by John Kendall Hawkins
I'm sitting in the emergency room of Royal Children's Hospital, my daughter, Amelia, fast asleep in my arms. Normally boisterous with joy, she attacks the hallway at home like some wild banshee on horseback, but now she lies listless and hot, the smell of her latest upchuck rising from the synthetic fur of the Humphrey B. Bear doll she clutches.
I'm trying not to look up, because when I do there's a boy Amelia's age happily riding a plastic tricycle in front of me. The whole right side of his face is one huge pizza scab. Looking at him circling, I can't help but think of the two-faced Roman god Janus. I'm ashamed for trying to read the boy's parents, who are sitting some distance from each other, their stone still faces averted and sculpted in grief.
Beyond them, the emergency room opens like an airport terminus, with parents queuing at the registrar's counter, children in tow - some squalling or kicking, others, like Amelia, scarily silent. We've been waiting over an hour, put on a segmented waiting list that prioritises emergencies the way an airline divides its seats by class.
On the telly there's a news report on China's response to NATO's bombing of their Belgrade embassy, and I'm straining to follow it. But Barbara, the woman sitting two seats away, won't stop talking. Worry, I suppose. Sam, her nine-year-old boy, sits vacantly beside her, his left arm in a sling, his right hand shovelling French fries into his mouth from a McDonald's bag she holds for him.
Barbara's from Cape Town, South Africa; husband's a history professor at a local uni. They migrated to Oz in 1990, she says, the year Nelson Mandela was released from prison after 27 years. This reference interests me. I recall Mandela's world-wide tour following his release. I went to one rally. Quarter million people. Skateboarders wearing tie-dyed T-shirts. Cumulus clouds of cannabis. A sign that read: End APART-HATE Now! "No Woman No Cry" coming from the loudspeakers. And then Mandela jaunting onstage, fists dancing to the Bob Marley tune, smiling that smile, as people stood and roared and the music changed to "One Love". And then that absolute hush as he spoke of courage, hope, and freedom.
That's not what Barbara's going on about though. "Stupid. You had people vastly different from one another by virtue of culture, religion, language, economic levels and race, yet the whole world expected them to live harmoniously together overnight," she sighs. "But whites lost heavily. Dispossessed, really. In the end, we feared we'd be necklaced and ran for our lives."
A nurse carrying a clipboard squeaky-shoes into the waiting area and calls out, "Abdallah Hassan?"
Barbara goes on, "See, wogs first. That's the whole problem with this so-called multiculturalism. There's a hidden agenda. And no one wants to talk about it." She looks at me for a second and adds, "But I suppose you're a multiculturalist?"
I'm trying hard not to picture Barbara rolling down the road necklaced in a burning tire, a wheel on fire. All I really want to do is catch the China report on the telly, but I don't want to be rude. "Aw, look, to tell you the truth, "I say, "I'm not sure I know what a multiculturalist is, or what the suffix -ist is all about. At the end of the day, the world's made up of many, many cultures, whether you care to believe it or not. Mostly, it's just the same old story of learning to tolerate people you may not understand very well or like very much once you do."
"Well, that's an improvement over a lot of the claptrap I hear," she answers. "Some people seem to think we should all be striving to live together in happy Christian brotherhood."
She says this with such pique that I'm physically startled. Her son seems deaf to it, as he munches down the fries. I'm thinking, broken arms may be the least of his worries growing up. I'm normally garrulous, but all I want to do now is sit here quietly absorbing my daughter's pain by psychical osmosis until the nurse calls us in. I don't need this wall of white noise.
"Where's your wife?" asks Barbara, with a look of couched suspicion.
"Working," I shrug.
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