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By Bruce Williams

Derek’s clean slacks are hanging from his scrawny butt (which, I assume, is clean also) as he leans over the pool table, and as I pass from the bar towards the back room carrying two beers: one for me, and one for Larry.

This is three years back, before Ellen was born. It’s about the time the major effort with Samantha, Sam, began to ease. She could walk now. She could ask for a few simple needs. And Betty and I could ask for a few simple needs in return. So, once more (once a month), I could spend an evening at the Viceroy, playing pool.

Derek rolls the white ball so that it just kisses the 4, deep purple, sending it toward the side pocket, where it rests, right on the lip of the side pocket. He turns to Larry (nick-named Happy) who he’s partnering this evening, and says, tenderly: ‘I’m leaving it for you.’

I’m playing with an islander named Joe, but I’m in a shout with Larry. Life is complex in Cumbersome.

Derek walks gingerly, favouring his left leg, as he hands the cue to Joe, and takes a few paces before climbing onto the stool between me and Larry. He lets a groan escape. And in response to my enquiring look he says: ‘She’s a little tender.’

She, it turns out, is his left foot. He sweeps back his clean, thick, grey, barber-cut hair with the spread fingers of his right hand. ‘It’s the nightmares,’ he says.

Joe has sunk a couple of bigs for me, and now Larry’s up, with Derek’s tenderly placed 4-ball still resting at the lip of the pocket.

Larry, who favours a different flavour of stimulant to Heavy Helen (and on this they’ll just have to agree to differ), strides up to the table and, in one gesture, plants down his left hand, launches his cue with his right, and sends the white ball hurtling toward the purple, from where both balls sail through the air, ricocheting off the juke box, and out the door to the beer garden – and bounce bounce bounce down the tiled steps.

‘Yeah!’ Larry exclaims. And he’s off out the door to retrieve them.

‘I like playing with Larry,’ Derek tells me. ‘We never win, but it’s always very funny.’

Derek has been having nightmares.

He sleeps in the same, narrow bed he’s been sleeping in for 20 years. And it was 20 years old when he bought it. It’s a child’s bed really, and his feet touch the end. Before the nightmares, this had not been a problem. He even felt comfortable and cocooned that way, held between headrest and foot rail.

But lately – these nightmares. In the midst of which he’d kick and kick, just his left foot, against the 40-year-old bars of his child’s bed.

And it was nothing at first. Then it was a nuisance. Then a blasted nuisance. And soon he began thinking on it all day. That foot. So tender. And what would happen tonight, and how would he wake tomorrow’ How much worse could it get before it got better’

He took himself to the bulk-billing doctor, who had no receptionist, and who’s office contained nothing but two chairs and a desk, and a shelf carrying three jars, each of them holding various objects of various sizes in individual plastic bags.

At the Viceroy, Derek descends from his bar stool and walks to the table trying to be gentle to his tender foot. If someone touches you with tenderness – it’s all care, all love: and harm is far, far away. That’s an outward tenderness. But if tenderness is in you, held within you, there’s either a little pain, or a lot. And there’s no way around it.

Tender also means to offer up – to lay out formal terms of a deal. And where the Cooks River spills out into Botany Bay, that battered yacht that trails a tiny tinny with its egg-beater outboard… that little boat is called a tender, as it attends to the on-shore needs of off-shore sailors.

And the doctor was tending Derek, as Derek explained his situation: clearly, but in no greater detail than necessary. The doctor peeled off Derek’s sock and examined the tender foot – bruised, swollen, soft – before replying.

‘Derek, what do you expect me to do about this’ I can’t make your bed longer.’