Dead Girl Comes Home


The Director of Nursing smiles and shakes my hand in welcome. She’s younger than I, taller and wider. I’m drawn to her bucktoothed grin and her informal look. ‘You’ve arrived at a sensitive time’, she says. ‘The body of a young woman who died a few months ago returned on the same plane as yours. She was very young, eighteen years, and she died here, suddenly, of unsuspected heart disease. It was a coroner’s case of course. Now she’s back, the community will all view the body this afternoon. Some here – only a few – blame the hospital. Best keep well clear of the mortuary today.’ The boss sweeps her hand, indicating the morgue. It stands directly on the path between my quarters and the hospital. On arrival I noted with distaste the sturdy steel mesh that encloses the doctors’ house. Protection of that order speaks of past violence.

 

 

 

***

 

 

I start work in Emergency. ‘Hello, my name’s Howard. What’s yours?’

The woman looks up from her phone. She gives me that information without warmth.

‘How can I help you?’

‘He’s sick.’ The woman indicates the chubby baby stretched out on her shoulder, asleep.

I ask for details.

‘He’s been sick for a week, coughing.’

I touch the child. His face burns.

I lift the shirt: the round tummy rises and falls fast, with rib muscles sucked in with every inbreath.

 

 

Nurses attach a metallic clasp to a little finger. Numbers appear on a screen: his oxygen saturation is normal at 98 percent, but he’s working hard to maintain it.

‘Has he been drinking normally today?’

‘What?’ – head bent over the phone.

‘Has he taken fluids normally?’

‘Not much.’

‘Can you give me an idea how much?’

‘He doesn’t want to drink.’ – defiantly.

‘Has he had any medicine for the fever?’

A shrug: ‘We ran out.’

‘Has he wet nappies normally today?

I suppose so – somewhat grumpily, as if questions were accusations.

I ask a nurse to give the baby some Panadol.

I pull out my stethoscope and retreat to the baby’s chest. I can’t hear much, none of the squeaking or rattling that might give answers.

 

 

I draw a breath.

More figures appear on the screen.  The baby – I learn from his chart his name’s Oscar and he’s fifteen months old – breathes too fast and his heart is beating too fast. I don’t know how long he’s battled like this or how long he can keep it up. And I don’t know what’s wrong. I don’t have enough information. Oscar and I have been together for fifteen minutes and I’ve haven’t heard a cough. A cough itself would be information. Mother is a woman in her thirties. Her manner is combative, she doesn’t waste her smiles, she’s thrifty with eye contact.

 

 

‘Has Oscar ever had breathing problems before?’

‘What?’

‘Has he ever been treated for bronchiolitis? Or croup?’

‘He always gets bronchiolitis. He was flown out just a month ago. Still not better.’

‘Flown out’ would have been to the regional hospital, six hours drive and eight thousand dollars’ flight away. If this is bronchiolitis again, why can’t I hear the fine rustling crepitations in his chest? I decide to treat Oscar with a steroid, which can be helpful in his age group. But the steroid won’t work quickly and Oscar needs help now. We set up an asthma pump to deliver a mist of molecules that might open up narrowed breathing tubes.

 

 

We apply a mask to Oscar’s face.

‘No!’ – says Mum, pulling it away – ‘He doesn’t like it.’

Instead Oscar’s mother holds the mask at a close remove. The mist drifts to his face and he breathes surrounded by a white cloud of medicated mist that drifts uselessly away.

 

 

 

At this distance any benefit he’ll receive will vary inversely as the square of the distance between mask and face. In other words, the treatment is sabotaged and I’m worried. I know this, but to share this knowledge will require a collision of wills, a struggle for authority. Wondering what experience with doctors or hospitals has created Oscar’s mother’s mistrust, I apply the stethoscope again. This time I’m able to hear sounds, moist sounds at the base of Oscar’s left lung. We have an answer: Oscar has pneumonia, dangerous enough in any person, especially so in an Aboriginal child. I order a powerful antibiotic.

 

 

An hour passes, two, and Oscar’s breathing remains fast. But his temperature has fallen and his racing heart has slowed. We give him some formula and he drinks it greedily.

I ask Mum would she like a cup of tea.

‘What?’ She looks up from the phone. She’s been playing Patience.

She takes the drink from my hand without words. Oscar remains in his perch, sitting up now and looking around. His hair is dark and wavy, quite beautiful. He has the face of a cherub. But still his chest heaves as he breathes.

