The Reader in the End Times

You and I are fellow readers. We see words and we read them. It
happens without deliberation; it has become our condition, our

This morning, I sat in a small room and performed one of my daily
functions, a function one of my patients termed his ‘constitutional’.
And while in that small room, I read. I didn’t go there to read, but
there was reading matter.
These are the items I saw, the texts of evacuation:




ADVANCED LIFE SUPPORT (4 items, once advanced, now outdated)

Q.1 – are you over 18 years of age?
Q.2 – have you ever had sex?
Q.3 – is it more than 2 years since you had a Pap test?

I read all of these documents and gave them due thought. In
particular, I answered the (highly personal) questionnaire above. I
was candid: I answered ‘yes’ to all three questions. The notice went
on to advise me:
If you said yes to all these questions, you should have a Pap smear
without delay.
This left me even more thoughtful. Continue reading

Who Will Do the Jobs We Won’t?

I am working as a locum in the small town in the Riverina where I grew
up. Here I had my seed time. This dry, inland
place, this locus of heart’s desire, this, my dreaming place. Few here
remember my family, my parents who were leading citizens.
This forgetting is natural. It’s okay, we are the past.

Today I meet three hired killers from Afghanistan. They present
themselves for medical examination.

The first of the three is Pashtun. Overweight, stout as a tree,
technically obese, not grossly so. Trout-fit, smiling like a child as
he struggles with
my instructions in English, he submits gracefully to my incursions
into his bodily secrets. I am not as tough as others he has met in the
long trip to Leeton,
via boat, then Christmas Island, Darwin, Curtin detention centres. His
time in Christmas Island overlapped with mine.

The second is Azara, a graduate of Christmas Island. Diminutive, with
a jockey’s build, he looks half familiar.
He is a karate exponent, extraordinarily supple, literally fighting
fit. His most active muscles are those that
operate his smile. His wife remains in Pakistan. They have no
children. His date of birth tells me he is 36, but his face speaks of
too much knowledge of the dark,
too many years of hardship over the course of those thirty six.
Despite his freight of knowing he has bounce. He leaves me feeling
lighter for the encounter.
Ta Shakour, he says, ta shakour. Thank you, thank you.

The last of the three, another Azara, will turn 37 next week. He will
mark the occasion without his wife and five children, who remain in
He too was my Christmas Island contemporary. This man lies relaxed on
my examination couch, yogic in his disconnection from thought of what
might be. What will the doctor find,
what disease, what disqualification, what harm I might unearth, these
apprehensions are far from him. He has the secret of harmony.
He needs this: his children and he have been apart for eighteen
months. He recounts the life stages of all five, from the eldest, aged
18, who is in college (a fraction of a proud smile);
the next two who are in high school, the five year old in junior
school, the smallest , just two years old (his smile tender).
Throughout his accounting, the man has shown me the children’s
his hand descending step by step from the stellar eldest to the toddling newest.
Do you speak? Yes.
And skype? Do you see them? Yes, yes, skype, much.

I complete many forms. I attest and take declarations and witness
signed consent to release health data to the employer. I do this
feeling pretty sure that the men sign blind.
But certain too, that they want the job, that they will pay gladly in
privacy for the right to work, to save, to see their loved ones again.

I have seen the future: these men are Australia.
We need them; our abbattoirs need workers, hired killers,
who’ll accept hardship and heat.

Silent Companion

I approach as the sun withdraws. There are only two of us, the Rock and me. I glance upwards: gorgeous parabolas of stone, ferrous waterways etched in rust.  One convex curve of curtained rock is fretted and tinted, purnu, an Aboriginal wood carving.

Around me all is still. I feel as I did as a child when I intruded into my grandparents’ bedroom. No-one found me, but the stillness nearly undid me.

I park the car, hide my keys, and set out, running clockwise. The rock is my companion, watching me, looking down from steeps and heights, not austerely, not unkindly nor yet tenderly. Keeping me in sight, keeping an eye on me.

Everywhere I go on earth I run; I feel the place then, I connect with its earth. I breathe its air. Well, no, not quite everywhere: not in sacred places – not on the Temple Mount, not at the Shrine of Remembrance.

