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.

26 March

 

There’s a Shiraz stain on my lower right breast. The skin surrounding the nipple tape is the liver yellow of a week old shiner. The palette shifts and changes and I wonder about the chemicals that cause the discolouration. How the spilled haemoglobin transforms from purple-black through to blue, mellowing into green and then lingering, stubbornly, at jaundice. It’s a complex yellow, the excess pigment fading and fading until a mere residual. I try and picture what’s going on inside the cells—repair, regrowth and readjustment, obviously—but beyond these generalities I possess no real knowledge. Just information—physiology from my psych training, access to Google Images and Wrong Diagnosis, an avid capacity for fantasy—all of which combine into a recipe for the perfect freak out.

I collect birds’ nests. Not intentionally. I’ve only ever found three and two of those were with my partner, Jon, and he spotted them before me. So, technically, only one. I’ve amassed around fifteen. Some are sewn onto card and framed in shadow boxes. I have a currawong’s nest from friends in Greenbank, inside a case that once held a bottle of tawny port. There are spares in a couple of shoeboxes under the bed. Jon keeps one padded with tennis ball fluff on his writing desk; I have a matching twin, the insulation a similar cushiony fibre, but white. My favourite’s a pear-shaped nest, with a small twig woven into the top, like a stem, where it attached to a branch. It fits into my palm, a bisected breast or womb. I like it more than my most sophisticated nest, donated by my father-in-law, which I store in a lockable cabinet. It’s still connected to the supporting branch, the exterior strips of paperbark, the rim made of ballerina tulle and birthday present ribbon. Brown rush softens the base. I’ve lost count how many people have questioned its authenticity.

In front of the currawong’s nest are two toffee tins from the fifties, robins painted on one, parrots on the other. I run my finger over them, and the deck of playing cards, each with a different European bird on its face, sent by my sister as a gift when she lived in England.

 

31 March

 

A week after the operation I travel to hospital to have the dressings removed. I lie with my top off on a disposable sheet on a narrow cot. Jon sits in the chair beside the sink. The nurse, Suzy, is firm and kind. She rubs solution on the tape to dissolve the adhesive, gently peeling away the dressing. She trims the end of a suture that’s pushed through the skin. ‘They do that,’ she shrugs. She instructs Jon on how to remove and reapply the dressings, in two weeks, and in another two weeks, and in another two weeks again. She’s not sure about a nylon stitch in my nipple and calls Dr Knight. He’ll want to have a look anyway.

‘You all right?’ I ask Jon. ‘Not put off me?’

‘I can deal with it,’ he replies, bemused.

We’re practically smug.

Dr Knight beams over his handiwork. ‘You’re doing great. They’re healing well.’

I grin like a creature without language, having achieved with just my body.

 

1 April

 

I snap two lilies off the West German vase of get well flowers, dying and already dead, the remainder okay. I arrange them on my desk and hunt for the camera. One is brownish-plum, the other brownish-white, the former coming apart as I adjust it, the filaments and petals scattering. The petal-tissue is so weakened the touch of my finger damages it. Up close like this it’s a skin, registering a colour spectrum that includes lavender, lilac, plum, and vein blue. On the surface are bumps—to guide insect feet, I believe—but they remind me of imperfections on human skin. If I run my finger down to the centre of the intact flower, the bumps change into aggressive little nodules, hairy outcrops; I feel the roughened ends pull into the folded creases of the receptacle. Though dead, the stigma and style retain their chloroform green. The stigma’s shaped like the head of a praying mantis, something of the insect’s poise in the style also. There’s no trace of the anthers. But I must’ve grazed them, walking away with three scratches on my elbow, the pollen so richly coloured Jon thinks it’s dried blood and asks if I’m okay. Later in the bath I spy a large mustard stain, which exactly mimics the bruise on my breast. Have my skin cells teleported, I fleetingly wonder? Soap’s not strong enough to get it off.

I paid attention to George Raper during research into literary fraud because the narrative that catapulted him to fame sounded too incredible to be true: the discovery of an unsigned, undated cache of priceless watercolours from the First Fleet, gathering dust for a hundred years in a warehouse in the Cotswolds? It’s a bit like attempting to flog a long lost Shakespearean play.

Turns out they’re the real thing.

