I stand up to leave the meeting. “I’ve got a doctor’s appointment,” I explain. I am with one of the Managers, and he looks up at me with raised eyebrows. For a moment I think he is questioning my excuse and I wait for his comment.
“I do hope you’re not going to tell him anything,” he says through pursed lips.
“Sorry, tell who what?” I answer, genuinely confused.
“The Doctor,” he says and then, since telling the Doctor everything was clearly my intention, he adds, “Never tell Doctors anything.”
I begin to pack my briefcase. As I do so, the Manager gives me the following advice:
When the Doctor asks, ‘Do you smoke?’ You must say No.”
I interrupt. “But I do smoke.”
His eyebrows lift again, “Oh, I didn’t know that.”
“Well,” I explain, “I only smoke on Fridays.”
“Whatever for?” Now his eyebrows are so high that I think they might disappear into his hairline.
“Harm minimization,” I explain.
His voice is slightly incredulous. “But why bother at all?” he asks.
“That’s what my Doctor says,” I reply and this reminds him of his original treatise.
“Ah, well, doctors,! Never tell them anything!” And he continues with this explanation.
“After he has learned you don’t smoke, the doctor will ask if you drink and you must also answer ‘No.’ This will be followed by the question, ‘Do you exercise?’ And this time you must answer ‘Yes.’”
“After that there will be a considerable silence in the surgery,” my interlocutor adds.
“And then what should I do?” I ask.
“Then,” says the Manager with a dramatic flourish, “then you must say to him, ‘So now tell me what’s wrong with me!”
Category Archives: Men
I didn’t know my neighbours well so I was kind of surprised when they offered to give me a lift to the garage where my car was waiting to be picked up. This was on a Saturday morning and they could do it after dropping their son off at his hockey game. I climbed in the back with him, a 13 year old kid called Luke. His dad, Neil, was already in the car and he had his ipod running through the speakers. It was Wilco singing Heavy Metal Drummer. They were talking about the song when I climbed in and Neil introduced us. “Hi,” said Luke but he seemed pretty shy and a little anxious.
Then the door was opening and his mum, Paula, was getting in. She smelled nice and her hair was still a bit wet from washing. She said, “Oh, I see everyone is waiting for me, as usual.” But it wasn’t quite light-hearted and no one said anything. Neil put the car in reverse but his wife, looking over her shoulder down both sides of the street said, “Wait, there’s something coming.” A car passed and then she said, “OK, you can go now.” And then she got some lipstick out of her bag just after she reached over and turned down the music.
There was silence for a while and then she said over her shoulder to Luke, “Have you got everything, Lukey?”
“Yep,” he said but she went through a list of stuff anyway; shin pads, mouth guard, water. Then she said to Neil, “Why are you going this way?” There was a pause and I heard her husband say, “Because it will take longer” but he said it more like a question. If she noticed this, his wife didn’t acknowledge it. “It’s just that there is a quicker way,” she said.
“Well, this is the way we usually go, isn’t it, Luke?” Luke nodded but he didn’t say anything. We drove on for a few minutes and then I asked, “Do you like Hockey, Luke?” He nodded again and his mother said “He loves it, don’t you, Lukey?” but before he could answer she went on, “The coach says he has to concentrate staying forward of the ball.” She turned again to Neil. “Do you help him out with this stuff?”
“Sure,” Neil answered.
Then Paula turned to me as if I had asked a question, “Neil objects to all this sport on Saturday. He thinks the kids are organised enough during the week. But I think it’s good for Luke; that’s what I did every weekend with my parents.” Then she turned back adding, “Netball.”
Neil said over his shoulder, “I grew up in the country and lived out of town. No organised sports there; we just played all day and swam and stuff.”
“It’s just what you’re used to, I suppose,” Paula said. “Being organised never hurt me.”
“And being free never hurt me,” I heard Neil say but this went unremarked and soon we were pulling into the hockey field. There were parents and kids everywhere. Neil pulled up near the change rooms and Paula said, “Are we parking here?”
There was another pause and Neil said, “Why?”
“Nothing, it’s just not very close to the game.” But she opened the door saying, “Not to worry. Dad always parks in funny places, doesn’t he, Lukey.” Luke climbed out and Paula said, “I love you, darling. Have a great game.” And she kissed him on the forehead.
