Uncle stranger

They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.

—Philip Larkin


[Information about the David Williams Fund, where contributions can be made to assist people living with HIV.]

• This story belongs to another writer, a man who kept a computer record of many months he spent on the 'care team' that provided support services to a man with AIDS. The original document is about 30,000 words in length. It is partly a straightforward diary, but several of the long entries are in fact letters written to another person, also a member of the care team, who wished to remain informed of the team's efforts after he left to work overseas.
• This story belongs to another writer, a man who kept, in the late 1980s, a computer record of many months he spent on the ‘care team’ that provided support services to a man with AIDS. The original document is about 30,000 words in length. It is partly a straightforward diary, but several of the long entries are in fact letters written to another person, also a member of the care team, who wished to remain informed of the team’s efforts after he left to work overseas.

P enters the room. She’s a big woman, a bit fat, and she dresses like a tart. She married young, probably because that is what young people with no education and no future tend to do. Her parents didn’t do good by her, and she is not going to do any better for her kids. At least that’s the way it looks like turning out.

She has two kids, and her husband has AIDS. The husband is in the next room, gasping for air, coughing up blood. He will die soon enough, and she will still have two kids to take care of. Naturally she’s very pissed off, and very scared.

The husband got infected by the virus that causes AIDS when he was fucked by a man in a sauna. He liked having sex with men and women, but will only admit to liking sex with women. The men who fucked him were faggots, worthless. He’s a married man, after all, quite normal, and not one of them. Married men are not supposed to get AIDS. That is what is happening. Naturally he’s very pissed off about this, and he’s very scared. He knows he is going to die. Though he has heard there are people who are ‘living with AIDS’, it feels like he is dying.

P enters the room. The place is a mess, though it’s not quite as bad inside as it is outside. (Someone has been pissing in the elevator.) Eve was just showing me a book that Douglas left for her to read. Eve looks up at her mother and knows that it is all going to start again. I feel like I should be able to explain to her what is really happening. “Your mother is angry and has to blame someone. I will be here for you.” But I am not sure I will be here for her; not always, anyway. —Next week, certainly. For a while yet. But not always.

There she is, though, coming in again to give Eve another serve. Bitch.
“You little bitch! You fucking little bitch! Didn’t I tell you to clean up your stuff out of here? Can’t you help me at all? What are you trying to do? Kill your father!?”

When I go home I can put on a record, anything by Mozart, and life comes back into balance. In the Commission flats little Eve is still in hell.

Dear Morris,

I don’t really want to make you feel guilty about having to leave the team as soon as it was established-these things happen-but we are already feeling the strain of not having a co-ordinator who can co-ordinate us. The team they put together for M is already breaking up. At the area meeting tonight [Support services of the AIDS Council are divided into geographical ‘area groups’ relative to the city—North, South and so on. Larger groups are subdivided again, to make meetings and organisation manageable.] several new people who had just finished basic training were told they would be needed to stand in. M’s wife is very choosy. No gays, she says, which makes it a bit difficult. Who can remember everything they’ve done with their dick in the last five years? Does just thinking about something bent count? Lord, she is hard. She hasn’t got her way completely. Two of the team are gay, and four straight. 

Another briefing and discussion on Saturday. M’s wife is very strong-willed and wants to be in control of everything. Fair enough, perhaps. Her house. Her family. Her husband! It is not her death, however, and I am concerned about her always being between the team and M. The new co-ordinator, Henry, tells us we’re not to become emotionally involved. OK. Heard that advice before. M is not the average client. He’s married, for starters. Two children. They live in a Carlton Housing Commission place. His eyesight is poor, and this may get worse, of course. Oh, lord, and there is lots else to worry about. I cannot believe some of the things that are happening in that place.

The kids are in a real mess. I cannot believe how little support they are getting. I haven’t quite sorted out what can be done about it.

Though relations with P’s mother and sisters seem mostly normal, I’m told that M’s mother, who tried to extract a promise never to tell anyone of M’s true condition—a promise quickly broken because no one believed it was leukemia anyway—rarely contacts him, and I suppose that there is some conflict there. I gather she has feelings of guilt about M’s sight impairment, an odd thing to feel guilty about since it wasn’t her fault. She didn’t like him wearing his thick glasses any more than he likes wearing them. They only get in the way of showing his handsome face. (Actually, it is rather comical to think of M in a sauna, with or without his glasses, totally helpless, not knowing what he was grabbing on to!) Is M’s father better or worse, learning of the diagnosis and packing his bags, without saying anything, and going bush? He has visited his son once, a big step no doubt, but I know nothing about what happened when they were together.

