To the well-organised mind, death is but the next great adventure
J K Rowling
Roll up! Roll up! Get your tickets here! Don’t miss the greatest ride of your life! The rollercoaster ride to end all rollercoaster rides!
The unseen showman’s voice rattled and echoed through the empty spaces. The lights became flickering pools at the edge of the darkness. The signs were tattered, worn and flapped without enthusiasm.
This place had a familiarity about it, it was something unidentifiable, and it hovered on the edge of his awareness. He reached out stretching, searching. He could not quite nail it.
The images before him swirled in and out of the light, he tried to touch them and they danced hauntingly out of reach. Smoke and mirrors, they chanted softly, smoke and mirrors. They laughed, not with him, but slyly at him. He was lost.
Life had been very different since arriving at this place. All that has gone before was no more. Uncertainty lay ahead. He was drowning in fear. This was supposed to be an adventure, a new beginning. They had promised a new phase to be lived, a safe place to grow treasured memories. Now there was nothing but confusion, emptiness and darkness; smoke and mirrors.
He was tired; he sat on a nearby rock, just to rest for a while. The scene distorted, changing, suddenly. He was sitting at a table in a café. There were people all around, laughing and enjoying their macchiato soy lattes. A woman was with him, she looked familiar, she smiled at him as a mother smiles at a recalcitrant child. She was not his mother. He would remember that, he knew her well, but how did he know her?
Roll up! Roll up! Get your tickets here! Don’t miss the greatest ride of your life! The rollercoaster ride to end all rollercoaster rides!
He sat quietly enjoying the ordinariness of the scene. As he watched the glass box slowly descended the building, it stopped, the doors opened, and he walked out. How could that happen, he was sitting here in the chair? He was sitting at the table with her, damn what was her name! What the hell! He, himself, walked towards him. He was up on his feet he was shouting waving his hands as if to ward off an unspeakable evil, this was not real, but he kept advancing. He panicked. He was starting to hyperventilate. He closed his eyes tears flowing.
He wondered what would happen if he touched him, will one of us explode. Two of one cannot live in the same space in time, he knew that. He felt her hand on his arm, he heard her soft soothing voice, and he fell backward into his chair. He opened his eyes, he was bathed in sweat, the laughter and chatter had ceased. They were all looking at him, talking about him. He looked for the other but he had vanished, in his place was a young boy in motor bike leathers, kneeling beside him, talking to her asking if everything was alright.
‘Talk to me’ he screamed at them, he screamed at the world ‘talk to me, I am still here I can see you and hear you, I am still here.’
‘It’s alright darling,’ she said, soothingly ‘it’s over now, you’re safe, but you gave this young man quite a fright.’
He spoke the words he had fought against, ‘who are you?’
She looked at him her face a careful mask, but her eyes mirrored the unspoken pain the question caused. In her soft voice she said ‘I’m your wife.’
He could not bear the pain any longer; he needed to be gone from this place. The veil passed over and he was there no more.
In the meadow the blue grass crackled under his feet as he walked on it and the perfume of the chocolate brown flowers filled the air. He had something he needed to do what was it? What was so important that it nagged at the emptiness of his mind? There are four large black ducks swimming on the pond, they barked as they made their way to shore. He had a shepherd’s crook to guide the birds to their roost. The cat sat patiently watching, waiting for his order.
‘Round them up, round them up,’ he whistled at the cat.
The cat looked at him, turned its back, then raising its paw it began to wash its face. The black brutes charged at him, fangs barred and growling. He hit out at them with his crook trying to distract their charge. They bit, taking chunks out of his leg, but there was no blood, only pain and his leg lay apart on the blue grass. God no! They had turned on her, how did she get here? He had to protect her. He struggled to rise, the severed leg hopped about on the grass and then the noises in his head became intense, the whooshing made it impossible to concentrate, the surface unravelled beneath him, he fell screaming into the blackness.
He continued to drop and yell, thrashing his arms and legs and then he stopped, he could go no further. The unyielding thing he could feel under his body stopped him falling into the abyss.
He felt hands, grabbing at him, restraining him, holding him. The soothing voice repeated, ‘you are alright, you are safe.’ Baby-like he blubbered for his mother, but she was not there. She was gone and could not return.
‘It will be alright, it will be alright’ she sat on the floor and rocked him as she held his frail body in her arms.
He cried softly without noise and the tears flowed. ‘How long?’ He asked ‘how long this time?’
‘Not long,’ she said as she held him close. ‘I love you,’ she whispered into the darkness ‘I love you.’
He croaked ‘who are you?’ his throat was raw and dry.
I am your wife’ she responded.
He looked at her and for a brief instant, he saw her as a beautiful young bride and knew she was his angel, his beautiful wife, but he still could not remember her name. He smiled through his tears.
She helped him back to bed and making sure he was comfortable, wearily went back to her own room. In the darked light she looked at the clock it flashed 1:15am. The night had just begun. She lay on the bed and pulled the quilt around her. The monitor‘s single red eye blinked as he moved in his bed. She lay watching the shadows on the ceiling, waiting. Smoke and mirrors, they chanted, smoke and mirrors.
She revelled in the softness of the quilt, in its warmth and safety. She burrowed into it making a cocoon hoping it could protect her from the horrors that also haunted her nights. Her fingers traced the fine lines of quilting, picking out the patterns in the darkness. She remembered when she made the quilt. She remembered the children who had played on it, been wrapped in it when they were ill, and the baby photos taken on it. There were the picnics they had taken, both as a family and as a couple. They would spread the quilt on the sand or the grass and together they would watch the children playing or if it was BC or AC (before children or after children), and it was a private place, sometimes they would make love. They hadn’t made love in such a long time. Another thing they had lost. There were so many memories patched into this piece of fabric.
Where were the children now when she needed them to help her through this nightmare? They are leading their lives, she answered her own question. The trouble was they thought she was exaggerating, as he always had good days when they came to see him. Why can’t they see him like this and understand how this fluctuates. She was angry with them, but she also understood that they wanted to distance themselves. She retreated further into her safe place, crying softly, as the darkness of his night overwhelmed her.
They had been together for so many years, the good and the bad, and now she was facing the unimaginable. She was losing him and there was not a thing she could do to prevent it. She dried her eyes with a corner of the quilt and smiled wryly to herself in the darkness. He was still here in the physical sense and on the good days he knew who she was. The saddest thing was that most of the time he knew who he was, and after the “event” mostly he would remember the terrors that invaded the darkness.
