I had a Broome pearl – a Baroque saltwater pearl, grown in a gold-lipped oyster. Broome, a coastal town in remote north western Australia, is famous for its beautiful pearls and pearl shell.
Early last century people dove for the pearl shell. It was used for buttons and ornaments in Europe. When plastics arrived mid-century, Australian and Japanese people began to cultivate pearls in Broome. They have been successful.
Late last century, I first went to Broome as a medical student. It was January – the cheapest time to travel to the northern parts of Australia because the climate is almost unbearably hot.
Broome is colourful. The soil is a deep red. It’s called pindan. Rocks are red, orange and white or volcanic black, blade-sharp. There are dinosaur footprints in the rocks there. The sky is relentlessly blue. And the sea! Warm and wild with massive tidal changes, it is an exquisite aqua with bands of turquoise and royal blue. Nevermind that you can’t swim in it for fear of the toothy dinosaurs that lurk in the shallows (crocodiles are everywhere). The colours of Broome made my brain and spirit feel charged.
Broome was the first place I saw hot pink frangipanis – their perfume swelling up in the waves of midday heat and swishing around your head on the evening sea breeze. Flaming orange sunsets over the Indian Ocean made me feel connected to bigger things. It was a welcome change to my city life.
As a medical student interested in working in the Bush, I had been awarded a scholarship to explore rural medicine.
At over three thousand kilometres from where I lived in Sydney, Broome was the furthest place I found to go on my student allowance.
When I got there I found that while the place was nourishingly beautiful, the medical work could be demanding.
Health consequences of poverty and the spiritual toll of dispossession were aggravated by the poor living conditions of many Aboriginal people there. Isolation from hospital care in the state capital – Perth is over sixteen-hundred kilmotres away – also took its toll on people’s health.
On one of my student trips to Broome, I was allowed to live out of the town. I felt extraordinarily privileged to spend a month in a resilient and culturally rich coastal community.
It was a shock, though, to find that patients from that community with kidney failure had to travel to Perth for dialysis two or three times a week.
Attempts to make the life-sustaining treatment available to them at home were heartening and appalling at once: there was a dialysis machine -- but then there was a broken door on the room where it was, so it was impossible to keep the room clean. Then there was not the right water. A filter was needed. But when it was provided, the electricity supply was erratic. A generator provided produced electricity of the wrong voltage. Gangantuan electricity towers were built to brings mains power from the distant town but the momentum or funding was lost and the towers stood around the community empty and stupid.
Each time the enthusiasm, hard work and determination that went into finding and gathering the money to bring the vital piece of equipment to the community burned people out. An individual (or a handful of individuals) can’t fill the place of a broken system.
So the patients with kidney failure continued to need to be transported to Perth for dialysis and the hundred-thousand dollar dialysis machine stood useless behind the broken door, swollen and warped by humidity, no longer on its hinges.The door was lifted in and out of place by weary health workers who no longer found the whole circus remarkable. They were just doing their best to continue everyday kindness in medicine. I learned a lot in that community.
The people in and around Broome are a handsome mix of ancestry: Aboriginal, Islander, Indonesian, Japanese, Malay and Chinese, with some Indo-European genes added to the mix. Descended from pearl divers – some indentured, some adventurers, they flourished in their iridescent outpost. Strong shouldered, with big lungs, the saltwater divers produced robust children.
Among these people I first noticed Aboriginal women (and a few men) wearing pearls. I was impressed by the easy confidence with which they wore them. There is terrible poverty in and around Broome, among the broken and dispossessed. It was as if wearing a pearl was a statement of entitlement among those who’d been given a message that they were entitled to very little. I promised I’d get myself a Broome pearl when I became a doctor.
It was not until ten years later that I bought my pearl in Broome. By then I’d been a doctor for seven years and was married to Claudia and living in Central Australia.
We went to a pearl farm to see where the pearls grow. In contrast to the relaxed pearl farmer with his big, thick-skinned hands, who acted as our guide, the showroom of the pearling company seemed to be purposefully intimidating. It had that clinical atmosphere rich, successful industry presents. Another Aboriginal doctor and her husband were there with us. We shored each other up.
“Oh, try it on,” I said to my friend.