M has two brothers, one an alcoholic in a de facto relationship, and the other openly gay and in no relationship at all (as far as the family knows). Yes, that means it is a family with every known kind—straight, bi, and gay. M is candidly admiring of his gay brother, which only makes the hostility to his own one-night stands even less comprehensible.

Deirdre has been off really ill with flu. Douglas has been stricken with it, too, along with half of his Army Reserve mates. Fairfield (as well as other hospitals) is filling up quickly with victims. Consequently there have been problems providing people for the roster, and I was feeling guilty about being on leave for a week. But P is down with flu, as well, apparently not too badly, and she is at home, so I feel all right about taking my time off. She can call if she wants anything, and I know she will. M has spent the last few days in Ward 4 being pumped full of Bactrim, and this seems to have warded off his fourth attack of pneumocystis, but I don’t think he is going to survive this winter. The decline is becoming obvious. He has lost several kilos in the last three weeks and has decided to cease all medication. It can’t be long now. At least, I hope it won’t be long. I don’t feel guilty about saying that any more …

Love,
Jim

P telephones Deirdre to ask if she will go out with her to the pub in Rathdowne Street. Deirdre hasn’t the heart to say no, though she loathes the place. P telephones Deirdre to ask if she will take her and Eve to the market Saturday mornings or to other places for shopping on Friday nights. P telephones Deirdre just to talk, for an hour or more, at least weekly. Same with me. I’ll get a call late at night asking me to come over. It’s an hour-long return trip for me. I am expected to be present when M’s brother is told the truth about the illness. I don’t know whether to think this is fair or not: since my brother died of AIDS, and they know this, I suppose they felt it would be easier with me around. I am counsellor and surrogate father as well as home help. The next day I take Eve to the dentist and then to school. The next day I am several hours with M after his father had rung to interrogate him about his sexual preferences.

• Discussions long after these events led members of this care team to draw up a list of recommendations, the first of which was that there should always be a contract drawn up between the AIDS Council and the client (or client group-all those significant others attached to the client and with whom the team may have to relate in the care situation). This contract should be drawn up at initial assessment and should be based on assessment of the client's and client group's needs and a realistic appraisal of how many of those needs can be met by the care team. The contract would also serve to protect the team from demands they could not anticipate.
• Discussions long after these events led members of this care team to draw up a list of recommendations, the first of which was that there should always be a contract drawn up between the AIDS Council and the client (or client group-all those significant others attached to the client and with whom the team may have to relate in the care situation). This contract should be drawn up at initial assessment and should be based on assessment of the client’s and client group’s needs and a realistic appraisal of how many of those needs can be met by the care team. The contract would also serve to protect the team from demands they could not anticipate.

Dear Morris,

… your holiday. Deirdre is desperately in need of one. Those of us remaining are all headed that way, but Deirdre especially because, as you know, she was involved with ‘Themselves’ (as we have come to call them) since long before the team was formed. Marg and Chris (I think they joined the team after you—did you meet them?) want to come, too, if only to escape M’s silences—it is really remarkable how little he reveals of himself, especially now, when you’d think that he would stand to lose nothing and gain everything from opening up a bit. It is really a kind of torture.

-For us. I’ve just had the thought that maybe he is coping a lot better than we are. Maybe he’s the only one who’s really got a handle on the situation? We’ll never know if we’re waiting for him to tell us.

Though Douglas has only visited Themselves a couple of afternoons, he, too, has started to become worried about the way P is treating the kids. I can’t sort that out now—I’m too tired. Deirdre and I are each spending about 20 hours a week with Themselves, and that’s plain bloody ridiculous. The area group leader says there is no one else available to lighten the load.
Thinking about joining you.

Love,
Jim

“Hello, Henry. This is Jim. How are you?”

“Well, thanks. Busy, of course. And you?”

“Got a few hours to spare? It would take that long.”

“I know it’s been hard. We’re all… we’re all that way now.”

