My Friend the Policeman

Working here in this large regional hospital in the Kimberley not a day passes without a call to the care of drunken patients.

More often than not the patient arrives in the company of a pair of police officers. More often than not the patient is abusive. Frequently she swears at her captors, often roaring at the them. The custodians stand calmly, quietly watchful, gentle, as I do my work and the patient does her worst. The police officer is here as a guardian, my guardian, the hospital’s, the patient’s. I wonder at this patience.

 

 

 

***

 

 

 

When I was very small my parents brought me to the city for the High Holydays.

Mum took me to Collins Street, a river different from those I knew in our small riverine town.

Collins Street flowed, a fast human current that would sweep up a small boy, sweep him away, never again to see his loving kin. I looked up and about, legs everywhere, legs striding fast, eddies, rips, king tides. 

I gripped Mum’s hand tighter. “Mum said, don’t be afraid, Howard. The Police will look after you. If you ever get lost find a policeman. The Police are your friends.”

 

 

Back in my hometown I knew this to be true. A man pulled my pants down in the park. A couple of days later I told my parents about the man’s strange behaviour. Mum looked at Dad and Dad looked at Mum and a few hours later Sergeant Stewart arrived at our house. 

We walked together into the park. I led him to the place and answered his questions. “Look around the park, Howard. Can you see the man?”

I couldn’t but I didn’t want to disappoint the officer. I pointed out a man dozing on his picnic rug: “That’s him”, I said. Sergeant Stewart said, ‘It’s a very serious thing to make false accusations, Howard.” I learned a new word that day. 

 

 

Another time I found a ten shilling banknote in the street. Briefly I was rich. Mum said, “‘It’s lost property, darling.”

“No it’s not Mum. It’s found.”

“You report lost property to the Police and they look for the owner.”

I walked to the top of Wade Avenue, past the courthouse and around the corner to the Police Station. Sergeant Stewart opened a book dipped a pen into an inkwell and asked, “What’s your name Howard?”

“Howard.”

“Do you have any other names, Howard?”

“Jonathan. Goldenberg”

Sergeant Stewart’s thirsty nib drank again and again at the inkwell as he recorded my address and my parents’ telephone number. “Leeton two eight, isn’t it, Howard?”

Six months passed, an age. Our telephone rang and Constable Bulley said something to Mum. Mum thanked him and hanged up. “Go to the Police Station, Howard. No-one has claimed the ten shillings.”

I went and said I’d come for the money. I signed the policemen’s book and I left, a rich man.

 

 

 

On one occasion I tested Police probity. Leeton sat in the Murrumbidgee Irrigation Area, fruit bowl for the nation. Fruitfly was the feared enemy that could wipe out the industry, it might destroy livelihoods and the local economy. You weren’t allowed to bring exotic fruits into the MIA. If you wanted bananas or pineapples you had leave the Irrigation Area and drive to Narranderra, nineteen miles distant. One Sunday we did just that and gorged on those tropical fruits. To my surprise, my law-abiding parents embarked on a criminal career and brought the surplus home.

After lunch the next day I was loitering outside our house in Wade Avenue when Sergeant Stewart strolled past. The Sergeant is my friend; I should offer him the pleasure of conversation:” Hello Sergeant.

“Hello Howard.”

“We’ve got bananas at home.”

The officer smiled.

“And a pineapple.”

“Good afternoon, Howard.”

 

 

 

***

 

 

Ten years ago I met Detective Inspector John Bailey (retired) in Albury. He spoke of his father, the police officer who, unarmed, braved an armed murderer, who shot him. Bleeding from his wounds Bailey Senior grappled with his assailant, pinning him beneath him. Bailey died, the only police officer known to have arrested his own murderer. Bailey – the son – showed me the George Cross, awarded posthumously to his father. I hefted the weighty silver medal in my palm, while the old officer looked down at me between ptotic eyelids: “It’s a great thing, a George Cross, but it’s not a substitute for a father.” The orphaned son followed his father into the force, entering in his teens, retiring a much-decorated and admired servant of the community.

