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April Fool's Day : Popular Penguins -  Bryce Courtenay

April Fool's Day

Popular Penguins

Paperback Published: 29th August 2011
ISBN: 9780143566564
Number Of Pages: 656

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Damon Courtenay died on the morning of April Fool's Day. In this tribute to his son, Bryce Courtenay lays bare the suffering behind this young man's life.

Damon's story is one of lifelong struggle, his love for Celeste, the compassion of family, and a fight to the end for integrity.

A testimony to the power of love, April Fool's Day is also about understanding: how when we confront our worst, we can become our best.


Death on a Saffron Morning.

Damon died in the third week after Pinatubo, a small, unknown volcano in the Philippines, started to belch smoke and spew ash, pushing smoke higher and higher into the stratosphere where the great up-draughts and crosswinds that swirl above the earth swept it to a height of twenty-two thousand feet and spread it like a blanket across the blue Pacific Ocean.

An hour before dawn each day the sunset on the light side of the earth reflected its glow against this great smoke screen and bounced it into the dark sleeping side to create a false dawn. The first of these false dawns occurred in Sydney on April the first 1991, the morning Damon died. An April Fool's dawn on April Fool's Day.

We all thought Damon would die sometime over the Easter long weekend, though God knows, he'd beaten the odds often enough before. The mighty Damon, just when you thought he was a goner, he would make it round the final corner on wobbly legs and totter down the home straight to be back with us again. But each time it was harder and each time he was weaker; a little bit of his old self left behind.

His brothers Brett and Adam were there with Celeste and Ann. Also Benita, his mother, with her anger at a son passing before his father, her love and the private, unreasonable guilt she'd carried for twenty-four years. We were Damon's family, Benita, Bryce, Brett, Adam, Celeste and Ann.

Celeste had been Damon's lover and had lived with him for the past six years. She had been his constant and devoted nurse. She dressed his bedsores, swabbed the thick yellow crusted thrush from his lips and the inside of his mouth and pus from his conjunctive eyes. She washed him and cleaned up when he was incontinent and dressed his shingles. She had administered his morphine and the complex two-hourly cocktail of pills that kept his frail heart pumping and his mind more or less focused.

It was Celeste, more than any of us, who had watched his body slowly deteriorate, his ribs growing sharply more pronounced under his taut translucent skin and his limbs becoming so thin and dry that it seemed as though they might snap when he was lifted into bed.

Damon, whose body had never been his strong point, now looked like a walking corpse, a Jew in one of those flickering black and white newsreel pictures taken by the Allies when they liberated the concentration camps.

Funny how those pictures were somehow meant to be in black and white, because the first thing you notice about approaching death is its lack of colour. Colour is an obscene pigment in the dying process.

Before death came to Damon, he appeared to fade, to be losing his colour. Damon's eyes were now smudged large, and set deep in his skull. There seemed to be no clear, clean hazel left to nourish them with life, they'd changed to a mottled brown, the colour of grape vinegar. Often, as he drank liquid morphine straight from the bottle, they would glaze over and lose focus, as though he'd pulled a shroud over them so he could hide his shame.

Then on April Fool's Day, a day which began with surprising, unexpected colour, Damon was ready. There was no colour left in him at all, he'd wrung the last drop out, used the last tiny bit to whisper that he loved us.

It was a great effort for him to talk and each of us took our turn in moving up close, 'I love you very much, Dad.' There was nothing more to say. It was everything contained in one thing, his whole life.

Brett, his oldest brother, silent and big as a barn door, was back from Kuala Lumpur with Ann. Adam, soft, big-hearted Adam who loved his little brother with a fierce, sad, bewildered face, had flown from London.

Both brothers waited for Damon to die, gentle and a bit clumsy in the small semi-detached cottage Damon shared with Celeste. Both were trying to be useful around the smoothly functioning Celeste who still spoke to Damon with a clear, laughing, indulgent voice as though amused that he'd turned a slight indisposition into an excuse for a day away from work.

Celeste was not prepared to let Death into Damon's room and so she beat it back, threatened it with laughter and sheer, desperate bluff. At night she slept beside him, holding him tight, on guard against Death's surreptitious entry, ready to wake up and defend him the moment the curtains parted and the hot, dry breath of the Prince of Darkness billowed inwards.

