The Cruelty of Children


 

My elder brother is six. He goes to school and I stay at home. I stand inside the front gate and wait for him at lunchtime. Our front gate is a loose mesh of plaited green wire. It’s not so much a barrier as a hint of private property. I stand inside the gate and wait.

 

 

Some merry schoolgirls approach, big kids of six or seven.

Hello little boy, says one. What’s your name.

Howard.

Poke out your finger, little boy.

I poke my finger out through a gap in the gate..

Suddenly my fingertip hurts.

Ow! – I yell.

I catch a glimpse of a pin in the hand of the girl who told me to poke out my finger. The girls all laugh loudly.

The speaker finishes laughing and says again, Put out your finger, little boy.

No. You’ll hurt it again.

No I won’t. Put out your finger. Nothing bad will happen.

I poke out my finger.

It hurts again.

I start to cry as the girls laugh loudly again, and run down the street, past the Catholic Church, in the direction of the Courthouse.

 

 

 

Every afternoon we swim in the town pool which is filled with water from the irrigation channel in the street outside. The water is warm and brown but it tastes okay. There are lots of leeches in the canal, and plenty of them dine on our blood while we swim in the pool. We learn to catch them; there’s a simple technique which we master quickly.

 

What to do with a captured leech?

 

You find a bobby pin on the ground near the Girls’ Changerooms and you thread the leech onto the pin, inserting it in the leech’s back end. This turns the leech inside out.

 

What to do with an inside-out leech?

 

 

The walls of the change rooms are built of galvanized iron. Those tin sheds heat up considerably in the summer sun. You press the the everted body of the leech against the hot metal and its mucoid flesh quickly adheres and fries in the afternoon sun.

 

 

 

I don’t remember this, but Mum told me the story often enough:

When she brought her second son into the household, the firstborn, Dennis, loved his baby brother so much he piled all of his toys into the pram on top of the new baby.

 

I’ve seen a photo of that pram, a sizable conveyance constructed of wood panels and wheels as big as those you see on adult’s bike. The pram dwarfs my elder brother captured in the picture, standing next to it.

 

 

As Mum tells the story, Dennis would push the pram in the garden and it would overturn, spilling the baby brother Dennis so much loved onto the concrete path. I gather this happened more than once. 

 

 

 

We travel from Leeton to Melbourne to observe the High Holydays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. We stay at my grandparents’ house, which is big and dark. It’s scary at night. The house has a downstairs and an upstairs.

 

 

A lady comes to the house to clean before the festivals, She hoovers the carpets with her noisy machine. Dennis and I sit on the top stair and watch the lady as she hoovers. Her name, we learn, is Mrs Briggs. One of us discovers Briggs rhymes with pigs.

Dennis and I create a chant:

MISSUS BRIGGS IS A PIGS

MISSUS BRIGGS IS A PIGS

 

The Hoovers sings loudly and we sing too. Mrs Briggs Hoovers on. Now she turns the machine off. She hears us as we sing:

 

MISSUS BRIGGS IS A PIGS

MISSUS BRIGGS IS A PIGS

 

 

Mrs Briggs appears highly annoyed. She tells us to stop.

Dennis and I sing on.  Mrs Briggs grabs the straw broom and rushes up the stairs, waving the broom at us in a violent manner. We retreat and slam the door in her face.

 

 

We stand on the other side of the door, panting and palpitating. Soon we hear the sound of the Hoover.

 

Dennis and I emerge and resume our song.

 

 

 

 

A cat wanders into our garden. It’s a bit smaller than I am. I don’t know the cat. My hand reaches out and grasps the cat’s tail. My hand hoists the cat in the air.

The cat yowls.

I am not used to cat sounds. My hand now swings the cat and the yowling is a siren that follows the Doppler effect.

My mother emerges from the house. Seeing what her small son is doing, she says: Stop doing that, Howard. That’s cruel.

 

I stop doing that.

Mum goes inside.

 

 

My hand reaches out. It grasps the cat’s tail. The hand whirls the cat in a circle, round and around.

The cat yowls.

