The Rubaiyat of Zoltan Klein

A Book of Verses beneath the Bough,
A Flask of Wine, a Loaf of Bread – and thou Beside me singing in the Wilderness –        And, Wilderness were Paradise enow!

I accepted the invitation to the launch event of ‘Bread, Wine & Thou’ without curiosity. But as the series of emails from the Event Manager mounted I sensed I should look a bit spiffy for the launch. So I wore my English Schoolboy Blazer. The addition of my backpack subtracted from the elegance of my outfit and together with my skullcap ensured I would look quite as odd as usual.

At the last moment I invited a friend, an art impresario held by all to be ineffably elegant.

The security man at the door, a gym giant in Armani, consulted a guest list longer than the Pentateuch. A show of expensive teeth: “Your names, gentlemen?”

“We are both Howard Goldenberg”, I said.

“Thank you sirs. Please take the elevator to the Second Floor.”

A disembodied voice from the rear of the elevator was heard: “Hi Howard”. It took a while to identify our host Yossi (also Zoltan Vinegar) Klein, obscured as he was by a cluster of tall, expensively draped women, mounted on very steep heels. Taller than all others in the lift a wide man with an interesting face stood next to Yossi. He did not speak.

The lift released us into the highly geometric womb of Cox Architecture, a space as inventive and unexpected in its proportions and planes and shapes as Federation Square. I had not previously heard of Cox, but I was given to understand its iconic condition.

Filling the space, throngs of elegant females and stylish males kissed a lot of air as they greeted each other with little shrieks and harmless hugs. I noted my companion and I were not the most expensively dressed persons present. Wine was sipped, quite exquisite looking entrees were served and everyone accepted a copy of ‘Bread, Wine and Thou.’

Eventually Zoltan took a microphone and spoke. For a time no-one noticed, for Yossi is, as his surname suggests, not tall. After a bit all fell silent. He spoke informally, disarmingly, unpretentiously. He said, “I wanted to create a literary magazine on the themes of food, wine and culture.” Those were precisely the words he used when he spoke to me a year earlier in ‘Batch’, the Kiwi coffee shop where he and I had sighted each other without speech over years. On that occasion Yossi said: “I’ve read your writing on Aboriginal Australia. I want you to write a piece on Aboriginal Cuisine for the first Number of ‘Bread, Wine & Thou.’ I can’t pay you.”

I accepted the commission and wrote something and turned up in my blazer and kippah and backpack. It must be clear from the harsh tone of my introductory remarks that I felt uncool, unfamous, outranked by the figures of beauty. But as Yossi spoke all that fell away. This man in his forties spoke of his dream and its fulfilment, the magazine – really a handsome book – that we held in our hands. Yossi opened with a joke about his Jewish mother. It was a good joke and we all laughed and Yossi relaxed. He thanked a legion of first names, burnishing each name with his deep appreciation. As Yossi spoke one hundred and fifty smart people from the uppermost echelons of food and wine stood, arrested. Cynicism and self-consciousness fell away. We were human together as Yossi stood, naked in his feeling. He said he was overcome. His voice cracked with emotion.

Later a Very Great Man accepted the microphone. He sat down and whispered, exercising the powers of greatness and of near-inaudibility over his audience. Just as Howard Goldenberg alone had never heard of Cox Architecture, neither had I recognised the Greatest Chef in the World, the tall wide man of the interesting features who rode the rising elevator at Yossi’s side.

  
The room worshipped. Upon completing his remarks the man folded Yossi in an embrace that hoisted him from the floor. Evading believers*, he strode from the room, disappearing into the night.

That this personage should have descended to Melbourne for Yossi was felt to be an enormous compliment to our host. As I listened to the chef speak of his career at length and in breadth I felt increasingly the greatness of Yossi. And when you read Yossi’s magazine I think you will feel the same.

Although ‘Bread, Wine & Thou’ is accessible on-line, I urge you, do not go for the virtual book; for modest moneys you can acquire the real volume. Collectors will treasure this, the first edition, a thing of truth and beauty.

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* I stole this lovely phrase whole from Les Murray’s ‘ A Perfectly Ordinary Rainbow’.

Do You Have Children? 

She was the first patient in my day.
She was sent to this city in North Queensland by the foreign mining giant that employs her. 
I had never met her before. We introduced ourselves.
 She said: ‘I was woken by awful pain in my bladder. It’s an infection, I’ve had them before. I couldn’t sleep for the pain. It was four in the morning, but I got up and went out and walked the streets until I found a 7- eleven. I bought some Nurofen tablets for the pain.’
‘Did they help?’
‘A little.’
Her urinalysis was positive.
‘I think you’ll need an antibiotic. Antibiotics famously render the oral contraceptive pill inoperative. Maybe. So during this cycle you shouldn’t trust the pill… unless you want a baby.’
A smile and a shake of the head. The smile is not that smile that says, ‘Tread with care.’ She is a mature woman at peace with herself. Excepting for her hostile bladder. The smile licensed me:
‘Do you have children?’
‘No.’
Another smile as she sat and formulated a response to my silence.
‘I never thought I would. Now I realise I really have to decide – this month in fact. You see I’ll turn thirty-nine next month. I wouldn’t want to have a baby after forty.’
‘Why the late uncertainty?’
‘It hit me I might come to regret never experiencing that.’
 

She talked about childbearing and childraising, describing the contrasting experiences of her sisters. I agreed it was a momentous question. We talked about bladders and we parted.

