Lady with a Suitcase

 

 

Wandering lost as usual in the supermarket, I become aware of a voice asking me: Did you touch my suitcase?

The voice is indignant. The speaker is a lady, aged perhaps in her early fifties, wearing a creation in a fruit-salad fabric that clings to her thin body.

I’m sorry, what did you ask me?

Don’t go near my suitcase!

The lady is pointing at something between the bags of rice and her ankles. Indeed there is a suitcase there. It’s on the further side of her. Her body stands in warrior pose, to protect it. I assure the lady I’ve been nowhere near her suitcase.

The lady speaks again: I said I’d have sex with him for two dollars.

She gazes at me, awaiting my response.

I am unsure how to reply.

The lady whirls, yanks her suitcase in a swift pirhouette, and steams away in the direction of the bananas.

 

My cheese costs eight dollars. Two dollars does not seem exorbitant.

 

The supermarket always confuses me.

My Brother Calls me an Agnostic

Brother: Tell me Howard, does God exist?

HG: Why ask me? Why would I know better than you?

Brother: But I don’t know. It’s a mystery.

HG: It is.

Brother: No No No. Not for you it’s not.

HG: Why not?

Brother: Hang on, Howard. I’m asking the questions here. You’re the religious one. Do you believe in God?

HG: A classmate in grade six wrote an essay that offended me. He said there’s no such thing as believe. Either you know or you don’t. I wasn’t ready for his rigour. But I can’t fault his position. Either you know something or you don’t.

Brother: Exactly. I don’t know. That’s why I’m asking you: Do you know?

HG: Sometimes.

Brother: Answer me. Do you know or don’t you?

HG: Both.

Brother: Don’t dodge the question.

HG: I’m not. Sometimes I do know.

Brother: And the rest of the time?

HG: Look, I am the victim of a scientific education. Nothing in science is proven. My education in science taught me Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle. Heisenberg was interested in knowability of the position of an electron, I seem to recall. I learned the difficulty in knowability of everything. You could say my position is uncertainty.

Brother: So you’re an agnostic.

HG: I don’t know.

Brother: I know why you’re dodging the question. As an observant Jew you’re embarrassed. I’ll ask you a different question, why do you pray?

HG: That’s easy. I need to.

Brother: Who do you pray to? When you don’t know if God exists?

HG: You mean whom.

Brother: Don’t dodge. Whom do you pray to?

HG: God.

Brother: That’s absurd, isn’t it? Talking to someone when you don’t know He’s there?

HG: I can tell you what I do believe in, all the time…

Brother: What?

HG: I believe in prayer.

Brother: That would be even more absurd, wouldn’t it? To pray to a being when you can’t say he exists; and to believe in prayer when you know prayers aren’t answered.

HG: What prayers aren’t answered?

Brother: When Dad was dying you prayed for him to be cured!

HG: Not exactly. I prayed for him to be healed. But I can explain what it is about prayer I believe in.

Brother: I don’t think I’m interested until you answer the big question.

HG: Humour me. I believe in prayer like I believe in breathing. I need to do it. I need to say thank You. I need to cry halleluya! I need to cry out in pain. I need to keep faith.

Brother: Keeping faith with a God whom – whom, notice – you don’t know exists!

HG: I do know sometimes.

Brother: That’s crazy. What happens to your other faith – I mean Science?

HG: Science actually means knowing. But it’s only one way of knowing.

Brother: Let me remind you, either you know or you don’t know. If you know, that must mean scientific knowing.

HG: Wrong! I know lots of things through my senses: I know hunger, thirst, pain. You certainly do too. You know when you’re randy.

Brother: That’s true.  But it’s not religious truth. That’s not absolute truth. God is absolute or He’s nothing.

HG: I do know an absolute. I know love.

Brother: What’s that got to do with it?

HG: Possibly everything. When I worked at a Catholic hospital a nun said to me, God is love. I didn’t get it. I asked her to explain. She repeated, God is love, and she left me to puzzle over it. I thought it sounded profound, but mysterious. That was nearly fifty years ago. It’s still a mystery to me. But I can tell you what you believe in.

Brother: What?

HG: Love. You love your children.

Brother: You’re twisting words. You and your nun. If you believed in love as God, you’d worship love. You’d pray to it. You’d personify it. But you’re actually an agnostic. Probably a Godfearing agnostic.

 

HG: Fair enough. There is another angle on love and God. It’s in Les Mis: To love another person is to see the face of God.  Too banal for you? Let me tell you how I do know God is real.

Brother: How?

HG: I visited The Breakaway at Coober Pedy.

Brother: So?

HG: I stood there in that desert immensity. Silence. Vast emptiness. And the still soft voice that spoke without sound.

Brother: And God?

HG: I stood in creation and I knew the Creator.

Brother: Very nice. But unconvincing.

HG: I’m not trying to convince you. I’m searching on my own behalf. But I know you’ve stood in immensity and been overwhelmed.

Brother: When? Where?

HG: In Yosemite. At the foot of El Capitan. We stood there together, with Dad. The universe spoke to us all, no words, no sound, but a state of inspiration.

Brother: I didn’t see God there. Feeling overwhelmed, feeling uplifted like that, that’s not knowing. That’s something distinct from knowing.

