The saltiness of sea spray clung to his thoughts as his sledgehammer swung to break another large rock. A low sun barely warming the cold stone walls nearby. Never had James thought before he’d be so content to be fettered to his convict mate Davis, whilst doing hard labour in Port Arthur. This was surely, he’d considered, better than the original fate presented by Justice Horne just six months earlier to both he and Davis as they stood together in a court room in Hobart Town.
Justice Horne had asked them then, six months earlier in that court room, in conclusion before the jury verdict, ‘Do you anything else to say for yourself?’
James had stood at that time to address the Justice and jury in defense of his actions aboard the Lady Franklin over late December 1853. His grey eyes stern with the conviction of someone ready to meet his fate, James addressed the court to say, ‘If you put a bird in a cage he will be sure to try to fly out. My intentions were not blood thirsty.’ The anchor tattoo on his left wrist twisted as his hand trembled by his side.
James knew if the jury found him innocent, he would return to Norfolk Island to serve his existing prison time. If found guilty as charged, then he’d feel the twine scratch of the hangman’s noose.
Justice Horne reminded the jury that James Merry and Joseph Davis were not, unlike the other men involved, charged with the piracy of the Lady Franklin, but rather on one count each of injury with intent to murder, and a second count each of cutting and wounding with intent to do some grievous bodily harm.
James glanced toward Davis to see the older man also seemed resigned to his fate.
The jury returned within ten minutes, handing the Justice verdicts of each man’s innocence on the first count, and each man’s guilt on the second; with a recommendation of mercy for them both.
Over the six months since sentencing, James thought often of that moment. Justice Horne committed them to their fate: to hang for their crimes, with a mention that the recommendation of mercy be forwarded to the appropriate quarter. To what that meant, James was not sure.
As he stood with Davis now, the sun lowering in the sky past the mountains west of the Port Arthur prison, James felt that mercy of hard labour was better than the alternative originally handed down in that sentence.
Though they had sat in cells for two merciless dark days waiting to be hanged, the Justice had personally visited them to advise they would be sent back to Port Arthur, where he’d check in on them from time to time.
‘Perhaps now,’ the Justice had said, ‘you men can demonstrate the lessons of your past as suitable behaviour for your future. Who knows what time may bring.’
James stood now, six months past that commutation of sentence, soaking in what little light the dull sun of Port Arthur provided. He thought of his life ‘till now, ricocheted from fault to failure so often. He would have been in London still, if not for being caught with Miss Sophia Gardner’s ribbon and silk. Transportation his sentence for a few Pound’s worth of milliner supplies he’d have been lucky to have sold for a few shillings.
Six months he’d awaited aboard the squalid conditions of the hulk York before his shipment to the other side of the world. Van Diemen’s land hadn’t held him though. To Norfolk he’d been sent for his numerous crimes of escaping imprisonment. ‘Till he escaped there, too – once to be recaptured, the second time only to give in to the sparse existence of conditions in a tropical paradise lacking in resources he recognised or understood.
‘What are you day-dreamin’ about?’ asked Davis with his usual gruff. ‘That tropical island perhaps – at least the sun there warmed you to the bone,’ he added, as he rested the head of his sledgehammer on the ground.
James looked at him with an amused smirk. ‘We’d have been warm ‘till our death. Which would’ve been much sooner than now, of course,’ he said.
‘Too right,’ said Davis, the blue flower tattoos on his left arm dancing as he twisted in his hand the long handle of the sledgehammer.
‘If you hadn’t of bargained for your life, we’d both be gone by now. I still wish I’d seen that sailor’s face when you idled up to him and surrendered on that sandy beach. Or better, that inspector Bencraft from the ship the Herald when you boarded – an infamous pirate of the Lady Franklin, found lost on a tropical island!’ Davis laughed. ‘I’ll never thank you for turning me in, you bastard. But I will thank you for saving me nonetheless,’ he said, his smile slipping.
James gave Davis a wry half smile.
‘You should thank Captain Willet. Had he not testified in both our favour, we know where we both’d be. A long drop with a short rope,’ James said.
James thought back to the Lady Franklin, the despairing Captain Willet cut deeply by cutlass to the head and arms, his wounds oozing his life blood over the timbers of the ship’s deck. James wondered what the Captain must have thought about his barque Lady Franklin being commandeered by the convict human cargo, who’d cut their way from the holding cell, and overpowered a regiment of soldiers with nothing more than the broken handle of a tin pannikin. Complacent guards against desperate men.
Davis had led James to the path of the righteous. The two men working together to shave the Captain’s hair so they could treat the deep wounds to his head.
James and Davis guarded Captain Willett to prevent him from interfering with their fellow convicts’ takeover of the ship. The convicts had decided it time for them to flee with the long boat and cutter to the Fejee islands, and had threatened the Captain with death. James had told his fellow convicts that the Captain had been good to them all, and that if any man were to make an attempt on the Captain’s life, they would have to do so first through James himself.
‘Look lively,’ said Davis, ‘stop your daydreaming of the past – someone approaches.’
James looked in the same direction as Davis did, as a man neither of them recognised approached from the Port. In the distance behind him, their once, short-time mistress of the sea, the Lady Franklin, sat anchored in the bay.
‘Messer’s Merry and Davis, I believe,’ said the man. ‘I’m Mr. Martin Cash, here on behalf of Justice Thomas Horne.’
Mr. Cash paused as he looked over the men, as they stood before him, disheveled and dirty, in rags of prison-issue dress, chained to one another as convicts, and in life. He pulled a letter from his coat pocket.
‘I have here a letter of most importance,’ he said.
James looked at Davis, as Davis looked at Mr. Cash up and down. The representative’s clothes tailored, clean, and well kept.
‘Mr. Martin Cash? Well, aren’t we almost respectable now!’ said Davis with a chuckle. ‘Merry, you remember Martin? The first convict to escape here by swimming across that shark infested Eaglehawk neck!’ Davis said, wagging his hand out past the port.
‘My reputation proceeds me, I see,’ said Mr. Cash. ‘That was a long time ago now, indeed. My bush ranging days are long over – as are my convict days since I earned my ticket o’ leave.’
Mr. Cash thoughtfully tipped his head toward the men.
