Howard is a doctor, marathon runner and author. He has written two non-fiction books, My Father’s Compass (2007) and Raft (2009). Carrots and Jaffas (2014) is his first novel. His latest novel is A Threefold Cord (Hybrid, 2107)
Running wearily past the kosher bakery, past the coffee shops, past the kosher providores, past the nearly-kosher food shops, I light upon a face I think I know. The face sits atop a tall figure who wears a black frock-coat, dark side whiskers and a once-black beard. I slow and the man hails me. He thinks he knows me. He speaks: can you come inside and make a minyan?
The man is not alone. Next to him stands another tall man, bearded, not young. Both men wear broad-brimmed black hats. The two wear beseeching looks. They edge closer. With the men standing thus closer than I’d wish, I realise I don’t know either of them. But they have guessed right: I am indeed Jewish and I understand their request. They are one worshipper short of a quorum.
I reply, I’m sorry, I’ve already davvened (recited my prayers) this morning.
Please, we have a mourner who needs a minyan for kaddish.
I know what this means, I’ve shared the plight of this nameless someone, recently bereaved, who wishes to honour his dead. I tell the men, I haven’t prayed in shule for a long time. My wife is immunocompromised and I mustn’t bring home a germ.
Long beseeching looks from two quarters. I relent: Alright, as long as there’s space for me to stand at a distance, in the rear.
I follow the men into a side street. They lead me to a door in a nondescript building that I would not have noticed, and I follow the men inside. Through a second doorway, along a passage then up some stairs to a third doorway. The door opens to a wide space beneath a low ceiling. I look around; there’s space here for fifty minyanim, but the worshippers are few. I make my way to the back of this room which I recognise as a synagogue by the Holy Ark located at the distant front. I peer and sight a second Ark. Odd, a puzzle.
I expect my stay to be brief. Kaddish is one of the earliest prayers; I’ll stay, I’ll listen for the Mourner’s Prayer, I’ll join in the responses then sneak out. I’ll still make it home in time for the meal with my wife.
But Kaddish is not soon recited. This group follows a different order of prayer, in which the mourner’s prayer is recited late, not early. What’s more, these guys pray devoutly, with slow deliberation. I settle in for the long haul.
Discreetly I reach for my phone and send my wife a message: Sorry darling, detained in circumstances of unforseen sanctity.
I wait and wait, my mind adrift. From the distance, a man approaches. I don’t know him. He asks, What is your wife’s name in Hebrew?
I understand his purpose. He wishes to offer a public prayer for Annette’s recovery. Touched, I provide the information. The man now sets before me a tin with a slot in the top into which the charitable congregant might insert a coin. To donate to charity is a mitzvah, a sacred act. The man places a coin next to the tin, to enable this mitzvah. Once again touched, I provide my own coin. And settle down, happy to wait in this warmbed of piety.
At length we come to the closing psalms. All rise. A voice is heard; Yitgadal ve’yitkadash shmei rabah, magnified and sanctified be the holy Name. The prayer ends and I make for the door. A man, younger than all the rest, strides towards me, a wide smile breaking open his unshaved face. He says, You can’t possibly appreciate the great mitzvah you have done for me today.
What has this story to do with a cantor, or his dog, or for that matter, his wife? Simply this: running home a fortnight later, on precisely the same route, I paused for red lights at a traffic intersection. A musical voice cried: DoffanPaz! One person only calls me by that name, the young cantor, contemporary of my son. A small dog on a lead looked up at me from beside the cantor’s ankles. Holding the upper end of the lead was a youngish woman who smiled at me. The cantor introduced me to wife and dog.
For want of any better idea, I recounted the story above. The cantor’s wife smiled again. She said, You should write that story and print it on your blog. I like your stories.
Such a compliment comes to me but rarely. I promised I’d write the story. And there you have it.
My medical defence insurer wants to protect me from myself. The insurer invites me to attend a webinar titled, Keeping Professional Boundaries. I entered medical practice as I entered life: I wanted to break down the barriers that kept people apart. “Only connect” was the motto of the great E M Forster. It was my motto too.
In recent years, AHPRA has been writing to me, warning me to maintain necessary distance from patients. I should avoid initiating any physical touch of a patient, other than when clinically necessary. I must not treat friends, I must not treat family members, I should not meet a patient for coffee or a drink or a date, nor for a dalliance nor for a sexual relationship. Realising that the world has changed I register for the webinar.
The webinar began with a playacted scenario of a young male doctor’s consultation with a youngish woman. The doctor is a good-looking male, personable and competent. His patient is an attractive young woman, perhaps slightly older than the doctor. At the conclusion of their consultation the patient asks, “Do you have any more victims today?”
The doctor hesitates and the patient clarifies: “Am I your last patient today?”
“Yes, as it happens.”
“Would you like to go somewhere and have a coffee together?”
At this point the youtube stops and the watcher is presented with three possible responses the doctor might make. One only is deemed correct.
1. The doctor assents. It’s innocent enough. Sharing a single cup of coffee is not improper.
2. The doctor informs the patient politely that he cannot accept. Further, he states the professional relationship has broken down and he must not see her again as her doctor, but must arrange for her future medical care with another doctor.
3. The doctor informs the patient politely that he cannot accept. He states, ‘We have professional guidelines which we must follow.’
To me the answer seemed simple. But the scenario made me think over the past 52 years of being alone with people of all genders and trusted by them. Form more than half a century I’ve tried to remove barriers. None of my patients, however, invited me for coffee, so I had no practical experience of the scenario.
I recalled an event that occurred perhaps a dozen years ago. I received a phone call from a previous patient whom I first met when she was one week old. She remained my patient through childhood to adulthood. I treated her father for his rare disease, which eventually killed him.
