Empty, Empty and Desolate the Sea

I can’t see Manny anywhere. I stand and fret in St Kilda Road. The spring gale blows a clatter of discarded plastic drink cups along the great boulevard. The cups fly and land and take flight again, baffling the redshirted volunteers who try to arrest them. In all the great sweep of road it is only the volunteers who run, no others: the marathon field has swept past me as I keep my watch and ward, as I wait and wait for Manny.

It is eight thirty-five. The marathon runners have passed, the half-marathoners too. Where is Manny? We’d arranged to meet at seven thirty. When we saw each other a week ago Manny told me he could run only two hundred metres without breathlessness. I was treating him for the respiratory infection that he’s prone to: whether it’s his cancer therapy or the cancer itself or a recurrence of pneumonia, he’s been unable to train. ‘Until the other day’, he says hopefully, ‘I did 10K on the treadmill.’ Then he concedes, ‘I had to walk and jog.’


Last night Manny sent a message: I’m hoping miracles do happen. This will be my thirty-ninth Melbourne Marathon. I am determined to start. I don’t want to embarrass myself. I hope I make it to the five kilometre mark. I’ll meet you there around seven-thirty I hope.


I have been watching since seven-fifteen, searching faces, peering into the throngs for sight of Manny’s familiar features, his labouring body. The road has been full, but empty, empty and desolate. So Manny has been defeated at last. After running thirty-eight successive Melbourne marathons, one of only eight people who have started and completed every one, Manny has admitted defeat. And it is not the event that has defeated him, but his illness. The wind howls in my ears, dust flails my face. I am almost relieved that Manny does not have to run into the gale.


I turn for home then look back over my shoulder. At the extreme of sight two figures are dimly seen. Their bodies are shapes, undefined. They seem to move: are they moving towards me or away? I wait. Yes, two figures, moving slowly, making slow progress in my direction down St Kilda Road. Can this be Manny and another, a support person? I wait my turn to become the next in Manny’s chain of supportive escorts. The figures approach, they gain definition. They move comfortably, they laugh and wave. They are young, female, they are not Manny.


Sombrely I jog back, keeping pace now with some lagging half-marathoners. Sloggers, these, a sub-sub-sub elite, united in dour resolution. These runners have the Manny spirit, the spirit that brought him through and home in the last two full Melbourne Marathons.


Back home I try to call Manny. No luck. I call his devoted son – all his relatives love and cherish him: no answer. I leave an anxious message. Restless, I await news. Day ends without word. I send an email.

Finally the following arrives: With help from my wonderful family I did the impossible and finished the thirty-ninth Melbourne Marathon.

I did the Cliffy Young shuffle and someone was with me all the way to help me along. I’m feeling very sore and tired.

I’m sorry I missed you. Hopefully we can run together next year.

‘Next year’. Two years ago Manny’s cancer doctor warned him against running: You fractured a cancerous rib just by coughing. You might have cancer in any of your bones. You can’t afford to run. But Manny did run. In 2016 with the same warning echoing, he asked his GP what he thought; this GP said, I’ll run at your side. And that was our plan again this year. But I missed him.
I missed him but Manny ran. He shuffled through the spring gales and he completed the full forty-two kilometres, plus the final terrible two hundred metres. And I missed witnessing one of the great athletic feats, one of the triumphs of the spirit over the flesh.


Next year, Manny, next year.



An Easy Run in the Desert

Warning: running a marathon is an endurance event; writing the marathon likewise; and the reader won’t get off lightly either.

Arithmetic calculations: the marathon distance is 42.2 kilometres. That’s a long way. My car gets tired going that far. If my running speed over forty-two kms averages eight minutes a kilometre, the run should take me around 337 minutes – just under five hours and forty minutes.

The event starts at 0630. My plane home from Alice Springs leaves at 1230. It takes 20 minutes to drive from the Finish Line to the airport. Something will have to give.
I write to the President of the Alice Springs Walking and Running Club: will you allow me to start 30 minutes early?
I have run this particular marathon so many times they treat me like some sort of fixture, an ancient site that happens to move. Slowly. The President, good bloke, Collingwood supporter, writes back: shouldn’t be a problem.
Even so it will be tight. So I book a later flight, this one not direct – not ideal for a blistered person, jaded and aromatic in his marathon clothes, and badly in need of a shower.  
Final arithmetic calculation: the earlier start and the later flight home are seven hours and ten minutes apart. Should suffice.

