Naïve in Yangon

Part I:


I arrive red-eyed. By the time I leave after only 36 hours here, I’ll still be jetlagged. Sensations are  heightened at times, at others attenuated. Energy comes in uncertain surges, sleep arrives in waves, deep and short like a choppy surf.

As we passengers file from the aircraft into the terminal building a panoply of comic opera Military appears, variously uniformed. One bunch wears jackets of magenta and orange, a vivid combination. Armed with the Lonely Planet guide to Burma I gather Authority in this country is no joking matter.

The pink and orange boys wear serious expressions and serious firearms. One of these fellows watches humourlessly over the shoulder of each of the lady officials in Immigration.

My immigration lady has a moustache and no syllables to spare for conversation. I do not lighten her day with my jokes.

Outside the terminal an informal looking character beckons. He grabs my suitcase and leads me towards a ramshackle Japanese vehicle held together by desperation. My driver smokes through the half-hour drive to my hotel.  His smoke of choice is Red Ruby. Lest he run out he keeps three reserve packs, unopened, on the sill of his dashboard. The vehicle smokes too. This is Cuba revisited, sanctions country, a land where the motor vehicle is forbidden to die.

The road from the airport has many lanes, each a stream of cars of a similar character. We come to a stop where streams meet and merge. The pavements flow with Burmese people, uniformly slim, delicately slim.

Topeed traffic police stand and semaphore the traffic from their small circular islets of cement. Theirs is an improbable serpentine beauty. Everyone is thin: do the Burmese have enough to eat?  Or do they simply lack western junk food?

But the armed traffic cop who sits wide-arsed on his motor bike is a fat man. Eager to read an entire society from these early signs, I decide: In Myanmar if a man is fat man, he is a boss, ergo corrupt.

At a distance of a hundred meters I decide to dislike the fat cop.

While our stream sits becalmed, awaiting the signal from the brave traffic policeman in the white helmet, pedestrians at all sides flow fast onto the roadway towards us, striding purposefully, carrying books for sale. The books are all the same: the fine features of Aung San Suu Kyi gaze earnestly from the covers. The booksellers show no fear of milling cars or officers of the Law. The police pay no heed to the book trade.

We pass a number of golden pagodas that turn out to be one, seen vertiginously from a number of angles: this is the Great Shwedagon Pagoda. My driver says it is 6000 years old. (The spoilsports at Lonely Planet reckon it’s a mere 2500 years old, frequently remodeled, with the present incarnation dating from the 19th century.)

We arrive at my hotel and I pay the driver the derisory pittance he names. No extra charge for the gift of passive smoke.

I drop my luggage at my hotel. I have but one plan and objective in Myanmar, which is to meet the remaining eighteen Jews of Yangon.

I show the concierge the address of the Synagogue. He says it is not many miles away. One could walk.

Outside the front of the hotel I am greeted by heat and noise and bustle. And a young lady. Energy drains away. The young lady, clad in a demure suit of bodyclinging white and wearing a sort of cloth helmet with gorgeous stripes, smiles. Hers is the first of the many smiles of my 36 Yangon hours and one of the best. Would I like a taxi?

Yes, I suppose I would. No rush; I’d like to bask in the sunshine of that smile for a while.

Smiling lady procures a cab, converses with the driver, negotiates, reaches agreement. She instructs me firmly not to pay more than the stated eight dollars. The local currency is kyat, pronounced ‘chat’. The rate of exchange is inscrutable so in every transaction I allow myself to be screwed gracefully. These likable people have less than I and they ask very little.

The ride to the synagogue along sinuous ways is an inching progress and all the better for the intimate closeness to the man in the street – and the woman and the child and the beggar and the cripple – all pushing, pulling, carrying, selling, cooking, eating, feeding, begging.

We arrive at number 85, 26th Street, near Mahabandoolah Road. The driver smiles. His open mouth is a blood-red bath. His intoxicant is not Red Ruby but betel nut. Did I say blood-red? Thinner than blood, more vivid than blood, truly scarlet, the betel juice flows and splashes with the driver’s speech and smile. After decades of distant acquaintance from the printed page, betel in the flesh startles.

