Tuesday, November 17, 2009


It all started with the wake we had for Singing Jim. The greatest shearer’s cook who ever stoked a brick oven. Jim ended up in an old men’s home but just beforehe did he passed on to his best mate a gold watch that he’d secretly kept through all his ups and downs. In earlier times he went without rather than sell it. He wanted to die leaving enough to finance a wake for his mates. So that’s what we did. Pawned the watch, put the funeral notice in the paper in big type inviting his old mates. Of course we mentioned there was a wake to follow. And what a wake it was.
Cooks are important to a man who’s working hard. And many of us could remember walking back to the huts after a hard day’s work at the shed. First we’d hear Jim singing an Irish air with a lilt that would charm the Gestapo. Then next we’d smell the tucker wafting up towards us bringing on a hunger that chased away our weariness. And out of the oven he’d produce legs of mutton that he’d turned into turkey. And they’d be of a colour that would have you think they’d been painted by an old master.
Well, we did his memory proud. We drank his health enough to have breathed life back into him. We reminisced about his skills in the kitchen. The way he plattered the sausages. The way he cut lambs fry so thin. His cream horns and meat pies. And the way someone would have to stand with a wet chaff bag ready to toss it over the sponge cake when he took it from the oven just in case it floated away.
Well, when I woke from the wake I had a taste in my mouth as if I’d been licking a dog’s backside, listless and weak my body felt as though I had been squeezed through a mangle.
The living must live, so I got up and dragged myself into the ant heap where we make the rent.
Late in the day, still feeling the worse for wear, I passed a shop occupied by a Chinese herbalist. Hang on, I thought. I’ve heard about the wonderful healing secrets of the East. So I went in.
Two slight Chinese lads were busily dispensing and weighing an unbelievable variety of herbs and barks and nuts and dried things. They looked at me through the scales that each held in his hand.
Pointing to the cabinet of a thousand compartments from which they were taking their ingredients I said, “Any one of those drawers have something to fix a crook liver?”
Now an old mate of mine once told me that the only cure for a dickie liver was death. However it was worth a try.
“You will have to see the herbalist,” was the reply from the dispensing assistants.
“No. I thought I’d just see if you had a berry I could suck or a bit of bark I could chew that would fix up the old bile bag.”
“You will have to see the herbalist.”
Well I paid my ten dollars and was taken around the back of the cabinet and given a seat. I waited for the herbalist. Eventually the door of the small consulting room opened and he farewelled his previous patient, who was a rather attractive European lady, which increased my confidence. He stood there, not much more than a shadow, he had a face which was a grill of stained teeth flashing a bit of gold. And in front of his face he held a cigarette. Not the way we hold a cigarette between the V of our fingers, but resting on all of his fingers as if it was a blow pipe instead of something you draw on. He took a puff, gave me a toothy smile and beckoned me towards the consulting room. As I rose he burst into the most convulsive fit of coughing, so much I feared for his life. But without any embarrassment he followed me into the room and sat me down, and then sat himself down on the other side of the desk. The coughing was coming to an end.
“There goes one of his lungs,” went through my mind. He was regaining his composure and after stubbing out the cigarette he began mopping his face of teeth. Putting the handkerchief away, he looked at me and asked in faulty English what was my trouble.
My trouble? I thought. What was I doing sitting in front of this frail little man, his size and shape that of a consumptive young girl? I fully expected him to be taken away by the first germ to enter the room. What’s my trouble? Well, here goes.
“I drink too much, and I’d like something to fix my liver.”
There was a moment’s silence before he pulled out a drawer in front of him and from it placed the smallest white linen pillow on the desk. He reacted without speaking by indicating that he wanted me to unbutton my shirt cuff, roll up my sleeve and pass my hand to him across the desk. He then rested my hand on the pillow and with what seemed like a couple of feathers but turned out to be his thumb and forefinger he felt for a pulse at the base of my thumb.
In complete silence, he concentrated. I thought I would bide my time looking around the room. The walls were hung with anatomical illustrations one after the other displaying a section of the human body. The colours were so vivid that one’s first instinct was to get a towel and wipe up the blood. The section hanging in front of me detailed the man’s head. The skin torn from the side of his face – his eyes were about to leave their sockets, his mouth was wide open and his tongue was so far out that it looked like his last cry for help. Out of the corner of my eye I tried to find the section for the lower part of his body to see if someone had hold of his balls. And still the little medico was listening to my pulse. Christ, it must be at least five minutes he had been listening. Six minutes, seven minutes, eight minutes, silent and motionless as though we weren’t there. Me with my arm across the desk and he joined to me through his fingers. Then within me I felt building the need to break wind. But I thought to myself, if I fart now I’ll kill him.
But still he didn’t move. Nine minutes and he had me risking serious injury holding on to what seemed like a southerly bluster. Ten minutes and he lifted his head and let my hand go. Thank Christ, I thought, at the same time cautiously deflating what thankfully turned out to be a fizzer. I rolled my sleeve down and was buttoning the cuff when he indicated that he needed the other hand. Holy mackrell, not again.
However, ten minutes later he seemed to be finished with me. Hadn’t done any of the usual doctor things. No sign of a stethoscope, didn’t ask me to open my mouth and say Ah, hadn’t even felt at my liver. I was hoping he hadn’t misunderstood me and thought that I had a sore thumb.
