Grace on a Tram

I caught the tram this morning. Truly caught it. Chased it like a mad thing, dodged traffic banked up behind it, weaved, sprinted, kept balance. Climbed aboard, collected my breath, took a seat and took in my surroundings. And pleasant surroundings they were, for seated opposite me was a colourful and pleasing sight: a young woman, slim, with wavy lime-and-blond coloured hair, who sat and ate a banana.


Her lime-blond hair matched her bright lime socks. At her hip hung a patchwork cloth bag, alive with colour. Her black patent leather ankle boots gleamed. Just above the orifice into which banana descended and disappeared steadily before my fascinated gaze, a small nose ring looped between her nostrils. The young woman was thin but not starved. She worked steadily at her banana until she came to the moment of social truth (for some, the moment of crisis), the end of the banana, the moment when the skin demands of the eater a decision.

I watched. Would she ditch with a deft flick the peel beneath her seat? Might she instead reach into her bright bag of cloth for a plastic bag? The young woman (I decided she was nineteen years of age) did neither. She simply sat, and the peel sat on her lap, dying.

The dying of a banana peel is swift in onset. The peel, once devoid of the flesh that shaped it and gave it purpose, quickly shrinks and darkens, losing all meaning. Its yellow bloom gone, it darkens, collapses and becomes an elegy for its own shabbiness.

So the three of us sat there for a while, the lady, the banana peel and the watcher. Throughout, the winter sun shone bright through the window of the tram, transfiguring all. My eyes watered for brilliance, and my bones thawed.

After a time a man entered. Tall, wide and round, the man moved slowly into our space in the back section of the tram. His shabby clothes were black, his curls were black and his skin was black. He lowered above us for a time, directing his gaze where no eyebeams might intersect. His fleshy lips moved soundlessly. His hairy right hand clutched a sheaf of papers upon which columns of figures descended in lines from the top of each page to the bottom. The pages had the grey, slightly smudged look of photocopies. I peered at the pages, curiously. The man held them as a child might clutch a Teddy Bear, a talisman held close, disregarded, but not to be surrendered readily.

The man finished looking at nothing and lowered his fleshy self onto a seat between and opposite the lime- banana woman and me. We three found ourselves at the points of an equilateral triangle. The man, oblivious, muttering like the scriptural Hannah, was not a prepossessing person. His bulk projected itself towards the woman, towards – who knows? – possibly into her space.

I guessed she might feel intimidated. I half expected her to rise and remove herself. I watched tensely. The man’s free hand rose, coming to rest close to his ear. He spoke. His speech was not directed, the speech, I surmised, of telephony. I looked up and between his splayed fingers no telephone was seen. The tram lurched, the man lurched in his seat, his clothing shifted above his large belly. His naked flesh, baby-like, helpless, pleaded his innocence.

Now the young woman moved. She leaned forward and sideward, her angular face closing on the man’s. She said something I did not catch. The man did not catch it either. The woman’s lips moved again and I was able to read them.  I saw the words, Can I help you?  The man saw, or heard, too.  After some time he spoke, now facing the young woman, his back to me. I had no clue what he said or asked. But the woman was nodding, Yes, yes, all the way to the city.  You’re on the right tram. Her face, still close, relaxed and opened widely into a smile. The girl nodded again, her smile shone upon the man. Eyes locked, the two sat for a time without moving.

At length the man sat back in his seat and relaxed, unfolding himself, pouring himself liberally into the space left around him by peak hour riders keeping a fastidious distance.

The sun lit the man’s tight black coronet of curls. Those curls crouched as a perimeter around his bald patch that I could now see gleamed in the morning light.  The tram rode on a short space, then stopped. The young woman rose and walked towards the exit. I did not want her to leave, not yet, not before I could thank her, bless her.

The tram stopped, the woman descended and I watched as her slim form weaved a colourful path through the city crowds.

In Praise of a Very Small Town

Before I answered the calI I’d never heard of Trundle. When I googled it I might have giggled. A town of six hundred souls, Trundle boasts the second-widest main street in New South Wales, and its pub boasts the longest verandah in the state. I didn’t giggle. I held my mirth.

All morning I chased my tail in the big city, I caught my plane, I recited the Traveller’s Prayer and I breathed out.

