Original Words

I Love You Still

by Nick Brennan

If looks could kill
I'm a dead man walking
Haunted by your eyes
I love you, still dunno what I was thinking

I apologise

I'm drifting on the mercy of the tide
Cut me loose if that's your will
Sink or swim, I'm never givin' in
Because I love you still

If these walls could speak
They'd be talking
I'm staring at them now
The simple truth will spoil their story

Truth is, I let you down

I'm drifting in the shadows of the wind
Cut me loose if that's your will
How long is this lonely piece of string?
How long can I love you still?

It's a funny kind of limbo
Not wanting to be free
The longer that we linger
The worse its gonna be

If time can heal
I'm overdosing
On all the time in the world
Each new day is one inch closer

Like sand into a pearl

I'm drifting from one day to the next
A Jack without a Jill
Out on the ropes, I'm holding onto hope
That I can love you still
I can love you still


I'm drifting on the mercy of the tide
Cut me loose if that's your will
Sink or swim, I'm never givin' in
Because I love you still

(C) Nick Brennan 2016

An elephant in the room

Alan Lackey

Sinking in the sea
A mermaid talked to me;
A woollen book
Is ruined wet
She told me just to breath

A tree branch
Breaks in the night
Like broken light
The tarpoline might
Just drip on me

A dream in sight
With ocean rain
To wake again

My sweat
My legs, they ache with acid
My heart, beating in my chest
No, I haven’t bought a gun
I’ve just been for a run

To drink water

On the red tundra
On the asphalt spinal grey
On the school yard, white phosphorus
Kids play

Pumpkin Soup

Jan Orman 

He was serving the soup when I realised that he’d slept with almost everyone at the table. It was pumpkin soup – very popular in the eighties.

We had a strange little house back then. It was tall and narrow with only two rooms on each of its 3 levels, if you don’t count the bathroom. Two bedrooms at the top, a study and lounge room in the middle and the kitchen, bathroom and dining room at the bottom, down below street level. It was all we could afford when we bought it and we stayed there quite a bit longer than we needed to because Tony thought it very cool and quaint and he was always keen to be different. It was a bugger to live there when I was very pregnant. All those stairs between the bedroom and the bathroom!
That’s why the make up of the guest list hadn’t become clear to me til they all sat down to the table. Tony had served cocktails upstairs in the living room, I’d been downstairs in the kitchen with the soup.
The previous Monday Tony had just said “Can we do six to dinner on Saturday night?” and hadn’t told me who he’d invited. I hadn’t asked. I’d been distracted and just agreed. In those days you didn’t worry about the vegetarians and the gluten frees – you just cooked a dinner that everyone enjoyed more or less depending on their state of sobriety.

I noticed, when I did finally enter the dining room, that Ginger had claimed the head of the table. She was facing the windows, her flowing hair reflected many times over in the multifaceted mirrors behind her that we'd carefully placed to bring the garden into the tiny dining room. The peach of the walls only served to brighten the fire of her hair. She looked incredibly pleased with herself and was regaling everyone with a story of her recent impromptu cabaret triumph at a winery dinner in the Hunter. I silently hoped we were not in for a repeat performance tonight. 

There were smiles all round as I placed the steaming tureen amid the gleaming crystal and tastefully decorated Doulton and settled myself down at the kitchen end of the table, leaving Tony to do the honours with the soup.  The room glowed pink and peach with a touch of baby blue – even the dull orange of the soup and the sparkling pink of the champagne resonated with the theme.
Ginger, in shimmering scarlet with a deep plunging neckline, had insisted that Tony sit on her right, which wasn’t ideal for serving the soup but he managed to do it without dripping on the damask which was quite a feat considering the obvious distraction of Ginger’s hand on his thigh. Freddy, on Ginger’s left, was visibly overwhelmed in her presence, having never met her before, but the rest of the table, used to her style after so many years, ignored her and carried on.
The gorgeous Jenny, who’d come on Freddy’s arm in tight grey leather pants clinging to her slim hips, high black boots and an emerald silk blouse, was coping well considering her history with Ginger. I wasn’t sure they’d spoken to each other since Tony’s one night stand with Ginger (one of many that I knew about) back when Tony was nominally Jenny’s man. Jenny clearly felt on top of things though, with her newly cropped dark hair and giant black and green earrings giving the good old London Look a second workout. She caught my eye and winked over her glass as we toasted old and absent friends and hoped sincerely that they were having as good a time as we were.

David sat on my left beside Jenny, looking a little uncomfortable, but for a different reason to Freddy. He was the one guy in the group at Uni who had ever been in Ginger’s thrall. He‘d come without a partner this time but Ginger was not going to trouble him. David is Tony’s oldest and still his closest friend, but he hadn’t known any of these university friends very well and I was pretty sure he was wondering just how much these guys knew about him. He was clearly nervous and drinking pretty rapidly and I noticed that Tony, always the compassionate one, was helping things along a bit by refilling David’s glass well before he emptied it.
That left Sarah and Andrew on my right. Oh my God they are so “rural”! Andrew had on his best dark blue and beige checked shirt (not flannelette at least), a blue wool jumper and a pair of beige chinos – set off to perfection by a shiny new pair of Windsor Smiths - in cowpat brown. Sarah’s dull grey-brown hair hung in lank waves down to her hips, as it always had. She wore a blue floral knee length dress (the kind of tiny floral best suited to bed sheets) and flesh coloured pantyhose with their reinforced toes peeping through her open-toed sandals. Sarah, amazingly, had been Tony’s first girlfriend, and everyone knew her history  - everyone except her husband Andrew, that is. Sarah had sworn us to secrecy about her sleepovers with Tony once Andrew had come along. He was a lovely old fashioned boy, she said, and wouldn’t cope if he knew.

