Sunday, July 16, 2006

Tom Coathanger and the Bad Crowd

Been thinking about alternatives lately. And strong language, some violence, and a remarkably beautiful picture follows.

Years ago my cousin - a member of our family - Fell In With A Bad Crowd. In accordance with the usual order of things, her grandparents demanded more respect, her father bellowed, her mother boo hoo hoo'd in her mother's grief, and I, her elder, barely noticed, wrapped up in my head with Plastic Man, prayer and Philip K Dick.

Meanwhile, my cousin fled from counsellor to friend's home, friend's home to foster home, foster home to shelter. That year my mum divorced again, and I had moved up to Uni - still don't know how that all fitted together, us kids leaving and my mum and dad breaking up, don't know what caused what and what fed upon what and who made what happen for what purpose -

- this picture is what families are like -

and I was speaking in tongues and being a young socialist and getting two girls pregnant in one month and generally being the kind of person whose existence proves that time travel into the past will not be possible during my lifetime.

Because if time travel into the past is ever discovered, I swear by God I'll go back and kick that pretentious, pompous, self-obsessed little bastard half to death. And when I was nineteen I wasn't assaulted by a frenzied geriatric in late-twenty first century clothes, so that means I'll never be able to do it, and the only possible explanation is a disappointing lack of progress and possibly a poor work ethic amongst time travel machine makers.

So don't invest in time travel companies until I'm dead.

Anyway. My cousin. Two years younger. Ash blonde hair and the same dark brown eyes we all had, the same facility with words and people and truth, the same - I don't know what, whatever it is that makes people like you more than they like other people, the people they should like, the people who would be better for them.

I remember bailing her out of the police station one time, receiving stolen goods, five hundred dollars I didn't have, and I remember going up to her house one time in Geraldton, thousands of dollars lying around in plastic bags, syringes and electrical goods still in the cartons and suspecting that maybe possibly something was up...but aside from gestures like that I was precious little good to her. Anyway, she moved around a bit, Sydney, Geraldton, Melbourne, and I remember one time I bumped into her coming out of a bookshop, and there was her standing in Hay Street Mall, the central mall in Perth, with her new boyfriend.

She introduced him, and he said hello, sort of squinting into the sunlight, and I probably said something stiff and formal, and that was that. I remember he had long hair, and had something wrong with his teeth, like a picture of a teen sasquatch, and was barefooted. And his toes were all splayed out, like an animal.

Of course, we see things, and that includes people, not as they are, but as we are. I am prepared to admit there was in his appearence something of my rage, my contempt, my frustration at the situation, my slow realising that she (and therefore me) had fallen in with no bad crowd, that we were our own bad crowd. By that time I had left my first wife (herein Ruth) for the first time, and I knew I was the Bad Crowd with whom Ruth and a number of others had fallen in.

Anyway, looking back that was, if not the point of aphelion, something close. It was a cold season for all of us. That winter my eldest son was born almost three thousand miles away, across the desert. My mother married again (and later again). My cousin went off with Tom Coathanger and lived as one of the Bad Corwd - methamphetamines in the Melbourne cold, heroin for the warm Sydney summers. Another one stood in the basement of his house and stared up at the noose he'd tied to the rafter. My uncle drove off the road somewhere in Queensland, rolled the car, no seatbelt, died on the way to his fortieth birthday party.

Anyway, many of my friends could tell sadder stories, and don't. The thing is, the other day, I looked down the list of patients I was to see at the drug and alcohol clinic and I read a name.

"You are joking me" I said.


"Tom Coathanger, four o'clock" I said. Not his real name, obviously, but his real name was something similarly unusual, even folkloric, and it was a name that you could easily remember twenty yers later.

"Do you know him?" said Mel.

"I doubt it" I said. "I knew a guy with the same name, but that was years ago. What are the odds?"

And four oclock came around, and Tom Coathanger, medical assessment prison transfer from Furlong Prison, did not appear, and I relaxed and worked on my powerpoint presentation (Assessing Alcohol Dependence in the Elderly Patient). And ten to five, eighty minutes late for a ninety minute medical assessment, Mr Coathanger appears in the foyer. I went out to see him.

