The WHAT'S NEW! page contains the latest medical updates. If you're wondering how I'm going as far as health is concerned, this is the place to start. Latest: Wed 27 Nov 2013. 7.20AM

Sunday, March 31, 2013

Let's get practical 3

Easter Sunday, 31 March 2013.

Who cares for the carer?

I want to live, as much as any person. I have much to live for. I don't give up easily; not while there's a manageable quality of life.

   "You surely want to die at home, don't you?" was the question put to me – by a doctor, three years ago.

   There is a constant theme in much of the discussion about death which comes back to this notion.

   For quite some time I nursed this romantic idea. There's a large window in the bedroom and a cherry tree outside. It's alive with birds and greenery.

   Well, it was a few weeks ago, but now the pale yellow leaves are curling and dropping. It has no attraction for birds, and is far from a romantic vision, except that its winter skeleton may turn out pleasing aesthetically with a deep blue sky behind it.

   As with many romantic visions, there is one vital thing missing from it that is far from romantic, and which seems completely ignored by any discussion I've seen so far.

   If I tried to follow that path of dying at home, who exactly is going to do all the caring, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, for an indeterminate period of time that could stretch into months or even longer?

   I can't speak for others who may cherish this romantic notion and whose circumstances may differ radically – only for myself.

   For me, only one person could do the worst of that, and only up to a point. Some nights I am up several times. That could be avoided, at the price of turning me into a complete invalid. But Tracey would still need to be on hand every minute through the night. She'd need to sleep in the same room as a restless patient, prepared for anything at a moment's notice. Absolutely anything, including a stroke, heart attack, seizures, and toileting.

   We have already seen what a superhuman effort it took mid-last year for Tracey to get me from the bathroom, where I fell, to the bed, just a couple of metres away. It would be impossible now. Everything is that much harder.

    Even now, there are scores of little things that collectively take up time and energy of a carer as assiduous as Tracey is, when I'm incapable of many of the simplest elements of self-care. I can't even open a jamjar. I can barely make tea, and that with great effort. 

    But there is one big exception to that which may change at any time. Except for showering, I can manage all other bathroom operations – with absolute concentration and care at each step (literally and figuratively). When or if that shred of independence is taken from me, the game changes completely. That's when someone has to be on hand 24 hours a day, right there when needed.

    It may be possible for a limited period for Tracey to attend me 24 hours a day, if I'm cooperative and reasonably lucid, or when there's time to adapt to new circumstances, but ultimately it will become too much. It could become too much almost immediately.

   With my condition, anything can happen as deterioration occurs. I won't spell the possibilities out so use your imagination in the case of a brain tumour, but include dementia, paranoia, personality changes, psychopathic episodes and wild mood swings.

   The relentless demands on the primary carer are what I didn't include in my romantic plan, and I have no intention of being responsible for the total breakdown of health of the one who has looked after me with such insight and forethought for more than three years following diagnosis and treatment.

   All of this has taken place right here at home, apart from two months I was in Melbourne at the beginning of 2010. Tracey has looked after me with great love and care, for c. 1300 days. More than 30,000 hours – so far. And that's what you might call the "easy" part compared to what's likely to be ahead. More and more will be demanded of her.

   "Home care can be arranged" is often said. Not in this house it won't. Nor do I desire it, after a certain uncertain point. If other people have to be around daily coming in and out as I decline, then there is neither romance nor comfort nor safety in it.

   There are facilities designed for these circumstances which can save us all from that hardship and much of the indignity. We will put into operation planned arrangements if and when the time comes.

    I remember that one of the main criticisms of the article I mentioned in Part 1 was that it did not deal with hospice care. The author responded that his piece was about what happened before it came to that, if it had to, so some injustice has been done to him for not adding it to his description of care.

   But he did not address the question that stood out to me like a devil's tail after the romantic vision faded – the plight of the carer in dealing with their partner dying at home; especially a carer whose deeply emotional involvement constantly moves them towards the edge.

    The other thing I wanted to mention concerns visitors, when it comes near to the end point. For some, there seems to be a notion that the number of people around the dying person is directly proportional to their degree of solace. Not for me. Quite the reverse.

I'm not Abraham Lincoln, and presidential death is political, but please, not this.
   Please spare me that. This could not be further from my view of peace and solace. I would far rather most of my friends, particularly those who haven't seen me for a long time just send an email to Tracey, and try to remember me as they last saw me when I was well, or relatively so, rather than attempt to visit. 

George Washington's death in the artist's eye; more romantic but far too many about.
   Barring miracles and sudden events (which may turn out miracles in their own way), I will probably go into such care in order to have as good a death as possible. That is the sole purpose of palliative care, not life extension for its own sake. However noble your intentions, I will not thank you if you try to insist on attempts to revive me when I'm on my way out. If you get news that I'm hooked up to all sorts of devices, then the system has probably failed me.

    Your reasons don't count. Your religious or philosophical beliefs about life and dying are irrelevant to me. Already religion through legal device intrudes starkly way too much in a highly personal matter. Save those for your own death, but please don't interfere in mine.

