Toby’s Fingers Stuck in the Bath Hole

My wife Annette and I are having an early dinner when my phone rings. It is Rachel, our elder daughter: “No-one is hurt, everyone is OK, but I’ve called an ambulance: Toby’s fingers are stuck in the bath hole.”

I reckon I’m equal to this little challenge: ”Darling, just soap his fingers liberally then they’ll become slippery and he can just slip them out.”
“I’ve done that, Dad, and it didn’t work. I’m attending to Toby, but I need help with the other kids. Can you come over?”
“We’re on our way. We’ll be 15 minutes.”

In the car, Annette looks at her watch and calculates that Rachel’s brother, Raphael, will be driving home about now. He might get to Rachel’s before we do. She calls Raph and indeed he is only a minute away from Rachel’s house. He isn’t driving; he’s on his bike.

We drive into Rachel’s street which is blocked by two large fire trucks, a smaller fire car, two ambulances and a police car. There is no smoke and there are no signs of a motor accident.
We park at a distance and make our way on foot to Rachel’s house. Flung to one side on the grass is Raphael’s bicycle. Ahead of us the large torso and bum of a fire officer protrude from the bathroom window. The head and shoulders are out of view, presumably inside.
We make our way to the interior. A large man walks purposefully ahead of us, lugging a heavy timber box of plumber’s tools. From the narrow hallway an ambulance officer carries a plastic drink bottle into the bathroom. The bathroom itself is small. What with the toilet, the shower recess and the old-fashioned claw-foot bath, two is a crowd here. This evening the crowd is larger: the ambulance officer, a young lady, is leaning forward, passing the drink bottle to a male colleague who sits on the edge of the bath. The missing fireman’s face and shoulders are framed in the window, as he leans inward, observing and giving advice and instructions to another fire officer lying on the floor. This is another partial fireman, his face and arms invisible beneath the curve of the steel bathtub.
What he lacks in extremities and face he makes up for in length: this is a very tall fireman.
In the tub, drained of its bathwater, sits Rachel, her back to the door. On her lap is the skinny white body of Toby, aged five, a runt, a set of bones with a piping voice. One of his arms extends to the bath hole. His fingers are not seen.
The mother is reading a story to her child.

From the family room, children’s voices are calling: Toby’s twin, Miles, and their older brother, Jesse, have sighted us: “Saba! Savta! Toby is stuck. His fingers are stuck in the bath!
Look! Lollies! Raph is giving us a special treat.
The boys peel themselves from the arms of their uncle Raphael, who stands with his bare chest, wet with the sweat of his bike ride on this hot evening of 30 plus degrees.
Miles and Jesse pull at our clothing, dragging us to the bathroom, to see Toby and his missing fingers. They squeeze past the ambos, step onto the prostrate fireman and clamber into the bath. We follow them, secreting ourselves along the far wall and we greet Rachel. Raph stands behind us in the doorway.
Rachel smiles the smile that we’ve seen before, the smile that welcomes mere chaos that unseats tragedy.
Pasted over her fear, and threat and alarm, Rachel’s smile invites us to see and share the joke.
It is hot in the bathroom. Toby’s free hand wields a lollypop that disappears and reappears in and out of the recesses of his mouth. He cries out his greetings, his words emerging through a slop of saliva and lolly juice. He is having a pretty good time.

Rachel gives us a synopsis: “I called the ambulance and told them that Toby’s finger was stuck. These guys came and called the fire brigade. While I was on the phone, Toby’s free fingers were curled up and cramped, so he made them more comfortable by poking another couple into the plughole. Now there are three fingers that are stuck.
“The fire guys have all the right tools and equipment. They get fingers out of plug holes all the time. I didn’t know that bathplugs are a fireman’s specialty.”
The fire chief in the window frame elaborates: “Normally, a plughole is a ten-minute job. They’re all plastic nowadays. But this bath is a genuine antique, made of genuine steel. The plughole itself is probably made of toughened steel: it’s usually a disc about half an inch thick, with half a dozen circular holes, all of them just about the width of a toddler’s finger.
“The plan is to cut away the drain pipe. This will allow us to raise the bath from the floor, so that Steve can get right underneath and free Toby’s fingers from below. He’ll push up on Toby’s fingertips with his own finger.
If that fails, we’ll have to saw away the steel drain and free Toby from the tub, and then tackle the fingers.

