Curfew Tales: The Story of Mister Jones Chapter IV

Winter in Melbourne. The sun observes the curfew longer than we humans do. It stays in bed and rises late if it rises at all. Today the sun sleeps in. The wind blows, the rain falls and two figures run through the dark and the wet, down to the wet and dark of the Bay. As we run, Toby sings his morning song:

Nice and freezing

Nice and freezing 

Nice and freezing

He sings these lyrics to the initial bars of ‘Shortening Bread’.

Toby sings the lyrics with the sincerity of one who is underdressed for the weather. It falls to me to state the obvious: ‘It’s raining, Toby.’

‘Nice and freezing

Nice and freez…

The rain reminds me: ‘In Papua it rains every day, Toby. I hope Mr Jones is keeping dry. I hope he’s well… I hope he’s alive.’

‘Saba, that newspaper report from Leeton about Mr Jones’ daughter Amelia Bodelia – do you think it’s true? I mean can a person’s heart really burst with love? Can they die of it?’

‘Toby, doctors now know that grief or shock can kill. There are cases where a person who never had heart disease before received sad news then suffered a heart attack and died. Maybe something like that killed Amelia B.’

‘Saba, when Amelia Nee died, our chances of contacting Noel Henry Jones died with her.’ 

‘I’ve been hoping that newspaper message was mistake, hoping she might be moribund, or just stunned. I’ve been checking my emails. Nothing. Poor Ameila must be really truly dead.

Toby speeds up and leaves me behind. For a while he runs alone. It’s hard to tell in the rain and the dark, but I think I heard tears in Toby’s voice when he said our chances died with her. After a while Toby slows down and allows me to catch up. Together we shiver home companionably. Once inside I find myself at the computer. Where is Mister Jones? How will I find him? I open my emails. There’s lots of SPAM but there is no information.

The snail mail arrives. Lots of letters, addressed to me by machines. Toby envies me for the many letters I receive daily: ‘In a whole year I hardly get any. What’s that letter you’re reading Saba?’

‘The lost dogs’ home wants a donation, Toby.’

‘Saba, if the dogs are lost, the home doesn’t need donations!’

‘Good point, Toby.’

There’s a letter advertising pizza and a flyer for a new gym.

The next letter is the Gas Bill.

‘Saba, can I open one and read it to you?’

‘OK, Toby. Golly, what do you think of my gas bill, Toby?’

Toby does not reply. He’s engrossed in a letter. I glance at the envelope, addressed not by a machine but by a human with shaky handwriting. The address reads:

dR hOWARD jONATHAN gOLDENBERG

formerly of Leeton

now in Melbourne

The handwriting is really hard to read, but there’s something familiar about the ink. My memory stirs. Long ago, when I was just a kid, younger than Toby, I once used a pen with ink like that. I’m pretty sure I know that ink. I do recognise it. It’s Parker Pen ink. 

I look at the back of the envelope. I read: Sender’s Address: MANUS ISLAND. Isn’t that in Papua New Guinea? What does all this mean – familiar ink, familiar address?

Meanwhile Toby holds the scrap of paper in the air, he’s squinting, concentrating hard, his forehead wrinkly as a dartos muscle in winter. He mutters, ‘I can hardly read any of this writing, just a few words: Leeton, carrot…Amelia.

Saba! – he exclaims.

I hand the envelope to Toby and he passes me the letter. We speak simultaneously: look at that! I hold the scrap of notepaper and I read.

At that same moment I recalled the true owner of the Parker pen. I jump to my feet and shout, Toby!

‘Toby, we’ve found him. ‘He found us actually. But I don’t think we’ll ever see him. He says all his cannibal tribesmen have died.’ 

‘How come, Saba?’

‘Old age, perhaps. Maybe COVID 19.’

‘Saba, I saw on the National Geographic Channel there’s an etiquette among cannibals. At times of famine – that means there’s no humans to eat – the elders offer themselves to be eaten by the youngers. Until there are only two left.’

‘Well, Toby, Mister Jones wrote he thinks he’ll die soon.’

Toby grabs the letter and peers at it hard. He shakes his head. ‘I can’t read this spidery writing, Saba. Mister Jones can’t die! We have to contact him.’

‘Toby, darling. Everyone dies. Old people understand they can die at any time. Old people reach an age when they know they have lived their life and their time is near to leave it. Often the person who dies is not sad; as death comes closer it’s the people who love the old person who feel frightened. And afterwards they feel sadness and emptiness.’

‘But Saba, not Mister Jones. Not yet. What about grace?’

The boy throws his arms around me and holds me hard. Who is he comforting – me, or himself?

‘Toby, you’ve put your finger on my question. Grace is my problem, not Mr Jones’. He’s at peace. I’m the one with unfinished business. Somehow Noel Henry Jones, that kind and gentle man, seems to remember me kindly. He says he had a daughter, Amelia Bodelia; he never had a boy, but I was like a son! He doesn’t even mention my pen pinching. I don’t know whether he ever forgave that. And now I’m afraid I’ll never know.’

Time passes. COVID crowds our days, curfew squeezes our nights, danger lurks, darkness reigns. In my dreams I walk from Number 10 Wade Avenue in Leeton, past the Fire Brigade, past the Library, past Major Dooley Park. My legs take me around a corner and there, before me is Leeton Public Primary School. Night after night the streets of Leeton open before me, I walk towards the school but before I arrive, I awaken. The school is there, waiting. Time after time Mr Jones’ classroom stands open before me, but I never enter.

Weeks later, the sun appears. One morning Toby and I return in sunlight from an early morning run. I open my emails, hoping for news. Nothing. Just a message from Australia Post to expect some delivery. Probably the masks that I ordered.