   I'm with the doctors.

   There is much more to say, and I've decided not to, but the final part of this series is an edited collection of the best responses to this programme. I'll put in bold face the strongest points within those. It's worth having a brief look, at least, when I post it shortly. I'd also recommend a new posting by our friend, Anne Powles: 'Life and death'.

   Finally, I conclude with one of the comments I liked best. You'll see why, I'm sure, if you read right to the end of this quote.
Not surprising in the least. Quality, not quantity....I've grieved for my terminally ill patients going through these procedures, prolonging life at the expense of comfort both emotional and physical, often times more so than I have grieved at their final passing. I have wept over to the fear of possibly being that patient myself. I feel strongly that my medical education and experience gives me a clear perspective in decisions that I make to forgo these procedures myself, as most the doctors surveyed for this piece. As a doctor I have sworn an oath to do no harm, and in my mind, allowing a peaceful death and shortening suffering in the conditions outlined above fall well within that jurisdiction.

I am veterinarian. Jan. 17 2013 06:47 PM

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Thursday, March 28, 2013

Let's get practical 2

Original silhouette [now modified]

"Speed, which is an advantage when found in a horse, by itself has no advantages."

   So goes a wise old saying from a Sufi master a thousand years ago.

   It's all a matter of context. If there's a tiger racing towards you with dinner in mind, and you get into the car quickly enough, speed definitely has its advantages. If you're in that car on the highway, and an approaching driver has a concentration lapse at the wheel, it's far better to have an impact speed of 2 kph than 200.

   Speed is no advantage there.

   So it is with time. I was reading an article where a man had spent 25 years in solitary confinement in an American prison, an amazing story from a number of points of view, and for whom time seemed no friend at all. Time is relative.

   I also read the article that prefaced this segment. I'll have more to say on that, and a number of other critical things, shortly.

   What it's all about is quality of life within the scope of what's possible and legal in Australia, and in some way will probably have its own implications for you when the time comes.

   For a person in my circumstances, length of lifetime has become very much less important than its quality.

   Let's take the case of a man who died recently from the effects of a glioblastoma multiforme (GBM4), the same form of brain tumour that I have. Without going into some details you'd prefer not to read about but which we know intimately, he chose length of life over quality. 

   People are different. They live on different values, different hopes.

   He spent the last year of his life with very poor to no quality of life, in a coma-like state most of the time but with no capacity to communicate with family and no evidence that he even recognised them. That year was the most miserable and stressful of his wife's and family's lives, and, if he had awareness at all, probably his own, with zero chance of a surprise happy ending.

   GBMs don't have happy endings, unless we revise our definition of happiness.

   Some medical conditions have, or are on their way to, happy outcomes. Take the case of Mark Colvin, who contracted a rare and crippling illness on assignment in Africa and for many years has been fighting on to stay alive, using dialysis in hopes of a kidney transplant. You'd never know listening to him on radio that his life was constantly under threat, and how medical crises over that time brought him very close to death.

   He waited many years with declining hopes for a kidney transplant, but he fought on.

   Last week, it happened. An organ donation resulted in the transplant that he desperately needed. I don't think he'd quibble with the word 'desperate'. Dialysis is a stop-gap measure and not one that is forever.

   I am delighted that he has been given this chance, and hope that things go well from here on. Getting a kidney is one thing; and the vital one, but the road to be travelled afterwards is difficult. I just hope, with deepest sincerity, that it all turns out wonderfully well.

   There's the difference between his case and mine. He fought on through difficult circumstances all those years for this one chance at an outcome we hope will result in freedom from the tyranny of dialysis and many years of healthy life.

   There was a light always there at the end of that tunnel, though at times it was faint. No doubt he made clear his wishes long ago in a legal document had it turned out badly. 

   For GBM patients like me, advancing in age, having explored every reasonable option and experiencing daily the evidence that there is indeed no such light, we have to make up-to-date plans for our exit, and we need our families and friends to understand that whatever control we have over that, we will take. I certainly want as few decisions as possible over my death to be forced upon Tracey, but we have prepared as much as we can to try to ensure that my wishes will be translated into action when the time comes.

   The unknowns in my case are even more so than in the case of most people reaching the end of life from terminal disease. Brain tumours are radically unpredictable in effect and time, and in their progression.

   This makes my behaviour and quality of life similarly unpredictable, especially when my current treatment stops. Do I have to spell out some of the possibilities? I will if you like, but I won't right now.

   The discussion to follow is dedicated to my close family and friends, because I want them to be in no doubt that what will happen when it comes to life/death decisions will be as close to what I am hoping for as possible.

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Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Let's get practical 1

I'm in the middle of writing several pieces about medical matters. Some of you will find them hard going, emotionally. If you prefer, stay away, but if you do, then you'll never understand where I'm at; at a time when I'm still quite lucid, and need to explore and make clear my own feelings about things while I can.

