All Those Christmases at Once

NEWS BULLETIN, DECEMBER 2010

Christmas Island tragedy: Screams, yells and then they drowned…Devastated Christmas Islanders …witnessed yesterday’s horror…

After three days on Christmas Island it is my turn to take night call as doctor at the Detention Centre. At ten PM I receive a call from Team Leader, the always-smiling Henry. I hear no trace of a smile in his voice: “Security is bringing five men in to the clinic who’ve slashed themselves and another man who tried to hang himself.”

When I arrive in the clinic, all cubicles are full. There are the five men who have cut themselves, and not one, but two, who’ve tried to hang. I don’t know where to look first. I don’t want to look at all.

In the nearest cubicle a man lies flat on his back, his throat livid in the glare of the examination light. He does not move.

I speak, asking his name.

No word, no movement.

I speak loudly into his ear.

Nothing.

I press my index finger tip hard against his sternum, a really unpleasant experience for a person whose body parts retain their connections with the brain. A person with a broken neck loses such connection. The really unpleasant stimulus evokes no response. I press harder: nothing.

I rest the pulps of my fingers against the inside of his wrist. The heart does not dissimulate: it sends a pulse of blood along the man’s radial artery, at a rate of seventy times a minute.

My racing heart slows.

I try not to look too hard at the man’s throat. The damage here is only skin deep. There are more vital sites elsewhere: I check for damage to the neck vertebrae, assess pupils and reflexes and muscle tone. All are reassuring.

Finally the throat – inescapable. It is a horrible thing to see – a human neck skinned at the front. There is little or no bleeding, just a broad scarf of raw red meat, overlying a peeled adam’s apple. It is the neck of a rooster in a slaughterhouse, grotesque, the more so with a good-looking face above it and a normal torso below.

To this delicate bodily junction the detained man applied twisted sheeting, then jumped. There was not sufficient fall to damage neck bones or spinal cord; just enough to skin him.

In the bright light he is a painting, a human still life: on one side his bronze skin sheens; on his shaded parts, it darkens. A stubble bristles on his chin. I return to my patient. His arms, lightly muscled, lie flaccid at his sides. His legs neither move, nor resist movement. I watch his thin torso for rise and fall. A hint of expansion only, unconvincing, inconclusive.

This man is alive. But he does not betray any sign of consciousness. Why?

I look at his file for his SIEV number. The lower the number, the earlier the date of arrival. His is in the low 100’s. He has been waiting here a long time. Tonight was to be the end of his wait.

Now, defeated by life, he is embarrassed to know and be known by us. He lies and he pretends his wish had come true. I can make out a faint snoring sound, very soft, almost inaudible. I think of my wife and the snorer in her bed.

NEWS BULLETIN 24 JULY, 2014:

One woman putting a bag over her head, drinking half a bottle of detergent….using a broken mirror to cut herself…

On their separate couches lie the slashed men. Rising above intact skin, parallel lines of red glisten and coagulate. The lacerations are multiple, situated on left arms and the left side of abdomens.

The sole left-hander has slashed his right shoulder. A dozen narrow ribbons of his skin lie, oozing slightly, a bloody epaulette. There is insufficient width of skin here to accept an anchoring suture. Unsutured, his wounds will heal in time, leaving a grid of ugly scar, an obscure tattoo. All of his cuts are shallow: human meat as sashimi, unrepaired.

One more, one last harmer in this outbreak of harm. The nurse says: “He’s swallowed a razor blade.” A razor blade! I am sixty five years old. I am too young for this horror.

In time, the dressing station is emptied of the skin-wounded. The hanged men will stay here overnight, under observation.

MORE FROM TODAY’S NEWS:

A spokeswoman for Immigration Minister Scott Morrison said “It is longstanding Government practice not to confirm or comment…”

There remains one man, older, silent and red-eyed. I search for the site of his wound. It is too deep to be seen. The weeping man weeps for all he has witnessed, for the sorrow, for his sons.