HG: It is knowing, you just don’t recognise it. Let me tell you of your knowing that you don’t know to be knowing. Deep knowing, incontrovertible knowing, beyond argument, beyond doubt.

Brother: I’m all ears.

HG: When you listen to music, when you know its beauty is truth, when that knowing clinches in your being. Sometimes I know God like that.

Brother: You’re twisting again. You don’t now whether God exists. You’re an agnostic.

HG: You think you know that. Hold on to it as an article of faith if it helps you. But would you like to know why I pray when I’m in a non-knowing state?

Brother: Tell me.     

HG: When faith eludes me, I pray to keep faith. I keep faith with Dad. I keep faith with his father, with all the fathers – and with the mothers – who’ve prayed.

Brother: Perhaps your prayers are a request to God to please be.

HG: If God exists, that is The Great Fact. I can’t think of anything more prudent than praying to cover that possibility. But that’s not why I do it. I do it because I love it. It’s the marriage of words to existence.

Brother: What?  

Helen from Danzig

Helen is ninety-three now. When she left Danzig in 1938, she was twelve. Every one of Helen’s grandchildren has quizzed her about Danzig for their roots projects and none of them has got much out of her. No happy memories, not a single friendship, nothing pleasant, Helen speaks of the place bleakly. Now adults, some of the grandchildren urge their grandmother to travel with them to visit her childhood places in Danzig. Helen rejects the idea categorically. No, she says dully, there’ll be nothing there. Nothing to see. No point.

Helen didn’t reach her present great age in such radiant good health by negativity. She’s creative and lively, she’s joyful company, fully engaged in her life and in the lives of all her generations here. It’s as if life began for Helen only on leaving Danzig. Australia embraced Helen and she embraced Australia. Helen’s Danzig was, it seems, a place of no life.

Sometimes Helen went to school in Danzig. Sometimes she didn’t go. She’d stay home where she wouldn’t be teased and frightened and humiliated. She’d stay home to feel safe. We asked her once, Didn’t you have any gentile friends?

I thought I did, she said. There was one girl. She was kind to us.

You need to understand. Mum helped Dad in the shop, every day. They needed someone to look after us girls, me and Mary. They found a family in the country who wanted their girl to move to the city, where she’d have greater opportunities. So she came. She learned to cook the kosher way. Mum taught her to sew and embroider. She became a daughter alongside us.

She worked in our house, helping Mum. Sometimes she took us to her own house in the village. We ate fresh bread there, with lard. We never had bread like that at home. When she married, we had the ceremony in our house. Mary and I were her flower girls. Then her husband joined the Nazi Party. Our friend left us. You couldn’t work for Jews…

I never learned anything in Danzig. School there was terrible. It wasn’t a place to learn.

***

Last night Helen put down the book she’d been reading, Her face was ashen. I looked and I saw ninety-three years of pain. She spoke: That’s a terrible story.

I asked what it was she’d been reading. She showed me the book:

‘Idiots First’, short stories by Bernard Malamud. The book belongs to me. I know some of the stories. I asked Helen, What story were you reading?

‘The German Refugee’. That’s a terrible story.

She spoke slowly: the word ‘terrible’ never had so many syllables before.

I waited but Helen added nothing. Her beautiful face slumped, her features collapsed. I searched her face for tears. Nothing. She looked down at nothing.

I held her for a while. The old lady grasped my arm, hard, as one might who is holding on. I asked her, What’s the story about?

It’s the story of a man from Danzig. He escapes, but he takes his life. Helen shook her head slowly. After what he loses in Danzig, he can’t live.

After a time she spoke again. I had an uncle in Danzig. He was very prosperous. We called him Uncle David. He had a mistress in Danzig. She wasn’t Jewish. When the Nazis came, she told Uncle she was breaking it off. It wasn’t safe. She ended it.

Uncle David hanged himself.

Helen stopped speaking. She looked at me, a child of twelve, wonderstruck by the evil of the world, remembering her uncle, remembering all the lost uncles. Out of her depth once more,

in her sea of sorrow.

Letters to Mr Wilson

The boy is seventeen now.  We hiked these hills to the lighthouse once before, when he was only twelve. At that time he was a tough little martial artist. In the years since the boy has grazed in the lush meadows of high school and his muscles have lain fallow.

 

 

Weeks before we set out I warn him he’d better train those muscles with some long, hilly walks. It might be tougher this time, darling.

OK Saba.

In the event the boy studies hard and does not exercise. Adolescence is a place with few words. At least few words spoken directly to an ancestor, plenty into a phone. Sucked into silence the grandson has become scarcer, harder to feel.  

 

 

This grandson is the first of his generation, a dandling, darling of us all. In this epoch of change I think of those earlier times and I miss him. Does he miss us, I wonder? In the silence I’ve been remembering the vulnerable boy who walked here with me last time. At the time he showed me his naked wounds. Feeling uncertain whether he’d want to do the walk again, I asked: How would you feel about a hike to the lighthouse at the Prom, darling? Just the two of us?

I’d love it, Saba!

