This was a homecoming of largely unintelligible emotions. Certainly failure was there, in the air. I’d left Australia in late 1971 barely four years after returning on a whim in 67 – my dad’s options to me had been simple enough: either return to England and its old school connections to pilot me into the adult world, or go to Australia, the place of my birth. It seemed such a choice might be made with as much gravitas as J Alfred Prufrock conjured up as he pondered where on his head he might part his hair. So I made the move to Australia, with, as I recall, no thought beyond ‘well, I was born there, I’ve had a few holidays there, had been identified at school as an Australian’; and I liked pepper trees – ironically, not Australian, but there were plenty of them about in the little town I came from. My mother’s death less than two years earlier may well have sharpened my need for stability, continuity. Australia looked like a rock. The 1971 homecoming was an easier one; I knew a few people in Australia by then and had a small hive of memories to help. Grinding through quaint antipodean immigration and health check rituals I remembered my father’s antipathy to Australian public servants and their obsession with procedure – a stiff, unthinking, indeed trusting adherence to authority’s routines, surely the ridgepole of British imperial power; could I shape a life here, in this place, this place which only a year or so earlier I had left with no clear plan to return? This time I’d be assisted with a little history, some acting experience and a few friends. Would Harry Miller’s bombastic threat that I would ‘never work in this town again’ turn out to be anything more than the vain gesture of a biggish fish in a smallish pond? The disquieting but not entirely uncomfortable scent of failure curled quietly about me, a still, small voice floating like incense, its provenance unmistakable: my trip to India had failed to realise the transcendent world which interpenetrated the binary construct of the senses with its ambitions, rents, profits, pains, fears, victories…this scent, faint but of homeopathic force, was bound to subtly influence future possibilities. After more than a year on the global road in solitary contemplation, Sydney’s rich supply of slick and shiny dream machines and their fat controllers was enough to give me a kind of indigestion; and much like a long-imprisoned man suffering a mild agoraphobia on release, I sought out the familiar to escape the poorly synchromeshed domestic dailies my old relationship was generating in a the little flat in Sydney’s Bondi Junction. I began taking walks along roads through a world which had no thought for pedestrians shrinking me to the verges, leaning away from the relentless stream of belting superglossy machines of this modern Western city hell bent on getting there. My downcast eyes take in the roadside detritus: empty drink tins, shaped bent by hazard, chance, some cantankerous juvenile, waiting for their next move; discarded plastic bottles, cigarette butts loaded with invisible DNA footprint, forensic deconstruction only a crime away, small chunks of disintegrated road surface flung from the reach of Macadam’s lazy black strip, lonely, powerless now, but not without a forlorn beauty… Every object displaying blandly its past, whispering its trajectory to the void, towards some unsung underground somewhere, pressed finally in intimate embrace with its neighbour, altogether, bearing the weight of millennia until a random reconstitution might give new function to its elements. It was time to go back to work – there’s only so much existential contemplation a man can digest before ants crawl into his pants, so sticking with what I knew best (there weren’t that many options), I lined up for a new show being cast. I hadn’t forgotten Miller’s clearly expressed dislike for me - the show was another one of his productions - but the director was Jim Sharman, and I’d always got on fairly well with him; besides the chances of the producer being there for auditions was pretty remote so I rolled up for the audition with the hundreds of others keen to join the cast of Jesus Christ Superstar. A couple of call-backs later my agent gave me the good news. I’d scored the part of one of the three priests. At that stage I had no idea what the show would look like, but the prospect of playing a priest didn’t fit in an earnest, overexercised cosmology. If ever I’d been an actor, I’d forgotten what that meant and now every moment had become a living expression of more profound realities, replete with meaning and consequence. Priests, so far as I could tell, knew nothing and only aped a corporate position and generally were the tools of institutions whose interests were largely corrupt. Even to play one was wrong. And in a mad moment of youthful folly I turned the part down. My girlfriend had decided she was going up north. There was a minor exodus