Tag Archives: primary peritoneal cancer

On side effects

Just thought I’d add some musings about side effects. The Zejula tablets are working beautifully, confirmed by a recent blood test. But they do come with side effects. I’m not grizzling about this (much) because they’re very good at what they do. But for the sake of public information (and maybe a bit of grizzling) I think they’re worth enumerating.

This pic shows the box of Zejula tablets surrounded by a whole lot of other substances that I have used against their side effects: Movicol for constipation, lozenges for an on-and-off sore throat, antacid for indigestion, a lipid-based spray for dry eyes, paracetamol for headaches and mouth wash for dry mouth. There are other side effects too, that I haven’t tried to visualise here: brain fog, yellowish skin, a touch of anaemia, random moments of sudden-onset tiredness. But if you set these aside the far greater danger of not taking the tablets, these are pretty inconsequential. I’m up for it, and so glad these tablets exist.

Anyway, I feel pretty good today. Today, the side effects are way in the background. In the foreground I’m enjoying this beautiful day and the ever-blooming portulacas that self-seeded into a bit of dirt between the pavers just outside the back door. And doing a spot of sewing and craft and thinking about writing if not actually writing. (Yes, this is writing, but not writing-writing.)

This morning, despite feeling great, I found myself thinking about side effects. All of life on earth is just one big side effect. Evolution (giving us flowers and dolphins) and cancer (giving us trouble) are both “side effects” of genetic mutation. The death of old shells gives hermit crabs somewhere to live. The colonisation of Australia that began on January 26, 1788, was done in the name of crown and glory and somewhere to put convicts. The side effects of this adventure included the dispossession of the locals (rationalised through terra nullius, the idea that this land belonged to “nobody”), and, later, Peter Dutton’s call to boycott Woollies for not stocking Australia Day merch. While some side effects might be “worth it”, others have been dubious from the outset. One side effect of of discovering how to split the atom – equations written in chalk on blackboards – was the creation of weapons that could obliterate our own species. In some ways we are quite good at thinking through the potential side effects of a given course of action. It’s core business for the insurance industry and teachers who take primary school students on excursions. In other ways, though, we suck. See climate change and stockpiled nuclear weapons and over-fishing. On issues like these, our species is still in pre-school, running around with our hands over our ears, yelling la-la-la over voices urging caution.

Side effects both make us and unmake us. It’s all terrible and glorious. It’s a job-lot.

Here we go again

And just like that, I’m back in cancer-land. I was cancer free for eight and a half years; long enough to make me feel that every damn cancer cell had been vanquished for good. Earlier this year, like just about everyone else, I had a lingering cough. It lasted through a few days at a music festival, a long drive to and from my uncle’s funeral in Brisbane and quiet festivities for Steve’s mother’s 90th birthday on the south coast. “Oh, that’s the hundred day cough!” people said. So I wasn’t particularly concerned, just tired of it, always on the lookout for a nice lozenge that would soothe my throat.

Then one day I was doing my usual walk that goes in a big loop past the dog pound, past the cows and alpacas, past the Catholic girls’ school, and through the soccer fields to join up with the road back home. I sometimes do this walk while talking on the phone to a friend who is also walking, in her case along the Linear Park Trail that follows the River Torrens through in Adelaide. This time, just past the dog pound, where the road goes up a bit of a rise, I found it hard to walk and talk at the same time. I was short of breath. I’d never felt out of breath on this stretch before. It was a bit of a worry. I mentioned it to my friend. We agreed I should see my doctor.

A pile of crocheted guts with Bunny the tumour sitting on top.

My GP ordered a chest scan. A few days later, I was fully expecting to be told I had walking pneumonia or something that could be zapped with a course of antibiotics. Turns out it was something far more sinister. A few blood tests and a CT scan later, Steve and I were back where we’d been nine years ago: shaking in our boots, staring at the doctor, receiving information that we were barely able to process. Damn. Back here. There was a week of Googling and worrying before we got in to see the medical oncologist in Orange, a town about 40 minutes’ drive to the west. The oncologist assured us that while the situation was certainly bad, it was not hopeless. Yes, my original cancer (primary peritoneal cancer, a form of ovarian cancer) had crept into my lungs when no-one was looking, but it was “eminently treatable” with a course of chemotherapy. “Eminently treatable” is a good pair of words. There are no guarantees in them, but room for hope. Buoyed up, I slid him a copy of my new novel, The Vitals. Not wanting to take up too much of his time – the waiting room was full of others in their own personal combinations of hope and fear – I gabbled about how, funnily enough, my cancer had come back just as my book about cancer was about to be launched! He leafed politely through the first few pages as we bundled ourselves out of the room.