A knock at the door. Toby answers and brings in a very small package, too small for the masks we’re waiting for. I’m curious. Toby says he wants to open the package. I let him. This is what we see:

I take the pen in my hand. Through tears I read the words engraved there: Noel Henry Jones.

Curfew Tales: The Story of Mister Jones Chapter 111

“Toby, as you can imagine, I was flabbergasted. Mr Jones, my gentle teacher, now extremely aged, is on the run from the world’s mighty police forces, somewhere in the mountains and jungles of Papua New Guinea. What’s more, he’s a vegan among cannibals. What’s to stop a hungry cannibal from cooking up a Jones Stew, and eating him? I wasn’t only flabbergasted, I was thunderstruck. And a strange thought occurred to me: my teacher had become an outlaw. Obviously as a vegan he’d never eaten anybody, but here he was, on the run from the Law! I recalled how he never punished me when I was an outlaw in his class; I had been a graffiti artist, a thief, a pornographer. Perhaps Mister Jones always had a soft spot for law breakers!

“Toby, I’m worried about Noel Henry Jones. He must be getting very thin and very hungry. He’s really old. I’m scared he might die. Even though I left his class in 1955, I’m feeling guilty still. In fact, the longer the delay the guiltier I feel. And we don’t know how to contact him. Even his daughter can’t contact him. But somehow Amelia Bodelia Wyckehurst, nee Jones, doesn’t seem worried. I wonder why.  I think I’ll write to her again.

Dear Amelia Bodelia,
I’m sorry to trouble you when you might be feeling troubled enough already. But I have the feeling you are confident your Dad’s OK. I’m not his daughter or anything, but I’m worried sick. Would you mind sharing your secret with me? Thank you,
Howard Jonathan Goldenberg

former Fourth Class boy

Leeton Public School

Dear Former Boy, Howard,
Thank you for asking. Yes, it is a worrying situation: my father might be unwell or hungry or injured. He’s almost certainly frightened of being captured. But you are quite right, I am confident he hasn’t died. He promised me he wouldn’t die without telling me. And Father never breaks a promise. If he lets me know, I’ll let you know.
Good wishes
A M W, nee J

“What do you think, Toby? Do you feel we can rely on Mister Jones keeping such a strange promise? I mean who can tell anyone they’ve died? It seems like a joke but Amelia Bodelia seemed to be quite serious.” “Saba, maybe the daughter is not mentally well. Or maybe Mister Noel Henry Jones is not mentally well. I happen to know of the dangers to the brain of a vegan diet. Would you like me to explain how the brain can be injured by not eating animal products?”
“Yes, Toby, I would.”
“Saba, meat contains Vitamin B12. If your body never gets meat or any animal product, there can be a deficiency of that vitamin and the brain and the nervous system can decay. Unless you receive Vitamin B1 by injections or in some other way you can actually develop a paranoid illness. You might believe you can tell your daughter you are dead. It’s called psychosis.”
“Golly, Toby, that sounds dangerous. I’ll write straightaway to Amelia.

A B W nee Jones
Dear daughter of Prince Noel of Papua,

Not wanting to be rude or anything, but how can your Dad and you be so confident he’ll contact you before he dies? I mean what if he gets shot or something? How would he let you know?
I’m really worried.
Howard Goldenberg P.S. if your Dad is a prince, does that make you a princess?

Dr H J Goldenberg,
Nope, I’m not a princess. And Dad is not mad due to B12 deficiency, if that’s what you’re getting at. No, my father made a solemn vow a long, long time ago, when he was initiated into the Wiradjuri tribe before he married my mother. Lying beneath a gum tree, on the bank of the Murrumbidgee River, father gritted his teeth while he said goodbye to his foreskin. He had no anaesthetics or pain killers. He lay there and he didn’t call out, he didn’t moan, he didn’t even whimper. He promised he’d always keep his word. He vowed he would never tell a lie. He promised he’d never break a promise. He took an oath he’d fulfill all his oaths.

I never knew about this, until father’s 99th birthday. He said, ‘Amelia Bodelia, my dear, I’m going away. I’m going to Papua New Guinea. I’ve got a job in the jungle. ”I asked my father about the job. He said a remote tribe had advertised for a prince. They said in the ad the previous prince was ‘not to their taste.’ So Father applied and was appointed. I asked him what he knew about the tribe.
He said they were headhunters, the last active headhunters on earth. I said, “Dad, it’s unsafe. They eat people. They’ll eat you.” He said he’d ask them not to. He kissed me goodbye and went to walk out the door. I started to cry. I said, “I’ll never see you again.” He turned back and he said, “Yes you will, Amelia Bodelia my darling. I promise you. “And he looked at me seriously, and he bulged his eyes as he said, “I promise.” And I started to feel a bit better. He wiped my eyes and he said quietly, “Here and now, I swear an oath. This is my oath to you Amelia: I, Noel Henry Jones, swear to you that at the moment my life is about to end, I will appear at your side; and with my very last breath, I will say to you, ”’Amelia Bodelia, I love you. I die. Goodbye.” ‘My father picked up the string bag that held his worldly goods – his toothbrush, his pare pair of undies, a leather-bound copy of The Constitution of the Leeton Lawn Bowls Club, and some cinnamon-flavoured chewing gum – and he walked through the door. I’ve never seen him since. But I know I will see him again. He promised.

Yours sincerely
Amelia Once-was-Jones not a princess, but the daughter of a noble soul.

‘Toby, what do you think about Amelia’s reply? Do you think her Dad is mad? Do you think Amelia is mad to believe his promise to her? Do you believe the promise of Noel Henry Jones?

‘Saba, I believe in truthfulness. I believe Mr Jones. I believe your old teacher is still alive.’

Oh, Toby, I hope you’re not mistaken. I want to contact him and make things right.
‘I posted one last post on my blog: Desperately seeking contact with Noel Henry Jones, Papuan prince, outlaw, cannibal and vegan. Please respond to this blog.

