Happy Concatenation

Mr Menzies, as he was then, used to report to Parliament upon his return from
The Prime Ministers’ Conference in London. He’d introduce his report with, ’By a happy concatenation of circumstance I happened to find myself in London for the Conference at precisely the time of the Cricket Test Match at Lords…’
I read this in the ‘Age’ newspaper and looked up ’concatenation’. I have kept the word close, generally unused, for the half century since.
By a singular concatenation of circumstance, today Jewish people around the world observe Shushan Purim on precisely the date of Good Friday. Yesterday we had the concurrence of Purim with Shrove Thursday; and the previous day the Jewish Fast of Esther coincided with the fast of Ash Wednesday. That’s how calendars concatenate.
By a happy concatenation of circumstance, while riding home through the park yesterday I overtook another cyclist, emerging into Commercial Road just as she did. From a long way back I saw first the yellow jacket. Gaining, I noted her tall, erect carriage in the saddle, her fair pony tail, her fair skin. Emerging from the park, with eyes only for the vehicular traffic ahead I had no time to sight her face.
I crossed the road and halted, waiting for the red light to turn. A voice emerged from a blur of yellow: ‘Howard? It is Howard, isn’t it?’ I had time now to take in that fair face, to recognise the features and that voice. A voice of a singular quality, a soft voice, with a sweet self-echo, as of a bell. I knew that voice.
‘Hello, Camilla.’ My voice would have carried surprise and delight.
‘Where are you heading, Howard?’
I indicated.
‘Me too,‘ she said, ‘I’m headed to St Lucy’s to pick up Joe.’
Our ways were the same and we rode together and caught up on the events of ten years: the growth of her son Joe (one of my babies), the decline and deaths of her parents and mine; and the premature loss of a brother, in each case only a little older than ourselves.
I told Camilla about Dennis. I mentioned the regret, my uncompleted mission, that marked my time with Dennis and that surfaces years after his dying, in my dreams. When I spoke of my brother’s dying Camilla’s face fell. Her voice a deeper bell.
‘I lost a brother too. I loved him.’ Camilla’s voice thrilled and her face shone as she spoke of her brother. ‘His name was Tom. He was a twin. He lived to forty-nine then he died. I don’t know what of. He was disabled. I loved him. We spoke on the phone every day. Every single day.’
‘What was his disability, Camilla?’
A smile, a half shrug: ‘Do you know, I can’t say exactly what he had and I don’t know what he died of. I suppose now you’d call it cerebral palsy. He was born with it. He was just my brother and we loved each other. We were together every day as children, back in the Mallee. Then I left and studied and moved interstate, but it was still the same. We spoke every day. I loved him. Often we’d speak a few times in the one day.
‘Tom was the second twin, you know. Second twins are often sicker…but you’d know all about that.’
I wondered about Tom’s disability: ’Was it physical or intellectual, or both?’
‘It was both. Do you know, I’m buying the old family home. In the Mallee. It’s a sentimental thing, a bit silly really.’ Camilla laughed: I’m buying out the other twin. I want the house. Tom and I lived in it, Tom lived there all his life.’
We arrived at St Lucy’s. Children thronged in the grounds, ignoring the scores of parents who waited outside. They played and shouted and pushed and grabbed each other in the high spirits of the coming holiday, while Lucy’s eyes searched for Joe and my mind played on brothers loved and lost. On a brother who called me every day, often two, three times a day.
Shouting goodbyes children drifted from the gates to their parents. A tall child, erect and fair, came into view. He greeted Camilla in a sweet voice, soft, with a sort of self echo.
[I wish readers variously a joyous Shushan Purim, a holy Easter, and always, always – happy concatenation.]

Rembrandt’s ‘Return of the Prodigal Son’

In the course of conversation today a man said, ‘My doctor showed me a painting by Rembrandt. It was the Prodigal Son. Do you know it?”

