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.


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* 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.

Fathers Day


 

 

They say Fathers Day is the invention of the people at Hallmark Cards. That doesn’t make it a bad idea. If someone told me Hallmark had just invented the wheel or the toilet brush or brotherly love, I hope I’d give those ideas worthy consideration.

 

No it’s not Hallmark that’s my problem. (And I do have more than one problemwith Fathers Day, none more pressing than where to place the apostrophe. I have every confidence I’d dispute whatever verdict were chosen. You only have to look at this paragraph to see I like the apostrophe, I cherish it and I bewail its* public fate.)

 

When the first Sunday in September dawns no-one feeds me breakfast in bed, no-one buys me neckties or self-help books or DIY apparati. And I never did any of these for my own father. (Well, almost never: when I was five my elder brother spent five shillings on a large tea cup for Dad, which we presented as a joint Fathers Day gift. The cup showed a man seated on an easy chair and smoking his pipe. Dad didn’t smoke and never drank tea. He held tea to be addictive,correctly so. That, after all, is its beauty and its purpose.) 

 

Breakfast in bed could not have enhanced the love that existed between my father and me**, nor would it have reduced the pain my brother and my father experienced in their own shared loving. 

 

 

 

 

My own children accept my distance from Fathers Day (as from Mothers Day). They see it as just another eccentricity of their wilful father. Seven hundred telephone calls per annum from my children to that difficult father say all that needs to be said.

 

Numerous earnest homilies (‘Slow down, Dad’; ‘Don’t you think it’s time you workeda bit less?’ ‘Have a good run, Dad, and don’t come back dead’; ‘I don’t want you riding your bike at peak hour, Dad. If anything ever happened to you…’)

 

 

Well of course one day the anything will happen to me. And as far as fathers go, I’ll go happy, well fathered and well loved by those I’ve fathered.

 

 

Nowadays my children have their father on Brain Watch. About time. And one single day a year would not suffice for the purpose.

 

 

Note*: no apostrophe.

Note:** It took me 220 pages to sketch the love between my father and me, in ‘My Father’ Compass’ (Hybrid, 2007). A young man approached me after reading the book. He said, I always wanted to be a loving father and no-one ever showed me how. But when I read your book I knew.’

 

Doing the Cartesian Plod

The auguries are not favourable. In the cricket Australia has lost to the South Africans. In the footy Collingwood has lost to a bunch of nonentities. In the bedroom needed slumber has lost to an importuning bladder, that groans with pre-marathon hydration.

 

 

But truly my sleep has been under attack also from pre-race nerves. This particular marathon, in Broome, will be my first in the heat and my first on sand. I know I can run 42.2 kilometres, but I fear I’ll lack the moral strength to keep running in the sands as they deepen with the incoming tide, and the heat that will rise as surely as I slow.

 

 

 

At 5.00am it’s dark and cool down on Cable Beach, and wonderfully quiet. I stand beneath a crescent of moon, freshly born but days ago. The stars are few. The waves crash and the breakers break and I am a man alone in the vastness. At this moment, than this place there is nowhere I’d rather stand and nothing I’d rather do. How long I stand there watching the flashes of white foam light the darkness I cannot know. How do you measure the dimensions of enchantment?

 

 

 

 

The sky pinks slightly in the east. Time now to pray the Dawn Service. After I’ve finished those prayers and the Traveller’s Prayer, mandatory since the bombings in Boston, (Rescue us from any enemy, ambush or danger on the way, and from all afflictions that trouble the world), the beach starts to fill with runners, with fleeting flashes of light, with murmurs. All speak quietly, all discreet, decorous, in this, our secret convocation, as if noise were desecration. 

 

 

 

Thirty-two of us line up at the Start. The Race Director delivers his instructions and his directions, larded liberally with his benedictions: Have a good run, marathoners, enjoy yourselves, drink plenty, welcome, welcome, welcome, have fun. The event closes in six hours. Our sweeper will come by on a bike and tell you if you look like going over time… But you won’t. The tide is well out and will keep ebbing for the next 97 minutes. After that there’ll be a full six hours before high water. Go well, brothers and sisters, run well and enjoy yourselves.

 

 

 

 

The Broome Marathon might be the sole event in the running calendar whose date is governed by the moon. The organisers choose the Sunday closest in time to the winter neap. Today the sand is firm underfoot, while yielding. My racing feet love it. Our route takes us out five kilometres to the dinosaur footprints at Gantheaume Rocks, before the turn which will bring us back to the Start, which will later be the Finish. 

 

 

 

 

I spend those ten kilometres deep in superficial thought: How do you pronounce Gantheame? Looks French, should follow the rules of French pronunciation. But I’ve no-one seems to pronounce it that way…

 

 

 

And of truer gravumen, the self-question, How fast can I prudently complete the first ten kilometres? I know I can do the distance in an hour, but that pace would be unsustainably fast.

