Helen from Danzig

Helen is ninety-three now. When she left Danzig in 1938, she was twelve. Every one of Helen’s grandchildren has quizzed her about Danzig for their roots projects and none of them has got much out of her. No happy memories, not a single friendship, nothing pleasant, Helen speaks of the place bleakly. Now adults, some of the grandchildren urge their grandmother to travel with them to visit her childhood places in Danzig. Helen rejects the idea categorically. No, she says dully, there’ll be nothing there. Nothing to see. No point.

Helen didn’t reach her present great age in such radiant good health by negativity. She’s creative and lively, she’s joyful company, fully engaged in her life and in the lives of all her generations here. It’s as if life began for Helen only on leaving Danzig. Australia embraced Helen and she embraced Australia. Helen’s Danzig was, it seems, a place of no life.

Sometimes Helen went to school in Danzig. Sometimes she didn’t go. She’d stay home where she wouldn’t be teased and frightened and humiliated. She’d stay home to feel safe. We asked her once, Didn’t you have any gentile friends?

I thought I did, she said. There was one girl. She was kind to us.

You need to understand. Mum helped Dad in the shop, every day. They needed someone to look after us girls, me and Mary. They found a family in the country who wanted their girl to move to the city, where she’d have greater opportunities. So she came. She learned to cook the kosher way. Mum taught her to sew and embroider. She became a daughter alongside us.

She worked in our house, helping Mum. Sometimes she took us to her own house in the village. We ate fresh bread there, with lard. We never had bread like that at home. When she married, we had the ceremony in our house. Mary and I were her flower girls. Then her husband joined the Nazi Party. Our friend left us. You couldn’t work for Jews…

I never learned anything in Danzig. School there was terrible. It wasn’t a place to learn.

***

Last night Helen put down the book she’d been reading, Her face was ashen. I looked and I saw ninety-three years of pain. She spoke: That’s a terrible story.

I asked what it was she’d been reading. She showed me the book:

‘Idiots First’, short stories by Bernard Malamud. The book belongs to me. I know some of the stories. I asked Helen, What story were you reading?

‘The German Refugee’. That’s a terrible story.

She spoke slowly: the word ‘terrible’ never had so many syllables before.

I waited but Helen added nothing. Her beautiful face slumped, her features collapsed. I searched her face for tears. Nothing. She looked down at nothing.

I held her for a while. The old lady grasped my arm, hard, as one might who is holding on. I asked her, What’s the story about?

It’s the story of a man from Danzig. He escapes, but he takes his life. Helen shook her head slowly. After what he loses in Danzig, he can’t live.

After a time she spoke again. I had an uncle in Danzig. He was very prosperous. We called him Uncle David. He had a mistress in Danzig. She wasn’t Jewish. When the Nazis came, she told Uncle she was breaking it off. It wasn’t safe. She ended it.

Uncle David hanged himself.

Helen stopped speaking. She looked at me, a child of twelve, wonderstruck by the evil of the world, remembering her uncle, remembering all the lost uncles. Out of her depth once more,

in her sea of sorrow.

Dead Girl Comes Home


The Director of Nursing smiles and shakes my hand in welcome. She’s younger than I, taller and wider. I’m drawn to her bucktoothed grin and her informal look. ‘You’ve arrived at a sensitive time’, she says. ‘The body of a young woman who died a few months ago returned on the same plane as yours. She was very young, eighteen years, and she died here, suddenly, of unsuspected heart disease. It was a coroner’s case of course. Now she’s back, the community will all view the body this afternoon. Some here – only a few – blame the hospital. Best keep well clear of the mortuary today.’ The boss sweeps her hand, indicating the morgue. It stands directly on the path between my quarters and the hospital. On arrival I noted with distaste the sturdy steel mesh that encloses the doctors’ house. Protection of that order speaks of past violence.

 

 

 

***

 

 

I start work in Emergency. ‘Hello, my name’s Howard. What’s yours?’

The woman looks up from her phone. She gives me that information without warmth.

‘How can I help you?’

‘He’s sick.’ The woman indicates the chubby baby stretched out on her shoulder, asleep.

I ask for details.

‘He’s been sick for a week, coughing.’

I touch the child. His face burns.

I lift the shirt: the round tummy rises and falls fast, with rib muscles sucked in with every inbreath.

 

 

Nurses attach a metallic clasp to a little finger. Numbers appear on a screen: his oxygen saturation is normal at 98 percent, but he’s working hard to maintain it.

‘Has he been drinking normally today?’

‘What?’ – head bent over the phone.

‘Has he taken fluids normally?’

‘Not much.’

‘Can you give me an idea how much?’