For main course we had rack of lamb with pureed peas, a julienne of carrots and parsnips and potatoes dauphinoise.  I didn’t remember until too late that it had been Sarah had who’d introduced me to potatoes cooked that way many years ago when, straight from the country, all I’d know about potatoes was how to mash them and where to buy chips. She looked pleased as punch when I put the dish on the table and smiled affectionately in my direction.
Tony did well with the racks - carved them up evenly and skilfully with only Ginger demurring about the size of her portion.  A feint blush of alcohol was already beginning to spread across her porcelain cleavage and I knew it wouldn’t be long before a toilet trip was required. It took considerable effort after all to fit into such a tiny piece of fabric.
Two mouthfuls into my lamb the baby monitor began to wail. I sighed and smiled, put down my cutlery, dabbed my mouth and ran up the two flights of stairs to the nursery. Baby Bea was standing at the side of her cot looking alarmed, tears streaming down her cheeks. She held her arms out to me and clung to my neck. It took me a moment to realise just how much noise was floating up the stairs and that the door to her room had been left open. No wonder she was awake! She settled nicely with the door closed, a little feed and a few bars of Brahms lullaby. She was always such an easy baby.

On my return the dining room was in chaos. Ginger was sitting at the end of the table in tears, black mascara rivulets running down her smooth cheeks. Everyone else was on their feet.
Sarah, it seemed, had followed Ginger to the toilet and on her return had made a rather indiscreet comment about the froth on the water being a sure sign that someone had recently thrown up. Ginger, not denying it,  had claimed pregnancy. Jenny had chimed in to declare that she knew that was not the case, that Ginger was infertile from the chlamydia she’d got from Tony who in turn had got it from Sarah and, whats more, that Ginger should keep her hands for sticking down her own neck and not down other women’s partner’s pants (what had happened to poor Freddy, I wondered!)
Andrew, bright with rage, was demanding that Jenny take back those lies about Sarah.
Even David was in the fray. He had his arm firmly around Freddy, half consoling him, half holding him back from defending Jenny against Andrew’s attacks.

And across the room in the farthest corner stood Tony, leaning nonchalantly against the wall with a glass of wine in his hand, smiling widely, enjoying it all immensely. 

A Poem by Brendan McPhillips


Six and a half years ago a dear friend of mine gave birth to a daughter. Although she was a single mum, the child was very much wanted, and very loved. I became deeply attached to her. This was possibly because I have no biological children of my own, but, whatever the reason, it was very painful when, 2 years ago, my friend returned to her native country, France. It was the right thing to do, and we have worked hard to maintain the connection via skype, and several visits back and forth. On one of the skype sessions I asked my god-daughter – there has been no baptism, but that’s what she is – if I could have a glass of water. A silly, teasing question. She was understandably non-plussed, and, smiling confusedly, said that, since I was on the other side of the island, she couldn’t get it for me.
I loved the sense she had made out of our separation, and for several years have struggled, not only with the loss of her presence in my life, but also with a poem that has her phrase as the title. Here’s where I’m up to:


From the Other Side of the Island

I said.
It was dark and hot.
The aeroplane on the tarmac was sitting like a vulture.
Your arms became a net
whose mesh held my neck.

that my face is painted on a screen.
I am sitting next to you
on the other side of the island
where it is light and cold.

I never knew children love
like fires burning in the hearts of stars.
Like cyclones building waves
until they are mountains.
Like earthquakes opening their mouths
and swallowing the world.

I remembered that day.
We swung on swings
and spun on things that spin
and ate an ice cream on the grass.
I said.
as I gave you up to the babysitter.

I watched
you run down the corridor.
I watched
your world fling itself into a wall
and smash into one hundred million pieces.
I watched
your body shake electric,
as I turned and picked you up.
Like a bird might pluck its fledgling
from the fall through unready air.

I never knew my arms were also a net.

Each night
you are there.
Behind my eyes.
Rugged against the Easter cold
you search for small chocolates
hidden in my garden.
Breath working hard your little body
you clamber over the small hills of your toys.
you splash the bathwater,
and look and me.

I never knew I, too, would love
like flood-water breaking cities apart.
Like suns arcing
and turning planets to dust.
Like wind lifting ocean-liners
and hurling them into cliffs.


Bruce Lachter

Chapter 1

I began my prison year as a visitor observing another world. I wondered what it would be like to live there, and about the sex of prison. Her walls were smooth, and stood above me like a dominant woman, red and massive against the sky. Her hair was sharp and shiny razor wire. Metal gates bejewelled her, their grip-sized padlocks as clasps, female to the male keys dangling on every officer's hip. 