“You and your family won’t be taking baths for a while, Rachel. This bath will be in pieces once we’ve finished here.”
I take a look at my watch. 7.45 pm. Toby has been in the bath for an hour and a half.
While we’ve been talking, the home phone has rung and rung out. My own mobile has rung unattended. Now Annette’s phone rings and it is Toby’s Aunty Naomi, calling from Sydney. She had called earlier, just when Rachel was racing between the stuck child and the other children and her urgent phone calls for help. Since that time, Naomi has learned sufficient to frighten, and nothing to comfort an aunt who has visions of fingers lost by strangulation or by nightmare surgery. Naomi has no children of her own yet and she loves her Melbourne nephews and niece with an intensity which increases with the distance.

Naomi asks to speak to Toby. “Toby, would you like me to sing Rainbow?”
Toby nods, his mouth occupied by his lollypop.
Rachel switches the phone to Speaker and says:
” Toby is busy with a lolly. He does want you to sing.”
Naomi’s voice floats into the bathroom.
“Somewhere, over the rainbow,
Way up high…”
The phrases float, spacious, into the bathroom, the words a familiar caress for the boys at their bedtime. Naomi’s singing voice is a sweet soprano, usually crystalline. Tonight the voice is thickened with an unfamiliar tremolo.
“ there’s a land that I heard of
Once, in a lullaby…”
Toby is transfixed. His brothers are still. Three lollypops are held, suspended, while Naomi sings.
All conversations stops. The lengthy plumber pulls his face out from under the steel belly of the tub. His face is wet with sweat. Bathroom lint clings to his chin and brow. He lifts his head and listens. The ambos and the fire chief stand, arrested. The voice rises, crests a high note and falls. The singing undoes us, soft family and hardy professionals alike.

A skinny woman appears. She is Laura, Rachel’s best friend. Alarmed by the emergency vehicles congregating outside, she races in: “What’s wrong? Is everyone alright? Can I bring food?”
She listens, looks, offers cuddles, kisses the air with her famous loud smacking sounds and leaves, disappointed not to be catering. Laura makes me laugh, always has.

The tall man pulls his head in again. The Chief hands us a hacksaw. We pass it to the tall man. We hear sounds of sawing, long metal screams.
Alarmed, Rachel wonders aloud about Toby’s fingers: are they safely out of the way of the singing blade? The Chief says: “Don’t worry. Steve knows just where to cut. He leaves a margin of pipe just shorter than his own index finger.”

At length the drainpipe is sawn through. Everyone gets out of the bath excepting for Toby and Rachel. Annette, Raphael and I make room so the bath can be lifted. Eight adult hands hoist the tub aloft. Toby squeals with delight as he levitates.
Steve’s voice comes from the floor: “Toby, can you wriggle your fingers?”
Rachel and the ambos relay the request. Toby says, explaining the obvious to the unintelligent, “I can’t. They are stuck.”
The voice from the floor warns Rachel that he is about to push Toby’s fingertips upwards from below. Steve pushes, Toby says “Ow! You are hurting me!”
Apologising, Steve has another try and Toby cries:”Stop it, you bumhead!”
Steve stops.
The Chief retires to the fire truck, returning with some new cutting equipment which he passes to Steve. Steve now sets about cutting free the metal disc with its six perforations and its three child fingers.
The Chief invites Jesse and Miles to come and inspect the fire truck. He shows them the hoses and the heavy brass fittings, then hoists them high into the cabin and places them onto the driver’s seat, beneath the steering wheel. In the massive truck they are very small.
The Chief points out the siren, the two-way radio, the switches that elevate the ladders and all the usual automotive controls. Two boys are in paradise. I remove them before they drive off in search of a fire.

Back in the bathroom, Toby is pacific once more. He sits in the tub in his mother’s arms watching a DVD. The ambos take turns holding the portable screen at the right distance for Toby’s comfort. The DVD is in a language foreign to the ambos and fire crew. It is “Bob Esponja”, Sponge Bob in Spanish.
Now his brothers clamour to watch too. Raphael and I take them outside and hoist them onto the window sill recently vacated by the fire chief.
All of this takes place well past the bedtime of such small boys as maintain a normal, detached relationship with their bathtubs.
The boys watch and translate for the ambulance man and lady, Ross and Joelle (‘call me Jodie’) respectively. It is a cultural treat for Ross and Joelle, who have only previously enjoyed Sponge Bob in English with respective nephews.

