Monday, June 30, 2014

62) Return to Shangri-la.

A few more stories and the punk poofy cat's seven lives will have been revealed. His journey was somewhat akin to that of Orpheus venturing into the Underworld, the artist seeking his anima, trying to make his self whole, and defying death through the immortality of his art. It had been a long march into the darkness, surviving a violent childhood, homo beats and the infinitely dangerous road, Indian jungles and cities, psychedelic rages and serial killers, Afghani deserts and Minotaur labyrinths, anarchic squats and red-light slums, madhouse furor and ecstatic trance parties, through twenty-one levels of heaven and hell. 

But when he looked back on it all he stumbled, he wasn’t sure if there were any purpose to it, there was no successful destination, no perfection gained, no light at the end, just a little wisdom, and some compassion, for flawed humanity and his own fucked-up soul as well.

As the third millennium crashed into Arthur’s consciousness, new directions opened up, The Beast blocked off one path, that of a pooncey arts career, and his Unconscious catapulted him up another, the open road into the World. He’d had repetitive dreams from the ‘80s into the ‘90s of returning to India, and each time his astral body flew into the sub-continent he was met by an old friend who would hug him and pronounce, “Welcome back! You’ve come again, this is your seventh visit.” This went on, dream after dream, till he reached his 21st visit, and it all came true, he finally returned, in 1997 and was still flying, in his late Sixties, near the end of his life, having had many awesome adventures.

He’d be sitting in his apartment next to his packed bags and his guts would lurch with slight nausea at his impending flight to India and his escape from safe, boring Sydney. He gazed upon the intimate clutter of his abode as if he would never come that way again and he wistfully told his friends it was possible he might not return this time, from his umpteenth journey into the dark, bright, mysterious land of Bharatma. He hoped he really would disappear in the high Himalayas, discovering a lost Shangri-la where his bent soul would be accepted and healed, and then the rest of his halcyon days could be spent in study and meditation.

Or maybe he’d get stabbed through the heart in a grungy hotel room by some desperate, tough guy he’d picked up walking along the marina in Bombay, romanticizing this horrible ending as quick and passionate. Or he’d give himself a hot-shot somewhere hidden in the Himalayan vastness and tumble backwards into the turbulent waters of the Ganges, as he had tried in 1999 but gave up as a bad job, thankfully, for he’d had a fabulous sixteen years afterwards. If he had made it into the river he hoped to get eaten by the Sacred fish as did his mentor, Swami Compassion, in 1974, and thus in some way he would join him, but it was not to be, he was too chicken, life coursed too hot through his veins. 

Yet suicide ever looked over his left-shoulder, his trip-outs to India might even be viewed as a death wish.  He could be lynched by a mob, smashed by an auto accident, emaciated by disease, blown apart by terrorists, entombed by an earthquake, trampled by a stampede, anything was possible.

Maybe it was all paranoid nonsense; life just marched on, and the Indian people were in general friendly and loving. He always had a great time, experiencing exploits to cherish for the few years left him. And that’s all and well, for he’d lived his life like a jungle-safari through a horror-house amusement park and nothing was too risqué for him. Something in him longed to be dissolved into nothingness, atomized within the heart of India, not to have to keep slogging it out in the vicissitudes of Australian post-modern life. Those struggling inside the System seemed oafish wankers, smiling like vampires while willing to stand on him to climb the hierarchy, money and prestige valued above all things. The fat pig politicians making all the mistakes but getting huge pensions for it, the wars decimating whole populations, the environment being destroyed as it was exploited, on and on, there was much to be disheartened about.

He sneered at the new religion of worshiping celebrities, seeing them as fame-whores who promoted false-consciousness like ventriloquist dummies manipulated by a ruling elite. Arthur just didn’t fit in, he barely got by and, hating the modern monster of consumer capitalism, he wanted to opt out. India was the other, the out there that he could get lost in and live out his Sufi Arabian Nights fantasies, regardless of their transience, they were like garden oasis rest-stops in a tortuous travail across the limitless desert of 21st century civilization.

Every great text he'd ever deciphered had the same message: life was cruel, power-mongers rule. Who was he, a little pipsqueak fairy, to have any viable input into civilization? The fantasy of discovering Shangri-la hidden amidst the icy-white Himalayan mountain crags was a metaphor for his longing to find some solace and closure to his fatigue, defeat and failure. Death held the possibility of paradise where old friends were met on a bridge of white-light and they would all laugh themselves up into the stars while celestial choirs sang to a techno dance beat. But that was just some saccharine wishful movie he’d seen.

When, on his first return trip India, he’d had the chance to end it all, he didn’t take it. He’d caught cholera from drinking dirty water at the 1998 Kumbhla Mela in Haridwar whilst visiting a Big Baba’s tent in the teeming Guru Bazaar. As an honored firanghi guest he was served opium tea, made from the sacred water of the River Ganges, in which twenty million people were washing themselves. Back in his aqua-green room, he sank into an intense fever, his guts seized-up and tore him apart as if he’d swallowed glass shards, he projectile vomited out the door, sweating into his sheets till they turned into a swampy morass, he lost three-quarters of his body fluids and was delirious to the point of utter madness.

Some weeks previously he’d attended the premiere of the movie “Titanic” in New Delhi and it was an overwhelming experience. Not just the vicarious thrill of watching a thousand celluloid people drown in spectacular and horrible manner, he was also whipped up by the hysteria of the Indian audience, which matched the turbulence of the icy sinkhole whirl-pooling up on the big-screen. Indians are a very restless bunch, they’re not much for linear narrative, they know how the story turns out; their attention is saved for the highlights. Throughout the screening they jumped up and ran to and fro, in and out the doors, from seat to seat, carrying screaming babies, answering their trilling mobiles and sometimes looking up at the screen, wolf-whistling, catcalling or collectively grumbling.

Outside, searchlights slashed urgently across the gigantic concrete cube of a cinema, and traffic smashed up against its walls; cars, scooters, auto-rickshaws, bikes, piled in heaps like waves of metallic junk hitting a sinking ship. Hordes of brown people climbed out of and over the banked up traffic and ran jabbering helter-skelter like it was doomsday at Dizzneyland. That cinematic night had the crazy visuals of a psychedelic dreamscape, the most remarkable being of Kate Winslett’s gigantic head, glowing like some celestial goddess, with a slide projected across her forehead at a highly emotional moment, asking if car license number 210007 could please remove his vehicle from the front steps of the cinema foyer.

Just so was Arthur’s choleric delirium, back in his room, stricken on his narrow bed. He tossed and tangled amidst his sweaty sheets, imagining them to be the terrible waters into which the ship of his body sunk, with a thousand screams and calls of distress, every drowning soul his own. He was the artist boy sinking away into the freezing void for the sake of love and altruism, while Kate Winslett morphed into the all devouring mother, the dark Goddess Kali, dancing by Arthur’s deathbed, drawing him back into chaos, smashing him to smithereens. 

For three days he suffered and he was shown death, the doorway to the ‘Exit’, hovering in a white fog around him. From somewhere deep in his inflamed heart he dredged up the spirit and made the decision to live, to take life as it came; there was always potential for exhilaration, love and quintessential knowledge to be had, regardless of the pain of getting there. After all, he never had been a wimp, when adversity threatened he got brave. 