They are predicting rain. In Alice Springs? Absurd! The Weather Prophet on the ABC says it will rain. From her residence deep within my slim phone, Siri agrees. It’s never rained in any of my previous dozen or so marathons here. 
Arriving at the Start at 0515 I present myself to the Race Director to confirm the earlier start. Race Director, pleasant man, youngish, shakes a head full of brilliantined hair: O no, I’m terribly sorry, but that won’t be possible. O no. Duty of care. No Course Marshalls in place at that hour, no drink stations. Not possible, sorry. Duty of care, you understand. I do understand – not a Collingwood supporter. I understand too that care and marathon running are antithetical notions. Hence the Waiver all runners are obliged to sign. That waiver says, I know it’s a long way. I don’t care. I know it’s tiring, I know I will encounter everything about myself I have ever feared. I don’t care. I know I haven’t read this Waiver. I don’t care. Just let me run. 
I hand over my many bottles of restorative drink, each of them labelled in lipstick pink with my running name, PHEIDIPIDES. I will drink this elixir at the 15 Kilometre mark, at 18, 21, 24, 27, 30, 33, 37 and 40 Kms. Inspired by Russian success at recent Olympics I have decided to employ chemicals to aid my efforts. My drinks contain my familiar drugs – caffeine, sugar, caffeine, water, caffeine – as well as electrolytes, some more caffeine, and brown boot polish. In total I will consume four litres of this concoction, known to the retail market as Coca Cola. 
Just before 0630, the Hour of Dutiful Care, a lady marshalls us forty-plus starters. I look to the heavens. In the dark they keep secret any rainy intention. So far, so dry. Steve Monaghetti will be our Starter. Monaghetti the unforgettable. Mona – to his country an ornament, to fellow runners an inspiration, his name an amulet. My mind goes back to the Barcelona Olympics, where Mona finished in the top ten. As he did in all three of his Olympic Marathons. In the steam and heat of that day in Barcelona, numerous fabled runners simply failed to finish. The famed Kenyan, the feared Japanese, the mystic Korean champ, all were defeated by the heat and the steeps of Montjuic. But Mona finished. Ten seconds after Mona crossed the line the man from Aussie TV poked a mike into our man’s face. Pretty tough out there today, Mona?
Yeah, pretty tough.
The TV bloke listed the eminent Did Not Finishers by name. Then he asked Monaghetti: Did you think of pulling out yourself?  
Mona’s eyebrows shot upward. He looked at the interviewer as if he had addressed him in a strange language. Shaking his head slightly in wonder, Mona replied: No mate. Running for Australia mate!

A slight figure in a yellow running shirt glows in the half light of an Alice dawn. Kenyan slim, Mona takes the mike, speaks: Runners! I salute you. Today you will achieve something significant, something most people will never do, will never even contemplate… Anyone here running their first marathon? A slim arm rises falteringly. Addressing the young woman Mona says: You will never forget this day. I admire you. I admire you all, I respect you all. Good luck, enjoy your run. I’ll see you at the Finish.
BANG. Eighty-two legs break into a run and cross the Line. Two legs attached to a slowly moving fixture come to a stop as Pheidipides fiddles and fusses with his phone. He activates the new running App which will record his run. He starts again, again stops. The App has defeated him. Hapless, he resumes his run, Appless, philosophical.

So easy these first kilometres. A worry, all this ease, as my caffeine-charged legs race around sluggards, skip through gaps in the field. I know my legs are running the lip of the Crevasse of Euphoria. At the bottom of that crevasse I have buried many marathons past.
I take stock of my fellow runners, my comrades. They range in age from mid-twenties to mid-fifties. The oldest of them is a string bean striding oddly in front of me. The runner is tall, his left elbow swings back towards my face then forwards, back and forth, fixed in semi-flexion. I spend some time in clinical contemplation of his oddity. Is this spasticity perhaps – a relic of stroke or of injury at birth? Yet the Bean moves efficiently, maintaining his lead as others fall behind us. Running through parkland I lean into a bend in the track and, surprised by ease, slide past the Bean. I will not see him again until the 10K mark.

Turning out of town now, the field thins as we file towards the first of the water gaps in the encroaching MacDonells. Here in the half dark, glowering over us, looms a mighty bulk of rock and crag. Truly named Ntaripe in the original Arrente, the Gap is ‘Heavitree’ on the tongues of us newcomers. 

