Garland Makers

Emerging from my early morning train I follow the subterranean tunnel that will lead to a city lane and daylight. There by the stairway stands a figure in the dimness, a fiddle at her chin, a bow in her right hand. I catch a glimpse of a t-shirt emblazoned with a black skull on a ground of brilliant white. A musician is playing Bach in a catacomb in Melbourne.

 

 

The musician plays. Later she will answer my query: “It’s Bach, one of the minuets.” Like any commuter I hurry by. A piccolo latte later I return to the tunnel. I have, after all, ten minutes of leisure, ten minutes free from scampering from screen to screen. I stand at a remove where I watch the slow bowing of her right hand and the nimble darting fingers of her left.

 

 

The musician plays. I don’t recognise this music, something slow and languid; liquid sounds flowing, flowing, peak hour crowds hurrying, hurrying. The musician plays, the commuters exit and I stand and I listen. In my hands I hold ‘Review’ from the weekend paper. Between melodies I read a poem by Judith Beveridge. The poem, titled ‘To a Garland Maker’ starts:

 

 

‘It must be good to be a garland-maker –

Your daughters carrying water, working with you

Braiding feathers, shells, leaves…’

 

 

Somehow the poem clinches the moment for me. Some obscure connection takes place. Perhaps it’s simply the gladsome encounter, unexpected, with the beautiful. I drop a bank note into the musician’s empty violin case. Between pieces I approach: “Please forgive my enquiry… what else do you do? In music, I mean?”     

“I’m at the Conservatorium. I’m studying.”

     

 

I withdraw and the musician plays again. Once again sounds drawn by slow bowing to an unhurried tempo, once again sounds not of this century nor of the last. Is there perhaps defiance in her choice of the unfashionable, of the non-popular? Most mornings the busker in this tunnel is a singlet-clad Springsteen, twice this girl’s age. But his music is far younger. His guitar case fills quickly with coin and notes.

 

 

My ten minutes of slow pass quickly. I’ve been in reverie, prompted by the playing and the poem:

 

 

‘Daughters

who will adorn you at your funeral with blossoms

picked at dawn.’

 

 

 

Following the poet’s images of daughters and aged mothers a vision comes to me of this same girl, three score years in the future, her delicate face coarsened by years and care. As I walk away my mind takes me to an elderly lady I know. She suffered a stroke a few years ago and recovered all movement but her speech was affected. Now words tumble from her mouth in lively disorder. My friend knows what she wants to say but her brain plucks the wrong word from her lexicon. The old lady has much to tell but her speech trips her up. She lives alone in the old family home, her gaiety unquenched.

 

 

 

In my reverie I hear the fiddler with her slow music, I hold the poet’s images of garland-making daughters, of disfiguring time, and of an old lady who cannot talk straight. Yeats wrote of ‘Gaiety transfiguring all that dread’. It is art I suppose, the access to beauty, that brings us to the sunlight.

Men, Today we Die a Little

Emil Zatopek spoke those words to his rivals at the starting line of the Olympic Marathon, in Melbourne in 1956. Throughout his career Zatopek regarded every other runner as a comrade. He talked to everyone everywhere he went. He befriended everyone, including his opponents, chatting with them as they raced. In this respect Emil and I are brothers.

On that marathon day, a Saturday in early December 1956, I was nearly twelve. I had worshipped Zatopek for some time. Later generations do not recognise that name but aficionados – among them Australia’s Ron Clark – remember Emil Zatopek as the greatest Olympic distance runner of all. (What? You don’t know who Ron Clark was?) The marathon course took runners from the stadium, out along Dandenong Road to Dandenong, where they turned for the run back to the MCG. Standing with my mother at the foot of my street in suburban Oakleigh, I picked out Zatopek as he approached, short, balding, a ball of muscular effort. He was not among the first three or so. I ran alongside my hero, racing him from the nature strip. I beat Zatopek over one hundred metres then left him to his devices. Long past his best, injured, unwell, he completed the marathon, finishing in sixth place. 