I caught a TV program about the Dulcie Collection, a recent acquisition of First Fleet material by the National Library of Australia. In 2004, the seventh Earl of Dulcie inventoried his English family estate. A folio of watercolours was opened, the striking quality of the kookaburra on the front page causing its examiner to make a connection with Australia. Experts were consulted and the fifty-six paintings of Australian birds and plants identified as the work of little-known navigator and map-maker, George Raper. Bequeathed to Raper’s mother, upon her death the collection became associated with the estate of Joseph Banks, before passing into the care of the Dulcie family. Denied a public viewing and therefore cultural currency, until 2004 when the Laughing Kookaburra’s blue-flecked wings caught that canny inspector’s eye, it was as if Raper’s paintings had ceased to exist.

It’s Good Friday and I notice a foul smell. The dressings are weeping. I put on a movie and put my feet up; cross my fingers it’ll go away. On Saturday nothing’s changed. I check my sheet of aftercare information, what’s okay and what’s not. The occasional bleeding, the whiffy smell, and the mustard stuff leaking through the surgical bra aren’t normal. But it’s Easter weekend. I decide not to call Dr Knight, changing the bra and blow-drying the damp spare, cleaning the tape with soap and warm water. On Sunday we drive an hour to visit my parents for Easter lunch. My mother’s prepared pork roast, spiced red cabbage and apple sauce. She’s bought a blowtorch from Aldi for $14.00 and makes my dad crackle the brown sugar topping on her homemade crème brulee. In the guest bathroom later I lift the surgical bra so Mum can smell. A recipient and therefore expert on numerous surgeries, she doesn’t like it.
‘You need to contact your doctor.’

I’m not a bird-watcher, a twitter or a tweeter in the old fashioned sense. A lifetime ago I connected with a poem written by Jon that featured a cuckoo-shrike. It was really a reflection on a relationship breaking down, but it provided the context for me to more closely engage with birds.

Dollarbirds are members of the roller family, so named because during breeding season they put on a show to impress their mates, spinning and flipping in the air like trapeze artists and acrobats. They belong to the same order as bee-eaters and kingfishers. I have a soft spot for rainbow bee-eaters; they rub the bees they’ve caught along fence palings to take out the sting before consuming them. Like bee-eaters, dollarbirds catch their prey mid-flight. They’re efficient, have sharp eyes and are well camouflaged, their peacock colours cleverly downplayed. They have no use for grass and flowers, which makes it challenging to view them in good light. Cast mostly in shadow, identification is often determined by their red beak and distinctive silhouette.

I’m almost forty and only six months ago sighted my first dollarbird, despite sharing its half-yearly habitat for most of my life. When I pointed it out, sitting on a telegraph wire on a quiet road in Beaudesert, Jon admitted that it was his first encounter, too.

‘Quite big, isn’t it?’ he remarked, flipping the sun visor for a better view. (They grow to about thirty centimetres.)

Just after that I noticed a mated pair perched on the power lines behind our house. It seemed apt, somehow, that they’d been roosting there on and off for two years and I’d kept wandering by, oblivious.

I imagine Raper making his preliminary sketches. He was such a fan of colour variegation, of the taffeta iridescence of certain feathers under certain light, I’ve no doubt he would have fully enjoyed the dollarbird.

In 1787, before joining the crew of the Sirius, he shopped in London for art supplies, purchasing watermarked paper and a box of the latest in watercolour pigments, which cost him two months’ wages. He was an untrained artist, acquiring much of his technique via the gentleman sailor skills of navigation and map-making. Somewhere in the troubled new settlement he found a place with adequate light where he could sit and concentrate, drawing tools handy. At his feet I picture three, maybe four specimens of dollarbird, freshly shot—male, female, juvenile. He picks up the male, assessing its weight in his hands. Exchanging it for the female, he hangs her claws over his index finger to get the feel of her scaly legs. He flips her over, fanning her wing out to inspect the infamous dollar mark. With a thumbnail he pries her beak apart, making a mental note of the tropical yellow of her mouth. He inks his quill.