‘This letter,’ said Mr. Cash, before clearing his throat, ‘is a commutation of sentence signed by Justice Horne. Both you men are…requested to spend the remainder of your sentence under my watch in the service of Justice Horne, ‘till such time as your sentence is complete – or otherwise – at the discretion of his Honor.’ He gave the men a half smile, and with a nod of his head, handed the letter to James.
After a brief glance to Davis, James unfolded the letter, reading aloud its contents.
The men stood in silence for a few moments, a cool breeze beginning as the last of the sun dipped behind the mountains.
‘It’ll be our honour to serve,’ said Davis, as he produced his hand to Mr. Cash. They clasped hands firmly with a short, hearty shake.
‘And to you, Merry,’ said Mr. Cash, as James clasped his hand in a friendly shake, ‘I say: some birds, as us, cannot be held by a cage for long.’
In 2018 I was an addict. I had been by then for a couple of years. It’s a dirty word. A title that smears people with a label that depicts weakness. Perhaps to you it invokes images of an unkept disheveled person with track marks; or a skinny junky hanging by the Westfields entry waiting for you to drop some coin in their hat. Those images aren’t necessarily wrong; but are more likely the extreme vision of addiction. Today, more than any time before, people who reach that end start as I did – with prescription opioids. Medication provided to treat symptoms of other problems.
We all have our problems; some are more obvious than others.
I write this now with a clear head. Though it is still not always that way, it’s more often clear than not these days. For a long time, my thoughts were never clear. Just one big fog of prescription drug induced blurred existence. It didn’t start with opioids; or end there either. They though were by far the most addictive.
I’m a statistic of medical limbo. One of many adults who wait many years from the point of seeing a general practitioner to the finality of a clear understanding of their problems.
I was born in 1980. Some may say the end of generation x, others the beginning of the millennials. I say a generation of the medically lost. People born in that time and the proceeding decades are more likely to be living today with undiagnosed life-long chronic conditions or diseases than people born from the late nineties onwards.
In the medical profession there is an old adage, ‘when you hear hoofbeats think horses, not zebras.’ This is a standard medical industry way of reducing workload for diagnosis of conditions. Why consider a medical condition that is statistically unlikely? That’d be a waste of resources.
Unfortunately, with this scenario many people are misdiagnosed with more common problems than perhaps the ones that better fit their symptoms – purely because the decided diagnosis is more statistically common than other possibilities. Sometimes someone is not diagnosed at all, left only with a list of symptoms and no diagnosis because a GP or specialist is unprepared to investigate further because any other possible diagnosis would be too rare to consider. I’ve formed my own conclusion that the rarity of some diseases and conditions is purely because they remain unconsidered possibilities, and therefore under diagnosed. Meaning of course they are statistically rare.
Sometime late last century this attitude shifted in consideration to children, with more diagnosis of conditions thought to be rare, such as Autism Spectrum (including Asperger’s), or various collagen disorders. You might hear someone say these things weren’t around so much when they were a child. Really the conditions were but weren’t recognized as such due to being thought of as rare, so therefore unlikely to be considered for diagnoses. Many adults born prior to late last century are today still undiagnosed as the general medical system belief seems to be that any rare lifelong conditions would have been picked up in childhood, so therefore those possibilities are still not considered. This gap starts to close as children are recognized for a condition, then one of the parents is recognized for their own shared symptoms with their child.
Officially I am diagnosed with Fibromyalgia, a common comorbidity to Ehlers Danlos Syndrome (EDS). Unofficially I have the latter condition also, though officially diagnosed as Hypermobile Joint Disorder. Fibromyalgia is a list of symptoms that don’t quite fit together for any other diagnosis. EDS has strict and limited diagnosis criteria that doesn’t include many of the symptoms associated with it. The additional symptoms are recognized as part of the condition, but not accepted as forming part of the diagnosis.
In short, Fibromyalgia is statistically more common and therefore easier to diagnose then EDS. In turn EDS is less likely to be considered as it is statistically less common.
A diagnoses paradox is formed from this approach.
If a condition is diagnosed more often, and therefore considered less rare, would it make the condition considered as a possible diagnosis more often?
The mascot of EDS is the Zebra, a symbol taken from that earlier mentioned old adage. EDS has been maligned as a likely diagnosis for decades. Despite the symptoms been well documented, the condition has not been well recognized.
There are several official forms of EDS. The various forms of EDS make up just over a dozen of the several hundred or so recognized types of collagen disorders of different types and names.
Collagen is a structural protein. A glue that forms our connective tissues and holds our bodies together. It is found in almost every aspect of every tissue group, therefore leading to various problems that differ depending on which proteins are faulty in an individual. For some people this will affect their vascular system, others their skin, for some their ligaments and muscles. Some people with EDS will have a swathe of issues, some a few, some will have just one or two problems. The condition is genetic, passed down from one generation to the next.
For hyper-mobile joints, common to EDS, there is a measure called the Beighton Scale. This officially recognizes the extent of a person’s hyper-mobility. My adult measurement is four from a total of nine. My preteen daughter’s official score is seven. During a recent conversation we discussed her hyper-mobility and how that relates to her needing to care for her body. I explained how our ligaments are much like rubber bands that hold our joints in position, and that our muscles are what then move those joints. Her observation, verbatim, was ‘all my rubber bands are loose.’ Yes darling – they are.
The benefit of the cool party tricks that hyper-mobility provide is far outweighed by the cost of a lifetime of management and maintaining a level of strength and fitness which is not required for most people. In a reasonably fit EDS body of my type, pain and fatigue are the biggest, but far from the only, inconvenience. If my body is not well maintained, the issues become substantially harder to manage. At my worst time I required a walking stick to maintain my balance, and could only exert minimum effort before fatigue overtook my abilities.
In my normal day the small muscles used for standard movements and posture have to work substantially harder than those of an ordinary person due to the lax ligaments that would normally hold the body to position. This can result in ongoing sustained muscle strain. In other words: constant chronic pain.
I now wear the anguish of knowing I’ve unwittingly passed these faulty genes on to my child. My pain, physical and otherwise, will be my daughter’s pain too.
My journey to diagnosis started in 2013 after the strain of life had started to wear down my resolve to work within my physical attributes. I’d always had pain, strains, and minor injuries, and had figured these to be part of a normal body. They were of course my normal, but not the normal of that the average person.