‘He doesn’t want to drink.’ – defiantly.

‘Has he had any medicine for the fever?’

A shrug: ‘We ran out.’

‘Has he wet nappies normally today?

I suppose so – somewhat grumpily, as if questions were accusations.

I ask a nurse to give the baby some Panadol.

I pull out my stethoscope and retreat to the baby’s chest. I can’t hear much, none of the squeaking or rattling that might give answers.

 

 

I draw a breath.

More figures appear on the screen.  The baby – I learn from his chart his name’s Oscar and he’s fifteen months old – breathes too fast and his heart is beating too fast. I don’t know how long he’s battled like this or how long he can keep it up. And I don’t know what’s wrong. I don’t have enough information. Oscar and I have been together for fifteen minutes and I’ve haven’t heard a cough. A cough itself would be information. Mother is a woman in her thirties. Her manner is combative, she doesn’t waste her smiles, she’s thrifty with eye contact.

 

 

‘Has Oscar ever had breathing problems before?’

‘What?’

‘Has he ever been treated for bronchiolitis? Or croup?’

‘He always gets bronchiolitis. He was flown out just a month ago. Still not better.’

‘Flown out’ would have been to the regional hospital, six hours drive and eight thousand dollars’ flight away. If this is bronchiolitis again, why can’t I hear the fine rustling crepitations in his chest? I decide to treat Oscar with a steroid, which can be helpful in his age group. But the steroid won’t work quickly and Oscar needs help now. We set up an asthma pump to deliver a mist of molecules that might open up narrowed breathing tubes.

 

 

We apply a mask to Oscar’s face.

‘No!’ – says Mum, pulling it away – ‘He doesn’t like it.’

Instead Oscar’s mother holds the mask at a close remove. The mist drifts to his face and he breathes surrounded by a white cloud of medicated mist that drifts uselessly away.

 

 

 

At this distance any benefit he’ll receive will vary inversely as the square of the distance between mask and face. In other words, the treatment is sabotaged and I’m worried. I know this, but to share this knowledge will require a collision of wills, a struggle for authority. Wondering what experience with doctors or hospitals has created Oscar’s mother’s mistrust, I apply the stethoscope again. This time I’m able to hear sounds, moist sounds at the base of Oscar’s left lung. We have an answer: Oscar has pneumonia, dangerous enough in any person, especially so in an Aboriginal child. I order a powerful antibiotic.

 

 

An hour passes, two, and Oscar’s breathing remains fast. But his temperature has fallen and his racing heart has slowed. We give him some formula and he drinks it greedily.

I ask Mum would she like a cup of tea.

‘What?’ She looks up from the phone. She’s been playing Patience.

She takes the drink from my hand without words. Oscar remains in his perch, sitting up now and looking around. His hair is dark and wavy, quite beautiful. He has the face of a cherub. But still his chest heaves as he breathes.

 

 

The hour is late in the Emergency Department. Baby Oscar sleeps on his mother.

‘I think we should keep you both in hospital until Oscar’s better.’

‘You said he was better an hour ago.’

‘Yes, he is better than he was, but he’s still not breathing easily.’

‘Why didn’t you say so an hour ago?’

A sigh escapes my pursed lips.

Mother accepts our hospitality.

 

 

Next morning I’m in the ward checking on Oscar at 6.00. He sleeps and he breathes, lying in the arc of his mother who enfolds him in her sleep. It’s a comforting sight.

 

 

I return at 10.00. Both mother and infant sleep on.

 

 

At noon mother is up and restless: ‘We’re going home now.’

Oscar sits astride their bed, his face buried in a Vegemite sandwich, an upturned bottle, drained of formula, rests on the bed beside him. Before him on a dish lie the remains of mince and mashed potato. I gather from the cutlery these were his mother’s lunch.

 

Eating well and drinking well are unspoken testimony. You can’t suck and swallow, chew and swallow, if you’re a baby and you’re too short of breath. Oscar’s temperature and oxygen levels and heart rate have remained normal and stable. But he still breathes fast and still I hear the rustling sound of air moving through infected mucus.

 

 

‘We need to wait for an x-ray’, I say.

‘When will that be?’

‘At 3.00’.

‘Why not now?’ – belligerently.

‘The x-ray person won’t be here until then’ – placatingly.

 

 

 

At 3.00 the chest x-ray shows opacity where mucus is filling a corner of the lungfield. I show the film to Oscar’s mother: ‘Germs have got into Oscar’s chest there. We’re giving him antibiotics by mouth to kill those germs. He’ll need that medicine twice a day for five days, maybe longer. His next dose is due at 7.00 this evening’.

