A Guest of Clive

When I mentioned to a friend I’d be attending a medical conference at the Palmer Coolum Resort, she said, “You can’t possibly be supporting that man.” I never chose the location of the conference but I looked forward to returning to the pleasant place where I had attended previous events. If staying at Palmer’s resort constituted support, clearly I could support him; but apparently I should not. Everyone I spoke to had a clear opinion: Clive was a selfish man, he was immature, he was a menace to democracy.
I realised I was lacking in conviction on the Clive Issue and this lack was at best surprising and probably deplorable.

We drove in to the resort. Green expanses of the famed golf course pleased the eye. A plastic dinosaur assaulted the finer senses. Sweeping around a bend we arrived to stillness. The resort was a human desert.

At the desk the embarrassed receptionist said, no, I could not have The Australian delivered to my door. Nor, she volunteered, could I have any paper other than the Sunshine Coast daily. Surprised, I stood for a moment. After allowing the penny to drop I grinned, made a remark recruiting the receptionist, inviting her to lower her guard, to confess something of herself.
In the silence she blushed. After a time she wished us a pleasant stay as if she really meant it. As if she were making amends.

In the course of the weekend we did have a pleasant time. Among the conference people we enjoyed free and vigorous intercourse. With our hosts we enjoyed warm but guarded dialogue that lacked the thrust and mutuality of intercourse.

Visiting Cuba in 1999 we were the guests of another large figure. Fidel permitted us to read his local daily, “Grandma”. No other newspapers were available. Throughout the country we found our hosts warm but reticent. The dinosaurs we found were motor vehicles from the 1950’s that exhaled black smoke. In a free exchange of toxins the locals smiled as prevailing winds deposited their pollutants on Miami.

In another free exchange four hundred workers have been released from the Coolum Resort to join Mr Abbott’s jobsearchers. Where forty bellstaff used to work, there remain three. Those three work hard, smile a lot and sew their lips.

Down in the village of Coolum Beach you can buy the ‘free’ press. I purchased The Australian, whose first headline you may see below. I searched the paper in vain for any comment – The Australian is not shy to comment – offering a broader view of Clive. Plenty of thrust but no mutuality.

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She Died with a Smart Phone in Her Hand

She approaches the kerb, this young woman, walking diagonally across the footpath towards the verge. As she walks her regard is upon the screen of the phone in her palm. Nimble fingers dance across the small keyboard as she composes her message.

The face is intent, neither unhappy nor animated, as she drifts in her fugue onto the roadway. Dancing fingers pause, poised above the screen while she searches for the word that eludes her. Her feet walk slowly. She has no regard to the now quickening flow of feet before her.

The message, the letter, these occupy her.

The red light tells her nothing.

My car moves forward with the greening of the lights, as others do on either side of me and from the opposite direction.

What does she write? To whom does she compose these thoughtful words?

Is there a beloved for whom she writes? Inching closer I imagine her words: ”Dear one,

Last night was so…”

The last dashers against the red light have made shore. But the drifting lover faces her palm. Her fingers busy again, she writes her closing words…

***

When one tonne of plastic-clad metal encounters sixty kilograms of human flesh at 50 kilometres an hour the tender flesh gives way. The body leaves the surface, rising briefly above the roadway before landing in an attitude determined not by volition but by physics. A gust of sound as air is forced from the chest. The head makes forcible contact, soft brain and delicate vessels slam against the hard vault of bone. Slender cervical vertebrae are wrenched violently, internal viscera suffer shearing forces.

I have seen these changes, seen them all, attended them at post-mortems and at roadside.

***

And then there was Barry, my younger brother. Barry was five when the phone call came. I was home sick, genuinely sick – we couldn’t put anything over my doctor father – and I watched Mum take the call. Barry had gone off to school that morning, unescorted by a bigger brother.

Mum stood with the phone in her hand, her face urgently attentive. “Yes, I am Barry’s mother.”

Frowning, silent, burning with inquiry, Mum finally cut in: ”Sir, I can’t understand you. Please compose yourself.”

Then, “Oh hello Mr Zizzis, yes, yes I do know you… from the milk bar. Please tell me…”

Mum listened for a moment or two.

“I’ll come now. I’ll be there in a few minutes.”

As she headed for the back door Mum said, “Barry’s been hit by a car…crossing Warrigal Road. Mr Zizzis says he’s alright. No, you stay here. You’re sick, remember.”

When Mum returned Barry was alright. He had an egg on his forehead and a guilty, relieved look on his beautiful face. Perhaps he was just pale, but his tight dark curls never looked so black.

Mum explained: “Barry ran in front of a car. The driver couldn’t stop in time. He was an old man, he said he’d never had an accident in all his life of driving… I couldn’t understand him on the phone, he was crying so much. Mr Zizzis saw it all through his window. He said the fender caught Barry and threw him up into the air. Barry just floated up from the roadway, floated and Mr Zizzis saw him going up, then landing on the bonnet. The driver wasn’t going fast. He just brought his car to a stop.

And Mr Zizzis knew Barry. He brought them in and gave the old man his phone. Poor man. Poor, poor old man.”

***

The daydreaming letter writer is safely beyond the eastbound lanes. Will she claim sanctuary on the double lines? The nearest westbound fender catches her. Her body rises, floats – I will her to follow Barry’s gentle parabola – she is young, too young to die. I am old, too old and too young – to bear witness again to the sudden extinction of breath, of life.

The Taxman Cometh

A letter from the taxman. I open it, urgent fingers fumbling. It’s a short letter on the official letterhead of the Deputy Commissioner. The Deputy Commish, as darkly powerful as Gina, as shapelessly feared as Rupert, as suddenly potent as Clive, has taken time to write me a letter.
The letter reads: “Returned herewith a document enclosed with your Bass payment.”

No ‘Dear Howard’, no salutation at all.

Above the name of the Deputy the letter is inked with a couple of initials preceded by the notation ’pp’.

What does the enclosure reveal of me to the Dep Commish? What does she now know about me from this item of my private correspondence?
I peer at the attached document. It is a cheque drawn on my bank account, signed by me, intended as a donation to an institution I like to support.

That institution has been accused of cultural pluralism. Rumours speak of a nasty Green streak running through it. It doesn’t hate Israel nearly enough, nor for that matter does it conflate Islam with Islamism.

With the new anti-mass-terror initiatives (which I wholeheartedly support. Honest. We really can’t let in all those RohyngianSriLankanTigerTamils), my support for the Institute will see me forfeit the presumption of innocence. And truly who can blame Mister Abbott-Shorten for trying to protect the country in all its nonasylumseeking (“a wonderful fabric”) diversity?

Once the terror police haul me in for questioning, they’ll shave my head and send me to the showers. There the CCTV cameras will home in on the (absent) foreskin. I won’t have a middleleg to stand on: circumcision will mark me as Aboriginal or as a Son of Abraham. Tantamount to rejecting Team Australia. Thank goodness ASIO will have all those extra millions to detect and arrest and question dodgy characters such as I; and laws to suppress any notice; and no need to charge me while holding me. Habeas Corpus has Habeat its day. About time.

I will flee the country. I will change my name, I will buy a dodgy passport; I’ll swim to New Zealand, claim asylum in the Ecuadoran Embassy.

Do they have the internet in Ecuador? If not you may never again find me on your screens.

Farewell, Shalom, Salaam.

A Quiet Night in Casualty

A quiet night. Apart from the ten year old who coughs through every winter and the two year old with a cut leg, all our patients wash up on our shores on a tide of intoxicants. Subtract grog from these lives, says the Director, and we could close half our cubicles. Take away drugs and we’d need only a quarter.
We treat the thirty year old whose man – drunk – split open her scalp and broke three of her fingers; we check out the Frequent Flyer with (real) kidney failure disabled for the fourth night in a row by (spurious) chest pain; he seeks opiates and when denied a needle, suddenly invigorated, he walks out. Tall and elegant, the forty-something in the very high heels tripped over her long legs following a fusillade of shots (vodka). She tore her medial collateral ligament. The man snoring down the back treated his epilepsy with a slab in place of his Epilim. The ambos brought him in, fitting. He’ll need observation until morning…

The ward slows, starts to doze. Time to go to the loo. Above the urinal a laminated protocol provides advice on intoxication. The notice is headed:

TOILET PAPER – SEPTEMBER 2014.

Around two in the morning an irruption of large bodies in blue. One, two, three, four police officers, escorting one small man whose pale blue shirt is soaked. Handcuffed to the bedrails, he yet manages to give the cops the finger – two fingers actually – one on each hand. He blows kisses to the cops. The officers remain unprovoked.

The ambo, a non-combatant, provides the story: The pub called the coppers because he was behaving wildly. His friends say he had taken ecstasy, crack and alcohol. And another tablet – they don’t know what. He went crazy in the pub. Security tried to quieten him and he fought them; then he fought the cops. These four are only half the number it took to control him. They cuffed him. Somewhere along the line he vomited.