 At home I asked myself how I’d describe my own experiences. I’d be unable to resist describing – at clear risk of malicious misinterpretation – the intense pleasures of bathing or changing soft bodies, the satiny skin, the small weightiness in arms or lap.
I thought about my feelings and the word that came was ‘intensity.’ Had she asked I might have said, ‘Becoming a parent deepened me. I believed I was tender towards children, but my firstborn taught me how I had tiptoed through mere shallows.’
I recalled an early piece of Martin Flanagan in the Melbourne ‘Age’. He described nursing his small daughter through a night of torrid fevers. From memory, I recall him writing, ‘I know I will never feel closer to this child than I have this night.’
I might have quoted an early patient who became an enduring friend. Her asthmatic sons struggled night after night for breath. She told me how she’d walked the floors, holding them, counting breaths, weighing ambulance against a dash in her own car.
Inevitably I was visited by verse.
I have walked and prayed for this young child an hour
And heard the sea-wind scream upon the tower,
And under the arches of the bridge, and scream
In the elms above the flooded stream….

(W B Yeats, ‘A Prayer for My Daughter’)

I might have described the common and uncommon thrill of feeling a newborn curling her fingers – by reflex – around the finger that I rest on her palm. I might have said, ‘The unearned trust of my child makes me know – as I have never known before – I am significant.
 

I might have said, ‘My children gave me a clarity that was visceral: I knew through them my task, the meaning of my being alive. I knew I would give my labour without question or measure or thought of recompense.

I could never have dreamed the reward that would follow – grandchildren. And of course, with grandchildren comes the renewal of mission, of labour, of redemption of my aging. Feeling anew that deep significance I stride towards my latter end with head high.’

 

Had she asked, that’s what I might have said. But of course we will not see each other again.
Postscript: But we did see each other again – the next morning. With her consent I read aloud the words you just read. I looked up. Her face was suffused, on her lips the widest smile, from her eyes a flow of tears.
She thanked me and in answer to my question she said, ‘Sure, you can publish that.’

Two Recipes for a Long Life

Recipe One
(Yvonne Mayer Goldenberg, 8 June, 1917- 7 June, 2009)

  
Eat only foods rich in butter and cream. Avoid any food that requires chewing, especially vegetables. (My mother was frightened by a vegetable as a child and never came near one again.)

Relax. Do not rush. Shun punctuality.

A lady who possesses the skill of changing a flat tyre should conceal such knowledge. ‘Why deprive some gentleman of the opportunity to behave chivalrously?’
(Mum believed in chivalry. As a child when instructed by her teacher to use the word ‘frugal’ in a sentence, Mum understood ‘frugal’ to mean one who saves. She wrote: ‘A lady was walking by the sea. A strong wind lifted her up and flung her into the waves. She could not swim. She saw a man on a white horse: “Frugal me! Frugal me!”, she cried. So the man leapt into the waves and frugalled her. And they lived happily ever after.’)

Rejoice in your kin; they are life’s benison to you. You will not have them forever. (Mum’s parents died in her childhood. Left with her younger sister in the care of her beloved grandmother, Mum cherished all her descendants with promiscuous undiscrimination.)

Smile. Nothing is so serious that it should furrow your brow – unless it hurt your little ones.

Talk to strangers, visit their countries. Walk the earth without fear. People are good.

Forgive your children their naughtiness. Indulge your adolescent children in their self-absorbtion. They owe you nothing; they give you all.

What you cannot cure you must endure – with a smile. (Mum’s hip was shattered in her twenties. For forty years she walked in pain, with a marked limp. She did not think to complain. Pain did not interest her. Likewise the disabling strokes she suffered in her last decades. ‘A stroke is boring’, she said.)

Decorate your life. Eat every day from your best china; use the good cutlery. (Which day will be better than today? Who better than the family to enjoy these things?)

Raise your boys to help. (‘Why should I be your kitchen slave? There is no pride in being a parasite.’)

Sex is good, sexual pleasure very good. Never boast of your conquests. Use a condom. (These last two dicta were delivered to her sons before the age of nine.)

Feminism is a mistaken impulse. (It arises from the absurd notion held by some that a woman could possibly be inferior to a man in any particular.)

Never open someone else’s mail.

Read. Meet new words. Look up every one in the dictionary. Read everything – the classics, the junk mail, the cornflakes packet.

Don’t fear death. Speak of it freely. (‘Death is a part of life, darling.’)

Do not fear harm. Fate is kind. Clothe your young in love but do not over-wrap them. Harm probably won’t befall them. Entrust them to the care of the universe.

Do not fear at all.

Recipe Two
(Myer Goldenberg, 5 December, 1909 – 10 September, 2003)

  
Fear everything. (Dad witnessed his friend die of electrocution when the stays of his yacht struck power lines. He operated on trauma patients without number. These events made him warn his children of the injuries that result from inattention or lack of care. One warning would never suffice. No number of warnings could suffice.)

Do everything. But take care. Sail, drive, use power tools. Never wave a knife around. Safety first. Safety last.

Fear nothing and no-one. No task is beyond you, no skill too hard to master, no knowledge beyond your reach, no person to be feared.

Eat vegetables. Overboil them first.

Be firm with children. Demand they meet your own high standards. Don’t coddle them in their minor ills. But if real harm come near, cross the country to protect or repair them.

Don’t let your children off lightly. But protect them ferociously from attack by an outsider.

Cherish your kin. Honour your parents. Honour your ancestry.

Honour your work.

Work hard. Keep going. Do not weaken.

Do not run marathons.

Be worthy. (Dad idolised his parents, particularly his father. Through his long life Dad wished always ‘to be worthy’. He meant worthy of his own father. Even in his eighties Dad fretted he was not worthy. I ached when I heard him speak so.)

Forgive. Never hold a grudge. Speak your anger then reconcile.

Never forget or forgive one who hurts your young.

Keep your words clean. Do not say ‘bum’, never say ‘bloody’. Forget ‘dick’. When you belt your thumb with a hammer, allow yourself ‘YOU BITCH!’

Exercise. Where you could drive, choose to walk. Walk fast. Your children can run to keep pace.

People are good. Life is good, health a blessing. Protect it with injections.

Do not fret about germs. They build resistance.