Toby, I posted that 49 days ago. I’ve posted that every week since. Seven posts – and nothing.
And then I read in the Leeton newspaper, The Murrumbidgee Irritator, the following announcement:

LEETON LAWN BOWLS CLUB

It is with deep regret we announce the passing of Amelia Bodelia Wyckehust, nee Jones, daughter of our former president and present Patron and Life Governor, Noel Henry Jones. Amelia died on her father’s one-hundredth birthday, her heart full of love for her father, who is engaged in royal duties abroad. Her love was too great for her heart to hold and it burst into two.

Toby, my own heart felt it would burst too.’

Curfew Tales: The Story of Mister Jones Chapter II

Toby and I run again. Toby asks, ‘Any luck finding your old teacher, Saba? ”Well, Toby, yes and no.’ “Don’t be exasperating, Saba, yes or no?’ “Both, darling. And yes, it could be exasperating, but actually I’m feeling excited. Let me explain: I posted the story of Mister Jones on my blog and I added this request at the end: Anyone with any knowledge is asked to please respond in this blog, or by email to doffanpaz@gmail.com Well, my blog came up with nothing. But I received the following email: dEAR dR hOWARD jONATHAN gOLDENBERG,
i HAVE INFORMATION
SIGNED
aMELIA bODELIA wYCKEHURST (nEE jONES)
When I read this, Toby, I really felt excited. When I read the names Amelia Bodelia, I thought, YES! But then I read her family name, Wyckehurst. I never knew any Wyckehursts. This lady must be a fraud or an unrelated person simply making an innocent mistake. But then I read, ”nEE jONES “. Nee, after a name means, ‘I wasn’t born with my present name. ‘In this case it would mean, ‘I wasn’t born Wyckehurst; I married a person named Wyckehurst and I took that person’s family name. The name I was born with was Jones. ‘So here was a person who must be the daughter of my Mister Jones, who was born on the day I became a Parker pen pincher. She must be 65 years old, Toby.

I wrote an email to Amelia Bodelia Nee. I wrote, Dear Ms Nee, Are you the daughter of Noel Henry Jones?Were you born in Leeton in March 1955?
She wrote back: Yes. No.

More exasperance, Toby. I wrote, Well, if Noel Henry Jones was your father, where and when were you born? If you don’t mind me asking. (I put in that last bit, Toby, because some people do mind, especially ladies.)

Dear former student of my Dad, Born March 1955. In Yanco, 5 miles from Leeton, under a gum tree, on the banks of the Murrumbidgee. Same tree where my Mum was born. Traditional birthing place for us Wiradjuri women. (The Murrumbidgee is a great river, Toby. The Wiradjuri are the traditional owners of all the Leeton district and the country far beyond.)

So, Toby, that explains why the Leeton Hospital had no record of the birth of Amelia Bodelia, born Jones, before she became a Wyckehurst.

I wrote, Dear Amelia Bodelia Nee, Please tell me, is your honoured father still with us?
She replied, Sadly, no.

Toby, I felt a thump in my chest, as if something heavy had landed inside my body. I wrote again, with my eyes stinging:

Dear Ms Nee, I am so sorry. You must be heartbroken. When did your father pass away?

Amelia Bodelia wrote back: Dad’s not dead.

Confused, I wrote: But, Ms A B Nee, you said he was no longer with us. I am happy he is alive. But I don’t understand.

Amelia Bodelia wrote: Dad is completely alive, he’s just not with us. He’s in Papua New Guinea. He’s a prince in Papua. He’s the prince of a Papuan tribe.

Toby, I was pretty happy to read this. Now I could get in touch with my old teacher and start to be gracious. I wrote: Dear Amelia Bodelia Wyckehurst, Nee Jones, Would you kindly send me your father’s address?I am seventy-four years old and, with the time still left to me, I wish to seek grace.

I sat by my computer and waited and watched the screen in nervous excitement. Before too long this letter arrived: Dear Howard Jonathan Goldenberg, I’d like to but I can’t. Father’s tribe is the last tribe of true cannibals on earth. Every police force on earth, as well as the Papua New Guinea Army, is hunting them. The New Guinea Air Force hunts them from the air. No-one knows where they are. The Papuan police, the Australian Federal Police, Interpol, the CIA, Mossad, the KGB – no one can find the cannibals. They are off the grid. They don’t use computers, they don’t have Internet. No-one can trace them. I can’t trace them either. Sorry. A B W (Nee J)
ps, who is grace?

Toby, i couldn’t give up. I decided to write one more time:
Dear Daughter Jones, How could your gentle father possibly be a cannibal?
He was so kind. Yours, deeply confused and quite distressed, HJG
My screen lit up immediately: Dear HJGI never said father was a cannibal. He is a vegan. ABW Nee J

I wrote: Dear Vegan’s Child, Golly. How extremely confusing: how can an Australian man be the Prince of a cannibal Papuan tribe and still be a vegan? Not doubting you or anything. Howard.

The vegan’s child replied: Dad IS a vegan cannibal: he eats only vegetarians. And there are no vegetarians in Papua New Guinea. Amelia Bodelia Wyckehurst, Nee Jones.

Bedtime Stories for the Nights of Curfew

THE STORY OF MISTER JONES

Chapter I
It’s 6.00 am. Curfew’s over for the night, we’re allowed out for a run. My grandson and I run through the darkness. The boy asks, ‘Saba, will you tell me a story? ‘I will. I search for a story I haven’t already shared, something new.
“Toby, in Fourth Class at Leeton Public School, my teacher was Mister Jones. I guess he might have been in his mid- or late thirties, but to us, Mister Jones looked old. If he were alive today he might be in his late nineties. He might even be a hundred. I’ve been thinking about him recently, wondering if he’s alive, daydreaming of getting in touch. We haven’t seen each other since June,1955, which was the time I left Leeton. I left Leeton but Leeton never left me;it stays inside me in memories and stories. Recently Mister Jones has come back to me in a series of memories.
“Toby, Mister Jones was kind and gentle. He was good to your Saba, but your Saba was not good to him. Now I daydream of tracing Mister Jones and contacting him. I’d like to tell him I remember him and his goodness, and confess my naughtiness. So here is a story. It starts out as a true story and then it escapes into the wild.”