It is about 9.00PM when the plughole with its nubbin of pipe and its heavy perforate disc is freed from the tub. Sponge Bob has finished. Toby looks at his naked self and the empty tub. He says mildly: “I am ready to get out now.”
Rachel rises, her bum and thighs numb after three hours, cradling Toby and his massive steel bracelet as she does so.
Escorted by Joelle and Ross, they make their way to the kitchen. Here Annette has covered the kitchen table with towels and a pillow for Toby’s head.
Annette takes Miles and Jesse to their bedrooms. Their protests are audible from the kitchen.
Jesse appears in the kitchen. He says,”I can’t sleep. I’m too worried.”
Somehow Annette persuades him to come back to his room. She lies down alongside him and tries to help him relax.

Now the Chief produces a narrow strip of steel blade, about a foot long and an eighth of an inch wide. Its surface is roughened and irregular; it looks like steel with acne. The Chief explains: “Diamond saw. It’s the only thing that will cut through that steel.”

The Chief threads the stiff blade between Toby’s index finger and the inner edge of the steel annulus. The sharp edge of the blade is applied to the steel and moved up and down. It seeks a niche or crack to bite at hard, but the steel is obdurate and the blade bounces off it. The Chief tries again and again. He is relentless. Steel against steel, the Chief versus the disc.
An exquisite Argentine proverb of Toby’s father, Pablo, runs: con paciencia y con saliva, el elefante se cogio a la hormiga.*
Over the next long time, the Chief will need all the patience and saliva he can muster. He sneaks the blade between the hard steel and the soft boy. The blade makes glancing contact with the disc, leaving a fine scratch in the steel. Now the blade comes again, finds the line of scratching and attacks. The linear scratch deepens minutely. It is nothing like a fissure. Many more passes of blade, many minutes in which Rachel braces Toby’s hand against movement. Rachel searches the face of the Chief. Is he discouraged? He is not. He is the elephant seducing the ant. He presses on.
The room heats up, the disc heats up and Toby protests. Now Jodie produces a green gadget and shows Toby. It looks like a fat whistle. “You put this in your mouth, Toby, and you breathe in. Then your hand will feel good again.”
Toby takes the toy, breathes in and out, relaxes and smiles. He likes his inhaled narcotic.
More laborious sawing, more minutes pass, many single tedious minutes, dragging themselves into hours. The disc is hot, the Chief is resolute, the ambos take turns positioning Toby’s wrist and the Toby rescue industry hums on. Eventually – it is around 10.00pm – Toby becomes fractious. He addresses Jody, the wrist-bearer of the moment. “Put my hand down.”
Jody explains: ”We have to hold it up high to get your fingers out, Toby. It won’t take long.”
Toby is not placated: “Stop it, bumhead!”
Bumhead’s offsider, Ross, gives Toby another suck of narcotic and he subsides.

A further half an hour passes, half an hour of sawing, story reading, perspiring and concentrating. The cluster around Toby and his still buoyant mother falls eventually into speechless reverie. Each person in her own thoughts, each concentrating on three thin fingers that remain pink and on a small boy’s face, pale now with medication and fatigue.

There is a bloke at the front gate who wants to talk to any member of the family. I am greeted by a shortish man with a warm smile and a huge camera. He’s from one of the TV stations. He apologises for his intrusion, he hopes he is not causing distress, would any member of the family be prepared to describe what is happening? I answer, “No.” The man accepts this gracefully and walks away.
I retrieve a phone call. It is Pablo, Toby’s aphoristic father. “Howardo, what’s happening? Is Toby OK? Should I come home?”
Pablo is up country, the indispensable leader of his team’s annual residential seminar. He is out of town but painfully in touch. It tears him in two.
“No, Pablo, Toby is safe and cheerful, his mum is cheerful and the house is full of fire people, ambulance people, family, friends and kibitzers. There’s no physical space for a mere father. OK?”
Pablo is OK, just. I am to ring back later with more news.
Back inside, Toby stirs, complains: “My hand feels uncomterful.” Jody confers with Ross, then turns to Rachel: ”We can’t give Toby any more of the painkiller in case it depresses his breathing. Any further doses need to be given in the Children’s Hospital, with anaesthetic and operating facilities.”

Rachel flows into action. She kisses her other boys goodnight, tells them that Toby will go to the hospital to get his fingers out and he’ll come home soon. She grabs Toby’s teddy bear, a couple of books and another DVD.
Toby says a warm goodnight to all the emergency people, not excluding bumheads.
Rachel wraps Toby in a rug, marches from the house into the open ambulance, concealing her son from the TV camera, and in a moment they are away.

