Maranoa Writer

In the Maranoa I met Billy Dodd, author of ‘Broken Dreams’ (UQP). I met his life. I recount his story to an able-bodied listener, who recoils on hearing how, three days before Billy’s eighteenth birthday, he came to fracture his neck and became quadriplegic. It’s the sort of shiver we feel as we recognise ourselves. As a child I dived into unplumbed streams. It was a normal action, part of the exuberant membership of the mad organism of many limbs without a brain that is a group of boys at play. We dove, we surfaced, we swam, we shouted, we splashed. Everything worked. We never thought on it. 

But here in the singular house of Billy Dodd I do think on it. Alone of the houses in Ann Street in his Maranoa township, Billy’s is not a Queenslander. That is, the structure is not elevated above flood level; it squats, its threshold at street level, hospitable to a wheelchair. Billy is glad for my visit. Although he is the town’s literary celebrity the rhythms of his life are slow. His partner is devoted and admiring, her child attentive and respectful, but the days are many, the years long.

‘How old are you now, Billy?’

‘Thirty three.’ A smile moves across his face. His chest plays its rise and fall. Nothing else of him moves.

That’s fifteen years. Fifteen years to look back, so very many to look ahead.
From across the street Billy’s house looks small. From the corner of the parlour where he reclines in his motorised conveyance the quiet rooms yawn. The spaces feel too large.
‘I’ve started to write another book.’

‘Good on you, Billy. What’s it about?’

‘About my father, my family.’

‘How’s it going?’

‘Well, I’m taking a bit of a break…’
We talk about his family, about his father’s example, his standards. Billy’s admiration outlives the old man, who never reached oldness.
Billy’s partner speaks, ‘Tell him what else you create, Billy. The paintings.’ She fetches some paintings, done by mouth, like all of Billy’s acts and works. After only a few weeks the paintings do not stand clearly in memory.
‘A cup of tea?’ The lady – Billy’s wife, as I discover – smiles her offer. ‘No thanks, no. I’m on duty, just sneaked out of the hospital, due back now. But thanks…’

Awkward, uncomfortably conscious of advantage, of my spontaneous mobility, I feel some need to redeem the situation, to rescue the moment. I speak: ’ Where can I find a copy of your book, Billy?’

‘Take this one there, on the table, it belongs to the school across the road.’
I take the school’s copy and I take my leave, running away from Billy’s empty spaces. I liked him, I liked the woman and the child. Perhaps that’s why I ran.
I read the book that evening. A short book, written in unvarnished narrative fashion, a book of real energy, written with drive. The voice is young, it speaks of family and friends, of ordinary wildness. In his retrospect Billy marvels quietly at his own transmogrification, shedding few tears. The energy of the telling contrasts with the slowness of our meeting.
And yet there was energy in the house: the child, proud of his painter-writer-stepfather, loves him. The woman, large and kind, ordinary, extraordinary, loves him too.

The lack was my own. I alone felt heaviness, defeat.

Exhibition on Boxing Day

Boxing Day and the Melbourne heat is fierce. Australia is walloping England in the Test Cricket, David Gower is dismissed for an elegant thirty, and at six-thirty it’s time to drive home to Annette and the kids.

Six-thirty and the sun still blazing. Hand-blistering steering wheel, thigh-burning upholstery, Lygon Street a heat-desert. But no, not quite deserted: two young women wearing sun frocks exuent from a ‘phone booth. They wander along Lygon Street towards the coffee precinct.

Abruptly the young ladies change pace and direction. Their gait too. Now they dance towards the car parked at the kerb. It is at this point that their mode of dress becomes relevant: the sun frocks I referred to are strapless affairs, strategically elasticized at their top. As the young ladies close on the car their hands rise in concert to the upper rim of their garments. Four hands grasp elastic, four hands pull briskly down, four breasts tumble or flow or erupt – an unprepared witness cannot readily capture the apt verb – as the ladies now alter their gait further with a swinging of the shoulders in three dimensions, now higher, now lower, now right, now left, now forward, now backward, in highly harmonic motion. The choreography dazzles an unprepared witness, a male, a married male, driving homeward on a blazing evening.

The unprepared male drives on in the direction opposite that of the young exhibitors, his gaze set on the empty roadway ahead. Some impulse prompts a final backward glance. The male now notices there are two men seated in the parked car towards which the exhibitors brought seasonal offerings.

