Summer Stories: Just Dirt

Before arriving in Coober Pedy I read of The Breakaways, an accessible scenic spot of some sacred significance. Once in town I asked directions. These were simple enough to alarm me: ‘Turn right at the Stuart Highway, turn right at the signposted track and drive to the end of the road.’  And – ‘You  best get there in time for sunset or sunrise, when the colours are stronger. Other times it’s bleached by the sun.’

The Stuart bisects our continent. I’ve never found myself alone on the Stuart before. The road roars with lorries and road trains that hug the tail of your smaller vehicle at their permitted 110 kilometres an hour. But this early morning my car alone moved through the dark along the Stuart. Cloud covered the stars. The car radio was silent. A velvet cloak sat upon the earth. I knew I was alone.

The kilometres slipped behind me as I raced to catch a doubtful sunrise. A tiny signpost flashed into sight and out. Had I missed the turnoff? I laughed aloud at my famed ability to get lost. But no – a few minutes on a large sign read: THE BREAKAWAYS. So-named, I read, because chunks of the planet appear broken off from the surrounding scarp.  One or two locals, indigenous people, shrugged when I mentioned The Breakaways: ‘Never been’, said one. ‘Just dirt’, said a second.

The velvet was breaking up. Teal blues split the clouds, a lightening over my shoulder from the east, the dark surface now reddening, the black grasses greening. Earth awakening, but everywhere, silence, stillness. The dirt track shifted beneath my tyres, the car, tipsy, slid from side to side, my passage never quite controlled, not fully skidding. Up a rise, the end of the road. Once out the car the first sensation a blast of wind, night-cooled, but warming towards today’s 46 maximum.  A wooden barrier separated me from a sudden void. The earth fell away at my feet, a vast valley, roughchopped, opened before me. The wind tore up the slopes and away. Nothing else moved. No sound. No life. Stepping forward felt like sacrilege.

I stood still and gazed, astonished. Unprepared for an encounter none could prepare for, I simply stood. My eyes flew up the slopes of table-topped massifs and followed the fall of abrupt clefts. Hills of caramel pink and nude rocks of white ochre in a repeating pattern of rise and fall, fall and rise. And no sound at all. Was this the birthplace of the world? Would that scrubby shrub at the valley floor burst into unconsuming flame?

I stood for some time as one at prayer. I knew an aloneness and a silence and a stillness that must have spoken to my soul. In time I returned to time and I took up the elements of my ritual dawn prayers and I prayed and I gave thanks. I felt kin to others who have stood here over the millennia and contemplated creation. I made my poor homage.

At length a living thing came to me in the stillness, a blowfly. The fly sniffed and sipped, and finding my skin dry, it went its ways. The wind whipped my tallith which made to join the insect in flight. Alone again, no human on earth today had better access to his Creator. If a voice had called, ‘Howard, Howard’, I believe I’d have answered, Hineni.

My prayers done I walked to the display that detailed the nearby salients. The text, authorized by a local elder, hinted opaquely at their sacred significance. The place has its true name, Kangu. Behind me at a short remove was the bearded dragon, Cadney, over there was Pupa, two dogs lying down.  And in front was Kalayu, the emu, father caring for his chicks. The area is an initiation site for young boys. Its elaborated meanings are secret, forbidden. This is meet. Sufficient to be here in mystery.

A side track to Pupa beckoned and I ran. Ochreous powder cushioned my feet. The track took me down and around. Soon I was at the valley floor and the mighty forms rose up, thronging about me. This was ‘just dirt’ and I human clay, a small thing in all the greatness. I thought of the miracle of being, I thought of annihilation. So easy here, to slip, to fall, to break an ankle. In a day or two the heat would finish a crippled runner. The thoughts carried no drama, little colour. Death in this valley would be ordinary; it was living and moving that were out of the order of things.

I was alive and moving. I turned and I ran back up the hills.

Goodbye My Friend

We are saying goodbye to Mannie today.

Mannie, my friend.

Mannie, whose loved ones weep today.

Manny, one sole man, who ran and ran.

Mannie whose race is finally run.

Mannie’s roots lie in Greece.

Mannie was true to his roots.

Those roots brought forth shoots who live and grow and bear fruit. The shoots are the children of Mannie and Demitra. When the young couple named their shoots they were visited by the muses: they named their children not Lucy but Alithea; not Robert but Panayioti; not Susan but Leni. The names carry meaning, love of course, and destiny.

Mannie did not give his children easy names, Aussie names, names to hide behind. He gave them what he received – a culture, a tradition, a history of beauty and pride.