He picked himself up off his sweat-wet bed and dragged himself to a doctor’s clinic. He was told that if he’d waited another day he would have surely been dead, for he’d caught the dreaded cholera bug. He was rushed to a private hospital and given inter-venous antibiotics and after three days of tender, loving care he came out of his coma, committed to having another chance at the game of life.

He’d been on suicide trips before, in the derelict squats and towering tenements of Sydney, but he’d never pulled it off, there was always tomorrow, he’d eke out his paltry enjoyments for one more day, just one more day. And on each of his voyages to India, he imagined it could be his last, though he clambered on, reckless and daring. He had organized a taxi ride to Badrinath at the roof of the world in a friend’s beat up Ambassador car, it was near the end of the season and the sacred town would soon be snowed under. Perhaps his car would slip off the icy roads and tumble into the terribly deep ravines, thus fulfilling the curse of the Electrified Baba outside Badrinath thirty years before. Whatever, he was up for it, though he’d try to remember to tighten his seat-belt.

Of course it didn’t happen, not that time round. With mind determined and heart inspired, he arranged his longed-for sojourn across the roof of the world and everything went like a dream, even to the comfy hotel rooms with hot-shower and cable TV in the outlandishly grungy towns perched high in the craggy mountain ranges.

He knew it would revive his spirits and it did; he’d started out suicidal, feeling there was nothing more to enjoy or achieve, and maybe he’d reached the end of his shelf-life. As he flew along in the back-seat comfort of the Ambassador, as if on a genie’s back indeed, with the awesome snow-clad peaks of the high Himalayas looming over him, he experienced the thrill of being alive and aware of nature’s magnificence, his elated consciousness part of the fabric. There was always something wonderful waiting to enthrall the wearied soul if he had the brains and guts to go for it. Colossal waterfalls, healing hot-springs, ancient Hindu temples, infinite vistas of the green Ganges river winding into the jagged precipices, and the unsophisticated, joyous people living off the land as they’d done for thousands of years, it all made the angel in him take wing and sing a song of thanks. He was on the move, he voyaged through splendor, he was free and untrammeled, the journey was fun, and reaching his destination a big thrill, both were worth staying alive for.

Then they had to return to the lowlands, life had to be gotten on with, there was no long-lasting escape from reality on any journey but there was always another adventure around the bend for harried souls like Arthur, happy when he was on the move. From the high mountains he swooned to swoop down into Goa every year for the New Years Eve party where he could dance himself back to six-pack abs. And first rest-stop on the way was glorious Bombay, the seven islands of Mumbai Devi, now joined as one, a Mecca for hard-workers, dreamers and hustlers. How he loved the picture palaces of the Regal, Eros, Sterling and Metro cinemas, the night-clubs, the beaches, sea-side promenades, markets and museums, restaurants and pubs.

He made best friends there and was safely escorted through every imbroglio: the terrorist attacks, the importunate beggars, the screaming gay discos, the teaming railway counters, over the years criss-crossing every djiin-haunted corner of the city. There was a serial killer known as “The Beer Can Killer” who bashed and raped sleeping streeties, leaving a beer can by the dead body as his M.O., striking at all the places Arthur liked to frequent with a friend: Chaupatti Beach, Marine Drive, Azad Cricket Maidan. Arthur freaked at the thought the killer might have lurked nearby while he was innocently sitting watching the sunset over the bay, but he always had his mate as chaperone so there were no worries.

Late at night, on returning to his hotel after the movies, he hugged his friend goodnight in the taxi, insisting he could walk the last seven hundred yards alone, where every doorway creaked ominously and monstrous specters wavered in the shadows as he crept along creepy dark streets. In the morning, when his hotel manager asked him how he was enjoying his holiday, Arthur replied that it was all fabulous except for his fear of the serial killer, but thankfully the bastard didn’t show his ugly mug. The manager gave a glum smile and informed him that they’d found another victim that very morning, dead on the footbridge not three hundred yards from the hotel’s front door. Arthur could only shudder, and say a prayer, of sorrow and thanks. 

Near the Metro Cinema, in Fashion Street, the sleeper buses to Goa line up and here Arthur happily rushed for the night trip to Goa, to roll about in coffin-like boxes as the bus swerved around corners and zoomed down hillsides, into a jungle of heady aromas, of coconuts and bananas, ocean and incense, fish and curry. He couldn’t sleep a wink of it for the thrill and expectation of returning to his beloved Goa, the Bali Hai island paradise scenario of his youth, with seafood and surf-swimming, relentless techno-music and ecstatic trance-dancing.

He hoped there would be lots of parties to go to, small/intimate and big/overwhelming, and the cops told to lay off busting the tourists by the local party-entrepreneurs as they were scaring the cash-cows away. The State/corporate body would eventually get control of and tame the party scene by holding a three day "Sunburn" dance music festival inside a fenced-off compound with CCTV cameras and cops crawling all over to make sure no one was smoking cigs or pot! The crowd of sucked-in middle-class Indians were charged much money to listlessly dance in the hot sun and then go home at 10pm after visiting the big attractions like kiosks that sold laptops and Sunburn festival merchandise. The organizers seemed to overlook the fact that sunburn is as cancerous as smoking. 

They would also one day announce from on high that they no longer wanted international back-packers to come to Goa as they stayed too long and didn’t spend enough money, the very people who had created the hip milieu of ecstatic dancing and laid-back surf and sand life-style. While he could, Arthur would find his niche to relax, dance abandoned and live inexpensively, before it all got swept away by cashed up package tours and hungry, gawking businessmen.

He’d made best friends with the chai-shop wallahs on Tiger Beach and for weeks could kick back and forget his troubles, surrounded by Goans who truly loved him. Then came New Years Eve, the big party night, and he was sitting quietly in his favorite chai-shop on the beach, all day thinking about the phone call he’d just received from Australia, one of his seven best friends had just died unexpectedly, from an embolism to the brain, she was only forty-five and big in Arthur’s life. He was meditating upon the fragility of life and the beauty of Amiria, her Maori warrior strength combined with her Buddhist peacenik nature: oh how he was going to miss her. It was sunset and he was lost in the contemplation of the fiery red ball hitting the horizon of the Arabian Sea, seeing her face in the orange and purple clouds. He was suddenly shaken from his fugue by a loud thunder-like clap, "Thwok!" 
He looked up in shock, an Indian muscle-Mary thug had just whacked his friend Prem, the chai-shop owner, very hard across the face. And then he gave him another almighty slap to which Arthur jumped up and yelled, "What the fuck are you doing?" The bastard had a gang of about seven other ugly bullies with him, all of them macho queens from some brutish gym, drunk as skunks, brainless, and one of them threatened Artie to shut up while he continued the beating.

Like all gangs of cowards, a few of them stepped forward to join in giving the lone Prem a hard slap, then the first thug grabbed him by the hair with one fist and with the other repeatedly thumped him hard in the face. Arthur kept trying to step forward and stop it but was warned off, fists thrust at him, his laptop smashed to the ground with all his other belongings. Apparently this mob of brutes had come to the chai-shop with their own booze and demanded glasses to drink it with. They were now beating Prem up because he'd refused them: they had the numbers, the muscles and the blind drunken nastiness to terrorize whoever crossed their path. Then the thug who'd thrown the first punch picked up an iron bar and moved in with murderous glee.

He whacked Prem hard across the back with it and Arthur screamed and moved forward, little old man that he was, somehow to quash the melee. Nobody else came to their rescue, all the men and boys on the beach and from the other chai-shops kept their distance, afraid of a beating from the marauding ape-men. The thug lifted the iron bar and whacked Prem on the back of his head, a loud "thunk!" to which Arthur groaned in helplessness, it was nasty but he could tell it was not yet a killer blow. Arthur stepped forward again trying to think of some way to stop this brutality as it really looked like they might murder his friend in front of him, but the bastard turned on him and waved the weapon in his face, took a few swipes which Art ducked, then he smashed all the glass in the counter as a warning to Artie before he turned back to finish off his victim.

He raised the iron bar for the third time, about to deal a blow to Prem's head that could kill him, and Arthur screamed , "No!" and knew that he could not just stand there and let his friend be murdered. He was from working-class Australia, was not chicken-shit passive, he’d been in 1001 brawls and now his experience could come in good stead. As a queer he’d been beaten all his life, the violence was nothing new but he was still scared shitless, they could brain him into retardation as well as Prem. But he wasn’t going to run away, like all the other fellows dining in the chai-shop did. He stood nervously by, thinking "Where oh where is Jackie Chan or Salman Khan when you need them, and why oh why can't I take on and beat up 7 guys at once like movie heroes do?

He thought that if the ape really did bring the bar down towards Prem's head he'd have to rush in with a chair as armor, its four legs hopefully pinning the deadshit down while someone somehow came to their rescue, big hope as their were 7 other thugs swelling their muscles up, like bull-walruses on heat, ready to attack. Arthur used all his will, like a beam of tight-white light which he projected onto the carnage trying to pacify the furor. He felt the spirit of Amiria beside him, her strength, her love and quietude, not that she was really there, but the idea of her, what she stood for, what she practiced, gave him strength, gave him power, she was with him, kind of, definitely.  At the same time he had a vision of the Tibetan Goddess, the Green Tara, hovering next to Amiria shedding a protective green light upon the scene. (Weeks later he discovered Tara is the protector against all evil.)

And he possibly crashed the probability wave in their favor and influenced reality, the observer straightening out the uncertainty, for the thug's arm stopped in mid-air when Arthur shrieked, “Don’t do it!” The oaf hesitated, wavered, looked about him as if he didn't know where he was, waking from a nightmare of his own making, he then shrugged, threw the iron bar down and swaggered off with his mob, up the beach, lords of their domain, lord of the flies more like it. 

Prem was shaken but not too badly hurt, he had to go to hospital and get nine stitches in the back of his head, his face swelled up like a pumpkin from all the slapping but he went straight back to work and had recovered after a week, he's a strong guy who has fallen out of coconut trees many times in his life. Arthur went into post-traumatic-shock mode and was a bit of a hysterical mess for a few hours, giving his good friends a hard time as he was so full of tension.

Maybe he just imagined his influence upon the outcome, the arseholes certainly didn't like witnesses to their violence. But there have been other times in Arthur’s life where his willpower and voice of authority, "No, it's not gonna happen that way!" turned dangerous episodes to his advantage and relief. These bastards were from Poona, had given grief on previous visits, and proceeded to go up to the cliff-tops and catch a taxi to Mapusa where they then beat up the taxi driver and smashed all the windows in his cab. They are such steroid limp dicks that surely some day they will get their come-uppence and get the shit kicked out of them till they never lift a fist again.

Prem and family called the cops but they never came, quite useless, too busy chasing and looting firanghis for smoking pot, or as portrayed in the media, selling the drugs themselves, caught on video in a sting operation by two Israeli girls who were fed up with the corruption. Alcohol is tax-free in Goa, to attract tourists, but all the hoopla of protecting them from terrorists is so much hogwash as its the free flow of alcohol that's causing most of the terror in Goa, road carnage, overdoses, fights, brain/liver damage, domestic violence, the list is endless and the inhuman aliens rule as alcohol is their preferred drug. Who needs Al Queda when there’s Al Cohol?

But Arthur did get to shake his tension loose at the big New Years Eve party later in the night, as always at the best venue on the Goan coast, the Hilltop Hotel, where the music is always cutting, loud and clear, and the dance floor has room enough for thousands to move and groove. As he flexed his muscles and limbs in time to the beat he emanated peace and goodwill to repel the murderous vibrations he’d recently encountered. And he brought the spirit of Amiria with him, as if she was his dance partner, and if she wasn’t dancing eternally in paradise, he danced for her.  Dance, glorious dance, hypnotically for 7 hours straight, able to ignore the few minor teenage fights that broke out around him, he jumped, gyrated, boogied, trembled, hopped, waved, skipped, twisted, shamanic dancing that shook his ego loose and united him with the crowd and the universe.

This dance trance was what everybody had come to Goa for, for the last fifty years, it was primeval, wild, glowing with nirvana, attracting waves of Americans, Brits, Europeans, Aussies, then the Israelis, lastly the Russians, as if all of them were dancing mindlessly in the garden of Eden, the tree of knowledge forgotten. Word got out and hundreds of thousands of Indians have rushed in, for they have “an inordinate fondness for singing and dancing”, so said Arrian when Alexander the Great tried to conquer India. Indians dance like divine madmen, for a few hours they can reach back into their distant past, when they’d first settled the subcontinent, forget the strictures of civilization and go back to the jungle, with pagan animal consciousness they dance in the moment and Arthur danced with them, eyes rolled back in his head.

Lots of capitalist cunts and junkie non-freaks have claimed Goa as theirs, crashing the scene to grab fame and money, ballyhooing how they’re IN with the IN crowd, even a freak haven can be milked of its essence. Sad that they were dividing up the future into easily-digestible bites, Arthur didn’t let it get to him as he’d really been there, in the early days of 1972 to 1975 when freaky Goa was invented and then when THE SCENE reached its peak, in 1997 to 2001. They were such amazing, carefree, funky times they can never be recaptured as the crowds now are just too big, the traffic, the cops, the politicians, the entrepreneurs, the money, the trinkets, the bullshit, the hustle, like a tsunami of hippie junk, it’s sweeping away and drowning the true funk, with only plastic tourist trappings left.

He’d already seen the worst that India could offer and now nothing could touch him, he was free to let go and dance fully tranced, whatever the future held, he had no fear, there was only love and euphoria, and respect for an elder from Freak Central aimed at him: if not, then fuck off, let him dance. The whole crowd danced like a chthonic creature from the Underworld with countless arms and legs writhing, flesh pulsating, breasts heaving, feet pounding, hearts beating to the techno rhythms. He let his body go in any and every direction the beat moved him, in and out, up and down, round and round like a Sufi dervish, his muscles melted, his mind emptied, his blood flushed, him and the crowd, mostly Indians, dancing atavistic to reclaim their evolutionary heritage of being one with the world. This was worth staying alive for.

Every sojourn has an ending, then the next one begins. After the Goan raves squeezed his pineal third eye dry and turned his flesh to jelly, he would dissolve into the Arabian Sea for a few more days then head back up to the high Himalayas, to have one last ride through their consoling, inspiring heights, where Rishis once meditated for thousands of years on consciousness and the wonder of the Universe. Yeah, for all of us the journey ends sometime, we melt back into the interstellar dust, and if for a few moments we can forget the pain, sadness and horror of humanity’s unkindness to each other, we can also glimpse the intense beauty, the miracle of everything that unites us.

If you enjoyed this story please go to the WEB address above and consider buying my book of tales about growing up anarcho-queer, rock and roll punter and mystic adventurer in Australia and India of the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

61) Nurse Batshit to the Rescue.

Threshing sleeplessly upon his bed, Arthur cogitated upon his future. He was heartily tired of climbing up the shit-heap of the arts only to find himself ever at the bottom. He also put his hand on his heart and swore an oath that he would no longer hit back when accosted but instead bring out his angelic side and try to heal, to lend succor to the ailing and abandoned.

He would go back into the Industry of Dying, to work like a dog in nursing homes on night-shift, a job he was cut out for as he was an insomniac and able to stay fully alert till dawn. Thus he was a good nurse, ready for any emergency, nobody would die without him being there by their side to make sure they were comfortable and at peace, if possible. It was a scary prospect, he feared he would come out of each stint of slaving in the charnel-houses looking as if he’d bathed in the Fountain of Death, a ghoulish specter from the bat-caves. But his wages would allow his dreams of travel to come true and he would have the Fountain of Youth in Shangri-la waiting for him in the Himalayan Ranges, to revivify him when he could no longer deal with that Great Demon haunting the world, Entropy.

Cities would cease to function if it wasn’t for the night-workers toiling through the wee hours, to keep things running smoothly while the masses slept safe and snug in their beds. A vast army of differentiated disciplines uphold the city’s under-structure: money-movers, firemen, cops, road maintenance crews, paramedics and teams of nurses, ready to jump at the least awkward noise at 3am to come to someone’s aid. It sure was a tough life. Even when he left a note on his door telling day-workers not to knock on it till 4pm because he was a night-shift worker and sleeping, they just didn’t get it and banged away as if banging on his head, till he rushed to the door, yelling for them to”Fuck off!” They looked at him like he was batty. “Duh! A night-shift worker, whoever heard of such a thing?” No wonder nurses age rapidly, they start out fresh and committed, they end up burned out and haggard.

Waiting on the dying paid twice as much as waiting on tables so Arthur stuck with it, and though it was akin to being stretched on a rack, where the minutes in the dead of night dragged by slow as a glacier, yet he was willing to put up with any torture if it meant getting back to his version of paradise in the Himalayan mountains. He’d been out of the profession for three years but certain disciplines get ingrained and are picked up all over again, virtually overnight. Through a government employment agency he’d found a nursing home that was desperate for a night nurse, they’d take on Jack the Ripper as long as he was registered.

On his first night, he stood outside Givemore Nursing Home, his stomach heaving, dry-reaching in anxiety and existential dread, that he had been brought so low after he’d sworn he’d never return to ‘the shock corridors of death’. He was to be in charge of seventy-seven people, all of them suffering from a variation on brain damage or dysfunction: senile dementia, aged schizophrenics, diabetics, epileptics, encephalitis, hypoxic brain damage from heroin O.D. or tropical diseases, mentally challenged, physically disabled, dying on him at any moment.

An enrolled nurse friend assured him he would soon get in control and the nurse’s desk would become his comfort station, and that was indeed what happened: after some weeks he became like the captain of a ship for ten hours, 8.45pm to 7.15am, alert, on his toes and all’s calm, full steam ahead! He found confidence in himself, for he handled capably every crazed situation that got thrown at him. He used his brains, guts and common sense to battle his way through what often seemed a war-zone; the beating off of death, chaos and entropy, forces that lurked in every corner of the nursing home to bring the whole scheme undone: golden staph, viruses, scabies, pressure sores, flesh necrosis, a tsunami of shit, burglars, fire hazards, irate doctors, faulty Dalek-like machines, Arthur came out of his tour of duty shell-shocked, ready for the respite ward himself.

As a nurse, he had burned-out seven times over thirty years, shredding the health of his mind/body balance, and he had to take three years off in between each stint to recover his nerve. Eventually he found a workable balance, six months slogging it out in Sydney as a night nurse, and six months resting, traveling, creating art and burnishing his soul on vision quests. It’s a good thing he read three books a week over the years, particularly science and science fiction, as it had kept his brain sharp and he was able to cogitate on the science of running a nursing home adequately. He could lucidly think out all the processes and applications to do with keeping a crowd of individualized humans happy and healthy, and the legions of destructive entities in abeyance.

Every night the Nursing Home had at least three unexpected emergencies that made Arthur’s kidney’s quake and heart jump with the adrenalin rush. For instance, keeping a sharp ear out, he heard  the thump in the middle of the night and was quick to find old Syd Danby in a heap upon the floor, a fountain of blood squirting into the air from where he'd cut his leg on the bed's sharp metal frame. Arthur applied a pressure bandage and got him back into bed without him being found dead hours later, a frozen white popsicle; he suctioned the excessive, malodorous phlegm from the trachie in the throat of the human vegetable, Cesar Acropolis, before he could choke to death; and just when he’d sit down to have his midnight coffee, there would come the hysterical squeal of one of his assistants, “Sister Farthing, come quickly, Mrs. MacGillercutty is vomiting blood!”

Arthur would groan and rush to the senile octogenarian’s room, sitting up in her frilly nightie like a wizened old doll, kind of cute with her bonnet on, hunched over and spitting reddish drool into a plastic basin. Arthur gave her his twenty-one second all-body x-ray scan to ascertain her possible injury: skin color and integrity OK, breathing OK, eyes OK, body posture OK, no clutching at her belly, no real outpouring of blood from the mouth, just reddish saliva. As he took her pulse he tried asking her what the problem was but she was in lala-land and could only gargle childish nursery rhymes. The assistant, who tried hard and really cared, shouted in a panic, “Well, what are you going to do, she’s coughing up blood, we’ve got to call an ambulance. Do something!”

Assistant nurses are uneducated and can go into a hysterical flap at the slightest sign of red. Everything’s a medical emergency to them and half of Arthur’s job was to calm them down as well as the ‘clients’. The AIN’s eyeballs bulged with concern, she kept pressuring Arthur to do something and he tried to resist, her shrill dread broke his concentration and spun him into confusion. He glanced into the old biddy’s foaming mouth while she sat miserably drooling and saw a bit of blood around her upper-tongue. He surmised she’d merely bit her tongue in the nonsense raves she had with herself all night; she was a terror to nurse as she was always trying to climb out of bed and break her hips on her wobbly legs, weeping like a three year old if there was any attempt at making her comfortable and safe. She would survive this latest drama also, only heffalump Sue, the assistant nurse who’d been there for thirty years, was still in a twist, wringing her hands and demanding old Mary MacGillercutty be saved from her bloody predicament.

Arthur tried to mollify her fears and resist the call for higher authorities, hospital resources were stretched to their limits these days, and old Mary would probably outlive overworked, overweight Sue. Arthur cleaned the old crone’s mouth while she drifted away into her raving dreams, she really did seem to be settling down, the emergency over, but big Sue used her vast bosoms like a blitzkrieg tank and bulldozed him to the phone to ring the Ambulance; better safe than sorry, she didn’t want any accusations of incompetence on her shift.

This was often the case; left to his own cool judgement, things would recover without much fuss, just simple applications of common sense. But to calm down Sue he rang for the Ambulance, it rushed through the night and dragged a wailing old Mary from her warm bed, to leave her on a trolley in the Emergency Room of the Hospital for several hours, only to be diagnosed as having a slight nick to the upper-tongue from a bite, non-problematical, and then she’d be whipped back to the nursing home at dawn, dazed and fatigued. Every such drama wore him down just that bit more.

Though it was tedious cleaning up after all the vomit, blood, shit, piss, puss and phlegm, and waiting tensely for the death of someone who’d been bedridden and corpse-like for twenty-one years, being in charge and keeping everything ship-shape made him feel competent and worthy, even somewhat high. Helping some old lady off the floor, comforting someone in distress, getting down on his knees to put slippers on the gnarled, excoriated feet of the helplessly senile, to be cool and peaceful as someone died resignedly, these acts made him feel like he really did belong and contributed to society, participating in one of the great human dramas, dying. 

His freakiness actually had him on top of the job as he was able to keep his good humor throughout many ghastly incidents, and beam compassion and joy right there at the end of the line, in the face of flesh-melting decrepitude and oblivion. He often sang upbeat tunes as he ran from room to room, smiling cryptically whenever any disaster threatened, no matter the dreadful announcements wailing down the stairs, it was action time and he could handle it, every problem had a solution, if he thought out the science of it. The nurse only had to read the “client’s” charts, diagnosis, medication frequency and weekly reports to figure out the solution. And when in doubt, call an Ambulance.

Given the infinite psychic convolutions the human animal can perversely surrender to, bizarre behavior erupted on the floor regular as the full moon. Just when Arthur thought he could chill out, down rushed Janet, his ‘eyes and ears’ assistant from upstairs, a pretty Indian girl from Fiji, very sassy and smart but now all in a kerfluffle. 

“Arthur, could you come upstairs please, Sam Souvlaki is acting strange!” “Why, what’s wrong with him?” “He’s thrown his clothes off and is running around naked with an erection, masturbating and trying to grab us girls and rub himself against us.” “Oh, great, just what we need at three in the morning, an eighty year old manic rapist.” 

He rushed upstairs and sure enough there’s old Sam, usually such an ineffectual, sweet old man, sitting up all night in the toilet quietly reading his Greek newspaper, now running crazily up and down the corridor banging on doors as if they’re tom-toms, his skinny body hunched like a hairless were-wolve’s, his thin, bent penis erect.

He must have also stuck his hands up his arse because he had feces all over his fingers and he was trying to grab the two pretty assistant nurses with outstretched, crapulous hands. Arthur approached him with soothing words and the old buzzard stuck out his shit-grimed hand for Arthur to shake in appeasement. Arthur had to duck and weave to escape the old fellow’s claws, then rush into the treatment room and look up Sam’s particulars in the files. He was an epileptic schizophrenic, on anti-convulsants, and this was his version of a Grand Mal attack, sexual frenzy. He was prescribed inter-muscular Valium when needed, so Arthur quickly prepared the needle, squirting it into the air to make sure it was flowing, then strode resolutely up to the Uriah Heap-like ancient who was rubbing his shitty hands together trying to be ingratiating, declaring pitifully, “I’m so frustrated! What can I do? I want it so bad and haven’t had it for so long!”

Arthur nodded to Janet, and asked her to grab Sam by the wrists with her gloved hands and hold him in place with his grubby, grasping hands immobilized. Arthur got behind him and expertly squeezed the upper right quadrant of a withered, bony buttock, threw the needle in like a dart and shot off the tranquilizer. It was a bit of a hard jab as the old boy’s skin was as tough as a sun-baked buzzard’s and he jumped as the plunger squeezed the drug into his wire-thin muscle. Sam’s fit took two more hours to unwind, he ran about thumping on every surface like he was a bongo player, Arthur chasing after him trying to get some covering over his decrepit nude body and then get him to relax in bed. Finally the old maniac calmed down and got dressed, returning to the shower cubicle to hide amidst his newspapers, somewhat abashed and remorseful. Arthur and crew couldn’t help have a giggle over the comedy-horror movie of Sam’s lust-inflamed eyes popping from his cadaverous head and the inanity of the goings on in nursing homes in general.

Arthur felt a bit weird working for the Private Health Industry, where profits were the primary goal, not the well-being of the residents: their TLC only happened if the nurses worked twice as hard, for costs were to be curtailed at every level and nothing was too cheap that it didn’t pass muster. There was always a shortage of bandages and cotton wool, a lot of equipment fell to pieces in the hand, the food was whole-sale synthetic sludge, and the R.N. had to do the work of three looking after seventy-seven demanding people, all packed in like rancorous sardines. Still it was a step up from the Government run geriatric wards Arthur had worked in down the back of Callous Park Hospital where everything was dun-colored and the oldies really got starved and pushed around. The Moron Health Group tried hard to make their aged care facilities more like a ‘home’ for the retired than a jail for the dying, with soothing aqua-green color-schemes and prints of Masterpiece paintings hanging wherever one looked.

All the basics of daily living were taken care of and a bit of diversion therapy was thrown in for good measure to tamp down any bored grumbling. There is an urban myth that only burned out and incompetent nurses ended up working in nursing homes where they can get away with lazy stupidity, nobody cared about the decrepit and dying, society didn’t want to know and few wanted to participate. This was sad for the oldies as they’d worked hard all their lives and deserved better, and Arthur knew from experience that at least fifty per cent of gerontology nurses took the field seriously and tried to do their best given the limitations of profit orientation and the prevalent horror of aging. And for all Arthur’s cynicism and freakiness, he gave his utmost, all the knowledge and skill he’d developed over a tumultuous lifetime, whatever he did he attempted to excel at, and this job squeezed all he had out of him.

The Government didn’t fund the nursing homes properly, the owners were in the business of making a profit out of the resident’s shaky, collective existence and the general public couldn’t face the purulent horror of the longtime dying, thus society’s feeble were relegated to the barely survivable edges, the nurses, in the main, being the one’s to take up the slack. (In traditional, third world societies the aged died at home, with their families tending to them, but to Aussies, wiping mum or dad's bum was impossible and they left it to third world immigrants to do it for them.)

The obvious trouble was, there were just too many of the aged and long-term ill, all being stacked in back-sheds like cord-wood, becoming more and more unaffordable to keep; a compassionate, generous government giving top priority to aged care was desperately needed but sorely lacking. If the Moron Healthcare Group were to suddenly shut up shop, thousands of decrepit, crippled people would be turfed onto the streets with nowhere to go, their families gone or uncaring, they’d be rotting under bridges and dying in every doorway.

Of course, Arthur was in the job for the money, only that could compensate for the hellish milieu, though he liked to see it as a kind of soft employment, where he could be kind and considerate, maybe improve people’s lot with applied knowledge and tender loving care. He had to bring forth a few of his twenty-one schizo selves to fulfill the function of capable nurse: responsible, smart, energetic, in charge, considerate, unlike his other personalities, the demonic misanthrope, who hated everyone, the jaded cynic and anarcho-nihilist of the café demimonde. While his friends seemed to have great confidence in his abilities, he amazed himself that he pulled it off; that he could in fact be a very together, responsible person when he needed to be.

The life of an artist just didn’t pay him much over his long non-career, he never did make it, get famous or rich, it was all voodoo magical thinking, for all the years of effort it wasn’t going to happen; he had to face up to the reality that nursing was the only work that paid him regularly and reasonably well. But as the Universe was always blowing cosmic jokes in his face, Art mocked him from every wall of the Nursing Home with beautifully framed prints of the Australian masters. Tom Roberts, Russell Drysdale and Arthur Streeton,  the Heidelberg school of painters, constantly in his face, including a bush-scape that hung right in front of the nurse’s station and depicted the back paddocks of Darebin Creek, the very area in Melbourne where Arthur grew up, played and dreamed of artistic glory as a child.

More vexing were the French Impressionists, attempting to brighten up NoGod’s Waiting Room with their florid colors: Matisse, Manet, Bonnard reminding Arthur of all that was wonderful. And shrieking existential angst in their midst were all the great Van Gogh paintings, the stark  ‘Sunflower’s, the gloomy ‘Blackbird’s and the forlorn ‘Old Shoe’s, each reproduction of the priceless, desperate works making Arthur feel that much more defeated, like signposts to mad failure; if that crazy genius couldn’t sell such wonders, what hope had he. It seemed only Death could vindicate the breakthrough artist and that was not an appealing alternative.

Then to rub salt in the injury, strung between all the gorgeous masterpieces along the corridors were the reproduced water-colors of Greta Moron, the Healthcare-chain owner’s wife and partner. Repeated over and over were wan vases of flowers or streetscapes that looked slap-dash and lifeless, as if haunted by ghosts; she must have grabbed the franchise on wallpaper art for the dying, and maybe wrote it all off as a tax break as well, for her prints were in every damn room of the Moron Nursing Homes and retirement villages. The Moron family was forever in the scandal rags over interminable family squabbling; it had been alleged one son committed suicide because the old man was tight with the money and wouldn’t give him any, and the widowed daughter in law had to sue for maintenance.

Many a nurse Arthur gossiped with in the nurse’s station had a dour view of the Moron family shenanigans, centering on old Moron coming to Auz as an immigrant entrepreneur and seeing Aussies as a soft touch for a business empire as they absolutely didn’t want to deal with their aged and dying. He made millions somehow, with old age pensions and government grants flooding in, plus left-over deposits and bequests mounting up. The family had a pink champagne lifestyle by running nursing homes on an orange cordial budget. Arthur was often shocked to find a resident at the kitchen door begging for an extra slice of bleached white bread.

One night he arrived at work to find the home settling down from a huge brouhaha, a demented resident had been missing  all day, the staff searching high and low, fearing he’d got out of the house unnoticed and wandered into the traffic, run down and killed, a scandal that could ruin reputations. Hospitals, relatives and police stations were rung, all to no avail, then the nursing home was searched again, every closet, toilet and laundry room inspected. Finally a bright nurse got the idea to check the kitchen and the locked walk-in fridge, impossible though it was that anyone could get in there without being seen. Sure enough, there in the fridge, freezing his arse off in his pajamas and slippers, was the old man, found gnawing on a frozen leg of lamb, such was his hunger. A little kindness went a long way, Arthur instructed the kitchen to leave out any of the day's left-over sandwiches and cakes and he encouraged residents to partake of a late supper if they so desired.

To create some kind of philanthropic smokescreen and have an edifying fling with artistic patronage, the Moron Family held a biennial portrait competition with a huge cash prize, probably writing that off as a tax-break as well. For every event they printed up a panel of the finalists' works in miniature and, tastefully framed, one was hung near every nursing station to remind anyone looking that there was an army of genius painters lurking out there in the suburbs and how kind the Morons were to encourage them. Arthur fantasized about painting portraits of the most quirky of the Moron Health Group’s geriatric residents, vivid, psychotic, cartoon photos of the soul, and sending in to the portrait competition entry after freaky entry, to glare out at the Family judges, existential presences howling justice, “What are you doing with my money? How about giving me some real ham instead of dreary Devon?”

He never did it, he was too tired from the relentless dilemmas rising up throughout the graveyard shift, on his days off he couldn’t even party, he just lay like a zombie in front of the television. At Givemore Nursing Home he was constantly on his toes, like surfing a post-quake shock-wave of muck and alarm, sourcing from his deep reservoir of potential aptitudes, he made a fine art of overcoming debacles. His libertarian nature also came in good stead as he truly felt the "business" should be a place of relaxation, not incarceration. 

Take the story of Dianne B for example. She was a big lump of a woman, forty years old, deaf and dumb and schizophrenic who had no family or wherewithal to live independently and, as the State didn't know what to do with her, they put her in a geriatric nursing home. She was restless as a caged tiger, ever at the nursing station with a glum face and furious sign language, pleading for cigarettes, having gone through her daily allowance of ten. She threw constant temper tantrums, smashing up her bedroom and the dining-room, and often absconded from the "home" in the afternoons to meet her boyfriend in a local pub. As the Home was locked at night this escape became difficult and she grew more and more sexually frustrated at not getting any evening liaisons. 

One morning she sent the Home into an uproar when she attacked the baker delivering the bread, grabbing him crushingly by the balls and not letting go till dragged off him. Arthur was asked to write a review of her case and he strongly advised that keeping her in the house of the dying was cruel and inhuman treatment and that a place should be found for her in a supervised hostel where she would be free to come and go as she pleased. Within weeks such a place was found for her and to Arthur's knowledge she henceforth led a happy life, regardless of her limitations.

Society couldn’t entirely cut itself off from the nursing home, there was one on every suburban block; a multitude of workers and supporters marched in and out twenty-four hours a day, and Arthur had to have the good grace to satisfy every one of them, no small feat considering his irascible character. Harried ambulance officers, angry cops, finicky relatives, mourning priests, irate neighbors, stern doctors, jolly therapists, grumpy cleaners, horny delivery men, the onslaught was ridiculous, as if churned out by some drug-addled soap-opera writer. (Arthur could never get over the case of the infamous Sydney serial killer, “the Granny Basher”, John Wayne Glover, who, after delivering groceries to the nursing homes, would sneak into the rooms and sexually molest helpless old ladies shriveled up in their beds, then going out and murdering five old women on the streets.)

There was one rainy night he had to batten down all the hatches because his assistant’s drunken husband was banging on the front door, wanting to beat her up for some imagined indiscretion. Arthur had to dredge up his best snooty Lawrence Olivier imitation to tell untruths through the locked doors to the bellicose bastard, swearing the wife hadn’t come to work that night, while she hid upstairs in a closet. Then there was the morning, just as he was about to gladly flee the joint, when the cook stomped into the nurse’s station yowling that someone, a psycho resident, had gotten into the kitchen and left the freezer door open thus defrosting the week’s meat supply. “What a waste!” All the beef and lamb gone soggy and what was Arthur going to do about it? Arthur could only reply with his Mona Lisa smile, “Make them all a huge pile of roast lamb sandwiches and beef patties and serve it up to them all day long. Tell ‘em it’s Christmas and give ‘em a meat feast.” Always some crisis, each announced as if it’s the end of the world, the Titanic forever sinking.

Over the years Arthur worked in many nursing homes across the Sydney metropolitan area and he got a good sampling of good, bad and horrendous. Givemore was well-run in comparison to many and the Director of Nursing somehow kept it afloat, light and cheery, the ongoing attack of entropy kept at bey. She had to satisfy four sets of people, firstly running the joint at a profit, with no mishaps, to keep the Owners happy. Government officials and various concerned social bodies had to be convinced that the place was functional and every three years had to go through a rigorous accreditation process, thus government subsidies were gained for every resident, and this helped to achieve the profit margin. Then she had to encourage, coddle, order, placate, reprimand the army of workers that swarmed into the corridors, all making a livelihood out of the aged care industry, and all bitching tirelessly about the management, their pay, hours, conditions, and what they saw as haughty treatment from the bosses. 

Lastly the residents and families had to be pleased: complaints rained down like a frog pestilence, “Old Rita was not attended to fast enough, she wet the bed pressing the buzzer!” “A cockroach was found on Sally May’s pillow, a turd was found on Walter Cloggit’s windowsill, Errol Klump was pissing in the garden out the front without any pants on!” The food was the most cluck-clucked over, archetypal hospital gloop with a glitzy blurb to impress the punters. Each day a fancy menu was pinned up that might read, “Your choice of chicken a la mode, with sesame lemon sauce and salad, or beef Provencal with sauted vegetables, followed by ginger date pudding and brandy custard”. In reality they got limp frozen chicken in a sour, watery gravy or minced meat patties with diced veggies from the snap-freezer and tasteless sponge-cake with a viscous jelly that could’ve been horse glue.

The disgruntled relatives often threatened to go to “60 Minutes” with the feeding scandal but the media weren’t interested, everyone knew oldies ate badly, they have done so for centuries, they actually like processed food like Devon on white bread and anyway, they have to make way for the hungry young. Somehow the Heaven-bound enterprise sailed on, never mind the staff shortages, funding cutbacks, temper tantrums and faulty fire alarms. As soon as someone died, they were replaced by another wizened ancient, a twin to the last bed occupant, like they came off a conveyor belt, there was no end to the city’s production of humans ready for the trash can.

Arthur nursed one old lady for years, she was all curled up like a stiff pretzel, catatonic and non-communicative, had to be spoon fed and turned hourly to ward off pressure sores that tore large holes in her regardless, for her last year fed liquid morphine to palliate her agony, squirted from a syringe into her clamped mouth. She eventually, mercifully died, and the very next day her bed was taken by her sister, a one-eyed, mentally challenged crone with a fungal infection in her crotch and pressure areas building up on her unmoving feet. She was very sweet-natured, overly polite about everything, asking childish questions as Arthur tried to dress her wounds, stating proudly over and over how this was her sister’s bed and isn’t she lucky to be in it. The pathos of her tragic non-life made Arthur’s heart ache and he made a vow to himself in the face of all that was decayed, that he would squeeze life of its maximum fun and vivacity, that he would dance, learn, fuck and adventure, highly conscious of all those who couldn’t.

He'd sat with hundreds of dying people over his career and they'd died in a;; states of emotion, from quiet acceptance, to dull resignation to surprise, fear and violent fury. One old Jewess in her Nineties, with a concentration camp number  tattooed on her wrist, died very quietly, so that Arthur had to lean close to see if she was still breathing and, as he got right up to her face, her very last breath was exhaled straight into his mouth, before he knew it he was taking it in, her spirit into his, as if she passed on the baton, of life and survival, and survive he did.

Over the years he developed a sixth sense for when someone was going to die, even at the other end of the ward he would get a feeling and rush down to a far-flung room and sure enough Mrs.Verbinski would be about to drift up that white light tunnel and he'd be there to make sure she did it unencumbered. In all the bedside vigils he never saw a phantasmal astral body lift off or a diaphanous soul float free, no white ectoplasm issued from the mouth nor did a bright rainbow aura slowly fade: there was breathing and heart beating, then there was nothing, an empty husk of a body, a fleshy sack which the life spirit had vacated. Thus, as far as he could figure, there wasn't any existence after death and he determined to squeeze life to the max and have the ultimate fun, in this incarnation.

Arthur had no complaints against the D.O.N., he was amazed she managed to keep the complex organism trundling on towards the horizon, year after year, without being hauled off to the trash-bin herself. She had, after all, given him a break when he first came back into the system, hiring him though he hadn’t worked for three years, seeing something in his C.V. that denoted capability, (his Writing Major from the University of Technology, Sydney.) She had been extra desperate for a regular night R.N., for six months she’d had a different agency nurse each night, and thus nobody in the joint had a clue about what was going on, as the night nurse communicates all the previous days’ business to the next nurse in the morning, providing the continuity. Few Australian professionals wanted to work in nursing homes, they’d rather be lawyers and chase ambulances instead of receive them. 

Only one in ten of the assistants were white Australians, the job too dirty, ugly and dangerous, without commensurate pay, causing immigrants to take the work nobody else wanted, and they worked very hard at it, often double shifts, and thus found a place for their families in contemporary, urban Sydney. Indians, Polynesians, Africans, Asians, sometimes a particular ethnic group would swamp the staff positions so there would only be Phillipino or Polynesian running the home.

At Givemore there was a fair mix of all nations on the staff, generally everybody had dark skin, and it looked somewhat ironic to see strong, black people heaving and carrying around frail, old whities, the very generation that had prospered under the White Australia Policy. It must have been a little galling to the white Anglo-Saxon Aussies that they were seen off through the Pearly Gates into the dustbin of history by smiling black people who were happy to carry on with the venture of bringing in a new generation of Australians.

Unless they die in the gutter or a palace, most citizens end up in a nursing home to eke out their last decrepit days, all walks of life hobble in for sanctuary, it’s the greatest leveling field society can manage, all getting off at the last station at the end of the line, for in death everybody is equal. Lying and dying in beds near to each other might be a supreme court judge, a train driver, a chronic schizophrenic, an environmental scientist, a housewife, a scrub nurse, a psychiatrist, a bricklayer, a longtime junkie. And Arthur had to nurse them all equally, play no favorites, take no gifts, hold no grudges. But people had personalities, even the most infirm, and Arthur couldn’t help liking some, like cute angels, and having an aversion to others, like petulant ogres.

Arthur was quite fond of sweet Molly, seventy-seven going on five-years old and so grossly overweight that she had to be lifted from bed to an armchair with a pelican-belt machine. She still got her hair permed every week and put copious make-up on, with a ton of bead necklaces and earrings hanging off her so that she looked like an ancient temple prostitute. She often wrote Arthur love letters or asked him to send down the handsome nurse from upstairs to make love to her, then announcing she was pregnant to the doctor, whispering it like a coy, mischievous child. Morbidly obese till she couldn’t move, she gradually sank into the weight of her own blubber, disappearing into a necrotic lump of soggy flesh. 

On lifting her feet to put her slippers on Arthur discovered two gaping, necrotic black holes where her heels should’ve been, rotten caverns he could’ve put his fist into, gouged out from the pressure of them resting for ages on the bed or floor. She’d just come back from hospital where they don’t have a turning policy and must have left her in the same position for days on end. As gravity tore her to bits she bellowed like a slaughtered cow and Arthur was quick to run to her with the strong painkillers, to come to her relief and quieten the moaning which kept the whole nursing home awake.

Then there was old Percy Woodburn, whom Arthur couldn’t stand and tried not go near. He was going on a hundred and refused to die, ever complaining and demanding, once he tried to hit Arthur on the head with his urinal because Arthur didn’t jump quick enough. He fussed endlessly over trying to have a shit, refused to use the bedpan or the commode, had to be painfully levered into a wheelchair and trollied down the corridor to the toilets where once again he’d have his trembling, saggy butt tortuously shifted over to the dunny, then sit there for half an hour and produce nothing. It was a ritual he wanted repeated several times a night, all the time abusing the nurses, calling them “No good, lousy cunts and dirty rotten fucking bastards!”

After dragging him along seven times one night, Arthur gave up and handed him a toilet roll and sat him on a commode in his room. Old Percy shrieked, “What the fuck am I supposed to do with this, you dirty poofter?” He then threw the toilet roll in Arthur’s face. “You can shit in your bed for all I care! I’ve had it!” was Arthur’s unsisterly, terse response. Always cantankerous and spitting venom, old Percy was a living belly-ache, with a cancerous growth sprouting from his guts like some alien monster about to burst forth. Arthur could do nothing to placate his irritable bowels, and tried to avoid going into the old horror’s room, so when his buzzer droned on and on furiously, an assistant with more patience was relegated to attend to him. There were seventy-seven disintegrating residents tumbling from their beds, all crying for Arthur’s attention, so many individuals that there were times when one would stagger out of a room and Arthur would think, “Who the hell are you, I’ve never seen you before!” He could barely keep track of them all and only just coped.

When he finally got to go on his long respite in exotic climes, from the flying carpet of his bed high in the Himalayas, he would ponder, with a slight shudder, on certain incidents that had exploded back in the nursing home. Then he’d drum up the courage to face all the challenges that could get thrown at him on the road, as any outrageous adventure was a thrill in comparison. He thought of the eighty-seven year old Mr.Shwitzenziller, who came in quite mobile and lucid, but his time was up and within weeks he lay dying. He was hanging on hard, dying inch by inch, the final moment only hours or days away, when suddenly he lurched up in the bed, gasping in desperation, thrashing about and clutching at everything, strong as an ox, making one last, brave attempt at fighting off death. Arthur was trying to connect the oxygen cylinder up to a mask and put it on the old desperate to make his breathing easier and he could die relaxed. He jumped about in a furor and hung onto Arthur as if he were a life-raft, gripping his wrist with his bony claws and pleading, “Help me please, I’m begging you, I don’t want to die, I don’t want to die, help meeeee!”

They struggled around the bed and over the oxygen equipment, the about to be ‘newly departed’ shaking and beseeching Arthur to do something to save him. Arthur finally got the mask perched on Mr. Shwitzenziller’s caved-in face and he seemed to relax for a moment but then, as if remembering the import of the moment, started panting, shuddering and begging for succor again. They’d heaved about so much somehow the oxygen mask’s connection to the cylinder got loosened and the poor geezer wasn’t actually getting any oxygen to relieve his anxiety, unnoticed by Arthur in all the wrestling and squalling. Arthur tended towards the policy of letting residents die comfortably, quietly, with respect, in their beds, without too much fuss, just a doctor’s examination, family notification and visit by a priest if requested. Mr. Shwitzenziller panicked and specifically requested help, he didn’t want to die alone, so Arthur obliged and rang the Ambulance service to come and rush him to Hospital where they might possibly revive him so he could live for another couple of days.

It was Arthur’s bad luck that the Ambulance officers who turned up were in a foul mood, having been involved in several calamitous scenes that night, and they were not impressed when they discovered the oxygen mask stuck to the old boy’s mummified face but the oxygen hissing uselessly from the top of the cylinder. They grunted to each other something about incompetent nursing home staff and Arthur could only counter with, “Look at him, fellas. He's been fighting me all night. Doesn’t he look like he’s in trouble to you? He asked for help, I got him help.” They nodded reluctantly and slung the moaning, bony Shwitzenziller onto a trolley, with lots of hearty encouragements, “Don’t worry mate, she’ll be right, we’ll get you through the night.” 

They applied their own fancy, computerized pulse, blood-pressure and oxygen-saturation machine, announcing that the old fellow had normal readings and was quite okay, while he turned yellow and went into a raving coma. They trundled him down and out to the Ambulance and rushed off into the night, siren wailing. And Mr. Shwitzenziller died in the back of the Ambulance halfway to the hospital, zooming off to Heaven after having had lots of people fuss over him.

As counterpoint to his lively, inspiring holidays, Arthur could also graphically recall the old Italian woman who took forever to give up her last breath. For weeks she refused food, and looked ready to go at any moment, yet she hung in tenaciously with the shallowest of breaths. Uncommunicative and unresponsive, she was reduced to a skeletal skin-bag, without a pulse that Arthur could detect and a body temp of thirty-five degrees. Yet somehow she managed to jump about fitfully, and deep in the night Arthur found her hanging upside down out of her bed. When he tried to lift her back, she slipped like a floppy rag-doll to the floor, eyes rapidly blinking in the death shock, splayed out in a grotesque form like a corpse. 

Arthur tried to lift her frail bag of bones to the bed; it was a dead weight, flopping lifelessly, exactly like the corpses one sees being tossed in mass graves in old documentary movies about German concentration camps. With the help of an assistant Arthur got her back into the bed and she truly seemed dead, just a withered husk with no signs of living spirit. As Arthur lent over her to check her breathing, she opened her dead eyes and jerked up in defiance, her cadaverous mouth sucking in barely perceptible breaths. She was not done yet and continued to barely stay just this side of the living for several more days and thankfully quit her mortal coil when Arthur was off duty, drained of spirit also.

He couldn’t get the feel of her clammy skin and floppy body out of his mind, feeling as if he was some kind of a corpse-slinging grave-digger, though someone had to be there with his fellow travelers in their last moments, assiduously and compassionately. In the 21st century, nursing home profiteers decided experienced registered nurses were too costly and unnecessary, assistants with sex weeks training good enough; or the R.N. could be sleeping in the building next door and paid only for a few hours per shift, awoken only if there is a dire emergency. Thus people were dying alone, miserable, in pain, all over the city, but nobody seemed to care, after all, they were going to die anyway.

Laboring among the dead was not a great living, yet Arthur was determined to be quite skilled at it. He was hopeless as a businessman, couldn’t sell a product if his life depended on it, and he was killed off as an artist, he was a nobody. Unlike a few infamous cops, drug dealing was anathema to him, to sacrifice humanity for the great God Money did not appeal to him. And he wouldn’t dream of climbing the shit-heap of some enterprise to lie, forge, defraud and steal from the public purse as quite a few bureaucrats, lawyers and politicians worked hard at, such as those fat cats caught at Australia Water Holdings, over-charging for non-services and trying to privatize Sydney’s water supply so they could make billions more. A hard-working nurse like Arthur would be looked down upon as scum by these thieves in Armani as they run from their Rolls-Royce to their exclusive Machiavelli restaurant.

For all his fuck-ups, he was a good nurse, he even had the healing touch and when called upon to accompany a soul to its last important station, he did it with aplomb, he was not only a professional, he considered it a great honor. He was like the warlocks and witches of prehistory, guides for those who are about to fly between the worlds. And when he was ready, he set himself free, to get lost traveling into the world’s freakzones, dancing along the infinite highway. In remembrance of death’s ever-waiting embrace, he led a very exciting, adventurous life, and all his wishes did come true, kind of.

If you enjoyed this story please go to the WEB address above and consider buying my book of tales about growing up anarcho-queer, rock and roll punter and mystic adventurer in Australia and India of the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s.