The Mosea Yeshua Synagogue is a bright white place in the Bhagdadi style, built to capture light. The trustee, one of the eighteen, expects me. He is a slim man, fine boned, his face a map of smile lines, his skin varnished. Gravely courteous, elegant in his pressed longhi and a very white shirt, he might be in his late fifties.

He speaks English softly, his vowels betraying the play of a number of languages behind his words.

I ask my artless questions of admiration and sentimental prejudgement but the replies slide past my understanding; my informant suffers from a serious affliction of his larynx, a poignant disability in the one person who might tell the story of the place that he embodies.

With quiet pride, he shows me photographs of an extraordinary congregational past; a Torah scroll, its parchment nut-brown; the entire house pristine, flooded in white and silence.

I came with hopes for conversations that would unveil touching details of flight, exile and faith among the remaining sons and daughters of the Jews of Mesopotamia. My hopes fade with the damaged voice of my informant.

When I ask to meet his fellow congregants, he replies opaquely. I never meet any.


Part II.


Back at my hotel after my Synagogue visit, deflated, absurd, I am not myself. I need sleep.

But first a shower.

The water is clean, the soap lathers. Quickly I am restored. I look outside. Broad daylight, not sleeping time.

Seven storeys below my window the traffic races around a bend. At the corner a slim woman sells papers from her makeshift newspaper stand. While she is engaged in a sale I sight a minute child in pink running from behind the woman towards the kerb, towards the rushing traffic. From my glassed-in vantage I shout a warning.

No-one would hear.

The child toddles on.

She is almost at the kerb when her mother wheels without haste, intercepts her daughter, scoops her up and embraces her.

Mother removes the child’s shift, lies her prone across her lap, and slides her hands up and down the slender back. The slow ballet of skin on skin continues for a good time.

Massage completed, mother dresses her child again and releases her to attend to a customer. Once again the roadway pulls the child, once again the child responds. Mother busily counts change.

My fingers work frantically at the window latch, but it will not open.

No sound from below as mother arrests her child at the kerb.

The newspaper vendor now sits and brushes the little girl’s hair. The child acquiesces, her hair falls in rich showers of black from the strokes of the busy brush.

Another customer. Mother sets her child upon a low stool and makes her sale.

She takes her child onto her knee, brushes again for a while, before securing the hair with ribbons of pink.

In addition to the outdoor newsagency the footpath is a restaurant. Clusters of people take their breakfast on low stools at the kerbside while others, squatting, cook in woks on spirit stoves. Are these family groups or are they customers? I cannot tell.

Meanwhile mother – mother of my child – prepares a meal in her own right. I see her feed the child something that might be noodles. The child sits on her mother’s knee, opening, accepting mouthfuls, while mother feeds and keeps her eye open for passing trade.

I gaze down from my eyrie, a grandfather empty of his young. I came to Yangon seeking one thing: this eluded me. In its place a mother and her child absorb me, urgently.

I discover I am not sleepy.

I decide to buy a newspaper.

Standing at the busy, busy street, I calculate the odds of a safe crossing. At length a break lets me through.

At the newsstand the mother cradles her child, curious about the old foreigner who peruses her papers and magazines.

In actuality I am simply enjoying the company. Mother’s cheeks are largely concealed by discs of the ubiquitous yellow-pink makeup. Smaller circles of the same cake the face of the little girl.

I am charmed.

Close up she has chicken limbs. Her face, a little too big for her body, is fullest in her cheeks, which are ripe apricots. She looks about 18 months of age. About the same as my newest grandchild.

Pretending it matters, I indicate the papers and magazines and ask: English?

A raised eyebrow.

Americano? America?

The lady is sorry. She shakes her head.

I am not sorry. I don’t care for the papers: these two are all the news that interests me. My purchase is a pretext, a means to allow me to thank them. I select a newspaper with its exotic typeface.

I pass a banknote in US currency.

The lady indicates she cannot change the 50 dollar bill.

I place it in her palm and close her hand around it.