I look at his face. O, what a grief looks through his eyes. In his crying, his mouth twists in a tragic smile. His old eyes look into mine. Lost for words, I take his hand and sit down beside him. He gazes into my face as if into a mirror. He shakes his head sadly and presses my hand.

Why is he here? His guards were troubled and decided to bring him to the clinic. His grief overwhelmed them, those large phlegmatic men. It is they, the guards, who seek treatment for him: some sedative, some vicarious remedy for the circumambient pain.

Through an interpreter, I offer him a tablet. I tell him it will help him to sleep. Before the interpreter can translate, the old man shows me again that woeful smile. He has no more tears.

He presses my hand.

He says: Ta shakour, ta shakour. Thank you, thank you.

CLOSING TODAY’S NEWS BULLETIN:

…not to comment on individual acts of self-harm.

Now, three years distant from my term on the island, haunted by guilty dreams, I can appreciate the soundness of the minister’s judgement. One must never comment on an individual. The individual is the basic unit of the human. If the minister allowed himself to see, to feel, to know the single pulsing person, he might lose his equanimity, his tight-lipped resolve. If one human saw the plight of another he’d pale, he’d shudder, he’d cry out, he’d tear apart his self-sewn lips.

And then where would we be? The boats mightn’t stay stopped.

Meeting Moses in the Wilderness

A winter’s afternoon in a northern outback town. The sun broiling my white skin in the current slow-roast mode. At the taxi rank outside Coles I stand, waiting, midst my regretted plastic bags filled with food purchases. A few metres distant stands a compact Aboriginal lady with her bags, also waiting for a cab. A roaring from the middle of the street, busy with Friday afternoon traffic. The roars emerge from the centre of a bearded black face. The face sits atop a tall and rangy frame. Long limbs convey trunk and roaring face across the street between moving vehicles that pass and part as the Red Sea waters. Mister Beard’s legs weave in a singular, sinuous, almost swimming gait. He makes shore just beyond the waiting lady, who half turns to him, speaks a quick, quiet word to him, at which he desists from his roaring.

As the man passes the woman his whispered promise to her drifts on the warm air to my ears: “No humbug!”

Approaching me now the man is taller and wider than I appreciated. His articulated body parts have a folding, telescoping tendency, now unseen, now seen briefly, in the fluidity of his motion. The man stops at half a metre distant, I atop the kerb, he on the roadway. He bends forward, lowering a shaggy head to the level of my face. “Goood Afternooon”, he croons winningly, his large and elastic lips sliding into smiling. “I will tell you my story, story of my country.”
The man checks his speech to extend an upper limb towards me. The hand that grasps my own (size eight surgical glove, “large” in an operating theatre) hand now hides mine entirely. Soft, cool, its palm a pale honey shade, that expansive hand shakes my own: “Welcome to country”, it says.
The winning voice speaks again: “What is your name, sir?
“Howard.”
“Howard – a good name: the Prophet Howard. I am” – a deep bow, the crooning speech – “I am Mohhses…the Prophet Howard and the Prophet Moses!”
“Well Moses, it’s good to meet you. And Moses is a good name, a very good name. I am not so sure about the Prophet Howard. The last Howard leader we had was John Howard.
Moses’ wide face contracts in thought, opening again into full flowering grin: “No, not so good really”. A gust of laughter blows a fruity aromatic breeze to my nose.
“Sir – Howard – would you lend me two, three dollars?”
My brain falters as my hand dives to the bottom of my hip pocket where the coins gravitate during shopping.
“Just four dollars, five.”
My thinking self doesn’t buy alcohol for a drink-ruined man. But here he is, ‘Mohhses’, in his large physicality, in his irresistible humanness. Here he stands, but a breath distant from me.
Human impulse and slow judgement wrestle within me, a longish bout apparently, for now Moses moves unexpectedly, half a step backwards, as his knees flex, his torso descends, his head recedes downwards, down toward the tarmac.
A sudden shout breaks from me as my arms grasp and yank the man’s shoulders: “No! No! Moses don’t you ever do that! Don’t you kneel before me.”
The man rises. His rueful grin concedes, “well, that ruse didn’t work”. My own voice, murmuring now my small mean thoughts, “Moses, I don’t think you really mean I should ‘lend’ you money. Don’t you mean ‘give’?”
The face is at rest, now pensive, now lit anew: “I will sing you a song. My song. I come from Kohhhlahhhmbarooo.”
Moses pauses as he feels the weight of a cluster of small brazen coins entering his palm from mine.