This unexpected sequence of events leaves me pondering: why? What prompted the display? Then it comes to me, the ugliest compliment in the Australian vernacular. Show us your tits, the young men must have shouted. And it being Boxing Day and the blood alcohol level still high, and the season of goodwill upon us, the ladies obliged.

And a final glimpse confirms the earlier one; yes, those breasts, nulliparous beyond doubt, are indeed round and full and generous.E

A Christmas Story

Every December for a few years now a friend has written to me and to everyone she knows requesting donations so she can purchase gifts at Christmas for people who have found asylum in our country. I send my small donation, very aware of its smallness. Presently my friend sends me – and all her circle of donor people – a photo of the gifts our donations have amassed. I am duly amazed: for in total they are not small.My friend was raised in a home where the ambient Evangelical Christianity weighed heavily. In time and in pain my friend left the family code behind. And so it is that my lapsed Evangelical friend and her many friends – including this unlapsed Jewish friend – send Christmas presents to a bunch of Muslim refuge seekers.

Christmas was never a part of my upbringing. When as a child , inevitably I learned the story of the nativity, I was moved. “No room at the inn” stayed in my mind as the saddest phrase, as a reproach. The inn in which I live is a Four Star establishment called Australia. There is room at this inn, lots of room.

In this state of mind I post the following children’s story. It feels appropriate to the season of goodwill. This is excerpted from a forthcoming book* provisionally titled ‘A Threefold Cord’, to be published on-line in 2016 by Hybrid Publishers. I have read the book and I like it. I commend it to your children: it is ideal for shared reading between an adult and a child aged from eight to twelve years.

This story begins with a five year old girl named Samara mustering her courage and her crumbs of English to tell her story to her Aussie friends, Jennifer, Nystagmus and Snoth:
“This story, my story. Today I say story. I English say.”
Samara spoke eagerly, her face serious and excited at the same time.
Her friends of the Threefold Cord were surprised to hear shy little Samara speaking like this. They listened without interrupting.
Samara stood up and screwed her eyes closed for a moment. She wanted to be brave and she needed to think hard, to search for every English word.
After a moment she started: “Mans with guns come our village. We family very frighten. Soldiers shoot many shootings. Father’s brother run outside house. He praying. Soldiers shoot guns. They angry because I girl, I going school. They think big mistake, they think Father brother is my father. They shoot father brother. He fall down, he not move, he many blood. Soldiers laughing, go away. Father hold his brother, he say Ahmed! Ahmed! He say Ahmed, soldiers shooting wrong man. Must shoot me, not brother.
Ahmed not answer. Father crying, his face on his brother face. Mother crying, my brother crying, Samara crying. Soldiers send bombings onto house. House is breaking. Is very noise, is very frighten.
Then Father hiding us under house. When is dark outside, Father bring donkey. He putting Mother, brother, Samara on donkey. Father walking. We riding, Father walking all night. We come far village, we hiding, we sleeping in day at Aunty house. And in night we riding, walking, we hiding when hear soldiers in night. Always we hearing shootings, bombings, we very quiet, Father giving donkey eating so donkey mouth have food, donkey not speak soldiers.”
Samara paused and blinked. The friends saw drops of water at the corners of Samara’s eyes. The child took a deep breath and spoke again. “I tell about more bad mans. Not gun mans, truck mans. Man say Father, you give money, I take you in truck. Father give man many money, man put family in truck in night. We say goodbye donkey. Brother cry, he loving donkey.
Truck go. Truck stop. Truck man say truck broken, not go now. Father pay money, truck man take money. He say, Truck not work. You walking. Sorry for truck.
We walking, walking, no donkey, no truck.
We come new country, no soldiers shooting. We come big, big water, shiny water like silver. Man say father, You come boat. I taking you family America. You pay money. Is also bad mans. He take all father money, none left now, we get in boat, fast fast, much peoples comes in little boat, such much peoples, boat very crowd. Is dark.
Boat start to move. I am excite and I am too fright. All peoples in boat very fright because big wind and big black cold water. Water come in boat, all peoples scream, cry, cry, scream.
Mother hold Samara and brother, Father hold too, boat is jump, jump, fall, fall, water is in boat, we very fright.
I praying, mother is pray, brother, father – all pray to Allah:please save us, save us please.
Boat stop, water push boat on side, push boat on other side, peoples falling on floor, fall on peoples. Mother, father holding tight children,
Big big water come and boat fall over, all peoples fall out, we all in water, wind is loud. We call Father! Mother! – no-one not hearing. I not hear voice, I looking, is everything black.
I not swimming, we family is not know swim, in our country is desert, is mountain, not is big water.
I look father…”
Samara stopped again and blinked. She blinked again, and a third time. She breathed deeply, opened her mouth, closed it. Finally she produced a small voice: “I look brother, not see.
I look mother, not see.
Father say Samara, you get up on top this wood, you hold tight. Father is lift me, I am hold tight, father head under water. He come up, he not close now, he under water.
I not… I not see him again more. I not see no-ones. I hold wood, I crying, I cold, I not family. Family is gone.
I pray Allah, I praying Allah, you bring back Samara family. If family not live, I not live. Allah, You take Samara paradise. I not family, I not want live.
But all time I holding wood like father saying me.”
The child shivered as if she felt again the cold water. She said: “Soon I say end of Samara Story. Big ship come with big light. I see water, water, empty, all empty. Not peoples, only many water. Man taking me in big ship, coming Australia. Man is good man, Australia man. But Samara alone, I no-one have. I in Christmas Island, I in Australia, Samara sad, sad all days.
Red Cross say they try find family. Maybe in one country, not Australia country.
Then one day you friends come Refugee place.” A small smile as Samara looked from Jennifer to Nystagmus to Snoth. She touched the face of all three.”You tell me many story, you teach me speak English. Samara not alone now.”
* the author of ‘A Threefold Cord’ is Howard Goldenberg

