We’re Better Than This

The Refugee people sent me a young mother today with her four-year-old child who had a cough.
She said: “Interrupter, please.”
I looked at her, not understanding.
“Needing interrupter. Not English.”
I preferred to have a go without an interpreter.
“You tell me, I listen” – I said.
“My child much coughing.”
I listened to the chest of the vivacious child whose smile would melt an official from Immigration and Border Protection. I looked at her throat, I felt her glands. She was well, simply suffering from a snot attack. I ordered an anti-snotic.
I addressed Mum: “From what country.”
“Iran.”
“Salaam.”
A look of surprise. A brilliant smile.
I hadn’t picked her nationality. Her peasant blouse, embroidered with edging of magenta and primrose, somehow made me expect she’d be Hazara. That and her creamy skin. Wrong.

“Are you a Permanent Resident?”
A shake of the head. “Commentary Detention.”
“Are you on a Bridging Visa?”
“No. Commentary. Not visa. Commentary Detention.”

“Ahh… community detention?”
Nodding, a smile, we two are doing well despite the lack of an interrupter. But the smile empty of joy.

“My husband, the police, make shee – you know, shee?” The young woman waves her hand in a whipping movement. “Shee. Sixty times, they make shee.”
The woman pulls out her phone, shows me a photo: an adult lies face down on a narrow bed. The creamy skin of a broad back, fine scarlet streaks, the skin must have been lashed with wires.

“They do this before five years. We are not marry, he is boyfriend. I have baby” – she points to her belly – “They tell, ‘You wait, you come after baby, you also sixty shee.’”

The young woman’s pregnancy approached its end, she was summoned to the police station, but fled here, arriving four years ago – pre-Rudd solution.
“My mother, police tell her ‘where is your daughter?’ Mother tell, ‘daughter in Australia.’
They say, ‘No is hiding. Is in Iran. Must come to police station, have shee.’ They call mother many times. She very scare.”

The daughter appears to believe full well the police intend to keep their promise.
So, the boat. Detention at Curtin, then in South Australia. ‘My baby, not Iran.” The smile, this one half-charged: “Born Darwin.”
 
Her visa is not permanent resident.
Her visa is not bridging.
Her visa is not.
She is community detention.
 
What are we that we might send her back?
 
Whom are we bombing in Syria and Iraq?
Why?
 
I believe it likely the tide of opinion will swing in Australia because we – not our leaders – are better than that.

http://wbttaus.org

http://m.youtube.com/watch?feature=youtu.be&v=tl19NhC0d78

Ushpizin*

The last time I took a photo in a public toilet it was to record the visit of unexpected guests. The occasion was a visit to the Men’s Banios at the Alhambra, in Granada in 2010.

Twenty years ago when I made a maiden visit to the toilet in my cabin in Broome, the gleaming green frog sitting contentedly in the white bowl caused me such aesthetic delight that it overthrew, for the time, the excretory impulse. I never took the beautiful creature’s photograph. Instead, like D H Lawrence chucking a stone at the snake drinking at his well in Sicily, I flushed away my serene guest. I never forgave myself; it was, as in Lawrence’s ‘Snake’, ‘something to expiate/a pettiness.’

These reminiscences surfaced a few moments ago when I visited the Men’s at my work. The cubicles, until now separated and enclosed by timber miniskirts, were guarded by maxis. I sat and mused. It felt how I imagined solitary confinement in the Kremlin, a dark, quiet, a place where man is alienated from his fellows. I missed the collegial sight of a pair of shoes arriving in the next cubicle. I missed the moment when the orientation of the newcomer’s shoes declares his intention and his need. Gone were the sounds, wordless but declarative of the action. I was alone.
I took some photos. Such a spiritually potent change in decor called for some record.
My workmates informed me the changes were made following the arrest by the police of a gentleman seated in a cubicle in the Ladies. It appears that the gent was an habitue of our female Conveniences, spending whole mornings in aesthetic delight, enjoying the reflected details of his lady neighbours on either side.

