Editor’s Note: This story discusses severe mental illness and suicide.
Thirteen eleven fourteen. Lifeline. That wasn’t the first number I called. I called the closest hospital instead. I got Margaret, after Princess Margaret, she would have been in her sixties or older. She sounded nice, like a canteen lady.
Hello, can I talk to someone about my son?
You can talk to me.
This Margaret sounded like a real mum. The warmth and natural way she spoke told me she wouldn’t refuse a biscuit with her morning tea.
He won’t leave the house. He thinks he might kill someone.
Right… (Calm, encouraging.)
She’d wear tracksuit pants after work, grey or navy. She might even wear them to work.
She wanted to know how long this had been going on. I told her. At the same time I surprised myself by choking up when I heard myself giving the details. It made it easy somehow, now that I was talking to someone else about it, someone who didn’t know us. Up until then I’d pretty much held it together for everyone’s sake. As you do.
Margaret was the kind of mum who held it together. She’d make sure the family was invited round for Sunday roast and she wouldn’t skimp on the potatoes. The gravy would be Gravox Supreme straight from the box mixed with fat from the tin. She’d remember Sunday roasts up the bush when she was a kid. River red gum on the fire, beanies and gloves for a chilly winter out in the paddocks. Snap back.
It made it easy somehow, now that I was talking to someone else about it, someone who didn’t know us.
I say, He’s had this before, a couple of times, but it seems worse this time. When he was fifteen we were having a tough time and his dad left home for a while. I had to send him under the house to turn the water tap off. I couldn’t get him back out. He even had to sleep in my bed he got so scared.
Yes, she says in that long drawn out way that I take as an invitation to tell her more. I don’t need much encouragement.
He can’t be left alone. Now he won’t drive in case there’s a baby trapped under the car. He’s sure he’s put Ratsak in the jug and it’s going to kill someone when they make a coffee. He has to check the oven knobs, locks, everything. He seems to have completely shut down. We think he might do something silly.
Is he taking any medication? she asks.
Valium, we think, but it’s not stopping these thoughts. He’s stopped eating. I don’t think he sleeps. We’re all exhausted.
Okay. (Not quick or sharp; nice and gentle.)
I wonder if Margaret dyed her hair. She might be greying under a few caramel foils. Nurses don’t do grey, do they? That’s another thing going for them. But I wasn’t sure.
Also, I wasn’t sure that Margaret was a nurse. She must have been to take this call, unless she was on the switchboard or a cleaner. Joke. What level was she? What made her qualified to help my boy? Could she be enough to help him tonight? I wanted to think so but I didn’t ask. She had me convinced.
Another thing that surprised me was the silence. It was like she was completely alone in a tiny room without the usual clatter, shuffle and background chat you get in a hospital. There wasn’t a sound around her. It was just us and it was very comforting.
And what signs do you see that worry you, especially tonight?
I tell her about the time he went snowboarding in Canada but couldn’t get any work. He was stuck in a strange house in the middle of nowhere, all on his own. He went funny then. But when he broke up with his girlfriend after he got back home, he got really bad. He kept checking to make sure he’d locked his car, turned off the light, not put staples in someone’s lunch, that kind of thing.
It was like she was completely alone, without the usual noise you get in a hospital. It was just us and it was very comforting.
I remembered one Sunday. We’d been away all weekend and so we asked him to light the fire. When we got there, he was sitting alone in the dark. It was the middle of winter and he hadn’t even got the wood in. He was staring into space but not seeing anything. He seemed paralysed. We didn’t really talk about it, but later it came out that he’d started seeing someone and taking some anti-panic pills. The trouble was he was so spaced out he went about in a trance, like a beaten up puppy my husband said.
Right. (Same understanding, filtering the information, working out how to help me.) And what about now?
I knew I’d been rambling, but Margaret understood. I knew people like her. She and her husband would be planning their retirement, towing a caravan across Australia, crawling up the east coast with the nomads. Her hubby was just up to it with his dodgy prostate and bad knee. She’d have to be grey then, to be part of the tribe, and she wouldn’t mind a bit. They’d make new friends around the barbecue, invite them to stay and later get invites to Newcastle or go to their funerals even. This wouldn’t faze Margaret. She quite enjoyed a funeral because it meant catching up with the girls, getting the latest goss, talking about the grandkids and showing photos. The way funerals these days made you laugh and cry, beautiful, she thought. Let’s face it, they were pure theatre, not to mention the sausage rolls and mini pizzas at the wake.
They’d dash home for the birth of the first grandchild. She’d knit a matinee jacket in multi-coloured acrylic for the new baby and never for a minute consider Baby Gap or Mini Armani or any of that stupid designer stuff the youngsters were into. She could never imagine putting one of her grandchildren in denim jeans and lace up runners.
Wherever she and Ken were, they’d phone home once a week. You could just see them: Margaret under the awning with her glass of Prosecco and cheese nibbles, feeling a million dollars; Ken, belly billowing over his khaki shorts, signing in at six o’clock on the dot at the Maroochydore RSL—chicken parmigiana and chips in good company—white runners under the laminex table and what’s your email?
