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I make no apology. I am a man of principle. Unwavering principle. In a world of core and non-core promises, of shifting morals and dubious values, I stand aloof.
I won't trail my cloak in the mud. I expect the same uncompromising standard from others.

Always play a straight bat, my father advised me as a child.

There are some who suggest he might have been better employed adopting a subtler, more flexible approach. Certainly, life has a nasty habit of sending spins or bouncers down the pitch. Fortunately for me, my father's bankruptcy and subsequent divorce occurred only after he had sent me through medical school. Several days after my graduation, my father died, his dream of giving me a university education fulfilled.

I established myself in general practice in the Melbourne beachside suburb of Parkdale. There is little to report of all the years leading up to my recent retirement. I made a comfortable living. I remained unmarried. I attracted a small group of friends - serious minded individuals, drawn principally from church circles. Some may see mine as a restricted, perhaps sad life, but I have no complaints. I was useful both in the work I chose and contributed with a glad heart and open cheque book to the community. I caused no grief to good people.

At the same time, I have been a vocal critic of many modern practices. My views on the deplorable laxity of moral standards are well known to readers of the 'Letters to the Editor' section of our daily newspapers. I frequently contribute to discussions on talkback radio. Recreational drug taking, teenage promiscuity, homosexuality, abortion, unleashed dogs on beaches and cafe tables that encourage patrons of both sexes to sprawl their legs across narrow public pavements to the inconvenience of passers are but a handful of the issues I have taken up.

Anyone in the public view receives often vicious criticism and I have been branded a crank. More disturbingly, I increasingly sense a weariness or impatience in the tone of talkback radio hosts when they recognise my voice. Even our church vicar appears wary when he sees me. He is a young man, with much to learn. I agitated for the appointment of an older and wiser head, but a number of church elders said noone was interested in attending church these days to hear 'some ghastly, ancient fuddy-duddy'. It's a pity that the vicar is so insecure in his opinions that he seeks any flimsy excuse to avoid conversation, rather than hear an intellectually rigorous, alternative view. I have considered changing churches, but none are to my taste. Perhaps our vicar may mature, though I doubt the calibre of today's theological graduates.

I live in a world that barely tolerates me. One that my father would find perplexing. His often repeated view that 'no man should tailor his opinions to suit this season's fashions' today sounds less inspirational than fustily quaint.

Since retirement, I have devoted time to my church and community, but sensed many of my activities were not appreciated. I decided it was time to move to more fertile fields.

I reasoned that a small, country town, far from Melbourne, might retain many of the solid, honest values prevalent in the 1950's - the time of my childhood and the longest period of sustained happiness in my life.

I studied a map of Victoria. At length, I settled on the village of Walpurgis.

It is located in the Wimmera region - a hot, dry area close to the western edge of the Little Desert. My research showed there was little to distinguish Walpurgis from ten thousand other villages scattered in remote locations throughout Australia's vast, sprawling land. It has a railway station, long boarded up, on the Adelaide line. Sixty years have passed since a train last picked up passengers from Walpurgis . Close by is a rarely used wheat silo - the region hasn't received good rainfall for eight years - then the rusting, weed infested shunting yards, while across the road is an ancient, two storey hotel, partly protected from the glaring sun by a deep verandah running down three sides of the large building. Farmers once gathered on the hotel verandah at the end of each slow, hard day to drink beer and exchange news or tall stories. The boards rotted away, so the french windows to the verandah have remained locked for decades. From ground level, you can stare up through the grey skeleton ribcage of timber joists to the rusting, bull-nose verandah ceiling.

It's over thirty minutes to the highway and there is no exit ramp to invite you to visit the little town. Walpurgis is not on the way to another place. Its meagre amenities include a newsagent, coffee lounge - where a short black doesn't mean an expresso, just a dainty cup, instead of the usual mug - a garage, Scout hall, Returned Services League Club, one-man Police station, State school, creche and a rural agent who sells sheep drench, weed poison and broadacres. The bank has long since left the town, but there is a small agency in the back of the newsagency, if you look hard enough.

