From Laurenzo Marques to Nyngan on Bogan

A man accosts me in the darkened lobby of the hospital in the small town where I’m working. ‘Shalom’, he says.
He gropes inside the front of his shirt and pulls out a silver magen david.
‘Shalom aleichem’, says I.
We swap names. For the purposes of this story, his name is Federico.
Federico looks not ancient, not brand new. He’s tall, compact, has an olive complexion and he bends forward as he speaks. His accent is not Australian-made. His English is arrhythmic.


‘What are you doing In Nyngan, Federico?’
‘I live here. Thirteen years now.’
‘Will you tell me your story?’
He does so.
 
 Before I repeat Federico’s story, allow me orient you to the remote, obscure town of Nyngan by referring you to my recent blog post (Nyngan on the Bogan).
 
Back to Federico: ‘I come from Mozambique. You know, was colony of Portugal. In 1976 Salazar dies. A bastard, Salazar. Like Franco, not a Jew-lover. Both of them, friends of Mussolini. Salazar dies, the blacks start to revolt and Portugal says, OK, we leave. They just run away, no negotiation, no transition. Then starts the war. A civil war. Massacres, the usual thing. First the Portuguese come to the coast in sixteenth century, they set up the port, Lorenzo Marques, a stopping place to their bits of empire in India. They go to India for the spices. They build their African colony by sending all their criminals, convicts. Like Australia. Like Australia, the same, those convicts become successful and they are comfortable. Portugal comes, butchers the blacks, in 1977 they go, then more massacres. Africa.
 
A nice place actually, Mozambique – for a Portuguese. But not now, not in ’77. In ’77, I know if I stay I will die. I leave my birthplace. My barmitzvah was there. In the synagogue, in Lorenzo Marques. Now I am in Portugal, a refugee, among all the refugees – from Mozambique, from Timor, from all places that Portugal runs away from. I cannot go back to Lorenzo Marques. Another Jewish refugee. History’s old story.
 
 
No-one can go to LM now. It does not exist: now the town is Maputo. And the big statue of that old colonist, Lorenzo Marques, they tear it down. Now in that square is a sculpture of a bird.   
 
 
My grand-grandfather comes from Portugal to Mozambique. Now my family, all gone, all scattered. Six brothers and sisters, some in London, some in South Africa, one sister in Norway. She was the last one of the six I have seen. She used to visit me here in Nyngan, every winter of Norway. Last time I visited her was before five years. That last time, in Norway. Family all scattered. The Jewish story. Always the same. You know.
 
 
You want to hear how I come to Australia? Things happen for a reason. There is a meaning. I study history, I research. There is a reason. I believe that. So in Portugal I am safe. My grand-grandfather was Portuguese so I have citizenship. But no future, a refugee. The Jewish story. Always the same. So I wander. I work in Vancouver, I leave, my visa has finished. I work in South Africa. Many Jewish there. I work In London, in Finchley Road. Again many Jewish. I work in Norway. In between visas I work on cruise ships. Eight years on cruise ships; you don’t need a visa. On cruise ships there are Jewish. Also Barbados, every one old, everyone rich. Some Jews there too. I work In Korea. That’s where the miracle happens that brings me to Australia.
 
 
One year before Korea in Vancouver I apply for Australia. A Mozambiquean friend in Australia advises me: be careful what you tell them when you apply in the Embassy. Don’t say the wrong thing. So the embassy woman, she asks me what I will do – she means work – in Australia. I say I have qualification. I tell her I am chef. I don’t know what answer is the right answer. I know from my friend they don’t tell you what they want and what they do not want, but if you say wrong, they close the door. I answer, I pay the application. It will take a few months, the application, she tells me. Another cruise. And another. A letter arrives from Ottawa. The letter is from Australian High Commission in Ottawa. I have immigration visa. But no money. To come to Australia I must pay. So I wander on cruises and I work and I save. And I know I will leave the ships one day and I will settle and all my friends on the ship, always they will be slaves. I pay for a flight from Korea to Australia. Maybe three hundred American dollars, I go to the airline office to pick up ticket, the day before my flight. But it is a public holiday in Korea. Office is closed. I have paid, I have visa, I have no ticket. My flight is tomorrow. Here happens the miracle. I put my face against the window. I see people inside, cleaning. I make with fingers – come here please – come to window, I must ask. They come, but no-one speak English. They find someone. I tell him I need my ticket, I point to the office where the woman sold me the ticket, they go in, bring the woman out. A miracle. A public holiday, in Korea, the office is closed but I have my ticket. Things happen for a reason, I believe it.
 
