Vin Maskell
Palliative care hospital ward, Melbourne, 2014

An extended Stereo Story


You can grow cynical about some old songs. Call them too sentimental. If you’ve heard them once you’ve heard them a thousand times. Ho-hum.

And then you’re in a visiting room of a palliative care hospital built in the 1960s. Following directions from a receptionist, you’ve found your way through a maze of corridors by keeping track of coloured lines. Yellow for the Multiple Sclerosis ward. Green for Motor Neurone Disease. Blue for Parkinson’s Disease. You keep an eye on the yellow line as you side-step trolleys and wheelchairs, patients and nurses, volunteers and other visitors.

You pull up a chair beside your mate Pat. He smiles brightly at this unexpected visit. His walking-frame is parked behind him. He’s having lunch, as are half-a-dozen other patients. A woman sits at the head of the long trestle table and plays guitar quietly. Some James Taylor. Some Carole King. Songs from the 60s and 70s.

“You can chat,” she says while strumming. “It’s just background music.”

“Hayley’s a music therapist,” says Pat. “And it’s more than background music. It makes these get-togethers very enjoyable.”

Opposite Pat a volunteer is feeding a man, maybe in his 30s, strapped into a wheelchair. Beside him a woman in a floral dress and a large bib, maybe in her 50s, manages to feed herself. She is also in a wheelchair, a large electric vehicle that she can tilt. At the far end of the table a volunteer feeds a long-limbed fair-haired woman, maybe in her 30s, whose body seems to be permanently at 45 degrees.

Hayley strums. She sings. Music lightens the air. Outside, rain is setting in.

The floral-dress woman asks for an Abba song. Hayley plays some Dancing Queen. A few people hum or sing along.

A man asks for The Carnival Is Over, by The Seekers, from the 1960s. “I’ll cry if you play The Carnival Is Over,” Pat says to Hayley. I’m looking for Pat’s trademark cheeky grin, but it’s not there.

“Really?” says Hayley.

“I might.” Pat, a fine journalist in his time, a man who knows the weight of words, then alludes to a past relationship. From before our time. We met 20 yea