The Bed Remembers


The Bed Remembers the Goldenbergs

I’ve known Goldenbergs.

I’ve known Goldenbergs for over one hundred years.

The couple from Palestine, they were the first. He was Joe and she Millie. He called her Mil.

Joe was restless, a striver, full of energy and ideas. He was a shouter. Millie would say timidly, I’m not deaf Joe. Later in her life Millie became deaf. Perhaps that was her defense.

They must have been young when they married. Their first son was born in 1910, when Millie was just 21 and Joe slightly younger.

Millie

Was that firstborn conceived on me? I don’t recall. They had me built to order, me, together with a companion dressing table, two bedside tables and a swing mirror. There was a tall wardrobe too. All of us pieces were french-polished and elegant. We were expensive, craftsman built, well beyond the means of young immigrant battlers. In the dim bedroom of that dark house, we would have shone. Our lustre, our sheen would have declared to the world, these Goldenbergs, they’ve arrived.

How could Joe possibly afford us? The only way I can imagine would be a big win at the trots. Joe had trotters, I recall. I heard Joe confide to his first son, Myer, something that made me think. It was only a snatch of conversation, mind. I could be wrong. Joe told his son how he instructed the trainer on the eve of a race in which his trotter was the favourite, ‘not to wear the horse out’. Perhaps Joe planned for his own trotter to lose – against the odds. Perhaps he bet against his own horse and won big. Who knows?  

Joe

In any event, I arrived at that big house at Number 6 Goathlands Street, I and the entire suite. I do recall Joe testing me for structural strength. In case his weight might not have been a severe enough test, Joe lay down together with Millie. That was early summer, I remember. In August the second baby, Abraham, arrived. Everyone loved Abe. Of the three Goldenberg sons, I knew Abe best because he never really left home. I mean long after he grew up and married Clara, he came back to that house, every day, to see his parents. I suspect he came back to bring some comfort to his mother, some softness. Joe was out in the world, Millie at home. Joe would come back home, full of the tensions of the day, he’d shout at Millie. Sometimes I’d hear her cry.

But they weren’t always like that. They had their better times, particularly on a Friday night. Those happier times bore fruit. The third son, Phil, was the last fruit of Millie and Joe. I know: I was there at his conception.

As Millie and Joe aged and as the boys grew up and left home, the big house at Number Six became quieter. The big bedroom where I’d reigned took on the air of a secret place, not frequented at daytime. Grandchildren arrived and explored and penetrated the gloom. Chirping as they approached, they’d enter and fall silent and sneak away. Perhaps Joe had roared at them. I don’t know, I couldn’t say. I do remember Myer’s second son entering one day. He opened the door, peered around and tiptoed into the room. Shafts of sunlight penetrated the gloom, heightening somehow the darkness of the wood, the sense of dusk at noon. He stopped, that skinny little kid, struck by the atmosphere. Was it the unnatural dark that frightened him? Or was it fear of his grandfather? I don’t know. Within seconds he was gone and we of the bedroom suite were alone with our secrets.

Years passed, decades. The three sons married and moved out.  Late one night the telephone rang. The telephone was a daylight instrument in those days. A call at night was alarming. Joe answered: Hello! Hello! No! No… I’ll tell Millie.

I don’t know what Joe told his wife. I heard her wailing, saying repeatedly, I wanted to go before her, I should have gone first…

The big house watched Millie and Joe pass into old age. Joe smoked his daily sixty cigarettes and bloomed, while Millie withered from the inside. I thought at the time she was too timid to thrive. Perhaps she was too intimidated to live. Doctors said later that Millie died because her APC tablets destroyed her kidneys. But that amounts to the same thing; Millie needed all those painkillers for the headaches that life caused.

One day the empty old house filled with people. Some arrived early in the morning, big men, hairy, some with black beards, some grey, some white. Lots of sidelocks, big black hats. Joe and the boys – Myer and Abe and Phil – sat on low chairs every morning for about a week. I heard the beards chanting in a language that wasn’t English. Millie was not there. In the afternoon and in the evening the house filled to overflowing, the beards, women in another room, men whom the boys went to school with, even to kindergarten, faces from the early days, the days when Joe and Millie and her large family all lived in North Carlton. Days of richness without money, Abe said.