The young woman studied Medicine and when she graduated, she invited me to attend her graduation ceremony, I supposed, in loco parentis. She became engaged and she invited my wife and me to attend her wedding. She trained as a GP and started practice in the country. I didn’t see her for some years. Now she rang me, asking if she could consult me professionally. She was unsure how to approach a possible problem affecting her little boy.
I offered her the first appointment of the next convenient day. The young woman accepted. Then I said, ‘If you can come half an hour earlier, we can meet for a cuppa beforehand.’ My patient accepted enthusiastically. At the café, delighted to see each other again, we embraced, sat down, drank coffee, talked about our work and our widowed mothers then crossed the road for our consultation.
The same day I opened a letter from AHPRA which arrived in the mail. The letter warned against socialising with patients, specifying the dangers and the power imbalance that prevailed even in meeting for coffee. The same letter emphasised the need to avoid non-clinical touch. I thought about the hug with which my patient and I had greeted each other that morning.
This brought to mind another occasion in which I had transgressed. A religiously devout young woman whom I treated through childhood and adolescence moved interstate to train for the ministry. Her parents had been my patients before her. Her father was the first patient I referred for total knee joint replacement. The operation was a success but he developed an infection and died a week later, of septicaemia. His daughter was then a teenager.
The young woman studied theology, married and served a flock in a distant city and I did not see her for quite some years. She returned once to Melbourne to seek my help with infertility. She was married happily to her first boyfriend, himself a minister in the same community. I asked some questions then placed some calls and referred her to my favourite genius. Years after that she turned up again at my country practice on the outskirts of Melbourne. I was delighted to see her. We sat down and I asked her about her life. The couple had been blessed with two small children.
The conversation turned to her health. She said, “I found a lump in my breast.” I examined her and felt the lump readily. It was hard, a bad sign; it was not mobile, another bad sign; the overlying skin was puckered, a further sinister sign.
After she had dressed, we talked. I answered her questions: Yes, it was worrying. Yes, it was probably cancer. We talked about treatment, about biopsy and tests, about choice of specialists. She asked me about the prognosis. I answered as well as I could. I asked her about the age of her children.
I placed some phone calls and wrote a referral letter. We spent well over an hour together, the visit spilling falling at the end of my morning’s work.
I felt shattered.
The young woman stood to leave. I took her in my arms and held her a moment then released her. But she held me for some time, her head resting against my shoulder, her body heaving with sobs. At length she wiped her eyes and said, “That’s what I crossed the country for.”
Looking back at that encounter I realise that this was the first time I had initiated such conduct. I had acted on an impulse, in response to which my patient had told me how much it meant to her.
I have socialised with patients, I have drunk coffee with them (and in one case, eaten pancakes with an ex-patient’s at her invitation). I have treated close friends and, apprehensively, I continue to do so. I have walked the primrose path toward the eternal bonfire.
In recent decades lawyers, teachers, nurses, ministers of religion, therapists and doctors have all been guilty of extremely harmful acts. In response to those wrongs all professionals have been warned to protect those who are vulnerable. Power resides with the professional. Power corrupts some. As a result, society is wary of abuse. And all of us in professions have been trained to mistrust ourselves.
I think about my Dad in his years practising as a GP in a country town. His patients were his friends. His friends were his patients. After we moved from the country to the city some of those friends drove hundreds of miles to consult him. I think of the many doctors living and working today in small communities. The AHPRA rules (or ”guidelines”) would, if followed, socially strangle a doctor and in preventing great harms to patients, do much harm to practice.
My insuror’s webinar gave clear and absolute guidance to members. We would be obliged to decline the coffee, and we must bring an end to the relationship forthwith.
I am guilty of great error: I still trust myself.
I no longer belong in a role which has long been my home.
I’ve known Goldenbergs for over one hundred years.
The couple from Palestine, they were the first. He was Joe and she Millie. He called her Mil.
Joe was restless, a striver, full of energy and ideas. He was a shouter. Millie would say timidly, I’m not deaf Joe. Later in her life Millie became deaf. Perhaps that was her defense.
They must have been young when they married. Their first son was born in 1910, when Millie was just 21 and Joe slightly younger.
Was that firstborn conceived on me? I don’t recall. They had me built to order, me, together with a companion dressing table, two bedside tables and a swing mirror. There was a tall wardrobe too. All of us pieces were french-polished and elegant. We were expensive, craftsman built, well beyond the means of young immigrant battlers. In the dim bedroom of that dark house, we would have shone. Our lustre, our sheen would have declared to the world, these Goldenbergs, they’ve arrived.
How could Joe possibly afford us? The only way I can imagine would be a big win at the trots. Joe had trotters, I recall. I heard Joe confide to his first son, Myer, something that made me think. It was only a snatch of conversation, mind. I could be wrong. Joe told his son how he instructed the trainer on the eve of a race in which his trotter was the favourite, ‘not to wear the horse out’. Perhaps Joe planned for his own trotter to lose – against the odds. Perhaps he bet against his own horse and won big. Who knows?
In any event, I arrived at that big house at Number 6 Goathlands Street, I and the entire suite. I do recall Joe testing me for structural strength. In case his weight might not have been a severe enough test, Joe lay down together with Millie. That was early summer, I remember. In August the second baby, Abraham, arrived. Everyone loved Abe. Of the three Goldenberg sons, I knew Abe best because he never really left home. I mean long after he grew up and married Clara, he came back to that house, every day, to see his parents. I suspect he came back to bring some comfort to his mother, some softness. Joe was out in the world, Millie at home. Joe would come back home, full of the tensions of the day, he’d shout at Millie. Sometimes I’d hear her cry.