When he had been diagnosed they were relieved that it wasn’t Alzheimer’s. They had actually celebrated. Little did they know then what life with Mr Lewy would be like. Now she thought, she actually envied those with Alzheimer’s. They were lost to the disease, but most seemed happy enough. The second specialist they had seen was so different to the first. Initially they had been told to go home and make the best of the time they had left, five to seven years he told them, live your life like there are no tomorrows.
No advice. No warnings. Just a cart load of medication, and that was that, and a booking to come back in six months.
The changes were so slight at first, but then the disease ramped up, its progression terrifying them and ripping their lives apart.
As she lay in the darkness she wondered what was normal. Irritatingly those nagging thoughts wiggled their way into her mind. These were the times she wished she didn’t know the answers.
The house was no longer her home. It was transformed, a hospital with all the bits and pieces and smells that accompany those places. He was in diapers; she could not use the word nappy, day and night now. How he hated them!
The red light blinked more rapidly, its warm glow was not comforting; instead it was a strobe light signalling trouble ahead. She turned her head, her senses alert, listening for the first signs of the hallucinations. Maybe he was simply restless. She breathed a small prayer that this was the case. She looked at the clock it is 3.00am. Had she been asleep? She was not sure. Sleep did not come easily these days and was never restful.
“Help! Help me!” the soft voice was distorted slightly by the speaker. “Please help me!” She slowly unwound her cocoon and put on her dressing gown and slippers. It was cold, she needed to keep warm, and she could not afford to get sick. Her eyelids were heavy and her mouth was dry. A cup of tea would be nice, she thought, as she made her way down the hall to his room.
There is a night light, so there is no need to turn on the harsh overhead light. He is sitting up in bed staring. He turns his head towards the sound of her footsteps.
“Help me! Oh please, dear God help me!” She sits beside him in the soft light and holds his hand in hers.
“Tell me what you see,” she says soothingly.
His window is open and she can hear the sounds of the waves rolling in on the beach. It must be high tide, she thought. She remembers they bought this house because they could hear the sound of the sea at night.
His legs wriggle and squirm under the covers. She checks to make sure he is dry. He grips her hand tightly.
“You will get cold.” She assures him she is warm enough.
“They will get you, you have to hide,” he pleads with her to go, but does not release his grip.
She holds him and says she will stay with him until they are gone. He strokes her arm and is quiet for a while.
“They’re here. They’re all around us. We have to be quiet and get behind them.”
“Who are they?” she asks “Do we have to hide? I can barely hear them”
“They are coming up the beach, didn’t you hear the shots? They have passed the sentries. Please God the boys are alright.” He starts to shake uncontrollably.
“If we are very quiet they will pass us by.” She knew this scenario well; she hopes she can talk him down.
“They are on the beach. They are looking for us. They know we are here. They are shooting at the boys. We have to stop them.”
“The boys are alright they know how to look after themselves. They will have taken cover in the caves”
“They’re returning fire. Can you hear them? They’re turning them back.”
She puts her finger on her lips, signing for silence and they sit, in the darkness not moving. He is tense, straining every muscle. Eventually his body relaxes. She knows it is almost over.
“Can you hear the boats?”
“Yes I can. It sounds as if they are pulling out. What do you think?”
“They’re leaving,” he cries “until the next time. God I am such a coward.” The tears spill down his face and the sobs break free. “I am so fearful.”
She holds him tight, rocking him, she is crying.
“You are the bravest man I have ever known.”
They are still in Lewy World. She tries to still his fears. She wonders how long they have sat this time, wrapped in the dark cloak of his nightmare. Smoke and mirrors.
“We are safe now.” she says, stroking the face she knows so well. She holds him tight against the nameless fears that only he can see.
The darkness wraps its soft arms around them both and quietness follows as finally he sleeps.
She gently untangles his arms and smooths the covers. How long did she sit holding him, five minutes, ten, minutes an hour or was it two? She leaves the room and heads for the kitchen for that cup of tea. As she turns on the light she looks at the clock above the stove it is 6.30am.
She sighs softly. It is time to start the day. She plugs in the kettle and waiting for it to boil, she prepares his morning medications. The first task done, she gratefully enjoys the silence and the solitude. She drinks her tea, savouring the warmth and comfort it brings while watching the dawn brighten the sky. She can hear the surf on the beach and the lorikeets are flitting noisily around the garden waiting for her to fill the feeder.
The Blue Care caregiver will be here soon to shower him. She hopes they are running late this morning, he could do with the extra sleep.
Another round on the Lewy rollercoaster and they have made it through the night to another day. It is an emotional ride for them both and she prays today will be a good day. Perhaps, he will remember her name that would be nice.
She sighs again; her days now are nothing more than smoke and mirrors, as they are manipulated like puppets in Lewy Land. She wonders who he thinks she is.
She smiles and cries softly as she hears the call of the unseen carnival showman;
Roll up! Roll up! Get your tickets here! Don’t miss the greatest ride of your life! The rollercoaster ride to end all rollercoaster rides!
‘Passport,’ he barked. ‘Sit,’ he pointed.
The blood was pounding in my ears. My heart was doing somersaults and my mouth was dry. I sat. My head was starting to ache. Had I taken my Diamox last night? I was panicked, I could not remember. I was so thirsty and desperately need water. Dehydration at this altitude is dangerous. He was Han, and he looked as if he had a limited capacity to understand my mangled mandarin. The question that was battering my poor brain was, is it a good idea to let him know I could understand the basics of what was being said or should I simply sit schtum and stick to English? I was sure my limited Nepalese or Tibetan would not cut it here. Why the hell do we always learn swear words before we grasp the mechanics of another language? My ruminations were abruptly ended as he pounded his fist on the table.
Now I was frightened.
He was small and slight and his cold eyes were expressionless, there was no warmth in them at all and he wore those quintessential, round, rimless glasses. His black hair was slicked back, like a bad 1960’s Brylcreem commercial. His hand was laid flat on the table in front of me, it was grimy with dirt encrusted fingernails, ragged and uneven, bitten to the quicks. My eyes flickered to his face, he had the high tell-tale colour, the rosy red cheeks that are a sure sign of high altitude living. Spittle decorated the corners of his mouth and he stank of cheap, Double Happiness, cigarettes. His uniform was rumpled and stained and looked as fatigued as I was feeling.