Idle googling traces the name to an English town outside Exeter in Devon. The name appears in the Domesday Book as Hevetrowa or Hevetrove, a name thought to derive from heafod-treow – old English for “head tree”, referring to the tree on which the heads of executed criminals were placed. Apparently this was an execution site. The last executions in England for witchcraft took place in Heavitree in 1862. Here the Bideford Witches met their end. The women had names – Temperance Lloyd, Mary Trembles and Susanna Edwards.
The names humanise Google’s dry history.
Thoughtfully I plow onwards, on toward Emily Gap which will announce the seven-kilometre mark, and to Jesse Gap which will welcome me to the halfway mark and the turn for home.   

I pass a couple of young women. They smile delightfully. All of the females running today have delightful smiles. Later I will ask myself: are their smiles truly delightful or am I simply delightable, caffeine-struck, euphoric, singing wetly as I run, ‘hello skies, hello clouds’? Who knows? I recognize one of the smilers; she is the slender girl blessed by Monaghetti. His words come back to me: ‘You will achieve something significant today.’ What does all this signify, all this sweat and Vaseline, all these hundreds of training kilometres, these thousands of airline kms, this gathering in the dawn, this nervous excitement?
During this time of philosophic enquiry a praying mantis appears at my side. I recognise him – he’s the Lean Bean with the crook elbow. His pace and mine settle into sync. Breath for breath we run together in intimate silence, a silence sociable and equable, two veterans, comfortable with silence. At length one of us speaks: ‘Have you run this one before?’
‘How many have you run?’
‘Where are you from?’
These civilities flow naturally back and forth between us, two old dogs sniffing each other’s bottoms.
Straight away I’m glad we spoke. Ralf – that’s his name – comes from Germany. This is his first visit to Alice. He’s sandwiching this event between marathons in Brisbane and Perth. He averages a full marathon every two weeks. He’s done this for the last few decades. My mind shrinks from the arithmetic.
Ralf tells me he’s run marathons on all six continents. ‘How was the Antarctic Marathon?’, I ask. The Bean shakes his head: ‘No, not in Antarctica. It is artificial, such a run. I run only where it is natural.’ Ralf’s natural marathons have coursed across the Americas (both of them), through Europe, in Africa, Asia and of course Australia. He’s run the great city marathons and he’s run events in towns smaller than Alice. He ran in Norway, along the country’s northernmost road until he came to its end. Beyond him lay permafrost and ice. This was the halfway mark. He turned and enjoyed a solitary time on that road to nowhere. Alice, I realise, is just another run in a desert of a different sort. Another quiet event shared with the few. (‘We few, we happy few…’)
Our conversations meanders with our route. I learn how this quietly spoken, hugely achieving man looks upon the world: ‘When a man loves his country, this I respect. When he declares his nationalism I feel tremors of a competitive love, one that can easily express itself in aggression.’ Like many German people I have met, born after WWII, Ralf is sensitive to such things.
Wondering, I ask Ralf: ‘Do you recognise the man who fired the starting gun?’
‘Yes, of course. Monaghetti. A great man. He won the Berlin Marathon in 1990. The year the Wall came down. His time was fast, two hours and ten minutes.’

For all my admiration for Ralf’s achievements he shows a surprising respect for my own – vastly lesser – and for my dilettant commitment. His best time of two hours forty-plus minutes beats my historical best by half an hour. (He reassures me: ‘These days I am not so fast. Perhaps four hours, perhaps more today.’) Ralf’s tally of marathons is approaching five hundred, literally ten times mine. Why should he respect my efforts? Is it the hoary head? I do not think so. Ralf respects the marathon, the foe we share; his respect for me is self-respect, deflected. That significance, that meaning, the gravumen, hard to pin down, lies behind our weird seriousness.
‘Ralf, how did you injure your elbow?’
‘Pardon? I have no elbow injury.’
‘Oh, is it your shoulder?’
The lean face looks at mine, puzzled. ‘Only my knee is injured – not too badly. The medial collateral ligament.’
So much for my clinical eye. But his left upper limb does move funny, with a sort of clockwork rigidity where all else is fluid. 

Ralf’s long legs draw him ahead. With every stride he opens a small gap before checking himself and slowing. Such courtesy! ‘Ralf, don’t wait for me. I’ll see you at the finish.’ He glides easily away. And now a new companion, equally welcome, greets me. It’s the rain. Cooling, a light sprinkling, a benison. Running a marathon in light rain is like swimming with flippers. Everything feels easier. 

