What to do while waiting?

A girl of eight or nine years old, wearing a lilac polyester tracksuit, skips in tight circles on a beige brick paved driveway. The house is a house behind a house and weeds push their way through the cracks of the paving. Super six fence is inches from the windows. They have no view. A car idles in the carport, warming its engine so as to make it down the street. She waits for a parent to come from the brick box to take her to school. She skips in tight circles.

Conference Hotel

I wait for the lift. Already sensing it is one of those hotels where lifts move as if in slow motion. You hear it reaching the floor, shuddering in its shaft. You wait for it to stop completely before it opens its silver mouth. Like a yawn. It wouldn’t really matter except that there is a man coming towards me, unsteadily. For him the ground is heaving. He asks me, “Where is the bucket room?” He asks other people as they leave the lift. I pretend I can’t see or smell him. Like dealing with a dog I don’t trust. No eye contact. Never works for drunken people though. He has an empty glass in his hand. Is he looking for ice, or somewhere to vomit?

I enter the lift with a woman and say, “He’s wasted.” Like I am an expert, or I just need to say something to show her I am not with him, that I don’t approve. “Yeah,” she says but not with judgement or condemnation. Just resignation that this is what it’s like around here. Doesn’t bother her in the least.

Everyone here is a little bit on the edge. Like they can’t quite afford the shabby hotel that is definitely overpriced. Like they have to pack in as much drinking before the sun rises. An islander guy with thick muscular calves and a tattoo creeping up his neck asks the receptionist what time she finishes. He wants her number so he can text her and get her to join them after. “Maybe we can hook up.” She gives him a slip of paper and I wonder if she has really written her number down. Is this the way people meet these days?  This Hooking Up business doesn’t sound warm and fuzzy. The opposite of slow. It’s metallic, sharp, easily detached, easily addicted, locked onto too.

I go to breakfast at the dining room. There is a buffet under lamps. The food is shining. All you can eat. Breakfast included. They ask me for my room number. Am I with the poultry symposium? No Behaviour. Animal Behaviour.  But in my head, “What I really like is watching people.” A table of four poultry men in pressed slacks talk about the industry, production numbers, layers, meat birds while I crunch on cornflakes. Someone mentions a troubled teenager but then its back to feed rations and vitamin supplementation. Standing after breakfast, hands smooth down slacks, wipe away toast crumbs. Folders under arms.  Back in front of the buffet a woman says, “it’s good isn’t it?” I smile one of those I don’t think so smiles and she looks back at me disappointed, looking for collusion over stale Danishes. But I can’t stomach silver bainmarie trays of fatty bacon and congealed scrambled egg. Sad rockmelon and even sadder watermelon slices.

It is not a five minute stroll through the gardens of Sydney University, as advertised in the hotel brochure. Being in a wheelchair it was never going to be. It was further, and the terrain typical Sydney – foot high kerbs, for all that rain, and slab foot paths lifted and cracked by tree roots protesting their life beneath the dirt. I am anxious, not knowing the way, and forever fearful at coming across an insurmountable kerb. Perhaps I will have to take to the street with its roaring buses? But for now I am on the footpath, Parrammatta Road beside me, like a fast flowing, thundering river of rubber and diesel. Down hill for a bit, I overtake a man walking briskly with a briefcase. I think being in front of him is good as the road begins an incline. If something impossible is around the next bend then he will be behind me to offer assistance. I rehearse the asking of it as I hear his footsteps and then I am over taken.

Now in the grounds of the University I can slow down, veer onto the road if I must, since cars drive slow within the gates. There are hills to climb. It is humid. I will arrive sweaty.

At the Law Building, where the conference will be held, there are steps, but I trust it is an accessible building, since I have checked repeatedly, and I have been told it is.  An organiser sees me and rushes over to show me the way. Back around, and down this lift, and up this ramp. The lecture theatre is very large and very steep but there are a couple of wheelchair spots at the back that have no seats but  still have little lonesome swing desks, canopying the carpet. The lecturer wants everyone to move to the front and waits for them to oblige. “So we don’t have to strain our necks. You can’t believe how difficult it is to lecture to the back,” she says. So I am left all alone in the final row, like a stubborn child.

On my phone I get a text message from Graham saying Mum has had a period of unconsciousness. It lasted for fifteen minutes, but she is talking and “back” now. Meanwhile the American expert is talking about feeding dogs pate to stop them fretting over storm noise in Florida. “That’s all it takes sometimes,” she says “Black Forest Ham.” And I see pens scribbling.  Anxiety issues in dogs. Solution Black Forest Ham. She solves everything with food treats and Prozac. She thinks Cesar Milan is an abuser of dogs. She is too polite, too American, to swear at the mention of him, but clearly she hates the man. American Behaviourists Most Wanted.