But they weren’t always like that. They had their better times, particularly on a Friday night. Those happier times bore fruit. The third son, Phil, was the last fruit of Millie and Joe. I know: I was there at his conception.
As Millie and Joe aged and as the boys grew up and left home, the big house at Number Six became quieter. The big bedroom where I’d reigned took on the air of a secret place, not frequented at daytime. Grandchildren arrived and explored and penetrated the gloom. Chirping as they approached, they’d enter and fall silent and sneak away. Perhaps Joe had roared at them. I don’t know, I couldn’t say. I do remember Myer’s second son entering one day. He opened the door, peered around and tiptoed into the room. Shafts of sunlight penetrated the gloom, heightening somehow the darkness of the wood, the sense of dusk at noon. He stopped, that skinny little kid, struck by the atmosphere. Was it the unnatural dark that frightened him? Or was it fear of his grandfather? I don’t know. Within seconds he was gone and we of the bedroom suite were alone with our secrets.
Years passed, decades. The three sons married and moved out. Late one night the telephone rang. The telephone was a daylight instrument in those days. A call at night was alarming. Joe answered: Hello! Hello! No! No… I’ll tell Millie.
I don’t know what Joe told his wife. I heard her wailing, saying repeatedly, I wanted to go before her, I should have gone first…
The big house watched Millie and Joe pass into old age. Joe smoked his daily sixty cigarettes and bloomed, while Millie withered from the inside. I thought at the time she was too timid to thrive. Perhaps she was too intimidated to live. Doctors said later that Millie died because her APC tablets destroyed her kidneys. But that amounts to the same thing; Millie needed all those painkillers for the headaches that life caused.
One day the empty old house filled with people. Some arrived early in the morning, big men, hairy, some with black beards, some grey, some white. Lots of sidelocks, big black hats. Joe and the boys – Myer and Abe and Phil – sat on low chairs every morning for about a week. I heard the beards chanting in a language that wasn’t English. Millie was not there. In the afternoon and in the evening the house filled to overflowing, the beards, women in another room, men whom the boys went to school with, even to kindergarten, faces from the early days, the days when Joe and Millie and her large family all lived in North Carlton. Days of richness without money, Abe said.
So many people, I heard crying, laughing, every day for a week. Then they all went home. The house was empty. Joe never slept on me again. He moved to the single bedroom, down the hall. I’d hear him crying in the night.
Then Myer’s second son started coming, Thursdays I think it was. He’d arrive after school and he’d stay the night. They’d sit in front of the TV, the old man and the boy, just the two of them. They watched until the close of transmission, around 10.30. The boy would go upstairs then ‘to study’ he said. And Joe would shuffle around, delaying his own bedtime.
It was good to feel life stirring, hear voices echoing in those dark rooms. I heard him tell the boy how he left school in the third grade to help support the family. We were poor in the old country. When there wasn’t enough food, my father’s new wife would feed her children first. The rest of us would go hungry. I went to work in the Turkish Post Office. The postmaster trusted me. One night I came home with the key to the Post Office. I wore only shorts. The key was big and heavy, made of bronze. I tucked it into my shorts but you could still see it. My father saw it and felt terrified. If anything went missing at the Post Office I’d be blamed and Father would pay. He sent me back with the key. He never let me go back. That’s when I started my own business. I became a watermelon seller. I sold melons to fishermen. I’d swim out into the sea, floating melons before me. Other boys did the same, but I made sure I swam out furthest. I’d be the first melon boy the fishermen would see as they sailed back to Jaffa at the end of the day. I knew they’d be thirsty and they’d pay.
Joe would lament to the boy about Millie. He’d recall old times, their younger days together, Millie’s beauty and allure. She had full, firm breasts…This left the boy lost for a response. I imagine he blushed.
Joe was liberal with his criticisms. He’d tell the boy, It’s a good thing your father is a doctor. He’d be useless at anything else…Then, He’s your father, I shouldn’t criticise him…but he’s my son so I have the right! He’s got no head for business…
There came a morning without words, without any sound or movement. Later there was the sound of a key in the lock. I heard Abe’s voice, Father! Father! There was no answer. I heard fast movements, doors opening, slamming, then Abe’s voice, Father! Father! Speak to me! Joe’s voice never replied. Not long after Myer’s voice spoke: He’s had a stroke, Abe. I’ll call an ambulance.
Silence followed. Nothing was heard for six weeks, then the house filled. I heard voices in all accents, old people, young, children. Crying, praying, chanting, laughing, people talking over each other, people from many places, from many times. People came and came. The front door never closed from early morning to after dark. Then after seven days silence fell.
I left the old house in a van. Together with the stately swing mirror, the bedside tables, the big, big wardrobe and the dressing table, I was taken to the small flat where Myer’s second son lived with his new wife. I was sixty years in the house of Millie and Joe Goldenberg.
Now begins my the next family era. There’s a new Goldenberg couple. I’ll spend the next half century under Annette and Howard. I’ll tell you some of their secrets presently…
Warning to the squeamish reader: Skip the unseemly second paragraph of this story)
The first sign appeared twenty years ago, early one Sunday morning. A man in his fifties, an active fun-runner, set out before first light to drive from his domicile in the capital to the regional city of Ballarat. The annual Courier Classic, a tough 14-kilometer run in late summer was calling once again. The drive to Ballarat called to mind his ancestors, Nanny and Papa, who met and married there, one hundred years earlier. He smiled as her drove, for Nature was smiling on him. The highway wound between pleasing hills, plunged down through gullies and valleys where mists slowed his car, and for a time he moved as in a dream. Then the sky pinked at his left side, the sun announced itselfand the road straightened and levelled out.