***
The story of Mister Jones starts one year before he and I met. That year I am in Third Class, where my teacher is Mrs Savage. Mrs Savage is fierce. She shouts, and when she shouts she froths, and we are all frightened of her. I say to myself, Savage by name and savage by nature. She shouts and I sit still and behave, and I try not to breathe. At playtime we all go outside, where I breathe and I court the teacher’s daughter, Lynette Savage. Lynette is pretty; she doesn’t froth or shout. For one whole year I sit still in class and I behave perfectly.

Then we escape into Fourth Class. The new teacher is tall. In the eye in my mind Mr Jones has black hair which is starting to thin. He has a smile and a voicethat doesn’t shout. He is easygoing. Howard Jonathan Goldenberg has behaved too well for too long. It’s against his nature to be so good. Howard starts to misbehave and Mister Jones does not punish him. One morning Howard arrives quite early. He goes to the classroom where he picks up some chalk, walks to the blackboard and draws a large picture of a man. Between the man’s legs he draws a very long penis. He writes beneath the life-sized figure, Noel Henry Jones has a great big carrot hanging between his legs. The door to the classroom is open and so long as it stays open, the art work is covered up. The artist sits down and waits. He hears the whistle blow in the playground. The class straggles in, followed by Mister Jones. Mister Jones closes the door and, facing the class, he says, ‘Good morning, Fourth Class.’ Fourth Class gazes at the picture on the board and starts to giggle. Mister Jones tries to bring the class to attention, but the laughing grows louder as Fourth Class reads the words about the Jones carrot. At first Mister Jones is puzzled. Then he turns around and notices the blackboard.Mister Jones stands perfectly still, bent forward a little as he reads. As the teacher reads one guilty boy shakes a little in his seat. The teacher reaches for the blackboard duster and he rubs out the picture and the words. Mister Jones turns to face Fourth Class. ‘Class’, he says, ‘Today we’ll start to learn long multiplication.’

One day Mister Jones doesn’t come to school. For an hour or so we have no teacher. This seems like a good time to explore Mr Jones’ desk. I open his drawer and see a number of pens and I take one. It’s pretty special, a Parker pen. Late in the morning a substitute teacher arrives. He says, ‘Mister Jones won’t be in today. His wife has just had a baby, a girl.’ During the day I try out my new pen. The next day Mr Jones returns. He tells us his new baby is called Amelia. I like the music in the name. I decide her full name is Amelia Bodelia Jones. Mister Jones wanders around the classroom. He stops at my desk and he says, ‘Nice pen you have there, Howard’.’Yes, Mister Jones’.’Where did you get it?”My father gave it to me, Mister Jones.”Did he, Howard? That’s nice. Do you mind if I look at your pen, Howard?’I don’t want Mister Jones to look at the pen. He lifts it up, studies it for a moment: ‘It’s a Parker pen, Howard. Pretty special. Oh look, someone’s engraved names onto it.’ Mister Jones shows me the engraved names: Noel Henry Jones. He asks me, ‘Did your father have those names engraved on the pen for you, Howard?’ I have no answer. Noel Henry Jones walks away, with the pretty special Parker pen in his hand. He does not punish the Parker pen pincher. He does not tell my father.

One day Mister Jones teaches us about the ancient Israelites who live in the land of Canaan. He pronounces the name Cay’nan. I know that’s incorrect. It should be pronounced Cah-nah-ahn. I know that because it’s a Hebrew word. I read it aloud in Hebrew every morning when I recite my prayers, and that’s how it’s pronounced in Hebrew. I share my wisdom with my teacher. ‘That’s not how you say it, Mister Jones: it’s Cah-nah-ahn.”No, Howard, it’s Cay’nan. I correct Mister Jones once more.

‘If you say so, Howard.’ That evening I report Mister Jones’ mistake to my mother. Mum looks up Canaan in her Oxford Dictionary. ‘No darling, Mister Jones is quite correct. In English it’s pronounced Cay’nan. You should be gracious and apologise for correcting him.”What does gracious mean, Mum?’Mum explains. Next morning I recite my prayers and I pronounce the name Cah-nah-ahn. And when I go to Mister Jones’ class I am not gracious.

“So, Toby, now, all these years later, I’d like to be gracious. More than that, I’d like Noel Henry Jones to know I remember him. I’d like him to know I remember his kindness and his gentleness.””Saba , have you contacted him? ‘I’ve tried, Toby. I rang the Leeton Public School and asked for the Headmistress. I told her the story and requested the contact information of my old teacher. But the school held no records. I rang the Leeton District Hospital and spoke to the Medical Records Librarian. I told her the story. She said, ‘Mister Jones? He taught me in Fourth Class, back in 1980. He retired the next year.’ I told her how a baby girl was born in 1955 to a Missus and Mister Jones. ‘They called her Amelia Bodelia Jones’, I said.The librarian checked her records. ‘No luck’, she said.

“Finally, Toby, I’ve decided to ask the Internet.”’You can’t ask the Internet a question, Saba. You have to use a search engine.””What’s that, Toby?””Google is a search engine. Firefox is one. Safari is another.””I don’t think my computer has a Google, darling.””I’ll show you Saba.”Toby showed me. I googled ”Noel Henry Jones” and I found a jam manufacturer. I googled ”N.H. Jones, school teacher”, and I found a Latin teacher in Portland, Oregon. He was born in 1991. I remembered Mr Jones played the drums in the Leeton Drum, Pipe and Fife Band. I googled, ”Noel Henry Jones, drummer”. Google showed me the picture of a Rastafarian in Jamaica, who played the drums. He looked about thirty. He had too much hair and too few years to be my old teacher.