Neil called out, “See you soon, Luke.”
I watched Luke run across the field that was split down the middle by a big white line. I could see his coach waiting to tell him what to do.
The dogs rounded her up. We followed their barks through the acned hills that lay low and shimmering around the homestead. And suddenly there she was, entirely motionless, as we came breathing hard over the warm rocks. The goat watched us, its body turned sideways to us, only its eyes moving. Like it knew that the time for running was ended. She was alone and we were become God. Everyone was still. Even the dogs stopped and were uncertain. I stood behind the rest where they couldn’t see me making signals with my hands trying to warn her. I pretended to scratch my head, kicked at a stone noisily while they decided who would shoot her.
You were fifteen. The men said, “Do you want to do it, Andrew?” You blushed but then you nodded and knelt against a dead log. You were nervous in case you missed and the men laugh at you. Then I closed my eyes behind my sunglasses and only pretended to see, opened them after I heard the shot.
Now the goat was lying amongst the rocks and the dogs raced down and began tearing at the trembling throat. Then they tried to mount her. The men called them off laughing but embarrassed. A man spat. “Bloody dogs,” he said. You stood up saying, “It’s no fun at this distance.” No one answered. They called the dogs off again and this time they ambled back to us. We walked away. The goat turned cold in the sun and someone patted your head.
“The cruellest lies are often told in silence.”
Robert Louis Stevenson
I didn’t recognise the voice on the car radio but I knew the name of Tom Maver immediately. I hadn’t seen him since I was twenty. I don’t remember what he was studying in those days; just that he was a university friend of my younger sister. Tom smoked a lot of dope, wrote poetry in the style of Leonard Cohen and was a smiling, lazy drunk who enjoyed intellectual pursuits.
Even though he was just eighteen I liked him pretty much straight away. We both wrote poetry, had both grown up in the country where we felt somehow on the periphery of our little towns. On Thursday nights he would come down to the Stoned Crow Winehouse with my sister, her flat-mate, Robynn and me to drink dry cider. We sat at the wooden tables bedecked in youth and conceit and cleverness. This lasted for about a year. Then my sister and her friend dropped out and went home and I lost touch with Tom. I sometimes wondered where he ended up and years later someone told me that he’d left the state and had become successful in politics.
Now here he was on the radio and sounding every bit the politician. He was evasive, edgy like a thief being interrogated. Everything he said was false but the journalists didn’t mind; it’s a game and everyone knows the rules. Tom was engaged in a verbal dance around the truth. I wondered how the idealistic boy I had known had grown into this man.
On a whim I sent him an email when I got back to my office. I was amazed when the phone rang less than an hour later. “I’ve often wondered where you were,” he said. He asked after my sister; I congratulated him on his success. There was a pause at his end and he said, “Well, you know, you are partly responsible for that.” I couldn’t think what he might be talking about. Had I said something profound in one of my cider-inspired moments? It was strange but I didn’t really want to be responsible for him being the man he’d become; I’d kind of liked him as he was. I could feel some tension in his voice when he said, “Do you remember that night at The Stoned Crow when the girls challenged us to write a poem there and then?”
I did remember. It was summer and there were candles on the table. A guy on stage was doing an acoustic set and the place was mostly empty. Tom and I scribbled away for about fifteen minutes and then presented two poems to my sister and Robynn. But I cheated. While I gave every appearance of catching words from the air, I only regurgitated a poem I had been working on for weeks and had easily memorised. When I read Tom’s verse I was humbled. Unlike mine, his poem was alive with startling images and an unrelenting truth. He read mine and smiled ambiguously across the table at me. I felt then that he knew of my deceit but I just winked back and the night disappeared and so did we all.
Now all these years later Tom was asking, “Do you remember the poem you wrote?” I told him I didn’t remember the words but that his own poem had impressed me. He laughed, almost incredulously. “Really?”
“Sure,” I said. “Why do you sound so surprised?”
“When I went back to my room at the university that night,” Tom explained, “I thought a lot about your poem, how you knocked it out so quickly, how it still managed to say so much. I got out all my own poems and I realised I was never going to be a poet, that I’d never be as good as you. I burned the lot and I haven’t written another one since.”