Sixty years later, in Malta, I was prepared to die a little. Malta was hilly, the roads uneven and hard, the weather brutally clement. Add to that my very late decision to run, and my token training, and I deserved to die more than a little.

I set my alarm for 0445 hours. I booked my cab for 0545. I lay down and sweet sleep enfolded me. My alarm never rang; sleep abruptly forsook me at 0300, leaving me to wrestle with a now hostile pillow and futility. At 0330 I gave up, got up and switched off the redundant alarm. I contemplated the coming day sourly. If you run a marathon with a sleep debt the late miles will claim settlement; effectively you fall asleep on your feet, concentration falters and resolution slumbers.

So I did what any drug addict does. I brewed and drank a thunderbolt coffee. Then I recited my dawn prayers. Then I did what any drug cheat does. I drank some more strong coffee. It was a thoughtful cheat who drained that second cup. There would be no more caffeine until after the race. In every other marathon runners deposit their personalized drinks before the start. These drinks are marked with the runner’s name and the relevant kilometer mark. As we approach every 5K mark we know our drinks await us. My drinks always contain Coca Cola, which, so the label informs me, contains only natural ingredients. The natural ingredients that interest me in a marathon are water (check) sugar (double check) and caffeine (check, check, check). Malta has no provision for personalised drinks – water and a sports drink only – and as I was to learn, even these might fail. So there’d be no further euphoriant chemicals to carry me through Zatopek’s valley of the shadow.

Being awake so early I bolted a slug of sustaining bircher muesli I had prepared a couple of days earlier. Over the couple of days my bircher had set into the consistency of drying cement. The cement sat in my gullet, a solid and present companion that would keep me company well after the coffee stopped working.

The cab dropped me at the ferry terminal in Sliema. From there our prepaid buses would take us to the start in Mdina. (Have you been to Mdina? You must. Around the Mediterranean, ‘mdina’ – derived from the semitic word ‘medina’ – signifies the old city. This particular old city sits atop hills, a fortress from its inception, its honeyed stone walls shining in the sun. I have visited and loved and gone mad time and time again in Jerusalem’s old city, a city most particular to me; and yet I have to declare, by narrow aesthetic criteria, I find Malta’s Mdina Jerusalem’s equal. And in both cases, the city’s geography is its history. Situated at strategic geopolitical crossroads, both have been loved, contended, changed hands again and again, and remain beautiful, beloved and blood drenched.)

Before the Marathon


The bus slid through the dying night. Runners from everywhere chatted in the dimness. I heard African accents, Asian, singsong Italian, German, and Eastern European tongues heavy in consonant and intensity. Regional British accents all around, French too, somehow always a whispering music. Four thousand would run, but only 900 of these would run the full 42.195 kilometre event. Of these Maltans are a small proportion. I suspected Pheidipides Goldenberg constituted the entire Australian contingent. 

The race information booklet advised the oldest male in the full marathon was one Giuseppe Balzarini. At 78 this fellow would be seven years my senior. A skeleton in a bright yellow shirt stood suddenly before me. His face of olive skin hung in deep stubbled folds. He had some teeth, not many, but all of them flashed me a brilliant grin. His right forefinger extended, nearly touching my own yellow shirt: You. How many?

Seventy one. My own index finger came into play: Which country?

The face showed incomprehension. His palms opened interrogatively: How much?

I showed the man seven fingers, then a single digit.

Ahh! Huge smile. The man indicated himself: Me…he showed me seven fingers then eight. His teeth were overjoyed. Then the man – the name on his shirt read not Giuseppe but Edouardo – did something unexpected. He extended his right hand once again, and brought it close to my cheek. Once, twice, Edouardo soft palm patted my cheek. An uncle could not have touched me more tenderly. Of course, my own hand rose to Edouardo’s face and did the same. Chest to chest, smile to crooked smile, we were two Zatopeks. We stood for a moment, then he was gone. I hoped I’d see him again.
Naturally we had arrived at the Start an hour before starting time. Naturally we all used the Portapotties. Mildly grotesque and richly comic are these lines of runners waiting to discharge some of the surplus we have so purposefully taken in. We stand or jiggle or dance, all of us declaring publicly a quite private intention. We wait and we wait, none of us knowing in what condition we will find the accommodation. (Beyond silently thanking my obsessive precursor I forbear here to report.)

