Howard is a doctor, marathon runner and author. He has written two non-fiction books, My Father’s Compass (2007) and Raft (2009). Carrots and Jaffas (2014) is his first novel. His latest novel is A Threefold Cord (Hybrid, 2107)
In Thessaloniki we visited the Aristotle University in the centre of the city.
The university is young, a child of the second half of the Twentieth Century.
The Jewish cemetery in Thessaloniki dates back many centuries. Sages, leaders, rabbis, porters, dock workers, Jewish people of every station were laid to rest in that cemetery. Some 400,000 Jewish dead were buried there.
The cemetery occupied the present site of the university until WWII, when the Nazis desecrated the site. They seized headstones and used them for profane purposes, including building toilets. Headstones of marble were valuable: these the Nazis kept for sale.
So far, so foul, so normal in Nazi practice. What followed was unique. At the bidding of local gentiles, the Nazis then set about clearing the vast area of bodies. The ancient dead and the freshly dead were disinterred, bones and bodies exposed, food for dogs.
The dead died a second time. Nowhere else did the Nazis expend manpower on such atrocity. Their focus, their energies, lay with the living.
The Nazis deported the fifty thousand living Jews to Auschwitz. A few hundred of these were to survive.
The son of one of these few spoke to us of the literally unspeakable experiences of his father.
The city that thronged with Jews was now free of them. The occupants of vast and precious real estate in the city centre had been ‘evicted’. The university built, memory of the Jews extinguished.
This evening I entered a supermarket on the Island of Rhodes to buy fruit juice.
A tall man reached the checkout just before me. He paid for his purchases and I went to pay for mine. The checkout chap said, Nothing to pay.
I looked up, nonplussed. The vendor indicated the tall man. This man, he has paid, he said.
More nonplussed still, I turned to my benefactor. You don’t need to pay for that juice. It’s for me!
It’s nothing, said the tall man in English. It’s done. Forget it.
The tall man was young, fair, mild of manner. He smiled a small smile. Forget it, he repeated.
I can’t forget it, I said. What’s your name? Leon. Where are you from, Leon? Wales. He offered his hand, did Leon of Wales. I took his hand, which swallowed my own. His handshake was gentle.
I said, Thank you Leon. It’s nothing, he said, and walked away.
In the early years of my life I dwelled in a paradise called Leeton. Leeton is a small country town in south-west New South Wales, designed by Walter Burley Griffin. Irrigation and imagination provided the infrastructure for small boys to live a life of freedom and adventure. However, quite abruptly, at the age of nine-and-a-half years, I was kidnapped by my parents and transported to a city where I have lived in captivity ever since.
It never occurred to me until recently that this abruption might be a trauma. But ever since I have contrived to escape the city for short intervals, to breathe cleaner air, to look at horizons, to listen to the silence. It is during such an escape that I am writing this. This escape is different from the many which have preceded it; my beloved is here with me.
Together my beloved and I have journeyed around the sun almost fifty-three times, but it is only today that we will visit my hometown together. It was here, in this small town that I spent my seed time. Here the seeds germinated; it is from this soil and this sun that the shoots of my whole life spring. The roots persist and grow and they sprout, ever green. This town, those times haunt me. They haunt my loved ones too, to their puzzlement.
Today, perhaps, my beloved will feel her own enchantment. And perhaps she will not. A small town in the country is, after all, a commonplace thing. You can walk the wide streets and find them empty of sound or movement, unremarkable and untouched by charm. Perhaps the charm lies solelyin memories which I have watered and cherished and improved over a lifetime of years.
What will I show her, my beloved? How to water her imagination?
Of course, we’ll visit the old house. The new owner gave us permission to explore alone, trusting us with his own new love. She’ll see the bathroomwhere, behind a locked door, we played Murder in the Chookhouse. I’ll show her the hallway where my younger brother was circumcised. She’ll see the space where we sat in the Succah and celebrated Tabernacles. On the front doorpost we might find the scars of Dad’s mezuzah. I’ll show her the odd, circular window high in the wall of Dad’s old consulting room. That’s how the light got in.