The opposite occurred to me in October 2010 when Nature summoned me to the Banios. There was one door for ingress and another at the far end for egress. On my right a number of cubicles with opal grey doors concealed their tenants; on my left a series of white porcelain appliances gleamed their welcome. I stood facing one of these, enjoying the slow movement that is the lot of a man in his sixties. I had reached that stage when the greater part of the volume has been discharged but the bulk of the time is still ahead. In other words I was still committed when the unmistakable tinkling sound of laughter announced the arrival of three teenage girls. The young ladies entered. They sighted us men and advanced. As they neared us it was every man for himself, one breaking off and hurrying away, the rest of us burrowing closer to the porcelain in some anxiety. The girls formed a line behind us and stood still. No-one spoke. Was this a quaint local custom? A welcome, perhaps? My Spanish was not good enough for me to essay an enquiry.
Eventually my hands were free, my clothing decently enclosing all, and I turned around. I found the new arrivals standing with backs resolutely towards us, facing the cubicles, waiting until one should be free. The arrivals behaved as if their presence were unremarkable. I turned to leave, looking back from the exit to gaze on the scene. I remembered I carried a camera. I took a shot of the males and the females standing back to back in that narrow rectangle and departed.

Five minutes later a ringing voice challenged me at the kiosk where they sell gelati. A girl’s voice, it shrilled its plaint in Spanish, then in English, with excited hand movements for emphasis: Why you take picture? You delete!
I didn’t reply. I didn’t delete. I lacked the skill to do either. But I’ve never opened the photo, never shown anyone. The ethics of lavatory photography come to one, like wisdom, slowly.
*Honoured Guests. Google if curious.

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Blog Wail

A week or so ago this blog wailed about the darkness of the news, the darkness at the heart of man. Two readers responded.
One referred to my wailing as my de profundis, an expression I’d seen bobbing along on the high cultural current over my decades, passing by unpassed. Now it came to me: from the depths. That rang a bell: David, warrior poet, king of ancient Israel, wrote a psalm,
min ha’ma’amakim, From the depths I called…’

Well, two answered my call.

From England, author, bloggish fruitcake maker and novelist Hilary Custance Green is writing her account of her father, a POW in the same camp as Weary Dunlop. He was
one of many untrained medical orderlies who worked in the camp under Canadian surgeon Jacob Markovitz. She writes: “I used to weep continuously as I read these accounts, but I found a dreadful tendency to habituate to the misery and cruelty…”

Robert Hillman, Australian novelist and ghostwriter of lives in ghastly times and climes, sent an antidote:

“Dear Howard – I’ve read your De Frofundis, and your blog about the Richard Flanagan book. I’ll get that book, most certainly, after all you had to say about it. The De Profundis was wonderful in its sincerity, Howard. It’s what all of (us) want to say. But you actually said it. And yet, you know, thank God that there are people of courage and grace in the world who also have a say. I’ve just finished writing a book (‘The Wailing Song’) for a guy who served – most reluctantly – in the Iranian armed forces in the last two years of the Iran-Iraq war. A situation arose when his most senior officer made a mistake, failing to issue an order to 2500 men under his command to withdraw to a ceasefire position in the face of an Iraqi advance. My guy knew of the mistake, and after awful soul-searching, decided to issue the order himself. If he had not, those 2500 men would have been massacred by the vastly superior Iraqi force. Usurping the authority of a Colonel when you are no more than a humble corporal will almost certainly get you court-martialed and hanged in the Iranian army. My guy accepted that he would be hanged, but went ahead and issued the order anyway – he was circumstantially in a position to do so, without having his authority questioned. The men were saved, my guy wasn’t hanged, due to the difficulty the Colonel would have had in explaining his blunder. Its one of those existential situations, a moment of truth, when all that you hope about yourself and believe about yourself is suddenly up for testing: do you have the courage to die at the end of noose in order to save others? Will your life have any meaning if you find a way to duck out? It must be like being thrust into an arena, a bright light directed at you. Here’s your chance. Yes or no?”

I know that moment of moral choice. I know it from reading with growing dread Conrad’s Lord Jim. I read it in the dread of self-knowledge that I would not rise to that challenge. However, since the start of my sixth decade I have imagined that I might.
(Free advice: read ‘Joyful’, which I enthused over in this blog half a year ago. Hillman writes in his own and in many voices of those who struggle in these depths and of some who rise in them).