 

6 April

 

Easter Monday. I call a friend to discuss dinner arrangements. After showering, I put on a fresh surgical bra; half an hour later, the discharge that’s seeped through the tape, has seeped through the bra’s thick band. It pongs and I don’t know if it’s a good idea to drive halfway across town to a restaurant. All weekend I’ve resisted disturbing Dr Knight, but his phone manner is calm and thorough. He works through a list of questions, followed by a set of instructions, which I scribble across the bottom of a scene map I’ve been writing, the only paper handy. Treating an infection is a process.

‘I need you to take a break,’ I announce to Jon, seated at the kitchen table with a pile of English essays. ‘We’ve got to get the tape off.’

I lie on a towel on the guest bed. Jon dabs oil-soaked cotton balls over the tape to soften the adhesive. I peel one off and then can’t do any more and he takes over. The pus is brown and gross and makes Jon clutch his stomach. Dr Knight calls with a request that we take photos of the cleaned-up incisions and forward them to his Gmail account. I wonder what he’ll charge for the telephone consultation. The infection’s undeniable; a small part of the wound on my right breast has separated. I have to take three showers a day with antibacterial soap and wear sanitary pads to protect the scars. Jon can’t figure out how to attach the Picasa images to an email so I do it while he drives to the seven day chemist to pick up the script Dr Knight phones through. My hands shake as I close the lid of my laptop. The image repeats on me like a heavy lunch all afternoon and I feel a fool posing in the mirror, thinking everything’s already better.

As far as folk bird superstitions go, the dollarbird hasn’t garnered much attention. It’s not renowned like the owl for possessing (hidden) teats that emit poison milk strong enough to choke sleeping infants. It can’t sing. It has no association with tragedy: Roman and German poets haven’t dedicated laments to transgressions committed during its formerly human state. It doesn’t have a thing for goat’s or cow’s milk, swooping down for a suck of udder, leaving tell-tale dripping dugs. If you nail a dead dollarbird to your barn door, it’s entirely useless as a prophylactic against lightning strikes and house fires. Children don’t sing rhymes about it, like the magpie for instance: ‘One for sorrow / two for mirth / three for a wedding’ all the way up to seven, which foresees a meeting with ‘the ‘de’il / himself’, and instigates anxious breast-crossing, complicated counter spells. Affixing a cross to the tree in which the dollarbird raises its young won’t drive the ‘evil’ family out. It can’t screech, nor does it bark at the moon; stirring it into soup won’t cure your child of whooping cough. Placing the heart of a dollarbird on the breast of a virgin won’t make her startle and confess the truth of her larger (and still beating) heart. Eating its eggs, soft boiled or hard, won’t help your fading sight, unravel the future’s web, nor improve your cognition.

There’s a report on the seven o’clock news about trends in plastic surgery. Procedures are on the rise and many women elect to have treatment in private, in secret. They aren’t talking about their experiences with friends, family and peers, and because of this, they’re failing to exchange information about potential pitfalls. The report’s author, who interviewed her sample post-surgery, recommends that when women shop for cosmetic surgery, they should canvas at least three potential candidates. And they shouldn’t feel shy asking how many times a year the practitioner performs the procedure they desire.

 

7 April

 

Dr Knight and his staff, Louise and Suzy, the accountant and nurse who also answer the phones, are on leave. In their place sit Kate and Jeanine. Kate has just had Botox; her left eye is droopy and won’t blink, the right one’s fine. She has large breasts—they seem natural—and ample gold jewellery; bangles and bracelets and chain necklaces. Her attitude is take-charge, like the principal of my daughter’s school.

In the consultation room I take my top off—Jeanine doesn’t even have to ask—and get up on the bed.

‘They don’t look too bad, actually,’ she says. ‘In forty-eight hours, you’ll be feeling much better.’

‘That’s a relief.’ I give a smile that means phew.

‘At six weeks, we can do something about the scars.’

‘Are the scars okay?’

She hesitates. Smiles. ‘They’re fine. Fine,’ she frown-smiles, turning away to wash her hands.

‘Will they be all right in the long run, I mean? Will this—infection—make them worse?’

She hesitates. ‘Not necessarily. No. No, of course not.’ She talks collagen. How, immediately after an operation the body begins producing bucket-loads of the stuff, in excess of what’s actually needed, which makes the scars so raised and red. ‘They’ll simmer down.’

‘In six weeks,’ I say. ‘Got it.’

