SUMMER STORIES, III   The Fruit of the Vine

Here I am, alone among the thirty thousand-odd residents of Broome, the sole shomer shabbat*. For this evening’s sabbath meal I have challah, (the delicious plaited loaves of brioche), I have candles, I have cooked a delicious meal for four, (which I’ll eat unaided). But something’s lacking, the kosher grape juice for kiddush. I left it in the city and here in Broome neither Woollies nor Coles stocks kosher supplies. But they do sell grapes.  

 

 

No problem. Buy grapes, squeeze grapes, chant the kiddush, drink juice! I purchase green grapes, sweet and tasty; and purple grapes, great bursting spheres, less sweet but full of character. I’ll include both and create a rose. My technique will be the ancient one: crush the grapes underfoot in the old-fashioned way, with but a single variation: to create a tinea-free beverage, enclose grapes in a sealable bag, zip it locked, drop bag into a steel bowl and trample. Simple, yes? No. These grapes are tough. They’re putting up a fight. After a good deal of trampling I haven’t burst a single one. There they lie, those green pearls, gleaming insolently up at me. I tramp harder, engaging my heels now. No good. Intact still, my green foe lies unjuiced, defiant, at my feet.

 

 

It’s personal now. 

 

 

I try my luck with the purple. Those spheres, their skins looking stretched to breaking, should be easily persuaded. But no, stubborn atheists these, like their cousins in green. I clench a fist and regard its hard, cruel bones. I hoist the footbowl, place it on a bench top, rest my knuckles on the plastic bag and lean down hard. Something gives. Encouraged, I push down harder. More movement, a slipping. Anticipating free fluid, I look down. No juice, just grapes in a bag of plastic…and air! That’s the problem, I’ve been bouncing these demons inside their cushions of air! I unzip the ziplock, deflate it and apply my shoulder, my steeled upper limb, my fist, and I push down and rotate as I push. Now, now is my foe giving way. But the fight remains dour. Grape by grape they split, and grape by squeezed grape they yield their life’s juice.

 

 

 

Fifteen minutes pass. Both grape and grapist are sweating now.  After thirty minutes I have collected half a small glass of pale silvery juice and a similar volume of pinkish nectar. The two combined become a translucent rose. Violence grudgingly rewarded, a victor feeling strangely compromised. How did grape-squashing become a moral test? How did I fail it?  

 

 

 

Absent-mindedly I pop a green grape into my mouth. My tongue pushes the little balloon up against my bony palate. A little further pressure and the skin gives way. Sweet juice flows and my molars engage and grind the pulp. In midgrape my mouth stops its motion. Now I have it: this grape, like all the grapes of my life, had to be forced. Ostensibly a mild soul, have I hidden my innate violence in silent acts of mastication? Certainly a cruncher, an audible biter down, one whose apples snap loudly as I sunder them, who is it who bites thus? And what is it that bites me?

 

 

 

Might there be another way? There is another way, I know it, I’ve seen it. My mother, God rest her gentle soul, never burst a grape. Mum enjoyed grapes but brutality never occurred to her. Instead she’d peel a grape, slide it into her mouth and suck it to sweet oblivion. 

 

 

 

 

*Shomer Shabbat, one who honours the Sabbath, one who guards it and makes it holy.

Summer Stories, 2

Catch the Flying Undies Game

 

It all starts when six-year old Ruby decides to change from day clothes into her bathers for a beach picnic. She regards the undies she’d just removed and decides she’ll need them later. She flings them to her mum, standing nearby. “Catch!”, she shouts.

“You catch”, says Mum, flinging them back. Just then Joel runs into the room and, leaping, brings down a smart catch.

Adult applause, beaming seven-year old boy, hilarious Ruby.

 

The game is afoot. Ruby says, “It’s called ‘Catch the Flying Undies!’”

 

(Later the mother says to her father, “You have to write this story, Dad.”

I demur: “ Hard to write, darling. A game without rules or shape… And flying undies might be open to misrepresentation. Better for a mother to report to her friends on her social media. Older men should steer clear.”

“Since when did you ever play it safe, Dad?”)

 

 

Ruby runs at Joel and grabs at the undies. A tug of war, Joel, legless with laughter, tumbles backwards and yields the garment. Ruby swings her arm in a mighty arc and flings with all her midget might. She forgets to let go and the lump of fabric falls at her feet. Mum swoops, grabs, chucks and the little lump hits grandfather in the face. 