I didn’t know it. 
I pulled Mister Google from my pocket as the man continued: ‘My doctor showed me the painting. I looked at the painting, wondering. I looked back at my doctor. He was looking at the painting and I saw his eyes in a sea of tears.’

It was my turn to gaze at the painting. I was right: I’d never seen the image before. My own eyes stung. 

The Departure Lounge 

Driving my sister to the airport earlythis autumn morning I looked about me and took in the mists and the mellow fruitfulness. My younger sister is not young. Shortly we would embrace, say goodbye, we’d look forward to next time and we’d both know, ‘next time carries no guarantee’.

I recalled a trip I took to that airport with Mum. I described it to my sister: “This all happened before Mum suffered her strokes. She was not young but could still travel independently. My plane to the outback was due to depart at 10.00. Mum’s inter-city flight was scheduled an hour later. I dropped Mum off at her lounge in a shower of kisses and embraces, and raced to my own lounge. Over the Public Address I heard, ‘The flight to Woop Woop has been delayed. We expect to board passengers at 11.00 and to take off soon after. We regret the inconv…’ I raced back to Mum.

‘Hello darling. How lovely to see you!’ Mum’s face was lit by a smile of mild astonishment. Time’s exigencies always surprised Mum. I began to explain and she took my hand and began to stroke my volar forearm. She said, ‘Aren’t we lucky, darling.’
I felt lucky: here we were, quiet together among the hubbub, heads bent to each other, tasting our found time. A thought came to me: ‘Mum, we two have always been sitting in our Departure Lounges, waiting for our separate flights. We both know one day we’ll have to leave, we just don’t know when. And we can’t really know who’ll leave first.’
Mum nodded. Her walking fingers patrolled from my wrist to the inside of my elbow, back to the wrist then back again. Her touch was light. I thought of early memories of Mum’s touch, of the times when she bathed Dennis and me. We both spoke at once; ‘Your skin feels so soft and smooth.’ 

As our hour melted away we didn’t say much.
The Public Address commanded us to part. Knowing and accepting, we parted in gentler shower of kissing and holding. Knowing and accepting and feeling very lucky, we took our separate flights.”


The child’s body dropped like a stone from the platform to the track. One moment a boy stood securely on the platform, the next he was a flash of movement downward, vertically, feet first from the platform. No cry, no sound, just a flash of grey school shorts and white school shirt. Standing on the platform a moment earlier he looked small, perhaps a first grader. I did not know him.Now he was an absence, a silence.


I peered downward and could not sight him. I leaned out , far forward, near to my own tipping point. I saw an unsuspected shelf beneath the platform – small enough for a small body, too small for mine. Perhaps the train would miss him, pass him by. Who knew?


The moment after he dropped extended horribly forward into Time. I did not know when the train would come. I was the nearest adult. It would have to be me.


I awakened with a small cry. I sat up in the dark and shook my head, shaking away the image of a small body in a new uniform, passing from safety into the plain where I must step forward. I and only I. The dread lingered long after the unreality – there is no boy; there is no hazard – settled in my mind.


The dread lingered. I think it was not the dread of my dreadful death, but the dread I would delay too long.






What triggered this unearthly vision before the rapid movement of my eyes? Two days earlier I rode my bike home from work. As I pedalled hard past the boys’ school a small body in a white shirt exited a gate just before my flashing wheels. I jammed on the back brake and the front. The hurtling bike stood on its end and stopped. I did not. I fell at the feet of the boy like a stone. He stood, shocked as he regarded the body of an aged man lying at his feet.

Out of Hermes’ Way

A close relative asked me to take her wristwatch to Hermes, whose premises are just up the hill from my work.“The battery is dead,” she said. “The watch is covered by warranty, so they should exchange the battery.”

I googled Hermes, found the address. The website announced the opening of their store on March 3. Today was 29 February; would they be operating prior to 3 March?

I spent some time trying to imagine how a French person might pronounce Hermes. I wrestled with my palate until my vowels sounded like the note of a foghorn. I stretched my lips into a sneer. (A French name is both an enigma and a travesty. Try pronouncing the name of the supposedly great novel, ‘Le Grand Meaulnes’. People declare the book great simply to boast of their ability to say the last word in the title. The book put me to sleep.)