“We could really do with an extra person on the team. A few have dropped out, you know—effectively dropped out. They’re just not turning up to do their bit.”

“I’m sorry, Jim, there isn’t anyone else at the moment, but I know your problems. Hold on for a while longer and we’ll see what we can do.”

“You know Adam has left the team, too, after his mother died. I don’t blame him for that. He wasn’t up to it any more.”

“Yes. I heard. It’s sad.”

“P is calling on Deirdre and me all the time for all sorts of things. The family is really up the creek.”

“P isn’t your client. You have to get that straight with her. M is your client, not the whole family.”

“Oh, come on Henry! You’ve got to be kidding. You know this is a special case…”

“Look, what do you expect me to do? You’re on the team. I’ve warned you before not to get involved emotionally. I’ve got seven teams to co-ordinate and they’ve all got problems.”

“You have not given us any such warning, and what sort of remark is that, anyway? How can we not get involved?”

“You’re not taking on the whole family!”

“How do we manage that?”

“I’ve been telling you since last November that…”

“November? I’ve been on the team since January twenty-eight. What’s this about November?”

“I’ve been telling you since … ”

• The AIDS Council does not restrict its support programme to gay men. Increasingly, support teams are needed for clients who are bisexual, or married, or intravenous drug users, or teenagers (at around the same time as these events took place, the AIDS Council's newest client was a twelve year old child). •However, the care team (the two members of it the client's family allowed to provide assistance to them) came to believe that the AIDS Council's attitude to the families of clients was inadequate because it was based on the model of clients as gay men. That is, it is clearly easier to maintain the view that a team supports a single person with AIDS when the client has no wife and children.
• The AIDS Council does not restrict its support programme to gay men. Increasingly, support teams are needed for clients who are bisexual, or married, or intravenous drug users, or teenagers (at around the same time as these events took place, the AIDS Council’s newest client was a twelve year old child). • However, the care team (the two members of it the client’s family allowed to provide assistance to them) came to believe that the AIDS Council’s attitude to the families of clients was inadequate because it was based on the model of clients as gay men. That is, it is clearly easier to maintain the view that a team supports a single person with AIDS when the client has no wife and children.

“Who have you been telling? I’m sorry, but I don’t remember hearing anything from you, unless we count what is said about the team behind our backs at area group meetings.”

“Nothing is said behind your backs. You’re supposed to be at those meetings.”

“Deirdre and I have got no time or energy for all the meetings when we’re with our clients all week…”

“Client.”

“What?”

“Client. You have one client.”

“We’ve got four clients, two adults and two children, and the rest of their family.”

“You’ve got one client.”

“Oh, this is ridiculous. We’re not getting anywhere.”

Dear Morris,

… I don’t think I like what the whole episode told me about myself. I like even less what it told me about some other people. It’s done now, anyway.

Both Adam and Henry have resigned. Did you hear what happened to Adam? It’s terrible. He went to one of those weekend things for team leaders-rest, recreation, and getting stuff off your chest about how things get done, or don’t get done, as the case may be-and had a good time. When he got back home he found his mother dead. We have all tried to console him. He can’t stay any longer.

There’s something about this, about the way it happened, that hits at the rest of us. Deirdre asks me whether any of us still have a life of our own, whether we realise that our own lives have to keep going on-knowing that the answer to both questions is no.

Now I am going to have to swallow at least a few of the bad things I’ve said about Henry, because before he left he arranged with the new area co-ordinator to have a new person—Mark—put on the team as a ‘carer for the carers’. This is a good move …

Anyway, I hope you get the feeling that I think this is great. I’ve spoken to Mark several times already and feel a lot better for it …

I have only gotten half way through a planned two weeks’ rest from the team, and the urge to return has beaten me. Something to do with the weather. Violent gales, freezing mornings and rain all week. P has the flu (so do two of the team) and her children are home. I have put a casserole in the oven and called to say I will be over to take the children to a movie for the afternoon. No protest. They are always in need of relief.

… picking up my report a week later, M has deteriorated quickly under the influence of a worsening chest infection. He slept through my visit, workmen banging in the flat above him, and the television on full blast. Nothing seemed to wake him except his own coughing, and perhaps he can do that in his sleep.

