Laurie was on the way to the No HoWARd march when she noticed something was wrong with her leg. She went on the march anyway. Her first in Melbourne. And her last.
There were several other things to mark that year. The city fountains were turned off for the drought. From the morning tram, she’d noticed temporary fencing going up around the once marvellous monuments, now useless ornaments marooned in sagging sallow parks. She loved her new city but still found herself searching for the water, for the green.
It was also the year she met Romaine.
That morning Laurie was late but wanted to see if she could still make it across Carlton Gardens. She reached a wooden seat by a fountain decorated with fish, cherubs, and presumably Neptune with his dusty crown. There was no fence around it yet, and it looked like somebody had been sleeping overnight in its smooth dry bowl, out of the wind, out of sight.
A woman was circling the fountain taking photos, the dome of the Exhibition Building rising behind. Laurie was about to leave when the photographer waved. She recognised her from somewhere. University? A gallery opening?
The woman’s name was Romaine and they’d talked about her latest photographic project documenting the city’s tourist attractions. Apparently she’d heard Laurie’s conference paper on the omissions and silences in Australian history, how particular stories are concreted over, while others are constructed and celebrated in their place. Now Romaine was asking if they could go for a coffee.
‘I’m late,’ said Laurie.
‘Sorry. My tram.’
‘Might see you here again next week, then?’
Laurie made it past the elm trees in their metal anti-possum collars, through the shrivelled leaves, the hum of traffic, sting of fumes, the hollow electric alarm of tram bells, a wave of fear, of shame sweeping over her. She rummaged in her bag for the tram timetable.
‘Wait.’ Romaine bounded up. ‘Looks like we’re taking the same one.’
A tram rushed past. Laurie raised her voice louder than she meant to. ‘Look, I can’t meet you next week. Or any other.’
‘Right.’ Romaine stepped back.
‘No, it’s just, is this the right tram for the Mercy Hospital?’
‘Yep. I was heading to the Fitzroy Gardens next to the Mercy to photograph Cooks’ Cottage. But I can wait for another one, if you’d––’
‘Captain Cook. The cottage.’
‘But Cook was never in Melbourne, was he?’
‘My point exactly.’
The hospital was further from the tram stop than she’d thought, but she made it. Romaine was quiet, glancing up at the building’s facade, taking the odd snap. At the hospital doors she said she’d better get to it. The fickle Melbourne light, and all that.
In the foyer, Laurie eyed the statue of Mary swathed in her heavenly blue mantle. At least the lifts worked, unlike the ones on campus. The appointments were running late. The receptionist suggested she go for a coffee. They’d passed several cafes. Too far to get there and back.
For the past month, Laurie had learnt to plot her journeys like a long-distance sea voyager, marking out friendly ports in the vast clattering ice rinks of shopping centres, negotiating the slippery tiled floors, homing in on the seats dotted along the walk, once easy, from the tram to work, taking a breather with the smokers.
The hospital was under renovation, the waiting room jammed knee to swollen knee. Jackhammers juddered, ceilings shook, a disaster movie in Sensurround. Laurie looked out of the third-floor window. It wasn’t far to the Fitzroy Gardens. She could see Romaine, kneeling on the grass taking photos.
Laurie waited for the lift to take her downstairs.
Poised over a clump of miniature English houses, Romaine snapped away at their Enid Blyton rooves pitched high, windows shut up, gardens neat, no sign of their doll-sized inhabitants. The sign said the model village was a gift from a real English one, a thank you present for food parcels sent from the people of Melbourne during the grimmest days of the Second World War.
Laurie tried not to stare at the way Romaine gently stepped over the houses. She took out a book from her bag, an attempt to pretend nothing had changed, or would, that she’d return to her PhD soon enough. Her scholarship had already run out and she had no energy for more tutoring, all those unpaid hours of preparing, marking, too many edgy students stuffed into too few rooms. Crowd control, her supervisor called it.
She’d been lucky to snare a full-time short-contract admin job in a research centre, where forty or so keen and jaded academics slugged it out against each other to siphon off a trickle from the evaporating pool of grants. The work was important, but increasingly unpalatable to the hardening right. The research centre was now a cut-throat world of competition, envy, uncertainty.
As usual, she’d joined the union but noticed a starker divide between who was a member and who wasn’t. Every month a newsletter appeared in their pigeon holes, a mark of nostalgic defiance, or naive delusion. Back in the ’90s when she’d worked on staff at the student union as an advocate, some still greeted each other as comrade, half serious, clinging on, navigating a chilling atmosphere, shoring themselves up for the push to abolish student councils via Voluntary Student Unionism. The uni bars and quadrangles were still full, but it was an increasingly fragile utopia, no longer one of a supposedly shared hunger for curiosity, experimentation and ideas. Instead, it was all about pushing for better marks to justify your HECS debts and secure a job.