My GP took the standard approach, as he was trained. I was worn down, stressed, this was, as far as he could diagnose, causing my physical symptoms. He prescribed medication to help with the pain. I didn’t ask what the drug was, just followed advice. It was an anti-depressant. A standard medical system response to anything not easily recognized for diagnosis. These left me feeling less stressed, but no less symptomatic. They also dulled my mind and senses. I was left numb.
The medications were changed, others were trialed. I was placed on a psychological roller coaster from manic highs to crippling lows. When those medications seemed ineffective, or not effective enough, more were added. After some time, I was diagnosed with Fibromyalgia to explain the muscle pain. In more time I developed Parkinsonism’s. These been symptoms of Parkinson’s disease not directly related to that disease. In my case it related to the medications. I was given medication to treat those symptoms. Medication after medication after medication… All trial and error – as that is the medical system once it enters the grey areas of its unknowns. My clarity of thought and ability to function left me. The business I had started and worked to build for nine years became increasingly ill as I did. With no options left, I called in the liquidators in May 2015.
The business was gone, so soon would be the stress, so I was told. I would be better. A few months passed. I wasn’t better.
After some research I found that my symptoms most closely matched a connective tissue disorder, caused by deficient collagen. EDS to be precise. The GP advised it was too rare, very unlikely, not worth considering. We both heard hooves. I was prepared to investigate the sound further. He was interested in pursuing a different possibility.
He considered Mitochondria disease, and instructed that I should have a muscle biopsy for such. I arranged the surgery with a brilliant surgeon I had previously seen for several hemorrhoid repairs. Yes, several. Lax collagen in the bowel and associated areas causes several complications, such as prolapses and similar. This however, yet another secondary symptom of EDS, was decided to be caused from straining, nothing more. This despite it been unusual for someone to have multiple surgical repairs of the type; especially before age thirty-five.
The muscle biopsy surgery proved slow to heal, another symptom of EDS. You can trace the reducing ability of my body to heal through the various scars from more than a dozen surgeries over thirty something years. The biopsy sample proved negative. The post-surgery recovery lead me further down that path of addiction with the introduction of Targin, a slow release opioid.
I had till that time regularly taken Endone. Though not a treatment of symptoms, it was a great treatment for pain; for a while. The nature of opioids is that over time the body adjusts to the dose, and a higher dose is required. The more you have the more your body craves. This is addiction in action. Targin provided the same relief as Endone, but extended over a slow release period of twelve hours. Sweet golden pain relief. It’s short lived though. Not by dose, or days. Short lived by effectiveness in a few weeks. The longer you take an opioid the less effective it becomes, the higher the dose you need for it to be effective for pain. The more you take the more your body needs the opioid just to function. You literally become ill between doses. You’ll be nauseous, vomit, have a fever and shakes. The pain feels worse. You take the opioid not just for the pain anymore, but also to not feel ill. Some refer to this as ‘dope-sick.’
Any pain isn’t worse than what it was before you started opioids, but it does feel worse between doses. Your mind adjusts and makes the pain seem worse than it is, or ever was.
Imagine a clamp on your arm, pinching your skin. You take an opioid and can no longer feel the clamp. It’s still there, you can see it, you can’t feel it. The opioid wears off. You feel the clamp again. Now though it feels as if there is ten times as much pressure. The clamp hasn’t changed. It’s still there, exactly the same. The mind seeks the opioid hit. The mind makes the clamp feel tighter, so you’ll give it that hit. Once you’re past the withdrawals of the opioid, the clamp feels the same as before the addiction. The clamp is still the same clamp. The mind made it seem worse to increase the chance of another opioid hit.
I’ve experienced the same pain before and after opioid addiction for chronic pain management. The pain feels far worse whilst managing with opioids; the very thing that is supposed to reduce that pain.
I did what every opioid addict does. I increased the dose. I took it more often than I should. I became less mobile, I gained weight, I became even more less mobile. My struggling ligaments failed to hold my weight. My unused muscles failed to support the slack of loose ligaments. So on and so forth. It’s a death of a thousand cuts. It’s slow. It’s deliberate. No one cut is the final blow. They just all add up. A time of reckoning eventually comes.
Unhappy with the little diagnosis progress made, so far as it being only to confirm what was not wrong with me, and nothing to confirm the experienced symptoms, other than a loosely fitting Fibromyalgia diagnosis, I returned to considering the one condition that matched my symptoms – EDS.
I contacted the NSW Hospitals Genetics program and booked an appointment. With an appointment confirmed I requested the required referral from the GP.
In the interim time from 2013 to July 2017 I had seen three neurologists, two rheumatologists, a couple of psychologists, several physios and a pain management doctor, and his pain management counsellor. I was even asked, on more than one occasion, by more than one specialist, what was the point of seeking to rule in or out EDS. As they reasoned, it couldn’t be treated or cured if it was confirmed. As far as they were concerned there’d be no benefit to a diagnosis.
What’s in a name?
A name provides the ability to identify the list of symptoms with one name to any future treating doctors. The ability to gain support through and from people also afflicted by the same condition. The ability to find a way to manage what you have; to play the cards you’ve been dealt.
The problem with specialists is they specialize; not one considering the other specialists’ areas of expertise. They all consider their own areas of knowledge only. Rarely, if not ever, working together to discuss the end patient’s needs.
There’s always an exception though, for me this was the geneticist. This specialist relies on all the information provided by all the other specialists, plus their own investigations, to form an overall picture of a person’s health.
In July 2017 I received a diagnosis, of sorts, of EDS. I’m still in medical limbo due to the semantics of the condition’s definitions. I demonstrate several of the comorbidities of EDS, including dietary, blood pressure and other problems. These comorbidities however recognized as part of the condition are not recognized as part of the diagnosis. I have hyper-mobile joints, however my score on the Beighton scale is too low for clear diagnosis purposes. This despite my upper-back being significantly hyper-mobile, as that area of hyper-mobility is not counted in the official Beighton Scale used for diagnosis purposes. Currently I’m labelled as having EDS that cannot be confirmed under the current diagnostic criteria. This could change with further symptoms developing, another close relative receiving a confirmed diagnosis, or a change in the diagnostic criteria. Semantics. I have been diagnosed as having Hyper-mobile Joint Disorder. In my view the version of EDS known as hEDS, just by another name.
