That time I convinced Bob Carr to begin those injecting room trials.

Here is a piece I submitted to the Labor Herald about my essential role in public life. Alex Brooks, one of The Lab‘s editors, who has also ridden the 483 from Strathfield station, told me he loved it and posted it the next day. So yes, I’m famous. But most importantly…for one brief moment I had an editor, and that editor caused my work to read better than I can make it read all on my own. So I am reposting this with thanks. For Alex, and my friend Wendy, and all the editors, all the time.

Caveat: Bob Carr and Kim Beazley, my father and Sydney Buses may remember this differently.

It is seventeen years ago. With my daughter a babe in arms, the question of Injecting Room trials in NSW is a hot topic. I am completing a Masters in Public Health at the University of Western Sydney, a true believer in harm minimisation. About the same time, with the 1998 federal election looming, then Premier Bob Carr hits the streets with then Leader of the Opposition, Kim Beazley.

In Burwood for the morning, I see a gaggle working their way down the main street. Is that Bob Carr walking into a delicatessen with Kim Beazley? And other people I cannot recognize? Here’s my chance. I hoik my babe onto my hip.

The young thing only has a few words but one of them is a designation for automobiles. I enter the roiling fray.

“Mr. Carr, Mr. Carr!”

My voice is raised above the jovial hustings banter. “Did you know that my daughter’s favourite word at the moment is your name?”

“What …‘Bob’?” says Kim. Everyone laughs.

The Premier looks at the two of us.

“Mr Carr,” I take a breath. “I wonder if you wouldn’t mind reconsidering the Injecting Room trials.” The crowd falls into silence. Bob is really looking at me now, my baby on my hip. Mother and child. I cover her soggy, wobbly torso with my hand. “It’s just…I would like to know my daughter had somewhere safe to go.”

Bob stands silently for a moment, then speaks. I am taken aback by his gentle respect, “Yes. OK, I will reconsider.”

I had become a Labor voter on the 483 bus from Strathfield station whilst learning to read. Having successfully mastered all the ‘little letters’, this bus trip was all about exercising my new talent on that mysterious of secondary alphabetical forms, capital letters.

It is the mid-1970s. Buses have a pull-cord that runs from one end of the vehicle to the other.

The cord is the best part of the bus. From down in my seat the line is clearly out of reach of my stubby four-year-old fingers.

So I let my eyes travel along the rubbery cable until they reach a set of letters at the front of the bus:

DO NOT TALK TO DRIVER
BUS IS IN [can’t read it].

“Dad. What word is after ‘driver’?”

“’’Whilst’,” he says. “It means ‘when’.”

“What about the last word?”

“’Motion’,” he says. “That means ‘moving’. So he doesn’t get distracted when he is driving.”

I practice it a little:

DO NOT TALK TO DRIVER WHILST BUS IS IN MOTION.

Fair enough.

But there is another set of capitals:

NO EATING OR DRINKING

ON [something] TRANSPORT.

“’Public’,” says Dad.

“What does ‘public’ mean?”

“Well. You need a lot of money to buy a bus, don’t you? I can’t afford a bus,” he points, “And that guy over there can’t afford a bus, but if we all put our money together we can buy one. So that’s what we do in Australia. We all put a bit of money in, and together we buy things. If something is ‘public’ that means that everyone owns a share of it.”

“So we own a little bit of this bus?” I like the idea. I have already decided to grow up to be a bus conductor, so this tidbit of information seals my fate as collectivist.

I look out the grubby sliding windows and watch the stubby houses of Wallis Avenue stream past. I own…this bus!!

I look up. That glorious pull-cord that I cannot yet reach, I own a bit of that too.

Dad is on a political roll. “And the government runs it for us. The government runs a lot of things for us that we would never be wealthy enough to own ourselves. But together, if we put our money together, we can have them. Hospitals, roads, banks. We even own an airline!”

That was in the mid-70s.

And in the mid-90s, I am still believing. I am believing that together, we can own and run heroin injecting rooms. And people will not need to inject in unsafe places. Harm can be minimized. After making my request of the NSW Premier I say thank you and step back out the front door of the deli, civic duty performed. I remind myself that just to gain an audience with power is enough. I have done what I can.

The next day, I am sure it is the next day, surrounded by the soft, human aromas of domesticity and infant care, I turn on the wireless and Premier Bob Carr is on ABC local radio announcing the approval for the injecting room trials.

I turn to my oblivious, dribbly daughter, marvel at the power of an engaged voter and ask: Do you see what, together, we can do?

This article was first published 26 August, 2015 in The Lab.

Advertisements

Interlude: Beanie Days

Interlude: Beanie Days

IMG_1922The versatility! A beanie on the head means one less layer on the body. Who needs a puffy jacket when you can look hip, skinny and beanied on the street.

People are asking me how I am adapting to the Blue Mountains weather. I moved up eighteen months ago from Sydney’s Inner West, so this has been my second mountains winter. Yet it is only this season that I discovered that most vital of all mountain head coverings, the beanie.

