Howard is a doctor, marathon runner and author. He has written two non-fiction books, My Father’s Compass (2007) and Raft (2009). Carrots and Jaffas (2014) is his first novel. His latest novel is A Threefold Cord (Hybrid, 2107)
They were normal people who stopped us about thirty kilometers along the Hume Highway. The soldier wore a mask. The police officers wore masks and guns and bullet-proof jackets. All was customary. The soldier said it was a lovely day.
It was. The sun shone, spring sprang. The soldier asked, where are you going?
We’re going to Sydney.
We told him about the sickness and the surgeries and the complications and the pains and the parents and their children that needed our help. The soldier said he was sorry.
There was a pause.
My eyes stung a bit with his kindness. He said you wouldn’t have a Permit, would you?
We did. We showed him. The soldier said, go carefully. Go well.
In Wodonga the motel people were just the same, all masked. The familiar unfamiliarity was almost comforting.
Up early, still under curfew, we waited until 5.00 am before driving to the checkpoint at the border. More masks and guns and body armour, a roadblock, a fast car at the ready in case we made a break for it. All normal, familiar from the black and white war movie that is our life. We showed our papers. The officers – mine a female, Annette’s a male – photographed the barcode that isn’t a barcode but a blob, and told us to drive carefully.
So, Dear Victoria, we’ve been in New South Wales for twenty-four hours now. We had wondered how the people would be. We wondered how they’d react to our Victorian registration plates. Apart from the angry mob we encountered in Bathurst, people didn’t seem to mind. It turned out the Bathurst bunch were protesting about koalas. Some ratbag had suggested koalas be protected! We felt unsafe: they come for the koala today, tomorrow it can be the Victorian.We got out of there in a hurry.
At petrol stations we saw humans closer up. We could tell there was something different about them. What was it? Eventually it came to us: Noses! People here have noses. We remembered other people’s noses. We remembered the days when it was not only the persons in your household and persons in Renaissance paintings who had them. We remembered; four-year old Sadie probably would, but Marnie, aged only half a year would not. The old people who drop off food at her front door and wave at her, the old couple supposed to be her grandparents, are normal beings, noseless and masked.
While in quarantine here in the mountains, Annette and I will occupy ourselves with an online self-help book. We need to refresh old skills in preparation for grandparenting. The book is Cuddles, Hugs, Kisses: a Manual for Grandparents.
I was the second in a bunch of four kids. Including parents we were a family of six. That was then.
In 2003, Dad died; a few years later our eldest brother died, three years after him, Mum died. Now we are three. The anniversary of Dad’s death fell this week. I wrote to the other two survivors:
I wish us all many more years of vigorous good health
It has been an empty yahrzeit* no ceremony, no minyan** to respond to my kaddish*** just a candle burning and reciting the bedtime shema and recalling how Dad taught us and translated, the words echoing his love of the text, his love of the tradition, and his love of us, to whom he was passing it all on and reciting the psalm: ”yea even though my father and my father have forsaken me…” I thought of Dad at intervals through the day, but I didn’t build my day around acknowledging him
He was phenomenal – a brave man who made himself strong despite inner infirmity a man who inspired, a man to remember
we were blessed
Sister and brother wrote back, with their rememberings. Cousins wrote, and friends. It all felt mellow, a species of happy. There was a pleasure in remembering and in sharing memory. I found myself wandering around, singing a song I hadn’t sung or heard for perhaps forty years. I heard myself singing: he sipped no sup and he craved no crumb…
This was one of the many songs that Dad, a singing man, especially liked. When I realised what I was doing, I tried to recall one of Mum’s songs. Although Mum was a blithe old girl, she seldom sang. But a memory came of one song she did sing to me when I was very young. I remember her contorting her face as she sang, glee and hilarity bursting from her in self-parody, flinging the words from her with abandon: cigarettes and whiskey and wild, wild wine they’ll drive you crazy, they’ll drive you insane…
I decided to record myself singing my parents’ songs. You can hear their memorial concert by pressing play below.
*anniversary**a congregation***a memorial prayer, recited only in congregational worship
My Fellow Australian Citizen dismounts from his bicycle at the intersection. Here, where the bike lane ends, trams, cars and pedestrians converge. Some turn at this intersection, others race through at speed. It’s a tricky crossing, the roadway here unsafe for a cyclist.
My fellow Australian Citizen wheels his bike carefully along the footpath. He finds himself following close behind a Fellow Australian Citizen (FAC) who. oblivious of man and bicycle, is engrossed in her phone conversation. FAC, male, decides to alert her to his presence: Pardon me, he says. FAC, female, looks up, sees her fellow citizen, looks angry.FAC, male, feels he’s interrupted the other’s conversation. He apologises: Excuse me, he says, I am sorry. FAC, female, speaks. He thinks he hears, You don’t belong here.