As the conference rolls on, panini after panini, mini eclair after mini eclair, lecturer after lecturer, my respect and indeed my love for Cesar and his methods is eroded by the experts. It’s like discovering the scout master is a paedophile.  They call Cesar’s technique flooding and it is never a good idea.

Out of the lecture theatre I can get away from the icy grip of the air conditioner and suck in the warm moist air of Sydney.  I can see another text.  Mother is fine. Parrots busy themselves at the destruction of nearby trees. A couple of vets have come outdoors to smoke. They hide themselves off in corners, down steps. I wonder if they too lament the loss of love for Cesar.

You can gauge how shabby a hotel is from its corridors and from the walls in its corridors. These corridors are musty and grimy. My nostrils detect the sour odour of vomit. The walls are scratched and stained – how do you spill a drink, or anything, ten feet up a wall, I wonder, as I view something brown near the ceiling? The air smells of smoke despite the rules. No pictures hang. Perhaps they would get nicked.

Late at night noise drifts up from the pool below. I have my window open to avoid using the air conditioner that ends up making the room too cold. I can hear laughing. At night the sounds of people partying by the pool echoes and throbs. Perhaps the bucket man has found some shoeless friends.  At the window I see planes crossing a darkening sky. I can see a tower block of apartments and real lives going on within them. Not just Hotel lives of making a cup of tea and watching TV from your bed. With curtains and blinds open, and lights coming on, the filmic people move about, making dinner, reading the paper, packing a school bag. I wait and watch. Wishing to see an argument, a thrown saucepan lid. Something.


That There, That There


That there, that there, she said, pointing at the man seated in a chair behind a table. He had his head down. He didn’t dare catch her eye. She started to shake. A frenzy now took hold of her. Her knees buckled, like a filly striking a pot hole. She was down. A crumpled mess of skirt and cloth in the dock. She was weeping too. Blubbering really. Someone had to help her but mostly they just stood by, unused to the spectacle.

But now it was almost over, she could let herself fall. She felt like she would go through the court room boards, as hard as they were, and beneath the building, so prim and proper, and through the dirt and deep into the earth where it was black and cloying and warm and cold. Part of her could not escape it. It would come upon her again and again. She could once more feel the soil on her face.  After all, they’d filled her with grit, and not only her mouth.

She’d been dragged behind a shed. One had pushed her down and stood with his foot on her hand, grinding her skin beneath his army boot.  Are you ready? he’d said to the other man. After raping her, one after the other, in the railway yard, they’d filled her up with sand and stones as far as they could put them. They’d been two boys in a gravel pit; she – a broken kewpie doll, their vessel.

She’d pleaded with them not to kill her for the sake of her baby. They’d been heedless. The one that had done her first complained to the other that he’d filled her too soon. He’d wanted to go again. So they started on her mouth. He broke her teeth.

Left alone in the yard of soot and black metal she rolled over and pulled down her dress.  She found her shoe. She’d not been wearing a hat. They would despise her for this. It would become evidence of her poor standing. She wiped blood from her mouth. She coughed dirt. She saw them running off, again two boys. Army greens, same as her son. They too were heading for the Front. Perhaps in a foreign trench mud would fill their mouths.

She crawled to the outside, to the world she felt no longer part of. Into the night she called, Police Murder.


(this story was inspired by true events reported in the newspaper of the day. The story was reported under the headline “East Perth Horror” – Emily Lawson was raped by two returned soldiers in the July of 1917 and both were found guilty by a judge and were given life sentences.  The judge said,” Were you standing before me as a judge in NSW it would be my duty to sentence you to death. The legislature here is more merciful perhaps but it has never the less armed me with power to deal with you severely. I cannot conceive a worse case or one more richly deserving the full penalty of the law than in this case. You both must be imprisoned for life.”)

In the One Boat

One day when I visit Dad in hospital he asks me if Mum has divorced him. If not, why is she not here?

No communication, he says.

You’re not divorced Dad. She’s just up the street at the nursing home. You’re still married. Fifty years you’ve been married.

Because she might have a boyfriend up North somewhere. I seem to remember her going up that way to see someone when I wasn’t around.

What is the memory he has?

He looks confused. Like he is searching the back catalogue of his mind. Rifling through it.

I think she had a boyfriend once…

Or was that my mother?

He says mudda. His Dutch accent means that th sounds like d.

Dis and dat. Mudda and fudda and brudda.

She had boyfriends. Because my father was .. and he raises his fists, clenches and shakes them …always do this and do that.