 

Australia Day in Doomadgee

Doomadgee, we write it
In our orthography
Really should be
Dumat’ji
 

No flag raising here
No speech or ceremony
On Australia Day
In Doomadgee
 

River runs warm
Kiddies swim and swarm
On Australia Day
In Doomadgee
 

Uncles bashing
In Australian passion
On Australia Eve
Here in Doomadgee

 
Broken hand, broken
Jaw, cut faces and more:
That’s Australia Day
In Doomadgee.
 

Adam Goodes
Too far away
This Australia Day
In Doomadgee
 

A busy day this
Australia Day
In the hospital
In Doomadgee
 

We plaster, we suture
Like there’s no future:
Future no feature 
of Australia Day,
Not here, no way, 
In Doomadgee
 

The end of Australia Day –
Quietness falls
In hospital halls
Of Doomadgee
 

But short the respite –
Quick! Elder sick,
Dying On Australia night –
Dying here in Doomadgee?
 

Quiet, quiet, his voice, his breath –
Small his smile at threshold of death –
Good night Australia:
System failure in Doomadgee
 

Beside him, quiet woman – or girl –
His guard and ward in this world
Trembles, faces an Australian day
Elderless in Doomadgee.
 

He slips away from teeming kin
Who hold tears and keening in;
A dreadful peace on Australia Day
And quiet, this night in Doomadgee.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

A Perfectly Routine Call

Woman injured, perhaps a fall,
A fracas? Who knows –
Perhaps a brawl?

Over the phone the nurse tells all:
Neck injuries…
She’s in a collar:
I call Flying Doctors: 
Eight thousand dollar.
 

I take notes: a punch to the mouth
And she fell;
Got a kicking to the head
And the belly as well
 

Her neck is tender
C2-3, where the cord is slender
She can feel, can move…
That doesn’t prove
We’ll mend her.
 

I take it all down, arrange the flight.
In afterthought,
I ought
Ask ‘Who? How?’ – at least:
It was a male. I called the police.
 

I take notes, recording in full
The news that’s not news,
That minds like mine 
Refuse
To take it in at all
 
Nurse gives name:
Like a punch to my mouth
Then a kicking,
Shame like flame
To burn my aorta –
 
The name – that ordinary name –
Is the same 
That we gave
Our newborn 
Daughter.

Dinner with Some Old Teenagers

Word reached me, and when it came, it came obliquely. My writer friend in England, Hilary Custance Green, forwarded a letter that had reached her by way of one or another of the virtual media. ‘I wasn’t certain what to do with this,’ she wrote, ‘I thought it might be spam, but I decided to forward it, just in case.’ The writer of the letter asked Hilary if she could forward it to her old doctor. The letter bore strong feelings that had brewed and bubbled within the writer over years.
‘Dear Dr Goldenberg, I don’t know if you remember me but I remember you and I have wanted to contact you for a long time.’ There followed the remarkable declaration that my actions had saved the writer, now aged fifty-five, when she was a girl of seventeen. She owed her present happy life, she wrote, to my intervention, as well as the help of some others around that time. 

The letter, and the memories it evoked, thudded, jolted within me. Yes I did remember the girl, firstborn of three, trapped in a hell where her violent alcoholic father abused all in the home. I remember the face, fair skinned, the coronet of fair hair. And her brave, fugitive smile. 

I read on, and as I read the girl’s name came to me, a diminutive in the Australian way, never Anna but ‘Annie.’ Annie’s father was a helpless, hopeless drunk, and when drunk prone to unpredictable extremity. Annie would await his return from the pub with dread, hoping he’d keep away, hoping helplessly her mother and sisters would be safe. She’d have fled the family home long before but father had screamed and waved his gun at her. His words – ‘If you try to leave I’ll shoot you and the others and myself’ – shocked me. Uselessly, helplessly, I trembled for the child. The child confided she never brought a friend into that house, for fear of the shame. She told me these things, forty years ago, and I recognised a further shame, even deeper, Annie’s self-disgrace to be ashamed of her own father.    