Does she mean, you and your cycle don’t belong on the footpath? Pardon me? – he asks.
YOU. DON’T. BELONG. HERE. FAC, male, is no longer in doubt. I ask FAC, male, How did you feel, once you understood her meaning?Water off a duck’s back. I tell FAC, male, I feel sick. Sick and sad. Like I did when they decided Adam Goodes didn’t belong. FAC, male, explains: Sticks and stones. Back in Rwanda one half of our population decided the other half didn’t belong. They equipped themselves with machetes. I survived and I ran. My family went into hiding. To this day they hide in a safe house. They’re still after me. I ran to Australia and Australia gave me asylum. I stayed, I worked, I studied. I graduated and I became a citizen. A hopeful thought: I ask, What did she look like, your Fellow Australian Citizen? Ordinary. Nothing remarkable. I persist: Describe her for me.FAC, male, is puzzled: She looked like anyone else: mid-forties, perhaps. Light brown hair, slim, medium height. (What I want to know, what I’m hoping to hear, is she’s Aboriginal. If she were indigenous she’d be within her rights. Rude perhaps, but within her rights, certainly.) I mean what was her race?Oh. She was caucasian.
Fellow Australian Citizens have rallied in their thousands, in their tens of thousands, in a time of danger, risking greatly, searching, trying to find a way of showing how black lives matter in this country too.In this country citizens are feeling conscious that we might not belong here, not by ancient right. We arrived here in the last century, or two or three. We are new here.We lack the legitimacy of antiquity. The First Australians might reasonably challenge us. They might say, you don’t belong here. But they don’t say that. Instead they say, let’s share country. I’ve heard them, I’ve heard it everywhere that I’ve travelled to work – in the Pilbara, in the Kimberley, in the Ngaaanyatjarrah lands, in the Adnymathanha lands, in my home country of the Wiradjuri, in Bigambul country, in the country of the Darug, the Yamaji, the Arrernte, the Warlpiri, the Bininj, the Nangiomeri, Marimandinji, Marithiel, Maringar, Mulluk Mulluk. These dark times are also times of hope. Times of searching of a nation’s soul.But at that crossing, at that intersection where Fellow Australian Citizens meet, hope slackens. Fear, feeding on a deep ignorance of the nature of an immigrant nation, flickers into hate. Elsewhere in this country, fear flickers into hate against Chinese Australians. And there’s always the Jews to hate too.
Winter in Melbourne. The sun observes the curfew longer than we humans do. It stays in bed and rises late if it rises at all. Today the sun sleeps in. The wind blows, the rain falls and two figures run through the dark and the wet, down to the wet and dark of the Bay. As we run, Toby sings his morning song:
Nice and freezing
Nice and freezing
Nice and freezing
He sings these lyrics to the initial bars of ‘Shortening Bread’.
Toby sings the lyrics with the sincerity of one who is underdressed for the weather. It falls to me to state the obvious: ‘It’s raining, Toby.’
‘Nice and freezing
Nice and freez…’
The rain reminds me: ‘In Papua it rains every day, Toby. I hope Mr Jones is keeping dry. I hope he’s well… I hope he’s alive.’
‘Saba, that newspaper report from Leeton about Mr Jones’ daughter Amelia Bodelia – do you think it’s true? I mean can a person’s heart really burst with love? Can they die of it?’
‘Toby, doctors now know that grief or shock can kill. There are cases where a person who never had heart disease before received sad news then suffered a heart attack and died. Maybe something like that killed Amelia B.’
‘Saba, when Amelia Nee died, our chances of contacting Noel Henry Jones died with her.’
‘I’ve been hoping that newspaper message was mistake, hoping she might be moribund, or just stunned. I’ve been checking my emails. Nothing. Poor Ameila must be really truly dead.
Toby speeds up and leaves me behind. For a while he runs alone. It’s hard to tell in the rain and the dark, but I think I heard tears in Toby’s voice when he said our chances died with her. After a while Toby slows down and allows me to catch up. Together we shiver home companionably. Once inside I find myself at the computer. Where is Mister Jones? How will I find him? I open my emails. There’s lots of SPAM but there is no information.
The snail mail arrives. Lots of letters, addressed to me by machines. Toby envies me for the many letters I receive daily: ‘In a whole year I hardly get any. What’s that letter you’re reading Saba?’
‘The lost dogs’ home wants a donation, Toby.’
‘Saba, if the dogs are lost, the home doesn’t need donations!’
‘Good point, Toby.’
There’s a letter advertising pizza and a flyer for a new gym.
The next letter is the Gas Bill.
‘Saba, can I open one and read it to you?’
‘OK, Toby. Golly, what do you think of my gas bill, Toby?’