 

 

 

***

 

Every night in the Kimberley police officers bring in their freight of broken and bleeding humanity. Their charges reel with the effects of alcohol, their heads, faces, limbs bloodied. Many are handcuffed. Invariably the officers tower over the injured prisoner. Sometimes the prisoner-who-is-patient shouts in a crazed manner, offering abuse to nurses and coppers alike. The officers remain calm, their manner respectful, even, I should say, kindly. Gently they lead the injured miscreant to care. I see this, time and again. I see it and I marvel.

 

 

 

 

***

 

 

 

I never became separated from Mum in Collins Street River. I never needed police succour until the day came when an arsonist set fire to my motor cars parked in the street outside my home. The policeman, Commander Kim West said, “When someone sets fire to your car they’re saying they can burn your house. They’re saying they can burn you.” The Commander asked me about my children. He gave me a significant look. He wrote some digits on the back of his card and handed it to me: “That number will get me night or day, Howard.” 

 

 

 

Twenty years have passed since the Commander gave me his card. A few months ago Kim returned from Europe where he’d visited with his wife. He buttonholed me: “We went to Auschwitz.” A shake of the massive West head: “Shocking. Shocking. When I tell people that, they say,Who’d want to go to Auschwitz?  I tell them, Everyone should go to Auschwitz!  Soon after our chat, Kim became unwell. Tests showed cancer, advanced and widespread. Very quickly he died. At the close of his funeral the minister said to the congregation: “The last prayer Kim recited was at the former concentration camp at Auschwitz. There he and his wife read the Jewish Prayer for the Dead. Rise please and read this with me: Yitgadal ve’yitkadash shmei rabah…” 

 

 

Portrait of Kim West by Dr Harry Unglik for the Archibald Prize

More Mother’s Day Thoughts

After my experience last Sunday I’ve decided I like Mothers Day. I enjoyed sharing vignettes of my old Mum. One of the first that I ever published, appeared in my first book, a memoir which I called “My Father’s Compass”. The vignette, a story about my 92 year old father battling the extinguishment of his great powers, and my mother battling nothing and accepting all, was titled: Falling gums.

“The phone rings at midnight. I walk towards the answering machine and listen for an urgent message. I do not pick up the receiver because it is Friday night, my Sabbath – Shabbat – when my soul visits paradise. When I am in paradise I do not answer the phone. There is no message.

Though puzzled – who would want to speak to me at midnight if it were not an emergency? – I begin to relax, then the phone rings again. Once again my machine offers to take a message, once again the caller is mute. I grab the phone. Dad’s voice says, ‘Mum is on the floor …’

‘I’ll come now,’ I say, and hang up. Dad and I have responded to the situation with the least possible desecration of the Sabbath.

Minutes later I let myself into my parents’ house. There, on the bedroom floor, in a tangle of limbs, is my mother. ‘Hello darling,’ she says. She looks up at me and gives me a grin. Recently, Mum’s front teeth have begun to desert her. Those teeth that remain are a picket fence, stained and in disrepair. Mum’s former serene smile has given way to a seven-year-old’s grin – all mischief and careless abandon.

I peer down at Mum’s legs. They are thin, too thin, except for her ruined knee which is swollen and misshapen. In the half light her skin is ivory. I crouch and put my hand on her leg and feel its cool and its smoothness. I touch my mother’s skin and I am her small child again.

A short time passes. ‘Does any thing hurt, Mum?’

‘No darling.’

‘Can you move your limbs, Mum?’

Dad’s voice breaks in: ‘Mum’s not hurt – she didn’t fall. She was reaching for the commode chair and she pushed it away instead of holding it still … she just slid gently onto the floor … I couldn’t stop her falling …’

Dad’s voice subsides. He sits on his bed and holds his head in his hands.

Mum speaks: ‘I’m quite comfortable, darling. It’s quite a nice floor, really.’ Another grin. I look at my mother. Her limbs are splayed and folded beneath and before her like so many pick-up-sticks. I wonder how I will pick them up.

‘If you like it on the floor, Mum, would you prefer to stay there until the morning?’

‘If you wish, darling.’ She extends a hand and pats my face.

I bend and begin to take her weight, my hands beneath her arms. Dad gets up to help but I knock him back because his heart is worn out and failing.