 

 

There’s a science to undie chucking, I find. Flung open, undies sail, stall and fall haphazardly. Tied tightly into a knot a pair of undies becomes a projectile that flies true. The adults learn the science and exploit it. The children never master the science. Instead they charge the person holding the garment and grab at it. Much tumbling, endless screaming, brief triumphs (pun unintended), misgrabs, misfires, children helpless with mirth, adults little better. Exultation, the sense of chance, some freak or wrinkle in Time, a moment of miracle, this once and never again ecstasy.  

 

 

 

The children whirl and leap and fall. They shriek in their delight in our unwonted adult craziness. They won’t allow the moment to end. As they whirl they lose all balance, fall drunkenly and shriek the more. The adults keep their feet but not their dignity. Whooping and jumping and flinging undies in endless keepings-off, we grownups are mad as the children are mad. They’ve admitted us to a world we had left behind and lost. We are become children again. 

Summer Notes, 1.

On the morning of our southern Solstice I step out into the summer and the heat burns my eyeballs. December 21 in the Pilbara, a vast desert area in Western Australia, is a little hotter than the local average of 39 degrees Celsius. The temperature rises day by day, astonishment by astonishment. Tomorrow it will reach 45. A patient agrees: “Yeah it’s pretty warm up here in Newman. Not as hot as Telfer, but. When I worked out there it’d get up to sixty.”

My patient is a blaster. His job is to place explosive charges inside great rocks and blast those rocks into manageable lumps for the dump trucks. (The trucks are bigger than my two-storey house). My patient continues: “You can’t do that work inside a cabin with aircon. You have to get out into the sun and do it. It can be pretty warm work.”

At lunchtime I drive my vehicle – yes, it has aircon, but the black steering wheel doesn’t know that: it’s too hot to touch. I steer with shirtsleeved elbows – and I park in the shade. Bracing myself for the heat outside I look up and watch an Aboriginal group as it files quickly across the sunburned concrete. Number One wears boots, Number Two wears thongs, Number Three wears nothing on his feet. He moves fast, his footfalls are brief, his gait a skipping as he literally hotfoots it to the supermarket.

While working a few years back in another mining town, this one in the Flinders Ranges, they told me of a young man who drove up into the Arkaroola hills and went hiking in the heat of the day. He carried insufficient water. When they found his body a day later it had been cooked.

Forgive and Forget?


Once, a long time ago, I was sitting in a barber’s chair when the hairdresser unexpectedly laid down her comb and scissors and stood gazing at me. Her hands opened and closed. At length she spoke: “There’s something important I need to ask you.”

“OK.”

“ I belong to a Bible study group. We’ve been reading Romans…”

“And?”

“And I’m ashamed.”

I was taken aback. Through our respective professions the hairdresser and I were well acquainted. I’d treated her and her children, she had cut my hair. In those days I had hair to spare. She was perhaps seven years older than I. She had been born in Germany around the start of the Second World War; she’d have been six when the war ended, the age now of her younger daughter. From the outset we’d had a comfortable relation of trust and openness, but at this moment my patient was not comfortable at all.  

“What about? I mean why are you ashamed?”

“ What we’ve done to you. What we’ve always done, we Christians. Reading Romans, I was shocked. I suddenly thought what it meant, how it all started, how it never stopped…”

“What started? What never stopped?” 

“Jew hatred! It starts with the birth of the Church, we learn it with mother’s milk, we take it in and we pass it on. And then my people… with Hitler, we were the worst of the worst! I’m ashamed. I’m sorry. I need you to know I’m sorry, how sorry I am.”

Ahhh. 

I had no words.

 

At length I spoke: “You said you wanted to ask me something.”

“Yes. I want you to forgive us.”

 

 

In my work I had touched her, in her work she had touched me. A pair of licensed touchers, touching now too closely. I felt out of my depth.

My supplicant stood before me, unclothed, holding her burden of history like so much unwanted clothing. 

Words came to my lips. I spoke them, grateful to extinguish the crowded silence.  Were my words wise? Were they kind? What would the six million have me say?

 

 

My words must have been enough for the moment. My hairdresser completed my haircut and we parted, knowing each other differently, sufficiently. The pain, the shame, the decency of the woman, her courage stayed with me a long time. Eventually our close encounter sank beneath the surface of life’s events and I seldom thought of it. Forty years passed.