Once, towards the end, Damon threw a sudden massive fit, not the first, but the first for a while and we rushed him by ambulance to the nearest hospital. In Casualty he experienced a second fit which caused him to evacuate. It was decided to keep him in hospital overnight.

Damon was removed to a tiny room, situated in a sort of twilight zone between the Casualty ward and a regular one. Though nothing was said, it was the room they kept for his kind. A room where they used yellow bags. Everything went into these bright yellow plastic bags to be incinerated. Swabs, tissues, syringes, uneaten food, the contaminated detritus of his broken life.

Taped to the door was the international infection warning; a yellow circle with a black cross in the centre. Beneath it, written with a red felt-tipped marking pen, a sign saying: Gown, mask and gloves must be worn.

The room was painted pale apple green and con­tained a single bed and the usual lights, plugs, switches and rubber tubing set into the wall, but nothing else. It was a holding place, a really sad space to have to come to die.

Two cheerful young nurses in rubber gloves, gowns and masks appeared at the door with a stainless steel trolley and we stood with our backs to the wall to make room for them to enter. They both had firm brows and nice brown eyes and looked as though they might be attractive under the cotton squares which hid the remainder of their faces. When they smiled their stretched lips sucked up the thin mask, creasing it with a horizontal line. Pulled tight like that against their faces, they looked like pretty bank robbers in a kids' funny movie.

They kept up their chatter as they removed Damon's soiled pyjama bottom and placed it into a yellow bag, then they swabbed him clean. They showed no surprise when they turned him on his stomach to do the same on his flip side and saw the open bedsore the size of a large man's fist spreading up his back from his coccyx.

The bedsore was an obscenity on his pale skin, not just for what it was, but also for its colour: the raw, angry flesh tainted with his excrement seemed somehow to be the physical place, the hole torn into his lower back where the colour was leaking out.

The two young nurses cleaned him carefully and dressed the bed wound, placing the cotton wool swabs into a yellow bag clipped to the end of the trolley. Then they worked him into a fresh pair of pyjamas, his arms floppy and awkward, his head lolling, a gangly rag doll being treated to a fresh pair of striped pyjamas in an apple green playroom for the condemned.

One of the nurses examined Damon's drip, squinting expertly at the tiny clear saline drop poised at the top of the pipette then adjusted the pressure, forcing the reluctant droplet to let go so that another might immediately follow it to oblivion. The second nurse stood at the doorway waiting with the trolley and they left together, still chatting; their trim belted waists, starched hips and strong young legs, revealed where the overgown was split and carelessly tied down the back, were full of fierce, fecund life.

Damon, who was heavily sedated and barely aware of his surroundings, immediately fell into an exhausted sleep. It was over for another time, we could go home and pretend, for a few hours, to pick up the tattered remnants of our normal lives. We'd learned not to lie awake in the dark and stare at the ceiling, not to think, to postpone the sadness, shunting the future without Damon into a disused siding.

We were all just hanging on, telling ourselves that Damon had beaten the grim reaper once again, our private thoughts perhaps different. Mine I knew were filled with guilty questions. How much more? How much more did he have to take? Couldn't it have ended tonight? Was it wrong, wicked, to think like this? Such a little-boy word, wicked. Was I thinking of me and not of him? Was life precious, even now when there was nothing left except pain and memories? With the old good memories corrupted and the images defiled? This time it was a couple of severe fits which threatened to stop his dicky heart. If his heart had gone tonight, would I have allowed them to use the cardio-resuscitation equipment or would I have screamed at them to leave him alone to die, to let him become a sudden blinding nothing?

The fits were just the latest in a litany of remorseless assaults to his battered body and he'd made it through to the other end still with us, still able to come out of his corner for another round.

The mighty Damon, it hurt such a lot just to think about him. I wanted to be proud of his courage and at the same time to cry out at the shame that someone so beautiful could fight so hard, to die so badly.

A nursing sister entered the room carrying a clipboard. She moved directly to me, the only male in the room. 'Overnight admission.' She handed me the clipboard. 'You need to sign it before you leave.' She glanced at the fob watch pinned to her uniform.

I took the clipboard and handed it to Celeste, who was half-seated with one hip resting on Damon's bed. The nursing sister's eyes followed. She was short and wide, powdered too white and with her cheekbones over­blushed. She had large breasts and wore heavy duty support stockings and flat, white, crepe-soled shoes.

Her instinctive demeanour and appearance brought back memories of a past hospital system. It was as though she was serving out her time and had reluctantly given up her starched nursing sister's veil and the unspoken authority it had carried.