I wondered about sex in prison. Do men forget how long since their last kiss, when they are behind bars? Would I forget? Would I kiss them? Probably a fuck is a fuck, and a screw is a screw, and a fuck can be taken, given, or shared. But a kiss? No, men do not kiss each other in prison. That said, of course they do.
On my first day, an officer told me the crucial difference between wants and needs:
"Needs we'll help them with, like a shit or a piss or food. But wants - well, they're in prison, so wants wait."
This simple logic led to conflict, as simple logic invariably does, because in its simplicity it denies the myriad subtleties and possibilities of every living moment. Listen to the first prisoner I interviewed and you'll see what I mean. It was a question of definitions. He defined his desire to call his solicitor as a "need".
"I need to call my solicitor right now," he said. He was unshaven, and swarthy. He had told me that his wife could read his mind by voodoo, being a witch, so now he was in trouble, and only his solicitor could get him out of it. I thanked him for his time, and suggested he ask the officer about the phone-call. But the officer defined this request as a "want" which would not be immediately gratified. Then the shouting started. I did not see how it ended, being soon busy with my next interview. That is the doctor's privilege: when things get nasty, he can leave because he is busy - always saving lives - but really ducking around the corner to the tea-room to have a nice cup of tea.
"Prison is a brutal place," I would say to others after work, to titillate them and safely share in some of that brutality myself. After all, if it was brutal, then I must be a hard man to venture so near. But there is a world of difference between observing and experiencing. That is the psychiatrist's plight: to be an eternal voyeur, a nonentity, marginalised. Vicarious pleasures become a habit.
I met Sam in the tea-room of the prison clinic. He was a likeable armed robber. A perfectly spherical belly strained the fabric of his faded blue T-shirt, like a big melon jutting above his stubbies. He wore regulation prison-issue Dunlop Volley sandshoes. Not for his feet the flash Nikes of the young junkies. His feet didn't need much cushioning because he spent most of his day sitting down. And Sam hadn't seen his feet in years.
Sam was the clinic "sweeper", a sentenced prisoner who was given chores such as cleaning, washing up, running errands - not that Sam ever ran. To be the clinic sweeper made for a cushy life, and plenty of food to feed his belly. Sam perched on his plastic chair, one freckled and tattooed forearm resting on the laminated table and the other against the grimy sink, like a dilapidated boxer in his corner waiting for the next round. His brain resembled a boxer's, too, although the frontal lobes had been pickled in alcohol, not withered by constant pummelling. And like legendary heavy-weight champion of the thirties, "Two-ton Tony Gallento", Sam had trained on beer and pizzas. But instead of coming out of the corner with his dukes up, he'd stay there, 
and open up the little wooden box he'd made to hold his cigarettes, and pluck one out and gently press it into his plastic cigarette holder, and light up. Then he would draw back with such languorous pleasure that a non-smoker would wonder if it wasn't worth the risk of lung cancer, after all. Sam's eyes narrowed, his jowls wobbled and tautened with the first insufflation, and then bulged slightly in silent exhalation, smoke rising as one with its source to some higher plane of rapture. Then he'd return to the known world, and gently enquire in his husky drawl:
"Hope youse don't mind if I has a smoke. It's me first of the day."
I never complained, nor commented on his fruity hack. Sam was useful. Sometimes when the nurses were too busy I would ask Sam to sign the consent forms as witness to an interviewed prisoner's signature. Sam wrote his moniker slowly and with great care. The curve of his "a" was perfect, resembling the convexity above his shorts. Then he'd look up and say: "I expect me payment, doc. Twenty bucks a pop, like youse agreed."
"Cheque's in the mail, Sam," I replied. "Trust me I'm a doctor."
Sam would chuckle as heartily the first time as the hundredth, and sometimes to get the last word in he'd add: "Yeah? Trust me, I'm a crim."
These are the simple pleasures of prison life. An idle exchange becomes ritualised to reassure the prisoner of his humanity, and the pleasure in every smoke is savoured when smokes are precious, and time is not. That's only sensible.
Sam took me on a tour of the prison yard. At each gate he yelled, "Gate up!" and then we waited. Along the rampart, an officer patrolled with his rifle slung over his shoulder, its burnished butt jutting back and up to where the sky hung blue and clear. The sky is beautiful from enclosed space, and we were given plenty of time to enjoy it. We waited and waited. The sentry strode to his post at the corner of the wall, and then walked back the way he'd come. Nothing very much seemed to be happening on our tour.
"Do we always have to wait this long to be let out, Sam?" I asked.
"Mate, I've been waitin' for years to get out of this place. One thing you need here is patience, and a sense of humour."
"That's two things," I didn't say. I didn't want Sam to think I was a smart-arse.
Then an officer arrived and said "Gedday, Saaam" and Sam said, "Gedday, maaaate. Alright if I show the doc around the yard?"
"Sure, Sam. Just don't leave him behind."
The officer opened the gate and we passed through to the yard of the main prison, where prisoners roamed in little knots, and huddled on seats, and lifted weights and played hand-ball and tennis and generally ignored us as we walked around. But I could not ignore the prisoner serving on the tennis court: long black hair, bright lip-stick, and pert breasts. Sam caught me staring.
"Not bad for a cat, eh?" he said.
"Not bad at all, Sam," I didn't say. I didn't want Sam to think I was perving at a bloke, even if it was a bloke who looked more like a woman. 
"Havin' a bit of a perv, doc?" he teased.