He recoils, recedes and sits down opposite me, his face wrought of grief and care. I feel a pang for my abruptness.

An in-drawing of breath, a grunt and Mum is aloft, her legs a pair of white flags hanging limply beneath her. Her arms are around my neck and we are locked in our accustomed embrace that has become so familiar since she began to suffer a series of strokes.

We know this moment well; each of us knows the sweetness of this slow dance. Neither of us would readily trade it, not even to make Mum whole again.

A moment later Mum is in her bed, covered up, wheezing, speaking breathily, her voice ravaged by stroke and by time: ‘Thank you, darling, what a treat!’ – and beaming with the simple pleasure of ­being tucked into her bed.

Dad, contrite, distressed, is saying, ‘I am sorry, darling. I hate to disturb you.’ And I am saying how pleased I am to come, and how come he didn’t speak into the machine when he rang. And Dad says, ‘I don’t know.’

‘Shabbat Shalom,’ I say, kiss them both goodnight, and go home.

Back home, but not yet in paradise, I sit a while and recall a conversation my friend Lionel reported to me. While driving with my father in the Flinders Ranges, Lionel asks this indestructible old man a singular question: ‘What are you afraid of in this life, Myer?’

My dreadnought father has fought all his sixty-seven years as a doctor against illness and injury. Of all diseases, I know that cancer and stroke fill him with terror beyond naming. And I recall, too, Dad confiding to me his fears for Mum: ‘I am grateful for every single day that I have her; and I am so frightened of the day that …’ He falls silent, his voice drowning in the grief of his imagining.

When Lionel asks his question, Dad looks up and out and away from inside him, and he sees those silent, massive and beauteous living things, so inviting in the outdoors and so treacherous. He answers, ‘Falling gum trees.’

The day after the ‘fall’ Mum and I are alone in the kitchen when she begins to laugh. The sound has a gasping quality. You have to pay close attention to discover whether she is choking again, or simply amused. She laughs louder then tries to speak at the same time.

Her voice is a concerto for bagpipes and windstorm. I lean close, into the teeth of the storm, and Mum says, ‘When I was on the floor last night, and I couldn’t get up, I started to laugh, and I couldn’t stop … and Daddy was furious!’”

The Price of Life in Doomadgee

Just before noon the phone called me from the river to the hospital. The hospital held me until long past midnight.

A man with his jawbone fractured, pushed right out of alignment, said: “There was a fight. I was watching it and a man came up from behind, on my right side, and king-hit me.”

I called a plane to take Sampson to Mt Isa.

Eight thousand dollars.

 

A man came in and showed me his hand, puffed up, a boxing glove of soggy blood under the skin. Beneath the blood, the head of the metacarpal bone had snapped. I said: “You’ll need an operation. We’ll fly you to Mt. Isa.”

Eight thousand dollars.

 

On the TV Rafael Nadal struggled into night with back muscles in spasm. A chubby baby, feverish and short of breath, took me from the tennis. Over the previous day or two I had seen this baby at peace. He filled all who saw him with delight. Such abundant flesh, so well at home in grandmother’s embrace.

This was their third night visit in 48 hours. Grandma brought him in this time as previously. She nursed the weeping Buddha and comforted him. The rule in Aboriginal health says, “Three strikes and you’re in.”

I said, “He’ll have to go in. To Mt. Isa. You can go with him.”

“Grandmother said:” I can’t. I’ve got my own six-month old at home. I’m breast-feeding him.”

“What about his mum?”

“She doesn’t have him. I do.”

The letter from Child Protection said the same. So Aunty went.

 

Very late at night came an urgent call. The voice said: “A man has come in with a high temperature. He’s very old.”

The thermometer said: “39.9 degrees.”

That sort of fever says “sepsis.” In this man’s case his septicaemia arose as a complication of pneumonia.

I asked the man about symptoms. He shook his head. He had no complaints.

“What about pain?”

He said, “I think my head hurts.” He said it as if he was far from the pain. The pain was a sensation like memory; he had to summon it to name it.

The man sat bent forward, breathing quietly, speaking softly, his bushy moustache a permanent smile.

At his side sat a young woman. Her gaze never moved from the breathing old man.