Icecream Allsorts

It’s all true
I was there
I saw it happen

There’s a queue in the ice cream shop. We don’t mind waiting. We stand, self-marshalled, drooling as we make our selections.

A sudden presence announces arrival. Heavy footfalls, a bustling, now a careless bump flings me sideways. A large person, female, strides to the front of the queue, pauses, changes course. Now she bustles around the counter and takes up a position behind the counter. The ice cream lady, a year-twelve student, looks up from her scooping, amazed. Big Bertha, a good deal taller and twice as wide as the young woman, looks myxoedematous, has no eyes for Ice Cream Girl. Her gaze rests on the ice creams silent in their steel canisters. Ice Cream Girl opens her mouth to speak, to remonstrate. No sound emerges. The intruder now bends forward, her heavy breasts pendulous above pistachio cream and French vanilla. Ice Cream Girl looks around, searching for higher authority, but there is none. She summons a frown, takes half a step forward, squeaks indignantly.: ‘Excuse me! You can’t…”        

The large woman gives no heed. She opens her wet mouth, draws in a breath, then spits. A generous volume of spittle volleys widely, showering upon pistachio, vanilla, and burned caramel. My intended choice was caribbean cacao; leaning forward, peering, I can’t see any fresh saliva layering the cacao. But can I trust it?

Meanwhile, the moving spitter, having spat, moves on. With a graceful sway of the hips she rounds the counter, bears for the doorway, and is gone.


Long in the Tooth

To celebrate our wedding anniversary (tantrum warning; see footnote) my wife and I arranged to spend an intimate weekend in a sleepy coastal village an hour or two from Sydney. At our advanced stage of life our offspring seek to protect us from any reckless or imprudent intimacy, and so it was our Sydney family joined us in the seaside cottage.
Annette and I married forty-six years ago, when she was twenty years of age and I was twenty three. We were children, who did not know each other; in fact we did not know ourselves. 
I did some arithmetic recently and realised we have been married for 66.66*% of my life. Annette’s percentage is even higher. We thought the marriage a good idea at the time and I think it a good idea still.
After so many years it is delightful to make fresh discoveries of one’s bride. On Day One of our anniversary weekend I disturbed Annette in the bathroom after lunch. I saw she was brushing her teeth. I said, ‘I didn’t know you brushed your teeth after lunch. I thought I was the only person in the world who did that. If I had known I’d have spread toothpaste on your brush when I did mine.’

With her sweet mouth foaming dentrifice attractively , Annette replied, ‘I always brush after lunch.’

On Day Two I went to the bathroom to perform my midday oral toilet and found my toothbrush, freshly spread with toothpaste. 
From brusher, with love.