I follow in my car. I work odd night shifts in the Emergency Department of that hospital. I might be useful in some way; I know people there.
By the time I arrive in Triage, Rachel and Toby are nowhere to be seen. The nurse in Triage seems to expect me. “Go into the Minor Procedures Room, Howard. They’re all in there.”

Indeed they “all” are. There are Jodie and Ross and a new fire team. Steve and the Chief and our previous team only do outpatients, it seems. The new bunch comes from another fire station and they do the inpatient jobs. There is a firelady and a fireman, both selected, surely, for their tenderness towards children. The fireman is as tall as Toby is minute. He looks at me, I look at him, Rachel looks at him. He says, “Hello Doctor Goldenberg. We met at your clinic. I married your patient, Robyn. Do you remember?” Indeed I do remember. He is Nick. Rachel is looking at him hard and long because he is so good looking.

Nick has no hand for me to shake because his are occupied with an intriguing apparatus, whose principles he at length will explain. The principles are alarming.
Meanwhile I meet Lucy, who is operating a portable DVD player for Toby, who sits in his mother’s embrace on an operating table. Toby grips his pale blue teddy bear as he always does – with one of its arms in his mouth. Every night that bear develops a soggy upper limb. The bear keeps Toby company through his hospital stay and then disappears, forever lost. Bearnapped, we suppose.
There is a nurse who is helping a doctor administer intravenous pain killers to Toby. The doctor smiles and greets me. We know each other. A quarter of a century ago, when he was a boy, I used to be his family doctor. Then he became my medical student. Nowadays, when I work at the Royal Children’s, I operate under his direction. He is the paediatric consultant on duty tonight. His name is Dominic.

Nick explains his gadget. It is a miniature example of the famed ‘Jaws of Life’ that road emergency crews use to disimpact a crushed motor vehicle from its trapped occupant. Nick’s gadget is a menacing midget of frightening power. It looks like a pair of dark steel pincers emerging from a cylindrical contrivance connected by strong piping to a device that couches like sin on the floor of the O.R. That floor dweller is a pump that forces air under enormous pressure to the pincers, coercing them apart.
Nick introduces the fine pincers into one of the unoccupied annuluses of Toby’s steel ring. He allows the pressure to build and build. The steel of the annulus resists the steel of the jaws. All our jaws are clamped hard, as we watch in dread the application of irresistible force to an object not amenable to persuasion. I close my eyes briefly against a vision of a sudden sundering of the steel bracelet or else an explosion underfoot of the compressor. The latter would destroy the fourteen limbs standing nearby on the floor; the former could shatter my daughter and my grandson.
I adopt the business-as-usual expression that one always deploys when one’s gamble with a patient’s health hangs upon the coin that one has set spinning, spinning, as it falls to earth.
With a discrete metallic sigh the annulus cracks and gapes. Firelady Lucy hands Nick a diamond–blade saw, which he wields now with a free-swinging action well away from Toby’s flesh. As the saw makes its remorseless way through the steel disc, Dominic inserts a shield for Toby’s finger.
Millimetre by millimetre the blade divides the inviolate steel. Sixteen eyes follow the progress of the blade, a remorseless icebreaker freeing the trapped one. The saw falls still, a fraction short of the shield. Now Nick applies a wrench to the opposing shores of the bay where Toby’s finger is marooned. Another steel sigh and the disc surrenders. Toby’s finger is free. Watching Aladdin and his magic, he pays no heed to our drama.
Two more fingers to go. Pincers, saw, wrench – all are deployed in unhurried speed. Nick frees Toby’s digits, tears gather at the edges of my eyes as Rachel kisses those finger tips.

Dominic examines the fingers minutely. He is checking for tissue damage. There is the small skin indentation one sees when a ring has been a little tight. The skin is pink.
Dominic tells Toby to wriggle his fingers. Toby does so, his expression of scornful surprise registering wonder at the obtuseness of the adult world.
Dominic wants to be certain that there has been no damage to nerves and blood vessels. After x-rays he will keep Toby and Rachel here, in an annexe, until the morning, “just to be sure”.
The morning is not many hours away. I kiss my grandson and I hold my daughter’s face in my hands and squeeze her beloved flesh. Then I drive home.
On the way to the car, I phone Annette and share the news. And I forget all about phoning Pablo and Naomi.
***

In the bath a few weeks later 7 year old Jesse has an idea: “Why don’t you see if you can get your fingers into the bath hole, Toby?”.

