Mouth to mouth

Once a year your accredited family doctor undergoes retraining in CPR. Commanded to forget previous models she learns the latest tweak, he meets the newest gadget.

It’s pleasant, collegial, unreal.  They practise on a manikin. The plastic model lacks the saliva the pinking agonal froth. There are no dentures to yank out in a fret of haste, no sweat on the body that foretasted its death, no lips of purple grey in a face of grey.

My phone rang. It was a nurse in an outback hamlet no-one ever hears of. I know the nurse. I know her clinic.

“Howard? Thank goodness!”

A great indraft of air.

“There’s been a death. I have to report it.”

“What happened?”

“There was a fight. They’ve been rioting and fighting all week…” The nurse’s voice thinned and rose an octave. She gulped air.

“Someone raced into the clinic and called me out into the street. They said there was a man who was hit and fell and wouldn’t wake up. I looked down the street and I could see him, lying there. I ran and I asked what happened: a witness said he copped a glancing blow to the chin.  He said it wasn’t forceful.

I did CPR. I worked on him for a long while. I’m alone here. The only nurse. A copper helped me.

“Howard, I know him. It was Billy. He’s a lovely old man, gentle, you know. He was an old stockman. He always wore his old cowboy hat and his stockman’s boots. And now he’s dead!.

“Howard, we don’t have a morgue here. What do I do?”

I ran through the formalities, the bureaucracy of sudden death. There was a noise in the background, a moaning, wailing. Behind that, angry voices, shouting.

The nurse listened and took notes. Our conversation neared its end. Her work demanded and pressed but she didn’t seem ready to finish. She would be busy through the day with phone calls to the coroner, to the bush undertaker, and to the director of regional and remote nurses. There’d be the paperwork. And then she’d go home: home to her donger, the bedsitter that is really a shipping container; home to the memory of cold lips and the gentle fellow she liked and she couldn’t bring back.

“Howard, he’s lying here in the clinic. I checked him again in case I was wrong. But there’s no chest movement and I can’t hear a heartbeat. His pupils are dilated and they don’t react to the light. Is there anything else?”

There wasn’t anything else.

“Howard, Billy’s gone and now there’ll be Payback. He’s still wearing his hat and his boots.”

Star of the Sea

Yvonne and Doreen are among the very few Jewish girls at Firbank. Some unpleasantness occurs and Yvonne pretends it isn’t happening, but Doreen, the younger sister, is not so submissive. (At the age of four she had objected to the dentist hurting her. When he hurt her again Doreen bit his finger.)

When her classmates tease her for her Jewishness, Doreen fights back. After a few of these fights, their mother recalls how happy had been her own schooldays with the Presentation nuns in Perth. The family withdraws the girls from Firbank and sends them to the Presentation nuns at Star of the Sea.

Yvonne and Doreen arrive at Star to find they are the only Jewish girls. On the eve of the Depression their father falls ill and the whole school assembles to offer prayers for his recovery. He dies and the school prays for his soul.

Their father’s investments crash and the family is hard up. Compared to Firbank, the nuns are cheap, but Star reduces its fees so the girls can stay.

A new Jewish girl arrives. Her father has died, and she is to be a boarder. The nuns discover she has no prayer book. They are greatly concerned. They have lots of Catholic prayer books but they ask Yvonne and Doreen’s mother to find a Jewish prayer book for the new girl.

A couple of years after their father’s death, their mother’s heart fails. The school prays, she dies – of a broken heart, as the girls recall it – one day following the third anniversary of their father’s death. The whole school comes to a stop to pray for her soul and for the two orphan girls.

Neither of the girls is particularly studious, but Yvonne rewards the nuns with a perfect score in Catechism.

Years pass, the girls grow up, leave school and marry. Yvonne moves to a small town in the remote Riverina, where she raises a bunch of children without a family to support her. She misses her parents, her sister and grandmother. She bears and feeds these babies, deficient first in family, then in iron, later in red blood cells. Finally, she is confounded: fulfilled in motherhood, she is nevertheless tearful and faint. In crisis, Yvonne returns to the nuns and finds comfort. Will you pray for me, she asks.

Doreen too, turns to the nuns whenever she needs surgery. She too asks them to pray for her: You girls are the professionals, she says, I think you are better at it than I am.

As the years pass, Doreen has cancer surgery, bowel surgery, heart surgery, the list of operations grows longer, and always she goes back to the nuns. She speaks to her old school principal, now retired: Would you light a candle for me Sister?

I’d burn the whole bloody Church down for you if it would help you, Doreen.

Yvonne and Doreen go the nuns again and again. It only ends, after sixty years, when their old principal, the last of their nuns, dies at the age of 103.