Then we came to another gate and Sam yelled "Gate up!" and we got through that one too. But the big gates remained closed even to Sam, or open only to let him in. He couldn't seem to stay out of jail; maybe he didn't want to.
An officer called Barry told me about this. Barry himself had been at the prison for the last twenty years, "apart from two years in a real job", but he still only had two stripes on his epaulettes. After three stripes they got a 'pip'. Three pips became a 'crown', the rank of governor. Out in the yard, among the plain blue T-shirts, the signs of rank were less obvious, but theirs was a hierarchy just as strict.
"There's two turning points for a crim, which maybe should be called his 'straightening points', because they are his chances to go straight," Barry reckoned. "Most seem to wake up to themselves at thirty. A bloke in jail at thirty says to 'isself, 'I'm a bloody mug, wasting me life in here,' and gets out and stays out. But if it's not occurred to him at thirty, he'll likely be around another ten years. Then at forty, the same thing will crop up, that he oughtta get out for good. But a few stay on longer, like Sam. He'd be lost on the outside."
Sam's career in detention began in boy's homes, then jail at 17.
"I was a punchy rascal," he said. "Would have got meself flattened but me dad's mates looked after me on the inside, so I never had no trouble."
"Now you only cause trouble, eh Sam?" the Kiwi nurse, Shauna, said.
She teased Sam, but he liked the attention, and took her comments as flirtatious. Shauna was cute in appearance, rough in her language, and kind in her behaviour - a combination which appealed to Sam and to most of the other prisoners. The clinic staff appreciated Sam, an old-fashioned crim with an old-fashioned integrity and loyalty. He was the first sweeper they trusted not to steal drugs from the medication trolley. After Sam knocked off at three p.m. Shauna told me he was celibate, but her boss, a male nurse called Chia, wasn't so sure.
"It's very hard to know," Chia said. "We only found out the other day how another sweeper - been in 23 years - raped his teenage cell-mate. But they reckon there's been plenty more too afraid to squeal."
“Why not squeal, if you’re having fun?” Shauna said, and gave me a wink.
“That’s enough, Shauna,” Chia said. “Rape is no laughing matter.”
“Who said anything about laughing?” Shauna persisted.
Chia ran the prison clinic, but Shauna was not going to let him run her. No-one knew whether 'Chia' was his first name or his surname. He was Chinese, we assumed, but his origins, like his accent, were obscure. Although Chia seemed as anonymous as the night, his clinical acumen and respect for patients were clear as day. The main diagnostic question Chia and his GP, Nick, faced was detecting genuine need among the malingering mass of prisoners. A prisoner had to earn the right to become a patient, to accrue the privileges of the sick role, but Chia had been around long enough to know that even malingerers occasionally became ill.
An officer joined in our chat over afternoon tea. He was a pugnacious "baggy" - a new recruit without stripes or sense.
"Bloody laughable," he said. "The sweeper's a sweeper 'cos he's trusted, and he turns around and rapes a bloke in his cell. So how many others has he been chocking? Are you here to work that out, doc? That'd be bloody useful research, instead of this stuff 'bout scizzyphrebia. They shouldn't have these bloody sweepers. It's a security risk."
"Which means you don't like it because you can't bully Sam," Chia said to the officer. Then Chia bowed his bald pate to take a sip of lemon tea and a mouthful of plain boiled rice, hot from the microwave. 
"No Soya sauce, no nothing, eh Chia?" Shauna said, smiling at her boss as he waved his chopsticks in the air. This seemed to signal that the conversation was over, and that the upstart baggy could formulate his hypotheses elsewhere. I never saw Chia consume anything other than this frugal fare of rice and tea, a cultural equivalent of bread and water. He was fastidious and gruff and, everyone agreed, a bloody good nurse.
My structured interviews to diagnose mental illness – including ‘scizzyphrebia’ - among the prisoners were long and frustrating and tedious for interviewer and interviewee, so we would often break to yarn. During one such lull, a prisoner said: "Nothing is real in here. I think it's a dream, like I'll wake up and it'll be gone." 
Freud held that dreams are generated by an unfulfilled wish. Freud also knew that dreams are not easy to decipher. One morning Sam brought in some raw meat, a big slab of beef which he divvied up with a scalpel on the tea-room table. The meat was from the prison butcher; the scalpel, from Nick, the clinic GP. When we met, Nick said to me: "You look too normal to be a psychiatrist."
"Looks can be deceptive," I said.
Despite the lovely steaks he was carving, Sam seemed morose all day. It was awkward with him sometimes. I thought he was saddened by the death that morning of an obese prison officer who had collapsed while doing step aerobics at the prison gym. After Shauna had tried to resuscitate him, she sat in the tea-room, quiet and close to tears. And Sam just stared at the floor, and dug his scalpel into the linoleum table-top. Sam, heart of gold, I thought. A prisoner cutting up the lino because he's all cut up by the death of one of his guards. A lot of the younger prisoners cut themselves up. In frustration or despair, they would slide a razor blade across a tattooed arm or thigh, drawing blood between the ink, adding scars to the tattoos. Sam disapproved of self-mutilation. He preferred to dissolve his frustrations in alcohol.
We were one happy family in our little clinic, so I thought. Close and caring. Turned out Sam didn't give a stuff about the deceased officer. He was moping because his missus didn't visit that day - Valentine's. 
I was moping, too, but attempted to keep that to myself for those first weeks, while I could still lose my pain in the prison clamour. If not close and caring, then at least prison was noisy and distracting. 

