The air con is humming, prickling the hairs on my arms. We sit in the dim glow of the night lights bathed in their ghoulish orange tint and Marge tells me stories of the old days; the trackers and the hunters. Then the here and now; how all those families have descended into alcoholism, bar only a few. There are fifteen hundred people in town and three pubs. They all do a roaring trade in casks. The first alcoholic I admitted told me she’d drunk four casks. I was appalled, four litres of cheap wine, and asked her how she’d managed it. She looked sheepish, “aww, nurse, Ah shared the last one missus, Ah swear, with me mates. Only the last one ay, drunk the others mesel’.” I later discovered a cask is four litres and I wondered where the rumour came from that aboriginals couldn’t hold their drink. How she walked I’ll never know.
We’re quiet but the pubs haven’t closed yet. Eighteen beds, less than half occupied; Marge and I here till morning. I get up and do a walk about: all quiet, just the muffled squeak of my rubber soles on the linoleum and the softly synchronised snores rising and falling in accompaniment to the air con drone. Dream time.
The frigid hospital air chills us to the bone so we go sit by the ambulance entrance to warm up. The scent of freedom assails me washing out the disinfectant tang of the hospital. I barely notice the odour till I step out of it, but the metallic scent of alcohol laced blood lingers on my uniform, cloying. The light breeze pours warmth upon us and its scent brings the vision of huge tracts of open land dotted with trees. Toads are keeping a chorus in the darkness. They drown out the hospital’s rhythm and I can see those squat fat bodies in my mind’s eye. A tree frog startles us as it springs neatly into the air, a leap of faith aimed at the screen door, vibrant green glowing in the dull orange entrance light. Marge lights up and the pungent smoke filters into me triggering desire. The glowing tip lights her face; cheeks suck in and eyes glint.
The roar of an engine and the squeal of tyres announce an arrival. Marge goes in to get an admission pack ready and I wait to greet our newcomer. A police van pulls up at speed and Pete jumps out, cheery as ever. ‘Not a black fella tonight! Got you a white fella and he’s crazy as they come!’ He rolls his r’s and his eyes like some mad mongrel as he enunciates ‘crazy’ and I’m torn between laughing at this cop’s total disregard for anything that could be classed as PC and nerves at what his voice has triggered. The van is rocking and shaking and one unholy row is emitted from the rear. Immediately the doors open a scruffy white guy jumps out and hurls a mouthful of abuse at his captor. Surprisingly he follows me into the hospital like a lamb, the alcohol fumes enveloping us both and our isolation punctuated by Pete’s promise, ‘See ya later!’ as he roars into the unrelenting darkness that surrounds the hospital.
‘Scruffy white guy’ swears he works for the government so I let him call a Sydney number, mindful of the fact that we’re eight hours drive from the nearest psych evaluation and armed with a minimal psychotropic pharmacopoeia should things turn sour. He’s pacified by the dull disconnected tone, garbles his mission data and soon ambles off to bed to sleep off his excesses.
In the early hours, whilst turning and tending ‘unsung heroine’, I catch a whiff of trouble. My first warning is the stench of petrol, wreathing ominously through the corridors. I go to investigate and find Pete in the ambulance bay, doors flung wide, the bugs dancing around the glowing bulb and carpeting the floor. I crunch across the insect carpet towards a large aboriginal who sags beside Pete; defeated; wet with petrol. ‘Think you better have this. Better check he doesn’t have another one too, ay?’ Pete hands me a cheap plastic lighter.
‘Sagging aboriginal’ turns doleful eyes on me and I walk him off to shower whilst Marge searches out some clean pyjamas. As the water runs over his demoralised frame I scoop up the doused clothing, push it into a bag, check for lighters and put the stinking mess in the office: out of harm’s way. Hours later we’d discover the jerry can with shivers of what could have been. Not quite empty, left just inside the door by Pete, undetected by our olfactory senses dulled by the onslaught of odours the night has brought. The shower dissipates the petrol fumes and ‘sagging aboriginal’ has clearly had enough, lumbers off to bed without prompting, talks for a while and cries out his despair. I check on him regularly but he sleeps, the emotion having exhausted him.
As I pad around the beds checking on the synchronized sleepers, I notice the blankets flung off the seven-year-old boy in the corner bed. He twitches as I take his temperature but doesn’t wake. He’s lathered in sweat and running high. His arm flings out in my direction, swatting at me. As the night progresses so too does his fever so I wake him to take some medicine. My ministrations meet with his sleepy temper, “Fuck off will ya, leave me alone.” I coax him upright; he drinks, slumps back down and is out again. I mark the chart; continue my round. Just another night.
As morning dawns the toad chorus is replaced by parrots singing to the rising sun, gathering in the sparse trees around the hospital. The day washes out the dim orange of night but the hospital still smells like there’s been a booze up in a mechanic’s workshop. I see that ‘sagging aboriginal’ has woken. He is looking over at ‘scruffy white guy’ in the adjacent bed, sprawled with abandon like a peaceful child. I move through the warm fug of stale petrol and alcohol tinged sweat to see how he is and he immediately folds his huge hand around my slender wrist. His warm body smell rises from the sheet as he moves and I inhale the soap, the grog and the slight tang of petrol in his hair, along with a sharp note of something more sinister. Staring into my face he earnestly expresses his gratitude, “Thank you nurse, thank you. You were really good to me.” Before I can speak his hand tightens, twists, pulling me close, threatening to snap the small wrist bones as easily as a chicken wing. Still staring into my face he propositions me, with an urgency I find frightening, all the while complimenting me, yanking on my arm, his soapy petrol odour coiling around me; ‘scruffy white guy’ sleeps on oblivious. We silently tango; battle of wills, his urgent whisper disclosing desires I don’t want to hear. Suddenly he glances up, drops my wrist, thwarted scowl clouding his features. He turns away. I wheel around, and then I see them: quiet as the grave, their reproving glare burning into his back. I walk from the room and as I move from his sight I look up, choked: ‘Thank you.’ The women nod and disappear like ghosts and Marge’s stories of silent trackers swirl through my mind as I watch them disappear down the corridor; blend once again with the bed-sheets.
© Ammie-oy 2010