 

 

 

I raise my head from these cogitations and regard the young buttocks speeding ahead of me. I look back. To my surprise a half dozen or so runners plod along behind me. An unfamiliar sight, a puzzlement. It takes less than one hour for me to realise these are tortoises and I am a foolish hare, for the ten kilometres have passed and sixty minutes are not yet up.

 

 

 

But who could take these pleasures at a languid jog – at my left shoulder the rising sun (the sun came up upon the left, out of the sea came he), at my right the rolling waves, overhead the arching blue, and beneath that blue the turquoise waters? 

 

 

 

And so I run, fast at first, more slowly later, but on I run, alone, and ever in earnest conversation. First I address Rene Descartes. Rene says, I think, therefore I am.  (At least that’s what they say he says.) Finding myself so steeped in running delight might I not say, I run, therefore I am?  Of course that would reduce me to a pair of stubborn legs. But does life offer anything sweeter than this, this delight beneath absent clouds? I can, therefore I run. Here I am, running early in the event, later plodding, ever ruminating, doing the Cartesian Plod.

 

 

 

 

The Race Director directed us to run south all the way to the halfway mark at Coconut Wells. Here we’ll turn and head for home. I’ve never heard of Coconut Wells but I should know it once I arrive: there’ll surely be an oasis there; the entire marathon course is dotted by pop-up oases, where Staminade and water rest on trestle tables beneath shade. Here volunteers dole out encouragement and sustaining fluids. Each oasis is manned by members of a different local sporting team. The Jiu Jitsus water me first, then the Rugby Leaguers, followed by the Philatelists and here at the Halfway it’s the Water Poloists. Later, the Man Cave Vigoro Team, later still the elderly Chinese players of Mah Jong. Such patience, such good natures! 

 

 

 

 

In the five kilometres that stretch between the oases, all along the wide beach, people picnic or swim or cast their lines into the waves. Some sit beneath their portable shade and drink beer and gaze as inconspicuously as possible in the direction of unclad sunbathing women. The drinkers and the fishers and the swimmers and the picnickers look up as I pass and they assure me I am a champion and utter similar kindly falsehoods, so it’s roses, roses, all the way, roses strewn in my path like mad.

 

 

 

 

Just before the turn a voice breaks into my reveries: Howard! Howard! The voice is feminine; whose can it be? A slender figure approaches from the thicker sand high on the beach: Howard, it’s me, Mel. Ian’s partner. You’re doing so well! Is there anything I can give you, anything you need? I shake my grinning head. Sylph-like Mel, Mel who will join the orthopedic trade, Mel is what I needed without my knowing the need. The simple fact of being known – such a deep human satisfaction. Thanks, Mel. I’ll see you at work. And on I run.  

 

 

 

Now as I run I hear the voice and see the image of my younger daughter, she who has always held my joy in running in the balance against the hazards of running; she’s known how marathons have claimed and killed and stilled many runners, faster and fitter than her Dad, fathers no less beloved, no less unreplaceable. Before every marathon I’d hear the voice of that daughter, have a good run, Dad, and don’t come back dead. At the conclusion of every marathon over the last twenty years, it was that daughter whom I’d call first: I had a great run, darling, and I’m not dead. But after the fifty-second marathon that dialogue came to an end. Dad, said the daughter, I don’t want you to die but I know you will one day. Meanwhile you love to run and I love you and I want you to do what you love. And if you die doing what you love I’ll be sad but I won’t be mad at you.

 

 

 

 

If my daughter’s relationship with my running has been ambivalent, I might say the same of my glomeruli.Wikipedia will tell you that glomeruli form a network of small blood vessels in the kidney, through which blood is filtered to yield a filtrate of urine. The rate at which blood is filtered through all of the glomeruli, and thus the measure of the overall kidney function, is the glomerular filtration rate (GFR). A combination of increasing age, high blood pressure and family tradition has knocked my glomeruli about somewhat, and my filtration rate has fallen as a result. I consult a kidney doctor who advises me, somewhat ambivalently, to keep running marathons: overall it’s probably beneficial to you, but – and here he wags a finger and his gravel voice deepens to a rattling scree – don’t get dehydrated.  That’s like saying, you can run marathons but don’t get tired. So at every drink stop I drink, taking great camel draughts, one time of water, the next of an electrolyte drink. Have you ever drunk Staminade? If you’re fond of blue cordial you’ll like the look of it; if you enjoy drinking glomerular filtrate you’ll love the taste of it.  

 

 

 

Soon my left calf provokes a conversation. The calf has started to feel strange: What – I ask – do you mean by this hard, dead feeling? Didn’t we meet each other in 2013? On that occasion you forced me out of the Melbourne Marathon. Piss off now! Two kilometres later my calf feels fine. And I do not hear from it again. 