But the obvious landmarks in town, such as the school, the kindergarten, the hospital, the olive oil factory that Dad built, do not call to me as loudly as certain unexpected sites. Will we visit the railway bridge under which we chose to play, drawn by the special allure of the forbidden? Here we’d come into the domain of the locomotive, hot and blackand noisy, the very embodiment of implacable power. On one occasion we were playing under the bridge as the train entered, with its noise and its smoke. Too thrilled even for terror, we spent perhaps thirty unforgettable seconds in intimate relation to the monster, amazed dumb. I’ve never spoken of this escapade. My beloved will learn of it before you who read this.
Before we sight Leeton, we’ll pass Wamoon, where I’ll stop and we’ll walk across the bridge over the fatal canal. What will she see, what will she feel, this person who knows me so deeply and so long?
I’ll take her into the great park across the street from the old house. I’ll show her where the man lounging on a picnic rug with his girlfriend and a bottle of beer accepted my challenge to wrestle, one slow Shabbat afternoon. Here he pulled down my shorts. I’ll show her the Police Station just around the corner, where, a few days later, I went to report that strange event. Sergeant Stewart walked me to the spot and bid me look around. He asked, ‘Can you see the man you wrestled with?’ I could not, but to oblige the sergeant I pointed to a man at random. Sergeant Stewart observed: ‘Making a false accusation is a serious matter, Howard.’ The officer enlarged my vocabulary.
I’d like the two of us to climb the high boundary wall of Number Two Jarrah Street and peer over into the odd, kite-shaped backyard of my first friend’s home. That home was as much a refuge and a place of love for me as my own home, twenty yards distant. Through one rare day of soaking rain, that friend and I played in a room filled with enormous cardboard cartons, large enough to walk in. When, years later, that house was stolen and became a pizza shop I knew the meaning of sacrilege.
On the morning of our departure in 1955, my friend’s mother stood on her front step and took me and my elder brother into her arms and embracedus. She held us there and she delivered her benediction: You two boys have the duty to become the finest Jewish gentlemen ever – because of what your parents are giving up for you.
My parents? Did they suffer their own trauma? Did this commandment from our gentile friend shape my life?
Perhaps such memories are too strong for others to feel or know. Perhaps, in time, they can become malignant. Perhaps, on the other hand, I need to share them, to lay them bare to new eyes, to exorcise a haunting from the life I share with my beloved.
My beloved came, admired, and fell, quite charmed.
I have a letter to send to my sister and her husband in New York City. It’s a large envelope crammed with pages I’ve selected from the papers. It’s stuff they’d have heard about, stuff they might like to read about in greater detail. I slipped in a note: Here’s the News and the Olds. (News refers to the Aussies thrashing England in the Ashes, Olds will tell them Bob Hawke is dead.) I ask the Postal Lady for stamps to New York by airmail. Postal Lady weighs my envelope: 64 grams, say the scales. Thirteen dollars sixty cents says Postal Lady. It will be delivered in twenty to twenty-five days.I wonder whether the postie walks to New York. That’s airmail? Yes. Everything is held up. Thirteen bucks? Wow! It is a lot, says Postal lady. Hold on, I’ll check. Postal lady gives her computer further instructions.Thirteen dollars, sixty, replies that avaricious device. Is it a problem of weight, or the size of the envelope? Weight, says Postal Lady, adding, If you can make it ten grams lighter it will come down to six dollars. Righto, I’ll get rid of something over at the counter, then I’ll come back to you. Over at the counter I remove two pages of Harvey Norman and Frydenberg’s Big Plans for the Budget.Three dollars something, says Postal Lady. I pay, rejoicing as one does who has just found a bargain at Harvey Norman. Do you mind if I ask you something? Are you Doctor Howard Goldenberg? I am. I thought so. You were my doctor when I was a baby in Diamond Creek fifty years ago. Really? Lucky me! I must say it’s hard to recognise you in the mask. Postal Lady removes her mask. I’ve changed since I was a baby. My mum says you told her I was the most beautiful baby you’d ever seen. I suppose you said that to all the mothers. (I suspect I did say just that.) I’d like to see a photo of yourself as a baby some time. I’ve got one here.Postal Lady starts interrogating photo archives in her phone. The queue of customers in the Post Office grows longer. It’s in here somewhere, Doctor. Further search. Matthew, Postal Lady’s colleague, gives her a Look. Postal Lady, engrossed, doesn’t notice. Found it! Here, look Doctor. Doctor looks at the photo in black and white of a newborn baby. She is in fact the most beautiful baby I’ve ever seen.I say those words once again. Postal Lady says, You’d remember my mother better than me. I’ve got a photo somewhere here…I’m sorry I’m detaining you…I look around. The post office is filling with customers. Matthew looks over towards the second half of the PO’s workforce, but lingering as his look is, and withering withal, Postal Lady is oblivious in her quest for a snap of Mum. I decide there’s a problem in this office and I am that problem, and I can solve it by removing myself. Look, here’s my phone number. Send the photo to me, later, to my phone. I leave by the side door that gives onto one of Melbourne’s famed little lanes. The lane buzzes as throngs drink and dawdle in the bright sun. I wind my way quickly into a second lane. A voice behind hails me: Doctor! Doctor Howard! I turn. It’s Postal Lady. Look, this is Mum, here. She points at the pleasant, forgettable face in black and white of a young mother. I try to recognise her, but memory fails before visions of civil unrest in the Post Office.