The first time I came to Uluru, I drove here with my Dad. I parked and leaped from the car, crying, See you soon, Dad. Just going for a run to the top.  Continue reading

A Trip to Cuba – Part 3

The People – kind, bright, gracious.

In Cuba, time is not money, money is not time. The people have not realised that they should exact a money price for the gift of time. Time is not (yet) a commodity. It remains a gift.

The Body – in Cuba, the body is nowhere repressed; everywhere it is expressed, accepted, celebrated. A fat, fat lady will wear body-defining lycra, in stripes that accentuate her plenitude. She hears music, and like everyone else, she’ll dance. It hasn’t occurred to her that she is unfeminine, unpretty, not sexy. (Marie Claire costs twice her weekly earnings, so she hasn’t read the truth about her body.) So she lives and dances, innocent of the truth. An unliberated woman.

A man stands facing us in a public place, his eyes and mind are elsewhere. Idly he scratches his balls. He takes his time, doing the job thoroughly. Like a long-legged fly upon the stream, his mind moves upon silence. He finishes his scratching, looks up, his eyes and mine lock, while Annette looks away to spare him embarrassment. She need not bother: the man looks into the distance again and loosens his three piece set from the grip of his undies.

The cityscape of La Habana – so rich in architectural beauty, frequently neglected, never abased.

The pride of these humble people.  There is no cultural cringe in Cuba, no sense that authentic life lies somewhere else. What they lack, what exists across the sea, is affluence, not life.

A feeling of security wherever we go in Cuba. No street is too dark and lonely to walk. Encounters with strangers are not alarming.

They say there is petty crime against property, but we see no sign of it. Crime against persons is rare.

(Perhaps, after the embargo, things will change: the Mafia will return, and introduce World’s Best Practice.)

The black Cubans – tall, beautifully made men and women, the men broad, the women slender. They carry themselves like aristocrats, their movement fluid and graceful.

The music – it is everywhere, and almost everywhere it’s live – performed before you or beside you or behind you. You can’t eat or drink, shop or walk without a chance encounter with music.

The music is of the people: it creates them as much as they create the music.

A music scholar wrote that Afrocuban music is the fruit of the love affair between the Spanish guitar and the African drum.

Music and pride are mutual creations in Cuba. Cubans know that their small nation creates a musical gift enjoyed and valued far beyond their homeland.

The Spanish Language – they’ve got words in Spanish for just about everything: it’s a whole nother language, you might say, and a wholly beautiful language. And the Cubans don’t laugh at you when you try to speak it.


The Blood of Your Children

The blood of your children cries out from the earth
And we hear their blood cry
Not again,
Not the children;
In the bowels of Christ
Not the children

The blood of your children cries out
And we in Australia
Ask why those guns?
In the bowels of Christ
All those guns
With your children
Paying the price?

And we in Australia
Why would a mother…
Why did his mother?

And mothers fear
For their little ones
And fathers fear
For their guns
And from fear
Is born fear

And from fear, anger
Comes, then danger
And we reach
For our little ones
Daughters and sons
And some reach again
For their guns

Copyright, Howard Goldenberg, 17 December, 2012

A Trip to Cuba – Part 2

English: Apartment building facade and residen...

Habana Vieja, Havana. December 2006. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 December 2, 1999.

We land at Jose Marti airport in La Habana on a mild and sunny day. In the course of this day we will learn a lot about the country during our hours at the airport. We learn quickly that the hot, steamy Cuba of fiction is just that: the truth is an anti-climatic surprise. We learn that Ron de Cuba is not a person but a beverage, rum to be precise. And we learn that Capitalism is rapacious, that a Capitalist will sell his mother if the price is right.

This last little lesson is learned by watching the large TV screen which is set up in the spacious area where incoming passengers are obliged to spend their first day in Cuba. We see a brilliant little cartoon in which the hero outwits all rivals, enemies and friends by his cleverness and ruthlessness. His mother congratulates her boy who rewards her by taking all her life savings then selling her to a band of passing Ishmaelites. Although the manner of presentation is lighthearted, the subject matter is food for serious thought, and soon I am wondering what price I might get for my own mother in Cuba…

Annette and I stand patiently in one of the dozen or so long lines of travellers waiting to be interviewed by IMIGRACION. Every twenty minutes or so a new visitor to Cuba is admitted into a closed booth for interview. The official is apparently a member of the military, to judge by the uniforms and the moustaches. The booth is constructed so that the interviewing officer is seated above the interviewee and largely concealed from view. I surmise that the interviewers are Army Intelligence operatives and are meant to be intimidating.