 

 

 

 

Never lost for thought, my nimble mind now enters earnest intercourse with the sand. Beaches in Australia are expanses of sand, this particular beach being vastly expansive. I look down and notice something new – striations in the sand. Between the predominant areas of cream, pink streaks appear. The pink is of such delicacy that I perceive it today for the very first time in the quarter century of my running here. Aah, beauty. O blessed day!

 

 

 

 

I interrogate this pink. Pink? Pink? Unheard of. What, where is the earth pink? Answer – the earth here is paprika-pink, rust red, burnt red all through the Pilbara, the Centre, the Kimberley. And whence comes the redness? From iron, that same red element that makes me red blooded. This peaches and cream earth and I are blood brothers. I am at home here, I belong here. Like Adam I am made from this earth. Carried now by this flooding of aesthetic pleasure I am far from the sensations that should affect me. Fatigue is a stranger, thoughts of labour washed away.

 

 

 

 

At this stage I discover I’ve reached the 25-kilometre mark, ordinarily the locus of a great groan of self-pity. The discovery, after three hours of running that I still have seventeen kilometres to run has always fallen heavily upon my morale. But today my being rejoices in all that is before me. Seventeen kilometres? How fortunate! I want this never to end.

 

 

 

 

 

I fill those seventeen kilometres with thoughts that should embarrass me, so deeply dorky are they. I will confide in you, dear reader, trusting to your discretion: I play a word game in which I choose a word of a few syllables, say, ‘catheter’; and using the letters of that word, try to name other words of four letters or more. I find lots of words that, being unwritten, circle and loop though my mind time and again. I will spare you the full list, mentioning just a few words that tickled my vanity practically to orgasm. Those words are theta and theca, followed by terce and tercet, the former denoting the third meditative Christian chant of the morning, the latter referring to a trio of lines in verse.

 

 

 

 

 

The mind is a magpie. My mind has no business knowing the name of an element in High Church liturgy, but it pecks around and picks up useless information prodigiously. If you want to know anything unimportant, ask me.

 

 

 

 

 

A being on a bike intrudes upon my word games. He wears black and he identifies himself as the Sweeper. The Grim Sweeper, the Broome Sweeper! 

I ask, Am I running last?

No mate, there’s a couple behind you still. You’re killing it.

How old are you, if I may ask?

I tell him my age and he says, You’re running like a boy, and I say, If I were your dog you’d take me to the vet and the Sweeper laughs and I laugh and he sweeps back to the laggards behind me and the world feels very nice.

 

 

 

 

 

The Sweeper has put his finger on something real. To run, simply to run, for no real purpose and to no material end, to run for play, is precisely what a small boy does, what a little girl does. Utterly useless, it’s a physical expression of delight in being. It’s the undying spirit of play in a dying animal. I still am, therefore I run; I still can, therefore I run; I run, therefore I am still that small boy. And, enjoying this conversation with myself, I run on and on, doing the Cartesian Plod.

 

 

 

 

 

So sweet, this frolic, I wish it never to end.  Running alone, I think of my mother’s father, who came to Broome in 1906 with his three brothers to dive for pearl. I never met that grandfather. I know he played polo, I know he built and played a one-string violin and performed for large audiences in Perth. I know he carved tortoise shell and pearl shell into objects of art. I know he was brave, plying his trade that carried a mortality rate of thirty percent. That grandfather, a laughing cavalier, died young of lung cancer, and I don’t know by what tender name I’d have called him if I’d known him.

 

 

 

 

 

So, communing with the dead grandfather and the dead philosopher, puzzling with words, rejoicing in all that befalls me, I come to the end. My marathon ends in a finishing time of five hours and seven minutes, six minutes slower than I ran five weeks earlier in Traralgon. Of course I’m jubilant, drinking deep of endorphin, floating on euphoria.  A crowd numbering perhaps five persons cheers me across the Line, and behind a phone is the face and form of Mel, taking photographs to record Pheidipides Goldenberg finishing the Broome Marathon in first place (Male, Ancient), there being no other runners aged over seventy.

 

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Running with the Cows

One foot in front of the other. That’s how you do it, this running business. It’s not complicated, it’s not even hard, so long as you don’t do it too quickly or too many times. In the marathon I need to do it 42,185 times. My car finds that distance tiring and so do I. But Traralgon is where I ran my first marathon and – on a later occasion – where I ran my quickest. I try to run Traralgon every year. One of the many things I like about the event is the small field, which allows me to boast, ‘O, Traralgon, yeah, I finished in the first one hundred’.

 

 

 

 

In 2017 injury saw me miss the fiftieth running of the Traralgon Marathon. I was sorry my legs would miss out on history. The event is Australia’s oldest and it’s also The Victorian Country Marathon Championship. In 2018 I trained, I paid my registration and I injured my knee again.  Once again I missed out. But last Sunday saw me fit, I was new again, keen, and running faster than I have for five years. I had lost weight, I’d trained hard and consistently, I felt invincible.