 
 
In Australia, in Sydney, I work in Bondi Junction. Again many Jewish. I am there some years. I marry there, my wife have lymphoma before we meet. Then she is cured and we marry. Have children. Since thirteen years I am in Nyngan. I come here, I come here for the peace. I work at the pub as chef. Then the manager closes the kitchen, leaves Nyngan, manages from the city. I have no job, but things happen for a reason. I believe that. I sit in this coffee shop and the manager of the biggest hotel comes in, says, Hello Federico. Come work for me.
 
 
Small town, you know, everyone knows everyone. Good people here. My wife gets a second cancer. We drive to Dubbo, we drive to Sydney, we drive, drive. Always long drives, costs hundreds of dollars petrol. And the people of Nyngan collect money for our travel. Good people in Nyngan. Nothing happens without a reason. But my son, he’s grown up, I tell him – get out of Nyngan, no future for you here, go see the world, go build your future. You know I believe.
 
 
Will you do me a favour, Howard? I want for my doorpost the Jewish sign, for the doorpost, you know. I google but I don’t just buy. Has to be real, you. Needs the writing inside, not just the box .   

Nyngan on the Bogan

 
 The term bogan (/ˈboʊɡən/[1]) is a derogatory Australian and New Zealand slang word used to describe a person whose speech, clothing, attitude and behaviour exemplify values and behaviour considered unrefined or unsophisticated. Depending on the context, the term can be pejorative or self-deprecating.[2]

  – Wikipedia
 
 
I never dreamed the river would give its name to the shire. I knew only that Nyngan was built on the eastern bank of the Bogan. A friend who knows his outback towns said, ‘You’ll like Nyngan. Nyngan’s doing well.’ My friend was right. I do like Nyngan. And I like the river. But I never imagined ‘Bogan Shire.’ You drive along the main street through the shopping centre, and you come to a small rise. At its top a sign reads: GIVE WAY TO HORSES IF ON BRIDGE. And there, stretching away to your left and your right are the tranquil waters of the river. Quiet flows the Bogan; you might say it’s a river with decorum.
 
 
 
It was not always thus. In April 1990 unusually heavy rains fell in the catchment areas upstream. The Bogan rose and threatened the town’s modest levee banks. The local populace built a frenzied barrier of sandbags but the levee was breached and the town was flooded. The townspeople had to be airlifted out. The airfield being under water the only effective aircraft were helicopters. Everyone was helicoptered out, some on army choppers, on others owned by private individuals, and aboard yet others belonging to TV stations. The populace of an entire town was hoisted away into the air. One of the military choppers, a veteran of the Vietnam conflict, returned and stayed. It stands just off the main road as a reminder. Meanwhile the levee bank is now a full two metres higher than the 1990 level.
 
 
 
You must not think there’s been no news in Nyngan since 1990. On the contrary, the town supports a number of newspapers; just how many is hard to work out. I paid my one dollar and eighty cents for The Nyngan Observer and read it from cover to … well no, not to the opposite cover, because on the way I found a second newspaper, The Daily Liberal. And I was ploughing through the Liberal when I found myself engrossed in the pages of The Western. And all three papers, locked in amorous embrace, are chockers with news. Through The Observer I learned that students from the tiny school in Hermidale starred at the Dubbo Eisteddfod. (I’ve never previously had to actually write ‘eisteddfod’. Once you’ve written it down, you scratch your head. The written word looks too short. The word feels longer. But there it is. Life in Nyngan is like that – a thrill a minute.)
 
 
The editorial in the Daily Liberal pulls no punches. Beneath a photograph of the (Liberal) premier and a headline: PREMIER STANDS UP TO POLITICAL CORRUPTION, the editor boldly asks: Do ‘you think the convicted criminal and former NSW government minister Eddie Obeid should receive a generous parliamentary pension on the taxpayer’s dime?’ On the facing page Senator Derryn Hinch has no time for pedophiles. I mean he does not award them the right to privacy. The headline reads: RENEWED PUSH TO KNOW WHERE SEX OFFENDERS LIVE. The following pages are drenched with culture. Photo after photo of little girls in tutus, all younger than six, participating in the Dubbo Eisteddfod. The pictures were taken by the wonderfully named Orlander Ruming. They show innocence in sequins and scarlet lipstick. (I hope Derryn’s bad people live far, far away. And they don’t take the Liberal.) The Liberal believes in small business. On page 16 three female businesswomen, Haley, Jacqueline and Georgia are listed under ‘Adult Services’. So adult in fact that one of the three is described as ‘mature.’
 
 

Nyngan Observer


 
Encouraging fact: FIGURES FOR SEX ASSAULT REDUCE. Incidents of malicious damage, fraud and sexual assault have all fallen dramatically in the Bogan Shire (Nyngan Observer). It was only this weekend that ‘The Australian’ smacked its lips, announcing the RISE in crime in Victoria. Wouldn’t you know it – those soft-on-crime socialists? Back at The Liberal we read how Dubbo is a mecca for dole bludgers, ‘ranking eighth for people who fail to attend job interviews, miss appointments and turn down employment offers.’ That’s Dubbo, two hours drive to the east. Dubbo, Bogan City.
 