 

 

We start out at six, an hour neither congenial nor customary for the boy. The boy says, Can we stop somewhere for coffee, Saba? I point out the thermos at his feet and soon we’re both drinking happily. The boy can’t stop smiling. Neither can I. He says, I’m pretty excited, Saba. Through the open car windows warm air caresses our faces: It’ll be a hot day here in town, but it should be cooler in the hills. I speak as the elder, the experienced one, the sage. In the prevailing agreeability the teenager accepts all I say, challenging nothing.

 

 

In the city, through the suburbs, rush hour rushes ever earlier. We grind our way among vehicles that fling themselves forward against fate. For once I’m not drawn into the race. Time is our marshmallow.

 

 

Into the green now, we’re starting to climb. The Strzleckis are shapely hills of green, alternately rolling and steep. The pastures draw the eye up, up, across, down. ‘Lucky cows, lucky sheep’, you think. And you think, ‘These hills, so easy on the eye, not so easy on the legs.’

 

 

Being as wise as I am, I lecture the boy on his studies, I lecture him on building his future, I lecture him on the value of studying hard through this long vacation. The boy listens to my wisdom, and says, without apparent irony, Yes, Saba. Outside the sun shines and the world warms.

 

 

The boy looks out: Smoke haze, Saba.

Really? – I wonder. We arrive at Wilson’s Promontory National Park where a Ranger says, Those bushfires are ’way to the east. This wind is blowing from the north. We’re alright here unless the wind changes and comes from the east. Good news – as far as it goes. I remember Black Sunday and the firestorms that tore through these forests. Last time, when the boy and I passed through silent hills of blackened boughs, there wasn’t a green shoot anywhere. The silence and the black haunted those flatlands. I spoke wisely about it all at the time.

 

 

‘Lightstation 19 KM ‘ reads the sign, ‘Six hours’ walk.’ Six hours for old people and children’, say I. ‘We’ll be quicker than that.

 

 

We set off at a smart pace. Our track is kind, chiefly leading us down long hills. After a few easy kilometres we pause for Saba to recite his morning payers while the boy eats and drinks. Hikers pass us in both directions, Good Morning! – they cry, then hide a double take at the old man in his ritual regalia. In the benevolent fellowship of the hike they march on without a backward look. I finish and I ask the boy, Did I embarrass you, darling?

No Saba, you look like a wizard in your white tallith. Gandalf of the mountains.

 

 

We pack the remains of our brekkie and start out again. Three steps on I freeze. Stop! Don’t walk! I point to the snake. It’s probably an adolescent, like the grandson, long and thin. Its back is coloured deepest brown, its belly a rich tan. Even an adolescent can hurt you. Snake makes his unhurried passage across our path. We stand and wait our turn. In the dignity of his passing I remember Lawrence’s snake in Sicily, with Etna smoking.

 

 

We walk on. Over our shoulders to the right are the creamy swathes of Oberon Bay. Below us we look down on a forest that covers the valley floor between our track and Oberon Bay. The grandson says, It’s eerie: we’re looking down on the tops of trees. Cool.

Cool and beautiful, this shivering green carpet of spring growth.

 

 

Last time, when the boy was small, I entertained him with letters of complaint penned in my head to Mister Wilson. I complained about the hills: 

 

Dear Mister Wilson,

 

Nice Promontory you have here. No need for all these uphills, though. We’re quite content with the flat, we have no complaint about the downhills. Please bear that in mind as we progess toward the Lighthouse.

 

 

Ahead of us, abrupt slopes of dark green draw the eye upwards. Beautiful, silent, strong – mountainous actually – more grounds (five years ago) for complaint to Mister Wilson. Slugging up those slopes back then, I wrote;

 

Dear Mister W,

 

Have you been paying attention? Too many hills, too steep! Put your hills away from the track, over to the side, where we can see them and we can admire your designs. No need to put your hills right here where we have to walk!  

 

 

At the time these letters of the mind seemed to ease the boy’s passage. He’d laugh and nod his head and agree with me, yes, Mister Bloody Wilson was a slow bloody learner. So slow was Mister Wilson to take heed, I found it necessary to raise my voice:

 

Hey Wilson!

 

What is this? A man and a boy are supposed to be having a holiday here. Why do you fling these great bloody alps all over the place. You’re tiring us out with your granite  and your gravel and your scree, and all these steeps.Go easy, Wilson, or we’ll have to report you.

 

 

Yes, five years ago I was a very funny grandfather. I’m still funny but I sense a seventeen-year old would find the uphills funnier than my humour. This time I hold my peace. I address no mental correspondence to the Eponym of the Prom. Instead, I devote my energies to breathing. We’ve passed half way; we’ve left behind the downhills that would lull the unwary; we’ve passed through the burned forest, now green again and lush, with soft gravel underfoot and the roadway undulating gently. Here on these hills, the sun blazes, there’s no shade, the gravel has given way to fine, retardant sand and this steep little bush track is really tough. The wise old weather prophet got it wrong: it’s very hot here at the Prom.

 

 

I breathe and breathe and follow my grandson.  He looks back and even though he slows I do not gain on him. He looks back again and pauses. Let’s have a drink, Saba. We sit and drink our warm water that was solid ice at six this morning.

