An Ancient Mariner

A tall man with silver hair and brown skin enters my consulting room, hunched forward a little. His voice is husky in the familiar way of his people, his speech deliberate.

“I cannot say quickly what is wrong, doctor. Please allow me time to explain.”

The face is a compound of care and charm. He is not young but he is well muscled and broad. He bends his torso somewhat, and inclines his head a little as he speaks, his mouth almost smiling  – in propitiation? Has a lifetime among white people taught him to smile as he speaks, even when – as now – his speech is full of sorrow and care?

“I have a boy”, he says. “He is twelve years old.”

(Irresistibly, he delivers his story. His words arrest me, the consultation has stopped; here is Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner: There was a ship, said he…)

My patient continues: “I’ve had him since he was a baby. He is my son’s boy.  The boy’s mother brought him to me when he was newly born. She said – ‘You take this boy. I cannot look after him.’  I told her – ‘You need to think about that. You take him away and think again. A child needs his mother…’ ”

The man breaks off his narrative to explain his meaning. “Doctor, I said that about a mother because I didn’t have my mother with me when I was a boy.”

“Well, she brought the baby back a couple days later. She said – ‘You take this boy. I can’t have him.’”

A pause.

“Doctor, I’ve lost my license to drive trucks. I want to get it back. I want to get back into work again. They say I can’t drive trucks any more because of my heart and because I used to have diabetes. So I went to Adelaide and had heart tests. They put a needle into your groin and they send dye into your heart – you know?”

I nod.

“They tell me I am good, my heart is good. I feel good, doctor. And when I came back, they tested me again, but they can’t find any diabetes, because I am eating good food – you know – no Kentucky  Fried… no Red Rooster. No grog either. I don’t smoke. But I am very strong, doctor, I am fit. Every morning and most nights I do hard exercise…”

I nod again, admiring again his lean, muscled body.

“I am going to school. I am learning computer. That’s hard, those words are very hard. I was raised on the Catholic mission, in the Kimberley, out Fitzroy Crossing way. They didn’t teach me much to read and write, not English. I learned mostly prayers…in Latin. I can still say all the prayers in Latin, but I don’t understand Latin. I didn’t have much schooling in the Kimberley.”

I look up and scan his face, looking for something that seems to be missing: where is the irony, where is the anger? He seems to have none.

“Last year my wife got sick. She was in the hospital, but in the end they say to me – ‘you take her’.

So I take her home. She was in the wheel chair, she liked to be outside, so I would take her out there, she’d sit in the chair with a mask on her face – for oxygen. The boy would come out to her and sit with her, and he would cry.

I see them and I cannot bear it.

I told the boy – you have to go to your mother now. I can’t look after you, you’re too big for me now. You need your mother…

A boy needs his mother.

I didn’t have…

The boy cried when I sent him back. He wanted to stop with me.

My wife died.

After a good while I went to my country, you know, the Kimberley, that’s good country. I wanted to see my sisters…”

I contemplate the distance from where we sit, in Alice Springs. “Did you fly?”

“I fly my car. I don’t mind the drive, it is good country, beautiful, all the way.

When I get there, the boy wants to be with me all the time. He camps with me, he won’t stop with his mother.”

The man pauses, looks at me. The part-smile returns. “Doctor, I need a letter so I can drive trucks again. I want to be working again. I have to do something…”

Heavily, I tell him that the doctor who decided he must not drive trucks is probably right. The Law says a doctor can’t let you drive trucks if you have a history of heart troubles. But I tell him I will obtain the reports from the Adelaide doctors and forward them to an independent heart doctor and see whether he can have another chance. I try not to raise his hopes.

The old man rises, takes my hand. The smile is full now, his hand large, dry, warm.

He thanks me and goes away. Sadder, wiser, I watch him go.

This is an excerpt from Raft by Howard Goldenberg. Hybrid Publishers, 2009.

Two hours ago in Glenhuntly Road

“Fucking women!”
I walk along the footpath and I hear the words.
The man who speaks the words is tall, well made. He walks alone, with
easy vigour. He might be forty, perhaps fifty years old. He speaks the
words distinctly. He does not raise his voice, but I hear the words as
if he shouted them. They crash my ears as if I were not losing my
hearing, as if I were walking alongside him, facing him, instead of
two paces behind him.

“Fucking women. Walk right into your face, walk right through you. You
give way or they go through you.”

I am alongside now, walking stride for stride. I look straight ahead.
We two are alone in our stretch of pavement. I am the only person
within earshot.

The tall man has not finished shooting: “Fucking bitches!”
He gives the words a cadence – fuc-king bit-ches – as he spits them
out. The man has found his groove and he stays in it, hissing his
words again, again.

I am running late for “Hitler’s Children’, the movie where my
womenfolk await my arrival. I am glad to find that in my haste I
outpace him. His anger, his intensity, his perseveration unnerve me.