It was dark when the plane dropped me at Dubbo. The bloke in the burger shop near the airport added up my bill for one bottle of iced coffee, one bottle of putative lemon. I pulled out a ten-dollar note.

Something was different: the man didn’t scan the bottles. He did his calculation in his head. Ten dollars fifty, he said. The man looked up and saw my money. Ten bucks, he said. I thanked him. You’ll know where to come next time, he said. I said I will. I meant it.

I took the shorter route to from Dubbo to Trundle. I didn’t realise the shorter route would take me by dirt roads for much of the distance. Over the two hours on those back roads I startled a few kangaroos but encountered no vehicle passing in either direction. The dark of Dubbo was darker out there in the quietness and the road signs were unlit. I took a wrong turning and got lost. I got unlost and entered Trundle. The wide main street was brightly lit. Nothing moved.

At the hospital I asked the nurse, can you direct me to my quarters? No, she said, I’ll take you. Follow me. She jumped into her car, I into mine and we drove through the dark to a house that wasn’t brick. We bought this to let to visitors, she said.  We’ve spent seven years renovating it. The nurse opened the front door and I stepped into the perfumed past. Motel deodorant swamped all olfaction. The nurse pulled a switch revealing animals that greeted me from every side. A steel sheep and a steel cow stood at either side of the front door. In the lobby a crocheted mouse in a lilac dress stood knee-high by a bedroom door. A second mouse in white stood guard at the second bedroom. A third mouse in soft pink waited by the third bedroom. Ladies’ hats hanged from hooks, trailing ribbons of many hues. A large painting of Trundle’s main thoroughfare (famed for its width) stood on the loungeroom floor. The streetscape peeped brilliantly from behind a swath of brown paper upon which someone had written, apologetically, Sorry, Not For Sale.

Flowers fashioned of bright fabrics overflowed from waterless vases in every room. In the kitchen, mugs of colourful ceramic spilled from every cupboard.

Relentless decoration everywhere. Art deco china cabinet, four kinds of chilli sauce and very white bread indeed.

Décor surrounded me, pressing in from every side. Furnishings that dated backwards in time from the year 1950 overflowed in every room. Here was the Australian rural past in glowing abundance.

Tucked behind a bedroom door, in the depths of a very large leather hatbox, sat a felt hat in sky blue. An emphatic navy ribbon decorated the hat. Above all stood a framed text, written in smart neo-gothic. Its title read, The Story Of a Hat. The story told how that hat was made by hand for a wedding at a period when no woman went to church unhatted or ungloved. It was a matter of respect. The story, unsigned, ended with the words, This hatbox belonged to my grandfather.

Two thoughts registered: This house was, not renovated but de-novated – a home to memory. You would not sneer at sincerity. And kitsch would not be the word; this was love.

In the main street shopfronts stood beneath brave signage. Two of every three shops were closed. A sign read, Trundle Talkies. Excited, I raced across the road to check the movie times. I was too late by thirty years. I read the signage above the garage. Pontiac, Plymouth – those makes that ferried my family across the state in the 1950’s – now extinct.

A card in one shop window read, closed until further notice, ill child. I saw five clothing shops. The stock seemed to be the same in all five. Three were closed, one with a notice advising, Yvonne comes Thursdays and Mondays, 11.00 to 3.00.

I went to the first of the open shops to buy undies. The child in charge was sorry, they had none. I might try the Op Shop two doors down. No undies there either, but I noted the stock in the Op Shop looked the same as in its competitors.

Two doors down was the office of the Annual Abba Festival. Thousands attend. They put on a special train from Sydney. Everyone dresses up as one Abba person or another. Great are the festivities.

I doctored in Trumble for three days. Most patients were farmers, heirs to farms worked by their families for generations. Many of these people were older than I. None complained when an emergency elsewhere in the hospital detained me. If I said, sorry to keep you waiting, they looked mystified, then assured me it didn’t matter.

I thought about this. These people worked the farm from sunup to sundown. There was always work to do. But they had time to spare for other people. They’d survived the long cycles of dearth and plenty. In the present dry – the worst in memory – people were feeding their stock by hand. They’d stopped planting crops, waiting for the rains. They knew time differently from my patients in the centre of the great city.