I called the number and asked: “Is this Hermes?” A voice said yes. Perhaps I had the pronunciation right. And, yes, they were open.


I walked up the hill, striding, hastening from the care of the sick, the dying and the unsick. I arrived at 0927 hours to find a small woman with bronze skin perched on the steps, obstructing my ingress. She was polishing the metal grille of the gate. I asked, “May I enter?”

A smile from the crouched person, still polishing: “No. It is not ten o’clock.”

Three minutes passed, the polisher uncrouched and joined a further four Burmese women in the foyer. (When was the last time I entered commercial premises in this country where the cleaner does not come from Asia?). The women conferred, one locked the gate, another handed a slip of paper to a large man wearing a morning suit and the women disappeared into a lift. Morning Suit Man descended to the gate , unlocked it and opened. I asked might I enter, he assented and I did.


In the course of my twenty minutes on the Hermes premises, I learned quite a lot about very little.

Mister Suit reminded me strongly of the strong men who guarded my patients at Christmas Island. He looked like a weight lifter. He looked Iranian. He looked like the Basiji – the Iranian Secret Police – would step off the pavement to make way for him.

During my twenty minutes as a guest of the House of Hermes, Mister Suit attended to his duties assiduously. These consisted of standing just inside the front door and the polished gates. He did this conscientiously.


A young woman in demure and elegant black asked could she help? It turned out she could and she did. Her discreet silver lapel badge told me she was Serene. And she remained so, even when she told me the battery replacement – yes, it was covered by warranty – would take twenty days. “Or so.” Her serenity was proof against the soaring of my fiery eyebrow at the news of that delay. She asked me to sign a document I had no opportunity to read. I was to tick three boxes. I did so: even the box that preceded the avowal, “I accept that data will be processed for commercial solicitation purposes by Hermes Group of companies.” I took the precaution of inserting “do not” before “accept”. Thus I outsmarted the House of Hermes. Not.


While waiting twenty minutes as the Serene – and truly pleasant – One went somewhere behind the public area to consult with her superiors, I looked and admired and did not admire. A horse’s saddle was displayed proudly. And a saddle cloth. These did not excite my admiration. Neither did numerous saddle bags, a riding helmet, some polo playing apparel. They looked remarkably plain, functional , tidy and dun. Next to them a sign read, “Hermes Sellier”. I bethought myself of my Anatomy studies and I recalled “sella turcica”, the Turkish Saddle, and I understood. (The definition is to be found at the foot of this post.) At last, this tiny datum had become of service to me. I admired my virtuosity as an amateur linguist but I had no admiration to spare for the saddlery that would certainly cost more than my car.


I gazed at two brilliant scarves displayed on the wall opposite me. They were a pair, depicting a full frontal African elephant, escorted by a pair of giraffe in profile and a couple of crocodile underfoot. All were backlit and presented in glorious colour. These silk squares must be collectibles.


I noticed too that in the course of my twenty Hermes minutes no other customer entered the store. A second sales lady stood and adjusted a scarf knotted around a horizontal brass bar. This movement constituted her sole exertion during my tenure at Hermes’. For the remainder of the time she imitated the doorman. I too spent much time at leisure. I recalled my one previous Hermes encounter: back around 1972 Australia’s dollar plummeted and foreign goods leaped in price. I listened to the words of our Great Leader who explained the correction and I farewelled all future prospect of purchasing foreign-made goods. As a farewell gift to the world I purchased an Hermes tie. I still have it and it remains lovely. I have just finished paying it off.


After all was signed, after I surrendered the timepiece, after thanking Serene – I left and returned to real life – out of Hermes’ way.






The sella turcica (Turkish Chair) is a saddle-shaped depression in the body of the sphenoid bone of the human skull and of the skulls of other Hominidae including chimpanzees, orangutans, and gorillas.