from the capitalist world going on at the time, a return to values more in harmony with the earth, closer to more spiritual concerns where the human heart might find its place in the scheme of things. In Australia congregations gathered in the rain forests of the north eking out an existence chopping wood and carrying water, building makeshift dwellings, making babies, growing veges, flirting with psychotropic drugs, swatting mosquitoes and dabbing diesel over exposed body parts to keep the pesky sand flies at bay. This was a time of no tomorrow. No plans, living in the evanescent now. Ever further north the alternatives moved. Many got to northern New South Wales and found their paradise, the exodus carried many to Cairns, then up the range to Kuranda and on up to the Daintree river and beyond. Amber and I headed for the Atherton tableland west of Cairns nearly three thousand kilometers north of Sydney to a commune high on the plateau we’d heard about. It was a magnificent place, remote, low slung clouds coupling the blunt hills, with occasional shafts of tropical sun steaming through mists of a thousand greens. We were welcomed by the residents and invited to stay. They gave us an old cow barn to sleep in. We had sleeping bags and the surfaces were comfortable enough. The first morning I woke up, my chilling breath heavily condensing in the still quite dark light inside our barn, my ears choked with squealing as Amber flayed about trying to get out of her sleeping bag at the same time as ripping off her several layers of clothing to get at the hundreds of what turned out to be tiny ticks buried in her skin. It took several hours to get the tiny pale bleeders off her. That was the end of Milaa Milaa. The whole-earth thing was never really my idea – I was living someone else’s dream; I’d followed her so far for want of any real direction of my own so I stuck with her. We moved on… still on the Atherton Tableland, but this time to a scrubby place owned by a naturopath on the Clohsey river. The country here was a lot drier, no ticks – no cow cocky would have set up his herd in this brittle place; there was hardly any soil and the river was hardly more than a trickly creek. The naturopath lived in a crumbling caravan surrounded by a sad little vegetable garden. Nearby there was a shed. A few poles and a corrugated iron roof. Great ventilation. The mosquito net was a thing of exquisite beauty; not so much its form which was unremarkable, but rather its function... to hear those bloodsuckers zinging on the other side of the mesh was sweet pleasure. I got down to the serious business of chopping wood and carrying water. Literally. There was no water delivery so you had to get it from the creek in buckets. For everything. Watering the sorry little plants, washing, cooking. And chopping fire wood. It was so hot in the day I’d resorted to squatting naked in the garden moving around on my haunches weeding, watering and wasting time; the soil was so impoverished there was scant return for effort. On top of that, squatting in the scrub proved hazardous to the pendulant scrotum so I resorted to wearing a leather lap-lap, modelled on the one I’d worn in HAIR eighteen months earlier. This life proved somewhat taxing on our urban sensibilities, but I hung in there, it was after all something of an adventure. Eventually Amber decided she had to go back to the city to earn some money so I was left out there in the bush with a mad naturopath and a bloke who ate only oranges as he lunged for purity of body and soul. I think his plan was to not eat anything at all. Maybe he then disappeared, merging with the great beyond? So it goes as the myopic mind reaches for some resolution to the sense of there being something else going on beneath the swelling tide of the mundane and its paper-thin enticements. Without my girlfriend out there in Neverland things started to dry out even more and within a week I’d shifted back to the road, hitching south, back to the great metropolis, Sydney, where, unsurprisingly, after a six month hiatus, all seemed remarkably unchanged. I strolled through King’s Cross, Sydney’s salacious core, full of familiars, the bent and the ugly, the tripped out, the vacant, the dedicated and the contrite, and sitting in a coffee shop the size of a wardrobe I wondered, what next? I gave my agent a call and he sent me off to another audition with the Superstar people. The show had been running about six months in the Capitol Theatre and evidently some of the actors had moved on. This time I was offered the part of one of the apostles. This was a character much more to my liking. A follower. An insider. One of a small core of characters in the historic myth- adventure at the heart of Western civilisation. Breaking bread that was a body, drinking wine that was blood…fabulous stuff. And I knew quite a few of the other members of the cast. Wayne Matthews, who’d played the lead in