Time to change the subject: I show her my camera; would she object if I take a photo of her child?

She is delighted.

I take a few snaps as mother looks on and beams. Beneath the discs of yellow-pink cake, her cheeks colour deeply.


After Uluru

‘… There’s been a death.’

I am in my small house in Yulara, cooking for shabbat on a Friday in December 2006, when the phone ringImages. A male voice speaks: ‘It’s Sergeant Benjamin, Doctor, of the Mutitjulu Police … I’m sorry to trouble you … there’s been a death.’

A pause.

The voice resumes: ‘It was a hanging. We need someone to certify the death. The nurses here can’t do it; it has to be a doctor. I am sorry, Doctor.’

The voice is careful, it is feeling its way. I don’t know the officer. The voice I hear is sober – sobered almost to a halt by the news of a death.

I ask the officer to bring the body to the clinic. We arrange to meet in twenty minutes’ time.

It is early evening – 1830 hours in official language – when they pull up at the clinic. Even at that hour the heat is relentless. The sky is painted blue. There are two vehicles, a police car followed by an ambulance in its familiar livery of white slashed with red. A large oblong man steps out of a police car of such startling blueness that the sky pales behind it. The officer’s face is deeply creased.

We shake hands.

His offsider gets out and straightens. She dwarfs her sergeant. Apart from the odd post-adolescent pimple, her face is smooth. She walks over to the ambulance and commences a laughing conversation with the nurses who have driven the body.

After a time the nurses are free to attend to my questions. I address the older of the two, the one I know from the clinic: ‘When was she found?’

She turns to her associate. For a moment, both are silent, then she says, ‘I’m not really sure. The family called us an hour ago – when they felt ready to let us take the body, I guess. Someone found her before that and called the family. We don’t know when …’

We release the latches and the heavy door of the ambulance clunks open, revealing a large white bag resting on a collapsed stretcher. Warm air flows from the interior.

The nurses step backward. Fumbling, I try to pull the stretcher a distance from the vehicle’s dark interior. The nurses step forward and help, then again retreat. I pull on the zipper and the bag falls open, exposing the head and upper body of a human.

I pause. No sound, no movement.

There is a moment of reverent peacefulness. The skin of the person whom I stand and regard is brown, the same brown that glows from the earth and the many heads of rock in the early sunshine during my early morning run. That colour has penetrated me, claiming me like a mother.

I place the back of my gloved hand against the brown skin. It is still warm. Just as shocking, the face is very small.

I straighten and ask the nurses, ‘Do you have a date of birth?’

One shows me a file. She points upper left, where I read, ‘19 November, 1991’.

I look again at the small face. There are a couple of blotches of acne. The child has buckteeth. The body is short and slender, the body of a girl who has scarcely begun the journey to womanhood.

I have no doubt, I feel no hope, but I rest my fingers lightly over her carotid artery. It is still.

I check her eyes. Dull now, pupils wide, fixed and unresponsive to the light – those are pearls that were her eyes.

I apply my stethoscope to her chest. The silence of death is drowned in a distracting chorus of inanimate rustling and chafing sounds. These are the artefacts of my examination. I hear no heartbeat. No air moves in or out of the chest.

This is the body of a fifteen-year old girl whose life is extinct.

No motion has she now, no force; 

She neither hears nor sees; 

Rolled round in earth’s diurnal course, 

With rocks, and stones, and trees.

I have another question for the nurses: ‘What do you know of her health before today?’

‘Six months back she was sniffing, but not since then; there’s been no sniffable petrol in the community since then … There were some family problems. She had been seen by Mental Health …’

The answer is unsatisfactory. Any possible answer would be unsatisfactory. It all boils down to one thing: we do not know.

On an afterthought I lean forward again, peering past the fine cheekbones and the slender jaw, peering at the soft tissues beyond. There, on her throat I see what had to be seen, a bracelet patterned in her flesh, a curvilinear design that is unexpectedly graceful. It is the embossing in her skin of the fatal rope.

Continue reading

Broaden the Intervention?