 

* Pablo translates: With patience and with saliva, the elephant fucked the ant.

Melbourne Boy Rescued After Plug Hole Drama

Melbourne Boy Rescued After Plug Hole Drama

 

A Good Life

A few months ago a man and I were engaged in a conversation. The talk ranged widely over the man’s new book and mine, over asylum seekers to indigenous health, then to my odd affection for running marathons. We visited the Boston Marathon of 2013 and the bombing that brought the event to a halt before I could reach the finish line.

While we talked like old friends, as occasionally happens with an engaging new friend, we were not alone. An audience of tens of thousands listened to us on local radio. Our conversation was coming to an end when the interviewer paused, mused for a moment, shot me a half grin and said: “Howard, I see you as an idealist, a person trying to do good in the world. So I want you to give me an answer to a question I ask myself every day: ‘How does a person live a good life?’”

The interviewer is an awarded journalist aged about forty, a father of young children. He smiled, acknowledging how his question had flown in and landed abruptly in a chat that had satisfied itself with surfaces. Stumbling, I gave a suitably useless answer. I groped for something wise but not too portentous and I came up with something incoherent.

Two months have passed since the challenge of that question. I realise I did have an answer. I have had it for ages. It is couched in religious terms but you could remove the divinity from it and still retain an essence that responds to my radio host. It comes to me from a fellow who lived more than two thousand years ago who had gathered an audience of his own (rather like a radio host of ancient day). His name was Micah. He distilled his understanding of life for his public, teaching them as follows: He hath shown you, O man, what is good: and what does the Lord require of thee – only to do justly, to love mercy and to walk humbly with thy God?

Book Giveaway for Indigenous Literature Week: Raft, by Howard Goldenberg

ANZ LitLovers LitBlog

Excellent news!  Today a beaut box of books arrived from book distributors Dennis Jones and Associates to support Indigenous Literature Week 2014 here at ANZ LitLovers.  They have also been very generous in donating a most interesting book as a Giveaway.  It isn’t a book by an indigenous author – but it will be of interest to anyone keen to know more about life in remote indigenous communities.

RaftThe book is Raft, by Howard Goldenberg, a name that is probably familiar to you if you are also a reader of the Whispering Gums blog.  Sue recently reviewed Goldenberg’s  novel Carrots and Jaffas, and took the opportunity to lead a discussion about the issue of non-indigenous authors writing about indigenous people.   Goldenberg has served in many indigenous communities as a relieving doctor over the past decade, and this is what the blurbers say about the book:

Raft is a delicious, warm and…

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The Surgeon

This is an everyday story. We all know stories like this one.

“My friend never smoked but she had a cough. Her doctor said, “ Better have a chest x-ray.” The chest x-ray showed a shadow on her lung. The GP sent her to a respiratory physician. That doctor spoke with my friend, listing the possible diagnoses and explaining the process that would define the cause of her cough. She asked some questions. She was pretty scared, but she doubted she could have cancer: she had never smoked.

“My friend was sent to a chest surgeon for a bronchoscopy. She saw the surgeon in the operating theatre just as the needle was inserted into her vein for the injection that sent her to sleep. After the procedure she felt sleepy. She came home with a memory, or perhaps it was an idea she daydreamed, that the surgeon said: ‘Visit my rooms next week for your results.’ It seemed the sort of thing someone would have said.

“My friend’s husband telephoned the surgeon’s rooms and made an appointment. He accompanied his wife – who was still coughing – to her appointment. The surgeon appeared right on time, at 10.00 am, precisely. (The husband is himself a precise man. He notices things like that.) The surgeon gave them the diagnosis. They left the surgeon’s rooms at 10.02 am. My friend believes the surgeon said: ‘The biopsy confirms you have lung cancer. You need an operation.’ My friend’s husband confirms the duration of the visit and his wife’s recollection of the surgeon’s words.

“The next time my friend and her surgeon met they were once again in the operating room. While a nurse gowned and gloved the surgeon he gave instructions to a second nurse about instruments and the overhead lights. The surgeon had no time for conversation with my friend before she was anaesthetised.

“The morning following the operation the surgeon visited my friend and told her she was well and the operation had been successful. Three days of coughing and three nights of agonising pain followed. Morphine and Endone did not relieve her pain. On the fourth day the surgeon visited a second time and said, ‘You can go home.’ In fact she could not; she could not walk unsupported and every breath was followed by a wince and a gasp she had to stifle. A nurse arranged for my friend to convalesce in aftercare. Ten days later, still with her original cough that now shook her chest wound violently, my friend went home. Six weeks after the operation she was still coughing. It was time to see the surgeon again.