Everyone knows of the feats of Manuel Karageorgiou, Mannie, who ran the first Melbourne Marathon and the second and the third and …

Manny was one of the eight. Eight glorious souls who had lived and toiled and wrought in every Melbourne Marathon from the first to the latest. Forty consecutive marathons. Foolish.

I want to suggest to the non-runner reader what Mannie’s folly entailed. Physiologists have identified an end point of energy. And adult human can run about 32 kilometres, then energy reserves are exhausted. After that the runner faces a wall. The runner digs into a core of belief and runs a further step. There remain ten kilometres, ten thousand steps. The runner digs further, drawing on pride, on mystic need, on love, on some truth in the soul. And the runner runs on, runs through a wrecked body. The runner now is pure spirit.

And then there are the final, agonising, ecstatic one hundred and eighty steps. The runner crosses the line and then the race is run.

A few paragraphs ago I began listing Mannie’s Melbourne Marathons. I stopped after three. Were I merely to list the forty your eyes would glaze, your mind would wilt, you’d leave the track that Mannie and the Eight would not leave.

My Greek friend always dreamed of running the Athens Marathon, a homecoming profound beyond imagining. But Mannie never allowed himself to run Athens because it clashed with Melbourne. And Mannie owed the event his presence, his being. Mannie would not desert his friends of the Eight.

I’d like you to visit www.howardgoldenberg.com and look up posts that tell of three of Mannie’s marathons. You’ll find them dated October 2014, 2015, 2016. And then read https://howardgoldenberg.com/2017/10/23/its-not-how-long-youve-got-its-what-you-do-with-it/ from October 2017.

I’ll reveal here some of Mannie’s medical history, normally a forbidden act. But Mannie as we know was not a normal man:

While on an early morning training run before the Melbourne Marathon a few years ago I sensed a solid bulk of human flesh approaching in the gloom. The flesh developed a face and the face shot a me smile through the mist. Mannie recognised me first.

Here he was, I knew, fresh from his bone marrow transplant. Preposterous – Mannie understood – to run a marathon with that illness, outrageous, with those therapies. He’d visited me the previous week to talk about running again. ‘The specialist says I shouldn’t run. Howard, is he right?’

‘I suppose he must be Mannie. One fall and your bones can break, so easily.’

It was a broken rib, cancerous, we both recalled, that uncovered Mannie’s diagnosis.

Mannie looked at me. Mannie knew I was no cancer expert, just a runner. His look was a plea; he wanted a reprieve.

I said I could tell him what was the safest course. But then I told him about my mother:’Late in Mum’s life her health was shattered by strokes, but the spirit of the wanderer that had taken her to the bright and the dark ends of the globe, burned still. My sister and I were going to fly to Uluru. Mum wanted to come. She said, “If I stay at home I’ll die one day anyhow. I’d sooner go and see and find and know; and if I die doing it, I’ll have seen the rock. That would still be a good deal for me.” Mannie thanked me and left.  You know what Mannie decided.

I referred before to Mannie’s folly. I’ve seen marathons. I’ve seen and felt the interest and the indifference of spectators. I’ve seen the fellowship of running. I’ve felt the loneliness of the Malta plains. I’ve seen the splendour and I’ve seen the blackness: both were present that day in Boston. I thought I had seen it all, until I ran a marathon with Mannie. An entourage ambushed him – a son, a brother, a younger leviathan figure, a clutch of attractive young women (I wondered who they were. I learned they were girlfriends of nephews of Mannie.) This phalanx of nonrunners surrounded Mannie, they spread widely across the road. Mannie was one runner among thousands, but he alone moved in this stream of flesh aching with love. They ran and ran alongside their hero – the older man, the fat man, the glamorous girls. They tasted fatigue but they would not leave him, not until he reached the next plank in Mannie’s platform of love; and this, of course, was Demitra. ‘DEM!’, he cried, and they kissed. And Demitra held their grandbaby. Mannie stopped. He held that chubby child close and inhaled her. And then he ran on.

I have written of a human, a person. I have written of him chiefly as the operator of a pair of legs. A person is more than that. More than a disease, more than his diagnosis. But in Mannie the runner I see the human and his fate. This man faced Nemesis and outran him for year after year. And when at last – five kilometres into the fortieth marathon, after Mannie stumbled and fell, then arose bloodied – it was Demitra who stepped from the footpath, who took his hand and led him away.

“..Old age hath yet his honour and his toil;

Death closes all: but something ere the end,

Some work of noble note, may yet be done…”

Farewell, Mannie. We will not see your like again.