At the fifteen kilometer mark a volunteer hands me my potion. I sit down in the folding chair she has vacated. Aaaah, water. Aaaah, sugar. Aaaah caffeine. Cheered, plenished, I am ready to run, but Ms Volunteeer has a question: ‘How do you pronounce your name – is it Feedip Ides?’ ‘
Actually I pronounce it Fie-Dip-Id-Ease, but I don’t speak Greek so I’m not sure.’
‘Oh, you don’t look Greek.’
The lady deserves an answer: ‘Pheidipides ran the first marathon.’
‘Did he win?’
I shake my head and run on. Did Pheidipides win? Did he lose? Does any finisher lose?

At the 18Km mark another drink of Coke, another sit down, another pheidipidean lecturette. And so it goes at every Coke stop. Everyone wants to know about my strange name. I astonish them with my story of the brave Athenian of Marathon Field.  
What is the alchemy that brings me to the turn without pain? I run, I meet and greet my fellows, hailing and congratulating those who’ve turned for home before me. I run, I drink, I tell my story of the running hero I have worshipped since I was seven years old. Half a marathon has fallen in my wake and my familiar marathon foes – doubt, fear, fear of pain, dread of all that lies ahead – have not assailed me. How can this be? Being – for the time being – Greek, I recall Cavafy’s ‘Ithaka’:

As you set out for Ithaka
hope the voyage is a long one,
full of adventure, full of discovery.
Laistrygonians and Cyclops,
angry Poseidon—don’t be afraid of them:
you’ll never find things like that on your way
as long as you keep your thoughts raised high,
as long as a rare excitement
stirs your spirit and your body.
Laistrygonians and Cyclops,
wild Poseidon—you won’t encounter them
unless you bring them along inside your soul,
unless your soul sets them up in front of you.
In short a rare excitement stirs my spirit and my body. I cannot tell whether it is the spirit of storytelling or the spirit of Coca Cola. The world is a quiet blanket of cloud. The tight skein of the start has unraveled. Two score runners snake silently along. Our slow ballet moves across the backdrop of unchanging crags and ridges. The MacDonells stare at us mutely, their aged faces unreadable. All of us runners alone with our thoughts or – as in my case – our lack of thoughts.
At 24 kilometres a friendly face waves me down. The volunteer hands me my pink-labelled potion and asks, ‘What’s with the name?’ I take a seat – hers – and I tell her the tale. It’s a tale I tell my grandchildren, it’s the tale I read in our thin textbook of Social Studies in Third Class. I read then of Pheidipides and I felt inspired. The story remains alive within me. When I run today it is to save Athens from the invading Persians. Three hundred millilitres of my gentle intoxicants later, I rise and run on in euphoria – aptly originally Greek for ‘the power of enduring easily’.
And so it is at 27K, at 30, 33, 36, 39 and 42 K’s, I drink my Pink Label and I tell my tale. And this is the tale I tell:
Once upon a time, a long time ago, when ancient Greece was young, there was a fast runner in the city-state of Athens. His name was Pheidipides. Athens was a city great for learning, for the arts and beauty. It was different from Sparta, which was famous for its physical culture, for the arts of war.
The elders of Athens learned that Persia was sending a great army in a fleet of ships to conquer Greece, one city-state at a time. Athens would be the first to face the feared Persians. The elders sent for their best runner, Pheidipides and asked him to run to Sparta.’ Go to their leaders and elders and say to them, “The Persians want to fight every city-state alone. They want to beat us one by one. But if the armies of Athens and Sparta join together, we can defeat them and save all of Greece.”’
Pheidipides knew Sparta was a long way away. He knew he’d have to run if he was going to be in time to save his people. Pheidipides said, okay, and started running. He ran all that morning and all the afternoon. He ran when the sun began to set and he kept running when it became dark. He ran through the night. He only stopped to drink at streams then he ran on. He ran through the second day and through the second night. After three whole days Pheidipides reached the gates of Sparta. When the city guards stopped him he explained his urgent mission. The guards took him to the city elders. The elders called their wise men, their necromancers, their haruspicators, their soothsayers, their moongazers and their magicians. The wise men conferred and gave their answer to the elders. The elders called Pheidipides and said, ‘Sorry, Pheidipides old chap, the stars are not favourable for a battle just now. Another time, perhaps…’
So Pheidipides ran home to Athens with the bad news. He ran for three days and three nights, pausing only to drink at streams on his way. He reached Athens at dawn and told the elders there would be no help from the great fighters of Sparta. Athens would have to face the Persians alone.
The elders said, ‘Well, our army is just about to march to Marathon Field to face the enemy. Will you come and fight too?’ So Pheidipides put on his heavy armour, took his shield and his spear, buckled on his great sword, and marched with the army to Marathon. The distance was forty kilometres. My car gets tired driving that far.
When the Athenian army met the great Persian army at Marathon it was still early morning. They fought the enemy from morning to late afternoon, and as the sun began to sink in the sky, it was Athenians who carried the day. The defeated Persians ran to their ships and sailed away.
The Athenian General said to Pheidipides: ‘You are our best runner. Run back to Athens and tell the people the city is saved.’ So Pheidipides ran back to Athens. As he approached the city the old men who stood on watch on the walls saw a lone figure approaching. They recognised Pheidipides and threw open the city gates. And Pheidipides cried to the old men and the women and the children – Rejoice my people! Ours is the victory! 
Then he fell to the earth and died.
I drank and I ran and I told the story. Just after the forty-two kilometer mark a thin man, Kenyan thin, wearing a yellow jacket, stepped towards me and shouted, ‘Great Running! Unbelievable!’ And with Monaghetti’s words in my ears and Pheidipides in my mouth I plunged for the finish and as I crossed the line I might have shouted, ‘Rejoice my friends, ours is the victory!’
After the finish a praying mantis wearing a smile, a stiff elbow and a finisher’s medal, approached me. It was Ralf. He’d finished 30 minutes before me. Thirty minutes! My own time was thirty minutes faster than last year’s. There being no other runner in my age group and Alice being the sole marathon in the Northern Territory I declared myself “Northern Territory Marathon Champion (male, over seventy), 2016”, and duly attached this to my Resume. 