She gave herself a dark appraising eye in the store mirror, wrapping a twenty-thousand dollar web of gold and pearls around her neck. Queenly, she was.
“It looks fabulous,” I said.
The pearl I liked best was a fat, distorted creamy pearl. It had little rainbows between the circular lines and blemishes on it. It was a white Baroque pearl (the black ones come from Tahiti). It was imperfect, entirely unique and valuable.
Despite being in well-paid fulltime work, I still needed Claudia to chip in half of the cost of the pearl. She gracefully did so. It was a fraction of the price of the necklace my friend was modelling, after all.
I wore my pearl for years. Some years I wore it day and night. It made me feel strong and safe. I felt that negativity could slide off its aragonite surface and not touch me. (People have such magical stories they tell themselves about their jewels).
One day I can barely remember, about a year and a half or two years ago, I took my pearl off and tucked it away for safe-keeping. Almost as soon as I had done so, I forgot where I put it.
I knew it would show up. I felt it was nearby and I trusted myself to have put it somewhere secure. I consoled myself that my pearl was not lost, just misplaced. I have other jewelry I love (some of which I wrote about here), so I took turns wearing it.
I didn’t tell Claudia that I couldn’t find it. I told myself I just had not found it yet. In June this year when we came to Europe on a family emergency I still had not found my pearl. I missed it at the funeral in July. In August I took everything out of my backpack and my handbag, trusting I might find my pearl. I shook them upside down. My bags were tidier, but the pearl was still unfound.
When I had to return to Australia without Claudia in September, I was quietly hopeful then that I would find the pearl among the little boxes and dishes on my bedside shelf. The quiet and empty house I returned to did not show me my pearl. I worked diligently. I ate the food Claudia had cooked for us from our freezer and sometimes cooked for myself. I spoke to Claudia almost every day. But we missed each other in a thousand thoughts and interactions with ourselves and the world each day. I was sad and lost without her.
Seeing Claudia unable to leave her ailing mum and being unable to be apart from her, it only took a month or so for me to realise that I would have to leave my work and pack up our house. I needed to return to Claudia’s side.
I felt sad to leave friends, colleagues and patients. Claudia still had photos she planned to take in the the desert. But she was stuck and I had to go.
As soon as I finished work to pack fulltime I got sick – a declaration by my body that I was unable to cope alone. Friends came to my aid. I confided to one of them as we surveyed the empty shell that had been my house, after the removalists had been.
“I was really expecting to find my pearl when I packed up for the move,” I said.
“It could still be in one of the little boxes or silk purses I have my jewelry in – “ I cast around. “Maybe it’s been packed up. What am I going to tell Claudia? So much has been lost from her life. I can’t bear to have lost my pearl.”
“One of our friends lost a pearl from her necklace when it fell into the ocean from a boat,” I went on. “She was able to say that the pearl wanted to go back to the ocean. Only fair, she’d had it for ten years. I’d like to feel that philosophical but I don’t. I want my pearl back.”
My friend was thoughtful. “It’s safely put away, like all your other valuable things. That’s what you’ll tell Claudia and it’ll be true.”
The house packed and cleaned, I gave away many possessions and my plants to caring homes. I sold some things. I drove to Alice Springs five hours to put our car on a truck to go to Sydney. I had good company all the way. My friends and family and Claudia’s daily calls carried me through a time of intense work, before thirty hour’s journey to Europe.
Back in my wife’s arms, not much else matters. The snow spirals in mesmerising patterns out the window. The satisfying work of shoveling snow out of the path is rewarded by chocolate and gingerbread. My rounder face is made of it.
I am delighted. On my second day here, arising in our attic room from the time-warped sleep of the jet-lagged, I put my hand deep into a pocket inside my backpack to be sure I had not lost my passport. There was my pearl, warm and bright in my hand, speaking of red sand and aqua salt water far from the forest village where we now stay.
I also found out that back in the Kimberley, the community I worked and learned in is now able to provide dialysis for their renal patients. Some people out there are using their grief and anger at injustice to create a big glowing pearl of achievement. I wish the mob out there joy and further growth in healing. And will carry joy and healing with me, with or without my pearl.
Thumbnail pic of Broome coastline by Lizzy5.