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)
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 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.
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.
My friend wrote from the sunshine state. How are you doing in the pariah state? When it’s the caller from the electricity company asking how I am, I know she is not interested, so I answer simply and briefly, I’m dying. But when a friend asks I pause to think. He’s asking because he cares. How am I doing? In general I look about me for clues. How are my loved ones? If they are suffering, I know it before enquiring. I know it bodily. My waking thoughts and my restless dreams ache with loving futility.
Well, friend in the sunshine, my firstborn is about to undergo major surgery. The surgery will disable her for a couple of months. She’ll deal with pain whenever she moves her shoulder girdle. Merely to brush her teeth will hurt intolerably. Do you wish to know more? She won’t be able to care for her children. A sole breadwinner, she’ll be unable to win her bread. How’s she doing through it all? She’s dealing with thoughts of disfigurement. She’s alarmed by stories of unbearable pain. But she reminds us, ‘I’ve got the cancer gene, but this surgery is not cancer; it prevents cancer.’
My other children? Number two child has been locked down since February. He’s working from home and he’s loving his household of women, who range down in age from his wife, to his newest, aged four months. He lives in the joy of watching his offspring bloom, and he chafes that he cannot share his loved ones. He’s the bridge between generations. He wants to share his little ones with his elders. He grieves for deprived grandparents, for a great grandmother in her extreme age (‘How many years has Nana left to enjoy, to know her little ones?’); for his siblings too. He knows his little ones are deprived. He’s a bridge and a virus has closed the bridge.
Number three lives in Sydney. Six months have passed since she last saw or touched a parent or a sibling. Six months in the life of a person permanently in exile from family. During those months she’s been diagnosed with cancer, undergone surgery, been cured. In a few weeks she’ll undergo the same cancer-preventing surgery as the firstborn.She subsists with a dozen face time calls a day, but the loving flesh, the warmth of presence, the sharing and the feeding (we celebrate her as a baker and a chef), these she aches for. And as we plan and we cancel plans, and we plan again, the novel virus comes between us. In short she suffers minor cruelties daily; she’ll suffer major surgical cruelties shortly and, God willing, she too will be saved from the genetic cancers that haunt our womenfolk. Overall, good friend, too much detail? I apologise. Our children are brave and loving and they fret for their parents. For us. Golly! Perhaps that was your question. Perhaps you really asked, How are YOU doing? Once again I look about me. I see my wife, a Jewish mother responding to threat by overcatering. Between working at home and trouncing me at Scrabble, and caring for her mother, she overfeeds me and she cooks and packs endless meals for loved ones all about. I feel cared for and loved. I feel safe.
But how am I? In myself? By temperament I tend to be cheerful, optimistic, sometimes vacuously so. But nowadays periods of gloom descend, circumambient fear visits me. My work sustains me with a rewarding sensation of being useful. I enjoy the glow of self-worth. I run a lot and I purge fear and gloom. And I drink plenty of strong coffee which transforms me into a cheery genius.It feels absurd to pity myself in a time when so many suffer so much worse. But if – as the Talmud asks – among the cedars the firestorm falls, what can avail the mosses of the wall? If happy howard is downcast, how much more suffer the cheerless many?
An close elderly Aussie friend and his Balinese partner sent me the following. They are trying to save her family from hunger.
My partner Wayan comes from a part of Bali that frankly, with the onslaught of Covid, has turned to shit for some. The north east area of Bali is generally not well off, suffering from a poorer soil and dryer climate which renders it unsuitable for rice production. Wayan’s home village of Siakin is fairly typical of others in that part with pockets of extreme poverty. And now, due to Covid, those pockets are suffering greatly. In particular those without family support, no land to grow food on or run chooks and especially some of the elderly, certainly those who are widows and some others who have lost employment and have no back up. They need a leg up. We’d like to help some from the village of Siakin and also a few from nearby, some of whom are quite isolated and very affected by the general lack of income in Bali at this time, their families working in Denpasar but with children to feed and travel back to the village curtailed anyway in a rigid lockdown. Using only Wayan’s immediate family as the driving force. One brother, Pak Nengah is principal of the local secondary school and is highly respected throughout Kintamani and the other brother Pak Nyoman works at the nearby primary school in Administration. Also Wayan’s son Putu, niece Mitha and three nephews, Gede, Amon and Kadek will assist with packing and deliveries. The plan is to distribute small and very basic parcels of food. Beginning with 36 souls and sending out 5kg of rice, packets of noodles, cooking oil and eggs. Other than food purchase, a little for petrol and the occasional Ute hire there are no other costs involved. Receipts are provided and other records kept of frequency, purchases, deliveries etc.