“Toby, I am an old man, seeking grace. As a last resort I’m asking my friends on my blog. Perhaps a reader might happen to know the whereabouts of my old teacher. Perhaps someone can tell me whether he is conscious and taking nutrition.  

Anyone with any knowledge is asked to please respond in this blog, or by email to doffanpaz@gmail.com

The MRI

Two Sundays ago I underwent magnetic resonance scanning of my prostate. I was feeling well, I just had old man waterworks, nothing out of the ordinary. But there was a rise in the prostate antigen. MRI is an ominous sign: generally when a doctor orders an MRI she’s looking for a cancer.

My GP said, I don’t think this is cancer.

My specialist said, It’s probably benign.’

My medical self thought, I don’t think this patient has cancer.

So far, so unconvincing. When the appointments person said, There’ll be no charge. Medicare covers this scan… I really misgave.

Medicare means the Government. Governments are not sentimental, not famously charitable, excepting when it comes to cancer. When it comes to cancer the Government says, No charge, Howard. On the house, old fellow. Sorry for your news.

Cancer evokes awe. When someone says, So and So has cancer, we say, Oh.

Silence follows, we experience awe. True awe, not the cheapened article as in awesome Uber ride. This is the real thing: we stand, hushed; we feel a chill, we’re in the shadow of the absolute.

***

I turned up at the hospital which was a place of silence. I gave my name, I gave my phone number, I gave my excuses for being there. The man looked at me suspiciously and asked for my Driver’s License. He held it in a gloved hand as far away from his face as his short arms allowed. He photographed the document, grunted and returned it to me. The man sanitised me and allowed me to enter. I walked the empty corridors, climbed abandoned flights of stairs, got lost, retraced my steps and tried again. In the bowels of the building I found MRI. The young woman behind the perspex screen read through the lengthy pre-admission affidavit I’d completed. She read my thirty-three responses to questions: full name, date of birth, did I have dentures, did I have implants, were my hips natural, how about my knees, had I ever had an MRI before, why was I having this examination, how was my health, did I have coronary stents, ureteric stents, urethral stents, was I wearing hearing aids, did I believe in God, did God believe in me, did I have a next of kin, whom did I want notified in case of emergency, had my name changed in the last ten years, and had there been any change in my date of birth. The young woman ticked all my responses. All satisfactory, all correct. Then she noted the date of my document: ten days earlier. Sorry, Howard, I’ll have to ask you to fill out this questionnaire once again. It’s ten days old. We can’t accept it over a week. I filled out the form: same questions, same answers.

A nurse, gowned, masked, gloved, came and claimed me. What’s your full name? Date of birth? By nowI knew the answers by heart. I told him. Here, he said, passing me a small plastic tube, this is your micro-enema. The prostate is radiologically remote, hard to visualise. We can’t have any waste matter obscuring the view. 

Waste matter? Perish the thought.

The nurse, probably male, probably forty, but who knows? – led the way. He indicated a door. Here’s your bathroom. Go in there and insert the tube.  I entered and looked around. I saw no bath. I sat down above a porcelain bowl. There were only two openings for the tube. I chose the back one and inserted the tube, a novel sensation. I awaited the arrival and departure of waste. Nothing happened. I emerged and the nurse claimed me again. He lay me down, inserted an IV into an arm vein, asked my full name, and what was my date of birth.He recorded the responses and took me into the MRI chamber. I clambered into a mechanical vault whose walls were of mausoleum white. I lay down on a narrow board. A machine propelled me and the narrow board backwards into the mausoleum. Nurse placed earphones over my ears. What music do you like? I answered and he (My name’s Brian) turned a dial to ABC Classic FM. Some musicians performed some fretful baroque sounds which were free of melody. The nurse placed a gadget in my right palm: Press this button if you need to get out urgently. I’m going to inject contrast. What’s your full name and date of birth? He recorded my responses. Okay, we’ll get under way now. You’ll be in there for 40 minutes or so.

I said, there’s something I ought to tell you.

What’s that?

I haven’t discharged any waste.

Oh!

Now the board slid me feet-first out of the tomb. Back in the bathroom I sat down again. I did my honest best. My output was modest. I returned to the MRI chamber, purged and waste-free. Earphones back on, I heard mechanical sounds of the end of the world, mercifully drowning the Baroque. I napped. Brian tapped me on the shoulder, told me I was free to go. Contact your doctor tomorrow for the report.

***

I called the next day. I said I was the referring doctor – which was not entirely untrue. I gave my full name as referring doctor. I gave my full name and date of birth as patient. I waited. I don’t think the radiologist will have reported the scan yet, said the pleasant young lady. I’ll just check… Yes, I do have a report. Howard Jonathan Goldenberg?

Yes.

Born January 8, 1946?

Yes.

Normal scan. No sign of malignancy.

How are You?

My friend wrote from the sunshine state. How are you doing in the pariah state? When it’s the caller from the electricity company asking how I am, I know she is not interested, so I answer simply and briefly, I’m dying. But when a friend asks I pause to think. He’s asking because he cares. How am I doing? In general I look about me for clues. How are my loved ones? If they are suffering, I know it before enquiring. I know it bodily. My waking thoughts and my restless dreams ache with loving futility.


