Gertrude Stein serves lunch in the hospital cafeteria. Wedged into black t-shirt, trousers and macca-style paper hat with red piping, she ladles out innominate soup to traumatised interns, piles potato gems over the lips of thin cardboard cartons for hyperadrenalised nurses. I ask her how she feels about her work. “Some people get emotional about chips but I don’t,” she says, “I don’t get emotional about chips. But cutting up a potato cutting cry I cry when cutting up a potato.”


Repeat repeat

September 23, 2008

A man in his late 50s, cropped grey hair, tanned and lined face, classic bushman. New jeans, faded denim shirt, Peruvian-style woven waistcoat, dust-caked work boots. Left hand to right ear, mobile talking. Right hand fumbling for a pen in his shirt pocket. He stops next to a tree in the cafeteria forecourt (I’m sitting at a table 6 feet away, nursing a mocha), kneels, says “Right, go on” then notes down a number on the raised edge of the tree’s concrete planter. He says “Right” again then walks away. 3636 5325, a hospital number, contoured in black fibre ink over the pebbled concrete. Ten minutes later he comes back, sits on the planter’s edge next to the number, rings it; no reply, hangs up, walks away.

Remember remember

September 23, 2008

Agency night shift, medical ward, Sunday 3am: a seemingly frail and formerly ‘pleasantly confused’ man in his late sixties picks up his metal drip-stand, smashes a large hole in the the lower window panel, crawls through, then runs across the carpark with blood soaking his pyjama trousers and streaming from his palms. He is chased by a one-armed security guard whose prosthetic limb has an articulated hook at the end. The patient says he had to escape as we were keeping him against his will. He was due to be discharged the next day.

Sunday 7.25am, leaving the ward for home and scraps of sleep, I see this notice on the wall by the door: ‘HAVE YOU REMEMBER TO ACTUALISE YOUR TREND BEFORE GOING HOME’.

I read it three times, then started to read it again and gave up at REMEMBER.


September 16, 2008

He often thought of his childhood as an altogether different lifetime, a ghost-life lived by a distant version of him from which he retained a chaotic mass of disconnected images. For part of that other life, he had resided with his family in a Tudor house in the Cotswolds: flaky beams and indoor windows and crooked doorframes, a priest-hole in his attic bedroom, a spectral odour of rotting finery overlying a stink of blank desire.

            His parents owned one small bookcase, three or four shelves in solid dark wood and lead-lined glass doors with a pointless key. On its shelves were Dr Spock, Mrs Beeton, a set of Encyclopaedia Britannica from the 1930s that was starting to show the first signs of disintegration. One whole shelf was full of Alistair MacLean, another half-full of Sidney Sheldon. Wedged in among the paperbacks was a musty blue-boarded hardback of Longfellow’s Divine Comedy, and in a note to the Inferno he read this: “The desire of a man is for a woman. The desire of a woman is for the desire of a man.”

            It wasn’t until much later that these lines began to make sense.

Good Neighbours

September 3, 2008

“It is required by law that all citizens be convinced of, or strongly suspicious of, the existence of a conspiracy, plot, or intrigue of any acceptable sort (see list at Appendix 26B(iv)) that does not in actuality exist. Anyone found not to hold such a conviction or suspicion, or to believe that life is an unplanned catalogue of events that is completely arbitrary and not ordered by a myriad of secret and complex conspiracies, will be deemed to be breaking the law and will be charged with sedition. It is the duty and privilege of every law-abiding citizen to report any such unlawful behaviour.” From paragraph 42.13.69/P95MT, Laws, Practices and Regulations, Ministry of Proper Behaviour

Mr Crockett, my next door neighbour, is of the opinion that all electricity bills are a cunning attempt at mind-control by Norwegian thought-police. Mr Hardy at number 32 is in complete agreement, although being a sprightly widower his bills are that low that technically he has no objection to being brainwashed as long as it remains cost-effective.

Old Angus at the end of the road, who is not a widower but wishes he was, did actually forward an application to join the Norwegian thought-police as a mature entrant. The subsequent “bloody obvious cover-up” (a flat denial of the existence of such a service and a polite request not to further trouble an overworked Consulate with any more xenophobic communications, but thank you for your interest) prompted Old Angus to instigate a plan to prevent any further delivery of electricity bills in our street. Within a week he had been punched twice by the postman, bitten by three dogs, and had a full chamber-pot upturned on his head by Mrs Tomlinson at 27, who thought he was an agent of the mysterious Tasmanian Rhododendron Rustling Ring – who are so very mysterious, claims Mrs Tomlinson, that even she doesn’t know what, exactly, they want all those rhododendrons for. Mr Tomlinson doesn’t care about rhododendrons, because he thinks that everybody hates him. He is due to appear in court on Friday on charges of Malicious and False Suspicion, the main evidence against him being that everyone actually does hate him.