“There was no need to do that,” I replied weakly. Then I added, “You could have been great, Tom.”
“No,” said Tom. “That was all just vanity. I decided that night to straighten out and do something with my life.” He laughed. “And this is it!”
We talked a bit longer and the more we talked the less I liked him. He had grown into someone I didn’t know, a bullshit artist.
When I hung up, I thought about Tom’s poems, all of them forever gone to the world, and how he’d given up his truth for the semblance of truth. And how it all started with a drunken lie I told in silence.
We were smart young men in suits. We were so young that we loved our suits and our array of bright ties which we would parade each day as we strode down the pathways to our bright futures.
Our boss, James Black, had more expensive suits and his ties were Italian, something to which we could only aspire. But aspire we did and when we got together over a few drinks we planned systemic improvements for a new industry order that, it has to be said, had us firmly at its centre. And our boss was our model; immaculately dressed and groomed, articulate and witty, warm yet demanding and a master of political gamesmanship. Eventually he would become the CEO of the State’s biggest employer. We could call him James but not Jim and never, never Blacky, not even behind his back.
Pat, on the other hand, was never really made for a suit. Or maybe a suit had never been made that could quite conform to his loping, angular dimensions. His tie hung erratically and too short; the back of his shirt hung loosely and disconsolately around his backside. Even first thing in the morning he looked like an extra from a Diehard movie.
Pat was a sloppy and amiable in everything he did. But when he drank, he drank to get drunk and in this he was invariably successful even by his own exacting standards. At Friday night drinks he would slur the spoken language to within an inch of its life before lurching out into the late-night streets, his clothing struggling loyally and valiantly to keep up with its demented master.
One night I sat down strategically next to James Black at a Christmas function. At last I would have the opportunity to impress the great man with my subtle banter, my succinct but deeply wise observations. I had barely said hello, however, when, to my horror, Pat suddenly appeared and sat down opposite us at the same table. And Pat had been doing justice to the pre-dinner drinks; in fact he had found them all guilty and personally dispatched as many as possible. “Howdy, Blacky,” he hiccupped as he eased himself into his chair a little unsteadily.
I cringed but James Black was an affable man, a man of the people. “How are you, Pat?” was all he said. Maybe things will be all right, I thought. I mentally rehearsed a suitably impressive entree into conversation but just as it was about to escape my lips, Pat’s voice slurred across the table. “Jimbo, can I ask you a personal question?”
It seemed to me that there was a sudden shift in temperature and an almost imperceptible straightening of James Black’s back. “I think that would be alright, Pat.” Pat leant forward confidentially, knocking water into James Black’s prawn cocktail. “Sorry, mate,” he said hurriedly, obviously keen to get to the main game.
And then, in a hushed tone barely audible except to the fifty or so people around us he asked, “Blacky, if you woke up in the woods with your pants around your ankles and a used condom up your arse, would you tell anyone?”
James Black had all the air of a man trapped and out of his depth and not at all used to the sensation. Almost helplessly, and with a forced smile, he muttered, “Well, no, Pat, I probably wouldn’t.”
Pat’s eyes glinted and he wiped the drool from the corner of his mouth. “Great!” he guffawed. “Do you want to go camping this weekend?”
Thursday seems an odd day to start anything, let alone an adventure but that’s just how things turned out. The motorbikes were running well and bore us quickly through the low hills around our city and into the yellow fields of canola beyond. We passed through the old mission town, stopping only for a coffee and felt the strange, cool sensation of the air on our beaded foreheads when we lifted our helmets off for the first time since breakfast.
By afternoon we had left behind even the marginal wheat lands and the bush arrived in all its muted greens and greys. We started to be wary of animals. The sun seemed hotter. There was this faint knot in my stomach occasionally as I saw myself on this red machine pushing impudently across the dry skin of this harsh, indifferent land. But mostly I was excited like a boy.
In the late afternoon we were 500 kilometres from home and we stopped in an old gold mining town for a drink. There was no town left, hadn’t been one for about a hundred years, just this rough and ready roadhouse with some lawn out the back that doubled up as a camping area. The bush stretched out in every direction and in the distance the poppet head of the one remaining mine poked its head silently above the trees.
