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Phil Roberts 1957 (Melbourne)
I remember it as if a recent event
In October 1959, on a rainy day,
My father, a bricklayer by profession
Did his mum a favour while she was away.
He tore down her grotty old paling fence
To build a lovely brick one in its place,
Unaware how it would hit the fan
When she returned home the following day.
For me, that day would bring great change
It turned my life completely around,
As standing on the bitumen pavement
We heard a familiar Melbourne sound:
Yes, even as we built the fence
Melbourne’s rains poured mightily down,
By the time I made it into Alfie’s van
I looked like the rat proverbially drowned.
Not quite three years old in 1959
I passed out thinking I was dead,
But woke up around at Flemington Road
Reclining upon a hospital bed.
At first, the verdict was not too dire
I had developed a simple case of flu,
But as the days turned into weeks
At last, they had a better clue.
Born with a latent disease inside
The flu had activated the illness,
And though the doctors fought for me
They said the prognosis was not the best.
Nephrotic Syndrome was the verdict
A lethal form of kidney disease,
With no cure known or likely soon
They said I’d die of failing kidneys.
Still, my family did not lose hope
Though I was too young to know the worst,
And enjoyed the attention I now received
From family, doctors, and lovely nurses.
Still, I missed my brother and two sisters
Hospitals didn’t allow children to visit then,
So I asked how long ‘fore I could see them
But my parents could not tell me when.
Instead, they took me o’er to the window
And told me to peer out through the glass,
Where I would see John, Cheryl, and Denise
Standing below waving from the grass.
But blind as a bat even back then
Six storeys were too far down to see,
No sign of Cheryl or John was there
Or through my visual fog, Denise.
Still, my parents pointed and pointed
Unaware of the problem that I had,
For another ten years, they wouldn’t know
How my eyesight was truly bad.
So in the hospital bed, I lay
Treated by a lovely redheaded lady, Anne,
Doctor Anne Morgan to be precise
A better, kinder doctor than any man.
She would treat me over the next eight years
As in and out of the hospital I went,
Sometimes home weeks, sometimes mere days
Till back to Flemington Road I was sent.
The treatment she gave was from the heart
She treated me almost like her own son,
Anne Morgan was a healer of high repute
She did for me all that could be done.
Though in those days women doctors were rare
And my parents at first were a little unsure,
But stranger things were soon to be
Walking right there ‘cross the hospital floor.
A burly man built like a fighter
Who to all our surprise was a male nurse,
If women doctors were scarce in those days
A male nurse was something never heard.
Still, he helped treat me and carry me when
I had to be moved from bed to wheelchair,
Or taken down to X-ray or treatment rooms
Or when no trolley was handy there.
I remember him after all these years
Though long ago I forgot his name,
But I remember his love of helping the sick
Though this good man did not get any fame.
He loved his patients like his own kids
He also loved his precious goldfish,
In an aquarium right there in our ward
He hand-fed them from a little dish.
He’d measure food careful into the dish
So his beloved pets were not overfed,
Because goldfish eat all that they’re given
Until they burst and end up dead.
Then one summer he went on holidays
After first coaching the female nurses good,
How to feed his beloved goldfish
Until he was certain that they understood.
For three long weeks, he was away
Before returning to see his golden fish,
But sadly he was not fulfilled
And failed to get this simple wish.
For the first time in my tender life
I heard a medical person curse,
The nurses had overfed his goldfish
Until every single fish had burst!
In my time in the Royal Children’s Hospital
I met and made a few new pals,
One a boy named Philip, like me except
That he spelt his name with two ‘Ls’.
Phillip had difficulty making friends
For he was a shy and gentle soul,
Who lived a short sometimes lonely life
And had just one simple goal:
His goal was simply to be liked
And to make friends with everyone,
But until he met up with me that year
Poor Phillip had had very little fun.
Dying of leukaemia I know now
He had had hours of chemotherapy,
Until all his hair had fallen out
Until not a friend could he see.
But his baldness meant nought to me
I was hardly Prince Charming myself,
So we played together happily all-day
And I like to believe in some way I helped.
Then one day Phillip did not come to play
But I saw his parents with red eyes,
Crying out in the corridor
And later I was told that he had died.
His mother gave me a toy to thank me
For playing with Phillip until the end,
When the other kids laughed at his baldness
Cruelly refusing to even be his friend.