 

 

Last week I read an article written by a survivor of the Shoah. After the War he’d become a doctor. In the course of his work he was told a dying patient, not in his care, was asking for him most particularly, insisting on talking with him. Puzzled, the doctor made his way to the bed of the dying man. The patient told him he’d been a member of the SS. He said he’d been a guard in one of the camps, he’d killed Jews, many of them. Now he was dying. He needed to confess, to a Jew. And more than that, he wanted the Jew to forgive him. 

 

 

The doctor did not know how to respond. He searched himself, he thought of those he’d known in the camp, of those he’d lost. What would they want of him?   

 

 

The doctor did not know. Not knowing, he said nothing. The patient died, unshroven. Years later the doctor wrote a letter which he sent to dozens of people, people of moral stature. From memory, he sent his letter to the Dalai Lama, to Martin Luther King Junior, to Abraham Heschel, to others whom he esteemed. In his letter he recounted his encounter with the dying SS officer and he told of his non-answer. He asked his recipients what he should have done. Opinion was divided. Over years the doctor wrote to more and more people, an Ancient Mariner, burdened by his own feeling of self-dissatisfaction, a species, perhaps, of guilt. He published the replies he received.

 

 

 Last week this story came to me and stayed with me. I recalled the good woman who cut my hair. I recalled my response. I had said: “It is not for you to apologise to me; it is not for me to forgive; it is for both of us to remember.” Today I feel more dissatisfied with my response than I did forty years ago. I should have added: “It is for all of us to teach.”  How was I to know how the deep ocean of Jew hatred would gather again its force, how it would rise again to the mighty wave we see today?  

While Reading my Book of War


Seated on the tram, reading on a spring day
 at noon, I’m distracted by a pink robe passing close to me. My eyes lift to a young face, pale and wet with tears. No sounds, just a face folding beneath its weight of pain. The rest of the person is young, thin, female, quite tall. She’s partially covered by a pink polyfleece robe. Beneath the robe two pale legs stretch down to feet in thongs.

The girl looks about seventeen. Her features are Chinese. I check her for external signs of physical illness and detect none. She’s just a young girl silently weeping. Happily she’s not alone; standing close to her a taller girl clasps her gently. The second girl looks about the same age. She too is Chinese. The comforter’s free hand rests against the back of the  weeper’s head. She bends the head tenderly forward and rests it on her shoulder where it stays a good time.

The two stand, lightly enfolded, bracing against the far side of the tram. They ignore free seats close to them. The tram moves on, leaving behind them the beachside where they boarded. Were the two swimming? What grief or pain or random unkindness of life brought them from the beach?

Ten minutes pass. The weeping face lifts from time to time and faces the tram, unseeing. Tears trickle. No words pass between the girls. The two have not moved from their station at the opposite side. A fair youth seated legside looks up and stares briefly, perplexed. His mouth opens, falls shut. Respectful of private suffering, he turns away. I too feel prompted to help, but diffidence holds me back. What’s more the friend seems to be comfort enough.

Watching for my own stop, I look up at intervals from my book. A few stops out from my destination I look up and find the wall opposite empty. The girls have gone, pink robe, bare legs and tears, and all.

 

Zeide

Tonight* my wife will light a memorial candle for her father. Her sister Robyn will do the same. Tonight will mark the anniversary of his death, in both the Jewish calendar and the secular. The two dates coincide only once in nineteen years; this is the second time they’ve concurred; Zeide died thirty-five years ago.