Mannie’s family have let it be known they don’t want floral tributes to mannie. They’d prefer us to donate to the Myeloma Foundation in his memory. And of course, in his honour.

Summer Stories 2: Chilled Bill and the Blue Baby

At medical school in Melbourne I met a tall bloke with a hyphen in his surname. His forename was Bill. He was bigger than I and much smarter. Bill came from Tasmania. In Melbourne Bill met Sally, a nurse, also from Tasmania. Sally too had a hyphen. The two married and they hyphenated each other ever after.

My first clear memory of Bill is of finding him in shorts and a short sleeved shirt, seated at his desk one evening in his room at Farrer Hall. The window was open and Melbourne’s winter breezes fluttered the curtains and cooled the room. Bill asked if I’d like to join him in a run. I hadn’t run since schooldays but I said yes.

We ran hard and long through the cold evening. We met and climbed hills, we plunged down the further side, reckless and joyful, we saw our breath white and vaporous in the street lights. Like Falstaff and the young King Hal we heard the chimes at midnight. We ran and our chests burned, and we kept going until we had outrun all chill. From that day to this I have run. It was Bill who started it.

Bill and the hyphenated Sally started making babies. The first was a girl, Joanna. She was born blue. For a year or more Joanna stayed blue; there was hole in her heart. Bill and Sally travelled to Auckland where the reigning champion repairer of babies’ hearts fixed up Joanna’s. A second baby, Jackie, followed Joanna into the world. Jackie was pink, hale and whole.

Annette and I and our own pink baby visited the Hyphens in Auckland. I took a picture of three pink toddlers laughing themselves silly in a bathtub in Auckland.

Eighteen years later I visited northern Tasmania for the ritual removal of a foreskin. While there I visited Bill and Sally. Joanna, by now a physio student in Melbourne, was also visiting. Still pink, Joanna had become a runner. We went for a run together, Jo and I. We ran hard and long through the cold evening. We met and climbed hills, we plunged down the further side, reckless and joyful, we saw our breath white and vaporous in the street lights. Like Falstaff and the young King Hal we heard the chimes at midnight. We ran and our chests burned, and we kept going until we had outrun all chill.

Such a runner was Jo that she’d won the Burnie 10K in open company as a junior. She went on to represent Australia in the World Junior Olympics in Rumania.

Back in Tasmania recently (for medical work that endangered no foreskins) I looked up Bill and Sally. Bill’s total knee replacement surgery of two months ago has been a success. He’s about ready to go running again.

The photograph shows Bill and Sally and the author’s grandson Toby. Toby is a brave and tough runner.

Summer Stories: A Small Town in the Bush

This blog has just now awoken from a long nap. While asleep the blog saw or visited or dreamed a number of summer stories. Here’s the first.

You might have heard of Avoca’s rushes. The gold rush, the coal rush, the bull rush.

You drive in on the main street and the first thing you notice is nothing. I mean the main street is wide, country town wide. And nothing moves.

You know you’ve arrived in an Australian country town when nothing happens. Unlike the classic barroom scene in the Westerns, where the arrival of the newcomer throws the crowded bar into silent, menacing scrutiny of the arrival, you arrive in Avoca unremarked.

People reside in Avoca but no-one rushes here. The rushes are over. The bull rushes persist, but they persist in a gentle way. The bulls graze, they browse, they produce their climate-malignant methane and they do their business and they leave their calling cards. Only when serving a cow does the Avoca bull rush. Avoca is no Pamplona.

In the main street the structural element of the bovine persists in the shape of the Cow Shed Café. I saw the cafe and, metropolitan coffee snob that I am, I drove past. On a later visit the Cow Shed Café was still there. So I stopped. I found the shop is wider than it is deep. Within the narrow oblong between the shop’s front and the high counter you stand closely surrounded, indeed compressed, by handicrafts. You can buy doilies and crocheted items that are rich in colour and of no function that I could divine. They look like something your granny might make for charity or for therapy. But these are for commerce. You can buy them. Postcards that show the Cow Shed Café sit on the counter awaiting your purchase. Next to the postcards an array of jams and sauces and syrups and chutneys gleams at you. These are Avoca’s café’s crown jewels. Behind the counter a man as tall and narrow as his shop stands and awaits your pleasure. He’d be fifty, perhaps a decade more, the skin of his brown face hangs in deep furrows, his voice is deep, resonant and very pleasing. You hear the voice and you know you want to have a conversation with this jam and doily man.

‘Who makes these jams and sauces?’