Sometime during that same period I was started on another medication to coincide with Targin, with a view I may decrease one medication dose as I increased the other. This new poison, as all medications are a poison of some sort, was called Lyrica. This is a drug that, at least at the time, came with a little leaflet that explained that the manufacturers didn’t know how the drug worked, but they did know the affects it had, and therefore how it could be used. For me the intention was for Lyrica to reduce the body’s nerve system from feeling pain. For this Lyrica works, for a while, then you need to increase the dose, so on and so forth again. Lyrica also has unwanted side effects for many. Mine started a few days after starting the therapeutic dose, when I was hospitalized for several days for severe loss of functionality, including blurred vision, low blood pressure, and a racing heart rate. After that initial concern I had several weeks of mania. I felt good, really good, and made several stupid decisions based on no sensible logic. Then I crashed. The lights of my mind seemed to just dim. I could no longer read more than a few pages at a time. I could not concentrate; I could not hold an abstract idea in my mind. I couldn’t maintain short term memories. I felt dull. This made me frustrated. I’d traded pain for a loss of mind.
Opioids made pain worse. Lyrica stole my mind – at least the bits that counted to me. Both drugs were addictive. I looked for support from others on the substances. I discovered that my dose of Lyrica was double that of anyone else I knew. I was on the maximum dose that could be prescribed. I had to reduce the dose. I had to embrace the pain. I had to live through debilitating withdrawals from two addictive substances. One at a time, spaced out over twelve months.
Sometimes I would be reduced to sweating profusely, fighting fever, rolling on the floor in racking full body pain as my muscles contracted and contorted. This was a process I went through twice. Once for each addictive drug. The opioid my mind craved, the Lyrica my body demanded. Neither were needed in the end. The months taken to achieve freedom from addictive drugs was worth the effort. Despite the numbness of mind I felt through that time, there was one clear thought, life will be better once the addiction is over.
The story does not end there. I wish it did. I’ve been clean of regular opioid use for over two years. I’ve been clear of the Lyrica for over eighteen months. I can think far more clearly. I can concentrate. I now read several books a month, usually novels. I’ve gained in life, yet have lost in ability to hide from pain. The pain is always present. Across my back, over my left shoulder blade; in my neck. In my stupid right ankle that flops and flips about from the loose ligaments. My activities will dictate which pain is more noticeable. My ankle when walking, my back when sitting, my shoulder when doing chores around the house.
People that have known me through the last few years of my life tell me I look better. Perhaps I do; not being an addict anymore may assist in the way I present.
Am I better? No. I am managing better. I have a condition; it has a name. From that name I’ve found I can manage the symptoms according to what works best for me.
Noel stretched his back as he pulled himself away from the seat of the black security car. The door of the Toyota Yaris gave a hollow clang as he pushed it to a swift close. He zipped his jacket. The quicker he completed this foot patrol, the sooner he could return to the car and escape the brisk winter night. As he walked around the railway station building light danced from the federation era lights, each step changing how the shadows danced off the ornate features to give him imaginations of an earlier time when trains were his life. With brisk step through the crisp night air from the station building to the darkness of the old barracks, he occasionally kicked old lumps of coal from the bygone era of when this place mattered to all who travelled to, from, and through. Now more than a quarter more than a century since its inception, not many people frequented the railway station anymore. He’d never found a window open or door unlocked. His footsteps the only sound to break the nights quiet. Noel walked about the barracks building in the way he’d grown accustomed over several years. Moving quickly through the dim light of the front, stepping carefully about the poorly lit side, entrusting each step to his torchlight about the unlit darkness of the building’s rear. ‘That’s not normally there,’ he muttered to himself, as the torchlight caught what appeared to him as a pile of clothes, a tartan blanket over the top. Noel considered this interruption to his night, thinking why someone might leave a pile of clothes on the back landing of the old barracks. As he thought in silence, the pile slightly moved. Noel’s torchlight caught the eyes of the someone beneath the pile, wearing the pile, every aspect of them concealed from the cold but their eyes and nose. ‘I’m sorry,’ Noel said with a startle, as he shone the torchlight to the ground, away from the persons eyes. After a moment pause, he added, ‘You’ll be right to stay here the night. I’ll be back round after midnight, so don’t mind me. Other than that, you should be right till the morning, say about eight, as there’ll be railway staff in after then.’ Noel hoped that the hint was clear. No words or sounds emanated from the clothes pile. Only the stare of stern grey eyes. Noel gave a single nod to the eyes, then walked on, returning to the warmth of the patrol car for a few minutes before the next toil of walking another buildings surrounds.
The post midnight patrol found the pile otherwise unchanged, eyes now closed, quietly asleep.
Daybreak came as Noel completed his security rounds. Home, he snacked on some toast, then burrowed into the warmth of his bed for the morning.
The sun descended midway through the afternoon sky as Noel ate his breakfast, drinking the first of many coffees before he’d reach the comfort of bed again. Still midafternoon, hours before the patrol shift was due to start, he returned to the railway station to ease his concern that the pile of clothes had moved as he’d hoped. No clothes, no stern eyes. No sign of the guest of the night before. Perhaps, he thought, the torment of night shift had taken its toll, and he’d imagined it after all. Noel carried on about his afternoon, then started his patrol. By nightfall the old barracks clothes pile had returned, almost though it’d had never left. A well-rehearsed display of street life. Take care of the good spots to be sure you can return easily unaffected each night for as long as is wished or needed.
The nights went by, the shifts otherwise the same, each night now including one tartan clad pile in anonymity of dark, huddled from the night cold at the rear of the old barracks. As the weeks passed the seasons shifted, the longer Spring days giving twilight, then eventually daylight, to the beginning of each evenings shift. Noel approached the old barracks as normal, expecting to find the pile as had become normal. Instead he found where the pile had been a man seated in a light cloud of blue smoke. His shaggy grey bearded lips gently drawing on a rolled Tally-Ho. His beanie pulled to his eyebrows. Noel paused from his well-practiced walk. ‘Evening,’ he said. ‘It is indeed,’ said the man, drawing another gentle breath of smoke. ‘All these nights, I hope I haven’t disturbed your sleep too often.’ ‘It’s quiet here, a good place to rest, and nice to know there’s someone keeping an eye out on occasion too.’ ‘I’m Noel.’ ‘I’m no one; just a wanderer,’ blue tinged smoke floating from his mouth as he spoke. ‘I see,’ said Noel, casting his eyes to follow the wafting smoke. The wanderer leaned back a little, squashing the remainder of his Tally-Ho into the concrete verandah ‘Till the next time then.’ ‘Till then,’ Noel said as he began to walk away, headed to return to the patrol car.