Intersections, Signposts, Byways along the Road to the Deep North

I read a book yesterday. Started early, finished late. At intervals I had to break off reading to gasp, get to my feet, pace around. Then I sat down and resumed reading. Again I had to stop: I couldn’t read.:
my eyes were streaming and I was sobbing. Because I am a man and men do not give into tears I composed myself, went back to the book and finished it. Unusually for me, I was reading a novel I had read before.
My fortunate path through life is paved with storybooks, so many good books, a few even demanding the accolade of greatness. This is one of the great books.

The novel fictionalises the adult life of Edward (‘Weary’) Dunlop, an Australian surgeon and ‘war hero’, that shopworn term which perplexes and burdens the novel’s central figure for the decades
that remain to him after the War. Ï met ‘Weary’ late one Saturday night after he’d launched a friend’s book. I reminded him that my father and he had been classmates at Melbourne University
Medical School sixty years earlier. I mentioned Dad’s name. The old face looked down and away from me. There was no flicker of recognition: ‘Good man…very good man,’ he said, through the
whiskey of a long night and through the passing of too many years.

The novel which gives us the life and times and war of ‘Weary’ is decidedly unromantic. He is not a hero to himself, he’s simply perplexed, reluctantly drawn to greatness which he can never fathom.
The novel is a telling of one of Australia’s important stories. Like all the great stories the epic of the Burma Railroad (‘The Line’) carries the clout of magic and the endurance of myth.
We have read the tale before in an earlier triumph of storytelling, David Malouf’s ‘The Great World’.

One of Australia’s most original literary stylists is Nicolas Rothwell, the Áustralian’ newspaper’s northern correspondent. Rothwell delivered an oration recently in memory of Eric Rolls,
which was excerpted and published in the Oz a week or so ago. In the acutely elegaic piece Rothwell noted the death of the novel, lamenting exquisitely and I think romantically
on the passing of the genre into effete late middle age and irrelevance. As a keen reader of novels and of Rothwell, I read the essay in perplexity: here was a heartfelt requiem to the literary form of which Rothwell himself is a sublime practitioner. His novel ‘Belomor’ is a convincing rebuttal of his own thesis. If this were not enough to confuse and comfort me,
then ‘The Narrow Road to the Deep North”, Richard Flanagan’s Man Booker Prize winner, the cause of my gasping, crying, pacing, would demolish all doubt.

If I read Rothwell right it is not the novel that is dead but our capacity to hear a long story, to enter and journey and stay the distance in a world, to experience lives in their amplitude. We have become nerve-deaf, casualties of the quickening tempo of life, in particular of the crazed acceleration of information technology. I think this is what Rothwell means. I hope so. Because I travelled the Narrow Road to the Deep North, travelling to an extremity of feeling, going far out to sea into an enlargement, an expansion of my being. Mister Richard Flanagan told me a story that penetrated whatever is the deafness
of the age. He spoke to the same organs of wonder and imagination and belief that my mother and my father spoke to or read to when I was small. The same organs are alive and quivering in my grandchildren
when I tell them a story. We are, as Najaf Mazari – the Rug Maker of Mazr a Sharif – points out in ‘The Honey Thief’, ‘made of stories’. Stories are part of the protoplasm of the human. Rothwell knows this,
his writings show it.

Rothwell makes an important point, subtly and allusively as ever, but convincingly. In this continent the long story between covers is in its youth. There yet remains a task for literature to fulfill that is specific to this
country. The Australian novel is a necessary vehicle for the defining and redefining of our place here. If we are whitefella or blackfella we have a task ahead – to come to terms with our each otherness, to relate authentically to a landscape and to its stories, to Australia.

Between the covers of the Narrow Road Flanagan’s Dorrigo Evans and Darky Gardner take us a long way on that needed path. Novels such as this have the power to create new minds with new organs of knowing.