The runner relaxed. He felt a pain, a sharp tightening in his lower abdomen. This was followed quickly by an urgent spasm in his rectum. He pulled over, climbed a fence, hurried to a shrub and relieved himself of his pain. He looked down and about him and found himself solitary. He listened: no sound. Of blowflies, the customary attendants at such ceremonies in his past, he saw and heard none. His ablutions completed, the runner returned to the car in a deep perplex. Where were the scavengers? Perhaps the long drought…
Years later, Moth Season came but the moths failed. Every spring, ever since the family moved in, a plague of kitchen moths would arrive and set up camp in the kitchen. Here they’d feed and breed. For six to eight weeks the moths would occupy the pantry and scavenge on farinaceous remnants. Their visitation provided a diversion. Unless one were an omnivore, one had to separate particles of moth from particles of Muesli. The hunt demanded close attention, a kitchen moth and a muesli particle being of similar hue. A helpful giveaway was the occasional fluttering of a wing in the cereal.
Moth Season would see our runner become a climber. The breeding moths liked to do it hanging from the ceiling. Each morning the runner descended to the kitchen, looked about him and above, climbed the kitchen benches and reached for the maggots cocooned above. Maggots are not everyone’s cup of tea, aesthetically speaking. Of course your Moths Senior probably look upon their unborn young with undiluted pride. The tastes of creatures differ. In Nature there seems to be space both for the polluting species (to which our runner-climber belongs) and the scavenger species. That’s the plan, but for seven years Moth Season has come but the moths have not.
Last week a juvenile rat lay down and died beneath the runner’s clothesline. Looking innocent, he lies where he fell, odourless and unattended by truant blowflies. The posture of the deceased, resembles that of the foetal human. The runner hangs out the washing, the sun shines, the wind blows, Nature is busy. Later the runner returns and notes his rodent guest still at rest. The rat waits upon the crows, but the crows fail.
I have a letter to send to my sister and her husband in New York City. It’s a large envelope crammed with pages I’ve selected from the papers. It’s stuff they’d have heard about, stuff they might like to read about in greater detail. I slipped in a note: Here’s the News and the Olds. (News refers to the Aussies thrashing England in the Ashes, Olds will tell them Bob Hawke is dead.) I ask the Postal Lady for stamps to New York by airmail. Postal Lady weighs my envelope: 64 grams, say the scales. Thirteen dollars sixty cents says Postal Lady. It will be delivered in twenty to twenty-five days.I wonder whether the postie walks to New York. That’s airmail? Yes. Everything is held up. Thirteen bucks? Wow! It is a lot, says Postal lady. Hold on, I’ll check. Postal lady gives her computer further instructions.Thirteen dollars, sixty, replies that avaricious device. Is it a problem of weight, or the size of the envelope? Weight, says Postal Lady, adding, If you can make it ten grams lighter it will come down to six dollars. Righto, I’ll get rid of something over at the counter, then I’ll come back to you. Over at the counter I remove two pages of Harvey Norman and Frydenberg’s Big Plans for the Budget.Three dollars something, says Postal Lady. I pay, rejoicing as one does who has just found a bargain at Harvey Norman. Do you mind if I ask you something? Are you Doctor Howard Goldenberg? I am. I thought so. You were my doctor when I was a baby in Diamond Creek fifty years ago. Really? Lucky me! I must say it’s hard to recognise you in the mask. Postal Lady removes her mask. I’ve changed since I was a baby. My mum says you told her I was the most beautiful baby you’d ever seen. I suppose you said that to all the mothers. (I suspect I did say just that.) I’d like to see a photo of yourself as a baby some time. I’ve got one here.Postal Lady starts interrogating photo archives in her phone. The queue of customers in the Post Office grows longer. It’s in here somewhere, Doctor. Further search. Matthew, Postal Lady’s colleague, gives her a Look. Postal Lady, engrossed, doesn’t notice. Found it! Here, look Doctor. Doctor looks at the photo in black and white of a newborn baby. She is in fact the most beautiful baby I’ve ever seen.I say those words once again. Postal Lady says, You’d remember my mother better than me. I’ve got a photo somewhere here…I’m sorry I’m detaining you…I look around. The post office is filling with customers. Matthew looks over towards the second half of the PO’s workforce, but lingering as his look is, and withering withal, Postal Lady is oblivious in her quest for a snap of Mum. I decide there’s a problem in this office and I am that problem, and I can solve it by removing myself. Look, here’s my phone number. Send the photo to me, later, to my phone. I leave by the side door that gives onto one of Melbourne’s famed little lanes. The lane buzzes as throngs drink and dawdle in the bright sun. I wind my way quickly into a second lane. A voice behind hails me: Doctor! Doctor Howard! I turn. It’s Postal Lady. Look, this is Mum, here. She points at the pleasant, forgettable face in black and white of a young mother. I try to recognise her, but memory fails before visions of civil unrest in the Post Office.
He’s a tall man, slim. He wears clothing of dark gray. When he gives his surname, I nominatecorrectly his country of origin in Northern Europe. It’s only after we’ve parted that it occurs to me his name translates to Big Son. He might well descendfrom a line of big sons.
Even though he’s past retirement age, I ask him what he does for a living. Out here the farmers and the miners never quite give it up. I’m a miner, he says – a shrug, a wry smile. The lure of the big find is too strong for some to stop.
– Where do you live?
– Out along the Seven Mile. I’ll take you and show you if you like. You can see the diggings.