Late spring had approached with the usual warmth of day and cool of night. Noel found that the longer days offered the wanderer more time to sit idly watching the freight trains go by with a rolled Tally-Ho in his lips, whilst keeping a bedraggled book in hand, making the most of the provided natural light. Rarely more than a standard exchange of ‘evening,’ ‘indeed,’ passed between the two. Noel felt not much more needed to be said. He did though wonder how long this wanderer would stay before following his natural restless state. How many years had he’d wandered; how many more years he could wander. Where he would go when he couldn’t wander anymore? A life of walking roads can weather a person’s age. The wanderer did seem to Noel to perhaps be beyond his retirement years.
Weeks passed. Noel hummed Good King Wenceslas as he approached the wanderer’s corner of the verandah late in the evening. The summer heat threatened to ramp up soon as the festive season continued. The warmth of the afternoon had the wanderer dressed down to a button shirt, sleeves rolled up, suspenders holding his long pants. He kept a rolled Tally-HO between his lips as he sat waiting for the next freight train. The wanderer spoke first. ‘Curlers getting about now, better watch ya step.’ ‘Curlers?’ Noel asked. ‘Yeah, curlers. Brown snakes, they curl to walk you know,’ the wanderer chuckled as he demonstrated with his hands a curler’s walk. Noel grimaced at the thought. To date he hadn’t walked into the path of an Eastern Brown, second most venomous snake in the world, and as common as birds in that part of the country. ‘Better watch ya step then,’ said the wanderer again, waving his hand out toward the empty land between the old barracks and the railway line. ‘I’ve seen them out that way towards the rail tracks, it’s this time of year they’re on the move of course,’ he added. ‘Thank you,’ Noel said, with a deep swallow. ‘I’ll be sure to keep an eye out.’ ‘You’ve been staying here a while,’ Noel then added, ‘Several weeks now, how often do you wander off?’ ‘Tryin’ to get rid of me then?’ said the wanderer. ‘Not at all,’ said Noel, ‘Just curious about where you’ve come from, and where’ll you go?’ ‘Oh, I’m from around and allover,’ said the wanderer. ‘I needed some down time and hadn’t been through this way for many years. Figured it wouldn’t have changed much. These small towns rarely do during a lifetime. Everything you need to get by, nothing much of the things a simple person doesn’t want. Which keeps it quiet and safe for an old vagabond such as me. I go where I want when I want, and places like this are just big enough that I can be out of the way of the town folk, but small enough that people will let me be if I keep to myself; no drifting groups of thugs looking for an easy target to prove themselves to their mates.’ The wanderer paused with a stare out across the railway lines as a freight train rumbled through. ‘It’s not much of a life for most, but its more than enough for me. I’ve been all over this great country more times than I can remember. Travelled beyond its shores when opportunities arose. Seen more things then I could ever dream. Worked more jobs in more places than most would ever consider. My boys mightn’t approve, but they’ve their own lives to live, they don’t live mine. They haven’t needed me for a long, long time.’ ‘You have a family?’ Noel asked ‘Had. Once. She didn’t want me anymore. Fair enough too. In hindsight the bank was killing me. I wasn’t worth living with anymore. When she told me to leave – I left. Gave it all away for just the clothes on my back. I walked away from her, the boys, and an endless career as a bank manager. Gone. I guess it was a break down. From here it looks like it was a breakthrough. As the last thirty plus years have been my best,’ the wanderer said. ‘Has any of your family tried to find you?’ Noel asked ‘I see one occasionally. The youngest boy lives a few hours north from here. I let him know at times that I’m alive, and still free.’ He cleared a chesty cough, followed by a deep draw from the rolled Tally-Ho. ‘It’s a cheap life. The smokes the greatest expense. But we all need at least one vice,’ he coughed a blue smoke laugh. Noel paused. The wanderer had spoken words that cleared the clouds of life between them. ‘I must keep going, work to be done,’ Noel said, as he started to walk toward the patrol car. ‘See you soon then,’ he added. ‘Indeed,’ the wanderer replied.
The night patrol offered hours of solitude. Time to think. Time to consider the wanderers world. Noel wouldn’t return for a few days. His next rostered shifts would include Christmas. A time when his kids, and their kids, would gather and celebrate family and the festive season.
Noel stretched as he pulled himself from the patrol car. The afternoon heat drew a sheen of sweat to his brow, soon to be cooled by the evening breeze of the setting sun. The night began as another of the same old same old. Another chance to chat with the wanderer before Christmas came in two short days. ‘Evening,’ Noel said as he approached. The wanderer was setup for the evening, blue smoke wafting about his head. ‘Indeed,’ he replied. ‘Will you be here for Christmas too, it’s pretty soon,’ Noel said. ‘So you are tryin’ to get rid of me. Ha!’ said the wanderer, a slight grin through puffs of blue. ‘Not at all. Not at all,’ Noel said. ‘Just thought, been nearly Christmas, you might see the son you mentioned. Or another arrangement, perhaps.’ The wanderers face stiffened. His gaze steady on Noel. ‘Just hoped you might have a family gathering to look forward too, that’s all,’ Noel said through the wanderers’ grey eyed stare. ‘Mind yourself and yours,’ said the wanderer, his gaze fixed. ‘You no doubt have a family to care for, and of you, at this time of year. The ring you wear gives me reason that might be true. I need only worry about myself, as mine have families of their own to care for.’ Noel raised is brow. ‘You have grandchildren too?’ ‘I do; they have no grandfather though,’ said the wanderer. ‘I’m sorry,’ said Noel, breaking from the wanderers’ gaze. His eyes landed on the tartan blanket, neatly placed to the wanderers’ side. ‘Don’t be sorry, I’m not. My choices brought me here now. No one chooses to end up on the streets, but very few like me choose to stay. Pity those who can’t choose. Experiences may be all I have from this life of wandering; but those experiences are mine to own.’ Noel wiped the light sweat from his brow. He stared at the tartan patterns of the blanket. ‘You have comfort?’ asked the wanderer. ‘Yes,’ said Noel. ‘You have family too?’ ‘Yes,’ said Noel. ‘What do you have that’s just you?’ the wanderer asked. Noel looked back to the wanderers grey eyed gaze, the stern conviction still trailing from his words. ‘I thought so,’ said the wanderer as he returned to his Tally-Ho packet to roll another. Noel broke the following silence. ‘Your tartan blanket, it’s an Irish tartan, isn’t it?’ Noel said. ‘If you say so,’ said the wanderer. ‘I brought it back from Dublin many years ago. Worked a cargo ship then. It’s just a blanket to me.’ ‘I recognized the tartan pattern. I’m of Irish convict descent,’ said Noel. ‘Have you ever been there,’ asked the wanderer, ‘or anywhere for that matter?’ his words gruff. ‘No. I’ve never left these shores. Only dreamt of maybe one day seeing Ireland,’ said Noel ‘It’s a part of your story you can’t fully express then,’ said the wanderer. Noel stepped back. He’d stayed too long. ‘Till next time then,’ he said, as he started to walk away. ‘Till then,’ replied the wanderer. ‘Till then.’
