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Michael – a potter not a ceramicist

I didn’t want him to die! I didn’t want him to die! But die he did.
I still don’t want him to die!

Michael and I met when we worked at an after-school centre on Sydney’s leafy-leafy north shore and we got on ok. One afternoon, as we walked up to collect the kids from school, I asked him over to my place for dinner. ‘You mean tea,’ he said in his dry, wipe-the-corners- of-your-mouth-there’s-shit-hanging-out way. He then added, ‘I’ve got to tell you something Kath. I’m gay.’

‘That’s ok Mike,’ I said, ‘so am I.’

We were friends, and occasionally not friends for many years. There’d be a stand-off for a while but one of us always blinked. One of our main points of contention was his boyfriends. He was always eager for me to meet them and I was just as eager not to because he had terrible taste in men. His last live-in boyfriend exemplifies the problem. If I remember correctly his name was Lawrence, no, Lloyd, anyway something like that and he was some kind of ex-military but he was a pathological liar as Mike later found out so who knows.

The penny dropped for Mike one night when I was at his place for dinner, I mean tea. I remember because Mike made this disgusting Brussels sprout soup thing. I watched him as he dumped unwashed and unpeeled Brussels sprouts into water and boiled. While we were having a few drinks he found that the landline had been unplugged − again. He said it kept happening and he couldn’t understand it. Maybe the dog? Almost immediately after he plugged it in the phone rang and it was some bloke insisting on speaking to Lloyd, yes, Lloyd, the Vogue photographer. I watched as Mike had a bit of a light-bulb moment. There’d been similar calls, men asking for Lawrence, the film producer, or Lesley, the musician’s agent. I vomited up the soup when I got home. Thanks Mike! But worse was to come.

Soon after he’d turfed L-whatever-his-name-was Mike took the day off his job as an early-morning Tip Top bread delivery driver and was taking his dog for a walk which had been part of L’s daily routine. Letting the dog off his leash and have its head Mike ambled along behind a bit bemused at the seemingly well-worn trail the dog automatically took. Eventually Mike told me he had another light-bulb moment (that L could have turned the lights on all over Sydney) when he realised that the dog was walking the local beats – the parks, the toilets in the parks, the early openers with their backdoor entrances. Sadly, years later, there were serious repercussions. Now, as Mike said, he couldn’t be sure but, knowing his own sexual behaviour, it was probably L who gave him AIDS. But, he said, ‘Kath, we’ve all got it anyway.’

I knew nothing of this diagnosis for some time but Mike wasn’t coming around so much and when he did he was crabby and sometimes downright unpleasant. Our real break-up came one night after I’d been to his place for tea and he drove me home drunk and stoned and enjoyed himself driving like crazy – tilting and revving the ute, driving on the wrong side of the road and so on while I yelled at him to stop. When we arrived at my place I was so scared and furious that I bit him on the arm, hard. (Now I think it was lucky I didn’t draw blood.)

We didn’t see each other for a couple of months and I thought good riddance you bloody dickhead. Then, one afternoon I ran into a mutual friend who told me that Mike was in hospital, very ill, with AIDS. These were in the early days when AIDS didn’t have HIV attached, when the grim reaper ads were on tv and it was considered a death sentence. When the acronym A. I. D. S. came out of his mouth those four little letters clanged and scattered around in my brain making the sound the ten- pins made when the grim reaper’s bowing ball scored his full hit. I kept trying to remember what they stood for as if that knowledge would somehow make sense. Acquired! Immune! Deficiency! Syndrome!

I went up to the hospital that night and found Mike a gaunt, dull-eyed, pale, diminished version of himself. He was a handsome bloke with his tough-nut build, bronze-red Celtic hair and short beard and blue Irish eyes. The first thing he said to me was, ‘What do you think of Ken Done Kath?’ ‘Not much,’ I replied and then I noticed the only thing in the room, apart from the medical necessities and his tiny silent mother slumped in the corner chair, was a large, ugly Ken Done print in front of Mike’s bed. Right at eye level; he’d have to look at it all day. This sarcastic Ken Done crack cheered me up a bit and I thought, ‘On ya Mikey! You’re still there behind those sick eyes.’ But the word ‘deadpan’ kept repeating itself in my head.