‘We’re going home.’

‘We can’t make you stay here, but if you go, please be sure to give Oscar his medicine at seven tonight and seven in the morning. It’s very important.’

 

 

It occurs to me I haven’t seen Oscar’s mother give him Panadol or his antibiotic. She hasn’t given him bottles or changed a nappy. She stands back and nurses act. This is a mother who has waged war on the nurses who care for Oscar, and against the doctor. Clearly militant towards us, she keeps herself distant from him. Do we make her feel self-conscious? Does she lack confidence? A clever nurse asks, ‘Would you like us to give the medicine this evening?’

Mother nods. She’ll leave the medicine with us for safekeeping.

 

 

 

Seven o’clock comes, but no mother, no Oscar.

At 7.00 next morning, no show. We don’t know Oscar’s whereabouts. His medicine remains uselessly here with us.
We phone mother’s mobile, but there’s no answer.

No answer that evening, none the next morning.

 

 

A nurse asks me, ‘Do you think Oscar is at risk?’

‘I do.’

As I speak these words I know what they mean. From the time of Oscar’s first, belated arrival three evenings ago I’ve felt a heaviness, a sinking. In advance of any decision I might make, I’ve felt a self-accusation. It falls to me to make Oscar safe, and the legal means is to refer the family to Child Protection. Child Protection is, of course, a heavy instrument and a blunt one. Child protection is the present incarnation of State, the lineal descendant of governments that stole children ‘for their own good.’ That same state massacred people in this district during the 19th and 20th centuries. There’s a weight of history here. Additionally, I realise I don’t like Oscar’s mother. I know those are the reasons I’ve delayed taking action.

 

 

I tuck a note beneath the door of my bucktoothed boss: I’m worried about Oscar. I don’t think he’s safe. Can we talk about local resources to help his family? Some informal arrangement?

 

 

I return home and prepare for the day, the second-last of this week-long locum placement. Around mid-morning I come across Oscar and his mother in the waiting area. The Police have located her and asked her to come in. I see Mother before she sees me. She’s talking on her phone, while Oscar toddles at free range. I note he’s managing to walk without gasping.

 

 

 

I stand before Oscar’s mother, waiting for her conversation to finish. She looks up and continues talking. I stand quietly for some minutes while the conversation continues. From time to time Mother’s eyes registers me in her face. She speaks to her interlocutor: ‘OK, see you later.’

My turn to speak: ‘Hello, it’s good to see you both.’

A stare, no response.

‘How’s Oscar today?’

‘Alright. He’s still coughing.’

I examine Oscar. He is indeed alright. He’s not hot, his breathing is comfortable and the moist sounds of his pneumonia are quieter.

‘Oscar’s much better, isn’t he?’

‘That’s what I said.’

‘Have you given him his antibiotic medicine this morning?’

‘No. How could I? You had it here.’

‘That’s a worry. We’ve been worried about Oscar. He’s missed all his treatments. That’s not safe.’

‘He’s better. You said so yourself.’

‘Yes, he is better. That’s good… You know we couldn’t find you. We had to send the Police.’

‘No you never. He’s been safe with me.’

‘I’m really happy to see how much better he is. But you promised to bring him back two nights ago and you didn’t.’

‘Not my fault… Family things.’

While a nurse gives Oscar his antibiotic, mother returns to her phone.

 

 

 

The Director of Nursing describes an informal service in the community which provides support to families. A nurse shows parents how to give medicines and how to use a thermometer. The nurse visits in the days after discharge from hospital, and contacts the family every week to chat and quietly keep an eye on a child’s wellbeing.

 

 

 

I like the sound of support and tactful surveillance. I look past the Boss and out her window, out towards the mortuary. The girl who arrived back here when I did, one week ago, died of unsuspected heart disease. Her sorry business continues. The hospital didn’t know how ill she was, the community nurse didn’t know, social supports never knew. My mind comes back to Oscar. He’s making a remarkable recovery on the strength of a single dose of antibiotic, but he’s not yet cured. He’ll need a further X-ray, he’ll need to see specialists at the regional hospital, he’ll need lung scans and breathing tests. He’s likely to need close medical surveillance through his childhood, possibly life-long.

 

 

I make my decision. I return to my office and call Child Protection. We speak for a long time. I complete the forms and return to Oscar and his mother.  She’s engaged with the phone. I reckon she’s spent most of our numerous hours together face-down and screen-bent. The face rises to me, tightly closed. I speak: ‘I’ve been thinking about Oscar and how to make sure he gets better and he stays better. I think it’s too hard for you and us together to keep him safe. We need help so I’ve notified Child Protection.’