Noel considered the wanderers words as he packed food typical of an Australian summer Christmas. Cold ham, turkey, chicken. Accompanied with assorted salads. A traditional pudding for dessert. The wanderer deserved a decent meal, it was Christmas Eve after all. A gift of festive meal in esky, Noel approached where the wanderer had been each evening for months. The wanderer’s belongings were packed. His duffle bag lay in wait. The wanderer nowhere to be seen. Noel left his gift next to the duffle bag, a simple note of Merry Christmas taped to the side. By the second night patrol, past midnight to be Christmas day, the duffle bag and esky were gone. Only a neatly folded tartan blanket remained.
The wanderer had moved on from his extended stay. Noel couldn’t. He wondered whether the wanderer had thought better of seeing family at Christmas; or had he simply wandered on? Noel continued for months to think of the wanderer’s words, and his final message, the neatly folded tartan blanket. Noel considered all this as Dublin came into view through the aircraft window, during the flight’s final descent.
Two police officers, one who I partially knew, requested to talk to me in private. Given the small nature of our office, the car park out the front would suffice.
One of them said there’d been an incident, or words to that effect. Their stiffened broad shoulders held the entire frame of their bodies in a permanent posture as if someone had shouted attention on the parade ground.
They asked if I could assist in obtaining CCTV footage from one of my company’s clients. An organization I knew well. A man I’d had many dealings with.
Not without their permission, I advised.
That won’t be possible, they replied.
I sat my arse hard up against the bonnet of the company-owned white Falcon wagon. The day was unnecessarily clear, bright and blue.
I then asked if something had happened to Jim.
They looked at each other first, then one answered by way of a quiet nod.
I asked colloquially, crudely and without thought or regard, words to the effect of whether he’d self-harmed.
A quietly alarmed look was shared between the officers. Then with a stern look the officer I knew nodded again. He asked what I might know of it.
All I knew then – and now – is that he’d been struggling. Given the tardiness of his bill payments, I assumed at least in part financially. What small business doesn’t struggle though?
A sometimes-difficult character, Jim was generally considered a good man. Generous to me with his time to discuss business, generous to my business as a client, generous to my family in caring for our pet beagle.
Veterinarians hold an unenviable position as one of the leading occupations for suicide, perhaps due to the ease of accessibility to highly effective lethal drugs. The case as that may be, many other business owners find other ways to come to the same end for similar reason. Business owners overall are overrepresented in deaths due to self-harm. These means to an end are the symptom of societal pressures on those with the initiative to burden the challenge of the economy’s powerhouse that is small business
Within six months of Jim’s death I’d liquidated my own small business. Too ill to carry on working, too debt-ridden to sell, too overwhelmed with shame to tie my thoughts together, I considered Jim often. Not three years later, whilst still mellowing in my own self-pity, Mark would become the next small businessperson I’d personally known to cut his own life unnecessarily short.
For both Jim and Mark there was far more to their rich extensive lives than their businesses. And therein lays the trap: for work is often only one aspect of any life, but when one has a small business they are tied to that business. Running their business becomes the often-unintentional epicenter of their lives as they strive to meet expectations as a service provider, employer, charity giver, community leader, tax collector and government red-tape manager.
Eventually, all too often, the business you owned owns you.
Businesspeople I’ve known have enjoyed imparting on me the advice to “bite off more than you can chew and chew hard.” Regrettably, those whom try this advice regularly choke. More than half of all new Australian business ventures fail within twelve months of starting to trade. A staggering ninety per cent cease trading within three years. Over a quarter of a million businesses deregister annually in Australia. The country’s economic growth is depicted by there being more new registrations then deregistration’s in the same time frame.
The churn of businesses is its own industry: supporting accountants and lawyers, all whilst providing the lifeblood of liquidators.
Statistically, I am an anomaly, as my business lasted just shy of nine years. Still, I have nothing to show for it.
Six months after a move to a quiet country town I exercised the several years of industry experience in the city to start my own business from scratch in the unused front room of our family home. We’d made a tree-change. We wanted a country life to raise a family. I sought opportunity. I’d spent months prior watching small business television on Sunday mornings. Years devouring every book by Robert Kiyosaki on sales and money. Countless nights falling asleep reading books about business management. Like many who take the plunge, I was never in business to be an entrepreneur. I was there simply to serve customers the best way I could see, with no real interest in capitalistic market opportunities or the reams of paperwork required by various levels of government to facilitate the services I dared dream to provide.
I was ignorantly confident, and utterly unprepared for the possibilities of reality. The trail of success would be peppered by failures. Each one taking a compounding toll till the trap was fully set for total utter failure.
