LIFE WELL LIVED
Letting go of a story that’s lived in your imagination for years is no easy thing to do. In fact, for me, it’s not so much a matter of letting go as riding a cold wave of change – a little like dealing with grief, or at least shades of it. It’s not a goodbye so much as an adjustment to a new reality.
None of my characters are just characters; none of them are inventions serving only a plot. They’re pieces of me, cyphers that lead me to an understanding of something I need to know, a line of love I need to follow, and for all that, they are very real.
Hugo Winter, the orthopaedic surgeon at the centre of the novel I finished last month, has been with me for the last twelve years, a man whose tale of love in all its colours insisted I tell it. Sometimes it’s felt as if he’s been sitting beside me, looking over my shoulder, telling me to hurry up with whatever I’m writing so that I can be with him.
He’s based on a real chap: a doctor called Max Herz who lived and worked in Sydney across the first half of the twentieth century, quietly curing children of disabling injuries, reconstructing their bones, reshaping their lives. A man who would charge the rich and famous a premium for his services so that he could treat the poor and the small for free. A man who put a lot of important noses out of joint because of that – and because he was a foreigner, a German, a Jew. Not someone the Establishment was ever going to love; not someone who ever cared what the Establishment thought, either.
Apart from the surgical skills and a few other obvious details, Hugo is me: an outsider, a solo flyer, an unashamed unfitter-innerer, but one with a lot to give, and one who will continue to give regardless of whether or not those in power value what’s being offered. That’s not something I could ever farewell or put away: it’s indelibly tattooed upon my own character.
As I set off now on a new story adventure – a dazzling date with an acrobat, and an actual cup of tea with one of Australia’s leading physical performers next week – Hugo continues to sit with me. Right now he’s harassing me about a few lines in one of the last chapters of the manuscript. It’s called Walking, and as an orthopaedist he’s concerned I have one of the other characters – a fellow called Jim Cleary – up out of bed and walking too quickly after a badly broken leg. Yes, I’m arguing a point of medicine with man who doesn’t exist. But he loves Jim as much as I do; and he’s especially fond of Jim’s physiotherapist Lucy Brynne. Hugo taught Lucy everything she knows – they’ve been close ever since he treated her for a terrible injury she suffered when she was a little girl – and he doesn’t want her getting any medicine wrong, never mind things not working out well with Jim’s leg. The stakes are dizzyingly high! For Hugo, anyway.
And I listen to him. He’s more than a friend, imaginary or otherwise. He’s taught me so much about living, and giving, and the point of it all. He’s taught me so much about dignity and diligence, and the wisdom of walking away from those who aren’t ever going to share your page.
As an old man reflecting on his achievements and his readiness for making his final cheerio in the spring of 1948, he understands: ‘He’d made others smile; he’d made children smile. He’d taken care of those in need wherever he could and changed their circumstances for the better… He’d felt more joy than sadness on balance across all the years. He was loved.’
What else is there?
Thank you, Hugo, for all your hanging around. Now, back to that point of medicine…