Starfish Flingers

Running along Cable Beach very early this morning I passed a couple who carried small plastic bags of a primrose colour. The two peered and bent repeatedly, picking up small items unseen and popping them into their yellow bags. I’d seen people at this before, collecting pippis, also known as cockles. Some collect them for bait (whiting love them) while others eat them cooked in garlic and herbs and wine. I sang to myself as I ran one of the old songs Dad used to sing with us kids as we travelled by boat or by car:

 

 

She was a fishmonger

And sure ’twas no wonder

For so were her mother

And father before

 

She wheeled her wheel barrow

Through streets broad and narrow  

Crying, ‘Cockles and muscles

Alive, alive O…’

 

 

I ran a long way before retracing my steps. On the return I passed the cockle collectors. I changed course to inspect their catch. ‘Are these to feed you or to feed the fish?’

‘They would have fed the fish, but not now,’ said the woman, a person in her early sixties, her skin fair beneath her tan. ‘Take a look.’ I looked into the bulging bag she held: no pippis, just sandy cigarette butts, scores of them. Her husband held his bag open. More butts, many more.

 

 

‘He collected 160 of them today,’ said the woman, ‘Same number yesterday.’ I stood and mused for a bit. The woman explained: ‘People sit on the beach and smoke and drop their butts on the sand. Later the incoming tide washes the butts out to sea where fishes see them and take them for food. After a fish swallows a butt it swells up in the belly of the fish and the fish suffers and dies.’

 

 

‘Look at this, and this’ – her husband pointed out filter tips – ‘These filters catch all the poisons and toxins, and if the fish happens to survive you might catch it and eat it.’

 

I looked at the man, his build compact, his face a scrotum. The white hat he wore had seen better days and even the best of those days wouldn’t have been much good. I liked the cut of his jib.

‘Are you locals?’

‘No. Bunbury’s home for us.’

I pictured the couple walking the beaches from the south of the state all the way north to Broome, collecting cigarette butts. One hundred and sixty butts a day.

 

 

 

And I recalled Jonathan Sacks, the immediate past Chief Rabbi of the English-speaking world (by which term I mean to exclude the USA), who quoted a vignette of two men strolling along the seashore which was littered with starfish washed up and freshly stranded on the sand. One of the two bent repeatedly to pick up the starfish and to throw them as far as he could out to sea. His companion watched and mused and finally spoke: ‘There are so many, hundreds, probably thousands. You can’t possibly save them all; even if you labour all morning, your effort won’t make any appreciable difference…’

 

The first man paused, starfish in hand. He regarded the creature, still alive, then threw with all his might. He said, ‘To this one it makes a difference.’

The Wrong Doctor

 A lady older than I – all the patients seem older than I am – enters my consulting room. Tall, broad in her build, her face is oblong. If she were a horse she’d be a Clydesdale. A voice rattles and grates from the lady’s throat, the voice of a thousand cigarettes: ‘What’s your name, son?’

I tell her.

‘And you’re Frank’s locum?’

I confess I am.

‘Right. This is what I need.’ The lady pushes a scrap of paper across my desk.

I read her list: Valium, Nembudeine, Mogadon.

Diffidently I wonder aloud, ‘What conditions do you take these for?’

The lady – was her name Gloria? – it was so long ago – the lady looks at me in mild disbelief. Is the doctor a bit simple?

‘For pain of course. And nerves. And to sleep.’

I commence writing out her prescriptions. In 1970 we wrote our scripts longhand. Valium for her nerves, nembudeine, a handy concoction of narcotic and barbiturate, mogadon, another benzo.

A doctor stirs within me: ‘I should point out the risk of becoming dependent on these medications.’

‘Rubbish! You think Frank doesn’t know what he’s doing? He knows I’m not the addictive type.’

Subdued by the confidence of my neighsaying patient, I resume writing.

‘I need a smoke. Want to join me?’

The doctor within feels more secure on this ground. ‘No thanks. Smoking isn’t all that good for your health.’

‘Rubbish! A few fags can’t hurt. Frank smokes.’

‘Well, I’m not Frank’s doctor. But no-one smokes in here.’

‘Rubbish!’ The lady reaches across the desk, her broad arm brushes me as she removes the lid from a small ceramic jar, revealing a dozen or so cigarettes all standing to attention. She takes one, flips it expertly between her lips, sucking back a denture that ventured a peek at the world outside. ‘Got a light, or do I have to use Frank’s?’

 

The locum is always the wrong doctor. Gloria expected to see Frank and, doubtless, to subdue him at his point of weakness, his fondness for the occasional fag. This very young locum is composed almost entirely of weaknesses, but smoking is not one of them. He is decidedly the wrong doctor: ‘I’m afraid no-one smokes in here with me.’

‘What do you mean?’

‘I mean no-one smokes in this room while I am in it.’

Gloria gives me hard look: ‘It’s not your practice!’

‘That’s true. But you must excuse me if I step outside while you light up.’

Glowering, Gloria snatches her script and takes her leave.

 

Later, Frank chuckles: ‘Gloria always tries that out on me too. I always say no. Glad you did as well.’

 

image: envisioningtheamericandream.com

Alone and Palely Loitering

You walk past them at lunchtimes and at smoko, you see them sheltering under eaves in foul weather, you see them in their outcast clusters, you see them and you avert your gaze for fear your concern will offend.

They are many, these persons of all ages, members of an underclass. If they were to unite as voters they’d overthrow governments. If they were to become radicalised we’d tremble in our beds. But no, they do nought to us and all to themselves. These human persons harvest leaves and dry them and chop the dried leaves finely then wrap the product in a cylinder of paper. Carefully, accurately, with practised fingers, they burn the leaves, then hungrily, deeply inhale.

Alone in the animal kingdom these sentient creatures do not flee from smoke.

I see them, I see my friends, who meet my gaze and smile in confession – and I am sorry to see – in embarrassment.

A long time ago my father in law was dismayed when advised by his tobacconist (yes, he saw a specialist, no mere candy vendor) that Chesterfields would no longer be imported to Australia. The tobacconist asked: ‘How many do you smoke a day?’

My father in law told him.

The tobacconist responded: ‘You are a very special customer; we’ll make sure you stay supplied.’

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The very special customer became too breathless to read a bedtime story to his grandchildren. Soon he developed a cough. Suspecting cancer he stopped smoking.

Not long after, the very special customer died of his disease and my children lost their very special grandfather.

Manufacturer Phillip Morris continues to accommodate its special customers. My friends huddle and shelter while I shudder. And I direct my superannuation to alternative investments.