 

 

The hour is late in the Emergency Department. Baby Oscar sleeps on his mother.

‘I think we should keep you both in hospital until Oscar’s better.’

‘You said he was better an hour ago.’

‘Yes, he is better than he was, but he’s still not breathing easily.’

‘Why didn’t you say so an hour ago?’

A sigh escapes my pursed lips.

Mother accepts our hospitality.

 

 

Next morning I’m in the ward checking on Oscar at 6.00. He sleeps and he breathes, lying in the arc of his mother who enfolds him in her sleep. It’s a comforting sight.

 

 

I return at 10.00. Both mother and infant sleep on.

 

 

At noon mother is up and restless: ‘We’re going home now.’

Oscar sits astride their bed, his face buried in a Vegemite sandwich, an upturned bottle, drained of formula, rests on the bed beside him. Before him on a dish lie the remains of mince and mashed potato. I gather from the cutlery these were his mother’s lunch.

 

Eating well and drinking well are unspoken testimony. You can’t suck and swallow, chew and swallow, if you’re a baby and you’re too short of breath. Oscar’s temperature and oxygen levels and heart rate have remained normal and stable. But he still breathes fast and still I hear the rustling sound of air moving through infected mucus.

 

 

‘We need to wait for an x-ray’, I say.

‘When will that be?’

‘At 3.00’.

‘Why not now?’ – belligerently.

‘The x-ray person won’t be here until then’ – placatingly.

 

 

 

At 3.00 the chest x-ray shows opacity where mucus is filling a corner of the lungfield. I show the film to Oscar’s mother: ‘Germs have got into Oscar’s chest there. We’re giving him antibiotics by mouth to kill those germs. He’ll need that medicine twice a day for five days, maybe longer. His next dose is due at 7.00 this evening’.

‘We’re going home.’

‘We can’t make you stay here, but if you go, please be sure to give Oscar his medicine at seven tonight and seven in the morning. It’s very important.’

 

 

It occurs to me I haven’t seen Oscar’s mother give him Panadol or his antibiotic. She hasn’t given him bottles or changed a nappy. She stands back and nurses act. This is a mother who has waged war on the nurses who care for Oscar, and against the doctor. Clearly militant towards us, she keeps herself distant from him. Do we make her feel self-conscious? Does she lack confidence? A clever nurse asks, ‘Would you like us to give the medicine this evening?’

Mother nods. She’ll leave the medicine with us for safekeeping.

 

 

 

Seven o’clock comes, but no mother, no Oscar.

At 7.00 next morning, no show. We don’t know Oscar’s whereabouts. His medicine remains uselessly here with us.
We phone mother’s mobile, but there’s no answer.

No answer that evening, none the next morning.

 

 

A nurse asks me, ‘Do you think Oscar is at risk?’

‘I do.’

As I speak these words I know what they mean. From the time of Oscar’s first, belated arrival three evenings ago I’ve felt a heaviness, a sinking. In advance of any decision I might make, I’ve felt a self-accusation. It falls to me to make Oscar safe, and the legal means is to refer the family to Child Protection. Child Protection is, of course, a heavy instrument and a blunt one. Child protection is the present incarnation of State, the lineal descendant of governments that stole children ‘for their own good.’ That same state massacred people in this district during the 19th and 20th centuries. There’s a weight of history here. Additionally, I realise I don’t like Oscar’s mother. I know those are the reasons I’ve delayed taking action.

 

 

I tuck a note beneath the door of my bucktoothed boss: I’m worried about Oscar. I don’t think he’s safe. Can we talk about local resources to help his family? Some informal arrangement?

 

 

I return home and prepare for the day, the second-last of this week-long locum placement. Around mid-morning I come across Oscar and his mother in the waiting area. The Police have located her and asked her to come in. I see Mother before she sees me. She’s talking on her phone, while Oscar toddles at free range. I note he’s managing to walk without gasping.

 

 

 

I stand before Oscar’s mother, waiting for her conversation to finish. She looks up and continues talking. I stand quietly for some minutes while the conversation continues. From time to time Mother’s eyes registers me in her face. She speaks to her interlocutor: ‘OK, see you later.’

My turn to speak: ‘Hello, it’s good to see you both.’

A stare, no response.

‘How’s Oscar today?’

‘Alright. He’s still coughing.’

I examine Oscar. He is indeed alright. He’s not hot, his breathing is comfortable and the moist sounds of his pneumonia are quieter.