“My friend’s husband attended – her chest hurt too much to drive. He sat in the waiting room and timed his wife’s visit to the surgeon. He told me later: ‘Mr. S. beat his previous record. She returned to the waiting room in 30 seconds.’

“That afternoon I delivered some food my wife had cooked for our friend. She told me, ‘The surgeon said the cancer’s gone.’

‘Good’, qouth I. ‘ Great! Will you need chemo?’

‘He didn’t say.’

‘Will you have radiation treatment?’

She shook her head: ‘He never said.’

‘What’s next?’

“I don’t know.’”

As I said, an everyday story in this age of miracles and wonder. An everyday surgical miracle worker, himself a wonder of brutish mutism. What we do not read of is any disciplinary action taken by the authorities against the surgeon for his brutism.

Why not ? – I wonder.

Coincidence

“My grandfather happened to be in Britain at the start of the First World War. He and his brothers farmed the family property in the Victorian high country. Somehow though, he was visiting England, a war was on, we were part of the Empire, so he joined up.
Meanwhile back in Australia, his brother volunteered. They wrote to each other with their news: it turned out both had been posted to the Middle East, but to different units in different locations.

“Grandfather and great-uncle tried to keep in touch, and when Grandfather was given leave on Christmas Day he wrote to Uncle Bob promising to meet him outside the General Post Office in King George Street in Jerusalem on that day. He’d meet Grandfather there at noon. It didn’t surprise him that he didn’t receive a reply – there was a war on. His brother’s silence didn’t make him change his plans.

“At noon on December 25 – I think it was 1916 – Grandfather took up his station outside the Post Office and waited for Bob. By 1.00pm Bob hadn’t appeared, but Grandfather wasn’t worried or surprised. There was a war on, they both had to cadge lifts from army transport vehicles. He waited. Grandpa was excited and nervous; he and Bob hadn’t seen each other since before the war.
Grandfather said he needed to go to the toilet but didn’t dare in case Bob came and found he wasn’t there and they’d miss each other. He told me he danced around for hours with his bladder filling and his hopes fading.

“By four o’clock it was getting cool, the day was coming to its end and Grandfather feared he’d wet himself. Bob never showed. Another soldier passing by told Grandfather there were public toilets around the corner and one block down.
Grandfather strode down the street, turned left and collided with another man in uniform. “Sorry mate”, he said, untangling himself. Through the gloom came the same words in the same voice. The two men peered at each other. It was Uncle Bob.
‘The funny thing was’ – Grandfather told me – ‘Bob never received my letter!’”

That story was told to me by a workmate in 1974. It has stayed with me these forty years. I know that post office, I know the cold and dark of evening in Jerusalem at Christmas.

Today I received a flattering (and I must say insightful) review of my novel “Carrots and Jaffas” from a lady I’ve never met who lives, reads, reviews and blogs in France. (Coincidentally, we found each other by chance.) Claire McAlpine is my reviewer’s name. Somehow Claire managed to compose her review through a period of family medical crisis. How the empty page draws the pen!
Towards the end of her piece Claire McAlpine remarks on the long arm of coincidence that reaches out towards the end of my novel. She is right. As I wrote the section in question I had in my mind the accidental finding of kin, of brothers, between my friend’s grandfather and her great uncle Bob. This closing stage of the book gives voice to a daydream that I fall into from time to time in my work as a locum doctor in outback Aboriginal communities. Medical work in those places is full of nightmare: so much loss, so much suffering , almost all of it preventable. In my reverie I dream of a utopian resolution of the actual. My writing always hopes for redemption. In the closing pages of “Carrots and Jaffas” I gave voice to that wishful state; I allowed the intelligence and the questing longing of my character ‘the Doc’ to be rewarded by coincidence.
And I know from first hand stories of Holocaust survivors who have been separated from kin, for decades beyond hoping, that fate is not always cruel, that brothers are sometimes found.

I Reblog her review and thank Claire for the time and effort she put into it during a difficult time.

Word by Word

Allia NurseAll quiet on the blogging and reading front recently as life’s dramas intervened and demanded my full attention. Our daughter had a diabetic crisis 2 weeks ago and has been in hospital, she is stable now and happy to be home and said I can use this new picture she created for her Facebook page.

