I really don't want to write about disability today. In fact I don't want to spend time on this blog at all. You see, Ellydd Gate is calling. Yesterday afternoon I started writing an exciting battle scene and I'm dying to get back to it to find out who lives and who dies. Rather than completely disappoint you, my legions of devoted readers, by simply skipping another week I've cut and pasted part of the account I wrote of a camping trip Jez's mother and I went on years ago.
Happy reading and see you in a week or so!
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Bill Retallick was having a heart attack outside the Pooncarie hall. He was leaning against our van, clawing at his chest and struggling to get a breath. Zoe was standing there beside him trying to grab his arm to take his pulse.
“Are you crazy, Zoe?” I shouted from inside the van. “You said yourself the man’s having a heart attack! He needs the air ambulance to Broken Hill! He definitely doesn’t need you to check he’s still alive while he’s gearing up to die right before our very eyes!”
Actually, that’s what I wanted to shout, but I didn’t. I didn’t even whisper it to her so he couldn’t hear. I just sat there watching him dying. I do that a lot. Not sitting there watching Bill dying, but just sitting there watching things in general. I’m in a wheelchair, you see. I can’t move much. I can’t talk either. Not any more. Not since the stroke that put me here. Sitting and watching is pretty high on the list of my ‘can do’ things.
That day Bill was having his heart attack we were back in Pooncarie after going out to Lake Mungo. We were on a camping trip up to Broken Hill. We hadn’t reached there yet, but that was OK. We weren’t in any hurry. This was Shaniekta’s first trip into the outback and I wanted it to be more than just a mad rush from town to town. ‘Camp more and travel less’ is my motto at times like this. The first week of our trip was spent taking our time getting as far as Pooncarie and camping there by the Darling river. Normally Shaniekta is a girl who always has to be doing something but she was enjoying my relaxed, no hurry, style of camping.
Zoe was enjoying it too, but deep down she was itching to get to Broken Hill. Her parents are both artists and she’s well on the way to becoming a serious artist herself. When Shaniekta and I offered her the opportunity to come on this trip as my part-time carer and as our full-time friend she jumped at the chance. It had long been a dream of hers to visit Broken Hill for the art galleries and the light and the colours and the inspiration it would surely give her.
As you reach the outskirts of Pooncarie from Wentworth there’s a council sign saying “Welcome to Pooncarie. Population eighty-four.”
This tiny town of eighty-four people has tennis courts, a cricket oval, a golf course, a horse racing track, an equipped airfield, an ambulance, four filtered water drinking fountains down by the river in the camping area, a resident Wentworth Council worker to exclusively maintain the town’s services, amenities and facilities and, would you believe, and a disabled toilet in the public amenities block! Our home town is Castlemaine in Victoria, population seven thousand. It and many a town around Australia still haven’t fully grasped the thirty year old concept that disabled people deserve a fair go, but tiny Pooncarie has a disabled toilet in its amenities block. All it needs now is disabled shower facilities and it’ll have it made.
When we arrived at Pooncarie the first time we camped down by the river about a kilometre from the public amenities block down there. The amenities were dusty with a few cobwebs from non-use, but they were otherwise clean with no graffiti and no vandalism damage. Pooncarie isn’t the campers’ Mecca at that time of year. We were probably the first lot to use the camping amenities block in a couple of months. We met Robert, the Pooncarie council man, there on our first morning. We had driven there from our camp further along the river to get a shower and we arrived as he did.
We were alone down by the river, but in a small community like Pooncarie nothing goes unnoticed. Robert had come down to give the block the once-over to freshen it up for us. He was a nice bloke, friendly and welcoming, but he was a bit thrown at first by my situation. Like many a person when they first strike me, he could follow me when I typed just a few words on my laptop communicator, but he got lost when I typed a full sentence. That isn’t a reflection on his intelligence or on the other people’s intelligence. It’s just that in a sort of way some people’s minds go into shock for a while when they’re hit with me … and with good reason too!
I mean, how often do you meet a wheelchair-bound mute quadriplegic in your life??? What do you say to him? Can he understand what’s going on? How simple should you make your talking to him? Hell, should you even take any notice of him at all or just ignore him to save everyone embarrassment??? Who knows??? It’s never easy when people are confronted by an unknown. If you think how much you know about mute quads it’s a fair bet that our situation is nearly as unknown to you as little green men from Mars. At times I unintentionally make it even harder for people to come to terms with me. I’ve been like this for so long that I take it for granted. I don’t think to ease people into my situation.
