Another letter to my daughter from her somewhere-out-there father.
Size matters if you live in the mountains. Not that of your superannuation balance or your home. The thing that will be spoken of in the pub and envied by neighbours is your woodheap. Thirty tonnes of neatly stacked split dry blocks under cover at the side of the house is the mark of a genuine long-term resident and ensures a warm and cozy winter.
The woodheap goes a long way to determining your quality of life, so it pays to know how to handle a chainsaw. Brian knew that he had finally made it as a local when the man next door was heard to say of him, “There are two things I admire about that bloke, his home-made stout and his ability with a chainsaw”.
Up here in the high country, the chainsaw is sacrosanct. You can get away with a little adultery, stealing and bearing false witness, but life will be hell if you borrow your spouse’s chainsaw. Mavis is 85, had a nasty fall last week and is not pleased with her husband. “I am not allowed to use my chainsaw anymore, so he uses it without my permission. I never use his without asking.” To make matters worse, this nasty man “now insists that I mumble and so has trained me to YELL AT HIM ALL THE TIME”.
A pet can sometimes compensate for a life made miserable by a difficult partner. Charlie celebrated his divorce by catching a brumby and is having great fun breaking it in. “He’s a big, strong, arrogant bugger. A real rodeo horse. I love him.” The newly single Marika loves her pets too, a snake-catching (six this year) tortoiseshell cat and an 8kg chihuahua.
The dogs are generally big up here. A man, who shoots the wild, sheep-killing ones for a living, showed me photos of specimens built like Harley Davidsons. They have interbred with dingoes. It takes a tough, resourceful man to win their scalps and this dog-shooter is both. He has been known to skin a dog in three minutes then use the same unwashed knife to peel and quarter an apple.
He’s a noted local cook, most famous for his sheep’s head soup, complete with wool and eyes. The dog man doesn’t waste ingredients or cutlery. His frugal life has never been complicated by illness.
Others are not so lucky.
Bill, a diabetic fully aware of the problems he faces – “Diabetes can fuck up your kidneys and your liver, doc” – underwent an epiphany when he could no longer cut his toenails, and lost 20kg. “I realised that I wouldn’t be able to wipe me arse next, and then it would be a walking frame and a nursing home.”
A diagnosis of HIV was once a death sentence. Those ‘Grim Reaper’ advertisements left some, like James, to seek a quicker exit when the infection was confirmed. “First I tried electrocution. The whole house went up but I survived.” Next, in a cheap, oneroom rental, he tried hanging. “The rafter wouldn’t take my weight and the roof fell on me.” Finally, he turned to drugs. “A whole lot of legal marijuana from the sex shop sent me mad and I got arrested.” James never fully regained his sanity but is alive and happy.
Phil also has an unusual story of survival claiming, after a motorcycle accident, to “Hold the record for the longest coma in Prince Henry Hospital’s history. I was asleep, but I talked all the time. The nurses said I just wouldn’t shut up.”
Yes, some patients embroider the truth just as some surgeons grossly over-estimate the power of the scalpel.
At 75, Arlo has endured heroic surgery in an attempt to cure incurable rectal cancer. He’s been left with a colostomy, another bag for his urine, no appetite and insomnia. “Before the operation the surgeon said: ‘We’re going to focus on quality of life for you’. Quality of life! I’m still alive, but … I’ve never felt so fuckin’ crook.”
Arlo is not the first to find that, when your time remaining is very limited, it’s the quality that matters, not the quantity.
Those high-country retirees lucky enough to have retained their minds and control of their major bodily functions certainly believe in making the most of what’s left. Seventy-five-year-old Barbara has “booked a holiday to go walking in Morocco. My husband doesn’t like overseas travel, so he’s going to stay home and ride his bike from Canberra to Melbourne”.
Her twin sister, Beryl, is “still doing a bit of part time barmaiding in Bairnsdale. The customers are not as nice as they used to be though, there were no jailbirds or riff-raff in the 1950s”.
Keith is a pensioner who likes to keep busy. “I’m gonna bale some bloody hay for me neighbour before it rains again and if I don’t get that done I’ll be restoring my Pontiac Parisienne. It’s not a car, it’s a vehicle; a real spaceship.”
Clippo is an exception – “I do nothin’ doc, I do nothin’ every day” – worn out at 45, he has traded work for idleness and memories. An ex-rodeo clown and a hobbling encyclopedia of orthopaedic mishaps, Clippo entertained me for an hour with photos of his fractures.
Others, no matter how hard and how often they try, can never retire. I shared a love of music with Bruce, a practising alcoholic whose repeated attempts at sobriety always fail. He raved about his favorite song of all time: “Another Girl Another Planet, the Blink-182 version”. I had never heard of it, but after having had a listen, I think I know why Bruce has adopted it as his personal anthem. The opening lines would be a fitting epitaph: “I always flirt with death/I look ill, but I don’t care about it.”
Keith Richards and cockroaches are indestructible, the rest of us are not. You can never have too much wood.
Dr Max Higgs is a former country GP, a current rural and remote locum and a collector of stories