The Vitals has a rabbit on the front cover (by Sandy Cull). This is because, in The Vitals, one of the tumours goes by the name of Bunny. Bunny’s replicating cells are getting ready to run free across the wide brown land of my body (okay, it’s fairly wide but not at all brown), dodging all attempts to eradicate them. The connection between rabbits and my cancer came early after my first cancer diagnosis in 2014, when I’d been told that one of my tumours inhabited a piece of territory in the female body called the pouch of Douglas. This territory was named after Dr Douglas, a “man midwife” in the era when midwifery, until then part of women’s business, was being taken over by (male) doctors. In London in 1726, Dr Douglas was invited to examine a certain Mary Toft, a poor woman who claimed to be able to give birth to baby rabbits. Toft was a national sensation, but Douglas was very suspicious. He soon outed her as a fraud who had been procuring baby rabbits, secreting them inside herself, and giving excellent performances of the birthing process.

The rabbits made me think of Ginge, a cat we knew when I was kid. Ginge’s mistress would say, “Go and catch a rabby, Ginge!” Yesterday, I started work on a crochet portrait of Ginge. It will be almost life-size, from a pattern. I need all the help I can get in catching rabbits.

Meanwhile, The Vitals is now on sale in bookshops across the land, or online.

Bilby time


Bilby/Australian Geographic. Photo: Mitch Reardon.

It’s Easter again. I’ve been thinking about last Easter, when I’d just had my second chemo session, and was whiling away a bit of feeling-nasty time by Googling the medical effects of crucifixion. That searing time seems remote, now.

I’m also thinking about my friend Sue who was diagnosed with ovarian cancer around the same time as me. We went through treatment parallel with each other, in different Sydney hospitals, and finished up at around the same time. We were both sent on our way in remission. But now, just a few months later, Sue’s cancer has come back. She’s back in the chemo chair for another grueling round.

For me, it’s so far so good. Somehow I’ve managed to go from nothing to too-busy, like a tap that can’t just come out slow but is either off or at full gush.

I have been resurrected. I’ve got back into the groove of teaching, which I enjoy.

This time last year I was working on my Waste to Art entry; I’m entering again this year. This year’s theme is waste metal, and I’m back on the 1960s and ’70s ring pulls found on Mt Panorama. I’m still finding a few every time we go up there to walk Bertie. He goes hunting for Maccas scraps and I keep my eyes peeled for ring-pulls. I was going to arrange them on a flat board with little hooks, but I’ve decided to hang them in a mobile. They’ll be painted red and black on the front, with the dirt of Mt Panorama left to cling to the back. They’ll be representing carbon dioxide, one black carbon atom attached to two red oxygen atoms. I might or might not include a found toy car.

On Monday I’ll be heading out to Kandos to help Karen Golland plant pom poms on an empty block of land for Cementa. Oh, the fun! Must take hat and loads of sunscreen!

Anyway, bilbies. An Easter mascot for a country that has a complex relationship to bunnies. A country overrun by rabbits, endlessly working to eradicate them. Better to find a different symbol of fertility and new life. Easter bilbies are cute, almost rabbit like, make nice chocolates. But they haven’t quite taken off, have they? Supermarkets are chockers with rabbits and eggs. The Easter bilby is struggling, like so much of our native fauna.