My father-in-law wore any number of names. In Russian he was Grigori (he’d sign loveletters to his children with “Gregory”), his wife called him Harry, friends called him Hershel, my children called him Zeide, and he asked me to call him Dad. That wasn’t difficult: it wasn’t hard to love a man who never had a son and who treated his sons in law like his own.
Harry adored his grandchildren. He was a natural grandfather. He had a gift for it. He showed me how I might do it, when the time for it would come.
Harry Novic burned with love of family. He loved Italian food, Italian clothes, Latin music. Harry loved his friends and he loved his Chesterfield cigarettes. His tobacconist alone knew how many he smoked and he assured Harry, when importation was to be halted, ‘You’re a very special customer. I’ll make sure you have them.” He told his daughters, ‘If you ever smoke I’ll break every one of your fingers.”
One day Zeide confided to his sister, ‘I think I’ve got “that thing”‘. He used the yiddish to name the un-namable, a tribal practice, as if to name it might be to bring it on. The medical name of the un-namable was mesothelioma. In less than a year Zeide had died.
Months later Zeide missed his first grandchild’s Batmitzvah. He missed two more batmitzvahs and three barmitzvahs, as well his grandchildrens’ many weddings. He never saw a grandchild graduate, he never knew his fourteen great-grandchildren. He died and he never saw his generations bud and flower.
The family grows and grows. We miss him – as my son remarked today – at every celebration, at every milestone..
What would Zeide think, If he were to come back tonight, if he were to stand alongside the evergreen Helen who was his bride, who became his wife, whom he made his widow? What would he say, what amazement would be his!
I think what I learn is how grandchildren need their grandfather, how a grandfather might be missed, how his memory is  a candle that burns.
*written just over a week ago

Peak White

These observations might anger the reader, or alarm her. Possibly they’ll gratify someone. I’ll be sorry if I upset you.

At some quiet moment recently Australia reached peak white, reached it and left it behind. That’s the observation that I make. The notion dawned on me late. I might have been asleep.

The Australia I was born to was pretty uniformly white. Although I grew up in the country of the Wiradjuri people, I saw few black faces. In my home town in the Riverina, two black boys turned up at my school a couple of times. They owned no shoes. After two days they crept away and I never saw them again. By contrast, when my ancestors arrived here in the mid-nineteenth century, white and black populations were more evenly balanced. Over the following one hundred years, by means more or less shameful, white largely erased black.

Around 1970 I started working in a green village of white people on Melbourne’s edge. Here I became the family doctor of a small girl with caramel skin. She grew up to be a beauty. I had known her for nearly twenty years before she spoke to me of her lineage. The child was Australian royalty incognita, descended from one of the first great indigenous footballers. But I was not to tell anyone. During that same decade, in the United States, Black was becoming Beautiful. And after a while Australia’s indigenous people too began to declare their origins. From the start of the sixties we’d been going to school and university with students from Asia. Successive governments relaxed the White Australia Policy and finally dismantled it. Government and Opposition agreed to agree: Australia would open up. And the world entered, first Asia, later Africa. Australia entered the world and the world entered Australia. So Australia, a black country that became a white settler country, developed into a variegated society.

Over that wider world white has always been a minority. Anomalous then for white to exercise hegemony in so many places and for so long. It’s over now and white should have no complaint. Of course white will fight to protect its advantages. History tells us that struggle will be rough and rude.

What will follow – now the wide world is past peak white? It would be naïve to expect power to practise charity. And why expect peoples, long oppressed by white, to respect the rights of their oppressors? We’ve seen the experiment of democracy take root – sometimes deep, often shallow – in many countries. Few of those non-white countries enshrine human rights after the recent Western example. India comes nearest perhaps. Why expect a dominant China or some ascendant Asian Tiger to be more merciful to us once they overtake and possibly colonise us, than the white West was in the times of its dominance – before the peak? (Of course, here in Australia, we’ve been an economic colony ever since Kellogg made our breakfast, Kraft made our foods, Nestle fed our infants, Xerox made or photocopies, Kodak took our photos.

When change comes people feel threatened. Anxiety begets aggression, aggression begets retaliation. At the level of local communities, neighbours begin to distrust each other. Community suffers. And we can feel confident that the hatemongers in public life, refreshed and encouraged, will monger away at their rodent work. Meanwhile we’ve developed the sweet tooth of America; eating the whirlwind, we achieve American obesity and diabetes, which we treat with medications from Big Pharma. Now the Pentagon directs our defences, while Amazon, Google, Facebook, Microsoft and the whole gang exercise hegemony in the tax haven they create in Australia. Who can suggest we are not colonized already? With their mass and their electronic power and expertise, who would be surprised when we become a colony of Asia?

If this makes you feel gloomy I can offer one striking example of hope trumping fear. That example occurred in the Republic of South Africa where, under Mandela, the black majority gained power. White had long resisted black rights; there’d be chaos, a bloodbath was inevitable. Black assumed power through the ballot, not by bullets. Although plenty of disorder followed, the feared bloodbath never took place. The explanation? I think Nelson Mandela was the explanation.

Humanity will need more Mandelas.