My principal in the practice spoke of an epidemic of depression, of farmers dying of sadness. Others would be forced from the land, to walk away from the family farm. It occurred to me to ask, where are the Aboriginal people? Not here. We’re not on a river. And there’s no community in Parkes either – no river there. But strong communities in Dubbo and Forbes. They’re on rivers.

My three days completed I rose at 2.45 am to drive to Dubbo to catch the earliest flight to the city. I drove down that wide, wide street, built for the bullock trains to do their long u-turn.

I hurried through the dark, eyes wide for suicidal kangaroos. I arrived at the airport and checked in. I checked my phone: I’d arrived on time. Chasing my tail again.

A Dream

In early 2018, fourteen of Clan Goldenberg descend on a vast villa in the Dominican republic. We have not been long in DR before we start to feel its bite. While we reside in a vast house of huge rooms and lush grounds the world outside is very different. Simply put, the people are poor. While the sun-and rain-drenched soil feeds most of its 13 million people more-or-less adequately, measures of relative poverty place DR 19th-poorest on the planet. Schooling is free but generally brief and standards are deplorable. We read of teenage pregnancy – 28 percent of girls aged eleven to fifteen have undergone termination of pregnancy. Unemployment and sub-employment drive a cycle of generational poverty. The poor attend poorer schools for a shorter period. They leave, they marry too young, and it all starts again.

There is, it appears, something of a solution. For every additional year that a girl stays at primary school there accrues a 3% rise in her employability. But for every additional year of high schooling, employability rises 26%.

 

 

So far, so regrettably common. But there’s something uncommon about this particular half-island. In 1938 two of the worst humans of modern history found themselves at cross purposes. While Hitler worked to persecute, and finally to exterminate Jews, Trujillo, the Dominican butcher-dictator, strove to save them.

At the ill-fated Evian Conference, convened by Roosevelt to find countries of shelter for Jews, thirty-two nations gathered. The setting was elegant, the food sublime, the sentiments uniformly noble. The outcome was disastrous: America remained obdurately closed; Britain accepted children but kept Palestine closed to Jewish immigration; vast, empty Australia piously declared: we are a young nation without a racial problem (really?) and we have no wish to import one…

 

 

Nation number 32, the Dominican Republic, vowed to take 100,000 Jews.  Why did Trujillo make his offer? While opinion is divided about his motivation it seems he was anxious to improve his image following his recent massacre of 20,000 of his countrymen. Trujillo, himself partly black, was a racist who used to powder his face white for public appearances. He stated he sought Jewish immigration to raise the standards of Dominican agriculture and industry. He added openly his wish that by intermarrying with locals, European Jews would whiten his citizenry.

It is this mixed package of information that bites us. In Sosua, in the neglected north, we find a remnant Jewish community, proudly Dominican, proudly Jewish, unashamedly religiously ‘impure’. Sosua speaks to the grateful heart. A friend from New York helped to endow a school here for the children of the poorest, dedicating it to the memory of his mother Flora, herself an early childhood educator.

Sosua bit our friend and it bit my family too. We are accommodated between Sosua and Cabarete in a gated community of vast villas with yawning ceilings, timbered walls and picture windows opening onto lush grounds. Cheerful Dominicans bearing weapons protect us (from cheerless Dominicans?), patrolling the grounds day and night. Their guns have the look of the blunderbuss, somehow horrific and laughable at the same time. It is all very comfortable – just a little too comfortable for comfort. A comfort from which our New York friend relieves himself by working relentlessly for the people of DR, both Gentile and Jewish.

Two days ago we visited the school named for Flora, a part of the DREAM Project. The drive from Sosua to Cabarete was punctuated by the now-raining, now-sunny weather and the familiar dicing with death of the weaving motocyclistas along the perpetually slippery roads.

When we reached Cabarete’s sole traffic light we turned right, as directed, along Callejon de Talloga. This little ribbon of road twists and turns though the Dominican village, a place vivid for its street life and stark for its street life. People here abide in evident vivacity and in evident want.

We become lost repeatedly in side streets too narrow for a U-turn. Few of the villagers speak English but everyone knows the two words, DREAM Project. Faces light up, people point, someone materializes as designated interpreter and directions are given.

