Grace on a Tram

I caught the tram this morning. Truly caught it. Chased it like a mad thing, dodged traffic banked up behind it, weaved, sprinted, kept balance. Climbed aboard, collected my breath, took a seat and took in my surroundings. And pleasant surroundings they were, for seated opposite me was a colourful and pleasing sight: a young woman, slim, with wavy lime-and-blond coloured hair, who sat and ate a banana.


Her lime-blond hair matched her bright lime socks. At her hip hung a patchwork cloth bag, alive with colour. Her black patent leather ankle boots gleamed. Just above the orifice into which banana descended and disappeared steadily before my fascinated gaze, a small nose ring looped between her nostrils. The young woman was thin but not starved. She worked steadily at her banana until she came to the moment of social truth (for some, the moment of crisis), the end of the banana, the moment when the skin demands of the eater a decision.

I watched. Would she ditch with a deft flick the peel beneath her seat? Might she instead reach into her bright bag of cloth for a plastic bag? The young woman (I decided she was nineteen years of age) did neither. She simply sat, and the peel sat on her lap, dying.

The dying of a banana peel is swift in onset. The peel, once devoid of the flesh that shaped it and gave it purpose, quickly shrinks and darkens, losing all meaning. Its yellow bloom gone, it darkens, collapses and becomes an elegy for its own shabbiness.

So the three of us sat there for a while, the lady, the banana peel and the watcher. Throughout, the winter sun shone bright through the window of the tram, transfiguring all. My eyes watered for brilliance, and my bones thawed.

After a time a man entered. Tall, wide and round, the man moved slowly into our space in the back section of the tram. His shabby clothes were black, his curls were black and his skin was black. He lowered above us for a time, directing his gaze where no eyebeams might intersect. His fleshy lips moved soundlessly. His hairy right hand clutched a sheaf of papers upon which columns of figures descended in lines from the top of each page to the bottom. The pages had the grey, slightly smudged look of photocopies. I peered at the pages, curiously. The man held them as a child might clutch a Teddy Bear, a talisman held close, disregarded, but not to be surrendered readily.

The man finished looking at nothing and lowered his fleshy self onto a seat between and opposite the lime- banana woman and me. We three found ourselves at the points of an equilateral triangle. The man, oblivious, muttering like the scriptural Hannah, was not a prepossessing person. His bulk projected itself towards the woman, towards – who knows? – possibly into her space.

I guessed she might feel intimidated. I half expected her to rise and remove herself. I watched tensely. The man’s free hand rose, coming to rest close to his ear. He spoke. His speech was not directed, the speech, I surmised, of telephony. I looked up and between his splayed fingers no telephone was seen. The tram lurched, the man lurched in his seat, his clothing shifted above his large belly. His naked flesh, baby-like, helpless, pleaded his innocence.

Now the young woman moved. She leaned forward and sideward, her angular face closing on the man’s. She said something I did not catch. The man did not catch it either. The woman’s lips moved again and I was able to read them.  I saw the words, Can I help you?  The man saw, or heard, too.  After some time he spoke, now facing the young woman, his back to me. I had no clue what he said or asked. But the woman was nodding, Yes, yes, all the way to the city.  You’re on the right tram. Her face, still close, relaxed and opened widely into a smile. The girl nodded again, her smile shone upon the man. Eyes locked, the two sat for a time without moving.

At length the man sat back in his seat and relaxed, unfolding himself, pouring himself liberally into the space left around him by peak hour riders keeping a fastidious distance.

The sun lit the man’s tight black coronet of curls. Those curls crouched as a perimeter around his bald patch that I could now see gleamed in the morning light.  The tram rode on a short space, then stopped. The young woman rose and walked towards the exit. I did not want her to leave, not yet, not before I could thank her, bless her.

The tram stopped, the woman descended and I watched as her slim form weaved a colourful path through the city crowds.

Birth of a Pearl

My mother’s name was Yvonne but her sister’s children called her Bom. I believe that name was the gift of her toddler nephew for whom Yvonne was too large a mouthful. That scapegrace nephew entered Bom’s life before she had children of her own. From the first, the two treasured each other with the distinctive closeness of the boy who finds a second mother, and the sister (yet childless) who yearns to mother.

The aunt moved to the country town of Leeton where she promptly hatched a litter of her own, of which I was the second born. From time to time the nephew (it’s time to give him a name: let’s call him Barry) was sent to us in Leeton, where his sojourns were long and wild and wonderful. His parents sent him to us ‘for the country air’, ‘for his asthma’, ‘to recover from the injury when a stake went through his belly’. All understood the true reason: They sent Barry to us when his parents needed respite. Bom would take Barry to her bosom, and he thrived.