"Can't be done" I said. "We're closing in five minutes."

"This is fucked" he said. "Youse said turn up at quarter to five"

The secretary shook her head, but Mr Coathanger would not be turned from his course.

"Look, I've just got out for armed robbery. Seven and a half fucken years, four years before that. Y're forcing me to go out and commit a fucken crime - I'm going down to Innsmouth to stick up the BP Servo and it's all your fault."

"Innsmouth... BP Service... Station" wrote the social worker.

"You're gonnna get the blame" continued the man. "I'm going out to - "

"If you don't mind me asking" I said, "Did you ever spend any time in Western Australia?"

"Ten, fifteen years, back in the nineties" he said.

"West Coast Eagles or Freo?"

He curled his lip. "Eagles, what do you reckon? Anyway, I'm warning all of you here that the next thing I'm doing is going down to Innsmouth -"

"Look, we can book you in here or the Eastern Clinic at the next available booking, and tomorrow you ring Furlong Prison, tell them what's happened, and they extend your script."

There was a pause. "This is fucked" he said. "I'm gonna go out an commit a violent crime. Youse are gonna get be responsible -" - but by now, his tone was grudging acceptance.

"Thrusday week, two o'clock" said the secretary. "We'll ring the northern clinic -"

" - Innsmouth BP Service Station - "

And all the time I was looking at him. Face a bit thicker, as if time, or heroin, or ten and a half years of imprisonment for armed robbery (or for being caught, which was not surprising considering how closely he was playing his cards to his chest at the moment)... but same long hair, same something sasquatchian wrong with his (fewer) teeth. And although he was not barefooted, I could imagine under the counter his toes splayed out, like an animal.

"There'll be an appointment at Eastern" I said. "Before that. I'm sure of it."

The secretary looked up at me and I nodded to him. "Ring Eastern tomorrow and they'll tell you the next available appointment."

I gave him a card with a number on it.

"That'd be the best option for you to take." And I looked at him, and I tried to look like I was being as helpful as I could to a countryman, and I imagined tearing down the glass partition that separated us and kicking him to the ground and breaking the bones in his neck.

After we got him out the door I got on the phone to Sarah. "You will not believe this" I said, and I explained why I was willing to deal with three murderers (including at least one double murderer), countless dealers and pimps, numerous rapists, and a woman who beat her child so it was taken away, but I was not going to examine, diagnose or prescribe for Tom Coathanger. You have to blame somebody, and blood is blood. And the next available appointment at the Eastern service was offered to him, and I checked the Sackbutt the other day and no-one had robbed the Innsmouth BP, so I suppose that was the offer he took up.

Later on my brother came around and we had a yarn, both of us standing in the shed, throwing the cricket ball around.

"Do you reckon it was him?" I said.

My brother has this gift of seeing easily things that are opaque to me. "Name like Tom Coathanger? Right place, right time, only interests in his whole life were heroin and violent crime? What do you reckon?"

Anyway. Alternatives. Most of us got off the track we were on. My cousin is a farmer's wife in the southwest, happy and healthy, in a town where nobody knows what went on in her past (- and vice versa. Maybe the woman who coaches the netball team is an ex-assassin, and the piano teacher a retired stripper).

The cousin who was going to hang himself at seventeen is married now, and happy. My mother is blissfully happily married and playing the grandmother, and me - well, you've had hundreds of thousands of words about that.

But somewhere, in some alternative, Tom Coathanger is family. He's my cousin-in-law, or a cousin many removed (by the police), or something, the black teen sasquatch of our family tree, the "unseen guest at every meal". A reminder of how things could have been. The stuff you're thankful for.

Anyway, enough of this. I will try to reply to comments now.

Thanks for listening,


Blogger Niamh Sage said...

Wow. Funny old world, innit?


12:24 AM  
Blogger Foilwoman said...

Being revisited by past acquaintances and seeing alternate futures is always a bit eerie. I'm glad your cousin is doing well. I hope you are feeling better also (the last haiku, hmmm).

12:11 PM  

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