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When words are not enough

I had a terrible day today.


Well, not today. It was a few days ago. But it’s taken me some time to wrap my head around it and sit down at the keyboard.


It began with a phone call.


“Hi mate, it’s me.”


“I know, brother. It says ‘Brendan Akhurst’ on my phone when you call me. How you doing?”


“Not well. I’ve run out of time.”


My stomach dropped. It was not what I wanted to hear, even though I knew I was going to hear it one day.


Brendan Akhurst is one of Australia’s finest cartoonists and illustrators. His work has graced the pages of countless magazines for the last four decades. I have worked with him for more than three of those decades.


He was the genius who came up with the department illustrations for Ozbike magazine. He’d illustrated countless fiction stories for the same magazine. His cartoons of Maynard contributed greatly to the success of Street Machine magazine, and he was a mainstay at The Picture for many years, providing BJ’s Babes illos.


His was a rare and stunning talent. Not only could he illustrate to a script, but he could and did write his own cartoon scripts, which were always better than what someone else could have written.


His work was complex, but looked simple, and he would fill each panel with brilliant little jokes and characters always as an aside to the main story.


I was in awe of his talent, as were all the people who worked with him. And there were many. His work is everywhere.


A true creative genius, Brendan was justifiably hailed and revered by editors and writers all over Australia, while being simultaneously castigated as being a bastard who could never meet a deadline.


He was the bane of my existence as an editor in that regard. He never met a single deadline. Not one. Not ever.


I even got into the habit of lying to him about the deadlines. I would move them forward, knowing he would miss them and hoping he would make the actual deadline. But he’d miss that one too.


I’d sacked him. Four times. Then I re-hired him soon after each sacking because his work was without equal and always worth the wait.


I was over the moon when he agreed to illustrate my third book, The Wisdom Of The Road Gods. And I knew what was going to happen, but I also knew his illustrations of my stories would be superb. And they were.


I actually sacked him for the fifth time during that process, then promptly re-hired him, because the stuff he had sent me thus far was brilliant.


It’s not that Brendan didn’t appreciate deadlines. He did. He even wrote off his beloved Dodge-engined V8 Charger trying to get me an illustration a week after its due date. He was so tired he’d fallen asleep and put it into a tree on the drive from his home in the Southern Highlands to Sydney. Yes, it was before emails were a thing. he certainly understood deadlines. He just couldn’t meet them.


A few months ago, he called me and told me he’d been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. We both knew what that meant. The survival rate for that bastard is in the low single digits.


But Brendan was upbeat. He was always upbeat. And while he battled the cancer, we discussed a few new projects he wanted to do with me, one being the illustration of forgotten historical battles, and another was asking my readers to send in their motorcycle stories, which I would then turn into English, and he would do the illustrations.


But then he called me and told me he had run out of time.


“And I’ve run out of puff,” he added. “But look, I’m OK. I have made my peace with God.”


I didn’t know what to say, because what does one say when one is told that? I’m talking to a dear friend who has just told me he is about to die. It’s imminent, and he’s come to terms with it, because…well, fuck, what alternative does he have?


“I’d love to see you if you can make it down,” he said, his voice a touch strained with the pain he was in.


“I’ll be down tomorrow morning,” I said, hoping I would be in time.


I was.


I arrived at his home and was shown in to his lounge-room by his brother and his brother’s wife. She told me that Brendan had just been given some morphine and will need to rest shortly. I told her I would not stay long.


The change the cancer had wrought upon him was appalling. Brendan was always a big, strong, bloke. He was a former Water Police officer, and left when he got sick of pulling floaters out of the harbour and listening to the police bullshit that went with the job. His subsequent illustrations of the police were cutting and sharper than master-made katana.


He was still big. But he was a big skeleton. He did not look at all like the Brendan I once knew. But then he smiled and that was instantly recognisable.


“I’m so glad you came!” he said. His voice was still deep and strong; he was also one of the best singers I have ever heard.


“How could I not come?” I replied, stating the obvious.