Well, friend in the sunshine, my firstborn is about to undergo major surgery. The surgery will disable her for a couple of months. She’ll deal with pain whenever she moves her shoulder girdle. Merely to brush her teeth will hurt intolerably. Do you wish to know more? She won’t be able to care for her children. A sole breadwinner, she’ll be unable to win her bread. How’s she doing through it all? She’s dealing with thoughts of disfigurement. She’s alarmed by stories of unbearable pain. But she reminds us, ‘I’ve got the cancer gene, but this surgery is not cancer; it prevents cancer.’

My other children? Number two child has been locked down since February. He’s working from home and he’s loving his household of women, who range down in age from his wife, to his newest, aged four months. He lives in the joy of watching his offspring bloom, and he chafes that he cannot share his loved ones. He’s the bridge between generations. He wants to share his little ones with his elders. He grieves for deprived grandparents, for a great grandmother in her extreme age (‘How many years has Nana left to enjoy, to know her little ones?’); for his siblings too. He knows his little ones are deprived. He’s a bridge and a virus has closed the bridge.

Number three lives in Sydney. Six months have passed since she last saw or touched a parent or a sibling. Six months in the life of a person permanently in exile from family. During those months she’s been diagnosed with cancer, undergone surgery, been cured. In a few weeks she’ll undergo the same cancer-preventing surgery as the firstborn.She subsists with a dozen face time calls a day, but the loving flesh, the warmth of presence, the sharing and the feeding (we celebrate her as a baker and a chef), these she aches for. And as we plan and we cancel plans, and we plan again, the novel virus comes between us. In short she suffers minor cruelties daily; she’ll suffer major surgical cruelties shortly and, God willing, she too will be saved from the genetic cancers that haunt our womenfolk. Overall, good friend, too much detail? I apologise. Our children are brave and loving and they fret for their parents. For us. Golly! Perhaps that was your question. Perhaps you really asked, How are YOU doing? Once again I look about me. I see my wife, a Jewish mother responding to threat by overcatering. Between working at home and trouncing me at Scrabble, and caring for her mother, she overfeeds me and she cooks and packs endless meals for loved ones all about. I feel cared for and loved. I feel safe.

But how am I? In myself? By temperament I tend to be cheerful, optimistic, sometimes vacuously so. But nowadays periods of gloom descend, circumambient fear visits me. My work sustains me with a rewarding sensation of being useful. I enjoy the glow of self-worth. I run a lot and I purge fear and gloom. And I drink plenty of strong coffee which transforms me into a cheery genius.It feels absurd to pity myself in a time when so many suffer so much worse. But if – as the Talmud asks – among the cedars the firestorm falls, what can avail the mosses of the wall? If happy howard is downcast, how much more suffer the cheerless many?

Empty in Bali


An close elderly Aussie friend and his Balinese partner sent me the following. They are trying to save her family from hunger.

My partner Wayan comes from a part of Bali that frankly, with the onslaught of Covid, has turned to shit for some. The north east area of Bali is generally not well off, suffering from a poorer soil and dryer climate which renders it unsuitable for rice production.
Wayan’s home village of Siakin is fairly typical of others in that part with pockets of extreme poverty. And now, due to Covid, those pockets are suffering greatly. In particular those without family support, no land to grow food on or run chooks and especially some of the elderly, certainly those who are widows and some others who have lost employment and have no back up.
They need a leg up. We’d like to help some from the village of Siakin and also a few from nearby, some of whom are quite isolated and very affected by the general lack of income in Bali at this time, their families working in Denpasar but with children to feed and travel back to the village curtailed anyway in a rigid lockdown.
Using only Wayan’s immediate family as the driving force. One brother, Pak Nengah is principal of the local secondary school and is highly respected throughout Kintamani and the other brother Pak Nyoman works at the nearby primary school in Administration. Also Wayan’s son Putu, niece Mitha and three nephews, Gede, Amon and Kadek will assist with packing and deliveries.
The plan is to distribute small and very basic parcels of food. Beginning with 36 souls and sending out 5kg of rice, packets of noodles, cooking oil and eggs. Other than food purchase, a little for petrol and the occasional Ute hire there are no other costs involved. Receipts are provided and other records kept of frequency, purchases, deliveries etc.

We’ll set up a separate bank account and that will be transferred as needed to Bali for supply purchases.
We hope this scheme is needed only for the duration of the present emergency.
So far we’ve seeded it and have now run short of funds to continue except in a small way.
Understanding that this is a difficult time for most we ask that those who are able may forward a small donation to the bank account.
BSB 733018 / account no. 644291.
If able to help in a small way your kindness will have the gratitude of hungry people. Some recipients, after a surprise delivery, have been reduced to tears. We have requested photographs of those receiving to indicate the level of need. Here are a few.
On behalf of the battlers of Siakin

Thank you Colin & Wayan

How High is Mount Sinai?

Around 1942, Myer Goldenberg asked Yvonne Coleman, ‘Will you marry me?’ 

Yvonne asked herself, ‘How high is Mount Sinai?’

Yvonne’s question was rhetorical. What she understood by Myer’s question was, ‘Do you reckon you can observe six hundred and thirteen commandments?’

In truth whatever the precise height of the mountain (2,285 metres), the answer would not influence Yvonne’s decision: Moses climbed up that mountain to receive the Torah.  If old Moses could do it, she would. The Children of Israel, standing at the foot of the mountain, declared to Moses they’d embrace the Law, sight unseen: We will do it and we’ll hear it! – they shouted. Yvonne said to Myer, ‘I’ll do it.’

Yvonne’s response was wholehearted. On that understanding the two married.

****

Yvonne Coleman was born in 1917, in Perth, Western Australia, the daughter of a pearling captain (a son of the tribe of Levi), who sailed south from Broome to marry his bride, the daughter of French Jewish settlers who landed in Australia around 1852. In 1917, Perth was a long way from Mt. Sinai. According to family legend Yvonne’s grandfather and the Anglican Bishop of Perth were close friends. There is no legend that links Grandfather with the Rabbi in Perth. We do know the family attended synagogue. Strangers to the word, shule, they attended Synagogue regularly – on the three days of the High Holydays.