But we didn’t know my brother and me. We were kept in the dark. All secret secret, hush, hush puppies.

Then he starts circling in on his parents’ marriage. But not penetrating deeper. Just that they separated. His mother strayed. His father was unkind. It is simple. In his face it looks like he wants to know more about why the separation happened. But he is still like the child he was then and there is no one to ask anymore. The time for asking has gone. And he missed it.

I can only guess how he might have felt. But I think it was bewilderment, abandonment.

Is my father dead? He asks.

Oh yes Dad, a long time ago,

I don’t remember the funeral, he says.

That’s because you didn’t go Dad.

And my mother?

Dead too.

You didn’t go to her funeral either Dad.

He wants me to explain to him why he didn’t go.

I don’t know Dad. Perhaps because it was a long way to go and in those days it cost too much money. Remember how you worried about money?

But I don’t know why he didn’t go. It was probably around 1976 and I would have been twelve. I don’t remember seeing him grieve.

When, as a child you see your father show no emotion at the loss of a parent, you wonder what’s wrong with him. Or perhaps he was parented so poorly that the grandparents warrant no tears.

You worry about what love is and why he doesn’t feel it. You wonder how you will feel about your own parents and if they died how sad would you be? You make excuses for his lack of emotion. Well he’s an adult now – that’s why he’s not crying when his father has died. But you feel he is missing a bit of his heart. You love your dog more than he feels for a parent. You bury your face into the side of the animal, despite its greasy seborrhoea, and imagine its death. It hurts so much that you can’t stay with the thought too long. Why does a brown Dachshund with a smelly coat and bad teeth so easily absorb all the love you have to give? There is something about fur and tears; sobbing soothed by fingers buried deep in animal hide.

Now my sister and I had no living grandparents. My mother’s mother had died when I was two and she had had no contact with her father since she was herself a six year old child after her parents had separated.

As teenagers we knew there was a more interesting story but my mother never let it be discussed. Her father had abandoned them. She had a simple explanation for his badness – a gambler spurred on by the Chinese and a drunk.

Her mother, our maternal grandmother was, on the contrary, worshipped. Mummy as she was called by her daughter had never enabled her children to know or love their father after the separation and although he lived into his eighties he never saw his children again. He was demonised and his attempts later in life to reconnect were thwarted by their belief that to see him would be disloyal to Mummy.

Even now, as an eighty five year old, my mother won’t allow more than a few minutes talk of her father before cutting the conversation off at the knees.

As far as the Dutch grandparents went they too were little known to us. Our Grandpa visited in the summer because he was a keen cricket fan, but my memory of him is of pipe smoke and a scratchy walrus moustache. He wore a look of jowly disapproval. We spent three months in Holland, me as an eight year old and my sister ten. To us our paternal Granny was European summer, roastie potatoes, dining out. Neither of the Dutch grandparents knew how to play with children or engage them. Seen and not heard types.

We had no connection to them and it seems my Dad felt little warmth to them either. Around them he took on a scolded boy look. He became reticent in his speech, a bit tongue tied, awkward. Now though they keep coming back to him like the past has pushed forward into the space normally occupied by recent memory. His early life; with all its disappointments, his short comings made plain by a strict father, have taken on more significance. Like they just can’t be held down any longer. They bob to the surface, never lost in the first place.

It is as if recent memory is fine dust, grit and it is sieved out, leaving the heavier more solid rocks of the past caught in the mind’s mesh. He worries these pebbles, over and over. He holds them between his fingers, feeling their smooth surface, reclaiming them as known.

As teenagers we wondered if our parents were suited to one another. We were concerned for what look to us as unfulfilled lives. Lives that were tragically dull and filled with work and banality. I think now how naïve we were to think that we could see something they couldn’t. We gave them no credit for just getting by. For sticking together.

Long into the night my sister and I discussed from our beds how much better off they would be without one another, or if they just concentrated on their own betterment. We wanted our Dad to quit his job and find a passion. We felt deeply that his work was a grind, where Aussies looked down on him and even made fun of him. We bemoaned his acceptance of a poorly paid job that he just did for the pay check. Hiding out in the garden or the garage on the weekends he was perpetually nagged and hen pecked by our mother whose soul purpose appeared to be yelling at him from the back door. Occasionally he would explode back and she would burst into tears. Their weapons against one another were simple; his – swearing, hers – tears. During the week while we were at school she watched Another World and Days of Our Lives and organised luncheons with her girlfriends. She had no career, no car and an inclination for snobbishness. To us they looked like two people, one boat, two oars, both rowing for opposite shores.


