The cab driver from Southern Cross to Royal Melbourne Hospital was a laconic Turk. He had a lot to be laconic about. It was not so much the fall of Troy to the perfidious Greeks and their sulky champions – it had been a slow day, and he is probably one of those cabdrivers whose business capital is being shredded by the process that we antiseptically describe as ‘disruption’. I tried to cheer him up. He seemed to pick up on our discussion of house prices in Newport. That is not a subject that occasions happiness or relief in me. I have a daughter who lives in Newport, and she correctly formed the view that I could not afford the luxury of living there – on a good day, I might get a small pad in Altona. (Well, at least it’s named after a German town, and it is about half a century since I was doused in kerosene and had paint-scrapers applied to the bitumen sticking all over my body after cleaning a big vertical tank at the refinery there. It had had a narrow manhole that my charge hand said that only I could slip through – that was one time you let me down, Len Foster.)
A volunteer at RMH showed me the way to the Department of Nuclear Medicine. There I was to have some tests directed to determining the working capacity of my heart. It felt like I was traipsing through the bowels of an aircraft carrier of some considerable age. The highlight of the trip was formed by two huge photos of nurses at RMH, one taken in 1916, and the other in 1972. There were of course obvious differences in uniform over the spread of nearly three generations, but far more remarkable were the differences in facial and bodily structures. The photos are studies in themselves. They reminded me that the male stock that we sent to the Western Front was very different to that which we sent to Vietnam.
There was a mild hiccup when I arrived at Nuclear Medicine. I should have gone off one heart drug earlier before the tests than I did. There was a suggestion, that I was not keen to embrace, that I may have to come back. I could even feel a tantrum coming on. The nuclear physician understood and shared my reaction. He said he would talk to his boss. He – I will call him Roger – seemed a very decent man, and I will come back to him.
After the nuclear injections are made, you have to wait before they take the first set of pictures (scans). And you then go out in one of those silly open-fronted hospital gowns – the dream of any flasher – and sit there with two or three others involved in the process. It is then that those on the conveyor belt to death or redemption exchange sympathies and anecdotes. I was reminded of the day I turned up early at pathology at Kyneton and found that there were already three in the queue ahead of me. The first said that he supposed it was time for the lady to do her vampire routine; the second said that we were all headed in the same direction; and the third said that we were all destined to go underneath the grass. Bloody charming – the humour can be a little mordant.
One of the guys I talked with would have been in his mid-70’s. He was English. He had no teeth between his eyeteeth. He also had a very curious view about climate change. He thought that the winters were getting warmer and that the summers were getting cooler. If you live near me, any such view is out of the question, at either end, and I wondered whether the condition that had brought him to Nuclear Medicine had affected his mind.
We were just getting on to discuss house prices at Newport when a charming young lady, whom I will call Julie, asked me to come in for the bicycle test. I was very glad to get this invitation because the nuclear physician had expressed doubts as to whether I could successfully do this test since I had had one heart drug only 24 hours ago. It now looked like we could do the whole session of pictures, stress test, followed by more pictures – with, I gather, different injections being made from time to time. You start to feel like a bloody colander.
Julie is one of those professional people who ooze calm and confidence. Her father was from Latvia, and she has what I would describe as an eastern European mien. As it happens, Julie lives in Newport, and she was thinking of cycling around Malmsbury and Hanging Rock this weekend. She, too, was the full bottle on house prices at Newport.
Julie was accompanied by a doctor during the actual time I was working on the exercise bike. On this occasion, I did not get the statutory declarations, as I might call them, of the possibility of my dying on the job – and I did not miss them. The doctor was extremely pleasant. He was a man of colour, I think from the Subcontinent. I sought to sound him out by referring to the recent cricket matches between Sri Lanka and Australia, but we did not get past discussing the cricket. He was very absorbed in his work.
The setting up and completion of that test took almost an hour. I then went back to the waiting area to wait for the next set of pictures. I there had discussion with a man who I knew had come from Hungary. (I knew that because I could overhear his examination while I was waiting for my injections to settle.) He was a most charming and intriguing old man. He had one of those gorgeous eastern European accents that you used to hear all round the MSO. (Do you recall the time when Barry Humphries referred to the guy at the Bendigo or Ballarat town halls who said that ‘If it were not for the Jews and the poofters, we’d be up Shit Creek’?)
I asked him when he had left Hungary. He said that was in 1945. He left when the Russians came in in their tanks. I omitted to ask how old he was then. (I later overheard him say that he had been born in 1928. He is therefore getting on.) He was very interested to hear my description of the ballet of Anna Karenina that I saw in Budapest in about 1989. He laughed out loud when I said that the first thing you see when the curtain goes up is a headlight of a steam train coming straight at you. And his eyes fairly sparkled when I said that our gold medallist in the Pentathlon had gone to live in Hungary to improve her fencing and equestrian events. He told me how good the Hungarians were at those sports. I believed him.