Breast feed. (‘They’re not just there to fill jumpers’).

Cuddle your children. Kiss them – the boys too. And not just in private.

Pass on your faith. Drill your young in ancient ritual and practice.

Tell the children Bible stories. Read those stories with passion and conviction. Pass on your heritage with love and pride.

Be proud. You are as good as anyone else. And no better.

Be authentic. Do not fear being different. Respect yourself and others will respect you.

Love your children. Succour them in your old age as you did lifelong when the need was real.

Show tenderness. A man can be soft and still be strong.

Tell the truth. Demand the truth. Nothing is more sacred than your word. Nothing nourishes better than trust.

Don’t arrive on time. Arrive early.

Never open someone else’s mail.

Work hard. Save for a rainy day. (Dad worked very hard. He practised medicine to the age for ninety-two and a half. To the end of his life he saved for a rainy day, never feeling the heavy rain upon him, never knowing the time had come to take shelter.)

Sing. Sing loudly. Sing with your children. Sing table hymns with your children on Shabbat; sing loudly in synagogue; sing sea shanties, sing nonsense songs. Opera is grand but Gilbert and Sullivan are brighter, more fun.

The compass needle on your boat flickers; at the poles the compass fails. Know your own True North. Follow it.

Embrace the sea. Sail, fish, and sing. Travel by boat at night, navigating by stars, chart and compass. Do not fear the sea. Never take it for granted.

Be vigilant. Experience the rapture of your mastery of an alien element.

Do not fear. Relax. Never relax your vigilance.

See the beauty, smell the ozone, relish this given world.

Thrill to the cresting wave, the heeling sailboat.

Surrender to the windless calm. Experience tranquillity.
Feel the caress of the sun, the bracing breeze. Both are good.

Give thanks. Be thankful.

Love your kin. Nourish them, work for them protect them, nurture them. Demand resilience.

Be brave. Be true.

When all is said remember the love.

And the Two Walked Together

The boy emerged from the car and read the sign: LIGHTHOUSE 19 KILOMETRES. Beneath the sign were the words: Six Hours. The boy spoke, his voice small: ‘I’m nervous, Saba.’
The old man reassured the boy. They pulled on their weighty daypacks and started to walk from the turntable on the mountain. The dirt track was wide enough for a small truck. It sloped away beneath their feet and, despite the lowering sky and the fine wind-whipped rain, the two made good speed in good humour.

The old man said: ‘This is a long, long downhill slope; it will be uphill on the way back. Just when we are really tired we’ll have to fight these hills.’

They looked ahead into immensity. As the path led them lower the slopes towered green and steep before them. The old man saw they’d soon be climbing. The rain stopped and the two felt hot. They peeled off parkas and jumpers and mopped rain and sweat from their faces.

Rounding a sharp bend the boy exclaimed, ‘Look Saba! Look – how beautiful!’ The old man looked and what was beautiful for him was the joy on the boy’s face. ‘Surprised by joy’ – the words floated into the old man’s mind from some half-read snatch of old verse – ‘surprised’ – overcome – as in a surprise attack.‘ The boy’s face, red with exertion, glowed. The old man looked again; he saw no sign of care.

 

The descent ended in a strange plain of long grasses and thick green ferns between which the pale trunks of gums rose, twisted and charred, like writhing skeletons, reaching for the sky. ‘The bushfires must have raced through here’, said the old man, ‘See how there’s not a single living eucalypt. Just ghosts. And everything else so green.’ To himself, he added, ‘They look like humans whose prayers were not heard.’ The old man had dwelled much in suffering of late. All nature spoke to him of the pain of others.

The boy’s expression was opaque.

Not an hour into the walk the boy’s voice asked: ‘Would we be a quarter of the way there yet?’ The old man doubted it. He couldn’t really say. Mostly the boy walked beside him, now and then slipping behind. At these moments the old man slowed, he hoped, inconspicuously.

The boy’s breaths were loud. The old man announced: ‘Morning tea time’, and they stopped to drink. The old man asked, ‘Apricots?’ The boy took the dried fruits and ate appreciatively. They hoisted their packs again, the boy staggering a little before steadying. The old man took the drink bottle. It felt lighter in his hand. They walked. Between the sounds of footfalls a voice spoke: ’I love you Saba.’

The old man, for all his years, for all his words, could find no words better in reply. ‘I love you too, darling.’

   

After a time the flat road began to rise and twist. Ahead of them they saw stately ranks of black tree trunks, erect and slim, towering upward, their branches richly green. ‘Look’, said the old man, ‘Every tree has been burned but every one of them here has survived.’ Their eyes drank in the green life, the dense underburden. Walking between the giants the two felt the silence and it did not oppress them. Rather, wonder swept their eyes upward. In quietness they laboured up long hills, around bends that led to yet more hills, working hard but not feeling it as work.

A scream broke the silence. The boy hobbling, whimpered, ‘My foot! It kills!’ The old man took the boy’s pack. ‘Here’, he said, ‘Sit down.’ ‘I can’t Saba, my arse will get muddy.’ The old man saw a tear at the corner of the boy’s eye. He spread his waterproof on a bank, pulled the boy’s haunches backward and sat him down. ‘Saba, my foot doesn’t hurt when I’m just sitting here. But it killed before.’

The old man opened lunch, bagels he’d bought from Glicks at five that morning. The previous evening the boy ordered peanut butter and honey for his: ‘Fifty percent of each please Saba.’The old man made short work of his own bagel but the boy played with his, peanut butter and honey notwithstanding. Reckoning the child needed relief the old man removed the heavy items from the boy’s pack. Bookish like his grandfather, he’d packed a small library.

‘Do you think you can test that foot?’