He’s a tall man, slim. He wears clothing of dark gray. When he gives his surname, I nominatecorrectly his country of origin in Northern Europe. It’s only after we’ve parted that it occurs to me his name translates to Big Son. He might well descendfrom a line of big sons.
Even though he’s past retirement age, I ask him what he does for a living. Out here the farmers and the miners never quite give it up. I’m a miner, he says – a shrug, a wry smile. The lure of the big find is too strong for some to stop.
– Where do you live?
– Out along the Seven Mile. I’ll take you and show you if you like. You can see the diggings.
– OK, I have your address. I’ll drive out.
– You can’t. You’ll get lost.
This rings true. The town is peopled by those who don’t wish to be found, persons escaping the Lawor vendetta or drug dealers or the tax man or the former spouse, or a life of persecution in the old country. Nobody really knows the population. The town boasts fifty-four ethnic groups. As you drive into town a sign welcomes the visitor. A little further on a sign reads: “POPULATION ?”
The 2016 census lists 2016 persons, a neat match, probably too neat. No one really knows. It’s though a further 3000-odd are hidden away in the hills, where they live in disused trams or railway carriages, huts and caves. In the past, the local Police designated a discrete patch of earth behind the shopping strip where scamps and scally wags were allowed to park when they came into town for supplies. Certain back roads were allotted to these folk. The Police would ask no questions so long as the miners did not bring themselves to their attention.
Big Son instructs me to meet him outside the front of the clinic after I finish work: you can follow me out along the Seven Mile. At 5.00 precisely I step out into bright sunshine where Big Son looks at my white hire car and says, Get into my vehicle. Yours is too pretty to take out bush. I jump in to a large, hard-working 4-wheel drive and we drive out of town.
The further we drive the thicker the marks of the digger. Low structures of tin and timber alternate with mullock heaps of pale stone and earth and random bit of rusted machinery. We’ve left the bitumen behind us, dirt tracks branch off and wind off in all directions into thin scrub. I’ve lost my bearings. My companion keeps up a commentary: that claim there belongs to a friend…over here you can see cabins…the people over on the right run a really good tourist operation.
Before I came to this country I moved to Roma – I had a girlfriend there, the usual story, you know – in Roma I set up a photographic studio.
Photography was my trade.
The narrating voice has taken on a note of pride.
I didn’t speak the language, but I taught myself by watching videos in Italian. I succeeded as a linguist but I struggled in my photography business. No network.
I visited Australia – curiosity, you know? Back in Roma I applied for a visa to settle in Australia. It was for adventure. I came out here and started to dig. I married once, had a couple of daughters. The marriage ended. Married again, my wife is an artist, an art teacher. We fostered a little child. He was murdered. My wife went mad. I sold up, sold all this – by now we’re at his claim and we’ve pulled up – I had to sell and take her to the city for treatment…
The young bloke who lived over the hill there, a loner, a misfit, killed the little one. He lived there, a recluse, a neighbour. No one knew anything about him until he committed murder. Of a child.
My wife got better and we came back. I got a new claim just by my old one. This is it. ‘This’ is a patch of elevated stony ground with holes in it. Disparate bits of metalwork rise above the surface and disappear below. I peer down a hole walled by a cylinder of galvanised iron. The hole is a mine, about one and a half metres in diameter. My host says, it goes down eighteen metres. I consider the dark and the deep. Obviously you don’t suffer claustrophobia…
I do, to a degree. I think anyone with imagination must.