She indicated Damon by slightly lifting her chin, 'Is he a relation?' Her question was directed at Celeste.

'I'm his defacto,' Celeste replied. The word suddenly sounded coarse and illegitimate as though it was a part of what was wrong with Damon.

The woman was momentarily caught by surprise, Damon's kind were not supposed to have female partners. 'That won't do,' she said and looked at me. 'You're his father?' I nodded and she turned back to Celeste and gave her a quick, paper-thin smile, as though an electric impulse had caused her lips to twitch involuntarily. Then she reached for the clipboard and handed it back to me, tapping the spot with a biro where she wanted me to place my signature.

I took the pen and scribbled my name. Benita and Celeste looked at me and I indicated with my eyes that we should leave; there was nothing further we could do now that Damon was asleep. We turned to go, but Celeste shook her head. 'I have to sleep here.' Her pretty face was pale and drained and her blue eyes were bloodshot from crying alone in the toilet.

'You can't, dear. Not in this room. It's too small and against regulations, this is an infection risk area.' The sister paused then added, though not unkindly, 'You can wait in Casualty, there's a TV and a coffee machine. We'll call you if you're needed.'

Celeste's eyes welled, but her voice was steady, though slightly high pitched when she spoke, so that the words came out like a child's, all at once, 'Is he more of an infection risk here than he is at home?'

Her logic was irrefutable, but the sister wasn't having any, 'We, we can't take all the necessary precautions.'

'I don't care about precautions! He needs me to fight for him, he won't make it alone!' Celeste frowned, seeking further reasons, 'You see, he can't fight the dark on his own, he'll just die and I won't be with him.'

The older woman was an experienced hand in Casualty and familiar with the behaviour of traumatised families. She had the good grace not to sigh, but her downcast eyes indicated her impatience. 'He won't die, dear. He is over the worst, his heart fibrillation has stopped and his pulse rate is steady. The doctor says he'll be all right, he can't be moved, movement can sometimes bring on another fit.' Her response was practised and fast and was followed by her thin, electric smile, 'All he needs now is a little rest.'

She made this last statement as though Damon was completely cured, that is, but for a few hours needed to gather his strength. 'You really must go now, you can't stay, you can't do anything more for him here.' She cocked her head and looked directly into Celeste's eyes, folding her arms and hugging the clipboard to her bosom.

Celeste looked down and took Damon's limp hand in her own as if she was about to tell his fortune. She was quite still and a tear rolled down her cheek and then her chin and dropped into Damon's hand.

The sister stood her ground, not moving, allowing the silence to gather momentum. Her confrontation was experienced and dismissive, the stance she'd learned to use to shut things down quickly when trouble threat­ened. She was accustomed to having her own way and more than a match for this pretty little blonde with the cropped hair, high cheekbones and soft, generous mouth.

I was the first to capitulate. Embarrassed, anxious not to make a scene, I said, 'C'mon, darling, I think perhaps we should go.' I moved over to the bed and took Celeste by the elbow. 'You're tired,' I appealed to her softly, 'we're all a bit tired, we haven't eaten, c'mon, let's go home, I'll cook.'

The mention of food was crass. I told myself this wasn't the right time to make a fuss. But I knew it was. I was aware I was being as weak as piss. I didn't care, I wanted to leave, to run rather than walk away. My sensibilities were repulsed at the baby sweet odour of lanolin and talcum powder, at the inappropriate nursery innocence of the smell in this tiny room where they used only yellow bags. I had to get away from the bright light bouncing against the enamelled semi-gloss apple green walls and beating up from the polished vinyl floor.

The confrontation going on was gnawing at my gut and I could feel the day's grime and the slightly damp sweat deposited around the rim of my collar. It was one o'clock in the morning and I hadn't eaten since break­fast. I wanted to gulp outside air, to be swallowed by the street dark. I wanted time off from my son's slow dying. Almost at once I was overwhelmed by guilt of this thought as well, the wanting to eat, feeling sorry for myself when my son was dying and I was so very much alive.

Celeste jerked her elbow free and releasing Damon's hand she shot from the bed. 'Get the doctor. Get the fucking doctor, now!' Her eyes were crazy, inches from the older woman's. Taken completely by surprise, the nursing sister stepped backwards, her plump shoulders bumping against the wall and bouncing back.

