Meeting Moses in the Wilderness

A winter’s afternoon in a northern outback town. The sun broiling my white skin in the current slow-roast mode. At the taxi rank outside Coles I stand, waiting, midst my regretted plastic bags filled with food purchases. A few metres distant stands a compact Aboriginal lady with her bags, also waiting for a cab. A roaring from the middle of the street, busy with Friday afternoon traffic. The roars emerge from the centre of a bearded black face. The face sits atop a tall and rangy frame. Long limbs convey trunk and roaring face across the street between moving vehicles that pass and part as the Red Sea waters. Mister Beard’s legs weave in a singular, sinuous, almost swimming gait. He makes shore just beyond the waiting lady, who half turns to him, speaks a quick, quiet word to him, at which he desists from his roaring.

As the man passes the woman his whispered promise to her drifts on the warm air to my ears: “No humbug!”

Approaching me now the man is taller and wider than I appreciated. His articulated body parts have a folding, telescoping tendency, now unseen, now seen briefly, in the fluidity of his motion. The man stops at half a metre distant, I atop the kerb, he on the roadway. He bends forward, lowering a shaggy head to the level of my face. “Goood Afternooon”, he croons winningly, his large and elastic lips sliding into smiling. “I will tell you my story, story of my country.”
The man checks his speech to extend an upper limb towards me. The hand that grasps my own (size eight surgical glove, “large” in an operating theatre) hand now hides mine entirely. Soft, cool, its palm a pale honey shade, that expansive hand shakes my own: “Welcome to country”, it says.
The winning voice speaks again: “What is your name, sir?
“Howard.”
“Howard – a good name: the Prophet Howard. I am” – a deep bow, the crooning speech – “I am Mohhses…the Prophet Howard and the Prophet Moses!”
“Well Moses, it’s good to meet you. And Moses is a good name, a very good name. I am not so sure about the Prophet Howard. The last Howard leader we had was John Howard.
Moses’ wide face contracts in thought, opening again into full flowering grin: “No, not so good really”. A gust of laughter blows a fruity aromatic breeze to my nose.
“Sir – Howard – would you lend me two, three dollars?”
My brain falters as my hand dives to the bottom of my hip pocket where the coins gravitate during shopping.
“Just four dollars, five.”
My thinking self doesn’t buy alcohol for a drink-ruined man. But here he is, ‘Mohhses’, in his large physicality, in his irresistible humanness. Here he stands, but a breath distant from me.
Human impulse and slow judgement wrestle within me, a longish bout apparently, for now Moses moves unexpectedly, half a step backwards, as his knees flex, his torso descends, his head recedes downwards, down toward the tarmac.
A sudden shout breaks from me as my arms grasp and yank the man’s shoulders: “No! No! Moses don’t you ever do that! Don’t you kneel before me.”
The man rises. His rueful grin concedes, “well, that ruse didn’t work”. My own voice, murmuring now my small mean thoughts, “Moses, I don’t think you really mean I should ‘lend’ you money. Don’t you mean ‘give’?”
The face is at rest, now pensive, now lit anew: “I will sing you a song. My song. I come from Kohhhlahhhmbarooo.”
Moses pauses as he feels the weight of a cluster of small brazen coins entering his palm from mine.

Now the man sings. Listening acutely for the secrets of country, I stand poised on the pavement, even as my cab approaches.
The singing voice is sweet, the phrases protracted, Moses in motion with the rhythm of the song and the ruin of his proprioception. The honeyed voice, draws sound from the great body, sound that flows and undulates in no tongue familiar to my ears.
The cab is upon me, an electric window slides down and a Philippino face asks me, “Where to, mate?”
And Moses sings on. Now the words take shape. “Do nooot forsaaaake me, o my daaaarling…”
I thank the man from Kolamburu and hide my hand in his. We shake, I reclaim my limb and climb into the car. As we drive away, Moses sings on, “On this ouuuuuur wedddddding daaaaaay….”