I feel we should be keeping a team journal that we could pass on to the Council’s training people. The training of new volunteers is going to have to come to terms with the increasing number of married people in need of care. You learn a lot in the support training, but almost nothing about the kinds of things we have had to do—which is, basically, how to keep a family together and safe when it is suddenly without a father. … They’re on the eleventh floor up there. All the balconies have been closed up to stop people jumping off and messing the footpath. When I arrived I discovered one of the glass panes of the balcony outside Themselves’ flat had been smashed, and there were slivers of glass almost the entire length of the walkway. It had been left like that for two days. I cleaned it up. I really get sick and tired of being told that this has nothing to do with caring for the patient. It has everything to do with him …

Jim

• Several months after M's death Jim was amazed, reading his own journal, at how positively he reacted to Henry's initiative. —But his lasting impression was bitter:
• Several months after M’s death Jim was amazed, reading his own journal, at how positively he reacted to Henry’s initiative. —But his lasting impression was bitter: “Though the AIDS Council and the area group were notified within hours of M’s death, no one has yet called anyone on the care team to ask if we are OK. The neglect of the carers has been monumental.” • Entries in the journal are not dated. For the period between August 1988 and January 1989 there are no entries at all, an effect of the deepening sense of crisis in the team and distrust of the AIDS Council’s ability to act on information being presented to it. • In particular there was the question of what to do about P’s abuse of Eve. There seem to have been several reasons for the AIDS Council’s intransigence on this matter. First, those on the team and some people in the area group differed on the question of whether care for the client’s family was part of the care of the client. Jim was told at one meeting of the area group, “I’m sick to death hearing about P. What about the client? He’s the one that’s dying.” Secondly, professional psychological support from the AIDS Council was completely inadequate. Jim’s requests for help had no effect; some of his letters to Morris are nothing more than catalogues of unreturned telephone calls and cancelled meetings. Thirdly, there was the problem of confidentiality. Jim and Deirdre seriously considered reporting the case to the Child Protection Unit of Community Services, but knew that if they did this they would have to resign from the team and from the AIDS Council. • And there was P herself, a person whose largeness of character, vulgarity, sexuality, strengths and weaknesses, mocked the idea that care services might be delivered to her husband without in every way referring to her. It is remarkable how little of M and how much of P there is in the journal, and how ill-prepared the team was to deal with husband and wife-which is clearly what was needed. • Talking about P, Jim referred constantly to the ‘women’s issues’ that the AIDS Council, and the community, failed to acknowledge. “Who does a ‘respectable woman in the suburbs’ have to turn to when her husband contracts AIDS? A gay man has the gay community. A woman whose husband gets the virus in a ‘respectable’ way—through transfusion—isn’t so isolated.” If Jim’s diary is sometimes cruel in its depiction of P, it should be remembered that he understood and acknowledged, before everyone else, how much she cared for her husband. • The excerpts that follow show something of P’s urgent, and normal, need of love.

… P and M first met Hans in hospital when M was in there for a dose of Bactrim and rest and Hans was visiting his lover. Hans’s lover has since died. Hans is very handsome and fit and tall and blue-eyed, oozing sexuality. P is very attracted to him, and cannot hide the fact (not that she wants to), even from her husband. I can see the reason for the animal attraction, but don’t know why P falls for men whose preferences do not favour her more clearly. What is she looking for? M is naturally very angry with P’s performance with Hans; or perhaps it is straightforward jealousy? … M is feeling well enough to go out, so Deirdre and I drive the three of them, M, P and Hans, to a pub where there’s a band playing. Deirdre and I leave to go off by ourselves, finding somewhere quiet to get pissed (which I believe we are doing more and more of these days!). After a couple of hours we’re quite happy and decide to go back to see how the others are getting on. P’s abuse of Deirdre is astonishing. “Who do you think you are, jumping on Jim without telling me?!” She wants to know everything everyone is doing, with whom, when, and how often; and she asks me straight out, later, whether Deirdre and I are having “an affair”. “You’re guessing. Anyway, no.” Before we leave, P tells me she is in love with Hans.

… I have given Eve many children’s books unused by my children for a long time. No one will read with her except team members. P interrupts the reading continually. I will not stop until I have finished the sentence I am in. She doesn’t like this … There is a nut missing on Eve’s little bike, and I point this out to P, saying that I will fix it tomorrow. “She’s a little bitch. She does it on purpose, you know.” “I don’t think so. It’s not her fault, I’m sure.” “You shit of a child.”