A Lime

The doctor showed them the spine, the limbs, the minute digits. The heart in its cage, beating, beating, beating. Kidneys, liver, lungs, all manner of organs, organised and working against their day.
The watchers watched and listened and wondered. Their unborn, unknowing it was watched, moved, metabolised and grew. This watching, this lovecharged voyeurism through a window that opened only half a century ago. They saw their unborn, alone, confined, silent, breathing bathwater, drinking sewage, content withal. The watchers felt awe and hope. The man leaned over and held the woman and came away sticky with gel.
The doctor said, it’s the size of a lime. The man and the woman closed their palms against a mental lime. They saw with their hands how big, how small was their unborn. The woman giggled with delight.
They told me and I thought of the days I delivered babies – that age before ultrasound, when mother, father and doctor looked on the baby and the baby looked on them in equal discovery. Ultrasound alters human relation. Now fathering starts thirty –four weeks before the father is born into fatherhood.
I thought too of Judith Wright and her secret love and her poem:
Woman To Man
The eyeless labourer in the night,

the selfless, shapeless seed I hold,

builds for its resurrection day—

silent and swift and deep from sight

foresees the unimagined light.
This is no child with a child’s face;

this has no name to name it by;

yet you and I have known it well.

This is our hunter and our chase,

the third who lay in our embrace.
This is the strength that your arm knows,

the arc of flesh that is my breast,

the precise crystals of our eyes.

This is the blood’s wild tree that grows

the intricate and folded rose.
This is the maker and the made;

this is the question and reply;

the blind head butting at the dark,

the blaze of light along the blade.

Oh hold me, for I am afraid.

The Mufti at the Synagogue 

Rachid Imam lives in Diamond Creek, where I used to live. We both raised our families there. In a country town of white faces there were a very few Maltese, the odd Italian and the Chinese wife of my medical partner. I was the Jew on the Main Road and Rachid was the Muslim on the hill. For many years we ran together. As we ran we’d speak of our families. Rachid told me he was the second of three brothers, the black sheep.

