Jeremiah Jan

She sits in the waiting room, reading. Any patient who enjoys a good read will enter my consulting room in a good mood. I do allow my patients time for a very good read.
The book she reads from is thick, with old-fashioned morocco covers and red-tipped pages. Looks like the Bible! She doesn’t look mortally ill. Perhaps she’s mortally afraid of the new young doctor.
‘Good morning, my name’s Howard.’
We shake hands. Her hand is fair, a youngish hand. The owner of the hand says, ‘Hello, I’m Jan.’
‘You’re reading the Bible? Which book?’
‘Jeremiah.’
Jeremiah the cheerless, prophet of doom, a man willing to be jailed for speaking truth to power. Serious reading. Might have been worse, could have been Job.
The serious reader sits down. She speaks: ‘Howard, I’ve come for a talk. I don’t need a diagnosis; if I want a diagnosis I’ll see Doctor Don. I don’t need a diagnosis, I need a talk.’
We have our talk.

Another visit by Jan, another long period in the reading room. Eventually I show her in. We are only about ten minutes into today’s talk when the phone interrupts us: ‘Howard, Doctor Don needs you in the Treatment Room. Now!’
‘Gotta go, Jan. Sorry.’
I go.

When I return, after about twenty five minutes, I resume: ‘So, Jan, you were about seven when…’
‘Howard, you can’t just do this.’
‘Do what, Jan?’
‘Take up our conversation without a break, as if nothing terrible or significant has just happened.’
‘Can’t I? Why not?’
‘You need time, some space. You need to come to terms with whatever it was that was so urgent. You are a person too, Howard.’

In my consulting room, situated at the furthest end of the building from the Treatment Room, Jan would not have seen the frantic mother, the pale plump doll that was the baby, the child inert, lifeless. She would not have felt the body still warm, not seen two adult males breathing desperate air into a new body that would not breathe again. She would not have seen the face of the mother passing through shock to grief to the start of lifelong self-accusation.
Did she perhaps hear sounds of stifled sobs?

Many chapters of Jeremiah and of Job have been read in the thirty-five years since that day. I remember the child, I have not forgotten the mother.
Nor have I forgotten Jan’s instruction.

A Visit to the Dentist

You could say it’s all my mother’s fault. It was Mum who made me go to the dentist. It was Mum who made me wash. Like many mothers Mum had a religious belief in soap and water.
When I was a small child Mum took me to the dentist, Mister Mc Auliffe. In those days dentists were Mister and doctors were Doctor. Mum tried to make it sound like a treat: ‘Afterwards we’ll go across the street to Mr Iano’s shop and I’ll buy you the biggest apple he’s got.’ I had better reasons, anti-dental reasons, for going to Iano’s. As well as being the fruit shop it was the milk bar: you could buy lollies there. Mum said, ‘Afterwards we’ll get the biggest and brightest and greenest apple in the whole shop.’ Afterwards! I heard a rat. What would happen in-betweenwards?

In between the honeyed talk and the greenest apple was the climb up to Mr Mc Auliffe’s second-floor surgery. From there I had an excellent view of Iano’s lolly shop. Inside that narrow chamber I smelt smells, I heard sounds, I felt vibrations, all novel, all taking place within my mouth. The drill moved with all the speed and softness of a peak-hour cable tram. My teeth were the rails. I felt smoke but could not cry ‘Fire!’
Afterwards, as promised, there was the apple.

Five years later, attending my expensive new school in Melbourne, I stood on the top step of the slide. A pushing-in kid, hostile to this newcomer, tried to push in. I stood my ground. Push came to shove in the back, I fell face-first onto the steel side rail of the slide, arresting my fall with my right front upper incisor. I left part of that upper front tooth in the Mount Scopus playground in St Kilda Road. My parents decided I looked odd and sent me to a dentist. A Melbourne dentist, I discovered, had modern methods of preventing pain by causing pain. The dentist – still mister – squirted local anaesthetic into the nerve nearest the front upper tooth. He said, ‘This will stop you feeling pain.’ Perhaps it did do that, but the injection hurt in a way that was new to me. Mister dentist asked me, ‘Do you want a gold filling?’ I didn’t want anything more this man might do to me. But I didn’t say no so I left those premises unaware of the new vertical glint of gold in my smile. It was a long time before I smiled, longer still before I saw myself in a mirror.