I’m feeling the need to add my two cents’ worth about Belle Gibson and the Whole Pantry and the whole sorry story. I’ve done my share of 2am trawling around the Internet on the cancer trail. The trail starts straightforwardly enough on reputable support sites (like the excellent Ovarian Cancer Australia) and then goes off into personal stories (I couldn’t get enough personal stories, at one point) and then, unless you’re careful, you find yourself in the wild and woolly world of wishful thinking. YouTube is bristling with them, these advocates of what a fellow blogger calls fantasy based medicine. Over the past few days I’ve watched a series of YouTube clips – a regular video blog, or vlog –  made by a woman who rejected conventional treatment for breast cancer. She described the arguments she’d had with her oncologist, who told her  flatly that without aggressive treatment, she’d die. Still, this woman decided to go it alone and try to heal herself through diet. It didn’t work. To her credit, she kept vlogging as things got worse, and eventually admitted she’d gone down the wrong track. “I’m a cautionary tale,” she told her viewers. The last clip in the series was a tribute made by a friend in her honour. And then we have Belle Gibson. Penguin publishers, a variety of women’s magazines, the Apple company … all so “inspired” by the miraculous story of a diet-based recovery from cancer by a photogenic young woman that they neglect to do a bit of basic fact-checking. I’m glad Belle Gibson was eventually outed as a fraud – it appears she never had cancer at all – before her cookbook hit the shelves. I’m glad because people with cancer deserve as much reputable, responsible information as they can get.


It’s time to consider my hair. Oh – there’s that well-used phrase of the past couple of weeks. It’s Time. Okay, so I’ll start with Gough: I thank the Whitlam government for abolishing tertiary tuition fees. As a result, this daughter of a truck driver and seamstress grew up thinking it would be perfectly reasonable to go to university after high school. Which I did, followed by my sister. A few years later Mum, who hadn’t finished high school herself, got in on the act. We’re all now bristling with degrees and diplomas. At the time, we assumed this was just part of the march of progress; we had no idea that this door was on a spring; that it was always ready to slam shut again. And then there’s free universal health care, and ditto. The latest encroachment on Medicare is the proposal to let private health insurers run agencies that would oversee the work of GPs in Medicare Local services. In other words, the privatisation of Medicare, a reversal of one of the outstanding reforms of the Whitlam government.

In amongst the orgy of nostalgia and Whitlam worship there are those pointing out that Whitlam was rising a wave of radicalism driven by people’s movements all through the 1960s. Whitlam’s reforms weren’t entirely down to Whitlam himself (although his leadership and strength of character were an essential part of the mix). Feminism, civil rights, Aboriginal rights, student activism … It was the spirit of the times, as expressed in the musical Hair.

So now I can segue quite nicely back to hair. My hair.

Yesterday, I went to the first face to face meeting with colleagues since I was struck down by cancer diagnosis in February. In February I had long straight brown hair. By July every single strand of hair on my body had disappeared. Now, I have a greying stubble, a tufty regrowth. I look in the mirror and don’t quite recognise myself. I’ve been wearing hats and occasionally a brown wig (or a pink one) and sometimes scarves, although I find the scarves tend to shift around a lot and I spend all day fiddling with them. For a while now I’ve been working from home (marking); but yesterday I needed to Go In. In through the Door of Workplace. At 8.30am yesterday morning I was dithering around, wondering what I should look like. Should I be out and proud, an obvious cancer survivor? Should I wear a cheerful turban? Hat? Wig? In the end I decided on the brown wig. I had the idea that I should invoke continuity with my former, pre-illness self. This would show that I was ready to simply step back in, business-as-usual. I regretted this almost immediately, but it was too late to turn back. The wig was itchy. I kept fiddling with it. The meeting was a video conference. Up there on the screen you could see not only the people around the table in Wagga, but a mirror-like image of ourselves around our own table here in Bathurst. My hair looked deeply wig-like. I looked like someone who had come back to work in a wig after having chemotherapy. Worse, I felt I looked like someone who wasn’t owning up to a year of illness and struggle. After all my bold sharing of details like my colostomy bag on this blog, I was retreating to a position of trying to pretend that everything was normal. When I should be breaking down the stigma, the barriers, by turning up boldly in a hat or scarf or greying tufty stubble. I followed along and participated in the meeting, but I never forgot my hair.

Anyway, funnily enough, the meeting wasn’t all about me. It was about something else entirely. It’s quite possible that what I was wearing on my head wasn’t an issue for anyone else in Bathurst or Wagga.