 

 

 

 

The marathon taught me something I should have known: I am vincible.

 

 

 

 

I brought my own support team along. Philbert Kayumba from Rwanda is a natural runner. Being on the run from genocide brought him to Australia as a refugee, and Australia grabbed him, and my family grabbed him. Toby Wundheiler is my skinny grandson. He loves running almost as much as he loves his Saba, Pheidipides Goldenberg. The two believed in me, I believed in me, what could go wrong?

 

 

 

 

 

The lady at Registration peered at her spreadsheet and answered my enquiry: there are 105 starters in the full Marathon, she said. This was the first augury: I would have to beat five, or they’d have to get lost, or pull out or expire, if I were to finish in the first one hundred finishers. I looked around me at the start and I did not sight anyone who looked slow enough for me to beat.  

 

 

 

 

 

At the start I heard a couple of blokes speaking in refined accents, their English correct, grammatical. Must be foreigners, I deduced, and indeed they were. They were veterans of many Comrades Marathons. The Comrades is an event run over an appalling ninety (90!) hilly kilometres in South Africa. Respect! These boys looked stronger than their estimated fifty-odd years. We fell into conversation and the kilometres flew beneath my feet. A sparrow flying with eagles, I ran surprisingly fast, fatally fast. By the time I reached the 11-kilometre mark, the Comrades were well ahead, still in sight, if out of earshot, my breathing was hard and my legs felt tired. Only a quarter of the distance run and I had shot my bolt and I was not Usain.

 

 

 

 

 

Afraid I’d ruined my marathon, I took stock and nourishment. My nourishers on this occasion brought Coca Cola and belief. The nourishing duo were Toby and Philbert. I blessed them and heaved my frame into motion. Now the marathon looked better and felt better, as the route left the paved roadways grey and followed the rail trail. The trail is paved with gravel that springs the tired leg and cushions the sore foot. It runs through the native bushland that fringes the pastures. Amiable cows watch and munch and splatter as the runners pass.  A lone human now, I spent some time running steadily in bovine company; the cows and I established a comfortable fellowship, no words needed.

 

 

 

 

 

An apparition in red, a young woman, announced herself: ‘Hello, I’m your sweeper.’ The voice was sweet, the smile friendly, but I knew dread. The sweeper is the official who sweeps clean the Marathon Course of runners, once their allowed time has expired. Her arrival meant I was running in last place. She would keep me company until the fatal hour. I’d need to reach the Finish before 1.00 pm or I’d be swept. Sweep Lady introduced herself: I’m Vera. I told Vera I was Pheidipides. Vera looked at me jogging along. You’re running well, she said. Would it be rude if she asked me my age? I told her my age. You’re amazing, she said. In my turn I questioned Vera. She’d run Traralgon a number of times, finishing around three-and-a half hours. Today she’d volunteered, giving away her own swifter marathon in favour of the slowest.  

 

 

 

 

 

Vera spoke proudly of her daughters, aged 17, 14 and her boy, 11. All were mad about sports, the elder two being elite junior netballers. Vera drove the eldest to training in Melbourne two days a week. She didn’t mind spending four hours on the road. She was happy to keep doing it, until the day she says, ‘I don’t want to do this anymore’. Then we’ll stop, no pressure.   

 

 

 

 

 

A second red blur appeared in my lateral field. The blur rode a bicycle. She introduced herself: I’m Lucy.  Lucy too had given up her marathon to share the sweeping duties. Had Lucy run Traralgon before? Sure have. I won it seven times.  My interrogation of Lucy revealed she held her Age Group World Record for a 200 kilometre race. A few of my records have been beaten, but I still hold the two hundred. Like Vera, Lucy taught at a local school. The two chatted about mutual friends. Maxine was doing better now her daughter was recovering. Therapy had made all the difference. Madeline was running today, the 10 K, not the marathon. She’d given that up to referee the hockey. Young Robert had been stood down by his school. Despite warnings, he was out. You couldn’t push a classmate into the urinal, you couldn’t pull his pants up while he was taking a pee. No respect. It didn’t make it better that the urinating victim was African. You need to have respect.

 

 

 

 

 

Kilometres passed pleasantly. So and so had a new job, closer to town. Such and such was working night shift at the hospital which allowed her to help the littlies at school with their reading. A third friend ran the Fire Brigade Coffee Truck. He gets up early Saturdays and Sundays and drives the truck to the local footy – both sexes, to the local soccer – girls and boys – to the netball, the basketball, then the AFL in the afternoons. The profits from the coffee truck go to buy musical instruments form the town Junior Band. The cows and I listened and learned.  

 

 

 

 

Even tired old legs retain some pride. My legs were tiring, certainly they were old, but here were Lucy and Vera, a pair of runners who’d dedicated their day to the slowest of all. Fleet-footed and vital, these two would recognise my flaccid morals if I stopped. I kept going, sustained by pride, bemused by gossip that spoke only good of their fellows.