But I can tell you on emerging I found it pretty cold up there on that hilltop, the wind rising from the Valetta plain, coaxing gooseflesh from my limbs. I found the numbered van corresponding to my race number and deposited my bag of possessions in the back. Then, sneaking around the front I let myself into the driver’s cabin, tried to make myself invisible, and let my flesh thaw.

The race was to start at 0730 hours. At 0710 my solitude was disturbed: You alright?

It was the driver. Yes I was alright, thanks.

Is OK. Next time you ask?

Yes. Next time. Thank you.

At 0720 my bladder had an afterthought. Back at the Portapotty queues a fair-haired runner named Michelle provided entertainment for us latecomers. A stocky young person, Michelle did not look African lean. I doubted she’d last the distance. (I was wrong.) But as a sprinter she was quite good. As soon as a Portapotty door swung open Michelle would race forward, only to find opportunity snatched from her. This open door was for males only, that open door was the same, this other one opened all right – exposing the buttocks of an occupant who wasn’t expecting company. Michelle danced on the spot, whether to warm up or to maintain continence, the effect was to divert us from our private concerns.

At 0725 the Public Address summoned us to the Start. At 0729 and fifty seconds the PA voice said ten seconds to go. Let’s all count down! Nine hundred voices complied. Zero! – cried the nine hundred. Go! – cried the PA. And we did. Tragically the first kilometres downhill from the citadel of Mdina were downhill. Utterly seduced, my legs flew. For the time being my body, cement bircher included, was weightless. Of course I could not catch my breath. And my sanity fled far away, not to be overtaken for twenty kilometres.

 

What followed in the next five hours will not hold your interest. I recall it all, of course, but wish to forget it. The marathon organisers warned runners the event would conclude at 1300 hours – fully five and a half hours after the start. After that, runners would receive no medal, their finishing times would go unrecorded and unreported. I thought five-and-a-half hours long enough to have a birthday: surely I’d beat the deadline. I had drawn up my plans, dividing the 42.195 kilometres into hopeful ‘quarters’ of 11 kms, 11 kms, 10 and 10.195 kms. I allowed these splits 70, 75, 80 and 90 minutes respectively, totalling five hours and fifteen minutes. A finishing time that would rank with my Personal Blushful Worst.

Of course everything transpired otherwise. Too fast in the first stanza, too undigesting in the second, too beaten up in the legs by Malta’s rocky roadways in the third, too thirsty in the fourth. Thus reads my list of excuses. 

It is true that the shabby mobile kiosk at 28 kms was emblazoned with the sacred words: Coca Cola. But the bewhiskered vendor had no change of my twenty Euro note. He offered me the drink gratis, but I waved his offer away. Even an addict would not rob the poor. It is true too that the water stations at 30 and 35 kilometres ran dry before my arrival at the tail of the field. I felt grumpy for a bit, a new sensation in a marathon. My uncharitable feelings quickly evaporated in the glorious sunshine – unseasonable, given Malta’s weather patterns for late winter. From the five kilometer mark onward I ran bare-chested, bare-bulging-bellied too – not a flattering look but a practical one.

The 30km mark


The final stanza of the course passed through a light industrial estate, a place barren of cheer or cheering crowds. There were none of the uplifting musicians of the first stanza. Thirty-two bands were named in the race brochure. Of these most of the final sixteen were packing up by the time we of the tail reached them. The brochure promised clashing drums, blasting brass, oompahing tubae, and so there were initially. But I could see the matter from the viewpoint of the musicians. By the final kilometres individual runners were spread out, separated by up to 200 metres. A band numbering eight musos might feel a bit absurd playing to one struggling runner.