Chapter 2

Love took many forms in prison. The trannies as erotic mates were chaperoned through their lag by a succession of handsome bucks. When one was transferred or released, another took his place. Charlene was the gorgeous Maori transsexual whose serve I had admired on the tennis court during Sam's tour. Nigel was her buck. He protected her, in exchange for favours, and they had become attached, an "item". Nigel was big and mean and threatened bloody violence when he was to be transferred to a country prison, sent away without his love. 
Shauna went to see him before he left, but to no avail: he was heartbroken and enraged, a man who had never been loved or valued or cared for in his life until prison romance. It was tough on Charlene for a while after he went, until another buck took Nigel's place as protector and provider. But Nigel did not forget his first true love. Like D.H. Lawrence, he believed "On reviens toujour a son premier amour" – one always returns to one’s first love. But unlike D.H., Nigel was illiterate. 
He dictated his love letters from the country jail to whoever would listen, and care to write them down. The written version was often somewhat more lewd than Nigel’s spoken words. It was hard to keep things secret in prison, and prisoners did not respect a man's tenderest feelings, so Nigel quickly became the butt of ridicule in his new home. He didn't care. Nor did he care that his letters were read by the officers at the receiving end, for security reasons, again to much hilarity, and that Charlene's new buck pinned them to the noticeboard on the landing. Nigel lost his appetite. He no longer worked out in the gym every day. He moped and said little, apart from the daily letters spoken to Charlene. Soon after he stopped sending them, he hung himself.
I heard two officers discuss his death. 
"They lost another one up in the bush."
"Who was it?"
"Nigel the spiv."
"Dunno him."
"You've read his letters. The love-lorn poet."
"Ah, the one with the hots for the cat. Will she go to his funeral?"
"Mate, she wouldn't even spit on his grave."
"Suppose that means flowers are out of the question."
What's love? Kevin knew the answer. He told me as I led him from the holding cell to my office in the clinic. He was gaunt, with grog-withered eyes. A tight bun held his black hair hard against his small skull.
"Love is a long-shot, doc, but with my little lady I reckon I've hit the jack-pot. Wouldn't be alive today without her. We were playing poker in the back-bar, and some dickhead reckoned I'd switched cards on him. Me missus saw his mate about to jump me and she whipped out her knife and put it straight through his heart. He died. She did six years. I call that love," Kevin said.
"Well, you could say it's a form of devotion," I said.
"Yeah, it's love, that's what it is. You gotta agree," he insisted.
"It's certainly a demonstration of her commitment to you, Kevin."
"Sure, doc. You said it: devotion and commitment, that's love," he concluded.
What would I know about love? Love is two empty vessels pouring their contents into each other. Its satiation is necessarily ephemeral. I could reduce love to constituent parts: a yearning to possess, and a surrender to possession, neither owning nor being owned. The ultimate gift has no strings attached. My prisoners seemed to understand that, when they gave their consent. "This interview won't help you directly, and it's completely voluntary. It is an investigation of the mental health of prisoners," I told them, a soothing mantra to be chanted six hundred times. That was the size of my sample, for statistical reasons, and because I liked the sibilance of 'six hundred subjects'. It was glorified market research, pretending to some higher moral stature than mere commerce. "This is in the name of science," I announced to a reluctant prisoner, but such grandiosity made me feel even more like a salesman.
"You married, doc?" Shauna asked me, while signing her name as witness to another pile of consent forms. It seemed this favour had strings attached.
"Not really."
"Look, what is this? I'm here to work, not give my life story."
"No, you get your stories from the prisoners. I just wanted to find out a bit more about you. What makes you tick. You've been here for weeks, and we don't know the first thing about your life outside work. It's like you don't have one."
"My work IS my life. Research is all-consuming, like an artistic pursuit, and I need to get ahead in my career."
"You need to get a life. And when you do, don't be afraid to share it."
"I appreciate your concern, but I don't think my private life is any of your business."
"Listen, we're both in helping professions aren't we? At this rate you won't be able to help anyone. I've seen it in other hot-shot docs, that's all. You give everything to your work, and it sucks you dry. So, be too busy for a life, if you want to fade away. Hey, why should I care?"
"It's a question of priorities. I happen to have a disciplined approach to my work."
"I'm sure you'd enjoy a bit of discipline, too."
"It's satisfying, to complete a task."
"Geez, I hope you're joking, or you're more of a boffin than I thought. Do you know anything about women? About their needs or enjoyments?"
"I've got two sisters. We are quite close."
"Listen, there's some things sisters don't tell you. There might be secrets, things a sister keeps to herself, away from their brother, so busy with his work all day. And night."
Chia had been listening to the nurse's interrogation, and was becoming as exasperated as me by her persistence. 
"Shauna, that's enough,” Chia said. “Why don't you give the doctor a break - he's got work to do. Work that he believes in, and that has never been an easy path to take. Let’s not make it any harder for him than it has to be.”
“What is it with you and work, Chia?” Shauna protested. “It’ll see you to an early grave, that’s for sure.”
“Whether you like it or not, sister, our work defines us. Criminals become criminals because they are too lazy for work, which is just as well because it is that same laziness that usually sees them get caught. That’s how criminals become prisoners: they are too lazy to dig their victim’s grave deep enough, too lazy to keep quiet about their robberies, too lazy to properly hide their tracks in all sorts of ways,” Chia replied. 
