Books: Unreliable Memoirs — The Sound of Mucus |
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Unreliable Memoirs — The Sound of Mucus


Even if I had possessed the will and the weight to be an athlete, an essential part of the wherewithal would still have been missing. Although I looked in the bloom of health, I was racked by colds throughout my adolescence. Indeed it was just one long cold that never went away. I produced mucus in thick streams. I carried half a dozen handkerchiefs and they were all full by the end of the day. Kleenex had already been invented but had not yet penetrated to Kogarah, where people still put a cold in their pockets. I was putting an epidemic in mine. Finally the floods of green slime and the interminable sniffle drove my mother to consult the local GP, Dr Bolton, who prescribed a course of penicillin injections. Over the next few years I was shot full of millions of units of penicillin. I built up a tremendous resistance to penicillin and an unquenchable fear of the hypodermic syringe — the latter phobia being destined to become a key factor, later on, in my long truancy from the dentist. I shook at the mere idea of being stuck. The actuality should have been just a dull thud in the upper arm, but I tensed up so much that the needle bounced off. Dr Bolton had to screw it in like a bradawl.

This went on for a couple of years with no diminution in the snot supply. Quite the contrary. No matter how hard I blew there was always more up there. This unabated deliquescence was gradually joined by such additional features as sharp pains above and behind the eyes. At the baths I couldn’t submerge more than a few feet without feeling the extra pressure. Rather fancying myself as a diver, I was disappointed to find myself confined to the one-metre board. Not that I would ever have accomplished much from the three-metre board — an innate lack of daring guaranteed that — but one of my chief pleasures in life was to descend from a great height and somersault while making contact with the water at the very lip of the pool. This activity was known as dive-bombing. An expert could make an impact like a 500-pounder, saturating the spectators over a range of many yards. There came a day when I surfaced in the puddle of spume produced by a particularly effective dive-bomb, and found my face hurting so much I could hardly get out of the water. For a while I thought that I had hit the tiled edge of the pool with my head.

Dr Bolton finally decided that my sinuses needed a wash. First he probed them extensively, using a stick wrapped in cotton wool soaked with local anaesthetic. This was the least funny thing that had ever happened to me, not excluding the time when I had had an abscessed tooth extracted and been sneered at by the dentist merely because a spout of pus had hit him in the eye. Dr Bolton’s immortal line, ‘You may feel a bit of discomfort,’ still strikes me today as ranking among the understatements of the century. In a way he was right. What I felt wasn’t pain so much as pressure. It was as if a wardrobe were being crammed up my nose. When he yanked out the stick and started to sluice the violated interior, I began a sobbing fit that lasted for some time. I went home traumatized. After visits to the dentist I usually tucked into a packet of Minties and a few bars of Cherry Ripe, secure in the knowledge that it would be a year before I had to go again. But with the sinuses I was on constant call. I had to keep up the treatment. Dr Bolton went on probing and sluicing for what seemed to me like years, until one day, on his way up my nose, he met a polyp coming down.

Polyps, or proud flesh, apparently favour the sinuses as growth areas. If I stuck my finger up my left nostril I could feel it entirely blocked by a convex meniscus the texture of Bakelite. This was the vanwall of what Dr Bolton assured my mother could be anything between a platoon and a battalion of polyps. Dr Bolton also assured her that a simple operation under local anaesthetic would be enough to clear the matter up. My mother, strongly supported by a silent tantrum I was staging in the background, suggested that I might be spared some suffering if the operation was done under general anaesthetic. ‘No need for that,’ Dr Bolton assured her. ‘He’ll only feel a bit of discomfort.’

After only a few weeks of sleepless waiting I found myself seated in Dr Bolton’s surgery. Dressed in a white coat, he was on another chair facing me. First he did the familiar number with the dope-soaked stick of fairy floss. I found this as hilarious as always. Then he got up there with a pair of long-nosed forceps. They were slim to look at but by the time they were in my head they felt like heavy wire-cutters. It all lasted for centuries and I did a lot of crying. When I glanced into the kidney-shaped enamel basin on the table, it was heaped high with what would have looked like freshly cooked tripe if it had not been streaked with blood. My mother was waiting in the reception room when I came out. She had an awful look on her face. I have learned to recognize that look since. It is the way we look when someone we love is suffering and we can’t help.

The operation was so traumatic that I spent the next year doing my best to conceal the fact that it had not worked. But there was too much mucus to hide and the pain both above and below my eyes formed a pair of invisible hot iron spectacles that kept me awake. Dr Bolton at last referred me to a specialist. He, too, was fond of a preliminary probe or two with the fairy floss, but at least this time there was not a suggestion that the operation should be a sit-down. He wanted me down and out. I have never minded general anaesthetic. I rather relish the dreams. When I woke up, my head felt clear for the first time in years — perhaps the first time ever, since I could not remember when I had ever breathed so easily. There was some heavy bleeding, which the specialist staunched by stuffing my facial cavities full of gauze. This was only mildly amusing and the removal of the blood-caked gauze a few days later was even less so, but my new-found happiness was unimpaired. I went on suffering more than my share of colds, but the bad days ended with that operation. I can still remember the specialist’s kindly look. Dr Bolton, who assisted at the operation, told me later that he had never seen such instruments: some of them had had little lights on them.

That has been the sum total of my ill-health to date: one adolescent brush with sinusitis. I didn’t even have a severe case. To cure Joan Sutherland of the same thing, they had to slice her open along the top gum and cut through the bone behind her face. So I got off lightly. But the feeling of being helplessly dependent on medical skills is one I have never forgotten. Only in thoughtless moments do I take my strong constitution for granted. When I see sick, crippled or deformed people in the street, I always feel that the reason why they have too little luck is that someone gave me too much.

