At This Point in Time

The Chief Cabin Attendant said, At this point in time please switch to Aeroplane Mode.

It was all good so I did.

He explained, At the end of the day it’s a matter of passenger safety.

Although it was morning here in Melbourne, it would certainly be the end of the day somewhere.

By evening, the Officer would be correct.

But the end of the day would be a quite different point in time. At the present time, I asked, should I switch off Aeroplane Mode?

It is what it is, he replied.

I thought about that. The ology appeared taut. I told the Officer I’d stick with Aeroplane Mode.

Awesome, he said. It’s all good, he said.

I thought about Coronavirus. I thought about Syria. I thought about drought and bushfires. 

I decided to stop thinking. 

I looked forward to the end of the day. At that point in time it would be bedtime.

The Cruelty of Children


 

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.

Howard.

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.

The cat yowls.

 

The floods, then the fires


 

 

The rains came, flooding, killing, killing.

Politicians flooded in, a rainbow appeared and the waters receded.

 

God sent Noah the rainbow sign…

 

 

But many forgot. It was easier to forget.

 

 

The fires came early

The fires burned and killed and burned on.

And the good people fought.

Good people were burned, good people died.

More fires started and more, and the land burned.

Politicians flooded in, having returned from holiday.

 

 

City skies filled with soot and smoke that yesterday were tree.

The nation felt sick. 

Many could not breathe.

People became angry. 

Anger smouldering, a national nausea.

We felt ashamed.

 

 

The National Day dawned, and we looked for a leader. All we could see were the signs:

 

 

God sent Noah the rainbow sign:

‘No more water –

The fire next time.’

 

 

 

Lady with a Suitcase

 

 

Wandering lost as usual in the supermarket, I become aware of a voice asking me: Did you touch my suitcase?

The voice is indignant. The speaker is a lady, aged perhaps in her early fifties, wearing a creation in a fruit-salad fabric that clings to her thin body.

I’m sorry, what did you ask me?

Don’t go near my suitcase!

The lady is pointing at something between the bags of rice and her ankles. Indeed there is a suitcase there. It’s on the further side of her. Her body stands in warrior pose, to protect it. I assure the lady I’ve been nowhere near her suitcase.

The lady speaks again: I said I’d have sex with him for two dollars.

She gazes at me, awaiting my response.

I am unsure how to reply.

The lady whirls, yanks her suitcase in a swift pirhouette, and steams away in the direction of the bananas.

 

My cheese costs eight dollars. Two dollars does not seem exorbitant.

 

The supermarket always confuses me.

My Brother Calls me an Agnostic

Brother: Tell me Howard, does God exist?

HG: Why ask me? Why would I know better than you?

Brother: But I don’t know. It’s a mystery.

HG: It is.

Brother: No No No. Not for you it’s not.

HG: Why not?

Brother: Hang on, Howard. I’m asking the questions here. You’re the religious one. Do you believe in God?

HG: A classmate in grade six wrote an essay that offended me. He said there’s no such thing as believe. Either you know or you don’t. I wasn’t ready for his rigour. But I can’t fault his position. Either you know something or you don’t.

Brother: Exactly. I don’t know. That’s why I’m asking you: Do you know?

HG: Sometimes.

Brother: Answer me. Do you know or don’t you?

HG: Both.

Brother: Don’t dodge the question.

HG: I’m not. Sometimes I do know.

Brother: And the rest of the time?

HG: Look, I am the victim of a scientific education. Nothing in science is proven. My education in science taught me Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle. Heisenberg was interested in knowability of the position of an electron, I seem to recall. I learned the difficulty in knowability of everything. You could say my position is uncertainty.

Brother: So you’re an agnostic.

HG: I don’t know.

Brother: I know why you’re dodging the question. As an observant Jew you’re embarrassed. I’ll ask you a different question, why do you pray?

HG: That’s easy. I need to.

Brother: Who do you pray to? When you don’t know if God exists?

HG: You mean whom.

Brother: Don’t dodge. Whom do you pray to?

HG: God.

Brother: That’s absurd, isn’t it? Talking to someone when you don’t know He’s there?

