All Those Christmases at Once


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.


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.


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.


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.


…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.

9 thoughts on “All Those Christmases at Once

  1. Oh! Dear Doc Howard! I want to hug you. My dad was wounded aged 18 at the 2nd battle Moquet Farm Posieres, France, then through WW2, then occupation Japan! I used to attend Anzac Days and hear the Vets. stories, I no longer wish to thinkl about, I HATE WARS! I was with Victoria Police 26 years until my breakdown. I don’t with to see death and terrible injuries from human to human any more. I would like to forward your post to the Prime Minister and ask WHY do we wage WAR on defenceless, vulnerable, homeless humans?


  2. The focus on the individual is very powerful. The Government’s fear of portraying people as individuals is that we recognise the humanity in the rejected Other. It’s interesting to see in current world conflict how the Government has individualised those, for instance, who have died tragically in air disasters and treated as a rejected group of Others those whom they wish us to revile


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