A Man & His (Assistance) Dog: The Testimony of Azrael - Part Two
Anyway, back on track. When did you first get treated for your Hep C?
‘Well, I must admit, I did use my Hep C for everything I could. The pension. Accommodation was a big one. If I tried that now, it wouldn’t work ‘cause it’s no longer a death threat. But back then you could get housing off the back of it… all sorts of things…'
And your first treatment?
‘That’s something of a tale…’
At this point, a guy appeared on a motorbike, reducing my recording to white noise. The only word I could make out of this segment was ‘Ducati’.
‘I was on those anti-smoking tablets,’ continued Azrael. ‘Not Zyban, the newer ones.
‘I called them happy pills. I loved them. I’d never been so upbeat. But I’d had the death of two parents as well, so I was a bit on the flat side too. And I was using heroin every day and my boyfriend didn’t have a clue. It didn’t interfere with our sex lives or anything. It was quite easy to keep it under wraps.’
Something happened with these pills?
‘That’s right. We were overseas. I don’t know if it was a combination of the pills and withdrawals, ‘cause over there I couldn’t score, you know… and it left me a little animated of an evening…’
Where were you?
‘We went to the Philippines.’
Safer back then. Today you could get shot.
‘I wound up getting some morphine. And nearly getting shot.’
Our interview was beginning to draw a small audience. By this point there were three or four people seated cross-legged on the grass in our near vicinity.
‘You know where Jess is?” asked someone.
‘Have you called him?’ replied Azrael.
‘I don’t have a phone. Could I borrow yours?’
‘Lovely day for it,’ said someone else.
‘Let me just phone Jessie.’
‘Hi, I’m Raphael,’ said a man with ill-fitting false teeth.
What happened overseas? I asked.
‘Well the boyfriend was having a whale of a time. He was twenty years my junior. An American boy with OCD. He started getting concerned that I wasn’t sleeping, that I was trusting the wrong people, that sort of thing, because I was quite elevated. I’d cool down a little at the end the day, but then I’d be up again. No sleep. Never any sleep.’
Trusting the wrong people is a bit of a theme for you.
‘You could be right,’ he mused.
‘It didn’t get any better when we got home. So, yeah. He called the CAT team on me. And yeah, I ended up in the psych unit at the Alfred for almost a month.’
What was that like?
‘I could get out and smoke and everything. Didn’t make it to isolation. But I saw the rooms they use. They don’t have padded walls anymore. I think they found people are less inclined to throw themselves at walls if there’s no padding.
‘Anyway, on my way out, I wound up seeing this new doctor. Name was Jo King. Jo-king. Get it? She was the first doctor I’d had who did everything. And she was so capable. She was very good with my methadone and everything else I needed.
‘Blaze! Blaze Come on! Come here! Blaze! You are so naughty.’
Blaze lolloped towards us and made a surprisingly cat-like leap, over three wine glasses, avoiding them by millimetres.
So, this Dr King…
‘She told me about these new drug trials that were popping up for Hep C. I’d heard a bit about them. That there were no side-effects, so she helped me get involved.’
So, you joined the study? Around 2015, I guess?
That’s right. And it cured me.
This was before DAAs were made generally available?
'Absolutely, yeah… And it came as quite a surprise for me that the government was going to pay that kind of money for junkies like us.'
And you were using heroin…
Same as now?
Same as I’ve ever done.
How long have you been on methadone this time?
‘I started not that long ago. Around when things began to get criminally violent. I put myself on a good strong dose too.’
What do you mean criminally violent?
‘I mean it got criminally violent. Debts that I took on. Rather than having them brutalise other people who were there at the time, who may or may not have taken the stash, I copped it for them.’
Sounds like a lot of stress. Anxiety.
‘Absolutely. It was nonstop. Then it all got entangled. Other dealers got involved and started fighting each other. Now they’re all in jail.’
So it was a help being on methadone? You mentioned a big dose?
‘I started on 80.’
‘I had to get something done quickly. I let them know I had access to it anyway, on the street, so no pussyfooting round, just whack me in the deep end.’
When you were on it previously. What era was that?
‘Oh Gosh. The nineties? For about six months.’
Was it a nightmare getting off?
‘For sure. I did it cold turkey. Off 35.’
That must have hurt.
‘I had to go down to Geelong for Christmas and didn’t want to have to worry about getting – or not getting – takeaways, and all the shit that goes with it… But yeah, it was bad. Some of the places your head goes when you’re in that situation… I had no support at all and I was living with a guy who was dying… I got back home to Prahran and went to bed. Then, when I woke up, these two thieves were taking the painting off the walls. They were ripping the place off. They mustn’t have realised I was in the bed, so when I woke up, they just started punching into me, the pair of them. I was like “I give up” and I turned over and went back to sleep.