Road to Recovery – (my piece published in Australian Financial Review)

Road to Recovery Financial Review article

This article appeared in the Australian Financial Review 3 January 2014. It first appeared in the Griffith Review 10th anniversary edition in 2013.This story is an edited version of a piece that will be published in 2015, in an upcoming book entitled ‘Burned Man’.

In truth, I am beshat*

In my days in the Diamond Valley I made the acquaintance of a man who enjoyed conversation, a school teacher. He saw that I enjoyed the odd excursion from the straight narrows of medicine and so he told me stories. A tall man, he needed his height to ferry his round tummy, pregnant with decades of plentiful daily ale. His face was merry, his cheeks red, his nose pitted and fretted and bulbous with the veritas of his vinous ways. His skin fell in furrows over his wasted muscles.

The teacher told me stories, breathing over me the rich aroma of his vegetable of choice, tobacco leaf.

He enjoyed company, he liked stories, he was avid to hear mine and generous with his own. Some times the teacher came to consult me about his health, but even then there was always a story.

Doc, I had diarrhoea yesterday. It was funny in a way.

“Are you any better today?”

Fine, as far as diarrhea goes. It’s just the cough. I’d better explain.

Yesterday we took all the Grade Twos and Grade Threes on an excursion. Great excitement. First excursion for those kids. We were taking them to the Museum, forty-one kids, two teachers, two aides and a few parents as volunteers.

 

There was this great buzz. You know the excitement of a bunch of kids? You can feel it, the hum, the excitement.

We herded the kids onto the bus, forty-plus of them, chirping, a bunch of chicks on a first flight from the nest. It took forever to get them aboard, get them seated.  Finally, are we all aboard? I was Senior. I called the roll: all present, all correct. Just to double check, I walked the aisle and did a count: forty-one kids. Two were away sick.

 

I stood up front, next to the driver, to make my little speech. I told the children how lucky we were, how we would visit the museum and see exhibits from olden times as well as models of dinosaurs.

At mention of dinosaurs all the kids are excited. One child near the front pipes up with a question: “Did you see dinosaurs when you were our age?”

You know a question like that, it can be a smartarse wisecrack from some show off, but this was spontaneous, straightforward curiosity. A little girl, free of artifice or design, just wanting to know. I saw myself as she saw me – old, clever, full of knowledge and memory, a relic, a museum piece. As a teacher you live for that freshness, those moments. You relish the child’s gravity and your own absurdity.

 

So the child asked, filled me with delight. And hilarity. I laughed. That’s where I went wrong. I laughed and laughed. Everyone joined in. I laughed until I started coughing. I coughed so hard I lost control of my bowel. I felt my pants fill. I felt it run down my legs.  The children up front smelled it.

We have arrived now at the symptoms – cough and diarrhea: “What did you do?”

The teacher’s face radiates mirth. He sees what the children saw.

What could I do? I said, ‘There will be a short delay while I duck home and clean up and change.’ And that’s what I did. Ten minutes later we were on our way.

I’ll tell you something, Howard. We all had a great day. And those  forty-one kids will never forget their first excursion, that day, that famous day the teacher shat himself in front of them.

*From The Sot Weed Factor, John Barth 

How Many Camels?

I
How many camels will you take for your daughter?
Not such an unusual question in the Gulf perhaps, but on the deck of a
large passenger ship bound from Genoa for Fremantle, it takes Herbert
unprepared.
I will give you ten camels. What do you say – ten camels for your daughter here?
The man indicates the elder of the two girls.
Herbert looks at his girls. He looks and sees Helenka, his firstborn,
an elf flitting and dipping at will as she plays with Masha, who is
not yet ten. They are playing with their dolls.
At this lull in adult conversation, Helenka looks up. She sees no sign
that she is the subject of the stalled conversation – nor an object.
She takes Masha’s hand and pulls her across the deck to play
hopscotch.
The stranger is watching too. His appraising eye follows the movement
of the elf as she leaps and glides at hopscotch. He sees slim legs
flashing, a hint of fulness at the hips. He looks at the child – a
question still unasked, sees womanhood – a trader’s answer.
The stranger takes Herbert’s silence as rejection of an insufficient
offer. He speaks again: Twenty camels then. What do you say to twenty?