… P told me this afternoon that she can feel something moving in her uterus. “Something is kicking or moving down there!” She also says that she’s been on the pill during Hans’s visit, in order to be period-free.

… Hans has found a ‘new love’, a new man in his life. The penny dropped on P the other night when Hans was over for dinner. She rang Deirdre this morning, miserable, depressed. “I dinn’t ask for all this. I don’ need this trouble as well.” I went over this evening with a bottle and tried to cheer her. M is being difficult and short with everyone, but especially with P.

… Themselves have gone on a holiday to visit Hans in Adelaide. Isn’t this amazing?! M took incredible doses of Bactrim and other stuff to suppress coughing, in preparation for the trip. P returned with hideous souvenirs for Deirdre and me, things that I suspect were the produce of a sheltered workshop. “They’re lovely!” we said in unison, smiling.

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• Both children stayed with relatives during this time. When P and M returned, the children were not collected immediately, despite their boy’s plea of homesickness.

… P has been on a diet, lost quite a bit of weight and is beginning to look quite attractive (if you are attracted to that sort).

… P and Hans had a great row when she discovered blood on his sheets (from his thrashing and heaving with the new man the previous night).

… What a family. Just think of the men in it, on both sides. P’s brother has been drinking pretty well nonstop since he heard M’s diagnosis. Is it the men who are so pathetic? Is it the women? What is it about the women, on both M’s side and on P’s side, that attracts them to such hopeless men?

… “You’ll ‘ave to stay a day or two more. I’m really too stuffed to go an get you. Your father an I will still look the same when you get back ‘ere. Don’t worry!”

… “I know I told you we dinn’t do anything but that wasn’t true. I did ‘ave my way with Hans when I was there. I know what you’re goin’ to ask-yes, he definitely did wear a condom, though I don’ know how he got it on because he’s got the biggest dick I’ve ever seen on a white man. I’m no longer in love with him. No. I’m not in love with him. I’m over that, I really am. But I still love him, sort of. -You know what I mean. You can’t just have no feelings at all. But I’m not ‘in love’ with him any more. I’m sure of it.”

… Deirdre had dinner with Themselves last night. Dinner and everything else. When she got home she called me. She is very worried about Eve and could not stop crying as she told me of what must be counted as an assault. P strikes like a snake at the child, so quickly there is no chance to beg for moderation. One second Eve is sitting quietly beside Deirdre, the next Eve’s chair is balancing on two legs, about to fall backwards to the floor. Deirdre’s hands are occupied with knife and fork, and her mouth open, as Eve crashes. There is no sound for a few seconds before the crying starts. Eve picks herself up, looks at her mother, and says, “I hate you.” War being declared, the troops mobilise. M gets up from the table, muttering to himself, goes into the bedroom. Deirdre wonders how he has suddenly got the energy to hobble so quickly. He comes back with a brush in his hand. “You can’t speak to yer mother like that!” She dodges him in the living room but gets caught in the bedroom.

“I’ve seen M use a piece of wood.”

“Jim, we have to do something, quickly.”

• During a period of four months Deirdre and Jim arranged meetings, made telephone calls, and had counselling sessions with AIDS Council psychologists. They got their hearing, eventually, and the message about the physical and emotional abuse of Eve was understood. Nothing happened. P was partly to blame: she broke appointments easily and intentionally, knowing that giving a psychologist access to the children was a danger to herself. Independent family therapists negotiated with the AIDS Council to take over the case until they were assured by the Council that it would take some action itself; but again the Council failed to deal with the situation assertively. Deirdre and Jim were interviewed by the Child Protection Unit of Community Services and sought the Unit's advice. The Unit encouraged Deirdre and Jim to make an official report immediately. On the same day, still considering what they would do, Deirdre and Jim spoke again with an AIDS Council Support Services Officer and mentioned their interview with Community Services: the AIDS Council was forced to act. •Deirdre and Jim were not alone in thinking action came far too late. One person, aware of the difficulties they had experienced, later resigned from the AIDS Council and officially reported the family.
• During a period of four months Deirdre and Jim arranged meetings, made telephone calls, and had counselling sessions with AIDS Council psychologists. They got their hearing, eventually, and the message about the physical and emotional abuse of Eve was understood. Nothing happened. P was partly to blame: she broke appointments easily and intentionally, knowing that giving a psychologist access to the children was a danger to herself. Independent family therapists negotiated with the AIDS Council to take over the case until they were assured by the Council that it would take some action itself; but again the Council failed to deal with the situation assertively. Deirdre and Jim were interviewed by the Child Protection Unit of Community Services and sought the Unit’s advice. The Unit encouraged Deirdre and Jim to make an official report immediately. On the same day, still considering what they would do, Deirdre and Jim spoke again with an AIDS Council Support Services Officer and mentioned their interview with Community Services: the AIDS Council was forced to act. • Deirdre and Jim were not alone in thinking action came far too late. One person, aware of the difficulties they had experienced, later resigned from the AIDS Council and officially reported the family.

