After Uluru

‘… There’s been a death.’

I am in my small house in Yulara, cooking for shabbat on a Friday in December 2006, when the phone ringImages. A male voice speaks: ‘It’s Sergeant Benjamin, Doctor, of the Mutitjulu Police … I’m sorry to trouble you … there’s been a death.’

A pause.

The voice resumes: ‘It was a hanging. We need someone to certify the death. The nurses here can’t do it; it has to be a doctor. I am sorry, Doctor.’

The voice is careful, it is feeling its way. I don’t know the officer. The voice I hear is sober – sobered almost to a halt by the news of a death.

I ask the officer to bring the body to the clinic. We arrange to meet in twenty minutes’ time.

It is early evening – 1830 hours in official language – when they pull up at the clinic. Even at that hour the heat is relentless. The sky is painted blue. There are two vehicles, a police car followed by an ambulance in its familiar livery of white slashed with red. A large oblong man steps out of a police car of such startling blueness that the sky pales behind it. The officer’s face is deeply creased.

We shake hands.

His offsider gets out and straightens. She dwarfs her sergeant. Apart from the odd post-adolescent pimple, her face is smooth. She walks over to the ambulance and commences a laughing conversation with the nurses who have driven the body.

After a time the nurses are free to attend to my questions. I address the older of the two, the one I know from the clinic: ‘When was she found?’

She turns to her associate. For a moment, both are silent, then she says, ‘I’m not really sure. The family called us an hour ago – when they felt ready to let us take the body, I guess. Someone found her before that and called the family. We don’t know when …’

We release the latches and the heavy door of the ambulance clunks open, revealing a large white bag resting on a collapsed stretcher. Warm air flows from the interior.

The nurses step backward. Fumbling, I try to pull the stretcher a distance from the vehicle’s dark interior. The nurses step forward and help, then again retreat. I pull on the zipper and the bag falls open, exposing the head and upper body of a human.

I pause. No sound, no movement.

There is a moment of reverent peacefulness. The skin of the person whom I stand and regard is brown, the same brown that glows from the earth and the many heads of rock in the early sunshine during my early morning run. That colour has penetrated me, claiming me like a mother.

I place the back of my gloved hand against the brown skin. It is still warm. Just as shocking, the face is very small.

I straighten and ask the nurses, ‘Do you have a date of birth?’

One shows me a file. She points upper left, where I read, ‘19 November, 1991’.

I look again at the small face. There are a couple of blotches of acne. The child has buckteeth. The body is short and slender, the body of a girl who has scarcely begun the journey to womanhood.

I have no doubt, I feel no hope, but I rest my fingers lightly over her carotid artery. It is still.

I check her eyes. Dull now, pupils wide, fixed and unresponsive to the light – those are pearls that were her eyes.

I apply my stethoscope to her chest. The silence of death is drowned in a distracting chorus of inanimate rustling and chafing sounds. These are the artefacts of my examination. I hear no heartbeat. No air moves in or out of the chest.

This is the body of a fifteen-year old girl whose life is extinct.

No motion has she now, no force; 

She neither hears nor sees; 

Rolled round in earth’s diurnal course, 

With rocks, and stones, and trees.

I have another question for the nurses: ‘What do you know of her health before today?’

‘Six months back she was sniffing, but not since then; there’s been no sniffable petrol in the community since then … There were some family problems. She had been seen by Mental Health …’

The answer is unsatisfactory. Any possible answer would be unsatisfactory. It all boils down to one thing: we do not know.

On an afterthought I lean forward again, peering past the fine cheekbones and the slender jaw, peering at the soft tissues beyond. There, on her throat I see what had to be seen, a bracelet patterned in her flesh, a curvilinear design that is unexpectedly graceful. It is the embossing in her skin of the fatal rope.

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An Ancient Mariner

A tall man with silver hair and brown skin enters my consulting room, hunched forward a little. His voice is husky in the familiar way of his people, his speech deliberate.

“I cannot say quickly what is wrong, doctor. Please allow me time to explain.”

The face is a compound of care and charm. He is not young but he is well muscled and broad. He bends his torso somewhat, and inclines his head a little as he speaks, his mouth almost smiling  – in propitiation? Has a lifetime among white people taught him to smile as he speaks, even when – as now – his speech is full of sorrow and care?

“I have a boy”, he says. “He is twelve years old.”

(Irresistibly, he delivers his story. His words arrest me, the consultation has stopped; here is Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner: There was a ship, said he…)

My patient continues: “I’ve had him since he was a baby. He is my son’s boy.  The boy’s mother brought him to me when he was newly born. She said – ‘You take this boy. I cannot look after him.’  I told her – ‘You need to think about that. You take him away and think again. A child needs his mother…’ ”

The man breaks off his narrative to explain his meaning. “Doctor, I said that about a mother because I didn’t have my mother with me when I was a boy.”

“Well, she brought the baby back a couple days later. She said – ‘You take this boy. I can’t have him.’”

A pause.

“Doctor, I’ve lost my license to drive trucks. I want to get it back. I want to get back into work again. They say I can’t drive trucks any more because of my heart and because I used to have diabetes. So I went to Adelaide and had heart tests. They put a needle into your groin and they send dye into your heart – you know?”

I nod.

“They tell me I am good, my heart is good. I feel good, doctor. And when I came back, they tested me again, but they can’t find any diabetes, because I am eating good food – you know – no Kentucky  Fried… no Red Rooster. No grog either. I don’t smoke. But I am very strong, doctor, I am fit. Every morning and most nights I do hard exercise…”

I nod again, admiring again his lean, muscled body.

“I am going to school. I am learning computer. That’s hard, those words are very hard. I was raised on the Catholic mission, in the Kimberley, out Fitzroy Crossing way. They didn’t teach me much to read and write, not English. I learned mostly prayers…in Latin. I can still say all the prayers in Latin, but I don’t understand Latin. I didn’t have much schooling in the Kimberley.”

I look up and scan his face, looking for something that seems to be missing: where is the irony, where is the anger? He seems to have none.

“Last year my wife got sick. She was in the hospital, but in the end they say to me – ‘you take her’.

So I take her home. She was in the wheel chair, she liked to be outside, so I would take her out there, she’d sit in the chair with a mask on her face – for oxygen. The boy would come out to her and sit with her, and he would cry.

I see them and I cannot bear it.

I told the boy – you have to go to your mother now. I can’t look after you, you’re too big for me now. You need your mother…

A boy needs his mother.

I didn’t have…

The boy cried when I sent him back. He wanted to stop with me.

My wife died.

After a good while I went to my country, you know, the Kimberley, that’s good country. I wanted to see my sisters…”

I contemplate the distance from where we sit, in Alice Springs. “Did you fly?”

“I fly my car. I don’t mind the drive, it is good country, beautiful, all the way.

When I get there, the boy wants to be with me all the time. He camps with me, he won’t stop with his mother.”

The man pauses, looks at me. The part-smile returns. “Doctor, I need a letter so I can drive trucks again. I want to be working again. I have to do something…”

Heavily, I tell him that the doctor who decided he must not drive trucks is probably right. The Law says a doctor can’t let you drive trucks if you have a history of heart troubles. But I tell him I will obtain the reports from the Adelaide doctors and forward them to an independent heart doctor and see whether he can have another chance. I try not to raise his hopes.

The old man rises, takes my hand. The smile is full now, his hand large, dry, warm.

He thanks me and goes away. Sadder, wiser, I watch him go.

This is an excerpt from Raft by Howard Goldenberg. Hybrid Publishers, 2009.