The man is surprisingly small. His short half shirt is soaked in lumpy vomitus. Between his gallery of tattoos patches of skin are missing from his knuckles. A large abrasion swells and shines dully on his forehead. A dull steel ring decorates his lower lip. Another improves an eyebrow. When a nurse tries to mask him (“You’ve been vomiting, we need you to wear a mask”) he speaks simple words in surprisingly mild tones: Please don’t touch me. Please don’t touch me. The nurse looks too slender, too young to handle this unpredictable person. Her speech is a further surprise. Turning from the patient to the gathering of uniforms congregating around the cubicle, she asks: Do we really need all these people? She draws the curtains, comes close to her patient and asks: Have you taken drugs?
No.
Any alcohol?
No.
Have you been in a fight?
No.
Has your head has been injured?
No.
Have you vomited?
No.
Do you take any regular medications?
No.
Do you have any medical history?
No.
This is a nineteen year old without symptoms, without any reason to be here. Mildly the nurse says, Well then, once we find there’s no reason to detain you will you have any objection if we return you to these officers?
No.
To his denials of all symptoms and concerns the man adds, I don’t believe I have any obligation to answer your questions.
A compact young doctor joins the conversation: Look, Simon, we’re here to help you. We aren’t the police, we’re not charging you, we’re not collecting evidence.
Like her nursing colleague the doctor speaks calmly. She focuses on assessing and helping the patient. Your heart is racing. You’re a bit dry. We’ll put a drip into this vein. Do you mind?
No answer. Eyes closed, resolutely mute, the young man affects a coma rather than concede anything to anyone.

The boy trembles as far as his manacles allow. Is he just scared? Are his drugs making him paranoid or is he frightened by the storm of chemicals that fight each other inside his brain? Or just terrified of the police?

His shirt is wet. The thermometer reads 35 degrees.
Are you cold?
No.
Would you like a blanket?
No.
Do you need to pee?
No.

Taking the nurse aside I confide: With this drip running he will need to urinate eventually. Handcuffed as he is, he’ll need help. How will you handle that?
We’ll give him a bottle.
He won’t be able to unzip. Someone will need to pull his dick out for him.
That will be your job.

An hour later, I find the nurse and ask for the bladder report.
He’s been. He’s voided.
How did you do it?
I took him to the toilet. He did the rest.
In handcuffs?
O no: the cuffs are off. He’s calm now. I walked him there and he managed himself. The cops are leaving.

I check in the cubicle. With no need of coma or bravado or petulance, the young man – or boy – lies on the bed and chats with his girlfriend – another surprise: impeccably presented, she’s a demure young lady.

Domestic violence, drug seeking, a lacerated child, another who coughs; grog, grog, grog, and multi-chemical intoxication…

A quiet night in Casualty.

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My Mother’s Amygdala

MumI am pretty sure my mother had an amygdala; every one of us does. If my friend Joe, who seems to know his amygdalas, is correct, Mum’s must have been smaller than most. He tells me the amygdala is the seat of fear in the brain.
Joe is a barrister. I remind him I am a doctor. “It’s fifty years since I last had need of any knowledge of the amygdala. How come you know about it?”
Joe says: “In my business it helps to keep up to date with neuroscience. Such things as the organ of fear can be important in court”. Which all makes sense for a criminal lawyer; but Joe does compensation cases only.

For a while I consider my mother. Then I describe her to Joe. Joe smiles. The more I speak of my mother the wider Joe’s smile.
“Mum lost her father to cancer when she was twelve. Then three years and one day later her mother died – “Mummy had rheumatic fever in her childhood. After Daddy went, she died of a broken heart.”
From the age of fifteen Mum and with her younger sister Doreen were raised by her widowed grandmother, “Gar”, a tender and enlightened and emancipated lady who taught her granddaughters to feel inferior to no-one on this earth. Nor superior, for that matter.

Mum failed her Intermediate Certificate, Year Ten in today’s language. She concluded she was a dunce (making no allowance for the effect on learning of the abrupt loss of a pair of parents) and left school. She attended secretarial college, worked as a bookkeeper, saved her salary and at the age of twenty set sail alone for Europe. The year was 1939. Her correspondence through that blithe passage via the Dutch East Indies into Western Europe is punctuated by increasingly urgent letters from Gar to hurry home: “There is going to be a war.”
Mum prepared for the war by sleeping on deck – “in case we were torpedoed” – on the last night at sea. Her ship made port in Fremantle on the day war was declared.

My parents raised us children in the country town of Leeton. Once a year we visited the great city of Melbourne where there were trams. Mum took me on a tram ride along Hawthorn Road, past the cemetery. “Mummy and Daddy are in there”, she remarked affably, indicating a long red brick wall. Behind the wall I glimpsed stone statues and crosses. Mum’s remark made no sense to me. ‘Mummy’ was on the tram with me and ‘Daddy’ was back home in Leeton. Mum explained: “It’s a cemetery. People who have died are buried there. That’s where my parents are.” Mum’s voice, warm with affection and remembered pleasure, sounded as it always did when she spoke of her mother and father. I heard no note of sadness. At seven years old I could only imagine losing parents as the absolute of perdition, of aloneness. A thought like the abyss. Mum seemed to think dying was a natural part of living; it happened but death didn’t spoil life. Not for Mum.