But not every day in the hospital was sad
Not every night-time brought us grief,
Life could be sheer fun at times
Even if the joy was sometimes brief.
I remember a boy, I think named Tom
Who boasted he would escape from hospital,
He worked out a clever escape plan he said
With virtually no danger involved at all.
Although the windows were securely locked
To stop young children from falling out,
In summer they let them down a few inches
And Tom said he’d squeeze through without a doubt.
Of course, this made us giggle and laugh
The gap was at the very top you see,
And despite Tom’s ever frequent boasts
We said he wasn’t agile enough to flee.
“Besides,” said Maria, “we’re on the sixth floor
So what good would be climbing out?”
But Tom had seen a drain pipe not far outside
And was sure that he could scramble down.
Despite our laughs and scepticism
Tom stacked books up till he could reach the gap,
Then to our amazement and to our horror
He scrambled out without looking back.
We watched in terror waiting for a scream
As he fell to his death many storeys below,
Though wait as we did, no scream rang out
Though what this meant we did not know.
For hours we waited for some sign of Tom
Wondering if we would ever see him again,
Then from the corridor, we heard footsteps
As the night had nearly passed away.
Finally, a nurse walked into the ward
Leading Tom, our fearless friend,
Then closed and locked the window properly
So he couldn’t get out again.
We waited till the nurse had departed
To ask Tom what he’d been up to,
He swore he’d reached the tin drain pipe
Just as he said that he would do.
He climbed down slowly to the fifth floor
Then the fourth and then the third,
Then the second, then first
Until his plans, all came adrift.
On the first floor, there was an overhang
With twelve full feet down to the ground,
The drain pipe ended at the overhang
So there was no way for him to get down.
Impressed by this we went to sleep
And waited for breakfast time to come,
When it did though we learnt the truth
Of just what Tom had truly done.
Climbing from the window he reached the pipe
Then was too terrified to try to go down,
He spent the night clinging to the pipe
Till near first light, he was finally found.
Tom refused to admit this awful truth
Valiantly clinging to his moment of glory,
But for the next week, we laughed at him
All choosing to believe the nurse’s story.
But hospitals treat the sick and dying
So though we had a few happy days,
In the end, death would come to visit us
And one of our friends would be taken away.
After Phillip died Marie was my best friend
A wild girl who chewed thermometers in half,
To get to the mercury inside to play
Never afraid of swallowing the broken glass.
Though the nurses chided her
And the doctors loudly told her off,
In her quest to collect the mercury
Maria simply would not be stopped.
She’d roll mercury round the grey top
Of her metal bedside cabinet,
Stroking it like a miniature cat
Eager for all the mercury she could get.
Maria was in the ward for many months
On my own longest hospital stay,
Until she was taken for an operation
Late in the afternoon one fatal day.
We waited up for her return
Till into the ward, Morpheus did creep,
And despite our best intentions
One by one we all fell asleep.
The next day breakfast came and went
Still, Maria had not yet returned,
Then finally just before lunchtime
The dreadful truth we all did learn.
Maria had had a brain operation
The doctor’s performed the previous night,
A simple operation they all thought
Which they expected to go all right.
But the operation had not gone to plan
And we would not see Maria again,
So in the space of a few short months
I had lost my two very best friends.
Then at last I got a stay at home
Though not for all that many days,
But after the deaths of Phillip and Maria
It felt so good to be home again.
John, Denise, and Cheryl welcomed me home
And told me how badly I had been missed,
But soon their mood would change again
The next time we had fish and chips.
With my kidneys still retaining water
I was told no salt was I to eat,
And very little was I to drink, and
No milk, no cheese, and just a little meat.
Mum announced on my first day home
That she would prepare us a special treat,
Alfie went down to buy fish and chips
While mum stayed home to cook some meat.
Steak and chips was a rare delicacy
For our poor family at that time,
Yet after one bite, they spat the chips out
Glaring as though the fault were all mine.
“There’s no salt on the chips, mum!” cried Denise
And mum explained that salt made me hold water,
My three siblings turned to glare toward me
Making me at three-foot, feel even shorter.
Late the next evening John and I were bathing
I bemoaned to John that I was dying of thirst,
Filling up a plastic pail with the bathwater
He held it toward me and said it’d cure the curse.