Many decades later grandchildren arrived. They learned to speak. They looked at me, they looked at other humans, and they asked, ‘Saba, how come you got a gold tooth?’
I told them the truth of course. I told them how I fought a gold toothed dragon that no-one else would fight, how I’d killed it and kept one tooth as a trophy.
Every time they saw me, the grandboys would ask, ‘Tell us how you got that golden tooth, Saba.’ I told them how I’d swum into the deepest ocean and fought barehanded the Giant Shark, fought tooth to tooth, how I’d bitten out his black heart, how his blood-red tooth had bitten my gum, had lodged there and rusted and turned gold.’
And again, ‘Saba how did you get that gold tooth?’ I told them about the dinosaurs that caused so much wreckage in my childhood days. ‘You know how Tyrannosaurus wrecks, don’t you, kids?’ I was forced to tell them of my desperate struggle in the dark jungles of Paris, how I saved the Parisees, how Tyrannosaurus died, his black blood turning the dirt streets of Paris black, his last tooth taken as a souvenir – a French word I borrowed from the Parisees – how I had that tooth implanted in my own brave gums. ‘And, kids, today you never see any dinosaurs any more, not even in the dark jungles of Paris. And the streets of Paris are all black.’

All went well for some time. The gold tooth stories nourished hungry young minds, filling them with useful knowledge of geography, of history and of pre-history. The gold tooth gleamed modestly from behind my bulbous lip, a stamp of my enormous, self-effacing courage.

Then my Mum stepped in. Not physically, but in habit ingrained and indoctrinated, Mum’s habit of soap and water, a habit I am embarrassed to admit survives her, years after her death: I showered. And while showering I ran my idle tongue along the inside of my upper teeth, where that slippery pink rasp felt something that was not there: my tooth, my gold tooth, had gone!
That’s life, I said to myself. Sixty years a gold-toothed person, now ungolden. I grinned at myself in the mirror. I looked like a failed terrorist. Something gleamed from the floor of the shower recess. I picked it up and placed it in a urine jar.
I asked the nurses, ‘Is there a dentist in this small town?’ There was, there is. And the dentist’s receptionist had more bad news, ‘You can see him today.’
So I went. The dentist is Doctor now. But he was not the real, dinkum, authentic dentist of my childhood. He covered my eyes to protect me from my own germs. He showed me a horror show on the screen above me: the images were those of my own teeth, my receding gums, my doomed dentition. He did things inside my mouth, asking me questions I never heard in childhood: ‘Does that hurt? Please tell me if I hurt you.’ He used a drill and he didn’t hurt. I think he doesn’t know how. He glued back my bit of gold. I lost my terrorist’s grin.

Nowadays a dentist has lost those old skills, those old black arts; now that a dentist is a Doctor it’s only your wallet that hurts. So a dentist who is a Doctor employs a failed dentist and calls her a hygienist. And she knows how to hurt.

Small Town

Wide streets, slow talk, visible horizons, unhaste, drinkable coffee, air you can’t see, first prize in the Trap Shoot a ham (second prize two chooks), courteous people, a main street monument to Glenn McGrath, traffic slowing to circle the cenotaph that recalls the one-hundred-year dead, terrain so flat a granite mound (250 metres) is a mountain)*, forty eight social, sporting and cultural clubs (including Writers’ Inc – contact Mrs Shirley Todhunter**), a nursing home full of smiling nonagenarians, churches of wood, the CWA***, a beauty queen crowned Miss Beef…

I like the town.

Walking down the sunblazing main street on a Friday afternoon I pass by three girls slim enough to sit side by side on a single doorstep. All three meet my curious gaze, two smile, one speaks: ‘Good afternoon.’

‘Good afternoon girls.’