‘Oscar’s much better, isn’t he?’

‘That’s what I said.’

‘Have you given him his antibiotic medicine this morning?’

‘No. How could I? You had it here.’

‘That’s a worry. We’ve been worried about Oscar. He’s missed all his treatments. That’s not safe.’

‘He’s better. You said so yourself.’

‘Yes, he is better. That’s good… You know we couldn’t find you. We had to send the Police.’

‘No you never. He’s been safe with me.’

‘I’m really happy to see how much better he is. But you promised to bring him back two nights ago and you didn’t.’

‘Not my fault… Family things.’

While a nurse gives Oscar his antibiotic, mother returns to her phone.

 

 

 

The Director of Nursing describes an informal service in the community which provides support to families. A nurse shows parents how to give medicines and how to use a thermometer. The nurse visits in the days after discharge from hospital, and contacts the family every week to chat and quietly keep an eye on a child’s wellbeing.

 

 

 

I like the sound of support and tactful surveillance. I look past the Boss and out her window, out towards the mortuary. The girl who arrived back here when I did, one week ago, died of unsuspected heart disease. Her sorry business continues. The hospital didn’t know how ill she was, the community nurse didn’t know, social supports never knew. My mind comes back to Oscar. He’s making a remarkable recovery on the strength of a single dose of antibiotic, but he’s not yet cured. He’ll need a further X-ray, he’ll need to see specialists at the regional hospital, he’ll need lung scans and breathing tests. He’s likely to need close medical surveillance through his childhood, possibly life-long.

 

 

I make my decision. I return to my office and call Child Protection. We speak for a long time. I complete the forms and return to Oscar and his mother.  She’s engaged with the phone. I reckon she’s spent most of our numerous hours together face-down and screen-bent. The face rises to me, tightly closed. I speak: ‘I’ve been thinking about Oscar and how to make sure he gets better and he stays better. I think it’s too hard for you and us together to keep him safe. We need help so I’ve notified Child Protection.’

Mother sits up straight: ‘What?’

‘I told them he has breathing problems and it’s too hard for his family to keep him safe without help.’

Mother looks shocked. She summons strength, looks defiant: I’ll talk to Child protection. Don’t you worry. I’ll tell them.’

Her long hard stare seems intended to threaten.



It’s time for me to leave the hospital. I’ll only just manage to catch the plane out. Before we part, I need to join with Oscar’s mother. I tell her my simple truth: ‘You and I want the same thing for Oscar: we both want him to be healthy.’ My simple truth leaves no impression on the wrathful mother. I leave and I fly away, and I cannot know whether I have done Oscar good or ill. 

Agonists

“A physicist is made of atoms. a physicist is an atom’s way of knowing about atoms.”

George Wald, scientist and Nobel laureate wrote this.

The quote crossed my screen today, buried inside my daily bulletin from Wordsmith.com

If you like to get drunk on words you’re likely to find pleasure in that site. I do.

So What?

So what? I mean what’s the big deal? Another marathon (my fifty-fifth), another marathon story: to the reader, yet one more story about the same tedious event, meaningless, surely. But to me, runner and recorder of fifty-five runs? That I bother obsessively to count them suggests they count for something, if only to me.

 

 

 

Thirty years ago, Helena Mann, the elderly mother-in-law of my sister, challenged me: Howard, this marathon running you do, it is disordered somehow.  

Helena survived Belsen and emerged without hatred. I held her in the highest esteem. Her words had a weight and a heft and I thought on them and I think on them still.  And yet, and yet, there’s that fugitive line from Malamud’s ‘The Fixer’…

 

 

 

 

It all starts in the year 1954 in the small town of Leeton, New South Wales, where a small boy reads the story of Pheidippides, an ancient Athenian who ran long distances in the service of his countrymen and died in their service with the word “Joy” on his lips. The boy reads and absorbs the story of lonely endurance, of courage and glorious death. The boy is transfixed, transformed and inspired. 

 

 

 

The boy realises these storied events took place a long, long time ago. That boy, raised on Bible stories, lives fully in stories, untroubled by the small matter of antiquity. It never occurs to the boy the story might not be History but myth. If it had occurred to him, knowing already how a story can be true without being factual, he’d still be moved. For him all story is formative. The story of the runner crystallises within the boy. Thirty years after reading the tale he enters a marathon in Traralgon. He completes the entry form: Family Name: Goldenberg. First name: Pheidippides. He declares the admixture of solid fact and true romance which is his identity.