Mother sits up straight: ‘What?’

‘I told them he has breathing problems and it’s too hard for his family to keep him safe without help.’

Mother looks shocked. She summons strength, looks defiant: I’ll talk to Child protection. Don’t you worry. I’ll tell them.’

Her long hard stare seems intended to threaten.



It’s time for me to leave the hospital. I’ll only just manage to catch the plane out. Before we part, I need to join with Oscar’s mother. I tell her my simple truth: ‘You and I want the same thing for Oscar: we both want him to be healthy.’ My simple truth leaves no impression on the wrathful mother. I leave and I fly away, and I cannot know whether I have done Oscar good or ill. 

Solving an Ancient Problem

The grandson arrives and heads straight to the kitchen. He takes a pear and bites great chunks from it. Then he puts it down. It is not like him to stop in mid-pear.

Minutes later he slumps onto the couch, where he lies, squirming from time to time. He rises, approaches and says:Saba, my stomach feels awful.

Is it sore, darling?

No, just awful*. It feels like a washing machine.

He clutches his belly and groans: It feels like when you’ve been sent to the Headmaster’s office and you’re waiting there, expecting something bad… My stomach is in turmoil.

 

Nice word selection, thinks I, pretty good for a 14-year old.

 

He leaps to his feet and runs to the toilet.

 

Not long after, he returns. I did a monster poo* – all water. What’s wrong with me, Saba?

I examine his abdomen. I say he probably has a stomach bug.

 

He races away again, returns and repeats his earlier announcement. Shortly after he runs, returns and describes his work.

Do you feel better, after you’ve been to the toilet, darling?

 

There is no answer. I look over to the couch, where he sits, slouching, head bent towards his lap.

I turn to attend to kitchen tasks, when a strangled sound disturbs me. The boy’s voice crosses the room, indistinct: Saba

I turn, seeing nothing new.

More gargling, then: Saba, I vomited.

Between the boy’s feet, atop the Persian rug, a heap of hot vegetal matter lies steaming.

I’m sorry Saba. I’m… 

More gargling, and the heap is larger.

 

 

The boy looks stricken. I give him a bowl to catch any third helping, clean him and take him to bed. I lay a towel at his lap and the bowl before him. His face creases as he searches for words as strong as his feeling: Thank you Saba. I love you Saba. 

 

The Persian rug lies there and stares at me. What do you do when your Isfahan rug has suffered such a colourful assault?

 

 I lug it to the bathroom and give it a shower. The rug lies drenched on the floor and stares at me. What do you do when your rug has been for a swim?

 

I lug it to the wall-mounted heated towel rail and manage to fold and hang it in place. 

 

I look into the shower recess. A vegan’s banquet stares back at me. I wonder what my wife will say when she enters to take her shower in the morning.

 

 

How do you remove freshly laundered gastric contents from a shower recess? I squat and stare. Everything seems so rich in texture. My fingers recoil. Kleenex tissues are not squeamish. They do not suffer aesthetic stress. I mop and aggregate. Then I stop. What is that black lump? Has the boy eaten eggplant? Black olive?

 

I look closer. The black bit assumes a familiar shape. It looks like a cockroach.

 

I call the boy’s name: Come! Come quickly. Bring your phone.

Why Saba? I’m in bed. I feel terrible.

Please come. Bring your phone.

 

He comes. He sees and he turns away. I don’t want to see that, Saba.

I take his phone and photograph the black matter. 

The boy says, That’s gross Saba. You don’t photograph vomit.

I say, Look at the black thing.

The boy looks and turns quickly away.

I say, It’s a cockroach.

This is not a time for joking, Saba.

I show him the photo.

His face falls open: No! That didn’t come out of me, Saba!

I say, That vomit isn’t mine.

The boy gulps. He looks horrified. He says, is that the bug I had inside my stomach? I had a cockerroach** inside me?

 

I say to him, Darling, next time you eat an insect, make sure it’s cooked properly.

I wouldn’t eat a cockerroach, Saba. They disgust me.

Well you did eat it darling. After all, you do eat boogers. It might have been an accident…

 

A thought occurs to me: Have you eaten any food your eldest brother prepared for you in the last twenty-four hours?

What are you talking about, Saba?

Darling, twice in the last month you’ve drunk a cup of tea he brought you. Twice he piddled into it and twice you drank it.

 

 

A worried look settles on the boy’s face. He thinks for a few moments: No, Saba, I definitely didn’t eat anything he gave me. He slept out last night and I haven’t seen him today.