I am glad there are no women in sight. I am glad he carries no weapon,
glad for the bright daylight.

As I hurry to my movie I think of Jill Meagher and Sarah Cafferkey,
still in their graves.

Suffer the Little Children

For forty years I have worked as a GP. I have seen and shared in all the dramas of the lives of my patients, both in outer suburban practice and in scores of remote Aboriginal communities. I thought I had passed beyond shock and reached a calmer shore.

1990. My maiden posting in an indigenous community. In the Emergency Department, the first patient is brought in with a burned leg. He lies, apparently insensible of pain. So drunk last night that he fell into the fire, so drunk he couldn’t roll out of it, so intoxicated – the word means poisoned – he slept on in the hot ashes. We remove his trousers and the charred meat that was his leg falls away in chunks.

Next patient: belted over the head with a nulla nulla while drunk – at 10.00am – he won’t wake up. Is he simply pissed, literally out of his mind, or is his brain bleeding?

Next patient is 30 years old. His heart muscle is flaccid, failing. He has alcoholic cardiomyopathy. He’ll die without a transplant.

In the comfortable mainstream such stories feed the mills of lazy generalization and undeclared prejudice. In the mainstream, we ‘know’ blackfellas can’t drink responsibly. Not like us whitefellas.

Let the self-congratulating mainstreamer join me on the Oaks Day train from Flemington back to the City; let us witness together in our crammed carriage, young women falling out of their gorgeous dresses, toppling from their high high heels, shouting to each other, in alcohol disinhibition, intimate details of their love lives, staggering, collapsing into the laps of seated passengers, whinnying with helpless laughter; and note that these people, not underprivileged, not indigenous, belong to our culture where going out equals partying equals drinking equals drunkenness.

Let the disdainful mainstreamer swallow this: the proportion of  blackfellers who drink is far lower than that of whitefellers.

There is nothing new in any of the above. We are a nation with a drinking problem. Alcohol is a colourless liquid. Its harms are scarlet and black.

***

1968. I am a medical student in residence at the psychiatric hospital. Here a patient, intellectually impaired, is eight months pregnant. She has been an inpatient for twelve months. No family visits her. The baby has been fathered in hospital.

1972. I start to work in the outer suburban practice where I will become a partner for nearly thirty years. Every Thursday I visit the local home for intellectually impaired boys. Mental illness is embarrassing, almost shameful, so we have hidden these children away in an institution, where the Brothers care for them.

I cannot gain my footing at the home: the Brothers are neither priests nor nurses; they do not provide satisfactory answers to my clinical questions. I cannot satisfy myself that the residents are well cared for. But I am new to the practice, new to medicine. Perhaps that is it.

2001. I leave the practice after 29 years, no wiser. The Brothers don’t seem holy or caring or competent; nor helpful with information. Again I doubt myself.

It takes a long time for my generation to comprehend the reality of endemic abuse. For too long we lack the questions.

In the year 1990, the question crystallizes for me: I put my question to the esteemed therapist to whom I have referred patients these last ten years: what proportion of our patients have been abused?. My referrals – for depression, anxiety, psychosomatic fixations, insomnia, anger, substance abuse, sexual problems – total some hundreds. The therapist reviews my cases, of ordinary problems of ordinary people. Her answer shocks me: Fifty percent were abused in childhood. Continue reading

Two Propositions at the Zurich Cafe

Barcelona, Ramblas

Barcelona, Ramblas (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Barcelona in the sunshine. Annette and I stroll down the Ramblas, admiring everything. The weather is benign, the street theatre brilliant, the shops alluring, the cafes innumerable. Everything is old and quaint or new and gaudy. Or Gaudi.

The Rambla is famous among tourists for all of the things I´ve mentioned, all the things that seize our attention, and while our attention is seized, our wallets, handbags and purses are also seized, by pickpockets and by bobby dazzlers. The bobby dazzler operates by doing something unexpected or outrageous that grabs your attention at just the moment that his accomplice jostles you and relieves you of your wallet and runs.

The Rambla has played host to many, many shoppers, but none the equal of Annette. Annette has a plan with which she will foil the pickpockets: she´ll spend all her money before they can catch up with her.

And so it is that Annette hits the Rambla running. Single-handedly she rescues the Spanish economy. Her targets are shoe shops, jewellers, children´s outfitters, leather clothiers, and dress shops and dress shops and dress shops.

I am dizzy with admiration. Spain is in surplus. Only the pickpockets have a bad day.

I take my vertigo to the Zurich Café, where I will drink coffee in the sun and read my book, until  Annette, the Goddess of Commerce, exhausts her resources.

Of the lavatory arrangements at Café Zurich, I will say little, beyond noting how cosy it is to squeeze past a line of ladies waiting in the basement, then, upon reaching the immediately adjacent gentlemen´s Lavabos, to note how the charm of proximity is enhanced by the absence of a front door to either the Ladies´ or the Gents´.  Continue reading

The Slashed and the Hanged

After three days on Christmas Island I take night call. The phone rings at 0045. It’s Henry the Team Leader, Henry the unflappable, Henry who smiles at every reverse, at all bad news.