Mum told me once of a tram ride she took one night from Fitzroy Street to the home of her uncle (and co-guardian) in Beaconsfield Parade. “I was visiting a friend in St Kilda. I stayed later than I intended and I almost missed the last tram. I just caught it. In the morning I read in the paper that a young woman was murdered overnight at that same tram stop. She was killed some time soon after the last tram – my tram – left… Ever since I was fifteen I’ve known that people die. Last night just wasn’t my time.”

When we children were teenagers, now living in Melbourne, Mum sailed to Britain or Europe. She always stayed in the cheapest hotel, choosing the cheapest room that had private bathroom facilities. Invariably her accommodation was in some seedy district. One time she discovered she was staying in a brothel.”I was safely locked in my bedroom, when I heard a sound from the door. I looked up and I saw the door handle turning. Then the door that I’d locked opened. I sat quietly. No-one came in. The door closed and I heard footsteps walking away. Next day a man I didn’t know asked me to sleep with him. He couldn’t speak English but he showed quite clearly what he wanted in sign language. I couldn’t speak his language – which might have been Kurdish. But I showed him in sign language the answer was no.”
“How did you ‘show’ him?”
“I took out my photos of you four children. I told him your names and your ages. Your faces must have changed his mind.” I picture Mum recounting with delight details of her brood, regaling a puzzled predator with biography, smiling and brimming with goodwill in her natural belief that blood was thicker than semen. I think Mum’s sunny innocence would dent anyone’s carnal ardour.

Another trip, this one around the time of the Cuban missile crisis: mum decided to travel to Yugoslavia. Friends tried to talk her out of it, reminding her of the Cold War. Mum said, “I know it’s an Iron Curtain country, but I don’t think it’s very iron.” People in Tito’s concentration camp in the mountains probably felt both the iron and the cold. Mum, blessed in her innocence, did not sense the chill.

One week before her 92nd birthday, Mum lay in her bed in Cabrini Hospital and breathed. Breathing was a labour as Mum’s heart was failing. Between small gulps of oxygen Mum chatted cheerfully with me and Miriam, a neighbour. Suddenly she coughed. And coughed again and again. Wordless now, Mum at up straight and took great desperate gasps, one after another. Quickly Miriam excused herself and left. I turned up the oxygen flow and called a nurse, who raced in and injected some diuretic into Mum’s drip. Minutes later Mum was gulping comfortably again. She pulled off her oxygen mask and grinned: “Miriam and the nurse both thought I was going to croak, didn’t they?” – huge crooked grin now, now laughing – “Well, I didn’t!”
After that Mum and I talked seriously: I asked her if she had any late – possibly last – wishes. Day and night in the hospital she had her two living sons and her daughter and a tribe of grandchildren with her. Mum never wished for more than that.

Even the smallest amygdala will not save you when your heart is shot. Mum lived a few more days before falling asleep and dying without fear.

How to Widen the Gap

In my novel “Carrots and Jaffas” a whitefella doctor working in an outback Aboriginal community has a recurring daydream. The doctor’s dreaming is of a pathway into a healthier unobese, normotensive, undiabetic, heartwell community. That pathway is the path of a sugarless past, a path followed by gatherers and hunters, who are not fast and fizzy food consumers.

That dreaming, a sort of longing for escape from the simple carbs that destroy his flock, that widen the Gap, is born from the reality the Doc sees at the checkout in the community’s foodshop. The local people stock their trolleys, proceed to the checkout, proffer their paycards and wait. The cost of the foods frequently exceeds the funds in the card. The customer removes this food, that food, the next – until the tally equals the funds. First to go are milk, vegies, fruit. Then meat. Finally the customer is left with white bread and brown fizzy cola.

The Doc reels at the choices, at the grip on appetite and taste of these poisons: “more harmful – because more widespread  – than alcohol”. The Doc, an old utopian, dreams of a switch to the Zero option, the sugarless drinks that will please the taste for sweet and the pull of caffeine…The Doc does not fear the scaremongering over artificial sweeteners; thirty years ago these were going to cause cancer. Thirty years on he is still waiting for those cancers. Meanwhile sugar’s harm is here, everywhere…

The experience of that old doc is my experience precisely. In fifty communities, over twenty five years, I have seen these carbs at work on babes in arms, on youths and matrons, on aunties and uncles. In go those carbs and the gap widens that we are successfully closing elsewhere.