I know from years of experience that many people’s first reaction upon seeing me is to think something like “Oh, the poor man! It must be so terrible for him!” But it’s not terrible for me. It’s fine. I’ve got a good life! Hell, I’ve got a great life! I’ve lived this mute quad crap for so long it’s no big deal to me anymore. It’s the way things were for me yesterday, it’s the way things are for me today and it’s the way things will be for me for the rest of my life. I accepted that a long time ago and set about creating a good and happy life for myself. I must have done a pretty good job of it, because now I’m content and I’m very happy.
A few months ago Shaniekta and I had arranged to meet a woman at one of Castlemaine’s coffee shops. She had answered my advertisement for another part-time carer. It was Zoe, actually. The coffee shop was crowded for Castlemaine … about a dozen people. We had never met Zoe. I told Shaniekta I was worried that she wouldn’t know which table to come to.
“Ah, Danny … ” Shaniekta said to me, “the wheelchair?”
For most of the time I forget I’m different to everyone else.
People have the idea that being a mute quad must be a terrible life, an unhappy life, a miserable life … and instead they strike me. They are unnerved anyway by being confronted with the unknown and then they get completely thrown. They’re thinking “Oh, the poor man!”, but they’re hit by someone who acts as if he is normal and who is anything but a “poor man!” That happened to Robert the council guy.
We needed to rest up. We had arrived in Pooncarie pretty exhausted after driving the five hundred kilometres from Castlemaine in only four days, so we idled the time away by the river for two or three days. We sustained this rigorous pace for the whole trip, doing seventeen hundred kilometres in twenty one days. That’s an average of just over eighty kilometres a day - hmmm ...
Shaniekta was always eating or sleeping or peeing throughout the hot days at Pooncarie. She did a bit of reading and writing too. Zoe was drawing and painting quite a bit and they both went swimming in the warm river from time to time.
“I don’t know if my bathers will still fit over my fat belly” Shaniekta told Zoe. “I can’t stop putting on weight.”
“Bathers? You’ve got bathers?” Zoe replied. “I haven’t worn bathers in my entire life! Not even as a kid!”
(Of course she hadn’t. Her parents were arty hippy types with weird ideas about treating kids like real people. (They probably smoked dope too!))
“You don’t need bathers out here. It’s alright to swim in the nude. There’s no-one around for miles.” Zoe added. “Don’t worry about your shape. Danny and I think its fine.”
Swim in the nude? Shaniekta wasn’t so sure about that. She had never swum in the nude in her life. She told us that when she was growing up in Holland everyone went topless at the beach, (I hope there was an upper age limit) but this was different, she said.
“I’m not sure I’d feel right in front of you now” she told Zoe. “My boobs have always been big, but now I’m putting on weight hand over fist and they’re huge”.
(I remember her telling me how she felt awkward last year when her closest girlfriend saw her in the bathroom half dressed with just a bra up top. I can’t imagine her not wearing a top on a public beach in Holland. But with the breasts she had back then I can’t see those Dutch boys being anything but veeeery complimentary about them.
She’s funny about showing too much of her body in public. Me, I’ve always liked her in short skirts and tight or ‘revealing’ tee-shirts and blouses. She’s got a great body. Give them a hint and make them drool, I say. I wonder what a psychiatrist would say about that? Probably that I’m a typical male wanting to bolster my typical male ego by flaunting her sexiness.
“Cop an eyeful of this, Boys! Isn’t she great? And she’s with me! It shows how terrific I am myself to attract someone as hot as her!”)
Anyway, down at the river at Pooncarie she finally said she feels really comfortable around Zoe and me now and she knows we aren’t going to make any judgements about her fat belly or her really big boobs. After that she and Zoe often got their gear off and had a great time in the water while I sat up the top of the steep river bank watching. Watching them and cursing because there was no way they could get me down to the water with them. During their first dip they were too busy enjoying the water to notice the two pelicans that floated around the bend about five hundred metres upstream. The current was minimal at that time of year, so they were on the bank and half dressed before the graceful birds drifted by. Graceful? Graceful and beautiful is closer to the truth. Cleopatra herself would have been at home sailing the Nile in these birds’ likenesses. At home and unjealously aware that her beauty had been matched.