The roads are narrow, footpaths are lacking, and soft human bodies share the roadway with battered cars, bikes, motorcycles and hungry dogs. Dwellings are tiny and insubstantial. They will not survive the next hurricane season. Eateries are very numerous, generally someone’s front room. Bright colours, lounging youths, slim-hipped schoolgirls, their bodies advancing to a ripeness far beyond their years, smiles everywhere, people moving with the grace of dancers; life is pinched but never mean.

We turn a corner and here are the DREAM Project’s Flora Rabinovitch premises. By chance our visit coincides with the inauguration of something. The fundraiser, a charming American called John, shepherds a small herd of pink visitors to an outdoor shelter where he explains the DREAM in fluent and quite accessible Spanish and in English.  Seated on the ground before us is a class of three-to five-year olds, the pupils of the beginners’ grade. The children observe deep decorum, their bodies unmoving, their grave faces a mute challenge to all: behold my irresistible humanity.

 

 

The fundraising man is handsome, utterly charming, and he is paid to charm us. He certainly charmed me. If he told me he was going to campaign for the re-election of the incumbent President of the United States I would probably follow him and drink at his Tea Party.

But charm is needless. Outside on the street the need is visible and unpretty. Here in the bricks and flesh of the school is a serious gesture towards cure. John-the-Charming reels off figures and facts: We now have ten regional and rural schools, we have 750 students, we teach by the Montessori System…

 

 

Montessori! My own children attended a Montessori school. It stands for a learning which is neither rigid nor structured; rather the child chooses what to task to learn, and having once learned it, moves onto another. The teacher explains: The child learns tasks of living. We prepare the child for life at each child’s pace. The pace can be quick: many of our four-year olds are reading.

In the USA Montessori means private; private means money. These kids of the DREAM receive schooling that most Yanquis can only dream of.

  

 

We sweat for a while in the blaze of day then follow John and the teacher to the classroom of Beginners. The flesh and curls teacher closely resembles the young woman of the billboard, at work among her charges. We stand, towering above children who are impossibly small, impossibly beautiful and so, so solemn.

The children will invite you to come and sit. They will teach you what they have mastered.

 

 

One child takes my hand in hers and sits me down at a tiny table. She turns, walks a little distance to some shelves where she selects a tray, which she carries studiously to our table. She sits. Upon the tray I see small sheets of coloured paper and a small bucket filled with sharpened pencils. I ask her name. Facing downward she makes a small sound which I cannot make out. Rather than disturb her composure by asking again, I hold my peace.  My nameless little teacher takes a yellow pencil and traces a fairly straight line on the bottle-green page. At the termination of the line she draws a roughly circular shape. Gravely she looks up. I nod. Once again Anonymous Child draws something linear which runs to and joins something circular. I might be looking at a balloon on a string, an olive on a twig, or a circle and a line. I nod again. Little teacher hands me a pencil and I do my best to emulate the task she has mastered and taught me.

My lesson is over. I thank the small teacher and approach the adult teacher. I describe an outback school in Australia’s Top End where I saw undernourished children, and where the school feeds them. The pupils eat two hot meals a day on every school day, their sole reliable nutrition. Does the DREAM in Cabarete feed these kids? At mid-morning we have Snack. The government supplies milk and bread. The school supplies cookies. At lunchtime some children have no food and we teachers feed them from the lunches we bring from home. At the end of the day we give leftover bread and milk to children of hungry families to take home.

It’s time to go. A quiet word to John Charming. Yes, the school does accept donationsOne hundred percent of donated money goes to work in the classrooms.

I trust the DREAM. I donate more than I imagined I might at http://www.dominicandream.org/ and so can you.

Running to a Dream

After the Malta Marathon I took a break from long runs. The physical recovery took about one week, two at most, moral recovery much longer. I feared long runs. The thought evoked moral nausea.

Perhaps that’s why I managed to acquire my first real injury in forty years of running. Perhaps that’s why rest brought no cure; why physiotherapy didn’t fix me; why eventually it hurt too much walk. Surgery followed, together with the instruction, ‘No running for 6-8 weeks.’  Disability became my comfort, surgery my excuse, prohibition my refuge.