 While standing in line I read the word BANOS printed above the doorways which lead respectively to the Caballeros and the Damas. In the doorways stand two pretty young women. Every dama and every caballero must pass by them to enter.

 After a little while spent waiting in line, passengers become bored and begin to think that a visit to the toilets will be a welcome relief or a change of scenery. One or two venture to the Banos, others follow out of curiosity, yet others out of lavatorial solidarity. Soon a trickle becomes a movement as we are visited variously by inspiration or simple genital envy.                                                                                                                                  Sooner or later many of the caballeros and every one of the damas will ask one of the young doorladies is there any toilet paper. And the young lady will sell some to her captive customer, a foreigner who pays in foreign cash. Now I begin to realise how the Cuban Revolution gets its hard currency. The longer the delay before we are interviewed by IMIGRACION the greater the cashflow. The cameras track our movements and we are only admitted once we have succumbed to this systematic brownmail.

 At last I am admitted for my interview. My inquisitor is a little jockey of a guy in a uniform far too big for him which badly needs a wash. He is half my age and not fierce at all. I start to feel sorry for him, not least because he must put up with my Spanish. He decides, after a wrestling match with his computer, to let me into his country. Muchas Gracias, senor, I say, and wait to see whether mi amiga Annette will likewise be admitted. Luckily, she is, and we go off together in search of a taxi driver to rip us off.

We have been forewarned that in Cuba there are taxis and taxis, some official, some otherwise. Among the official cabs Panataxi is the name to go for. So we go for it, and find ourselves seated in a tiny little Citroen driven by a bulky lady of about my age. We give her the address of the Casa Particular (literally, “private house”) where we have a reservation. Our driver takes a look at the address and snorts: “Habana Vieja! Why do you want to go there? Centro es mejor, muchas mejor!”

Well, there are lots of reasons why we want to go to Habana Vieja – Old Havana: Annette has researched this city and determined that Habana Vieja is close to the Sinagoga, close to the places of interest to us, and furthermore we have contracted with a Mister Selim Tache of the Havana Jewish Community to stay there. He has reserved the flat for us.

But our lady driver knows better. This Boadicea brooks no dissent. She knows a very fine casa  particular in Centro. She will take us there. By now we have been driving for about fifteen minutes, in who knows what direction?  For my part, I have a strong prejudice in favour of the Old City – any old city – because it will be authentic, and (hopefully) charming, even if it turns out to be an authentic slum. So I tell Boadicea to drive her chariot to numero 518 Aguacate in Vieja, and bugger Centro.

While we drive, we watch the scenery. Quickly the countryside gives way to a built-up area where Comrade Stalin has designed some atrocious, soulless blocks of flats in an attempt to quell the Cuban spirit. They certainly quell mine.

We come to a large roundabout in the airport freeway where la campanera conductora (our comrade driver) points out the Institute of Sports. This ugly circular block of cement is the home of the bureaucracy that administers fun-running (and sport in general) in Cuba. One look at this deadly structure tells me that it exists to take the fun out of running, and that my dream of running in a race here will be difficult to realise.

 The Cuban Consul in Sydney had advised me that I would encounter this office on my way into town from the airport. So at least I have my bearings now, but the Consul’s advice that ‘the esport in Cuba is centrally planned, senor,’ tolls a doleful sound in my imagination.

I watch our driver. She has a singular method of fuel conservation whereby we crawl up hills then cruise down with the gearbox in neutral. Although we save fuel, we do not spare the horn. The horn is sounded at every lane change, at every turning and when a Vespa or a horse and cart or a cyclist impedes our passage.