– OK, I have your address. I’ll drive out.
– You can’t. You’ll get lost.
This rings true. The town is peopled by those who don’t wish to be found, persons escaping the Lawor vendetta or drug dealers or the tax man or the former spouse, or a life of persecution in the old country. Nobody really knows the population. The town boasts fifty-four ethnic groups. As you drive into town a sign welcomes the visitor. A little further on a sign reads: “POPULATION ?”
The 2016 census lists 2016 persons, a neat match, probably too neat. No one really knows. It’s though a further 3000-odd are hidden away in the hills, where they live in disused trams or railway carriages, huts and caves. In the past, the local Police designated a discrete patch of earth behind the shopping strip where scamps and scally wags were allowed to park when they came into town for supplies. Certain back roads were allotted to these folk. The Police would ask no questions so long as the miners did not bring themselves to their attention.
Big Son instructs me to meet him outside the front of the clinic after I finish work: you can follow me out along the Seven Mile. At 5.00 precisely I step out into bright sunshine where Big Son looks at my white hire car and says, Get into my vehicle. Yours is too pretty to take out bush. I jump in to a large, hard-working 4-wheel drive and we drive out of town.
The further we drive the thicker the marks of the digger. Low structures of tin and timber alternate with mullock heaps of pale stone and earth and random bit of rusted machinery. We’ve left the bitumen behind us, dirt tracks branch off and wind off in all directions into thin scrub. I’ve lost my bearings. My companion keeps up a commentary: that claim there belongs to a friend…over here you can see cabins…the people over on the right run a really good tourist operation.
Before I came to this country I moved to Roma – I had a girlfriend there, the usual story, you know – in Roma I set up a photographic studio.
Photography was my trade.
The narrating voice has taken on a note of pride.
I didn’t speak the language, but I taught myself by watching videos in Italian. I succeeded as a linguist but I struggled in my photography business. No network.
I visited Australia – curiosity, you know? Back in Roma I applied for a visa to settle in Australia. It was for adventure. I came out here and started to dig. I married once, had a couple of daughters. The marriage ended. Married again, my wife is an artist, an art teacher. We fostered a little child. He was murdered. My wife went mad. I sold up, sold all this – by now we’re at his claim and we’ve pulled up – I had to sell and take her to the city for treatment…
The young bloke who lived over the hill there, a loner, a misfit, killed the little one. He lived there, a recluse, a neighbour. No one knew anything about him until he committed murder. Of a child.
My wife got better and we came back. I got a new claim just by my old one. This is it. ‘This’ is a patch of elevated stony ground with holes in it. Disparate bits of metalwork rise above the surface and disappear below. I peer down a hole walled by a cylinder of galvanised iron. The hole is a mine, about one and a half metres in diameter. My host says, it goes down eighteen metres. I consider the dark and the deep. Obviously you don’t suffer claustrophobia…
I do, to a degree. I think anyone with imagination must.
Bright blue steel steps disappear into the depth of another circular hole. Big Son says, a friend invented that spiral staircase. The friend sells them to diggers and small miners across the country. This machine here he points to a steel contraption – I built. I invented it and patented it. I’ve sold a few of them, but most diggers can’t afford $18,000…
The machine that my host devised is a complicated structure of thick steel, encasing steel cables, an electric motor and meters with dials and numbers. It stands, grey, substantial and sophisticated on the primal earth. There’s not a speck of rust. It’s a machine for digging a mine. I gaze at the device in awe. Inventor and invention alike stand solid and impressive, gunmetal grey, erect in the unforgiving sun.
Who trained you in engineering?
No one. I always liked machines, devices, gadgets. I pulled things apart, curious you know?
What does a digger do who can’t afford a mechanical digger? Pick and shovel?
Yes. If they can’t scavenge bits of old machinery. Maybe fix it up, get it working.
I consider pick and shovel work in the digital age. Out here summer temperatures reach fifty in the shade and stay there for days. But I do know why a digger might stick at it. On the way out of town Big Son pointed out a jewellery showroom: Very honest people there, prices very reasonable. They’ve got a gem there that I dug up, very valuable. They paid ten thousand for it. They’ll sell it for forty thousand, but they might have to hold it for years.
Another person, obese, not old, walking on a stick, hobbled and rolled picturesquely into the clinic this morning. Both her florid gait and her words told a story that stretched the truth in support of her quest for a medical certificate for welfare benefits.
We moved onto other subjects.
What’s your work – when you’re able to do it?
I’m a miner, she said. I’ve got forty thousand worth of raw gems in this bag.
In this town that outlandish statement might just be simple truth.
Here, gemstone is currency that doesn’t leave records. Bankers, accountants, the taxman need not know.
My tall host looks around his claim. He says, There’s always theft. You can’t make your property safe from thieves.
I ask, Do people arm themselves?
Some do, they have guns… shootings aren’t rare out here.
This here is my blower – Big Son points to a large hollow, elevated structure of steel and rust, that rises above the claim, shaped like one of those concrete mixers you see on trucks at building sites. This towers above us. It does something with mullock that I don’t really understand, but it sounds like winnowing. My host tries to explain: You see that motor there? I found it in a derelict street sweeper. It’s a three-cylinder diesel. I adapted it. It’s noisy. The miner turns a switch. A battery turns the motor over, it fires then clamour, brutal and immediate, drowns conversation. The thick steel platform vibrates beneath our feet.
Come this way, into the house. Twenty metres from the claim, just down a small slope and hidden from sight at the claim, stands an elegant modern building of steel and timber. Yes, this too was designed and built by my host. It stands on leasehold land. The house lease is separate from the mine lease: You get a home lease for twenty-five years. You renew it every twenty-five years.