The boy rose, hoisted his pack and stepped forward. He winced but said nothing. And the two walked together. At first the boy’s gait was diffident, but quickly he established a fluent step-wince-step rhythm. Rounding a sharp bend the boy cried out, once again in delight. A small wooden footbridge led them across a shallow stream. Green ferns dwarfed the boy, the water chattered and rippled, the air was still and cold. The boy glowed. He turned and spoke: ‘Thank you so much for taking me here Saba.’ In the richness of his feeling the old man felt again the poverty of his own words.

 

They climbed. The old man, remembering walking as a child with his father, described how hard it had been to keep pace. He said, ‘Every few paces I’d fall behind. I’d have to run to catch up. I think that’s what started my life as a runner. It’s what prepared me for running marathons.’ The boy replied, ‘That happens to me too, Saba.’

The old man, a package of memories, told the boy about the time he ran a marathon in Melbourne. ‘It was springtime, quite warm. The sun shone and warmed the asphalt. I could feel the heat through my shoe every time my foot hit the road. I realised I had worn the soles too thin. Actually I had trained hard here, at Wilson’s Promontory, on tracks like this. I had run fourteen kilometres, only one-third of the marathon distance. I anticipated feeling pain with every step of the remaining 28 kilometres. I felt full of gloom. Then I did something really brilliant: I talked to myself. I said, “Every time your foot hits the ground remember you have one les step to run. Every time your foot hurts it’s a reminder – you’re getting closer to the finish.” Guess what – after about ten metres I stopped noticing my foot altogether.’

They passed a sign that read: HALFWAY HUT. Unfortunately whatever ’halfway’ meant it did not refer to the lighthouse walk. They walked on a good while and the boy asked, ‘How much further do you reckon we have to walk, Saba?’

‘Maybe ten kilometres, perhaps a bit less.’

The boy absorbed this. He picked up a straightish stick, about 1.3 metres long and tested it. A few minutes later he discarded the stick, saying his foot wasn’t too bad now. He added, ‘I love you Saba.’ ‘I love you too, Mister Pie.’ (When he was a baby family members called him ‘Sweetie Pie.’ After twelve years the remnant was ‘Mister Pie’).

 

The two came to a fork and another sign. To the left, the sign read: VEHICLE TRACK 9.5KM.

To the right the sign read, WALKING TRACK 8.5KM. The old man recalled the briefing from the Ranger Staff, warning them off the walking track ’because it rained last night – could be soft underfoot.’ He chose the walking track, being the shorter and possibly the softer. ‘Maybe too soft, perhaps marshy or boggy.’ He misgave but he did not reveal his uncertainties to the child. The decision proved decisive. Time and again as they clambered over steeps, scrabbled on uneven footing, wound around sharp turns and twists, the boy exclaimed in delight and wonder. At every corner a vista, at every peak breathtaking verdure. And at every pause the song of falling waters. They panted and sweated and never stopped smiling.

 

The old man, marathon man, always prided himself on his doggedness on hills. But these slopes, so steep, so long, so numerous, for these he needed to dig deep. Head down, bending forward to bring the pack over his centre of gravity, the old man, ploughed dourly on; while the boy sailed ahead, never slowing, never weakening, not ever quailing at the next hill and the next that unfolded in unfeeling succession at summit after summit. The old man marvelled and rejoiced.

 

The walking track was no bog, simply a way up and into a southern Himalaya. Abruptly the climb ended in a series of steep declines. ‘I’m scared I’ll fall’, said the boy. The old man held the back of the boy’s pack and pulled gently backward at every descent, the traction a felt message that the old man would not allow a fall.

 

Around a bend and suddenly the dense bush ended at a wide cleared space. The walking track had rejoined the vehicular. A short walk brought them to a further sign announcing: NO THROUGH ROAD. Rising from their left a walking track led into bush. Leaning on some rocks three men in their late thirties sat eating dried fruit. One asked, ‘You heading for the lighthouse? It’s up that way.’ A thumb pointed backward over the speaker’s shoulder indicated the walking track. The three might have been planted in that spot, so comfortable was their seat on earth, so fixed and settled their attitude.

 

The old man asked, ‘Have you ever walked to the lighthouse?’ Heads nodded. The man with the thumb looked at his bag of currants and said, ‘It’s mainly downhill from here. All except the final three hundred metres, which are the steepest in the entire National Park.’ The boy pointed out a smaller notice behind the men: LIGHTHOUSE 3.2 KMS. He and the old man had been walking for four hours. With a relatively short descent ahead of them both understood they’d arrive in good time for the sunset and the start of the Sabbath. That knowing, not spoken aloud, relieved the worry, also unspoken, of walking in darkness and arriving to cold and dark.

  

 After a short climb the track truly did descend. Underfoot, leafmeal and twigfall covered the soft sand. ‘This sort of footing is my favourite’, said the old man, ‘It comforts your soles. My feet love it.’ At every bend gaps in the bush gave way to glimpses of sea. One gap, wider than others, gave onto a view to the east of a long climbing pathway of exposed rock. At the far end of the path the two saw a white structure, phallic in shape – the lighthouse! It looked beguilingly close.

 

The two pressed on, half racing now. They tumbled around a bend almost falling into the arms of a human who stood on a granite elevation, tall and slim, a statue. The statue had a young woman’s face, a woman’s voice: ‘Look there: Orca.’ She pointed over a shoulder at the sea. ‘Look carefully, you’ll see the water break as they near the surface. When you arrive at the lighthouse would you please tell the lodgekeeper; there’s a pod of four playing here.’

The water broke and mended itself, broke and settled. Was this whale action? The same small disturbances were seen in every direction the man and the boy looked. Hopeful then doubting, then self-doubting, they fixed eyes, solemn and reverent, upon the sea. The old man had seen whale in these waters in years past but this time he saw no purple-black bruising the surface. After a decent interval the two hastened on. They’d seen no Orca yet they tingled with the closeness of greatness.