Once we were rested and revived from the initial driving effort to get to Pooncarie we decided to drive out to the Lake Mungo national park. It was only seventy kilometres away. We counted on an easy one hour drive before lunch, but we arrived there hot and frazzled and buggered in the middle of the afternoon after three long, hot, bone-shaking hours.
The unmade road would have been fine for a Caterpillar-tracked bulldozer. A bulldozer wouldn’t have noticed the kilometre after kilometre of corrugations. A fifty thousand dollar air-conditioned 4-wheel-drive could probably cruise along at a hundred kilometres per hour with little more than low suspension drumming noise to compete with Mantovani on the six-stack CD player. But we didn’t have a bulldozer and we didn’t have a new 4WD. We were in a twenty two year old Toyota HiAce van that shuddered and rattled no matter what speed we went. Occasionally we’d hit a smooth sandy stretch of road and we’d fly along at sixty kilometres per hour, but most of the time the corrugations shook all shit out of the van and out of us at just twenty or thirty.
There wasn’t any water out at the lake. We were there in the wrong season for water. It had dried up in the Palentolgy season or the Jurassic Park season or some such season a few million years ago. There were just deserty bushes as far as the eye could see and some fossilized fish bones and a few Aboriginal artifacts and one randy park ranger. His name was Colin. I think of him as Come On Col. He was friendly and attentive and helpful the way a park ranger ought to be, but within two seconds of nodding hello to me his attention was fixed firmly and forever on the two ‘girls’ – particularly Shaniekta.
I wasn’t very impressed that he was coming on to her with me sitting right behind her in the van, but there was a reason for that. Once some people register the fact that I can’t move and can’t talk they are incapable of conceiving that I’m an intelligent being with just as much vitality and presence as real people – with more in many cases. Never in a million years would Come On Col have been able to get his head around Shaniekta being head over heels in love with me or with her having a fuller and more satisfying life with me than with any other man she has ever known. (At least that’s what she tells me. But she’d be crazy not to say that to the man of her life, wouldn’t she?)
Shaniekta and Zoe deflected the randy ranger’s overtures to avoid any bad feeling through a blunt “Get lost, Col”, but he tried again after work when he was in civvies and a stubby of Vic Bitter. He didn’t have a snowball’s chance in hell anyway, but his half-drunk mates in his car shouting “How about a party, Love?” didn’t help his cause very much.
Just before sunset we drove the thirteen kilometre track across the lake to the sandy cliffs that the local Chinese cattle station workers of a century ago named as the Walls of China. Neil Armstrong would’ve called that area the Sea of Tranquillity. Once we were there Zoe removed my sandals and the footplates of my wheelchair so I could feel the sands of the moonscape with the soft soles of my feet – white sands sifted fine and soft when water filled that moon-lake not long after the Dreamtime.
We got out of Mungo first thing the next morning because the day was on the way to getting as hot as Hades. Driving back to Pooncarie was no different to the drive out, except that for the last twenty or thirty kilometres the fuel gauge was on Empty and there was a strange new clunking sound coming from under the front of the van. We were just about out of petrol and we were hot and tired and stressed out and dying for something to eat. It’s no wonder we were more than a bit relieved to make it to the petrol pumps at the small Pooncarie general store. Shaniekta was going to fill the van, but I insisted we to get out and have some lunch first. And doing that led to Bill Retallick’s heart attack. Good one, Danny!
Before we filled up we drove about a hundred metres further along the main street to park in the shade in front of the Pooncarie hall. Shaniekta and Zoe unloaded most of the camping gear there so I could reverse out of the van. We settled down for our normal two hour lunch of home-made salad sandwiches and fruit juice and a good rest (van-made sandwiches, actually) when Bill drove past in his green Ford pickup. With all our gear scattered around outside the van he thought we were having car trouble. He came back to check if we needed help. We didn’t.
“Nice little town you’ve got here” Zoe said to him.
“I think so” he replied. “I moved here for my health. I needed the easy life I’ve got here.”
We talked a bit more then he told us where to find a tap for drinking water and went on his way. Little did any of us know that he’d be back here pushing our van within an hour or two and that’d bring on a heart attack. That’s what happened, though. When we were ready to move on after our lunch break I drove up the ramps into the van, the gear went in behind me, and then the bloody van wouldn’t start! It was out of petrol. Zoe walked to the pumps at the general store, but they didn’t have a jerry can. Luckily (or unluckily) Bill drove up and Zoe asked if he had a can to loan us buy a bit of petrol. He did one better than that – he produced a full eight litre can and tipped it into our empty petrol tank, but he wouldn’t take anything for it.