 

 

And there the matter lies. The child has no knowledge of ingesting an arthropod. But he has, by accident, solved a question as old as human-cockroach cohabitation. The small black beasts have lived among us since we arrived on the planet. And we know they’d survive a nuclear war that would wipe out us human hosts. The question, how do you kill a cockroach, has been answered at last by my grandson.


______________________________________________________________________
* This is not a verbatim quote: the boy used a vulgar expression.

** The boy is an Hispanophone. Here his father’s Spanish, (cucaracha) collides with his mother’s English. Disgusting in any language. 
______________________________________________________________________

 

 

 

Dennis, Twelve Years On


 

I remember you today, Den, with the candle burning and with the prayers of mourning.

I remember you in our boyhood home in Leeton, where a life of risk called you always, and you’d drag me and I’d follow, with terror and tremor and delight. I remember you taking me into Dad’s Surgery, that forbidden room, where the ever-present smell of anaesthetic ether warned a boy of the consequences that would follow. You found Dad’s blood pressure machine and you showed me how you could squeeze the rubber bulb and inflate the bladder. You kept showing me, squeezing, pumping, and the mercury climbed above 200, 250, 290, until the bladder burst, and liquid mercury ran everywhere.

 

 

When you were eight you decided we should pay a visit on Miss Paull, my teacher, Leeton’s aristocrat, in her residence at the Hydro Hotel. I followed you up the long hill. I followed you up the sweeping drive. Bold as brass, you announced to the man in the black suit, who opened the door, ‘We have come to visit Mis Paull’, and the man showed us in, and Miss Paull emerged, all white and willowy and English, and she said, ‘Good morning Dennis, good morning Howard, how utterly delightful that you should come. Please join me for morning tea.’ And the man in the black suit sat us down and spread white linen squares over our laps, and I was in heaven, nearly wetting myself in excitement. On the way out you heeded the call of your own bladder and you peed on the Hydro’s flowerbeds.

 

I sit and I remember you, my big brother, how you protected me when we were small. I remember, when I was fourteen, Dad summoning me to the forbidden room and sitting me down for a serious talk. The tremors again, but this time I wasn’t in trouble. Dad said, Dennis doesn’t have as easy a path in life as yours. 

I didn’t want to hear this because I knew it to be true.

Dad continued: I want you to help him. My heart sank.

 

I did try, Den, but I lacked your boldness. When I saw other children bullying you I died twice. Others, children and adults and old people, loved you and cherished you, for the beauty of your soul, for your generosity.

 

You loved music with the abundance and the zest of all your loving. I remember you in ICU, in the room of your dying, and you lying there in your coma. Annette, your sister in law, played a Mozart CD for you, and you lifted your arms and you started to conduct. I hope that beauty stayed with you as you slipped away, Dennis.

 

 

It’s the 18th day of the month of Ellul, Den. I remember you and I miss you.

 

Early Spring

The date comes up on his screen, September five. Instantly he sees a round face, lightly freckled. Her wavy hair is light brown.

He’s known her two brothers for years and her two elder sisters, both of them young ladies in their late teens. But this is the first summer  he and she have noticed each other: she’s 11 years old and he’s fourteen. While the slow afternoons make everyone else drowsy, the two go for walks to nowhere in particular. They talk comfortably about their mums and dads  and their brothers and sisters. They both come from large families and there’s lots to tell. Last week it was his birthday. Hers is in spring. One afternoon they find themselves at the far end of the island. There in the long grass they sit. Something tells him to move closer. He kisses her. Soon after they walk back to their families on their neighbouring boats.

 

The next afternoon he looks for her, but she and her mum have gone shopping in town on the further shore.

He doesn’t find her the next day either.

On the third day her elder sister says she went back to Geelong with Dad to buy her schoolbooks. He confesses to the elder sister he’s missing her. Her response surprises him:  Sometimes a young girl can feel confused if she has feelings she’s never felt before. It can scare her.

 

Summer ends and they don’t meet again. Most years he thinks of her on September five.

 

He’s about sixty when he buys a book by John Marsden. Its title is ‘This I Believe’. In it he reads the credos of one hundred eminent Australians. One essay is written by a woman shortly before she dies, too young, of breast cancer. A companion essay is written by her eminent daughter. He doesn’t recognise the surnames of the two women. The essays move him. He notes the dates of birth and death of the  mother. She has been dead now for some years.

 

Every year, on September five, he thinks of her.

Doing the Cartesian Plod

The auguries are not favourable. In the cricket Australia has lost to the South Africans. In the footy Collingwood has lost to a bunch of nonentities. In the bedroom needed slumber has lost to an importuning bladder, that groans with pre-marathon hydration.

