This is the hardest book I shall ever write. In fact, if I'd had my way it would never have been written. It is the story of Damon, my youngest son, who was born a haemophiliac and, at the age of seventeen, received a blood transfusion (among the many thousands he'd had in his life) except that this one contained the HIV virus. He died of AIDS six years later. Damon was so appalled at the public apathy as well as lack of sympathy for those gay people who contracted the AIDS virus that he begged me to write a book. "Dad, tell them it's only a virus and not a punishment from God." I repeatedly told him I wasn't up to the task, it was a book I couldn't write as it would expose him, his brothers and mother, our whole life to public scrutiny. As he lay dying in my arms he whispered, "Dad, thank you for a wonderful life … but please write the book.' Damon was right, April Fool's Day is the biggest selling biography in Australian history and has changed the way people think about AIDS all over the world.
Bryce gives an overview of the book:
Damon Courtenay is Not to be Touched,
Death on a Saffron Morning.
Damon died in the third week after Pinatubo, a small, unknown volcano in the Philippines, started to belch smoke and spew ash, pushing smoke higher and higher into the stratosphere where the great up-draughts and crosswinds that swirl above the earth swept it to a height of twenty-two thousand feet and spread it like a blanket across the blue Pacific Ocean.
An hour before dawn each day the sunset on the light side of the earth reflected its glow against this great smokescreen and bounced it into the dark sleeping side to create a false dawn. The first of these false dawns occurred in Sydney on April the first 1991, the morning Damon died. An April Fool's dawn on April Fool's Day.
We all thought Damon would die sometime over the Easter long weekend, though God knows, he'd beaten the odds often enough before. The mighty Damon, just when you thought he was a goner, he would make it round the final corner on wobbly legs and totter down the home straight to be back with us again. But each time it was harder and each time he was weaker, a little bit of his old self left behind.
His brothers Brett and Adam were there with Celeste and Ann. Also Benita, his mother, with her anger at a son passing before his father, her love and the private, unreasonable guilt she'd carried for twenty-four years. We were Damon's family, Benita, Bryce, Brett, Adam, Celeste and Ann.
Celeste had been Damon's lover and had lived with him for the past six years. She had been his constant and devoted nurse. She dressed his bedsores, swabbed the thick yellow crusted thrush from his lips and the inside of his mouth and pus from his conjunctive eyes. She washed him and cleaned up when he was incontinent and dressed his shingles. She had administered his morphine and the complex two-hourly cocktail of pills that kept his frail heart pumping and his mind more or less focused.
It was Celeste, more than any of us, who had watched his body slowly deteriorate, his ribs growing sharply more pronounced under his taut translucent skin and his limbs becoming so thin and dry that it seemed as though they might snap when he was lifted into bed.
Damon, whose body had never been his strong point, now looked like a walking corpse, a Jew in one of those flickering black and white newsreel pictures taken by the Allies when they liberated the concentration camps.
Funny how those pictures were somehow meant to be in black and white, because the first thing you notice about approaching death is its lack of colour. Colour is an obscene pigment in the dying process.
Before death came to Damon, he appeared to fade, to be losing his colour. Damon's eyes were now smudged large, and set deep in his skull. There seemed to be no clear, clean hazel left to nourish them with life, they'd changed to a mottled brown, the colour of grape vinegar. Often, as he drank liquid morphine straight from the bottle, they would glaze over and lose focus, as though he'd pulled a shroud over them so he could hide his shame.
Then on April Fool's Day, a day which began with surprising, unexpected colour, Damon was ready. There was no colour left in him at all, he'd wrung the last drop out, used the last tiny bit to whisper that he loved us.
It was a great effort for him to talk and each of us took our turn in moving up close, 'I love you very much, Dad.' There was nothing more to say. It was everything contained in one thing, his whole life.
I was born illegitimately in 1933 in South Africa and spent my early childhood years in a small town deep in the heart of the Lebombo Mountains. I wrote my first book, The Power of One, when I was 55.
I grew up among farm folk and the African people. At the age of...