In Leeton Barry taught us the Facts of Life. I have found these Facts to be of enduring value. He taught us too, a game called Murder in the Chook House, which I have described fully in my book titled My Father’s Compass. But all wild things must end and eventually Barry would return to Melbourne.

Contrary to all prediction and expectation Barry reached the age of thirteen without being hanged. His family marked the occasion with a barmitzvah celebration in the grounds of their beautiful home. The heavens marked the occasion too, with the mercury reaching 112 degrees. A marquee appeared on the tennis court, glamourous women sprang up like so many flowering shrubs.  Barry behaved with mature grace, accepting gifts and tribute without complaint.

Among the adult company present that day one particular beauty stood out. She was a person, someone said reverently, from Channel Nine. We didn’t have TV but I’d heard of Channel Nine. This lady’s job was to be beautiful on television. Today she was being beautiful at Barry’s family home.

TV Beauty Brenda Marshall

I came upon her seated in a shady spot next to my mum.  The two were talking. Beauty was admiring a pearl suspended from my mother’s throat.

What a beautiful pearl, Mrs Goldenberg!

Thank you. Daddy found it at the bottom of the sea and brought it home and gave it to me.

How? I mean where..?

Daddy was a pearl diver in Broome.

How wonderful!

Yes. He taught us girls  – that’s Barry’s mother and me – this poem:

When the first drop of rain

Fell from the clouds

Into the deep blue sea…

Mum’s manner of speaking carressed the words into being. They’d tumble from her and flow sweetly to you. Ready to be embarrassed, I watched TV Lady anxiously. Channel Nine was leaning forward, her red lips parted. I saw the pearls that were her perfect teeth. She leaned and listened and she did not move.

She was tossed, small and wistful, by the waves.

How minute I am in all this immensity, she cried.

And the sea replied: Thy modesty pleaseth me.

I shall make of thee a little drop of light.

Thou shalt be the fairest jewel among jewels…

 

 

The TV lady turned slightly to look again at Mum’s pearl pendant.

Thou shalt even rule woman.

 

 

Mum stopped, looked up at her companion, smiled:

And a pearl was born.

Wrestling

(Someone told me recently a blog post is supposed to be of six hundred words. It sounded like one of the Laws of the Universe, like when we have an Equinox and when we have a Solstice. The Law reached me too late to stick. What follows is a story longer than the prescribed six hundred words. If you read it to its end you will understand I post it now to encourage a friend.)

Wrestling with the Murderer

 

***

It was in the late ‘nineties that I first met Chief Inspector John Bailey, the son of a policeman who had been awarded the George Cross posthumously. I had come to Albury expressly to hear the story of Eric George Bailey, the police officer who arrested his own murderer.

In the course of that first meeting John Bailey showed me the George Cross that the King of England awarded to his father. A large man, he hefted the silver cross in his palm, raising and lowering it slowly, in time with the cadence of his weighted words, as he told me of his father’s life and death.  Then he passed it to me. The medal, small in John Bailey’s hand, surprised me with its weight. Bailey said, “It’s what I have had to remember my father. It’s a rare and precious thing, a George Cross, but it’s not a father.

“I’ve got to pass it on, the medal. The Police Museum wants it, but I won’t let it go to them. I’ve seen too many things disappear from there, precious things, things that ought to remain when a man is gone, things that honour a person. This one was my father’s. “I’d trust the War Museum in Canberra. I’d be happy to see it go there, but not the Police Museum.”

The Chief Inspector was a tall man, stooping more for courtesy than for age, more or less pear shaped. Only his nose and his fingers were thin, arrows of curiosity projecting into the world before him. His eyes, hooded in age-loosened skin, looked at me, hawk-like, as he nodded slowly, “No, not the Police Museum.”

Bailey excused himself: “There’s a book I want to show you. I’ll bring it out.” I sat in the late afternoon sun on the Baileys’ small verandah and pondered the old man’s words: it’s not a father.

John Bailey returned carrying a copy of “They Dared Mightily”, an account of all Australians who had won the Victoria Cross or the George Cross. I learned that only about 400 of the latter have ever been awarded; in the echelons of courage it is the full equal of the Victoria Cross; and together with the VC it is the only royal honour ever awarded posthumously. Bailey opened the well-thumbed volume at page 279, pointed to his father’s citation and handed it to me to read. A quietly spoken man, he wanted me to know how history recalled his father, but he would not declaim or boast. The record must speak for itself.

The full citation was published in a supplement to the London Gazette of 25 October 1946 and read in part:

St. James’s Palace, S.W.1, 29th October, 1946.

The King has been graciously pleased to make the undermentioned awards of the GEORGE CROSS: —

Eric George BAILEY (deceased), Sergeant 3rd Class, New South Wales Police Force.