As I started to drink deeply from the pail
From the doorway, I heard my mother scream,
Then slowly everything began to swirl
Like in some psychaedelic dream.
Some hours later when I finally came to
I almost could not believe what I saw,
Doctors and nurses swarmed around my bed
I realised I was back in the hospital ward.
Not on the death list though this time
As I had been many times before,
But it would be a few months from now
Before my home and siblings, I saw.
A major problem this time for me
I had no appetite of any kind,
There was nothing I felt like eating
Leaving the nurses and doctors in a bind.
They tried to lure me with steak and chips
Or a rare delicacy, like roast chicken,
But although the smell brought my hunger on
As soon as I saw food my appetite went.
Finally with threats of force-feeding
Reluctantly I agreed to try to eat,
But instead, I had found a cunning way
To dispose of all the roasted meat.
I had found in a playroom a window
That could be opened a few inches for air,
So out the window went all the drum-sticks
Convinced that they’d never find them there.
But the following day Anne Morgan came
To tell me that my subterfuge had been found,
For people on the first floor had been shocked
As by their window chicken came raining down.
I had forgotten about the first-floor overhang
Where the chicken had landed with a crash,
Alerting the first-floor staff as chicken
Was followed by greens, carrots, and mash.
Still, my appetite would not return
Despite the rollicking that Anne Morgan gave,
And despite the treats, lollies and meat
There seemed not a thing that I craved.
Still, in time my hunger returned
And eventually, I would begin to eat,
No longer throwing potatoes out windows
No longer throwing out veggies, dessert, or meat.
A Methodist as my family then was
Each Sunday I would be taken along,
To the hospital chapel where I would enjoy
Singing all the religious songs.
In the chapel, I learnt harsh facts of life
Seeing for the first time amputees,
Children without any arms or legs
Victims of accidents or disease.
One boy had nothing below the knees
And had to be wheeled everywhere,
Living his life seated down
In a great wooden-sided wheel-chair.
A boy I remember with a hand of steel
An early attempt at a metal prosthesis,
Still, in the chapel, we all praised the lord
And all of us seemed to be happy kids.
Then later there were other children
Deformed the likes I had never seen,
With flippers where there should be arms
One girl had no face that I could see:
No facial features of any kind
No mouth, no cheeks, no eyes to see,
The tiniest slash for a mouth
So that she could both eat and breathe.
Many of these children could not speak
Like the faceless girl, they could not see,
I assumed they were victims of car crashes
Or some other form of tragedy.
I remember these armless, legless kids
The doctors as puzzled as I was,
We could all see the horrific results
But no-one yet did know the cause.
Despite the efforts of nurses and doctors
Many of these mutant children died,
More than twenty years later I finally learnt
That they were victims of Thalidomide.
Yes Thalidomide babies did proliferate
And fill the wards in the early ‘60s,
But the term Thalidomide was not yet known
Even by the doctors, let alone by me.
For the next few years, I would see the babies
That one day soon would be known worldwide,
The victims of the apathy of big business
Who was happy to see young children die.
In those days my talents were not for writing
Instead as a child, I loved to draw,
But my parents could not afford pencils or paper
Since our family were almost inconceivably poor.
But my Aunty Helen solved the problem
She brought me pencils with which to draw,
And then instead of note pads or paper
From her work, she brought in sheets of thin cardboard.
Cardboard sheets less than an eighth-inch thick
More like thick paper than true cardboard,
Then in between operations and examinations
I could happily sketch and readily draw.
My favourite subject to draw was fish
Closely followed by cars, then trains,
And submarines got a look in too
As, of course, did aeroplanes.
My drawings now are all lost in time
Virtually none at all do remain,
With the exception perhaps of a single one
A drawing of an ancient steam train.
My family and I had been on it but once
But I never forgot the Puffing Billy train,
So when I set out to draw that day
I had trains and steam firmly on my brain.
My Aunty Margery, in fact, a family friend
Ran a kindergarten out in Maidstone way,
She was so delighted by my drawing that
She gave pride of place to my puffing train.
A decade later when I went with mum
Out to Aunty Margery’s kindergarten,
To my surprise, I would see
My Puffing Billy steam train again.
She had framed it and hung it on the wall
And after a decade it still remained,
As I believe it did till 2001
When Aunty Margery finally passed away.
