an extract from the memoir Fragments through the Epidemic
Thursday the seventh of November 1991 was a day that changed my life. I woke with a severe sore throat. It was alarming as it struck with no warning symptoms like a cough or mucus. The discomfort was acute as when I swallowed saliva or water or a mouthful of food, pain shot around my neck like rogue lightning.
It’s probably a simple sore throat, I thought. Or tonsillitis or the flu. Yet the thought of HIV coloured my imagination, the Grim Reaper’s scythe arcing through these mind pictures. Surely not, I thought again. Not after all these years. I stood in the bedroom, gazed out the front window as if looking into the future and crossed my arms around myself for reassurance.
Later in the morning I called work, telling them I’m sick and went to the doctor’s appointment at 11 o’clock. It was early summer, not too hot, the sun’s warming streamers to the earth made the walk to the surgery in Annandale a pleasant saunter. In the surgery, I sat waiting and looked through the ubiquitous National Geographic.
‘Peter,’ called Doctor Jane. She ushered me into the consulting room. ‘What seems to be the trouble?’ she asked, sitting down.
‘I’ve got a sore throat.’ I pointed to my neck. ‘I woke up this morning with it. What worries me is that it came out of nowhere. There were no symptoms like a cough warning me about it. And because I’m HIV, I wonder if…’
She nodded several times and noted the medical file. ‘Any other symptoms?’ she asked, looking up.
‘Yes,’ I said, my tone assertive. ‘Whenever I swallow, even saliva, I get shooting pains all around my neck.’
‘Hmm.’ She frowned and noted the file again. ‘Let’s have a look at it.’
I lent my head back, the wooden spatula depressing my tongue.
She shone the narrow torch around my throat. Standing up, she clicked the light off. ‘Yes,’ she affirmed, ‘there’s definitely an infected area in your throat. It’s red, an ugly red.’ She pulled the chair towards the desk, noting my medical file a third time. ‘I’m not sure what it might be, so I’ll get the specimen tested then we’ll have a better idea.’
‘Can I have anything for it?’
‘I’m reluctant to prescribe any medication at this point,’ she said. ‘I don’t know what I’d be prescribing it for, so I’ll wait for the test results.’
‘Hmm,’ I sounded, doubt writing its presence. I had hoped for immediate relief.
‘In the meantime, gargle with warm water and salt. And if you need pain relief, I suggest some of the over-the-counter pain tablets.’
And vitamin C and garlic, I thought, as extra therapies.
After two-and-a-half weeks, the two sputum analyses were inconclusive. The second script of amoxicillin proscribed by Doctor Jane was not healing the infection, although it felt as if the drugs were containing the infected cells. Yet it was still painful to swallow, so I was eating less. Now my jeans sat loosely on my frame.
It was a Wednesday. The wall calendar in the kitchen indicated it was the twenty-seventh of November. I was too sick to work, so at eight-thirty, I rang the library. Again. This was becoming routine, a routine I resisted with all my life chi, yet on some days, the energy that propelled us through our daily-ness itself needed a day of recuperation.
Through the day, I slept; listened to the birds discussing the weather; tyres screeching the air as the rubber marked the blue-metal surface of Lackey Street; the rustle of language rising from the skin of the built environment; swallowed amoxicillin and garlic and vitamin C tablets. The garlic and vitamin C were long-standing medicinal standbys that also included ginger, courtesy of Alain’s Mauritian heritage. He was my former lover.
In the afternoon, I laid on the lounge and watched the daytime television shows unfold endlessly, listlessly, on the square screen. After two hours, I turned it off and continued reading books I’d borrowed from the Markets Library where I worked. These took me to other worlds.
In the late afternoon, a rap on the front door shocked me awake. Leaning on my left elbow, there was a shadow behind the bubbled glass of the door. Shit, who’s this? I threw the blanket off and on opening it, a smiling face and jet-black hair splended my vision.
‘Bernie,’ I said, my tone rising in surprise. Bernie was my loving confidante. I looked up a little and saw worry lines rippling his forehead.
‘I haven’t heard from you for a few days,’ he said, stepping forward. ‘I’m worried about you.’
As we bear-hugged each other, a single tear rolled down my face.
‘What’s this then?’ He wiped the tear away with his right index finger. Words choked my throat, making me inarticulate for that few seconds; I shrugged my shoulders. In the pit of my stomach, I felt I didn’t deserve his care and concern.