She discusses a skin product and I sniff a sales pitch, like a new hairdresser trying to slip you some straightening gel at the counter. I don’t know why she keeps banging on about it, when what I’m worried about is the wound breaking down, as I’ve read on the internet, or a dirty big spot expanding the scar. Mid product endorsement, she shakes her thin hands as if flicking soap suds—she’s thin all over—and closes her eyes. ‘What was I saying? Where was I?’

She’s flustered, I realise. She’s finding this harder than me. She mentions twins in day care. I get the picture; try and act more upbeat.

‘Pop in whenever you like,’ she says, ‘if you’re worried at all.’

‘I’ll probably call first.’

‘Oh, no, come in! You don’t need an appointment.’

I don’t feel like telling her that’s not how the clinic operates. Anyway, the place is a two hour round trip from our house.

 

12 April

 

I move between several mirrors, naked, eyes on my new breasts. I like my shape. I don’t care about the scars. Underneath the perforated tape, my areolas have been cut and re-stitched. They’ll heal up slightly unnatural-looking, but I’ve prepared myself. The operation can’t be performed without their alteration. The surgeon takes the skin from above the nipple and stretches it around and below the nipple, to basically reconstruct a new breast. The excess tissue is removed through a combination of liposuction and simple excision. The mammary ducts are reinserted and the nerves behind the nipples checked for blood flow. A strip of skin between the old breast and the new one is cut out, and the skin stitched together in an anchor-shaped formation. It’s known as the inferior pedicle. There are other methods, the Lejour, for example, which leaves a vertical scar, and plain old liposuction.

‘You’re always looking at yourself,’ says Jon. ‘All you do is look at yourself in the mirror.’

I’m not sure if it’s an observation or a complaint.

Twice a day he bathes my scars with antibacterial cleanser. Winter’s coming and I enjoy sliding into the warm bath. He washes his hands, fills a Tupperware bowl with clean water and dabs at me with baby wipes. Since I can’t raise my arms, he also has to wash my hair. I tell him he needs to rinse off the conditioner more or it’ll be greasy. The water spills over my eyes and I recall a friend’s poem about a woman having her hair washed by her lover in the backyard.

The poem’s about tenderness.

The way he cleans my wounds, I think, how he stayed put when we removed the dressings (I could tell he wanted to leave), how he’s supported me completely in this.

The funding he put in.

Jon helps me to stand, drying me with tissues and clipping on the bra while I hold the sanitary pads in place. I toss back antibiotics, zinc, panadeine, fibre supplements. I write in my study. I still can’t move much and cancel lunch with a friend as I can’t manage the walk into town to meet her. My right breast is still tender.

I try clothes on from my wardrobe until my arms ache.

 

13 April

 

I need to remove the tape around my nipples. I’m propped on pillows watching a BBC miniseries of Tess of the D’Ubervilles. Bra off, I apply cotton balls soaked in olive oil to the area and wait twenty minutes. After peeling off the covers I shower, soaping the wounds with an antibacterial wash that’s white as snake venom, poison sap. The adhesive gum has formed into tiny balls, like glue attracting dust when you remove the price or prize sticker on a new book. It’s healed a lot, though parts are still red, the skin puckered.

I cry through Tess’s rape and the death of her infant, the green-blue lump on my right breast aching so much I swallow two panadeines and remove the surgical bra again. The British actress wears a fetching red jacket to milk the cows, which reminds me of Polanski’s Tess. I’m sure Nastassja Kinski wore a cropped red coat in his version, too. I read Hardy at sixteen, the year I discovered Lily Bart. Neither heroine was the blowsy, bosomy sort.

 

14 April

 

Jon’s returned to work. The infection’s under control but I feel vulnerable today, emotions I’ve put on hold rushing in to overwhelm. I can’t work in this state.

I sip tea on the veranda in my pyjamas and search for the dollarbirds. I think they’ve gone for the year—in April they head for the New Guinea highlands to breed—I haven’t noticed them in over a month.

I go inside and call Ronnie, tell her I don’t mind that she didn’t like her house-warming present. I can take it off her hands, if she wants, find her something else.

She’s silent a moment. ‘What makes you think I don’t like it?’

‘It’s pretty obvious.’

She laughs into the receiver. ‘I moved it into the guest room to keep you company, silly. Didn’t you notice the blank wall above the dining room table?’