Consequently I have been carrying Carrots and Jaffas around with me and rereading passages, though I finished it more than 2 weeks ago and finally today had time while our son was at hip hop to move my scribbles here. Apologies Howard for taking so long to share your wonderful book.

Carrots and Jaffas is a wonderful example of how the virtual world allows us to come across writing voices that we don’t always find in bookshops or through mainstream publishers, that don’t require one to have publishing connections or be in the know. Just to be open…

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Aunty Pearly’s Sorry Business

I think many families have an aunty who is not really an aunt. That sort of aunt, usually a contemporary of a parent, is a person treasured across generations. You inherit that sort of aunty.

For many of my Jewish school friends in the fifties and sixties that was the only sort of aunt and uncle they knew: their parents’ blood siblings had perished in the gas chambers. Afterwards, close contemporaries were clutched and held closer, people who shared the stories and the memories.

The auntness of Pearly wasn’t woven of that tragic weft. Pearly was the sister of the wife of my father’s brother Abe. The earliest encounter I recall with Aunty Pearly occurred on a winter’s evening at the start of half a year of exile from my home and family. My older brother Dennis and I were to board with Aunty Clare and Uncle Abe in Melbourne, while Dad sold his medical practice in Leeton, our hometown. Transactions of that type take a long time.

The evening was erev shabbat, Sabbath eve, that fulcrum in the week that still finds me emotionally suggestible. The sun set and sank, and with it my mood.

While I enjoyed a period of self-pity – always the sincerest of emotions – our cousins Ruth and Carmel spoke elatedly: “Aunty Pearly’s coming for Shabbat. She always gives us a whole Vanilla Nougat or a Cherry Ripe. Each!

I didn’t know Aunty Pearly. She wouldn’t know me. Vanilla and Cherry and Pearly would be strangers to me. My sincerity deepened.

 

A knock at the door, a scamper of cousins, gleeful ‘thank you’s, and a deepish womanly voice called: “Where’s Dennis? Where’s Howard?”

Down the short hallway the voice approached, a bulky figure loomed, a smell of perfume, a slash of lipstick, and we were hoisted, one after the other, up into the soft valley between two mountainous breasts. Pearly handed me a Violet Crumble Bar. To Dennis she gave a Vanilla Nougat.

Somehow this stranger knew me, liked me, perhaps even loved me. In that instant I loved Aunty Pearly and the feeling never changed.

 

When Pearly’s real nephew – a blood nephew – called me early on a Sunday morning sixty years later, his slow agricultural voice had slowed further. “Aunty Pearly just passed away. The funeral will be tomorrow.” The day of Pearly’s passing was filled with celebrations at far ends of a widening clan: there was a Barmitzvah to attend of the grandson of my wife’s cousin and the wedding of the son of my first cousin. Such mixing of significant life moments!

 

Next day a wintry afternoon found us in a garden burial ground. In this light the grass took on a deeper shade. Black clothing against the green brought a sombre richness.

A crowd, many, many scores of people, gathered. Although some of the names eluded us we all knew each other’s faces from generations of family events. This was a gathering of the many from the fringes of a number of intermarrying clans. Pearlie was one of seven siblings. All of her siblings married and multiplied. Pearlie alone never married: she’d smile and call herself an unclaimed treasure. She treasured her siblings’ children and grandchildren, and their spouses, a growing multitude. But there were non-bloods there as well, numerous as her true kin. Pearlie gathered the young in her wake and we followed her, long after our own youth had gone, to her end. Everywhere eyes shone while mouths smiled, people cradled each other, faces looked serious but not in grief; for aunty Pearly died at the right time – before her dementia could ruin her, her slow cancer suddenly accelerated and she was gone.

 

Aunty Pearlie led a religious life. Her sacred places were the MCG and the Melbourne Synagogue. She never wavered from the worship of her idols at the Melbourne Football Club. But today it was the curate from her synagogue who led the ceremonies. It was a sweet moment when the young man – no relation to Pearlie or to anyone present – called her “Aunty Pearlie” as we all had. He was another honorary nephew, full of affectionate personal reminiscence. Pearlie’s life of faith ensured she would not be buried by a stranger.

 

In Aboriginal communities a burial takes place after indeterminate delay long enough for families to scrape the money together for a funeral. Then follows a further chapter of mourning where people gather from across a life history, from across a continent, for the Sorry Business.

