“Georgy!” the nurse was trying to soothe, her frustration not hidden well, “What’s goin’ on?”
She was responding to the old man’s urgent calls echoing down the hospital corridor, three rooms down from mine. He’d been yelling all morning, mostly in his own language, except for the occasional expletive which was definitely English.
Georgy’s repetitive panicked calls for help, or for water, or for the nurse, had frightened me on my first night. They were loud, sometimes high-pitched screams for added drama. I was alone and in pain, and already afraid.
I realised I was frightened of Georgy because he was aboriginal and not because he was loud. It was a hard thing to admit that I had prejudices I’d never acknowledged.
Then I remembered a technique I used when I was a little girl and needed to be brave. My Nan had an outside toilet where daddy-long-legs spiders lived behind the door. Maybe it was because I didn’t try to understand them, but I was terrified of them. So when I was about 8 I started having conversations with the spiders, pretending they were my friends.
I did the same thing with Georgy, the aboriginal man. I pretended he was my friend. ‘Pleased to meet you Georgy,’ I could hear myself saying.
Then I started to appreciate Georgy’s sense of humour, even if the nurses didn’t. His calls would start sometimes as ‘nurse, nurse, nurse’ over and over. Then he’d end them with the same sound we used as kids when we played Cowboys and Indians. I could hear the rounding of Georgy’s mouth behind a white beard, with his open hand tapping the sound that came from his lips.
“Nurse, nurse, nu-u-u-u-u-u-u-urse!”
“Yes Georgy?” I’d hear the nurse at his door.
“Eff o-o-off!” Georgy would yell even louder.
The next time he yelled, I heard one nurse lose her cool and yell down the corridor, “SHUT. UP. GEORGY!”
Georgy was recalcitrant. He made me smile.
I was smiling still when he woke everyone at 3am singing songs I imagined he’d sing at a Corroboree. Georgy’s indigenous raw sound, was haunting but eerily calming. It distracted me from the pain in my ankle.
“You have what is known as a tib/fib fracture,” said a pretty nurse, from the Emergency Department the night I came in. She looked about 22, so she couldn’t have been a doctor. She went on to explain, “…a spiral fracture of the fibula and a clear break at the base of your tibia, which has displaced it. So your foot is kind of… floating.” I remember looking down at the red Northern Territory dust between my toes.
“Floating?!” I wanted to scream, but the only sound that came from my mouth was, “okay”.
“We’ll give you something to make you a bit sleepy, so we can straighten it,” she told me.
“Yes, you will definitely give me something young lady!” I was still screaming, but the only sound that came from my mouth was, “okay”.
Brother Andrew stood nearby looking sombre but as always, glowing positive. We’d been work colleagues before but now he was a part of the remote aboriginal community where our group had been staying.
“Where’s your phone, I’ll ring Kev,” Brother Andrew volunteered, in that low friendly voice that’s instantly calming.
“What? Right Now? Did you hear they have to straighten me?” I was screaming this time at Brother Andrew, but the only sound that came from my mouth was, “okay”.
Even Brother Andrew’s calming voice could not reduce me to the tears that would come when I heard my husband’s voice. It’s like that mysterious phenomenon, when you’re having a crap day and your Mum happens to call to ask how you are, and you completely dissolve, without realising you were that fragile in the first place.
Brother Andrew put the phone to my ear, and Kev said in his sleepy caring voice, ‘what’ve ya done?’
I was trying to say, ‘well the sunset was glorious and then I slipped over in the desert during a hike in a completely innocuous place that you wouldn’t think for a minute looked dangerous. Then my ankle went in a direction it’s not supposed to go, then I cried in front of the students and I cried while my ankle was bandaged. And they lifted me into a car and I cried. Then I had an Endone at the clinic before Brother Andrew drove me eighty kilometres on a dirt road to Alice Springs. So I missed out on the camp fire, and the marshmallows, and then we hit a roo’.
But none of that came out. Those words were stuck in my throat and all Kev could hear was choking sobs.
It wasn’t until 2am when they admitted me to a ward that I thought about that roo again. I’d remembered being on the backseat of Brother Andrew’s four-wheel-drive, leaning up against the window with a pillow at my back, when we spotted two kangaroos on the gravelled edge of the road. The gold had left the desert’s horizon and in the cold black of night the car’s headlights gave the kangaroos a glamorous movie-star spotlight.
“Aw, there’s kangaroos,” I was cooing like an eight-year-old city-kid, or maybe it was the Endone.
And then one of the stupid long-lashed stars of the show turned and jumped right in front of the four-wheel-drive.
“Did we hit it?” I asked, knowing that we’d hit it.
“No, he jumped off the other side,” Brother Andrew calmly confirmed. Even though I felt the thud, I believed him. It felt like the poor furry thing went under the driver’s side tyre like a lumpy speed bump, but that might have been the Endone too.
Two days later when Brother Andrew visited me in hospital, I asked about the kangaroo. He smiled sweetly before he said, “There were two big eagles cleaning up the last of that roo as I came past today.”
Brother Andrew made it sound like the most beautiful thing in the world. I suddenly didn’t feel sad for the roo any more. It was nature’s way. It was the Alice Springs way. I could hear myself saying, ‘Pleased to meet you Alice!’
I was determined my journey with Alice would not end in the same way the kangaroo’s had.