We pause at the threshold. Big son points: these stones everywhere, that’s gemstone waste, that’s potch. My host leans a long way down and picks up a pebble. Here take this, a little souvenir. I look at the little grey pebble. Its centre glows with blue and green fire.
Inside, all is dark. A woman of middle age materialises and speaks in a florid French accent.
We stand in the dark room until electric light reveals walls hung with artworks in oils that startle with their mute emotional power. The artist steps from the shadow and speaks with shy pride about the paintings.
– You see that brown shading? Do you know what I use for pigment?
I regard the glowing brown and shake my head.
– Coffee. Nescafe. I’ve tried other instant coffee. Nescafe gives that fire in the brown.
We come to a bathroom whose walls are a menagerie of megafauna: emu, koala, kangaroo, in their greys and browns move across bright panels of white and lime. My hostess explains: We sit on the toilet and instead of blank walls, we gaze at animals, bounding across the walls, alive.
We pass a small portrait, the only watercolour. The painter passes it by. Big Son pauses. We regard a bright portrait of a little boy with a face full of life andwild, straw-coloured hair. He radiates light. Big Son says quietly, this is our little one.
Once upon a time, an old man travelled by train from the goldfields to the great city. The old man took his seat and looked around. Seated at a remove in a row parallel to his sat a younger man with a bony face, his features stony and set hard. His limbs were a living art gallery of tattoos; unlike all others aboard the train he wore no mask and, when asked to show his rail pass to the conductor, he did not speak, did not move, but showed no ticket. The old man felt a sense of implicit menace, not only on account of the younger man’s scowl, but in his very silence, and somehow in his unseasonable short pants and t-shirt, as if he declared he was tougher than others, rugged up against the cold of the day.
Nobody challenged the Man of Silent Menace.
About twenty minutes into the journey the old man smelled smoke. It wafted his way from the parallel seats. He stood and looked for signs of fire. He found none. No-one else seemed perturbed. The old man hoisted his backpack and walked out of that carriage and into the next. He left behind him the smell of smoke and the Man of Menace, and we too leave them now, as they play no further part in our story. The old man walked out and into a different story.
In the next carriage the old man found an empty corner where he sat down and started to read. He heard a voice and, wondering, he looked up. He didn’t catch the words for he was an old man, but he thought he heard ‘looking stylish’.
He turned in the direction of the voice, which was feminine in register, and he found himself facing a young woman who had, indeed, addressed him. The young woman was slightly built, her hair was red and she had freckles dotting her face and arms. Her face was covered, as the man’s was, by a mask. An open laptop computer sat on her knees.
The old man, surprised, because few over his long lifetime had remarked favourably on his ‘style’, asked the woman: Did you speak to me? I’m afraid I didn’t hear clearly.
I said you look stylish.
Golly, thought the man.
Thank you, said the man.
Yes, the cool jacket, the beret. Especially the beret.
The man thanked her again, and asked, (because he was interested in such things), What are you writing?
A story, she replied. I hope it will become a novel. Would you like me to read you some?
The old man said yes, I would. Thank you.
The old man thought, What a fearless young person!
The young woman now picked up her computer, her pink tote bag, her backpack and a fluffy jacket and removed from her corner diagonally opposite the man’s, and sitting herself down opposite him, almost knee to knee, started to read.
The young woman read musically and expressively. Her story told of a father and his young daughter. The father, a magician, delighted his daughter with the magic he practised. He created a world where her mind dwelled in fantasy. The father commanded his daughter never, never to open the trunk which contained his magician’s materials. His tone was tender but firm. The man departed, leaving the trunk in the care of his daughter.
The daughter felt tempted. She too wished to work magic, for she knew that despite the doubts of many, magic was real, its actions were everywhere to be seen, if only one had eyes to see.
The temptation was stronger than the daughter’s resistance. In truth she did not try to resist; she wanted to do what her father did, she wanted to know what he knew.
The girl opened the trunk.
At this point the storyteller closed her laptop and looked up at the old man with a question in her gaze. For his part, the old man had fully entered the world of the story and was sorry that it had stopped. He felt surprised at himself for, being a prosaic old man, he held no belief or interest in the world of magic. He said, I like your story. I liked the atmosphere you created and I’m interested in your characters and in how their relationship will play out. If I had been reading this story I would want to read on. I’d want to learn what happened next. There will be consequences of the child’s action, and I imagine, of the father’s trust or his trial of the child.
The young woman smiled with pleasure.
The old man ventured: I’ve published a few books. Wow! Where can I find them?
You can check out my blog.
Your blog! Wow!
The old man asked if she was a student. She said I’m doing a degree in Creative Writing and Film, at uni. The man asked the author where she had boarded the train. She named an exquisite mountain village in the vicinity. She went on to describe the farmlet where she and her fearless brother were raised and still live. She spoke of the animals, all of which bore names, she spoke of her creative parents – musicians – who passed on the gifts of music to their children. She said, Dad mowed a maze into the acres and acres of grass behind the house. We grew up in enchantment and imagination. As she spoke she glowed with recall of a childhood of wonder.
The old man thought the woman’s lived idyll somehow echoed the idyll she created in her story. He asked, do you make music too? Oh yes, we all do, we play and sing. I’m in a band. We’re going to cut an album. I write my own songs. Would you like to hear one?
Yes. Choose a sad one.
In asking her to sing to an audience of only one, the man was testing the limits of the young person’s boldness. But she gave voice, sweetly, to the story of an intimate friendship which ebbed and flowed in pain and closeness and ended in estrangement. I hate you/ I love you – she sang. The old man found the song and the singing unexpectedly pleasant. He anticipated the usual tuneless jingle and the usual trite lyrics, but this was bright and sweet and heartfelt, without becoming mawkish. He said as much.