 
 
But back to the Bogan. The Bogan arises near Parkes from whence it flows 617 kilometres downhill into the Little Bogan River to form the Darling River, near Bourke. The term Bogan is Aboriginal. It refers to ‘the birthplace of a notable person, a headman of a local tribe.’ The local tribe happens to be the Wiradjuri. I’m a Wiradjuri boy; that is I hail from Leeton, which is a long, long way downstream of the Bogan, but it’s still Wiradjuri country. We – Nyngan, the Bogan and I – happen to be in the centre of New South Wales, a state larger than most countries in Europe. From the bridge over the Bogan the road stretches far west to Broken Hill. That’s the Barrier Highway. To the north lies Bourke. I have to confess to a boyish feeling of excitement. Here in Nyngan, in Bogan Shire, I’m surrounded by places and streams of legend: I’m front of Bourke, upstream from the Darling, staring at Broken Hill. Only an hour or two from Parkes (Parkes! You know Parkes? The Dish? Never mind…)
 
 
 
I find myself here in Nyngan, on the Bogan and I find myself happy.
 
 
CULTURAL FOOTNOTES:
 
1. Fifty kilometres south of Nyngan you’ll find a sculpture of Thurman The Dog. I have been unable to learn more than the name and the location. If you find out please let me know.
2. This Tuesday June 20 a visiting author will read from ’A Threefold Cord’, the exciting, hilarious, suspenseful, uplifting and all-around good novel by Howard Goldenberg. Howard will read to the grades four, five and six of the Nyngan Public School. Don’t miss it!

Men, Today we Die a Little

Emil Zatopek spoke those words to his rivals at the starting line of the Olympic Marathon, in Melbourne in 1956. Throughout his career Zatopek regarded every other runner as a comrade. He talked to everyone everywhere he went. He befriended everyone, including his opponents, chatting with them as they raced. In this respect Emil and I are brothers.

On that marathon day, a Saturday in early December 1956, I was nearly twelve. I had worshipped Zatopek for some time. Later generations do not recognise that name but aficionados – among them Australia’s Ron Clark – remember Emil Zatopek as the greatest Olympic distance runner of all. (What? You don’t know who Ron Clark was?) The marathon course took runners from the stadium, out along Dandenong Road to Dandenong, where they turned for the run back to the MCG. Standing with my mother at the foot of my street in suburban Oakleigh, I picked out Zatopek as he approached, short, balding, a ball of muscular effort. He was not among the first three or so. I ran alongside my hero, racing him from the nature strip. I beat Zatopek over one hundred metres then left him to his devices. Long past his best, injured, unwell, he completed the marathon, finishing in sixth place. 

Sixty years later, in Malta, I was prepared to die a little. Malta was hilly, the roads uneven and hard, the weather brutally clement. Add to that my very late decision to run, and my token training, and I deserved to die more than a little.

I set my alarm for 0445 hours. I booked my cab for 0545. I lay down and sweet sleep enfolded me. My alarm never rang; sleep abruptly forsook me at 0300, leaving me to wrestle with a now hostile pillow and futility. At 0330 I gave up, got up and switched off the redundant alarm. I contemplated the coming day sourly. If you run a marathon with a sleep debt the late miles will claim settlement; effectively you fall asleep on your feet, concentration falters and resolution slumbers.

So I did what any drug addict does. I brewed and drank a thunderbolt coffee. Then I recited my dawn prayers. Then I did what any drug cheat does. I drank some more strong coffee. It was a thoughtful cheat who drained that second cup. There would be no more caffeine until after the race. In every other marathon runners deposit their personalized drinks before the start. These drinks are marked with the runner’s name and the relevant kilometer mark. As we approach every 5K mark we know our drinks await us. My drinks always contain Coca Cola, which, so the label informs me, contains only natural ingredients. The natural ingredients that interest me in a marathon are water (check) sugar (double check) and caffeine (check, check, check). Malta has no provision for personalised drinks – water and a sports drink only – and as I was to learn, even these might fail. So there’d be no further euphoriant chemicals to carry me through Zatopek’s valley of the shadow.

Being awake so early I bolted a slug of sustaining bircher muesli I had prepared a couple of days earlier. Over the couple of days my bircher had set into the consistency of drying cement. The cement sat in my gullet, a solid and present companion that would keep me company well after the coffee stopped working.