Locals here already wear a lot of hats. I’ve noticed that. Big floppy hats that keep the sun off on the way to the farmers market, straw hats to check on the lettuce in their back-yard organic garden plots, hats of great suavity to indicate a considered interest in the arts. So while there are a lot of hats, not everyone wears a beanie all of the time, but everyone respects the beanie.

I bought my beanie at Paddy Pallin, a mountaineering store in Katoomba, right at the top of the Mountains. It is woollen, knitted, multi-coloured and striped. It has a layer of fleece around the inside rim to keep the ears warm but no liner in the crown where you need to lose a bit of heat all the time because, let’s face it, this is not Harbin. In Harbin, China, the average winter temperature is -25 to -13 degrees Celcius and people have to wrap themselves in the feather, down and fur of a thousand domesticated animals to just survive being outdoors for a spell. By contrast, the average winter temperature at the top of the Blue Mountains, about 1000m above sea level, is 3 to 10 degrees and it is practically balmy down at 300m where I live. Still, I wear my beanie.

Like I was saying, everyone in the mountains respects the beanie. By contrast, it has been painful to learn on returning to the Inner West whilst sporting a beanie, that such headgear does not bring the same level of admiration to the wearer.

I wear my beanie in my mountain village and it’s all:

“Oooh. I like your beanie!”

“Where did you get your beanie?”

and

“What a cute little plait on the crown.”

But in the Inner West it’s all:

“You’re wearing a beanie.”

and

“You look like you’re about to travel to Germany.”

My beanie was knitted in Nepal and fairly traded. I paid thirty Australian dollars for it, which is a lot for a beanie, but not a lot to give to the fair trade market so I’m not complaining. In fact, I am far from complaining, because my beanie makes me look hip and young by Nepalese standards. Yes, that’s right. The first time I wore my beanie into the village, a friend who had spent years in Nepal and only just travelled back to provide medical relief after the most recent devastating earthquake and therefore had the LATEST on Nepalese street fashion, told me that beanies like mine are sold ALL AROUND Nepal, but only the tourists wear them. Then he CHANGED HIS MIND and said that some of the younger, hipper Nepalese were STARTING to wear them. Which is my point. Buy a fair trade beanie from Nepal and keep up with the latest in Nepalese street fashion.

Or if you are like from the Inner West or something, you can give to Everest filmmaker Michael Dillon’s Himaganga fund, which aims to rebuild an earthquake-devastated Nepalese village. They are only $5000 short of their target.

The bank details are BSB063806, account 10193185. For more information look at the Himaganga Facebook page:

www.facebook.com/himagangafund

Stroke the Tiger’s Tail: Chapter 1: The Call (part 1)

Stroke the Tiger’s Tail: Chapter 1: The Call (part 1)

Stroke_the_Tigers_T_Cover_for_KindleSTORY SO FAR: Rahima is trapped in prostitution in a faraway city.

[previous]

The low, wide living room table was piled high with plates of torte, baklava, dried fruit and nuts, sweets and flatbread. Sangza noodles twirled up into a rigid, foot-high tower of deep fried curls and spoke “festival” as sure as any date on the calendar. Amina used to make her own sangza but now she picks up trays of it readymade from the bakery. Why go to the trouble of doing it yourself when you have the money to buy it? And the bakery men knew what they were doing as well as any woman. Amina picked up a broken piece of deep-fried noodle that had fallen off the tower and replaced it high on the pile. There was to be no eating until after the sacrifice.
A wide tablecloth would be necessary today. She twisted a plate of apples to be more attractive to visitors sitting on the couch and the fruit knife clattered from the plate to the table. When she was a young mother she had taken in her sister Zahira’s children at lunchtimes. Her brother-in-law, Hessan, was unable to bring home enough food for three meals a day and the little ones were so hungry. There had been so little food to go around and as the eldest it was her responsibility to care for the young ones. In later years as the farmers came back to their land and food slowly became more plentiful she had been at her sister’s house with her own children and seen a plate of six apples on the sideboard. Her sister had moved quickly to cover them with a cloth, not offering even one to Amina’s children.
Amina replaced the fruit knife so its blade was propped up on the plate of apples and its handle was resting on the tablecloth. When Hessan comes around later she will move her wooden stool closer to his place on the lounge, cut up an apple and hand it to him, piece by piece. His children would have died if she hadn’t fed them every day.
Ibrahim’s phone rang to announce the arrival of the slaughtermen. This was a special year. His grandson was old enough to join him downstairs for the ceremony. Ibrahim rugged himself up and waited in the concrete stairwell, watching as Amina helped little Adiljan on with his jacket, woollen hat, gloves and boots. Laying his hand on his grandson’s head, he explained the ritual on the way down the two flights. He had walked his own precious Mehmet down this stairwell every year for two decades for this same reason. Nothing could bring his son back, but oh, had Adiljan brought brightness back into the home! As Amina liked to repeat, “A house without children is a graveyard, but a house with children is a bazaar.”
At the bottom of the stairs they held hands and walked around to the back of the building. Two young men were waiting for them, keeping warm in the front seat of a red sedan. Ibrahim waved and they hopped out into the cold and walked to the back of the car.
Adiljan peered into the sedan. No sheep.
“In the boot,” said the driver. He pushed in the button lock and the boot swung open with a creak to show a sheep dumped, woolly body first, into the trunk. Its legs were akimbo and it was bleating loudly. Together the two younger men manhandled it up and out, then wrestled it to the snowy pavement, tying three of its legs tightly with rope. One man took out a foot-long knife and dragged it back and forth along a leather strap. The sheep lay on the icy cement, bound and silent, head pulled back and neck exposed. Its eyes took in the human activity.
It was time to say the prayer. Ibrahim showed Adiljan where to lay his hands on the sheep’s head. The man with the knife positioned himself behind the sheep’s shoulders, one knee in the snow. The other kneeled lightly on the sheep’s rear. Once the young boy’s prayer was said, Ibrahim pulled him back a little from the scene. Then, with one hand on the animal’s chin, the slaughterman put his knife against the animal’s neck, recited an Arabic prayer and rocked his bodyweight forward to gain a better purchase.