 

 

We resume. The track winds upwards between low shrubs and ferns. Away to the right we can glimpse the blue of the sea. Beautiful. Mister Wilson got that one right. Above us our path reaches a crest, promise at last of a break. But no, the hilly little track turns a bend and leads on to higher perdition. I breathe and I think basic thoughts: How tough am I? How much more of this before a sclerotic old coronary artery occludes itself? 

 

 

The boy has stopped again. He waits for me. When I reach him he claps a hand on my shoulder. He smiles: I love you Saba. A moment of realisation: I have reached an extremity; this path has bested me. I’ll need to take lots of breaks. A further realisation: in the passing of time since first we two walked this track, I’m five years weaker, and grandson is five years stronger.

 

 

This aging is sweet. Who cares that we are not now that strength which in old days

Moved earth and heaven?

Here is my grandson, flesh born of flesh born of me, gazing towards me tenderly, and I am sufficient to him.

 

 

We struggle on and soon we break for a drink. Another, shorter struggle and a break for an energy bar. A briefer effort still, a couple of candies. A final assault and we crest the ridge and there lies the sea. Four undulating kilometers down hills, between ferns at shoulder height, and at every turn the sea smiles in the sunshine, winking at us.  And there, between trees and boulders, the white stone lighthouse stands proudly priapic and calls to us. 

 

 

We’re trotting now, our feet joyful. It’s hard to convey our jubilation. Emily Dickenson wrote: 

 

Exhiliration is 

The going out

Of an inland soul

To Sea 

 

 

Emily’s right.

 

 

A right-hand turn and Mr Wilson adds a massive final insult to four hours of injury: this is the last half killermeter of near-vertical climb. The boy looks at the slopes and he looks at me. He smiles, I smile back, and we both draw breath. We redouble our pace, we swing our arms, we mount our counterattack on Mr Wilson. Quickly, though,  our lungs are amazed; we pause and look at each other in wonder.

 

 

We overtake a teenage girl with fair braids. I notice the grandson noticing the girl. We hail her and pass. Grandfather slows and presses on dourly. Grandson breaks into a run and completes the trek with me far in his wake and the girl watching in a wild surmise.

 

 

No sooner in our lodging than I shower in cool cleansing water. Grandson pursues the acquaintance of the fair maiden. I have an early night, the young ones make an evening of it. When at a late hour grandson retires for the night, he asks, Saba, do we really have to get up at six?

We do, darling. Remember you told me before we left home you need to be back early. And so do I.

 

 

Early mornings don’t suit the young. But for the second morning in succession my grandson is up, ungrumpy and full of energy. Rain fell overnight. When we step out from our lodge we shiver at first. Soon into an easy loping stride, we find the morning chill delicious. Grandson looks around, takes in giant sculpted rocks, furtive little wallabies, enfolding hills, the sand underfoot, the singing breezes, the cockatoos at their screeching; his bony face fills with joy: I love you Saba. 

 

 

The six-hour walk that took us five laborious hours outwards takes us less than four hours on the return. Nothing Mr Wilson throws at us today dismays.

 

 

The final upslope. In wordless agreement we break into a jog. Running alongside the grandson I feel heroic. With a hundred metres to go, Grandson starts to sprint. He races away from me and it feels like a consummation.  

 

 Read about our previous hike here:

 https://howardgoldenberg.com/2015/07/10/and-the-two-walked-together/

 

 

Dead Girl Comes Home


The Director of Nursing smiles and shakes my hand in welcome. She’s younger than I, taller and wider. I’m drawn to her bucktoothed grin and her informal look. ‘You’ve arrived at a sensitive time’, she says. ‘The body of a young woman who died a few months ago returned on the same plane as yours. She was very young, eighteen years, and she died here, suddenly, of unsuspected heart disease. It was a coroner’s case of course. Now she’s back, the community will all view the body this afternoon. Some here – only a few – blame the hospital. Best keep well clear of the mortuary today.’ The boss sweeps her hand, indicating the morgue. It stands directly on the path between my quarters and the hospital. On arrival I noted with distaste the sturdy steel mesh that encloses the doctors’ house. Protection of that order speaks of past violence.

 

 

 

***

 

 

I start work in Emergency. ‘Hello, my name’s Howard. What’s yours?’

The woman looks up from her phone. She gives me that information without warmth.

‘How can I help you?’

‘He’s sick.’ The woman indicates the chubby baby stretched out on her shoulder, asleep.

I ask for details.

‘He’s been sick for a week, coughing.’

I touch the child. His face burns.

I lift the shirt: the round tummy rises and falls fast, with rib muscles sucked in with every inbreath.

 

 

Nurses attach a metallic clasp to a little finger. Numbers appear on a screen: his oxygen saturation is normal at 98 percent, but he’s working hard to maintain it.

‘Has he been drinking normally today?’

‘What?’ – head bent over the phone.

‘Has he taken fluids normally?’

‘Not much.’

‘Can you give me an idea how much?’

‘He doesn’t want to drink.’ – defiantly.

‘Has he had any medicine for the fever?’

A shrug: ‘We ran out.’

‘Has he wet nappies normally today?

I suppose so – somewhat grumpily, as if questions were accusations.

I ask a nurse to give the baby some Panadol.