At about 8.30 p.m. on the 12th January, 1945, Sergeant Bailey (then a Constable 1st Class), whilst on duty in Adelaide Street, Blayney had occasion to speak to a man whose movements were suspicious. During the questioning the man pulled a revolver from his pocket and fired a shot which struck Bailey in the stomach. The Constable immediately closed with his assailant who fired two more shots. Although fast succumbing to his injuries and suffering from the effects of shock and haemorrhage, Bailey continued the struggle with the offender and held him on the ground until assistance arrived. Shortly afterwards he died. The fortitude and courage manifested by this Police Officer, in spite of the mortal injuries sustained by him at the outset of the encounter, constitute bravery and devotion to duty of the highest order.

 

Almost in passing there follows an account of an earlier act of heroism, desperate and unsung:

 

On 20 April 1939 he moved to Moruya, here he was highly commended for his part in the rescue of survivors from the fishing trawler, Dureenbee, which had been attacked by a Japanese submarine on 3 August 1942. He was transferred for the final time, to Blayney, just eight days before his death.

The face of Eric George Bailey looks out from his photograph on page 280. It is a young face, small and fine-boned beneath the broad visor of his police hat. The gaze is steady. I looked up at John Bailey and there was the same steady look. The look of the young man who was his father. In coming to Albury to learn about Eric George Bailey, GC, the father. I had no expectation of this man, his son. I had not imagined him. The son, I soon learned, was a story in his own right.

I asked John Bailey for his own recollections of his father’s passing. He was glad to oblige: ”Just before my father left the house to go to work, he paused and bent down to me and rubbed my head. He kissed my mother. He reached down to pat my little sister. Then he went through the doorway. I never saw him alive again.”

When John Bailey spoke he was irresistible. Speaking slowly, his voice emerging from his deep body, he chose his words carefully, simple words, spoken steadily by the old policeman, who regarded me steadily as he spoke. John Bailey looked across the small verandah towards me – and beyond me – to the scene he described. He looked at me, bringing me with him into that scene. It was alive in him as he spoke. I was soon to see that it had been alive to him ever since his father died, on January 12, 1945.

“The previous evening my father had said to all of us, ‘Tomorrow is the start of a new life.’ He and mother had brought us to the town of Blayney a week previous. Father had a week of leave that he used to settle us into our house and into the town.

“I remember Father brought a whole trailer load of onions and garlic with us to Blayney. He was a great gardener. He had grown them at his previous posting and he spent the last day of his leave fixing chook wire high under the roof in the garage to keep the onions and garlic dry.

That night Father said: ‘Tomorrow’s the day, the start of a new life.’

The next afternoon he walked out through the door for the 3.00 o’clock shift… I can still see him going out the door…”

“Father was one of nine children, the youngest. His family didn’t have much. My father didn’t own a pair of shoes until he was ten years old. He left home when he was fourteen to join the Post Office. He was a telegram boy. When he was twenty he joined the Police Force in Sydney. He worked for a while in Traffic, like all of them. Then he asked for a posting to the country. He was from the country himself… from Tenterfield. His people were farmers there.

“Father had married my mother in Sydney. She was a Sydney girl. When they were posted to the country it was to The Rock, not far from here…

“The Rock is a pretty small town. There were only a couple of hundred people. It was a one-man police station. It must have been a terrible shock to my mother, coming from Sydney to a place like that. But she accepted it.

“After The Rock Father was posted to Gundagai. I was born in Gundagai, in 1929. Then we went to Narrandera, then to Deniliquin, then Balranald. Every posting we went further west. Do you know Balranald?”

I shook my head. I knew the other towns he named: Narrandera is only 19 miles up the road from my home town of Leeton.

“Well, you would know Hay then – Hay, Hell and Booligal – Balranald is further out still… I remember the summers in Balranald. They were hot. The police house was very hot. A low roof…it was tin. One day the Chief Commissioner called in at the Station and Father invited him up home. He stopped with us for the night. I remember him and Father, both sitting out the back in the hot night. There was Father in his singlet, sitting with the Chief Commissioner of Police. He stripped down to his singlet too.

“That’s my first memory of the Chief Commissioner.

I met him again… after…

The Chief said to Father: ‘How can your wife live in this heat, a woman, with a child?’ So we were posted to Moruya. We were there from 1939 to 1945.”

“We arrived at Blayney on January 3, 1945.  Father started work in Blayney on January 12. He was shot that first day.

“My father was the only police officer to arrest his own murderer.”

A John Bailey pause. He lifted the little black leather casket and hefted it a couple of times. He put it down again.