In that split second, I felt compassion for this poor creature, who probably had no more desire to be in my company, in this place than I had to be in his.
I heard a scrabbling sound behind me and cautiously glanced behind me. For the first time, I noticed the child in an ill-fitting uniform, many sizes too large for his small frame, with the sleeves and trousers, rolled up exposing his limbs. A rusty Type 81 Assault rifle was slung over his shoulder; its weight dragged him to one side. He was lounging against the wall with a wry grin on his face. One look told me he was more dangerous than the man in front of me.
That primal part of my brain that governs survival kicked in and as flight was impossible and physically fighting was not an option. I had to pull myself together to get out of here in one piece, undamaged.
Taking refuge, my mind sought escape and flicked back to that sunny Saturday morning in May, marching down Collins Street with the others. Striding out across the tram lines wearing my blue chuba, the one with the cream silk blouse with the traditional long sleeves and my colourful woven apron, wearing this is similar to wearing a western wedding ring. We were all carrying placards with the words Rangzen, China Hands off Tibet or Free Tibet emblazoned on them.
How special and superior I felt to those Saturday morning shoppers who were taking time out to watch us from the safety of the crowded footpath. We all knew we were being photographed by ASIO. The Chinese tourists taking happy snaps were not tourists at all, but members of the Embassy staff. We knew them from previous demonstrations it was as if we were partners in some macabre dance routine as we wove around one another each pretending not to know what was happening. In my blissful state of ignorance never did I once believed those photos would come to cause me harm. How stupid I had been !
A sharp, painful jab to my ribs swiftly returned me to that dark, dank, cold room peopled by my jailers, thousands of miles from Melbourne. The man-child had shoved the butt of the assault rifle into my ribs to get my attention and he smiled spitefully as he watched the tears seep from my eyes. I had been forcibly returned to the present reality.
I realised that grimy nails were directing quick staccato questions at me. I struggled to understand to a cacophony of Mandarin and mangled English. I shook my head to clear the mental fugue that was threatening to take hold and decided to attempt one phrase in mandarin,
‘ Wǒ bù míngbái nǐ xiǎng yào shénme,’ or ‘I don’t understand what you want.’ He laughed and said ‘you understand me perfectly,’ but this time in English, he spoke English! My mind was in overdrive, he spoke English, is this good or bad?
‘Why am I being detained?’ I asked opening my hands in the universal gesture of peace.
‘Splitist,’ he spat at me and slammed the photos on the table front in from of me.
My eyes rested on the serene features of Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama. I felt my heart grab in my chest and my insides wobbled like a poorly set bowl of aeroplane jelly.
O.K now I am for it, I thought, and my eyes rested on His Holiness’s face and I thought of the other items, had they been found, had I placed others at risk?
How could I have been so arrogant to believe I would sail through the security checks without the proverbial hiccup? What had given me away? Was it facial recognition software? Had these photos come back to haunt me? I knew the possession of these photos alone was punishable by imprisonment, here in a place where the government sent bereaved families a bill for the bullets used at the execution of a family member.
I was unable to focus, my mind was slipping in and out of the reality of the cold room and I recognised the early signs of altitude sickness. I was terrified, would others would suffer because of my stupidity and waves of nausea were threatening to overpower me.
I knew from Henry’s experience two years earlier, I could expect no help from home and that my Australian passport afforded me no protection here. My head was splitting the pain was becoming unbearable.
A cold, clear calm was settling on me,
“Nǐ biǎo zi, nǐ de jìnǚ, yángguǐzi,’ you bitch, whore, foreign devil’, grimy fingers bellowed at me, in Mandarin and English. ‘Zhùyì! Nǐ shì shuí huìjiàn? Nǐ wèishéme zài zhèlǐ? Kǒngbù! pay attention! Who are you meeting? Why are you here? Terrorist!’
The words rushed out a jumble of Mandarin and English with the speed and power of a freight train hurtling along its tracks.
‘Nǐ huì gàosu wǒ,’ ‘You will tell me,’ he purred, ‘Zhōngyú’ eventually!
I repeated, ‘what have I done wrong?’
He made no response , I felt a stinging blow to the back of my head and time stopped. Normal no longer existed, it had been suspended.
I was back on the bus driving out of the army compound at Gonggar airport, one of the highest airports in the world under the shadow of Sagarmāthā (सगरमाथा). I had realised my dream, I was on my way to Lhasa and not unlike the nomadic Jews of the diaspora and in my mind I was silently chanting my mantra,
‘This year in Lhasa’.
As we prepared to drive the 62 kilometre rutted road to Lhasa the bus was full of laughter and chatter . We were all excited at the prospect of being in Lhasa and after 10 days in Kathmandu becoming acclimatised to the altitude I was surprised to hear our guide Tashi explain that if any of us felt a headache we were not to take any Panadol but to let her know. I was busy exploring the pressure cans of oxygen which were in the seat pocket when the bus came to a sudden halt.
A Chinese Peoples Army Officer in fatigues clambered onto the bus. Initially no one paid a great deal of attention but the silence settled and became threatening. All chatter and laughing ceased. He had an open notebook. His voice was no more than a whisper and he proceeded to read a list of names, I remember thinking this is a role call. Suddenly I heard my name and Pat’s as well as Margaret’s names with the accompanying direction to collect our personal belongings and stand beside the bus. Looking out the window I saw we had come to a stop beside some official looking huts, we remained inside the airport perimeter fence. There was no Tibetan writing on the huts only Chinese. The three of us looked at each other and then at our tour leader Tashi who quietly inclined her head.
We gathered our back packs and stepped out on to the tarmac into the bright sunshine and biting wind. I shivered not from the cold but from a sense of impending trouble. My backpack was roughly pulled from my hands and thrown on the ground to be joined by Pat and Margaret’s. I had given my camera case to Jenny before I left the bus, thank goodness I thought, as I saw Pat’s camera role out of it’s case and onto the ground.
‘Hey’ Pat yelled ‘that’s my camera’, the man looked at her, brought his foot down on the camera smashing it into pieces.
He laughed. Margaret grabbed Pat’s arm to stop her from moving. It was then we realised the bus was leaving and obviously we were being detained. I looked around, five soldiers with automatics stood surrounding us. Did we five older Australian women pose that much of a threat? If it were not so frightening it would have been laughable.