I pull out my stethoscope and retreat to the baby’s chest. I can’t hear much, none of the squeaking or rattling that might give answers.

 

 

I draw a breath.

More figures appear on the screen.  The baby – I learn from his chart his name’s Oscar and he’s fifteen months old – breathes too fast and his heart is beating too fast. I don’t know how long he’s battled like this or how long he can keep it up. And I don’t know what’s wrong. I don’t have enough information. Oscar and I have been together for fifteen minutes and I’ve haven’t heard a cough. A cough itself would be information. Mother is a woman in her thirties. Her manner is combative, she doesn’t waste her smiles, she’s thrifty with eye contact.

 

 

‘Has Oscar ever had breathing problems before?’

‘What?’

‘Has he ever been treated for bronchiolitis? Or croup?’

‘He always gets bronchiolitis. He was flown out just a month ago. Still not better.’

‘Flown out’ would have been to the regional hospital, six hours drive and eight thousand dollars’ flight away. If this is bronchiolitis again, why can’t I hear the fine rustling crepitations in his chest? I decide to treat Oscar with a steroid, which can be helpful in his age group. But the steroid won’t work quickly and Oscar needs help now. We set up an asthma pump to deliver a mist of molecules that might open up narrowed breathing tubes.

 

 

We apply a mask to Oscar’s face.

‘No!’ – says Mum, pulling it away – ‘He doesn’t like it.’

Instead Oscar’s mother holds the mask at a close remove. The mist drifts to his face and he breathes surrounded by a white cloud of medicated mist that drifts uselessly away.

 

 

 

At this distance any benefit he’ll receive will vary inversely as the square of the distance between mask and face. In other words, the treatment is sabotaged and I’m worried. I know this, but to share this knowledge will require a collision of wills, a struggle for authority. Wondering what experience with doctors or hospitals has created Oscar’s mother’s mistrust, I apply the stethoscope again. This time I’m able to hear sounds, moist sounds at the base of Oscar’s left lung. We have an answer: Oscar has pneumonia, dangerous enough in any person, especially so in an Aboriginal child. I order a powerful antibiotic.

 

 

An hour passes, two, and Oscar’s breathing remains fast. But his temperature has fallen and his racing heart has slowed. We give him some formula and he drinks it greedily.

I ask Mum would she like a cup of tea.

‘What?’ She looks up from the phone. She’s been playing Patience.

She takes the drink from my hand without words. Oscar remains in his perch, sitting up now and looking around. His hair is dark and wavy, quite beautiful. He has the face of a cherub. But still his chest heaves as he breathes.

 

 

The hour is late in the Emergency Department. Baby Oscar sleeps on his mother.

‘I think we should keep you both in hospital until Oscar’s better.’

‘You said he was better an hour ago.’

‘Yes, he is better than he was, but he’s still not breathing easily.’

‘Why didn’t you say so an hour ago?’

A sigh escapes my pursed lips.

Mother accepts our hospitality.

 

 

Next morning I’m in the ward checking on Oscar at 6.00. He sleeps and he breathes, lying in the arc of his mother who enfolds him in her sleep. It’s a comforting sight.

 

 

I return at 10.00. Both mother and infant sleep on.

 

 

At noon mother is up and restless: ‘We’re going home now.’

Oscar sits astride their bed, his face buried in a Vegemite sandwich, an upturned bottle, drained of formula, rests on the bed beside him. Before him on a dish lie the remains of mince and mashed potato. I gather from the cutlery these were his mother’s lunch.

 

Eating well and drinking well are unspoken testimony. You can’t suck and swallow, chew and swallow, if you’re a baby and you’re too short of breath. Oscar’s temperature and oxygen levels and heart rate have remained normal and stable. But he still breathes fast and still I hear the rustling sound of air moving through infected mucus.

 

 

‘We need to wait for an x-ray’, I say.

‘When will that be?’

‘At 3.00’.

‘Why not now?’ – belligerently.

‘The x-ray person won’t be here until then’ – placatingly.

 

 

 

At 3.00 the chest x-ray shows opacity where mucus is filling a corner of the lungfield. I show the film to Oscar’s mother: ‘Germs have got into Oscar’s chest there. We’re giving him antibiotics by mouth to kill those germs. He’ll need that medicine twice a day for five days, maybe longer. His next dose is due at 7.00 this evening’.

‘We’re going home.’

‘We can’t make you stay here, but if you go, please be sure to give Oscar his medicine at seven tonight and seven in the morning. It’s very important.’

 

 

It occurs to me I haven’t seen Oscar’s mother give him Panadol or his antibiotic. She hasn’t given him bottles or changed a nappy. She stands back and nurses act. This is a mother who has waged war on the nurses who care for Oscar, and against the doctor. Clearly militant towards us, she keeps herself distant from him. Do we make her feel self-conscious? Does she lack confidence? A clever nurse asks, ‘Would you like us to give the medicine this evening?’

Mother nods. She’ll leave the medicine with us for safekeeping.

 

 

 

Seven o’clock comes, but no mother, no Oscar.

At 7.00 next morning, no show. We don’t know Oscar’s whereabouts. His medicine remains uselessly here with us.
We phone mother’s mobile, but there’s no answer.