Laurie glanced at Romaine. The sky behind her was bright, rather than the usual dull glass-and-steel grey. She remembered a philosopher waxing about stone wings hovering in the bluing air, about houses being places of dream, safety, peace, escape. But not all were poetic sanctuaries. Her own share-house was rented. The fireplace in her bedroom was coming away from the mantelpiece. She slept with her head away from the wall so if the chimney fell it would crush her legs, rather than her skull. There was no heating, no insulation. Temperatures ranged from 4 degrees to 44. But it was cheapish and on the tram route to university.
Romaine pointed towards a tourist bus crunching through the leaves. ‘Have you got time to look at the Cook-was-never-here Cottage?’
Laurie laughed, even though there was that warm oil feeling sloshing over her knees again.
A group of tourists milled about waiting for their tour guide to corral them inside. Laurie and Romaine stood back, glancing at each other as the guide explained how the cottage had been built by the parents of ‘our Captain James Cook’. One quick mention that Cook had never lived there himself, but he’d almost certainly stayed with his parents. The cottage had then been sold to an Australian philanthropist, who’d had it demolished at great expense. Every part was fastidiously labelled, transported to Melbourne, and rebuilt brick-by-brick, in time for the Victorian centenary. The surrounding plane trees were planted in the design of the Union Jack.
There was no mention Cook had never visited the cottage in its Antipodean resting place.
There was a picket fence and a garden with signs listing the names of the plants. They stood in the narrow lobby, running their fingers over cut-marks in the stone, wondering if this was where the Cooks had kicked off their muddy island-hopping boots. The ingle fireplace took up half the cramped kitchen. A blackened kettle hung from a chain. Fragrant herbs lay on the table as if the occupants had just dashed out. The face of the grandfather clock was covered with a sign: Coming Soon.
It was difficult to get up the narrow stairs, and Laurie felt dizzy as she stood beside the bed on the spongy floor. She planted her feet and kept her eyes on the bunch of dried roses on the coverlet. Beside the bed, a white cradle. Romaine said perhaps they were supposed to think this was where young Cook planned his future misadventuring.
Back at the hospital, there was still a long wait. Laurie said she’d be fine and sat in the waiting room huddled below the shouting TV. She heard the receptionist call ‘Mrs Henley’ and looked about for the ghost of her mother before realising the receptionist was calling her.
‘That’s me. Laurie,’ she said. ‘It’s just Laurie Henley.’
But the receptionist needed a title for the system. Miss? Mrs?
She didn’t want to say it. ‘M.S.’
As she tried to keep up with the nurse’s swinging pony tail, she remembered a scene from the ’70s schlock TV show Night stalker, a mini Godzilla smashing out the ceiling lights as it flailed down corridors chasing the dishevelled private investigator, who, she now realised, also had a limp.
She sank on the seat beneath Nuclear Medicine, Do Not Proceed Beyond This Point, Hazards Ahead, was shown to a cubicle, and changed into a giant gown with elusive cord-ties and a brisk tailwind.
Another form to fill out. She still had her glasses and bag, and fished out her favourite felt tip pen, easier to wield for the tingling hand.
Did she have claustrophobia? No (even though she did a bit). Tattoos? Yes (an oldie done by an ex who’d launched her career on her left shoulder blade). Had she removed all her piercings? Yes (and lost one of her favourite nose-rings down the sink from the clumsiness and trembling). Did she have a wig, false hair or a peruke? No. She scribbled peruke in her notebook, another nifty Scrabble word, and told herself she was still mostly haired, still mostly herself, despite the hospital shroud, the hammers hammering, walls crashing. She told herself she still had plans. She was only thirty. The PhD novel might get published. A career still beckoned, of strolling through the emptying corridors of the academic life.
And she might meet up with Romaine again.
The nurse reappeared, eyes averted. No metal beyond this point. Her bag and glasses were taken. So too her walking stick.
She’s lying on a slender white plastic tongue of a sliding bed. A tube in her arm inks her veins. Everything is white. Her head is cradled in a white plastic yoke, like a pillory. Her feet are strapped in. Her swollen freezing blue-white feet. She’s given a buzzer to squeeze for help (or to eject?) in the event of an emergency, and clings to it. She’s worried the cord will get caught when they slide her in and nobody will hear her once she’s been delivered through the moongate, grasping for allusions, for fictions, distractions, metaphors.
(Open the pod bay doors, HAL.)
An electric sea hisses at her ears. She’s thinking of her slave and convict ancestors shackled below, chained by their feet and necks for months on end. She’s remembering her mother’s plastic astronaut shell-shaped ear covers before her beehive was poked under the drier at the hairdressers, waiting for the ear things to melt, for her mother’s hair to go whoosh.