So many people, I heard crying, laughing, every day for a week. Then they all went home. The house was empty. Joe never slept on me again. He moved to the single bedroom, down the hall. I’d hear him crying in the night.

Then Myer’s second son started coming, Thursdays I think it was. He’d arrive after school and he’d stay the night. They’d sit in front of the TV, the old man and the boy, just the two of them. They watched until the close of transmission, around 10.30. The boy would go upstairs then ‘to study’ he said. And Joe would shuffle around, delaying his own bedtime.


It was good to feel life stirring, hear voices echoing in those dark rooms. I heard him tell the boy how he left school in the third grade to help support the family. We were poor in the old country. When there wasn’t enough food, my father’s new wife would feed her children first. The rest of us would go hungry. I went to work in the Turkish Post Office. The postmaster trusted me. One night I came home with the key to the Post Office. I wore only shorts. The key was big and heavy, made of bronze. I tucked it into my shorts but you could still see it. My father saw it and felt terrified. If anything went missing at the Post Office I’d be blamed and Father would pay. He sent me back with the key. He never let me go back. That’s when I started my own business. I became a watermelon seller. I sold melons to fishermen. I’d swim out into the sea, floating melons before me. Other boys did the same, but I made sure I swam out furthest. I’d be the first melon boy the fishermen would see as they sailed back to Jaffa at the end of the day. I knew they’d be thirsty and they’d pay.

Joe would lament to the boy about Millie. He’d recall old times, their younger days together, Millie’s beauty and allure. She had full, firm breasts…This left the boy lost for a response. I imagine he blushed.

Joe was liberal with his criticisms. He’d tell the boy, It’s a good thing your father is a doctor. He’d be useless at anything else…Then, He’s your father, I shouldn’t criticise him…but he’s my son so I have the right! He’s got no head for business…

There came a morning without words, without any sound or movement. Later there was the sound of a key in the lock. I heard Abe’s voice, Father! Father! There was no answer. I heard fast movements, doors opening, slamming, then Abe’s voice, Father! Father! Speak to me! Joe’s voice never replied. Not long after Myer’s voice spoke: He’s had a stroke, Abe. I’ll call an ambulance.

Silence followed. Nothing was heard for six weeks, then the house filled. I heard voices in all accents, old people, young, children. Crying, praying, chanting, laughing, people talking over each other, people from many places, from many times.  People came and came. The front door never closed from early morning to after dark. Then after seven days silence fell.

I left the old house in a van. Together with the stately swing mirror, the bedside tables, the big, big wardrobe and the dressing table, I was taken to the small flat where Myer’s second son lived with his new wife. I was sixty years in the house of Millie and Joe Goldenberg. 

Now begins my the next family era. There’s a new Goldenberg couple. I’ll spend the next half century under Annette and Howard. I’ll tell you some of their secrets presently…

Whittawer

Reading Maggie O’Farrell’s acclaimed ‘Hamnet’ this afternoon, I was intrigued to come across an unfamiliar word. I like it when an author teaches me a new word; this one was whittawer. I reached for the nearest dictionary, The Concise Oxford. Whittawer did not appear.

I wasn’t surprised. The word looked archaic.

Next, I went to the Chambers Dictionary, a chunk of a volume, the fullest dictionary of its size that I know. Chambers offered saddler.

Later, a larger Oxford improved on the Chambers with, a person who makes whitleather. In later use also: a saddler or harness-maker, (from white plus tawer, i.e. a tanner who treats animal skins with alum or lime, which required an apprenticeship of at least seven years).

I put the dictionaries aside and I returned to ‘Hamnet’, where Hamnet’s twin laments his death of the Black Death at the age of eight years. The dying of the child and the grief that follows occupy much of pages 200 to 300. The death and the grief constitute the emotional heft of the novel. Both are particularised minutely. What might take a telegram, (Hamnet Dies, Judith cries), goes on and on, with awesome tread. For this reader not a word is wasted. The pace is meet. A death is one of the two great facts of all that lives. And every death is particular. 

I looked up, seeking perhaps, respite from sorrow. There lay the Concise Oxford, the volume seventy years old, splitting now at its spine. Mum bought this book for her firstborn, Dennis. (She presented similar volumes to each of us three children who followed Dennis into the world of books and new words. To each of us Mum said, Look it up in your dictionary, Darling. That way you’ll remember the new word.) 