HG: I can tell you what I do believe in, all the time…

Brother: What?

HG: I believe in prayer.

Brother: That would be even more absurd, wouldn’t it? To pray to a being when you can’t say he exists; and to believe in prayer when you know prayers aren’t answered.

HG: What prayers aren’t answered?

Brother: When Dad was dying you prayed for him to be cured!

HG: Not exactly. I prayed for him to be healed. But I can explain what it is about prayer I believe in.

Brother: I don’t think I’m interested until you answer the big question.

HG: Humour me. I believe in prayer like I believe in breathing. I need to do it. I need to say thank You. I need to cry halleluya! I need to cry out in pain. I need to keep faith.

Brother: Keeping faith with a God whom – whom, notice – you don’t know exists!

HG: I do know sometimes.

Brother: That’s crazy. What happens to your other faith – I mean Science?

HG: Science actually means knowing. But it’s only one way of knowing.

Brother: Let me remind you, either you know or you don’t know. If you know, that must mean scientific knowing.

HG: Wrong! I know lots of things through my senses: I know hunger, thirst, pain. You certainly do too. You know when you’re randy.

Brother: That’s true.  But it’s not religious truth. That’s not absolute truth. God is absolute or He’s nothing.

HG: I do know an absolute. I know love.

Brother: What’s that got to do with it?

HG: Possibly everything. When I worked at a Catholic hospital a nun said to me, God is love. I didn’t get it. I asked her to explain. She repeated, God is love, and she left me to puzzle over it. I thought it sounded profound, but mysterious. That was nearly fifty years ago. It’s still a mystery to me. But I can tell you what you believe in.

Brother: What?

HG: Love. You love your children.

Brother: You’re twisting words. You and your nun. If you believed in love as God, you’d worship love. You’d pray to it. You’d personify it. But you’re actually an agnostic. Probably a Godfearing agnostic.

 

HG: Fair enough. There is another angle on love and God. It’s in Les Mis: To love another person is to see the face of God.  Too banal for you? Let me tell you how I do know God is real.

Brother: How?

HG: I visited The Breakaway at Coober Pedy.

Brother: So?

HG: I stood there in that desert immensity. Silence. Vast emptiness. And the still soft voice that spoke without sound.

Brother: And God?

HG: I stood in creation and I knew the Creator.

Brother: Very nice. But unconvincing.

HG: I’m not trying to convince you. I’m searching on my own behalf. But I know you’ve stood in immensity and been overwhelmed.

Brother: When? Where?

HG: In Yosemite. At the foot of El Capitan. We stood there together, with Dad. The universe spoke to us all, no words, no sound, but a state of inspiration.

Brother: I didn’t see God there. Feeling overwhelmed, feeling uplifted like that, that’s not knowing. That’s something distinct from knowing.

HG: It is knowing, you just don’t recognise it. Let me tell you of your knowing that you don’t know to be knowing. Deep knowing, incontrovertible knowing, beyond argument, beyond doubt.

Brother: I’m all ears.

HG: When you listen to music, when you know its beauty is truth, when that knowing clinches in your being. Sometimes I know God like that.

Brother: You’re twisting again. You don’t now whether God exists. You’re an agnostic.

HG: You think you know that. Hold on to it as an article of faith if it helps you. But would you like to know why I pray when I’m in a non-knowing state?

Brother: Tell me.     

HG: When faith eludes me, I pray to keep faith. I keep faith with Dad. I keep faith with his father, with all the fathers – and with the mothers – who’ve prayed.

Brother: Perhaps your prayers are a request to God to please be.

HG: If God exists, that is The Great Fact. I can’t think of anything more prudent than praying to cover that possibility. But that’s not why I do it. I do it because I love it. It’s the marriage of words to existence.

Brother: What?  

Helen from Danzig

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Uncle David hanged himself.

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

in her sea of sorrow.

Letters to Mr Wilson

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.

OK Saba.

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:

 

Hey Wilson!

 

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: 

 

Exhiliration is 

The going out

Of an inland soul

To Sea 

 

 

Emily’s right.

 

 

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:

 https://howardgoldenberg.com/2015/07/10/and-the-two-walked-together/