He spoke tenderly of his Mum, born into a Christian family, who fell in love with Fehmi El Imam, formerly of Lebanon, since 1951 a resident of Melbourne.
Rachid told me how his Mum left Melbourne, travelling to London where she applied herself to the study of Islam. There she converted to that faith, returning to Melbourne with that as her surprise gift for Fehmi. They married and eventually brought their black sheep into this world – a sheep pale enough to do the pilgrimage to Mecca with his Dad and his daughters. I greeted him with, ‘Salaam, Hajji Rachid!’
Rachid and I had been friends for years before he said with quiet pride: ‘Fehmi came here as a young scholar. The community needed a teacher. Now he’s Mufti of Australia.’
After nearly thirty years the time came for me to leave Diamond Creek. The local Methodists lent their hall for a communal afternoon tea. Rachid made a speech. He mentioned my offer to circumcise his child (how was I to know she was a girl?), he mentioned my tendency to arrive for a run before six on a Sunday morning, waking him and his sleeping girls. After he finished reminiscing he called me up on to the stage and he kissed me – twice – once on each cheek. Then he took the microphone and declared, ‘I’ll run with you anytime, anywhere, my Jewish brother.’
Some years before I met the Sheikh my elder daughter married. At her wedding I watched with delight the son of Australia’s Mufti dancing a hora with the President of the Zionist Federation of Australia.
Yesterday Rachid’s father died. 
I knew Sheikh Fehmi’s health was failing. I’d heard of his stroke, I knew his wife had died years earlier. Today Rachid and his brothers and his sister will observe the rituals of burial and receive condolences from their thronging community, from high dignitaries to the Muslim in the street. All those familiar old rituals, all those echoes of the mourning I observed with my brothers and my sister after our father died.
I met the Sheikh but once. It came about like this: my family has belonged to the Melbourne Hebrew Congregation since 1853. Like most members of that grand synagogue, I seldom attend its services, but I remain a member. Every so seldom the Congregation runs a communal cultural program. Around the year 2000 my brother asked me if I’d ask Rachid if he’d ask his Dad to join a Rabbi one evening and each would address the members on the question, ‘Do we Need to be Afraid of Islam?’

photos courtesy Destiny Magazine Melbourne Hebrew Congregation

I agreed, Rachid agreed and Sheikh Fehmi agreed. Were we foolhardy? I imagine we all heard the same challenge, unspoken, inescapable: if not us, then who? On the appointed night Rachid met me on the footpath and introduced me to his father and to his brothers. The brothers stood either side of their father. It was clear they were there to support him – and if need be – to protect him. The Sheikh wore a traditional head covering. One son wore a kaftan.
The clergy were to speak in the Social Hall. I offered to show the Sheikh the synagogue’s interior. He was interested. I found some light switches, we entered and I saw the place – a little emptier than usual – with new eyes. I took in its splendor and I sensed from the Sheikh’s reactions the Mosque in Preston was a more modest affair.
We went upstairs. The clergy were introduced to each other and to the audience. The hall was full, people were standing in the aisles, the atmosphere was intense. I saw faces I knew, some of them of people I knew to be mistrustful of Muslims. I was to be the moderator. I welcomed the reverend gentlemen and I reminded all present that the Rabbi and the Sheikh were our guests and I would insist we conduct ourselves on our shared principles of Abrahamic hospitality.
The rabbi spoke uncontroversially on the history of Jews and Muslims. The Sheikh spoke diplomatically on the principles of his faith. He explained the precept of Jihad: ‘Every Muslim must practise Jihad. Jihad, simply, is struggle. It is not warfare. It is, fundamentally, the struggle within to live a godly life.’ The voice that spoke these words was unemphatic, mild, genuine – a teacher’s voice rather than a preacher’s.

Questions followed. Mistrust found its voice. Fehmi never raised his voice. He spoke with quiet dignity. Abraham took a bruising that night at the synagogue, but his hospitality was not broken. Sheikh Fehmi’s bodyguards did not need to rise to his defense.
After our evening at the synagogue I never met Fehmi El Imam again. Later I askedWaleed Aly how the Sheikh was regarded in his community. ‘He’s a very gentle soul, widely respected, he wants a convivial relationship between the faiths in this country.’ I wondered how the Mufti avoided the sectarian conflicts of his diverse community: ‘Fehmi has been around as an Imam for some fifty years, he has an Order of Australia, he is very widely respected and highly regarded. He’s untouchable,‘ said Waleed.


Yesterday Rachid’s family lost a patriarch. His grandchildren lost their Jidoo. The Australian community lost a peacemaker. An asset increasingly scarce has passed. He leaves, within the breast of this infidel at least, an abiding resolve, a personal ‘jihad’ for peace and harmony. The Islamic Council of Victoria said: ‘Former Mufti of Australia, Sheikh Fehmi Naji El-Imam moved to the mercy of God this morning.’