 

 

 

 

A noise up ahead, a flash of black flesh, cries of Saba! Saba! You’re awesome, Saba! And Saba was me and the noises were Toby’s and the flash was Philbert. More Coke, more embraces, more sunshine pumped up my bum, and here we were at the turn, at the halfway point.

 

 

 

Phil and Toby saw me around the turn, where the Marshall cried, Pheidipides!  Pheidipides Goldenberg! I recognised Barry Higgins, this marathon’s historian. His splendid book, ‘In the Long Run’, records the history of this event and its fifty famous years. 

 

 

 

Toby loped and leaped at one side, Philbert glided at the other. I knew no pain. The halfway mark signals good tidings to the runner; the mind realises every step now leads shortens the road to the Finish; the legs know they can do it. The reality of twenty-one kilometres remaining somehow weighs less simply for having turned for home.

 

 

 

Toby announced: I’m going to run with you to the three-quarter mark, Saba. It’s only ten kilometres. He darted ahead. Vera observed, you’ve got a lovely grandson there, Howard. Lucy remarked, not quite beneath her breath, and your son Philbert’s hot!  ‘Yes, they are’, I agreed.  Hot Philbert left the gravel to retrieve the car. Lovely Toby ran on until, one kilometre later, he sighted the car and decided he’d keep Philbert company.

 

 

 

 

More of the same. Step followed step, perhaps a little slower. The sun shone palely, I discarded gloves, then a shirt, then a singlet. The legs found a rhythm they could tolerate, my brain separated itself from pain; I was spending time in pleasant company, passing though the wintry green. At some stage I must have fallen silent.

 

 

 

 

I heard a question. Someone was asking, are you retired, Howard?  I answered Lucy, who then asked, so you know all about the heart, then?

No.

Lucy pressed on: Have you heard of arrhythmia?

I had.

We had a long chat about arrhythmias, how a runner’s heart muscle might be strong enough to run two hundred kilometres in record time one day, but beat so irregularly the next that running was impossible. But arrhythmias could be treated.

 

 

 

Vera spoke of her youngest, a boy born dangerously premature. They’d prayed for the little mite. He was too sick for the local hospital and ambo’s speeded him to the Monash Children’s Hospital where he pulled through. Ever since, the little fellow had lived his lively life in a body small and frail; it never occurs to him he has a disability. Never mind he has to spend periods at home, never mind that he too is prey to a parlous heart irregularity – all the other kids played sport, so would he. The reality of a brave boy, running the marathon that is his life, made my own marathon a small affair. I was a child, running was my play; Vera’s child on the other hand, runs to the ‘Wall’ every day.

 

 

 

I listened to Vera and to Lucy and thoughts of fatigue never broke through. What was tiredness? Some petty experience, not admissible, lacking substance. Assuredly I was slowing all the time, but the sweepers assured me I remained a legend, I was certainly awesome, thoroughly amazing. You’ll easily arrive before they close the course. You’re way ahead, said Vera. I looked at my watch, but by this stage I was incapable of computation.

 

 

 

 

A small black car peeped between the bushes, and here, in a flurry and a roaring were Toby and Philbert bearing love and belief and Coke and a Mars bar. We’d reach the three-quarter mark. Numb in the brain, sugared into foolish cheerfulness, I picked up my feet and plodded on. At every road crossing and at every aid station, we found volunteers. I’d salute them and the sweepers would dismiss them: You’ve done your job. Thank you, thank you all. This man here is the last runner. I might have wept for thankfulness.

 

 

 

 

Off the gravel now and onto those pavements grey, as Yeats called them. Up a hillock, down another, head down, a dour business. Abruptly a pretty lady in blue burst into my threesome. She flung herself into the arms of my companions. Boadicea! How did you go, Bo?

Personal Worst.

You’re kidding! Boadicea, meet Philopities! Or Howard. He’s a legend. Ask him how many marathons he’s done.

The young lady in blue asked me how many.

Fifty two. This will be fifty three.

Boadicea affirmed I was a legend. I knew she had that back to front. I concentrated on not falling over and I said nothing.

 

 

 

We ran on. Four kilometres to go, four nasty, mean kilometres, each one of them longer than the one before. 

When a man’s afraid

A beautiful maid’s

A cheering sight to see. 

The lines from The Mikado bypassed my brain and came to my lips and I heard myself singing in the empty back streets of Traralgon. The ladies looked at each other. Charitable souls all, they said nothing.

 

 

 

Thus inspired I ran on. I knew I’d find Toby and Philbert in the final kilometre. We twisted and turned in empty back streets that quite befuddled me. Sandwiched between my colourful escorts, I followed wherever they led. I was a dumb machine, a mechanism of bone and gristle and muscle, an automaton untroubled by thought or pain. One limb faithfully followed its fellow, mine was a body as free of volition as if I were falling. I might easily have been asleep.

