He calls me ‘Darlink’, his still heavy Yugoslavian accent rolling his r’s round a mouth that has few teeth left in it. ‘Darlink,’ he says, ‘it vas terrible.’ And that morsel sets his r’s off on an elongated rattle, making ‘terrible’ seem so much worse than when I say it. But it is terrible. The story he narrates to me seems incongruous with the sunlight pouring around his lover’s cottage. There are doves on his verandah, vibrant blooming flowers, and the relics of a warmly lived life.
He’s a teeny tiny man. So teeny tiny that when we wander around the tomato plants and strawberries in his garden his old grey track pants fall down around his ankles. He laughs and stoops to pick them up, and the dog rushes in to lick him on the face. She’s a delightful fat thing, who jumps, falling over with the weight of her tummy, and races in circles around this man she adores. ‘Daddy’s girl,’ he calls her, and fills her food bowl to overflowing.
The cupboards too are filled to overflowing. I laugh as he takes me on a tour of the kitchen and presses a bag of Home Brand banana lollies in my hand (one of three in the pantry) insisting that I take them home with me.
It’s his mother’s fault, he says, she couldn’t stand the rationing of the war that stole years of his childhood, and was compulsive about stocktaking – just in case. She has passed it on to him and I laugh and tell him he could survive on his rations for months if he had to.
The house is adorned at every turn with pictures of his late wife, a Slavic beauty, who was, he tells me, the love of his life. And now she’s gone, he is here alone with a fat dog for company. We lounge on his bed, a mustard velour number straight out of the 70’s, and talk about her. He speaks to me in lilting English, in sentences that are often just a couple of disjointed words punctuated with a wiggle of eyebrow, or a soft chuckle for emphasis.
He tells me several times he hopes I will end up with a husband just like him, I take this to mean he likes me. I giggle and ask ‘why?’ He says; ‘Because she, my Nelya, she is my number one. There is no one better than her for me. But now she is gone, what you can do?’ And I can see, in the shine of his sparkling eyes, how much he still adores her.
He got his hair cut especially for my visit, and its white edges are surprisingly angular against the curve of his crevassed face and stooped back. He’s a proud man, and shows his cupboard full of sharp suits and shined shoes, the remnants from a career as a diplomat. He laughs, and I see how dashing he must have been, twinkly and charming, a dapper gentleman with a handsome wife on his arm, whirling around the array of parties on the diplomat circuit.
It was less glamorous in the end though. He spent ten years taking care of Nelya as her health failed. Until a disgruntled family member forced him into a mental hospital, and took the chance to send his wife to a nursing home. The woman he had been married to for 54 years was taken away from him, on a whim that I can’t quite make out (although I ask again, and again, trying to understand). I expect it is less because of our language barrier, and more unfathomable and impossible to articulate. ‘I can’t understand how they had that power [to take her away], he says, I can’t understand how.’
It took two years to convince the court to release her to him, though it’s what they both wanted. When they finally agree they only have six months together before she dies and his heart is broken. How, I ask, how did you get through it, the two empty years of separation waiting and wondering? ‘I went to her,’ he says, ‘twice a day, driving to her nursing home and back.’ Like everything else he says, he is matter of fact. Like driving for hours a day is just what you have to do when you and your love are separated. Even if you are eighty years old.
There is one photo in the house of the two of them, and that delightful fat dog. She is tiny too, in the end, and he is bent over her, protecting her and loving her. There is so much joy on his face. It is the day she was released from the nursing home. It was, he tells me, ‘happiest moment from my life.’ I can see it then, as I can in every trinket, in the flock of birds he feeds by hand, in the roundness of the dog, and hear it in the soft laughter that underlines his words; everything is for his Nelya.
He stands by the gate as I leave, dog at his heel, and waves until I disappear. I feel that special anguish that twists at me when I think of the people in the world who have no one. Life has dealt this kind man a very cruel blow, but like he says, in an endearingly mixed up way, ‘what you can do?’ and laughs. He’s always laughing this gorgeous man, Nelya’s number one husband.
A family member forcefully removed Stan for assessment to a mental hospital, and removed his wife to an undisclosed nursing home, for reasons that are not entirely clear.
Shortly afterwards, Stan was discharged from hospital and returned to a disheveled home. After a couple of weeks of searching he found his wife in a nursing home but was barred by management from seeing her, on instructions from his same family member.
With SLASS assistance Stan was able to re-establish regular contact with his wife and they were finally reunited in their home. It took two years, and four court appearances to finally get his wife to be allowed to come home and they had six months together there before she died.