HAIR, was an apostle along with a couple of others from the original HAIR cast; it was comforting to work with these old friends again. The show itself was spectacular, and in spite of the monotonous discipline required to produce the identical performance every night, the power of the music and the intensity of the performances by the rest of the cast, it was a rich experience. I’d found a place to live in a converted gardener’s shed at the back of a property in Jersey Road, Woollhara, belonging to a woman I’d met… somewhere. The main house was occupied by an actor and his two girlfriends, a couple of sisters. Around that time this was considered something of interest apparently and Cleo, a glossy magazine, had come to the place to photograph our man for a nude centrefold. It was a busy time. Culture unfolded. Another bloke I knew who lived around the corner, the local pot dealer, had done very well out of his trade and was smart enough to have a secondary but this time entirely legitimate business making baby baths, was about to become a dad. He and his wife invited me over to paint the walls of the new baby’s bedroom. It was great fun. I’d never done anything like that before and in about ten days I’d covered all four walls with a variety of leafy floral stuff, some distant hills and a train coming out of a tunnel… I finished up sleeping on the floor in the room to get it done in time for the little fella’s homecoming. The show ticked over night after night. It was not a demanding job. Singing and dancing as part of the chorus line. The music was inspiring and a pleasure to perform. The pay was more than enough for what I was asked to do. Unlike my previous job for the entrepreneur Harry M. Miller, I had no understudy work to excite my concerns. No preparation was required for the performance beyond an occasional rehearsal. My state of mind however was constantly engaged in self-examination, appraising my activities, thinking about thinking in a relentless effort to build meaning, to align the inside with the outside. The outside was pretty simple, no effort required. The show’s narrative was a pop-culture rendition of the Jesus myth. A good deal of the musical’s book was lifted straight out of the New Testament – the words of which were familiar to me and many had been comfortably housed in my psyche from early childhood experience. As I was playing the part of an apostle, a student and servant of a higher plane of being, each night, each performance became an enactment of my inner life’s pursuit of deeper understanding. Every performance there came a point when Jesus would sing to his faithful followers that to conquer death, you only had to die. This lyric would resonate with great power in my heart and each time I would feel a surge of longing to realise this confounding paradox. With the constant repetition of this emotional wave I came to understand that I was prepared to do anything, to sacrifice anything in order to somehow resolve the paradox. Once again I found myself possessed of an ambition, an ideal which had no concern for consequences beyond the fulfillment of this inner drive. In retrospect this sounds genuinely mad. But the circumstances of life at the time gave me no clue to suggest this might be the case. So as Jesus slowly descended into the dodecahedron I would mystically forget I was in a play and yearn to die if that’s all it took to conquer death. It was probably one of the most essential things a human being might strive to achieve in a lifetime. I don’t remember being especially disturbed, unhappy or dissatisfied, just swept up by the power of the moment swinging off a momentum built up over the previous few years. Then, one Friday, November 10, a matinee performance, with a full house of around two thousand bums on seats, just before interval, a minor electrical disruption blacked out the stage. Power to the orchestra and band was undisturbed so the show rolled on - but in semi-darkness. The priests were onstage with their flashing torches, lending an uncanny visual to the show. The moment was captivating and as I was one of only a few on the stage I felt I should make some extra effort to provide something for the audience to look at while the techies fixed the lighting problem. After some vigorous arm waving and dancing about, the music had progressed to a point where I had to take up my position under one of the five adjustable petals of the dodecahedron. This impressive twelve pentagon-faced stage prop, which must have stood at least three metres tall, had a series of hydraulic motors which controlled each of the five lower petals enabling them to be raised and lowered to either close or open the flower-like object. The fixed top half of the dodecahedron could be flown up into the roof of the theatre by a single wire and from the base centre pentagon the hydraulics could lift the Jesus character up into space, which against a black stage created the powerful impression of him hovering in the air. Brilliant effect. The designer evidently imagined this extraordinary twelve sided mobile to represent the glory of God. I took up my position, kneeling underneath one of the petals, at the time locked parallel to the stage about a meter and a half from the ground. Just enough room to kneel upright.   