The French Photographer

I find myself studying her. I look at the way her eyebrows are carefully manicured. She is younger than me. That always hurts. She has an imperfect neck compared to mine. But a beautiful neck, what is that? She has very large brown eyes with lots of white. A vessel breaks its perfection. She has a few brown moles on either side of her nose, small. Like dabs of cocoa. She has nice hands with delicate thin fingers and practical nails. Clear varnish, another thing that shows she cares, like the eyebrows.

She went to the tsunami. In February, after the rest of the media was gone. To see what was left behind. Who was going to stay to help clean up? How do you clean up? What would it have been like to see that? She wouldn’t have been able to pluck or wax eyebrows there, in the tsunami affected land. Or could she? With tweezers and a small compact mirror? Perhaps being French you do these things wherever you are. In mud even.

I am wondering if he finds her attractive. I find her attractive, so I think he must do too. Because we are like-minded. We appreciate the same things. I find myself less and less attractive the more I speak. I find my voice grating and gnawing inside my head. Compared to her, with her rolling r’s. With that accent. Audrey Tatou. Juliet Binoche.

Her French skin holds moisture, like her voice. There is lushness to her. A field of green. There is a softness to her cheek when she brings her face to yours that is so un-Australian. There has not been sun beating down on this complexion. Not drought affected skin. Under grey sky this skin has lived its life. Has lived off Brie.

I don’t know what he thinks about her. Yes, he likes her. But I don’t know if he compares us; wishes I was her, she was me. Why am I torturing myself over her? But to pretend there is nothing is not real. Yes, there is something there. Now I have said it I feel a panic in my stomach. A million beating moths, making their home; my ribs their cage, my heart the bright filament.

More tea perhaps. Something to settle and soothe.

What does it take to feel inadequate? Is it because he sits next to her. Is it because of the way he smiles? Is it the way, when her hand is on her computer touch-pad, his hand is there too, and then there is a moment.  A touch.

I imagine it happening when I am at home feeding pasta to a child and he is out entertaining the foreign photographers. Because it is his job to be out till two in the morning.

I have had a hundred dreams before I hear his key in the door. The dog acknowledges him. I hear his movements in the kitchen. I think he has been smoking dope. He is reheating food. I hear the beep of the microwave, zapping left over chops. I imagine him standing at the sink to eat. No knife, no fork, just a bone held between fingers. His lips smeary with grease.

He comes to bed. There is no smell of her. Nothing but beer and lamb fat. The child is coughing in the night. In the background to my dream, a staccato kuh kuh. As annoying as the mosquito the night before. But the boy is ill. The man gets up to him to administer the puffers. For he has had asthma. Once he nearly died in a volcanic town filled with fine dust. He lay on a hotel room floor dreaming of being able to breathe. He can relate. I only think; take a sip of water.

In the morning the boy is still coughing. He can’t finish his cereal. Rice bubbles at the back of his throat. At the chemist they ask questions when I want more Ventolin. Like I am a drug addict. Does he need it more than three times a week?

The child can’t take it without the spacer. He makes a fool of himself in the corner of the chemist shop trying to swallow a puff of spray. His shoulders are rounded, his chest a moist wheeze. I take him to the doctor’s to make an appointment. But it is after Easter and everyone must see the doctor. Just stop coughing. Don’t run. Don’t take big breaths if it hurts to breathe. Don’t laugh. Put a jumper on.

Should I buy Chesty cough or Dry cough?

Dry cough is just codeine really. It’ll make him sleep. Sleep. That’d be good.

What does the French woman think in her limestone converted stable apartment at the rear of the art gallery? With its steps and balcony that overlooks a rusted corrugated iron roof top. Does she think about him? His hairless Asian chest? Or is she interested in feral men. Ones with lots of hair. Ones that smell. Big feet, large noses.  For he is not this kind. This scent-less man. With small hands. An infectious laugh. A sleepy, harmless drunk.

He is my man, I think. Claim him as mine. For he is the father of the boy I love the most. He is the man that has brought me the son. A son is the honey, the home, the hurt. He is just that – to me and not to her. Don’t fear her, I tell myself. Bred from Brie. You from Gouda. You with the blue eyes not brown, with the skin too used to the sun, with the arms strong from obsessing with the sink, with the moles that need to be checked, with the breasts that have fed the child, felt his pull.

Days with my Father

I had trouble with jobbies, he says. Even now as a woman in my late forties, my father using this word irks me. But there are no good words for it. Not my mother’s favoured expression inquiring about the opening of your bowels either. But definitely not jobbies.

So hard like a rock. I had to use my fingers and pull it out. He is showing me his hands, making an action like someone miming milking a cow.

Oh really.

Ooh yes. It was so hard.

