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Sport 21: Spring 1998

Geoff Cochrane — The Boiler-House

page 7

Geoff Cochrane

The Boiler-House

1972. The longer your hair, the sexier. Sandals and flared jeans, that's me. I speak with a special accent acquired in the Duke of Edinburgh Hotel, a chaotic dive.

‘Please Respect the Privacy of Patients.’ I register the place in terms of roses and tennis-courts, asphalt paths and beamed ceilings. From a window at the back of Rutherford, one can see a little mortuary.

‘Do you dream about drinking?’ Sir Charles Burns asked. I did and do and now there's something wrong with my heart. A drink would fix my heart; a drink is not exactly contra-indicated.

I'm learning to polish floors with a machine. Tilting the handles gets you traction and momentum. Calm, surcease, belonging. The rocking swing and shush of the polisher. I'm nonetheless the thirstiest man in Australasia.

As my father and I approached Rutherford, a man came out to meet us. ‘I'm the Ward Host.’ He shook my father's hand. ‘Welcome to Queen Mary, Mr Cochrane.’

‘You've got the wrong bloke,’ my father said.

A diffuse rain fell, wafting down like steam. On my first night in Hanmer, scents sulphurous and piney. From the tables in the hall came a clacking of balls. The light in the boiler-house suggested a course of action: when my treatment was over, I'd get a job shovelling coal. Faulkner had had his post office, I'd have my boiler-house.

Dr Maling is as leggy as a flamingo. ‘Has it ever occurred to you that drinking is a sort of petulance?’


‘A way of saying I want it all?

It has and does but now there's something wrong with my heart. I put away my polisher and go to breakfast. Sunlight fills the dining-room. The surly Belfast man offers to trim my hair. When I go to his room later in the morning, I see that he's equipped like a proper page 8 barber—all that's lacking is a barber's big mirror. I sit in a chair and submit to his ministrations; the touch of his scissors is light and professional. At length he hands me a pocket mirror. ‘I've given you a choice of styles,’ he says. ‘Tell me which you prefer, Paddy,’ he says.

One side of my head retains its brown curls, the other has been almost completely denuded.

It's a glorious day in February. I feel big-eared and stark. Warmth and clarity, the odour of mown grass—and now I look like everybody else. I sport travesty: my shorn condition seems to represent compromise and moral slippage. A man in his sixties tells me, ‘An ignorant sort of prick, that Belfast sod.’

The lunch bell rings. One's place at table is dictated by a seating plan. A bag of toffees and a telegram have been left beside my knife. ‘BEST WISHES ON YOUR TWENTY-FIRST LOVE MUM AND DAD.’ The telegram read and internalised, there remains the mystery of the sweets, the provocation of the toffees.