You Can’t Beat a Butter Batter

Fruit cake, rich, heavy, moist, in childhood the natural partner of a glass of icy-cold-milk-not-boiled-please-Mum, an entire fruit cake became my own every January eighth – my birthday cake, dating from around the time of my maybe fifteenth birthday, as I recall – Mum baked it, back in the butter days when doctors hadn’t discovered her soaring cholesterol, (we had our good times, we had our butter times), and Mum, always a superlative baker (who never essayed a sponge cake – ‘I can’t bake a sponge cake’) who kept two tins endlessly plenished with biscuits, biscuits Anzac, biscuits corn-flake, jam biscuits, biscuits nameless now in my aged forgettings; and cakes, always one waiting and ready for the nourishing of children, four of us, four who each secretly knew that he or she was the most loved of all by this mother who would say, in her much later years, “I never achieved much in my life, but I have four children who love me and that is enough”, and enough it was, especially as fruit cake, moist, heavy, from the deep delved earth, was never even my favourite, so many, so various and numberless and so rich and so high, light, soft, moist and sweet and buttery were all of them, but somehow, early one January, Mum must have asked, “What cake would you like for your birthday, darling?”, and I must have replied – thinking of how that uncooked cake batter, all floury and viscous with brown sugar and fruits in Rhine Castle kosher muscat wine, how much better raw in the mixing bowl than after baking three hours in the slow not-too-hot oven, how this batter beat all other raw cake batters by a rich mile – “Fruit cake, please Mum”, and Mum would have decided it was my favourite, and every eighth of January thereafter she presented me with a whole one, until that year, freshly married, freshly graduated, doing my first locum in a small town in Tasmania in January, I knew this would be the first year I’d go cakeless, that I’d graduated from that child nurturing, and my darling bride, a neophyte cook who would go on to surpass all before her as a chef, had the wisdom and the discretion not to venture into the cuisine where the mother-in-law shone and the cakes of breastmilk affection preceded her, so Annette forebore and the pampered young groom understood an end had come, but a day or two before the eighth, a parcel arrived in the post among all the letters from drug companies, the parcel wrapped in brown paper – my parents never threw out brown paper or string, they never forgot the Great Depression when, as I imagined it, there came to pass the World Crisis of No String and no Brown Paper – that parcel heavy, and under the brown paper a container unyielding to my fingers, and on the brown paper and addressed in Mum’s singular and elegantly jerky hand to “Dr. Howard Goldenberg, The Surgery, Deloraine, Tasmania,” and the address incomplete, the sort of address that destined your mail for the Dead Letter Office, but in the margin Mum’s plea:
“Mr Postie, It’s his birthday cake, please try to get it to him by the eighth: This Way Up”, and inside the paper was a cake tin and inside the cake tin was the birthday cake, fruit cake, still so good with a glass-of-icy-cold-milk-not-boiled, a single slice a gobstopper, but who ever stopped at a single slice?, not me, and so the January cakes came and came, butterless now in the puritanical regime imposed by philistine doctors, the cakes still came, until the strokes came, Mum’s left hand forgetting its cunning and the birthday cakes would surely stop now, but they didn’t, because Dad, himself a cook of meat and fish who never baked a cake in his life, saying ‘I can’t bake,” Dad stepped forward and made the annual fruit cake to Mum’s recipe, under Mum’s direction, and she presented it to a son expecting nothing this year or ever again, just grateful that Mum was still alive and loving and playful, and she not the least interested in the facts of disability, and so the cakes came and came until Dad went, and here I was, a boy of fifty-seven-and-a-half years who knew his fruitcake days were over; but no they were not, for there existed Mum’s firstborn, Dennis, born with butter in his mouth, a cook who believed in fat and cream and sugar and starch and no self control and no moderation especially in helping our Mum and never more than in celebrating his younger brother, the brother whom he might reasonably have seen as his supplanter, his usurper, but no, Dennis never felt those things, writing one January eighth, “Howard, I think God must be proud of you”, and now the cakes kept coming, butter reinstated, for there were never thoughts of tomorrow with Dennis, only of the abundant now and now was Howard’s birthday and it was his joy to help Mum make cake for her boy, and then, at the age of sixty-three Dennis underwent surgery and died and the cakes finally stopped…but no they didn’t, because Mum recruited her east-european carers, masters of the cuisine of heavy stodge, as her new sous chefs and she directed as they baked my fruit cakes – until the time Mum died and that would have been the end of the fruitcakes… except Mum left one granddaughter who loves baking as much as she loves her father; and that person is my youngest daughter Naomi, a devotee of the Creed of Cholesterol; devoutly does she mix bright-yolk eggs with buttery batter for a father whose januation ever is blessed with food-as-love, and so may it continue until I come to my Full Stop.