I am working in my general practice in the CBD when the phone rings. The receptionist’s voice is urgent: Howard, there’s a man collapsed outside on the street. Can you go?

I can. Grabbing a few tools, I race out into the street where a small crowd is gathering around a man in a suit. He lies flat on his back on the footpath outside the bookshop. Behind his head is a cylindrical object in a brown paper bag. Liquor leaks through the brown paper.

The man lies hard against the foot of a large window displaying the cream of our written culture. The man would have leaned against the window for support, fallen and stayed where he fell.

The man lies, motionless. The authority of my stethoscope opens a space for me between spectators, ambulance callers, vociferous suggesters, silent gawkers, head cradlers. The stethoscope reassures, the suggesters fall silent.

The man we all regard, the man we all fear, does not respond to questions. Nor to deep pressure of my thumb against his forehead. He lies insensible in Martin Place, grunting his shallow breaths, creased face purpled and puffy, grey hair, grey suit awry. Beneath my finger a thin pulse beats, fast and feeble.

His breath is a brewery. The wrist in my hand is criss-crossed with ancient slash marks, white against ashen skin.

It is 10.00 a.m.

This is a human person of my age, nameless to us, nameless to himself, his being reduced by alcohol and secret griefs.

The ambulance arrives and I go back inside.

*** Continue reading


There you are on my screen, your face round and red and glowing.
I can see your fleshy cheeks, your extra chin.
Now you settle into your mother’s breast. I see your profile, your
pink ear, your welcome mat of thick black hair.
You are quiet, quiet, seen on my screen, seldom heard.

You arrived magically on the far side of the world in a land of short
dim days, days of rain and chill. In Australia, your grandfather –
this stranger grandfather – sweated and read dread warnings of
bushfire risk.

You are in the right place: your mother is your address. I sit in this
far country that will be your country, and I am not myself, not my
proper grandfathering self. My fingers have not touched your skin. My
eyes have not followed the rise and fall of your breathing. I haven’t
smelled you, haven’t heard you burp, seen you cry. I haven’t run a
soapy palm across your tummy.
Although I am a skilled and fearless nappy changer, I’ve never changed
you, made you fresh and clean and dry.
I should do these small intimate acts, then give you to your mum. She
will hold you and I will put my arm around her birth-swollen body;
I’ll rest my old cheek against her and I’ll feel again the newness of
flesh of my flesh of my flesh.

I am a pretender, Ruby. I await my time, our time.
I am not real.
When I see you I will run my finger beneath your chins and feel the
warmth of that soft cushion of flesh. I’ll rest you across my rocking
forearm, I’ll sing you my silly soft songs, I’ll feel your mass and
your space.
And you will make me real.

The Harmonica Man of Elizabeth Street

It is lunchtime in Elizabeth Street and the foot traffic is in a
hurry. I am in a hurry, hurrying to my coffee, weaving in and out of
traffic before hurrying back to work. One  pair of legs is stationary
in all this traffic and fret. The legs stand against a shop window,
long legs in shabby grey trousers. My head swivels and my gaze works
upwards past a jacket of crumpled grey to a stubble of stippled beard
on a thin and craggy face.
A hand is raised to the face. It holds a harmonica which is applied to
a toothless mouth. Flabby cheeks inflate and empty, bellows for
music’s fire.
On the footpath at the musician’s feet is an upturned grey flannel
cap. He is a street performer, and as an habitual supporter of the
arts, I reach for a coin, but the tides and eddies of Elizabeth Street
carry me well past the busker before I can contribute.
Next time, I promise myself.
Next time I am in Elizabeth Street, I sight the man in plenty of time
to steer over towards him.  Up close now, I see the same harmonica,
the same hat, the same performance. The hat is empty. So, it seems, is
the harmonica, which is mute despite the musician’s respirations
through it. It appears that his lungs are so wasted away by time and
tobacco that the tides of air pass silently across his instrument. The
man is breathing: that is the totality of his act.
Upon him now, I reach into my pocket for coin, but the fob is empty,
and I have passed.
Next time, I promise myself.
But the next time I am in Elizabeth Street at the busking hour, the
harmonica man is not there. Is he breathing his art elsewhere? Is he
breathing at all?
Weeks pass. The chill of early winter gives way to the deep cold of
the solstice. A wind blows from the Antarctic, driving the coffee
crowd before it in its overcoats and its scarves, into safe cubbies of
caffeine and warmth.
And there, there in the thin grey pants and coat is the mouth
organist, breathing still, breathing inaudibly into his organ of mime.
The winds of winter and the moving feet make the only music in
Elizabeth Street.
On what does he subsist, this insubstantial being? Aged, alone in the
multitude, unfed, barely clad, unheard – where does he go at fall of