One thing I had learnt from Mike was a lot about lived aesthetics as opposed to style. He had his own practical and finely honed aesthetic. He was the one who explained Japanese wabi-sabi to me – the heightening of perfection through deliberate imperfection. This aesthetic sensibility informed every aspect of his life. His house, his food, his fashion sense, his car, his dog, his pottery.

The house he eventually bought was a tiny, un-renovated worker’s cottage in a semi-industrial suburb; a house I loved. It was so perfectly Mike. Straight o the street you walked into a ‘lounge’ with a rudimentary fireplace, two wooden boxes for seats and another larger box for a table. Off the ‘lounge’ was a bedroom with a camp bed and another wooden box for a bedside table. The floors were cool dirt that had been tamped to a hard shine by decades of heavy workmen’s boots. Behind these two rooms was a kitchen-of-sorts, another bedroom-of-sorts where his mother, Elsie, slept and a bit of a lean-to bathroom and out in the backyard a couple of jerry-built sheds he used as workrooms and his kiln. Food – dinner at Mike’s was a couple of chops on the open fireplace, potatoes roasted in the coals eaten o enamel plates and a couple of stubbies of Toohey’s Old and it was bloody good. He always wore a flannelette shirt over a t-shirt and jeans. He drove a metallic green ute and his red kelpie usually rode in the tray.

He’d built this huge kiln in his backyard as he planned to construct twelve giant heads – Conehead, Prawnhead, Boofhead, Dickhead, Meathead, Dunderhead, Revhead, Bonehead, Smackhead, Dopehead, Shithead, Fuckhead. Before he died he’d made two or three and they were magnificent, like something out of Mesopotamia. He gave me a small test head, which I treasure and often fill his sconce with flowers. Thanks Mike!

The other things I remember about that first night when I visited him in hospital were his deadpan comments when the food tray arrived and what he said about his mother. He sat looking at the food tray for a while and then said, ‘You know the best thing about hospital food Kath? That cover’s too heavy to lift up.’ So the food just sat there. His introduction to his mother was, ‘And there’s Death sitting over in the corner.’ But that frail old broken wisp of a woman kept him alive for years I reckon. She lived with him until he died and made sure he ate properly and was the one who rang the ambulance the times he got really bad.

Mike’s bitterness towards her stemmed from the fact that she and his father had been serious alcoholics. One of the only things he ever told me about his childhood was that he remembered always being tired because he’d make himself stay awake until they fell asleep in their alcoholic stupors and then he’d go and turn off the heater. He was always afraid they’d burn the house down. He also told me a bit about their stories. They’d fallen in love, much to the horror of both their parents, his father’s were Irish Catholic and his mother’s Protestant. In those days it was universally condemned as a ‘mixed marriage’. I can remember my father, who was from Irish Protestant stock, forbidding me to play with ‘those Papist idolaters over the road’. Of course this exciting, exotic description sent me scooting over.

Mike’s parents married and escaped the situation by his father getting a job on the Snowy Mountain Hydroelectric Scheme. I think they lived in Tumut − Gateway to the Snowy. His mother, Elsie, had been a brilliant pianist in her teens but after some kind of breakdown the doctor told her parents that she was too nervy. He advised them to sell the piano and never let her play again.

The progression of Mike’s illness is exemplary of those early years. That tricky virus would go underground for a while and he’d be as right as rain and then suddenly his t-cell count would drop and he’d be at death’s door. He began seeing a brilliant gp at the new AIDS Clinic in Oxford Street. His gp was one of the first to trial the cocktail of drugs and vitamin injections and we watched his t-cell count soar to near-normal. Things were looking up and we even had a bit of hope. But nope! One afternoon when he was at the Clinic having his vitamin injection his gp, who was a leather-queen pethidine addict, went into a pethidine coma just as he was injecting Mike in the bum. Although Mike made us laugh every time he told the story – dacks down, bum in the air, fat Leather-Queen checking out his arse – Mike’s health took a downturn and he took a long time to recover.

The next crisis says much about Mike and the kind of bloke he was. As he was driving his ute down City Road one afternoon the old bloke in the car in front had a heart attack, swerved all over the road, and Mike crashed into him. The ute was a write-off and Mike lay broken and bleeding on City Road. As he went in and out of consciousness, he kept waving the ambos away telling them not to touch him because he had AIDS. And he had a lot of aggravation while he was in hospital recovering because no one from the towing companies wanted to tow the ute because of the AIDS blood. That AIDS blood! He was also terribly upset because his sister and her husband wouldn’t visit him or let their kids visit him in hospital such was the fear in those days about AIDS and how contagious it was.

