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Rob Benson
First published in The Age on 15th April 2000.

He was an unlikely looking fellow. Standing at the desk, with a cast or a cataract in one eye, so that he peered too intensely with the other. I didn't know whether to look at the good eye, or the bad. The eye with the white, scarred pupil, which interested me more. And above that bad eye, towards his hair line, was an amateurish tattoo, of a spiders web, which was difficult to ignore. It gave me a bad feel about him. I wondered whether he was wasting his time, or whether I was wasting mine.

Sometimes first impressions lie. Later, I would find myself wondering about him. Wondering how incongruous the two sides of his face were. The good eye, bright and intelligent, and the bad eye dead, highlighted with course ink-filled cuts. As if there were two sides to him.

He was not old, about my age. His hair was sparse and grey, his face lean and tanned. A hungry face. He always wore a sports coat, probably gleaned from some op shop. They always have a good range. Not the fashion of the poor, but the fashion of the rich. Jeans and a sports coat. Incongruous.

If I had peered over the lip of the reception desk, I would have found him to be barefooted. His feet swollen and red. Toes bruised and bloody, the only sign of neglect. I told him many times to wear shoes. He never did.

I can't remember now what I first saw him for. Probably for help getting off the grog. I would have sat smugly in my chair, arms folded, my face hard and disbelieving and listened to his story. I would have waiting for the little tell tale signs that what he really wanted was to mix the grog with some prescription pills. It would have shored up my bigotry. I would have felt justified in the consultation reaching an abrupt end.

Somehow that didn't happen. Maybe because he was more articulate than others. Or maybe there was an honesty about him that held me, listening. Maybe I began to like him. I can't remember.

He tried to get off the grog many times, and I tried to help him in the futile way which seemed my only option. Valium and vitamins.

Once I got a call from the local state school. He'd arrived there to be admitted and detoxed. I'd booked him in the previous day, but he was as full as a boot and had no idea where he was.

That was the way of it. A life of heaving ups and downs. Days of tumultuous struggle. Why?

I could never understand the need for it. The need to live such an agonising life.

I tried to explain to him that it didn't need to be that way.

And he began to explain to me that it was that way, and it couldn't be any other way.

I talked to him of good times, of feeling good. Of feeling calm. Of being 'at peace.' I suggested meditating, hoping he might find what I had found.

He talked to me about 'the lie' of being an alcoholic. It was an expression he often used, and I could never understand whether it was an excuse, a cop out, or whether the lure was too strong, and he knew that he would never overcome it.

He had long ago accepted the way that he was. He had resigned himself to a life of suffering. I could not accept this, and felt I had to feed him hope. Give hope to the hopeless. I had nothing else to give. And so I tried to inspire.

It was draining. It was like doing a Rubik's cube or a three dimensional maze. Trying not to tread old ground, but always to find a new way, a new angle. That is what hope seemed to be. When hope had gone, and he was facing the bleak wall of his predicament, his life, to look beyond the immediate and into the future. To imagine it the way it could be. If only…

And to plot out the steps needed to begin to head that way. To be practical. Optimistic. Never to regard it as too daunting, never to give up.

He listened politely, and watched me perform my mental convolutions. He waited, and then we usually ended up talking about things we found mutually enjoyable.

Despite his cobweb tattoo and blind eye, and despite the ravages of years of alcohol abuse, I always had the feeling that he was far more intelligent than I was. Wiser too. I'm sure of it. It frustrated me. I expected him to understand me. I expected him to want to change.

We talked about everything. About art and music and philosophy. We talked about his family living in the hills, and about his children. The one's that he loved. And hurt.

Sometimes its impossible not to cause hurt – and be hurt ourselves. We talked about me, about my life, and those I loved. We shared each other's lives.

Soon after I began seeing him, I noticed our supply of biros was dwindling. They lived behind the reception desk, in a little jar. Then, one day, Val noticed him pocket a pen. I was more intrigued than annoyed, and decided to lay a trap. The next time he came in, I had written in small print – 'Gordon's Pen' – on a biro, and left it lying on the desk. Sure enough, it disappeared.

In my consulting room, I confronted him, 'how did you like your biro?'

He studied he through his single eye, and then said levelly, 'what biro?'

'The one I left on the bench. It's got your name on it!'

He paused uncertainly, and then, goaded by his own sense of intrigue, rummaged in his pocket. He held the pen closely before his good eye and read the inscription and smiled.

'You've discovered my secret. I'm secretly a Penuriac!'

We both laughed, and lightened up. From that day on, I always left out a new pen. He must have built up quite a collection. I'm not sure what he did with all the pens, but I know that he used to like to write.

At some stage I told him in passing, of a poster on a canite wall, in the holiday shack I sometimes visited. Magpie geese flying across a setting red sun. The message was enticing… 'taking time to dream'. It fitted in well with holidays, and I sometimes found myself thinking of it when caught in a flurry of work. It prompted me to rest back and gaze out the window for a few moments.

'That's what we all need to do', I suggested, 'take a little time out, let some of the pressure off.'

His wry smile told me I was talking to myself.

Two weeks later he presented me with a picture. Brolgas, I think, from their long necks and extended feet, flying, silhouetted against a red sky and a setting sun. He'd had it laminated. I asked him where he got it, suspecting it came from the waiting room magazines. He just chuckled knowingly, and kept quiet. I blue-tacked it to the wall. It's still there today, a picture you can escape into for a few moments.

I visited his place once. Not because he called me. It was the manager of the boarding house that called. He'd been vomiting. Blood.

He was in a despicable state, but fortunately, bad enough to send straight to hospital. They tried to detox him, but he only lasted two days.

Another time, we certified him, locked him up and dried him out. He was drinking himself to death. He was out of control.

He came in often, and we jousted with each other. I'm sure he was trying to change me. Trying to make me see his light. Whatever light it was he saw. And if I charged a little too near the point, he would skip away lightly and change the subject.

'The lie of the alcoholic', he would remind me, enigmatically, cryptically. His smile again, and a sparkle in his eye. The moment of delight of a child keeping a secret. That's what I'm living, 'the lie of the alcoholic'.

I did find out what he meant. And I think the truth of his lie was so horrific that it was unspeakable. It was a truth he lived with.

Until he died!

One day, he took a mixture of pills and drank himself to death.

One day he was there, and the next he was gone.

His tattoo was gone, and his bad eye. His stomach pains had gone, and his swollen tattered feet. The agony of his life had gone.

I was shocked. I felt wounded and betrayed. He was doing so well, and I had put so much into this man. I had befriended him. He had become my friend.

Later, I understood the lie. He pretended to live his life as if he wanted to live it, but how could he? He could not live it because of the lie.

The lie was nothing substantial, nothing big. It was just a shadow of thought that had somehow penetrated his mind. It had slipped in unnoticed and whispered to him, 'You are going to kill yourself drinking one day. You'd be better off dead!'

How could he live with a whisper like that in the ears?

I suspect we all live a lie of sorts. I suspect the lie of my life is as great as his, but maybe not as destructive. That life will last forever, that I am strong, that what I do is important, that I can change the world. That I could change him.

My friend, Gordon. So alike; so different.

Rob Benson GP

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