 

A voice rose from the bustling shape of the boy. He spoke of self-doubt, of fears, of haunting thoughts of his own grave unworth. The old man, filled with quite opposite thoughts of the boy, listened. He ached for the boy. He wanted to say something useful. ‘I know those feelings, Mister Pie’, was all he managed. He wished he had some infusing strength such that if he but held the boy close, the child would grow and know his worth. The urge to seize the child, to crush doubt from him bodily, was strong. But the old man knew such truth is the daughter of time. A daughter not yet ready to be born.

  

 Meanwhile, simple exertion, the actions of fast walking seemed to make the child lighter as he gathered momentum. The words spoken, the hard thoughts disappeared in air, leaving a small body busy and complete in its plunging passage through bushland.

The old man followed behind, carrying his pack, the boy’s books and the boy’s discharged cares.

 

A rock lay in their path, its northerly aspect coated in delicate mosses of brilliant green. The boy stopped to explain, ‘In the bush you can use mossy rocks as a guide, like a compass. The moss grows on the sunniest side. In our hemisphere that’s north.’

 

At one bend the lighthouse would appear only to disappear at the next as they corkscrewed their way down to sea level.  

Now a right angle turn marked the last of the bush. They emerged to an exposed path of surpassing ugliness. Blocks of weathered and stained cement set end to end formed a series of plaques that rose and rose, ending three hundred metres further on at the Light. This, the old man recognised, must be the ‘worst climb’ mentioned by the currant muncher. He looked up. The boy had not paused. He’d opened a lead of twenty metres as he attacked the awful slope. The old man hurried after him but the gap did not close. Half way up the boy approached a welcoming bench, set at the path’s edge to relieve exhausted climbers. The boy ignored the bench and steamed past and the old man, shaking his head, followed. When he reached the top the boy was grinning, his face a fairground of many pleasures.

 

Before they set out the Ranger had estimated the walking time from carpark to lighthouse at six hours. The man and boy finished in under five and in plenty of time for sunset and the Sabbath.

 

The lodgekeeper welcomed them. He said, ‘We’re expecting eleven in your cottage tonight. You two are the first to arrive. We expected an old – pardon me, I mean older – man and a child. Amazing that you beat all those grownups, young feller. Congratulations! Your reward for arriving early is the room with the best view. See – there’s the Light just outside your window. You’re overlooking the ocean. You’ll see any whales without leaving your room.’

 

The room had high ceilings, bunk beds, large windows and plenty of room for two and their possessions. The ‘cottage’ was formerly a lightkeeper’s dwelling, large enough for his wife and their eight children. Outside the wintry gale blew up a four metre swell. Inside the cottage was snug and the showers were hot. Both man and boy stank of sweat. They peeled off their steaming clothes and showered. The boy headed off to the reading room where he met the incoming walkers, adults all, and held court. The first to arrive was the trio of dried-fruit eaters, blokes in their thirties, friends since their schooldays in the Blue Mountains, revisiting old haunts and shared pleasures. After them came a family of four, rich in geography and history, which encompassed Scotland, Southern Africa, Denmark and a touch of Jewishness. The sole female was the Dane. The boy introduced himself and she replied, ‘I’m Astrid.’ This name was new to the boy who remembered her as Asteroid. Following the arrival of that heavenly body from Denmark a lean schoolteacher in his early thirties turned up. He’d sighted the boy in the carpark before setting out. Admiringly he said, ‘You walked quicker than I did’.

 

Darkness fell, the windy world outside moaned and window frames rattled, while inside their room the man and the boy had lit the candles. The old man placed his hands on the boy’s head and slowly, as in a fugue, recited the old words of blessing of the child. Then the two sang the Sabbath Dedication before breaking bread and feasting on packeted food brought to piping in the microwave.

 

Afterwards the boy beat the old man at Scrabble, much to the admiration of the last two to arrive, a bushy-faced pair who materialised from the darkness, unfussed by their final hour of moonlit hiking.

 

The man and the boy slept eleven hours that night.

 

The next day – Saturday – was a true Sabbath, a day of rest. The boy accumulated a series of hurts – his back ached, his right sole was bruised, his left knee seized in spasm. When the lodgekeeper invited all guests into the lighthouse museum for a tour, all pains were put to the side, and soon – or sooner – forgotten. The boy asked most of the questions, good adult questions, as the lodgekeeper later confided. They spent the rest of the day and the evening in the heated common rooms, reading, playing Scrabble, chatting. It is fair to say the nine adult males found the sole female and the sole child the most memorable of the company.

 

Early Sunday the boy revisited his wounds: his bruises padded with multiple bandaids, his knee now moving without pain, his stiff back tolerating a (lighter) pack, he said, ‘I should be able to walk.’ The old man said, ‘The stiffness and soreness will probably disappear once you warm up a bit.’ Before they left the lodgekeeper insisted on taking photos of child and man standing with the lighthouse in the background. ‘To prove to everyone you actually made it’, he said.

  

 The walk back was just as beautiful, just as long, just as tough as the walk out. After an hour the old man asked, ‘How’s your back, Mister Pie?’ ‘I haven’t been noticing, Saba.’ The boy greeted every new vista with delighted recognition. The top of every rise, each mossy stone, every leafy dell, every rugged prospect, he claimed them all as new old friends. He owned the track, his by conquest. Every so often the boy would turn to the old man in his train and repeat, ‘Isn’t this wonderful, Saba? Thank you so much for bringing me here!’

Over the hours of the return hike the boy never asked, ‘How far have we walked?’ Pressing hard on the hills, the boy asserted a sort of mastery: he had done this walk before, he’d do it again now. There was no doubting his ability.