    I decided to preface these with an article best read in its own context, because it's about American doctors and the US system of health care, and America is not Australia. But it makes some points that are valid in any country at any time.

    Also, because it's published in the Guardian, the comments, all 165 of them, are mainly by British doctors and observers, so that gives it wider currency. I'd like it to be published in Australia too, and get comments from Australian doctors, but at least there's a discussion with Ken Murray, the author, on an ABC programme.

    He begins with the story of a doctor friend of his, a cancer specialist, who, in one of those tragic ironies, was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. 

   These are mere excerpts, remember. I do not endorse everything said here – please bear this in mind. In particular, I have strong feelings on what in my case is likely to be quite impractical; dying at home. But more on that in due course.

He went home the next day, closed his practice, and never set foot in a hospital again. He focused on spending time with family and feeling as good as possible. Several months later, he died at home. He got no chemotherapy, radiation, or surgical treatment. Medicare didn’t spend much on him. 
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 What’s unusual about them is not how much treatment they get compared to most Americans, but how little.
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They know exactly what is going to happen, they know the choices, and they generally have access to any sort of medical care they could want. But they go gently.
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...they know enough about modern medicine to know its limits. And they know enough about death to know what all people fear most: dying in pain, and dying alone. They’ve talked about this with their families. They want to be sure, when the time comes, that no heroic measures will happen....
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Almost all medical professionals have seen what we call “futile care” being performed on people. That’s when doctors bring the cutting edge of technology to bear on a grievously ill person near the end of life.
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What it buys is misery we would not inflict on a terrorist.
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Some medical personnel wear medallions stamped “NO CODE” to tell physicians not to perform CPR on them. I have even seen it as a tattoo.
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To administer medical care that makes people suffer is anguishing.
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“How can anyone do that to their family members?”
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When doctors ask if they [patients/relatives] want “everything” done, they answer yes. Then the nightmare begins. Sometimes, a family really means “do everything,” but often they just mean “do everything that’s reasonable.” The problem is that they may not know what’s reasonable, nor, in their confusion and sorrow, will they ask about it or hear what a physician may be telling them. For their part, doctors told to do “everything” will do it, whether it is reasonable or not.
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...unrealistic expectations of what doctors can accomplish. Many people think of CPR as a reliable lifesaver when, in fact, the results are usually poor.
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The trouble is that even doctors who hate to administer futile care must find a way to address the wishes of patients and families.
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When patients or families brought up unreasonable choices, I would discuss the issue in layman’s terms that portrayed the downsides clearly. If patients or families still insisted on treatments I considered pointless or harmful, I would offer to transfer their care to another doctor or hospital.
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...doctors are fearful of litigation and do whatever they’re asked, with little feedback, to avoid getting in trouble.
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One Saturday, however, Jack suffered a massive stroke and got admitted to the emergency room unconscious, without his wife. Doctors did everything possible to resuscitate him and put him on life support in the ICU. This was Jack’s worst nightmare.
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But doctors still don’t over-treat themselves. They see the consequences of this constantly. Almost anyone can find a way to die in peace at home, and pain can be managed better than ever. Hospice care, which focuses on providing terminally ill patients with comfort and dignity rather than on futile cures, provides most people with much better final days. Amazingly, studies have found that people placed in hospice care often live longer than people with the same disease who are seeking active cures.
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Torch was no doctor, but he knew he wanted a life of quality, not just quantity. Don’t most of us? If there is a state of the art of end-of-life care, it is this: death with dignity. As for me, my physician has my choices. They were easy to make, as they are for most physicians. There will be no heroics, and I will go gentle into that good night. Like my mentor Charlie. Like my cousin Torch. Like my fellow doctors.
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Comments on this are fine. I will note them, but I don't intend to respond until I write my own thoughts and the reason I feel as I do. 

 I wish to acknowledge the Guardian as source and my sincere thanks to Ken Murray for giving me this starting point.

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Saturday, March 23, 2013

The fortunes of Miss Mahony 4 [Final!]

continued from here

...for Miss Mahony nursed a dark secret, and forget about guessing what it was, because you don't have a bleedin' clue.

Look, I'll come straight out with it.

   Miss Mahony smoked. That's right. Cigarettes. Gaspers. Durries. Fags. Call them what you will, there's no getting away from it. She was a smoker.

   I realize that this will have shocked you to the very core, but it's a critical part of the story that follows.

   Now it must be said that there were women in our township who smoked. Some, like Joyce Moran, did it openly. Joyce was a legend in Calliope, and legends can get away with almost anything. But women who smoked generally did it on their own verandahs out of sight of the public.

   My Aunty Lucy smoked. When Uncle Frank came home after a long shift at the meatworks, Aunty Lucy would sit in the cool under their house in Gladstone with the sea breeze wafting in, and have a 7 oz. (small) glass of beer and a smoke with him. That was the only place and time she did, and she lived to ninety.

   Old Jim had his pipe, but only smoked it in the garden of his house, usually well after the last child had cleared the school grounds. But he was a man, so different rules applied. Naturally.