Dear Morris,

… You know the routine. It was all a plot against her. The kids have nits. I took charge, told her to go up to Lygon Street to buy some Quellada and combs. While she was out I stripped the beds and started the first four or five washing-machine loads. Everything. Bedding, shirts, towels, dressing gowns. I hung all the pillows, blankets and doonas in that concrete room they have at the flats. There is not much sun in there, though, and I decided to take a lot of stuff home with me to give them a proper airing. While P was out, her mother volunteered the view that she would “dump” the kids as soon as M died. Apparently the family has discussed it and P’s sisters believe this is what she will do. Betty asked me what I thought would happen. I had to admit the same thoughts had crossed my mind. We spent four or five hours delousing the flat and the children.

Marg, our wonderful, absent team leader, returned with a vengeance and attempted to organise Deirdre and me. M couldn’t stand the sight of her, and P rang the area co-ordinator to ask that she be removed from the team, suggesting that someone else-anyone, straight or gay!-be got to take her place. So, Marg’s gone.

This will leave Deirdre and me in a worse situation, but we are learning to say no. I have just declined to spend five or six hours minding M at the flat on Friday while P goes to bingo. Deirdre is doing the same.

… and the trials of the hospital visits continue. Got M in the car and then went back to get the script from Dr Murray (I think you know him—he’s a good friend) and an appointment for blood tests next week. As I turned to say goodbye, Murray stretched out his arm for what was to be, I thought, a handshake. Instead, I got an enormous bear-hug. M was observing from the car, and when I got back to him he said, “He’s a homosexual, you know. You’ll be all right so long as you don’t take your pants down.” EEEEKKK!

… M’s back is extremely painful and he is definitely showing signs of an impending crisis—perhaps within the next couple of months. He’s started coughing again during the night and the candida is flaring up again. He is always cold. Even on mild days he is in his room with blankets and a heater, shivering!

Love,
Jim

Sad today. It’s my twenty-second wedding anniversary and, at seven in the evening, I’m home alone. The kids have gone out to party and Elizabeth is in the Howqua Valley, walking with friends. That’s it, I suppose.

Dear Morris,

… undoubtedly flattered that she is still attractive to men. We all need our egos stroked in this way and it is important to her in her situation. P seems to be saying to Deirdre and me (but not to Douglas), “I need a regular sex-life but I really want it in a permanent and stable relationship.” And why not? The men she chooses, though—remember Hans!? We have a strong sense of entering the stage where we have to help her prepare for the post-M days. That’s what Deirdre and I are currently trying to do. I can only hope that we are on the right track. She is certainly more forthcoming about her feelings, hopes and despairs. (But I wish she’d get some make-up and grooming advice to help her look less like a tart!)

… movie about a man emotionally dead but rediscovering himself at the end of an eighteen-year marriage—a bit close to the bone for me. I should have gone to see a porno film instead.

P has just rung to give me all the amazing details of her relationship with yet another bloke, this time a Greek trucker. She insists that she is “not doin anythin—a bit a neckin, an none a the in-out.” She says she is improving, and enjoying the limited physical contact.

Every visit and phone call she mentions sex and what it will be like after M is gone (in a sort of testing-the-water way). Maybe she is using us to give herself permission to be herself? The atmosphere is heavy with sex and sexuality in this team—always has been. Why? And why not?

