Letter from GOD: Magpies and other orphans

7 minute read

Not everyone gets the best possible start in life.

Dear Julia, 

When I was nine, “Tommo”, a fledgling magpie named after a Collingwood Brownlow medallist, was blown out of the nest in a storm.  

Mum wasn’t impressed when your Uncle Joe brought him home. She didn’t fancy his chances, but let us feed him and found a cardboard box to use as a nest because we didn’t trust the cat.  

She would have gone to bed expecting to attend another “pet funeral” in the morning, however Tommo, was a survivor. He thrived on leftovers and within a month had graduated to dog food, outgrown the box, learned how to fly and taken to sleeping on top of the fridge.  

He befriended the dogs and would throw his head back and bark while running, not flying, out to greet us with them when we came home from school. Tommo stayed for two years before taking off to fend for himself. 

I went home last weekend to find “Medusa” perched on top of the sunroom door. Your brother, Ben, who has fled to the farm in this latest lockdown, picked her up from the side of the road.  

She was flapping around next to a squashed parent and being watched over by a feral cat sitting on top of a strainer post. Ben says the cat made him feel like Caesar did on seeing Cassius. “It had a mean and hungry look.” 

I don’t know why he named her Medusa, but she doesn’t seem to mind and has settled in well, even joining him on a work conference call to New York. (She sat on his head and shat down the back of his neck).  

It’s early days yet and Medusa might choose not to stay long, but I am hoping she enjoys her time with us.  

Most orphans don’t take to adoption as well as Tommo and Mavis did. 

Mavis was a chatty 82-year-old worried about her kidneys. “My late husband was on dialysis for 15 years and I’ve heard that kidney trouble runs in families.”  

After reassuring her that renal failure can’t be caught from a spouse, I asked Mavis about her parents’ medical histories. 

“Don’t know. I was raised in an orphanage.” 

My murmurings of sympathy were misplaced.  

“Nothing to be sorry about doctor, I had a happy childhood; spent some of the best years of my life in the convent with the nuns.” 

Her early adulthood was a different story. 

“I was penfriends with my first husband for 10 years. Didn’t have Tinder in those days. He turned up at the convent unannounced and found me out the back in an old pair of overalls, digging spuds. Gave me a bunch of flowers and asked me to marry him. I was too flustered to say no.” 

The union was short and miserable. 

“We moved to Melbourne and I hated it. Cried for a year, got divorced, shifted back to Warrnambool with the nuns. Married Enzo five years later, apparently he’d had his eye on me for a while. Took on dairy farming.” 

Her second marriage was a happy one. 

“We had a good life together, apart from Enzo’s kidneys. I’ve got six children, 17 grandchildren and four great grandchildren. Remember all my family in my prayers every night. There’s one crotchety daughter in law, but she’s the only fly in the ointment. I read books, (fiction with a little bit of romance, not too much), cook and drink gin and tonic. I’ve been lucky and I’m grateful.  Life is not all plain sailing for some.” 

Take Harvey, for example. 

Eighty-three and living alone in a one-pub town at the end of the line, he had fallen out of bed, then out of his wheelchair when we met.  

Harvey blamed the government for his poor balance. 

“It’s this damned daylight savings! Always throws me out of whack and the premier started it early this year.” 

I felt that a tattered prosthesis tied to a withered stump with a shoelace might be the problem. 

“Had that leg since ‘95. Got run over by a Fordson tractor on Australia day. Six broken ribs, ruptured spleen and burst left ear drum. They took the spleen out but couldn’t fix the ear, still deaf on that side. Went back to work in April and lost my leg a week later. Got collected by ‘The Beetle’ in Berriwillock.” 

“Collected by a beetle!?” 

“A goods train. Slow and red. Sun was in my eyes and I was listening to the races; I’d backed number seven, Prairie Fox, in the last at Flemington. Didn’t see or hear The Beetle.” 

 The memory of the loss of his leg remains vivid, but doesn’t worry Harvey. 

“Things like that can keep comin’ back to you and play tricks in your head if you let them. But learned early on that it’s best to put it outta’ my mind. Besides, I must have had worse things happen to me. I was brought up in the Ballarat orphanage, then farmed out to a local family. Apparently, I disappeared into the bush with two dogs when I was eight and didn’t come out until I was about 15. Don’t remember anything of my childhood.” 

Abdul’s childhood memories are omnipresent. After seeing his parents and two brothers murdered, he fended for himself between the ages of seven and 16 before somehow making his way to Australia.  

He came to me for a repeat prescription of sedatives. Abdul works on a chicken farm during the day and re-visits Kabul at night.  

“The nightmares have worsened since I escaped. Now that I’ve seen how good life can be, the flashbacks are stronger and I feel guilty for being here.” 

The end of the war in his home country brings no comfort.  

“I watch the news and listen to the politicians. They have abandoned us. The Taliban will kill my friends like we kill infected chickens on the farm. There is no escape.” 

Back in Sydney, your uncle, disillusioned with politics, has tuned out and turned off. At two each afternoon, Leon now tosses a handful of Nutrigrain off the back decking to his “pet” magpies and watches them go for it.  

He reckons their posturing and squabbling is much the same as what’s served up in parliamentary question time and has named the dominant males. There’s “Keating”, “Malcolm”, “Kevin-07’’, and an old bird with a loud voice and a magnificent monobrow who turns up every day and is always last to leave. Leon calls him “John Howard”. 

I don’t think Abdul would take to him. 



P.S. Medusa stayed for a week then flew off with a local family. I wonder how she will remember us. 

Dr Max Higgs, aka Grumpy Old Doctor, is a former country GP, a rural and remote locum and a collector of stories.

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