How different, how soul nourishing was the raven-haired beauty who sang to me at the thirty-seven kilometer mark. (Yes, I appreciate your scepticism here – had it been a veritable Gorgon playing a guitar and singing I’d have felt an uplift. But truly she was beautiful.) The young woman might have been about twenty. Seated alone in a wilderness of concrete, on an ordinary kitchen chair, long black hair falling heavy behind her, guitar on her knee and a mike in front, she gave voice. Sounds issued from her throat that soared upward to the heavens whence they surely came. A moment of joy. When I think of it now – sober, rested, replenished of fluids and foods, and yes – of caffeine, that joy returns. It remains, a treasure to which I can return, long after my week of days in Malta.

38 Kms, read the sign at the roadside. At sea level now, tracing the shoreline of the bay I could not wait for the finish. I shuffled past that sign alone. In the near distance ahead a stocky form and a fall of fair hair told me how wrong I had been in underestimating Michelle. Yet I knew I would overtake her. Surely. Light footsteps behind, a flash of bright yellow far to my left, and this was Edouardo, plowing on, on, looking neither right nor left. I decided I would sneak past Edouardo. I would be the first septuagenarian to cross the line. I moved to the far right of the course, where my rival might not notice my challenge. I drew ahead. Then I looked at my watch – I had 28 minutes for less than four kilometres. I could do that comfortably. Then comfort undid me. I stopped that loathesome running and I walked.

Now Edouardo drew abreast of me, now inching past, he left me behind, a moral ruin. I resumed running, without conviction, without really trying. Michelle receded. Edouardo flowed on. I plodded, I walked, I ran. I lacerated myself with self censure. Around a bend, I looked in vain for the finish. Around another bend, two bright figures, walking in the opposite direction, waved and cheered me on. I recognised the tall woman in her thirties and her male companion, she from Sweden, her husband British. Both wore Finisher’s Medals. I had made their acquaintance at the seven kilometre mark. This was their first marathon, their training had been nugatory. We’d exchanged hoped-for finishing times, we wished each other luck. And now the tyros had shown the veteran how it was done. The encounter lifted my spirits. From that point on – perhaps the 41Km mark – I mainly ran.

Around one more bend, I lacked the courage to look up for the Finish Line. But the crowd noises told me I was close. And the Public Address blaring: and here comes another runner, Ladies and Gentlemen. Cheer him on, help him beat the cut-off time.

I lifted my feet, raised my head, pumped my arms, achieving an ugly sprint. The crowd roared, quite deceived into thinking I had been trying my best. The numbers on the clock astonished me: five hours, 28 minutes. I plunged across the Line.

A banana and a bottle of water materialized in my hands, a foil blanket covered my too hot shoulders, and a medal – the medal – hung heavy from my neck. I shambled forward a hundred metres or so then settled down on a concrete kerb to negotiate nausea. A pair of brown legs approached, stopped within a metre. It was Edouardo. With all my heart I congratulated him. Once again I asked, From what country do you come?

Italia! – and that smile again. We shook hands. The better man had won and I loved him.             

And that was number fifty.
 

A Backward Country 

There’s a problem here. Police officers wander around singly, unadorned by bullet-proof vestments, no gun at their hips. I took the ferry to Gozo. No-one searched my bag or my body. Same when I entered the bank, the same at The Grand Hotel Excelsior. The same at the Biblioteca National. 

People seem relaxed. A citizen trusts her neighbour. 

The place is full of foreigners but no-one seems to care. We are just across the water from Libya and no-one is afraid. Negligent governments have not sown mistrust. Is everyone here asleep?

A backward country, this. I met Malta’s number three cop. A gentle sort of fellow, he seemed about as menacing as a powder puff. Where were their blokes who swagger around the borders and within them, like the Border Protection Force that keeps all us Aussies feeling so safe?