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A Small Town in the Bush

Water is the secret, the theme, the meaning, the life of the town. If the town is to die it will be the failing – or the flowing – of water that will see its death.

Driving in at night I missed the river. Unaware even of the fact of the bridge, watching always for suicidal kangaroo, I followed the bitumen and missed the river. After unpacking I ran the shower. Who farted? Mother earth, is the answer: borne on bore water were those sulphurous fumes from antiquity. I lathered and rinsed. And rinsed again. Still slimy with slippery salts I towelled myself with vengeful vigour.

In the morning I brewed a bore water cuppa. It tasted fine, of coffee, not of earth’s bowel.

Before work I went for a run. Here was Terry, a cheerful sixty-year-old hosing the wide grassy expanses that surround the hospital. Modern sprinklers invented in, say,1950, would see the extinction of this man’s job.

Memorial Park with its humble cylinder of brown marble rising less than three metres from its plinth. From its pediment I read names from the Great War. This very small town offered up too many. Two of the dead bore the same family name.

Below the names from the First War were listed those who died in WWII. These names took up two of four wide rectangles of space at the base of the monument. Two rectangles remain for future names of dead from a nation that has always fought the distant wars of others.

A team of workmen clustered at a roadside. Beefy men all in their high-vis yellows, they watched as one of their number swung a sledge hammer. The hammer was a mighty instrument, the hammerer broadest of all, taller when recumbent. Four watched as one swung. A cement gutter cracked, disintegrated. Five men at work, working to undo the work of yesterday.

The shops sit behind their generous tin verandahs, shaded by rooves supported on wooden poles. The shops, house-proud but not fancy, wear old livery touched up and respectable. A notice offers me the chance to buy one of two coffee shops in the main street: it lists ‘large shop, vacant possession, on generous grounds with six-car shed and outbuildings’. “Hunter’s Supermarket” sits in dignified desolation beneath its formal signage. Its windows are covered on the inside by broadsheet newspaper. ‘For Sale’, says the sign.

At lunchtime I visit the emporium. Triple fronted, its three doorways lead to three sections. One displays work clothes, a second sells ‘guns and ammo’ and cooking implements ranging from basic aluminium to imported chefware. The third section offers saddles, riding boots, rodeo hats. The floors are of wood, the high ceilings of patterned pressed metal. ‘Handsome ceilings’, I remark to the sales lady. She nods, smiles attractively, and observes, ‘They leak when it rains. And the owners aren’t keen to repair the roof.’ Water again.

I am not here for the superstructure but for my own infrastructure: I need new undies. Sales lady leads me to them and removes to a discreet distance. Slim, tall in her tooled rodeo boots, her jeans scrolled and silvered at the seat, she’s a distraction. I find a pack of two pairs in interesting colours. The brand name is ‘Heavy Lifters.’ The sales lady keeps a straightish face: ‘It’s the name of a whole range of work clothes, not just, ah, men’s personal things.’

I buy some men’s personal things.

I show interest in men’s work shirts. These too are in electric shades of lime and purple. ‘They’d alarm my bride,’ I say.

Sales lady points me to a different rack of iridescence: ‘Why not you buy your bride one of these pretty shirts for girls?’

I settle for Goondiwindi Cream Soap, picturing my wife’s limbs, clean as Gunsynd’s.

At work my patients are generally aged. One group consists of slow moving stout people, retired, in their fifties and early sixties, who live here in town. The others, slimmer, gnarled of knuckle and sun blighted, are in their seventies and eighties. These live out of town on cattle properties which they continue to work. For the trip into town these folk dress smartly. Lots of colour, a quiet elegance.

It’s more enjoyable doctoring the farm folk with their accidents of activity than the town folk, who, although younger, are less healthy with their illnesses of inactivity.