I am the Community


I usher the next patient into my consulting room. She has fair skin
and freckles. She wears Islamic head-dress which covers her neck and
her arms. I look at her file: her name is Fatima Yasmin.
I introduce myself and she replies in a perfectly ordinary Australian accent.
Always curious, I ask: are you descended from the old Afghan cameleers?
Did you marry a Muslim?
No, I’m not married.
So you converted to Islam?
Yes, and that’s when I took the name. I was a Colquhoun before that.
The rest of my family still are Colquhouns.
I wonder, then enquire: do you say your prayers five times a day?
Which way do you face when you’re praying?
She indicates a direction north and west – the direction of Mecca, the
direction too, of Jerusalem, towards which I turn in prayer three
times a day.
Are there any other Muslims in Kakadu?
So you are the entire Islamic Community of Kakadu?
It’s a pleasure to meet you. Meet the Jewish Community.

Mr Jones has a Great Big Carrot Between His Legs

“Noel Henry Jones has a great big carrot between his legs.”

John Wanklyn, Johnny Wank, my oldest friend in the world, is addressing an audience of venerable country folk in the Yellow Room of the Leeton Library. Wank is launching My Father’s Compass, the memoir of my father. This excellent book describes memories of the childhood years that Wank and I shared; now he is treating the audience – which includes my ancient Mum – to an anecdote.

Johnny begins: “Our teacher in Fourth Class was Noel Henry Jones. Noel Henry Jones was a kindly man who liked children and wouldn’t punish them, even when that would have been a wise and a fair thing to do.

There were two boys in his class for whom Wisdom and Justice would have prescribed punishment frequently.

“One morning, Howard arrives early. On the blackboard he draws a large stick figure of a man, whose legs are in the position that the military calls “At Ease”. In the space between those two great limbs, Howard draws a long cigar shaped object. He writes some words above the picture, then operates the hinged mechanism that folds his art work out of sight behind another blackboard.

The class arrives. Noel Henry Jones arrives and brings the class to reluctant attention. Instruction commences, with Mr. Jones writing on the vacant blackboard.

So far, so good.

In time the board is full. Mr. Jones swings the hinged mechanism, ready to write on the second board. The text and the artwork swing into view.

Howard’s classmates look and read.

Mr. Jones looks and reads.

Noel Henry Jones surveys his pupils, identifying at a glance the Usual Suspects. Noel Henry Jones looks hardest and longest at John Baikie Wanklyn and at Howard Jonathan Goldenberg.

He knows John Wanklyn cannot spell carrot correctly. He knows there is only one person in the class who can…”

I confess that I had forgotten entirely the events that Johnny describes. His description is accurate.

I do remember Mr. Jones.

We enter Fourth Class after the summer holidays, a period of healing from the year-long winter of Mrs. Savage’s Third Class.

Mr. Jones is tall. He bends over us and his long body is like a shelter above and about us. He does not shout.

Mr. Jones creates an orchestra. People who are musical are given instruments to play. Others play percussion. My instrument is the triangle.

No-one is left out. As a result, there is an audience of one, namely Noel Henry Jones. Mr. Jones conducts, we play, he hears the sounds, but he does not complain.

It is hot. Summer blazes on the tin roof of our schoolroom. The windows along the side of the classroom are opened. The sills are precisely at the level of our desks. Just down the road from Leeton Public School is the municipal swimming pool. Its turbid waters are cool and inviting.