   Women teachers did not smoke. Girls who were Miss Mahony's age and single who smoked were usually Bad Girls. End of story.

   I don't know where Miss Mahony got her supplies or where she kept them, nor where she usually smoked. She couldn't have bought them in Calliope or everyone towards the centre of town would know in hours, and in a day or two for those who lived further away, all without the assistance of the telephone, considered a rare luxury for personal use.

    I don't think she had a car. Few women did, though many drove the family car if there was one, or farm vehicles like the tractor if they had the strength to push in the clutch or turn the steering wheel (then without hydraulics, and heavy as lead). Miss Mahony must have got a stash of smokes in Gladstone and hid them away.

   Where she could have smoked unseen and unsmelt in Calliope I can't imagine. Maybe she did it only rarely, when the rigours of the Calliope lifestyle got too much. How am I to know, hey?

   I mentioned earlier that Miss Mahony boarded with old Mrs Fergie next to the dance hall. Her house was no more than three metres from the southern wall of the hall. No wonder Miss Mahony turned up at the dances. With Mitchell's Orchestra music blaring away twenty metres from her room she may as well be there, in the hall, dancing.

   I have no idea how well she got on with Mrs Fergie, who was a decent, honourable widow of many years. I've no reason to believe it was anything but cordial.

   I should mention that Joyce Moran lived directly opposite Mrs Fergie, next to the pub. With a westerly wind, smoke would have drifted across constantly from one or other of these sources, so I'm guessing it could have been possible, if Miss Mahony chose her times well, for her to slip outside and light up behind the dance hall, and it could be assumed the smoke was coming from the other side of the street.

   But one thing we do know now for absolute certain. One place Miss Mahony smoked at least once was in Mrs Fergie's dunny thunderbox toilet lavatory, about ten metres from her house on the eastern side. She must have been gasping for one on this night after the dance, because she went to the lavatory and lit up.

   I should explain, for the benefit of those who've never experienced the novelty of an outside dunny that it's usually not a WC. Got it? It doesn't flush. There's what is called a pan under the seat that fills up over the course of a week.

   In order to keep it sweet – or at least, not hold-your-nose ghastly, there's also a good-sized tin or box of sawdust in the dunny, and a generous tin scoop or something similar. The routine is that after you have completed whatever was on the ablutions agenda, you'd get a scoop of sawdust and scatter it on top of the contents of the pan. It worked pretty well.

   Here's what happened, based on a tearful admission by Miss Mahony the next morning, and what Mrs Ferg told my Aunty Mag, who lived across the other road from her. (Dad had seven sisters and four brothers, most of whom lived within a kilometre of each other, so we had valuable intelligence from many quarters on just about anything that went on in our world.)

   Mrs Fergie went to bed at 9 pm or so, regular as clockwork, and Miss Mahony slipped into the dunny after the dance. It was a chilly winter night and Miss Mahony had perspired a bit from the last Log Cabin dance, which turned into a gallop as they sometimes do. Feeling pretty sure she could safely have a smoke in there, she lit up.

   Sadly for her, it was a night when Mrs Fergie was having a bit of tummy troubles, as she explained in some detail next day to Aunty Mag. Miss Mahony was disconcerted to find, as she sat puffing away on the flat wooden lid of the thunderbox, that out of the pitch blackness, the beam from Mrs Fergie's torch was lighting up the gap under the dunny door.

   "I'm sorry – I'm in here, Mrs Ferg."

   No doubt she was sorry she was in there right then.

   "Hurry up, dear," I can imagine Mrs Fergie saying, "I've got to go." It was probably that nice pawpaw, she told Aunty Mag in the debriefing session next day.

   There wasn't a lot Miss Mahony could do. The best solution as she saw it was to bury the half-smoked cigarette deep in the pine box of sawdust and hope to retrieve the evidence the next day. So she did bury it deep, and I imagine, do all those useless things people do when they're in a confined space trying to hide the evidence of smoke from illicit substances, such as wave her hands around like mad and... hope for the best.

   She left the dunny, had a bath and went to bed. (Well, I think she would have had a bath. I could be making that bit up.)

   Mrs Fergie was far less concerned with any lingering smell of tobacco than her major objective. Obviously I don't know those details and there's no reason why either you or I should want them, but she probably gave Aunty Mag a good rundown on how things went. Suffice it to say that Mrs Fergie completed her mission as best she could, and went back to bed.

   It appears that Miss Mahony did not know that a pine box of sawdust isn't the best place to hide a smoke unless you are absolutely certain it contains not a flicker of a spark in it. Sawdust itself burns just as well as a decent cigar. It will smoulder away there for hours quite contentedly until a full combustion point is reached.

   That happened at about 4 am on the Sunday of some date in some month probably 1956 or 1957. Sorry, I can't be more specific. There's only so much my brain can hold, and the date of the total destruction by fire of Mrs Fergie's weatherboard dunny isn't one of them. There was nothing anyone could do. All that was left was the solid blackened steel pan, and the desiccated remains of its contents.