 

 

But truly my sleep has been under attack also from pre-race nerves. This particular marathon, in Broome, will be my first in the heat and my first on sand. I know I can run 42.2 kilometres, but I fear I’ll lack the moral strength to keep running in the sands as they deepen with the incoming tide, and the heat that will rise as surely as I slow.

 

 

 

At 5.00am it’s dark and cool down on Cable Beach, and wonderfully quiet. I stand beneath a crescent of moon, freshly born but days ago. The stars are few. The waves crash and the breakers break and I am a man alone in the vastness. At this moment, than this place there is nowhere I’d rather stand and nothing I’d rather do. How long I stand there watching the flashes of white foam light the darkness I cannot know. How do you measure the dimensions of enchantment?

 

 

 

 

The sky pinks slightly in the east. Time now to pray the Dawn Service. After I’ve finished those prayers and the Traveller’s Prayer, mandatory since the bombings in Boston, (Rescue us from any enemy, ambush or danger on the way, and from all afflictions that trouble the world), the beach starts to fill with runners, with fleeting flashes of light, with murmurs. All speak quietly, all discreet, decorous, in this, our secret convocation, as if noise were desecration. 

 

 

 

Thirty-two of us line up at the Start. The Race Director delivers his instructions and his directions, larded liberally with his benedictions: Have a good run, marathoners, enjoy yourselves, drink plenty, welcome, welcome, welcome, have fun. The event closes in six hours. Our sweeper will come by on a bike and tell you if you look like going over time… But you won’t. The tide is well out and will keep ebbing for the next 97 minutes. After that there’ll be a full six hours before high water. Go well, brothers and sisters, run well and enjoy yourselves.

 

 

 

 

The Broome Marathon might be the sole event in the running calendar whose date is governed by the moon. The organisers choose the Sunday closest in time to the winter neap. Today the sand is firm underfoot, while yielding. My racing feet love it. Our route takes us out five kilometres to the dinosaur footprints at Gantheaume Rocks, before the turn which will bring us back to the Start, which will later be the Finish. 

 

 

 

 

I spend those ten kilometres deep in superficial thought: How do you pronounce Gantheame? Looks French, should follow the rules of French pronunciation. But I’ve no-one seems to pronounce it that way…

 

 

 

And of truer gravumen, the self-question, How fast can I prudently complete the first ten kilometres? I know I can do the distance in an hour, but that pace would be unsustainably fast.

 

 

 

I raise my head from these cogitations and regard the young buttocks speeding ahead of me. I look back. To my surprise a half dozen or so runners plod along behind me. An unfamiliar sight, a puzzlement. It takes less than one hour for me to realise these are tortoises and I am a foolish hare, for the ten kilometres have passed and sixty minutes are not yet up.

 

 

 

But who could take these pleasures at a languid jog – at my left shoulder the rising sun (the sun came up upon the left, out of the sea came he), at my right the rolling waves, overhead the arching blue, and beneath that blue the turquoise waters? 

 

 

 

And so I run, fast at first, more slowly later, but on I run, alone, and ever in earnest conversation. First I address Rene Descartes. Rene says, I think, therefore I am.  (At least that’s what they say he says.) Finding myself so steeped in running delight might I not say, I run, therefore I am?  Of course that would reduce me to a pair of stubborn legs. But does life offer anything sweeter than this, this delight beneath absent clouds? I can, therefore I run. Here I am, running early in the event, later plodding, ever ruminating, doing the Cartesian Plod.

 

 

 

 

The Race Director directed us to run south all the way to the halfway mark at Coconut Wells. Here we’ll turn and head for home. I’ve never heard of Coconut Wells but I should know it once I arrive: there’ll surely be an oasis there; the entire marathon course is dotted by pop-up oases, where Staminade and water rest on trestle tables beneath shade. Here volunteers dole out encouragement and sustaining fluids. Each oasis is manned by members of a different local sporting team. The Jiu Jitsus water me first, then the Rugby Leaguers, followed by the Philatelists and here at the Halfway it’s the Water Poloists. Later, the Man Cave Vigoro Team, later still the elderly Chinese players of Mah Jong. Such patience, such good natures! 

 

 

 

 

In the five kilometres that stretch between the oases, all along the wide beach, people picnic or swim or cast their lines into the waves. Some sit beneath their portable shade and drink beer and gaze as inconspicuously as possible in the direction of unclad sunbathing women. The drinkers and the fishers and the swimmers and the picnickers look up as I pass and they assure me I am a champion and utter similar kindly falsehoods, so it’s roses, roses, all the way, roses strewn in my path like mad.

