First the seduction, then the beheading: Holofernes! John the Baptist! Maybe I am next in line, I pondered as Magda gave me the spiel. Recruiters will seduce you with their words, and when you succumb, you find you’ve been sold a dud or sent to the backwaters of an unknown country. This script was well-worn, often followed and almost always seen to its contrived conclusion. Magda’s words were smooth, enunciated with a certain mellifluousness that sucked you in and entrapped you in its snare.
‘Between Brisbane and Harvey Bay, I would choose Brisbane,’ she said. That was twelve years ago and I had spent that period of transition in lonely Nottingham, hoping that the welcome lightness of winter that year would raise my hopes of finally leaving for Australia. The weather in England suffers from a perceived lack of predictability and even when weather forecasts seem accurate, those for whom the news was intended appear so disinterested inured to past predictions gone wrong that it made me wonder whether it was worth reporting at all.
My heart was in Yorkshire having worked and lived there for the better part of a year. There were some lazy afternoons spent in C’s living room dancing to salsa or teaching her the secret flavours of West African cuisine. There was also that Christmas, in Norwich, when it was so cold, and we had cuddled so tightly, that we fell asleep and awoke to find ourselves in the same passionate embrace we had assumed before sleeping. This was what I was leaving for Australia, for a land I never fathomed I would come to love – a place that always seemed so far, so foreign, so distant that it did not fit in with the familiarity of the United States, the excitement of Andalusia or the romanticism of France. It seemed like an aberration, the appendix of another world, a vestige that the body did not know what to do with but still stubbornly held on to.
It was a time of flux for many of us, especially those of us from the outer reaches of the British Commonwealth – Nigeria, Ghana, India, Pakistan, Uganda, South Africa. Many had come, seeking opportunities in the British Isles but were utterly disappointed when the envisioned jobs never materialised. Medical positions in the National Health Service (NHS) were fast drying up and even British medical graduates were moving to Australia for want of some job continuity, or an existence that was not precarious – someplace where progress to specialisation was indeed possible. Somewhere ‘Between Brisbane and Harvey Bay.’
I still see myself disembarking from the Airbus on to the ground in Brisbane, Queensland. The overpowering heat and stifling humidity at that moment almost converting me to a naturist. I would have gladly stripped myself bare and jumped into a pool of ice just to escape it all. Now I am accustomed to the scorching summer heat but not the humidity. I wear light clothing all summer round. I remember an acquaintance telling me how she managed summer in Brisbane by ensuring she was always in an air-conditioned space. ‘I go from one air-conditioned place to the other and I always make sure my car ac is working.’ In those early days of my arrival, I did not have a car but thankfully the bus service had (and still does) air-conditioned buses that were quite comfortable and roomy. Those bus trips to and from the Royal Brisbane and Women’s Hospital still retain a certain fondness in my mind. Apart from escaping the midday heat, they were my vehicle to escaping into my own solitude, earphones plugged into my iPad, oblivious to everything else around me.
‘It is always hot here, doc,’ a certain indigenous nurse once told me. ‘It is as hot as the racist people here.’
I cannot recall her name, but I remember that rather awkward, almost one-sided conversation that exposed my ignorance of the ongoing plight of the indigenous Australians. This was made more awkward by my desire to challenge her views.
‘Come on.’ I said. ‘I have been here for over two years and not experienced anything like that. Surely that was in the past. I mean, things have changed now.’
She was quiet for a while, contemplative even, and then she replied, ‘It is because of that thing you have around your neck.’ I looked down to realise my stethoscope was hanging round my neck, the most obvious redoubt for its safety, since ward coats and their ever-gaping side pockets were no more de rigueur.
‘It is that thing around your neck. It gives you power. You may not realise it.’ And with that, she turned to go but looked back and said, ‘Have a g’day, mate.’
Over the years, I have played and replayed this conversation in my head, dissected it from different angles and even arranged it in different permutations. Is it possible that all I see around me, the niceties and compliments about my manners and dress sense, the warmth and generosity from people I have come across, can be simply put down to my status as a medical doctor and not the simple respect and courtesy each accords a fellow human being?