 

 

 

From the first, the runner sees the marathon as the field of heroes. There’s a majesty, a grandeur to the event. Blessed in the spirit, cursed in the flesh by history, a marathon is apotheosis, the elevation of the pedestrian to the immortal. But Traralgon, this small town, where cows graze in the shade of the chimneys of doom? An unlikely location, surely, for the heroic.  But Pheidippides is old enough to remember Derek Clayton, the Aussie marathoner who ran the 1969 Fukuoka Marathon in 2 hours and nine minutes, the first in the world to beat two hours and ten minutes. As the world hails Kipchoge today for beating two hours, Clayton astonished the world for smashing the barrier of the day. Just one year later he ran Traralgon, setting a local record time, a record that still stands at the time of writing. 

 

 

 

Pheidippides Goldenberg has long known the glory. By the year 1956 he has been translated from his country town to Oakleigh, in the mystifying metropolis of Melbourne. Here heroes run past the bottom of his street. Those heroes include Emil Zatopek, perhaps the greatest distance runner of modern times. At the Start of the Olympic Marathon, Zatopek, now past his best, addresses his peers: Men, today we die a little. By the time Zatopek passes Atkinson Street in Oakleigh, he’s trailing the leaders. The boy sights the champion, leaps into the field and runs at the side of his hero. Fifty yards on the boy declares the race a tie and he leaves Emil to complete the distance. 

 

 

 

On this warm day the heat will defeat many of the proven great; these will drop out, but Zatopek will not. He’ll finish in sixth place, utterly vanquished but hailed at the Line by the crowd. Alain Mimoun of France, thrice beaten by Zatopek for gold, has today triumphed. He seeks out Zatopek at the finish to salute him. Bodies of men who have died a little are animated by an elevated spirit that does not escape the boy.

 

 

 

And so it is in the year 1980, in Traralgon, of one hundred and eighty-one runners who enter the marathon, one hundred and forty-one finish. Listed 141st is Pheidippides Goldenberg, who preserves the printout of the results. That marathon in Traralgon is a mighty struggle, which is, of course, the point. Early in the event Pheidippides runs far too fast. At 32 kilometres he hits the Wall. There remain a further ten and the runner learns the hard truth that 32K is just half the race in spiritual terms.

 

 

 

 

 At this point, all energy spent, Pheidippides’ right calf is struck by a mighty cramp. He cannot run a single step. He turns around and tries running backwards. Now the quadriceps muscles at the front of the thigh seize each other, a quartet of muscle shrieking in pain. Pheidippides cannot run a backward step. He stops and walks and gives thanks.

 

 

 

Traralgon is a midwinter event. By 4.00 PM, the shadows lengthen, the day chills, no runners are in sight. An ambulance approaches, slows, and a concerned voice asks the walker who earlier was a runner if he’s alright. He says he is. The voice asks, Would you like a blanket? Somehow this makes the runner laugh. Reassured, the ambos drive on, but they circle and at intervals they return.

 

 

 

A long time later the walker sights the Traralgon Football Ground. He has to complete only a single circuit of the oval, then he can cross the Line and finish. He tests the calf with a diffident jog; no complaint. He breaks into a shuffling run. Half way around the oval, movement on his left disturbs his reverie; appalled, he sees a crowd  emerging from the footy clubhouse. More and more people, one hundred and forty finishers, together with all the non-finishers, and all their spouses and children and all the volunteers, gather on the verandah to witness the runner’s mortification. Now the hundreds begin to clap. Cheering breaks out, the applause grows louder. Pheidippides crosses the line. He weeps, all shame washed away, never to return. 

 

 

 

More marathons follow, all following the same pattern. In Alice Springs (nine times), in the Gold Coast (thrice), in New York (five times), in Boston (five times), in the Melbourne Marathon (eighteen or so), back in Traralgon (about nine more), in Malta, at the World’s Veteran Games, in the Sydney Marathon – in all these marathons, Pheidippides, enters, suffers, is humbled, manages to finish and feels enormously pleased with himself. Here he has overcome deep fatigue, here injury, there undertraining, the next time overtraining; in his first Boston he experiences hypoglycaemia, becoming deranged with hypomania; in a later Boston he evades the bombs; in Sydney he survives a viral infection; once in Boston and once in Melbourne, he runs underdressed, becomes quickly chilled, then soaked, then lashed by winds that afflict him further in his hypothermic misery. In crisis after crisis, Pheidippides says to himself, this is foolishness. I won’t do this again.