There are no interesting natural features near Walpurgis. No Prime Minister, aviation founder or World famous batsman ever played as a child on the dusty streets of the town . Explorers who passed didn't record their impressions. No farmer ever uttered an oath of joy as he unearthed a nugget of gold, ploughing his paddock near the town. There are no hideous fibreglass statues of giant goannas, yabbies or merino rams - ('See the Biggest Dingo in the Southern Hemisphere'). There are rumours of feral pumas, UFO's and probably long extinct Tasmanian Tigers, but nothing that every second town in Australia doesn't claim and certainly nothing that would attract a tourist to visit the desolate little town.

A thoroughly dull place, but one where I hoped to be welcomed as a kindred, conservative spirit. A place where I might make a major contribution to a small society.

Rather than immediately selling up and leaving the city, I took a month's lease on a small bungalow adjoining Mrs Johnson's home in Walpurgis. Mrs Johnson was a small, shrewd lady in her eighties. She knew everyone and everything. A gossip, but useful to know.

I thought that Walpurgis was unusual only for its name. It was the title given to a sheep run once owned by a German settler. He must have had a quirky sense of humour. Perhaps it was the Teutonic version of Australians calling every man with flaming red hair 'Blue'.

But I soon learned Walpurgis had another unusual feature - its own bush hospital. It's unusual for a hospital to be found in such a thinly populated area and even rarer that it's Director was, by all accounts, an outstanding physician.

When people found that I was a retired doctor - and Mrs Johnson ensured this information spread like a grass fire on a hot day - many people would drop by or stop me in the street to tell me about Dr.Cameron Forbes.

It seemed that Forbes was a recluse. He lived on a small, secluded farm outside town. Neither Forbes, nor his wife socialised or shopped locally. This was accepted because Forbes was an excellent doctor. While he was not the town's full-time GP, he was the man people turned to in an emergency. The countryside, despite its benign reputation, is a dangerous place to live or work. I learnt how Forbes assisted people suffering snakebites, chainsaw amputations, tractor rollovers, a quarry collapse, a fall from scaffolding, drowning in a dam, a shotgun backfire, an electrocution and much more.

Many of these victims would may have died if they had waited for a transfer to the nearest major centre.

I became curious. Forbes could have earned a fortune in any city hospital. It was astonishing what he had done with a small staff and a minimum of equipment. Why had he buried himself in this remote area? I followed news in my profession. Why had I never heard of this outstanding individual? I obtained a copy of the Hospital's annual report. There was no photo of Forbes and references to his qualifications and experience were annoyingly vague.

'How old is Dr.Forbes?' I asked Mrs Johnson.

'I'd say about the same age as yourself, dear. In his sixties.'

She thought about it for a moment. 'Would you like to see his photo?' she asked unexpectedly.

'Yes, I thought there were no photos of him. There was nothing to illustrate any of the stories in the local paper.'

Mrs. Johnson smiled. 'No, Dr.Forbes is a very private man. We try to keep talk about him to ourselves. I suppose all of us are worried that if there's too much publicity about him outside the town, someone may lure him away. Without him, the bush hospital would collapse. He pays for its upkeep largely out of his own pocket. They say he takes a pittance for his wage, though he pays the staff award rates.'

She produced a photo. 'Noone knows I have this,' she said proudly. 'Dr. Forbes never poses for pictures. I should tear up the picture. He'd be very angry if he knew I had it, but he did so much for my Cyril before he died that I keep it for sentimental purposes.

'I was at a meeting of the hospital auxilliary,'she continued. 'It was our annual meeting and I took a few happy snaps of my friends. Dr. Forbes was in the background talking to someone. I didn't know he was in the shot until the photos were developed.'

I looked at the photo and started. He was now bald and many years older, yet unmistakable.

'James Platmore,' I blurted out.

'Pardon, dear?'

''Sorry, Mrs Johnson,' I said, quickly covering my tracks. 'Dr. Forbes reminded strongly of someone I knew. I see now he's really not like him at all.'

We agreed that it was funny how the eye can sometimes play tricks.

Yet I knew I had been holding a photo of James Platmore, not Cameron Forbes.

Platmore and I were in the same year at medical school. While we both came from modest backgrounds, we shared little in common. He was popular, while I had no friends. My only contact with him was when he and his friends openly and cruelly ridiculed my attempt to form a prayer group among the students. It was Platmore who coined my hated nickname, 'Pewkisser' that stayed with me through to graduation.

Perhaps I resented Platmore, but I maintain my subsequent actions were well intentioned.