One of the girls was supposed to be with me, the pair of us a couple of old bludgers ready to dob in Judas for his denials of Jesus; but she was in the wings waiting for the lights to come back on and just shook her head when I beckoned her to come out and take her place. In the distance I heard a dull roar which got louder by the second until three mighty explosions of sensation, beyond pain, ripped through my body. I heard three screams that seemed to coincide with the electrical detonations; I felt as though I’d been plugged into the world’s electricity grid but someone had stripped out all the insulation. After the third blast I just lay there, quietly, waiting. Somebody, Jesus I think it was came up to me and said I was going to be alright. I had to assure him I wasn’t. The muscles around my spine were going into spasm and stiffening up to hold it all together. Eventually the lights came up in the auditorium and a bewildered audience began to file out. The public announce system advised people they could return on another occasion to see the rest of the show. A small group of paramedics filed down the aisle with their stretcher and took me away. Thirty five years on as I write this, my emaciated legs are still a crazy field of erratic minor eruptions of electrical shocks set against a background of dark and heavy tingling numbness… the sacrifice of my mobility was the price I’d paid, willingly it seems, to get inside the paradox at the heart of life. But it took a little while to understand the deal. There's a price to pay. The journey to the hospital didn’t take long; it was only on the other side of the CBD. The driver took it nice and slow, no siren. The languid pace didn’t let up once I’d been admitted. It was early Friday evening and there wasn’t much action in the emergency department. I was shunted into a large but otherwise empty ward, the place mostly in darkness except for the small pool of light around my bed. And I waited. I was reasonably comfortable thanks to some routine analgesic although the stiffening muscles had developed into a constantly nagging cramp as the body struggled to repair the impossible. I continued to wait wondering what the delay was. Apparently there’d been some difficulty in finding a surgeon. While waiting I began exploring under the sheet with my hands. Just below the navel I encountered a cluster of flesh that sent a shiver up my spine – “Shit” I thought, “they’ve missed a gaping wound in my gut and the intestines have rolled out!” I ripped off the sheet to inspect this apparently foul exposure. No wound was there. Just a little bundle of genitals. Which had no sensation. Shocking moment. The hospital didn’t have a spinal unit so I was in the care of a neurology specialist. Same general area you might think. But in a profession where specialisations are finely targeted it was perhaps unfortunate the ambulance people didn’t drive me across the harbour bridge to the North Shore hospital which does have a spinal unit. Eventually Dr Black turned up and did the laminectomy – a procedure where the bits of broken bone are removed and in my case the second lumbar vertebra pulled back off the spinal cord. Unfortunately they’d left it too long before doing the operation. Each day as the surgeon and his entourage swept by my bed to poke needles in the limp and lifeless muscles looking for evidence of function return they would scratch their heads and mumble, apparently not quite understanding why there was no change. It was the very reverse of the standard story heard about such injuries where the medicos tell the victim he/she will never walk again. Here they all seemed convinced it was only a matter of a short time before the body would smarten up and I’d walk out of the place. No worries. I heard Dr Black, a man probably in his forties, had died shortly after that time. I hope it had nothing to do with his connection to my little incident. Life in the neurology ward of Sydney hospital wasn’t all bad. From the second floor I had a lovely view over the Domain, a public park ringed with big old Moreton Bay fig trees. On Sundays this park was the venue for a speaker’s corner where a colourful caste of cranks and others would set up on their soap boxes and hold forth to random crowds which would amble gently around the ideas on offer. I would watch through the glass like a boy given an ice-cream but told he couldn’t take off the wrapper. An element of the experience was there, the chill of ice-cream, but no tasting pleasure and then the crushing realization that the damn thing was