‘When I woke up my stomach was, like, bloated with blood, because they’d done some internal damage. So, I called the ambos, they stretchered me out and I wound up with no memory beyond waking up the next morning… in the woman’s ward because they had no spare beds.’
Not because they thought you were a woman?
‘I don’t think so… I mean, they would have seen all of me.’
He traced a wide arc over his lower torso.
‘I had a zipper going from here to here. They’d had to get it all out and… you know, look at it. To decide what needed fixing. My spleen… they didn’t bother putting that back in.’
You lost your spleen?
‘Yeah, yeah. Another reason for not letting the Hep C get on top of me.’
At this point, Blaze lost patience with being well behaved.
‘Sit. Sit! Here you! Mista!’
‘He’s a good find, mate. Good find,’ mumbled Raphael, whose voice appeared from time to time on my recording.
Azrael continued his gruelling tale.
‘Then the guy I was living with died… of pneumonia, I think. One of the complications. I got discharged from hospital, arrived home to find that people had moved in. Don’t know how many, but they’d built a bonfire in the loungeroom, using doors and drawers and curtains and shelves….’ He shook his head in disbelief. ‘The place had perfectly good heating. Actual proper heating. But they preferred to smash up my furniture for fuel. The place was down on Beaconsfield Parade. Hollywood Mansions. You know it?’
I do. I had friends who lived there.
‘Beautiful Arts and Crafts building. Every fireplace was unique. Different one in each room. Lovely. The jewel in the crown of St Kilda’s Art Nouveau. It was heaven. Except for the occupants…’
After a discussion about St Kilda and its architecture, I pushed to get back on message, discussing Azrael’s history of injecting drug use.
‘I was eighteen, thereabouts, when I first came across heroin. Taylor and Eevie were the culprits. Hairdressers. And proprietors of St Kilda’s most dubious salon. Eevie used to deal to the likes of Brett Whiteley…
‘But in those days, mostly, my thing was speed. It wasn’t until I was older that I began to require… something to slow things down a little. Shortly after that, I discovered the virtues of heroin.
‘Also, and I scarcely need to say it, speed wasn’t uber-cool. Like heroin.’
‘Nick Cave and those of his ilk were doing heroin. People aspired to be his dealer. Some regarded that as the pinnacle of success.’
Again, our conversation meandered. I steered it onto the subject of younger users and their Hep C experiences.
‘That “Tie me up. Hit me up” business has gotten big,’ suggested Azrael. ‘Or so I’ve been told…’
‘Gay sex. Tie someone up, hit them up – with ice usually - then, I guess, you fuck them. There was something on SBS about it.'
You seem to hang out with a few of the young ones… Is there a good awareness level regarding Hep C?
‘Not really. No. Remember, a lot of them smoke their drugs, so blood-borne’s not a big issue. Sure, the lowly mongrel types will hit up anything they can get their hands on, but that’s always been the way.’
How did you first get reinfected? What’s the story?
‘I went and scored at The Gatwick.’
Someone you knew there? Or… just a guy in a room?
‘Guys in a room.’ Azrael shrugged. ‘They were extremely untrustworthy. Every one of them. The whole process… it was infuriating. And endless. I’m sure you can imagine. I’d been stuffed around so much, and then, to top it off, with the end finally in sight, I realised I had no fit.
‘No one had a fit. I asked around. No cleans. No dirties…
‘And then I found one. It wasn’t mine. Someone had left it in the bathroom. In the Gatwick. Jesus…. Obviously, I’m not proud of myself, but… I used it. I had a job that needed doing. Simple as that.'
I hear you.
‘He was on a mission from god,’ added Raphael.
How long before you knew you had the virus again?
‘I knew the minute I put it in my arm.
‘You know how sometimes, when you’re presented with a choice? And it’s no choice at all?’
I do. But I wonder, if, in the back of your mind, you were thinking: sure, I’ll probably get it, but I’ll just get rid of it again – was that your thinking?
‘I wasn’t too worried. I’d had it for twenty years and it hadn’t done me any harm. So, what if I get it again? Big deal. You know? As I said, my liver didn’t have a scar on it.’
You’re lucky. And you’re lucky the doctors are so gung-ho on retreating people.
So… you got yourself checked?
‘At some point I’d put my hand up for another two years of the trial, so I was getting checked regardless.’
‘Well, I suggested to them that it might have come back naturally, when I knew it bloody hadn’t. And it turned out to be a different strain this time – so they knew what I’d been up to. I felt like such a dunce.'
Different strain. Different pills?
‘It was a two tablets a day the second time.’
‘Same thing. Twelve weeks.’
When was this?
‘When Ollie was getting ill and dying. He came up with me to the Gatwick. So, he was okay then. I think he died after I finished that second treatment. Since then I’ve been trialling replacements.’
I reckon you might be lucky with this one. With Blaze. He needs to mature a little, that’s all…
‘Yeah. I think so too. He just has to pass the test.’
