1987. It’s the year when Scott and Charlene get married on Neighbours. The year of the Hoddle street massacre. Bob Hawke is Prime minister and QLD premier Bjelke Peterson is losing his grip on the state. In November MacGyver is to be released on Channel 7. It is the start of summer. We listen to the Bangles Walk like an Egyptian. It is the start of the long dry.
I have just completed a University degree that has consumed my life and I am about to start a career. I imagine mud and striding through fields. I imagine pulling calves in khaki coveralls and scrapping cow dung from the soles of my boots. I dream of soaking in a tub when muscles are sore from physical work. This will be the fulfilment of a childhood dream.
Life changes in an instant. How is it that one back bone can be so brittle and another allow the cord to bungee? Who chooses which spinal cord you have and which way it will bend? Is it soft like liquorice or able to fracture into shards like candy?
Loss of sensation is instantaneous. The swiftness of it disallows any savouring. Round and round the garden like a teddy bear. A mother’s finger tip makes spirals on the sole of chubby foot. One step, two step, tickle you under there. The touch creeps up the calf to beneath the knee. Movement and sensation here one minute. Gone, when the tin can strikes ancient wood. Such a banal way to lose what you have taken for granted since birth.
Moments before shoe-less feet had etched soles on squeaky sand by an ocean. The surf had thrown my body like a buoy and my heart had surged as my feet had lost contact with the sea floor. A bear of a man had surfed a long board and we had all traipsed sand into the little alfoil car. How long can skin recall the sensation of toes curling in yellow beach sand? Only the night before feet had found the cool patch on the sheets, and then cradled each other, before sleep. How long can a mind hold on to what is no longer possible?
An anatomy teacher visits the hospital and brings with him a bone. It is perfectly sculpted, as if it is made from polished pearl. He says it might be nice to hold, and he is right. It is snug in my palm. My fingers trace the valley of the bone, lie gloved by the trochlear groove. The fact that it is the talus of a horse, an animal I will never treat nor sit astride again, brings tears I let fall, after he has gone. I picture myself running a confident palm down the side of a mare’s leg and cupping her hoof. I feel the warmth from her nostrils as she turns to inspect the back of my neck with a snort. I smell the pasture on her breath.
A country vet, across the continent, is the first to take me on. He has no sense of what I can and can’t do and that is likely a blessing. He is the type to give someone a go because someone he trusted has said I can do it, and that someone is Jane. A blonde bob, brown eyes, strong thighs and tanned muscled arms. She has a kind of bolshie. She believes in me. She, too, has no idea. We are three people, inexperienced in paraplegia, and how that transects with being a veterinarian. We know little of what it means to a life either. When I arrive she collects me from the airport and drives me to her home, where she carries me, like a new bride, into the house and then leaves me for the weekend trapped hopelessly by the three meagre steps to the outside.
Before heading across the country a surgery teacher says I should come in and do a bitch spay in the Uni lab – just to check I can. After scrubbing up, betadine dripping from my elbows, I sit at the sink unable to move forward – someone will need to propel me from here. We discover some things are more difficult seated. The surgery table is hard to get under and besides it won’t go low enough. It can never go lower than my lap. I do surgery with my elbows out, like an ill-mannered child seated at the big persons’ table. It is the beginning of becoming a dependant again, in the eyes of others. My chest feels perilously close to the incision and I am, maybe, leaning and breathing into the surgery site more than someone would standing. But doing it is all we are checking for here. It can be done, and so it will. Rick says I can.
In the country the surgery table is difficult to get under too, with its large circular base – so I do my surgeries with the animals as close to sliding over the edge as possible, legs draped across the side, like shirt sleeves off an ironing board. Sometimes the single nurse and I are not able to move a heavy patient, so we time the surgery with the approach of the postman, and ask him to assist with the transfer. I am doing operations partially blind, as an incision in a big dog’s belly is level with my chest. But having done it no other way means I judge it is no harder than it should be. It is just what it is.
Jane and I are both new graduates, but she has six months of veterinary experience on me. I have six months experience of paraplegia and the internal walls of a spinal unit. I have learnt a lot about ceilings and how interesting they can be. I have counted the perforations in ceiling tiles and watched spiders spin webs. I have stared at nothing till nothing becomes something and then turns to nothing again. From a blue cloudless sky I have made poems on hue. From overheard conversations and inhaled smells I have constructed lives. I look differently at the small things and hear whole novels when only a word was whispered.