I went to a barber shop. Hidden up a staircase above a (not very) supermarket, and around some corners, it was a narrow establishment, its proportions little bigger than our guest powder room in my home. I hesitated at the threshold. Something faintly seedy about the joint, hard to pin down. A scent of tobacco breath mingled with barbershop smells. There were two chairs, one occupied. A tangle of odd black electric cords hung from a power point, metal implements lay scattered as if some disturbance had been and passed.
 

A young man with olive skin and a spade-shaped black beard looked up from the head he was trimming and waved me in. He was lean and tall, his black hair falling in wild waves about his narrow head. I guessed the young man might be in his late twenties. He looked lithe and coiled – Caravaggio before a brawl.

A second young man seated in the depths of the room rose as I entered. He too was tall, but better fed, perhaps a few years younger. His head was crowned with tight black curls pulled back into a pony tail, his jaw covered in a curly black spade. I thought I caught a fugitive smile. He waved me to the second chair, stood over and close to me, and raised an eyebrow. It was a question. I answered with a question: Can you make me beautiful?

I no English much.  

I pointed to my own chin, scruffy with whitish undergrowth. Zero, I said.

He nodded enthusiastically.

I pointed to my scalp, an arid garden.

Two, please.

More nodding, a big smile.

I sat back and considered. Flowing beards are all the go here, but it’s the barbers not the barbered who wear them. I looked around for a cut-throat blade, sighted none, sat back again and relaxed. The two young men were engaged in jovial conversation with a third, the customer in the first chair. I wondered what the joke was. Perhaps it was me. I listened for words I might recognise. The local language Malti is Semitic. It sounds quite a bit like Arabic, from which it traces its origins, with plenty of words similar to Hebrew which I can speak tolerably fluently. As the men conversed I sensed this might be street Malti, pretty rough and ready, perhaps untroubled by grammar or syntax. I listened some more. Lots of words were familiar, too many: this was Arabic, not Malti.

In all the flow of camaraderie and good humour, my barber man concentrated hard on my hair. His movements were gentle and deft. In the mirror my scalp rose into view from its sheddings; a wide and empty plain surfaced where I was used to seeing hairs. Two was shorter than I expected. Given the intimacy between me and the barber man, I felt we should be on first name terms: 

What’s your name?

Asraf.

My name is Howard.

Hawa?

How-wad. 

How Wad.

I nodded and grinned. Good to meet you, Asraf. 

From where you come?

Australia.

Asraf digested this: Much far.

Yes. Where do you come from Asraf?

Tripoli.

Libya!

Yes.

Asraf grinned and resumed operations.

My artist spent a lot of time and close concentration on corners and in nooks where I seldom gaze. Nostrils were explored, earholes broached, ear perimeters subject to hair-by-hair extirpation. Finally he straightened, turned, laid down his electric instrument, and advanced bearing a cut-throat blade. I felt a tremor. My misgiving derived not for Ironbark but Sinai: the biblical prohibition echoed -Ye shall not round the corners of your heads, neither shalt thou mar the corners of thy beard. For some reason the naked blade is held to violate this Law while the electric trimmer is accepted – by some. I waved away Asraf’s trusty skibouk: Not this one. I like electric. After a further fifteen minutes of electric search and destroy Asraf was content there were no escapees.  
Asraf removed the tarp from my torso. I rose and together we surveyed my remains:

Shukran, I said.

How you know Arabic?

I produced my yarmulke and applied it to my naked scalp.

Asraf’s grin was huge. Reaching for his phone he leaned and wrapped his arm around me and took a photo of us both. A modest sum augmented by an immodest tip changed hands. We shook, I left and went to buy groceries next door. Exiting the grocer’s a few minutes later, I nearly bumped into Asraf and Carravaggio. They’d gone outside for a smoke. Whenever I see someone smoking I feel a pang, and I ask myself, Why? 

I waved as I passed by my friend from Tripoli and guessed the answer to Why? might lie in what he’d seen, what and whom he’d left behind. 