Shaniekta tried the van, but it wouldn’t start. She tried so much she looked like flattening the battery. Bill and Zoe tried to push-start it, but the back wheels were stuck in a rut in the ground. They stepped back to survey the situation then Bill dived straight back into it without a word. He strained his guts out trying to get the van to move, but the only thing that happened was that he started having a heart attack. He staggered against the van, clawing at his chest and struggling to get a breath. Zoe stood there beside him trying to grab his arm to take his pulse.
“Are you crazy, Zoe?” I shouted silently from inside the van. “He doesn’t need you to check he’s still alive while he’s gearing up to die! He needs the air ambulance to Broken Hill!”
“I’m … puff … puff … I’m alright” whispered Bill breathlessly. “This happens … puff … all the time. … I just … puff … need to rest for a minute.”
“I moved here for my health, for the easy life” he had told us earlier. What he hadn’t told us was that if he did anything strenuous he could cark it! The lady at the store gave Shaniekta that bit of information the next day.
“I’ll … puff … just sit here” he gasped slightly less as he sat against a gumtree. “I just … puff … need to rest for a minute. This happens all the time.”
We watched him anxiouslyand after a minute or two he was much improved. He wasn’t going to die on us after all.
A road repair truck appeared out of nowhere and Shaniekta asked the two council workers in it to give us a push. They were out of the truck and pushing the van before she finished talking. They had it out of the rut and rolling forward in no time flat.
“Stop" Shaniekta shouted. “Please wait till I’m in the driver’s seat. There’s no one in there except Danny … and he’s in the back in a wheelchair.”
After the council guys push-started the van they were in their truck and gone before Shaniekta could thank them. Bill was just about back to his normal self. He climbed into his pickup and drove off with a wave, so we drove back to the pumps at the store and filled up with petrol.
“Is there somewhere I can check the tyres?” Shaniekta asked, looking everywhere for the air hose.
“Sorry, Love. You’ll have to go to the garage for that. We’ve only got petrol here.”
Garage? What garage? In tiny Pooncarie we could hardly have missed seeing a seven acres of concrete, a dozen green and gold self-serve pumps and a green and gold shop that sold everything from Snickers bars to briquettes – and engine oil on the side.
“Not that sort of garage, Love! It’s over there!”
Across the street and down a few houses there was a nondescript shed set back from the road. The door was shut. A rusty forty four gallon drum and an old engine lying in the grass at the side of the shed were the only hints that it had to do with anything mechanical. No, wait - etched across the top of the shed in faded paint were the words ‘Pooncarie Garage’
“It looks shut.”
“It is, Love, it is! Just go to the house next door and get Frank.”
Frank took his time. He was a gentle, sardonic bloke dressed in shorts and thongs and the kind of suntan you get from working off and on in the outback sun – dark-tanned all over but for the lily-white skin from the ankles down from your working boots. He opened up the garage for us and checked the tyres with no fuss and no rush.
“How much do we owe you?”
He shook his head with a gentle, sardonic smile and questioned that we had ample petrol and water and a spare wheel for the Menindee road. We did.
“It’s dangerous out ther!” he said. “I’m always being called out to rescue people who don’t look after themselves. … Have you got any cold water to drink? For right now, I mean. It’s getting hot.”
He wandered back to his house and returned with a large bottle of ice-cold water from his freezer.
“Can we pay you for this?” Shaniekta asked, wrapping the treasure in a towel.
Once again he shook his head with his gentle, sardonic smile and said “Just be careful out there. Too many people treat it like a Sunday drive. Six people died from no water last year. Four out here and two in South Australia.”
Shaniekta told me later that she saw the warning signs then. We were meant to meet Frank. It was meant to be. We were meant to take notice of him and be careful.
“Um” she said to Frank. “There is one thing. There’s a strange knocking sound coming from under the driver’s seat.”
“From the front end?” he asked her.
“Um, I suppose so. It wasn’t there before we went on the Mungo road.”
Frank checked under the car. It was bad news.
“Look at these bolts” he said to Shaniekta and Zoe. “They’ve snapped off clean from where the spring …”
“Tell Danny” Shaniekta interrupted, pointing to me still sitting in the back of the van. “He knows about those things.”