By Colin Hockley*

Long ago a callow and bewildered newcomer to Melbourne was taken by a friend to see the strange sight of Australian Rules Football. The game was held at an ugly stadium in the unfashionable Western suburbs. The day was wet, cold and blustery. In places the ground was ankle deep in churned mud and a bleak wind howled across the ground sending the ball and players scurrying into a pocket of the oval. A lonely and much abused man in white armed with a whistle made sense of this activity as flags stood horizontal and ragged above a grandstand resembling a wartime bunker.
It was all very confusing and brutal. Red faced men clutching beer cans yelled unlovely insults at the players and the incredibly thick skinned man with the whistle who laboured away in the winter mud bringing some order to the confusion. He was universally referred to as “yer white maggot”. There seemed to be several players named, “yer poofta”. 
His friend insisted that cold beer added to the experience. Wanting badly to fit in he drank some. Within minutes, after receiving directions, he raced off to find a toilet. This was a tin shed easily located by the stench of urine awash on a concrete floor. Those not drinking beer, or buying more beer, or shuffling in the urine, or insulting anyone on the playing field were standing in an endless queue for hot chips. 
Oddly however, an understanding of the game crept in and colonised his physiology. Quite soon, rather like a lot of others, he fancied he was smart enough to understand the beauty of the game. Over time, things improved. The chip queue got a little shorter as the chips became more expensive. Less beer was drunk. The habit of public drunkenness came to be frowned upon, resulting in slightly less smelly and wet underfoot toilets. 
His now adopted team struggled to achieve success. They played in a poor part of town filled with the working class and migrants. Money was scarce to pay good players. Those who stayed did so because they loved that bleak Western suburb and it’s rusted on, passionate supporters. Now and then the club caught, by accident, a player of great talent, or foolhardy bravery. Rusted on supporters can trot out the skill, acts of courage, loyalty and exploits these rare players to each other endlessly. Highlights of recent triumphs or a long ago game are wired into them with a passion. 
Tragedy is writ large. Shocking injuries, the worst a dashing, handsome young man rendered quadriplegic in a collision. Another left blind in one eye. There were many missed moments of magic as great prizes ran away with Lady Luck, and on occasion, the White Maggot played his part in our agony. 
But what seduced him besides the sheer athletic wonder and courage of the players was the ethos, rooted in an indefatigable failure to accept defeat. Strong men with bodies like Greek Gods and minds of steel playing, in the words of one of their champions, “a game of hurt”. Even to win hurt. To see them in the rooms after, huge ice packs strapped to the parts of their bodies that must train and fight again next week and the week after. A win is a happy thing. Grown men lustily sing a silly song of victory. Winning flags and scarves flap recklessly out of car windows, strangers shake your hand in the street on seeing your club colours. We have no enemies. Only pity disguised as friendliness.
Defeat means harder training, meetings focused on strategy, disappointed and demanding supporters, eager younger players wanting to knock you off your perch in the 1st team. In defeat, the supporters always say, “next week” and at season’s end, “next year”. And everything changes. The home ground changes. The name is tweaked. Coaches come and go. Presidents change. Sponsors run away and hide. Dreams come and go. Years pass. Decades pass. Membership rises and falls, like a politicians popularity poll. The rusted on grow older and they cling to the “nearly” moments, the “robbed” incidents and the past champions who blessed us with hope.
It’s a simple word, wonderful and life affirming. 
Whatever the cause hope always triumphs over experience. 
The name of my football team was hope. 
After 60 years the planets lined up. Hope was ascendent. Great decisions were made by the right people. Players of immense talent emerged. A coach blessed with, not merely the knowledge but wonderful leadership skills landed like an angle on the blighted place. Melbourne, the cornerstone of which is this game, sniffed something magic in the air. An agony of injuries brought them, not undone, but gave them added fight and inspiration. 

Man Love abounded. Tears fell like spring showers. 
Unlikely, indeed, impossible heroics happened. He of the rusted on and the other lot, the come lately stood in that great Colosseum where dreams are made and lost. As the players ran out onto brilliant green in the sunshine, their colours dominant, flags flying, their noise creating tremors shaking the vast concrete floor. 70,000 voices, only ours, could be heard. The silly song roared. It seemed the blue sky with its scudding clouds shook with the chanting. A small bewildered boy lay wide eyed in the arms of his bedecked father beside him. 
The game had yet to begin. His body tingled all over and there was quivering in his midriff. Tears and snot ran unheeded. He could have gone home at that moment and died happy. But with 99,981 people in his way he was wedged in, immovable, right on the edge of claustrophobia. This was their day. Their moment. His moment too. At the end, no one left. Not a single person raced for the car park or the train. They just stood and sang some more, over and over.
That triumphed.
*Colin is a close and beloved friend and Western Bulldogs supporter.