In her letter Annie reminded me of the Saturday night she finally escaped. Father had drunk all that day and into the night. Annie sheltered in her bedroom but when father burst in she ran from him, wearing only her nightclothes. Father screamed behind her, ‘You’ll never come back into this house, girl!’ The girl walked through the early hours, avoiding exposed places. She found herself in the deep dark of a railway culvert and, terrified in that blackness she decided, ‘This is where I’ll have to sleep from now on.’
Annie wrote, ‘I walked to the clinic and laid down and waited there for you to arrive. You’d always been kind and understanding. I knew you worked the Sunday mornings. I didn’t have anywhere else. You took me in when you arrived and after work you drove me home so I could safely collect some clothes. Then you drove me to a refuge.’

Annie’s account of that last-first morning was only dimly familiar. I felt small stirrings of pride, and a tenderness for the girl in the nightdress. Much stronger was my shock as I realised I had not thought of her since the ‘rescue.’ Annie had disappeared from the days of those busy years. She had lived, thrived, suffered reverses, sought salvation, recovered, blossomed, become the assertive woman her mother could never be, married happily and raised children, good citizens, and now saw grandchildren. Forty years and no thought by her wonderful caring doctor. That child had come into her own and that doctor had reached his prime and passed it.
Perturbed, I wrote to Hilary to thank her for sending word, for her gift.
The word found me in the outback. I wrote to Annie, giving my phone number and told her I was anxious to speak to her. My phone rang as I rode my bike across the railway line. I dismounted and answered and the voice said it was Annie and for twenty minutes I listened to her narration of the events of a turbulent life. We agreed we’d meet after my return from the outback.
In the exchange of emails that followed a second voice entered, followed by a third, then a fourth. Later a fifth and a sixth made contact. The writers, all roughly contemporaries, had been my patients in their teenage years. Each bore a burden of recollection which pressed now to be discharged.

Three women, matrons now, waited for me at the restaurant. I opened the door to faces that shone. I saw three faces of girls in their teens. I stepped forward and found myself clasped. Lined faces kissed mine, ample bodies held me close.

We sat. The women said how young I looked, I said how good they looked. The past was with us, the past with its beauty and its horror. The past, reverberating with friendships I had forgotten and the three had remembered. 
How had I forgotten?
The waitress came, hovered, departed. Again she came and we promised we’d soon choose and order. It was not soon. Forty years here, twenty there, so much event, so much life. Babies – it turned out I had delivered them – were now adults, some even parents.  
The waitress returned. Jerked into the present we ordered.

Girls Numbers Two and Three are sisters. I asked after their parents, immigrants, older than me by ten years, proud people, beavers in the general community and within their own. Mum was alive, still vibrant – ‘and fat, like all of us!’ Shrieks of laughter. And Dad?

‘Dad’s fat too, and dementing. The grog; it’s Korsakov’s.’ The speaker is Number Two, now a nurse. In the care of their aging parents she’s the officer commanding Number Three and their brothers. 

Both Three and Two were married when I last knew them. They’d married matching buffoons, agreeable blokes when sober, not often sober, not often enough agreeable. Three spoke: ‘Even before we married I saw how my father in law treated his wife. He’d tell her she was stupid, shout at her to shut up when she spoke. One time I saw him belting into her – he was full as usual. I froze. We never saw that. Mum and Dad would drink a couple of gins after work but they never got nasty. Not like that.’ 

Memories returned to me of the mother in law. A tall trembling lady, her face pink and scarred, she’d address me in a soft trembly voice, describing symptoms I could never fathom, never cure. Now I understood.

‘It wasn’t too long before Robbie was getting aggressive like his Dad. He’d go to the pub after work, get full, drive home drunk. I had my first girl, then the second. I thought, “No. This isn’t what I want for them, not what I want them to see.“ I rang Robbie and I said, “Don’t hurry home you drunken bum. Your wife and your kids have split.”’ Peals of laughter from Three, far the widest at our table. ‘Did he ever hit you?’ – I wondered. ‘Lot’s of times, but I’d belt him too!’ More jolly mirth. Three sits opposite me, her great arms a gallery of art in brilliant reds. Finer tattoos crawl upward from her bodice, another spiders around her neck.

‘Weren’t you scared, leaving him?’

‘No.’ The thought is a stranger to Three. She stares at my unexpected question. ‘There was no future there. I got up, took my girls and went.’