We soon realised this was no dream, no romantic adventure, but deadly serious. We were shepherded into the huts and separated, each placed in a separate room. I immediately thought of Henry and when he had been arrested in Amdo Province two years earlier. It had been months before we knew if he was even alive and then another six months before he was released and back home to Australia. He had been working for the WHO and supposedly had all the correct paper work and was still detained.
Why were we being held? I had not meet Pat or Margaret before we all arrived in Kathmandu although I knew they both were active within the Australia Tibet Council in their own states. Was that was this was all about? Had our names been pulled from some list that had made its way in to the hands of the Chinese authorities in Lhasa or was it those protest photos that had tripped me up?
I was told to strip and place my clothes on a chair; I was thrown a grimy hospital type gown to cover myself. The touch of it on my skin gave me the creeps; I will swear I saw dots moving on the seam line. I began to have an inkling of what was happening. I was being intimidated and made to feel a loss of face by being forced to strip. Two can play at that game I thought, I am damned if I will cower in front of these guys. I have always been one to cut of my nose to spite my face. No easy road for me.
Slowly I opened my eyes and raised my head from the table. I smelt the metallic tang of blood and gingerly raised my hand to the back of my head. I could feel a damp, sticky patch. I looked at my hand it was red, this was my blood, no wonder my head ached. Bugger altitude sickness, I thought, and as wave after wave of nausea hit me I turned my head from the table and threw up all over the floor.
I looked at’ grimy fingers’ and repeated my earlier questions,
‘What do you want? Why are you treating me like this?’
He poked at the photos on the table, I was bemused that they were still there. I had no idea how much time had passed.
‘These’, he said in English, ‘these are yours?’ There was no point in lying.
‘Yes’ I responded wearily, ‘yes they are mine.’
‘Political propaganda is forbidden,’ he snatched the photos and ripped them up throwing the pieces on the ground.
I must have concussion, I thought as I found these actions to be so hilariously theatrical. He then began a tirade in English and Mandarin; I couldn’t follow any of it. I wanted to lay down and sleep. I couldn’t focus, my brain felt like it was wrapped in bubble wrap and someone was popping the bubbles. Was it altitude sickness or the bang on the head or a bit of both?
I felt a spurt of energy or was it anger? Again I lifted my head and as the nausea threatened, I swallowed and said,
‘I want to speak to a consular official.’
He laughed and the young man child in the corner snickered; ‘here you speak to no one unless I allow it.’
‘Fine it’s your funeral,’ I said, with a shade more bravado than I felt ‘ you will have to explain my corpse to someone at some stage, it’s up to you! If I die here from high altitude cerebral oedema, questions will be asked’. I wagged my fingers at him like a drunken sailor. ‘Look,’ I said waving my hands in front of his face, ‘my nail beds are blue and I would guess my lips are too, I have altitude sickness you idiot.’ I was never known for my tact.
He stood staring down at me. God I must look a mess a filthy lice ridden rag covering me, vomit all over the floor. The stench was appalling. Surprisingly I was beginning to feel relieved, obviously he had not found the money or the letters that I had hidden in my camera bag and he had nothing but the photos. The photos he had now destroyed.
Maybe there was a way out of this situation after all. Perhaps this man had overstepped his authority and the last thing he wanted was a dead westerner, and an older woman at that, on his hands.
I could hear a commotion through the door and thought I heard Tashi’s voice speaking a mix of rapid fire English and Mandarin with the odd Tibetan phrase thrown in for good measure. I have no idea of what was said or what pressure was brought to bear but some time later my clothes were handed back to me and I was allowed to dress and provided with an oxygen pillow before being bundled in to an ambulance and taken to Lhasa hospital.
Pat, Margaret and I were reunited at the hospital we found out we had been released due to the intercession of a Norwegian UN delegate staying at the Windhorse Hotel who happened to be an old friend of Tashi’s. It seems my hunch had been correct they had not wanted a dead westerner on their hands.
Two weeks later after being released from hospital and after completing the Kora around the Bakhor, I stood in front of the Jowo Sakyamuni Buddha in the Jokhang temple with my hands full of white Khata, or offering scarves and prostrating spoke the words
‘I take refuge in the Buddha…this year in Lhasa.’
FIRST IMPRESSIONS OF MALAYSIA — January 1980
As the external air is introduced into the cabin, the temperature becomes slightly warmer. The huge engines drone on, carrying the aircraft in an ever widening circle above the coastline. All eyes are on the windows and there are cries of,
‘Oh look at the island…look at the mainland…’
The aircraft banks for its final approach, and the Pearl of the Orient, sparkles in the shimmering sea. The dense green of the tropical foliage shimmers in the tropical heat haze. Patches of brown are interspersed with flashes of blue from inland waters.
As the aircraft passes over the island, the built up areas become more clearly defined. Modern high rise building jostle with Kampong areas and market places to form a multi-coloured mosaic.
All of our immigration procedures have been completed and our immigration cards have been filled out. The RAAF Flight attendants walk down the aisles with large plastic bags, to be filled with half eaten biscuits and other inflight debris. Some of the children are experiencing difficulty with their ears, as the large Royal Australian Air Force jet makes final landing preparations for landing at Malaysia’s newest airport on the island of Penang. The children are chattering with excitement and the adults are thinking about the years ahead. Not all are wondering what the next two to three years will be like; as some of the passengers are returning for a second or third tour of duty.
Touch down- the air of excitement and expectation increases. One journey has ended and another is about to begin. This is the place that we will call home for the next three years. All the lectures about culture shock, the injections and what to do and what to wear and say, have all been stepping stones to this point. The packing and placement of personal belongings in storage and the good byes to family and friends, and now we have arrived in Pulau Pinang, Penang, the Pearl of the Orient.
There is a thump and a squeal of tires and we land smoothly and the aircraft taxies down the runway. As she rolls to a stop in the docking bay, we start to gather our hand luggage ready to disembark. A male voice booms over the intercom interrupting our preparations,
‘Ladies and gentleman, please remain seated for your final briefing.’
Another briefing, that’s all we need. It is mercifully short. A final wrap up of expected behaviours and you are representatives of the Australian government while you are residing of the island, during your tour of duty etc. and what to expect as you go through customs.