Shauna shrugged, and it was back to work for each of us. I felt relieved. The prisoners - my work - had arrived in the holding cell. But I found Chia’s idealisation of me and my work harder to handle than Shauna’s criticism. I had always yearned to be placed on pedestals, but once elevated felt unsteady upon them. Shauna was right: I had kept my past secret, but for now I had no intention of letting my guard down. 
This wounded bird was seeking somewhere safe. Shauna could sniff out those wounds, but it was not for her to open them up. The more determined she was to remove my mask of aloofness, the more firmly I clung to it. If prison had become my life, then that was just as well. For me, life outside prison had lost all meaning. This is the opposite of the prisoners’ experience, of course: for the prisoner, life behind bars is life on hold. They pine for the outside, to have their life back. For a while I could convince myself that I was as absorbed, as besotted, with this place as any man would be in the first blush of a love affair. Perhaps there was a belief in there somewhere – a belief in what I was doing - as Chia suggested.
After about twenty of these structured interviews, they began to enter my dreams. I was somewhere cold. There were wolves, with enormous teeth, but the wolves were friendly, or I sensed they could not harm me. Then I heard myself, a disembodied voice, reciting the questions over and over. My dead-pan delivery soothed the wild dogs. This pleased me, to attain in my dreams the perfect monotone of disinterested investigation, which I strived to reproduce when awake. I had to control for confounding variables. Systematic errors could ruin the data.
"Be a wooden Indian," my supervising professor had advised. "That way you will not introduce bias."
She had said this when I still trusted her, in those first weeks. A wooden Indian: that suited my purposes, to remain aloof, to coldly observe. By clinical detachment I shunned attachment. My task was to entice prisoners into voluntary anonymity as subjects, as data, while avoiding their insistent individuality, expressed as so many pleas for a phone call or a favour, or merely succour. They sought intimacy; I clung to my isolation. What else can a wooden Indian do? He cannot flinch, nor falter in his stern task. Was I a hardwood, or a softwood? When others are encountered in greatest numbers, the singularity of each is most readily ignored. A chorus of prison voices swept over me as an impersonal and vast vibration. It struck no common cord. This tension corrupted me: I used them, and discarded them, and felt I had sullied their trust.
"Come, talk to me, to meet my needs. I will fall for your story. Its details and lies will not be lost on me: I am an open container. Pour out your heart to me, that it may merge with mine."
How could they resist? At first, the refusal rate was less than ten per cent. These were the halcyon days. My past was private. My prison project was humming along. I was feeling stronger bit by bit, more confident among these hapless cases, impregnable in the face of their rants and pleas. It was a pleasure to have no clinical responsibility for them. They were there for me, not vice versa. 
Answers to my questions emerged in the welter of irrelevancies which the prisoners considered relevant, such as where they sprang from, and how they came to this, and what made up the waste of their days. I allowed them to squander my time with their hesitant replies and confused babble, because each subject brought me closer to my target. Six hundred. I felt in control, as long as the dialogue continued. 
From the beginning, the prisoners meant less to me than I could ever let them know. But as research fodder, I was forced to schmooz up to them, feigning interest in the myriad shoddy tales which washed over me in the accumulation of data.
I thought of buttering some of them up:
"You could be no other than yourself. You encompass and entail your experience of life in perfect honesty. You are as true a reflection as a face in a mirror," I could say, but I preferred to encourage co-operation by gestures, rather than words. It was less overt, and more effective because it worked subliminally. So I mirrored their movements, a crude mimicry in my clinic office. I swayed back to one subject's retreat, and leant forward to another's hunched eagerness. Nodding, posturing, grinning, bracing - these movements coincided like dance. 
In this silent choreography, I pushed through the tedium of the questions, and the obstacles and distractions of the prison and the clinic, to seek the details of another man's mind. I gently pried, and prised apart the convoluted petals laid in curves, a bulging calyx, to reveal the stamen. I was a painstaking and attentive biologist, but I despaired that my technique - fifteen ambiguous questions - could not support such rigour. These doubts only spurred me on to examine and explore, to extract all I could from the data, and from each face and each utterance. I was alert to the words, and the spaces between the words, and the grunts and coughs and snorts. I fed on the details of each subject, who gave obliviously, with no strings attached, until my interview was completed, and the data recorded on my hard-disc, and the prisoner was returned to his holding cell. We discarded the fact of our meeting with a shrug, in order to move on. Love is tireless, and voracious.
Then one prisoner was encountered who sought out my weakness and bound to me through it like a virus to fragile protoplasm. He touched the wooden Indian and found that it was flesh. I became ineluctably attached to this man, a political prisoner and personal nemesis named Antonio Gramsci. But this came later, when, of course, I least expected it. Psychiatrists observe through a lens, rendering themselves myopic because the whole is ungraspable in others' lives as in their own. My glasses cracked, and here, in prison, in this morass of social detritus, I was to learn the meaning of human relatedness, and its risk. In closeness we become most vulnerable. From seeing the prisoners as brief dots on a radar screen, or flickers of light on an oscilloscope, to myself reverberating, feeling, and alive. I failed as a wooden Indian. Another failure to add to the list. This much I had in common with the prisoners, none of whom came to this place for their successes. 
Before I descend further into the prison encounter, I will first describe the twists and turns in my psychiatric career which led me there.