 

 

 

 

The worse the ordeal, the richer the laurels. His very mediocrity feeds Pheidippides’ vanity. Here he is, one who has conquered adversity, one who has conquered himself. In all the high regard in which he holds his true heroes – the Australians De Castella, Monaghetti, Clayton; Juma Ikaanga of Tanzania; Gelindo Bordin of Tuscany, Zatopek himself, and the original Pheidippides of Marathon Field – every time he crosses the Line, the boy from Leeton feels himself as one with these greats. And he writes a chapter in his own legend.

 

 

 

 

In July 2019 in Broome, on the pink sands of Cable Beach something changes: Pheidippides starts to run, he continues to run, he keeps on running, he reaches the Line and he finishes. No agony, no crisis, no ‘Wall’, no wrestling with doubt. The element of struggle absent, what story can there be to record? Instead he feels simple joy, unalloyed, sustained through the forty-two kilometres. He recalls the first Pheidippides who finished with joy on his lips.

 

 

 

A couple of months pass. Back home in Melbourne, October approaches and Pheidippides realizes he hasn’t registered for the local event, Australia’s biggest marathon. In truth he’s never loved the Melbourne Marathon. He lives in that city, it holds the concrete reality of his rich life but it glows with none of the unreality that enhances his magical sites – Boston, Alice Springs, Malta, Athens. Melbourne is ordinary, and in the marathon Pheidippides looks for the sublime. So no, he won’t enter Melbourne this year. As if to solidify his resolution, he doesn’t train.   

 

 

 

 

But then he remembers Manny. Long before Manny Karageorgiou became Pheidippides’ friend he was a celebrated marathoner. He was one of the very few who ran the first Melbourne Marathon and every one that followed. By the time he ran his fortieth and final Melbourne in 2017, Manny was one of the eight Official Legends. Manny paid a high price for his devotion to the event. Proudly Greek, he dreamed long of running the Athens Marathon, but it clashed with Melbourne and Manny would not grant himself leave from the event he helped to found. He would not forsake his seven peers.

 

 

 

 

In 2014 Manny developed sore ribs. X-rays showed why his bones hurt: they were invaded by cancer.  Manny subjected himself to quite hideous chemotherapy, arising between treatments in hospital to train and to run Melbourne. In those years Pheidippides, his doctor, ran at Manny’s side. Through 2017, Manny had scarcely left hospital. Training was impossible. Came October, and Manny joined the Legends at the Start. He wouldn’t run but he’d walk as far as he could. Who knew, perhaps he’d even finish. So Manny set out, his devoted son at his side, relatives and friends and Pheidippides in his shadow. Some in the crowd hailed him, they knew him, they knew his legend. At four kilometres Manny’s foot caught the edge of a tramline and he fell heavily. At length he managed to get to his feet, blood oozing from his grazed face and his skinned shoulder and knee. Medics crowded around him, but Manny waved them away and walked on.

The medics were troubled: Let’s dress those injuries, sir…

I’m alright, said Manny.

You don’t look alright, mate.

Manny’s doctor cut in: He’ll be okay.

But he wasn’t. A kilometer further on, standing in the crowd at the roadside, Manny’s wife Demitra sighted him. She strode into the field and enfolded him and led him away. 

 

 

 

 

Manny died not many months later. In 2018 his son, Pana, ran Athens in his father’s honour. In 2019 Pheidippides Goldenberg entered the event and ran in memory and celebration of the man who embodied the spirit of the ancient Pheidippides. 

 

 

 

 

In Vienna the previous day a modest Kenyan named Eliud Kipchoge completed the marathon distance under the two-hour barrier that sports scientists regarded as impregnable. After his run he predicted greater things for his species: No human being is limited, he said: I’m expecting more people to do it after me. He went on to speak of building peace in the world. If one person could break two hours, what might we do collectively?

 

 

 

 

In Melbourne, on his way to a staggeringly slow finish, Pheidippides recalled Helena Mann: this is your answer, Helena. This ‘disordered’ marathon business is small, like all our human effort. Ultimately it is meaningless, of course. But look, see among us, how the human spirit flickers but burns on.

 

 

 

And as he ran, he remembered those lines from Malamud’s ‘Fixer’: I am a man. That is not very much. But it is a great deal more than nothing.