When he resumed John Bailey shifted to the present tense: “Father walks the three quarters of a mile to work. On his way he stops at the picture theatre, to introduce himself to the proprietor. Father is the new police officer; he wants to meet the people who do business in the town.

Just then a man runs in, shouting that a man is waving a firearm about in the Exchange Hotel. Father knows the Exchange. We stayed there our first few nights in Blayney while they got the Police House ready for us.

“Father goes straight to the Exchange. In the Lounge they point out a man wearing a sort of uniform. He’s talking excitedly. Father doesn’t want an over-excited man with a firearm inside with all those people. He says: ‘You had better come outside with me.’

“They go outside. The man is wearing the uniform of the American Merchant Marine. Father questions him – name and address and so on. His answers aren’t satisfactory. He does say he is staying at the hotel. Father says ‘I think we had better search your room.’

Now the man becomes really agitated. He pulls out a handgun. Father says: ’Give that to me.’ He takes a step towards the man. The man shoots at my father. The bullet enters the left side of my father’s abdomen, passes through his liver, then up into his chest and lodges finally in his right shoulder.

“My father begins to bleed. My father closes on the man and grabs him by the arm. They wrestle and my father throws him to the ground. He comes to rest in the gutter, where they continue to wrestle. My father is getting weaker, but he manages to get on top of him.

The man still has the weapon in his hand, and my father attempts to take it while the man tries to shoot again. He manages to discharge the weapon but Father has deflected the gun so the shot goes astray. The bullet is found later in the ceiling of the hotel verandah. The man shoots again but my father has forced his wrist forward so the shot goes this time into the man’s forearm, where it shatters the bones and lodges in his elbow…”

There is another Bailey pause. The old policeman is looking downward and across his own verandah, across the years, at two wounded men in their mortal struggle. There is no anger in his expression, only sorrow.

The voice, the telling, is delivered like the plain fact testimony that I’ve heard police officers give in a court of law – no verbal colour, nothing in the words to convey hurt. Only the silences between words, only the pauses, allow me a sense of the speaker’s experience.

Old Man Bailey does not once refer to the killer by name – he remains ‘the man’ throughout – but the police officer is ‘Father’, flesh of his flesh. The father and his memorialising son have the colour and heat of human relationship. ‘The man’ has no human connection.

John Bailey resumes: “The gunman cannot escape. My father’s body is heavy upon him, his gun arm is shattered. My father has been bleeding heavily. Two railway detectives arrive at the scene from the railyards close by. They had heard the shots. Father says: ‘Take the handcuffs and cuff him. They are on my belt.’

The detectives put the handcuffs on the gunman, and someone calls an ambulance. The ambulance takes Father to the hospital in Orange, thirty miles away. My father dies on the way to hospital from loss of blood.”

Silence.

Then John Bailey repeats: “My father is the only police officer that I know of who arrested his own murderer.”

***

“An officer came to the house and told Mother that Dad was hurt. She went away with the officer and I took my little sister to the neighbours’ house. We stayed the night in the house of Death. That was the neighbours’ name – Death. They pronounced it Deeth.

“ I saw my father once more – in the casket, at the funeral. My father was 38 years old when he was killed…

“The Force paid full Police honours to my father. There was a procession at the funeral, with the Police Band, the Mounted Police, a motor cycle escort, officers marching in formation.

Afterwards we packed up and went to Mother’s people in Sydney. That was Bondi. Later there was a function to award my father the Geoff Lewis Trophy – that’s the annual police award for valour. At the function the Chief Commissioner said to Mum, ‘I want your boy John in the Police Force.’ He wanted to look after me for my father’s sake and for my mother. But mother didn’t want it. I didn’t either, really.”

“My father said I should go into the Post Office and that was the plan. I never intended to join the force. But after the funeral, the Chief Commissioner said to Mum, ‘How old is your son, here?’

Mother said I was fourteen.

The Chief said as soon as I was old enough I should join up: he would keep an eye on me.

So, when I was fifteen I went to the Recruiting Office. I wasn’t very big. Officer Russ Sadler was a big man. He said: ‘You delivering a telegram, son?’ I told Officer Sadler I was going to join the force.

He measured me and he weighed me and he said they wouldn’t take me. I was too small. ‘Go home and eat some Weet Bix, son’, he said. ‘Come back when you’re bigger.’

But the Officer-in-Charge, a Scot called Gordon McKechnie, bellowed and wagged his finger at the junior officer and told him off. ‘This young bloke is going to be a policeman. Sign him in.’

“So, even though I was less than five feet nine tall and I weighed less than ten stone, they let me into the Police Cadets – on a condition: I had the three years as a cadet to become tall enough and heavy enough. And I soon grew and I made the height and weight comfortably.”

I could see that he did. John Bailey, even in old age, was tall enough and heavy enough. Ample in fact.