Now the man sings. Listening acutely for the secrets of country, I stand poised on the pavement, even as my cab approaches.
The singing voice is sweet, the phrases protracted, Moses in motion with the rhythm of the song and the ruin of his proprioception. The honeyed voice, draws sound from the great body, sound that flows and undulates in no tongue familiar to my ears.
The cab is upon me, an electric window slides down and a Philippino face asks me, “Where to, mate?”
And Moses sings on. Now the words take shape. “Do nooot forsaaaake me, o my daaaarling…”
I thank the man from Kolamburu and hide my hand in his. We shake, I reclaim my limb and climb into the car. As we drive away, Moses sings on, “On this ouuuuuur wedddddding daaaaaay….”

Return of the Pantry Moth

They’d visit every year, in late spring as I recall. And they’d stay until the end of summer. The pantry moths were our uninvited guests. “House guests are like fish”, as my cousin in Des Moines remarks, “They’re fine at first but they start to go off after three days.”

When they first arrive the moths are inoffensive in their delicate off-white coats. Standing upright, which I’ve never seen them do, they’d be a fraction taller than a centimetre; in full and fluttery flight their wingspan is about two-and –a half cm. I don’t mind them at first. Their numbers are few and they shun attention, nestling discreetly in the groynes of the kitchen’s plaster ceiling. What they are doing, I discovered, is waiting, plotting, fantasising. What is it that the moth’s minute brain contemplates high in the groynes? Sex, of course. Sex in our kitchen. This, I believe, ranks as an offence against hospitality.

Now I’ve never actually caught the moths at it. Perhaps they are too quick. Discreet they certainly are, as I observed earlier. But I know they do it. In the lines my late and beloved Uncle Abe loved to recite:

I can tell there’s been some pushin’
By the marks upon the cushion
And the footprints on the ceiling
Upside down…

In the case of the moths it’s their offspring that offend. Somehow they are born lengthier than their parents, at 1.3 cm. These pale plump maggots (I know, I know, they are pupae or something), these maggots drop from the ceiling onto the kitchen benchtops and worm silently, slowly, heading for some unseen bourne.
A few weeks after the arrival of the first of these obese spermatozoa we come across them in the pantry, within sealed jars of farinaceous foods. Their brains might be small but these fellers are all Houdini.
I have written previously of the obscure pleasure of discovering that the curious black crescents in my breakfast cereal I have just consumed are actually mice poo. Less charming somehow is the discovery of pupae in your oatmeal. After the first few of these vernal experiences we examine every package, every plastic container, every jar in our pantry and empty those infested into the bin. Then we buy some more and wait for next spring.

While still invaded and under plunderous attack, we counter-attack. Our weapon is chemical, doubtless banned by the Geneva Diet of Worms: the weapon is a Hovex Pantry Moth Trap. This consists of a small square of pink rubber steeped in some chemical pheromone that seduces the randy moth, who flies towards it in a state of high tumescence and lands on old fashioned fly paper, where cruelly affixed as if crucified in glue, the moth expires.

That’s how it used to be. Come spring, when

The flowers appear on the earth;
The time of the singing of birds is come,
And the voice of the turtle is heard in our land;

our fornicating moths would return.