A cleaner (she no doubt has a different title to this) tells me the toilet is blocked from too much paper. She keeps flushing despite this.

I relay the message. Dad don’t use too much paper.

Well of course I had to clean myself up after that. Maybe I used too much paper. I don’t know.

Well remember next time – use less paper. I think of saying “maybe not use your hand” but I don’t want to go there – to bring it up – to have to fully conjure the image.

Dignity is leaving him like fog lifting. Soon it’ll be gone completely.

I wander into the corridor to find a nurse. Two stand chatting beside a trolley. My dad, room 1226. I think he’s constipated. I don’t tell them how I know and they don’t ask. Normally, at the nursing home, he’d be given something for that.

She returns with a little plastic cup of vanilla syrup.

See Dad they have medication for that. You can ask the nurses.

I didn’t know that.

How’s the car? he says.

You don’t have a car anymore Dad. You can’t drive. I sold your car for you. Remember?

To be honest about it I don’t. I wouldn’t have a clue.

Where’s June? he says pointing to the ceiling with his thumb.

Lately he thinks she is upstairs in another part of the hospital, when he remembers he is in a hospital at all.

It’s a private hospital where nurses seem more akin to flight attendants than trained medical staff. You know it’s not vital that you get another gin and tonic, just be nice is all. But they’re busy. You can see that. Well that’s how it is here. Bells sounds. No one comes. Out of peanuts. Landing soon. Turbulence means we need to sit down and get our seatbelts on. They fuss with their charts, with their temperatures and blood pressure measurements making sure their pen marks are on the paper, the signature scrawled. But nursing, Nightingale-style takes time, takes talking. It means touching, using your senses; the real grit of nursing.

My father has had a partial penectomy. Perhaps you have to look that word up. Spell-check says there is no word but I know there is.

I’ll save you the trouble. It’s a penis amputation. Although he still has enough so that he can pee.

He needed this radical surgery because he had a squamous cell carcinoma on the head of his penis.

The cancer grew erosive and plaque like in a few weeks, shocking the staff at the nursing home with its rapid and seemingly malignant growth.

None of the staff at the nursing home had been faced with something like this before.

It was right before Christmas. My sister was in town with her daughter of five years old. Urologists, like most surgeons, take Christmas off. But we found one working through – not going the way of the Maldives. Infinitely practical, he saw little difficulty in the amputation surgery and excising the tumour.

We’ll leave enough length for you to hang on to he told Dad. So you can direct it down when you urinate. After all he just needs to be able to pee.

The doctor and my old dad are behind the curtain that does for privacy in the doctor’s rooms.

The receptionist has told me they have 7000 tracks on their i pod music selection. We’re all out of love, what am I without you … Air Supply takes me back to Countdown, Molly Meldrum. Dad loved ABBA, Blondie, Sheena Easton. If he heard a track now would it remind him? Would he remember being a Dad to teenage girls – hassling us at 5 o’clock on a Sunday night to clean up our rooms when Countdown was on and it was a matter of life and death to see who was Number one? .

I can’t see anything but I can hear my dad groaning. A pitiful sound. Unfamiliar. Animal. My sister and I wince together and raise eyebrows when we hear the doctor ask whether he is circumcised or not. We whisper to one another. Can’t he tell?

Why can’t he tell?

I have flash back of my father coming naked from the bathroom, sauntering down the hall to the laundry where he had his wardrobe. He never worried about modesty, till we were old enough to object strongly. He loved nudity, did my Dad. Maybe it’s a European thing, a Dutch thing. He cared little who saw him naked. He didn’t bother with the towel around the waist thing by the open car door at the beach. Just let it hang out. I remember the penis, elephant trunkish. Not circumcised.

The reason the surgeon can’t tell is because the tumour has pushed the foreskin back and the tumour has grown so that the prepuce can no longer move freely over the penis.

Dad can’t answer the question about circumcision. It’s equivalent to asking him the day of the week, the season of the year, what floor he is on.

I think back to the mini mental score chart. 13 out of 30 about six months ago. I wonder what he would get now.

Not circumcised, I pipe up.


The surgery went well. He seemed unaware that anything of such significance had happened to him. He said the nurses were taking his stuff and he was squirreling away sachets of jam and butter and mini boxes of cereal.

He started to talk of buying land at Leeman, a small fishing town north of Perth and somewhere I don’t think he has ever been. But the town name took hold.

But now after only two months back in the nursing home he is back in the ward again.

The remaining few centimetres of the penis has become woody the surgeon says. He thinks it is thrombosis after an ultrasound helps rule out recurrence of the tumour or infarction.