The cab dropped me at the ferry terminal in Sliema. From there our prepaid buses would take us to the start in Mdina. (Have you been to Mdina? You must. Around the Mediterranean, ‘mdina’ – derived from the semitic word ‘medina’ – signifies the old city. This particular old city sits atop hills, a fortress from its inception, its honeyed stone walls shining in the sun. I have visited and loved and gone mad time and time again in Jerusalem’s old city, a city most particular to me; and yet I have to declare, by narrow aesthetic criteria, I find Malta’s Mdina Jerusalem’s equal. And in both cases, the city’s geography is its history. Situated at strategic geopolitical crossroads, both have been loved, contended, changed hands again and again, and remain beautiful, beloved and blood drenched.)

Before the Marathon


The bus slid through the dying night. Runners from everywhere chatted in the dimness. I heard African accents, Asian, singsong Italian, German, and Eastern European tongues heavy in consonant and intensity. Regional British accents all around, French too, somehow always a whispering music. Four thousand would run, but only 900 of these would run the full 42.195 kilometre event. Of these Maltans are a small proportion. I suspected Pheidipides Goldenberg constituted the entire Australian contingent. 

The race information booklet advised the oldest male in the full marathon was one Giuseppe Balzarini. At 78 this fellow would be seven years my senior. A skeleton in a bright yellow shirt stood suddenly before me. His face of olive skin hung in deep stubbled folds. He had some teeth, not many, but all of them flashed me a brilliant grin. His right forefinger extended, nearly touching my own yellow shirt: You. How many?

Seventy one. My own index finger came into play: Which country?

The face showed incomprehension. His palms opened interrogatively: How much?

I showed the man seven fingers, then a single digit.

Ahh! Huge smile. The man indicated himself: Me…he showed me seven fingers then eight. His teeth were overjoyed. Then the man – the name on his shirt read not Giuseppe but Edouardo – did something unexpected. He extended his right hand once again, and brought it close to my cheek. Once, twice, Edouardo soft palm patted my cheek. An uncle could not have touched me more tenderly. Of course, my own hand rose to Edouardo’s face and did the same. Chest to chest, smile to crooked smile, we were two Zatopeks. We stood for a moment, then he was gone. I hoped I’d see him again.
Naturally we had arrived at the Start an hour before starting time. Naturally we all used the Portapotties. Mildly grotesque and richly comic are these lines of runners waiting to discharge some of the surplus we have so purposefully taken in. We stand or jiggle or dance, all of us declaring publicly a quite private intention. We wait and we wait, none of us knowing in what condition we will find the accommodation. (Beyond silently thanking my obsessive precursor I forbear here to report.)

But I can tell you on emerging I found it pretty cold up there on that hilltop, the wind rising from the Valetta plain, coaxing gooseflesh from my limbs. I found the numbered van corresponding to my race number and deposited my bag of possessions in the back. Then, sneaking around the front I let myself into the driver’s cabin, tried to make myself invisible, and let my flesh thaw.

The race was to start at 0730 hours. At 0710 my solitude was disturbed: You alright?

It was the driver. Yes I was alright, thanks.

Is OK. Next time you ask?

Yes. Next time. Thank you.

At 0720 my bladder had an afterthought. Back at the Portapotty queues a fair-haired runner named Michelle provided entertainment for us latecomers. A stocky young person, Michelle did not look African lean. I doubted she’d last the distance. (I was wrong.) But as a sprinter she was quite good. As soon as a Portapotty door swung open Michelle would race forward, only to find opportunity snatched from her. This open door was for males only, that open door was the same, this other one opened all right – exposing the buttocks of an occupant who wasn’t expecting company. Michelle danced on the spot, whether to warm up or to maintain continence, the effect was to divert us from our private concerns.

At 0725 the Public Address summoned us to the Start. At 0729 and fifty seconds the PA voice said ten seconds to go. Let’s all count down! Nine hundred voices complied. Zero! – cried the nine hundred. Go! – cried the PA. And we did. Tragically the first kilometres downhill from the citadel of Mdina were downhill. Utterly seduced, my legs flew. For the time being my body, cement bircher included, was weightless. Of course I could not catch my breath. And my sanity fled far away, not to be overtaken for twenty kilometres.

 

What followed in the next five hours will not hold your interest. I recall it all, of course, but wish to forget it. The marathon organisers warned runners the event would conclude at 1300 hours – fully five and a half hours after the start. After that, runners would receive no medal, their finishing times would go unrecorded and unreported. I thought five-and-a-half hours long enough to have a birthday: surely I’d beat the deadline. I had drawn up my plans, dividing the 42.195 kilometres into hopeful ‘quarters’ of 11 kms, 11 kms, 10 and 10.195 kms. I allowed these splits 70, 75, 80 and 90 minutes respectively, totalling five hours and fifteen minutes. A finishing time that would rank with my Personal Blushful Worst.