Reverend Horton Heat and…

Sheltering from the rain where the tram meets the train it occurs to me I’m at a hub, the locus of the hurrying many. A good spot to promote your goods or your services or your gig. At my feet, on a patch of dry asphalt, a sort of yellow mound takes my eye. The mound turns out to be a pile of magazines, the strong yellow blazoned with bold script in magenta. It’s intended to catch the commuter’s eye.

When it comes to reading material I am my mother’s son. The printed word always lured Mum from the world of people and food and things: if it was legible Mum would leg it.

Me too. This was readable material so I read. I read CHOPPED. None the wiser I peered at the words in a smaller font. These are the words I read:






Hmmm. I guessed these were musical groups, bands, we used to call them. There was more:


Guantanamo Baywatch. Clever. I liked it.


Puta Madre Bros. Rude, naughty. I liked it.


Drunk Mums. Why not? 


The Cherry Dolls. Chris Russell’s chicken Walk. Ho hum.


The Pinheads. If you have that originality you aren’t one.


West Thebarton Brothel Party. I recalled the two occasions I went window shopping in a brothel. That was Hong Kong, not Thebarton West.


The Shabbab. Shepparton Airplane. There’s a ring to these.


La Mancha Negra. What can that mean? Probably nothing. Word stuck, word-drunk, I always want to decode the metaphor. A mistake: listen to the music.


The Reprobettes. Pretty literate. A snob, I am mildly surprised.


Flour. Hmmm.


Amyl and the Sniffers. Naughty again, very naughty. I am enjoying my morning’s reading. 


Racing on (I hear my tram approaching) – Slim Customers. King Puppy & the Carnivore. Thee Cha Chas. Was that three or thee? The eye wants to see what it wants.


Tape Wolves. Red Brigade. Do the members of this group know much about the Red Brigades?


Itchy Scabs. I love it.


The team pulls up as I read: Double Yad. Golly. I feel no doubt at all the namegiver intends this name. Understands the acronymic coupling of the Hebrew letter yad. Knows it to be the abbreviated form of the Ineffable Name.


My God!



The Wrong Doctor

 A lady older than I – all the patients seem older than I am – enters my consulting room. Tall, broad in her build, her face is oblong. If she were a horse she’d be a Clydesdale. A voice rattles and grates from the lady’s throat, the voice of a thousand cigarettes: ‘What’s your name, son?’

I tell her.

‘And you’re Frank’s locum?’

I confess I am.

‘Right. This is what I need.’ The lady pushes a scrap of paper across my desk.

I read her list: Valium, Nembudeine, Mogadon.

Diffidently I wonder aloud, ‘What conditions do you take these for?’

The lady – was her name Gloria? – it was so long ago – the lady looks at me in mild disbelief. Is the doctor a bit simple?

‘For pain of course. And nerves. And to sleep.’

I commence writing out her prescriptions. In 1970 we wrote our scripts longhand. Valium for her nerves, nembudeine, a handy concoction of narcotic and barbiturate, mogadon, another benzo.

A doctor stirs within me: ‘I should point out the risk of becoming dependent on these medications.’

‘Rubbish! You think Frank doesn’t know what he’s doing? He knows I’m not the addictive type.’

Subdued by the confidence of my neighsaying patient, I resume writing.

‘I need a smoke. Want to join me?’

The doctor within feels more secure on this ground. ‘No thanks. Smoking isn’t all that good for your health.’

‘Rubbish! A few fags can’t hurt. Frank smokes.’

‘Well, I’m not Frank’s doctor. But no-one smokes in here.’

‘Rubbish!’ The lady reaches across the desk, her broad arm brushes me as she removes the lid from a small ceramic jar, revealing a dozen or so cigarettes all standing to attention. She takes one, flips it expertly between her lips, sucking back a denture that ventured a peek at the world outside. ‘Got a light, or do I have to use Frank’s?’


The locum is always the wrong doctor. Gloria expected to see Frank and, doubtless, to subdue him at his point of weakness, his fondness for the occasional fag. This very young locum is composed almost entirely of weaknesses, but smoking is not one of them. He is decidedly the wrong doctor: ‘I’m afraid no-one smokes in here with me.’

‘What do you mean?’

‘I mean no-one smokes in this room while I am in it.’

Gloria gives me hard look: ‘It’s not your practice!’

‘That’s true. But you must excuse me if I step outside while you light up.’

Glowering, Gloria snatches her script and takes her leave.


Later, Frank chuckles: ‘Gloria always tries that out on me too. I always say no. Glad you did as well.’


image: envisioningtheamericandream.com