The first patient of the day is a young man who has contracted herpes in a one night stand. “I’ve had only one girlfriend since high school. How am I going to tell her this? What will her parents say?” “Her parents don’t need to know. You’re both adults”, I say, taking his hand.
My first adult job was at Miriam’s clinic. I was nineteen and worldly. Miriam was 51.
“Moisturise your neck,” Miriam said. “That’s where a woman’s age shows”. She thought “azulene” — a blue camomile oil — was the key. “Don’t forget your earlobes.” Miriam taught me to extract blackheads using steam; to slather hot, sweet-smelling wax and tear off hair with it.
Mostly, the men came for massage — my job.
“What are you wearing?” A young and breathy voice asked over the phone one day. He said he was a local pharmacist. “Erm, it’s a navy dress with a broad white stripe down each side of my body. It has a teardrop-shaped closure at the nape of the neck.” “I’ll bet it looks nice on you.” “It is a nice one, yes.” “Are you wearing panties?” “Well, yes, of course.” I told Miriam about the conversation and she smiled, raised her eyebrows a little. “Yes, you get them. Just tell them to make a booking. Say a full body massage. Full body. But if they ask if we do ‘relief’ say no. It could be someone from the council.”
It was my boyfriend who taught me how to massage. Glen had great hands and was not afraid of a knotty trapezius. He made me a massage table of strong wood painted mauve. I continued to teach myself from books. Miriam showed me some of the moves. “Start with their feet and calves, people carry a lot of tension there.”
I read about reflexology. “This part corresponds to your liver”, I’d say, digging in under the ball of his foot. Some of the feet were neglected and I felt compassion for the body. Clients told stories as their bodies were attended to. Or went to sleep.
I took my massage table with me when I went to the Pine Gap women’s peace camp in Central Australia, to protest against the American military communications base. We were feminists, socialists, anarchists, pacifists, anti-nuclear, anti-patriarchal, green activists, all women.
The bus ride to Central Australia took days. A woman with fine red hair and a pointed, witchy face massaged my hands on the bus. There was no such a thing as a stranger in those years. I was amazed at the feelings hidden between the bones of my hand.
The organisers of the camp were mostly white women from middle class or wealthy backgrounds. Local Aboriginal women came to sit down and asked. “Don’t you know it’s dangerous here? Where are your men?”
My work was at the healing tent. “Your irises are like silk,” an iridologist cooed to an aged woman. “I know how much work it took to do all that healing”. The older woman glowed. I had no idea what they were talking about.
I got a massage from a woman called Angelique. She was small and brown with lively eyes. I had a crush on her. There was also a handsome lesbian plumber in my affinity group. I had my eye on her, but she knew I had a boyfriend.
We slept on stony ground, cooking under tarpaulins. A local Aboriginal woman asked, “Why do you camp there, when there are shady trees over there?” One of the leaders of the camp said “We respectfully understand that the land under the shady trees is sacred.” The Aboriginal women murmured. “It is sacred shelter. You should move there under the shade before someone gets sick. It’s too hot away from the trees.”
That night I had a vision. I was riding an escalator up out of mountains of rubbish. “We thought the escalator was something you could relate to,” said a guide in the dream.
Almost 200 women protesters were arrested that night, including Angelique. Most refused to give their names, calling themselves ‘Karen Silkwood’ in honour of a nuclear-industry whistleblower and unionist. Silkwood’s car ran off the road on the way to a meeting with a Times reporter and a union organiser. She died. Angelique was kicked in the kidneys and had to be hospitalized The next day, we broke down the fence at the military base. More women were arrested, including me.
Later, a local Aboriginal woman conveyed a message of thanks to the protesters, "For the first time in living memory, we had one night when an Aboriginal woman was not raped in the jail in Alice Springs.” Hundreds of women had been arrested and the police were distracted from their usual routine.
This is the first installment of a series of biographical posts. A different version of the series will be published in the upcoming book by Dr Aleeta Fejo and Dr Christine Fejo-King on the journeys of Indigenous Doctors through their training.