I asked, “Is he your grandfather?”

She said, “Yes.”

“Will his wife come…?”

The young woman said, “No, just me. Me and my brothers.”

“He’ll need to go to Mt. Isa. Your grandfather is seriously ill.”

A sad shake of her head, She said: “I can’t go. My baby… My brother will go, one of my brothers, Ambrose.”

“How old is your Ambrose?”
“Eighteen.” Seeing the doubt on my face she said: “Ambrose will look after him 
properly. Us three – my brothers and me – we live with him, we look after him. We do everything.”

 

The old man’s vital signs went from worse to frightening. The sphygmomanometer said: “60/40”.

The Emergency Consultant at the Flying Doctor Base in Mt. Isa said, “The plane is on its way. Give him Adrenaline.”

We gave him adrenaline. We gave him three different intravenous antibiotics and a fourth, by mouth. Hunched forward, moving only zephyrs in and out of his chest, the old man breathed and the breath did not speak to my stethoscopic ears.

I said, “Please lie back if you can.”

He lay back, air moved in and out, the silver bush on his upper lip filled and emptied, emptied and filled, semaphoring life. The blood pressure machine said, “80/50…90/65…110/70”.

The young woman gave way to a brother. The brother, after a time, gave way to another. This was the eighteen year old, tall, thin, lightly muscled. His bearing was solemn.

The sound of an aircraft flying low overhead changed the tempo.

Quickly, quickly, gently, many hands helped the old man slide from the couch to the ambos’ trolley that he would ride to the vehicle and on to the airfield.

We pushed him towards the ambulance parked outside the front door. Lining the wall, gathering in numbers, gathering over the fretting hours of the old man’s time with us, waiting, standing quietly, were three daughters – themselves matrons – and men of all ages, boys, small kids supported on young hips and attached to slender breasts. Only minutes earlier the waiting room had been empty. All had stood outside in the dark and the heat. The chill of a hospital ward did not invite them.

All eyes now followed the old man. Hands reached for him. The ambos halted, the file flowed forward, a wave of silent care. I saw one woman, a daughter, her eyes swimming, her lips trembling. I stepped forward and said: “Your father has been desperately ill, but he seems to be turning the corner. He’s holding his own now.”

She said: ”He didn’t want to come to the hospital. He was scared. He thought you might fly him out to Mt. Isa. When they flew Mum out, she…” The voice, soft, husky, now faltered:“…Mum never came back.” 

 

I looked at the gathering and asked: “All these people – all his descendants?”

She said, “Yes, all his kids and his kids’ kids and their kids.

And there’ll be just as much family waiting for him in the hospital in town.”

 

The ambos took the old man away. The family melted away.

 

The senior nurse breathed out and said: “If I come to my final hours and I am surrounded by that much love, I will know I have lived a successful life.”

 

***

 

While the nurses tidied the Emergency Rooms, I wrote up my clinical notes. A nurse approached, apologetically. She said, “Would you mind? We have a lady here with a cut head. It might need stitching. It was a belt buckle.”

In ED an old lady sat. Seated opposite her, too long of limb to sit without sprawling, were two large men in navy blue with large guns at their hips.

I looked to the lady. She wore a patterned dress in black and white whorls. The bodice was splattered with red. Her head was a savannah of silver-black curls. I had to search for the laceration which was small and shallow. Blood had clotted in a thin line between the margins of skin. Nature had stopped the previously brisk bleeding.

There was not much to do, nothing medical.

I asked, “What happened.”

The nurse said: “Fifty dollars.”

The nurse shook her head. Was she angry? Disbelieving? Or simply busy with the wound?

She resumed: “Her husband demanded fifty dollars and when she didn’t hand it over he hit her with his belt buckle. Isn’t that right?”

The old lady spoke for the first time. She said, “Sixty.”

Unhappily, guardedly, I turned to the police officers and asked: “How can I be of help to you gentlemen?”

The taller one had blue eyes. His firm face softened. He said: “You can’t. We’re just waiting here until you’ve all finished, then we’ll drive her home. Don’t want an old lady to walk home alone. And it won’t be her home. We’ll take her somewhere else, somewhere safe.”