Meanwhile, Old Angus’s wife, Eleanor, who is rather old-fashioned, continues with her WI meetings, where she insists on the need to prevent small children from wearing pink so that they will be less likely in adulthood to respond favourably to communist, gay, or Martian propaganda. It is a very gentle sort of insistence and is always accompanied by tea and biscuits. 

Next door, however, Mrs Crockett remains heroically uninvolved. She sees the bills paid and listens with sincere attention to her husband’s dutiful theorising, and indeed anyone else’s. She believes, because that is what she is supposed to do; she obeys the letter of the law, and feels nothing. And that would be all, except I know she lies awake at night with a knife in her hand, and tries not to listen to the alien microchip rattling in her sleeping husband’s throat.


September 2, 2008

I am a minority in a majority: I am male, and I am a nurse. I am also straight, which according to some views makes me a minority in a minority in a majority. There is also the problem that nurses, as a vast and discrete body of people, are viewed by themselves and others as professionally and socially oppressed – by governments, by doctors, by the media, by the institutions they work for, and by their own persistently poor self-image. Which would, theoretically and despite their numerical advantage over every other group of health care workers, make them, in character at least, a minority.

Which makes me a minority in a minority in a minority. A minority3 as it were.

This might be enough to unman me (though paradoxically, that might help) were it not for Henrik Ibsen. Ibsen is depressing, yes, but to a man in my severely minoritized position he also offers the best source of hope. “The minority,” he famously says, “is always right.” (That he has a doctor say it is merely one of life’s perverse little twists). As a straight male nurse, that makes me right to the power of three. Or right3.

I only wish I knew what it was that I’m so abundantly right about…

“Had much in the way of wild sex recently?” Gary asked after a silence that had lasted so long governments had fallen. We were sat under an ash tree on a birdshit-splashed bench on the South Bank, Gary and me and Lady Godiva; we’d been there a while, long enough to get hungry and thirsty and cold. But we had each other. World peace was still a twinkle in a madman’s eye, poverty had become its own ideology and was beating capitalism hands down. Enough wine was produced in one year in Europe and Australia to keep the whole world anaesthetised for six months. And war was imminent, always, somewhere, and more importantly the Royal Family had flu. Time had become irrelevant. This was the way the world was, this was the way life was. Coyness was something we could no longer afford. Lady Godiva licked her crotch and growled at a passing cat. “Were there any free doughnuts going at the Point today?” “No, not today, Gary.” Crime was fast becoming a tempting alternative.

This woman sits by Argus on a bus. Handbag full of rocks, hair full of crawling things. Mascara all thick and gaudy, horror flick fashion. Argus wanting to look, but not wanting to look, and not wanting to look as if looking, staring, ogling with choking-man orbits is all that his young and acid-blown brain wants to do. Harridan – as Argus bills this woman in his constantly ongoing inward mind flick – Harridan coughs and racks and spits up into a rag that’s a suicidal artist’s grim and odorous paintbox. Harridan folds this rag into its millionth aligning and stuffs it into a dark patch of amorphous mouldy raincoat. A brown stringy slick of gob from Harridan’s lungs grabs at Argus’s shirt, his Villa shirt, his Shirt of Shirts, and soaks in all slimy, sucking bright colour into a dark touch that’s clammy on his skin. Harridan, not knowing of this taint, blabs on in chaotic monotony at hand rails and chair backs and glass. Argus, his Shirt of Shirts now shitty in his mind and on his torso, sits fuming, taut, caught, angry-hot and horror-struck. Hours to go. Hours by Harridan. Hours on this bus.

This brand of anguish always falls on Argus on a bus.

Exercise 1: A Yellow Alphabet

September 2, 2008

After begging Carmen
“Don’t ever forget!”
going home
I jogged.

Killing long moments,
no other pastime
quite right,
sitting trembling
under velvet-dark windows
examining yesterday’s zeal.

Ozone… yes, excrement
winding viciously
up towards sunlight
robbing quiet pastures
of nothing meaningful
Kites, jonquils, incense.
How God forged Eden.

Darling Carmen
berated all, and
beckoned coarsely

Gladly, humbly,
I killed longing,
meaning never of
restless she to utter.

Vain words – xanthic,
yielding zero.

On the Observation Ward
there’s a hanging basket with pink flowers
which I hadn’t observed before –
but I’ve just observed it now
and I’m vaguely overawed
at the nudeness of the petals and
the limbs of the leaves and
the body of the basket, hanging,
and I almost want to ask it
if it has observed anyone else
observing it
on the Observation Ward.

But I doubt that anyone has as
they all look rather ill,
and bored.