Henry has the oblong face and slab-shaped skull of the adult who was once a very premature infant. His crooked smiles and wry look – ‘it could be worse’ – sit well on the slopes of that narrow face. Tonight, however, his voice is direct: no smile is audible: “Security is bringing five men in to the clinic who’ve slashed themselves and another man who tried to hang himself.”

“I’m on my way.”

The drive along half known, unmade, unlit roads  takes longer than it should, as I make a number of wrong turns. There is a moon, bright against the island’s dark sky. A black cloud bisects the moon transversely, sitting across its upper half. The black is very black, the white brilliantly silvery. I have never seen a southern hemisphere of moon like this.

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.  Continue reading

Hungering, Christmas Island

Something is wrong, something is upside down. The hunger striker and I stare at each other from opposite sides of a scaffold that neither of us constructed.

I follow the protocols, which are wise and worthy. But it is all wrong, everything is upside down.

My job is to work to improve or protect health. I have to find a way, to create a language that the patient and I will share; to locate and level the place where we will meet.

This contract is not spelled out nor ever inked; elsewhere there is no need. The patient is here, I am here, we can get down to work.

But when I attend the hunger striker all of this is inverted and twisted out of shape. The person whom I attend is not a patient: the person gives no sign, has no wish for my attention.

The non-patient never called me; I am a part of the system that he imposed upon first; now the system imposes me upon him.

The non-patient and I have opposite wishes: mine is to protect life and vital organs, his to destroy them.

The generality of patients whom I see here in the Detention Centre come to see me on my own territory; I mean the clinic. But the starver is weakened, usually lying in his room in the Compound which is located behind high, stout electrified fencing. The nurse and I walk along long corridors without natural light. Serial serious doors unlock to admit us and lock again behind us. We emerge into sunlight in an expansive open area, surrounded by discrete bedrooms for two persons.

Continue reading

My teacher, my lover

My teacher in the Second Class is Miss Paul. She is tall and slim. She has very fair hair, which she bundles high on her head. Her bosoms are not large, but in her case this does not matter.

Miss Paul speaks in an unusual manner, rather like the news reader of the Australian Broadcasting Commission. It is a very precise sort of diction. Although her speech is different from ours, I can understand whatever Miss Paul says quite easily.

Miss Paul is beautiful. And precise. And exacting. I look up to her and I want to please her. She requires her pupils to sit up straight. I sit very straight. I follow her with my eyes and I do as she says to do.

Mum says Miss Paul is English. Early one morning in 1953, while I am a student in Miss Paul’s Second Class, something happens in England. Dad is listening to the news on the ABC. He says something to Mum that I don’t catch. My older brother, Dennis, says, “I’ll run down to the Council Chambers and look at the flag.”

A few minutes later, Dennis is back: “The flag is at half mast.”

That means the king has died and someone else will wear his crown and sit on his throne and be our ruler. The king had no sons, so the new monarch will be our queen.

Miss Paul loves and admires the Princesses, Elizabeth and Margaret. She has shown us a large photograph of the two. Like all photos of my childhood, this is black and white. “Notice the beautiful posture of Princess Elizabeth. She carries herself almost like a queen. Only her knees are a little apart. ”

Now the princess with parted knees will become the queen.

Miss Paul arranges for us to view facsimiles of the Crown Jewels. I cannot believe that these robes, the crown, the orb and the sceptre are not real. Miss Paul teaches us everything we should know about the coronation. It is very splendid.

We children of Second Class at Leeton Public School are intimate with royalty because Miss Paul is herself from England. She is England, with all the authenticity and superiority that England means.

Miss Paul lives in the elegant Hydro Hotel, the highest building in the town. Her suite is on the second storey, looking out at the water tower that gives the hotel its name. It is a long and arduous task to walk up the hill to the Hydro.

One Saturday morning, Dennis decides that we should pay a call on Miss Paul. His initiative is audacious beyond imagining.

What if she’s not home? What if she is at home? What if they won’t let us in?

What I really mean is, What right have we commoners to pay a visit to royalty?

Dennis is certain it will be alright. All the way up the Hydro hill, I lag behind. I voice my doubts, I threaten to turn back, I tell Dennis this is wrong.

Dennis plows on. My fears cannot touch him. This idea of his is too frightening for my tiny courage, but I cannot resist it. This is the land of Danger, where Dennis always ventures, where I cannot help but follow.

The Hydro Hotel is a large building set well back in spacious gardens. It sits behind its high stone wall like a castle, a palace. Dennis leads me into the foyer. There is red plush everywhere. A grownup appears. I want to run, but Dennis strides forward and speaks to the grownup. He says. “We have come to visit Miss Paul.”

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