In the second year of study, a scandal erupted that threatened to tear apart the medical school.

The faculty head, Dr.Daryl Symond was a tall, dignified and forbidding figure. He was certainly not a man to appreciate practical jokes, especially any played at his expense. He wore a distinctive hat, flowing bowtie and a dingy suit of an old-fashioned cut.

Platmore and three of his friends decided one day to play a prank on Symonds. The school had access to a number of bodies from the morgue. These were unidentified individuals - often drug addicts who died on the streets. The bodies were used for surgical instruction. It was never established how one of the corpses ended up in the possession of James Platmore, but a young mortuary attendant was later fired without severance pay.

Platmore broke into Dr. Symond's study and stole some of his clothes. They then dressed the corpse and carried it across the campus, late one night.

The next day, a secretary noticed a figure, who she took to be Dr.Symond, seated in a chair, outside the Vice Chancellor's office. His hat brim covered his face and she thought he was asleep. She gently touched his shoulder to wake him. When he didn't respond, she gave him a firm shake. The figure slumped forward and toppled from the chair. His hat fell off and a corpse rolled onto the floor.

The secretary's screams brought the Vice Chancellor running from his office where he had been chairing a meeting.

The incident caused great hilarity among many students, as well as some academics. It didn't amuse Symond or the Vice Chancellor, who quickly learnt the culprit's names.

I stoked the fire by informing the press and sending letters to various politicians, including the Federal Minister for Education who is responsible for granting university funding. The issue was hotly debated in newspapers and in Parliament. Many people agreed with my view that the 'prank' showed an appalling contempt for the dignity of human life.

Each time it appeared the scandal may be burning out, I doused it with petrol - another letter, a call to a talkback radio programme, letters to religious authorities and so on. I became well known, though my unpopularity deepened. If I didn't see myself as a Savonorala, I certainly was a scourge and cleansing fire. I've never felt as excited and engaged as during those heady days.

The scandal ended with Platmore's expulsion. The Vice Chancellor, a well respected and powerful figure vowed Platmore would never graduate as a doctor in Australia and New Zealand. Unfairly, Platmore's accomplices, who came from wealthy and influential families, got off with reprimands. I began agitating for their removal. One day, Symond called me into his office. He told me my fun was over. Any more and I would follow Platmore out the door. I heeded the warning.

In all the years that passed since graduation, I hadn't heard of Platmore. If I felt a twinge of guilt that perhaps a good doctor had been lost, I would console myself it was Platmore's fault.

The same day that I saw Platmore in Mrs. Johnson's photo, I drove out to the hospital.

The receptionist looked up. Seeing me, her eyes narrowed.

'Can I help you?' she inquired coldly.

I gave my name and asked to see Dr.Cameron Forbes.

'He's not in today.'

'When will he be in?'

'I don't know. When he chooses. Leave your phone number and I'll tell him you called.'

I underlined the mobile number on one of my old business cards.

She took the card reluctantly. 'May I tell him the purpose of your visit?'

I nodded. 'Tell him that I'm trying to contact a man we both know. James Platmore.'

As I left the hospital, I turned back and looked through the glass. The receptionist was on the phone, reading from my card. She sensed me staring. As she looked up, I smiled, waved and walked away.

Before I had driven the short distance to towm, my mobile rang. I pulled to the side of the road and answered.

'Platmore here,' a voice barked.

'Let's meet,' I suggested.

We met at a neglected picnic spot outside town. I parked my Saab behind his old, mud-spattered ute. Platmore got out of his car and observed me coldly. I offered my hand which he ignored. The happy young man had soured into a truculent, bitter senior.

'You remember me?' I began.

'I'm unlikely to forget. I thought of all places, I'd be safe from you and your kind. I wonder how you found me.'

'I wasn't looking for you. Just somewhere to settle.'

'Rubbish. What's so special about Walpurgis that anyone who didn't have to, would want to live here? It's no better or worse than any other town. Now that you've found me, what do you want?'

I shrugged. 'I was curious to meet you. I wondered how you were practicising medicine and under an assumed name.'

'There's no way I can practice under my name. Each time, I tried to enrol in medicine, some busybody like you would tell the admissions office about my past and I'd be refused.'

'So you're unqualified, yet you practice medicine?' I probed.