We’ll set up a separate bank account and that will be transferred as needed to Bali for supply purchases. We hope this scheme is needed only for the duration of the present emergency. So far we’ve seeded it and have now run short of funds to continue except in a small way. Understanding that this is a difficult time for most we ask that those who are able may forward a small donation to the bank account. BSB 733018 / account no. 644291. If able to help in a small way your kindness will have the gratitude of hungry people. Some recipients, after a surprise delivery, have been reduced to tears. We have requested photographs of those receiving to indicate the level of need. Here are a few. On behalf of the battlers of Siakin
I write to you from quarantine. My wife and I have been ordered to isolate ourselves.
Old friend, you and I are old. We have passed the threescore and ten years of the Psalmist. A short time ago we were heading confidently full steam ahead for one hundred. So we proposed. So life seemed to promise. But now, this virus.
Man proposes, Virus disposes. The virus has disposed of thousands. In Spain overnight, three hundred. Overnight in Italy, 800. I’ll write that more plainly. Three hundred persons. Eight hundred persons.At the start of the year all eleven hundred would have been steaming ahead. I imagine them looking confidently to the future as recently as the start of the month of March. By the close of the equinox all were dead. Few will be those who follow their caskets to their burial.
While going about my work in the past weeks I’ve found the most worried people have been those with the least to fear. Young parents have been terrified for their young children. Truly that suffering has been unnecessary. For most people younger than forty, COVID-19 is a milder illness than the ‘flu. I have heard of no deaths of children anywhere in the world. That should bring blessed relief, but although those facts are widely known, the fear for their young extinguishes parents’ peace of mind.
Curiously, we old ones need fear not so much for our young, as from them. The theory runs that children are unhygienic creatures that act as vectors for this novel virus (they certainly do that service for the influenza viruses), and they endanger and infect us older, more vulnerable subjects. That is why I am writing.
If you are over seventy, go inside now, close the door. Shun your children, ban the grandchildren. Ours is the age group in which most of those hundred of persons died. Ours is the sector at greatest risk of the pneumonia that fulminates and kills. Ours is the group who will not receive respirator treatment and Intensive Care when those services are rationed.
This is cautious advice that might later be seen to be over-cautious. As the W.H.O. Chief of the Ebola response advises, ‘Go early, go hard’ when it comes to responding to pandemic. There will be no second chances for us once we catch this catchiest of germs.
My wife and I passed a weekend of grotesque denial of the love between us and our grandchildren. Encounters were fleeting, spatial remoteness was enforced, no-one kissed, no-one cuddled. Time and again, puzzled children approached instinctively, loud voices repulsed them. Astonished, the children felt every instinct of love denied; and the deniers were precisely those wrinkled figures who ever doted and dandled. Suddenly loving behaviour was wrong.
My resolve wavered. My wife, the softest being in our family constellation, commanded austerity. One of my children has a newborn; we cannot visit, cannot cuddle, cannot relieve exhausted parents at 2.00 in any morning. Our daughters, both recovering from surgery, wait on us, rather than the reverse. The fibres of parenthood are warped and strained by fear of a new virus. And it is precisely those deprived adult children who direct us: go inside, stay inside, keep the world away. ‘‘We’d sooner miss out on you both for weeks or months than miss you forever.”
Old friend, I won’t be with you this Friday for lunch. We won’t see each other at the coffee shop in the mornings. Our house of worship is forbidden to us. Seeing each other as faces on a screen is a cold change after years, after decades of warm touch. I don’t know when we’ll be together in those old ways again. I reckon our best chance of those old pleasures again, some day on the far side of this fear and horror, is cold resolve today.
In times far, far darker than ours, Primo Levi called these, ‘moments of reprieve’. The Nazis set up the death camps as places where morality would be inverted. It was dangerous to be good. Every man for herself. We saw that here in the all-in toilet-paper wrestling.
But there’s a softening abroad, a gentling of human intercourse. We wash our hands today, not of each other, but for each other. Commerce has slowed, people have time, give each other time. Working here in the central business district of a great city, I find us breathing our minutes and our days as folk do in a country town.
In the foyer of a giant apartment building, in a far distant town, this notice appeared:
Its author is seven-year old Dash Unglik, of New York City.
My elder brother is six. He goes to school and I stay at home. I stand inside the front gate and wait for him at lunchtime. Our front gate is a loose mesh of plaited green wire. It’s not so much a barrier as a hint of private property. I stand inside the gate and wait.