My hopes of heroism fading, I was obliged to find a new role, especially when I started ceasing to be a star even at English. ‘Jazz’ moved on, a martinet came in and I froze up. I was still near the top of the class, owing to my unusual powers of parsing, but I hardly stood out. Luckily a certain gift of the gab opened the way to a new career as a joker. The small boy is usually obliged to be amusing just as the fat boy is usually obliged to be amiable. I cultivated a knack of exaggeration. Lying outrageously, I inflated rumour and hearsay into saga and legend. The price of fame was small but decisive. I had to incur the accusation of being a bull artist — a charge that any Australian male of any age wants to avoid. But I wanted notoriety more. Rapidly I acquired it. From a small circle of listeners in class, I progressed to a large circle of listeners in the playground. Bigger boys came to mock and stayed to listen. Adapted from a recently seen film, my story of the Okinawa kamikazes lasted an entire lunchtime and drew an audience which, if it had not come equipped with its own sandwiches, would have had to be fed with loaves and fishes.

My new line in yarn-spinning was an expansion of the same trick that I had been working in Sunday School. All I had done was throw caution to the winds. I had also mastered the art of laughing at myself a fraction of a second before anybody else did. Climaxing a story of my close personal acquaintance with Rommel, I produced a pair of old sand-goggles from my pocket. This convinced the smaller boys, but the older boys were not fooled. Before they could laugh, I beat them to it. I ran with the hares, hunted with the hounds and never left a swing except to step onto a roundabout. Gradually even the most scornful among my listeners came to accept that what Jamesie said wasn’t meant to be true — only entertaining. If it wasn’t that, key figures drifted away, and soon everyone else was gone along with them, leaving me alone with my uneaten sandwiches. It was my first experience of the difference between clicking and flopping.

Riding the crest, I diversified, exploiting a highly marketable capacity to fart at will. Thus I became an all-round entertainer. Somehow, perhaps by osmosis, I had learned this invaluable knack from Milo, who could fart the opening bars of ‘Blue Moon’. The first time he performed this feat to a select audience in the back of his garage, the effect was shattering. Suddenly we were all outside in the sunlight, staggering around gasping with combined suffocation and astonishment. Using the Zippo cigarette lighter he had stolen from his father, Milo would set a light to his farts, producing a jet of flame rivalling that emitted by the oil refinery at Kurnell, across the bay. I was never able to match Milo for sonority and melodic content, but I did manage to acquire the knack of letting one off whenever I wanted to. By mastering this skill I set myself on a par with those court jesters of old who could wow the monarch and all his retinue by unleashing, as a grandstand finale, a simultaneous leap, whistle and fart. Unable to extend my neo-Homeric storytelling activities from the playground to the classroom, I could nevertheless continue to hog the limelight by interpolating a gaseous running commentary while the teacher addressed himself to the blackboard. The essential factor here was volume control. My contributions had to be loud enough to amuse the class but not so strident that they caught the teacher’s ear. They were bound to catch his nose eventually, but by that time they were untraceable, since I never made the mistake of either looking proud or overdoing the angelic innocence. While the teacher stood there with his nostrils twitching and scanned the room for malefactors, I stared inscrutably into the middle distance, as if lost in the middle of a quadratic equation.

Two bacon rolls and a custard pie were my undoing. Tuckshop lunches were a dangerous substitute for home-cut sandwiches, since they generated a less controllable supply of wind. Fred Pickett, the best of our maths teachers, was filling the board with some incomprehensible account of what happened to a locus on its way up the abscissa. I was waiting for a suitable cue. The whole secret of raising a laugh with a fart in class is to make it sound as if it is punctuating, or commenting upon, what the teacher is saying. Timing, not ripeness, is all. ‘And since x tends to y as c tends to d,’ Fred expounded, ‘then the differential of the increment of x squared must be ... must be ... come on, come on! What must it flaming be!’ Here was a chance to give my version of what it must be. I armed one, opened the bomb bay and let it go. Unfortunately the results far exceeded the discreet limits I had intended. It sounded like a moose coughing. The shockwave and gamma radiation left people in nearby desks leaning sideways with both hands over their noses. Picking up a blackboard duster, Fred spun round, took aim and hurled it with one flowing movement. There was no question about his choice of target. Concentric circles of outward-leaning victims pointed back to me as surely as all those felled trees in Siberia pointed back to the meteor’s point of impact. The duster impinged tangentially on my cranium and clattered to the floor. Within seconds I was on my way to the deputy headmaster. I was carrying a note inscribed with the numeral 6, meaning that I was to be given six of the best.

The deputy head, Mr Dock, inevitably known as Hickory, lacked inches but made up for them with agility. A short, round man, he had a long, thin, whippy cane and would have looked like Bobby Riggs serving an ace if he had not prefaced his wind-up and delivery with a short swerving run starting in the far corner of the room. He didn’t waste time talking. He just opened the note, glanced at it and reached for the cane. Suddenly I wanted desperately to urinate. ‘C-c-c-c-c-can I go to the t-t-t-t-toi-toi-toilet?’ I asked bravely. To his great credit Hickory let me go. Perhaps he was not the psychopath he was cracked up to be. Perhaps he just didn’t want a puddle on his floor. I raced downstairs and made it to the urinal approximately in time. My return up the same stairs was glacial, nay asymptotic, but Hickory kindly appeared on the landing to encourage me over the final stages. Since the rules stipulated that the hands be hit alternately, for each stroke Hickory had to change corners of the room before running up to serve. He covered a lot of ground. I found the shock of each impact nothing like as bad as the anticipation. Unfortunately the aftermath was worse than anything that could be imagined. I zigzagged back to class with my hands buried between my thighs. But even in the midst of my agony, I was already secure in the knowledge that fame was assured.