I still haven’t decided what I look like. Continuity or a revolutionary break with the past? It’s only hair. But hair means so much.

Dr Douglas and the runaway rabbits

Spring continues to go bonkers, endlessly sending out shoots and growing giant green leaves. This is what I wrote last week at Varuna. Unhinged, unpolished … it’s the beginning of some sort of memoir-ish thing written as a series of short meditations on my various affected body parts. I’m starting with the Pouch of Douglas. This is one down; nine other body parts to go.

Illustration by William Hogarth, 1726. Retrieved from http://special.lib.gla.ac.uk/exhibns/month/aug2009.html on 23/10/14.

The Pouch of Douglas

The Pouch of Douglas is a small area in the female human body between the uterus and the rectum. It has a name and a shape but the essence of it, the point of it, is that it is a piece of nothing. It is a negative space. It is the empty air in a cup or a bottle. We don’t have a word for that territory; we let the vessel speak for it. The Pouch of Douglas has a name, a border, but no land. The territory of the Pouch of Douglas is infinitesimal, because when all is well the surrounding organs slide against each other like two slugs in a mating dance. The pouch of Douglas, like the pouch of a mother kangaroo or a coin purse, can expand to accommodate growing or multiplying things.
The pouch takes its name from the first man to explore and name this piece of true terra nullius. At the time, other men were planting flags in distant places on the globe; Dr Douglas worked closer to home in Scotland and England. He worked as a man-midwife, wrote treatises and held public dissections in his own house. Here is the uterus, the fallopian tube, the ovary and vagina. And here – can you see it? This is my own discovery. I have named it after myself. Ah, there is the bell for afternoon tea.

In 1726, a woman by the name of Mary Toft, who lived in Surrey, announced that she had given birth to baby rabbits. Her local doctor was astonished and ran off to let everyone know. She had been in normal labour, he said, with regular contractions. And then appeared the baby rabbits. The woman enjoyed her celebrity. But Dr Douglas smelled a rat. “A woman giving birth to a rabbit is as likely as a rabbit giving birth to a human child”, he said. He went to see her himself, to put an end to the nonsense. He examined her and declared her a fraud. Afterwards, William Hogarth made an etching of Dr Douglas standing at Mary Toft’s bedside, gesticulating, with the rabbit children running off in all directions, unmasked and embarrassed.
Rabbits came to Australia with the first fleet. Like currency lads and lasses, they grew healthy on fresh air and good eating. They eloped into the bush and ate the crops that were planted for them and built burrows in the new estates that opened up as far as the eye could see. Australia’s emblem bore the Kangaroo and Emu, but the continent was in fact governed by rabbits. The anti-rabbit wars, when they came, were conventional and chemical; mass slaughter and hand to hand combat. By the time I could walk and talk, I knew that rabbits had to be caught and killed. Even the family cat could do its bit. “Go and catch a rabby, Ginge,” my mother urged the big hard tom cat that went with the dairy farm my parents worked for a while.

That was in the south of Western Australia, where it was green and lush and muddy. That’s where my sister and I had the job of herding calves. We always stopped to examine the hot pats of manure. We noted that some were sloppy, some firm. We wore plastic galoshes. Dad was always hosing out the stalls where the cows had been. Mum grew tomatoes at the back door of the weatherboard soldier’s settlement cottage that we rented from the farmer. My parents had come from Queensland on a working holiday that was already stretching out towards a year. I started school at a one-room schoolhouse, where I open and shut my mouth pretending to chant the times table with my peers. Older children carried me around like a baby. We weren’t on that dairy farm for long. Winter was coming and these Queenslanders were drawn north, following the sun.
I believed in the Easter bunny. We were surrounded by rabbits, so the idea of a large one carrying chocolate eggs wasn’t too much of a stretch. I also had hard evidence. Before we left the dairy farm, Mum and Dad and my little sister and I were sitting together when we heard an interesting thump and scamper. “I think that was the Easter bunny,” said Dad. “Go and have a look in your room.” There, on the bed we shared with pillows at either end, where my feet would sometimes reach a cold wet patch that was my sister’s wee, were chocolate Easter eggs.