He was a very interesting man, and I was sorry when they came to take him away – rather to my surprise, for a session on the bike. He was very frail and shaking. I later spoke to him after the session when he was resting on a hospital trolley. He looked very distressed, and I had to suppress a wobble of the bottom lip. I wished him all the best, and he said he was going to need it. Via con dios, good and brave old man of Budapest! (The salt of the earth? At least our raw fabric.)
After he left, a small Chinese lady in full civilian dress padded in, and sat down. I was about to open with her, when a head came out of a door, and said that her scans had remained constant, so that she could go. She padded off, nodding contentedly in what I imagine is a Chinese way.
During this time, the head of nuclear medicine, Roger’s boss I suppose, would occasionally stop to have a word with me in passing. He is a very matter-of-fact type of person, and his simple manner called to mind a manager at the Daylesford IGA telling me where I could find dog food. That is I think a sensible way for a person in that position to behave. There is no need to feed that old wives’ tale that they think they are God. (Leave that to those my lot who wear ermine.) His name is a good old-fashioned one – Associate Professor Meir Lichtenstein. After the second lot of pictures, he came out and told me that they would do another one with a different camera and that I would be called in when they were ready.
While I was waiting, I heard Professor Lichtenstein examining another patient who sounded very young, but who apparently had been suffering from strokes. I gathered that the question was then whether his condition affected his intellectual capacity because the professor was giving him tests in simple arithmetic. It is very sobering to reflect that a person so young could be so sorely afflicted. That is one thing about going to public hospitals – no matter how badly you think you might be travelling, the next poor bastard may be doing a whole lot bloody worse. A little later, a male nurse of some age and a real burnished colour came in to comfort the young man – whose face I never saw – with that smiling white-eyed benevolence that people of such colour are so good at. You miss this diversity in the sticks.
Now let me go back to the nuclear physician, Roger. Quel nom! Nuclear physician! How do you improve on that, Mate? He is a good-looking and plain speaking man on, I would think, the sunny side of 40. He has a simple, direct manner and he is happy to engage in conversation, which is I think important in professional people dealing with others who may be in a state of anxiety if not fear. We had a good laugh about the extent to which the sexiness of the French lady at La Couronne had contributed to my heart attack by selling me chocolate croissants and sausage rolls every Saturday and Sunday for years and years and bloody years – not to mention the baguettes which would later accept slabs of butter and fatty roast beef, served with full cream milk, before the siesta with the schnauzer (Ferdinand) and a Burmese cat (Miles Davis or Ella Fitz). I gather these issues are not unknown to Roger.
I asked Roger if I could read my book while I was waiting for the injections to take effect. Since the book was The Europeans, by Henry James, that led to a discussion about immigration. Somehow I got on to his family.
Roger’s parents had come out here from Egypt in 1968, well before his birth. They had done very well and they had been able to afford to send him to a private school (which in a very un-Melbourne like moment, I did not ask him to identify. Bugger.) His father was of French extraction, and he had trained in and got tickets in fine arts in both Paris and Florence. No wonder he did well at the end of the earth where they were just coming out of six o’clock closing – even if his business was in graphic art down here.
Roger’s mother’s contribution was of a different order. She is still with us, but in her time she was a woman of singular beauty in Egypt. As such, she was given a small appearance in the epic film The Ten Commandments. She even got to meet Charlton Heston – this was of course decades before that ghastly moment when Heston held up a gun and declaimed ‘from this cold dead hand’, so symbolising the madness of Americans about guns. Roger treated me very well and I was very grateful. I wished him all the best, but we agreed that poor Egypt looked like being past recall.
After the final set of pictures, the boss had a brief word to me saying that nothing untoward had been shown, but that they would report to the people at Peter Mac.
I was then free to go, which I did after going past again those big photos of the nurses, and a lot of that old kind of ducting that hangs from the ceiling that I used to crawl through to clean in the 1960’s. (Crawling through ducts in hospitals or the RA CV was a piece of cake, but if you had to access ducts above a greasy kitchen, you had to act much like a human pull-through, and you had to ring your overalls out to squeeze out the fat when you were pulled out. There was every chance that you might come across one or two dead rats.)
So, I was released back into the world at large, after seeing a pretty good slice of life in a place where people go to fend off death – all this in the most blessed city on earth.
And I can’t help thinking that the medical profession may be travelling better than mine. That’s one of those statements that is large enough to be plain silly – but it is gnawing at me, and from different angles.