 

 

 

But here was familiar territory. Parkland, a creek, Traralgon’s sporting precinct must be somewhere near. A skinny stick figure in black tights and top materialised, a great grin flashed, a boy mad with love and joy flung his arms about me, imperilling my dodgy balance. The boy ran at my side, in front of me, across me, then sprinted away into the distance, shouting: See you at the Finish, Saba! Vera said, Toby’s gone the wrong way.

Philbert, smooth, quiet calming, ran at my side. He looked emotional. Next time I want to run this with you – the whole distance.

 

 

 

 

A minute later the sports ground loomed. We turned a weary corner and there, two hundred metres ahead, was the Finish. Go, Howard, said Phil’s quiet voice.

Go Howard, cried Vera and Lucy.

Go Philopities, screamed Boadicea.

So I went. I went fast. EmpIoying bundles of fast-twitch muscle fibres that I hadn’t used in the 42 slow-twitch kilometres that lay behind, I sprinted.

I felt fast. I felt liberty, release, the knowledge of an ending. I pumped my arms, I waved them, I flew and I crossed the Line and I fell into Toby’s arms. The clock read, 5 hours and 52 seconds. Two women in red and another in blue told me I was a legend, I was amazing, I was awesome, as they clapped my back and kissed my face.

 

 

 

 

Later Philbert sent me footage of the final sixty metres or so. I looked and I laughed. The video camera catches me in profile. Had I not known otherwise, I’d have taken the spavined biped in the picture as some strange clockwork creature in green tights. I invite the reader to view the footage and share my mirth.

 

 

 

On the way home Philbert drove and I stretched out and ate and drank. Philbert said, that will be my event. I’ll run Traralgon next year with you, Howard. I’ll run it every year. Toby said, You’re my inspiration, Saba. I’ll run it too. I’ll bring Mancha, I’ll bring Mami and Papi, I’ll bring Nana. Savta will come, my bothers too. We’ll all run.

 

 

 

 

 

Footnotes:

 

1.   Five hours and 52 seconds is not a fast time. It is, however, 30 minutes faster than my previous five or six marathons. By way of comparison, my first Traralgon (in which I ran last) took four hours, thirty-one minutes and thirty-one seconds. My best Traralgon took three hours and fifteen minutes. Today I finished last but I was the first runner over 73 years to cross the line. I am happy to claim the title, Victorian Marathon Champion (male), (over 73). And I have duly added that title to my CV.

 

 

2. Mancha is a Border Collie.

 

3. Savta is my wife, a walker, not a runner. Nana is her 92 year old mother, a Yogi, not a runner.

 

 

 

While in Israel

As my fingers hit the keys to write this, I imagine a reader shifting in her seat, adjusting, resuming a familiar position. If you squirmed a little on reading the title of this post, I guess the reason to be the word, the noun, the divisive name, Israel. When it comes to Israel everyone has a position. The position has been preformed, (too often prepackaged, bought cheaply off one shelf or another, marked respectively, ‘’Approve of Everything” and “Disapprove”.) ‘Israel’, the word itself, is derived from ‘struggle.’ The geography of the place, situated at the very crossroads of the ancient world, determines contest. The land sits plonked in a Valley that has seen every kind of Rift.

In my own way, I’m with you, squirmer; I too have opinions and sentiments. What follows is a list of happenings, little events. The reader can weave with these threads, as I do, the pattern of her choosing. I expect I might affront readers of every stripe.

While in Israel, travelling in the family caravanserai, a thirteen-year old grandson visited Yad Va’shem, the Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem, an emotionally hazardous experience for anyone. This is especially true for a child equipped with limitless empathy and less resilience. At the exit the child noticed a black book into which a visitor might register a reaction to the experience: Saba, wait! I want to write something. ‘Writing something’ took some time. A head of dark curls bent over the page, the pencil moved slowly, words were crossed out and replaced as a person of action and quick movement, slowed, stilled and searched within. At last he was done. Saba, you can read it now, he said. I read the following:

On December 15 last year I celebrated my barmitzvah. But here, today, I became a man.

I dedicate this to the person who prepared me for my Barmitzvah.

While in Israel we ate at a beachfront meat restaurant. In Israel ‘Meat’ and ‘beachfront’ both signal ‘expensive’. I decided to choose something affordable; on the menu, Turkey Testicles caught my eye. Do turkeys actually have testes? – I wondered.

No reason why not, I realised. They’d be very small, surely, if all were to be in proportion. More likely than true gonads, the ‘testicles’ would be some oblate spheroid of other flesh, colourfully named. I ordered them.