The young woman was greatly pleased. She confided in him about her current girlfriend, throwing in, as if to assure the old man or herself – but I’ve had a boyfriend before her. We were together for four years. I realised I’m not binary.
The old man asked, Would you like to hear a poem? It’s a poem about a weeping man, he said. Probably a sad man, like the person in your song. Yes, please, she replied.
The old man read to her Les Murray’s poem, An Absolutely Ordinary Rainbow. The young woman listened without moving, stunned by the music of the lines and the breadth of the poet’s understanding.
Wintry sunshine lit up the little freckles on the woman’s arm. The old man recalled with love his freckled sister as a little girl and the lines their mother used to quote: Glory be to God for dappled things…
The train pulled into the platform. The passengers disembarked. The old man said, Make sure you tell me when your book is published, then he turned left. Taking up her pink carry bag, flinging her pack onto her back and draping herself in her fluffy jacket, the young woman turned right.
In the half-light of dusk in the cavernous space of the railhead the old man set out for the long escalator which rose up and up and brought him to an elevated level. He exited the building, looked about him, realised he was lost and returned to the roofed space. Here he took a downbound escalator (this is really a ‘descalator’, he thought to himself) and rode to the platform level. Still lost, he looked about him, wondering.
Before him stood a young woman. The woman was slightly built with fine freckles and reddish hair. The two exchanged surprised smiles.
The old man thought, this is twice upon a time. The man asked, Which way is Spencer Street?
That way, she said, extending an arm.
Thanking her, he turned to go.
Behind him a voice asked: Would you hug?
Would I hug, he wondered.
She opened her arms wide. The man felt diffident, unusually awkward. Uncertain of today’s etiquette, too-conscious of how others might see him, he held her by her bony shoulder blades while she held him firmly for a time.
Tonight I went to yoga as I have done just about every week since the start of the pandemic. When I say I went to yoga, on some of the occasions this was literally true: I’d run to the studio and I’d jog back – four kilometres or so each way. Frequently, however, when the germ shut the studio, I joined the class by zoom. ‘I went’ consisted simply, of turning the lights down and moving to the Persian rug on the floor. The rug feels a bit rugged (is that the origin of the term?) but it’s tolerable. I don’t imagine the Yogis of old purchased their mats from Lulu Lemon. They probably lay themselves down on bare boards or on a rug of knotted yarn like mine.
I lay down tonight and tuned into zoom on my phone. (No, I don’t have an i-pad. I don’t suppose the ancient Yogis did either.) I felt a frisson of pleasure at the the hopeful thought that tonight’s class, conducted on the eve of freedom, would be the last of enforced separation
I paid attention to the teacher. She instructed me to attend to the breath. I breathed and I attended. I like this teacher. I feel I know her well. She teaches yoga in a variety of modes, but she and I both know Yin suits me best, with its long, slow poses, its gradual transitions. She speaks: ‘Some of you will have rushed from your day’s work to this class. You might be unready immediately for stillness, so we’ll move into stillness, we’ll arrive at the unmoving state by movement, by active movement that will slow; and as we slow we’ll have the opportunity to attend to the slowing breath.
The teacher models the pose and the class follows. I gaze at my little screen. I remove my reading glasses for a clearer view. The teacher has fair curling hair with curls at the end of curls. Her skin glows peaches against her black sweater. I enjoy the sight of her.
I adopt the pose and close my eyes. My eyes remain closed through most of the following 50 minutes or so, even as, every few minutes, I move into the next pose as instructed.
Lying thus, with the senses turned inward, only the sense of hearing, of vibration, operates within my awareness. I become aware of a rhythmic percussion, a soft, recurring ‘boom’. If it’s a sound, it’s a sound too soft to actually hear. I feel this sound: boom, boom, boom, coming to me through the floorboards, eighty booms to the minute by my rough-reckoning.
The sound, the experience bears a sense of the long-known, the familiar. Eventually my ears that have worn a stethoscope for almost sixty years, recognise the soft boom, boom, boom:It’s heartbeat that I hear. This is a puzzle that solves itself when I open my mind’s eye. The sight that I ‘see’ is of my teacher, herself reclining on a mat, on a floor. Next to her is her mic through which she gives instruction. The mic picks up vibration through her floorboards and transmits the sound of the beating of her heart. I know it’s not the sound of the beating of my own heart; mine beats at forty beats per minute. I smile a smile of remembering. I remember that heartbeat. I used to listen to the beating of my daughter’s heart through the wall of her mother’s belly. I heard her heart before her mother did. Her heart beat in the womb at 120-160 beats per minute, twice the rate (in those days), of my own. It was the first way I knew her. It cued my love of her. Yes, my yoga teacher is my daughter, she of the peachy face, she of the yellow curls. I’m allowed to enjoy looking at her.
Tonight, on the eve of freedom, I hear my child’s heart, the working of her living body agitating the molecules inside the semicircular canals of my inner ear. Her living body moves my senses and once again cues love.
Deploring has long been a favourite sport of mine.
Bankers, paedophiles, turners of blind eyes have all earned my opprobrium. I’ve deplored racists and people who speak or act violently, and in common with many others, I’ve greatly enjoyed deploring politicians. I’ve deplored climate change deniers and I’ve deplored people who criminalise asylum seekers. A good deplore always left me feeling righteous. As my wife points out I’m particularly good at seeing myself as righteous.