Bright blue steel steps disappear into the depth of another circular hole. Big Son says, a friend invented that spiral staircase. The friend sells them to diggers and small miners across the country. This machine here he points to a steel contraption – I built. I invented it and patented it. I’ve sold a few of them, but most diggers can’t afford $18,000…
The machine that my host devised is a complicated structure of thick steel, encasing steel cables, an electric motor and meters with dials and numbers. It stands, grey, substantial and sophisticated on the primal earth. There’s not a speck of rust. It’s a machine for digging a mine. I gaze at the device in awe. Inventor and invention alike stand solid and impressive, gunmetal grey, erect in the unforgiving sun.
Who trained you in engineering?
No one. I always liked machines, devices, gadgets. I pulled things apart, curious you know?
What does a digger do who can’t afford a mechanical digger? Pick and shovel?
Yes. If they can’t scavenge bits of old machinery. Maybe fix it up, get it working.
I consider pick and shovel work in the digital age. Out here summer temperatures reach fifty in the shade and stay there for days. But I do know why a digger might stick at it. On the way out of town Big Son pointed out a jewellery showroom: Very honest people there, prices very reasonable. They’ve got a gem there that I dug up, very valuable. They paid ten thousand for it. They’ll sell it for forty thousand, but they might have to hold it for years.
Another person, obese, not old, walking on a stick, hobbled and rolled picturesquely into the clinic this morning. Both her florid gait and her words told a story that stretched the truth in support of her quest for a medical certificate for welfare benefits.
We moved onto other subjects.
What’s your work – when you’re able to do it?
I’m a miner, she said. I’ve got forty thousand worth of raw gems in this bag.
In this town that outlandish statement might just be simple truth.
Here, gemstone is currency that doesn’t leave records. Bankers, accountants, the taxman need not know.
My tall host looks around his claim. He says, There’s always theft. You can’t make your property safe from thieves.
I ask, Do people arm themselves?
Some do, they have guns… shootings aren’t rare out here.
This here is my blower – Big Son points to a large hollow, elevated structure of steel and rust, that rises above the claim, shaped like one of those concrete mixers you see on trucks at building sites. This towers above us. It does something with mullock that I don’t really understand, but it sounds like winnowing. My host tries to explain: You see that motor there? I found it in a derelict street sweeper. It’s a three-cylinder diesel. I adapted it. It’s noisy. The miner turns a switch. A battery turns the motor over, it fires then clamour, brutal and immediate, drowns conversation. The thick steel platform vibrates beneath our feet.
Come this way, into the house. Twenty metres from the claim, just down a small slope and hidden from sight at the claim, stands an elegant modern building of steel and timber. Yes, this too was designed and built by my host. It stands on leasehold land. The house lease is separate from the mine lease: You get a home lease for twenty-five years. You renew it every twenty-five years.
We pause at the threshold. Big son points: these stones everywhere, that’s gemstone waste, that’s potch. My host leans a long way down and picks up a pebble. Here take this, a little souvenir. I look at the little grey pebble. Its centre glows with blue and green fire.
Inside, all is dark. A woman of middle age materialises and speaks in a florid French accent.
We stand in the dark room until electric light reveals walls hung with artworks in oils that startle with their mute emotional power. The artist steps from the shadow and speaks with shy pride about the paintings.
– You see that brown shading? Do you know what I use for pigment?
I regard the glowing brown and shake my head.
– Coffee. Nescafe. I’ve tried other instant coffee. Nescafe gives that fire in the brown.
We come to a bathroom whose walls are a menagerie of megafauna: emu, koala, kangaroo, in their greys and browns move across bright panels of white and lime. My hostess explains: We sit on the toilet and instead of blank walls, we gaze at animals, bounding across the walls, alive.
We pass a small portrait, the only watercolour. The painter passes it by. Big Son pauses. We regard a bright portrait of a little boy with a face full of life andwild, straw-coloured hair. He radiates light. Big Son says quietly, this is our little one.
Tonight I went to yoga as I have done just about every week since the start of the pandemic. When I say I went to yoga, on some of the occasions this was literally true: I’d run to the studio and I’d jog back – four kilometres or so each way. Frequently, however, when the germ shut the studio, I joined the class by zoom. ‘I went’ consisted simply, of turning the lights down and moving to the Persian rug on the floor. The rug feels a bit rugged (is that the origin of the term?) but it’s tolerable. I don’t imagine the Yogis of old purchased their mats from Lulu Lemon. They probably lay themselves down on bare boards or on a rug of knotted yarn like mine.