 

Woman from Moldova

I received the following email today.

Subject: ‘Hello! How’s life?’

 

From Alena

 

 

Hello dear stranger!

I’d like to find a man for friendship and may be more serious relationships later.

You are the one Id like to know. Just want to say that I am from Moldova. This is between Romania and Ukraine. I live in the city of Tiraspol.

I’m 33 years old and in next month will be 34. I’m looking for a man in your country because my cousin lives there with her husband and I plan go there in the next months.

I chose this country because it is very good and pure soul of the people. It would be fine to meet you in person.

I’m sincerely interested in knowing more about you. Dating is not just fun for me, I never play games.

I expect that you are also serious. I’m a lonely woman that wants to find someone that will take care and understand me.

Let me tell you more about myself. I assume that I am a strong woman with goals, ideals and ambitions.

I hope that this letter will help us to write the first lines of each other.

I’ll wait for your answer. 

Alena

 

Naturally I was pleased, in fact a little flattered, that someone from a far country, someone quite unknown to me, should seek my thoughts on such a matter: the subject –

How’s Life? – is deeply philosophical, a question that has engaged great minds since ancient times. With considerable deliberation I began to compose my reply. Obviously the question was compellingly important to my correspondent, for Adela had written to me deep in the Moldovan night hours. Philosophic dubiety was depriving the good lady of her sleep.

 

It came to me that I know insufficient of life in Moldova. My new penfriend deserved better than a half-informed reply. So I googled Moldova. I was in luck: the first of very many links led to ‘Women in Moldova’. I clicked and found myself faced with a picture gallery. Instantly I saw that Moldovan women suffer a shortage of clothing – none of the ladies was completely dressed.

A second glance revealed that all were the beneficiaries of augmentary surgery. Now I began to find my bearings – Adela would be a semi-clad philosopher, who was either a surgeon (hence her choice of this medical colleague as her sage) or the survivor of surgery.

 

I clicked on and read the following: ‘Are Moldovan women easy? | Women of Moldova, marriage, dating …

http://www.moldova.ukrnetia.com/are-moldovan-women-easy/

girl from Moldova Moldovan women do not respect themselves. Whom should woman be to stay at 3 am on the intersection under the traffic lights for 15 minutes…’

Seeking more information I clicked to continue this promising discussion and found my software forbade further access. Odd. Apparently my software is not philosophy friendly. Undeterred, I googled Tiraspol and read the following: ‘Tiraspol, the capital of a country that doesn’t exist: Transnistria

 Tiraspol. Did you know that some countries don’t exist? Well, they do exist, but they are not recognized by the United Nations.’ 

 

 

Now I felt I understood poor Adela’s plight: her country does not exist. What is the meaning of her life? She makes clear her serious nature (“I never play games”). I realised Australia will be culturally alien to Adela. In Australia we only play games: our religion is sport. Sport renders philosophy unnecessary, transcending mere speculation on meaning and purpose. This also made clear Adela’s choice of me, of the roughly 23 million Australian’s to be her life guide. She writes: I expect that you are also serious. Indeed. Just so.

 

Modestly Adela revealed her own moral uncertainty. She wrote: I assume that I am a strong woman with goals, ideals and ambitions. ‘I assume’ suggests deep self-doubt. Immediately I thought of a more suitable guide, Ruby, my four-year old granddaughter. That young lady is most certainly a strong woman, positively laden with goals, ambitions and ideals. World domination would be her initial aim. Just this morning, Ruby asked her mother – quite without context or prior discussion – ‘Mummy, why did Mandela go to jail?’

 

 

I decided to hand Adela’s case to Ruby.

Waiting for the Barbarians

In Washington they’ve arrived and taken up residence
What is it that we are waiting for, gathered in the square?
       The barbarians are supposed to arrive today.
—Why is there such great idleness inside the Senate house?
   Why are the Senators sitting there, without passing any laws?
       Because the barbarians will arrive today.