‘Mother. Mother makes them all.’ A sweep of a long arm encompasses all the handicrafts and the comestible preserves. ‘Mother picked these raspberries this morning.’ I hadn’t noticed the berries. Bright like the doilies they call, Buy me! Buy me!

‘Lived here long?’

‘All my life. Mother too. We’ll all leave one day, feet first.’ The man smiles and the smile and the voice merge, a single harmonious entity.

I buy some bright things and I leave.

The historic records evoke old Avoca: “In 1827 Roderic O’Connor wrote in his journal – ‘There is a vacant space immediately at the junction of the South Esk and St Paul’s River. We beg to recommend reserving it’. In 1832 military troops, formerly at ‘St Paul’s Plains’, were recorded as garrisoned at Avoca.”

By 1834 Avoca was a town.

Apparently old Avoca was always a place of drama and event, as today. The record goes on: “Bona Vista’ (circa 1842) is a magnificent Georgian homestead built by Simeon Lord and doubtless the centre of society at the time. Martin Cash is said to have worked there as a groom before becoming a notorious bushranger. In 1853 bushrangers Dalton and Kelly made a raid on the house, committed a murder and robbed the house. Blood stains remain on the steps. In 1890 a young man named Beckitt was murdered at the homestead woodheap, his body dumped in the South Esk River to be discovered by Tom Badkin Jr.”

The stone building calls to me and I approach and mooch around, here and at the church. A country quiet enfolds all. The afternoon wind softly sighs and soughs. The sun shines upon the green and the old convict stones speak mutely of endurance, modestly of grandeur. So fine these stone walls, their patterning and proportions so pleasing to the eye that sees not the aching backs and the cruel sufferings of the convicts who were the unwilling labourers.

A Post Office opened at Avoca on 1st Jan 1838. It stands still on the main road. I slow and read a sign outside offering the fine stone structure for sale. I stop and mooch. Naturally I want to buy it. I could do with a Post Office. But I’ll stand aside for you if you want it too.

Avoca lies in the Fingal Valley. Forty kilometres distant, Fingal is a town similar to Avoca. A nurse I work with tells me: ‘I grew up in Fingal. But I left. I realized single in Fingal might be my epitaph so I left.’

Running from Office

The following verse followed me from the city and found me where I am working in remoter parts:

I had written him a letter which I had, for want of better

Knowledge, sent to where I met him down the ‘bidgee, years ago,

He was doctoring when I knew him, so I sent the letter to him,

Just `on spec’, addressed as follows, `Goldie, Doctor of The Overflown’.

And an answer came directed in a writing not unexpected,

(And for sure the same was written with that horrible doctors’ scrawl)

‘Twas his running mate who wrote it, and verbatim I will quote it:

`Goldie’s gone to Queensland doctoring, and we don’t know where he are.’

In my wild erratic fancy visions come to me of Goldie

Gone a-doctoring `down the Cooper’ where the Western doctors go;

As his flock are slowly sitting, Goldie runs past them singing,

For the bush doctor’s life has pleasures that the townsfolk never know.

And the bush hath friends to meet him, and their kindly voices greet him

In the murmur of the breezes and the river on its bars,

And he sees the vision splendid of the sunlit plains extended,

And at night the wond’rous glory of the everlasting stars.

I am sitting in my dingy little office, where a not so stingy

Ray of sunlight struggles not so much between the buildings tall,

And the foetid air and gritty of the dusty, dirty city

Through the air con floating, spreads its foulness over all

And in place of lowing cattle, I can hear the fiendish rattle

Of the tramways and the ‘buses making hurry down the street,

And the language uninviting of the gutter children fighting,

Comes fitfully and faintly through the ceaseless tramp of feet.

And the hurrying people daunt me, and their pallid faces haunt me

As they shoulder one another in their rush and nervous haste,

With their eager eyes and greedy, and their stunted forms and weedy,

For townsfolk have no time to grow, they have no time to waste.

And I somehow rather fancy that I’d like to change with Goldie,

Like to take a turn at doctoring where the seasons come and go,

While he faced the round eternal of the drafting and advising —

But I doubt he’d suit the office, Goldie, ‘Doctor of The Overflown’.

Nicholas Miller, legal practitioner and versifier, has doctored Paterson’s ‘Clancy ‘

The Continuing Silence

Paul, beloved friend,

Are you there?

Can you hear me, can you hear or feel or know the love I send?

Three weeks, four, have passed without a letter from my friend.

My friend kept me informed: he told me of the tribe of cats who lived in his caritas, his agape, his lovingkindness.  He called each of them by name.