***

John Bailey pointed again to the book.  I read again the citation. It described the actions of Officer Bailey. It steered well clear of any feelings. The officer saw his duty and he did not hesitate.

Only one year after his father’s death, John Bailey enters the fatal force. He serves for forty-five years. I wondered aloud,” Did you sometimes remember your father’s death during those years? Did you look over your shoulder as you went about your work?” What I did not ask – but I wondered – when he was a young father, did he not recall the night when grim-faced officers took his stricken mother away, leaving him, a fourteen year old boy to take his small sister to the neighbours called Death?

“I never forgot my father. I thought about him whenever I worked alone. As a country policeman I was usually alone. One night I was at home. I heard someone screaming wildly in the front room. I pulled my trousers on and there was a man in there, terrified, in a panic. He was shouting – something about a man, a gun. Someone had been shot in a house close by. “I pulled my boots on and ran straight there. I went into the house and saw the body. He was dead. I could see that straight away. Half the face had been shot off. It must have been a shotgun.

The gunman had to be somewhere close by. There was no-one else in the house. I went outside to look for the killer. It was dark. I didn’t want to turn on my torch and show him a target. I listened. There was no sound. I was pretty sure he was in the garden somewhere. I spent three quarters of an hour trying to find him.

“I did think of my father…

I tried to move quietly. Eventually I found him. He was sitting against the back fence, dead. He had shot his own face off.”

***

I did some research into ‘the man’ who murdered Eric George Bailey. I read he was released from gaol only two days before the murder. The man was a professional crook whose specialty was stealing passengers’ luggage from railway stations. He’d spent some time in prison for theft elsewhere in country New South Wales. On his first day of freedom he stole a couple of suitcases from a railway station. In one of these he found an American uniform.

It was just after closing time at a gun shop in Sydney that ex-prisoner Thomas Couldrey (alias Cyril Norman) knocked on the door of the shop. He persuaded the proprietor to admit him on the pretext of Couldrey’s planned departure before opening hour on the morrow. Couldrey examined a number of guns as if to make a purchase, loading one. He distracted the shop-keeper then attacked him, shooting him dead. He then looted the shop of weapons and ammunition and cash, which he packed into a suitcase. He travelled with that suitcase to Blayney, where he booked into the Exchange Hotel. Here, dressed in the American uniform, he proceeded to drink rapidly. It was there that ‘the man’ met Eric Bailey. It was outside the hotel – where Bailey chose to question him for the greater safety of patrons – that the officer said: “I think I’d better search your room.”

In time Couldrey recovered from the injuries he sustained in the struggle with the policeman who arrested him. He stood trial, was convicted and sentenced to death by hanging. In the event the sentence was commuted. Couldrey died in prison some years later of natural causes, thought to be tuberculosis.

***

By the time I met the son John, he had retired from the Police Force. We met at his home in Albury where he cared for his wife whose memory was failing. It was not old age or his wife’s infirmity that brought about Bailey’s retirement; it was, he said, disgust.

Four decades after his father’s murder Chief Inspector John Bailey underwent an exhaustive sequence of interviews and assessments that would have seen him promoted to Commander. He progressed smoothly through every stage. Next, Bailey underwent examination by an Ethics Panel. This was the final stage. From here promotion would be a formality: “There were five examiners on that panel. I recognised the faces of a couple of them, I knew the names of a couple more. The fifth was a senior man in the magistracy. I knew that name too. Everyone in the force knew him, the greatest paedophile in the state. Everyone knew, everyone turned a blind eye. And that… that man was about to determine my ethical fitness. It sickened me. I withdrew my candidacy. Not long after I retired.”

***

Much of this account I wrote shortly after first meeting John Bailey. Earlier he had recovered from ostensibly successful surgery for colon cancer, only for it to recur. His daughter Chrissie knew what this must portend. Her young children did not know and, she decided, should not know. Not yet.

So the time was not right for me to tell the story of John Bailey’s long, long struggle. Meanwhile he had other things on his mind, a great task before him in the care of his failing wife. After many years, when Mrs Bailey was beyond caring or knowing, John allowed his wife to move into professional care. Now he could retire from his second career.  In the years that followed John Bailey wrestled with his own murderer, an opponent more like a tag team, returning now as cancer, now as open heart surgery, now as diabetes, now as blindness, finally near his heart. He yielded only at the final fall.

***

My oldest friend Johnny Wanklyn phoned me from Albury. He produced only a few words, the bare few. Long before my friend became John Bailey’s son-in-law he’d been the elder man’s close friend. John married Bailey’s daughter and the two Johns remained tight.