Some merry schoolgirls approach, big kids of six or seven.
Hello little boy, says one. What’s your name.
Poke out your finger, little boy.
I poke my finger out through a gap in the gate..
Suddenly my fingertip hurts.
Ow! – I yell.
I catch a glimpse of a pin in the hand of the girl who told me to poke out my finger. The girls all laugh loudly.
The speaker finishes laughing and says again, Put out your finger, little boy.
No. You’ll hurt it again.
No I won’t. Put out your finger. Nothing bad will happen.
I poke out my finger.
It hurts again.
I start to cry as the girls laugh loudly again, and run down the street, past the Catholic Church, in the direction of the Courthouse.
Every afternoon we swim in the town pool which is filled with water from the irrigation channel in the street outside. The water is warm and brown but it tastes okay. There are lots of leeches in the canal, and plenty of them dine on our blood while we swim in the pool. We learn to catch them; there’s a simple technique which we master quickly.
What to do with a captured leech?
You find a bobby pin on the ground near the Girls’ Changerooms and you thread the leech onto the pin, inserting it in the leech’s back end. This turns the leech inside out.
What to do with an inside-out leech?
The walls of the change rooms are built of galvanized iron. Those tin sheds heat up considerably in the summer sun. You press the the everted body of the leech against the hot metal and its mucoid flesh quickly adheres and fries in the afternoon sun.
I don’t remember this, but Mum told me the story often enough:
When she brought her second son into the household, the firstborn, Dennis, loved his baby brother so much he piled all of his toys into the pram on top of the new baby.
I’ve seen a photo of that pram, a sizable conveyance constructed of wood panels and wheels as big as those you see on adult’s bike. The pram dwarfs my elder brother captured in the picture, standing next to it.
As Mum tells the story, Dennis would push the pram in the garden and it would overturn, spilling the baby brother Dennis so much loved onto the concrete path. I gather this happened more than once.
We travel from Leeton to Melbourne to observe the High Holydays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. We stay at my grandparents’ house, which is big and dark. It’s scary at night. The house has a downstairs and an upstairs.
A lady comes to the house to clean before the festivals, She hoovers the carpets with her noisy machine. Dennis and I sit on the top stair and watch the lady as she hoovers. Her name, we learn, is Mrs Briggs. One of us discovers Briggs rhymes with pigs.
Dennis and I create a chant:
MISSUS BRIGGS IS A PIGS
MISSUS BRIGGS IS A PIGS
The Hoovers sings loudly and we sing too. Mrs Briggs Hoovers on. Now she turns the machine off. She hears us as we sing:
MISSUS BRIGGS IS A PIGS
MISSUS BRIGGS IS A PIGS
Mrs Briggs appears highly annoyed. She tells us to stop.
Dennis and I sing on. Mrs Briggs grabs the straw broom and rushes up the stairs, waving the broom at us in a violent manner. We retreat and slam the door in her face.
We stand on the other side of the door, panting and palpitating. Soon we hear the sound of the Hoover.
Dennis and I emerge and resume our song.
A cat wanders into our garden. It’s a bit smaller than I am. I don’t know the cat. My hand reaches out and grasps the cat’s tail. My hand hoists the cat in the air.
The cat yowls.
I am not used to cat sounds. My hand now swings the cat and the yowling is a siren that follows the Doppler effect.
My mother emerges from the house. Seeing what her small son is doing, she says: Stop doing that, Howard. That’s cruel.
I stop doing that.
Mum goes inside.
My hand reaches out. It grasps the cat’s tail. The hand whirls the cat in a circle, round and around.
I heard Michael was a goatherd. I heard he was an ostrich farmer before that. Ostriches are tough, durable creatures, goats are the same. Michael’s country on the border between New South Wales and Queensland is hard and dry. Michael was tough and leathery and just as stubborn as his animals. I heard he’d visit a city with reluctance. Quickly restless in urban places, he’d be quick to flee. He spent half a day in Melbourne then bolted. Michael, I understood, was a character.
I learned the goat business wasn’t complicated: you’d drive a few hundred kilometres to relieve someone of their feral flock; you’d drive a good distance in another direction to buy another herd and you’d bring all the creatures back to his farm near the small town of Texas. Later you’d drive many more kilometres and sell the consolidated mob to someone who wanted to export them to Muslim countries to the north. So long as the selling price sufficiently exceeded the price of purchase that was a sound business. And, goats being droughtproof, Michael would survive through the long dry.