I can tell he’s not all that sure himself about why it has happened and what might happen from here. A hand rises to stroke the stubble on his shaven head. But he admits him for investigation and so I guess there is relief that something is being done or will be done or will be thought of being done.

I wonder how demystified the penis must be for this man who pokes and pulls and prods at them all day.

Because for a week before this the nursing staff at the old people’s home were wondering why the irritation, why the blood spots on the sheets and why the reluctance by him to let them clean up down there.


I am sitting in his empty room. The bed has been made up but not with clean linen because I can see his breakfast stains, canary yellow egg and smeary cereal, on the white cotton blanket. Why do I think this means they don’t care about him?

Odd bits of clothing are about the room. I picture him getting them off and on unaided. Not really knowing what to put where. It’s not like the nursing home where the carers are really carers – deeply committed to his welfare. Cajoling and coaxing to get him to do it their way. Here the nurses are young, I sense they can’t be bothered with him. I hear my disdain for them in my writing. My contempt for their smooth skin. Give me an old nurse any day.

So I sit waiting. He shouldn’t be long I am told. Another ultrasound.

I’m new here, smooth skin says, I don’t know how long it takes.

The room is right by the desk, the nurses station they call it. Behind nurses gather, all chinking with their keys and badges and tags hanging off their belts and on bum bags about their waists. Beneath their Polly cotton tops and pants are detectable rolls of fat around their middles. Proof they don’t work hard enough I think or else is just everyone fat these days.

There’s lot of inane chatter. A nursing assistant says her husband thinks he deserves a medal for hanging up some washing. Another makes a phonecall to her own doctor requesting an appointment. Someone else is wanted but she’s at tea. Mrs So and So in room 14 has a temperature of 38.7 but is refusing Panadol.

A navy blue cardigan hangs over the back of a swivel chair like a cormorant hanging its wings out to dry on a pylon. But there’s no sea here. No wildlife. It’s decidedly hospitillian; low ceilings, the sounds of nurses moving – keys and tags rattling, trolleys, clanging pans, lift bells. There’s a whiff of meths, antiseptic, a chesty cough, old heart patient shuffles, a doctor’s voice – see you tomorrow.

In the end I leave without seeing him this day. There’s a limit to how long I can look at thin Venetians, count terracotta tiles on the roof opposite, read his chart.

But I still feel guilty leaving. If someone asks me I will say I have a school thing to do. And I have a life, or at least I want one.

It’s the time of the year that corellas come in large flocks. They hang from their toes on olive trees and harvest the fruit, staining their feathers with oil. They waddle on the grass with their seemingly over large heads and heavy beaks but then take to the air as a gang, squawking and marauding. Not a pretty bird song. A truly Australian sound. The Bikies of the bird world.


He is going home. Back to the nursing home where he has lived for nearly a year. But he has no memory of it as a place he knows when I talk of it.

To be honest I haven’t the faintest clue, he says time after time when I ask him if he can picture the place.

When I arrive on the ward to take him home he is lying corpse like on his back, his mouth open, eyes closed. Lately his cheeks have begun to sag inwards and the shape of his skull is more noticeable. I think about the way old dogs lose their temporal muscles on their heads as they get really old, sometimes when they have cancer that seems to strip them of their meat. When you place a hand on their heads there is just bone beneath skin. Dad’s skin too seems draped over the bones, falling with gravity towards the hospital floor. Again I notice the stained bed linen.

He has his nightshirt on over his polo shirt, socks on, but no underwear. He doesn’t know whether he’s been to the toilet when questioned about his bowels.

There are little bits of dried blood on his face where he has nicked himself dry shaving.

You’re going home today Dad.

Is it a big place?

Your room is bigger than this.

It’s a nice place, Dad. Mum is there. She’s waiting for you.

Mum is having her hair done. Each time the in-house hairdresser is mentioned my mother tells me how she is a breast cancer survivor. Lost a bosie, Mum says. Another cringing word uttered by your mother.

My mother has a love hate relationship with the hairdresser. The hairdresser wants her to come more often but my mother doesn’t like to sit there while the set takes and the hair dries and the colour is put in. It is a test of patience that my mother fails. Waiting isn’t something she is good at.

The carers are putting Dad in the room and I go and find Mum to tell her he is back. She sits in a wheelchair, hair tightly set and teaky, waiting for someone to take her back to her room. She is happy to hear that he is back but worried too.

Last time he went to hospital he came back very confused, wanting to go to Leeman and convinced he was not staying in the home.

This time he shows he recognises some of the staff and their room.

But who knows really. He doesn’t want to disappoint either. Something somewhere tells him he ought to know. He ought to remember.