 

 

 

 

Just before the turn a voice breaks into my reveries: Howard! Howard! The voice is feminine; whose can it be? A slender figure approaches from the thicker sand high on the beach: Howard, it’s me, Mel. Ian’s partner. You’re doing so well! Is there anything I can give you, anything you need? I shake my grinning head. Sylph-like Mel, Mel who will join the orthopedic trade, Mel is what I needed without my knowing the need. The simple fact of being known – such a deep human satisfaction. Thanks, Mel. I’ll see you at work. And on I run.  

 

 

 

Now as I run I hear the voice and see the image of my younger daughter, she who has always held my joy in running in the balance against the hazards of running; she’s known how marathons have claimed and killed and stilled many runners, faster and fitter than her Dad, fathers no less beloved, no less unreplaceable. Before every marathon I’d hear the voice of that daughter, have a good run, Dad, and don’t come back dead. At the conclusion of every marathon over the last twenty years, it was that daughter whom I’d call first: I had a great run, darling, and I’m not dead. But after the fifty-second marathon that dialogue came to an end. Dad, said the daughter, I don’t want you to die but I know you will one day. Meanwhile you love to run and I love you and I want you to do what you love. And if you die doing what you love I’ll be sad but I won’t be mad at you.

 

 

 

 

If my daughter’s relationship with my running has been ambivalent, I might say the same of my glomeruli.Wikipedia will tell you that glomeruli form a network of small blood vessels in the kidney, through which blood is filtered to yield a filtrate of urine. The rate at which blood is filtered through all of the glomeruli, and thus the measure of the overall kidney function, is the glomerular filtration rate (GFR). A combination of increasing age, high blood pressure and family tradition has knocked my glomeruli about somewhat, and my filtration rate has fallen as a result. I consult a kidney doctor who advises me, somewhat ambivalently, to keep running marathons: overall it’s probably beneficial to you, but – and here he wags a finger and his gravel voice deepens to a rattling scree – don’t get dehydrated.  That’s like saying, you can run marathons but don’t get tired. So at every drink stop I drink, taking great camel draughts, one time of water, the next of an electrolyte drink. Have you ever drunk Staminade? If you’re fond of blue cordial you’ll like the look of it; if you enjoy drinking glomerular filtrate you’ll love the taste of it.  

 

 

 

Soon my left calf provokes a conversation. The calf has started to feel strange: What – I ask – do you mean by this hard, dead feeling? Didn’t we meet each other in 2013? On that occasion you forced me out of the Melbourne Marathon. Piss off now! Two kilometres later my calf feels fine. And I do not hear from it again. 

 

 

 

 

Never lost for thought, my nimble mind now enters earnest intercourse with the sand. Beaches in Australia are expanses of sand, this particular beach being vastly expansive. I look down and notice something new – striations in the sand. Between the predominant areas of cream, pink streaks appear. The pink is of such delicacy that I perceive it today for the very first time in the quarter century of my running here. Aah, beauty. O blessed day!

 

 

 

 

I interrogate this pink. Pink? Pink? Unheard of. What, where is the earth pink? Answer – the earth here is paprika-pink, rust red, burnt red all through the Pilbara, the Centre, the Kimberley. And whence comes the redness? From iron, that same red element that makes me red blooded. This peaches and cream earth and I are blood brothers. I am at home here, I belong here. Like Adam I am made from this earth. Carried now by this flooding of aesthetic pleasure I am far from the sensations that should affect me. Fatigue is a stranger, thoughts of labour washed away.

 

 

 

 

At this stage I discover I’ve reached the 25-kilometre mark, ordinarily the locus of a great groan of self-pity. The discovery, after three hours of running that I still have seventeen kilometres to run has always fallen heavily upon my morale. But today my being rejoices in all that is before me. Seventeen kilometres? How fortunate! I want this never to end.

 

 

 

 

 

I fill those seventeen kilometres with thoughts that should embarrass me, so deeply dorky are they. I will confide in you, dear reader, trusting to your discretion: I play a word game in which I choose a word of a few syllables, say, ‘catheter’; and using the letters of that word, try to name other words of four letters or more. I find lots of words that, being unwritten, circle and loop though my mind time and again. I will spare you the full list, mentioning just a few words that tickled my vanity practically to orgasm. Those words are theta and theca, followed by terce and tercet, the former denoting the third meditative Christian chant of the morning, the latter referring to a trio of lines in verse.

 

 

 

 

 

The mind is a magpie. My mind has no business knowing the name of an element in High Church liturgy, but it pecks around and picks up useless information prodigiously. If you want to know anything unimportant, ask me.

 

 

 

 

 

A being on a bike intrudes upon my word games. He wears black and he identifies himself as the Sweeper. The Grim Sweeper, the Broome Sweeper! 