In the waiting room no-one checks a wristwatch. All appear unhurried and relaxed and friendly. All but one, a hunched small lady, 83 years of age, who wears a floral yellow dress and a fierce mien. ‘I won’t see that other doctor! And don’t you try and give that useless tablet he gave me!’

At this stage, unaware of the identity of that other doctor or of the useless tablet or of the condition treated, I am at a disadvantage. The lady has me pinned to the ropes where she continues to batter me for the next twenty minutes. ‘Those blue tablets, don’t give me those!’

‘Which blue tablets?’ – diffidently.

‘You know the ones. I won’t take them. So don’t try to make me. I might look old but I’m still manhandling steers and I’m not simple.’

I study her file for clues.

‘Well? What are you going to do for me? Don’t give me any of your soft soap, young man. I’ve put up with this for long enough.’

I point out that I’m not her adversary, that it’s up to her to decide whether or not to trust me, and if she doesn’t trust me she should not waste her time on me.

She falls silent, her large mouth hanging slack as she regards me in surprise. I am surprised too. I’m starting to enjoy myself.

A truce is declared. Later in the waiting room, she informs the office staff, bellowing, ‘That new young doctor’s all right. Don’t you try to make me see that other one. I won’t have a bar of him.’

Day after day the skies are cloudless, palest blue, arching high to eternity. Not a cloud in sight. But yesterday low grey cloud hovered. The waiting room was full of talk. Veterans of too much faithless cumulus, the farmers were skeptical. Today all is blue again; the old men were right. One old bloke with a great hole in his leg – he came off his motor bike, digging out a divot of flesh – tells me: ‘There are three year old frogs out on my farm that don’t know how to swim.’

He laughs. A wounded leg and a dry dry spring don’t exhaust his well of good humour.

‘Any cane toads?’

‘No, no toads. Too dry for them.’

He laughs again.

Not all laugh. The visiting psychologist tell me, ‘I go out to the farms and visit the farmers regularly. In the droughts some despair.’

The temperature reaches forty – in October – and no-one remarks on it. The Bureau predicts a thunderstorm. It duly arrives. One peal of thunder, the temperature falls but the rains do not.

‘How is it on the farm?’ – I enquire of every farmer.

All respond, ‘It’s dry.’

‘Are you worried?’

‘Yes, it’s very dry.’

‘Is this the driest you’ve known it?’

‘2003 was worse. But this is bad…’

No-one says so explicitly but the floods of 2012 were worse than bad. In those few days lives turned, settled families in their dynasties saw nature’s violent face anew.

By the third morning I still had not sighted the river. On previous morning runs I headed north and south. This time I went east. Past the library on the main street in premises vacated by the extinct cinema; past the pool gleaming fluoridated blue; past The Great Artesian Spa; up a rise to the edge of town – and there was the bridge, a modern structure of cement and steel, its slow length elegant against the sky. Below, far below, indolent waters were a silver ribbon. Tall green grasses pleased the eye.

A slender roo, disturbed by this sole intruder, widened the gap in graceful bounds, then stopped and looked me over at leisure. A moment of shared wonder.

At the approach to the bridge a wall of dark granite, cuboidal, taller than me and wider than the hammer-wielder of the first morning, detailed the floods. Undemonstratively, without self-sympathy, in the manner of farmer conversation, the wall of stone gave fact and context:

1864 – 9.56 m,1949 – 4.86 m, floods in 1950, 1954,

then, in February 1956 the waters reached 7 metres; and in April the same year, 9.26 metres. Photographs show island buildings, white against the silent black of inland sea. Some left town. Most remained to face flooding again – in 1983, 1990, 2010. Then came the waters of February 2012, peaking at 9.84 metres, breaking the record of 1864. People speak flatly of ‘before the floods’ and ‘after the floods.’ I hear the same throughout the state.

One farmer replies to my stock enquiry with a quiet,’The dams are both dry. It’s fortunate we have a couple of bores.’ I look at him, his face etched with decades of flood and drought. He knows fortune.

No-one in back in the Collins Street practice uses that expression, it’s fortunate.