I held Dennis’ Oxford in my palm. I had plucked that volume from Dennis’ large library of brainy books after he died at the age of sixty-three. Dennis’ Oxford is of singular construction, with a little demisphere of space excised from the page margin, in twenty-six places, creating a small lacuna for each letter of the alphabet. Mum’s four kids were guided by this ‘thumb index’ into the right spot in our dictionary for every word we sought. Today, in my search for whittawer, my thumb followed Dennis’. It led me back to that gigantic love of that son for his mother. At the physical tip of a bodily extremity I sensed my brother.

I returned to O’Farrell’s story. She gives her reader the bewilderment of the sibling, bereft: Judith puts out a hand and touches the cheek of her twin. Tears course down her face, chasing each other… such enormous tears, like heavy pearls, quite at odds with the lightness of her frame. She shakes her head, hard, once, twice. Then she says, ‘Will he never come back?’

And later, the child’s search for a self-concept in a family transformed by absence:What is the word, Judith asks her mother, for someone who was a twin and is no longer a twin? If you were a wife, Judith continues, and your husband dies, then you are a widow. And if its parents die, a child becomes an orphan. But what is the word for what I am?

I don’t know, her mother says.

(Judith): Maybe there isn’t one…

Fourteen years have passed since I succeeded to Dennis’ Concise Oxford. The thumb indices admit the edge of the pulp of my thumb. Fourteen years, and notwithstanding my wide collection of dictionaries, I still lack a word for ‘surviving brother’.

Drawn Toward the Portals

I’m seventy-five. Seventy-five, a thankful number, and a thinkful one. Anyone who reaches this stage knows – with me – that we are closer here to the exit than the entry. Anyone who follows my writing will note how my mind drifts toward death, dying and the dead; toward memory and memorial.

A friend observed thirty years ago, ‘You know Howard, all this writing you are doing is a just means of coming to terms with your mortality.’

I hadn’t a clue what he was talking about. 

I smiled the kindly smile you give to the clueless friend who means well.

I know now my friend was right, dead right.

When I was a child the fact of death frightened me. To be annihilated – unthinkable! Literally, I was unable to think what the world could be like without Howard Jonathan Goldenberg. In my adult life I’ve experienced a similar disability of thinking: I find myself simply unable to think of an afterlife. I don’t deny the possibility, I just can’t relate to the concept.

So I live this life as if it’s my only one. I think now that death is a good idea. I don’t feel frightened anymore of annihilation. It’s my loved ones who fear my death, especially the grandchildren. The more I love them, the more they love me, the more vulnerable I make them. That’s a dilemma for me. I have felt at times, almost irresponsible, for becoming close and precious to children whose frailty I know so well. For myself, I can reflect how this planet, our species, did alright before Howard Jonathan Goldenberg arrived; once he’s gone, there’ll be one polluter fewer.

But just as the exit has always exercised my mind, the opposite portal called me irresistibly. As my own life ebbs, at the opposite portal an opposite tide of new life always rises. That portal has admitted nine grandchildren into life, into my life. The nine have broadened and deepened my late years. Those years feel more intense, more vivid, more life-stained than the years before.

I used to work at the portal that admits newcomers to life. I delivered babies. I was the intimate outsider, the guest who was invited to attend the birth of a family. Looking back, gazing over my shoulder towards that portal, that screaming gateway, I see blood and shit and tears, I see babies who gasped and roared, I see other babies who had to be coaxed into breath, I see some who would never breathe. I see women shaken, transfigured by the sudden knowledge of their enormous power. I see placentas stuck, I see the lifeblood ebbing, I feel once again the terror…

Two portals long have drawn me, twin doorways of universal truth.

My day starts with prayer, followed by some tablets to lower my blood pressure washed down with strong coffee to raise it. I plug in my hearing aids, I put on my specs, I stretch my shrinking spine and try to stand straight. These small acts, the adjustments of a seventy-five year old, as he moves ever backward, ever closer to the portal marked Exit.

