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.

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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.

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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.”

Riding Home to a Wardrobe Full of Shoes

2330 hours. Riding the pushbike home from the hospital for sick children on a Sunday night, racing dreamy trams through the Central Business District, through the drowsing city as it winds itself down from weekend revels. The streets drain visitors to their dormitory suburbs; those on foot, inner city dwellers, are mostly students, mostly Asian.

The bike affords a view at street level. On every city block there is one figure seen seated on the footpath, male, his back supported by a shopfront, before him a placard, his testament of poverty, of need. Before him an upturned cap solicits alms. Peering from the bike across the emptying asphalt, between unclad legs, I see the bearded face of the seated man, mute, impassive, staying put.

The unclad legs are of groups of Asian girls who wear spring frocks shorter than the precipice high heels dictated by fashion. The legs pass; the beard, the placard, the face remain. No alms fall into the money hat.

On the next block the same slow tableau.

Red lights arrest me at the third block. I can hear the girls’ soft laughter as they pass. The face of this man is not seen: his head slumped, he sleeps, sleeps on the cooling street, sleeps before the hat. No-one comes near.

The green light releases me from indecision. Riding now, racing trams once more, leaving behind me undischarged my impulse of munificence, I ride hard, ride towards my home where warmth, a shower await, where I have a wardrobe full of shoes. Those high heeled extravagances speak to my own blessed feet as they depress the pedals. How many are your shoes? I count them as I ride.

I count ten pairs of shoes in my warm home. I have only two feet. Ten pairs plus all the running shoes, those retired from marathons but still serviceable, and the new pair in lapis blue waiting for a runner whose running days are done.

Twenty eight shoes for my two feet.

We are two bearded men who write our testaments, two of us tired from fetching our daily bread. I ride to my home. Mon frere, mon semblable, sleeps already, on the street.

Beyond these city blocks lie the docks and the silent cold sea. Across the cold waters, homeless, locked from sight, from our hearing, locked away in distant islands of poverty are the thousands who will never, ever – on a government’s solemn vow – come into our comfortable home.