GORDON SANITAIRE by Gordon Urquhart (VII)

Public Courtesy

When I was growing up it was proper to open doors and walk on the outside of a lady on the footpath and offer to carry her parcels. A gentleman would offer a lady his seat on a train or in an omnibus. (Yes, omnibus.) It wasn’t only gentlemen though – men would offer women their seat on crowded transport, and everyone else would offer their seat to a pregnant woman. It wasn’t only ladies and gentlemen. It was courtesy and you did the right thing unless you were incapacitated yourself.

One memory stands out. I was in my mid-teens and travelling home on a tram from the casualty ward at St. Vincent’s. The doctors had just completed particularly brutal surgery involving breaking and resetting my leg. A freak injury had unfortunately cruelled my hopes of ever representing Australia in live pigeon shooting – I had my heart set on a medal at the upcoming state finals when “Donger” Barrett accidentally discharged his weapon while he was cleaning it – and it was all a bit of a mess below the left knee until the medicos fixed me up. But I digress – there I sat on the tram, boater and blazer on, apparently normal, smartly turned out and in control, but all the while pain radiated from my wounds. The leg was swollen and I was in agony, but the signs were hidden. Nothing outwardly showed that I had demanded to be discharged from hospital after major surgery (I has a clarinet lesson that afternoon) and could now hardly move from my seated position on the Bondi tram.

The tram filled slowly. More and more men dressed in their business finery – pocket watches, clipped yet luxuriant moustaches, waistcoats, bowler hats – took their seats for the arduous journey back to hearth and home. Other worthies got on too. A pair of elderly women, a vicar, a man with a missing leg who supported himself on crutches, and a group of blind ex-police officers, injured in the line of duty and led by a young lady from the Salvation Army. Then I realised that I was really in trouble. The conductor helped aboard a pregnant woman with heavy parcels who wore a military medal won for conspicuous bravery in nursing. I had to get up. But I couldn’t. I couldn’t move at all.

Other passengers talked behind their hands. Muttering and exchanged looks and a stirring among the men in the carriage indicated that someone else would offer this brave, patriotic, selfless woman their seat, even though it was quite clearly the duty of the sixteen year-old boy wearing the colours of the New South Wales Live Shooting  team on his hat ribbon to spring to attention and do the expected thing. It wasn’t even considered chivalrous in those days. Not like now. It was expected.

I was in a spot. I had not stood up. This was shameful. I was desperate. I rolled off my seat, whacked my head against the edge of the seat opposite, hit the floor, and pretended I was dead. Feigning some sort of fit was all I could think of to do. I woke up back in St. Vincent’s the next morning and they told me I had a severe mouth injury from hitting my head. They said I’d be lucky to play the clarinet again. I never did, but I took up the law and never looked back.

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Published in: on March 12, 2012 at 7:45 pm  Leave a Comment  

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