There was a beeping noise and the knife was discarded into a snow drift as the slaughterman reached for his phone. Yes he was coming. He will kill this sheep here, and then pick up another and be over at their house by about 10am.

The driver took his weight off the sheep’s rear end and stood up. He reached into the inside pocket of his black leather jacket for a packet of cigarettes. Ibrahim brought his own packet out of his top pocket. Once the phone call was done the slaughter-man lit up one of his own.
“How many sheep have you done this morning?” asked Ibrahim.
“This is the fourth,” said the driver, rubbing the front of his thighs with his free hand.
“You must have started early.”
“Before dawn,” said the slaughterman, sucking in hard through his cigarette. “Mostly around this part of town, though.”
Upstairs in the kitchen, Amina was arranging mountains of chopped potato, sliced onion and cubed turnips along the stone bench. She had plates of fresh coriander sprigs, a dish of diced tomato, garlic shoots cut into inch lengths and bowls of chopped ginger, garlic and a small plate of roughly chopped, dry chilli. A large melamine tray sat beneath a red and white mountain of lamb on the bone. A large plastic bowl was soaking the dry sweet potato noodles back to life. Finally, her huge cast iron cooking pot with its round base and high sides was waiting on the gas burner, oiled, smoked clean then re-oiled ready to go. She had risen in the dark of the morning and was ready to spend the day serving bowls of lamb soup to each guest.
Wondering how the men were progressing with their task she leaned heavily out her kitchen window and peered past the collection of thick black electrical cables down into the white and grey courtyard. One live sheep, a young Adiljan dancing about for its entertainment, and the three grown men chatting and enjoying cigarettes. None of them showing any interest in the sacrifice of an animal.
Amina called down, “On such a holy day, during such a holy activity you men are standing around smoking!”
The shame was enough to have every cigarette stubbed out underfoot and the knife back at the sheep’s throat. The young slaughterman was adept at killing and the sheep travelled from alive to unconscious to dead within seconds, bleeding into the snow.
Adiljan stood next to his grandfather and watched the young men cut a hole in the forelock of the sheep and used their mouths to fill the space between the skin and flesh with air. They peeled away the woolly coat in one piece and threw it into the boot of the red sedan. Then they cut out the innards and washed them through with water. They sliced through the joints and separated the carcass into pieces. Everything was piled on plastic trays.
“You carry the head and feet,” said Ibrahim, handing Adiljan a plastic bag.

[next]

Stroke the Tiger’s Tail: Prologue

Stroke the Tiger’s Tail: Prologue

Stroke_the_Tigers_T_Cover_for_KindleWhile mutton and noodles were served in the restaurant, upstairs Rahima had been required to entertain men.

“How long have you lived here?” they asked.

And each time she gave a different answer.

At the end she would realise she had been somewhere else.

She had been a young girl eating pomegranate. Gouging out the sour red seeds with her fingertips. Red juice running down her elbows. Sap from the fruit’s peel leaving sticky areas on her skin. The seeds were bitter and the juice astringent. Her tongue pressed hard up against the roof of her mouth. Eat a pomegranate and you know you are living. At the bazaar, men had a device that crushed the fruit until scarlet juice poured from a galvanised iron spout. They would call you over to buy a sticky glass of the fruit’s lifeblood.

There is a name given to girl children which means “pomegranate flower”. Anargul. You have to live in a land of pomegranate trees to give a name like that. You have to understand the pomegranate flower is the most beautiful of all blossoms. It opens out red from the bud like a woman shaking out the wrinkles of a silk skirt.

And then the time would come and he would grunt and push harder and maybe cry out and it would be over.

And she would wait for him to dress.

She would lie in bed a little longer, looking out the window at the borderless clouds of a forever overcast sky. But if he still tried to touch her she would get up and start to wash in a pan of water.

Alone again, Rahima would look in the mirror. How much had she changed?

Sometimes she barely noticed.

[next]