It was easiest when I first started. Hours spent thinking, plotting, peering out the window of the early nineteen-hundreds red brick cottage, scrutinising the giant Dutch Elm tree – one of many along our street. One of those extra-wide country town roads built long before cars were a consideration. The Elm trees had survived so much that had happened around the world: wars, economic strife, Dutch Elm disease. They’d change with every season, stripped bare to match the starkness of the bitter Winter, sprout leaf blossoms in Spring, radiate all shades of red in Autumn. Those trees, as did my business, started out easily. They were small, struggled, and those that survived their infancy outgrew their challenges, adjusting for the seasons as needed. Just as businesses do. Some will become ill, some will recover. Some won’t. Some will be cut short before they can flourish.
Registering as a sole trader business with an entity name in Australia will cost you about twelve minutes and thirty-four dollars. Setting up a company requires extraordinarily little more effort, however, comes with vastly more complex responsibilities. Companies are legally an entity. A paper-based person with legal rights only outweighed by a raft of responsibilities that are ultimately those of the directors. You don’t even need a partner: today in Australia you can just jump online and sign up to be a sole director, sole shareholder. Just don’t forget your inane Annual General Meeting of one, or the Australian Securities and Investment Commission (ASIC) will hunt you down for breach of the Companies Act. Helpfully, ASIC’s website strongly recommends reading specified articles before proceeding with registering a company. These provide a preventative awareness measure, so you might understand your pending responsibilities – for once you register, you are responsible for innumerous matters, and ignorance of such knowledge is not a defense. There’s no test to prevent the ignorant from jeopardising themselves.
I registered myself as a sole trader with a trading name in July 2006. Trade significantly increased a few months later when I discovered I could sub-contract my services to other businesses within the industry. This cash flow soon allowed me the resources to build the business to have its own customers. With the knowledge of a first child incubating within the first few months of the business’s fledgling start, I knew it was sink or swim. I needed to be income positive. I had to work no matter the strain, and a double inguinal hernia was not going to stop me (though it did slow me down for two weeks after the birth of our child. That being two weeks shorter than the four-week recommended recovery time). I vividly recall the late-night discomfort of the pull of the mesh that had been surgically affixed to grip my upper groin muscles together as I worked outside of regular business hours to pull cables through the ceiling of a local supermarket. One of many late nights over the years.
The first employee, a like-minded technician to provide practical support, came at about the same time that our first-born started crawling. He was recommended to me by a mutual friend. Our first meeting – a job interview, of sorts – held over a beer in the loungeroom of the same red-brick home that contained my office.
The nature of the business meant we travelled for work, usually within the region, although sometimes we stayed away for days at a time, several hours from home. We shared motel rooms, and later, as I worked out various efficiencies of business, we’d share caravan park cabins, a room each, dinners cooked and shared within close quarters. We forged a friendship that stands true to this day. Though he may not realise it, he is still one of my closest friends.
I was cutting my teeth as an employer, and if there was a mistake to be made, I was likely making it.
By late 2008 we moved into our first office. Despite not needing Main Street exposure, I reasoned it would help give the business legitimacy. As humans we crawl before we walk, and a business should do the same. However, I was off and running, first trying to keep up with demand by adding more staff, then trying to keep up with staff by chasing more work. And so it was a seemingly endless cycle. The first of January 2009 was our first trading day as an official corporation, held solely by my one share, steered by my sole responsibility as the only Director. Soon after, the business had three technicians, an office administrator and, to try and keep the work coming in to pay for all those salaries, a part-time salesperson whose role consisted of introducing new clients to the business.
We had enough to keep us busy, but it seemed we didn’t offer enough. We offered a unique service to our town, though primarily our work was conducted outside of the town. We brought income into the local economy and were able to provide services that could not otherwise be done easily by locals, if at all. I was approached over some weeks by several members of the town business community to setup a security night patrol: a seemingly logical extension to our existing electronic security systems business. This would mean offering the services of a security guard to travel at night to check on buildings, compounds and yards of our customers, making sure they had been locked up, and conducting random patrols throughout the night. Monotonous and dreary, no matter the weather. Extraordinarily draining in every sense of the word for anyone who’s ever worked the role.
Strategically simple to implement but overtly complex to maintain, I figured if it were good for the town, it would be good for us, too. We hired a guard to cover the weeknights, and I would work the nightshift on weekends until the service could afford to do otherwise. And we would lose money hand over fist until it did. During that initial two-year period, I worked seven days a week, often with no layover between night and day responsibilities. Over the following years I rarely had a Christmas break, usually working the Eve or Day of; Easters I often worked right through.
The strain on the business was untold. Sometime in early 2010 we lost that first employee to a better offer to which we couldn’t compete. I’d told him he’d be mad not to take the offer.
Later, over years of trying to refill his shoes, I discovered I had never deserved him. The company floundered without senior technician, and I experienced the gut-wrenching sting of retrenching staff. Some took the difficulties better then others. One took the best part of the twelve months filing complaints wherever he could: firstly, a Workcover claim lodged directly with the insurer, which I only found out about when the insurer rang me to confirm some of the details. Secondly, a claim to Workcover inspectors for insufficient workplace conditions. And then a complaint to the Union. All the complaints were eventually determined unfounded by the investigating bodies. But in the meantime, all warranted investigation, tying up my time and resources, affecting the efficiency of the business, adding to the strain of one person’s responsibility to everyone involved. Meanwhile, there were the essentials to be concerned with: cashflow, paying wages, keeping suppliers and customers content.
At the time I would lament with other business owners that if they thought business was hard, they should try having one that operates twenty-four hours a day, non-stop, seven days a week. In hindsight I may have been lucky not to be lying awake at night worrying about the business as I trudged through night patrols. My physical and mental exhaustion, at those times I made it to bed, did not grant me such a luxury as lying awake with worry.
When a business relies on one person there is the risk of a single point of failure. My deteriorating health was ultimately outside of my control. Sometime in 2013 I was diagnosed with a condition undoubtedly exacerbated by the daily strains of a life made by my own creation. I’d been medically advised to work less, so reduced the hours I worked. I employed more staff. I relied on those staff more. I looked for options to make the business less dependent on me. I considered I had too much skin in the game.
An opportunity availed to purchase a local business which could complement our existing services with similarly qualified technical staff, while also providing further opportunity for expansion. Finance was tough to obtain, yet doable under strict conditions. This would be the solution to my inability to commit to the workload. Rather than go small, or close, we’d go big and be self-sustainable: a business that could operate without my daily input, continuing to support all staff within the business, and supporting the town overall.