***

Almost one year pass without a single further marathon. Finally my legs speak up and today, fifty weeks post-Malta, those legs mandate a long run. I decide I’ll try to run to Cabarete and back, a distance of 23 kilometres. We visited the poor Dominican village of Cabarete a couple of days ago, and we know it a little. Cabarete is the home of a Dream.

Here in the Dominican Republic the air perpetually feels thick and today it is a mantle, heavy on the skin. Very soon a fine rain falls about and upon me, a rain too fine to soak my thin singlet. The horizon disappears in the grey, and with the light Sunday morning traffic noises quelled it is a softer world that welcomes me back to the long run.

In this northern part of the country but a single road runs from Puerto Plata to my turning point, Cabarete, and beyond. Some dreamer designated this road a highway, but the reality is simply one lane of traffic twisting in one direction and a second stream struggling back. Potholes large enough for caving lie concealed beneath pooled rainwater. Three vehicles in four are motorcycles, underpowered and overloaded. The bikes carry a load of soft flesh. Usually two ride but sometimes I sight a third body, even occasionally a fourth – generally children – squeezed between driver and pillioned passenger; and my first-world heart misses a beat.

These frail conveyances seek safety on the verge, where I – likewise a frail conveyance – seek safety as I run. I run facing and dodging  the oncoming traffic.

Traffic regulations are observed in DR in the breach. Red lights appear to be advisory only. In one full week of daily runs, I never see a motorcyclist in a helmet. Life expectancy is low here, human life guarded less closely than in my fretful homeland. However today, ‘Domingo, the Lord’s Day,’ I actually sight in the gloom what looks like a helmeted rider. Is this possible, I wonder? A large roadside sign answers: Con Dios Todos es Possible.

 

 

The rain has thickened but it does not dampen my spirits. Luke-warm, it falls vertically in fat drops, cooling me sweetly. Legs free of self-doubt propel me forward, the kilometres turn into miles, nothing hurts. I breathe fresh air fortified by hydrocarbons and the smell of cow manure.

When I asked my friend Edith, ‘are there snakes here in DR?’, she answered: ‘No. No snakes, unless you count the little green ones. They’re harmless.’

Running beneath a pedestrian overpass my shoe strikes the tarmac just beside a serpent lying in the warm wetness. This reptile is about a metre long, striped in the pattern of Australia’s decidedly unharmless Tiger Snake.  This particular serpent would be a baby tiger in Australia; his thickness a little less than one inch. At present this snake has no volume, he is a planar serpent, compressed flat by some overrunning heavy vehicle. My legs cease their running and I study the deceased. His small mouth gapes venomously, as if to frighten Death himself. He looks neither particularly little, not at all green, and absolutely not friendly. But he is extremely dead.

I run on.

Tottering along on its four circular feet an ancient motorized cart passes me, headed for the tourist district. Loaded chaotically with watermelons the cart conveys undefeated optimism. In the family of a watermelon seller life and sustenance, hang by a filament. I recall my Papa, a professional watermelon seller operating in the waters offshore from the fishing port of Yaffo (Jaffa) in the 1890’s. Hunger drove Papa from school before he’d finished Third Grade. He’d buy watermelons in the market and swim them far out to sea in the hope of making a sale to thirsty fishermen in their boats offshore.

Eventually I arrive at Cabarete’s sole traffic light, my turning point. Nothing hurts, breathing is easy, I’m feeling strong, nothing daunts me. I turn and run for home. Is it raining still? Strangely, I’ve stopped noticing; it seems to make no difference in this damp-never-wet-for-long-never-very-dry place.

Back to snake overpass and here, on the opposite side of the ‘highway’ lies another serpent, his dead brother’s twin. Something unexpected happens: I feel sorrow for the poor dead creature, crushed, spine broken and wrenched into a violent right angle that is, anatomically, all wrong angle.  D H Lawrence’s ‘Snake’ comes to mind:

Was it humility, to feel so honoured?

I felt so honoured.

Reading the roadside hoardings as I run, pretty soon I crack the code: if the language is English the signboard addresses pink people, Gringos, especially Yanquis. The pink have the money for this spiffy resort, that shmick kitesurf school, these elegant condominiums.