Of course everything transpired otherwise. Too fast in the first stanza, too undigesting in the second, too beaten up in the legs by Malta’s rocky roadways in the third, too thirsty in the fourth. Thus reads my list of excuses. 

It is true that the shabby mobile kiosk at 28 kms was emblazoned with the sacred words: Coca Cola. But the bewhiskered vendor had no change of my twenty Euro note. He offered me the drink gratis, but I waved his offer away. Even an addict would not rob the poor. It is true too that the water stations at 30 and 35 kilometres ran dry before my arrival at the tail of the field. I felt grumpy for a bit, a new sensation in a marathon. My uncharitable feelings quickly evaporated in the glorious sunshine – unseasonable, given Malta’s weather patterns for late winter. From the five kilometer mark onward I ran bare-chested, bare-bulging-bellied too – not a flattering look but a practical one.

The 30km mark


The final stanza of the course passed through a light industrial estate, a place barren of cheer or cheering crowds. There were none of the uplifting musicians of the first stanza. Thirty-two bands were named in the race brochure. Of these most of the final sixteen were packing up by the time we of the tail reached them. The brochure promised clashing drums, blasting brass, oompahing tubae, and so there were initially. But I could see the matter from the viewpoint of the musicians. By the final kilometres individual runners were spread out, separated by up to 200 metres. A band numbering eight musos might feel a bit absurd playing to one struggling runner.

How different, how soul nourishing was the raven-haired beauty who sang to me at the thirty-seven kilometer mark. (Yes, I appreciate your scepticism here – had it been a veritable Gorgon playing a guitar and singing I’d have felt an uplift. But truly she was beautiful.) The young woman might have been about twenty. Seated alone in a wilderness of concrete, on an ordinary kitchen chair, long black hair falling heavy behind her, guitar on her knee and a mike in front, she gave voice. Sounds issued from her throat that soared upward to the heavens whence they surely came. A moment of joy. When I think of it now – sober, rested, replenished of fluids and foods, and yes – of caffeine, that joy returns. It remains, a treasure to which I can return, long after my week of days in Malta.

38 Kms, read the sign at the roadside. At sea level now, tracing the shoreline of the bay I could not wait for the finish. I shuffled past that sign alone. In the near distance ahead a stocky form and a fall of fair hair told me how wrong I had been in underestimating Michelle. Yet I knew I would overtake her. Surely. Light footsteps behind, a flash of bright yellow far to my left, and this was Edouardo, plowing on, on, looking neither right nor left. I decided I would sneak past Edouardo. I would be the first septuagenarian to cross the line. I moved to the far right of the course, where my rival might not notice my challenge. I drew ahead. Then I looked at my watch – I had 28 minutes for less than four kilometres. I could do that comfortably. Then comfort undid me. I stopped that loathesome running and I walked.

Now Edouardo drew abreast of me, now inching past, he left me behind, a moral ruin. I resumed running, without conviction, without really trying. Michelle receded. Edouardo flowed on. I plodded, I walked, I ran. I lacerated myself with self censure. Around a bend, I looked in vain for the finish. Around another bend, two bright figures, walking in the opposite direction, waved and cheered me on. I recognised the tall woman in her thirties and her male companion, she from Sweden, her husband British. Both wore Finisher’s Medals. I had made their acquaintance at the seven kilometre mark. This was their first marathon, their training had been nugatory. We’d exchanged hoped-for finishing times, we wished each other luck. And now the tyros had shown the veteran how it was done. The encounter lifted my spirits. From that point on – perhaps the 41Km mark – I mainly ran.

Around one more bend, I lacked the courage to look up for the Finish Line. But the crowd noises told me I was close. And the Public Address blaring: and here comes another runner, Ladies and Gentlemen. Cheer him on, help him beat the cut-off time.

I lifted my feet, raised my head, pumped my arms, achieving an ugly sprint. The crowd roared, quite deceived into thinking I had been trying my best. The numbers on the clock astonished me: five hours, 28 minutes. I plunged across the Line.

A banana and a bottle of water materialized in my hands, a foil blanket covered my too hot shoulders, and a medal – the medal – hung heavy from my neck. I shambled forward a hundred metres or so then settled down on a concrete kerb to negotiate nausea. A pair of brown legs approached, stopped within a metre. It was Edouardo. With all my heart I congratulated him. Once again I asked, From what country do you come?

Italia! – and that smile again. We shook hands. The better man had won and I loved him.             

And that was number fifty.
 

A Backward Country 

There’s a problem here. Police officers wander around singly, unadorned by bullet-proof vestments, no gun at their hips. I took the ferry to Gozo. No-one searched my bag or my body. Same when I entered the bank, the same at The Grand Hotel Excelsior. The same at the Biblioteca National. 

