rubs the boy’s tear stained face. She has to stop herself from actually smacking him.

"Naughty," she scolds—a word she’s been instructed to never, ever use. "You mustn’t do that again. You gave grannie a big fright."

The child snivels and they slowly head back into the café. Inside, she buys another ice-cream and watches the child lick it while she slowly sips her iced coffee.

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