II
In his little dress shop, Herbert is in the clothing trade. Fort
Street, Fremantle is not a chic address, but his clientele is worldly
enough – they come from all corners of the world: in the course of
their escape to Australia, to Fremantle, they have seen the worst of
the world.
Worldly – and fussy too. Never mind the quality, is it cheap? Never
mind style, what’s the price?
But Herbert is worldly too. He understands that his heavy accent is
not a marketing advantage, but that a pretty face and a winning manner
might be.
His older daughter is worth twenty camels: this is Helenka whose face
might have launched so many ships of the desert. So, every day, after
school finishes and on Saturdays, Helenka works as a marketing
advantage in the clothing trade.

III
A couple comes into the shop. The lady has little English, has brought
her man as interpreter. They converse in a Slavic language, which the
marketing advantage happens to comprehend. Helenka shows a seemingly
intuitive understanding of the lady’s needs and her budget. She
selects and shows the lady dresses which cost no more than she is able
to pay. No more, but scarcely a penny less. The lady makes her
purchase and is content. Her bored interpreter notices the imminent
woman inside the child’s school uniform, and loses his languid air.
The child is the only person in attendance and his hungry eyes take it
all in.
A week later, the couple returns to the shop, this time as last time,
well after school closes. The lady needs her new dress altered, which
is quickly arranged. Hungry Eyes is not quickly ready to leave,
however. He chooses dresses, brings them to the young shopgirl, makes
slow enquiries, appears very interested but makes no purchases. He
says he will think about it.
I come again back, he says.

IV
Here in Australia, people are slow and casual. Herbert and Alida are
intense and restless. After a short time, they open a second shop,
this one in Station Street, Fremantle. They still live above the Fort
Street shop. Alida has newly-arrived cousins, fresh from Europe. They
have no home and no income. Alida and Herbert install them above the
second shop, where there is sufficient space for the cousins to live,
and to sew dresses for the shops. Now the newcomers have both a home
and a business.
Freda runs the Station Street shop and it consumes her.
Herbert is an early riser. Each morning he practises yoga, standing on
his head for up to an hour at a time. During this time, his scrotum is
suspended upside down, practically weightless. At all other times, he
feels its full weight and urgency. As soon as Helenka returns from
school, she takes over in the shop from Herbert and he is free to go
elsewhere and attend to his urgency.
And above the shop, Helenka’s mother, back from Station Street,
mothers Masha, washes and cleans, and cooks for two households. Soon,
more cousins arrive in Fremantle, then more, washed ashore, wave upon
wave, generated by the after shocks of Europe. Alida helps them all,
feeding as many as will come and eat.
At such times, Helenka is alone in the shop. She is alone when – true
to his word – Hungry Eyes comes again back.
He asks for an item of apparel which cannot be found on the racks in
the showroom. Helen says she’ll go and look for the item in the
stockroom. She is taken by surprise when Hungry Eyes follows her
there. She turns to explain that he can wait in the shop – she will
bring it, but he moves forward, keeps on moving until he has backed
her against the back wall. She discovers then, as his body rubs
against hers, upwards, downwards, forwards and backwards, that he is
just like her violin teacher back in Hamburg: he is a rubber. At least
he is not like her French teacher, not a feeler.
She is not surprised when the rubbing abruptly stops, nor by his
moments of gasping, nor by his rapid retreat with that funny gait.
And she is not surprised when he comes again back, again.
For his part, Hungry Eyes is most surprised by the large Alsatian in
the stockroom, which Helen has borrowed from the Greek boy next door.
And when the Alsatian snarls and bares large fangs at him, Hungry Eyes
runs, with very efficient gait, from the shop and does not return. Continue reading