On the Main Road

Friday afternoon, the eve of the sabbath. Riding home from my shift in the Emergency Department at Alice Springs Hospital I would have missed her if I’d been abiding by the law. Luckily I was riding along the footpath when I came upon her. She looked about fifty but I reckon her true age at mid-thirties. Her large face seemed inflated, her eyelids puffy, her lips swollen, her natural flabbiness accentuated by deforming scars and oedema. The face was bronze in colour. Her gaze was inward – even when I was abreast of her, when I addressed her, I was absent to her. 

In all our minutes together we were never more than ten metres distant from people passing in cars and on foot. But in our leaden ballet we would dance alone.
She was shorter than I and a good deal heavier. The weight differential would matter when I’d struggle to lift her. I was a metre from her when I first registered her human presence. A slender tree at my right shoulder obscured her from sight. Abrupt movement caught my eye, a straining, forceful jerking of her thick neck and thorax as if she sought to escape. In fact the opposite was the case. 
The woman’s hands worked to adjust a cord that looped once around the tree then twice around her neck. I saw the cord and stopped. With all in place she suddenly slumped. Don’t! Don’t do that! – these were all the words I found. I flung my bike aside and threw myself towards the woman. She grunted but did not speak. My arms about her did not arrest her fall. The cord tightened. I remembered the knife in my lunchbox. As I groped frantically in my backpack she thudded suddenly to earth at my feet.  
A white cord floated down after her. The cord was a lengthy bootlace, the sort you pull on to tighten your running shoes. That slender tie would never support ninety kilograms of self nihilation.
Lying on the earth her silent body did not move. Was she breathing? A wave of alcoholic air reaching my nostrils answered that question. Was she conscious? I spoke. No response. I shouted. No answer. I placed my right thumb into the small bony notch above her eye and pressed hard. This truly painful stimulus evoked no movement, not a flinch. On the Glasgow Coma scale I reckoned her score at eight of a possible fifteen.
As I crouched in all my clinical perplexity an Aboriginal woman appeared at my side. Gesturing in the direction from which I’d been riding she said, The hospital is just back that way. Did I smile as I thanked her? I don’t know.
My lady was alive, breathing, intoxicated, apparently unconscious. In the long seconds since slumping she had not moved. What harm had her spinal cord suffered in that violent moment when the bracing cord arrested her fall? I could not know. My phone: where was it? Fast fingers delved and delivered from my pocket. I rang triple zero. The voice asked, Police, Fire or… Ambulance! I shouted. Ninety seconds after giving location and clinical details the siren sounded behind me. The vehicle pulled up alongside my waving, jumping body. A tall woman blonde woman alighted. She would have been in her thirties – like our patient, and unlike her. I answered her questions. A friendly smile lit her face as she said, Big shock for you, I’d imagine. This time I did smile. After a shift in Alice’s Emergency Department I’d become inured to shocks. The paramedic crouched over our patient and I heard her say: Hello girlfriend! as I mounted and headed home for the peace of Shabbat.
   

Blue Label

My brother Dennis presented me with a blue carton containing a bottle of whiskey. I had never heard of Johnny Walker Blue Label. Whiskey did not interest me. All I knew was I couldn’t afford good whiskey, I didn’t like cheap whiskey and I couldn’t tell the difference between cheap and uncheap. 

Dennis died ten years ago but the box and the bottle survive, unopened. Dennis died poor and intestate after forty-five years working in Finance. Dennis didn’t drink whiskey either. Strong drink was not his weakness. His loves were his weaknesses. One of his loves was for this brother, the one who survives him, healthy and unpoor.

 

I picture my firstborn brother in an airport palace of luxury items for sale duty free. He looks around for something good, something precious to buy for his loved brother. His instinct draws him to the most expensive items. A man of the world, Dennis recognises the blue label. He takes the box in one arm, reaches for his credit card, approaches the cashier. He makes the purchase he cannot afford, with funds he does not yet own, for the brother who will see no occasion to drink it.

 

To paraphrase O Henry’s closing remarks in ‘The Gift of the Magi’:

 

The magi, as you know, were wise men—wonderfully wise men—who brought gifts to the Babe in the manger. They invented the art of giving presents. Being wise, their gifts were no doubt wise ones, possibly bearing the privilege of exchange in case of duplication. And here I have lamely related to you the uneventful chronicle of an unwise child who most unwisely sacrificed for the brother other the greatest treasures of his house. But in a last word to the wise of these days let it be said that of all who give gifts these were the wisest. O all who give and receive gifts, such as they are wisest. Everywhere they are wisest. They are the magi.
 

We are all John

 

My friend Bernard arrived a few minutes before I did. He asked a woman who seemed official if it would be alright for his doctor to come as his support. Driving to the Meeting I was wondering the same. ‘Yes, of course’, the woman said. Bernard and I found each other outside. Smokers, most of them men, stood around chatting and working hard at their smoking. We walked inside and found ourselves in a small room, quite narrow and deep, and dimly lit. 

 

‘First Meeting?’, asked a skinny bloke at Bernard’s shoulder. 

‘Yes. My name’s Bernard.’

