A Man & His (Assistance) Dog: The Testimony of Azrael - Part One
Infected Again? Do not delay. And don’t be embarrassed. Health workers understand and are only too eager to help. Here’s an interview with someone who’s on his third round of treatment.
(Please be careful not to rely on facts and opinions mentioned in this conversation. Their accuracy cannot be verified.)
I interviewed Azrael, my hairdresser, in the late Spring sunshine, not far from his housing commission flat in St Kilda. Accompanying him was the boundlessly energetic Blaze, a chestnut coloured muscle-ball of a dog, who was determined to leave his mark on the proceedings.
Azrael expelled a thankful groan as he made himself comfortable on the grass with his back to a tree. He’s in his mid-fifties, thin as a rake with long, perfectly straightened bottle-blond hair, a pronounced gay drawl and a massive personality.
“Anyone got a cigga?” he asked.
I think you brought some with you.
“Hey?” he queried, looking mystified.
I’m pretty sure you brought some with you.
'Oh. Right. Mnnn…'
From somewhere on his person, he produced a tailor-made with a broken back.
Forget that. Look in your back pocket.
Azrael drew a flattened pouch of tobacco from the back of his jeans and set about rolling himself a cigarette.
Predictably, attention turned to the youthful Blaze, who at this point was fetching a frisbee.
Is he the same breed as your last one?
'Not really. He’s a staffy crossed with… something,’ he said, gazing at the dog adoringly. ‘Olly was an American Staffy. This one’s more English.'
What’s the official description? Emotional support animal?
“They’re called “Assistance Dogs”.’
Since Olly, his last assistance dog, passed on, Azrael has trialled three replacements, including the current one. I’d be surprised if Blaze didn’t get the guernsey (or, technically, the fluoro jacket).
‘The first was this massive crossbreed…’ Azrael’s vision clouded. ‘He only wanted cuddles…’
But… not up to snuff?
‘No. No chance. He was huge. Great with toddlers, with people, anything that wasn’t another dog. Those… well, he just wanted to shake them by the neck until they were dead.
‘We had to get him rehoused pretty quick, because the council wanted to impound him…’
How did that go?
‘He ended up somewhere on the urban fringe with a team of meth-smokers…’
‘They found him in an abandoned car by the side of the road. He still had the chip with my details, so I was called up to rescue him… I wound up sending him to a farm way up in Tamworth.’
A farm? When I was a kid, my dog Pluto was sent to a farm.
‘No. No. Not that sort of farm. This was a real farm, I can assure you. I’ve seen the pictures…’
You’ve seen pictures?
‘It was a real farm.’
Okay, I conceded.
‘So, the next dog, Gus, he used to, well… lunge at babies. At their faces. He didn’t work out well.’
I noticed someone being accompanied by his support dog during the Mueller inquiry. In the US.
‘I took Olly into court with me. They decided I was better off without a custodial sentence. I mean,’ he laughed, ‘how were they going to accommodate the dog?
‘Olly went everywhere with me. He’s done Gay Pride and all that. I used to take him to all the hospitals. The psyche hospital. He loved visiting that.’
The liver clinic?
‘Of course. He used to come up with me all the time. So, they understood that when he died I kind of… lost it a bit.
This is The Alfred?
‘Yes. I was doing this longitudinal Hep C study there… ‘
Oh? Which one?
‘Not sure what the title was.’
(There’ve been a number of such trials: TAP, MIX, SuperMIX which have followed Hep C clients/drug users over time. All have been initiatives of the Burnet Institute)
‘I did the trial for a new Hep C drug to begin with. Then I agreed to become part of this study.’
You’d be about my age, wouldn’t you?
‘Yeah. 57 this year, I think…
‘Dog! Come here! Not everybody loves you, mate! Not everybody loves you… You big sticky beak!’
From a distant corner of the park came a sudden high-pitched yelp from something with the general size and shape of a sausage-dog.
Azrael shook his head dismissively. ‘Blaze didn’t touch him, but he thought he’d start bawling anyway.’
Okay then, when did you first find out that you had Hep C?
‘I was diagnosed in the nineties.'
And what led you to getting tested?
‘They were testing for everything at that stage. When everyone was dying of AIDS. It was a ghastly time…’
If I may ask… How did you avoid it?
‘More good luck, than anything. And a generous serve of cross-dressing.’
‘Well, a lot of the people I slept with were straight. Or touted themselves as such - on the night.’
I’m almost following your logic...
‘I just wasn’t into the scene. You know? Where everyone was… you know… swapping pajamas.’
‘Swapping pajamas. It was all very incestuous at one point, you know… Some were almost determined to catch it off their partners. Just to know what it was about… to feel the same way somehow…’
To feel part of the community?
‘Yeah. Yeah. And now it’s even worse. The rate of infection’s astronomical. All this bare-backing, you know…’
That would be… a decision not to use condoms?
‘Yeah. It’s all connected to ice…’
They’re calling that ‘chemsex.’