Mr. Jones turns his back on the class to write on the blackboard, a modern, hinged affair with a series of boards that fold, one behind another.

While Mr. Jones writes, Wanklyn and Goldenberg exeunt by the open window.

This is the naughtiest act of our lives to date.

We take with us provisions, in the form of the large  lollies that you buy at the Milk Bar. I have funds, liberated from the desk in Dad’s consulting room.

Wanklyn and Goldenberg swim and suck, all the hot afternoon.

At school the next day we front Noel Henry Jones, who makes no mention of the events of yesterday.

He must have told our parents.

After school we front our parents. Mister and Missus Wanklyn say nothing, ask nothing about yesterday afternoon. My own parents seem pleased to see me. No questions.

Noel Henry Jones becomes a father. On the day of the baby’s birth, Mr. Jones is absent from class. This is a good opportunity to examine the contents of his desk. Nothing much of interest there, mainly pens and pencils. One pen has a silver cap, with a clasp in the form of an arrow.

Upon his return to class, Mr. Jones smiles a lot. His baby is a little girl, but he does not complain.

From time to time, Mr. Jones walks around the class as we do our written work.  He pauses at my desk and admires my pen. It has a silver clasp in the form of an arrow.

“Nice pen, Howard.”

(It is a nice pen. I chose it myself.)

“I believe that’s my pen, Howard,” – a remark tantamount to an accusation of theft.

“No, Mr. Jones. It’s mine.”

Mister Jones looks unconvinced.

“My parents gave it to me.”

“Really? Is that your name?”

Mr. Jones points to the engraved words that read, Noel Henry Jones.

For the sake of peaceability I surrender the pen.

It is the same Noel Henry Jones who opens the hinged blackboard and reads his name and confronts his likeness.

When, a short time later, I leave that school and my hometown, it is that same N.H. Jones who prepares a report for my new school. He writes of my excellent results in the half-year tests. He writes of my charm. He writes warmly and he wishes me well.

The Barbers of Madrid

Hairs are sprouting on my chin. It is pruning season again. We have the word “pruning” from prunus, the genus which includes the plum, and its ugly daughter and near-eponym, the prune, as well as its fabulous and malodorous grandson, Slivovitz. The earliest of the prunus family to bear fruit is named for that precocity: it bears fruit “a praecox” , hence “apricot”. Shakespeare calls this fruit “apricocks”. But I digress.


Our hotel, the imposing Madrid Intercontinental, sits on the majestic Avenida, seemingly the aorta of this most masculine city.


The Intercontinental is a place of gold surfaces and plush furnishings. In its grand foyers an espresso doble costs nine euros. That translates to fourteen of my Aussie dollars.


The Intercontinental swallows the money of the incontinent spender. It is all a little uncomfortably grande for this Aussie.  Gilt-ridden, I open the door to the street and run the gauntlet of liveried door openers and greeters and bowers and scrapers, the accouchers who deliver us residents to the world.


I am glad to get outside.


There is a narrow side street that runs next to the Intercontinental. Here Toorak encounters Springvale. Every third premises sells expensive fashions that you can buy.


There are elegant beauty shops where you can exchange expensive euros for beauty, beauty which must die. Fine cake shops and smart restaurants compete for the custom of coutured tourists and people on fat Spanish pensions.


And then there are ill-lit cafes where working men come to smoke and drink strong coffee in the early mornings and after work. The closest of these is three doors from the Intercontinental. This place  is narrow, its roof low, it is a cave where denizens sit in their ones, taciturn, scowling at the football news or the racing news or the political news. All the news, I gather, is one.


It would be a hardy soul who’d break into their silo of quiet. That person turns out to be the young daughter of the owner, a cheerful elf in black apron, black leggings and black t-shirt. She glides around the shop, replacing ashtrays and taking orders.


I open the door to this subterranean place and the elf smiles a welcome. Her smile is perfectly delightful except for the gap where someone or something has knocked out a lateral incisor. Most of her smile expresses her simple, innocent delight in seeing you, but the gap speaks of unsaid dark things like assault or dentistry.