 Afternoon Run

Jan Orman

I’d passed them three times already before the explosion. The first time around I’d wondered briefly what they were all doing there. I didn’t dwell on it for long though - it had been an awful day and I was intent on clearing my mind. Running does that for me.

I’ve only been back to running for a few months. I had a patch there, a few years actually, when exercise was not my friend. I tore my cruciate on a rocky ski slope during that winter three years ago when the snow came too late for the tourists, and the reconstruction did me in. I tried to swim but I hate the water, and I tried the gym but I can’t stand the gym junkies, so I gave up altogether and got lazy. A couple of months ago I looked in the mirror and the three letter f-word was all I could think of. The inspiration came back and I put on my jogging shoes and got out on my circuit again.

I think of this as my circuit. Some of the way I follow the prescribed tracks but it really irks me having to share the path with slow walking nonnas and kids with trainer wheels, so as soon as I can I veer off across the soccer fields and out into the suburban streets. When I’ve had a bad day like today, the best way to deal with it is to run it off. Three or four times round my circuit will usually do the trick. Today was definitely a four times around day.

On good days I don’t mind the complaints – that’s what I’m there for after all. If it weren’t for the complaints the Complaints Department wouldn’t exist and I wouldn’t have a job at all, so mostly I’m grateful for them. Some days though, the snivelling petty-mindedness of people really gets me down. Mostly I get angry and imagine what I would say if I could really tell them what I thought of them. Today I cried.

I’m not kidding. Today the fat guy in the Complaints Department (yes, that’s me) was reduced to tears by some stupid customer who didn’t seem to be aware that I was a person too. What can I say? Lucky nobody saw it or I would have been mortified beyond belief. As it is, even the embarrassment of the unwitnessed tears required four times around the circuit to be appeased.

On the far edge of the soccer field there’s a patch of grass on a gentle slope that’s been waiting for someone to do something with it for many years. Some pretty ordinary houses back onto it and they all have gates in their back fences so the kids can come out and play. There are often kids there – either on the soccer field or playing around on the grassy slope. The council, in their wisdom, have finally found a development solution to keep all the residents happy. They’ve created an outdoor gym. Steps, parallel bars for chin ups – you know the sort of thing. Today a crowd had gathered there. Everyone was just standing about waiting for something to happen and watching me as I huffed past.

The second time round the circuit I noticed a bit more. There were about 30 people – men dressed in shorts and t-shirts and a few dowdy women in dull gym gear from Best and Less. At first glance they looked like one big family, but after a minute I realised that what they had in common was their size. Great fat arms and legs bulging out of their gym clothes, pudgy hands and flabby faces and all moving with the lumbering gait of the morbidly obese. There was plenty of peroxide blonde and some tatts and piercings amongst them too, though not enough to cause alarm, and a couple of fat kids kicking a ball about in the background. There was also a familiar looking bloke in a suit and a couple of minders. It looked like they were about to officially open the “gym”.

The bloke in the suit reminded me a lot of the idiot who abused me today. (See I’m angry now – that’s a bit better at least). “This toaster does not toast” the disgruntled one had whined. “I have brought it back three times now and each time it has been replaced and the same thing has happened. I would like my money back”
“I’m sorry sir but store policy does not allow refunds on purchases. We are happy to replace faulty goods but we do not refund money”
“That is not good enough” he shouted. “Where I come from the onus is on the store to ensure they do not sell faulty goods. You have stolen my money. I want it back”
‘Where do you come from?” I asked conversationally.

I’m not at all sure what made me ask that particular question - just reflex I guess, a natural sequitur to his previous remark. He was completely incensed. Where he came from was “irrelevant”, I was “racist” and a “bigot”. He told me that if I thought he should go back to where he came from then so should I. He said I was “incompetent”, that I had no idea how to do my job, that I was “not fit to collect his garbage”.

Now, I know I was in the right about the refund and I know I was wrong to ask where he came from but I also know he had no right to react the way he did and he certainly had no right to suggest that I didn’t know my job. My job requires me not to argue or answer back when customers complain. I am only allowed to repeat store policy like a soldier repeats his name, rank and serial number. My anger rose and rose, and when he’d finally finished I burst into tears. He ran off then - he didn’t know what to do.

Now I’m running it off.  

Third time round there’s a smell of celebration in the air. The barbeque’s on and the lamb kebabs are browning nicely. There is pita bread, hommos and tabouleh on the table. Fat kids are hovering. Fat hands are grasping. One bloke is stuffing his face already, hummus dripping down his 5XL shirt.

I can’t look. I know what’s happening. The local branch of the fatties club has turned out for a free feed and that can only end in misery, as it usually does. Which of them will it be this time, I wonder? For whom will tonight have an unhappy ending?

Fourth time round and the ambulance is already there. It’s too late. There’s blood mixed with hommos all over the place. Body parts are strewn across the grass. The crowd watches in silence. They lose one like this every now and again. One of their number starts and cannot stop. Someone eats until they explode.
That’s just how it is nowadays.

