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.’

IMG_3980.JPG

IMG_3980-0.JPG

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

What Can We Do Once We Lose Our Freedom?

We started gmail and we surrendered the final shred of privacy. We used the net and opened ourselves to every hacker, most of them those we elected. We read of the twin towers and were alarmed; we saw the beheadings and were rattled. Those we elected rattle us often and hard and by reflex and in all sincerity and – as in the case of asylum seekers – in the sincere anxiety that we might unelect them. Once thoroughly rattled we allowed our governments to suspend habeas corpus. We are each of us now, all citizens, all merely Mohammad Hanifs, awaiting the knock on the door of our terror police.

Terror has triumphed. As it usually does. Terror wins when we pay heed – as we need to; it wins when we panic – as we need not.

So what can we do once we lose our freedoms?

I saw an odd movie a score or more years ago in which an Orwellian change had occurred and citizens were forbidden to own books. Books were collected and burned. Publishers were taken away for re-education. The Good Book says: ‘Of making books there is no end.’ But this was an end.

A few resisted, silently abandoning the cities, coming together to meet in the forest. Here each escapee became a talking book. One became ‘War and Peace’, another recited ‘Animal Farm’. Those whose mental muscles were less hypertrophied recited ‘Ozymandias’, or ‘Waiting for the Barbarians’, or the Twenty-third Psalm. All these texts threatened the regime that murdered thought. All reciters risked death but inherited life.

Back here in my real life. I resolve to read poetry every day. I’ll rescue myself and succour others.

Manny the Marathon Man

Manny Karageorgiou ran 42.2 kilometres yesterday, racing his oldest foe. At 58 years, Manny is the youngest of the Glorious Ten who have competed in and completed every single Melbourne Marathon. ‘Forty two kilometres’ – it rolls off the eye easily, but it’s a long way to travel on foot. My car gets tired over that distance.

Manny ran with the most reluctant consent of his oncologist. He delayed his stem cell transplant so he could keep faith with the Ten. This GP consented more readily despite the rib that fractured as it filled with tumour, despite the remaining bones waiting for fracture in the merest trip, bones brittle and chalky from the medicines and radiation. The GP consented; who could say ‘no’ to that beautiful face, a child’s face, appealing, smiling through the pain and fear, gentle, mild even before the cancer, tenderer than ever since the rib broke, as Manny sought to comfort his fearful wife and his children.

They came around, the family. They ran the late kilometres with him, the bitter second half of the marathon, they ran, a caravanserai of love and hope and tearful joy, along the endless steppes of St Kilda Road. Manny’s son ran the whole distance at his side. Pana, as Manny calls him is a strapping footballer, vigorous and fearless. Afterwards he would say, ‘I don’t know how anyone could run another marathon after experiencing the pain of the first.’ But Manny has run the Melbourne Marathons thirty seven times. He has outrun the Reaper. So far.

Why does he run?

He runs for faith, he runs for pride, he runs to be humbled, he runs for the self-glory of mortifying his flesh. He runs because he lives. He runs for all of us.

IMG_3865.JPG

Mending the Broken Runner

Spring months are the cruelest, mixing memory and desire. And I have felt the sun soft on my skin, have woken with birds that called me, watched the young and the not young but not broken, all at their running, running, running. And I have felt self-sorrow, sincerest of emotions, and I have felt the creeping entry of a green stranger. And I have resented and I have envied those runners, their unforgivably beautiful limbs, their light and loping tread. In short I became that miserable creature, the broken runner.

Yesterday I drove with daughter and grandboys to Wilson’s Promontory National Park. All was as ever it was; emu browsing, shy wallaby, slow wombat, delicate birds, hills, hills, hills, bouldered beaches and the odd ‘mountain’. Only in Australia, and perhaps the Netherlands, would you grace Bishop and Oberon as mountains. But when you run them your legs cry out and the mind, the mind has mountains.

There was Mt Bishop. We drove past and I told the kids, I used to run up there, all the way to the top. Unable to see the top, too small, too low in the car, the kids made no response.

This morning I awoke and the cabin slept. My knee felt OK. There were the car keys, here were running clothes unrun-in for five months, no family duty called, no excuse. Five minutes’ drive to the track saved me twenty minutes’ running dull bitumen. Here was the track, sandy, scattered with leafmeal, meandering into bush. My legs smiled and snuffed the battle with delight.

And I was running. And nothing hurt. And my lungs kept up with my legs. I ran carefully, judiciously. I avoided rocky footfalls, I paced myself, I spared the left leg and I climbed.

I climbed the twisting turning tilting track, gently, gently, enquiring ever of the knee, feeling no angry response.