Something missing here. Someone not heard, stories not told. Where are the first owners? Further morning runs uncover traces. At the Information Centre an elaborate sign invites me to follow the Yumba interpretive trail: ‘Mon-Thurs mornings.’ Below this a handmade sign amends tour times: ‘Tues and Thurs.’

And to one side a larger, handmade sign advises

NALINGU

ABORIGINAL

CORPORATION

WISH TO ADVISE THE

YUMBA

INTERPRETIVE TRAIL

AND MITCHELL YUMBA

IS CLOSED

UNTIL FURTHER NOTICE.

But the first people are here. I see them with their ailments and their children at the hospital and the clinic. In the main street, Nalingu has its dusty offices, and just down the same street is the Aboriginal Health Centre. Inside this hive a small lady of middle years buzzes with purpose. She searches my face, wondering whether perhaps I might be a JP. She needs a JP to certify photocopies of documents for the tall Finn standing at my side. He’s jackerooing on a station. (The Finn does not look Aboriginal. But some say I don’t ‘look Jewish.’)

The lady finds time for my questions: Yes, this is a health centre and yes she’s here four days a week helping local Aboriginal people with transport and health appointments in the bigger town one hour east of here. And no, the bigger town doesn’t have a doctor at the Health Centre either, not regularly, just a couple of days a month. ‘But I look after things.’ She tells me all this with evident pride, vibrating with energy and quiet command. She looks up at her curious visitor, radiating confidence and belief in her role. I guess she’s the dynamo of a community that might otherwise not be a community.

Back at the clinic, a tall man in his late fifties has plenty of time to chat. He’s intrigued by the phenomenon of a Jewish doctor way out west; and I’m interested in his experiences as a cattle man. He’s been out here all his life but he sent his daughters to boarding school in the city. I ask my usual questions – how’s the farm going, water, rain, feed?

‘Well it’s hard. If it wasn’t a challenge I’d have to go and find one. But surviving here calls for something. I like that. I like to be tested. Every difficulty demands something of me. I want to create, I don’t want a dull existence. I’m lucky with my life here.’ He smiles, a smile of good teeth and good skin, the smile of broad vitality. Why has he come to see me today? ‘I’m well, but I spend my life in the sun. Will you check my skin? Any other tests or checks a fifty-eight-year old should have?’

We do the medical stuff then conversation resumes. He employs backpackers from around the world. ‘I look for people others won’t take – people with problems. With patience you find the goodness in a person and help them become productive. I’ve had alcoholics. They come to the station, I let them dry out, I expect them to be temperamental until they settle. Then you find the person with a problem has some drive that might have got them into trouble; now they have a chance to direct the drive productively. There’s pride in that. A small start to a better way. After three months they leave, and we are both winners.’

The cow man has questions for me – about my origins, any children, a wife? He tells me about his girls, working in distant places, how he encourages them to pursue their passions in their occupations, not to settle for work that won’t fulfill them.

‘Have you been to Israel, doctor?’ – in the city this is the litmus question of my decency, out here it’s a question couched in curiosity or envy.

‘Israelis inspire me. They have never had it easy but you can see their drive to survive. And they do it by innovation, by creativity. They’ve never had enough rainfall where they are, but they farm, they feed their people and they have create a surplus to export.’

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This House of Grief – by Helen Garner, A Review.

Helen Garner saw it on the TV news. Night. Low Foliage. Water, misty and black. Blurred lights, a chopper. Men in high-vis and helmets. Something very bad here. Something frightful.

It was truly very bad. A man had driven his car into a dam. He escaped from the car but his three small sons drowned. The man was charged with their murder and over the following eight years Garner attended the man’s exhaustive legal trials. She exhausted herself in the process of moral exploration of territory that is indeed, ‘dark, misty, black and blurred.’ Reading Garner’s ‘This House of Grief’ can exhaust a reader in turn.

Three hundred pages of scrupulous enquiry end with the author reflecting: ‘When I let myself think of Jai, Tyler and Bailey lying in their quiet cemetery…I imagine the possessive rage of their families: You never knew them. You never even saw them. How dare you talk about your “grief?”
But no other word will do. Every stranger grieves for them. Every stranger’s heart is broken. The children’s fate is our legitimate concern. They are ours to mourn. They belong to all of us now.’