The old man who served us could have been there since the boom. Lines tracked away from the edges of his lips, his eyes were fixed in a squint from a life in the sun. He was that kind of man the Australian bush used to produce; dry, laconic, every sentence somehow tinged with faint scepticism.
We sat on the veranda and drank weak tea made unfamiliar by the strange tasting water. The old man joined us. He gazed out across the bush. A truck went by heading north.
“I sit out here every morning,” he said slowly.
“That right?” I said.
“Yep. About 5.30 I grab a cup of tea and sit here before the mob arrive and watch the sun come up. Wouldn’t be anywhere else for quids.” He sweeps his arm in a quick arc that indicates the great nothingness around us.
My friend and I are quietly respectful; we picture this solitary tradition stretched across time’s landscape like a long wire fence.
My friend interrupts the silence. “How long have you been here, mate?”
The old man’s stare is fixed on the horizon. He turns to us and says, “What?”
“How long have you been out here?” my friend asks again.
The ancient face, like the land, shows no expression as he pauses to think. Then he replies, “Oh, since about Sunday, I reckon.”
A couple of years ago, a friend and I spent five days camping on these isolated cliffs about a thousand kilometres from where we live. We spent the time fishing and swimming and sitting in this big cave on the beach. Each sunset we’d drink beers in our cave. Then I’d cook tea on the gas stove, we’d eat and finish the day with wine. One night a small kangaroo came into the campsite and we fed it lettuce from our hands.
Steve and I had been friends for more than 20 years. We had worked together, lived together for two years and travelled to Europe and Asia. Now he was getting scared of things, talked too much about doctors and specialists, anxiety attacks. When we fished he would no longer come to the cliffs with me but prefer the beach even when he knew the chances of catching something were less.
When I climbed down the short rocky cliff face into the cave, he went down a sandy path and then walked around from the beach. It was sad to watch because he is not old or unfit. He’s just become scared of stuff, unnameable, ill defined but real like a toothache. I made a promise to myself never to get scared like that but I also knew that sometimes you don’t have a choice. Sometimes life breaks you and there is nothing you can do about it.
On the last day we went out to the end of a rocky point to watch the surfers. I climbed to the top of the tall scythe of rocky cliff that pointed out to sea. On the way I frightened some kangaroos escaping the mid-morning heat under some low trees. Then we packed up and headed south again. We’d promised ourselves to stop at beach we’d spotted on the way in a few days before, just on the off chance that the fishing might be good. But the water was shallow and the bottom mainly rocks and reef.
The tide was coming in and waves were pushing up under the low cliffs we were standing on. Broken coral, rocks and shells were being bustled up and back by the surging water. I walked a few metres then stopped when something dark caught my eyes in the sand below. A cowrie shell, still intact was sitting shimmering in a momentary lull in the tide’s relentless attack on the cliff.
I found a point midway down the cliff where I could get enough footing to launch myself safely into the water below. But the shell had disappeared already. Under the cliff there was a narrow strip of sand where all the detritus of the reef was being tumbled together, broken and scratched. I searched for the shell for about five minutes and had nearly given up when I found it resting high and dry under a low ledge.
I held it in my hand. It was old and its colours had run together like wet paint, blacks and greys and white. A few dots of the original pattern still clung to the bottom edges. One side had been scratched of any pattern at all. That shell was a survivor though. The air was hot and the sea raced up around my legs filling my shoes with sand. Except for swimming, I had not bathed for 5 days. I was brown, my hair stiff with salt. There was salt too on my lips and in my mouth. I held the shell. I looked for Steve but the cliff top was empty. I stared down at the shell then out to sea again.
The shape of the cowrie in my hand started to become the only sensation. Then gradually I knew that I was exactly where I was meant to be; this moment, this piece of the earth, this age, this friend, this me. And the shell was sent there to remind me that I was alive. And there was nothing to be scared of. I felt happy.
When I climbed back up my friend handed me a pile of shells he had found further along the beach. I noticed his hand shake slightly.
“Did you find anything down there?” he asked.
I slipped the shell in my pocket. There are some things men don’t talk to each other about. “Nah, nothing, mate. Just broken stuff.”