‘You okay then?’ His summery-blue eyes regarded me directly.
I nodded and mumbled a few words, their sounds all jumbled. Ten seconds later, I took a deep breath and said, ‘Bumbling along.’
‘You sit down,’ he said, ‘I’ll make us a cup of tea.’ He bustled the kitchen air, his familiarity with my flat a comfort as I didn’t have to tell him where everything was. ‘And I’ll put a slice of lemon in your tea because I know you like it.’
I smiled and placed the mug on the small coffee table. I pushed myself up, the upholstery of the lounge supporting my back.
‘Now,’ he said, sitting down opposite me. His word hung in the air between us for a full five seconds as if pressuring me to speak.
‘Well,’ my voice was wan. I cleared my throat, making space in the voice-box. ‘As you can see, I’ve taken another day off work. I didn’t have the energy for it.’
‘Hmm,’ he sounded, his eyes looking at me above the rim of the mug.
‘And well ….’
‘Your ill-health worries me,’ he said, moving forward in the chair. ‘This had been going on for too long. We both know what it might be and, at the same time, might not be. And this doctor doesn’t seem to be very proactive, very encouraging. Have you thought about getting a second opinion?’
I put my mug back slowly on the table as I didn’t feel strong and swallowed with difficulty. ‘I’m considering going to Doctor Greg in Newtown. I don’t know anything about him, but I’m at the point where I need to do something.’
‘Good,’ said Bernie, leaning back in the chair.
I stumbled to work on the Thursday and Friday. Apart from the continuing malaise, work was uneventful. I knew the Reservations position well, even with a minimum of training. Essentially, it was a clerical job, shifting pieces of paper around and punching information into the computer.
Often I’d smile at memories of when I was a shelver and Pam, a co-worker, was the Reservations Officer. Back then I’d think what a responsible and complicated position she had. Of course, the reality was that it wasn’t all that difficult.
All through the following weekend, I drank hot ginger drinks with a plenitude of vitamin C. At times, I felt drowsy, lacked energy and the animal in me closed my eyes and dozed for half-an-hour then resumed what I was doing. Weeks ago, I decided that whenever I wanted to and could, I’d rest and nanna-nap as often as possible.
Two nights before Christmas: ‘I want to spend the night with you,’ said Bernie.
‘But I need an undisturbed night’s rest,’ I whined. ‘I’m travelling to Newcastle tomorrow and I don’t know how I’ll go on the train.’
‘It’s nearly Christmas.’ His eyes became a shaded-blue. ‘I’m working Christmas Day and won’t see you for about five days. I want your company, especially at this time of the year.’
‘Yes, I want your company too,’ I reiterated, ‘but the pain and discomfort and disturbed sleep just wrecks my night. Also I need my energy for the trip tomorrow.’
He looked away, ‘Please don’t do this to me, Bernie.’
His shoulders sagged as he inched towards the front door. In the doorway, he turned around and we hugged and kissed each other on the cheeks.
‘Take care,’ he said, his tone solemn. Halfway down the stairs, he turned, looked at me for a few seconds then went on his way.
I closed the door, wondering if I’d made the right call. I shrugged my shoulders and looked out the bedroom windows overlooking Lackey Street as if gazing through tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow. Tears welled and I climbed under the bed sheet, crying streams for fear, fear that Bernie might desert me because he feels I abandoned him, fear of the future, fear about my physical capacity, and fear that I’d die by myself through the night.
Christmas Day morning. Blue eyes. Blue eyes everywhere. Summery-blue eyes, pools of clear blue eyes under shade, blue-fire eyes, all caressing me, all surrounding me, the eye-lashes feathering my skin. All these eyes were familiar as if I knew them but I was distant from them at the same time. Now they’re enfolding me with an intense warmth. My second skin warmed all over yet my feet were cold with fear.
I woke as the coldness started spreading up my legs. What was that about? Could it be guilt for sending Bernie home two nights ago? I turned over and closed my eyes, resting, my mind idling. Some time later, I felt a leathery hand on my shoulder. I turned over and found my dad sitting on the bed. ‘Hi, dad.’
‘I wasn’t sure if you were awake or not,’ he said.
‘I was just resting. I woke up earlier after a strange dream.’
‘A nightmare?’ he asked, frowning.