‘John.’ A laugh. He stretched out his hand: ‘Well, we’re all John here.’

 

 

‘John’ extended a hand and shook mine. His slim face looked healthy, his smile a gift unexpected in the gloom. 

He clutched a big mug. Others wandered in, prepared tea or coffee and held their mugs. I didn’t see anyone drink.

 

 

Quietly Bernard started to talk to me about belief. ‘Do you believe, Howard?’ I fashioned a reply. Bernard told me of a friend whom he met for lunch that day: ‘This fellow has had a stellar career. He retired just today, signed the documents, finished off. We met for lunch. The thing is, this man, so rational, so analytical, a complete realist, is truly religious. I mean church, prayers, the whole package. I asked him, “How do you believe? I mean all that mumbo jumbo… no offense…” He said: “I choose to believe.”’

 

 

Bernard had told me his psychiatrist suggested he attend Meetings. ‘The doctor said, “I think you start with one substance, develop a habit, withdraw, then start a new one. You seem to lack meaning in your life. Perhaps you need a spiritual focus.”’ Bernard, musing, saw the reality of that lack, but wondered if it were not his weakness but his strength.

Hanging on the front wall was a list of points, numbered from One to Twelve, a sort of manifesto. It looked like the Twelve Commandments, a creed. It was these that started Bernard’s train of thought.

 

At eight o’clock the smokers came in from the cold and joined the dozen or so of us seated inside. Last in closed the door. A thin woman of fifty or so stood up at the front, welcomed us all briefly. She added, ‘and a special welcome to the first timers.’

 

She sat down. The official woman at the table invited an older person seated behind us to speak. ‘John’ shuffled forward, took his position and composed himself. He carried no notes. His script was his life. A quietness fell. He spoke: ’I’ve been coming to Meetings – at first on the coast, then out west, later here – for 43 years. The Meetings have saved my life.’

 

Abruptly the door swung open. A young person wearing running shorts and a polo shirt strode inside and sat down. She looked about fifteen. I wondered if she too was ‘John.’

 

 

The speaker resumed. ’I’m an alcoholic. I’ve been dry for forty-three years. I go to a Meeting wherever I am. I never miss out. I know I HAVE to go. No excuses, every day. Otherwise I’d be dead in the gutter.’

The speaker would be about sixty, sixty-five. Full faced, woolly, black-grey beard, clothed in shapeless grey, his speech quiet, his pear-shaped body a looming mass in the dim light, only his fleshy features enacting his experiences: ‘I was the great intellect. I knew I didn’t need Meetings. I went along to humour a friend. The friend would find me passed out wherever I’d been drinking, wherever I happened to fall. But I was the great intellect.’ A sniff, a shrug:’ A great intellect who was deaf. Nothing worse than a deaf drunk. I KNEW. No-one could tell ME. I went away from the Meeting. Not for me. I went away and I had a drink. That’s what I’d always do, I’d have a drink. I never ever had a drink without drinking until I passed out. It was a while before I came back. I came back and I keep coming back. No-one judged me, no-one told me what to do. From the first I was accepted, supported. So long as there was a Meeting I was safe. I could depend on the Meeting, the people I’d find there. I didn’t need grog while I went to meetings. That was then. I lost my job, my license, my home and my marriage, my daughters. That was then; this is now – and my life has filled with brighter things, some things have been repaired – but I still need the Meetings, they still keep me safe.’ 

 

 

John continued at considerable length, the words flowing from him without haste or hesitation or repetition. It was not performance, or if it was, he wore no costume. He was naked before us and he was unashamed.

 

 

John stopped, thanked us, shambled back to his seat. People clapped quietly. There was no whooping, no congratulation. The sober percussion of palms spoke of quietude: ‘We hear you, we know you, we understand and recognise you. You are not alone.’

 

 