Toby does not reply. He’s engrossed in a letter. I glance at the envelope, addressed not by a machine but by a human with shaky handwriting. The address reads:
dR hOWARD jONATHAN gOLDENBERG
formerly of Leeton
now in Melbourne
The handwriting is really hard to read, but there’s something familiar about the ink. My memory stirs. Long ago, when I was just a kid, younger than Toby, I once used a pen with ink like that. I’m pretty sure I know that ink. I do recognise it. It’s Parker Pen ink.
I look at the back of the envelope. I read: Sender’s Address: MANUS ISLAND. Isn’t that in Papua New Guinea? What does all this mean – familiar ink, familiar address?
Meanwhile Toby holds the scrap of paper in the air, he’s squinting, concentrating hard, his forehead wrinkly as a dartos muscle in winter. He mutters, ‘I can hardly read any of this writing, just a few words: Leeton, carrot…Amelia.
Saba! – he exclaims.
I hand the envelope to Toby and he passes me the letter. We speak simultaneously: look at that! I hold the scrap of notepaper and I read.
At that same moment I recalled the true owner of the Parker pen. I jump to my feet and shout, Toby!
‘Toby, we’ve found him. ‘He found us actually. But I don’t think we’ll ever see him. He says all his cannibal tribesmen have died.’
‘How come, Saba?’
‘Old age, perhaps. Maybe COVID 19.’
‘Saba, I saw on the National Geographic Channel there’s an etiquette among cannibals. At times of famine – that means there’s no humans to eat – the elders offer themselves to be eaten by the youngers. Until there are only two left.’
‘Well, Toby, Mister Jones wrote he thinks he’ll die soon.’
Toby grabs the letter and peers at it hard. He shakes his head. ‘I can’t read this spidery writing, Saba. Mister Jones can’t die! We have to contact him.’
‘Toby, darling. Everyone dies. Old people understand they can die at any time. Old people reach an age when they know they have lived their life and their time is near to leave it. Often the person who dies is not sad; as death comes closer it’s the people who love the old person who feel frightened. And afterwards they feel sadness and emptiness.’
‘But Saba, not Mister Jones. Not yet. What about grace?’
The boy throws his arms around me and holds me hard. Who is he comforting – me, or himself?
‘Toby, you’ve put your finger on my question. Grace is my problem, not Mr Jones’. He’s at peace. I’m the one with unfinished business. Somehow Noel Henry Jones, that kind and gentle man, seems to remember me kindly. He says he had a daughter, Amelia Bodelia; he never had a boy, but I was like a son! He doesn’t even mention my pen pinching. I don’t know whether he ever forgave that. And now I’m afraid I’ll never know.’
Time passes. COVID crowds our days, curfew squeezes our nights, danger lurks, darkness reigns. In my dreams I walk from Number 10 Wade Avenue in Leeton, past the Fire Brigade, past the Library, past Major Dooley Park. My legs take me around a corner and there, before me is Leeton Public Primary School. Night after night the streets of Leeton open before me, I walk towards the school but before I arrive, I awaken. The school is there, waiting. Time after time Mr Jones’ classroom stands open before me, but I never enter.
Weeks later, the sun appears. One morning Toby and I return in sunlight from an early morning run. I open my emails, hoping for news. Nothing. Just a message from Australia Post to expect some delivery. Probably the masks that I ordered.
A knock at the door. Toby answers and brings in a very small package, too small for the masks we’re waiting for. I’m curious. Toby says he wants to open the package. I let him. This is what we see:
I take the pen in my hand. Through tears I read the words engraved there: Noel Henry Jones.
“Toby, as you can imagine, I was flabbergasted. Mr Jones, my gentle teacher, now extremely aged, is on the run from the world’s mighty police forces, somewhere in the mountains and jungles of Papua New Guinea. What’s more, he’s a vegan among cannibals. What’s to stop a hungry cannibal from cooking up a Jones Stew, and eating him? I wasn’t only flabbergasted, I was thunderstruck. And a strange thought occurred to me: my teacher had become an outlaw. Obviously as a vegan he’d never eaten anybody, but here he was, on the run from the Law! I recalled how he never punished me when I was an outlaw in his class; I had been a graffiti artist, a thief, a pornographer. Perhaps Mister Jones always had a soft spot for law breakers!
“Toby, I’m worried about Noel Henry Jones. He must be getting very thin and very hungry. He’s really old. I’m scared he might die. Even though I left his class in 1955, I’m feeling guilty still. In fact, the longer the delay the guiltier I feel. And we don’t know how to contact him. Even his daughter can’t contact him. But somehow Amelia Bodelia Wyckehurst, nee Jones, doesn’t seem worried. I wonder why. I think I’ll write to her again.