Some passengers are travelling on to Singapore and they and their families disembark first. Making farewells to the cabin crew we walk through the boarding tunnel and into life in Malaysia.
The first impression is of desks and the smell of wet paint, together with the chatter of voices in a language few of us understand. I was thinking, some language lessons would have come in handy. Oh the beauty of hindsight.
There is a huge imposing sign that says, HEALTH DEPARTMENT, a smiling Asian nurse sits at a shiny new desk, and she takes our yellow WHO books and checks that all our vaccinations have been completed. We now shuffle across to an even bigger, taller desk with an even bigger sign. This sign proclaims CUSTOMS AND IMMIGRATION. We hand over our passports and immigration cards, and they are thoroughly scrutinised by two uniformed gentlemen, one smiling, and one scowling. Like Tweedledum and Tweedledee. Each piece of paper, each page is being read and reread. Owing to the height of the desk, as the names of the children are called, the offspring in question is lifted aloft to desk height, allowing photos and faces to be compared. That fact that some families had been travelling for over a week made this a fractious experience.
Passports and embarkation papers in hand, now embellished with the special visa entry stamps, and the admonishment of not to lose, deface, misplace or otherwise cause damage to the embarkation cards, we are herded up by Butterworth administration personnel and directed out of the processing area of the entry foyer to the baggage collection area.
As we stand waiting for our luggage to appear on the carousel, we glance around the partially completed terminal, wondering from which direction the next assault will come. Most of the children are tired and grumpy from the ten hour trip and irritable at the restrictions placed on them by anxious parents. Adults and children alike are beginning to perspire in the unaccustomed heat and the air condition is not working properly. Most of the adults simply want to change out of their travelling clothes and grab a cold beer.
Once the baggage is delivered, the Transport and Movements staff from Butterworth shepherd us all downstairs and towards to the waiting yellow buses.
At the bottom of the stairs there is yet another welcoming group this time there are some women in the group; obviously the wives welcoming committee with their roneoed sheets of information. Muttering hello, we immediately forget the names and gratefully climb into our allotted buses. One of the welcoming committee attaches herself to our bewildered and tired little group and consulting yet another list, we finally leave the airport for — destination unknown.
Malaysian buses and traffic almost defy description. The bus crashes gears, as it rattles and clanks its way along the airport road. Unfortunately those sitting in the rear seats of the bus have an uninterrupted view of the devil may care attitude which afflicts the drivers of any form of motor vehicle in Malaysia.
The younger children are beginning to cry, they are hot, hungry and tired and the older children are so excited they can hardly sit still, but strangely silent as they try to take in all the images around them. The sights, the sounds, the smells, and, well everything is new and different. The adults are too tired to think properly, it is getting dark as only can in the tropics, no twilight just darker and most have been up before dawn eastern standard time.
As the bus continues on its self-destruct mission, we are all on sensory overload. The sheer multitude of the sights, sounds, and smells is like a living kaleidoscope. There are high rise building and traditional kampongs made from local materials with roofs thatched with palm fronds rubbing shoulders. Small meticulously tended market gardens thrive at the road side where a weed does not dare show its face.
These buildings share space with chickens scratching in the dust and motor bike riders with incredible loads, including one man with his wife and five children on a scooter that is known locally as a ‘step-through’ or a ‘put-put’, playing tag with red lorries and yellow busses. Pushbike riders weave in and out of the traffic with a fatalistic nonchalance that is terrifying. Trishaw drivers are racing each other through the throng, with their cargo hanging on for dear life, adding to the mayhem. All these riders and drivers have one thing in common, their hand seems grafted to a horn or bell of their vehicle, the noise is overwhelming.
The bus hurls itself past ancient temples and mosques and through small market areas. The air is redolent with the smell of chillies and prawn paste, mixed with the eau de parfum of the monnie drains and decaying tropical vegetation it is a little hard on our unaccustomed senses.
We whizz past the sea wall in Gurney Drive, and we can see the fisherman scudding along in their small lowset fishing vessels and groups of men sitting on the beach drying or mending their nets; readying them for the next day’s catch or simply standing around a fire talking and smoking.
Now we are approaching the married quarters area of Tanjong Tokong and Tanjong Bungah. There is a clamour behind the bus and we notice that a swarm of motor bike riders is forming, like some weird form of rear guard. As a family is off loaded at their new home, several of the bike riders detach from the group and zero in on the hapless new resident. We find out shortly, when it is our turn that these are the scouts for the local tradespeople.
As none of us know where we are going to live, it was a pleasant surprise to be driven up a pleasant tree lined street and for the bus to stop in front of a large two storied cream house.
The corporal from Housing waits patiently as family Fitches gathers their odds and ends, including children and staggers off the bus. He is the keeper of a huge collection of keys and with the air of a conjurer producing a rabbit out of a hat, he selects a set and opens the door to our new home. He gallops through the house showing us the various rooms, complete with furniture and explaining the mysterious workings of the gas cylinder and the welcome package supplied by the NAAFI. Then wishing us good luck and handing over yet more paperwork, he disappears back on to the bus, which trundles off to its next destination.
His exit through the gate is the signal for the grocery boys to swarm in like bees around a honey pot. They thrust catalogues into our hands with earnest proclamations that their stores are the cheapest and the best. After many terima kasihs (thank you) and we will let you know tomorrow, they are gone and peace and quiet settles on our shattered little group.
We are grateful we have followed the instructions we were given in Australia, and our suitcases contain essentials like linen for bedding, towels, books, toys, cooking gear and toiletries enough to last until our trunks arrive by sea. One benefit of traveling on a service aircraft was we have a hefty baggage allowance.
Our thoughtful next door neighbours have arranged a gas cylinder and fitted it and provide unfrozen bread, butter and tomatoes, some beer and soft drink and leave us to our own devices. We dig the large jar of vegemite out of our luggage and have a small celebratory feast.
Exhaustion takes over, we climb the stairs and make our beds. Leaving everything else packed we fall into bed, to sleep. So ends our first night in Malaysia.
WHO ARE WE?
Who are we to send our youth to fight on foreign soil?
Who are we that pass the laws that cause our young to perish on another’s shores?
Who are we to declare the threat of terrorism is at our door?
We simply send our youth to fight, supposedly to defend our shores.
We freely toss around the word democracy;
Do we really know what it means?
Is it attainable, are we wanted, would we be missed?
Or is this simply a crafty politicians ruse.