Ahead of them rose the final four kilometres of unrelenting hills. Between the two and the hills a pair of colourful shapes moved in and out of focus. The boy said, ‘Asteroids. There’s a couple of asteroids ahead of us.’ Neither spoke it aloud but both decided they’d overtake the colourful figures ahead. It took them seventy minutes but they did so. The boy declined the old man’s suggestion of a break for lunch. A quick stop for drinks and fruit and upward and onward they went, again tacitly resolving they’d beat the asteroids to the carpark. As on the outward walk the boy attacked the closing uphills. Cruelly illusory, every late bend offered promise of an end. Time and again a tough slope led the eye upwards towards a seeming opening, as one would see at trail’s end. But time and again the boy ploughed on, leaving disappointment behind, his head down, breathing hard, with the old man following in his wake.

 

The sun found its way out of cloud, the greenery took on a lighter shade, the day gleamed. Sweat beaded the boy’s small face, the pink of his cheeks overlying a strange circumambient pallor. ‘Take a break, Mister Pie. Let’s drink.’ The boy took the bottle without words, sucked, passed it back and climbed wordlessly on.

 

One of the illusions of an end turned out to be the fact of the end. The boy strode into the clearing, staggering a little now on the flat asphalt. His grandfather went to take a snap to record the moment of triumph, but the boy, sickly pale, waved him away, gasping: ‘No photos, Saba.’

 

A little later, in the car, the boy said, ‘I’ll take my son on this walk one day – or my grandson.’

  

“Daydream Believer: Rats dream of a better future”

You may scoff, human reader, but I, Rattus rattus – also known as black rat, ship rat, roof rat, house rat, Alexandrine rat, old English rat – I have my dreams.
 

I dream of a time without scoffing humans.

 

I dream of Old Hamelin, my home town, Hamelin to which I shall not return, not until the burghers beg forgiveness.

Meanwhile I live in the cleft of the rock, together with the lost children of Hamelin.

 

I dwell in Xanadu, of which you can only dream:

 

…that dome in air,

That sunny dome! those caves of ice!

And all who heard should see me there,

And all should cry, Beware! Beware!

His flashing eyes, his floating hair!

Weave a circle round him thrice,

And close your eyes with holy dread

For he on honey-dew hath fed,

And drunk the milk of Paradise.

 

 

I have a dream

 

that one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight; “and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together.

 

 

I dream with smiles

On my rodent lips;

I dream my dreams

Of sinking ships.

 

 

 

The rat dreams:

 

 

All day in the one chair

 

From dream to dream and rhyme to rhyme I have ranged

 

In rambling talk with an image of air:

  40

Vague memories, nothing but memories.

 

Had I the heaven’s embroidered cloths,

Enwrought with golden and silver light,

The blue and the dim and the dark cloths

Of night and light and the half-light,
I would spread the cloths under your feet:

But I, being poor, have only my dreams;

I have spread my dreams under your feet;

Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.
 

 

Concussed

The phone call comes at 3.30 on the last afternoon of term. An unfamiliar voice speaks: ‘I have your boy here. He came into the shop and collapsed.’
The woman’s voice is concerned, competent: ‘He wants to get back onto his bike and ride home but I won’t let him.’ The woman gives the address, a shop on busy Centre road, Bentleigh.
 
The mother of the child calls the boy’s father, cannot contact him, drives towards the place in Centre Road. The heavy Friday afternoon traffic races, stops, starts, unpredictably. The mother suppresses her urge to speed, shakes her head: ‘What if he’d collapsed in this traffic!’ Alone with her fear, she calls her father, doctor to the injured boy. She gives her father the bones of the story, adding: ‘He told the lady in the shop he was hit in the head earlier today. She says he’s talking but he’s not making sense. He couldn’t remember my number. Didn’t know the password to his phone. She rang the school and they put us in touch… I’ve nearly arrived. I’ll call again once I’m with him. ‘Bye.’
 
At 3.50 the doctor’s phone rings. His daughter’s voice, the boy’s, an unfamiliar woman’s voice, traffic sounds, snatches of conversation – ‘Dad, I’m with him now. He’s awake. He’s seeing double… Yes, thanks, in the back here. Sorry Dad, the lady who’s been looking after him is helping me get the bike into the car. He lost consciousness a couple of times. What does it mean that he’s seeing double? And he wants to vomit?’
 
Forty-eight hours earlier the doctor saw a boy in Resuscitation at the Royal Children’s Hospital. The boy had been hit by a car. He lay on a trolley, his body a gangle of bones, on his face a large bruise and the dopey smile of a child with no memory of the car that hit his head. The doctor-grandfather spends a lot of time with injured children in Emergency Departments. The doctor knows what double vision means, he knows what vomiting means. The grandfather in the doctor avoids the question, asking some of his own: ’Has he had a head injury?’
‘Yes Dad. A kid at school swung his locker door open and belted him in the head. He went to sick bay for an ice pack. After school he rode to the shops.’
The boy’s voice pipes, indistinctly, the phone set on speaker. ‘Saba, when I look at anything I see two of everything.’ The child slurs the words.
‘What part of your head did the locker hit, darling?’
‘What do you mean, Saba?’
‘Was it the front or the back or the side?’
‘Are you joking, Saba?’
‘No darling. What part of your head was it?’
‘Above my ear, a bit in front of it.’
 
Just in front of the ear, in the temporal region, runs a vulnerable artery which shelters behind skull bone thinner than elsewhere.
The doctor instructs his daughter to drive directly to Monash Medical Centre which is not far distant.
‘I don’t know the way, Dad.’ The father-grandfather-doctor is notorious for his lack of sense of direction. He directs the daughter, hoping. ‘I’ll call Emergency at Monash, darling, so they’ll expect you… Take a book with you. You’ll be there for hours.’
‘Dad, he’s just vomited. Now he’s falling asleep. Does that matter? Do I need to keep him wake?’
‘Try to keep him talking, darling.’
The grandfather speaks to the child: ‘Darling you’ll go into the hospital and they’ll look after you until you’re better. Then they’ll let you go home. You probably won’t be staying in the hospital.’
‘Saba, what will happen to me?’ The voice quavering:’ Will I be alright?’
‘Dad, where will I park?’
‘Drive straight to “Ambulances Only”. At the moment you are an ambulance.’
 
