The Slashed and the Hanged

After three days on Christmas Island I take night call. The phone rings at 0045. It’s Henry the Team Leader, Henry the unflappable, Henry who smiles at every reverse, at all bad news.

Henry has the oblong face and slab-shaped skull of the adult who was once a very premature infant. His crooked smiles and wry look – ‘it could be worse’ – sit well on the slopes of that narrow face. Tonight, however, his voice is direct: no smile is audible: “Security is bringing five men in to the clinic who’ve slashed themselves and another man who tried to hang himself.”

“I’m on my way.”

The drive along half known, unmade, unlit roads  takes longer than it should, as I make a number of wrong turns. There is a moon, bright against the island’s dark sky. A black cloud bisects the moon transversely, sitting across its upper half. The black is very black, the white brilliantly silvery. I have never seen a southern hemisphere of moon like this.

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.  Continue reading

Hungering, Christmas Island

Something is wrong, something is upside down. The hunger striker and I stare at each other from opposite sides of a scaffold that neither of us constructed.

I follow the protocols, which are wise and worthy. But it is all wrong, everything is upside down.

My job is to work to improve or protect health. I have to find a way, to create a language that the patient and I will share; to locate and level the place where we will meet.

This contract is not spelled out nor ever inked; elsewhere there is no need. The patient is here, I am here, we can get down to work.

But when I attend the hunger striker all of this is inverted and twisted out of shape. The person whom I attend is not a patient: the person gives no sign, has no wish for my attention.

The non-patient never called me; I am a part of the system that he imposed upon first; now the system imposes me upon him.

The non-patient and I have opposite wishes: mine is to protect life and vital organs, his to destroy them.

The generality of patients whom I see here in the Detention Centre come to see me on my own territory; I mean the clinic. But the starver is weakened, usually lying in his room in the Compound which is located behind high, stout electrified fencing. The nurse and I walk along long corridors without natural light. Serial serious doors unlock to admit us and lock again behind us. We emerge into sunlight in an expansive open area, surrounded by discrete bedrooms for two persons.

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