When we go over to visit Themselves, M is rugged up in exactly the same position he was in when we left him a few days before. He asks where we have been and then listens to the boring details of what we have been doing without uttering any further comment. I watch him as I talk. The eyelids begin to close, as though he is falling asleep. He coughs up some deep yellow muck—and his eyes are open again. I continue talking. At these times I wonder whether he will, one day, just die in front of me, quietly, unnoticed, while I describe my groceries.

I took M to the hospital for a blood test and checkup. He has no T-cells left at all. He asked for “Morphine, poison or something” to relieve the pain. On the way home I broach the subject that has been on all our minds, the funeral arrangements, asking him what he would like to happen. He shrugs it off, saying “No fucking priests. Ask P about it.”

I bought Themselves some new pillows, as instructed, and took the receipt to the AIDS Council, where I was told the promised refund would take a few weeks—glad I’m not on the dole and desperately in need of money! Themselves were no more thankful. The covers were ripped off and the pillows put on the bed, without a word. Feeling miffed, after being asked how much they cost, that I hadn’t been thanked for getting the bloody things, I took one out to M for his approval. “It’s only a bloody pillow, isn’t it?” he snarled. Herself was sipping a tea I had poured her. “Jesus bloody Christ! What’ve ya done with the tea? Dinn’t ya scrub the pot out? I haven’t used it fer days—the bags were probly mouldy!” Feeling seriously used, abused, misused et cetera, I made her another cup of tea (tea bag in a cup this time). —And then I cleaned the pot.

… Understand that I am not paranoid; it’s just they’re all out to get me! I’ve a raging dose of thrush or tinea or something—down there. I’ll screw Deirdre’s neck, as soon as I stop scratching.

Am I boring you terribly with all this? Mmmm. Thought so. Yesterday P predicted that it would all be over in a week. Wife’s intuition, maybe.

Love,
Jim

• Jim wrote in the margin,
• Jim wrote in the margin, “And for nearly two years they had, mostly, disappeared, leaving the team as ‘substitute family’.”

The phone rang at half past three in the morning. Betty told me that M had “passed away” four hours before. I was not needed. The body had been removed and the kids were still asleep. The family were all together and “in charge”. Don’t come over. “Ring before you come, to see if it’s convenient.” The family closed ranks as it never had before.

At four o’clock, after making some tea and toast, sitting in the kitchen, it was still dark outside. I telephoned Deirdre (it was her birthday) and Douglas.

Dear Morris,

Thank you for your help and all your encouraging comments. You don’t know how helpful it has been to be able to write these letters to you. Writing is not enough—to write to someone is important. God knows the team has not had help from any of those who should have given it. There are more grievances, as you might have guessed, and much anger. I will take my time.

• It was five weeks before the AIDS Council contacted the team, and a further three weeks before a meeting was arranged between team members and a counsellor for 'debriefing'.
• It was five weeks before the AIDS Council contacted the team, and a further three weeks before a meeting was arranged between team members and a counsellor for ‘debriefing’.

Though the AIDS Council was informed of M’s death within hours, weeks have passed and we have not heard a word from them. We all feel abandoned and adrift. I could kill.

I went to a florist in Fitzroy to arrange flowers from the team. After writing the cards, the nice old queen who runs the place looked at my name, then my face, and said that he knew my brother so there would be a discount. I left quickly, went and sat in the car and cried like a baby.

When I visited P she was red-eyed and talkative. “Oh, Jim, it was terrible. Jus’ terrible. ‘E ‘ad these awful seizures an ‘is eyes rolled up so there wuz nothin but white there an I dinn’t know what to do. I jus’ dinn’t know. I called the Nursin Serfice after the secon one an all they did when they did come was tell me it was jus’ the fuckin medication an that was it. That’s it. That’s all ‘e said. An ‘e started to give ‘im a shave an a wash to make ‘im comfy but ‘e looked up an said if they fuckin moved ‘im again ‘e’d punch ’em. There was nothin to do, really. ‘E ‘ad anuffer seizure, almos’ jumpin, ‘is eyes went again, all white, so that even the bloody nurse was frighted out’f ‘is fuckin wits. The useless thing left soon enough an I made a cuppa tea. … I wen’ back inta the room an ‘e lifted ‘is ‘and as if askin me to do somethin for him. I got there. I jus’ got there an had ‘is head in me hands an ‘e sighed an that was it. That’s all. I spent some time with ‘im alone, thinking. An after a while I called the nurse back and we dressed ‘im in ‘is suit with a shirt an tie an called the funeral parlour. The kids were asleep. Slept through all of it. It was quiet an the nurse dinn’t say anythin. I called mum, of course. She’s been really wonderful, ya know. An she came an sat with me while we waited. Then they jus’ took ‘im out. I dinn’t wanna wake the kids. That’s all … “