At 4.10 the doctor calls Monash, asks to be connected to the Consultant in Emergency. A young voice, informal: ‘Emergency, Preeti speaking.’
‘Hello Preeti, I’m sending you a child with concussion. I’m his GP. Are you the consultant?’
‘Yes.’
The doctor briefs the young voice. She listens, asks a couple of questions, says, ‘Thank you. We’ll be expecting him.’
‘Thank you, Preeti. I’m quite concerned… He’s my grandson.’
 
When the doctor’s phone rings the time is 4.40. It rings as he’s hurrying to the toilet to pee, the third time in twenty minutes. He stands still, commands his bladder to wait.
‘Dad, I dropped him and they took him straight in. Doctor Preeti was waiting. I’ve just come back, I had to move the car. My phone’s about to die.’
‘Darling, Shabbat is about to start. But I’ll answer the phone if you ring. Someone will lend you a phone. If you need me, call me, even though it’s Shabbat.’
‘’Bye, Daddy. I love you.’
 
The old man puts the finishing touches to his Shabbat table. His wife is away, visiting their Sydney daughter and Joel and Ruby.
He covers the loaves of challah, races to the bathroom, showers, dresses, recites the Afternoon Prayer, racing the setting sun. He finishes, checks the time, realises he’s just too late to light the Shabbat candles: he won’t make fire on the Sabbath. Ordinarily he won’t use the phone. During Shabbat he’ll allow the phone to ring, enjoying freedom from the i-tyrant, celebrating the sample of paradise that is the Sabbath. But tonight he’ll answer it.
 
Darkness falls. The old man recites his Evening Prayers, rich with poetry from the mystics of Safed and the Golden Period in Spain. The dying of the day, the passing of the workaday week, the beauty of the sung hymns, all these have always found him susceptible; since childhood the eve of Sabbath makes him prey to tender feeling.
 
He looks across at the table, set for two. He recites the She’ma Yisrael prayer, inserting, by old family custom, an improvised prayer. He prays: ‘ Heal the boy and all who love him.’
 
The old man sings the hymns, he welcomes the Ministering Angels, he praises his wife – “A woman of Valour, who can Find? Her Price is above Rubies” – then he sings the Kiddush dedication, drinks his grape juice, washes his hands and sits to break bread. Before him, chicken soup with noodles and kreplach, four salads, slow cooked lamb shanks, potatoes. He eats alone, wolfing the feast he prepared for two. His elder daughter won’t be finished at the hospital until very late.
 
The food is good. He’d made a great effort for this meal with his daughter. He eats and gives thanks. Afterwards he reads. He reads three newspapers then opens the political biography a friend gave him. Deprived of sleep as he always is by Friday, he doesn’t expect sleep will come quickly tonight.
 
At 8.00 the front door opens. His daughter enters and they embrace. The boy is well. He’s back home with his brothers and his father. Surprised by her early arrival, the doctor listens to his daughter: ‘Dad, they asked him questions, they checked his eyes and his pulse and his blood pressure again and again. They tested his balance. He improved and they let us go. They said once four hours had passed the danger was much less. They timed it from when he collapsed in the shop.’
 
While the mother speaks the father prepares a salad to replace the four he wolfed. The child-mother eats with relish. ‘I’m sorry I spoiled our meal, Dad.’
She toys with the lamb shanks that come cold to the table. ‘Dad, I can’t eat any more. It’s been a big day.’
Father and daughter look at each other. No words are spoken, none needed; each knows the content of the other’s mind. The father looks away, knowing without looking how his child’s lip trembles and her eyes fill.
 
A minute or two of quietness, then the daughter smiles: ‘By the time we were leaving ED his speech was perfectly clear. He was saying he wanted junk food. Then he said, “Let’s ring the kind lady in the shop and thank her.”’

Writing as Healing

The mother of identical twin boys sent me this story by Ranjava Srivastava.

 

“Losing my twin baby boys for ever changed the way I treat my patients.

I will never know the kind of doctor I would have become without the searing experience of being a patient, but I like to think my loss wasn’t in vain.

‘My obstetrician’s tears stunned me but also provided immediate comfort. They normalised the mad grief that had begun to set inside me.’
Around this time 10 years ago, I was poised to start my first job as an oncologist when personal tragedy visited in a way that would forever change the way I would practice medicine.

I had returned from my Fulbright year at the University of Chicago, blessed with only the joys and none of the irritations of being pregnant with twins. Landing in Melbourne, I went for a routine ultrasound as a beaming, expectant parent. I came out a grieving patient. The twins were dying in utero, unsuspectedly and unobtrusively, from some rare condition that I had never heard of. Two days later, I was induced into labour to deliver the two little boys whom we would never see grow. Then I went home.

If all this sounds a little detached it is because 10 years later I still have no words to describe the total bewilderment, the depth of sorrow and the intensity of loss that I experienced during those days. Some days, I really thought my heart would break into pieces. Ten years later, the din of happy children fills our house. But what I have found myself frequently reflecting on is how the behaviour of my doctors in those days profoundly altered the way in which I would treat my patients.

An experienced obstetrician was performing my ultrasound that morning. Everything was going well and we chatted away about my new job until he frowned. Then he grimaced, pushed and prodded with the probe, and rushed out before I could utter a word. He then took me into his office and offered me his comfortable seat. Not too many pregnant women need a consultation at a routine ultrasound.

“I am afraid I have bad news,” he said before sketching a picture to describe the extent of the trouble. I thought for a fleeting moment that my medical brain would kick in and I would present him with sophisticated questions to test his assertion that the twins were gravely ill. But of course, I was like every other patient, simultaneously bursting with questions while rendered mute by shock.