I lay down tonight and tuned into zoom on my phone. (No, I don’t have an i-pad. I don’t suppose the ancient Yogis did either.) I felt a frisson of pleasure at the the hopeful thought that tonight’s class, conducted on the eve of freedom, would be the last of enforced separation
I paid attention to the teacher. She instructed me to attend to the breath. I breathed and I attended. I like this teacher. I feel I know her well. She teaches yoga in a variety of modes, but she and I both know Yin suits me best, with its long, slow poses, its gradual transitions. She speaks: ‘Some of you will have rushed from your day’s work to this class. You might be unready immediately for stillness, so we’ll move into stillness, we’ll arrive at the unmoving state by movement, by active movement that will slow; and as we slow we’ll have the opportunity to attend to the slowing breath.
The teacher models the pose and the class follows. I gaze at my little screen. I remove my reading glasses for a clearer view. The teacher has fair curling hair with curls at the end of curls. Her skin glows peaches against her black sweater. I enjoy the sight of her.
I adopt the pose and close my eyes. My eyes remain closed through most of the following 50 minutes or so, even as, every few minutes, I move into the next pose as instructed.
Lying thus, with the senses turned inward, only the sense of hearing, of vibration, operates within my awareness. I become aware of a rhythmic percussion, a soft, recurring ‘boom’. If it’s a sound, it’s a sound too soft to actually hear. I feel this sound: boom, boom, boom, coming to me through the floorboards, eighty booms to the minute by my rough-reckoning.
The sound, the experience bears a sense of the long-known, the familiar. Eventually my ears that have worn a stethoscope for almost sixty years, recognise the soft boom, boom, boom:It’s heartbeat that I hear. This is a puzzle that solves itself when I open my mind’s eye. The sight that I ‘see’ is of my teacher, herself reclining on a mat, on a floor. Next to her is her mic through which she gives instruction. The mic picks up vibration through her floorboards and transmits the sound of the beating of her heart. I know it’s not the sound of the beating of my own heart; mine beats at forty beats per minute. I smile a smile of remembering. I remember that heartbeat. I used to listen to the beating of my daughter’s heart through the wall of her mother’s belly. I heard her heart before her mother did. Her heart beat in the womb at 120-160 beats per minute, twice the rate (in those days), of my own. It was the first way I knew her. It cued my love of her. Yes, my yoga teacher is my daughter, she of the peachy face, she of the yellow curls. I’m allowed to enjoy looking at her.
Tonight, on the eve of freedom, I hear my child’s heart, the working of her living body agitating the molecules inside the semicircular canals of my inner ear. Her living body moves my senses and once again cues love.
It is late in the third year of medical school that we watch a screening of a live birth. Until this point in my life, film was always smaller than life, an image, a series of images, fictive or documentary, but extracted, never fully real or fully human, let alone monumental. But this was a video of the eruption of life. I might have been witnessing the Big Bang so enormous was this, the advent of a human.
I remember feeling electrified, thrilled, struck and struck again by a cascade of philosophic thoughts, intense joy, a sense of being a guiltless voyeur upon the utterly intimate that was utterly universal. I was witness, by invitation, to creation. I remember too, my naive amazement that a woman would allow a camera (that shockingly lacked any sense of modesty) to show her fully naked self in this way. I looked around with a wild surmise. But my friends, more worldly, more mature? – showed no shock.
It is only a year or so later that I will deliver a baby. Between the videotape and that event, my father decides I’m ready to go to Labour Ward with him. This entails walking out the back door of our house, past the rhubarb growing in the back garden, to the side gate that opens onto the lane. Dad would hasten across the lane with me at his heels. Through a second gate and we are in the grounds of the Oakleigh Community Hospital. Here Dad frequently invites me along, to watch as he performs surgery, administers General Anaesthetics, treats heart attack and pneumonia and fracture. Dad’s patients welcome me: Dad is their idol, his son would be a godling. Today my presence will demand inordinate trust on the part of a woman of her doctor. What I will share is a series of events, of unmediated sensory experiences – the rich colour of placenta and the same colour in a woman’s face, the odour of amniotic liquor, the sounds and lack of sound, of wordless breathtaking, grunting, pushing, the sight of a calm and immensely calming doctor, his movements graceful as ballet, his stillness, his attention, his kindness and his firmness – and the huge feelings of a new mother, the joy reflected on the faces of nurses, and my own sensations, intense and too many, crammed into climactic moments, and I unable yet to unpack them and describe them calmly. For now I know only awe and thankfulness.