Three smiles. These girls, just at the threshold of puberty, haven’t been taught to fear. They smile like their great-grannies who greet me at the nursing home.

I like the town.

In the hospital I treat too many for alcoholism. Ice floods the town, destroying minds, ravaging families. I feel a pang for the three small smilers who did not fear to smile at a stranger.

I come as a gap filler for the doctor who left last week after twenty years of service. The town is in mourning. ‘Will you be staying, doctor?’, the townsfolk ask me.

I don’t like to say no: I like the town.

* Mount Foster.

** I did contact her.

*** If you don’t know the CWA (Country Women’s Association) you have probably never eaten a cream-filled passionfruit sponge cake. If you haven’t eaten a passionfruit sponge, move to a small town and do so.

nevertire of eenaweena

never beenta eenaweena

you’ll never tire of nevertire

when I’ve beenta

eenaweena and nevertire

i’ll have beenta elong elong –

grong grong and matong

were nearer my home town:

I’ve eaten meringue

in wulgulmerang –

in betweena hell,

booligal as well

a long time ago,

in eulomogo;

been alone in quambone

felt at home in gulargambone

done algebra in egelabra

and once in gilgandra

reclined on veranda

and free from hungery

in eumungerie

with grub o from dubbo

found peace, release, ease

at least in burrumbuttock

never felt foreign

in a small town like warren

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No Sexual Massage in Yangon

When I visited Yangon a couple of years ago I enjoyed a number of curious, memorable and stimulating experiences. Among these I recall the vivid sight of a mouthful of ragged teeth swimming in blood-red betel juice. I saw lovely women and lovelier children with cheeks daubed in discs of a caked pink, ochreous pigment. I ran in a huge mid-city park where I was alone, save for thirty men scything a small patch of pedicured grass of brilliant green, and lovers on park benches, enfolded in each others’ arms in the slow ballet of discreet half-satisfaction. I saw women and men banquetting at kerbsides on evil-smelling fishes, I read an English language newspaper from cover to cover, in which grown up writers and editors repeated children’s stories for grownup readers. (These stories, simply told and endlessly retold, announced that the government was very pleased with itself and if we had any further questions we should read the account of the Press Release on page three, which announced how pleased the government was with its plans to change nothing.)

I rode in taxis that had been young when I reached puberty and which still functioned – but only just. I recognised my own physiology mirrored in these noisy, puffing, sluggish vehicles. At the airport I was met by unsmiling men wearing military and paramilitary uniforms that would be laughable in comic opera. Under the hard eyes of these protectors of the public order young female Immigration Clerks checked my passport for twenty solemn minutes before passing me down a chain of clerks similarly trained in solemnity. The solemnity training is impressive, achieving as it does the extinguishing of the endemic native joy that radiates from the Yangonese. In a shop I saw a longhi. I always wanted a longhi and when I went to purchase one, eight young women, so feminine, so, so slim, all stepped forward to fit me. I went to a hairdressing salon where some hair was cut and someone sold someone else a massive bag of rice, while all the staff – including the person cutting the hairs around my throat – watched a lengthy and particularly violent show on TV.

I saw and enjoyed many things in Yangon but I never bought, received, contemplated, witnessed or wished for sexual massage in Yangon. I did, however, post an innocent blog report on my visit to the hairdresser.

Ever since that post my blog has been visited by readers from around the world, googling key words ‘Sexual Massage Yangon.’ I have innocently discovered the secret to a massive blog following. In posting this I expect to redouble that following. Fame and Greatness beckon.

Africans in my Lounge Room

Trudy ushered them in, the two-and-two-thirds doctors from Africa. Tall, beautiful and young, each greeted us in perfect Hebrew: ‘Shabbat Shalom’, a peaceful Sabbath. Three smiles of perfect teeth lit our room on a rainy Saturday afternoon.