Dear Amelia Bodelia, I’m sorry to trouble you when you might be feeling troubled enough already. But I have the feeling you are confident your Dad’s OK. I’m not his daughter or anything, but I’m worried sick. Would you mind sharing your secret with me? Thank you, Howard Jonathan Goldenberg
former Fourth Class boy
Leeton Public School
Dear Former Boy, Howard, Thank you for asking. Yes, it is a worrying situation: my father might be unwell or hungry or injured. He’s almost certainly frightened of being captured. But you are quite right, I am confident he hasn’t died. He promised me he wouldn’t die without telling me. And Father never breaks a promise. If he lets me know, I’ll let you know. Good wishes A M W, nee J
“What do you think, Toby? Do you feel we can rely on Mister Jones keeping such a strange promise? I mean who can tell anyone they’ve died? It seems like a joke but Amelia Bodelia seemed to be quite serious.” “Saba, maybe the daughter is not mentally well. Or maybe Mister Noel Henry Jones is not mentally well. I happen to know of the dangers to the brain of a vegan diet. Would you like me to explain how the brain can be injured by not eating animal products?” “Yes, Toby, I would.” “Saba, meat contains Vitamin B12. If your body never gets meat or any animal product, there can be a deficiency of that vitamin and the brain and the nervous system can decay. Unless you receive Vitamin B1 by injections or in some other way you can actually develop a paranoid illness. You might believe you can tell your daughter you are dead. It’s called psychosis.” “Golly, Toby, that sounds dangerous. I’ll write straightaway to Amelia.
A B W nee Jones Dear daughter of Prince Noel of Papua,
Not wanting to be rude or anything, but how can your Dad and you be so confident he’ll contact you before he dies? I mean what if he gets shot or something? How would he let you know? I’m really worried. Howard Goldenberg P.S. if your Dad is a prince, does that make you a princess?
Dr H J Goldenberg, Nope, I’m not a princess. And Dad is not mad due to B12 deficiency, if that’s what you’re getting at. No, my father made a solemn vow a long, long time ago, when he was initiated into the Wiradjuri tribe before he married my mother. Lying beneath a gum tree, on the bank of the Murrumbidgee River, father gritted his teeth while he said goodbye to his foreskin. He had no anaesthetics or pain killers. He lay there and he didn’t call out, he didn’t moan, he didn’t even whimper. He promised he’d always keep his word. He vowed he would never tell a lie. He promised he’d never break a promise. He took an oath he’d fulfill all his oaths.
I never knew about this, until father’s 99th birthday. He said, ‘Amelia Bodelia, my dear, I’m going away. I’m going to Papua New Guinea. I’ve got a job in the jungle. ”I asked my father about the job. He said a remote tribe had advertised for a prince. They said in the ad the previous prince was ‘not to their taste.’ So Father applied and was appointed. I asked him what he knew about the tribe. He said they were headhunters, the last active headhunters on earth. I said, “Dad, it’s unsafe. They eat people. They’ll eat you.” He said he’d ask them not to. He kissed me goodbye and went to walk out the door. I started to cry. I said, “I’ll never see you again.” He turned back and he said, “Yes you will, Amelia Bodelia my darling. I promise you. “And he looked at me seriously, and he bulged his eyes as he said, “I promise.” And I started to feel a bit better. He wiped my eyes and he said quietly, “Here and now, I swear an oath. This is my oath to you Amelia: I, Noel Henry Jones, swear to you that at the moment my life is about to end, I will appear at your side; and with my very last breath, I will say to you, ”’Amelia Bodelia, I love you. I die. Goodbye.” ‘My father picked up the string bag that held his worldly goods – his toothbrush, his pare pair of undies, a leather-bound copy of The Constitution of the Leeton Lawn Bowls Club, and some cinnamon-flavoured chewing gum – and he walked through the door. I’ve never seen him since. But I know I will see him again. He promised.
Yours sincerely Amelia Once-was-Jones not a princess, but the daughter of a noble soul.
‘Toby, what do you think about Amelia’s reply? Do you think her Dad is mad? Do you think Amelia is mad to believe his promise to her? Do you believe the promise of Noel Henry Jones?
‘Saba, I believe in truthfulness. I believe Mr Jones. I believe your old teacher is still alive.’
Oh, Toby, I hope you’re not mistaken. I want to contact him and make things right. ‘I posted one last post on my blog: Desperately seeking contact with Noel Henry Jones, Papuan prince, outlaw, cannibal and vegan. Please respond to this blog.
Toby, I posted that 49 days ago. I’ve posted that every week since. Seven posts – and nothing. And then I read in the Leeton newspaper, The Murrumbidgee Irritator, the following announcement:
LEETON LAWN BOWLS CLUB
It is with deep regret we announce the passing of Amelia Bodelia Wyckehust, nee Jones, daughter of our former president and present Patron and Life Governor, Noel Henry Jones. Amelia died on her father’s one-hundredth birthday, her heart full of love for her father, who is engaged in royal duties abroad. Her love was too great for her heart to hold and it burst into two.