Did I raise an eyebrow? I certainly wondered at her resolve, her clarity. Her fearlessness. ‘Yeah, money was tight. I got a job and I worked and I looked after my girls. They’re good. Their blokes are lovely. And the three of us, we’re very close. Like me and sis here.’ The two women looked at each other and smiled.

Two reminded me: ‘I was a mother at nineteen. Got married. You delivered my babies, Howard. I was in labour, terrified, not knowing anything. You got up on the bed beside me and stroked my back.’ Did I? Nowadays the Medical Board would caution me for this sort of thing. They’d require me to undergo Education.

Two continued: ’You know everything about us. You’ve seen all our vaginas!’ Careless in their merriment the girls showed none of the self-consciousness that saw me look down and blush. ‘I’m diabetic now,’ continued Two. ‘But I’m good. After I left my husband I worked as a nurse, you know, State Enrolled. When my kids were adult and near-adult my partner encouraged me. He said, “You’ve always wanted to study. Do it.” So I did. I studied nursing at Melbourne University. Boy that’s a gap – from Victoria Uni to Melbourne. But I did well…’

‘Got Distinctions’, Three’s voice was proud.

‘I did all of it on scholarships. I had to perform. They can take the scholarship away if you get bare passes. Now I’m specializing in Mental Health, in charge of the ward. I love it.’

Three told me how she too had always worked in health, in administration. She described without bitterness how, after eighteen years, her institution had managed her out of her job and into retirement. ‘Now I write poetry. I go to Creative Writing classes. And every Wednesday I post a poem on Facebook. Wednesday is the hump of the week. I call my readers, my “humpies.” Here’s this week’s poem’. Three handed me her phone where I read her tidy quatrains. The verses spoke in anticipation of this gathering, in praise of the poet’s doctor, his kindness, his understanding. Blushing again I came across a ‘Like’ in response. The author of the Like was Four, another ex-teenager whose family I’d been close to. Four wrote, ‘I remember how Dr Howard comforted me when Karen died.’ Another thump. 

I remembered Four, a striking girl with olive skin, tight black curls, a smile that made you feel like singing. I remembered Karen, Karen who was lost, that sparkling child. Karen was in the car that drove to the pub in the bush hamlet twenty kilometres distant from my country practice. The pub filled the young driver up with grog and watched him drive the carful of friends home. How many died when the car missed the bend? Four? Five? Karen was extinguished in that crash. I remember speaking afterwards with Four. Was she the only one I was trying to comfort? I think I was trying to comfort myself too. A year or so later another young driver killed himself driving home from the same pub. His passenger suffered a fractured neck, became quadriplegic. From that time until left I doctored the human wreckage. And my rage burned against that pub. I nursed a futile wish to close it down.
*** 
The girls spoke of the men in their present lives. Annie had formed a lasting union with Ian that prospers still. She showed me the album her family made for her fiftieth birthday. Here were Annie’s mum, Annie at fifteen, Annie’s own grown children, Annie with Ian. I saw a tall man, angular and strong-looking, with a craggy face. Two and Three spoke warmly of their own blokes. All three had known some duds but the ‘girls’ bore no hostility to the male race. When, at the conclusion of the evening, Ian turned up to drive Annie home he towered over me. My not-small hand was lost in his handclasp. Instantly likable, solid as a wall, he smiled and I felt gladdened for Annie.

Two asked Annie: ‘Have you ever seen your father again?’ Quietly came the reply: ‘I always vowed I never would. Then four years ago he wrote to me, to all of us, Mum, my sisters. He said he was dying, in Mallacoota. His heart was failing, from the grog. He wanted to see us. Mum wouldn’t come, neither would my sisters. But I thought, “He can’t hurt me now.” So I went. He talked and he talked, poured out his side of our lives. He lay on the bed and asked me to lay by him and cuddle him.’ 
I looked at Annie, my eyes wide. 

‘I thought, “He can’t hurt me now. He’s old and he’s dying alone.” He’s got a partner but she’s not his blood. It’s not the same. I climbed up beside him and I held him. We laid there together for a good while. After a couple of days I went home. He died two weeks later.’