People seem relaxed. A citizen trusts her neighbour. 

The place is full of foreigners but no-one seems to care. We are just across the water from Libya and no-one is afraid. Negligent governments have not sown mistrust. Is everyone here asleep?

A backward country, this. I met Malta’s number three cop. A gentle sort of fellow, he seemed about as menacing as a powder puff. Where were their blokes who swagger around the borders and within them, like the Border Protection Force that keeps all us Aussies feeling so safe?

I went to a barber shop. Hidden up a staircase above a (not very) supermarket, and around some corners, it was a narrow establishment, its proportions little bigger than our guest powder room in my home. I hesitated at the threshold. Something faintly seedy about the joint, hard to pin down. A scent of tobacco breath mingled with barbershop smells. There were two chairs, one occupied. A tangle of odd black electric cords hung from a power point, metal implements lay scattered as if some disturbance had been and passed.
 

A young man with olive skin and a spade-shaped black beard looked up from the head he was trimming and waved me in. He was lean and tall, his black hair falling in wild waves about his narrow head. I guessed the young man might be in his late twenties. He looked lithe and coiled – Caravaggio before a brawl.

A second young man seated in the depths of the room rose as I entered. He too was tall, but better fed, perhaps a few years younger. His head was crowned with tight black curls pulled back into a pony tail, his jaw covered in a curly black spade. I thought I caught a fugitive smile. He waved me to the second chair, stood over and close to me, and raised an eyebrow. It was a question. I answered with a question: Can you make me beautiful?

I no English much.  

I pointed to my own chin, scruffy with whitish undergrowth. Zero, I said.

He nodded enthusiastically.

I pointed to my scalp, an arid garden.

Two, please.

More nodding, a big smile.

I sat back and considered. Flowing beards are all the go here, but it’s the barbers not the barbered who wear them. I looked around for a cut-throat blade, sighted none, sat back again and relaxed. The two young men were engaged in jovial conversation with a third, the customer in the first chair. I wondered what the joke was. Perhaps it was me. I listened for words I might recognise. The local language Malti is Semitic. It sounds quite a bit like Arabic, from which it traces its origins, with plenty of words similar to Hebrew which I can speak tolerably fluently. As the men conversed I sensed this might be street Malti, pretty rough and ready, perhaps untroubled by grammar or syntax. I listened some more. Lots of words were familiar, too many: this was Arabic, not Malti.

In all the flow of camaraderie and good humour, my barber man concentrated hard on my hair. His movements were gentle and deft. In the mirror my scalp rose into view from its sheddings; a wide and empty plain surfaced where I was used to seeing hairs. Two was shorter than I expected. Given the intimacy between me and the barber man, I felt we should be on first name terms: 

What’s your name?

Asraf.

My name is Howard.

Hawa?

How-wad. 

How Wad.

I nodded and grinned. Good to meet you, Asraf. 

From where you come?

Australia.

Asraf digested this: Much far.

Yes. Where do you come from Asraf?

Tripoli.

Libya!

Yes.

Asraf grinned and resumed operations.

My artist spent a lot of time and close concentration on corners and in nooks where I seldom gaze. Nostrils were explored, earholes broached, ear perimeters subject to hair-by-hair extirpation. Finally he straightened, turned, laid down his electric instrument, and advanced bearing a cut-throat blade. I felt a tremor. My misgiving derived not for Ironbark but Sinai: the biblical prohibition echoed -Ye shall not round the corners of your heads, neither shalt thou mar the corners of thy beard. For some reason the naked blade is held to violate this Law while the electric trimmer is accepted – by some. I waved away Asraf’s trusty skibouk: Not this one. I like electric. After a further fifteen minutes of electric search and destroy Asraf was content there were no escapees.  
Asraf removed the tarp from my torso. I rose and together we surveyed my remains:

Shukran, I said.

How you know Arabic?

I produced my yarmulke and applied it to my naked scalp.

Asraf’s grin was huge. Reaching for his phone he leaned and wrapped his arm around me and took a photo of us both. A modest sum augmented by an immodest tip changed hands. We shook, I left and went to buy groceries next door. Exiting the grocer’s a few minutes later, I nearly bumped into Asraf and Carravaggio. They’d gone outside for a smoke. Whenever I see someone smoking I feel a pang, and I ask myself, Why? 

I waved as I passed by my friend from Tripoli and guessed the answer to Why? might lie in what he’d seen, what and whom he’d left behind. 