I drink a thimbleful of thunderbolt espresso. It is affordable. People slip in, drift out. No-one looks up, human speech in the cave is low and short; people are here for their serious purposes of quiet solitude and customary chemicals.


On the next block there is a not-very-super market. I pass it by day, and in the evenings and during my early morning run. There is a short man who sits on a low balustrade outside the not-so-supermarket (NSS). He has a smooth face, baby-pink, baby-fleshed, that extends beyond his absent eyebrows to his hairless scalp. It is a face that is opaque to my searching gaze. Taciturn, he sits, nothing more, sits like patience on a monument.


He is there most times I pass. Does he live here? What does he live on? What is he thinking?


Eventually my questions are answered when I pass the NSS at lunchtime: he is lunching from a clear bottle of clear liquor; and that evening, when he is insensible, spread out along the length of his balustrade.


Every block has its coffee shop, its shoe shops (Toorak elegant and Springvale basic respectively), its mixed business, its tobacconist-cum-keycutter, and its barber shops. I am bound for Caribbean Unisex  to attend to the pruning. I avoid the elegant establishments; I am more at home in the unfashionable joints.


Regrettably, every block has its dogs, whose owners (generally Toorak) are not socialized in the matter of dog pooh. While I am no veterinarian, I am confident that canine constipation is rare in this part of Madrid. These dogs are overfed. The rain softens yesterday’s leavings and renders the going slippery.


I weave my way between the hazards to “Caribbean Unisex”, a place of haphazard décor, where the young lady asks: “Can I help you?” She is tall and slim and black. Her clothes are close-fitting and her short hair dances out from her scalp at very angle of curl and spike. Her hairdo is delinquent and eloquent: this is a funky joint.


Espero que si, is my attempt to say I hope so. I run my hand through the chin


Madrid Barber Shop

Madrid Barber Shop (Photo credit: enric archivell)


No es para senores, aqui. Solo senoras y senoritas.


So much for unisex: they cut the hair of every gender here excepting the masculine.


The lady from Caribbean waves me in the direction of the men’s hairdresser a little further up the street. I saw it when I passed earlier; two gentlemen peered at me from the dim narrow space of the interior. They looked hard and unsmiling. Their shop was not prepossessing.


I retrace my steps to the shop of the barbers who do not smile. The shop is small. There is a narrow wooden bench which might, at a pinch, accommodate six waiting buttocks. I lower mine to the timber and sit and wait.


The two hairdressers are hard at work. They don’t acknowledge my arrival. They are short, swarthy men, stocky and powerfully built. Their customers look the same.


There is time to look about me. The large church opposite, occupying an entire block, looks as if it were built in the 1950’s. For the first time I study the geometry of the brickwork on its façade. Framing a large cross is an even larger six pointed star, the Star of David! A puzzle.


I return my musing gaze to the barber shop.


There is a mirror in front of the barbers, arranged so we customers can watch our transformation. Below the mirror, on a benchtop, the barbers keep their tools of trade. Between duplicate sets of cut-throat razors, clippers, scissors, brushes, combs, and jars of unguents, stands a topless young lady. She is about 18 inches tall and is made of black wood. She wears a grass skirt and is slim, sinuous and tall for her height, if you know what I mean. Her hair is styled after the manner of the young lady in Caribbean Unisex.


Although she is slim, her breasts are full and they defy gravity. So does her face: alone in the shop, she wears a smile.


My time approaches. The customer on my left rises from the barber’s chair, takes money from his pocket and pays and leaves. There is no conversation.


My man turns to me and indicates the empty chair. He signals me to rise and occupy the chair. Does he  sense, from my dress or my deportment that I am un Ingles, un estupido, who does not speak Spanish? Or does all this taciturnity reflect an establishment run for the deaf by the mute?


I honour the custom of the house, by showing in dumb play that I want a haircut and my whiskers trimmed.


My man nods.


As he reaches for his weapons, I study his profile. He is about forty, serious but not unfriendly looking.