What makes me push people like this? I’ve embarrassed us both and have to apologise.

The story of George Raper involves an intrigue with Captain John Hunter, the second governor of New South Wales. An avid diarist and amateur painter, Hunter’s ‘Dollarbird’ was shipped back to England in the early 1790s and published in 1793 along with his journal and other paintings in the bestselling, ‘Birds and Flowers of New South Wales Drawn on the Spot in 1788, 89, and 90’. Copies of Hunter’s naive Nankeen Kestrel, his cheeky King Parrot and poorly silhouetted Dollarbird have been in public circulation for two hundred and twenty years.

Hunter’s paints and brushes were of lesser quality than Raper’s. His palette seems to have been limited to an earthy mushroom, some red, yellow and a bit of royal blue. His dollarbird more resembles a pigeon; its tail is too long, its neck too scrawny, the curve of its beak overshot. Like Raper’s, its mouth has been depicted slightly ajar, snapping at a fly.

The 2004 re-discovery of the Dulcie Collection revealed the interesting fact that many of Hunter’s paintings and sketches were direct copies of his protégée Raper’s originals.

 

24 September

 

A cardboard advertisement in reception features a set of eyes squinting to show stress and crows’ feet. Underneath, a tube of silicone enhanced skin cream, the label trademarked. The stuff must be good, you’re supposed to think, being endorsed by a plastic surgeon. On the table sits a stack of Who and New Idea, a small, compact book titled Breasts: A Celebration. Like the Little Blue Book of Hugs. I flip through pre-pubescent breasts, wet-nurse breasts, tribal breasts, cross-cultural breasts, postcolonial breasts, Oriental breasts, celebrity breasts (Jane Mansfield’s, Twiggy’s and Madonna’s), Impressionist breasts, Renaissance breasts, Virgin Mary breasts, Art Deco breasts. And, lastly, a curious construction of what might be described as ‘freak show’ breasts. The model, in time-vague black and white, has been shot with her head thrown back in idiot abandon. She wears a bathing cap and is missing a front tooth; her breasts—only partially covered by her meaty forearms—are, of course, supersized.

It’s my six month check-up, the one where I’ll pose for the ‘after’ photographs. In a Woman’s Day—the wait is over twenty minutes—I read an article about a fifteen year old girl’s G-Cup breasts. She wants a reduction but her mother and father won’t grant permission; by law, she has to wait until she’s eighteen. At the age of seven, she was fitted for her first bra. The article lists the myriad ways the girl’s been singled out: teased at school, failed in PE, cat-called from car windows, stared at and leered at in the supermarket; in general at every turn made to feel less than fully human. Her mother says: ‘We don’t know where she got them from. Everyone in my family’s flat as a pancake. Though her Great Aunt Sally on her dad’s side was GYNORMOUS!’ There are two mother-daughter photos. The girl is dressed in a fitted, scoop-necked t-shirt and denim mini skirt. She wears makeup and her blonde hair’s been straightened. In both images, she glares at the camera, the defended sadness of a survivor in her eyes. In the second photo, her mum’s been caught mid-smirk, lapping up the spotlight.

My name’s called. I walk to the consultation room pondering the article’s mixed messages, unable to figure out why the girl spoke to the tabloid. She wasn’t fundraising for the operation’s $10,000 fee, she wasn’t trying to change the laws on the age of consent, or seeking a judge’s intervention to overrule her parents’ decision. She didn’t seem to want to emancipate herself from her uncomprehending mother, nor particularly to raise public awareness about the health and psychological issues associated with large breasts. Not to mention that persons with boob fetishes might very well get off on her photograph.

I must’ve missed something. Three years is a long time for a fifteen year old girl to wait, I think. Though I have no advice as to how she should proceed.

Dr Knight stands in the doorway, his right hand extended for me to shake. I move my arm; feel a smile start to rearrange my mouth. I have no regrets.


© Melissa Ashley

Melissa Ashley is a PhD researcher and sessional tutor in the school of English, Media Studies and Art History at the University of Queensland. She is writing a fictionalised memoir about the life of Zoological illustrator, Elizabeth Gould, who in 1838 travelled to Australia to draw and paint the courntry’s birds. As part of her research, she learned taxidermy at the Queensland Museum.

BKPJOLstamp