I remember a book my wife’s father gifted me, an anthology of sorts, with odd bits of writing. One story ran something like this: 

A man went for a walk in the high mountains. Entranced by the grandeur that he saw all around, he jumped when he heard a loud roar from behind him. Looking back, he saw a snow tiger. The giant creature would very soon overtake him. The man ran, and as the tiger sprang the man reached the summit and leaped. 

The man looked down at the valley floor far below. Turning in mid-air, he reached and just managed to grab an overhanging branch of the small sapling that grew at the edge of the fall. The man swung from the bough, his fall broken. Looking up he saw the slavering tiger regarding him. Looking down he saw the unbroken fall. The man heard a groaning sound. Looking behind, he saw the sapling slowly coming away from the peak. Swinging, he looked at the cliff face, and saw, just beneath the sapling, some strawberries growing there. The man’s free hand plucked some strawberries and he ate them. How good the strawberries tasted.

Suspended between the portals of truth, a seventy-five year old enjoys the taste of strawberries.

Jesse at Eighteen

The mother whom you are about to bring into being feels a pain in her belly. Your birth was due a couple of days ago but it doesn’t occur to the woman that she might be in labour. She phones her father, a doctor, soon to become a grandfather.

Dad, my tummy hurts. It’s been hurting all day. Could it be gastro?

Darling, you are pregnant. You have reached full term. Unless you have diarrhoea you’re probably in labour. Go to hospital.

The date is November 11, a date already doubly and indelibly significant for Australians. It’s the date you create a mother, a father, three grandparents, a great-grandmother, uncles, aunts, great-uncles, great-aunts. It’s the date you change our world.

All day you knock at life’s door. Day becomes night. In the Delivery Suite your mum-to-be squats and strains. In an adjacent waiting area, dimly lit, your yogi great-grandmother-designate squats and bears down, trying to birth you at a remove. The soon-to-be grandfather consults his wristwatch. This climactic second stage of labour has become prolonged. He knows a lengthy second stage imperils a baby. He sends a message to the obstetrician: Would you like an extra pair of hands in case the baby needs resuscitation?

The specialist says yes.

I enter and not long after, the door of life opens to you. You and I meet. You need no resuscitation. I hold you and I introduce you to the mother whom you have brought into being.

Thirty-six hours later I’m gazing at you, just a baby. You lie inside my pink cap. I’ve seen hundreds of babies, I’ve delivered hundreds, every one of them a miracle, every one of them scrutinised for irregularities by a clinical eye. You are no less imperfect than those hundreds. You are skinny, you look like an empty sock, your face isn’t quite symmetrical.

But some event or process, something visceral, something cosmic perhaps, is taking place and I am transmogrified: I am a grandfather; I love you. What is this joy? Your fingers curl and close around my finger and you grip me. 

On the eighth day of your life you rest on the lap of your great-grandfather, I remove some skin and bring you into a Covenant. A drop of wine pacifies you. Your tribe jubilates. We know our long back story. Behold you! We see you and we behold our futurity.

Years pass, your parents send you to this grandfather to learn rituals, traditional melodies, ancient texts. At thirteen you are barmitzvah. Once again your clan rejoices and this time you can share it. You sense the power, the force field of love that is your extended family, the depth of our feeling. Profoundly you know belonging.

Life takes you through ups and downs. At eleven you walk with me, up, down, up and again down, to a distant lighthouse. A boy who buries strong feelings, you struggle and you achieve. You declare, I love you Saba. Later you say, I’ll bring my kids on this walk. And you add, I love you Saba.

Six years later, life is still up and down. We do that same walk again. This time it is the boy who stops and waits, and allows an aging Saba to catch up. Your words are few but they have not changed. The miles, the steeps, the struggle weld us once again.

This week you sit your last school examination. Your schooldays are behind you. We behold you, the first of your generation. Eighteen years have passed, enriched and intensified by your being. Eighteen years ago you gripped me, never to let me go.