Yvonne liked synagogue. After the family removed to Melbourne, Yvonne joined the Melbourne Synagogue where her father’s family had been members since 1882. Although unschooled in Hebrew reading, Yvonne enjoyed the choral service and judged her punctuality by the particular choral items she recognised. Famously unpunctual her whole life through, Yvonne judged her arrival ‘early’ if before before the closing hymn, Adon Olam; and ‘late’ if after that hymn.

At the Toorak Road Synagogue the presiding Minister, Rabbi Brodie, (later to become Chief Rabbi of the British Empire), introduced Yvonne to the young Doctor Goldenberg. The doctor asked his question and Yvonne gave her question in reply. And Yvonne began her ascent of the mountain.

By the time I learned stories of Yvonne Coleman-that-was, she was a Shabbat keeping, Hebrew reading, kosher cooking, succah decorating, challah baking housewife in the small country town of Leeton in New South Wales. Yvonne was the sole Jewish ba’alath bayit (home-maker) inthe town, the mother of four observant and knowledgeable children.

Mum said she would do and she would hear; she never said she’d love the restrictions; but she observed them. Travelling on a bus with Mum one night, I asked her, ‘How do you like your life, with all the rules and restrictions, and the ‘thou shalt’ and the ‘thou shalt not?’’

‘I do like it, Darling. But if I were granted an interview with God, I’d say, ‘Look, Almighty God, if, after a meaty meal (Mum never came to terms with fleishig), you’ll allow me just a dash of milk in my coffee, I’ll swear on a stack of Bibles I’ll never seethe a kid in its mother’s milk.’

One precept in particular showed Mum to me in a distinctively devout light. This was lighting the candles before Shabbos and Yomtov. Mum would light, recite the bracha in the unfashionable Anglo-German ashkenazith pronunciation that Dad taught her, then stand in silence, with her eyes covered, for a long time. During these long minutes, we kids would wait while Mum stood, a fixture, unmoving like Hannah, mother of Samuel; only her lips moved. The silence felt sacred. Mum was praying for her loved ones, praying for every one of us, praying in detail, in secret, listing our individual needs, telling the Creator what she needed Him to know, and what she wanted Him to do.

After more than sixty years of marriage, Myer Goldenberg died, full of years, and was gathered to his people. Yvonne held his hand, still warm, in hers, and said in a voice wrenched with feeling, ‘He was a lovely man…’

Mum was now a widow. In 1942 she’d given her word – she would do and she would hear – and for sixty years she had kept her word. Now she was free.  One son, looking perhaps to enjoying with Mum a more liberal future, asked, ‘Are you going to keep all those rules and restrictions now, Mum?’ Mum answered, gently, in her soft voice, ‘Why would I change now, darling?’

***Mum lived a further six years, keeping Shabbat, keeping kosher, keeping faith. She died just before her 92nd birthday, the day following Shavuoth, the Festival of the Giving of the Law at Sinai. Next Sundayher children will observe her yahrzeit. I might even find a congregation where I can recite kaddish. And a candle will burn in my house in her memory.

Once, on a cold day in Melbourne

Someone called the Clinic the other day and left this message: ‘Alexa Rosa wanted to speak to the doctor who treated her mother a long time ago. And she wanted to buy your book.’ Did I know an Alexa Rosa? I thought somehow I should. A scene came back to me: a cold winter’s day in Melbourne, a young family in a front room, a sick mother, her worried husband, their adult daughter.

If this truly was my Alexa, then her story was strong and bright in my recall. I could never forget it. It was the winter of 1971. I had a new marriage, a new licence
to practise medicine outside of the hospital and a brother about to marry
in the United Kingdom. In order to raise the fares to the wedding I moonlighted as a radio locum. A radio locum installed a two-way
radio in his car and travelled, like a taxi driver, to wherever the job
called. On this occasion the call came to the Migrant Hostel in Kororoit Creek Road Altona. My bride, an able map reader, sat at my side and navigated.


Kororoit Creek Road in Atona was a long drive from everywhere else. When we arrived and parked in a vast car park, Annette (the bride) repeated the Controller’s directions, “Building 19, apartment 5.” I stepped outside.
Here, at Melbourne’s western edge, you could see the setting sun
disappearing beneath the horizon and the world darkening.

I didn’t feel happy leaving Annette there in the dark. I looked beyond the carpark toward the distant buildings. Would Annette be any safer in that lowering mass? Annette said, “I’ll be alright here. Just go.” Troubled, I went. How would I find building Nineteen where someone needed a doctor, someone who was suffering from something, possibly something serious? Having now reached the first of the buildings I could see my search was hopeless. The buildings were all great bulky cuboids of concrete. All were unli. And the dark was cold. I wandered and looked for numbers. No number nineteen anywhere, no five. I knocked on a door to enquire. The door opened, I asked, Can you direct me to Flat Five? A hand flew to the heart. The head shook: I not English. I sorry.

I felt sorry too. I turned dully away. Of course no English, everyone here newly arrived, everyone indoors, appalled, like me, by the cold. Movement in the shadow on
my left. I hailed the shadow: Excuse me, do you speak English? The head
shook no, while the face smiled a wide yes. The shadow, a young man,
beckoned, and signed me to follow. I followed. He moved swiftly along cement paths, in and out between buildings, along corridors, until abruptly he stopped in his tracks, pointing and nodding furiously. The shadow knocked on a door, turning to me, smiling. Pointing towards the door, the shadow said, English! The door opened and a voice spoke: Good evening. How can I help you?
Did you send for a doctor?
No.
Is this Apartment Five?
No. This is seven.
Is this Building Nineteen?
No but I’ll take you to Number Five..