The family chose the safe and familiar, all the time speculating colourfully on my choice. Grilled meats arrived at table, chicken portions, sausages, kebabs. No surprises, nothing scrotal. Finally, five spheroids of dun flesh arrived on a plate. These would be mine. Breaths were held as I raised my fork, cameras sought, found and aimed as I impaled the first and smallest. It tasted meaty, turkeyish. My teeth struggled for purchase as the nimble little nugget slipped to one side or another. Finally trapped between a couple of molars, the testis yielded and collapsed, releasing a thin fluid (ejaculate, perhaps?) which was not entirely repulsive. The texture? I couldn’t decide. So I ventured a second of the near-spheres. This was unambiguously unpleasant – not the taste but the texture, which was of offal and quite awful. My mouth grappled for gristle, or fibre, for something chewable, but tongue, teeth and gums found only a slippery Gollum of near-solid goop. I cannot really commend turkey testicle. But don’t let me put you off.

While in Israel we went down to the Dead Sea. (Here some exposition of terminology is helpful: from abroad, one goes up to the Holy Land; within the land one goes up to Jerusalem. A spiritual ascent is intended.) But from anywhere on the surface of the planet you go down; the Dead Sea is the lowest point on Earth. We went down.

Nature too goes down to this sea. The Jordan flows from the snows of Lebanon (the name means ‘whiteness’) southward, ever downward, passing through Earth’s many trauma sites – Sodom, Gomorrah, the Cities of the Plain, where fire fell and brimstone rained – down, down to a sunlit sea. The sea is mineral-rich, life-poor. It kills all. All excepting the credulous, who bring their diseases to its waters for the Cure.

With the Negev Desert hulking above you on the right, you follow a road that winds down and down: you have entered and you now descend that storied Rift Valley. Arid Geography from schooldays comes alive in the dramatic silence of that descent. Huge tumbled sandstone cliff-faces on your right fling the gazing eye ever upward. Rugged, broken, appearing ever ready to break open afresh, to swallow you up like the biblical Korach, those Negev steeps keep their menacing silence. In colour the stones of the Negev resemble turkey testes (vide supra), while in sound they resemble nothing at all, so annihilating their silence.

And all the time we whizz and plunge car-bound, so many frantic ants, as if retreating from some dull terror that has no name. All about, on every side, the heat presses down, time pushes down, the brief moment of human history is swamped utterly.

And then the Dead Sea appears below you on your left, its silvery waters silent too, but this the silence of the ineffable serene. You look and you sigh. There on the far side loom the hills of Jordan. Before you on the water, an image of those hills lies reflected. All is still. You, the watcher, feel yourself stilled, your being subsides, the world of cares recedes, quiet rapture consumes you.

Later, as the day begins to die, the waters begin to colour. Pale blue opal appears, giving way slowly, slowly to deepening pinks as the unrippling waters darken and turn metallic. Night falls and your sated soul fills with contentment. Now the moon rises, near-full, and the sea shimmers once more.

Up betimes while the hotel slept, I wandered down to the beach, seeking more glimmer and shimmer. But cloud had settled upon the Rift overnight. I sought sight of the sun that should have been rising above Jordan. The merest glow in the grey was all I saw. The world lay beneath a muted light, lovely beyond words. I wished for a camera and the skill to capture a captured sun. I wished for words I would never find for this moment of deep peace. Alone on the beach I recited the dawn prayers and gave thanks for peace and for beauty.

Had I prayed for a camera and a photographer to operate it I might have found what then materialised, a man and a woman, Nordic blond upon the sand. They too had drunk deep of peacefulness. We greeted each other. I said the sea and the sky and the quiet were beyond capture by word or camera. The man, Johann, produced a telephone and captured these images. Johann and his wife, Gro (pronounced ‘Grew’, Norwegian for ‘Grow!’) were old enough to know we three had stumbled into unwonted moments of gift. The gift bound us in a web of memory. Weeks later, with few words shed, I feel those enduring bonds. The man had photographed shanti.

While in Israel we visited the Western Wall of the ancient Temple in Jerusalem. The Kotel, as it is known, is Jewry’s holiest site. You go up to the Kotel. Going up with me were our two recent barmitzvah graduates, a pair of happy philistines who seldom have troubled their Creator with prayer. (They don’t like to impose.) But on visiting this location the sense of occasion, of significance, falls upon all. Would the boys feel lost? I made a suggestion: There’s no fixed prayer. There’s nothing you have to say. Some say the she’ma, which is the first prayer you boys learned. Or you could think of your dearest, secret wish or feeling. You could say that at the Kotel.

We stood before the Wall, its huge stones creamy in the morning sun. There was room to stand a nose-length from the stones. Antiquity, the weather, and a million kisses have all opened small cracks between the stones. Here worshippers have written down personal prayers and squeezed them in, little letters to God. My eyes closed and I whispered to God what He must already know. The boys were not heard, not sensed. At length I opened my eyes. One boy stood close, bending, posting something in a minute gap. The other was nowhere.