Carnarvon was a place where red earth met white beach sand to create pinkish sand dunes sparsely covered in acacia scrub. There were utes piled high with kangaroo carcasses. There was the pub where Wilson Tuckey smacked an Aboriginal patron with coaxial cable and got fined forty dollars for assault. There was a NASA tracking station on the red sand dune just out of town, getting ready for the Moon Landing. And there were rabbits. We had a grey cat that dragged home a partly disemboweled rabbit. The rabbit was long, as long as the cat.

Running wild

My partner Steve walks over land near Bathurst, in New South Wales, that was box gum then eaten-out farmland and now a land care reserve. He stops at likely spots and takes co-ordinates with his pocket GPS. These are rabbit burrows. Rabbits eat the delicate native grasses being coaxed back onto the land. Someone else will come by, later, to gas the burrows. The rabbits will lie there, dead, under the ground. We go walking with our black Labrador, Bertie. Bertie is getting old and pretends not to see rabbits, because he can’t be bothered to give chase. Kangaroos stand stock-still as we approach. The full, hanging pouch with just the joey’s legs sticking out.

There’s something in my own pouch. Cells are multiplying, well-fed and happy, burrowing down in new estates. They’re going wild, like rabbits.

Nothing is a magnet for something

Dr Douglas named his pouch of nothing. Nothing is like a magnet for something. Nothing is a big blank page with a pencil beside it. Nothing can be a blessed relief. There is nothing there. I slide on my conveyor belt into the big white donut machine. The warmth of radioactive fluid is strange at the back of the neck and around the bladder. “Breathe in and hold.” Pause. “You may now breathe normally.” At this point I have never heard of Dr Douglas or Mary Toft or her baby rabbits. They belong to the new country on the other side of the donut.

Why did it occur to Mary Toft that she might gather baby rabbits and put them up herself? The vagina is an empty tube. It calls for something to go up it, into it. Perhaps she was bored, and she had an empty space to fill. And then she spied a baby rabbit.

“I’m bored,” I used to whine, back in the dairy farm days. “What can I do?” I would be told to go and find something for myself, and stop whining.

I took a hair from my head and asked Mum for a glass jar with a lid. I put the hair in the jar. I was thinking that this was the hair of today and today would not go on for ever, but I would always have this hair. I could trap a hair’s worth of time. The hair did not look impressive in the glass jar. In fact, it looked like an empty jar with a hair caught in it by mistake.

Was Mary’s first baby rabbit already dead, or did her attempt to birth it kill it? Did she practice on a series of rabbits, perfecting her fraudulent labour groans, the use of muscles for expulsion, before calling her local doctor?

There’s that name, Mary. And another highly unusual birth. I’m doodling, now, into the empty page.

Nothing asks for something. From nothing comes all of creation. We can’t seem to leave nothing alone.

The radiologist’s report described a five centimetre tumour in the Pouch of Douglas. And another bigger tumour, in another spot. I couldn’t listen to this. I let my friend Dawn, who had insisted on coming with me, take notes. Tell that other person that looks and sounds like me but is not me because that person belongs to another dimension. I need to stay here in my glass jar of time, in my ignorance, with other people opening and shutting their mouths like goldfish.

Gnashing teeth

The night before last I dreamed that Steve and I were talking to a woman, a stranger. She was about our age. She suddenly said she was miserable because no-one would marry her. Steve immediately offered to marry her. He said it the way he’d offer to help someone move bricks around to the side of the house.
As soon as he said these words, he was gone from me. He had shifted over, just like that. He’d made the offer, and now he had to follow through. I spent the rest of the dream wailing and gnashing my teeth.

Rabbits gnash their teeth at every meal with a wide side to side movement. Their teeth grow continuously through their lifetimes, to make up for the erosion.

You can know something, but if you don’t give it any words, it subsides into the mud. You can continue paddling about on the clear water above. You might even peer down through the clear water, to the bottom, but it’s just brown or gravelly down there, with water weeds growing out of it and tiny darting fish. So you continue paddling.