When Mum gets back to the room and she exclaims Darling you’re back he throws his arms in the air and says Ah Nicole. It is my name. But she doesn’t mind. She knows he recognises her. Just as he calls me June when he sees me in the hospital, he also calls her Nicole. We are the two lone moons circling his planet. The names are interchangeable.

From her wheelchair and him from his chair they reach for one another, tottering forward awkwardly and give each other a peck. The bony hands grasp each others.

It is lunch time in the home and together everyone decides to eat in the dining room. He hasn’t had much company in hospital and we all think it is a good idea. Using the frame and with Carol the carer beside him, gripping the back of his trackie pants, we head towards the dining room.

Other residents comment on Mum’s hair. She looks tidy.

Alex is struggling. He is stooping and might not make the table. Carol gets someone to bring a chair and he seems to collapse into it, almost passing out. He has gone a poor colour. The sagginess of the checks seems exaggerated. Three carers are about him as he closes his eyes. One has her hand on his pulse and Carol is behind him holding him into the chair that otherwise he might slip out of.

They keep asking him his name. And he says yes. Still here, he says.

A hoist is brought out to elevate him and get him from the armchair to the wheelchair. He is scooped up like a baby bird. His skin is like the unfeathered bird’s, showing the architecture beneath. A carer has a hand on his chest. Can she feel the baby bird’s heart beating within the thin rib cage?

Back in the room the hoist is used again, lifting him from the wheelchair and over towards the bed. I think of harnesses for Para gliders and kite surfers. I think of the daredevils whipping over the ocean at Leighton and then see Dad’s hands clinging to the metal as he hovers between chair and bed.

His blood pressure is low and the nurse thinks he has lost weight in hospital. She thinks maybe he didn’t eat. Maybe he didn’t. I ticked the boxes. I ordered the food, but I was not there at meals and I wouldn’t know if it sat untouched. Just as they ignored his bowels I wonder if they checked under the lid of the plate.

I leave him as he is falling asleep again, spittle snail-trailing down his chin. I exit through the dining room passing Mum on the way out while she works her way through meat and gravy. All of them at their plates like herd animals with their heads in a feed trough.

He’s okay I reassure her, just low blood pressure. Needs a rest.

When will you be back?


Waiting for the Miracle


In the foyer of the hotel I meet a man. After drinks he is braver and asks what he has wanted to know from the moment he saw me in a wheelchair. Always the story of how. But really the story of after, the story of before, or the story of why goes unsaid, unpicked. It is there in the picture if you know how to look.


A car hits a tree. Fast hits hard. Wood is unforgiving. Aged carbon is as solid as stone. Bone is weak. Honeycomb really. The things I tell him are; that I was not the driver. I don’t want him to think it was my fault. Somehow that makes it better for me. Yes I was wearing a seatbelt. The driver fell asleep. Nothing more sinister than that. We were all tired.  She was just doing what the rest of us had already succumbed to. The sleep that comes after surf and sun.


He goes to his room. I go to mine. I suspect he wears a toupee. These are the kind I attract. He walks soundlessly on carpet to the stairs in shoes that have never seen the dirt. I point to the lift. I remember climbing stairs, barely.




The things I don’t tell him.


Through the car windows the sun streams in slats made by trees and branches. Like interlaced fingers across your face. Ribbing the road. There is the hum of tyres. A melody of sleeping notes. The sand is still between my toes and in the dip of my belly button. Salt has dried in my hair, so it is like tendrils of thin stripy seaweed. I suck a strand of it like a baby does a finger.


I wear a second hand dress from an op shop from a country town run by old biddies and not gone through like the second hand shops in the city. It is synthetic and sweaty but beautifully cut. It makes my armpits moist and saltier still. It is cream with black flowers. Who would have thought of black flowers? As they slice it from my body in the hospital it is binned in a disposable bag. It is just a $2 frock but I miss it still.


My boyfriend comes to see me in the hospital. All brown and surfy. His hair stiff with sea. It is a cruelty he can’t imagine. I can smell the salt on him, worse than any perfume. He is more than a boyfriend. We live together. We’ve left other people so as to entwine ourselves more completely than vine and post.


She comes too, the girl who seems beside him a lot these days. She was in our lives before all this happened. Before the tree and the car collided as if they were magnetised to each other.





The Story of Before;


She is blonde, but so am I, so that is not the reason. She is young, but so am I, so that is not the reason. She is bright, but so am I, so that is not the reason. She wants him and so do I, so that is not the reason. She is her, and I am I, so that is the reason.


When I enter the uni social club, where I meet him after lectures, he is there and so is she. Always these days their schedules are the same. And they are doing this or that project together. This assignment is due tomorrow; they will need to work late. I can see their faces are too close together to be talking of study. Is his skin touching hers? They are magnified to me. I analyse every movement she and he makes. This is Anita, he introduces her.