One that results in acts that create untold misery
An aching void in what once we called our lucky land.
Are we fools to believe that peace ever existed at all?
“Lest We Forget”, but we do and the horror starts anew.
Who are we that weep for loved ones lost,
Who are we that care for broken minds and bodies on return?
We are mothers, fathers, spouses, brothers, sisters,
Who support the powers that send our kids to war.
WORDS AND WEAPONS
Whether ’tis Nobler in the mind to suffer
The Slings and Arrows of outrageous Fortune,
Or to take Arms against a Sea of troubles,
And by opposing, end them?
Tilek svi’khaf-spol t’vathu – tilek svi’sha’veh:
The spear in the other’s heart is the spear in your own (For you are he).
Why do we wound each other so with words?
You support and mentor, guide and empathise.
Then the new kid on the block arrives
They know more than you
They know better than you.
Your feelings are trampled
Your words are misused
“I don’t mean to be disrespectful
But what you have said is distasteful”
Those words in themselves shout disrespect.
You have your own view
I can respect it
Please respect mine.
Neither is one hundred percent right
Nor one hundred percent wrong.
Don’t trample on my words and thoughts
Don’t hold me up to ridicule.
I should not have to defend my feelings
Don’t be last word Johnny.
We all experience life and what it has to offer in different ways
We are all unique individuals.
When you can walk in my shoes and feel my pain
Then you will have a right to comment.
Until then show some compassion and understanding for others
Don’t preen in public.
Acknowledge you don’t know everything
When the time comes for you to stand in this space
My hope for you is that there will be someone
To hold your hand and walk with you.
‘The spear in the other’s heart is the spear in your own – (For you are he).’
A RAINY NIGHT IN THE A HINTERLAND
Sleep evades me, I am weary, and the rain is no soft pattering lullaby.
But a relentless thrumming, crashing, roaring all around.
Tanks are overflowing, curtains of water cascade from guttering to ground.
Roaring, thudding loudly on the roof, finally
Exhausted I escape the unrelenting noise with sleep.
Awakened by the absence of noise, a complete stillness.
No insect, or night bird call, nothing.
No creak or snap to break the silence of the darkness.
Ears strain in the shadows for any sound other than my breathing
The soft sibilant hiss of approaching rain breaks the silence.
Stronger, louder, roaring like a train thundering closer and closer.
Rain unyielding closes in, locking out the world with a wall of moving silver.
The cycle begins anew, to escape sleep beckons again.
The quiet is broken by the kookaburra’s call,
The night has ended.
Pink flushes the grey veil as dawn struggles to be noticed.
The morning melodies commence.
The mountains wear their shawl of clouds,
And with a damp kiss the day dawns
With the promise of more rain to come.
The Ladybird, the Mace and Jack the Ripper
This is a standalone short story. It will be integrated into a larger fictional historical work that explores the link between Australia and Jack the Ripper. Based in Melbourne in the Gold Rush, 1868.
There are many factual allusions. Peter J Phalrick. M.P. Investigator and Journalist, is an unreliable, omniscient narrator who, 22 years after the events, releases his story, coincidentally following the death of the Ripper’s last victim.
The story is about a Ladybird, Maddy, who is violently raped, her revenge on her attacker and solving the puzzle of the missing Mace, all as told by Mr. Phalrick, is a conundrum. Was Mr. Phalrick, an eyewitness, is it hearsay, was he involved in the rape, was he the rapist?
The historical facts are;
- Queen Victoria’s son Prince Alfred, 23, was in Melbourne in 1868.
- Miss Sarah Ferguson’s establishment existed in Little Lonsdale Street.
- The Prince visited her premises.
- The Mace was stolen in 1890 and never recovered.
- A son of Queen Victoria was a person of interest in the Ripper cases.
- All streets mentioned existed.
- An urban legend suggests a tunnel connected Parliament house and the bordellos of Little Lonsdale Street.
- A tunnel under Parliament was converted to a war room and air raid shelter in the 1939-45 war.
- A Ladybird was a colloquial term for a high-class prostitute.
- Prostitution was legal at that time.
THE LADYBIRD, THE MACE, AND JACK THE RIPPER
‘Pray, allow me to introduce myself. Peter J. Phalrick.M.P, Member of Parliament, journalist and investigator, at your service.
For your edification, I present my documented account of the Ladybird and the missing Mace. If you, as an intelligent reader have cause to doubt the veracity of these events; my diaries and other documents are at your disposal.’
Melbourne, June 21st, 1868.
Members Quarters Parliament House.
The four men assembled were getting drunker by the moment, and they were turning nasty. Maddy was concerned, she had not agreed to this, as she stood to leave the blonde man stopped her and whispered,
‘Where do you think you’re going, whore?’
‘Sir, you all know Miss Sarah’s rules. If you will allow me to fetch Lizzie and Lucy, we can have a real party.’
She itched to smack him for calling her a whore. No one called Miss Ferguson’s girls’ common whores.
Grabbing Maddy roughly by the arm, he held her captive.
‘You’re whore enough for us. How would you like to be serviced by this? After all, you should be able to handle it.’
Smirking at his own joke, he pointed the rod at her. Drunk and grinning like a lunatic, his wig was askew, his face flushed and distorted, his eyes bulged and spittle-flecked the corners of his mouth. Sarah was frightened.
She dropped her eyes to his crotch, surprised that there was no bulge. Jonny won’t play, she thought, perhaps that’s why there was a problem last night.
‘Maybe Sir, when the others arrive I can help,’ and seeking to appease him she made to caress him. Reeling away from her touch, he swung at her with his fist and she fell.
‘You filthy Trollope! How dare you touch me? Don’t you know who I am?’ He bellowed, ‘hold her down. She needs a lesson in how to behave in company.’
Maddy tried to rise, the others grabbed her limbs and held her down. Fighting to protect herself she tried to kick out, but they did not release their hold.
Bending down he ripped her bodice, her breasts exposed, he came close, and like an animal, he bit at her. She felt a searing pain. She screamed. He stood, and spat out the nipple he had bitten off. He laughed. One man retched, none let go, but all averted their eyes, maintaining their grip on her limbs.
‘Sir enough please, we can send her back with Jenkins.’
Ripping her gown and petticoats from hem to waist, and in a soft caressing voice he replied,
‘No — I am going to teach this filthy little Ladybird a lesson.’