About a year before I started to feel unwell, I heard the word “cancer”, loud and clear, as I got out of bed. Just that one word, no more. “Silly”, I answered, and went on to do morning things. The word got short shrift. It shrank back and didn’t bother me again.
At night, though, I started downloading hospital books – one click of the Kindle – one after another. I read memoirs of doctors and nurses on the night shift, of surgeons performing the most delicate manoeuvres on aneurisms, of surgeons becoming ill themselves. I watched hospital shows on television. No fiction – they had to be the real thing. The more extreme the surgery, the better. I loved it when they cut holes in skulls to take out tumours, or transplanted livers.
I started to take long afternoon naps. In the middle of the day I would walk from my study to the kitchen for a cup of tea, only to be seduced by the sofa with its softness, its inviting rugs and cushions. I’d lie down gratefully and sleep. I began to do this even before lunch. I decided that this was the way I was grieving my father, who had died not long before. I was standing beside him, licking an ice-cream, and he was standing there in a striped shirt, holding a giant fish. Its nose was on his foot so it wouldn’t drag in the dirt, and his toes were curled up to keep it there. He held it by the narrow point just under the tail. The tail reached above my head. I was five years old, and we hadn’t been in Carnarvon for long. The black and white photo sits on a shelf beside the sofa. I gave myself permission to have the naps.
All this time, I was paddling furiously. I was teaching and marking and writing and I was editing a documentary. I’d spring up from my nap and land back at the screen, back at the keyboard.

All the cells in my body knew something, but they couldn’t reach my mind. “There’s no use trying to tell her,” they told each other. “She doesn’t listen.”

The wanted rabbit

Pongo the black and white rabbit was astonished when a giant cabbage appeared in front of him. He circled it a few times, wondering where to start. It was a round, tight cabbage. A rabbit has prehensile, grasping lips and strong incisors. A rabbit chews like a camel, with the bottom jaw going back and forth sideways.
Pongo is a wanted rabbit. He lives with his sister Mimi, a grey rabbit, and cousin Hester, a large, handsome hare. They live near the Bathurst railway station, a few streets away from us. When Mimi took ill, lying paralysed and hopeless on the floor, my friend Helen spent hours feeding her through an eyedropper and spent a ridiculous amount of money at the vet. Gradually, Mimi began to move again. She began to drag her body around. She’d tip sideways and be unable to get up. She’d be set gently back on her wobbly feet.
Mimi and I took ill at about the same time. We’re both still here. Our days are numbered, of course. We just don’t know how many numbers, how many days.

In the meantime, we continue to chew the many-layered cabbage of life. It is vast. It will be unfinished.

Rabbit victory

Ginge moves stealthily through grass, his belly close to the ground. He gives his hindquarters a tiny shake, springs through the air, brings down his prey. He closes his jaw around the neck, drags his prize home.

The boy sets off on foot, dragging a wooden crate on wheels taken from a baby’s pram. In the crate, a pile of steel-jawed rabbit traps. He pulls the jaws apart; they go as wide as they can go. In the dark, a rabbit sets foot on the lightly buried steel plate. The jaws slam shut, breaking leg and sinew. The rabbit screams. In the morning, the boy returns. The rabbit, exhausted, barely struggles. He pulls and twists the neck until it snaps. The rabbit’s soul ascends through the leaves of the gum tree into clear blue sky.

Back home, the boy skins and guts his rabbits in movements that are becoming fluid, habitual. The skins come off like gloves, all of a piece. He stretches them along the wire fence to sell to hatters. He carries the pink muscled rabbits, arms and legs stretched as if caught in the act of flying, in a damp hessian bag through the streets of Surry Hills and Redfern, shouting Rabbitoh! Rabbitoh!

The South Sydney football team was named after these men and boys, the rabbiters.

We settle in before the large screen. We don’t know who will win, the rabbits or the bulldogs. I still can’t follow a game of rugby league. It’s all about pumping thighs and tries. Red pumping blood andgreen, green grass, lit by electric light.
Victory. After 43 years, victory at last.