Deirdre was mad, having also been told she should call before she went over, to make sure it was ‘convenient’. “Fuck them, Jim. It’s never been bloody convenient! We’ve been there all along while the family just ran for cover.” We decided to go together, defying anyone to ask us to leave. The day before the funeral we arrived unannounced, with quiche, pie and flowers, which had the effect of thawing the icy stares we got from mother and sisters. —After all this time, to be less welcome than a pie!

The next day I was up at quarter past five in the morning, unable to sleep. I worked in the garden for a couple of hours, emptying the compost bin on my vegetables.

Later in the morning Deirdre, Douglas and I met for a drink before going to the service. A lump in the throat when I saw the children and the coffin. P was tearful. During the service the priest mentioned that P wanted the nurses thanked by name. When no mention was made of the team Deirdre turned to me and said, “I want to go.” “No”, I said, as I held her arm, “he hasn’t mentioned the doctors either, or the home help, or the health aide … “
On the way to the cemetery Marg and Douglas discussed the costs of male prostitutes, and the risks, and whether the boys practised safe sex with ladies from one suburb and gentlemen from another. She pontificates about married men who… “They should be one thing or the other. They should make up their minds. They shouldn’t sit on the fence.” Too many shoulds. I gave her the lecture about the Range of Human Sexual Expression. Will I ever learn? She will not be satisfied until I admit to fucking every married man I know —and a few I don’t -, to interfering with little boys, and to giving M the virus.

Somewhere, feeling mad, I said, “And what’s wrong with a friendly wank between mates?” I don’t know who was more shocked—Deirdre, Marg or myself! The question stands. Sod her.

P told us, when we got to the cemetery, that the priest had advised her against mentioning the team. “So when they continued asking him, he lifted up himself, and said unto them, He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her. And again he stooped down, and wrote on the ground. And they which heard it, being convicted by their own conscience, went out one by one, beginning at the eldest, even unto the last: and Jesus was left alone, and the woman standing in the midst.” The significance of this story was lost on them, of course. Himself’s family hastened to position themselves at the front of P and the children. Insensitive, phoney. The father, who had only seen his son for thirty minutes in the last two years, struck a ‘pillar of the family’ pose. A certain amount of ceremony concealed hostility between the families. Venomous? Once it is written here it is finished. —And thank you for listening.

What a day it was. Later in the afternoon I went to my weekly marriage guidance session—alone. And in the evening there was an area group meeting. Douglas announced his resignation from the AIDS Council. I think I will do the same, but not yet …

I still feel, after all this time, there is a lot unfinished. Gaps needing to be filled. I’m very tired, despite getting lots of sleep. I have not known what more there could be for me to do. We learned how to be part of the family; loving, hating and caring more strongly. I have to learn how to be a stranger again. Uncle Stranger. Leave the gaps in the names unfilled. I won’t know what sort of person P becomes, how she will write herself. M? He was always unfinished. But I’m grateful that, because of him, I met Deirdre, who taught me to be sexually OK again; and because of him I met Marg (sod her), who taught me that I can’t be all things to all people, and I don’t want to be; and because of him I met Morris, who helped me find the spirituality I had lost in my life; and because of him I met Douglas—bless him—who taught me that I can ache for people who are graceless, but people, nevertheless.

… Deirdre and I played the message you left on her answering machine several times over for the sheer pleasure of hearing your voice. Truly! We’d had a belly full of Themselves that day and when we returned to Deirdre’s house, with carnal intentions, you were waiting for us. You never imagined that what you said could be so much like music and accompany us in our fore- and after-play…


This story was originally published in Meanjin in 1992 and 1993.
[Information about the David Williams Fund, where contributions can be made to assist people living with HIV.]