I was well aware that doctors sometimes sidestepped the truth, usually with the intent of protecting the patient. I knew he could easily get away with not telling me any more until he had more information but I also knew that he knew. I read it in his face and I desperately wanted him to tell me.

I asked the only question that mattered.

“Will they die?” 

“Yes,” he said, simply holding my gaze until his tears started.

As I took in the framed photos of children around his office he probably wished he could hide them all away.

“I don’t know what to say,” he murmured, his eyes still wet. 

Until then, in 13 years of medical training, I had never seen a doctor cry. I had participated in every drama that life in bustling public hospitals offers but never once had I seen a doctor cry.

My obstetrician’s tears stunned me but also provided immediate comfort. They normalised the mad grief that had begun to set inside me. Yes, the doctor’s expression said, this is truly awful and I feel sad too.

“You are sure?”

“There is a faint chance that one lives but if you ask me, things look bad. You know I will do everything I can to confirm this,” he said.

The obstetrician had told the unflinching truth and in doing so almost surgically displaced uncertainty with the knowledge that I needed to prepare myself for what lay ahead. I had test after test that day, each specialist confirming the worst. I think I coped better because the first doctor had told the truth.

Two other notable things happened that week. Among the wishes that flowed, another doctor wrote me an atypical condolence note. His letter began with the various tragedies that had taken place that week, some on home soil and others involving complete strangers. “I ask myself why,” he wrote, “and of course there is no answer to why anyone must suffer.”

Until then, everyone had commiserated only at my loss – and I was enormously grateful – but here was someone gently reminding me that in life we are all visited by tragedy. All the support and love in the world won’t make you immune to misfortune, he was saying, but it will help ease the pain.

Finally, there was the grieving. I lost count of the pamphlets that were left at our door to attend support groups, counselling sessions and bereavement seminars but we were resolutely having none of it. My midwife called me out of the blue – it was a moving exchange that taught me how deeply nurses are affected too. But I didn’t need counselling, I needed time. I valued the offers but I knew that my catharsis lay in writing. I wrote myself out of suffocating grief, which eventually turned to deep sadness and then a hollow pain, which eventually receded enough to allow me to take up my job as a brand new oncologist. How I would interpret the needs of my patients was fundamentally altered now that I had been one myself.

Cancer patients are very particular about how much truth they want to know and when. I don’t decide for them but if they ask me I always tell the truth. A wife brings in her husband and his horrendous scans trigger a gasp of astonishment among even the non-oncologists.

“Doctor, will he die from this?” she asks me.

“I am afraid so,” I answer gently, “but I will do everything in my power to keep him well for as long as I can.” 

It is the only truthful promise I can make and although she is distressed she returns to thank me for giving her clarity. Sometimes honesty backfires, when the patient or family later say they wanted to talk but not really hear bad news. I find these encounters particularly upsetting but they are rare and I don’t let them sway me from telling the truth.

Oncology is emotionally charged and I have never been afraid of admitting this to the very people who imbue my work with emotion. I don’t cry easily in front of patients but I have had my share of tears and tissues in clinic and contrary to my fears, this has been an odd source of comfort to patients. In his Christmas card, a widower wrote that when my voice broke at the news that his wife had died he felt consoled that the world shared his heartbreak.

It can be tricky but I try to put my patients’ grief into perspective without being insensitive. It’s extraordinary how many of them really appreciate knowing that I, and others, have seen thousands of people who are frightened, sad, philosophical, resigned, angry, brave and puzzled, sometimes all together, just like them. It doesn’t diminish their own suffering but helps them peek into the library of human experiences that are catalogued by oncologists. It prompts many patients to say that they are lucky to feel as well as they do despite a life-threatening illness, which is a positive and helpful way of viewing the world.

I will never know what kind of a doctor I might have become without the searing experience of being a patient. The twins would have been 10 soon. As I usher the next patient into my room to deliver bad news, I like to think that my loss was not entirely in vain.” 

……… 

I read this story with alarm. It made me feel anxious because I have and love a pair of identical twin boys. I felt involved because, like the writer’s doctor, I am a doctor who cries; and like the writer, Dr Srivastava, I am a doctor who writes. Finally we two are products of the same medical school (Monash) – Dr Srivastava graduated at the top of her class, in the present century, I graduated at the opposite end of my class, in antiquity (1969).

A final point of commonality was her reassuring remark that ten years after her doctor wept her home is full of the noise of happy living children.

I found the piece helpful. Dr Srivastava identifies and untangles the strands of her experiences with surgical deftness. Her doctor weeps, her colleagues show support and care and empathy and she heals. As a trained observer, the writer dissects her experience of grief, lays out its anatomy and reflects upon its organs and parts.

Like the writer, I find relief and understanding in the act of writing. I suspect that a part of this relief results from word search. The writer is obliged to seek the precise word for the experience. In my case this forces me to test and taste a number of words. Perhaps a dozen words might work more or less passably, but the acts of searching, of choosing, of trialling, help me to clarify what my feelings were not quite like. I mean I discover what I mean. Perhaps this functions as a working through, a self-conversation, something between analysis of an experience and re-imagining it. In my case too, the pleasure of words is an aesthetic joy that comforts me.

Medicine is a pursuit conducted with the living in the shadow of death. It is a pursuit packed with anxious questions: what is wrong with me, will I die, what can be done, will it hurt, how much, how will I know the answers, when will I know? This crying doctor feels the patient’s fear and his own and has to know the border that divides the two. My fears are for the patient, of the patient, of failure, of failing a person of flesh and feeling. My fears include the terror that strikes me when I see my patient slipping away, the knowledge of my mortal inadequacy.

The writer who lost her twins precisely names the elements in her emotional experience. With remarkable poise she traces the costs and the benefits of the loss. So coherent are her reflections I could feel myself learning as I read. I learned about her life and her work, how the two are not the same but never severable. I learned more of how a doctor feels, who she is, who I am.