First and oldest was Tom, thirteen years a doctor, eight months in Australia on a Bridging Visa. Next came Afia, with 18 months’ experience in Ethiopian hospitals and I don’t know how much time in refugee camps. She too holds a Bridging Visa. Last and youngest was Oprah, the vulgar fraction: she has completed four years of medical studies in the Congo. Her birth country is Rwanda. I did not prosecute her with enquiry about her double expatriation. Like the other two, Oprah subsists in Australia at the pleasure of the government. That means the kindness of Mister Morrison.

All three understand fully they can be evicted from this land of asylum at which ever moment Mr Morrison’s kindness might run out. As none of the three came by leaky boat they have the right to work. If they can get work. Trudy brought the three to us to help them find work. I had invited two august medical friends, superbly connected senior people in their fields.

We sat down and talked. Tom outlined his situation. In his early thirties, married, experienced in hospital medicine and a recognized expert in immunisation in third world countries, he is permitted to work here as a doctor only under supervision. At present this distinguished professional works as a medical menial, washing incontinent bodies in a place for the aged. Tom makes no complaints about the red tape, he is grateful to be here, willing to go anywhere – to the outback, to the western suburbs – he just wants to use his training. Can we help him find work? This expert in immunisation – he is just back from Geneva, where he was summoned by the WHO to a conference – with his rich experience of tropical disease would be a gift to a hospital or a tropical medical school or an immunisation project or in policy in any of our tropical zones.

Afia, aged twenty-seven, came to Australia by invitation, to attend the recent world AIDS conference. She applied for asylum with her husband, a chemical engineer who is also looking for work. They too will go anywhere. Afia wants to be a GP. I pictured our large communities of people from the Horn of Africa with Afia as the needed human bridge of cultural understanding to bring these many to safety. I saw the many Aboriginal communities crying out for GP’s.

Oprah has been here for a few weeks. Trudy has given her shelter. Oprah wants to become a nurse. In this country nursing is university course and monumentally expensive. However asylum seekers can pursue TAFE studies at no cost. Oprah managed four years of a medical degree; nursing will not be beyond her grasp. She’d be able to train as a State Enrolled Nurse at TAFE and from that platform gain employment and support herself while studying at Uni. I work with numerous African nurses, highly appreciated in the outback, where the barriers between the African and the whitefella are as nought compared to the gulfs all must cross in indigenous health.

There was little talk of the revolutions, the wars, the massacres; there was scarce mention of refugee camps; there was no complaint, no sense of entitlement, no pity of self, no cries for the families left behind. None of the three had met the others until Trudy brought them together on Saturday and coached them in the Hebrew greeting on our doorstep. Afia, Oprah, Tom, three islands in this distant country, three shimmering humans simply happy to be here, eager to work, to stand up, to make their way.

Theirs is an old, old Australian story. I saw the Reffo, the New Australian, the Boat Person, the Gold Rusher, the survivor of the Shoah, the Balt on the Snowy Scheme, the student from Tiananmen Square. I saw my wife’s mother, a child fleeing Danzig in 1938, I saw my Grandpa arriving here alone, aged thirteen, a stowaway escaping the Ottoman police in Palestine.

There we sat – three young Africans, three old Australian doctors and one good citizen. An atmosphere quietly joyful, of welcome guests meeting grateful hosts, a current flowing back and forth of appreciative respect. A meeting, in short, of human people.

The next morning my wife and I happened to have three guests for brunch. One of the three, an old friend, works with survivors of torture; the second is a classmate from medical school whom I knew is a shy blonde, now President of the World Psychiatric association; the third is her husband, a distinguished gastroenterologist, now practising in Addiction Medicine. Our refugee advocate friend, his face ravaged, spoke of the horrendous week just past in which the Minister of All Prerogatives (Mister Morrison) sold the freeing of 103 detained children in exchange for numberless others, both adults and children. These others are offshore, in another country, beyond the borders of Australian conscience.