The thing is, I have a son. He thinks he’s going to kill someone. Every time he drives past a cemetery he thinks he might have murdered someone in there. Driving over a bump he thinks he’s run over a child and he goes back sometimes ten times. He’s had to stop driving. The police are coming for him. He’s that soft I think he’ll kill himself first, for sure, maybe tonight. One in ten commits suicide. I read this but I haven’t told my husband. It’s already killing him.
He sounds psychotic.
Check. I’ve called him a few things in my time, but psychotic? That’s a new one. She doesn’t sound like a doctor. She’s seen too many American dramas.
We can send a team out to bring him in. The CAT team.
What! That fierce panther emergency unit that springs into action, called out to schizos, psychos, maddos. My son is a maddo? You read about them. Psychotic! If he’s psychotic then why can’t we bring him in the car quietly (or relatively quietly) and let him stay there in a nice warm bed for a while without this CAT team? The wild cat seems a bit extreme. We would just like him admitted to give us all a breather.
Ken would have a few too many drinks on a Friday night after work. He wouldn’t say a lot. He would be one of those old school types—tired by 6pm, asleep in the chair by 8pm and knackered by Friday. Every evening he’d have a tinnie or two of Carlton Draught with the Channel 9 news, shushing her when it came to sport and weather.
Ken was the kind of bloke who wanted to be left alone to fix, fight, die watching footy. So why can’t my boy be happy on his own, get back to work, clear his mind, be normal. It sounds stupid but I can remember being twelve and having to go to secondary school. I went through this weird phase of having to line the toilet seat with paper even before a pee. It was the germs. I still can’t use a public toilet.
And on my way to the new school there was a red brick wall on one of the houses on the estate. I was sure those rough edges were heading straight for my eyeballs. I had to shield my eyes every time I walked past. Then I got headaches when I couldn’t get algebra. I took six weeks off my first year at secondary school. I’ve never told anybody before.
I say, We want to know if you can take him for a couple of weeks. Could he be sedated? Would this help him? Make the thoughts go away? Not have to worry about everything. He thinks he’s going do something bad. We’d have him here with us, but he won’t come. He’s twenty-eight. He lives on his own. We’re very worried about him.
Zip. That’s the medical term for No chance can he get a bed here, madam, and that’s the word she uses—Zip. I now question whether she’s even a nurse. I’ve never heard medical professionals use language like this. It’s still very quiet there, not a sound in the background.
Our boy is a regular guy. You wouldn’t pick it. He’s finished his apprenticeship. He does a bit of fishing in his spare time, likes the outdoors, camping, the usual. He’s got a few mates. He’s not that tall but the girls love him. He’s got blonde curly hair, bright blue eyes, a bit vulnerable but with muscle. You know the sort. The kind of bloke you see on those reality TV shows doing the home makeovers. Not as chatty but a bit of an action man.
Our boy is a regular guy. You wouldn’t pick it. He’s just moved into a townhouse with his new girlfriend. They seem happy together, but I don’t know how long it can last if he keeps going like he is.
He’s just moved into a townhouse with his new girlfriend. They seem happy together, but I don’t know how long it can last if he keeps going like he is. We think he’s stressing because he’s got to find a new job and, he wouldn’t tell us, but we think he might have a few money problems, but nothing more than your average 28-year-old these days.
No, we can’t admit him.
It’s then I see how well-trained Margaret is. She is so used to this. She’s done Conflict Resolution Cert II. Stay calm. Keep that soft, monotone voice. Say how much you understand, empathise, you know how they feel. She has learned the voice. She knows how to do the voice. It works. I’ve done it myself.
Is he seeing someone? A psychiatrist, a counsellor?
I wonder what I’m dealing with now. This is Margaret who couldn’t have her own kids, no way.
I’m afraid we don’t have the beds. He would have to be threatening suicide and then we can send in the CAT team.
That fucking CAT team. A bunch of SAS wannabes, leaping across rooftops, rapelling down walls, smashing through windows, snatching him out of the bath with a grappling hook where he’s opened up his arteries with that hunting knife we gave him for Christmas, spearing him with a lion tamer like Zoloft or some bloody thing, tying him to the Bat gurney, revving the Bat turbos, cranking the Batwings, shooting him into Bat Ward 0 for nutters.
I say, He can’t be left alone. He’s saying he can’t go on anymore. We don’t know what to do. Is there any way he can get a bed for a night or two, just to settle him and stop these thoughts.
I am calm, rational. I haven’t lost it once since the first choke-up early in the piece, but it’s also clear now that Margaret doesn’t have a husband. Ken went off with her best friend, Marlene, twenty years ago. She dyes her hair mahogany from the supermarket. The roots show through. She lives alone.
He can’t come in as a voluntary patient.
I’ll give you a number that he can call 24/7 if he thinks he might do something.
She does this every day of the week. She gets paid to do this. She does it for the money. She could put the phone down any minute but she won’t because I could sue her when we discover that our boy has taken a tow rope from the back of his ute, tied it with the right knot, looped it over the bedroom door and kicked away the dining room chair. The one from IKEA, the Harry chair he bought for the new house, fifty bucks, white.
Have you got a pen?
She gives me the number. The next day at morning tea, dunking a Kingston cream, Margaret says, Some people think I’m God.
And I say, Thank you for your time.
An earlier version of this story was shortlisted for the Overland Fair Australia Prize.