       Why should the Senators still be making laws?

       The barbarians, when they come, will legislate.
—Why is it that our Emperor awoke so early today,

   and has taken his position at the greatest of the city’s gates

   seated on his throne, in solemn state, wearing the crown?
       Because the barbarians will arrive today.

       And the emperor is waiting to receive

       their leader. Indeed he is prepared

       to present him with a parchment scroll. In it

       he’s conferred on him many titles and honorifics.
—Why have our consuls and our praetors come outside today

   wearing their scarlet togas with their rich embroidery,

   why have they donned their armlets with all their amethysts,

   and rings with their magnificent, glistening emeralds;

   why should they be carrying such precious staves today,

   maces chased exquisitely with silver and with gold?
       Because the barbarians will arrive today;

       and things like that bedazzle the barbarians.
—Why do our worthy orators not come today as usual

   to deliver their addresses, each to say his piece?
        Because the barbarians will arrive today;

        and they’re bored by eloquence and public speaking.
—Why has this uneasiness arisen all at once,

    and this confusion? (How serious the faces have become.)

    Why is it that the streets and squares are emptying so quickly,

    and everyone’s returning home in such deep contemplation?
       Because night has fallen and the barbarians haven’t come.

       And some people have arrived from the borderlands,

       and said there are no barbarians anymore,
And now what’s to become of us without barbarians.

Those people were a solution of a sort.
 

In Canberra, they are circling…


(P V Cavafy, trans Daniel Mendelsohn)

 

Striped Socks

In late 1969 the new doctor emerges half-baked from his progressive medical school. After graduation he spends three years in residence in major hospitals. He emerges from that great womb and enters family practice, feeling underdone still. But he blazes into his new work in a rural general with a few guiding verities. He will not create distance from his patients. He will not wear a white coat. He will wear bright socks, a signal to the young that he too is – was – is young. He will not hold himself aloof. He will not frighten children.

 

 

He starts his work and his feet are rainbows. When he treats children he sits next to them on the floor. Instinct rather than ideology guides the new doctor: he needs to be close; he wants to do away with barriers.

 

 

On his very first day, the ninth of April, 1972, the new doctor delivers a baby, a little girl. He becomes a long-term friend of the new mother. Every April ninth he remembers and often contacts the ‘baby’ – long after she grows, graduates, becomes a musicologist, a linguist, a creator of Aboriginal dictionaries.

 

 

He keeps changing his colourful socks but he does not change his ways. So long as his patients are, for the most part, young, the thin membrane that separates doctor from patient suffices for safety; the blurring of the professional and the human nurtures both the doctor and the doctored.

 

 

A young mother passes terrifying nights seated by her firstborn, watching him, willing his breathing as he gasps his inbreaths and wheezes his outbreaths. She brings the child to the new doctor. His concern comforts her. In time the boy’s asthma improves. The doctor meets and treats all three of that young woman’s children. He is drawn to the three, the thin boys gangling, the coal-eyed little girl, a faun. The children do not fear him. These too he befriends.

 

 

A few years pass and the young parents bring Grandfather to the doctor. The young family have taken the old man and Grandmother in to their home, thoroughly alarmed by the pneumonia he narrowly survived during the previous winter. Sixty years previously that man survived gassing in the trenches. His lungs are ruined, he might not get through another winter. Would the young doctor resume his care? He does, and further friendships grow.

 

 

Grandfather survives a dozen more winters in cheerful semi-invalidism, dying eventually in his late eighties. Grandmother, born in December 1899, lives to see three centuries and two millennia, living beyond all arithmetic probability, dying eventually, aged 104.