Well, into the drawer in front of him went the little cushion and out of a drawer to his side came a small pad and pen. Holding the pen upright, not slanted like we do, he proceeded to draw a column of characters down the page. Then he started at the top and drew another column to fill the page. What meticulous people these little Orientals are. He gazed at what he had written for some time. Then very deliberately he added a stroke to this character and a wiggle to that. Finally he lifted his head and turning the pad around to face me said to me in faltering English that he would explain the treatment.
I was to take the script to the boys at the counter and they would make up three identical parcels of ingredients following the instructions he had written. I was also to buy a stone pot from the shop. When I got home with the parcels and the pot I was to put the contents of the first parcel in the pot, fill it with water and boil it until there was only a third left. I was to drain off the juice and drink it. The next night I was to fill it up again, boil it down and drain it off and drink it, and the same again the third night. After three boilings I was to chuck that lot out and start on the next parcel. Nine days’ treatment in all.
Then with a look of concentration that would turn your hair grey, he put his hand on mine as if to reinforce what he was to say.
“And while you are on the treatment, you are not to drink anything cold.”
Numbed from that, I made my way around to the counter-come-dispensary. A little Chinese lady had arrived just before me with a script to be repeated. The two young men behind the counter took a script each and set about supplying medications.
Now any thoughts I had about the characters on the script being meaningless were soon dispelled. Each of us got three parcels but what went onto her piles were quite different from what went onto mine. They were of all colours and textures. Each handful of fresh material was weighed out one, two, three, into equal amounts and tipped onto each bundle. I was just beginning to wonder whose mixtures, the old woman’s or mine, was the more intereting when suddenly her piles were topped with what seemed to be a good measure of dried cockroaches. Holy Moses, I thought, looking at the old woman, I’m glad I’m not as sick as you. The smile was soon wiped off my face because I copped a handful of what looked like dried wombat shit.
After parting with far more money than I had intended, I left the shop with three of the prettiest neat parcels you’ve ever seen, and a Chinese stone pot with a spout and handle and a lid. I was still deeply concerned about that last handful but I thought I’d better give the treatment a go. I was told that the best plan was to put the pot on a low heat and let it simmer all night.
Well, it simmered while I slept but when I woke I thought I was having a bad dream. (Had I spent the night sleeping at the rubbish tip?) It seemed to me that I was trapped inside the carcass of a dead whale. The house was full of the most dreadful stink. Hell!!, the canary, I thought. I was out of bed in a flash to find it gasping for breath on the floor of its cage. I rushed it outside and hung it on its daytime hook. Its eyes popped open as soon as the first fresh air hit its beak. I rushed back into the house and turned off the heat. Opened all the windows and doors. Gave the goldfish a scrub under the kitchen tap and changed the murky soup in which they’d spent the night with fresh water.
Back to the stove. I lifted the pot and there was this thick, black, pungent essence lurking at the bottom of the bowl, an occasional bubble being the only sign of life. And this was what I had to drink to bring my liver back to normal.
Well, if it had to be then it had to be. So with that I strained off a glass of the juice. It was still too hot to drink. So while it was cooling I added fresh water to what was left in the pot, ready for it to be rendered down again as soon as the sun set.
I’ve never been adventurous with food. Snails, goat, shark fins or eyes are things I don’t have close by when I am eating. Even those cheeses so prized by the gourmet which don’t seen to me to have come back from being putrid won’t get past my nose. So to drink this boiled-down soup of every stunted tree and bush from the East was like facing a bayonet charge for me. Well, I held my nose and gulped it down.
God, as I drew breath after swallowing I had a taste in my mouth like a harlot’s flank. I rushed to the tap to get some water to wash the taste out of my mouth. But with the Chinaman’s warning a-ringing came to my ears, “You’re not to drink anything cold.”
God, another nine days of this. I’d better get someone to mind the bird and the fish. Well, things can never be that bad that they don’t come to an end. I never thought I would see out the nine days of warm muck and with never a cold drink to touch my lips. Mind you anything I ate during that time tasted as if it had been soaked in the vats at the local tannery. At the end of the ten days I threw out the pot. Then the walls were washed down. The family gradually came back to the house again. I had the bird and fish returned. More important, I did feel better. Gone were the hangovers, the early morning shakes, the aching limbs, the swollen liver and the bloodshot eyes. Yes. The little man was a genius. I wanted to tell someone of the miraculous cure and where best to find a sympathetic ear? The corner pub. It was early so the audience was thin and the barmaid was too busy cleaning glasses to listen.
I preached with an evangelistic zeal of the miraculous cure of drinking nothing but liquid manure for nine days. I was so pleased with myself, but then I was interrupted by an old regular who I knew had sat on the same seat for ten years with no other diet but beer sandwiches.
“You dopey bastard, don’t you realise that sly Chinaman just got you to lay off the slops for nine days? If I did that I would be fit to start working again.”
The barmaid said, “Well, do you want a beer?”
“Yes, give me a pint.”
“Where have you been?” asked the publican as he came to the bar.
“Don’t ask him,” said the barmaid.
“Well, don’t disappear again,” said the publican. “I’ll go broke if I lose a drinker like you.”
I have saved money, I thought to myself. And then there was the pint the barmaid had put in front of me. It had that friendly colour about it. A couple of bubbles winked at me over the brim. No holding my nose as I drank it into me and as I drew a breath memories flooded in from the last session I had. Singing Jim’s Wake.
I drained the glass and put it back on the bar.
“I’ll be off, then.”
As I went out through the bar door, I felt the money in my pocket and thought to myself, before I’m tempted to drink my pocket dry I’ll first duck down and redeem Old Singing Jim’s watch.

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