And so the conversation strayed back into dog-world. And thence, who knows how, into the dreadful story of how a girl tripped on an escalator and somehow got her lip caught in the mechanical teeth. She lost a tooth, but I felt she was lucky not to have her face stripped from her skull.
‘I have a horror of escalators,’ said Azrael, with a shudder.
Do you notice the difference between having the virus and not having the virus?
‘Not really. It’s just something on a bit of paper that says you’ve got it - or you haven’t. But I’ve never had any sense of …’
So, we’re up to the third time, the third infection. I gather this fellow here was implicated somehow?
I indicated Raphael, who was placidly nodding off a few feet away. Our audience had dispersed a little. Some were displaying obvious signs of impatience: not with our conversation but with a certain individual and his tardiness in the delivery of certain goods.
‘Yes,’ said Azrael, indicating Raphael. ‘There were three of us. We had a hitting circle.
‘We were all clear of Hep C because we’d all done the treatment… Raphael here, he was: I’m clear! I haven’t got it! And we were like – you’re in!’
Raphael exposed his blinding dentition and began to speak.
‘I gave you a choice, Azrael. I said, “you go first,” and you said, “no, mate, we’re clear, you go.” You were being gentlemanly, and I didn’t know I had it dormant. Just being honest here.’
How come you didn’t have your own fits? I asked.
‘It was payday,’ said Azrael. ‘There were plenty… or we thought we had plenty, but they’d all been used, so… so we thought, well, that’s alright … we may as well do it altogether…’ He cast a glance at Raphael. ‘Because we were a hitting circle and we knew we were all clear.’
Raphael chipped in. ‘I got it thirty years ago. They treated me with gamma globulin. I’m a courier. I can’t contract it, but I can infect people… it turns out.’
Now, you may be wondering. What’s all this about Raphael’s Hep C being ‘dormant’? And why was he treated with gamma globulin?
It’s pretty clear that Raphael was getting his Bs and Cs mixed up. I’m no expert on Hep B, but I suspect that Raphael was referring to the immunoglobulins used (or perhaps once used) to treat the HBV virus. Also, people with Hep B cannot be permanently dormant carriers (or ‘couriers’) though at the time Raphael was treated this may have been the common wisdom.
Raphael’s confusion is an example of how a poor understanding of BBVs can be a concern – to the point where a mixed-up soul may innocently spread Hep C in an otherwise well-informed community.
So you gave it to Azrael? I asked Raphael.
‘Inadvertently, yeah. And it was only the one time…’
So, it was back to the Alfred for you? I asked Azrael.
‘Yes. Yes and No. I’m on the first month of treatment now.’
What drugs this time?
Well that should do the job I said.
‘You got the ciggies?’ said someone behind me
‘I would have been so embarrassed,’ continued Azrael, ‘had I not been in such a tailspin over the situation I’d got myself into financially - with these gangsters wanting to rearrange me for their thousand dollars.
‘I went to the crisis centre... saw Michelle… she’s a nurse that works in the infectious diseases part of the Alfred.'
So the study didn’t test you the third time…?
‘I’d given up on the study. I was too embarrassed. I’d worked it out in my head that I was a failure. I was stupid to keep getting it again and again. It’s definitely a thing, you know, that feeling that you’ve let them down… they’ve done all this work for you and you’ve let them down by getting reinfected…
‘I felt like a right idiot. In the end I just got Dr King to write me the script.’
A vicious dog fight erupted out of nowhere and was quickly suppressed.
‘You got to watch out for those barky little ones,’ said Azrael.
‘Where did those rollies come from,’ said someone.
‘It’s alright Mr Smokey, no need to bark,’ said someone else.
Azrael had moved onto the subject of parents - not so much his parents but the parents of gay children in general.
‘The same ones who used to turn their back on you and utterly reject you are all looking to include a gay in the family now, almost as a status symbol. Back then it was a blight. It was shocking. Now it’s something completely different.'
Your parents still alive?
‘No. But I was adopted.’
Ever find your real ones?
‘I did. My mother was a corker. She was Jewish…
‘Sorry for interrupting,’ said Sandy, who had been loitering in the area for while now. ‘Youse want anything from Aldi?’
‘The red,’ said Azrael, plumbing his jean pockets ‘The two-dollar eighty fiver…’
‘I think they’ve run out of that,’ said Sandy.
‘Whatever you can manage, love,’ said Azrael.
More talk. More wine. The subject of Hep C was forgotten. Now Azrael was talking about something I’d never heard of before. Polare. A secret language once used by the gay subculture (as well as sailors, wrestlers and fairground workers).
‘Baderthebonerone,’ he said.
What does that mean?
‘Look at the gorgeous guy.’
I turned off the tape and, as I left, a car pulled up nearby. Among the half dozen or so gathered in the park, the sense of anticipation and impatience quickly dissipated.
The Golden Phaeton.