Maddy felt her dress being ripped, she was aware of her legs being dragged and held apart. He knelt between her legs, and she experienced a pain such as she had never felt in her life, as he rammed the handle of the rod inside her. Three times he violated her, then making a mocking flourish, he bowed announcing,
‘Arise Madam Whore, you’ve been serviced by an instrument of the Queen.’
Panting, and turning away he threw the rod on the floor, it was covered in blood. The men released their grip, they were retching, pale and shaken.
They all turned their backs on her.
Maddy struggled to open her eyes, the pain was intense. Turning her head she saw the rod on the ground. She found the strength to get to her knees and clutching the rod, Maddy crawled towards him. He stood at the buffet drinking, tearing meat from the pheasant carcass. She called his name, softly.
Surprised, he turned, and she thrust up with all her strength. Pushing the rod into his groin. The cross on the top of the crown acted like a knife, his sac was opened. She drew back and slashed, blood spurted, and she slashed again. He collapsed, screaming and rolling in pain.
Using the rod for support, Maddy dragged herself to her feet. She pulled her tattered gown together and stumbled from the room. The door to the tunnel was close by; she knew she had to flee, her life depended on it.
Night Watchman’s Rounds 3:00am
Michael Patrick Jenkins had been a member of the Royal Irish Constabulary. The past twelve years he had been the night watchman in the newly built Parliament House in Melbourne. Tonight Jenkins was bored, and he was ready for a good kip, but he needed to complete his rounds, just in case, he thought, just in case.
His watch was usually quiet and he liked that, but things had been turned upside down with the arrival of Her Majesty’s son. His Highness was on a world tour. As he collected his knobkerrie and the lantern, he muttered to himself,
‘Probably keeping him out of the way,’ he sighed, ‘I wish he was out of my way.’ Only last night he’d gone through to Miss Ferguson’s establishment in Stephen Street and with the help of Red Will, brought His Highness and the others back through the tunnel. A nasty man when in his cups and he’d cut up pretty rough. Ruefully, Jenkins rubbed the bruises on his arms.
Most of the building had gas light now including the Great Library. There were some areas without lighting and the rambling building always had work crews adding and extending. The Gold Rush had made Melbourne a wealthy town.
Halfway through his rounds, he heard a low moaning and voices behind the green baize doors of the Members quarters.
Raising his knobkerrie he rapped thrice on the door and requested entry. He heard scuttling and whispering, the moaning continued;
“Who is it?
“It’s Jenkins Sir. Can I be of assistance?’
More scuttling and slowly the door opened, hands grabbed him drawing him inside. The door shut quickly behind him. He thought he had seen everything, but the scene that met his eyes was unbelievable. Furniture was strewn about the room and there was blood everywhere. It looked and smelled like the inside of the butchering shed where he killed the pigs at home. He crossed himself,
‘Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, begging your pardon Gentlemen, but what has happened here? Should I be fetching the Constables?’
The tallest of the three men standing in the room answered,
‘No, for God’s sake man, just go and fetch Dr. Anderson. Then get back here as fast as you can.’
Jenkins left, returning almost immediately with the Doctor.
‘He was practically on the doorstep Sirs. He had been attending a patient nearby.’
The men exchanged glances.
‘Check him out Anderson, and be quick about it,’ the tall man spoke roughly to the doctor. As they stood aside, for the first time Jenkins was able to identify the man in the daybed. He was moaning and holding his privates. He was one of the four men he and Red William had brought back from Miss Sarah’s the night before.
‘Not a word Jenkins, you too Anderson, not a word to anyone.’
Dr. Anderson took off his coat and rolled up his sleeves,
‘You have our word, don’t they Jenkins? We know how to keep our mouths shut. I could sell a dozen juicy stories to the Argus should I choose to do so.’
Anderson looked around the room and started issuing orders. An ex-Army major he was not to be bullied by this group. He assigned various tasks from cleaning to removing the food. The three glared him rebelliously.
‘Well you won’t want me bringing the cleaning women in here and them wagging their loose tongues. Hop to it now, gentlemen. Jenkins will assist me.’
The man’s britches were around his ankles and his undergarments soaked with blood.
‘Sir, can you hear me?’
The man stopped moaning and nodded his head. ‘Am I going to die?’
“You have lost a lot of blood. But once I get you stitched up, you should survive if you don’t get a fever’.
Moving the man’s hands from his groin he cut the silk garments away. Meanwhile, Jenkins prepared the hot water and towels. Anderson addressed the room at large;
‘How did this happen? It appears you were all having a party?’
The tall man snarled, ‘It is safer if you don’t know. Just do your job and shut up.’
Anderson winked at Jenkins and cleaned and stitched. After a while, he stood and washed his hands.
‘Well Sir, I hope you don’t want to father any children. I have saved your life but I could not save everything. Make sure you see your Physician. Can I suggest Sydney by the sea, as a good place for a recovery,’ and wrapping the testicles in a napkin he laid them on the man’s chest.
Jenkins escorted Doctor Anderson to the main door, speaking softly he said,
‘Be careful Doctor these men are powerful they can destroy you.’
‘Thank you, Jenkins, but I know where the evidence is buried. They need me and they know it,’ and tipping his hat, he walked out into the cold dawn.
Miss Ferguson’s Establishment
Maddy struggled to open the entrance to the tunnel. She fell, hard, banging her knees on the rough cobblestones. Her tears caked the rice powder she had carefully applied hours earlier. Her eye was swelling, she could barely see. The lampblack she used to outline her beautiful blue eyes made them sting. Shivering and panting with snot running down her face, she looked like a garish clown. Her mouth was a red slash against her white face, and her hair tumbled about her face freed from its pins It was bitterly cold in the tunnel, and she put her hand on the damp wall to steady herself. Sobbing and pulling herself up, she wiped her nose on the sleeve of her gown. In the half-light, she couldn’t see the blood.
‘Sweet Mother of Jesus,’ she sobbed, ‘they’ll have the rozzers on me for this.’
Limping, stumbling, she kept moving forward. She felt the blood running down her legs. That fecking bastard, he won’t do this to another girl, she thought. He deserved what she had done to him. She clutched at her clothes, cradling her stomach, the hurt was worse, she was finding it harder move.