But last September the moths failed. No flapping in the groynes, no wrigglers in the oatmeal. It felt lonely. It felt like environmental doom. I felt a shapeless guilt. Needing to apologise I wandered empty through my springtime kitchen looking for a maggot.
This environmental emptiness reminded me of the time on the dry land when the blowflies failed. On the lonely road to Bunninyong the words of the Preacher echoed obscurely:

Lest the evil days come
And the years draw nigh
When thou shalt say
“I have no pleasure in them.”

The world had changed ominously. Drought haunted the land.

But after a decade of drought the blowflies came back. And now, at the onset of winter, our pantry moths have returned. Unseasonal visitors, they are harbingers of environmental recovery.

Let all those souls who despair for perishing species visit our flapping, squirming kitchen. Or the blowfly haven of Bunninyong. Nature, it seems, loves the maggot.

Two Flies on a Wall and Darky Harris

fliesWhen I was a boy I came across cultural truisms like, “Aussies will bet on anything; they’ll bet on two flies walking up a wall.” What I heard was something to celebrate, a playfulness in the Australian spirit. When I inherited from a great uncle a curious little plank with two identical circular depressions, someone had to explain this relic of “two-up”, a national pastime. It spoke to me of the irrepressible Aussies of  “Songs of a Sentimental Bloke”. As a more than commonly sentimental bloke myself, I was not disposed to judge or diagnose any malady.

In 1972 I met Darkie Harris. I was the new GP in an ethnically homogenous semi-rural community, an oddity in a skullcap. Somehow the community embraced and included me while excluding the pig-raising Maltese and my only co-religionists ‘the Jews on the hill’.
Darkie Harris differed from everyone and in ways solely his own. Unprepossessing, short, stocky, swarthy, with a face marked by scars and improved by large purpling lips and a vocal tone that ranged from a growl to a bark, he looked older than his fifty-four years and fiercer than anyone so old (I was then exactly half his age) had a right to look.
Darkie distinguished himself by a sort of verbal pugilism. By word and facial expression, and yes, by facial complexion, Darkie dared everyone he encountered to fight him.

What was it that Darkie wanted to fight against? One thing, one thing only. Racism: I don’t care if you’re a chinaman or an abo or a white man. If I cut you, you’re blood’s the same colour as mine.* Darkie was the only person in the town who saw this Jewcomer doctor as undifferent. In equal parts alarmed and charmed, I found I liked him. To most in town I seemed exotic, to some a too shiny exception (‘you’re not like the others’), to some an emblem of a nobility I never earned.

Darkie was retired by the time I met him. He’d take up his position on a bench outside the Chinese café and the fish and chip shop run by a pair of Maltese brothers. He’d sit and glower, softening into a winning chivalry towards women (a sweep of the hat, a flash of gaptoothed smile, “Good morning, Ladies”) and to engage toddlers in amiable conversation while uncertain mothers tried to hide their nervousness and drag their children away.
Darkie sat on his bench and kept vigil. He was waiting for the unguarded comment, any reference he could take exception to, any sneer at the immigrants he championed.
Young hoons and would-be thugs about town learned to shy away from Darkie. As he informed me on a number of occasions, I’d sooner have a fight than a feed. Darkie was referring to his younger self in the Depression days when he was a runner for an illegal bookie, a risky position in a volatile industry. But in 1972 his interlocutor would take Darkie at his word as he’d rise and stride, frothing, barking menacingly to confront the casual bigot.

Darkie never gambled. Those were not the risks he’d take. He described his working life as an honest buccaneer. He served his boss – some degree of criminal – honourably. He’d take the blows and deliver his own and he’d return home and hand his earnings to Joyce, his leathery wife, who subsisted in a cloud of tobacco. Before Joyce Darkie would humble himself, confess his escapades and worship.

The stories of Darkie and flies on a wall and two-up created the sketchy image I had of gambling in Australia. We must have had gambling addiction but I never knowingly met one. I knew dimly of the ancient rabbinic edict that disqualified a gambler as a witness in court proceedings because an addict could neither trust himself or be trusted by others.

