Category Archives: Memoir

Dangerous Writing Literary Fiction Memoir

Dollarbirds by Melissa Ashley

Dollarbirdsmelissa-ashley

24 March

Early Wednesday morning my sister drives me to the private hospital. My name’s called in the waiting room and I’m led through double doors, shown into a small office. A nurse dressed in green questions me about fasting, allergies, former operations. I’m weighed, ‘so they give you the right amount of anaesthetic,’ and handed blue-green scrubs for my hair and feet. I remove all clothing except my underpants and am tied into a gown. The nurse clips a nametag around my wrist, joking about not getting me muddled up with somebody else.

‘It happens, you know.’

I nod, recalling a news item about a hand transplant in which the patient’s left hand was joined onto his right arm and vice versa.

She leans forward, intimate. ‘I worked in Saudi Arabia. The female patients can’t be seen by the male surgeons. They wait on the stretchers like dead bodies, completely covered. Once, we performed neurosurgery on a cardiac patient.’

‘How terrible,’ I offer. How feeble I sound.

She squeezes my hand. ‘You’ve made the right choice with Dr Knight. He’s very good. The best. Like an artist.’

I’m moved to a curtained room with Ronnie to wait. Dr Knight breezes in. That’s his air. I’m told to take off my gown (my sister steps outside) to pose for several ‘before’ photographs, shot with a digital camera, which I’m shown immediately on the LCD. With a felt pen, Dr Knight draws crude lines, circles, and dots on my breasts and nipples. Nervous, I’m prone to gush nonsensically, but I recognise this part of the procedure as crucial. I keep still and steady my breathing. Picture what my artist-surgeon sees. Make myself stop.

I’m helped to ease the gown back on. The rest of the team arrives; pressure stockings are rolled onto my feet and legs, my bag put in a locker, my sister sent home with a kiss. The anaesthetist introduces himself and asks about allergies and surgical history. He’s tricked me, painlessly sliding a cannula into the back of my hand and organising the tubing, lining up a syringe.

I wake up near the nurses’ station. They’re talking loudly and taking food from the fridge, spooning coffee. There’s a commercial radio station on—the offending machine sits above the microwave—playing easy tunes interspersed with talkback. Shush, I want to say. Can’t you see I’m trying to sleep? A hair-netted nurse checks how I’m doing. I tell her there’s a magazine in my bag, would she mind getting it out for me to read? I’m terribly bored. ‘You have to rest,’ she says. I’ve no idea of the time. After an age she returns, says my sister’s on her way. I’m supported to hobble into another recovery area, TV blaring, and supplied with a plastic triangle of ham sandwiches, asked how I like my tea.

 

25 March

 

For Ronnie’s house-warming present, I had a print of First Fleet lieutenant George Raper’s ‘Dollarbird’ watercolour professionally framed. I bought it at the National Library of Australia’s gift shop, while in Canberra to attend a symposium about Angela Carter and fairy tales. She’s hung it above the light switch in the guest bedroom, on the piece of wall jutting from the built-in wardrobe. I’m surprised. I really thought she liked it. She certainly behaved as if she did when she unwrapped the paper. She’s my sister; I know her expressions. Maybe she re-evaluated her enthusiasm when she got it home and found it didn’t quite match her city apartment’s wheat and linen colour scheme. The turquoise of the bird’s breast feathers and the indigo of its wing tips, I’d thought the perfect accent, given her rhapsodies on interior design’s reclamation of teal. Maybe the orange–red beak put her off. I’m confused. Aren’t birds all the rage in Better Homes and Gardens, Old World watercolours with that stiff, flat quality? Is the frame too ostentatious? Whatever it is, I’ve got something wrong. In my drugged-out state, disappointment transforms into rejection: I’ve failed her.

I stand at the half-length mirror in the bathroom. I’m general-anaesthetic yellow, like they’ve overloaded my liver. Powered me down and booted me back up. So sedated that if I sign something legal in the next twenty-four hours, I can’t be bound to it. I undo my pyjama shirt and unclip the hook and eye fastenings on the surgical bra. It slips off. Underneath, I’m wound with a thick bandage, over the top of gauze and surgical strips. I’m definitely smaller. The Elastoplast bandage is like the ruched bodice of a sundress, a signature item of femininity I’ve never been able to pull off. Strapless, I square my shoulders. I can’t quite express how minus two kilograms of breast matter feels—the tissue is mostly fat and glands and has always just been there, dragging at me, a saddle of flesh. I put the bra and my top back on, wincing at the tenderness in my lower right breast. I check the time in the kitchen but it’s another hour until I can take more pain killers.

I walk dazedly to the guest room and climb in bed. I rest and sleep propped on a pile of body contour cushions. On the bedside table are fibre supplements, zinc for the scarring, anica drops—I’m fiercely against homeopathy but bought it on the plastic surgeon’s advice—Di-Gesic, Diazepam, Panadeine, cold Lady Gray tea, tissues, Anna Karenina, Vanity Fair.

Raper’s dollarbird perches on a stub of branch that’s been stuck into a round of bare grass. The bird’s orange-red beak is parted, its short, thick neck inclined towards a large mosquito, which it’s about to pluck from the air, a style of representation common to the era. Apart from the open mouth, there’s little movement in the body, most likely painted from a corpse or skin. The library dates composition at 1788, but with a tentative, bracketed question mark. I forgive the image its flatness. These are early days in the field of ornithology, before Audubon’s wild arrangements of stuffed birds made to strike life-like poses using wire, branches, fruits and moss. Before British taxidermist John Gould, who classified camphor-preserved hummingbirds for twenty years prior to crossing the Atlantic to observe a living one. Not that you could tell from the lithographs he produced. The eyes of Raper’s dollarbird are large, almost black, with a gold-brown ring. The feathers under its neck are royal blue, as are its wings, except for the splash of white in the centre, from where it derives its name; apparently the spot’s the same size as an American silver dollar. The bird’s body is turquoise, in shades that encompass the stone’s pale milky teal as well as the Aztec blue more commonly associated with the colour. Here Raper’s brushstrokes are made with a single bristle. It reminds me of a schoolchild’s felt-tip colouring, where, instead of rubbing the pen backwards and forwards, the child creates a series of closely crabbed lines. The flat, stout tail is lifelike, but the orange claws and feet are too small for a creature that only expends itself at roost or on the wing.

read more »