Johnny had called a few times over the previous week or two. The first time Johnny wanted to know: “What’s the best place in Melbourne for chest diagnosis?” Unspoken was our shared knowledge of the colon cancer. The new problem was a mass in his chest. More calls followed: “The local specialist wants a biopsy – should it be taken in Albury or in Melbourne?” The last call: ”The old man’s too ill for any procedure.”

John Bailey’s son flew from Far North Queensland; his grandchildren gathered from Melbourne, from Geelong, from Christchurch. And now, the minimum, the inevitable: “Doff, John has passed.” My friend’s voice failed him.

Eventually he managed, “Bye for now.”

***

It was only six weeks previously that John Bailey and I talked over a long dinner at the house of his daughter, Chrissie and his son-in-law, John Wanklyn. I was about to fly to Wadeye, reputedly one of Australia’s most lawless towns. After a long career spent as an officer of the law in rural and regional areas, John Bailey was keenly interested: “I’ll be anxious to hear what you find in Wadeye. Tell me what you think.”

I readied myself to offer the veteran copper my apologetics, some extenuation of Aboriginal lawlessness. Old Man Bailey put down his glass. He raised his right hand, clawed by age and arthritis, and waved away my preconceptions of his preconceptions: he had none; he had, in his eighties that rare attribute – a genuinely open mind on Aboriginal matters. “Howard, I am glad you are going. Be sure to write and tell me about the town and the life there. Write and tell me what you see.” I did go, I did write. But I didn’t manage to complete my long piece about Wadeye – one of Australia’s hidden cultural capitals – in time to share it with John Bailey.

The uncompletedness of my task was a weight. I felt I owed some personal debt to John Bailey, to his remarkable life and lineage and service – this man who lost a father and gained a vocation through a murder.

***

A year after her father’s passing, John Bailey’s daughter supplied information he had not seen fit to mention to me. “Pa was honoured many times by the force. In 1972 they awarded him the Police Long Service and Good Conduct Medal; in 1986 he was awarded the National Police Medal; and in1988 they gave him the NSW Police Medal with 6th Clasp. Do you know what that means?”

I didn’t.

“It means they awarded him with that honour on six separate occasions.”

A Bailey pause.

“So the force honoured Pa lots of times in his lifetime. And one final time after he died: that was at his funeral. There was a motor cycle vanguard and a motor cycle rearguard. Police officers in numbers. The local chief commander spoke. Pa was buried in his dress uniform, with all his decorations attached.  A Police flag covered the casket and Pa’s police hat rested on it.

“One funny thing happened that day. I wouldn’t have seen the funny side at the time: a member of the motorcycle escort recognised the driver of the hearse. The man was a disqualified driver who’d lost his license through drink driving or some other offense. I don’t know what the copper did about it, but I know what he didn’t do. He didn’t arrest the driver on the spot and spoil Pa’s funeral.”

Postscript: I sent John Bailey’s daughter my notes. She wrote: “It took me a little while to brace myself to open it…You tell a story that I know, and have known for most of my life. But you have woven into the fabric of this new telling, the very essence of my father and his long-felt and deep loss of his father. I often think that the answer to the question “who would you invite to the ultimate dinner party?” would be, my father and grandfather, just to see and hear them together.

Thank you for reuniting father and son in words. I know Pa would have seen it as a precious and tangible thing to hand on to his children, grandchildren and beyond …”

I dedicate this story to a friend who is wrestling in another mortal struggle.

The World Sounds Very Crisp

In recent days my world has clicked and rustled and rattled. Birds have started singing again in the early morning. My foot strikes the carpet and a smart rap is heard. Opening an envelope is a musical experience, and as I type these words the keyboard clicks smartly.

I have re-entered the world of sound. I’m reading lips less and hearing more. The winds of winter blow and my ears sense the rustle of molecules in flight. Most remarkable are the slurpings and the snapping of my own mastication.

I am newly born into this world of sound.

My hearing aids literally cost more than my car. I’m learning small skills: In the morning I poke a slender little microphone into an orifice that I cannot see; in the evening I remove it and encounter the day’s crop of soft brown wax. I use an alcohol swab to cleanse the mike. This routine will bring excitement to the balance of my days upon this earth.

So loud, so clear the clarion of the world! Is this how the baby feels on leaving its mothers warm, wet world of silence?

Never at home with gadgets I advertised first for an ear trumpet. E-bay offered none. So I play host to these miniature miracles in my auricles, bemused as ever by the absurdity of surviving longer than my senses as well as numerous other worn-out parts.

Next will be the cataract surgery. I hope to report then on a world of light.

In Praise of a Very Small Town

Before I answered the calI I’d never heard of Trundle. When I googled it I might have giggled. A town of six hundred souls, Trundle boasts the second-widest main street in New South Wales, and its pub boasts the longest verandah in the state. I didn’t giggle. I held my mirth.