Toby and I run again. Toby asks, ‘Any luck finding your old teacher, Saba? ”Well, Toby, yes and no.’ “Don’t be exasperating, Saba, yes or no?’ “Both, darling. And yes, it could be exasperating, but actually I’m feeling excited. Let me explain: I posted the story of Mister Jones on my blog and I added this request at the end: Anyone with any knowledge is asked to please respond in this blog, or by email to email@example.com Well, my blog came up with nothing. But I received the following email: dEAR dR hOWARD jONATHAN gOLDENBERG, i HAVE INFORMATION SIGNED aMELIA bODELIA wYCKEHURST (nEE jONES) When I read this, Toby, I really felt excited. When I read the names Amelia Bodelia, I thought, YES! But then I read her family name, Wyckehurst. I never knew any Wyckehursts. This lady must be a fraud or an unrelated person simply making an innocent mistake. But then I read, ”nEE jONES “. Nee, after a name means, ‘I wasn’t born with my present name. ‘In this case it would mean, ‘I wasn’t born Wyckehurst; I married a person named Wyckehurst and I took that person’s family name. The name I was born with was Jones. ‘So here was a person who must be the daughter of my Mister Jones, who was born on the day I became a Parker pen pincher. She must be 65 years old, Toby.
I wrote an email to Amelia Bodelia Nee. I wrote, Dear Ms Nee, Are you the daughter of Noel Henry Jones?Were you born in Leeton in March 1955? She wrote back: Yes. No.
More exasperance, Toby. I wrote, Well, if Noel Henry Jones was your father, where and when were you born? If you don’t mind me asking. (I put in that last bit, Toby, because some people do mind, especially ladies.)
Dear former student of my Dad, Born March 1955. In Yanco, 5 miles from Leeton, under a gum tree, on the banks of the Murrumbidgee. Same tree where my Mum was born. Traditional birthing place for us Wiradjuri women. (The Murrumbidgee is a great river, Toby. The Wiradjuri are the traditional owners of all the Leeton district and the country far beyond.)
So, Toby, that explains why the Leeton Hospital had no record of the birth of Amelia Bodelia, born Jones, before she became a Wyckehurst.
I wrote, Dear Amelia Bodelia Nee, Please tell me, is your honoured father still with us? She replied, Sadly, no.
Toby, I felt a thump in my chest, as if something heavy had landed inside my body. I wrote again, with my eyes stinging:
Dear Ms Nee, I am so sorry. You must be heartbroken. When did your father pass away?
Amelia Bodelia wrote back: Dad’s not dead.
Confused, I wrote: But, Ms A B Nee, you said he was no longer with us. I am happy he is alive. But I don’t understand.
Amelia Bodelia wrote: Dad is completely alive, he’s just not with us. He’s in Papua New Guinea. He’s a prince in Papua. He’s the prince of a Papuan tribe.
Toby, I was pretty happy to read this. Now I could get in touch with my old teacher and start to be gracious. I wrote: Dear Amelia Bodelia Wyckehurst, Nee Jones, Would you kindly send me your father’s address?I am seventy-four years old and, with the time still left to me, I wish to seek grace.
I sat by my computer and waited and watched the screen in nervous excitement. Before too long this letter arrived: Dear Howard Jonathan Goldenberg, I’d like to but I can’t. Father’s tribe is the last tribe of true cannibals on earth. Every police force on earth, as well as the Papua New Guinea Army, is hunting them. The New Guinea Air Force hunts them from the air. No-one knows where they are. The Papuan police, the Australian Federal Police, Interpol, the CIA, Mossad, the KGB – no one can find the cannibals. They are off the grid. They don’t use computers, they don’t have Internet. No-one can trace them. I can’t trace them either. Sorry. A B W (Nee J) ps, who is grace?
Toby, i couldn’t give up. I decided to write one more time: Dear Daughter Jones, How could your gentle father possibly be a cannibal? He was so kind. Yours, deeply confused and quite distressed, HJG My screen lit up immediately: Dear HJGI never said father was a cannibal. He is a vegan. ABW Nee J
I wrote: Dear Vegan’s Child, Golly. How extremely confusing: how can an Australian man be the Prince of a cannibal Papuan tribe and still be a vegan? Not doubting you or anything. Howard.
The vegan’s child replied: Dad IS a vegan cannibal: he eats only vegetarians. And there are no vegetarians in Papua New Guinea. Amelia Bodelia Wyckehurst, Nee Jones.