Perhaps a year later, I stand at the side of a young woman through hours that become a full day, during which she approaches a bridge in her life. Today I’ll cross a bridge of my own. Surrounded by calming midwives, veterans in this arena, I watch as the woman pushes. The woman pushes hard, pushes long, gasps, pushes again. Her face reddens deeply, now a beetroot, now a plum. I peer hard: is that hair? Is that scalp we’re seeing? I move into place to catch a baby.
The Delivery Room encloses the birthing mother, a couple of midwives and a nervous medical student. This room, this world comprises all animal humanity as a life spills free into air. Our air, cold upon wet skin, evokes a gasp, a cry. The cry tells a young woman she has crossed the bridge. The student gropes, grabs a slippery cord, which yet dances and writhes. He applies a clamp which slips and falls to the floor. The baby cries, the mother cries; I suppose I’m tearless, but I know I have crossed too. This is one meaning that I catch instantly.
Six weeks later I travel, as directed, to a Victorian terrace house situated next to a rail crossing in Brunswick. In the house a new mother and her young husband live with their baby. The idea of the visit is for a student to learn the consequence of those climactic events six weeks earlier; that consequence is the fact of parenthood. The mother welcomes me, the stranger who crossed with her, the intimate male who usurped the father. That father welcomes me, thanks me! It occurs to none of us three that he should have been there in my stead. A bond exists, forged in the sweat and blood and urine and shit of birth giving, in the gasping and the heaving of giving birth, in the shock and the cry of being born, in the spreading flood of love for a human child.
I never visit the family again. I would not recognise the mother today. Yet every time I drive past the terrace – which happens to stand on my preferred route to the airport – whenever I pass, I remember, through all the decades that follow. I remember that day, I feel that bond.
The birth leaves me changed. I feel called.
For the first thirty years of my working life I deliver babies. It never stales. Nothing else in a life in Medicine will rock me with that astonished joy as I witness the advent of a human. When suburban GP Obstetrics eventually dies, a part of my own life is extinguished.
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’.
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.
The box sits there, unopened, apparently intact, inscrutable, pristine, just sits there, outside the urinal at a truckers’ rest stop off the Refugee Road to Victoria. The word at the top reads ‘Mistral’. I know what mistral means; we learned about it at school in Form Four Geography. Mistral is the name of the strong wind that blows cold, dry air on Mediterranean coasts. But ‘Air Fryer’ is a new concept. What’s an air fryer for? Who would wish to fry air? The last time the air fried, we had those horrible bushfires that tore through this area and along our East. Pausing in passing, I examine the box. The lid opens readily, revealing an unfamiliar contrivance, presumably the device for frying air. Resting atop the device in the box, I note a number of smaller packages, gift-wrapped, addressed to Dear Colin and to Granny Nancy. I retreat hastily, conscious of invading privacy. The air outside the urinal is heavy and stale.
Back to the car where Annette and Nana await. It’s 6.30pm and at midnight they’ll close the border. We’ve driven the refugee road now for four hours, racing from Sydney where we’d barely unpacked, only to hear Mr Andrews speaking upon the radio at 2.00pm. He said he’d let us return to Victoria, and we wouldn’t have to quarantine, but only if we crossed from New South Wales before midnight. After that hour we’d be required to isolate at home for 2 weeks. By 2.15 we’d decided to leave. Kisses, hugs, sad looks, big squeezes with Ruby, whose eighth birthday celebrations have been twisted and shrunken beyond recognition. Nana and this household haven’t seen each other for fifteen months. During that time, all fear they’ll never see each other again. Covid, easily caught, kills old girls of ninety-four with diabetes. But no, Nana arrives in Sydney alive, she embraces her Sydney family, faces awash with tears. An intense forty six hours follow, rich with longing requited. Then Mister Andrews says come home quick. And we do. And somewhere two hours north of the Victorian border, a refugee with a full bladder jumps from a car and dislodges gifts chosen with love for Colin and Granny Nancy. The urinator races from urinal to vehicle and hurries south to beat the deadline. I’m hoping he or she crossed the border in time and – unquarantined, a Magus ungifted – spends a joyous Christmas with Cousin Colin and Granny.
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.