Wandering Thoughts

September 5, 2018

On the other side of the curtain

Filed under: Ramblings and Musings — terence @ 2:39 pm

I’ve never been so close to Australia, even though I’ve lived here for years.

The thing is, in that time the people I’ve lived amongst come from a place you could call Planet Development. Educated, urbane, cosmopolitan. Internationalists. Outward looking. Prone to pronouncing h’s. Not prone to ending sentences with ‘but’.

No better or worse than anyone else, but familiar. Similar to the people from Planet Development back home in New Zealand.

Here in hospital (two and a half weeks and counting) Planet Development is a long way away. Plenty of people — nurses, doctors, other staff — come from overseas. And the Australian born staff are diverse too. But the staff don’t have time to talk. On the other hand, I share my room. Me and one other patient, separated by a thin plastic curtain. In the same room, day and night.

First, there was the old woman, who snored like an opossum trapped in a roof. Who was friendly. Who confided that her husband had died two months ago. At night she’d wake from dreams crying ‘no, no, I don’t want to visit the grave.’ When my drip started beeping in the night, which it did on a whim, she would shout, words breaking over the bow of her Australian accent: ‘Shart up. Shart up!’. She’d always apologise the next morning. “I wasn’t swearin’ at you. Just that machine.”

Then, there was the guy who had the television as loud as it would go 20 hours a day. During the night I wanted to scream: ‘shart up, shart up!’ But I put my headphones on instead. He was friendly, pale and in his sixties. Keen for a chat any time after 5am.

“I’ve been a tradie. And a sparkie.”

When I told him I was  a political scientist, he told me he had friends who were rich, paused for a bit, then started talking again. He talked about hunting roos just above the escarpment. How it seemed a cruel thing to do, but there were too many of them. How he loved the peaceful mornings in the country. How a few years ago the doctors had seared away bone cancer with radiation, and how he needed a hip replacement as a result. His kidneys were buggered. One of his brothers wanted to give him one of theirs. But it, “wasn’t worth it for an old bloke like me.”

The Liberal Party were busy dispatching Malcolm Turnbull while we were room mates. When his family came round they huffed about in collective disgruntlement with politics. Not that the Liberals mess seemed to be helping Labor much. Pollys were the same he grumped when Bill Shorten intruded on the TV.

He was friendly. He was disgruntled. He watched politics on the TV until the news melted into infomercials, then until the promises of the infomercials were replaced by the sure footed male certainty of the footie commentators. Cancer in the bones, buggered joints, quiet country mornings. Grumpy at the pollies. Friendly to me. Melancholy.

He was replaced by a woman from a small country town not so far from Canberra. She was terrified by what had happened to her. Telling the exact same tale in tears to anyone she could reach on the phone the first day she was admitted. The pain, the misdiagnosis, the internal bleed, the screaming at the medical staff, the doctor who finally got it right. Slowly the tears and fear ebbed away as a long line of friends came to visit her. She worked in a club, in her sixties maybe. She had a queue of health problems. With her friends she exchanged tales of woe in Australian so perfect I wished I had a book so I could write down the idioms. There were violent boyfriends. Drunks. Husbands addicted to pokies. People asking for money who had no right. Women encumbered with good for nothing men. But also friends, and families, and her family, which had fractured then reformed. They all came to her bedside.

When one or other of our drips started beeping at night we’d check in on each other. When I lept out of bed embarrassed and swearing after I tipped over my pee bottle she scolded me in a caring way for putting weight on my leg. “Get back in bed, you’ll hurt yerself. The nurse ill take care of it.”

We saw each other all of two times. Other than that it was conversations through the curtain. But when it came time for her to be discharged it was hard not to feel a pang of loneliness all of a sudden. And easy to wish her well.

It’s not as if the immigrants Australia of many of the hospital staff isn’t the real thing. And Australians from Planet Development are Australians none the less. But anthropologists ignore capital cities and traipse into jungles or out to remote villages because that’s where they think they’ll find yesterday’s native, still alive today, impervious as globalisation flows around them. Here in hospital, I’ve found yesterday’s Australian, just there, on the other side of the curtain, battling away as the informercials flow around them.

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