What kind of man is he? Sinewy but stooped. He needs Yoga. I already know the bends, the postures. He copies me but never learns. His body won’t soften, his spine stays curved.


After an argument, heated and passionate, there is no making up. A touch from me is rejected. Don’t. Our bodies, like shop dummies, lie apart in the bed wishing it could cleave itself in two.  I lie on my side looking out to the wardrobe, seeing my reflection in the grey-spotted glass. Then I am pushed from the bed by his feet in the middle of my back. Boof. On the floor. Like a child who has rolled out in their sleep. But no one is there to cradle and soothe and place me back under the covers. So on hands and knees I make my way to another room and curl asleep on a chair.


He is so clever with words. Was that the reason? He writes reams and reams. He fills yellow pads with scrawling epic poems. He wants me to read it. To praise him. Always about love, he writes, and God.  If I take too long to read it, because I have my own study to do, he is offended. It means more than I am busy too. It means I do not care about him. It means I do not care for the things that are important to him. Of course it means I do not love him.


I must convince him of my love.


But his need for love is fathomless. Like the open cut mine it is deep and ugly and scarred. I fill it time and time again but it is a piddling attempt to pack the gaping hole. It is turning into something else between him and me. He is making me compete with her and I am losing.


She is more capable.


We are living together in a student house. We eat eggplant and beans. We heat the house with a fire. We collect wood from vacant blocks. We can’t afford a trailer of mallee roots. The landlord has many cats that he comes daily to feed. Like bats they appear at dusk when his car pulls up outside. He leaves the diesel motor running and it beckons the strays. From under old car bodies and out from under limestone foundations cats pour like liquid fur. He stands beside the boot, dishing out the entrails and carcasses he has brought. There is the odd hiss and claw as they saunter back to their hideaways with their bounty.


Inside the house we are two people at war over scraps. Scraps of love that are torn at like rags. He wants to go to her. She is a fresh thing, he has yet to tread on and make soiled with sadness.





The Story of After;


Now I am injured he has remorse. But it is also an escape for him. He can be injured too. How dreadful to have a girlfriend so handicapped, such a burden. He must make daily trips into hospital and sit by my bedside. He must drive past the surf.  He must leave his trail of sand on the lino for someone to sweep.


Sometimes she is with him and she is sweet and kind. I cannot believe that I like her. I want to be her friend. She starts to come without him. We both wear no makeup. Her skin burns in the sun. Mine tans. But in hospital there is no sun, just harsh buzzing fluorescence. Our skins have the same milkiness. I am fading into the sheets. When I wake up from another surgery her hand holds mine.


She unburdens herself and tells me she was with him, entangled, coiled beneath cotton, as the car hit the tree. She was warm and wrapped in flesh while my bones bent and broke like twigs.


Her confessions are tearful. We both weep. She is crying for her own self and me for mine. Again we are the same. She doesn’t want him anymore. I can have him. I can.


He talks about garden paths and pushing me in my wheelchair through the forest. He can make this and that. He can convert, he can carry up stairs. Beside the hospital bed beneath the cotton of his boxers I give him a hand job.


Back in the house of cats we have ramps and an open bathroom. Men friends with tools have converted the kitchen and bathroom so that a wheelchair can manoeuvre and a hand control is put in the car, and it all sounds so easy to just convert and rearrange, but inside the house the house is different. I see it from the height of a seven year old. There is a clunking to movement, a sound of wheels and squeaky rubber tyres on floorboards. No one says you will miss the sound of bare feet.


I can get into an armchair and remember my legs. I can close my eyes and when the phone rings go to get out of the chair to answer it before my mind registers there is a new way to do this that involves no legs. Getting up without legs. All arms. Hauling around legs that are weighty in their uselessness but as good as amputated.


Burn me and cut me and still they do nothing. I wish them gone for all the good they are. Separated by him, so he can still call what we do love making.


More girls. This time they are different from me. They walk. They can feel their vaginas. I can’t compete. I don’t want to compete. He has made me a non competitor.

It is not enough to love someone with all your might. To squeeze every ounce of love you have into it, so that you are a husk after all the wringing is done.





The Story of Why;


I will go from him. To my own place. I will worship things like monumental rocks that the indigenous people prefer you don’t climb. In their magnificence I will seem small. I will wake up at dawn so I can look out to the sunrise and watch it slowly make its way upward and in its rising feel my own self soar. I know I look sad, but it is not sadness you see in my face. It is the face of someone who knows loss, and knows that in losing there are great gifts.