Jews are buried with all decent haste. Then our own Sorry Business follows, the precisely calibrated period of shiva when first degree relatives sit low to the floor and receive condolence from their community. But Aunty Pearlie had neither spouse nor children to sit in her honour. Instead we gathered the next two evenings for successive memorial services at her synagogue. Same crowd as at the garden funeral, swollen now, and at a different venue. The Melbourne Synagogue is grand, cavernous, dripping with history, but too often attended by too few. A beautiful shell, the Shule waited for throngs that rarely came. But Aunty Pearlie came, Shabbat after Shabbat, at festival times, at all seasons. Over nearly seven decades she befriended each new rabbi, kept him company in his inevitable disillusion, saw him leave and welcomed and supported his highhoping successor. In this manner Aunty Pearlie outlasted seven Rabbis.

 

In the course of the Sorry Business I learned more of Pearlie’s growing up in Brisbane, of her service in WWII, of her friendships there with many women and men including a young Zelman Cowen. Pearlie seems to have won and kept many devoted friends.

 

Poignantly, one who resided so deeply in so many affectionate bosoms left no son to recite the mourning prayer Kaddish for her. Anxiously, I waited to see who might step forward and assume the mantle of the sons who never were. An aged brother in law, still erect, together with his not young son, and a couple of his not young cousins, all recited it together. One or two, more fluent in the Aramaic, led the others as they hobbled and stumbled in and out of time with each other. The four men freighted the feeling and the yearning of us hundreds, all of Aunty Pearly’s “young ones”, all of us wanting hard for her to be sung and storied, lamented and remembered, celebrated in this her holy place. Hundreds of us, all with our personal memories of some moment like mine with a Violet Crumble Bar when I was a child missing a mother’s love.

 

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How we Killed Leo

Leo was an asylum seeker.  Let us put aside that weary term and see what Leo was and how we came to know him. Leo was a Tamil. That means he was born into that minority in Sri Lanka which gave rise to the Tamil Tigers. The Tigers rebelled violently against the Sinhalese majority, earning a reputation for terrorism.
A civil war was conducted over many years, culminating in a government offensive that put down the rebellion and targeted civilians. If I read the story right, both the Tigers and the government were guilty of atrocities.
Leo was a baby when, during the worst of the bombings, his father wrapped him in banana leaves and hid him in the jungle. The family fled to India when Leo was five. He lived there in a miserable camp for twenty years, visiting Sri Lanka once to see family. He was imprisoned and tortured. Why? I don’t know precisely, but the explanation would have to start with the fact he was a Tamil.
Leo became an asylum seeker, a boat person, a “queue jumper”, and made his way to Cocos Islands. After only four months of detention, Leo was resettled near Geelong.
That means the Australian authorities – Customs, Immigration, ASIO – found him to be a non-terrorist. They found that speedily.  Leo was judged not to be a risk to Australia.  He was given a Bridging Visa, which allowed him to work but did not endow him with Permanent Resident status.

We said, “Leo, although you jumped our queue, we are letting you into the country and out into the community. But you are a guest. We can tell you at any time to go back where you came from.”
In the last few weeks Leo learned that a couple of Tamil men with stories similar to his own had been taken back into detention. These two faced the prospect of joining the one thousand Tamils whom we have sent back to Sri Lanka where they face persecution. Leo knew that persecution; he knew it in his tortured mind and in his body.

How did Leo spend his time on the Bellarine Peninsula? He worked two days a week for an asphalting company, cleaning greasy trucks. In his spare time he volunteered in an aged care home, he donated blood, he helped bring aid packages to asylum seekers new to the community, he sent money every month to an orphanage in the refugee camp in India that is still his parents’ home.

Leo became an organ donor. Did he expect to die?
Mister Morrison, our Immigration Minister, declares Leo showed no signs of suicidal intent. We know Mister Morrison, a minister who acts as Ruddock spoke, with icy resolve. Only Morrison doesn’t speak to us much. We might judge from his record his capacity for empathy, for humanity. Our minister said Leo’s death “is a terrible and tragic incident and none of us can know the mind of a person in this situation.”
Here is where I can help the minister. I know the mind of a person in the situation of such parlous existence, endlessly uncertain what his fate will be, of having it determined by the opaque decisions of governments and ministers. I know it by the accident of my unusual experience working among detained people in Christmas Island. I know it too by the not unusual gift of empathy. I know Leo’s death was not an incident – far from incidental – it was our doing and it was in the statistical sense, predictable. We saw that with the Tamil man who burned himself to death a few weeks before Leo.

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