Celeste too was a pro, six years with Damon and there wasn't a hospital system in the Sydney metropolitan area she didn't know. She'd been screwed by experts a hundred, maybe a thousand times before, this nursing sister was just another of the countless obstacles she'd come against.

In retrospect, the hospital sister wasn't being particularly bitchy. She was simply exercising her judgment, getting through a tough shift the best she could. She was a product of an age when hospital visitors responded unquestioningly to her authority, but this time she was up against a new force, a young urban guerrilla armed with six years of anger, frustration and fierce, remorseless love.

Benita pushed forward, her face darkly angry. She too was a veteran. With a sweep of her arm she brushed Celeste out of the way and pinned the woman back against the wall. She is a big, classy-looking woman with a voice when she's angry which cuts like razor ribbon.

'Excuse me, but she stays. The law says relatives can stay. So Celeste stays! Okay?' But she wasn't really asking permission or even a question.

Benita pulled back and the sister lowered the clipboard and snorted, one eyebrow slightly raised, 'And you excuse me, madam! She is not a relative.'

'Get-the-bloody-doctor!' Benita spat the words out, advancing again. Whereupon the sister pulled the clipboard hard against her breast, protecting herself unconsciously. 'Ha!' she huffed, her large breasts jumping in surprise. Then she stormed out of the doorway. We could hear the angry squeak of her crepe-soled shoes on the vinyl as she moved down the corridor towards Casualty.

'Jesus, now what?'

Both women looked at me but said nothing. I knew they were thinking that I should have said something. That I'd gone to water. Fuck them, I'd had enough.

Quite soon afterwards the two young nurses returned wheeling a gurney. This time wearing only masks. They were silent, their eyes serious, aware no doubt of the conniption. On the gurney they carried a doubled over mattress and I helped them lift it and place it on the floor beside Damon's bed. The mattress almost completely filled the tiny room so that Benita and I had to stand outside the door to say goodbye to Celeste.

When we'd gone and she was left alone with Damon, Celeste relocated his drip to the side nearest the door and lifted him from his bed, placing him on the mattress. There she slept with him safely in her arms. Celeste was not prepared to give Damon up, not to Death, not to anyone. So she held him tight all night, protecting him just the way she did every night at home.

ISBN: 9780143566564
ISBN-10: 0143566563
Series: Popular Penguins
Audience: General
Format: Paperback
Language: English
Number Of Pages: 656
Published: 29th August 2011
Publisher: Penguin Books Australia
Country of Publication: AU
Dimensions (cm): 18.1 x 11.2  x 3.8
Weight (kg): 0.38
Edition Number: 1

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Bryce Courtenay

About the Author

Bryce: in his own words...

I was born illegitimately in 1933 in South Africa and spent my early childhood years in a small town deep in the heart of the Lebombo mountains.

It was a somewhat isolated community and I grew up among farm folk and the African people. At the age of five I was sent to a boarding school which might be better described as a combination orphanage and reform school, where I learned to box - though less as a sport and more as a means to stay alive.

But I survived to return to a small mountain town named Barberton in the North Eastern part of the country.

Here I met Doc, a drunken German music teacher who spent the next few years filling my young mind with the wonders of nature as we roamed the high mountains. His was the best education I was ever to receive, despite the scholarship I won to a prestigious boy's school and thereafter to a university in England where I studied Journalism.

I came to Australia because I was banned from returning to my own country.

This was due to the fact that I had started a weekend school for Africans in the school hall of the prestigious boy's school I attended.

One day the school hall was raided by the police who then branded me a Communist as they considered educating Africans a subversive act.

While studying journalism, I met a wonderful Australian girl.

"Come to my country!" Benita invited.

I did, and soon after arriving in Australia, married her. Benita gave me three splendid sons, Brett, Adam and Damon. Brett, who married Ann has given me three lovely grandsons, Ben now 14, Jake is about to turn 12 and Marcus is almost 6 years old.

I have lived all my Australian life in Sydney (the nicest place on earth) and, until I started writing fiction, made my career in advertising working as a copywriter and creative director.

At the age of 55 I decided to take the plunge. I had been telling stories since the age of five and had always known I would be a writer some day, though life kept getting in the way until I realised that it was either now or never.

Bryce Courtenay died at his home in Canberra, Australia. He was 79. Courtenay is survived by his second wife Christine Gee and his children Adam and Brett.

Visit Bryce Courtenay's Booktopia Author Page