As he drove through the streets of Ballarat to Craig’s Royal Hotel and his latest mystery patient, Doctor Blake knew something peculiar was afoot. The publican, who phoned in the request for medical assistance, had described his guest’s symptoms and they were very strange indeed.
“He’s some sort of reporter,” he had said, “but he seemed perfectly normal when he came down for breakfast. But when he began reviewing yesterday’s transcript of the Child Abuse Royal Commission session with his tea and toast he started to twitch, then foam at the mouth. After that he went into convulsions and began repeating over and over, ‘Pell, you vile specimen! Pell, you appalling man!”
Blake wasn’t entirely surprised by these manifestations of derangement, as he had seen a lot of it lately. Only a few days earlier, his friend, the police sergeant, had pulled a gibbering Project reporter from Lake Wendouree. She had stripped to her bikini – this was The Project, after all – in order to quiz the carp about the local priests’ widely rumoured habit of molesting fish on Fridays when she, too, went quite spastic. That case was easily solved, however. Still illuminated on her mobile phone was a text message from colleague Wailin’ Aly demanding that she cover up. His wife, always eager for an extra media gig, was ready to take her place if she did not, he promised. Caught between the need for ratings and the obligation to appease the multicultural sentiments of her show’s silver-tongued star, she had retreated into madness.
Other reporters had been overcome with even more curious and consistent ailments, not least their persistent memory lapses. Whenever abuse “survivor”, as they all liked to say, David Dimsdale was interviewed, the hacks consistently neglected to mention that he was himself a convicted abuser. Worse, allegations of attempted bribery that had been refuted by passport stamps continued to be aired without qualification. Medicine and the healing arts were Doctor Blake’s specialties but he could not help thinking it was unseemly for reporters to be openly roaming the streets with lengths of slip-knotted rope slung over their shoulders.
This Craig’s Hotel case would be different, Doctor Blake thought as he grappled with the crash gearbox on his 1936 Coventry Standard, cursing the scriptwriters for saddling him with a vehicle that was so hard to park. Seizing his black bag he raced inside to find the patient still raving and simpering, head and torso jammed beneath the buffet.
“Mavid Darr, I believe is his name,” said the publican. “Could this be a reaction to Pimms No 1 cup, do you think, or maybe it was the Campari chasers? That was what he was sipping last night in the front bar.”
Doctor Blake knew that the storyboards for all his investigations involved obligatory red herrings, so he stroked his famous beard, ignored the publican’s suggestion and proceeded to the table where the victim’s cup of Earl Grey with a twist of organic lemon and fair-trade honey yet steamed. The Royal Commission transcript was open beside it, one line of Pell’s testimony highlighted in vibrant pink marker.
The cardinal, he read, had referred to one troublesome priest as “effete and effeminate”. That hate speech would do it, he reasoned, also explaining why the patient had writhed and squirmed and jammed himself into that tight gap beneath the sideboard.
“In his derangement, he thinks it is a safe space,” Doctor Blake explained. “Do you have a teddy bear we could give him by way of triage. That will stablise him, I think.”
The publican’s wife scuttled off in search of soft toys, returning with apologies and nothing of greater comfort than a signed portrait of Mark Scott.
“That will have to do,” said Doctor Blake, “let’s hope it works.”
It did, and a few minutes later the patient, if not coherent was more or less his usual garrulous self. Although he sometimes digressed into salty assaults on someone whose name sounded like Herod Genderson, the overall thrust of Darr’s remarks established that it had been the sight on that printed page of those two words “effete” and “effeminate” that prompted the fit.
“More of Pell’s bigotry, not wanting homosexuals in the priesthood,” he raved. “Why, everyone knows Moses was gay, John the Baptist too …”
Darr’s faculties were growing stronger by the second, his abuse of this Pell individual evermore fulsome.
“He’s almost back to normal,” said Doctor Blake.
The publican doubted it, finding himself unable to hold his tongue.
“But this effete and effeminate priest, he was one of the serial boy botherers. Doesn’t that count for anything?”
Darr suffered an immediate relapse, the froth from his thin lips fairly flying.
“That’s why we need Safe Schools,” he ranted. “If someone is going to introduce schoolboys to sodomy, sheer decency demands it be a state school teacher and not an unqualified priest.”
“Hopeless case,” sighed Doctor Blake, who had meanwhile found a medical card in his patient’s wallet.
In case of fit or seizure, please contact Black Publishing and we will send help without delay.
The ambulance arrived within the hour, complete with full medical team and a stenographer who explained that she would be taking down the patient’s every word on the journey back to Melbourne.
“We’re on deadline,” she said, “he should have the essay written – dictated, I mean — by the time we get back.”
As the doors closed, Doctor Blake caught something about the Mardi Gras parade and the pain of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John upon being denied the legal right to a four-way equal marriage.
Yes, he thought, the most hopeless of hopeless cases. Thank God the poor man had a publisher to look after him