The deal worked out over several months of mid-2014, culminating in about September that year to a launch of the newly combined business. I was naively positive, under pressure from all angles, and as it would turn out, made a regular habit of making poor decisions. Staff from both original businesses were for various reasons not happy with the new team’s combination of personalities and skill sets. I just wanted them to work well together and get on with the work at hand. Cash flow was tight, work was decreasing, morale was low.
Then January 2015 happened. Or perhaps, as it turned out, didn’t happen. The slowest of slow cash-flow months at a time when every cent counted towards solvency, there’d be no recovery without that dreaded sting again of retrenchments. Again, I made enemies of people I’d considered friends. Those who turned out only to care for their own circumstance, with no interest in that of their former colleagues that remained. Regardless, I continued to show, until I couldn’t. In May came the medical appointment that concluded I could no longer perform my duties, and that I probably hadn’t been able to for some time. I sought options to dismantle the business. Instead I was offered investor cash to keep the company afloat, provided I stay at the helm. My health was of no interest to anyone.
I couldn’t perform my employed roles. I couldn’t operate as a manager. I couldn’t meet my obligations and responsibilities as a Director – I wasn’t so sure anymore that I’d ever really understood what they even were. We couldn’t keep trading. My skin in the game had long ago become flesh mangled to the manacles that shackled me to my own ship. As Captain, I went down at the helm, appointing liquidators in June, just shy of nine years in business.
At its smallest, in the early days, the business had a staff of one – me – and a ten-year-old Commodore that overheated on long drives. At its largest, the business had thirteen staff, a fleet of cars, and two offices.
Despite all the real-world responsibilities it encompasses, starting a business is substantially too easy. Registering a company only fractionally more complex. It is in the same vein of creating a child in that almost anyone can do it, but the majority are ill-equipped and under-qualified for the responsibilities that follow. Unlike child creation though, business owners often lack instinct, guidance and the support of friends and family needed to manage and maintain a business. A business – company or otherwise – is a ship that must be run as such. No sane person would take a ship to sea without qualification to first know how to sail one. Yet anyone in Australia can tie themselves to a business without prior qualification, damn to any sanity. Be sure though, they’ll be held responsible when that business, as per statistics, likely fails. Even as ignorance is no excuse, lack of qualification is still no barrier to prevent been placed in that difficult position of ultimate responsibility.
I still think of Jim. The pressures he must have felt from decades of running his business as Captain at the helm of three practices in three towns. How his end seemingly came by there been for him no other way forward, no other way out.
Despite part of my identity been tied to the ship when it disappeared to the depths, now lost forever, I’m living proof there is life after the ship has sunk.
Most walks are not memorably mentionable. The picturesque views of the local park change with the weather throughout the year, as does the temperate comfort. Some birds are regulars, blending in to the expected scenery and sounds, barely noticeable outside my thoughts. Eastern Rosella’s add seasonal Spring delight with a welcoming site of colourful plumed characters that squawk-murmur amongst themselves. The park is typical of any rural locality, with tree lined grounds of well-kept deeply coloured grass surrounding a locally revered cricket oval, complete with white picket fence boundary. To the side of the carpark stands a small area of well battered sun faded play equipment. Signage of no dogs allowed adorn the picnic tabled chairs. It’s a place where as each day changes, they all blend to be the same.
A while ago I passed through the park, beagle slightly to the front of my side, pulling the lead hard as she chased scents of previous pedestrian visitors.
My expected normality though was breached by a man of stark white hair offset by dark rimmed glasses complimenting a neat buttoned down collared shirt with jeans that contrast against his seat on top of a slippery-dip; a solid steel slide welded to metal pipes, likely set in concrete fifty years earlier.
His position far from precarious only a few feet from the ground had the motions of a child as his legs swayed effortlessly back and forth, his eyes lost in a vision only he could see.
My concern for welfare soon passed as on noticing my approach he gave a mischievous smile imaging the same one he’d likely held there many years before when playing as a child. A depth of memories enlightened his face, fuelled by the timeless sensations of a place that stowed childhood carefree frivolity.
A smile, a nod, a glimmer of recognition between strangers of all that once was of childhood commonalities in a place of play.
Beyond the curve of the oval I turned for a final glance, he deep in thought again, legs swinging freely atop of the slide.
The temptation is real.
Outstretched fingers of endless water caress the dark sand, white caps breaking as the waves end onto the beach edge.
They are calling.
Their crash from sea to sand yearns to take something back with them to the deep.
I watch them roll in.
A small spatter of rain drops over my shoulders, dampens my hair. There are no stars tonight, the coast is dark. I should seek cover. No, wait. I should join the sea and leave the struggle behind.
There are people here. I did not have an expectation of others on this sandy edge of my world.
A short walk across the sand is all that is needed. The commitment is made once the water is beyond the waist. Just a short paddle to the heads, open ocean. No return.
A woman runs past, to my front, between myself and the sea. Her run is pained, almost a shuffle. She turns further down the beach, another run past, a turn and a run past again. Her face expresses a struggle. She hurts. Her pain is real. My thoughts are distracted to what she might feel. I’m compelled to watch, to wait, to see if maybe I should help in some way.
I turn to the path behind me, where two young women sit by the wall, the road then beyond them. Deep in conversation, an open wrap of butchers paper between them, hot chips taken by each at will, mixed with words, cackles and snorts.
Would they respond if I now walked fully clothed into the sea?
The running woman comes by again, she catches my gaze, and I hers. She is not impressed by my interest. She punishes her legs against the sand a further half way down the beach, stopping with a despairing throw of her arms into the air. I see the silent ‘why’ in this gesture. She turns and comes back my way. Our glances to one another pass the pain, we both know why we’re here, though neither of us have the courage to approach the other, fear that our intuition is wrong. She runs past, then slows to walk. Along the beach, up to the path, up the hill, over the peak. She descends from my view, from my life.
The temptation was real. An invite to us both from the beckoning dark waves. Strangers connected for a brief moment of a solitude thought in the dark, of the dark.
Sounds of waves will haunt my sleep tonight, as I dream of the glorious beach sunrise to come.
Still, the pain is real.