Frank Cooper, 47, has the delivery, timing and presence of a stand-up comic. When you shake his knobbly hand, contorted by arthritis and punctuated by the space formerly inhabited by the amputated finger, you realise everything's wrong. He's edgy and anxious; like most former de-sealers, he suffers terrifying panic attacks, though they are the least of his medical problems. He is eager to launch into his story. For who knows? Tomorrow he mightn't remember it.
But he defers to the younger, more obviously ill man, 46-year-old Rob Solomons. Solomons has gone irreversibly to seed. Of course, it's impossible to stay fit when you've got chemically induced dementia and you're debilitated by migraines and blackouts, depression, nerve damage in your feet and hands, chronically high blood pressure, bowel and digestive diseases and respiratory problems. His marriage has failed.
On top of all that, there's the final indignity: the lingering emotional insecurity born of having been unable to get it up for years.
But Frank is a mate. So he can hang shit on Rob. He does so mercilessly and, as they sit in Rob's living room in Donnybrook on the coast north of Brisbane, they bounce off one another like some dark version of The Two Ronnies.
"He can't remember what fuckin' day it is," Frank says, gesturing to Rob. "Ask him if he wants a cup of tea... he'll go and make one, forget he's done it and five minutes later make another one. There'll be three cups of tea sitting there and he'll go and make another one. You should go for a drive with him ... I mean, no fuckin' way - you wouldn't get in a car with the bastard:'
Both men laugh hysterically. There's no pretence. Just the gallows humour of the condemned.
The mood quickly segues from black comedy to tragedy.
"Go on," Frank urges, "tell him about what we were discussing just before he arrived:"
"What?" stammers Rob. "Sss-suicide, do you mean?" "Yeah - suicide," says Frank.
"Yeah, mate, yeah ... suicide," says Rob, twitching as he turns to address me.
"We've both been there so often it's not funny. You feel so shithouse all the time, and you can't remember anything so you let people down constantly. Then there's the mmm-mood swings, so you're bloody impossible to live with. And then there's just this constant fight for the compensation and money worries that just wears you down further and further. The frustration and stress is huge. I can tell you, the only reason I'm alive today is because I live with a 12-year-old bbbbb-boy [his son, with whom he lives alone] who supports me so wonderfully. He walks over and gives me a big hug and says, `Dad, are you gonna be OK?'. What do I say? I know I won't be:'
It's his son's 13th birthday today. Rob would have forgotten. Except his Palm Pilot reminded him with the message: GET UP - IT'S NICKS BIRTHDAY. TRY AND BE HAPPY. He tries hard to be a good dad. He feels guilty because there's so much he can't do.
Frank, now three years into his third marriage, has two kids. He's only just hung onto this wife who, like the partners of most former de-sealers, hates his pain and finds him cantankerous and unpredictable, but mostly sad.
"A week after the honeymoon for my third marriage, we came back from Perth and straight away I had a complete breakdown because I was so stressed that I'd lose her, too ... how do you think that made her feel?"
He's had a heart attack and suffers severe psoriasis that makes him shed layers of skin, snake-like, in the bed every night. Chronic spondylitis has resulted in five vertebrae being surgically fused, accounting for his hunched appearance; he'll be in a wheelchair before long. He drives with a restricted licence and can't move his head much. In 1988, he was diagnosed with chronic sarcoidosis, a rare asbestosis-like condition (common among former de-sealers) that causes fungus to grow in the lungs and robs the victim of breath. A typical week comprises visits to the hydrotherapist, the physiotherapist, the podiatrist, the dermatologist, the GP, the osteopath and the cardiologist. Work is unthinkable.
Like Rob, he has a small total and permanent disability pension and a medical Gold Card from the Department of Veterans' Affairs. But there is no formal acknowledgement that their ailments resulted from working on the de-seal program and both gave up trying to negotiate pension backpay when they became stuck in a bureaucratic quagmire. Neither has been compensated.
"I've got on the phone - we've all got on the phone - and said, `I'm going to top myself unless you sort this out'. But they don't give a shit," says Frank.
"I know I might have 10 years left. So it's time the bastards stopped fucking us around - it's just chewing up what precious time we've got left. [Defence Minister] Robert Hill made that statement last year - he said we'd be compensated. Well, where is it? Our lives are on bloody hold and the frustration and the stress is only making us worse - it's killing us:"
Later, as Frank Cooper drives me to the train station, he says: "Mate, I'm really worried about Rob. He's got no one, you know, to support him. No one."
How did it come to this?
Brothers in Arms
Brothers in Arms
The Government's Game
Story by Paul Daley. Published in The Bulletin. Permission for use given.
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