They taste it at Redfern Oval, then gorge. Weeks later, they’re still partying. Deb and I, walking down Pitt Street, hear chanting, slightly dangerous, coming from above. A Scottish voice behind us says, “There’s those fuckin’ Rabbitohs” – not disapprovingly. Partying Rabbitohs have become a feature of the streets of Sydney. They’re like Corellas, cockatoos of the desert plains, appearing unexpectedly in city trees, shrieking.
Ginge stands at the back door, offering up his rabbit. “Good boy Ginge! Thank you very much. But you have it, Ginge.” Ginge drags it behind the woodpile. The flesh is soft and bloody.
Rabbits are multiplying. Rabbits need lebensraum. Some must leave the Pouch of Douglas for opportunities elsewhere. It’s dark and wet and they can’t see where they’re going. They’re like baby kangaroos, blind and pink-skinned, groping their way towards the teats inside the pouch. Only this journey is in reverse. They must burrow upwards, as if towards the light, but there is no light, only another soft place to grow. They slip between organs, like a finger. They make room for themselves.
I can’t bear to look at it myself, but Dawn is reading aloud from the radiologist’s report. Steve is also unready to look at it himself. Dawn is our guide, like Virgil, into the first circle. After this she’ll go back to Canberra, back to her work as a nurse, and we will have to pick our way through this ourselves.
There is another tumour between stomach and liver, and it is eleven centimetres wide. It is not round with a definite skin, like an orange. It is more like a rabbit burrow, with a main room and corridors leading off it. It’s pushed the stomach right over to the left. It’s taken up residence. It’s a giant cuckoo in a small nest. It is growing rich on my blood supply.
I’m indisputably fading, now. My red blood cell count has plunged. My face is as white as a sheet. I’m bundled into a bed at Bathurst hospital, where they give me two bags of blood. I feel better immediately. Suddenly, I don’t feel ill at all. There are four women in the ward. One is ninety years old, estranged from all her children. There is nobody to bring her things.
Helen, mistress of rabbits, brings giant sunflowers. More flowers bank up. Vases have to be found.
I’m transferred straight from Bathurst to Westmead in Sydney. I sit in the passenger seat beside the driver, because I really don’t need the stretcher out the back. I’m perfectly ambulant, perfectly able to hoist myself up, click my own seatbelt. The nurse sits on a little chair behind my seat. She’s just a voice all the way down. I’m taken into the bowels of Westmead Hospital and fed a brown mushy casserole.
My sister, Deb, appears with an armful of new pajamas. She has written my name in felt pen on the tags at the neck, just as she does on her children’s clothes. Mum and Max are there too, and Steve. They are all gathered around my bed. Max is eight. He’s doing a crossword. He’s bored. I remember being six, a child at my grandfather’s hospital bed. We’d driven across the continent, Carnarvon to Brisbane, sleeping in the car, setting off at first light. Poppy was thin and smiling, telling stories. I picture him in a felt hat, but that can’t be right. He was in hospital.
A little while later, he died. Dad told me this, as we stood down near the road at the front of the small green fibro house that went with his job at Jolly’s Tyre Service. “Did you cry?” I asked. I looked up at his face. If he had cried, there was no sign of it now.

The fleece

We are like the girl in the rhyme
calling where o where,
hands deep in the fleece of ourselves,
wanting someone
with verbena-scented hair
and fine-boned wrists
to lift us up, the whole of us
containable, not yet broken.

– Maya Janson, Murmur & Crush

My hand is deep in the fleece of my life. My sheep are dirty cream or light brown, never white. In the angled light of the late afternoon, they are golden.

We took the ferry to Stradbroke Island and discreetly sprinkled his ashes here and there. Mum and Dad met on the beach here. They would forever have beach sand between their toes. I stood knee deep in the water holding the big plastic container in my hands. It was light grey or blue, with a lid that was very hard to get off. It was a purely functional vessel, of the kind that might contain fertiliser or snail pellets at a hardware store. Despite all our sprinklings, the container was still heavy. The coffin was in there too, diluting and adding weight to his ashes. We would have to stop sprinkling and start pouring, if we were to get this job done. The ashes rolled in the shallow water of Moreton Bay.

The drawbridge came down and we drove into the maw of the Argo, one down but not broken, and returned across the water.