“STIFFIES”

The boy in the bed next to mine that night showed me how, if he rolled up his tiny but flaccid penis and let it go, it would unroll and stand to attention. It made us both laugh and laugh, amazed and entertained. “You try it,” I’m pretty sure he urged me, and I’m pretty sure I remember trying it, and it working just like his, upright, alert, even perky–every boy’s dream. It was like a magic trick. And you could keep doing it every time the exhausted member subsided. We laughed and laughed, that boy and I.

I was 11. It was 1974, the year I was in Grade 5 at school, the year I learned about politics (when my teacher told me about Watergate), and the year I spent time in Perth’s Princess Margaret Children’s Hospital because I seemed to have gastroenteritis. I didn’t. My symptoms were psychosomatic.

My mum was herself in a hospital nearby at the time, and she and Dad had engaged a housekeeper to look after us. It was strange and disorienting having this young woman, and her baby, living with us in Wembley. I remember the icky smell that pervaded the whole house. She had been installed in my room. Where I had been stashed for the duration I no longer remember. But I remember this housekeeper’s cooking. Everything was cooked in lashings of some sort of vegetable oil. There was something about it that was not right. That, in fact, was actively wrong. And, from this distance it seems clear that the thing that was wrong in the picture was that this young woman was not my mum.

We blamed the woman’s cooking for my sickness. There was something about it. It wasn’t cooked properly. I was wretchedly ill. I remember being so ill that Dad tried to rush me from home to the hospital, and feeling like I was going to throw up all the way there, only to finally lose my gastric composure all over the back seat as the car sat just outside the hospital, at a red light, as we looked for parking.

I feel like a time-traveller investigating my own past, doing this. What startles me is how patchy and thin my recollection of things is. This business about me in the car spewing outside PMH: yes, that happened, but I don’t honestly know, now, right now, in 2017, if it happened as part of the story about The Terrible Housekeeper, or if it was one of the many other times I was so sick I had to be rushed to PMH. There were plenty of other times, but I barely remember them, other than a general wash of sickliness, fluorescent lights, noisy waiting areas, and being given broken toys to play with.

Time-traveller me definitely remembers the night of the roll-up “stiffies”, though. That absolutely did happen during that hospital stay. It was quite a highlight, you might say. The thing was, I was yet only about 11. I had no need of this magic trick. I wasn’t even at the Everest Base Camp of Puberty, let alone anywhere near the sweaty, spotty, awkward, squeaky-voiced Summit. I was pretty much at sea level, puberty-wise. In the next year or two, this magic trick of conjuring “stiffies” would become quite obsolete. The damned thing would acquire a mind of its own, appearing on a schedule known only to itself, and almost always at times of maximum inconvenience and embarrassment.

Time-traveller Me remembers this period well, and has all kinds of complex Feelings about it. This period was right before I was diagnosed. I was a sick kid, sick for real, but didn’t yet know it. I had yet to embark on my long career as a psychiatric patient. And one of the things about being a psychiatric patient, as I’ve noted previously, is you get medication to take, and sometimes that medication does things to you.

And no amount of rolling up your hapless penis makes it stand to attention.

But wait! There’s more. The psychopharmaceutical industry taketh, but it also giveth.

The magic tricks that delighted you when you were 11 can make you smile in middle-age, too.

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