I have always thought of Australia as a tolerant place, and I still do. After all, over twenty percent of Australians were born in some other part of the world, making it a young, heterogenous mix of peoples and cultures. The first settlement of felons and convicts was in Sydney, in 1788, but free settlers eventually moved from other parts of the United Kingdom and British Isles. The Australia I had come to know was a land of equality, a place where everyone could have a ‘Fair Go’ as they say, suggesting that opportunities were open to everyone and not just the privileged and positioned. Like many naïve young men of a certain age, I had contemplated while awaiting the results of my job telephone interviews beautiful beaches, barbecues and bikini-clad women all of which I have confirmed as true in some respects, yet I had failed to grasp the more historical underpinnings of prejudice that ate at the heart of an inchoate nation. Was it not barely ten years ago that the then prime minister, Kevin Rudd, launched a national apology day in recognition of the wrongs done to the indigenous population under a system that sought to almost cause their extinction? It was a deft political move, genuine even.
It is now refreshing walking down Elizabeth Street in Brisbane’s central business district to hear the organ of the Saint Stephen’s cathedral extolling J S Bach, even though Saint Stephen’s is a Catholic church. That a Lutheran would compose this piece of Marian devotion is something I have always thought that was ironic but perhaps in those early years of The Reformation, in forging a new faith, certain elements of the old one were still retained. The work is titled Ich Habe Genug translated as ‘I am content’. Though my German colleague at work thinks Bach would have meant it to be ‘I am done, finished’. Somehow, I cannot reconcile myself to his translation. Death and desolation were a theme in baroque pieces yet this one conveys hope, a certain surety of purpose and having heard Phillipe Jarrousky, the French counter tenor, give his rendition, I feel as if no one else should be allowed to perform it.
Brisbane, my brother once tells me, used to be a country town compared with the faster-paced and more ‘cultured’ cities of Sydney and Melbourne but grew after the world expo in 1988. And it is named after Sir Thomas Brisbane, a former governor of New South Wales, whose history of reform in the colonies seemed scripted and ordinary until accusations of using female convicts for ‘other purposes’, unfounded apparently, led to his recall back to England.
There is a river running through the city, and I recall the story I wrote of a lonely boat wading through it as if the river itself were human skin and the boat a scalpel incising flesh in waves and ripples. The City Cat, a type of ferry you may say, glides effortlessly on its surface, which ever seems to remain calm, never in haste, maintaining its perfunctory pace, an accusation that has also been levelled at us Brisbanites, by those envious Melburnians and Sydney siders who praise and deride our glorious summers and gorgeous beaches.
As I make my way over the bridge that connects the central business district to the south bank of the river, I observe it welcomes pedestrians and vehicles alike, within apposite distances of each other. Ah! Those random Friday nights doing the mambo by the casino square, they still make me nostalgic even now. Playing Latin music in the open air was an initiative by the Brisbane local council to promote friendship and camaraderie amongst residents. Latin Music! A deliberate choice, it seems, and my friend Jorge, from Mexico, embodies this much talked about Latin spirit and energy that has become so clichéd in daily conversations, movie clips and conventional wisdom. Watching him contort his torso and limbs to the syncopation of the music, leaves no one in doubt that there is a god in Latin America that sells dance shoes to all its denizens.
A diminutive of the London Eye stands in its own lonely corner of the south bank of the river. It overlooks the entertainment district and, from its zenith, one can make out where the lips of the city and the adjacent sea search for each other, yearning for a unity that can never manifest. It is redolent of my previous peregrinations, a time when I looked elsewhere to quench my desire for some kind of fulfilment. If the grass was greener, I thought, it certainly was not in Brisbane. There is some truth about finding oneself where one is situated, and it has taken me this long to figure this out.
‘You were going to travel to South America and not look back,’ Jorge quips. That is true. I once sought solace in the Andes, Chile years ago but found my way back to this mestizo of a place called Brisbane – a city of scorching summers and gentle winters. Its openness to newcomers and its hostility towards rapid change is like D H Lawrence’s Helen – paradox transubstantiated into love.
This is my city now, the antipodes of another clime I left twelve years ago.
Uzo Dibia, an alumnus of the University of Ibadan, Nigeria, is a physician in general and acute medicine practising in Australia. His work has been published in Body Electric (University of Illinois College of Medicine Literary & Visual Arts Magazine) and The Sun Newspaper (Nigeria). Recently, he contributed a chapter on medicine and literature in the book, Medicine And What It Means To Be Human (Rutledge 2017).
All photos by the author