The Sweet Taste of Revenge

The oldest friend of our married life is a parson. After inspiring and marrying hundreds of young believers and unbelievers and halfbelievers; and after watching their marriages fragment – fast or slow – and die, John concluded he was not a success in bringing people’s lives together. He left the parsonage and took up God’s work in a new business: in his own words, ‘I spent a year in gaol.’ The parson became a chaplain.
‘Long Bay Gaol was just like other congregations I’d worked in – lots of sinners, lots of righteous people (“I never did it… it was someone else’s fault…I was framed…”), and lots of people who couldn’t care less about religion. I didn’t mind the unreligious and they didn’t mind me. The convicted were just people, by and large. I found most of them likeable enough.
‘But a few of them were hard to like. There was one man who’d been convicted for trying to incinerate his girlfriend. She survived, horribly burned, but in the process he killed the masseuse who was treating her at the time. He was quite unrepentant, quite without conscience, but nevertheless he became one of my most frequent parishioners. He’d visit my office frequently, ostensibly for spiritual guidance. All he really wanted was the luxury of private conversation. I did not like him, but I couldn’t let on.
‘There were others in the gaol who were just as unlikeable. One was a warder, one of the ‘’screws’’, as the prisoners called them. This fellow treated the prisoners brutally. He was feared and hated. He used to visit me often and he was just as persistent, just as falsely pious and just as unwelcome as the murderer.
‘The murderer confided once how “cons” had their ways of getting back at the screws they hated most. He said, “Father, we piss in their tea.”
‘I understood how that might be. The best-behaved prisoners enjoyed the privilege of waiting on tables in the Officers’ Dining Room. That was where I ate. The prisoners prepared and serve beverages. One day I went to that Dining Room for lunch. I loaded my tray and sat at a table out of the way to enjoy some privacy. Out of the blue, bearing his own tray, that brutal fellow was at my shoulder, declaring, “Father, you don’t mind if I join you.”
I did mind of course, but I said the opposite, of course.
A prisoner turned up and asked us for our beverage order.
“Tea, white, two sugars,” said my guest.
I asked for the same. That waiter, my religious friend the incinerator, said, “Certainly, gentlemen, I’ll bring them presently.”
The con returned carrying two mugs. ‘This is yours, Father”, he said, as he laid my drink on the table. Then he walked to the other side of the table, placed the mug before the screw and said, “And this is yours, sir.” As he spoke he shot a huge wink in my direction.
‘What did you do, John?’
‘It was a moral emergency. If I remained silent I would be party to a wrong. If I spoke I would breach a confidence. I drank my tea. I watched the screw drink his.’

John’s story brought to mind my cousin’s account of certain events In Israel during the first Intifada. She wrote: ‘Consumers of a particular brand of hummus remarked on a change in the product. It didn’t taste bad, just subtly different. Closed circuit TV in the factory caught Palestinian workers wanking into the vats.’


Neither the hummus masturbators nor the prison micturators could have read the more recent American novel, The Help, in which a white racist woman consumes chocolate cake containing the ordure of the ‘help’ – an unfairly dismissed African-American woman.
I recount these stories to offer succour to a friend, a novelist, Margaret.
Now Margaret enjoys the attentions of a literary assassin, a relative by inheritance, a sort of outlaw-in-law. That person claims a critical authority and a mission to improve HCG by means of brutal dismissal.

The critic and the writer are destined to meet from time to time; what can Margaret do to fight back?

All the examples quoted have their appeal. The cake is of course, irresistible but time-consuming. The hummous is nourishing but beyond the resources of an unaided female. I suggest Margaret make her nemesis a cuppa tea – white, of course, with two sugars.

Sewn Lips

The “Guardian” reports on a detailed litany of sub-standard medical care at Christmas Island.

I read the piece with interest and with some recognition: I had worked there earlier, before the present ‘off-shore processing’ (the hasty export of the unwanted) was instituted. Initially I kept silent. Then I wrote the following, which is the introductory chapter to a suite of stories which will appear in 2015 in my next book of non-fiction, “Burned Man.”

“Sewn Lips

A few years back I signed up to work for a short time as a doctor caring for Asylum Seekers detained on Christmas Island. I went with every impure intent. Indignant over my country’s conduct towards refugees, I headed to the island determined to observe, to record and to betray: I would witness wrongdoing and I would expose it.

But I signed a Confidentiality Agreement: now my lips were sewn. So I would have to resort to allegory, to obliquity, to any literary device to tell unforbidden truths while avoiding forbidden fact. And of course I had every right to report on my own state of mind.

In the event the Administration thwarted my plan: I saw no wrongdoing, detected no bruises, smelled nothing: nothing to report. Stolid unimaginative warders ran a barely decent prison. Good nurses, skilled young medical colleagues, experienced mental health nurses were on hand to attend to generally healthy, universally miserable patients.

Keeping the system honest from the outside, the Red Cross visited and the Australian Newspaper snooped.

And we servants of the nation did everything by the book. We followed all the rules and Conventions. We – the system now incorporated me – we kept Australia’s nose clean. Assiduously, conscientiously, courteously, with perfectly consistent meanness, we kept our clients (they weren’t patients, my true client was the Government) we kept them healthy, we kept them confused, we provoked them by systematic delay.

We drove them mad.

Australia’s impeccable gulag calibrated its practices to equality with the countries of origin. We managed to be just as cruel without raising a bruise.

Meanwhile, doctors were drinking every night. One guard took his own life, another attempted suicide. One mental health worker was dismissed for ‘fraternising’. In fact, she visited her 18-year old client who had been held incommunicado for 36 hours in a psychiatric ‘facility’ (lovely facile word, drained empty, morally bleached) in Perth. She understood her authority ended once she delivered her patient to the Psychiatric Hospital, but his need and her care did not.

I returned to Australia proper and resumed my life. Back now with family, a free person, a citizen, surrounded by comforting supports, I found I had brought the island with me. Contaminated, implicated by national service in unkindness policy, I was troubled by dreams. Night after night, in darkness and unable to speak, I saw myself doing things I had not actually done.

In those dreams I did Australia’s work. I lived the nightmare we perfected.”

The Guardian article by Oliver Laughland: