It's set in a tuberculosis sanatorium in South Australia, which is now a backpackers' hostel. The fascination, as I mentioned in the interview:
Can you imagine: 1930, TB killed two-thirds of all people infected. Sent off to hospices in the middle of nowhere, lumped in with people you’d never met before, waiting for the inevitable – or a miracle. Ten years later, the invention of antibiotics meant that nearly everyone got to go home. The cusp of medical history is a haunting prospect.
Writers, like parents, try to avoid favouritism among their offspring. Yet, I bet if you asked most authors, there's one character they can't help feeling particularly proud to have written. One that seems that little bit more real, or that little bit more human. A character that you don't just find yourself writing, but also sympathising with.
Mine appeared in Ango. Thought I'd share an extract from a grouchy old man.
Three times I’d been back to Angorichina. Twice they’d cured me but third time lucky? I didn’t think so. I was tired of fighting. I was tired of everything.
I’d sit out on the veranda of Hayward some nights with a candle, trying to finish whatever book I happened to be reading. Now and then you’d hear a buzz and see a wisp of smoke go up, look down at the table to see a fly. Usually a small blowy or something. It’d been attracted by the light and flown too close, burned its wings clean off.
I felt a terrible kinship with those flies, right down in the pit of my stomach. I’d watch them sit there for a minute trying to work out what just happened. They’d clean themselves, little heads twisting from side to side. Then they’d try to launch. The one thing a fly is meant to do is fly, that’s why it’s called a fly. So a fly that can’t fly doesn’t even have a name. It’s just a little black blob jumping up and down on the table, trying to cover its embarrassment every now and then by washing, pretending everything is okay.
When there was just one of these flies, I couldn’t take my eyes off it. I’d watch it going round and round, wondering if it knew the true horror of its own deformity. Wondering if it realised it would never fly again, knocked out of the sky forever. Then maybe one or two others would do the same thing and join it, and I didn’t feel so bad. Yes, there was twice as much suffering, but it was like Angorichina itself. You suffered together, and somehow that seemed a little bit better than suffering alone.
I could never kill them though. I thought about it a lot, wondering if it were better just to put the poor things out of their misery. But I just couldn’t. Would I want someone to end it for me? Yes, probably, if there were a quiet, peaceful way of doing it. But what you might choose for yourself you can’t inflict on others. It’s not God’s way.
I know people here don’t think much of me. I’m not naturally sociable. I find it hard to make conversation in a group, and, to give the good oil, most of the time I don’t care a fiddler’s for what folks here talk about. I see it’s all a mask, one of those great big smiley ones you see for Comedy over the proscenium arch of a theatre. I know underneath is the other one, Tragedy. I’d prefer we all just be up front and honest about that. I can’t be doing with all the forced laughter but I understand why people do it.
I don’t mean we should all depress ourselves either; I’m not morbid or macabre. I just wish we could get down to talking about something that’s real once in a while, something that’s deeper than the crossword.
Guess that’s why I like Heath. He’s a genuine sort of bloke. If I’d had a son he’d be the kind of son I would have wished for. He’s terribly young to be suffering such an affliction, but then sickness doesn’t care how old we are or what gender. It just sees us and swoops in there.
I like to listen to him play the piano. It’s a blessed relief from that old drongo, the General. The man gets right up my nose with his God Save the King every night of the week. Why the hell does he think we chose a national flag under which he could go blow his horn in Gallipoli? Sure, it hasn’t broken all the ties. We still have the Union Jack in the corner, but glowing in the light of the Southern Cross. In the Southern Hemisphere.
I won’t lie about it. My mother’s side came here looking for gold in the eighteen fifties; my father’s side were criminals. Petty theft is how the story goes, but whatever the reason, they worked hard. They earned their release, and they made a life here, a home. And it is hard here. It’s a big country, a tough one, and a man ought to have the right to own what he works for.
You ask us true blue Aussies, and we can tell you just how many generations of labour went into what we own. We can tell you where we come from and how we got here. Can’t say that for those bloody poms. Most of them are so inbred they can’t tell you two generations back. Too confused about who is their mother or their sister, they have no idea where they came from.
I met an Englishman once. He’s not the only one I ever met, but he sticks in my mind. He laughed at me and said: “You know, we really ought to start calling you Aussies the Poms instead.”
“Why’s that?” I asked.
“Well, you are all descended from criminals aren’t you? Prisoners of his Majesty’s Service.”
“Look, fella,” I told him, squaring up at the bar. “I am a free man. You want to see a prisoner of his Majesty’s service, take a look in the mirror, mate.”
He daren’t look at me after that. Rightly so.
But that’s what pisses me off about the General. It’s one thing taking that sort of crap from a pommie, but from one of your own fellow countrymen who stood there with the blood of young Australian men flowing all around him. Who fought under an Australian flag. Well, you’d think he’d have enough spine to say, ‘This is my country, my land.’ The Americans realised a long time ago they weren’t going to bow to an unseen monarch halfway across the sea. Why should we?
But there aren’t many here who want to hear my republican views. Just smile some more and keep on playing the piano. That’s what it’s all about.
So I just sit out with my book and the candles, or take a walk down to the pond out back. Whilst I still have some strength I like to spend it out of doors. Try and put off for as long as possible the time when I’ll be bed ridden and cooped up with all those false smiles. I like nature. It doesn’t pretend to you; it tells it like it is.
When you stare at a tree, it doesn’t stare back with sympathy, sadness or regret. When you watch a kite dive down on a field mouse, it doesn’t come up afterwards and ask you if you’re okay, apologise for what you’ve just seen. Nature just gets on with being nature. If only human nature were as steady.
I guess again that’s why I like Heath. He just gets on with being Heath. When he doesn’t feel like talking, he goes for a walk, or he sits and plays the piano. When he does laugh and joke, he’s young enough for it to be genuine. He watches the sad things around him and acknowledges them quietly. He doesn’t gloss over anything, and despite those things, he still stands tall like a man ought.
Yes, I would have had a son like him if God saw fit to grant me one.
God did grant me a wife though, and a beautiful daughter…but that I cannot think about. Some things in this world can break a man’s heart and what happened to them - well, that broke mine.
I remember the first conversation Heath and I had. He’d been here about two-and-a-half months, laid out flat in Charles Moore. I was in Hayward, and other than on his first day introduction I didn’t see him. I keep to myself.
I spend a lot of time down on the vegetable allotments. There’s a shed for the tools; it’s large enough to lay some sacking down and sit on the potting tables. I used to drive Nurse Clark mad like that; I could always tell when a storm was coming and I liked to sit in there and watch the rain pounding down, washing the land clean, making the plants grow. I’d disappear for hours.
Then one day I saw the lightning in the distance. I got myself down there and into a comfortable position. Moments before the rain started, this young lad appears. He looks white as a sheet with these big black smudges under his eyes. I can see he’s not doing too clever and should be back in his bed. When I try to suggest that, he’s adamant that he’s going to sit out the storm with me.
“I have to get some air,” he says. “I’ve been lying on my back in that room for weeks and weeks and weeks. I’d rather die out here with the wind and the rain than rot away smothered in a blanket and stinking of disinfectant.”
I knew exactly how he felt. I thought from that point on he’d probably start to look a little better. He did. We all need to rest. We all need to eat and sleep and wash, but there is other nourishment that our souls need in order to be strong and fight the infection. These indefinable nutrients are different for each person and depend on the time of day. For some it’s music, for others it’s reading, and for people like us it’s the outdoors.
We started meeting down there regularly. If we’d been allowed cigarettes it would have been our smoking shed. Instead, it was our talking shed, where we escaped to for a bit of a chin-wag or just to sit there quiet and watch the weather. Yesterday, I could tell his mind was elsewhere. I took a slow walk down to the shed late arvo, inspecting the cabbages, keeping an eye out for caterpillars. When I got there, he was already inside. We never arrange to meet, it just sort of happens that we’re there at the same time.
Anyway, he was quiet even by our standards. He kept looking out at the field, chewing his bottom lip thoughtfully.
Eventually I asked. “Something on your mind?”
He smiled and shook his head, then a moment later he spoke. “Do you think it’s wrong?”
“Do I think what’s wrong?”
“People like us, you know, with the infection and all. Do you think it’s wrong of us, irresponsible, to get involved - with a woman?”
“Well, that depends. Are we talking about a woman who’s clean? Because yes, if we’ve still got the infection and she hasn’t then that would be irresponsible. It would be putting her at risk. Or,” I paused for a moment, watching his expression, “are we talking about another woman, one who’s already got consumption?”
He didn’t meet my eyes for a moment, but I could see them flick back and forth, thinking. He was no fool, this boy. He had a good head on his shoulders.
“Are we talking about Laura Wheeler, by any chance?”
Finally he met my eyes and grinned sheepishly. “Might be.”
“She’s certainly a looker, I’ll give you that.”
“So, would it be wrong?”
“Well, it certainly would be if Clark or Lemont ever found out.”
He laughed and ran a hand through the back of his hair.
“Yeah, that could never happen.”
“That answer your question?” I could tell by the way he looked away again that there was something more, something deeper. “Come on, what’s got you asking?”
“I don’t know. I just – I mean, do you ever wonder if there’s a reason we’re like this? Do you think there’s a reason we got sick, something that says we need to take real good care of our souls?”
He looked directly at me then, and for the first time I saw a little boy, just a child, with big worried eyes. All of a sudden I felt the age difference between us. I felt I had a weight of responsibility to answer him in a certain way and to sound as genuine as I possibly could.
“Listen, mate, I don’t ever want to hear you talk like that, y’hear? That’s utter bullshit. There’ll be no laying down of religious guilt here, and I am a man of God. I believe in God, and I believe in the Holy Spirit but vengeance is not theirs in the form of tuberculosis, son. This is a disease. It’s part of the human condition. Everybody gets ill in their life: some get rubella, some get smallpox, some get mumps, others get fever. We’re none of us immortal. But you are no less than any other man, you remember that. I’m sure as hell no less than any other man so you can’t be either. And you have just as much right to happiness as any other person on this earth. We are all made in God’s image, and we are all tested to see what we can bear, yet each and every one of us has the right to seek happiness alongside that. There is nothing wrong in who you are, the only thing that’s wrong is this illness which we’re fighting. Maybe that’s our test; maybe we’re the chosen ones because we can bear it. You can’t second-guess the mind of God, Heath. It’s not even worth trying. God doesn’t hate you, and he sure as hell doesn’t want to deny your happiness.”
He was still staring at me when I got to the end of my spiel. Without even blinking, he opened his mouth to respond. I was expecting some words of thanks, perhaps. I felt I’d made a convincing argument for him.
“Jesus, mate, were you a preacher in your past life?”
I was dumbfounded. I thought I’d said exactly what he needed to hear, given him permission to do what he wanted to do, the permission he was denying himself. A split second later and we both burst out laughing. There was never any tension between us. We were too alike for that. We laughed until our sides hurt and we doubled-up with tears in our eyes. Then we both started coughing, only we couldn’t stop laughing, so we laughed and coughed for a good ten minutes or more.
When we finally stood up straight again, he ran the back of his hand across his mouth and smiled. “I really like her, you know.”
“Good on ya. I reckon she’ll give ya a fair suck of the sav.”
“Yeah, well, I hope so.” He stood in the doorway for a moment, looking up at the clouds. “Right, well, I’ll see you later.”
“Sure, no worries.”
After he left the hut, I stood there for a long while on my own, thinking about what I’d said to him. It hadn’t been him that I’d been trying to convince, the reason being that his question had been my own for so long now. Did I deserve to have this; did I deserve to be dying of this? I always thought that I did. It never bothered me. I felt I’d earned it, but I never considered whether other people deserved it.
Heath’s question had thrown me. I believed pretty strongly that I’d brought this about myself, that I’d wound God up to such an extend he just thought, ‘screw you, you bastard’ and did this to me. But Heath, no way. There wasn’t a thing that boy could have done to deserve this. For one thing, he hadn’t lived long enough to commit any real sins.
I felt so strongly that he wasn’t to blame that it came across in my little speech. I think I shocked him with my vehemence. But in telling him all of those things, that this was nothing to do with God, that this was just life – I had to accept that about myself too. And I couldn’t.
So maybe I was wrong. Maybe God is a vengeful old codger, sitting up there on a cloud somewhere throwing stones at people he doesn’t like. Maybe Heath did something to piss him off. Maybe everyone in this hostel did something to deserve TB.
Or maybe nobody did. Not even me.
I honestly couldn’t tell you which of those two options scared me more.