No answer that evening, none the next morning.

 

 

A nurse asks me, ‘Do you think Oscar is at risk?’

‘I do.’

As I speak these words I know what they mean. From the time of Oscar’s first, belated arrival three evenings ago I’ve felt a heaviness, a sinking. In advance of any decision I might make, I’ve felt a self-accusation. It falls to me to make Oscar safe, and the legal means is to refer the family to Child Protection. Child Protection is, of course, a heavy instrument and a blunt one. Child protection is the present incarnation of State, the lineal descendant of governments that stole children ‘for their own good.’ That same state massacred people in this district during the 19th and 20th centuries. There’s a weight of history here. Additionally, I realise I don’t like Oscar’s mother. I know those are the reasons I’ve delayed taking action.

 

 

I tuck a note beneath the door of my bucktoothed boss: I’m worried about Oscar. I don’t think he’s safe. Can we talk about local resources to help his family? Some informal arrangement?

 

 

I return home and prepare for the day, the second-last of this week-long locum placement. Around mid-morning I come across Oscar and his mother in the waiting area. The Police have located her and asked her to come in. I see Mother before she sees me. She’s talking on her phone, while Oscar toddles at free range. I note he’s managing to walk without gasping.

 

 

 

I stand before Oscar’s mother, waiting for her conversation to finish. She looks up and continues talking. I stand quietly for some minutes while the conversation continues. From time to time Mother’s eyes registers me in her face. She speaks to her interlocutor: ‘OK, see you later.’

My turn to speak: ‘Hello, it’s good to see you both.’

A stare, no response.

‘How’s Oscar today?’

‘Alright. He’s still coughing.’

I examine Oscar. He is indeed alright. He’s not hot, his breathing is comfortable and the moist sounds of his pneumonia are quieter.

‘Oscar’s much better, isn’t he?’

‘That’s what I said.’

‘Have you given him his antibiotic medicine this morning?’

‘No. How could I? You had it here.’

‘That’s a worry. We’ve been worried about Oscar. He’s missed all his treatments. That’s not safe.’

‘He’s better. You said so yourself.’

‘Yes, he is better. That’s good… You know we couldn’t find you. We had to send the Police.’

‘No you never. He’s been safe with me.’

‘I’m really happy to see how much better he is. But you promised to bring him back two nights ago and you didn’t.’

‘Not my fault… Family things.’

While a nurse gives Oscar his antibiotic, mother returns to her phone.

 

 

 

The Director of Nursing describes an informal service in the community which provides support to families. A nurse shows parents how to give medicines and how to use a thermometer. The nurse visits in the days after discharge from hospital, and contacts the family every week to chat and quietly keep an eye on a child’s wellbeing.

 

 

 

I like the sound of support and tactful surveillance. I look past the Boss and out her window, out towards the mortuary. The girl who arrived back here when I did, one week ago, died of unsuspected heart disease. Her sorry business continues. The hospital didn’t know how ill she was, the community nurse didn’t know, social supports never knew. My mind comes back to Oscar. He’s making a remarkable recovery on the strength of a single dose of antibiotic, but he’s not yet cured. He’ll need a further X-ray, he’ll need to see specialists at the regional hospital, he’ll need lung scans and breathing tests. He’s likely to need close medical surveillance through his childhood, possibly life-long.

 

 

I make my decision. I return to my office and call Child Protection. We speak for a long time. I complete the forms and return to Oscar and his mother.  She’s engaged with the phone. I reckon she’s spent most of our numerous hours together face-down and screen-bent. The face rises to me, tightly closed. I speak: ‘I’ve been thinking about Oscar and how to make sure he gets better and he stays better. I think it’s too hard for you and us together to keep him safe. We need help so I’ve notified Child Protection.’

Mother sits up straight: ‘What?’

‘I told them he has breathing problems and it’s too hard for his family to keep him safe without help.’

Mother looks shocked. She summons strength, looks defiant: I’ll talk to Child protection. Don’t you worry. I’ll tell them.’

Her long hard stare seems intended to threaten.



It’s time for me to leave the hospital. I’ll only just manage to catch the plane out. Before we part, I need to join with Oscar’s mother. I tell her my simple truth: ‘You and I want the same thing for Oscar: we both want him to be healthy.’ My simple truth leaves no impression on the wrathful mother. I leave and I fly away, and I cannot know whether I have done Oscar good or ill. 

Agonists

“A physicist is made of atoms. a physicist is an atom’s way of knowing about atoms.”

George Wald, scientist and Nobel laureate wrote this.

The quote crossed my screen today, buried inside my daily bulletin from Wordsmith.com

If you like to get drunk on words you’re likely to find pleasure in that site. I do.

So What?

So what? I mean what’s the big deal? Another marathon (my fifty-fifth), another marathon story: to the reader, yet one more story about the same tedious event, meaningless, surely. But to me, runner and recorder of fifty-five runs? That I bother obsessively to count them suggests they count for something, if only to me.

 

 

 

Thirty years ago, Helena Mann, the elderly mother-in-law of my sister, challenged me: Howard, this marathon running you do, it is disordered somehow.  