In due course we came together and we blessed each other, the three of us. Later I found written in my notebook, the following fragment, prepared for posting in a crack:

Hey God.

Please try to manage hate, discrimination and sad…

‘Try to manage’ – a modest enough way to couch a heartfelt plea – but my heart lurched to think of ‘hate, discrimination and sad’ hurting one of my tender ones. Did he find a crack?

There is a crack/a crack in everything/that’s how the light gets in.

While in Israel, we visited the pavilion that honours the Anzacs at the charge of Beersheba. Here, British, Australian and New Zealand soldiers defeated the Turkish defenders of the strategic wells dug by my biblical ancestors the Patriarchs. The respective allied forces took distinct roles in the battle; it fell to Australian horsemen to attack Turkish gun emplacements on horseback in what is described as the last cavalry charge in history.

At the pavilion we bumped into an ocker individual called Colin, a volunteer guide to the place. Colin grew up in Melbourne and came up to Israel forty-five years ago. He’s older than I, taller than Goliath, rounder than Falstaff, utterly devoted to the place and its Australian heroes. He’s also rigorously honest and quite unwilling to gild any historic lilies in his narrative. He doesn’t need to. If you are Jewish or Australian, or if you’ve ever thrilled to the power of horseflesh at the gallop, I defy you to hear Colin’s account of the charge and to watch footage of the re-enactment and to emerge with dry eyes.

While in Israel my thirteen-year old twin grandsons and I accomplished in 45 minutes at Masada what took besieging Roman armies three years: we reached the top of this mesa on foot. The Snake Path takes its name from its serpentine coiling route up the rugged steeps from Dead Sea level. Only Ancient Romans and boys at puberty choose to make the climb on foot in that blazing desert. Others take the cable car.

While in Israel we visited a cousin whose incurable medical condition is so extremely rare most doctors have never heard of it. (I hadn’t.) Of the details of my cousin’s plight I have nothing to say here. Rather, it is of a community that so elevates the care of its disabled that I feel moved to write. I witnessed among Israelis a broad embrace. No-one is hidden away. In the synagogue, in the streets, at tourist sites, in all manner of public places, the ill-formed, the mentally ill, the amputee, the palsied, the intellectually deficient, alongside those extremely aged, ride their electric conveyances and live among their people. Tough Israelis, old and young, include their disabled with tenderness. I saw it on all sides and always I felt thankful and oddly humbled.

While in Israel, at the precise moment of our landing at Ben Gurion airport, the people learned of the results of their elections to the national parliament. We lugged and sweated our way through Immigration and emerged into the dazzle of Israel light. Our cab driver had no words for us; he was listening to the election news.

Mi nitzach (who won)? – I asked.

Bibi.

Our driver discharged himself of those two syllables – that were to comprise his entire conversation – without emphasis or feeling. It was a fact.

In Tel Aviv, on the beaches, in the streets and cafes, on the buses, neither excitement, nor surprise, nor exultation. I sensed a numbness, a resignation: Bibi had gained victory, but respect? Irrelevant question, it appeared.

(An aside, a quiz:

1. Who won five of the last six elections in Israel?

2. Who won five of the last six free, clean elections in the Middle East ?

Answers to 1 and 2: the same person)

While in Israel the New York Times cartoon appeared: Trump in a black yarmulke, led by dachshund–Netanyahu, wearing a Star of David. Oops, sorry, a mistake, said ‘The Times.’ Some readers were surprised, some shocked. I was one who felt both, personally, and deeply disturbed. A violence had occurred in my immediate vicinity; a newspaper like the ‘The Times’ is that territory of thought occupied by people of moderation, of contemplation, of liberal values.

The cartoonist pleads the absolute, inviolable sanctity of free speech. A week or so after ‘The Times’ published the cartoon, someone decided to attack a Jewish house of prayer and study in Poway, California. Only one fatality.

Barely seventy years have passed since the unspeakable. Few remember, fewer know. Memory does not prevent repetition. Where today does the Jew feel secure? As I write this news arrives of four hundred rockets fired from Gaza onto civilian targets in Israel. Illogically, in precisely that place where most attacks occur, a Jew feels safest. Ultimately there exists but one land where the Jew is not the stranger, not dispensible.

On an isolated beach south of Haifa I went running with a friend and colleague, an Israeli Paediatric Emergency Physician. Picking out a ragged path between clumps of ground cover I kept a sharp eye out for snakes. ‘Do you treat much snakebite in Israel? – I asked. ‘Not so much in the cities, but down south, around Beersheba, plenty.’

‘What species?’

‘Viper.’

‘What about scorpion bite?’

‘Plenty.’

I thought about our countries’ respective biters. Scorpion bite in the Australian outback is not common. I’ve not heard of any fatalities.

An old story came to mind; my friend had never heard it, so I told him: A frog was swimming in the Nile when a scorpion called to him from the bank.