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

Ruby

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
night?

I am the Community

KAKADU, JULY 1998.

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?
No.
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?
Yes.
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?
No.
So you are the entire Islamic Community of Kakadu?
Yes.
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.