Helena survived Belsen and emerged without hatred. I held her in the highest esteem. Her words had a weight and a heft and I thought on them and I think on them still.  And yet, and yet, there’s that fugitive line from Malamud’s ‘The Fixer’…

 

 

 

 

It all starts in the year 1954 in the small town of Leeton, New South Wales, where a small boy reads the story of Pheidippides, an ancient Athenian who ran long distances in the service of his countrymen and died in their service with the word “Joy” on his lips. The boy reads and absorbs the story of lonely endurance, of courage and glorious death. The boy is transfixed, transformed and inspired. 

 

 

 

The boy realises these storied events took place a long, long time ago. That boy, raised on Bible stories, lives fully in stories, untroubled by the small matter of antiquity. It never occurs to the boy the story might not be History but myth. If it had occurred to him, knowing already how a story can be true without being factual, he’d still be moved. For him all story is formative. The story of the runner crystallises within the boy. Thirty years after reading the tale he enters a marathon in Traralgon. He completes the entry form: Family Name: Goldenberg. First name: Pheidippides. He declares the admixture of solid fact and true romance which is his identity.

 

 

 

From the first, the runner sees the marathon as the field of heroes. There’s a majesty, a grandeur to the event. Blessed in the spirit, cursed in the flesh by history, a marathon is apotheosis, the elevation of the pedestrian to the immortal. But Traralgon, this small town, where cows graze in the shade of the chimneys of doom? An unlikely location, surely, for the heroic.  But Pheidippides is old enough to remember Derek Clayton, the Aussie marathoner who ran the 1969 Fukuoka Marathon in 2 hours and nine minutes, the first in the world to beat two hours and ten minutes. As the world hails Kipchoge today for beating two hours, Clayton astonished the world for smashing the barrier of the day. Just one year later he ran Traralgon, setting a local record time, a record that still stands at the time of writing. 

 

 

 

Pheidippides Goldenberg has long known the glory. By the year 1956 he has been translated from his country town to Oakleigh, in the mystifying metropolis of Melbourne. Here heroes run past the bottom of his street. Those heroes include Emil Zatopek, perhaps the greatest distance runner of modern times. At the Start of the Olympic Marathon, Zatopek, now past his best, addresses his peers: Men, today we die a little. By the time Zatopek passes Atkinson Street in Oakleigh, he’s trailing the leaders. The boy sights the champion, leaps into the field and runs at the side of his hero. Fifty yards on the boy declares the race a tie and he leaves Emil to complete the distance. 

 

 

 

On this warm day the heat will defeat many of the proven great; these will drop out, but Zatopek will not. He’ll finish in sixth place, utterly vanquished but hailed at the Line by the crowd. Alain Mimoun of France, thrice beaten by Zatopek for gold, has today triumphed. He seeks out Zatopek at the finish to salute him. Bodies of men who have died a little are animated by an elevated spirit that does not escape the boy.

 

 

 

And so it is in the year 1980, in Traralgon, of one hundred and eighty-one runners who enter the marathon, one hundred and forty-one finish. Listed 141st is Pheidippides Goldenberg, who preserves the printout of the results. That marathon in Traralgon is a mighty struggle, which is, of course, the point. Early in the event Pheidippides runs far too fast. At 32 kilometres he hits the Wall. There remain a further ten and the runner learns the hard truth that 32K is just half the race in spiritual terms.

 

 

 

 

 At this point, all energy spent, Pheidippides’ right calf is struck by a mighty cramp. He cannot run a single step. He turns around and tries running backwards. Now the quadriceps muscles at the front of the thigh seize each other, a quartet of muscle shrieking in pain. Pheidippides cannot run a backward step. He stops and walks and gives thanks.

 

 

 

Traralgon is a midwinter event. By 4.00 PM, the shadows lengthen, the day chills, no runners are in sight. An ambulance approaches, slows, and a concerned voice asks the walker who earlier was a runner if he’s alright. He says he is. The voice asks, Would you like a blanket? Somehow this makes the runner laugh. Reassured, the ambos drive on, but they circle and at intervals they return.

 

 

 

A long time later the walker sights the Traralgon Football Ground. He has to complete only a single circuit of the oval, then he can cross the Line and finish. He tests the calf with a diffident jog; no complaint. He breaks into a shuffling run. Half way around the oval, movement on his left disturbs his reverie; appalled, he sees a crowd  emerging from the footy clubhouse. More and more people, one hundred and forty finishers, together with all the non-finishers, and all their spouses and children and all the volunteers, gather on the verandah to witness the runner’s mortification. Now the hundreds begin to clap. Cheering breaks out, the applause grows louder. Pheidippides crosses the line. He weeps, all shame washed away, never to return. 

 

 

 

More marathons follow, all following the same pattern. In Alice Springs (nine times), in the Gold Coast (thrice), in New York (five times), in Boston (five times), in the Melbourne Marathon (eighteen or so), back in Traralgon (about nine more), in Malta, at the World’s Veteran Games, in the Sydney Marathon – in all these marathons, Pheidippides, enters, suffers, is humbled, manages to finish and feels enormously pleased with himself. Here he has overcome deep fatigue, here injury, there undertraining, the next time overtraining; in his first Boston he experiences hypoglycaemia, becoming deranged with hypomania; in a later Boston he evades the bombs; in Sydney he survives a viral infection; once in Boston and once in Melbourne, he runs underdressed, becomes quickly chilled, then soaked, then lashed by winds that afflict him further in his hypothermic misery. In crisis after crisis, Pheidippides says to himself, this is foolishness. I won’t do this again.