   I don't know if Aunty Mag got a gratuitous description of those from Mrs Ferg, but it's possible.

   Mrs Fergie was obliged to confront Miss Mahony with the evidence of smoking she'd detected while engaging with the thunderbox. Perhaps overtaken by remorse, or maybe it was surprise, Miss Mahony readily but sadly confessed to the misdemeanour. No-one accused her of arson. There could be no motive when you think about it.

   The events surrounding the reasons for Miss Mahony's departure are shrouded in mystery, a phrase I've borrowed from a commercial broadcaster's investigative journalism program. (They would love to have done this story, for sure, as it has all the elements required for one of their scoops – public interest, drama, mystery etc.) But we were kids and not too sophisticated, so don't expect precise reasons.

   I can speculate based only on words of a friendly nature exchanged between Miss Mahony and Old Jim when I was kept in for talking in class and had to write fifty words before going home. This was when she came through the glass internal door of the school on the final day to hand him her class roll. The words were "north" "college" and "shore".

   Putting those three together in a more logical order would suggest a new job in Sydney, wouldn't it?

   It may be that her departure from Calliope was long premeditated and had nothing to do with the destruction of Mrs Fergie's dunny. It could be that she was already destined for a more liberal place where a young woman teacher's smoking wasn't regarded with such grave suspicion.

   The matter of urgent construction of a new dunny arose, for the body's plumbing system waits for no man or woman. Someone lacking agility like Mrs Ferg couldn't be expected to go too far for too long.

   It was fortunate that the dance hall toilet was as close as it was, as you see by the map, and that the women of Calliope were scrupulous when it came to personal habits. So that facility was immediately available and needed only a quick going-over to be fully serviceable for a week's private use when otherwise it would have been vacant except for the occasional little girl caught short on the way home from school.

   Rather like the building of my ramp, a working bee the following Saturday by willing volunteers saw the rapid construction of Mrs Ferg's new dunny which, it must be said, was slightly more elegant model than the previous one, with a door that didn't creak and better access for Mrs Fergie, so it all turned out rather well in the end.

   It was like the phoenix had arisen from the flames ignited by Miss Mahony's fag. It was even painted in the the tasteful muted colour (bridal path tan) that Mrs Ferg had visions of one day painting her old grey weatherboard cottage; only that never got done – so the new, improved phoenix-dunny remained as the one bright spot on her eastern horizon.

   Miss Mahony's dark secret was kept, in the manner of all country towns, where everyone knew but only talked about it in muted tones, with snorts of disapproval or derision – or amused guffaws from the men, or some combination thereof.

   The enigmatic Miss Mahony, it seems, was not really of our world; nor ours, it must be said, of hers. After that last day, she disappeared from our lives forever. Fortunately for the school, she was replaced by the lovely Mrs Dart.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

The fortunes of Miss Mahony 3

I feel my time's running short, so I'll try to be concise, or entertaining, or both. You may have to settle for 50% at best.

   The farewell for Miss Mahony was coming to a close. For the second time that evening, Miss Mahony strode to the centre of the grand old dance hall.

   Again she had the undivided attention of the multitude.

   "I want all the children of Calliope State School to come here to me."

   We came, wondering what was in store. It wasn't like she had anything in her hands, like lollies or... anything.

   "Now, hold hands and make a circle."

   We did.

   "Step back two paces."

   She was now in the centre of a neat ring of about forty curious children.


   Miss Mahony strolled round the circle, smiling at every child.

   "I... am going to... give every one of you..."

   What we thought, could she give us?

   "...a great, big..."



   Now, folks, let's be clear on something. Two things. One, that it was unheard of for a teacher to kiss school pupils, and two, that it's not for the reasons it wouldn't happen today. I mean, imagine a teacher today, especially a man teacher, announcing that he was going to kiss every child in the room. Just as likely he'd be up for assault, and strong questions would be asked about his motives.

   At the very least, passing germs round an entire school would have aborted that idea before it got off the ground, even if his reputation were not shattered forever.

   That simply wasn't the case in those days, in a little country school, particularly with a woman teacher. These were country kids, bursting with good health, apart from the occasional epidemics of childhood disease like chicken-pox and measles, and they wrestled and hugged daily enough to pass on anything if it were around. If anyone were taking a chance on catching something, it was Miss Mahony herself, but she didn't give tuppence for that.

   It was just that a teacher wouldn't. Not that that was a barrier to Miss Mahony, who in a day or two would never again see these kids she'd taught and played with at lunch time as if she were just another kid. And it wouldn't have occurred to any parent that there was anything wrong with the kiss part of it. It was just unexpected – like nearly everything Miss Mahony did.

   On announcing this with such a flourish, Miss Mahony went in a clockwise direction from child to child, giving each a resounding smackeroo kiss on the right cheek. Little girls waited for theirs with that shy wringing-of-the-hands thing little girls do, but smiling broadly, while the boys put on faces of mock dismay. Secretly, they were longing for The Kiss, and then they rubbed it off with even greater affected distaste when it was over. The horror and the rubbing were hugely exaggerated but could not mask the grins.

