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.
The boy is seventeen now. We hiked these hills to the lighthouse once before, when he was only twelve. At that time he was a tough little martial artist. In the years since the boy has grazed in the lush meadows of high school and his muscles have lain fallow.
Weeks before we set out I warn him he’d better train those muscles with some long, hilly walks. It might be tougher this time, darling.
In the event the boy studies hard and does not exercise. Adolescence is a place with few words. At least few words spoken directly to an ancestor, plenty into a phone. Sucked into silence the grandson has become scarcer, harder to feel.
This grandson is the first of his generation, a dandling, darling of us all. In this epoch of change I think of those earlier times and I miss him. Does he miss us, I wonder? In the silence I’ve been remembering the vulnerable boy who walked here with me last time. At the time he showed me his naked wounds. Feeling uncertain whether he’d want to do the walk again, I asked: How would you feel about a hike to the lighthouse at the Prom, darling? Just the two of us?
I’d love it, Saba!
We start out at six, an hour neither congenial nor customary for the boy. The boy says, Can we stop somewhere for coffee, Saba? I point out the thermos at his feet and soon we’re both drinking happily. The boy can’t stop smiling. Neither can I. He says, I’m pretty excited, Saba. Through the open car windows warm air caresses our faces: It’ll be a hot day here in town, but it should be cooler in the hills. I speak as the elder, the experienced one, the sage. In the prevailing agreeability the teenager accepts all I say, challenging nothing.
In the city, through the suburbs, rush hour rushes ever earlier. We grind our way among vehicles that fling themselves forward against fate. For once I’m not drawn into the race. Time is our marshmallow.
Into the green now, we’re starting to climb. The Strzleckis are shapely hills of green, alternately rolling and steep. The pastures draw the eye up, up, across, down. ‘Lucky cows, lucky sheep’, you think. And you think, ‘These hills, so easy on the eye, not so easy on the legs.’
Being as wise as I am, I lecture the boy on his studies, I lecture him on building his future, I lecture him on the value of studying hard through this long vacation. The boy listens to my wisdom, and says, without apparent irony, Yes, Saba. Outside the sun shines and the world warms.
The boy looks out: Smoke haze, Saba.
Really? – I wonder. We arrive at Wilson’s Promontory National Park where a Ranger says, Those bushfires are ’way to the east. This wind is blowing from the north. We’re alright here unless the wind changes and comes from the east. Good news – as far as it goes. I remember Black Sunday and the firestorms that tore through these forests. Last time, when the boy and I passed through silent hills of blackened boughs, there wasn’t a green shoot anywhere. The silence and the black haunted those flatlands. I spoke wisely about it all at the time.
‘Lightstation 19 KM ‘ reads the sign, ‘Six hours’ walk.’ Six hours for old people and children’, say I. ‘We’ll be quicker than that.
We set off at a smart pace. Our track is kind, chiefly leading us down long hills. After a few easy kilometres we pause for Saba to recite his morning payers while the boy eats and drinks. Hikers pass us in both directions, Good Morning! – they cry, then hide a double take at the old man in his ritual regalia. In the benevolent fellowship of the hike they march on without a backward look. I finish and I ask the boy, Did I embarrass you, darling?
No Saba, you look like a wizard in your white tallith. Gandalf of the mountains.
We pack the remains of our brekkie and start out again. Three steps on I freeze. Stop! Don’t walk! I point to the snake. It’s probably an adolescent, like the grandson, long and thin. Its back is coloured deepest brown, its belly a rich tan. Even an adolescent can hurt you. Snake makes his unhurried passage across our path. We stand and wait our turn. In the dignity of his passing I remember Lawrence’s snake in Sicily, with Etna smoking.
We walk on. Over our shoulders to the right are the creamy swathes of Oberon Bay. Below us we look down on a forest that covers the valley floor between our track and Oberon Bay. The grandson says, It’s eerie: we’re looking down on the tops of trees. Cool.
Cool and beautiful, this shivering green carpet of spring growth.
Last time, when the boy was small, I entertained him with letters of complaint penned in my head to Mister Wilson. I complained about the hills:
Dear Mister Wilson,
Nice Promontory you have here. No need for all these uphills, though. We’re quite content with the flat, we have no complaint about the downhills. Please bear that in mind as we progess toward the Lighthouse.
Ahead of us, abrupt slopes of dark green draw the eye upwards. Beautiful, silent, strong – mountainous actually – more grounds (five years ago) for complaint to Mister Wilson. Slugging up those slopes back then, I wrote;
Dear Mister W,
Have you been paying attention? Too many hills, too steep! Put your hills away from the track, over to the side, where we can see them and we can admire your designs. No need to put your hills right here where we have to walk!
At the time these letters of the mind seemed to ease the boy’s passage. He’d laugh and nod his head and agree with me, yes, Mister Bloody Wilson was a slow bloody learner. So slow was Mister Wilson to take heed, I found it necessary to raise my voice:
What is this? A man and a boy are supposed to be having a holiday here. Why do you fling these great bloody alps all over the place. You’re tiring us out with your granite and your gravel and your scree, and all these steeps.Go easy, Wilson, or we’ll have to report you.
Yes, five years ago I was a very funny grandfather. I’m still funny but I sense a seventeen-year old would find the uphills funnier than my humour. This time I hold my peace. I address no mental correspondence to the Eponym of the Prom. Instead, I devote my energies to breathing. We’ve passed half way; we’ve left behind the downhills that would lull the unwary; we’ve passed through the burned forest, now green again and lush, with soft gravel underfoot and the roadway undulating gently. Here on these hills, the sun blazes, there’s no shade, the gravel has given way to fine, retardant sand and this steep little bush track is really tough. The wise old weather prophet got it wrong: it’s very hot here at the Prom.