Rape

One night when I was about thirteen the local police called my father to examine a body that had been found in the park. The woman (the girl?) was eighteen. She had been raped and strangled. Dad returned, a great sadness in his face. His voice was drained. He said, ‘Her only crime was being a woman.’
I did not understand.

I met a young woman recently who has been treated over twenty years for depression and anxiety. She’d been given medications as well as psychological therapies and psychiatric help. She still sleeps poorly and takes sleeping tablets as well as Valium when she’s anxious. She tells me she spent years drinking a bottle or two a night, ‘closed away’, later using cocaine, ecstasy and ice. She hears the ticking of her fertility clock, she wants children but she feels unready.

Diffidently I asked about abuse. She trusted me enough to confide, ‘I was raped when I was thirteen.’
‘Was it a relative?’
‘No, a school friend one year older than me… I looked for him recently on Facebook and I wrote him a message. I’ll email you what I wrote if you’re interested.’
I was interested.

Hey XXXX,

I’m not sure if you remember me but just wanted to touch base after so many years and confront something which happened when we were at school together.

Remember the night we went to one of your female friends place and another one of your mates came along (apologies but their names don’t spring to mind).

Anyways, the events of that might have haunted me since and, well, finally I’ve managed to build up the courage to message you and speak up.

It saddens me that what happened has affected me so much and for so long.

I honestly thought that you were a friend back then and you and your friend took something away from me and I have never forgotten and it has affected me all this time.

My dignity was taken away and diminished.

I still have vivid images in my mind of being extremely intoxicated even to the embarrassing point prior to what happened that I had been sick on your jacket which I wore as it was cold.  After this I was too ill and had to go to the spare room to sleep it off and at that point both you and your friend had taken advantage of the situation of me being passed out drunk and you both fucked me.

I will never forget also to this day that your mum, and I understand her being your mother defending you and your friend in saying that neither of you would ever do such a thing.

Saddens me that I was the one apparently untrue to the situation in yours/your families eyes.

The next morning my mother and brother had picked me up and they saw that something was not right. I had blood on me and looked a mess and was taken to the doctors but I was too shocked and embarrassed to admit to anything.

XXXX this was probably not the best way to do this via FB and just understand I’m not wanting anything from you nor an apology or anything but just feel that this is something that I’ve had to stand up to and to give me peace of mind after so many years.


***

I understand violence born of anger or fear. What is it in a male that allows him to hurt a woman or a child by calculation? I know this violence, I see it and I treat its fruits; but I don’t understand it. That people live and re-live and suffer and endure I do know. Some suffer beyond endurance and slash or die. I know some few who manage to create an enlightened response. This young woman said, ‘I changed cities to change my life.’ Soberly she added, ‘I think I am making progress.’
She found work in the justice system. And she found a sort of spiritual greatness that shows in these closing lines to her old school friend:

I would however like to ask you to always watch over your daughter, nieces if you have any and younger family members so this never happens to them
.

Worst of Times, Best of Times

Ours is a world in agony. The holy is awash in profanation. Men hear the voice of a ravening god that sends them to cut off heads. Others kidnap children in the name of a god. Again the toxic cohabitation of religion with violence, the foul marriage that brought us the Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition and Bushido on the Burma Railroad.

In the centre of our own country the Hayes clan lives at Whitegate, a ‘town camp’ in Alice Springs. The site is ancestral land going back to a time before the counting. Last week local government cut the water supply to Whitegate. The power died there some time ago. The cold desert nights are bitter.

How to breathe? Where to find hope? Why believe in our species at all? What light can we show our small children?

Last week the International Council of Christians and Jews honoured Debbie Weissman, a veteran worker across the tribes and creeds, building frail bridges of peace. Peace has broken out in Gaza-Israel. Rod Moss, artist and writer, chops wood and hauls water to Whitegate.

The peacemakers, the hewers of wood and drawers of water: these small signs. I clutch at such as these.