All morning I chased my tail in the big city, I caught my plane, I recited the Traveller’s Prayer and I breathed out.

It was dark when the plane dropped me at Dubbo. The bloke in the burger shop near the airport added up my bill for one bottle of iced coffee, one bottle of putative lemon. I pulled out a ten-dollar note.

Something was different: the man didn’t scan the bottles. He did his calculation in his head. Ten dollars fifty, he said. The man looked up and saw my money. Ten bucks, he said. I thanked him. You’ll know where to come next time, he said. I said I will. I meant it.

I took the shorter route to from Dubbo to Trundle. I didn’t realise the shorter route would take me by dirt roads for much of the distance. Over the two hours on those back roads I startled a few kangaroos but encountered no vehicle passing in either direction. The dark of Dubbo was darker out there in the quietness and the road signs were unlit. I took a wrong turning and got lost. I got unlost and entered Trundle. The wide main street was brightly lit. Nothing moved.

At the hospital I asked the nurse, can you direct me to my quarters? No, she said, I’ll take you. Follow me. She jumped into her car, I into mine and we drove through the dark to a house that wasn’t brick. We bought this to let to visitors, she said.  We’ve spent seven years renovating it. The nurse opened the front door and I stepped into the perfumed past. Motel deodorant swamped all olfaction. The nurse pulled a switch revealing animals that greeted me from every side. A steel sheep and a steel cow stood at either side of the front door. In the lobby a crocheted mouse in a lilac dress stood knee-high by a bedroom door. A second mouse in white stood guard at the second bedroom. A third mouse in soft pink waited by the third bedroom. Ladies’ hats hanged from hooks, trailing ribbons of many hues. A large painting of Trundle’s main thoroughfare (famed for its width) stood on the loungeroom floor. The streetscape peeped brilliantly from behind a swath of brown paper upon which someone had written, apologetically, Sorry, Not For Sale.

Flowers fashioned of bright fabrics overflowed from waterless vases in every room. In the kitchen, mugs of colourful ceramic spilled from every cupboard.

Relentless decoration everywhere. Art deco china cabinet, four kinds of chilli sauce and very white bread indeed.

Décor surrounded me, pressing in from every side. Furnishings that dated backwards in time from the year 1950 overflowed in every room. Here was the Australian rural past in glowing abundance.

Tucked behind a bedroom door, in the depths of a very large leather hatbox, sat a felt hat in sky blue. An emphatic navy ribbon decorated the hat. Above all stood a framed text, written in smart neo-gothic. Its title read, The Story Of a Hat. The story told how that hat was made by hand for a wedding at a period when no woman went to church unhatted or ungloved. It was a matter of respect. The story, unsigned, ended with the words, This hatbox belonged to my grandfather.

Two thoughts registered: This house was, not renovated but de-novated – a home to memory. You would not sneer at sincerity. And kitsch would not be the word; this was love.

In the main street shopfronts stood beneath brave signage. Two of every three shops were closed. A sign read, Trundle Talkies. Excited, I raced across the road to check the movie times. I was too late by thirty years. I read the signage above the garage. Pontiac, Plymouth – those makes that ferried my family across the state in the 1950’s – now extinct.

A card in one shop window read, closed until further notice, ill child. I saw five clothing shops. The stock seemed to be the same in all five. Three were closed, one with a notice advising, Yvonne comes Thursdays and Mondays, 11.00 to 3.00.

I went to the first of the open shops to buy undies. The child in charge was sorry, they had none. I might try the Op Shop two doors down. No undies there either, but I noted the stock in the Op Shop looked the same as in its competitors.

Two doors down was the office of the Annual Abba Festival. Thousands attend. They put on a special train from Sydney. Everyone dresses up as one Abba person or another. Great are the festivities.

I doctored in Trumble for three days. Most patients were farmers, heirs to farms worked by their families for generations. Many of these people were older than I. None complained when an emergency elsewhere in the hospital detained me. If I said, sorry to keep you waiting, they looked mystified, then assured me it didn’t matter.

I thought about this. These people worked the farm from sunup to sundown. There was always work to do. But they had time to spare for other people. They’d survived the long cycles of dearth and plenty. In the present dry – the worst in memory – people were feeding their stock by hand. They’d stopped planting crops, waiting for the rains. They knew time differently from my patients in the centre of the great city.

My principal in the practice spoke of an epidemic of depression, of farmers dying of sadness. Others would be forced from the land, to walk away from the family farm. It occurred to me to ask, where are the Aboriginal people? Not here. We’re not on a river. And there’s no community in Parkes either – no river there. But strong communities in Dubbo and Forbes. They’re on rivers.