I ask, Am I running last?

No mate, there’s a couple behind you still. You’re killing it.

How old are you, if I may ask?

I tell him my age and he says, You’re running like a boy, and I say, If I were your dog you’d take me to the vet and the Sweeper laughs and I laugh and he sweeps back to the laggards behind me and the world feels very nice.

 

 

 

 

 

The Sweeper has put his finger on something real. To run, simply to run, for no real purpose and to no material end, to run for play, is precisely what a small boy does, what a little girl does. Utterly useless, it’s a physical expression of delight in being. It’s the undying spirit of play in a dying animal. I still am, therefore I run; I still can, therefore I run; I run, therefore I am still that small boy. And, enjoying this conversation with myself, I run on and on, doing the Cartesian Plod.

 

 

 

 

 

So sweet, this frolic, I wish it never to end.  Running alone, I think of my mother’s father, who came to Broome in 1906 with his three brothers to dive for pearl. I never met that grandfather. I know he played polo, I know he built and played a one-string violin and performed for large audiences in Perth. I know he carved tortoise shell and pearl shell into objects of art. I know he was brave, plying his trade that carried a mortality rate of thirty percent. That grandfather, a laughing cavalier, died young of lung cancer, and I don’t know by what tender name I’d have called him if I’d known him.

 

 

 

 

 

So, communing with the dead grandfather and the dead philosopher, puzzling with words, rejoicing in all that befalls me, I come to the end. My marathon ends in a finishing time of five hours and seven minutes, six minutes slower than I ran five weeks earlier in Traralgon. Of course I’m jubilant, drinking deep of endorphin, floating on euphoria.  A crowd numbering perhaps five persons cheers me across the Line, and behind a phone is the face and form of Mel, taking photographs to record Pheidipides Goldenberg finishing the Broome Marathon in first place (Male, Ancient), there being no other runners aged over seventy.

 

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Mum Interviews God

Friday, eighteen minutes before sunset. Mum stands before the candelabra, strikes a match, holds it to the wick, pauses and watches until a flame rises, blue at the wick, yellow at the fringe.  She applies the same match to a second candle, which obliges with a sturdy flame just in time for Mum to drop the match-end that was about to burn her. She lights the third and last candle. Again she watches briefly, now drops the match and holds her hands – cupped palms upward – above the dancing flames. Now starts the ballet I have witnessed and loved since earliest childhood, as Mum’s hands move up, then down, up again and down, then a third rise and fall, as she caresses air and brings up the light of Shabbat.

Mum’s hands move to her face and shield it from sight. I won’t see Mum’s face again until she completes her interview with God. She whispers a blessing. Then silence. What is she doing? Unlike us boys Mum does’t wear her religion on her sleeve, nor, for that matter, on her head. Mum’s discourse is free of theology. She is not one for external display. But this moment – these moments – she dedicates to One who is outside and above that world in which she cooks and reads and dreams and loves. 

I wait. We all wait. All of us, her four children, our father, smelling the smells of the sabbath meal, all suddenly ravenous. We’ve recited our prayers, we’re ready. But we must wait while Mum talks to God. Mum lowers her hands, turns to us, “Good shabbos, darlings.” Her eyes shine behind tears.

Eighteen minutes before sunset on a Friday, sixty-five years on. Mum stands before the candelabra, takes a match and strikes a flame. This is no longer a simple act: to do this, to light the candles one by one, to judge when to hold the burning fragment and when to drop it, Mum must release her grip on the kitchen bench. Since the haemorrhage that tore through the back of her brain, none of Mum’s motor functions is simple: to stand, to remain standing, to direct the fingers to strike a match, to light a candle, to articulate words, every act a challenge to be met and overcome. The three candles rise, yellowblue, to Mum’s wavering matchstick. She drops the match and now her hands caress air. Once, twice, three times, those slender hands, those long fingers still graceful, rise and fall. Now the hands rise to Mum’s face and hide it, and we hear her whisper the words. No sound now as we watch and wait.

After one of these lengthening quiets, I ask Mum what it is that demands so much of the Creator’s time. “What are you saying, Mum?” 

“I’m asking God to care for you all, darling.”

Mum has four children. She had a husband but he died a few years ago. She has grandchildren who have become adults, she has a rising score of great-grandchildren, she’s accumulated children-in-law, grandchildren-in-law. Every one is precious, each has individual needs, each must be singled out and presented to God for blessing. Blessings must be tailored: Heal this one, strengthen that one, protect that third, comfort him, calm her, bring them peace.  

We wait and we wait. Mum and God have much to discuss, as God’s old friend comes to Him again with her weekly agenda of love.