As vets, Jane and I are learning together, and she is my teacher. We both make mistakes – we are often alone, making them without knowing we are making them. Only later do they slip out from their mirage and reveal themselves – late at night mostly, alone and in a single bed. Sometimes we see the error before it is too late, and other times we are saved by the experience of the boss or the equally experienced vet nurse, Edna. Returning from lunch, I see my boss is doing the pyometra surgery I had placed on a drip without diagnosing.
At the end of a day I wheel the hundred yards home to my single bedroom flat on the same street as the clinic. Often I am swooped by magpies who distrust me, like they do stone throwing children. The flat has orange carpet tiles, the type to prickle beneath a bare foot. I toast bread under the grill and spread it thickly with peanut paste. On call, I answer queries about farm animals I have no experience of, other than as an undergraduate, and offer a disgruntled farmer advice to get him through till morning. I flip through Blood and Henderson for a respectable answer. I watch one-day-cricket. I wheel to the laundromat with a bag of washing on my lap. Weekly I slide across the red vinyl bench seat of the EH and drive along the Murray to the big town, The Smiths wailing from the tape cassette. Girlfriend in a coma. I buy myself a cappuccino and a piece of over-iced carrot cake.
The red-headed lad, who has never had a girlfriend, is consigned to me by Jane. We go to a Divinyls gig in a nearby town. He secures me a space at the side of the stage so I can see Chrissie Amphlett astride and thrusting her pelvis into her microphone stand. He stands just behind me and places a hand on the chair like it is any other bit of furniture. But it is not a chair. It is becoming part of me and I will him to unhand it. I view the crowd. I hate that people are able to dance, to crush up against each other and feel another person’s moving hips, sweating against them.
I stay in the country for nine months till the pain of the metal in my spine becomes too much. It wants out. I return west to my port town to have it removed, as the bone has repaired itself to a gnarly fist, and the metal is no longer functional. Who knows what the cord within the bone is doing. Perhaps it has hunkered down in its den of bone and sleeps on. I keep the shiny stainless steel nuts and screws, like spare buttons, in a cracked porcelain cup.
I apply for a job at the Uni I studied at, thinking that equal opportunity means what it says. The job is the pathology internship and will require that I post mortem animals of all sorts. Three middle aged men, tweed jackets with patches on their elbows, invite me in to see if I can complete a post mortem, unaided. They walk away and leave me with the corpse of a horse, stiff on the slab. I feel so small. I cannot physically complete the task and I can feel the tears, the heat in my face, the crack in my voice. They stand watching, rocking back and forth on the balls of their feet, waiting till I withdraw my application. They say it is better you see for yourself that you can’t do it.
1992. Apartheid is ending in South Africa. Charles and Diana are separating. Native title is recognised in Australia and Paul Keating is Prime Minister.
Alone, I am listening to Nirvana’s NeverMind. I decide I will learn to walk with callipers, as it is something that can be done. It is hard, takes physical and emotional strength, to keep trying to do it, day after day. I rupture all the ligaments in my ankle learning to fall. The tarsal bones slip over each other, like pebbles in a sock. I practice for six months with a young, enthused dark-haired physio and in the end can make about fifty metres. I see that walking with callipers is not walking. It is not freedom. It is lumbering and more disabling even than the wheelchair. Being upright is not giving me anything back. It is precarious and pointless, and I give it away.
In a house with polished jarrah boards and freshly painted white walls Smells Like Teen Spirit is loud and I can sway my upper body, with my arms above my head and with my eyes closed, I am dancing, as I was before. My chair is spinning, silent and fast leaving my hands free. It can dance. It can take me back there, where the memories still synapse.
2019. From my kitchen window I view the neighbour’s child swinging, upside down on the stair rails that lead to the oval. Her legs and feet monkey the hand rail. Her hair gravitates to the earth. A smaller brother kicks his footy into the canopy of a tree and the flimsy branches nestle the ball. She runs over and leaps towards the branch, grabbing it and swinging on the bough. Her weight causes the ball to dislodge and fall to the ground. They run off.