Don’t think of your mother. Or your ancestors. Or your ankle swelling under the plastic strap or your eye twitch or the involuntary leg jerks or the embers burning in your calf or how the slightest wind blows razors across your skin. Don’t think about why the nurse decides to smile and look you in the eye as she helps you stagger off the bed.
She elbows her way to the last disabled seat at the front of the tram so everyone can stare at her in pity or disgust or intrigue or amusement or fear or offer to cure her or pray for her or tell her somebody has it far worse or far better than her all this long, long tram ride home which stop-starts all the way to the university where she’s finding it harder to make herself go.
She stares out at the moulting trees, at the floating plastic bags, the man in a kilt skateboarding between the cars, taxis honking, cyclists gesticulating. Down she goes, the empty midday tram through the wind tunnel social-housing blocks, hanging on when they come to the tram-curve shriek at Gertrude Street, past the bottle-shop, cigarette-butt hustle of Smith Street, up the hill, rattling past the shopping centre with its false hills of rubbish, buried cars and caravans, medical waste, compacted and discarded hopes.
She heaves upwards to ring the bell, hears someone behind her sigh as she takes her time climbing down, haemorrhaging the traffic all the way back to Westgarth, and keeps her eyes on the stone lions half way up the hill spackled to the fence-posts marking the corner of her street. She leans on her gate, its decaying pickets flossed by roses dancing the can-can up and down the trellises.
Her feet are stone. Her legs are wood. She lunges up the path, stabs the key at the lock. Falls in through the door. The house smells of last night’s reheated Moroccan soup. She smells of hospital.
On the phone to work again: ‘Would it be possible for me to email or post back the sick leave forms? Okay. I see. I have to bring them in myself. You have to witness me signing them. In person. As per HR regulations.’
A month without pay. Not enough sick pay accrued. Still no diagnosis. Centrelink deems her claim ineligible. She forces herself back to work.
The OH&S man corners her as she sways out of the lift, fires fifty questions about the brain the leg the feet, the arm, the eyes. She says could she put down her bag first, unlock her stale office, water the desiccated pot plants. She finds herself answering his questions, wishes she wouldn’t. Years working as a fierce student advocate; now she’s forgotten how to defend herself.
Before Mr OH&S leaves, he says, ‘And Laurie, there’s one more tiny thing. About the leg. In case of emergency, say a bomb, or a plane hits the building, you’ll have to be the last one out. Can’t have you on the stairwell holding up everybody else. So make sure you wait for everyone else to leave first. OK?’
‘You could always truss me up and lower me out of the window,’ she says, ‘like a piano. Ropes, pulleys, counterweights, cranes.’
He hesitates. ‘Yeah, right. Very funny. Very droll.’
That’s her job now too, to make the uncomfortable comfortable.
When she shuffles to the kitchen, someone leaves a leaflet advertising counselling services on her desk.
Romaine drops her off at St Vincent’s. The same procedure, but this time it’s for an MRI of her brain. Forms. Piercings. Pillories. Perukes. Flapping down corridors in a giant gown like sacrificial what’s-her-name blundering underwater in the Poseidon Adventure.
She can hear the patient before her making crude jokes about nurses to the nurses.
White tongue bed. Headphones. Ambient jackhammers.
One month later, the neurologist says. ‘Well, it’s not a normal MRI. See all these white dots?’
‘My constellations,’ she says later to Romaine.
Romaine hugs her, doesn’t laugh. ‘There’s a Diversity on Campus meeting next week. If you want to go, I’ll drive you.’
There are two people in wheelchairs. A young woman compares her fold-away walking stick with Laurie’s.
‘Go on,’ says Romaine. ‘Tell them what the guy from OH&S said.’
A woman called Nola says, ‘I’m sorry that happened to you. Did you take it to the union?’
Laurie says she didn’t think of it. (What with everything else going on.)
‘We can take it to the union for you – or with you – and also to the university. What he should have said is they’d nominate a team of four to carry you down the stairs. He should have reassured you somebody will always have your back. If the university doesn’t respond within a month, we’ll do a lie in. We’ll get out of our chairs, lie across the Vice Chancellor’s steps. Our version of a march.’
Laurie is lying on the VC’s steps looking up at the golden air, at stone wings flying, and she’s remembering how she stumbled across the AIDS vigil, Brighton UK, 1989. Beneath the huddled December dark, a river of shimmering candles. She’s remembering her first Dykes on Bikes, Mardi Gras, the slow roar up Oxford Street, and she’s thinking about how the autumnal light illuminates the photographs Romaine has tacked up over the fireplace to cover the worst of the gaps in the wall.
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