The presiding person invited ‘John Two’ to share. Younger than the first John, he approached the front cradling his mug. He opened his mouth and told his life: ‘I had good parents. They both drank, but they loved me as much as they could. I could sense the magic in them when they were drinking, how alcohol changed them, the lift, the ease, the flight that the drink gave them. I couldn’t wait to have the same. And I didn’t have to wait long. I was fourteen when a mate of my elder brother took me and another fourteen year-old to the pub in his car. We sat and waited in the back seat. When it arrived it was a schooner of fifty-fifty. I drank it and I felt the lift. I had another and a third and a fourth. I was flying. I wasn’t a shy kid, I could speak to anyone, I felt I could be anything. I had no worries. We went home and I couldn’t wait until next time. And next time came soon and often. After a while older mates would smuggle me into the bar. Eventually the publican recognised me as a regular. He said, I don’t want to know how old you are but the coppers will. You drink out in the beer garden. If the cops come, you’ll get warning and you can nip off through the hedge.’
‘I never drank without getting drunk. I never got into trouble in my life unless there was grog in me. And there was grog in me whenever I could get it. I lost jobs, I crashed cars, I smashed faces and friendships. I forgot to eat, I got sick. Whenever anything bad happened I’d say to myself, better have a drink. Whenever anything good happened I’d say, better have a drink. One very good thing that happened was my wife. She’d shake her head and say, “There’s always two things together when trouble happens; the two things are you and grog.” I decided I’d better go easy. I told my mates, I wouldn’t be drinking for a while. They said, “Come on, just one.” I couldn’t see the harm in that. I told the wife I wouldn’t be out long. I went along with the mates and I had a drink. Then it was no limit. It was me and the grog and it was like always. That particular night we drank until closing time, then I kicked on at the Club where members had a key. You’d let yourself in at any time, take as much as you liked from the fridge, and pay on the Honour System. Some time in the morning I must have run out of money. I got into the car, drove into two other cars and a fence and into someone’s house. Or so they told me. I woke up in hospital. The wife came in and she said, “Always the same two, you and the drink.” ‘
‘I agreed to go to a Meeting. I knew I didn’t need it. I was another great intellect. The Meeting wasn’t like anything I’d ever known. I didn’t mind it. Still the Great Intellect, I didn’t need it, but I could feel something there. I suppose it was respect. I came back. That was thirty-one years ago and I’m still coming back. When I go to Meetings I don’t need to drink. And there’s always a Meeting near you and it’s always there when you need it. You could wake up at six in the morning and feel like a drink, but you knew there was a six o’clock meeting for shift workers coming off shift and you could go along. No questions, you’d be welcome.’
The words poured out of John Two. Unrehearsed, coming with his breathing, never hurried, never late, coming from deep in the storehouse of experience and self knowledge. John Two stood before us, neither humble nor proud, just himself, accepting himself. He held his neglected mug, a metaphor for the drink that was always available but no longer needed.
John Three spoke. She was very thin, looking older than her fifty-two years. We heard of her liver failure, her cirrhosis, her doctor’s predictions. We heard of her passion for alcohol, her phenomenal appetite for it. ‘It would take a bottle of vodka to get to sleep. I’d sleep three hours and wake up and I’d know I’d get no more sleep, so I’d knock off a bottle of wine – there in bed – to get a couple more hours. Early in the morning I’d start again. I’d walk along a street and I’d look at the gutter and I’d know that’s where they’d find me. It wouldn’t be long. And then I thought of the grandchildren and they’d know their Gran died in the gutter. So I came to a Meeting. I didn’t want the grandkids to have to live with that knowing. So that’s what I do, I come to Meetings. And I have a second chance.’

John Four said: ‘I’ve got four kids. I don’t know how much they used to understand, but they know I’m different since I’ve been coming to Meetings. They’re still little, but they’re happier now their mum doesn’t fall over anymore, that I come to their school events, concerts and such like. I can read to them and they can make out the words and I don’t fall asleep and drop the book on the floor. It’s been three years now I’m dry and they know I go to Meetings and they can tell it’s good.’

An hour had passed and I had to leave. The Twelve Commandments hung silent on the wall. I wondered about that. A couple of days later Bernard visited me. He’d stayed to the end. He said, ‘I felt humbled: those people are heroes. They wouldn’t know it but they are inspiring. I’m going to go again next Monday. And there’s another Meeting a lot closer to my home, on Wednesdays. They told me that’s a good Meeting too.’ I wondered aloud about the Commandments. Bernard said, ‘I am quite open to hear anything about anyones belief, but there was hardly any of that. I don’t think I heard the word God or Jesus mentioned once. Just people sharing and accepting. I felt comfortable there.’
I read aloud my notes about the night. Bernard encouraged me to post it. he added, ‘I think I’ll talk to my partner about coming along too. I think we both understand that drinking together keeps us close but stops us getting too close. I’m ready now to try to get closer.’

 

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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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.

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….”

Reconsider Phillip

The morning finds Phillip’s bed empty. No-one has discharged him, no-one has removed the intravenous bung from his arm. The plastic bottle of saline hangs from its pole, its tubing droops into air. Phillip’s just gone.

 

At mid-morning a call comes from the nearby general practice: “One of your patients turned up here with a bandaged arm; would we change his dressing? We found an IV bung. We figured he came from the hospital.”

 

Two days later a young woman wanders into the hospital. She shows the back of her right hand, swollen and deformed.

“What happened?”

A full-cheeked face, a crooked smile. A palm-upwards gesture from the opposite hand: You know how these things are. Just a swollen hand…

She offers no words.

“When did it happen?”

A shrug.

We won’t have X-ray until Monday. She turns to go, her walk crooked like her smile. A fruity aroma hangs in the air.

 

On Monday the X-ray shows a fractured metacarpal, classic fracture of the biff.  We ask again: “How did it happen?”

Her shrug, her smile convey confession and self–forgiveness.

She points in the direction of her companion, who volunteers: I made her wild.

She is so young, at least in years. Her face, even younger in its innocence, looks older in damage.

A pang of regret for that damage prompts a candid question. “Do you think your drinking is doing you harm?”

Her companion is a slim young man with a meandering black beard. He replies before she finishes the familiar smiling that she substitutes for words: It’s doing both of us harm!

That face, that beard, I know them: the man’s sobriety and his gaiety confused me. The speaker is Phillip.