‘Funnily enough, no.’ I gazed at the wall opposite as if recollecting the eyes. ‘It was kind of comforting.’ I doubled the pillow, raising my head a fraction, my hands lying on top of the sheet and blanket.
‘Christmas lunch is nearly ready.’
‘Oh,’ I said, my voice flat. I hadn’t been looking forward to Christmas Day lunch. Pictures of all my family looking at me with concerned faces felt a trial. I turned on my left-side to get up, my protruding hip bone pressing into the mattress.
‘Just eat what you can.’ Dad started rising.
I looked into his eyes. ‘Dad, do you think I’m going to die?’ I flopped back onto the mattress.
Dad sat back down on the bed. ‘Um,’ he said, thinking. He glanced away, his eyes considering possibilities. ‘I don’t know what to say, my son.’ He took my hands and continued, ‘How do I know the answer to your question? All I know is that I don’t want you to die. I pray every night for your better health.’
A tear darkened the cotton quilt.
‘Let’s go to lunch,’ he said, smiling.
On first looking at all the food: the meats, salads and nuts, spread over the table, I wanted to return to the safety of the bed. I’d taken a painkiller, avoiding the nails-in-the-head scenario every time I swallowed food, drink or saliva. I pulled my jeans up and sat down, making a mental note to buy new clothes or get these jeans taken in by a seamstress.
‘Have you taken a painkiller?’ asked Pattie, my eldest sister, sitting opposite me.
I nodded and looked at my plate of food. It was the process of chewing the recommended thirty-two times that tired me. It was all too much energy, all too labour intensive, all too consuming.
‘Would you like a drink, Pete?’ said Cate, my other sister.
I thought for a few seconds. A cold drink? Or hot? ‘A lemonade, please.’
‘What’s wrong with Uncle Peter?’ asked Joseph, my nephew.
‘He’s not well, darling,’ said Pattie. ‘Uncle Peter has the flu.’
Joseph turned to me, frowning.
‘Mike will ring later,’ said Cate, sitting down,’he’s working today.’ Mike was our brother.
I remembered that Bernie was working today too.
‘And Mum and Trevor send their Christmas wishes,’ said Pattie. Mum and Dad had divorced eight years previously. Our mother remarried; Trevor was now our step-father.
Dad didn’t say anything, but simply frowned.
I was in bed on the last night of the year. It was thirty minutes from the midnight hour, thirty minutes from the history of another year. The usual eternal questions jetted through my imagination. I stamped down on them straight away. I was too tired to get up and watch television. With only enough energy to stay in bed, I was thankful that it was a holiday, that I didn’t have to work at the library, that all I had to focus on was steeling myself for the inevitable nails-in-the-head during those times between swallowing painkillers. I laid on my left-hand side, the right-hand side of my throat still painful, bones knuckling outside my body. Well, I thought, I’ve wanted to lose weight for a while now. I smiled grimly.
Time slowed as if in a loop, the seconds becoming minutes, the minutes hours, the hours a long, long travail. The frantic energy before midnight had begun. I heard shouts from the Summer Hill Hotel across the road on the corner of Lackey Street and Carlton Crescent. A car screeched down the street. Male voices yelled across the night air. It was the beginning of the ending, the ending of the beginning.
The cotton sheets nested around me, a refuge. All my family had rung during the day or earlier in the evening, making sure I was okay. Thoughts about them welled tears, one or two wound down my face as pity clumped down in my stomach.
I felt as if the future was eating me.
Peter Mitchell is an author of books, poetry, journalism and literary criticism. His poetry has been published in Eureka Street, Eucalypt: a tanka journal, Landscapes, New England Review, Windfall: Australian haiku, Verity la, among other series. His short fiction has appeared in Pure Slush, Campaign and the Newsletter of the Canberra Science Fiction Society. His memoir has been published in Meanjin and capital Q. He entered this world in 1957 in metropolitan Sydney and spent his early years in the lower Hunter Valley between rural Maitland and industrial Newcastle. He has been awarded numerous awards, fellowships, residencies and grants. Now residing in Lismore in Bundajalung Country (NSW), he is the author of the poetry chapbook, The Scarlet Moment (Picaro Press, 2009) and currently writing his memoir, from which Game Changer is an extract.
For more on Peter visit: http://www.peter-mitchell.com.au/about-peter.html