 

 

 

 

***

 

 

 

 

There was a second who ran that day in Melbourne, a boy who escorted his Saba over the final eight kilometres of the course. The boy had been with Pheidippides at Traralgon. He’d seen the agony of that day, he’d felt the glory, he hungered to have it for himself. He said, I’m going to run marathons. I’m going to run marathons with you, Saba.

By the time you’re old enough to run a whole marathon, darling, I might be deadybones.

You’ll never be deadybones, Saba.

Everybody dies, darling.

You won’t Saba. I won’t let you. I love you Saba.  

 

 

Character


 

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 chimes at 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.

 

 

Solving an Ancient Problem

The grandson arrives and heads straight to the kitchen. He takes a pear and bites great chunks from it. Then he puts it down. It is not like him to stop in mid-pear.

Minutes later he slumps onto the couch, where he lies, squirming from time to time. He rises, approaches and says:Saba, my stomach feels awful.

Is it sore, darling?

No, just awful*. It feels like a washing machine.

He clutches his belly and groans: It feels like when you’ve been sent to the Headmaster’s office and you’re waiting there, expecting something bad… My stomach is in turmoil.

 

Nice word selection, thinks I, pretty good for a 14-year old.

 

He leaps to his feet and runs to the toilet.

 

Not long after, he returns. I did a monster poo* – all water. What’s wrong with me, Saba?

I examine his abdomen. I say he probably has a stomach bug.

 

He races away again, returns and repeats his earlier announcement. Shortly after he runs, returns and describes his work.

Do you feel better, after you’ve been to the toilet, darling?

 

There is no answer. I look over to the couch, where he sits, slouching, head bent towards his lap.

I turn to attend to kitchen tasks, when a strangled sound disturbs me. The boy’s voice crosses the room, indistinct: Saba

I turn, seeing nothing new.

More gargling, then: Saba, I vomited.

Between the boy’s feet, atop the Persian rug, a heap of hot vegetal matter lies steaming.

I’m sorry Saba. I’m… 

More gargling, and the heap is larger.

 

 

The boy looks stricken. I give him a bowl to catch any third helping, clean him and take him to bed. I lay a towel at his lap and the bowl before him. His face creases as he searches for words as strong as his feeling: Thank you Saba. I love you Saba. 

 

The Persian rug lies there and stares at me. What do you do when your Isfahan rug has suffered such a colourful assault?

 

 I lug it to the bathroom and give it a shower. The rug lies drenched on the floor and stares at me. What do you do when your rug has been for a swim?

 

I lug it to the wall-mounted heated towel rail and manage to fold and hang it in place. 

 

I look into the shower recess. A vegan’s banquet stares back at me. I wonder what my wife will say when she enters to take her shower in the morning.

 

 

How do you remove freshly laundered gastric contents from a shower recess? I squat and stare. Everything seems so rich in texture. My fingers recoil. Kleenex tissues are not squeamish. They do not suffer aesthetic stress. I mop and aggregate. Then I stop. What is that black lump? Has the boy eaten eggplant? Black olive?

 

I look closer. The black bit assumes a familiar shape. It looks like a cockroach.

 

I call the boy’s name: Come! Come quickly. Bring your phone.

Why Saba? I’m in bed. I feel terrible.

Please come. Bring your phone.

 

He comes. He sees and he turns away. I don’t want to see that, Saba.

I take his phone and photograph the black matter. 

The boy says, That’s gross Saba. You don’t photograph vomit.

I say, Look at the black thing.

The boy looks and turns quickly away.

I say, It’s a cockroach.

This is not a time for joking, Saba.

I show him the photo.

His face falls open: No! That didn’t come out of me, Saba!

I say, That vomit isn’t mine.

The boy gulps. He looks horrified. He says, is that the bug I had inside my stomach? I had a cockerroach** inside me?

 

I say to him, Darling, next time you eat an insect, make sure it’s cooked properly.

I wouldn’t eat a cockerroach, Saba. They disgust me.

Well you did eat it darling. After all, you do eat boogers. It might have been an accident…

 

A thought occurs to me: Have you eaten any food your eldest brother prepared for you in the last twenty-four hours?

What are you talking about, Saba?

Darling, twice in the last month you’ve drunk a cup of tea he brought you. Twice he piddled into it and twice you drank it.

 

 

A worried look settles on the boy’s face. He thinks for a few moments: No, Saba, I definitely didn’t eat anything he gave me. He slept out last night and I haven’t seen him today.