My wife and I told our brunch friends of the Africans in our loungeroom. Five Australians, all thoroughly unexceptional in our impulse, in our wish to help, spoke with eager seriousness of people, places, organisations, of contacts, of opportunities and of need. Nothing new, nothing unusual transpired. Five Old Australians, descended from New Australians, animated by memory and self recognition, each saw ‘mon frère, mon semblable’. I read in Sunday’s paper of the endless tides of Libyans escaping likely death, arriving in Italy where the locals, quite overwhelmed, yet see what our Morrisons and Abbotts and Gillards and Shortens will not: they see the human face and they give the arrivals succour.

In the few days since this human weekend I have tried to reach beyond my customary postures of anger and self-righteousness, to grope for understanding of my hard Government, of my soft Opposition, of my fearful fellow citizens in the electorate. I can only surmise that, somehow, at some time, my representatives and my fellow citizens have lost something they used to see – the image of the self in the face of the other.

An afternoon in the loungeroom with guests like mine might change everything.

Blogging On

I wrote a post a few days ago expecting it to pass with a yawn. That it did not is a surprise. That it might matter is an astonishment. That I’ll persist is the fault of the addressees below:

Dear palmerglassbox,

I am gratified to bring a ray of sunshine twice a week, but I am concerned about the other five sunless days. Please ask your doc to measure your vitamin D levels.

Dear Lionel Lubitz,
I like the idea of opening you (plural) up. It is ages since I performed a laparotomy. Thank you for your unhyperbole and for the teasing notion that the blog can annoy you (again plural). Someone’s taking notice.

Dear Susanne at Bilingual Options,
Your response delights me because you delight in the stories that delight me most, those about family. As one very familiar with the grandrats (Susanne is the model for the speech therapist in Carrots and Jaffas, and my twin grandsons were her patients), you know well their suicidal energies. And as for wordpress, it conquers even the mightiest intellect. Only my daughter can be its blogmeistress, and that by virtue of her power of persistence (in her childhood, read ‘stubbornness’.)

Welcome kaisywmills, who like Janus, has two faces, one feminine, the second bearded.

Claire McAlpine, bloggist and book critic, says blog on. Same to you, Claire, and more so. Your blog and your reviews bring good books to our attention.

Thank you Sulfen for what I take to be encouragement. It is no chore to write, the contrary in fact; my fear is creating a chore for the reader.

And Kerryn, who wrote so thoughtfully: Kerryn, when you encourage me to tell stories, you give my inner minstrel voice to sing. And your suggestion for a story about the bloke in my wedding photo is irresistible. (Watch this space.) Further, if, dear Kerryn you were born on New Year’s Eve about 35 years ago, you might have been delivered by me; and in that case you have met that man, you knew that face: he is my forever friend, my former partner in the medical practice you attended in childhood.

And dear Louis De Vries – the publisher all writers dream of and none can deserve – we know where the readers are: they are all reading on tablets, which were invented to bankrupt you, to frustrate me and to allow people to read in the dunny.

Dear Miriam Abud,
How delightful to find you finding me in this way. Suddenly the invention of the computer is justified, the existence of the internet worthwhile. The thought of anyone settling down to half a dozen of my writings thrills and amazes me. That it is YOU fills me with smiles of pleasure. I’ll keep going. And I think the radio would bring out all that is boring and pompous and opinionated in me. But if it would sell books…

And you, Helen, in urging more poetry you open a mare’s nest, a can of sperms, and a mix of metaphors. My own verse is largely limited to medical referral letters where, because they are confidential and hence unpublishable, the verse does least harm. On the odd occasion I post the verse of true poets, women – generally young undergraduates – drool and swoon, a pleasant surprise for an old gent. I suspect poetry drives many men away.

Hello, misssophiablog, welcome to this blog. I am impressed that yours has a FAQ section. Golly. When I need fashion advice I’ll turn to you, Courtney.

Hello Spot, your remark, ‘in the outback you give us another window on the world’ is unexpected and brings the sudden thought that a casual smartarse blogger might actually be some sort of postman to another person waiting for a letter, any letter. Suddenly, all this might be serious. Or significant. Thank you and golly!

Hello dear Faye Colls,
No writer could ever earn your unwavering loyalty. You are a warm and kindly spirit. Fair dinkum.