 

Last Coffee at the Prairie Hotel

 

It will be centuries/before many men are truly at home in this country,/and yet, there have always been some, in each generation/there have always been some who could live in the presence of silence.*

 

Have you ever visited Parachilna? Situated in the remote north end of the Flinders Ranges in the South Australian outback, this town is reckoned to have a population of six souls. The principal edifice in the town is the Prairie Hotel. If you visit this pub, as I have, repeatedly over the past two decades, you will count many more bodies than the half dozen you might expect. We come in all our different ages and stages to Parachilna and we stop at the Prairie Hotel. We come – grey nomads and graziers and gourmands – we come in our large SUV’s, our battered utes, our private planes. We arrive for the famous food, the haunting landscape, the novelty, the romance!

 

Though I myself run to the cities. I will forever/be coming back here to walk…up and away from this metropolitan century…*

 

I come for the coffee and the company. Around Christmas time, with summer blazing in the Flinders, the nomads have fled back south, tourism has withered and the hills stare back at the bleaching sun. The world lies silent, listening to its aeons. The Prairie Hotel is old, its walls of stone thick, holding the heat at bay. In this heat and desolation eccentrics and locals gather in the cool of the bar of the pub.

 

 

And some, I have known them, men with gentle broad hands,/ who would die if removed from these unpeopled places…*

 

At this time of the year Christian doctors have joined their loved ones in the moist green down south, leaving in their place a locum, old, wearing his Jewish hat. In that sense I am both eccentric and a local. 

 

Though I go to the cities, turning my back on these hills/…for the sake of belonging…/the city will never quite hold me. I will be always/coming back here…to see, on far-off ridges,/ the sky between the trees, and…to hear the echo and the silence.*

 

I mentioned the coffee. If you hate coffee most places in the Flinders Ranges will reinforce your hatred. But if you revere the sacred bean, come drink at The Prairie Hotel. There, Lachlan Fargher presides over a serious espresso machine. There I drop in year upon year, unannounced. Lachie looks up, says, ‘Hello Howard. Strong latte, extra hot?’ I nod, Lachie bends his handsome head in concentration and soon I sip that elixir that brings me on a drive of sixty-seven kilometres (each way) every lunchtime of my fortnight locum. (Excepting Shabbat. I sure as shit don’t drive on Shabbat.) Others come to drink the eponymous Fargher Lager, others to eat the famed Feral Grill, a collation of native viands, not – I regret – kosher.

 ‘To everything under the sun there is a season…’ All ends, everything passes. That’s what nostalgia is for. The North Flinders is a treasure house for the nostalgist; in Brachina Gorge, see geological striations in great walls of rock telling their mute tale of aeons unimagined; in Arkaroola, note and lament the passing of the ediacaran, whose fossils mark the first life on earth to have nerve cells organised to process sensation; and note the lonely stone walls – unroofed but still erect in their noble proportions – of dwellings abandoned by pioneers whose hearts cracked in the long droughts.

 

Add to this is my own lament. With the passing of the unlamented, lamentably polluting coal resource in Leigh Creek, the mine has closed. Soon the Clinic that served the mine will close too. In future summers the North Flinders will not summon its Jewish locum.

 

Driving south yesterday, at the conclusion of a medical estivation in Leigh Creek, I stopped at the Prairie Hotel. Lachlan Fargher looked up: ‘Hello Howard. Strong latte, extra hot?’ I looked at the Aboriginal paintings in the Dining Room that is really a gallery of fine art. I took in the old timbers, the scarlet collection tin for The Royal Flying Doctor Service. I took in Jane Fargher, Licensee, the brain and spine of a brave enterprise. I looked at Lachie, his black curls bent over his machine; at Avalon, springtime’s barperson. Tomorrow, or tomorrow’s tomorrow, the former will brew Aussie coffee in Nashville Tennessee and the latter will practise criminal law. I drank my latte, said goodbye and drove away.

 

 

 

• Fragments of ‘Noonday Axeman’, by Les Murray

 

Lights off in the City of Churches

We are driving along a principal Adelaide artery. Dusk has fallen and passed. It is dark now. This main road carries a lot of traffic along its numerous parallel lanes. Unfamiliar with Adelaide and totally devoid of any sense of direction, I pay close heed to my guide, Georgie, a native of the city.

 
‘Merge left,’ commands Georgie. I obey. On my right a larger car swoops close, overtaking me. Studiously attentive to my own lane, I concentrate on the road ahead.
 
Georgie explodes. Pablo guffaws. They point: ‘Look! Look! Look over there!’ I look over there. Over there is the car that swooped by a few seconds ago. Indistinct movement from the roof of the car. Lines of cars in our many lanes slow now to take a bend and we close on the vehicle of interest. I sneak another look. There is movement: a head and torso project up through a sunroof.
 
Straightening up now, I resume driving as Pablo and Georgie shriek ever louder: ‘Look! Look!’ I do look. The moving torso has arms. The arms wave frantically. The face appears to be female. The torso is manifestly female: with every wave of her arms the waver causes her breasts to wobble wildly. I know all this because the waving woman is naked from the waist up. What is more, the waving lady seems to be performing specifically for us.
 