As in Australia, the person in DR who cleans your room, or cooks for you is not pink. He or she is pigmented and poor.

An eatery describes its fare in emphatic upper case:

BURRITO’S

 

TACO’S

 

BOWL’S

It is to puke. The feral apostrophe has invaded the hispanosphere.

Grammar-appalled, I run on.

 

Here’s another roadside notice: an attractive female face beams down at the traffic. On her fitted t-shirt one reads:DREAM PROJECT, Dominican Republic Education And Mentoring. Surrounding her, small dark faces bend over books, desks, small trays; little fingers grip pencils in a rainbow of colours. The scene of infant industry carries a powerful message. Along the lower margin a reminder: WWW.DREAMPROJECTDOMINICA.ORG

I recognise those pleasing features. Together with my Australian-American family I visited the Dream Project a couple of days ago.

The Lady in Seat 22 F  

Somehow the airline separates me from my wife. They allocate Annette seat number 21 C and they give me 22 B. Arriving at Row 22 I find seat B occupied by a young mum with a baby on her lap. The baby is asleep. The young woman explains: ‘The cabin attendant switched me so my Mom and I can sit together. Do you mind?’

I don’t mind at all.

The cabin attendant appears at my elbow. ‘Seat 22 E is free. Do you mind sitting there?’

I don’t mind at all.

I take my seat between a youngish man and a younger woman. He’s a muscular nugget. His fair facial bristles catch the morning sun and glow gold; she’s slim, no whiskers, café au lait skin. The man busies himself with his keyboard. I open my paperback. The lady smiles, says, ‘Hello’. I catch an accent, try to place it. Guessing she’s a Latina I prepare some Spanish. ‘De donde estais?’

‘Not from Espain. Not from any espanish speaking country. Try to guess.’

‘Slovenia?’

The smile widens. She shakes a lot of wavy hair: ‘No.’

‘Turkey?’

More hairshaking. She’s laughing now.

‘One more try.’

Guessing wildly I try Portugal. She laughs a merry laugh. ‘No. Saudi Arabia.’

Golly. No head covering, light brown hair, pretty conventional western dress.

‘She proffers a child’s hand: ‘My name’s Amy.’

Golly.

‘Hello, Amy. I’m Howard.’

‘What is your country, Howard?’

‘Australia.’

I give her time to absorb the incredible. Then, ‘You are Muslim?’

‘Yes, of course.’

I remove my cap, lean forward, reveal my yarmulke: ‘I’m your cousin.’

The smile widens. She’s delighted: ‘You are a religious man. I pray every day five times. I am estudent.’ She names her university in Los Angeles, a name not known to me.’ When in Saudi Amy wears her head covered, ‘only my face you can see.’

Amy tells me of her two brothers and her sister who are back in Saudi Arabia, with mother and father. A second sister is studying in LA with Amy. She points to a rich head of darker hair that crowns a quite ravishing face in a nearby row,

I spend some time pondering the life of a young Saudi woman on a US campus. A woman who dresses western and prays every day five times. Pretty brave, I suspect. And incidentally, pretty easy on the eye.

‘Amy, why do you take the risk of speaking candidly like this to a strange man?’

The head lifts and she regards me, smiling a little as to one who is naive: ‘Instinct.’

Back to my paperback. The young bloke types something about a baseball match. The young woman takes out some study sheets. I sight some highlighted terms familiar to me – homeostasis, perception, adrenergic flight/fight response. The head of wavy hair bends over the notes, a child-size finger traces the lines, her lips frame the foreign words.

‘What are you studying?’

‘Clinical Psychology. And what is your profession?’

‘I’m a doctor.’

‘That’s good. Maybe you can tell me what is homeostasis.’

I tell her what I understand by that term, the neologism I encountered first in 1965, a word that widened my mind.

Amy nods gravely and thanks me.

After a while Amy sets Clinical Psychology aside. She looks at my book and asks:’ Is that a good book?’

‘I think so, yes.’

‘But you do not know?’

The book won a Pulitzer. A close friend pressed it on me, saying: ‘Read it if you want to know DR.’

Do I like it? Not much. At least not yet. The plot, yes; the characters, yes yes yes. The style, not much.