My friend wrote of the roadrunner (likewise given a name; he kept me apprised of the rattlesnakes that swarmed in his wilderness places, as well as of the evangelist rattlesnakes on tv, and of the rattlesnakes who called by phone to extort from him in the name of righteousness.

My friend wrote of his work in the rivers of venereal pus that flowed among his captive patients in WWII. He wrote of aviation, of the sober joys and disciplines of flight. He wrote of his instructor, one Pemberton, whose memory and example he cherished.

My friend taught this doctor, a long generation younger than he, much of the medicine that had escaped him in his undergraduate days, and that eluded him until the happy day that Paul strode into his life and became a preceptor.

My friend wrote of prayer, of his habitation in the house of prayer.

My friend wrote on his bended knees as he prayed for his fracturing nation.

My friend sent me funny stories, he sent me risque stories, he sent me the news from the frontiers of science, and he sent me the news of tabloid headline that were of little science.These he derided with fine despatch.

My friend wrote often of the good people he had known, people who have long passed but whose good name and memory he kept alive with his remarkable recall and his great respect.

My friend wrote of Beverley who was the light of his life and the fire of his loins. He revered her, he missed and he yearned for her perpetually. Of her he wrote, ‘Great was the joy in heaven when she entered that kingdom’.

My friend’s body was wearying, wearing out, but his mind remained scythe-sharp.

My friend, his integrity unbending, was weakened by the cheating and the chicanery of the mendicants who plagued him. I felt Paul’s righteous being was affronted and his spirit distressed by these cheats.

My friend had standards and he never wavered.

My friend loved the human frame, the creation whose anatomy and parts he new so well. He saw in that frame the work of his Creator.

My friend wrote only weeks ago to report evidence of brain function persisting AFTER death.  What did he think of that? What now, stricken mute by stroke, does Paul think?

How are the mighty fallen.

My friend wrote to me with love. He wrote and he told me he was ready.

I am not ready.

Who, of Paul’s eighty faithful readers, can be ready?

Paul, I know nought of those awaiting your arrival above, but here on earth, great will the weeping if you leave us.

Paul, can you hear me?

Do you know our love?

Paul?

Paul?

Howard

Love

I realise I have written little in this blog that does not touch on death in some way or other. I have written less of love. Probably I write of death as one preparing for that moment of truth. I write myself toward it and around it as one not yet in it. The pursuit, neither morbid nor frivolous, is the necessary (if deplorable) corollary of growing up. If I write little of love it is because I dwell within it and have done all my days. But the third day of December arrives every year and it reminds me.

Here then, conceived on December 3 2017, is a love story.

My wife is married to a pleasant enough man. I’ve known him for a long time, and although I admire him generously, yet I concede he is not perfect. My wife has put up with imperfection, with hopes incompletely realised for 48 years. On December 3 this year she gave her spouse a card, upon which the following words appeared:

This is my wish for you…

 

Comfort on difficult days,

Smiles when sadness intrudes,

Rainbows to follow the clouds,

Laughter to kiss your lips,

Sunsets to warm your heart,

Hugs when spirits sag,

Beauty for your eyes to see,

Friendships to brighten your being,

Faith so you can believe,

Confidence for when you doubt,

Courage to know yourself,

Patience to accept the truth,

Love to complete your life.

 

 

Better than the average Hallmark homily, I thought. And indeed the name I read beneath these lines was Ralph Waldo Emerson.

But the platitudes of the great philosopher were not penned by my wife. I opened the card and read her handwritten message.

I won’t share those words beyond this: my wife commanded herself to love me for a further 48 years. I did a little weep for joy and for thanksgiving. And the words remained in me, resonating, lighting the damp and darkened world about me. We drove to the country to lunch as the guests of our recently widowed friend. Aged in her mid-nineties, our host prepared our meal with dogged independence and perfect accuracy. We sat in her sylvan retreat and we shared her sorrow. For the first time in our long friendship our host’s beloved was absent. Only love abided.

Outside the window the green world was soaked by unseasonable rains. Behind and above the green the world was grey. Suddenly my wife started: ‘Look!’ she said. I turned and looked and there, a glory of gold and green, sat a king parrot, nibbling the widow’s birdseed.

Love lit my night. I recited my morning prayers and read the Shema with its credo. Immediately following the words of that key formula of faith was a concrete Commandment. And the command was love.

I opened the novel* that my men’s book club will discuss tonight. The editor wrote: If the novel can be said to have one central idea, it is surely of love, the many forms love takes…’a passion neither of the mind nor of the heart… a force that comprehends them both.’

 

 

 

 

*’Stoner’, by John Williams