A River Flows Through

A river flows through my childhood. I dwelt in that particular suburb of heaven which is a country boyhood. When I was nine-and-a-half years of age I was kidnapped by my parents and brought to a city where I have sojourned for 65 years. Very quickly I learned to embrace my new home. Over time I have learned to forgive Melbourne for not being Leeton.
Every so seldom work calls me back to that riverine land. For the past three weeks I’ve been working in the blessed town of Cootamundra. Wide streets, unhurried citizens, verdant gardens, wide skies, a community without traffic lights, have nourished and refreshed me these three weeks. Road signs direct the motorist to nearby downs: this way to Tumut; close by is the drowned township of Talbingo; only two and a bit hours to Albury, where abides my oldest friend; down the road is Gundagai; turn right for Junee, railway junction to the entire state. Leeton (Leeton!) is not far; and down that road lies Wagga Wagga Wagga, so great they named it thrice.

The river flows through these parts. Its strong current could seize a body and drown it. It seizes me still and flings me backwards. Nostalgia is the practice of rejoicing in grief. It’s probably a malignant habit. But it reflects a truth, the truth of country, of homeland, a truth known to every territorial animal, including the human.

Sitting in my surgery I meet old farmers of a third or fourth generation on this land. Their attachment to country runs deeply, deep in struggle, deep in memory of drought and flood, in struggle to sustain family and to flourish. Their love runs deeper than mine, which is of the surface. Theirs is rooted in the earth. In Malaya they have a word for it:  bumi putra – sons of the soil.   

Wars have been fought here over territory. The professor of law who sits in my surgery tells me the local Wiradjuri fought the tribe that gave Canberra its name. The same professor declares, of course epidemics killed most Aboriginal people. The settlers spread them intentionally. They gave blankets to the indigenous, smearing them first with smallpox.Incredulous, I ask for proof.I can’t prove it. It’s part of Aboriginal narrative. Marcia Langton quotes it. Other historians too.


Drinking my morning coffee at Dusty Road Coffee Roasters I fall into conversation with a tall, pear-shaped woman of about fifty. She tells me she teaches in schools for the Red Cross.Do you teach the kids First Aid?No, cultural diversity. In particular, to accept and welcome migrants of all colours, from all places.Can you teach kids not to be racist?Yes, that’s not too hard. You can’t teach adults, though.I digest this for a while. The woman speaks again: Cootamundra Girls’ School was created to train stolen girls to be domestic servants. They were stealing girls as late as 1970. None of the girls came from this district. They were brought here as aliens. The old girls held a reunion here recently.The occasion brought together old friends, survivors together of loneliness, of seizure from country. On pain of physical punishment those girls were forbidden to speak in language. Coming together with old friends was somehow joyous.I ask our informant how long she’s lived in Cootamundra. This isn’t my country. My father’s people are Gunditjmara from near Warrnambool. My mother’s mother came from the Netherlands.The woman leaves us to go to her work, making non-racists.

The professor takes me to see the old girls’ school. It sits near the middle of town, a vast nondescript brick edifice on spacious grounds. Insignia on a placard inform us that a Cadet Corps uses the property. No sign of indigenous occupancy, no word or name to be seen , no-one would dream this is Wiradjuri country. The professor speaks: Many Indigenous people stay away from Cootamundra. Folk memory of this school is unbearable to them.I look around for signs of First People. Nothing here, nothing anywhere I’ve been these past seventeen days. I’ve run main roads and side roads, run to the cemetery, past the churches, past the handsome two-story buildings that house the banks, past the hospital, past the imposing old railway station, past the Council Chambers. I’ve lived across the street from the old Masonic TempIe. This is a town which honours its pioneer past. It honours the birthplace of Donald Bradman and preserves the little house that was his natal hospital. I haven’t noticed an Aboriginal Medical Centre, nor a Cultural Centre.

Until now I didn’t even notice the silence or the absence. So easy, so very easy, not to see, not to know, not to look or ask.

And this is Naidoc Week. 

The river that flows through my childhood flows also through the entire time of European settlement. Those times are the recent shallows. The river we all claim, the river that claims us flows through all time and song and dance and story.

Memorial Concert

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:


sister, brother

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

love howard

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

Curfew Tales: The Story of Mister Jones Chapter IV

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.

Curfew Tales: The Story of Mister Jones Chapter 111

“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, my own heart felt it would burst too.’

Curfew Tales: The Story of Mister Jones Chapter II

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 doffanpaz@gmail.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.

Bedtime Stories for the Nights of Curfew

THE STORY OF MISTER 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 doffanpaz@gmail.com