Chapter I It’s 6.00 am. Curfew’s over for the night, we’re allowed out for a run. My grandson and I run through the darkness. The boy asks, ‘Saba, will you tell me a story? ‘I will. I search for a story I haven’t already shared, something new. “Toby, in Fourth Class at Leeton Public School, my teacher was Mister Jones. I guess he might have been in his mid- or late thirties, but to us, Mister Jones looked old. If he were alive today he might be in his late nineties. He might even be a hundred. I’ve been thinking about him recently, wondering if he’s alive, daydreaming of getting in touch. We haven’t seen each other since June,1955, which was the time I left Leeton. I left Leeton but Leeton never left me;it stays inside me in memories and stories. Recently Mister Jones has come back to me in a series of memories. “Toby, Mister Jones was kind and gentle. He was good to your Saba, but your Saba was not good to him. Now I daydream of tracing Mister Jones and contacting him. I’d like to tell him I remember him and his goodness, and confess my naughtiness. So here is a story. It starts out as a true story and then it escapes into the wild.”
*** The story of Mister Jones starts one year before he and I met. That year I am in Third Class, where my teacher is Mrs Savage. Mrs Savage is fierce. She shouts, and when she shouts she froths, and we are all frightened of her. I say to myself, Savage by name and savage by nature. She shouts and I sit still and behave, and I try not to breathe. At playtime we all go outside, where I breathe and I court the teacher’s daughter, Lynette Savage. Lynette is pretty; she doesn’t froth or shout. For one whole year I sit still in class and I behave perfectly.
Then we escape into Fourth Class. The new teacher is tall. In the eye in my mind Mr Jones has black hair which is starting to thin. He has a smile and a voicethat doesn’t shout. He is easygoing. Howard Jonathan Goldenberg has behaved too well for too long. It’s against his nature to be so good. Howard starts to misbehave and Mister Jones does not punish him. One morning Howard arrives quite early. He goes to the classroom where he picks up some chalk, walks to the blackboard and draws a large picture of a man. Between the man’s legs he draws a very long penis. He writes beneath the life-sized figure, Noel Henry Jones has a great big carrot hanging between his legs. The door to the classroom is open and so long as it stays open, the art work is covered up. The artist sits down and waits. He hears the whistle blow in the playground. The class straggles in, followed by Mister Jones. Mister Jones closes the door and, facing the class, he says, ‘Good morning, Fourth Class.’ Fourth Class gazes at the picture on the board and starts to giggle. Mister Jones tries to bring the class to attention, but the laughing grows louder as Fourth Class reads the words about the Jones carrot. At first Mister Jones is puzzled. Then he turns around and notices the blackboard.Mister Jones stands perfectly still, bent forward a little as he reads. As the teacher reads one guilty boy shakes a little in his seat. The teacher reaches for the blackboard duster and he rubs out the picture and the words. Mister Jones turns to face Fourth Class. ‘Class’, he says, ‘Today we’ll start to learn long multiplication.’
One day Mister Jones doesn’t come to school. For an hour or so we have no teacher. This seems like a good time to explore Mr Jones’ desk. I open his drawer and see a number of pens and I take one. It’s pretty special, a Parker pen. Late in the morning a substitute teacher arrives. He says, ‘Mister Jones won’t be in today. His wife has just had a baby, a girl.’ During the day I try out my new pen. The next day Mr Jones returns. He tells us his new baby is called Amelia. I like the music in the name. I decide her full name is Amelia Bodelia Jones. Mister Jones wanders around the classroom. He stops at my desk and he says, ‘Nice pen you have there, Howard’.’Yes, Mister Jones’.’Where did you get it?”My father gave it to me, Mister Jones.”Did he, Howard? That’s nice. Do you mind if I look at your pen, Howard?’I don’t want Mister Jones to look at the pen. He lifts it up, studies it for a moment: ‘It’s a Parker pen, Howard. Pretty special. Oh look, someone’s engraved names onto it.’ Mister Jones shows me the engraved names: Noel Henry Jones. He asks me, ‘Did your father have those names engraved on the pen for you, Howard?’ I have no answer. Noel Henry Jones walks away, with the pretty special Parker pen in his hand. He does not punish the Parker pen pincher. He does not tell my father.
One day Mister Jones teaches us about the ancient Israelites who live in the land of Canaan. He pronounces the name Cay’nan. I know that’s incorrect. It should be pronounced Cah-nah-ahn. I know that because it’s a Hebrew word. I read it aloud in Hebrew every morning when I recite my prayers, and that’s how it’s pronounced in Hebrew. I share my wisdom with my teacher. ‘That’s not how you say it, Mister Jones: it’s Cah-nah-ahn.”No, Howard, it’s Cay’nan. I correct Mister Jones once more.