In 1976 I went for an early morning run in Launceston, pausing to poke a curious nose into the local casino, a gruesome cellar where women in curlers and moccasins sat mechanically before fruit machines from six in the morning.
Shaken, I ran away.
For some years in the late nineties my younger daughter, a psychologist, worked as a therapist at Gambler’s Help. Her stories of human wreckage at our dinner table opened my eyes. In 2000 I met Alan, a shining youth who became my patient. He starred at hockey, graduated from his elite school, studied business, was recruited by a leading financial institution that trained him as a currency dealer. Two years ago Alan married his golden girl Helen, a primary teacher. They bought a house together in the regional city were she grew up. Neither Alan nor Helen yet realised the bank Alan worked for had trained him as one of their corps of gamblers.
A year ago doctors in the city’s ICU worked on Alan through a Saturday night and all the next day and night. At 27 years of age, Alan’s life seemed at its end, his blood pressure unrecordable, his breathing and heartbeat negligible. It must have been his hockey that saved Alan, his underlying fitness, that brought him back from where his overdose had taken him. After gambling away the contents of the joint bank account, Alan punted on the marital home and lost it. On a weekend when Helen was out of town for a friend’s hen’s night, Alan wrote a note and swallowed the tablets that were to end his self-loathing and his shame. Only Helen’s dog, locked out of the house all Friday night and Saturday, raised the ire of neighbours with her barking.

The marriage died and was buried in a divorce. In the settlement there was little to apportion: Helen took her dog, Alan his shame. His need, his comfort, his fateful hoping – I mean his urge to gamble – survives. It is a daily battle which Alan does not always win.

I turn on the TV to watch sport. Sport still has the power to inspire me, to express nobility, to create wonder, to delight, to unite and uplift. Before and after and between plays, the gambling industry shouts its messages of slim hope, seducing, reducing the game to mere exchange. It is not possible for a child to watch sport on TV without seeing gambling ads. I turn off and prowl my bitter old mind and think of Alan.

In these wrinkled years the past glows, the present moulders, the future threatens. We need someone to blame. That’s why we elect governments – there are some things you just can’t blame on your wife. In the matter of our gambling pandemic I blame governments. Governments bankrupt of funds fall hard for the revenue that streams from gambling. Soon the treasury is addicted to gambling. A few budgets later, we have a government bankrupt of judgement and ultimately of morality. In their lonely amorality, our representatives fall into bad company, the Gambling Lobby. Governments collude with the industry to prevent and foil the simplest attempts to ameliorate our national malaise.

Over two decades I have witnessed the card games in remote Aboriginal communities. Large numbers, women usually outnumbering men, sit on the ground beneath huge trees and gamble from first light to nightfall. Darkness falls and the players shift to the bitumen and sit on the roadway and play through the night.
In Arnhem Land once a nurse and I battled through a long day to save an underweight, undersized infant with life-threatening pneumonia, the child starved because his mother had no money for food. After the necessities – I mean cigarettes and Coca Cola – the young mother consumed the family income at the card games.

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Good News, Bad News

I drove to work one bleak and dark morning early this week and listened to the news. Big mistake.

Over the coming couple of days I glanced at the papers. Another mistake.

The news was full of reports of the depredations of a dangerous species that spoiled its earth, that sacrificed its young, that snatched and killed the young of rivals, that poisoned, bombed, burned in the name of a god, that raped and killed a defenseless woman in the garden. Geniuses in government decide that indigenous people in regional communities need poker machines, a human right.

That wretched species was our own, the human.

I glanced at The Daily Nausea this morning. The wretched chiefs we chose to lead our island nation dream up ever crueller, more wicked ways of throwing away human supplicants, now offshore, now at sea, now in our gulags. Tight of lip, narrow of soul, bereft of remorse, we succeed: we turn back the boats.