Now we are passing through an older area, with crumbling colonial dwellings and narrow little streets. If drivers were horn-happy on the freeway, they are like Joshua at Jericho here. The slower the passage the greater the hornplay, but curiously, it is a message without menace that says simply: “I’m here, citizen cyclist/sister pedestrian/ diesel-belching truck/ancient chevvy/pony cart/mother with pusher; be careful, merge right please, and I’ll pass you on your left.” In this way, a heavy truck overtakes a pedestrian at close quarters, and the walker doesn’t even turn around to assess the hazard coming from behind.

I notice that our fearsome conductora is actually a benevolent fellow-citizen on these inadequate calles, as the streets are called. This is our first experience of how poverty in Cuba creates an amity and freemasonry  between the men in the street.

 The roads are buckled, the footpaths broken, and all are congested with movement and with lack of movement. Broken down people, cars and bikes slow the traffic, but no-one gets heated, no-one gets hit. It all works.

 Eventually our driver parks on the footpath of a little side street, honks her horn, lowers her window and bellows someone’s name. A window is opened a crack, some shouts are exchanged and our driver discovers that the person she is after is not at home. Then the centavo drops inside my head: we are not in Habana Vieja at all; this is Centro, and we are here at the casa of our driver’s particular friend. Sudden indignation gives me sudden fluency as I emphatically direct the panataxista to Aguacate, 518.

Unabashed, muttering mildly “Vieja mas mal, Centro muy bien”, she drives us to Aguacate and help us with our luggage. Will she rip us off for the detour to her friend’s place?, I wonder. No, there’s no extra charge for the extra tour. Smiling and friendly, she departs, the first of a number of benevolent bandidos we are to meet in Cuba. They try to con you, and whether they succeed or no they hold no grudge against you for their trying.

It’s like a sport: you acknowledge the effort of your opponent and you honour the contest and play in good spirit.

We knock on the door of Aguacate 518, identify ourselves to the young girl who admits us, and go inside where we meet Jesus and Maria.

A Trip to Cuba – Part 1

Early in 1999 I ask Annette whether she might take a couple of weeks off at the end of the year for a trip to mark our thirtieth wedding anniversary which falls on December 3. I propose to take her somewhere she has never previously visited, a place which she has always wanted to see. She will need her passport and her sunglasses, and she will discover the name of her destination as she boards the plane on December 1.

Surprises have littered the twisting path of our three decades of marriage, and frequently enough they have caused one or other of us to stumble. Generally I have created the surprises and as time has passed Annette has become nervous of them.So it is with our surprise anniversary destination: Annette becomes nervous, then edgy then agitated. Soon the surprise raises serious doubt whether we will reach that milestone as man and wife. So I tell Annette it is to be Cuba.

Annette is immediately enthused and sets about refreshing her Spanish and buying and playing every Cuban CD available in Australia. At the Melbourne Writers’ Festival she bails up the great Oscar Hijuelos and asks him for a reading list so she can prepare for our visit his homeland. As Annette is the only gringa in Australia who can pronounce Hijuelos, Oscar does her will.

On December 1, 1999, Annette sets out with her passport, her sunglasses and an English-Spanish dictionary. I accompany her and keep the journal that follows.  Continue reading

A Baby’s Bottom in Buenos Aires

View of the northern portion of Plaza Francia.I


The baby awakens and suckles. The man comes to consciousness in the quiet and dark of the bedroom and hears the regular soft sounds of his wife and his child. Suck, suck, swallow. A pause. Suck, suck, swallow; then the sound of a breath, a breath in two phases – a shorter one high in pitch and a slower one, deeper: the sounds of an ardent drinker and a sleepy feeder. The sounds of the flesh of his flesh.
The man leans on his arm and watches and sees something new. The baby has stopped in mid-suck. He looks up to his mother’s sleeping face and his mouth falls open. He smiles at her, then his arm reaches up and touches her face, plays with her hair. Milk spills from his smile. At the baby’s touch, the mother stirs and sees the smile, reaches for the camera of memory. She wants to capture this moment and to preserve it.
They arrived here in Buenos Aires the day before yesterday. They flew across the world and arrived, excited and anxious and dog tired. The father returning to the city of his birth, the mother with her chick to a  different nest. But the baby has not travelled at all. He is at home in this world which is his mother – his locality are her smells, the feel and the sound and the taste of her.
Father is up early, putting on his work suit, dressing and grooming himself fussily. He wants to present himself well for the  culture of vanity here.
He is dressed and ready early, anxious to make a start, to make a favourable impression. But he is anxious too about leaving. He wants to protect his wife and child: DON’T WEAR JEWELLERY IF YOU GO OUT, DON’T WEAR YOUR EXPENSIVE CLOTHES, DON’T TAKE THAT PRAM – WEAR THE BABY IN THE SLING, DON’T TALK TO STRANGERS, DON’T GO ON THE SUBWAY, DON’T TAKE ANY CAB ON THE STREET – CALL UP AND ORDER ON THE HOTEL PHONE….