   Talk about Protesting Too Much. If truth be told, they would have been delighted with a second round.

   Well, I would have, but you know me....

   Miss Mahony had reached the end. She knew she had started with Bimbo Brown nearest the door, and she was back to him. No chance of getting in a second one, but if anyone would have been that lucky, it was Bimbo.

   What now?

   It was just at that point that Mickey Marr walked in the door. Mickey, as some of you may recall, was of the family which had seen movies for the first time in that same hall, with antics vastly amusing to everyone else. (Oh, you have to read that story if you missed it before. You must.)

   Mickey, it turned out, had missed the whole kissing thing. It was after his bedtime and the rumour afterwards was that he got lost in the thirty or so metres between a place of urination down behind the hall and the front door, at which he now appeared. It had been dark out there and he entered looking like the proverbial whiptail caught in the headlights.

   Miss Mahony's headlights, that is, and how splendid they were. Her eyes I mean, of course. She was quick to respond.

   Instinct told him to stand still as she bore down upon him, just like it does to that unfortunate wallaby obeying a hundred thousand years of evolution in the path of a gigantic semi-trailer and then has second thoughts – sadly, its last ones – much too late. What was going on? Why was everyone standing in this circle? Why were they looking at him? What did he do wrong? What was Miss Mahony ....

   He had no further time to reflect upon these matters. Miss Mahony was upon him.

   "Michael!" she cried.

   She picked him up in this bear-hug-type hold so that he was six inches off the floor, and whirled him round and round the floor, in a waltz where her feet were in no danger, unlike when dancing with Mr Curtis. She danced as if Mickey were her true love, thought lost in the wilds of Kokoda since the war and now returned to her loving arms. 

   Then she gently put him down, and planted the mother of all kisses on the sun-browned cheek of Mickey, eldest son of Johnny, chief of the clan of Marr.

   Mickey, whose eyes hadn't yet adjusted to the light, and the canals of his inner ears equally unadjusted to the whirling around, and brain totally cornswoggled by being kissed at all by Miss Mahony let alone with such enthusiasm, the last thing on earth he expected to happen in his life and certainly the most unusual that had done so far apart from his new hand-me-down shorts ending up round his knees in the foot-races last picnic day, and still unused to being called Michael instead of Mickey – he was confused; even more than you are by the ungrammatical construction of this sentence.

   He just sat down on the floor, right there where Miss Mahony had deposited him. It was, as I said, way past his bedtime, which was usually when the last gleam of light fell on their little bush dwelling amongst the gum trees and stars a mile or two off the Taragoola road.

   It was one of those gentle moments where parents smile, hearts are softened and sins forgiven.

   Some of those sins. But the one last part of this saga will definitely have to wait till next time. Truly the last. Cross my heart and ... hope to die. For Miss Mahony nursed a dark secret, and forget about guessing what it was, because you don't have a bleedin' clue.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

The fortunes of Miss Mahony 2

There has been some wild speculation in social media since I wrote Part 1 as to what happened next in this tale, but I suspect some of the guesses come from those who have no idea of life in a country township in the 1950s. They may feel let down. Oh well, let's see.... The story continues.

   It was rapidly drawing to the end of the night for Miss Mahony's farewell. Miss Mahony knew that for the children there would be a little period of dancing ahead – La Raspa (or Mexican Hat Dance), and a Hokey-Pokey (Hokey-Cokey to some readers). 

   Just at the point where the Raspa was to be announced, Miss Mahony walked to the centre of the dance floor and announced loudly:

   "There's one thing I must insist on before the Raspa."

   The hall fell silent.

   There was some indrawing of breath amongst the adults. What would she insist upon? There wasn't a person in Calliope who hadn't heard of That Other Thing, about which ye shall know presently. That had nothing to do with announcements.

   "I request... no, I demand..."

   Her eyes flashing, she looked round the entire hall until her eyes rested on Mr Curtis, and her gaze stuck upon his face like superglue (which hadn't been invented in the 1950s – everyone relied on Tarzan's Grip. I knew you'd like a picture.)

   I should state at this point that what Miss Mahony demanded was going to cause a problem, because Old Jim, as we called him, was a strict Methodist. "Old Jim" was not an entirely affectionate title, but nor did it carry malice, because bad boys like me feared him a bit, although every time we'd been caned, we figured we deserved it. He was old and we knew his name was Jim, so the two just went together.

   "...I demand... that Mr Curtis has one last waltz – with me!"

   Now I can see you're as shocked as we kids were, as was everyone else in the hall. As a Methodist, he frowned upon dancing – even with his own wife, as dancing was a frivolous thing. Fine for children; good exercise for young bodies, in fact – but never for him. Dancing could lead to... never mind. And now this chit of a girl was putting him in an impossible position. To take any woman other than his dear wife in his arms... it didn't bear thinking about.

   He started to protest volubly.