He cuts my hair – numero dos is the length I specify – then raises the cut-throat blade. I signal my aversion to the cold steel, pointing and nodding at the beard-trimmer clippers. The prince of silence obliges me, now holding his breath as he mows through a regiment of my stubble, now breathing audibly in his concentration on the next attack. His rhythm is reassuring. I feel safe to look around and contemplate the black lady who smiles at me intimately, from the close distance of the bench.


A new silence breaks the silence, as the trimmer falls quiet and movement stops. I look up at the barber. He looks down at me.


Es finito? – I ask.


The man shakes his head, extends his index finger and touches the aperture of my right nostril, then the left, raising an eyebrow in interrogation.


I don’t get it. Is he offering to pick my nose?


Now his finger broaches my ear hole, now its opposite number. Again the interrogative eyebrow.


Suddenly I understand: the peso has dropped: would I like the hairs of my ears and nostrils trimmed?


I really am indifferent to hairs that I cannot see and that cause me no trouble. But my wife and daughters do notice these hairs and find them unattractive and they tell me so. I am inclined to believe that all body parts have their purpose or function, especially hair. On the scalp and limbs it insulates; on the upper lip it strains soup; in the umbilicus it catches lint; and inside the undies it attracts and stimulates.


My womenfolk are not convinced that ear hairs are necessary to save wax and that nose hairs protect me from inhaling locusts and other airborne plague species.


So I nod, say Si, and gesture for him to proceed.


Abruptly, Mister Silence leaves the room, passing behind the curtain that separates the shop from quarters in the rear. Voices are heard, one male, one female, and another one, piping.


My man returns, leading a toddler, a moon-faced little girl of unusual plainness. The man sits on the bench, pulls her onto his knee, holds her adoringly, puts his mouth to her ear, and pays me no further attention.


Movement from behind the curtain and a woman appears, bearing a can full of dark liquid – molasses? – and a fistful of supersized cotton buds. I catch only a glimpse of a round face that closely resembles the little girl’s, before my head is tilted sharply backward, and my nose is pushed upwards from beneath, flaring my equine nostrils even further. I look up into two dark eyes that are gazing deep into my nostrils – at what? My soul, probably.


Surprised, uncertain, uncomfortable, I gaze back. The lady plunges a long cotton bud into the jar of liquid and withdraws it. I catch sight of it, dripping darkly, in the moment before it is thrust into my right nostril. The liquid is hot, very hot. I am under attack, both surprised and amazed.


I do not cry out. This is not a place where a man would cry out when a mujere, a woman, hurts him. And I don’t want to be a crybaby in the presence of the topless beauty.


My lady assailant now twists the cotton bud, while simultaneously pinching my nostril closed around it.


Now she pulls her fiery appliance from the constricting nostril, which burns like my lips after eating chilli.


I glimpse the face of my depilator. It is empty of remorse, guilt or apology, Not even mirth.


For my part, I am too slow of wit to rise, pay and flee.


Already, my left nostril is being flattened and widened, already the cotton bud, dripping molten wax is about to penetrate a cavity that has only previously accommodated my excavating finger.


Fire flames within me, but once again, moral cowardice stills my voice. I don’t open my mouth in case the lady with the wax decides to beautify my uvula.


I stand, reaching for my wallet. But a strong female arm presses me back into the chair.


Es finito, no?


Apparently not. The lady is shaking her head, pointing to her ears.


My head is flung back, the woman bends and reaches across me, then in one swift movement, sets fire to my right ear hole. Tears fill my eyes. I sit and wait for the coup de grace, which is not long in coming. Both ears burn.


I am hairless, speechless, witless and stumbling inside my brain for the moral enlightenment that must surely follow such sensory extremity.


Across the road, the large brick church looks down at me implacably. The Star of David – in Hebrew, Magen David, the shield of David – has not protected me.


I pay, managing to extend a hoarse gracias, as I take my tearful leave of mother, father and daughter, and of the wooden lady; and breathe fresh air into my hairless nose, and feel the cool night of Madrid offering comfort to my smooth, unoffending ear holes.