I try to avoid this sort of surfeit. I rise early and spend my reading time on poetry, secular and sacred. The truth, the beauty, these endure. They inspire me, build me up.

I can read these and after reading them I am able still to believe in the goodness of humans.

Yesterday morning with no time for the papers, no time for radio, I joined the commuter crush, took the train to work. At the terminus an oldish bloke debarked, limping, his age-dried eyes tearing and bleary, hobbled towards the gates. A broken-backed sort of bloke, stocky, his face lined, grim-looking, evidently gritting against some pain. A young woman, tallish, plumpish, running, chased after the man. The crowds impeded her, she had to weave. After two hundred metres she tapped his shoulder: “Excuse me, you dropped this.” The young woman handed the older man a disreputable-looking hanky.

He gazed at the grotty cloth:” That’s noble”, he said and thanked her.

I was that old man.

At the Hospital for Sick Children

A too large five year old fills a cot whose sides are raised. His limbs move unpredictably and without purpose. He plays with a six-month old’s bright rattle.

His Mum is Ebony, solid and calm, about thirty. She tells me some of the story of Simon, her boy, naming a heritable syndrome of faulty collagen that causes joints and bones to break or dislocate.

 

But Simon’s bigger problem is the stroke that affected him in utero. Ebony felt turbulent convulsive movements in her belly when she was 20 weeks pregnant. Her tummy had swelled excessively, a sign of polyhydramnios, a hint of underlying abnormality in her unborn child. An urgent MRI showed cysts in both sides of the baby’s brain. After Simon was born he suffered seizures. It took two years before the doctors found the right medications to control Simon’s fits.

 

Ebony tells me all this levelly, undramatically, without reflecting on the strain and the burden she bears for this child she loves. Somehow too, she shows me she is not denying that strain; simply this is Simon’s story; she, Ebony, is not the story.

 

Scanning the clinical notes I gather Simon and Ebony live alone. “What about Simon’s Dad, is he part of Simon’s life?” – I wonder.

“Yes. One day a week… he left six months after Simon was born. He said it was too much for him…he’s a social worker.” A smile, not bitter, but of learned knowing.

 

“I started studying Art while Simon was in Respite. My work is showing in Perth at the Biennale. I sold a picture!”

Another smile, this one of delighted pride.

“The man who bought it was a senior man in the government. When he discovered my opposition to our mandatory detention of refugee children he told me he wouldn’t have bought it if he’d known that.”

 

At my request, Ebony pulls out her portable picture gallery, a series of images on her phone. I lack the vocabulary for the power and originality, the life, in these electrifying images.

“I paint on paper in oils.” I can see from her phone how the oils give a vividness to Ebony’s pictures.

She continues: “I said to that government man, ‘You can have your money back if you want to return the picture.’ But he hung on to it.’” Another Ebony grin.

“And Mr. Morrison, the minister in charge of that cruel policy, he wanted one of my images for his Christmas cards. I said, ‘Sure. You can have the image free of charge. Just change your policy first.’ He sacked the man who took that message to him.”

 

I read Ebony my blog piece – “How We Killed Leo”. Ebony gasps when I read of Leo gifting his organs: “I knew Leo. Down Geelong way, we all did. We all loved him. Such a good person. I never knew about his organ donations. And now we’ve lost him.”

 

Two minds in unexpected harmony.

 

We look down at Simon who continues his sporadic horizontal calisthenics. His belly is large, oddly misshapen. As if it were filled with tumours. I ask Ebony some doctor questions. She shakes her head to all my questions until I ask about the boy’s bowel habit. “He hasn’t pooed for a week. Geelong Hospital sent me to the city because they know him here. They’ll do an enema here and then we’ll drive home.”

I make some calculations: nine hours from her door and back. Nine hours of time and waiting and caring. I look at Ebony and she smiles: “It’s a relief. As long as Simon’s alright…”