 

 

 

The father of the asthmatic boy likes to run. He’s a graduate in Architecture, a landscape artist who turns to teaching maths. He teaches at a school fifteen kilometres distant. Sometimes he runs those fifteen kms, up and down hills, across a couple of creeks to the school in the valley. The teacher shows his doctor friend the secrets and joys of running sandy country tracks. Up hills they run, sharing vistas of white, off-white, pale grey, deep grey, their breath white in the frosty mornings. Summer sees the two up and running before the heat strikes. Sweat-born raptures bind them in close friendship. The doctor showers and dresses for work in the en-suite bathroom of the aged matriarch. He tiptoes past the old lady lying asleep in her bedroom, greeting her after she has awakened. 

 

 

 

Years pass. Decades pass. All are older now. The Medical Board sends letter after letter to doctors, warning them to keep proper distance from patients. The Medical Board has never had the pleasure of being a country doctor. The doctor wears his garish socks still, unconsciously. He knows by now the byways of health, the pathways along which he and patients alike, stumble; ways that lead slowly or rapidly towards the universal destination. He knows his own vulnerability to the pain of others, the sorrows that seep through a thin membrane; and the power of hope to seep osmotically back. He knows too the cases where hopes of cure are cruel illusion. He seeks in these cases to be a guide, to keep company with his patient his friend. That a friend not pass, lost or alone, into finality.  

 

 

 

The running friend becomes unexpectedly breathless. Time passes and he cannot catch his breath. Tests show a shadow on a lung. Other tests reveal a tumour in the bowel. The years of torment begin. Surgery, chemotherapy, surgery again, scans and biopsies that show a third disorder, a serious chronic lung inflammation, nemesis now of three male generations. The teacher painter architect runner friend – what word can encapsulate a human person? – must take strong steroid medicines to stay alive, to breathe.

 

 

 

The breathing man works on a new painting. He paints a square-rigged ship negotiating a strait. He paints the ship then repaints it. His work reaches no finality. He shows the work to his doctor friend, who comes – as he used to in the running days – for breakfast. That’s a sound in New Zealand, a fiord really. It’s called ‘Doubtful Sound.’ Captain Cook came to the entrance, felt uncertain whether he’d get ‘The Endeavour’ out if he were to enter. He felt doubtful and he named the place for his doubt.

 

 

 

The painting shows a tall ship heeling before a strong wind. Its bow points bravely into the wind. The wind bears it towards the reef that guards the mouth of the sound. The rocks are a maw, open, baleful. The sails are close rigged. This is a ship under strain. Relieving that strain is a smaller boat whose heaving oarsmen pull the larger one towards safety. The doctor looks at the picture doubtfully. He was raised on boats. He’s negotiated dangerous narrows, but he had a motor to see him through.

 

 

 

That small boat, that’s a whaler. I used to row boats like that as a boy, on the Thames. In earlier times the master of a square rigger would launch the whaler to sound depths, but also, to help the mother vessel in places where the going was tight. When he felt doubt that he’d make it through.

 

 

 

The cortisone voice crackles, phrases punctuated by breathing pauses. The creator looks at his unfinishing work. Artful brushstrokes of blue, of greys, of white, create waves, wake, bow-wave. The ship holds its own. In all the stresses and forces it has not reached finality.

But What is the Middle?

While watching Seven’s Summer of Ads on TV it was easy, from time to time, to let the tennis distract you from the advertisements. One important headline announced: Bunnings Warehouse: Lowest Prices are just the Beginning. Over this summer and many before it, I heard these words so often I managed to commit them to memory.

 

 

In the Bunnings ads one ordinary, unglamorous Australian after another advises the viewer about this lawn trimmer, that bathroom spotlight, this house paint, all at bargain prices. After delivering this helpful information my aproned fellow Australian assures the nation Lowest Prices are just the Beginning.

 

 

I enjoy these ads. They suggest ordinary people (with the exception of the writer) can do it themselves. An empowering message, edifying. But, after decades of just the beginning an uneasy feeling has grown. I want to know: What is the middle? Why haven’t Bunnings told us? Surely they must know. Unless… unless  there isn’t a middle; unless (terrifying thought) Bunnings knows but isn’t saying. What if there is no middle? Can it be that Lowest Prices are just the Beginning and the End is Nigh?