In recent times deploring has lost some of its gloss. It’s become like tenesmus, which is the medical term for the condition of dissatisfied defaecation. The instinct is blameless, the urge is strong, but the act feels somehow incomplete.
Hillary deplored deplorables to her cost. It turns out the deplorable are not few and they live next door or across the street, or among your friends.
Covid has seen an outbreak of deplorables and of deploration, both in epidemic proportion. Anti-vaxxers, rioters who confront police, those who piss on the Shrine and expose the many to the risk of contagion; attenders (not attendees – no-one forced them to attend) at an illicit engagement party, worshippers at a proscribed religious service likewise incur my white-hot rage.
But my rage no longer satisfies. Why? Firstly, I have to distinguish between the act which I deplore and the actor. Further, I need to recognise that the deplorables are people, and what’s more they are people in the plural. They are my fellow citizens, these hundred who congregate to pray, thesethousands who block streets and provoke police officers. I can’t help wondering who these people are and reflecting on the honest thoughts and the genuine fears that prompt many of them to act in these harmful or misguided ways.
In my work I meet plenty who declare their certainty of conspiracy (big pharma, the government, George Soros – which means – wink, wink, nudge, nudge – the Jews). Others teach me the science; this week a seventeen-year old girl told me, ‘I know Pfizer impairs female fertility. I know I want to have children but I want to be safe from Covid too.’ (I told her I too had heard that report, but only here in Lightning Ridge, where I’m presently working, had I heard it. The remainder of female humanity doesn’t know what this child knew – and now unknows.) How can I deplore her for the primal fear of childlessness? What profit is there in contradicting those convictions that are religious in their depth?
The common theme among my patients is fear. It’s honest, sincere fear, invariably magnified and feeding on itself and its cesspool of ‘information’. How can we help frightened people by name-calling?
I have no respect for those people who decline vaccination and cry Apartheid! Their thinking is sloppy and they enjoy playing the victim. Less innocent too are those who behave lawlessly. But with the exceptions of the clearly malevolent minority (I include here members of bikie gangs, violent anarchists, Nazis earnestly working towards overturning democracy and restoring Whitest Australia), no-one gets up in the morning and asks, How can I do the most harm today? What is the most foolish trending opinion I can embrace?
Rather I see people who embrace such folly as attracted to the ‘glamour’ of free thinking, the ‘heroism’ of rebellion, the ‘courage’ of free speech. They evoke in me feelings that range from compassion (in my consulting room) to outright condescension (like the people of biblical Ninivehthey know not their right hand from their left).
But we are divided. We do discriminate between the vaccine-willing and the others. We grant freedoms to some and deny them to others. I can see no other choice, but I can see no long-term future in this discrimination. There is a limit to people’s acceptance of curtailment of their liberties. The fabric of community is only as strong as our leaders’ capacity to inspire.
Where are the inspiring leaders? They do exist. At the outset of the pandemic I held great fears for the most vulnerable communities in Australia. Even more than residents in Aged Care, I feared for outback indigenous communities. People who obeyed an ancient cultural imperative to wander through ancestral lands would surely catch and succumb to the virus, as they did in early colonial times to smallpox. But this did not eventuate. The traditional leaders, elders, listened to respectful advice that was appropriately conveyed. They became convinced and they carried conviction with their people. People listened, followed and were safe.
My friend Colin begs to differ. I’m pleased to oblige:
Howard. G’day and thank you for sharing.
To “deplore” is surely the most respectful way to demonstrate that one differs from another’s point of view.
Deplore – to express or feel deep grief in regard to.
In certain quarters this word came to be reviled after it was used to register dismay at public political rallies. The rallies became places where lies, insults, routine mocking of opponents and outrageous motivation of crowds chanting “lock her up” in respect of a political opponent who 5 years later has not been charged with anything. There was no crime. This from a man who now has 16 Civil legal cases underway against him and a further 16 Criminal cases underway. A man who has instigated or influenced 60 appeals against an election result, all of the appeals dismissed, sometimes with a Judge’s comment, “don’t waste the court’s time, there is no evidence”.
History teaches us such “leadership” emboldens ill informed and bigoted people to behave inhumanely. Seeing ill informed led astray, firstly to chant insults and later to attack the seat of Government leaves me weary, bewildered, numbstruck and sighing with grief. Politicising a virus is a masterstroke of machiavellianism.
If we see a small child randomly pull blooms off flowers, or hurt a small brother, or for good measure swing the cat about by its tail and then tell lies, we rightly deplore it. And try to correct it. If in the process “our rage no longer satisfies” maybe it’s because we think our voice no longer counts and have given way to misinformation or that no one is listening. There are voices the misguided listen to. They are not by any stretch “reflecting on honest thoughts”. Rather they reflect on dishonesty of a spectacular nature. If these thoughts and actions are “religious in their depth” this is called heresy, not that I’d suggest burning at the stake. But failure to act in a firm manner gives leeway for deplorable behavior such as pissing on a shrine.
Relying on people getting the correct message via the frightful spectacle of seeing grandma, a friend, neighbour or workmate suffocate to death with covid is not enough. Mandating compliance saves any argument(s).
No jab, no footy.
No jab, no coffee.
No jab, no Bali.
No jab, no work.
Doing so doesn’t mean “we grant freedoms to some and deny to others”. It’s not unlike the freedom to drive a car once learned and tested. And when that’s achieved other layers are added, such as wear a seat belt, don’t speed, and for heaven’s sake get off your phone while driving at 60kph and if you’re 15m aloft fixing the tiles put up a safety harness. Please. For a variety of reasons, one being it’s cheaper for society to do that than pay for a lifetime of care for a paralysed worker. This is not “discrimination” but boundaries for the greater good.