‘No one has any other kind of sex now. Not on Grindr. It’s all chemsex, one way or another. The ugly ones, they’ve got the drugs. That’s how they get the prettier ones into bed.’
From time to time, friends and acquaintances dropped by the quiet park and lent their wisdom to the conversation.
‘And they let you know what they’re holding… like, ahead of time,’ said one girl about Grindr, ‘together with their preferences, like whether they’re tops or bottoms.’
‘There’s always a transaction; a trade of some kind,’ said Azrael. ‘But somehow I’ve managed to avoid that too.
‘I’ve got a friend, he’s twenty years my junior. We’ve lived together on and off… I’ve watched him go through it all.
‘“Ice?” he says, “I never pay for ice. It comes with the deal. With whoever I get with that night. They all offer you free drugs to get you into bed.”’
Hep C is actually transmissible via heavy duty anal sex - if one partner has HIV.
‘Oh, okay. How’s that?’ asked Azrael.
The level of enthusiasm maybe? The chance of blood on blood contact?
‘Your viral load would have an influence, wouldn’t it?’ mused Azrael. ‘Like, if you had a viral load of, say, 12, it would be pretty difficult to pass it on.’
Makes sense. But I don’t know the official line on that…
What impresses me is that you’ve not only managed to avoid HIV, but you also seem to have been pretty proactive about your Hep C. How did you react when you first found out you had it?
‘Well… I’d been up a day or two. We used to take speed and go out dancing. A lot of people found commiseration on the dance floor in those days. And it was a dance floor that became less and less crowded, week by week it seemed, as people met their end…
‘But the actual day I learned about my Hep C… well I’d been out all night, dancing with Disco Down Tony Brown and a few others - and, yeah… I think I just started crying…’
‘I don’t know why. I didn’t feel sorry for myself or anything. I think it was more like… relief? That it was only Hep C. During that time, when the doctor called with something to tell you… well, your mind went to one thing and one thing only.’
Though Azrael was speaking of highly personal, intensely emotional things, I detected no hint of self-pity. His tone was even, and his voice did not quaver. If anything, he tended to smooth out the ragged edge of the subject matter with humour.
How do you think you caught Hep C?
‘I was staying at a place in Punt Rd,’ he said, wistfully. ‘This one night, I was home alone, everyone else was still out… they hadn’t come home from The Peel or whatever was cool at the time.
‘I don’t know how you’d describe the mood I was in, but it ended in me discovering a loaded syringe taped to the underside of a desk. Of course, my first thought was… oooh! I wonder what’s in that!'
And that’s where you got it?
I think a lot of people – people who use - would do the same. I know I would have. At least, back in the day.
‘I squirted some out and tasted it to see what kind of analysis I could do with my tongue. It was definitely something.’
Speed or smack?
I… can’t remember.
No. Can’t remember.
Whose was it? And were they angry?
‘Don’t know… I did listen at a few doors, trying to figure who might have put it away…’ Azrael drifted into a kind of nostalgic fugue. ‘But, yeah, around that period, there were quite a few queens who thought that sleep was for somebody else.’ His memories tripped from one to the next. ‘I don’t know… I think the speed from back then was a whole lot less damaging than this ice business…’
‘And I did love my speed. I used to get dressed up as someone different every night. Sometimes, I’d spend more time getting ready than actually going out…'
Did you sort your records? And your books? Did you rearrange the kitchen?
‘Disco Down Tony Brown would do everybody’s dishes for them.’
How long was it before you actually did anything about your Hep C?
‘Well, there wasn’t much to be done at first. I put it on the back burner. It didn’t seem to be affecting my liver, and I certainly didn’t want a biopsy to prove it…’
Biopsies. They can be nasty.
‘I never even had a liver function test - until the echo system came along. You know?
How did that go?
‘My liver was fine. Not a scar in sight. Hang on…’
Azrael called out to a shabbily attired older gentleman who was shambling down a nearby path cradling a can of alcohol.
‘How are you?’
‘Beautiful day. Heaven, isn’t it?’
‘Enjoy your walk!’ Azrael’s attention returned to me. ‘He gets Bundy for this old man who can’t leave his house. He deals weed up there. And he got stood over by the same people who did me.’
In recent times, a particularly nasty thug had been giving Azrael grief. Azrael’s a friendly guy, trusting, sometimes too much so, and this dirtbag, once he’d ascertained the day on which Azrael received his pension cheque, would appear and roll him for money and drugs. Being the frail creature he is, there was little Azrael could do by way of defence.
“But did I tell you?’ he announced excitedly. ‘I found him. In the newspaper. I’ve got it on my phone. I’m going to go to the cops this arvo and show them.’
Why was he in the newspaper?
‘He took the gun off a policeman and turned it on him.’
So maybe that’s over with now? Is he still a threat?
‘Well, he’s not at large anymore.’
That's a relief.
Please click here for Part Two of this marvellous interview
That’s a relief.