‘If you say so, Howard.’ That evening I report Mister Jones’ mistake to my mother. Mum looks up Canaan in her Oxford Dictionary. ‘No darling, Mister Jones is quite correct. In English it’s pronounced Cay’nan. You should be gracious and apologise for correcting him.”What does gracious mean, Mum?’Mum explains. Next morning I recite my prayers and I pronounce the name Cah-nah-ahn. And when I go to Mister Jones’ class I am not gracious.
“So, Toby, now, all these years later, I’d like to be gracious. More than that, I’d like Noel Henry Jones to know I remember him. I’d like him to know I remember his kindness and his gentleness.””Saba , have you contacted him? ‘I’ve tried, Toby. I rang the Leeton Public School and asked for the Headmistress. I told her the story and requested the contact information of my old teacher. But the school held no records. I rang the Leeton District Hospital and spoke to the Medical Records Librarian. I told her the story. She said, ‘Mister Jones? He taught me in Fourth Class, back in 1980. He retired the next year.’ I told her how a baby girl was born in 1955 to a Missus and Mister Jones. ‘They called her Amelia Bodelia Jones’, I said.The librarian checked her records. ‘No luck’, she said.
“Finally, Toby, I’ve decided to ask the Internet.”’You can’t ask the Internet a question, Saba. You have to use a search engine.””What’s that, Toby?””Google is a search engine. Firefox is one. Safari is another.””I don’t think my computer has a Google, darling.””I’ll show you Saba.”Toby showed me. I googled ”Noel Henry Jones” and I found a jam manufacturer. I googled ”N.H. Jones, school teacher”, and I found a Latin teacher in Portland, Oregon. He was born in 1991. I remembered Mr Jones played the drums in the Leeton Drum, Pipe and Fife Band. I googled, ”Noel Henry Jones, drummer”. Google showed me the picture of a Rastafarian in Jamaica, who played the drums. He looked about thirty. He had too much hair and too few years to be my old teacher.
“Toby, I am an old man, seeking grace. As a last resort I’m asking my friends on my blog. Perhaps a reader might happen to know the whereabouts of my old teacher. Perhaps someone can tell me whether he is conscious and taking nutrition.
Anyone with any knowledge is asked to please respond in this blog, or by email to firstname.lastname@example.org
Two Sundays ago I underwent magnetic resonance scanning of my prostate. I was feeling well, I just had old man waterworks, nothing out of the ordinary. But there was a rise in the prostate antigen. MRI is an ominous sign: generally when a doctor orders an MRI she’s looking for a cancer.
My GP said, I don’t think this is cancer.
My specialist said, It’s probably benign.’
My medical self thought, I don’t think this patient has cancer.
So far, so unconvincing. When the appointments person said, There’ll be no charge. Medicare covers this scan… I really misgave.
Medicare means the Government. Governments are not sentimental, not famously charitable, excepting when it comes to cancer. When it comes to cancer the Government says, No charge, Howard. On the house, old fellow. Sorry for your news.
Cancer evokes awe. When someone says, So and So has cancer, we say, Oh.
Silence follows, we experience awe. True awe, not the cheapened article as in awesome Uber ride. This is the real thing: we stand, hushed; we feel a chill, we’re in the shadow of the absolute.
I turned up at the hospital which was a place of silence. I gave my name, I gave my phone number, I gave my excuses for being there. The man looked at me suspiciously and asked for my Driver’s License. He held it in a gloved hand as far away from his face as his short arms allowed. He photographed the document, grunted and returned it to me. The man sanitised me and allowed me to enter. I walked the empty corridors, climbed abandoned flights of stairs, got lost, retraced my steps and tried again. In the bowels of the building I found MRI. The young woman behind the perspex screen read through the lengthy pre-admission affidavit I’d completed. She read my thirty-three responses to questions: full name, date of birth, did I have dentures, did I have implants, were my hips natural, how about my knees, had I ever had an MRI before, why was I having this examination, how was my health, did I have coronary stents, ureteric stents, urethral stents, was I wearing hearing aids, did I believe in God, did God believe in me, did I have a next of kin, whom did I want notified in case of emergency, had my name changed in the last ten years, and had there been any change in my date of birth. The young woman ticked all my responses. All satisfactory, all correct. Then she noted the date of my document: ten days earlier. Sorry, Howard, I’ll have to ask you to fill out this questionnaire once again. It’s ten days old. We can’t accept it over a week. I filled out the form: same questions, same answers.
A nurse, gowned, masked, gloved, came and claimed me. What’s your full name? Date of birth? By nowI knew the answers by heart. I told him. Here, he said, passing me a small plastic tube, this is your micro-enema. The prostate is radiologically remote, hard to visualise. We can’t have any waste matter obscuring the view.
Waste matter? Perish the thought.
