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The Spare Room

The Spare Room - Helen Garner Helen offers her spare room to Nicola, an old friend who is traveling to Helen's city for some alternative cancer treatment. Described on the bookflap as "powerful and taut" -- a good description.Spare, brutal, unsparing. What Helen envisions as an easy thing to do -- offer help to a friend -- turns out to be much more difficult. Nicola is in denial about dying. Helen cannot accept the quackery and poor treatment being given to her friend at the clinic, but is limited in what she can do. She is physically exhausted from sleepless nights as she changes Nicola's bedclothes repeatedly turn the night, through Nicola's nightsweats. Helen bonds with Nicola's niece who had been playing Helen's role when Nicola was in her hometown. "Every half hour I ran home to check on Nicola. The first few times she was asleep. Then I found her sitting on the edge of her bed in the dark, eyes closed, spine bowed, hands folded in her lap. Her loneliness pierced me. "What can I bring you, old girl?""In all the world," she said with a slurred voice, "I most would love a glass of orange juice."I squeezed the last two fruits we had and brought her the foaming glass. She drank it sip by sip. "That," she whispered, "was the freshest, most delicious orange juice I've ever drunk in my life."I tucked her back into bed, and she subsided with a sigh.When, at ten o'clock, I came home for good, I stood outside her door for a long time and listened to her slow, snoring breaths. One day soon they would stop. Would I be with her when she went? I was her friend, yes, and I loved her, but I was a recent friend: I had known her for only fifteen years. Surely her dearest, her oldest friends were Sydney people. In a couple of days, when her three weeks with me were over, she would fly home to them, and to her family: they would take over, and I would go back to my role as darling Hel in Melbourne, the practical type with a handy authoritarian streak, who had work to do and a ticket to Vienna in December." p.144-5In the night she needed me. She was sweating hugely from her head and neck. Her pillow was a puddle. I changed the bedding again and again. It was labor. It was Let me turn the mattress. It was Here, drink this, and No, you must drink, and What else can I bring you? And Lie down now, and Go back to sleep. It was hard and I was tired, but rarely had I felt so useful. I knew I only had to haul myself to the end of the week: Maloney had told us that once the cortisone kicked in for the pain she would be fit to fly home. I would go in to the Theodore Institute and say her farewells. I would be carrying a bag of hand grenades. When I looked in at dawn she had run out of dry clothes and was asleep in her damp bed wearing nothing but a holey old rose-pink cashmere sweater. After breakfast I hauled her mattress into the sun and ran load after load of sheets through the machine She came out into the yard as I was hanging them on the line. I put down the pegs and turned to her. I was not tall enough to contain her as a mother or a husband would, but I held out my arms. She stepped into them and stooped to rest her head on my shoulder: oh, her terrible thinness. We both cried. Her hot tears ran under my collar."I thought I was on my mountaintop," she said in a voice that splintered. "But I'm only in the foothills."All day she kept dissolving into quiet weeping. Sometimes I would put my arms around her; sometimes we would just go on with what we were doing. The hard, impervious brightness was gone. Everything was fluid and melting. There was no need for me to speak. She looked up at me and said it herself, as I put into her hand."Death's at the end of this, isn't it." p. 157-8.I did not foresee that the two Buddhists would chant her out of there: that with Clare and Iris I would crouch shuddering in a corner of the dim hospice room and listen to the thrilling alto drone of the women's voices, calling on all compassionate beings to come to that place, to come to Nicola, who like each of us in this life had been sunk deep in the mud of unbearable suffering; for whom the light of this life had set, who was entering a place of darkness, a trackless forest; who had no friends, who had no refuge, who was poised on the lip of a precipice, a frightful chasm into whose echoing spaces she would plunge and be swept away by the mighty wind of karma, the hurricane of karma. I glanced back from this scalding vigil and saw her sister's face in profile against a black curtain, patient and stark, as grand in the remnants of its beauty as was the face that lay gasping on the pillow.Nor could I foresee that at her memorial celebration, days after her ashes had been scattered in the presence of those who had been closer to her than I, a beautifully clad woman with the order of service in her hand would address me thus,in a voice with a nasal, frosty edge: "I'm Verity. I was at school with Nicola. I see you're to speak, and I was curious to know -- what exactly was your connection to her?"I had no idea that, before she left my house, Nicola would write me a valedictory letter of such self-reproach, such tenderness and quiet gratitude, that when I came across it, months later, in its clever hiding place, I was racked with weeping, with harsh sobs that tore their way out of my body, as she had fancied her toxins would rush from hers. I did not know that the investigator would come to my house, that I would pour out my story of the Theodore Institute into his tape recorder and never hear from him again. Nor would I guess that one evening at the end of the following summer I would pass Dr. Tuckey trundling a small suitcase along Flinders Land in the perfumed dusk; that when I saw him pause with an ungainly movement to hitch up his hopeless trousers I would pity him for the fact that all his patients must die.The one thing I was sure of, as I lay poleaxed on my bed that afternoon beside the child with her loosening nit plaits and her new philosophy, was that if I did not get Nicola out of my house tomorrow I would slide into a lime pit of rage that would scorch the flesh off me, leaving nothing but a strew of pale bones on a landscape of sand.p. 173-4.