Still, in 1964 I did not know that
For decades one of my drawings would survive,
With Nephrotic Syndrome and jaundice as well
I just figured myself lucky to be alive.
As a bid to stop my kidney illness
Since Nephrotic Syndrome still cannot be cured,
They had tried every treatment known
And many of which they were still unsure.
I remember them snapping the lids right off
Tiny glass phials of clear liquid,
Then treat me like a pin cushion
Instead of like a pre-teen kid.
Over a period of years, I was injected
Seemingly thousands of times,
Till needles were the only thing I thought of
Needles and injections always on my mind.
I had swallowed seemingly tons of penicillin
Cursing Howard Florey with every single one,
I had to take tablets of every colour and size
But the other main one was cortisone.
I was injected with Imuran for swelling and scarring
And also with drugs like triamcinolone,
But when nothing else was working they tried
Injecting me with steroids like prednisolone.
Then Anne Morgan had gone on vacation
And a loco locum had taken over my case,
A man who over-prescribed and brought
Yellow jaundice to my body and face.
He had prescribed Methyl Testosterone
But had over-prescribed the medication,
And I came down with yellow jaundice
To my parents’s great aggravation.
In that final year, there were other things
Other adventures that I did have,
But most of them so minor that they are
Barely worth the trouble to try to save.
There was lovely old Manuella
A cleaning lady loved by all the kids,
Until one day she stopped coming round
Because of what they said she did.
One day she was caught with her apron full
Of Matchbox cars and other toys,
Which from time to time she would steal
From the sickly girls and boys.
She took them home to her grandkids
Until the day that she was caught,
And brought the toys back then was fired
Which made all us kids distraught.
Then there was my mother’s pearl-handled cutlery
A rare set she’s got as a wedding present,
They had barely been used till 1964
When to me in the hospital they were sent.
She thought they would cheer me up
Instead of using the plain hospital set,
These were expensive and beautiful
The finest we were ever likely to get.
Then one day after lunch I left them
Upon my finished dinner plate,
And by the time that I remembered them
It was certainly far too late.
The nurses searched the scullery
But did not have any success,
My mother’s cutlery was never found
So I had to make do with second best.
They said someone must have thrown them out
A careless mistake by the scullery help,
But, of course, even then we all knew the truth
That one of the staff had helped themselves.
I remember meeting the Queen and Philip
In 1963, if I remember right,
All the hospital was in euphoria
At this unexpected delight.
I was riding around the hospital wards
In a bright red iron peddle-car,
When I crashed into Prince Philip's leg
Hopefully without leaving a scar.
Looking down at this terrified child
He said, "May I see your licence?"
But then the queen's broad smile
Made me realise his sternness was pretence.
I cannot end my tales of Flemington Road
Without relating one final escapade,
When midway through 1964 we learnt
That, “The Beatles are on the way!”
Yes, in 1964 the young nurses were agog
“The Beatles are coming!” they cried all day,
But we didn’t know what a Beatle was
So we didn’t know what to possibly say.
As far as we knew they crawled in the garden
And you stood on them to hear the crunch,
And birds would swoop down to grab them up
To carry them off to have for their lunch.
But when we said that to the young nurses
They gave us the most withering glance,
“The Beatles are John, Paul, George, and Ringo!
The world’s greatest rock-and-roll band!”
Still, the Beatles meant nothing to us kids
So the young nurses treated us with contempt,
Our ignorance it seems was beyond belief
“Just wait till you get to see them!”
Yes, the nurses were somehow all convinced
The Beatles would drive past Flemington Road,
And we would all be able to lean out and watch
As the greatest thing since Elvis was on the go.
But if the Beatles ever drove through Melbourne
They didn’t drive through Flemington at all,
So the young nurses excited and all agog
Were soon down heartened and crestfallen.
After 1964 I was an out-patient for three years
But never had to go into the hospital again,
And after 120+ verses to tell this tale
I suppose this is where the tale must end.
© Copyright 2021, Philip Roberts
Melbourne, Victoria, Australia
About this poem
An epic poem about 5 years of my life, from age 3 to age 8. It's remarkable, how much of that time I still remember.
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"FLEMINGTON ROAD, FLEMINGTON" Poetry.com. STANDS4 LLC, 2021. Web. 19 Sep. 2021. <https://www.poetry.com/poem/104020/flemington-road,-flemington>.