'Unqualified as far as Australian authorities go. Even qualified, I'd never be registered. I gained overseas qualifications and plenty of experience, but that doesn't cut it. Do you know the friends who helped me that night are now respected practioners? Ironic really, they were the ones who put me up to that stupid trick in the first place.'

'That was always unfair.' I agreed.

Platmore appeared not to hear me. ' You must be so pleased,' he continued bitterly. 'Somehow you tracked me down. For the second time, you can destroy my career. Even better, you know that when you report me, I'll probably be jailed for practising without a licence. Of course, the bush hospital will close and the people here will lose their access to emergency medical attention. Most, if not all the hospital staff will have to go onto welfare. Imprisoment will probably destroy my marriage and shame my children, but why would you care? As always, you'll have done the noble thing.'

'You really hate me,' I said wonderingly. 'I only ever did what I thought was right.'

'The classic excuse of every meddler,' Platmore sneered. 'I know your type very well. You'll never admit that you're never so happy as when you've seized the spotlight from others. For you, being noticed is worth the hatred you attract.'

I flinched. 'I haven't said I'm going to do anything about you working here. I haven't taken it in.'

'Oh, you'll sneak on me alright. That's your nature.'

He gave me a look of withering contempt. 'We haven't anything more to say. The next time I see you, it will be in court. Go back to Melbourne and report me. Do your worst.'

With that, he got into his ute and drove away.

I returned to Mrs. Johnson's house. She met me in her hallway and handed me a cheque.

'Here's your money,' she said shortly.

'What money?'

'The remainder of your rent. I'd like you to leave today.'

'What's the problem? What have I done?'

'A friend of mine at the hospital rang me. She said you're going to close it down.'

'This is silly,' I protested. 'I don't have the power to close a hospital down, even if I wanted to.'

'No, but you'll make sure you hound Dr.Forbes out of his job. I don't want to discuss this with you. There's nothing I can say that will change your mind. I know a dogooder when I see one. Just pack your bags and go as soon as you can.'

I took the cheque. 'Well, I suppose I can get another place,' I said doubtfully.

'You won't get another room in this town,' she snapped. 'If you're sensible doctor, you'll leave Walpurgis right away. People are very angry about you. They hate you for waging a vendetta against Dr. Forbes. Things could get very nasty.'

As I backed my Saab out of Mrs. Johnson's driveway, I noticed a small crowd of townspeople had gathered by the gate. Someone called out to me and a fist crashed onto the top of my car.

I was still shaking with fear and rage when I reached the highway. It was only on the outskirts of Melbourne that I felt sufficiently relaxed to turn on the car's CD player. Jacqueline du Pré was playing Elgar's Cello Concerto with the London Symphony Orchestra, under the baton of Sir John Barbirolli. It's a classic performance that never fails to soothe me. Four movements spoke to me that day as never before of the sadness, yearning and curious nobility of human life.

For hours, I had been mentally composing letters to various influential individuals. My gift with words and the ease of sending emails made it fatally easy to launch vigorous campaigns on many issues. Sometimes, I was surprised at how personally individuals took what I had written. I had a dangerous talent for expression.

Listening to du Pré, I was drawn into a finer, cleaner world. Gradually, I realised that I wouldn't inform on James Platmore. I wasn't prepared to destroy the man's life a second time.

The irony was Platmore and the residents of Walpurgis would endure months, perhaps years before they realised I meant no harm.

I was a reformer who had begun to question his own motives.

Life would never be the same.









------
Stephen Collicoat


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Comments

The following comments are for "Busybody"
by Stephen Collicoat

Exposed?
I really enjoyed this story. You fleshed out the character very well. I could relate to the type of character that you were writing about. I guess we all have a bit of him in us, especially the critics. Of course, your character took it to a level that was just evil. As the scenes progressed, the more I learned, the more disgusted I became with him. I found it great fun to despise him.

You did a wonderful job of exploring the main character’s personality throughout the story, except in the end. I felt that his decision not to report Platmore conflicted with the characterization you had developed throughout. One suggestion would be to have him decide not to report Platmore, but this inability to expose the injustice plagues him. Eventually, he would be forced to expose the doctor and put his mind at ease.

Thanks for a great story.
Nelson.

( Posted by: Nbiz [Member] On: July 4, 2004 )





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