The nurse, probably male, probably forty, but who knows? – led the way. He indicated a door. Here’s your bathroom. Go in there and insert the tube. I entered and looked around. I saw no bath. I sat down above a porcelain bowl. There were only two openings for the tube. I chose the back one and inserted the tube, a novel sensation. I awaited the arrival and departure of waste. Nothing happened. I emerged and the nurse claimed me again. He lay me down, inserted an IV into an arm vein, asked my full name, and what was my date of birth.He recorded the responses and took me into the MRI chamber. I clambered into a mechanical vault whose walls were of mausoleum white. I lay down on a narrow board. A machine propelled me and the narrow board backwards into the mausoleum. Nurse placed earphones over my ears. What music do you like? I answered and he (My name’s Brian) turned a dial to ABC Classic FM. Some musicians performed some fretful baroque sounds which were free of melody. The nurse placed a gadget in my right palm: Press this button if you need to get out urgently. I’m going to inject contrast. What’s your full name and date of birth? He recorded my responses. Okay, we’ll get under way now. You’ll be in there for 40 minutes or so.
I said, there’s something I ought to tell you.
I haven’t discharged any waste.
Now the board slid me feet-first out of the tomb. Back in the bathroom I sat down again. I did my honest best. My output was modest. I returned to the MRI chamber, purged and waste-free. Earphones back on, I heard mechanical sounds of the end of the world, mercifully drowning the Baroque. I napped. Brian tapped me on the shoulder, told me I was free to go. Contact your doctor tomorrow for the report.
I called the next day. I said I was the referring doctor – which was not entirely untrue. I gave my full name as referring doctor. I gave my full name and date of birth as patient. I waited. I don’t think the radiologist will have reported the scan yet, said the pleasant young lady. I’ll just check… Yes, I do have a report. Howard Jonathan Goldenberg?
My friend wrote from the sunshine state. How are you doing in the pariah state? When it’s the caller from the electricity company asking how I am, I know she is not interested, so I answer simply and briefly, I’m dying. But when a friend asks I pause to think. He’s asking because he cares. How am I doing? In general I look about me for clues. How are my loved ones? If they are suffering, I know it before enquiring. I know it bodily. My waking thoughts and my restless dreams ache with loving futility.
Well, friend in the sunshine, my firstborn is about to undergo major surgery. The surgery will disable her for a couple of months. She’ll deal with pain whenever she moves her shoulder girdle. Merely to brush her teeth will hurt intolerably. Do you wish to know more? She won’t be able to care for her children. A sole breadwinner, she’ll be unable to win her bread. How’s she doing through it all? She’s dealing with thoughts of disfigurement. She’s alarmed by stories of unbearable pain. But she reminds us, ‘I’ve got the cancer gene, but this surgery is not cancer; it prevents cancer.’
My other children? Number two child has been locked down since February. He’s working from home and he’s loving his household of women, who range down in age from his wife, to his newest, aged four months. He lives in the joy of watching his offspring bloom, and he chafes that he cannot share his loved ones. He’s the bridge between generations. He wants to share his little ones with his elders. He grieves for deprived grandparents, for a great grandmother in her extreme age (‘How many years has Nana left to enjoy, to know her little ones?’); for his siblings too. He knows his little ones are deprived. He’s a bridge and a virus has closed the bridge.
Number three lives in Sydney. Six months have passed since she last saw or touched a parent or a sibling. Six months in the life of a person permanently in exile from family. During those months she’s been diagnosed with cancer, undergone surgery, been cured. In a few weeks she’ll undergo the same cancer-preventing surgery as the firstborn.She subsists with a dozen face time calls a day, but the loving flesh, the warmth of presence, the sharing and the feeding (we celebrate her as a baker and a chef), these she aches for. And as we plan and we cancel plans, and we plan again, the novel virus comes between us. In short she suffers minor cruelties daily; she’ll suffer major surgical cruelties shortly and, God willing, she too will be saved from the genetic cancers that haunt our womenfolk. Overall, good friend, too much detail? I apologise. Our children are brave and loving and they fret for their parents. For us. Golly! Perhaps that was your question. Perhaps you really asked, How are YOU doing? Once again I look about me. I see my wife, a Jewish mother responding to threat by overcatering. Between working at home and trouncing me at Scrabble, and caring for her mother, she overfeeds me and she cooks and packs endless meals for loved ones all about. I feel cared for and loved. I feel safe.
But how am I? In myself? By temperament I tend to be cheerful, optimistic, sometimes vacuously so. But nowadays periods of gloom descend, circumambient fear visits me. My work sustains me with a rewarding sensation of being useful. I enjoy the glow of self-worth. I run a lot and I purge fear and gloom. And I drink plenty of strong coffee which transforms me into a cheery genius.It feels absurd to pity myself in a time when so many suffer so much worse. But if – as the Talmud asks – among the cedars the firestorm falls, what can avail the mosses of the wall? If happy howard is downcast, how much more suffer the cheerless many?