The list of don’ts is long. The wife has heard them all before. The peso has fallen, the government has fallen, people are hungry, they have nothing, this isn’t Melbourne, people are desperate, you don’t understand. He’s right – she doesn’t. Continue reading

Wedding Rings

A voice says will you marry me?

Annette looks up in surprise – I am a bit surprised myself: where did that voice come from?

Annette says are you joking?

The voice says no, Annette says yes, and a week or so later we are buying a ring to make the meaning of our voices concrete.

A few months later, our voices exchange promises before witnesses, and we exchange rings to cement the promises.

I have never worn a ring before. In my family, real men never wore rings – were we too modest, or simply too poor? – I don’t know. There was certainly a feeling of disdain for ostentatious jewellery. The ring that Annette gives me is a narrow band of white gold, quite weighty for its modest size. It is a discreet, silvery statement of love and commitment. It feels fine and it sends a message to all from Annette that she claims me. The inner surface of the ring is engraved with my name and the date, 3.12.69. This is the date that marks my movement from my family home and ways into a new way.

But surgical asepsis allows no concessions to love and marriage. I am newly wed also to medicine, so the ring comes off for every surgical scrub in the operating theatre and for the delivery of every baby in labour ward.

And I slip the ring off my finger every morning for the ceremonies of worship: I wash my naked fingers before prayer, then wind the leather strap of tefilin around my left fourth finger while reciting the threefold declaration of betrothal to the Creator.

After these rituals the finger is ready to resume its conjugal connection to Annette. I slip that silvery band back onto the finger with a feeling of conscious pleasure.

On the seventh morning of the month of December in 1976, I take that ring off for the last time. I place it on the shelf in our bedroom, wash and say my prayers. Hurrying away to work, I leave the ring on the shelf. I never see it again.

When I return to my destroyed house a few hours later, the exploding hot water service which sat for years in dutiful silence beneath our home has torn, enraged, through the floor, through the ceiling and through the fabric of our lives. The bedroom is unrecognizable: there are no horizontal surfaces, no shelves, no ring.

Annette and our children are intact, we are all intact, the three goldfish – Shimmy, Pizza and Coco-Pops are all intact. This is no time to grieve for a ring.

Twenty years pass, the children are adults and the goldfish have gone the way of all flesh, fowl and fin.

My finger itches again for the trappings of marriage, so I buy a slim band of white gold and wear it. The world at large makes no comment but Annette marks my wearing of the ring, and understands.

A few years later, the second ring falls while I am praying, onto the floor. My search for it is anxious then rapidly frantic. I find to my surprise that I am sobbing as I bend and scrabble on the floor for a small piece of absence surrounded by an annulus of gold.

That little circular symbol of the big fact of my life is never found. In its place is rediscovery of the intense nature of my commitment.

Some fingers never learn. After 32 years of marriage, the fourth finger on my left hand demands a third wedding ring. My friend Colin is on his third ring and his third wife: he has three mothers-in-law and he has earned his jewellery.

In my case, I still have Annette and I wish to show that fact to the world. So I buy a new ring.

This ring is heavier and tighter – harder to lose, but also harder to pull off and to put back on. This is no simple sensual pleasure, no slip off – slip on, but a struggle in which three fingers from the right wrestle with the left fourth. Before every scrub, before every morning wash and prayer, I shed some skin on the altar of marriage, a small sacrifice of my flesh. After twelve months of the third ring, my finger is scarred. There is a cicatrice, a ring of flesh which is permanent. This is a ring which no-one can remove and I can never lose.

It looks like I am married. For good.