The tunnel started downhill, she must be under Stephen Street. I am half way home, she thought. It was then she realised the heel of her shoe was missing. Sarah had warned her about wearing her good shoes in the run. Most of the Ladybirds wore their boots and changed their shoes at the end of the tunnel. She knew she was going to get a hiding when she returned tonight -if she returned.
Suddenly the gas light in the tunnel flickered, one of the doors must have opened. She stopped and caught her breath. With her hand over her mouth to stop herself from crying out, she flattened her thin, battered body against the slimy wall. Turning her head she looked back the way she’d come, listening for the smallest sound. But the only noises she heard were the squeaking and scrabbling of the rats in the tunnel.
Her right arm ached, in astonishment, she looked down at the long jewel encrusted club in her hand. Without thinking she threw it from her as far as she could. Clanging loudly it bounced on the cobbles and rolled straight back to her feet. She looked at it mesmerised, but afraid. Slowly and deliberately she stretched out her hand. It lay there shining in the dull light, dimmed in places by splashes of colour that did not belong. It repulsed her, but she knew if she left it lying there, one day it would see her hanged. Taking a deep breath she removed her shawl, picking up the club she wrapped it carefully.
‘Sweet Jesus,’ she cried, ‘I will hang for this, but I will take that bastard with me.’ Then moving as best she could, she made her way to the end of the tunnel.
Crawling up the rise, she knew she was getting closer to Sarah’s basement in Little Lonsdale. Sarah would know what to do. She would even welcome the flogging if she was safe with Sarah. In pain, and dragging herself along she gasped for breath; reaching the door she lifted the club knocking on the door, three knocks was the signal. The bolt was drawn back, the door opened, she saw Red Will standing there, and then she remembered falling.
That last thing Red Will expected when he drew back the bolt was to see Maddy bleeding her dress in tatters. Scooping her up, he lifted gently her off the floor and laid her on his cot. Throwing a blanket over her to warm her, he barred the passage door. Leaving her, he made his way upstairs. He needed Sarah.
Sarah saw him standing in the parlour doorway, he stood there, silent, wringing his hands.
Nodding to Phoebe she indicated the piano;
‘Miss Phoebe, do be a dear, entertain these charming Gentlemen with some music. Miss Lucy will assist you. Dinner and drinks are on the house Gentlemen. Please excuse me I have business to attend to.’ Favouring the gentlemen with her brilliant smile, Sarah curtsied deeply and took her leave. Shutting the door firmly behind her, she pushed Red Will into the passage and hissed at him,
‘What in the name of all that’s holy man, are you doing up here? Is that blood on your clothes?’
Red Will started, looking at his shirt, then with an unusual urgency in his soft voice, he pleaded,
‘Miss Sarah come quick, it’s real bad, it’s Miss Maddy,’ and not waiting for Sarah to answer he headed back to his room.
Sarah followed. He opened the door, she knew there was going to be trouble.
‘Go, find Mrs. Flanders tell her to bring hot water and rags and towels. Then ask Eliza to send Lucy to the parlour. When you have done that, fetch Doctor Anderson, and the priest. Hurry. Tell them it’s urgent.’
Red Will needed no further urging and was gone before Sarah finished speaking. Moving to the cot she lifted the blanket, Maddy’s gown was ripped and bloody. Sarah’s eyes widened with dismay as she saw the object Maddy held in her hand. She gently removed it. Then shawl and all, she rolled the club out of sight under the cot. She would deal with it later. Maddy was crying no sound, just tears.
‘Hush child, you are safe now, Sarah’s here,’ and she gently brushed Maddy’s tousled hair back from her face.
‘Blessed Mary, what has happened?’ Mrs. Flanders appeared in the doorway as by magic. Placing the basin on the table beside the cot, she did not ask any further questions. Gently she removed the blanket, she crossed herself,
‘May God preserve us. The poor little lamb. Who did this to her?’ Not waiting for an answer she pushed Sarah to the door, ‘go and wait for the Doctor. Have you called the priest? Good. Get Lizzie down here now.’
As she paused to take a breath, Sarah answered, ‘Red Will has gone for Anderson and the priest, and Lizzie will be here in a minute. Can you manage?’ with a sad smile she held the older woman’s arm, ‘don’t let this one die Flanny.’
‘I will do my best Miss Sarah, but it may not be good enough. Now go and get changed before you get blood on that dress’
Taking a large pair of scissors from her pocket, she cut the slashed and bloodied dress from the still form. She tried to staunch the bleeding, cleaning Maddy as best she could. Maddy opened her eyes, seeing Flanny she smiled, then taking a last shuddering breath, she died.
It is an interesting, but sad tale of a beautiful Ladybird and a scandal. Sweet Maddy was buried the next day. There was no investigation into her death, as Doctor Anderson signed she died of fever. There was an inquiry, of course into the disappearance of the Mace, but it was never found. Death knows how to keep its secrets, and it lies with Maddy in her coffin. Recent news received from London suggests one of the Queen’s sons is suspected of being Jack the Ripper. What an interesting thought!
I remain your obedient servant,
Peter J Phalrick M.P.
July, 30th 1890.
I worry about advancing age and where the path will lead me.
But that fades into nothingness.
I worry about fracking and open cut mining and deforestation.
And the world I leave to my grandsons.
I worry about the people up North,
Who can’t drink or bathe in their water,
Because it is polluted and burns their skin and causes illness.
I worry at the rise in still-born births in areas where mining is heaviest.
I worry about a government that sends minions in the dark of night,
To take families with babies to camps off shore where there is no help
No protection only chaos.
I worry that we have a government that does not care.
That has no compassion for the stateless, the sick, the elderly or the young with dementia.
I worry about a company that is paid millions in tax refunds
To a news agency who dictates what we see and hear in the media.
I worry that no one seems to care that the world is being torn apart,
Not simply by unjust laws, bigotry and discrimination;
But by Nature herself with earthquakes, cyclones, unseasonal weather.
I worry that the earth’s lubricants are being stripped and the plates are moving.
I worry that the planets lungs are being ravaged and destroyed.
I worry about the poisons poured into our fields,
Where we grow our food and seeping into the water table.
I worry that we are blind to the damage we are causing.
To the damage I am causing every day with our throw away style of living.
I worry we have no regard for the value of a life.
I worry that power and money are more important that human life or the life of this planet.
I worry that we have lost the understanding of the words sentient and compassion.
I worry we have forgotten what it is to be human.