This is puzzling. Unfamiliar with local road culture, I wonder whether we are witnessing a species of road rage. In fact the waving and the wobbling – and quite likely the undressing – are all the opposite of road rage: road love, in fact.
 
Jumping and wobbling and waving in the cold of this winter night the woman mouths words in our direction. We cannot hear. Quite frantic now the dancing mime of The Great Northern Road redoubles her tempo. Surely we will notice her, surely we must hear.
 
The traffic lights turn red and all cars come to rest. The swooping car has swapped lanes, drawing directly alongside us so the terpsichorean gesticulator can make herself heard. She makes a winding movement with her right hand. She mouths her message. Windows slide downward in the car on our right. We lower our own. Voices are heard, a chorus from our neighbours: ‘Your lights! Turn on your lights!’
 
We turn on our lights, smile, wave and mouth our thanks. The lights turn green, the dancer disappears from the sunroof and we drive our ways.
 
 
 

Taxi Driver in Jerusalem

The cab driver’s clothing smells of cigarette smoke. He looks about seventy but I tell him he is too young to smoke. He asks, ‘You are doctor?’His throaty voice is the ashtray of a thousand smokes.

I confess I am a doctor and the driver changes the subject. He drives with dash and confidence, like the tank commander he used to be, a few wars ago.

 

He detects my foreigner’s accent in his own language and asks: ‘From which country you come?’

‘Australia. You?’

‘Here. Born here, in this city. Only here.’

‘Here’ is Jerusalem.

The driver starts to sing a love song to his city, the song of a faithful son sung to a mother. 

I listen to the words and as the singer’s voice thickens I take a peek. Tears glisten on the driver’s cheeks as he sings his song.

‘All my life in this city. I live in the house I born. Never leave, never change address. This my one home.’

 

The song ends as we approach our destination, the fruit and produce market. ‘You maybe visit other places, maybe Tel Aviv?’

‘Yes, we’re going there in a couple of days.’

‘I take you. Only 260 shekel.’

The price is fair. We agree. I give him the address and he will pick us up at 8.30 am.

‘I am best taxi in Jerusalem. My mother tell me I am best. Not my wife say this.’ A hoarse smoker’s laugh.

 

Eight-twenty we sit at the kerbside, two old tourists and two thirteen-year old grandchildren and four suitcases and sundry packages. Eight-thirty, still sitting. Eight-forty, a bit restless. I call the best taxi driver in Jerusalem. The recorded voice invites me to leave a voicemail. I do so. Eight-fifty, no driver, a new voicemail with a bit of an edge to it. At nine, no driver and my voicemail is choicemail. I end with, ‘Would your mother be proud of you this morning?’

 

A man pulls up in a brand new cab, a squat little vehicle with a raised ceiling, a sort of minimaxicab. Yes, the driver will take us to Tel Aviv. His price? ‘Two hundred forty. Is OK?’ Is more than OK. The cab smells of new car. The driver hums with the pleasure of his new vehicle and the vehicle hums up and down the great hills that surround the city and the driver tells us what we are seeing. Hill follows hill, hills unfolds into yet more hills and every hillside is dotted with dwellings and farmland. Yaakov – that’s our driver’s name – gives a quick history of every community. ‘This one settled by Hasidim from Rumania, that one is collective, built by kibbutzniks, you know, communists? This one – you see minaret? – a Muslim community. That one a “moshav”, cooperative farm, Palestinians and Zionists together, in one community. Down there, old tank, burned out, from the first war.’ And so the drive goes on, every hill telling a story, the same old stories, sad stories of conflict, stories of hardship, of failure, of success.

 

Yaakov’s phone rings, a woman’s voice. He listens and answers: ‘Yes, we arrive soon. I meet you at the beach. Yes, I drop customers, I come and we meet.’ Yaakov smiling, the smile a grandfather smiles on his way to a picnic on the beach with his daughter and the grandchildren.

 

The land flattens, the traffic slows and thickens, green gives way to cement, here is Tel Aviv, sparkling by its beaches, the light a blaze. We alight and pay and take Yaakov’s card. We will ride with him again.

 

The best driver in Jerusalem is forgotten. Two days later my phone rings. A voice thick with smoke says, ‘I miss your call. You want me?’ It takes me a moment to recognise the voice of the lachrymose singer of Jerusalem, his mother’s pride. Not his wife’s. I remind him of our arrangement.

’O yes, something happen. Family…’

I remind him of my family. I remind him he has a phone and our number.

‘Yes. Sorry for that.’

I ask, ‘Would your mother be proud of you this morning?’

The man’s voice, softer now, says, ‘No.’

I tell him he has shamed his city. ‘Do better next time.’