melting and wasting away with nothing to be done about it. At night the fig trees loomed dark over the shadows they caste, picking up some ambient light from the ward. The trees, having an abundance of good tucker, were a favourite haunt of flying foxes, actually fruit bats, and their bickering kept me well entertained on long, sometimes sleep deprived nights. A group of guys from the show came by with a radio/cassette player the caste had bought. This proved to be a marvelous thing. At the end of 1972 the ABC had a two hour show, on Friday nights I think it was, called Room to Move presented by Chris Winter – he of the finely honed radio voice. There seemed little he didn’t know about who played what with whom and when as he offered up a programme of contemporary music. It was brilliant, a kind of jazz/rock fusion thang with tracks that went for so long they became concepts. That show then morphed into 2JJ, then TripleJ, ‘youf’ radio where the three minute pop song once more ruled but with bite. Somebody had given me a cassette of Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks – it may have come with the player - which I eventually managed to exhaust, the tape getting so thin it configured itself into an ironed-out winding strip of shiny convolutions whose effect on the ear was not unlike the squeal of pig from a passing train. There was also a good supply of classical music on another ABC station. There was something profoundly soothing to my shattered self in this pre-modern music. Even therapeutic it seemed. Therapy for the mind perhaps, because the body was going nowhere. Former girlfriend, Amber, would come and visit; I came to dread her visits and three months after the accident, doing rehabilitation in Prince Henry hospital, I asked her to not come any more. It was just too painful watching her glide into the ward in her long hippy dress. That reminder of what I was. I had a task to remake myself. She was making it too complicated. The old me had died. Back in Sydney hospital the weeks ground on. I had a catheter, a bloody great five foot long plastic tube with a bag on the end, riding right up the eye of my penis to drain the bladder. The hospital had a comforting story to ease the process of receiving this bizarre appendage: I was told the main cause of death to spinal injury victims before the coming of the catheter was an exploding bladder and consequent blood poisoning. It wasn’t long before the reality of their little horror story loomed large. I could feel nothing below my hips including the genitals, at this stage of my recovery no great burden, but at night it could be tricky. I would try to turn over, still asleep, but the bag on the end with its cargo of gold coloured pee would grab and put considerable strain on the small inflated balloon holding the catheter in the bladder, waking me up. I’d then have to unhook the bag from the bed, transfer it to the other side and go back to sleep. Maybe. The catheter is a big deal in spinal units. Its management can determine your readiness to be discharged from hospital. Quite early on, maybe in week three or four, I think it was a Monday, I’d been lying around looking out of the window at the free world, trying to move the one muscle I had left. It was in my right leg and ran from the hip across the top of femur into the left side of the knee. The sartorius. One muscle. I could flick it on and off. No feeling but just getting this small action was good. I began to generally squeeze with as much might as I could muster in what was a dead zone. After maybe half an hour of this initially futile and largely imagined squeezing of the knees together, I had a twinge of sensation in what may have been the prostate. The sensation was unheralded, surprising and quite sweet. I did it some more. ‘Hello’ I thought. As the sensations amplified I realised I was about to have an orgasm. Simultaneous with the creaming spasm the catheter just popped out! Oops. Monday mornings are often a busy time in the ward and several hours later my bladder was filling up fast. It was beginning to hurt. I called for the nurse. She went off to find a doctor to put in another catheter. Half an hour later, still no doctor, the bladder was swelling visibly, rising like some over-yeasted and quite large bread roll - the strain was getting serious. I started sweating. It was another twenty minutes before a young registrar appeared, an Asian woman, her sensibilities possibly startled by my by now seriously pissed-off demeanor. I’d not seen her before and from the way she gingerly picked up my penis to drive in the new catheter I doubt whether she’d done too many. But the relief. Sometimes the end of pain can be more satisfying than any pleasure. It wasn’t until I’d passed the residual test a few weeks later and the catheter had been removed that I returned to my exercises.
No Man’s Land
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