'Ignore him doctor, he’s being a smartarse. Obsessed with science shows and documentaries.'
Lockdowns, remote learning and the threat of a swab have made kids with colds as rare as hen’s teeth. I can’t remember the last time I saw a decent snotty nose and it’s been months since I heard a “chesty” cough or the brassy midnight bark of croup.
I miss those viruses.
Their absence robs me of the company of sleep deprived mothers looking for “something to fix” a grizzly toddler and of fathers spouting pearls of child-rearing wisdom.
Most of all, I miss the mystery of the strange world of childhood.
Security has slackened in the bush. This week the ring of steel at reception was breached, allowing me a trip down memory lane.
My day began with three-year-old Tayleigha.
“There’s something wrong with her. Probably picked up another bug from play group. Off her food, got sore ears, hasn’t slept all week,” mum announced.
“Any cough, cold, runny nose or sore throat?”
“Sometimes. Nose was blocked, but she sneezed a stream of green snot this morning. Still pretty shitty though, needs antibiotics.”
Tayleigha, a chubby child animatedly playing on a phone, chimed in with a loud burst of song.
“Seems happy enough now.”
“She’ll dance and sing to most things on a screen, gifted that way. Good concentration too, can watch telly for hours. Loves murder mysteries.”
The young forensic scientist briefly removed her ear buds, exposing solid walls of impacted wax, but remained plugged in and fixated on the screen for the rest of my examination.
On the 50th percentile for height and the 99th for weight, I advised mum that less screen time and more attention to diet and physical activity might benefit her daughter’s development.
“Nothing wrong with her development. Like I said before, she’s gifted. Techno skills way ahead of other three-year-olds around here. Got hungry watching telly yesterday, face-timed me and asked for chicken nuggets. How smart is that!?”
Bohannon, a four-year-old farm boy, marched in and announced, “I’ve got a sore throat, a sour voice and a crook ear. And I’ve had the covid test, so I’m allowed to be here.”
“Any runny nose or cough?”
“I’ve got funny tasting snot.”
“What is snot supposed to taste like?”
“Snot tastes like DNA mixed with memories.”
“DNA, Deoxyribonucleic acid.”
“Cut it out Bohannon!” dad interjected. “Ignore him doctor, he’s being a smartarse. Obsessed with science shows and documentaries. Never know what he’s going to come out with. Little bugger tries some weird things too.”
Such as germinating seeds in his ears, apparently. I extracted a freshly sprouted one and remarked, “Most kids grow potatoes in their ears, not peas.”
Bohannon was unabashed. “You’re being facetious now doctor. Anyway, we don’t grow peas on our farm, it’s a lentil.”
Eric has his teachers worried.
The brightest child in grade four, he hasn’t said a word at school this term. After being given the all-clear by the audiologist and the psychologist, Eric was sent to me for a once over.
He had nothing to say for himself, but made direct eye contact, nodded and smiled appropriately and followed instructions promptly. I expected a normal physical examination, but I wasn’t ready for the whistling.
He was buttoning his shirt when he started, as clear and unselfconscious as a morning magpie.
His father noticed my surprise.
“Been doing that for three months now, especially at night. Doesn’t go to bed to sleep, goes to bed to whistle. Warbles away for a good hour or so before he drops off. Quite soothing once you get used to it.
“The wife and I often turn the lights off, sit quietly and listen. Better than reality TV. Find anything wrong? No? Didn’t think you would. Seems happy enough to me. Just going through a stage where he’d rather whistle than waste words.”
Bailey doesn’t waste words either. The quintessential surly teenager, he slouched in, flanked by a silent mother and a talkative father, Neville. The family moved to the country for a quieter life and are new to town.
“Got sick of people throwing used syringes into the front yard. When the car got stolen out of the driveway while we were taking the groceries in, we knew it was time to get away.”
From the northern suburbs to the northern Mallee in mid-summer is a quantum leap, but Neville had done his research.
“Found the property on Realestate.com, cheap house with a vacant shopfront on the main street! Checked the town out on Google maps and noticed the big salt lake just up the highway! Place ticked a lot of boxes, Bailey likes the beach and I’ve always wanted to run my own business.”
“And how have things panned out?”
“Thought I’d try something a bit different; set up selling pizzas, souvlakis and shoes. Shoes were a mistake, didn’t think that through. Locals buy boots from the farm supply joint and thongs from the supermarket, no interest in other footwear.
“Pizzas and souvas would go better if Bailey pulled his weight. Cracked the shits when he found the lake was dry – how was I to know? – stays in his room all day, only comes out to eat. We want you to tell us what’s wrong with him and give him something for it.”
Bailey had other ideas.
“Stuff that. Nuffin’ wrong with me. Dad’s got the problem. I’m outta’ here.”
Neville was philosophical when I explained that, despite many advances, modern medicine still can’t cure common colds, adolescence or dysfunctional father-son relationships.
“Righto, time for plan B then. Got an old caravan out the back, we’ll give him a burl in that. Make him look after himself and learn a bit of responsibility. He might still come good; look at me! I was a fuckin’ nightmare at 15, but still turned out normal.”
It’s hard to know what adulthood holds for any child.
Uncle Leon in Sydney retired from the public service with two million in super and a Queen’s birthday gong. As a teenager, he smoked dope and sang protest songs around a campfire of car tyres in a suburban backyard.
In 20 years, the “gifted” Tayleigha and the “smartarsed” Bohannon could both be completing PHDs in genomic sequencing at The Doherty. Eric-the-whistler might be selling real estate.
There’s a fair chance that Bailey will “turn out normal”. Like his father.
Dr Max Higgs, aka Grumpy Old Doctor, is a former country GP, a current rural and remote locum and a collector of stories