He told me to pull up a chair and we sat and talked for a while about old times. His sister-in-law and his brother, and his wonderful partner, Michelle, hovered nearby, all clearly shattered by what was happening. They injected him with some more morphine, and they gave him a special lozenge to put in his mouth to assist him in making saliva.


Brendan reclined on the couch, his legs propped on a chair and covered in a blanket, and laughed and joked with me, and I with him. And then he got up, much to the horror of his family.

“Brendan,” they all said. “Sit down. Where are you going?”


“I’m going out to the studio. Boris, come with me.”


“No, no, no! You can’t go. You might fall!”


“Get out of my way. This will only take a minute.”


I followed him out to his studio – a veritable temple to the creative art he’d practiced, and he walked pretty steadily, I thought, even though the path was a little steep and had a few steps.


We walked in, and he pulled a painting off the wall and handed it to me. It was of a pair of girl’s legs in heels and her hands were pulling her panties down. I recognised it instantly.


“You remember this?” he grinned.


“I sure do.”


“It was my favourite panel from that strip I did ages ago when I used your head for the main character. I think you fell into a river after she did this.”


“Thank you,” I said. What else could I say?


We went back inside and he propped himself back on the couch.


His brother, Bill, came and said that I could stay as long as I wanted to. Me being there had made Brendan very happy, he said.


Then the community nurse arrived and she needed to examine Brendan, so I went outside with his brother while that happened.


We talked. Mostly small-talk. It’s pretty much the default chat of people who are in the presence of a tragic event, and are struggling to cope with the inevitability and outcome of that event. In Bill’s case, it was the passing of his younger brother. In mine, the passing of a dear friend and colleague. My pain was simply not in the same league as Bill’s.


Then Bill’s wife came out with a rueful grin.


“Brendan says if you don’t come back in, he’s going to come out.”


I trooped back in and stood there awkwardly as the nurse explained to Brendan that he had a bowel obstruction and that he would need to go to hospital to have it seen to.


“What are the options?” Brendan asked.


“You can go to hospital, get your obstruction scanned, get your pain medication sorted, and hopefully be home in a day or so. If you choose not to do that, we can set up a syringe that will supply you with a cocktail of drugs that will keep you comfortable and a little dozy…er, until…”


It was obvious “until” what. The medical profession calls it an “end of life event”, while avoiding the words “until you die”.


“Let me think about it,” Brendan said.


I knew I had to leave then. But knowing this and actually leaving is a crushing position to be in. Brendan needed to be with his family. Not some prick he’d worked with. But how do I actually do that?


I waited until Michelle, wreathed in tears and pain, went into the kitchen then I came and knelt by his side.

“I better go,” I said, grasping his big hand. It was warm and he still had a strong grip.


“This is the last time you and I will speak,” he said, and smiled gently.


My eyes filled with tears and a knot formed in my throat. What does one say to that? How does one respond? I had no idea.


“Um…” I said, and cleared my throat while trying to think of what else I might say.


“Thank you for coming to see me,” Brendan said. “Just move the green bin closer to the door when you go.”


“The green bin?” I blinked.

“Yeah, the recycling bin they might chuck me in,” he grinned.


“I’m not sure you can get recycled in that state,” I said. “But fuck thanking me. I need to thank you. You were the greatest illustrator I have ever worked with. And I can never thank you enough for the joy you have given me and so many other people through your work.”


Yes, I know. It was a pointless thing to say. But I had no other words. I knew no other words.


Brendan squeezed my hand. I squeezed back. He was still strong.


“I’ll see you on the other side,” he said.


“Further on down the road, brother,” I rasped back.


And then I turned and walked slowly away, wishing this was yet another deadline he would not meet.

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Boris Mihailovic

Boris is a writer who has contributed to many magazines and websites over the years, edited a couple of those things as well, and written a few books. But his most important contribution is pissing people off. He feels this is his calling in life and something he takes seriously. He also enjoys whiskey, whisky and the way girls dance on tables. And riding motorcycles. He's pretty keen on that, too.

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