After the accident he never really got his strength back and the usual up and down in health, the in and out of hospital became the norm until I got a call from Elsie to say he was in Prince Henry in bad shape. When I visited him I could see just how bad – skeletal and covered in Kaposi’s − but he was upbeat saying the doctors were going to try some new medication on him. It just didn’t seem like a good idea to me, given all the painful and invasive medical interventions he’d already endured and I gingerly asked if he was sure that was what he wanted. I was kind of pleased to see that Mike was as stubborn as ever because he arced up angrily and told me in no uncertain terms to mind my own fucking business.

As we were talking a group of white coats came clanging into the ward pushing an evil-looking metal trolley that was covered in instruments and medical paraphernalia. Before they arrived his nurse pushed me away, drew the curtains around his bed and I could hear her talking to Mike in intense, worried whispers. And then I left.

I worried about him all night and had nightmares about the metal trolley. When I went up the next night his bed was empty and I had a bit of a panic until the nurse saw me, took me aside and told me he’d been moved upstairs to the hospice. I asked her if he’d begun the new treatment and she whispered that she’d had to tell him that the new treatment was experimental and painful and that it had no benefits as far as she could see and that it might extend his life for a few months max but they’d be extremely painful months. Mike made the decision not to go ahead with the treatment. I will always love that compassionate, courageous nurse who risked her job for Mike. Blessings be upon you darling!

So, he’s upstairs seriously ill; well, terminally ill, receiving palliative care and at ease with his decision. I visit him most nights after work, taking the bus from the city all the way out to Little Bay Terminus and gloomy, looming Prince Henry. The bus takes ages as it passes through Maroubra, passes Long Bay Gaol; it’s a grim trip getting there. Mike introduces me to his night nurse with, ‘This is my friend Kathleen. She’s just published a book of lesbian erotica.’ Thanks Mike! He asks her for a piss bottle and when I get up to give him privacy, he says, ‘Scared of a bit of AIDS piss are you?’ So I sit back down on the bed and watch him fumble weakly with his bedclothes and his pjs and his dick until he finally, awkwardly, does his business while I most deliberately watch the whole process. But just as he does his final shake he drops the bottle and everything, including me, is splashed and sploshed with the AIDS piss. Thanks again Mike!

About a week into the hospice life he says he’s over the whole thing and will I help him out. I know what he wants and I have no idea how to help him out but I say, ‘Sure Mike. I’ll see what I can do.’ Taking the bus back to the city I feel totally ine ectual, useless. I have no fucking idea what to do. All I can think of is an overdose of heroin but I don’t know where to get it or how to inject it. When I finally get home I remember I know a bloke who works at the AIDS Clinic and who might be able to help me. I ring him and explain the situation. He’s totally ofay with such requests and says he’ll send one of the doctors from the clinic over to the hospice the following night to discuss the situation.

That’s how it was then, Death everywhere, simply and easily requested, no questions asked.

And there’s this Angel of Death gp, all gorgeous golden-red curls, beside Mike’s bed the next night. He could have been Mike’s younger brother but from where I’m standing he’s more like Mike’s Guardian Angel. He’s flicking through this book and reading passages out to Mike. ‘What about this one? How does this sound? I can get you the pills but you’d need someone to hold the plastic bag over your head for about ten minutes while they take e ect.’ They both look at me expectantly. Mike’s got that are-ya-game look he’s challenged me with so often and I’ve responded to so often. ‘Sure,’ I say,

‘Why not! I’ll give it a go. Sure!’ This goes on for some time. They’re like excited boys discussing a Matchbox Toy catalogue or Michelin Star chefs deciding on a new recipe. They’re reading a book that’s just been smuggled in from the usa on ways to kill yourself. I leave to get back on that bloody bus again, winding and wending its way through all those ugly, depressing dark suburbs. I’m all shaky and confused. I’ve got to go to a birthday party so when I get home I change and drive there. As I’m stopping at a red light some guy runs out, hits my car, bounces o the bonnet and runs o into the night. Jesus! This should have been a warning to turn around and go back home but I persist.