Garner takes the deaths of the three children personally as if she were herself involved. She seeks to know whether they died by grievous mischance or by human intent. She needs to understand. She begs of fate, of the universe, ‘Oh Lord, let this be an accident.’ For us her readers – we who elect to follow her into this frightful something – Helen Garner attends the hearings as our emissary to that house of grief. We too need to know, we too seek to understand; the three lost boys are ‘our’ lost children.

Garner quotes three epigrams, each a succinct cry from a previous emissary, each a pair of hands flung upward in despair over the futility of the quest to comprehend.

He can’t possibly have done it. But there’s no other explanation.

There is no explanation of the death of children that is acceptable.

…life is lived on two levels: one in our awareness and the other only inferable…from inexplicable behavior.

On what account are Garner’s thoughts and reactions, naked here on page after page, a matter for a reader’s interest or a reviewer’s remark? What access has the reader to her deeps, her angst? Garner, the person on the page, our emissary, attends a day of ravaging evidence; afterwards she makes her way, blindly, solitary, to a bar for a vodka. On other occasions she resorts to magical thinking: If only Farquharson could be found not guilty, then the boys would not be dead…Garner pictures them in their domestic vitality, playing footy, watching cartoons, running with arms open for a cuddle. The only way I could bear it was to picture the boys as water creatures: three silvery naked little sprites,…who slithered through a crack and …sped away together.
Then, haunted by the chill of reality, she races homeward in her mind, to haul my grandsons …from their Lego and their light sabres, to squeeze them …until they squirmed. Young boys! How can such wild vital creatures die? How can this hilarious sweetness …be snuffed out?

And again, this longer account of the observer’s migratory flight of feeling: When I got home I sat on the back verandah mumbling to myself, sick at heart. My third grandchild came wandering around the house. He approached me without speaking, turned his back, and stood waiting to be picked up. I lifted him onto my lap. He was only a few months younger than Bailey Farquharson had been when he drowned. For a while the little boy sat on my knee. He relaxed his spine against my chest. Together we listened to the clatter of the high palm fronds, the wail of a distant siren. He glanced up sharply when a flight of lorikeets swerved chattering across the garden. Then he spread his right hand like fan, inserted a delicate thumb into his mouth, and tucked his head under my chin.

And yet only two hours later when he and his four-year-old brother disobeyed me… and went crashing and yelling down the hall to the kitchen like maniacs, rage blinded me. I ran after them, grabbed the nearest arm, and yanked its owner round in a curve. Before I could land a blow I got a grip on myself. The boys stood frozen in attitudes of flight. Nobody spoke. In a cold sweat I leaned against the cupboard door and took some trembling breaths.

Here Garner gives us her brittleness, her sense of near disintegration, her proximity in extremis to harming loved ones in her care; and subtly too, the boys’ “attitudes of frozen flight” recall the postures of failed flight of the boys in the drowned car.

There is a reticence, a holding back at certain points, a refusal to comment that shouts, no, screams, in unexpressed horror. Thus: The men from Major Collision looked into the car before they opened it to drain the water. Ten-year-old Jai was lying face down across the front seats with his head towards the driver’s door…
Seven-year-old Tyler lay on his right side behind the driver’s seat. His head was near the door and his legs were between the two front seats. Two-year-old Bailey was lying across the top of the baby seat, facing rearwards and still tangled in his safety harness.

It is not until the following page that Garner reveals the killer datum: all three seatbelts were unbuckled. It is this crushing fact that tells us that a child – or two children – struggled. It is this, delayed, that a writer striving for dramatic effect might have juxtaposed earlier and quite unbearably with those postures. As it is, the bodies lie diagonally, piercing my composure. I too need recourse to slithering fishes or to vodka or to clutching hard my own brood of near ten-year-old grandboys.

***

Writing to a friend some weeks following release of the book – a year or more I guess after the trial and the appeal and the retrial and the application to the High Court – after all had ended, Helen Garner said: “This is what I’ve learned from the last seven or eight years: ‘We are small. We are weak. We are mortal’… but I think I knew that already.”

After all had ended it had not ended at all.This House of Grief