Dear Dear Bruce,
In your steadfast attention to my musings you create a blog of your own, revealing a soldier of the law who defended the weak to his own cost. You show us your wounds of honour, your human vulnerability. In all your humility you lift us up.

Dear Hilary Custance Green,
As well as having the very most remarkable and unforgettable and rhymable name an author or a blogger could desire, you write most thoughtfully and I should say, faithfully. Everyone should read your new novel, which I will buy in the UK in January – despite Amazon’s best efforts to sabotage you – and which I’ll review in this blog. Please ensure Foyles stocks the book.
I have just received your remarkable (and generous) review of Carrots and Jaffas. You have expressed my purposes so adroitly and divined my approach so comprehensively, you’ve actually deepened my understanding of my own book. Thank you, quite humbly, HCG. (in my trade hcg is the acronym for human chorionic gonadotrophin, which is the substance in a woman’s urine that tells her she’s pregnant when she pees onto a stick. You have elevated HCG to a more refined level.)

Dear Nick Miller,
Like you I find myself thwarted by wordpress. I’m all the gratefuller for your close attention to the blog, as to all of my writing. Carrots and Jaffas would have been a much poorer book without your criticisms.

Gerard Oosterman, hello, and thank you for commenting. Your own blog is masterly and you seem to have conquered wordpress. Bravo! (note to readers – chase up gerard’s blog: it’s a ripper!)

Dear I L Wolf, dear Margot Mann (in fact, beloved MCM), dear Glitchy Mind, dear Claire Word by Word, dear the chattyrachel, dear M. Talmage Moorhead (a name to rival Hilary’s), dear mannyrutinel, dear amandalyle, dear fictionistasan (intriguing monniker), dear M. Funk l PHOTOGRAPHY, dear Greg Mercer, MSN, dear jackiewilson, dear bluchickenninja – you all liked a blogpost that ran the risk of becoming a fishing expedition for compliments. You forgave me and you wrote. Thank you all.

And dear DovTheRov, you make me larrf, Thank you for the encouragement. You write a mean weekly newsletter. How many rabbis can make a minyan smile?

In Hebrew we have an expression: “acharon, acharon chaviv” – last mentioned, most beloved. Thank you Rachel, thank you, thank you.

Yours, twice weekly, I’m afraid.

Blog On?

Like every wise man I operate in thrall to my womenfolk. One of those womenfolk helps me manage this blog. Readers might have observed the blog stuttering in its cantering gait recently. I have slipped from my regular Monday and Friday postings, to no-one’s great regret. Noting this delinquency the Blogmeistress has commanded me to address my readers with some questions. She says I need to ask you what you want me to write about. The conversation went like this:

BLOGMEISTRESS: Ask your readers what they want.

HG: Why?

BLOGMEISTRESS: Why what?

HG: Why bother them? They’re enjoying the rest.

B/MEISTRESS: You need to blog, so you’ll reach new readers…

HG: Why?

B/MEISTRESS: Why what?

HG: Why do I need readers – old or new – of my blog?

B/MEISTRESS: You need blog followers so they’ll become readers of your books: your writing is OK; it’s just your attitude to technology that stinks. You write passably but all three of your books have been worstsellers. You need to get known.

HG: Look, no-one, not a single person has written begging me for a new post. No-one misses them. A blog that appears on your screen twice a week is an imposition. I’m giving them a break.

B/MEISTRESS: Blog – or fail as a writer!

HG: When I blog I fail because I take time and energy away from serious writing.

BM: Blogging is serious. You’re an appalling snob. You’re going to fail.

So, dear reader, dear slumbering follower, here are the questions a wise man must ask:

What would you like me to write about?

The news – all miserable – that I whinge about already?

My moral quandaries, in which I flail and thrash in a mighty masturbation of the conscience?

Oddities, trivial observations, exercises in whimsy and gentle self-mockery? Or would you prefer brutal self-mockery?

Family stories? Isn’t your own family is just as lunatic as mine?

***

Here is the question I am forbidden to ask: Could you care less?

Sorry to disturb your hard-earned respite.