If I say I’ll do something I do it. If I say I’ll be there I’ll be there. Once I start something I finish it. I never give up. I never say die.

At the party I drink way too much, end up abusing everyone. I clear the house. Even the birthday girl who lives there leaves with her girlfriend. I’m left in an empty house, sorting through the menu – barbiturates, opioids, plastic bags, Nembutal, flu y pillows, ten packets of Panadol, dying with dignity, self-deliverance, euthanasia, mercy killing, handcuffs, police, judge, Long Bay Gaol, Silverwater Women’s Prison, Silverwater…

Thanks Mike!

Before I go in to Mike’s room the following night I have a word with his night nurse and ask her how his day has been. She’s one cluey woman and maybe has some inkling of what’s going on. She’s probably seen it all before. She carefully explains the doctors’ Hippocratic Oath and the pain/death threshold juggle they adhere to which allows them to alleviate extreme pain with high doses of morphine and if the dosage ends the patient’s life well that’s palliative care. She tells me it will only be a day or two for Mike as the dosage of morphine is reaching the lethal level.

He was pretty well out of it that night but he had moments of clarity when he was the same old Mike. As I got up to leave he knew and I knew it was probably the last time we’d see each other. Who knows what to say in this situation? He was so no-nonsense, so critical of anything even vaguely smelling of cliché or sentimentality. He said, ‘I’ll be just a hygiene problem soon Kath.’ I just sort of nodded and wanted to look away but, knowing Mike, I kept eye contact, giving him that, at least. As I left…I wanted to leave so badly…I wanted to stay all night…but as I went to leave, as I stood at the door, I looked back, ‘Bye Mike, see ya.’ He said…wanted to say something…maybe had wanted to say something for a long time…but there was no place in our relationship for sweet talk only banter and years and years of subtext. Sitting up straight in bed, he said, ‘You’re a nice girl Kath.’ Daring me to look away…daring me to tell a dying man to fuck off …which is what he knew I’d usually say in the game our relationship demanded. I let him down. Did I let him down by not saying it? He knew I wanted to. I could see the desperation in his challenge, the longing for life. I just grimaced slightly, smiled half-heartedly and walked out the door.

Such compliments! On that miserable bus trip back to the city I kept remembering another such compliment, the only compliment my father had ever given me. ‘At least you’ve always got clean ears! At least you’ve always got clean ears.’ You have to laugh at our emotional poverty, don’t you?

Mike died that night. The morphine had finally been upped to critical levels and ‘He went peacefully in his sleep,’ the nurse who rang me said. I didn’t believe it. He might have looked peaceful but who knows what was tearing away inside him, that man with nine lives. At the funeral some of his friends were very angry with me for not telling them how sick he was – he’d sworn me to secrecy but they didn’t believe me.

After all these decades these are my memories and when I push the play button to see more the dvd gets stuck on those few images. There’s one more that gets stuck and I can’t even imagine what it means or what might have followed. One night, years before his AIDS diagnosis, we got seriously stoned at his place. It was winter and we were lying in front of his open fire when out of the blue he reached over and kissed me hard and properly right on the mouth. Fight? Flight? Freeze? I froze and then I fled deep into my panic room. It was only ever mentioned once and that was Mick saying, next time we met, that I’d misunderstood the situation. What was to misunderstand? I know a kiss when I get one. Again, thanks Mike! Left with so many questions, options, missed opportunities…love ya Mike, just love ya.

That awkward, shy, obtuse Australian way, skirting intimacy, eschewing too much emotional connection, like primary school kids in a school yard. I guess Mike and I had met our match with each other, our match in emotional control, sexual awkwardness, creativity, stubborn refusals, sly passive aggression, shyness, wiggle room, loneliness, wit, aesthetic appreciation, truncated desire, bad choices in lovers, reticence, refusals, jealously guarded privacy – inarticulate, distracted and distracting. Living against the grain, cutting our cloth on the bias, making things hard for ourselves, smoke and mirrors… forever playing smoke-and-mirror silly buggers.

I wanted to maintain Mike’s good opinion of me so I played his game, our game, right to the end.

This is an extract from A fixed place by Kathleen Mary Fallon, published this month by UWAP. Details here.