Sex on Thursdays 

Jan Orman

"Have you noticed how much happier Dad seems to be these last few weeks?”
Bill looked up from the paper with the blankest look he could muster as Myra bustled in the door with the groceries. “You must have noticed! He’s even shaving and he told me today that he was planning to go back to bridge.” Bill smiled to himself but said nothing, not trusting himself to speak.
She was used to his silence so she just carried on.
“I have to say I don’t know what I think about it. On the one hand I’m really pleased – it’s time he tried to have a life without Mum – but on the other it feels wrong. Part of me thinks he should grieve for her forever."
That’s what he’d always loved about Myra. She was totally honest and full of very human contradictions. Who, for example, seeing her sweet face, her soft white curls and her plump matronly body, would ever believe she liked sex so much! Bill could only count his blessings on that score.
“At least it gets me off the hook a bit” Myra sighed. “I might not have to visit quite as often. My garden is a mess - I need to fix it up before Christmas. I think some of my friends have forgotten what I look like.”

Widowed at 72 after a marriage that lasted more than 50 years, Myra’s father had suffered badly with the grief. For almost a year he had hidden himself from view, hoping to die. For much of that time he had sat in his lounge room in the dark, refusing visitors, only managing to shower and eat when Myra or Bill appeared to make him do so. At the six month mark he had shown more signs of life. Bill noticed that sometimes when he arrived for his turn to visit on Thursdays the paper had been already read and occasionally the crossword in Wednesdays paper had a few answers in it as well. It was such a slow process! Myra was beginning to get desperate. A nursing home was definitely not on the agenda but Myra was worn out and worn down. Something had to give pretty soon or she would fall apart.
It was the new home nurse that gave Bill the idea. She was sweet and chirpy and the short skirt of her uniform seemed to make something of an impact on old George. (It had certainly made an impact on Bill.) Bill knew then what old George needed.
On her second Thursday Bill asked the nurse if she would like to earn a little more money by spending an extra hour or so with the old boy. "He could do with a little loving kindness" was the way Bill chose to put it – with appropriate emphasis on the “loving” part that the girl, thank God, seemed to understand without further explanation. She couldn't do it herself, she'd said, but her friend Bianca was working her way through Uni and was always happy to do that sort of thing. She’d get Bianca to give him a call.
Bill was worried. Bianca sounded OK on the phone but what if she wasn't George’s type? The nurse was clearly George’s type from what Bill could see, but Bianca could be any type. He hoped she wasn't too whorish for George’s taste - it occurred to him that really he didn't know a lot about George’s taste - but he tried to console himself with the thought that beggars couldn't really be choosers, especially old beggars. Nevertheless he was racked with doubt and anxiety that did not subside until he saw Bianca for himself.
The following Thursday Holly, the nurse, and Bianca arrived together and, to Bill’s relief, the two girls were peas from the same pod. If anything Bianca was even cuter and Bill’s mind kept wandering off to the possibility of the two of them together. He thought of Myra and nipped the idea firmly in the bud. “No point in torturing yourself thinking about what you can’t have” he told himself firmly.
Bill and the nurse left Bianca with George, she stayed with him for an hour and then left. George’s improvement began immediately.
That’s how they continued. Bianca would arrive with Holly on Thursdays, help with the nursing duties then Bill and Holly would leave George and Bianca to it. Bill gave both girls their money each week and spent a lot of time imagining what might have happened on his way home.
After a few weeks Bill noticed that George had found his reading glasses and was engrossed in one book or another each time he arrived. He began to engage Bill in discussion about current affairs and even asked Bill to arrange for him to get some regular transport to the library. Bill was bemused, but did not argue. He couldn't imagine why anyone would want to read when they had a perfectly good television to watch with loads of sport on cable TV. He offered to take George to the video shop instead but the old man insisted on the library.
It occurred to Bill that maybe the old man was trying to impress Bianca. She was a uni student after all. Maybe all that loving had him in its grip. He asked Myra about George and the library and she just said she was pleased that he was going back to his old interests, so maybe it wasn't Bianca’s doing  after all.
Gradually George needed less and less help from the family and by December he had recovered so much that he announced that he was going on a cruise. Myra and Bill were thunderstruck. It seemed that Bianca had persuaded him that he still had time to enjoy life and do some of the things he had always wanted to do.
Bill thought it was strange that George had never talked to him about the sex. Anyone would think it hadn't happened but Bill knew that there was no other explanation for George’s recovery. He tried once to bring the subject up but George seemed strangely vague about it. Even Bianca didn't seem to understand what he was talking about when he tried to broach the subject with her.

When they went to see George off on his cruise Bianca and Holly came too. Bill was struck again by the similarity of their appearance especially now that Holly was out of uniform. They were both petite with many earrings, short boyish hair cuts, scruffy jeans and t-shirts and big lace up boots that made them look like they were off for a bushwalk. Myra thought they made a “cute couple” and Bill wasn't quite sure what she meant. It was only when Bill started to notice George’s fellow passengers that something finally struck him. Maybe it had been hovering at the edges of his consciousness for a little while but it was the tanned and toned young men that were boarding the ship in pairs that made him finally realise what was going on.
In shock he heard George say to Myra “I promised your mother that I would do this for myself one day. I was so scared when she died. I knew I’d have to keep my promise. If it wasn't for Bianca here I would never have been able to do it. She will make a great little psychologist one day”
Interestingly, Myra didn't even look surprised.

1 comment:

Brendan McPhillips said...

Hi Jan, loved the way you built up the tension by starting with the explosion! Mr Creasote reincarnates ....