I breathe and breathe and follow my grandson. He looks back and even though he slows I do not gain on him. He looks back again and pauses. Let’s have a drink, Saba. We sit and drink our warm water that was solid ice at six this morning.
We resume. The track winds upwards between low shrubs and ferns. Away to the right we can glimpse the blue of the sea. Beautiful. Mister Wilson got that one right. Above us our path reaches a crest, promise at last of a break. But no, the hilly little track turns a bend and leads on to higher perdition. I breathe and I think basic thoughts: How tough am I? How much more of this before a sclerotic old coronary artery occludes itself?
The boy has stopped again. He waits for me. When I reach him he claps a hand on my shoulder. He smiles: I love you Saba. A moment of realisation: I have reached an extremity; this path has bested me. I’ll need to take lots of breaks. A further realisation: in the passing of time since first we two walked this track, I’m five years weaker, and grandson is five years stronger.
This aging is sweet. Who cares that we are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven?
Here is my grandson, flesh born of flesh born of me, gazing towards me tenderly, and I am sufficient to him.
We struggle on and soon we break for a drink. Another, shorter struggle and a break for an energy bar. A briefer effort still, a couple of candies. A final assault and we crest the ridge and there lies the sea. Four undulating kilometers down hills, between ferns at shoulder height, and at every turn the sea smiles in the sunshine, winking at us. And there, between trees and boulders, the white stone lighthouse stands proudly priapic and calls to us.
We’re trotting now, our feet joyful. It’s hard to convey our jubilation. Emily Dickenson wrote:
The going out
Of an inland soul
To Sea …
A right-hand turn and Mr Wilson adds a massive final insult to four hours of injury: this is the last half killermeter of near-vertical climb. The boy looks at the slopes and he looks at me. He smiles, I smile back, and we both draw breath. We redouble our pace, we swing our arms, we mount our counterattack on Mr Wilson. Quickly, though, our lungs are amazed; we pause and look at each other in wonder.
We overtake a teenage girl with fair braids. I notice the grandson noticing the girl. We hail her and pass. Grandfather slows and presses on dourly. Grandson breaks into a run and completes the trek with me far in his wake and the girl watching in a wild surmise.
No sooner in our lodging than I shower in cool cleansing water. Grandson pursues the acquaintance of the fair maiden. I have an early night, the young ones make an evening of it. When at a late hour grandson retires for the night, he asks, Saba, do we really have to get up at six?
We do, darling. Remember you told me before we left home you need to be back early. And so do I.
Early mornings don’t suit the young. But for the second morning in succession my grandson is up, ungrumpy and full of energy. Rain fell overnight. When we step out from our lodge we shiver at first. Soon into an easy loping stride, we find the morning chill delicious. Grandson looks around, takes in giant sculpted rocks, furtive little wallabies, enfolding hills, the sand underfoot, the singing breezes, the cockatoos at their screeching; his bony face fills with joy: I love you Saba.
The six-hour walk that took us five laborious hours outwards takes us less than four hours on the return. Nothing Mr Wilson throws at us today dismays.
The final upslope. In wordless agreement we break into a jog. Running alongside the grandson I feel heroic. With a hundred metres to go, Grandson starts to sprint. He races away from me and it feels like a consummation.
Read about our previous hike here:
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.
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.
They say Fathers Day is the invention of the people at Hallmark Cards. That doesn’t make it a bad idea. If someone told me Hallmark had just invented the wheel or the toilet brush or brotherly love, I hope I’d give those ideas worthy consideration.
No it’s not Hallmark that’s my problem. (And I do have more than one problemwith Fathers Day, none more pressing than where to place the apostrophe. I have every confidence I’d dispute whatever verdict were chosen. You only have to look at this paragraph to see I like the apostrophe, I cherish it and I bewail its* public fate.)
When the first Sunday in September dawns no-one feeds me breakfast in bed, no-one buys me neckties or self-help books or DIY apparati. And I never did any of these for my own father. (Well, almost never: when I was five my elder brother spent five shillings on a large tea cup for Dad, which we presented as a joint Fathers Day gift. The cup showed a man seated on an easy chair and smoking his pipe. Dad didn’t smoke and never drank tea. He held tea to be addictive,correctly so. That, after all, is its beauty and its purpose.)
Breakfast in bed could not have enhanced the love that existed between my father and me**, nor would it have reduced the pain my brother and my father experienced in their own shared loving.
My own children accept my distance from Fathers Day (as from Mothers Day). They see it as just another eccentricity of their wilful father. Seven hundred telephone calls per annum from my children to that difficult father say all that needs to be said.
Numerous earnest homilies (‘Slow down, Dad’; ‘Don’t you think it’s time you workeda bit less?’ ‘Have a good run, Dad, and don’t come back dead’; ‘I don’t want you riding your bike at peak hour, Dad. If anything ever happened to you…’)
Well of course one day the anything will happen to me. And as far as fathers go, I’ll go happy, well fathered and well loved by those I’ve fathered.
Nowadays my children have their father on Brain Watch. About time. And one single day a year would not suffice for the purpose.
Note*: no apostrophe.
Note:** It took me 220 pages to sketch the love between my father and me, in ‘My Father’ Compass’ (Hybrid, 2007). A young man approached me after reading the book. He said, ‘I always wanted to be a loving father and no-one ever showed me how. But when I read your book I knew.’