Doubtless there were goat traders somewhere in the city who used computers and create spreadsheets. Michael would scribble figures onto the back of an envelope; the back pocket of his work pants served as his filing system. It worked.
When I met Michael it was at his house in Texas, on a grassless property at the end of a dirt track that led from a narrow road that twisted and turned just inside New South Wales. He was a large man, older than I. When we first met, a smile as large as Texas wrapped itself around his face as his large hand wrapped itself around mine. He shook my hand gently as he looked down from his long and rangy frame. I don’t know what Michael saw but I suspect he’d made up his mind already: he was going to like me on account of my being a friend of his daughter. Twice a week that daughter’s landline would ring. One person only called on the landline, and that was her father. The voice would speak, always somehow astonished, always joyful;Hello beautiful! How are you going?It wasn’t hard to like Michael; everybody liked him. Or just about everybody. He carried himself with utter authenticity. He had no time for formality, no time for insect authority in the noisy flapping of its wings.
After a long epoch of rooflessness, Michael’s high house had only recently been reroofed. After the storm that tore off roof, the insurer was in no hurry. So Michael and his wife Lisa lived there for a year without a roof, waiting for the insurer to come good on the policy. I looked at the high house; you entered it at the top of a high staircase. I took a breath and climbed the stairs. Afterwards I reflected that climb demanded fluid joints and I misgave for Michael. I reckoned Michael’s old skeleton couldn’t possibly last in that house much longer. Likewise driving truck across the breadth of Queensland and New South Wales was surely beyond him. Better and safer to accept reality and stop driving altogether. But that would be the thinking of retirement inside the township, the thinking of a life spent indoors, life in a nice unit somewhere on a nice street that was paved, with new neighbours close. That was the thinking of a life that would be death, and Michael turned his back on it and kept on driving and buying and selling and climbing those stairs.
Years later I visited again. The stairs were just as high but Michael was not defeated. I met Elisa, a small woman from the Philippines whose will and durability were a match for Michael’s. Elisa and Michael managed to cater kosher for their new Jewish friend and Halal for the local doctor, a Muslim. I met their sons, a pair of pocket Hercules. The young men are body builders. Powerful bodies are all the go in Michael’s tribe.
Michael came down to Melbourne to watch his sons compete in a bodybuilding championship. I saw Michael breakfast at an outdoor table with his family around him and an old mate at his side. The mate was a rough scrubber, jovial withal. The men shared an enduring love for the bushman each saw in the other. They laughed over wild old times, wild days, wild nights. I looked at Michael and I saw Falstaff:
We have heard the chimesat midnight, master Shallow.
That we have, that we have, in faith John, we have… the days we have seen.
Bits of Michael’s body stopped working, important bits like his heart and his lungs and his kidneys. The local doctor, himself an individual tenacious in his faith, could recognise and respect another tenacious believer. He must have misgiven mightily as the goatherd kept on, regarding his body as he might regard his old truck: roadworthy or not, Michael would keep it on the road and keep on driving it. Late last year Michael bent to hitch a heavy steel trailer to his vehicle and something snapped in his spine. Unable to move, in agony, he took to his bed and endured. No, he would not go to hospital, certainly not in the capital, hundreds of kilometres distant. Bloody Brisbane? Be buggered!
Soon Michael was delirious with pain. In and out of consciousness he came to in a modern city hospital where every mode of doctor and specialist and every modality of imaging and investigation was brought to bear.All the king’s horses and all the king’s men…His descendants descended upon his sickbed from all parts and wept and prayed and wept, and looked to ever more doctors and ever-clever technology to – to do what? – to keep Michael alive? Amongst those closest to Michael the wiser ones saw what he would see. Love torments the lover; the lover must long for a recovery that she knows to fear.
Michael’s mind hovered, wavering between calm lucid periods and the opposite. In clear moments he’d hear a loved one reminisce upon a life lived on its own terms, a life hard and long. These were precious moments of calm understanding. After a time his mind stopped rebelling against his body and he inhabited a limbo, while all the time his family kept vigil. Days and nights, nights and days passed. All held their breath. At last Michael stopped breathing.
Almost a year has passed. A year in which my friend’s landline has not rung.In Texas – desolation; in all the places of their dispersion, among his loved ones, the silence weighs upon an emptiness. Michael was a big man.
I met Michael but a handful of times. I’d draw up and he’d smile hugely. Knowing him fleetingly, I experienced how deeply his character left its mark upon another. I saw his son-in-law, his grandsons, I saw how Michael’s being seized them, how they loved him, how character tells. How deeply they respect him still.