 

 

And there the matter lies. The child has no knowledge of ingesting an arthropod. But he has, by accident, solved a question as old as human-cockroach cohabitation. The small black beasts have lived among us since we arrived on the planet. And we know they’d survive a nuclear war that would wipe out us human hosts. The question, how do you kill a cockroach, has been answered at last by my grandson.


______________________________________________________________________
* This is not a verbatim quote: the boy used a vulgar expression.

** The boy is an Hispanophone. Here his father’s Spanish, (cucaracha) collides with his mother’s English. Disgusting in any language. 
______________________________________________________________________

 

 

 

Dennis, Twelve Years On


 

I remember you today, Den, with the candle burning and with the prayers of mourning.

I remember you in our boyhood home in Leeton, where a life of risk called you always, and you’d drag me and I’d follow, with terror and tremor and delight. I remember you taking me into Dad’s Surgery, that forbidden room, where the ever-present smell of anaesthetic ether warned a boy of the consequences that would follow. You found Dad’s blood pressure machine and you showed me how you could squeeze the rubber bulb and inflate the bladder. You kept showing me, squeezing, pumping, and the mercury climbed above 200, 250, 290, until the bladder burst, and liquid mercury ran everywhere.

 

 

When you were eight you decided we should pay a visit on Miss Paull, my teacher, Leeton’s aristocrat, in her residence at the Hydro Hotel. I followed you up the long hill. I followed you up the sweeping drive. Bold as brass, you announced to the man in the black suit, who opened the door, ‘We have come to visit Mis Paull’, and the man showed us in, and Miss Paull emerged, all white and willowy and English, and she said, ‘Good morning Dennis, good morning Howard, how utterly delightful that you should come. Please join me for morning tea.’ And the man in the black suit sat us down and spread white linen squares over our laps, and I was in heaven, nearly wetting myself in excitement. On the way out you heeded the call of your own bladder and you peed on the Hydro’s flowerbeds.

 

I sit and I remember you, my big brother, how you protected me when we were small. I remember, when I was fourteen, Dad summoning me to the forbidden room and sitting me down for a serious talk. The tremors again, but this time I wasn’t in trouble. Dad said, Dennis doesn’t have as easy a path in life as yours. 

I didn’t want to hear this because I knew it to be true.

Dad continued: I want you to help him. My heart sank.

 

I did try, Den, but I lacked your boldness. When I saw other children bullying you I died twice. Others, children and adults and old people, loved you and cherished you, for the beauty of your soul, for your generosity.

 

You loved music with the abundance and the zest of all your loving. I remember you in ICU, in the room of your dying, and you lying there in your coma. Annette, your sister in law, played a Mozart CD for you, and you lifted your arms and you started to conduct. I hope that beauty stayed with you as you slipped away, Dennis.

 

 

It’s the 18th day of the month of Ellul, Den. I remember you and I miss you.

 

Early Spring

The date comes up on his screen, September five. Instantly he sees a round face, lightly freckled. Her wavy hair is light brown.

He’s known her two brothers for years and her two elder sisters, both of them young ladies in their late teens. But this is the first summer  he and she have noticed each other: she’s 11 years old and he’s fourteen. While the slow afternoons make everyone else drowsy, the two go for walks to nowhere in particular. They talk comfortably about their mums and dads  and their brothers and sisters. They both come from large families and there’s lots to tell. Last week it was his birthday. Hers is in spring. One afternoon they find themselves at the far end of the island. There in the long grass they sit. Something tells him to move closer. He kisses her. Soon after they walk back to their families on their neighbouring boats.

 

The next afternoon he looks for her, but she and her mum have gone shopping in town on the further shore.

He doesn’t find her the next day either.

On the third day her elder sister says she went back to Geelong with Dad to buy her schoolbooks. He confesses to the elder sister he’s missing her. Her response surprises him:  Sometimes a young girl can feel confused if she has feelings she’s never felt before. It can scare her.

 

Summer ends and they don’t meet again. Most years he thinks of her on September five.

 

He’s about sixty when he buys a book by John Marsden. Its title is ‘This I Believe’. In it he reads the credos of one hundred eminent Australians. One essay is written by a woman shortly before she dies, too young, of breast cancer. A companion essay is written by her eminent daughter. He doesn’t recognise the surnames of the two women. The essays move him. He notes the dates of birth and death of the  mother. She has been dead now for some years.

 

Every year, on September five, he thinks of her.