One afternoon, thirty years ago, when my medical practice was still quite new, a feisty old lady marched through the door and straight into my consulting room. Thumping my desk with her fist, she declared “I want that flu vaccine, young man!”
“Certainly,” I replied. “I’m happy to write you a prescription, but you’ll find it’s in short supply.”
“You just write the prescription, young man; I’ll get it!” said Viola, as her name turned out to be, and her age to be in her mid-eighties. So I did as I was told, and Viola strode purposefully out the door.
Some time later, again not standing upon ceremony, she marched back into my office and triumphantly deposited a small package on my desk.
“There!” she said. “I told you I’d get it! Mind you, I had to go to that damn Simons’ Pharmacy! You might wonder why I say that damned pharmacy, and I don’t mind telling you,” she continued, unprompted. “I haven’t been in there for over fifty years, and I swore then that I was never going back!”
It seems, in the writing of this, that every sentence Viola spoke ended in an exclamation mark.
“I was just a young thing then, you understand, and I’d come all the way up to Randwick by tram from Bronte, because I wanted to buy a prophylactic, and I didn’t want to go to my local pharmacy, where they’d know me, so I came all the way up here, to that damn Simons’ Pharmacy, and they refused to sell me one, so I walked out and told them I was never coming back there again, and I haven’t done so until today!”
Despite her apparent earnestness, I was unable to suppress a smile.
“You lived at Bronte, did you? Whereabouts?” I asked.
“You know Bronte, do you?” she replied. I affirmed that I did.
“Well you know that ugly big block of flats, jutting out into the park? On the opposite side there’s a high sandstone retaining wall, with a row of four terrace houses. I lived in the end one, looking over the beach.”
“I know it very well”, I said. “I live in the adjoining terrace.”
“Well fancy that,” said Viola. “My father built those houses, as an investment, to rent out. He was a a very wealthy man, you know; he was a doctor. He owned eighty houses.”
I suppressed a rueful comment about the fact that my wife and I, both doctors were struggling to pay the mortgage on our one modest little terrace house, which would have been very little changed since Viola was it’s neighbour.
As I prepared the injection, we chatted about how Bronte and Randwick must have changed since the days of trams, but my mind was actually more upon the image of a young, outrageous Viola, back in her heyday, living alone, obviously of at least semi-independent means, embarking on the sexual escapade which would require the aforementioned condom. I pictured her, more or less, as a flapper, in a fringed dress and a cloche hat, wearing a string of beads and silk stockings. Delicacy, of course, forbade further enquiry about her personal life, but she must surely have been a delightful young creature of the Roaring Twenties.
The next time I saw Viola, some months later, it was regarding symptoms which unfortunately led to a diagnosis of cancer. She remained remarkably well, nonetheless, and upon receiving the bad news, indefatigable as ever, she immediately responded “Well then, young man, you’d better book me into that Sacred Heart Hospice!”
“Oh, I think you’re being a bit premature, Viola” I hastened to reply. “The hospice is for people who are dying. You’re a long way from that.”
“Nonsense”, she declared. “It’s for people who’ve got cancer isn’t it, and I’ve got cancer, so book me in!”
At Viola’s insistence, and in an effort to convince her of the inappropriateness of her demand, I rang the hospice and explained her situation. To my utter surprise, they agreed to admit her. She gave away her possessions, moved out of her Housing Commission flat, and into the hospice a few days later.
I used to go to visit her there, but she was often absent. She’d invite friends to the hospice for tea parties, she’d go out to the theatre, or to dinner, or away for the weekend, then return. Basically Viola treated the hospice as a private hotel, where she had free accommodation. She seemed not to sicken or weaken, but to be always cheerful and her usual impudent self, so I was quite taken aback when I called in one day, to be told that she’d died.