   "No... it's not possible.... I can't...."

   Along with the other men, "Rocket" Armour was hanging half sloshed over the waist-high partition between the side verandah and the canvas seats along that side of the dance floor. He probably had felt the sting of Old Jim's cane many times twenty years before this night and now saw his chance for revenge. He shouted loudly in his usual slurred voice,

   "Come on SIR – give 'er a go!"

   Every other bloke in the hall chimed in. "Go for it, SIR!" "Last chance, Sir!" and some other things I didn't understand and displeased some of the mothers greatly, but it was a unique opportunity for us kids. "Yes, Sir – pleeease Sir!"

   Never had we had a chance to be that cheeky to the one we held in awe. We forgot that we had to face him on Monday, and many more Mondays. But there was strength in unity.

   Old Jim was genuinely distressed. He was being asked to do something that took him to the very gates of Dante's Inferno, with rapidly retreating hopes for Paridiso even after a blameless life. Desperately, he looked across at Mrs Curtis.

   She glanced back. She had the wickedest glint in her eyes. And a tiny grin on her lips.

   That sealed his fate. Old Jim would have to risk a date with Cerberus (yes, I know, I've mixed Christian and primal Hells) should he drop dead or be struck down on the spot the moment he took her hand.

   Don't laugh. It was possible. Messing round with Fate is always a chancy business and don't I know it. Being older makes you all too aware of these things.

   "But I can't...."

   Miss Mahony knew exactly what it was that he couldn't and wouldn't do, so she said:

   "Let's do it this way."

   She knew he was rejecting outright the notion of putting his right hand on her waist. That was perdition. One last desperate glance towards Mrs Curtis showed that she was still smiling, even more widely.

   So Miss Mahony took his right hand in her left and his left in her right, slipped her hands up his arms almost to the shoulders, which forced him to emulate her manoeuvre. They engaged in a manner not so different to that of the crays in the picture here. No hand went beyond the upper arm. It was truly not a lascivious arrangement. The gates of Hell would stay firmly shut for this one. In terms of flesh on flesh, it was like a two-man rugby scrum, or a particular hold in Greco-Roman wrestling.

   Sardie Brown struck up on the piano what was meant to be a waltz. He got quite a few notes wrong but in fairness, he kept reasonably good time, so the omnishambles that followed wasn't entirely his fault.

   Miss Mahony gracefully, and with the hugest of smiles as if she were dancing with Fred Astaire himself, gently and effortlessly bypassed the worst of the dangers of Old Jim's No 12s.

   Meanwhile, he was sweating like camp-draft nag a bit long in the tooth that was trying to corral a wily vealer. This was, I am certain, the first and last time Mr Curtis graced the dance floor. He shuffled round and round with mincing steps but none of the grace of a geisha.

    It was a kind of jitterbug without the bug; just the jitter. No, that's a bad analogy, but because I just thought of it and liked it, it's staying in. It was after all a jittery, shuddery sort of progression round the hall, keeping Miss Mahony at full arm's length. 

    Finally, in what must have been the longest two minutes of his life, they made it around the hall once, not really to rapturous applause if it were Astaire and Miss Mahony, but a good deal of mirth, enthusiastic clapping in three-four time from the kids and a lot of wolf-whistles from the peanut gallery. 

   I doubt if Old Jim had heard any of it. He was concentrating fully on staying upright. In that sense his rubber-soled shoes were a blessing, but also a curse in that he had no chance of sliding on the dance floor in the way every dancer wearing leather-soled shoes or boots did.

   Miss Mahony bowed elegantly to him as he plonked himself down with an ungraceful thud on the canvas chair next to Mrs Curtis, who, it must be said, felt his distress and patted his hand. That was as close to a display of public affection as he would have allowed.

   The Raspa followed, and then the Hokey-Pokey, in which Miss Mahony played a prominent part. When it came to the bit where, after putting our front side in, we all sang lustily:
You put yer 'mmpp-mmpp' in
You put yer 'mmpp-mmpp' out
You put yer 'mmpp-mmpp' in
And you shake it all about....
   ...the 'mmpp-mmpp' signifying your back side, but what we melded into "backside", a word too improper to be used by good children in the Diggers Arms Hall. Do you know what Miss Mahony did at the 'mmpp-mmpp' point? She didn't say it aloud, but she mouthed the word (avert your eyes if you must):


   She did. I'm telling we all saw it, and we all saw it the second time, and by the third we didn't say 'mmpp-mmpp' but we also mouthed the word... that one up there... and we shook our mmpp-mmpps all about like our bums were on fire.

   Old Jim just looked down. I have no idea what the parents thought, except that teachers always were expected to convey the impression that they'd never heard the word "bum" in their lives, let alone say it.

   I wasn't even going to tell that bum part of the story because I only just remembered it, and I have to say that I haven't even got to the other shock of the night that was meant to go here. Shall I post this bit and add the other part next time? because I've gotta tell you, truly, I'm knackered. I could have put it more indelicately à la twenty-first century standard idiom, but children may be reading this you know.