This was someone not lost in language nor in space. Feeling found, I followed. A building or two or three later, my guide stopped and knocked on a door. I noted a large numeral 5 next to the doorway and felt almost
hopeful. The door opened and a pretty young woman appeared. Behind her stood a man, older than she; behind him a couple of small children, curious and fearful, clutched at the man’s legs and peeked. The young woman saw my
medical bag. She told me her name and said, Come in Doctor. Thank you for coming. My mother is sick.

Mother lay on a couch. She did not look well. Her daughter explained: We arrived just today from Spain. During the flight Mother started to cough and it was hard for her to breathe. Now she has a fever. We didn’t know how to call a doctor. Thank you for coming.

I examined the lady. I thought I heard altered breathing sounds in one
lung. I bent and listened hard. The air struggled into one side of the chest, it rattled and squeaked.This was bronchopneumonia. Ordinarily a hospital matter, this called for X-RAY, possibly intravenous treatment as an inpatient. How would this lady get to hospital? Would Medicare cover a new arrival? Would the ambulance take her? Was there another way?

I straightened and addressed the  man through his adult daughter. Mother is sick. She has an infection in her chest. She needs strong antibiotic medicine, she might need to go into  hospital. If you wish I can start some treatment here, now. And with luck she will improve quickly.

The daughter translated for her father. The two spoke with the mother, the three nodded. They had decided. The daughter spoke. Thank you doctor, yes, we would like you to treat her. Thank you doctor…we don’t want hospital.  I fished out some  penicillin – no, mother is not allergic – and gave the lady a hefty dose by injection. I wrote out a prescription for oral penicillin to commence the next day. 

Leaving detailed instructions for a range of eventualities I prepared to take my troubled leave. I wished the lady well, I wished the whole family good health in Australia. The daughter reached for a purse. How much do we pay you, Doctor? I did not want payment. A doctor who deserted his sick patient didn’t deserve payment. I said something like, There is no charge. To myself I said, You have paid me, you’ve paid off my guilt. The young woman protested, No Doctor, we must pay you. We don’t know who sent you. How did you know we needed you? I didn’t know. Once again I wished them well and I left, my ears burning with blessings I could not accept.

Back in the car, I found Annette unharmed. I said, I couldn’t find my patient. And I told her the story.

***

It might have been six months later when I was called to the Delivery Suite for the birth of a baby. Birth was not expected for some weeks. Labour was well advanced when they called me and birth was imminent. I needed the mother to help. ‘Push, hard, push! The mother didn’t speak English. A masked figure at her side coached her, translating my words: Big, long push. Push….The mother pushed, her face turning deep red, the veins standing out on her forehead. Stop pushing now! Don’t push! Breathe, breathe…The mother breathed and with each breath the head advanced. The mother breathed her baby into this life, accompanied by fluids, red and clear and mucoid, and followed by the placenta and cries from the baby and crying from the mother. I counted fingers and toes and other parts and placed the baby on the mother’s chest and wished the new family joy. I pulled off my mask and thanked the person whose interpreting had made the birth smoother. I extended a hand, My name’s Howard. We have met, she said, removing her mask. I am Alexa.

***

Alexa explained she had come to visit her friend, now a new mother, in her ward. Abruptly, labour started and accelerated. The hospital discovered there was no-one to interpret for a Spanish speaker so Alexa volunteered. We chatted. She told me her own mother was well, recovery had gone smoothly. She, Alexa, was working as a wardsperson in this hospital. She told me she hoped to study nursing.

I said, I don’t know if you realised I had been called by an entirely different person on the day you arrived from Spain. I never found that person. I never discovered how I fund your Mum. I know, said Alexa. God sent you.

A few weeks later my father told me a new family had started seeing him as their local doctor. They’re from Spain, he said. They tell me you treated the mother for pneumonia.

***

Forty-nine years passed. Locked down, I’m doing Telehealth from home. A message arrived for me, asking me to contact an Alexa whom I had know years before. I rang the number. Alexa speaking, said a voice. The voice sounded Aussie. I told Alexa who I was. She asked, Do you remember us? If you arrived from Spain in 1971, then yes I do. How could I forget? We did. It was 1971. I guess you were about nineteen then. Exactly. So you’re sixty-eight now? Yes. And I did do nursing. I’m still nursing. We talked for a while. Mum is still alive. She’s ninety-three now. Dad only died last year. Do you remember what you said when you left us that night? What did I say? You said, I wish you health and happiness in this country. You blessed us and your words came true. I reminded Alexa of her words to me in the Delivery suite. You said, ‘God sent you.’ That’s right. God did send you. It’s the only explanation. That was the night I became a believer. I found God in the Hostel.

***

In the few days that have passed since Alexa opened the closed door on half a century, I’ve felt excitement and perturbation. I’m excited that Alexa and I will ‘meet’ again, that I’ll ‘see’ my pneumonia patient again, spry and vital; that I’ll meet the children and their father, that I’ll learn their stories. At the same time, some different, powerful feeling operates and unsettles me. It’s the thought of the power of a word, the reverberation of a small act. Alexa sees the hand of the Divine. Does that make me somehow an instrument in a plan? I cannot begin to recognise anything so lofty. I dismiss any idea of some special mission I might have; I find that sort of belief a burden, an embarrassment; it makes me want to run away.

But I’ve been moved to tears thinking how a simple act might lodge in memory, might germinate as a seed, might influence a life; that somehow, quite without intent or thought or awareness, a simple act could take root, help, lift, encourage, perhaps inspire. That thought brings with it a glow, the sense I have done as I know my father did before me – many times – some act of unwitting goodness that lived on afterwards. I’ve felt overcome with a feeling of blessing, perhaps of being a small link in a long chain that might continue on, in lives undreamed…

Mercedes, aged 92 years
Alexa and son