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.

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