   Dammit, you can wait for it. And That Other Thing. You can wait for that too. My blog.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

The fortunes of Miss Mahony 1

Until my final year of primary school, which was Grade 8, I'd had only two teachers. Miss Turner taught Grades 1, 2 and 3, and Mr Curtis taught the other five.

   It must seem amazing these days. But as I went on up the grades, the teachers of Grades 1 to 3 changed, as Misses became Mrs and no longer taught.

   That's how it was. They slipped into a bridal gown of the purest white and out of teaching – often forever.

   One of these new teachers to arrive was Miss Mahony.

   As far as Assistant Teachers go, Miss Mahony was different. It seems she was not a Queensland girl, but came from the wilds of South Australia. She had been to Sydney; maybe even lived there for a while. From our point of view, that made her totally unpredictable.

   Well, something did. Oh, you can smirk. We knew how Assistant Teachers should look and behave. They were cloned, as far as possible as that process can be for young women, at Kelvin Grove Teacher's College in Brisbane, and then sallied forth, often into the terra incognita of rural Queensland blackblocks.

   Miss Mahony didn't wear teachery clothes. She wore what we thought were ballerina dresses, though none of us had ever seen a ballerina in the flesh, so that perception might have been skewed.

   Quite often she did unthinkable things, such as to come down at lunchtime and play in our game of rounders. This made the boys think she was adorable, but the girls weren't so keen. Ask my sisters – they’ll tell you. In a game, she'd be full-on for her team, hotly disputing whether or not Darryl Keyworth made it to base in time – just like any other good team member.

   It was good to have her on your side. She took subtle advantage of her authority for the sake of the team. Not so good when she chose the other side though.

   As to the parents, I can't say for sure how they felt about her. Amongst mothers, I heard "flibbertygibbet" bandied about in conversations that I had no business overhearing. I didn't know what a flibberty-thing was, but when mothers use an unfamiliar word in a certain way or with a certain look on their faces, you can be pretty sure whether it's good or not.

   I got the impression that it wasn't favourable.

   As to fathers, I never heard any criticisms, but I do suspect a blend of A and B; amusement and bemusement. Secretly, I reckon they liked her when she turned up at the Saturday night dance. For them, she was an interesting off-the-menu attraction. They'd have asked her up for a Gypsy Tap but that was diplomatically unwise when their wives were looking on.

   Hell, let's admit it – a wife's presence wouldn't have mattered because there were many other keen observers amongst the women who'd be sure to report back faithfully to an absent wife suspected of having been maritally slighted. The lily would have been gilded well and truly by the time it got back to her. The facts would have been embroidered like a Turkish peasant skirt for an extra-special wedding. It would have been very cold turkey for the over-gallant husband, who for a few days would find a fair-sized fence to be fixed up at the back paddock.

   So it was rare that any fathers were brave enough to ask her up, but there were many young unattached blokes who were happy to do the honours, and she just as happily flounced round and round the dance hall in their arms: hair, usually in a ponytail for school, swishing freely about her shoulders for the dances.

   And she could dance too – like a ballerina, which didn't endear her to the other unattached ladies.

   You see where this is going, don't you?

   It must be said that she never allowed any funny business such as clinging close in the jazz waltz; not to any of those cowboys, oh no. Maybe she would have liked to, but even she would not have challenged Calliope convention regarding teacher behaviour to that extent. It would have been de trop. Which reminds me; flagrant stories that she'd been overseas were in circulation. Lack of evidence was no barrier to the yarns. Au contraire. Sometimes she said words in another language. I think it was British – but her accent was almost faultlessly Australian, except for what I learned much later in life was that slightly-clipped Adelaide precision.

   Still, you have to admit there's something a bit weird about it all. Don't you?

   Amongst the men, Mr Curtis wasn't all that keen on her though. He was the Headmaster. I'm guessing that for him, Miss Mahony was too flighty. She didn't patch into the social and cultural mores of our fair township.

   Her stay at Calliope was shorter than average. I think it was a combination of things, some of which are alluded to above, that brought an inevitable departure date forward, but I'll come to that.

   A send-off was arranged at the Diggers Arms Hall. She didn't have far to go to attend, because she boarded with old Mrs Fergie who lived next door to the dance hall and was happy to take in a paying guest – especially a teacher. Her salary, although women were paid less for doing the same job as the men, was regarded as enviable compared with that of a barmaid or clerk.

   There were the usual foods for the party – sandwiches, butterfly cakes and lamingtons. Punch was made with whatever fruit was in season plus lemonade and ginger ale, and an extra pound or two of sugar dissolved in good tank-water to ensure it was sweet enough (which it was anyway, but no-one took chances on that).

   Some kids' games were played, Miss Mahony once again eager to take part.

   Then it was time to say a formal goodbye, and two utterly remarkable things happened, the likes of which Calliope had never seen before, nor would ever see again.

   But I expect you've had enough by now, so I'll leave that till the next time.