My three days completed I rose at 2.45 am to drive to Dubbo to catch the earliest flight to the city. I drove down that wide, wide street, built for the bullock trains to do their long u-turn.

I hurried through the dark, eyes wide for suicidal kangaroos. I arrived at the airport and checked in. I checked my phone: I’d arrived on time. Chasing my tail again.

Reds Under the Beds

Michael Benjamin Komesaroff was a conspicuous proletarian classmate of mine during our later years at Scopus (1963). He had a lived political ideology, like other Komesaroffs before him, an indivisible loyalty to Jewishness and to his country of citizenship. I recall his vernacular speech deafening us classmates in his espousal of Labor politics. We called him Kommo; he was a social democrat before most of us knew the term. Those same politics marked the generation of his immediate ancestors, and brought them to the attention of ASIO. At the time Lenin was preaching international revolution, a doctrine that unsettled Australia’s conservatives. Here were the Komesaroffs, newly arrived from that revolutionary hotbed. Where did their loyalties lie? ASIO became very interested in them, and now their descendant, with a career in international journalism behind him, investigates the investigators in a new book. “Reds Under the Beds” is the result.

“Reds Under the Beds” describes the abiding interest of Australia’s intelligence community in a family who had immigrated in the early decades of the Twentieth Century.  The author’s love and respect for those ancestors match his feelings for Australia. His meticulous research informs this account of a group whose hallmark was loyalty. The Komesaroffs were loyal Jews who became loyal citizens of Australia. Jewish loyalty mandated their love of Zion and their opposition to fascism, while loyalty to the country of adoption saw them acknowledged as exemplary citizens. Somehow ASIO became all too interested in the Jewish concerns of the Komesaroffs and quite blind to their lives as citizens.

Michael Komesaroff writes his family’s story dispassionately, in clear and clean prose. His analysis of the political tides and times is  revelation, as is his understanding of the contest for middle Australia between Social Democrats and Conservatives. With a calm that is unusual he identifies prevailing anti-semitic attitudes without inflating it beyond its true dimensions. Most topically, Komesaroff shows us how Australians of the most ordinary loyalty can come under pervading suspicion and investigation by Intelligence organisations. In our times, when mistrust of the citizenry is translated into something of a growth industry, a poised and intelligent balance is needed between the community’s needs of security and of community. In the case of these ‘Reds under the Beds’, ASIO emerges, showing limited intelligence.

“Reds Under the Beds” is published by Hybrid Publishers and is available from most booksellers and Amazon. Further details of the book are contained on the Amazon website (here).

As outlined in the flyer, I have the pleasure of launching the book at 4:00 pm on Sunday 15 July at Glen Huntly Park Function Room, Glen Huntly Park, corner of Neerim and Booran Roads.

Ecclesiastes, 12, 1

A letter arrived inviting me to join a panel of former students addressing a bunch of peers from my old school. Panelists were to discuss a number of questions which all boiled down to If you knew then what you know now, what would you have done differently?

The questions made me think about my schooldays. I loved school. I felt happy. I thought the brutality of our teachers was somehow just the way of things, neither wrong nor right, simply conduct that lay beyond judgement. I didn’t like it – in fact when I witnessed it I’d whinny with the ugly mirth of the unpunished; when I received it I felt I might vomit. But then I didn’t like winter either. Winter and corporal punishment were both unpleasant and both lay beyond lawmaking.

As I reviewed our jungle behaviour my older self felt sad and ashamed. I wished we had been kinder. An instinct revealed to us whoever was the most vulnerable. Arriving as a new boy in mid-term I was conspicuously vulnerable and the hounds duly bayed and pursued me. Being new was a temporary condition; others suffered perpetually. In my turn I identified one or two of these and I teased them with relish.

In time I saw how that fat child, this gay person, that person whose father belted her every day, attracted the crows, and I declined to join in the pecking. In time two of these three were to die by their own hand; the third tried and failed.

I wasn’t fat, or gay. My father didn’t beat me. My schooldays were happy. Inspiring teachers inspired me; loving mentors nurtured me. I suppose I blossomed.

Half a century and more have passed since I lived in that arena of mind-nurture and bloodsport. My eyes, clouded now with cataract, my knees grating, my hearing dimmed, my balance wonky, my farting – ever a reckless delight – now hazardous, what advice would I offer today’s schoolchild? Should I say Rejoice in the days of your youth before the evil days come when you will say, “I have no pleasure in them”?

I watch those tender green shoots anxiously as they don school garb and they venture into their jungles. I hold my breath and hope. Will she make her way? Will she find a friend? What wise words might I proffer?

Instead of speaking words I hope I might hold my peace and let her be, and let her become.