Frank turned and looked me in the eye. He spoke to me without the slightest hesitation, completely at home with waiting for me to type on my communicator and reading my answers.
That is how it should be always, but the fact that I comment on it indicates how unusual it is. When Shaniekta is present most new people talk almost exclusively to her and ask her what I’m thinking or feeling or wanting. Especially the men.
“Ask Danny. He can talk for himself.”
They do speak directly to me then, sometimes simply, clearly and over-loudly as if I’m deaf or retarded, but it’s not uncommon for some of them to soon revert to Shaniekta-talking. Men seem to have a harder time talking to me than women do. Not all men, mind you … this is just a generalization.
I remember going to my first and last Commando reunion about ten years ago. Here was a roomful of old army mates with whom I had risked death a hundred times, but for most of the night only a handful of them approached me. The rest of them avoided me like the plague with some of them religiously not looking my way after an initial surreptitious glance or two. We had all been gung ho, macho dare-devils with the attitude that ‘It’ll never happen to us.’ But there I was right before their eyes, seemingly no good to anyone, and that disturbed them. Their own mortality and vulnerability really hit home for probably the first time in their lives. I wasn’t just a name in a conversation or a line in a newspaper. I was real. I was their mate and I was sitting right there. If it could happen to one of their mad mates it could happen to them.
That’s the way it is for many men, but it wasn’t that way with Frank. He showed me the broken bolts and described how they came from the top double arm thing behind the wheel … (He couldn’t think of its name.)
“Upper wishbone bolts” I typed, making a half-stab in the dark.
“Yes, that’s it” exclaimed Frank. “I had a mental block. I’ll replace them, but it’ll take an hour or so. Make yourselves at home over at the house. You can put your stuff in the freezer if you want.”
It took closer to three hours to do the job, because Frank took his time … but he’s like that, isn’t he? We didn’t mind how long it took, though. Zoe carried her sketchbook and paints into the small orchard next door and Shaniekta spent most of the afternoon sleeping on the shady lawn. Me, I just sat and watched Shaniekta. I’m good at that. It was getting late by the time Frank finished the job on the van. He decided that it wasn’t finished until he had spent ages hosing down my badly swollen feet. We only drove down to the cricket ground and had dinner at the under-cover picnic tables. We couldn’t be bothered with all the hassle of finding a camping spot and putting up the tent in the dark, so after dinner we just strung up the mosquito nets and crashed there for the night. h
The following morning we moved back to for river. It was another stinking hot day. By lunchtime Shaniekta and Zoe were on the way to heat tiredness and frazzlement, so we adjourned to the air-conditioned pub for the afternoon. Shaniekta reckons the first ice-cold drink that day was the best drink of her life. She says she’ll carry the memory of it to her grave. We forced ourselves back to camp after dinner at the pub, and Robert was waiting there to greet us with some Yellowbelly fish he’d caught that day. We had them for breakfast the next morning (they were bloody lovely) then we left Pooncarie for Menindee, and Broken Hill just a day later.
Did I tell you earlier that Shaniekta had a fat belly? Ever since the trip began you could just about see it getting fatter and fatter. I loved it! I loved seeing her fat belly and I loved seeing her over-sized breasts. To use her words, they were huge. I loved the way she had to clamour over me at night in the tent, all big and heavy and awkward, so she could go outside for her nine hundred and forty-seventh pee. I loved the way she looked standing there naked on the river bank after a swim, thick and heavy and solid. I loved her fat hard belly pressing into my stomach when we were making love, making everything so difficult.
She used to look beautiful before, slim and sexy whether she was dressed or naked, with her little belly and nice big breasts. She looked beautiful at Pooncarie too, with her fat belly and her huge breasts. What was so good about her huge heavy boobs? What was so good about her fat heavy belly? Those boobs were the most obvious signs of a body gearing up to sustain a new life, and that belly was fat and heavy and hard because there was a new life growing in it. Our baby. The new life we had created between us.
“Don’t be awkward or embarrassed about your shape, Shaniekta,” I’d say during her pregnancy. “Be happy and proud of your body. I am. I love it for the job it’s doing. I love it, I love it, I love it!”
I don’t think you should do a beauty comparison on the beauty of a pregnant woman with the way she was beforehand. To my way of thinking there’s beauty in both states, but they’re different beauties that exist in their own right and shouldn’t be compared. The best that comparison can do is to make you conclude that they’re equal states of beauty but that they’re different.