 

 

 

 

The worse the ordeal, the richer the laurels. His very mediocrity feeds Pheidippides’ vanity. Here he is, one who has conquered adversity, one who has conquered himself. In all the high regard in which he holds his true heroes – the Australians De Castella, Monaghetti, Clayton; Juma Ikaanga of Tanzania; Gelindo Bordin of Tuscany, Zatopek himself, and the original Pheidippides of Marathon Field – every time he crosses the Line, the boy from Leeton feels himself as one with these greats. And he writes a chapter in his own legend.

 

 

 

 

In July 2019 in Broome, on the pink sands of Cable Beach something changes: Pheidippides starts to run, he continues to run, he keeps on running, he reaches the Line and he finishes. No agony, no crisis, no ‘Wall’, no wrestling with doubt. The element of struggle absent, what story can there be to record? Instead he feels simple joy, unalloyed, sustained through the forty-two kilometres. He recalls the first Pheidippides who finished with joy on his lips.

 

 

 

A couple of months pass. Back home in Melbourne, October approaches and Pheidippides realizes he hasn’t registered for the local event, Australia’s biggest marathon. In truth he’s never loved the Melbourne Marathon. He lives in that city, it holds the concrete reality of his rich life but it glows with none of the unreality that enhances his magical sites – Boston, Alice Springs, Malta, Athens. Melbourne is ordinary, and in the marathon Pheidippides looks for the sublime. So no, he won’t enter Melbourne this year. As if to solidify his resolution, he doesn’t train.   

 

 

 

 

But then he remembers Manny. Long before Manny Karageorgiou became Pheidippides’ friend he was a celebrated marathoner. He was one of the very few who ran the first Melbourne Marathon and every one that followed. By the time he ran his fortieth and final Melbourne in 2017, Manny was one of the eight Official Legends. Manny paid a high price for his devotion to the event. Proudly Greek, he dreamed long of running the Athens Marathon, but it clashed with Melbourne and Manny would not grant himself leave from the event he helped to found. He would not forsake his seven peers.

 

 

 

 

In 2014 Manny developed sore ribs. X-rays showed why his bones hurt: they were invaded by cancer.  Manny subjected himself to quite hideous chemotherapy, arising between treatments in hospital to train and to run Melbourne. In those years Pheidippides, his doctor, ran at Manny’s side. Through 2017, Manny had scarcely left hospital. Training was impossible. Came October, and Manny joined the Legends at the Start. He wouldn’t run but he’d walk as far as he could. Who knew, perhaps he’d even finish. So Manny set out, his devoted son at his side, relatives and friends and Pheidippides in his shadow. Some in the crowd hailed him, they knew him, they knew his legend. At four kilometres Manny’s foot caught the edge of a tramline and he fell heavily. At length he managed to get to his feet, blood oozing from his grazed face and his skinned shoulder and knee. Medics crowded around him, but Manny waved them away and walked on.

The medics were troubled: Let’s dress those injuries, sir…

I’m alright, said Manny.

You don’t look alright, mate.

Manny’s doctor cut in: He’ll be okay.

But he wasn’t. A kilometer further on, standing in the crowd at the roadside, Manny’s wife Demitra sighted him. She strode into the field and enfolded him and led him away. 

 

 

 

 

Manny died not many months later. In 2018 his son, Pana, ran Athens in his father’s honour. In 2019 Pheidippides Goldenberg entered the event and ran in memory and celebration of the man who embodied the spirit of the ancient Pheidippides. 

 

 

 

 

In Vienna the previous day a modest Kenyan named Eliud Kipchoge completed the marathon distance under the two-hour barrier that sports scientists regarded as impregnable. After his run he predicted greater things for his species: No human being is limited, he said: I’m expecting more people to do it after me. He went on to speak of building peace in the world. If one person could break two hours, what might we do collectively?

 

 

 

 

In Melbourne, on his way to a staggeringly slow finish, Pheidippides recalled Helena Mann: this is your answer, Helena. This ‘disordered’ marathon business is small, like all our human effort. Ultimately it is meaningless, of course. But look, see among us, how the human spirit flickers but burns on.

 

 

 

And as he ran, he remembered those lines from Malamud’s ‘Fixer’: I am a man. That is not very much. But it is a great deal more than nothing.

 

 

 

 

***

 

 

 

 

There was a second who ran that day in Melbourne, a boy who escorted his Saba over the final eight kilometres of the course. The boy had been with Pheidippides at Traralgon. He’d seen the agony of that day, he’d felt the glory, he hungered to have it for himself. He said, I’m going to run marathons. I’m going to run marathons with you, Saba.

By the time you’re old enough to run a whole marathon, darling, I might be deadybones.

You’ll never be deadybones, Saba.

Everybody dies, darling.

You won’t Saba. I won’t let you. I love you Saba.