A Quiet Night in Casualty

A quiet night. Apart from the ten year old who coughs through every winter and the two year old with a cut leg, all our patients wash up on our shores on a tide of intoxicants. Subtract grog from these lives, says the Director, and we could close half our cubicles. Take away drugs and we’d need only a quarter.
We treat the thirty year old whose man – drunk – split open her scalp and broke three of her fingers; we check out the Frequent Flyer with (real) kidney failure disabled for the fourth night in a row by (spurious) chest pain; he seeks opiates and when denied a needle, suddenly invigorated, he walks out. Tall and elegant, the forty-something in the very high heels tripped over her long legs following a fusillade of shots (vodka). She tore her medial collateral ligament. The man snoring down the back treated his epilepsy with a slab in place of his Epilim. The ambos brought him in, fitting. He’ll need observation until morning…

The ward slows, starts to doze. Time to go to the loo. Above the urinal a laminated protocol provides advice on intoxication. The notice is headed:

TOILET PAPER – SEPTEMBER 2014.

Around two in the morning an irruption of large bodies in blue. One, two, three, four police officers, escorting one small man whose pale blue shirt is soaked. Handcuffed to the bedrails, he yet manages to give the cops the finger – two fingers actually – one on each hand. He blows kisses to the cops. The officers remain unprovoked.

The ambo, a non-combatant, provides the story: The pub called the coppers because he was behaving wildly. His friends say he had taken ecstasy, crack and alcohol. And another tablet – they don’t know what. He went crazy in the pub. Security tried to quieten him and he fought them; then he fought the cops. These four are only half the number it took to control him. They cuffed him. Somewhere along the line he vomited.

The man is surprisingly small. His short half shirt is soaked in lumpy vomitus. Between his gallery of tattoos patches of skin are missing from his knuckles. A large abrasion swells and shines dully on his forehead. A dull steel ring decorates his lower lip. Another improves an eyebrow. When a nurse tries to mask him (“You’ve been vomiting, we need you to wear a mask”) he speaks simple words in surprisingly mild tones: Please don’t touch me. Please don’t touch me. The nurse looks too slender, too young to handle this unpredictable person. Her speech is a further surprise. Turning from the patient to the gathering of uniforms congregating around the cubicle, she asks: Do we really need all these people? She draws the curtains, comes close to her patient and asks: Have you taken drugs?
No.
Any alcohol?
No.
Have you been in a fight?
No.
Has your head has been injured?
No.
Have you vomited?
No.
Do you take any regular medications?
No.
Do you have any medical history?
No.
This is a nineteen year old without symptoms, without any reason to be here. Mildly the nurse says, Well then, once we find there’s no reason to detain you will you have any objection if we return you to these officers?
No.
To his denials of all symptoms and concerns the man adds, I don’t believe I have any obligation to answer your questions.
A compact young doctor joins the conversation: Look, Simon, we’re here to help you. We aren’t the police, we’re not charging you, we’re not collecting evidence.
Like her nursing colleague the doctor speaks calmly. She focuses on assessing and helping the patient. Your heart is racing. You’re a bit dry. We’ll put a drip into this vein. Do you mind?
No answer. Eyes closed, resolutely mute, the young man affects a coma rather than concede anything to anyone.

The boy trembles as far as his manacles allow. Is he just scared? Are his drugs making him paranoid or is he frightened by the storm of chemicals that fight each other inside his brain? Or just terrified of the police?

His shirt is wet. The thermometer reads 35 degrees.
Are you cold?
No.
Would you like a blanket?
No.
Do you need to pee?
No.

Taking the nurse aside I confide: With this drip running he will need to urinate eventually. Handcuffed as he is, he’ll need help. How will you handle that?
We’ll give him a bottle.
He won’t be able to unzip. Someone will need to pull his dick out for him.
That will be your job.

An hour later, I find the nurse and ask for the bladder report.
He’s been. He’s voided.
How did you do it?
I took him to the toilet. He did the rest.
In handcuffs?
O no: the cuffs are off. He’s calm now. I walked him there and he managed himself. The cops are leaving.

I check in the cubicle. With no need of coma or bravado or petulance, the young man – or boy – lies on the bed and chats with his girlfriend – another surprise: impeccably presented, she’s a demure young lady.

Domestic violence, drug seeking, a lacerated child, another who coughs; grog, grog, grog, and multi-chemical intoxication…

A quiet night in Casualty.

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