The track was mine, mine alone, mine this domain, this splendour, these rugged crags, that ribbon of silver of tidal river, the dull green of bushland, the sweeter green of spring growth, the dead trees white, trees blackened by the fires but shooting green, greening too the great denuded gorges scoured by the floods.

All this juice and all this joy, all for me, a message, a consolation, hope in dried tubers.

The track softened beneath my gladding feet, the gradient gentled, the summit sighted.

There at the summit, the track ended at that same old tumble of broken shapes and abrasive surface: Snack Rock. Slowly I climbed those last metres, transferring weight, o so cautiously, sparing the knee, old man’s knee, unwelcome stranger’s knee, imperious ruler for five months of my youngering spirit.

I offered a line of thanks and ate my apple. I took my first selfie. I photographed the terrain.

And down I ran.

Now, descending, pain pounced and grabbed the rear of the injured knee. Small pain this, the same as I feel on the bike, pain of no portent. And as on the bike, brief of tenure.

Down, down, down, through avenues of wattle unnoticed earlier by the runner with head bent on the ascent. The wattles arching over me, an avenue of honour, reminding me, reminding me of the day I ran into a bunch of hockey players blocking the path ahead of me. This was a serious run, a timed solo marathon to qualify for entry to the hundredth running of the Boston Marathon. A cry from their leader, “Guard of Honour, Guard of Honour!”; and the hockey guys fell into two lines, raising sticks above my head, applauding me as I ploughed on.

There is honour in the long run, a tearful thankful joy, a discovering of the self. I felt all those, all that old knowing, all those strong sensations. And something else, something new – signs of life.

Sour Dough Lady

The grandkids are baying for bread. The bakery looks promising – lots of crusty artisanal breads, the right smells, ladies in aprons waiting to serve. It’s not a premises certified kosher, but bread this good ought to be kosher. I need to rule out forbidden ingredients.
” Can you tell me which of your breads is vegan?”
” What?” Apron lady frowns as if I accused her of something.
I produce a placating smile and rephrased the question:” Do you have any breads without animal fats?”
Now apron lady knows I am out to trap her. “NO!”
The monosyllable is accented, Eastern European.
A super nice smile, lots of friendly teeth:” Do you think I can have a word with the baker? There’s a tribe of flour-annointed blokes in white hats and aprons baking away behind the shop assistant.
“Why?”
“Why what?”
“Why you want baker?” The floral apron is an iron curtain.
“I think the baker might have more…information.”

Information, informant, the lady shop assistant knows these things. She knows these things from the days of queuing for bread. This customer has reached the front of the queue. No information is necessary. Buy or go!
“I tell you already – NOT. You not speak to baker. I KNOW.”
“Thank you.”
I go.

IMG_3676.JPG

The Eve of the Eve of Yom Kippur

The house, emptied now of the insurrection that is a bunch of grandboys on school holidays, is quiet. These are the peaceful moments when the house exhales, the pulses slow and thought recovers.

Tonight is the night before the eve of Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement, our Sorry Day. What am I sorry for? For what need I atone? Almost all my sins are those committed in words: I am sorry for the words shouted in anger at my grandrats, sorry for careless slights and unkind witticisms, sorry for speaking faster than my thinking.
And as this blog consists of words, I should search them.

I wrote (in How we Killed Leo) unkindly of Mister Scott Morrison. Elsewhere I have written uncharitably of Mr Shorten and Mr Abbott. All of these public people have private families who would feel wounded when writers such as I play the man instead of attacking the issue. I referred – wittily I felt – to our homegrown press baron as Murd. I should wash my mouth out. I am sorry for the hurt I have done those men and their families.

I remain sorry – and ashamed – that we Australians choose representatives who follow our baser instincts instead of those who might lead us and inspire our finer selves.

In the person of the successor in Sydney to Cardinal Pell, we might have found such a leader. On the morning after his accession the new archbishop spoke like one repentant for wrongs, transparent in confession, compassionate towards those hurt, and creative and courageous in his declared resolve to seek out his brother clerics in the Muslim community, ‘to find ways we can work together to heal our community’. This on the very morning we all read of the arrest of one Australian suspected of plotting to kidnap and behead another – any other – Australian.

A few weeks ago a Jewish democrat, tirelessly active in the struggle to improve our policies towards refugees, shared with me a bright new idea. “Howard,” he said, “Instead of attacking politicians I want to mobilise members and leaders of all of Australia’s faith communities to work together with government to create some softer policies that will be less cruel in their effects on those already here and kept in limbo.” Many, many are the Australians who wish our practices were not so harsh. Many are ashamed. Many have raised voices – as I have – in rancour. What I heard now was the echo of the quiet wisdom of Petro Georgiou, former Member for Kooyong, the man who spoke softly to a hard-faced Prime Minister and brought some humanity into policy.

As the prophet said, “Come, let us reason together.”