Homeostasis is simpler to explain than ‘I think it’s a good book, but I do not know if I like it.’ A deep breath and I essay some literary criticism: ‘This book won America’s top award for literature. I think it gained attention for its unusual style of writing and for telling the modern history of the Dominican Republic in the story of one unfortunate family. The writing is bright, the story is dark. The language is lively, plenty of street talk. Every third word is nigger, every fourth word is fuck.’

I pause. No shock registers on the estudent’s face.

‘The characters are vivid and their story is dramatic. So, yes, I think it is a good book, an important book. Even ‘though I do not enjoy it much. Yet.’

‘You read many books?’

‘Yes, I do.’

‘Tell me please what books are good for me to read. Books you do like.’

She couldn’t give me a pleasanter task. The flight from Los Angeles to New York takes four hours. That might suffice. I speak of my favourite of all books written in the twentieth century. This is the book I read at Amy’s age ( I’m guessing here she’s as old today as I was fifty years ago): ‘The Leopard, an Italian novel of an aging aristocrat – you know? (Amy nods) – he sees the life he has known and loved, a life of privilege, passing. He knows that life will be lost.’

Amy remarks, ‘Life in my country is also changing… Slowly.’

Next I speak of Anna Karenina. ‘This is also an old book, more than one hundred years, written by another aristocrat, Leo Tolstoy. It tells the life of a woman who disobeys the rules of her society and obeys only her passion. She loves a man who is not her husband. I like this book very much; I respect Anna’s courage but I am angry at her too. I am angry because she turns her back on her son, a small boy.

‘It is an important book, one of the earliest books to give a woman strength, courage to make choices and to follow her own path.’

I watch Amy for signs of disapproval or discomfort. No sign of either.

‘Although I don’t entirely like Anna, the character, I like the book. The author shows us life. Like Shakespeare, he knows the good and the bad, the strong and the weak. He knows them and he shows them. He is not the judge, he gives us the life.’

‘And one more. This is maybe America’s most beloved book of the Twentieth Century. I love it very much. It is called, To Kill a Mockingbird. It is written by a woman, Harper Lee. The story is told in the voice of a small girl who lives in a town in America’s south at a time when many white people showed no respect for black people. The girl’s father is a lawyer who tries to save a black man who is accused of raping a white woman. You read this book and you love the father and you love the child.’

Amy asks me to write the names of the books she should read. It dawns on me I’ve recommended three books that challenge old norms. The books subvert male dominance, they chart the passing of feudalism and ancient authority, they show the rule of equal law.

I have lots of questions. Amy answers them readily. No she doesn’t go out with men (‘I am a good Muslim’), but she had been engaged to marry a man whom she chose. That was back in her home country. Later the engagement ended, the free decision of both. No hard feelings, no honour issues. It occurs to me Amy has found in Seat 22E a Father Confessor. I wonder about her vocation: I don’t know anyone who works in mental health who enjoyed an easy childhood.

The aircraft’s engines keep up a steady hum. Conversation is hushed and most passengers sleep. As Amy sits at the side of one of my deaf ears, there’s no lip-reading and I miss some of her speech. When I ask, ‘What work does your father do?’, I miss her reply. She repeats : ‘He’s a general in the Air Force.’

Golly.

She adds, ‘My mother is a school teacher.’

‘When you finish your studies will you return to your country?’

‘I will visit. My older sister has two babies. I must see them. But my life, I think maybe here in America. And my sister Sara, she is here.’

My mind races from question to question: Is Amy the right sort of Muslim – by the lights of the current President – to be admitted to the USA? What does Daddy the General think of Amy’s choices – dress, spouse, profession, place of residence? All her choices bespeak independence but in reality she must be completely dependent on Daddy. Amy has none of the bearing of the rebel – there’s nothing defiant in her speech – yet her Americanness must challenge Saudi norms. I think too of the engagement of the Saudi’s military – especially the Air Force – in the nasty war in Yemen. A Saudi general would be a serious man.

These are questions this old man does not ask. Meanwhile the estudent has put away her study notes, buried her head in a blanket, tucked her legs beneath her and, by some miracle of youthful calisthenics, made herself comfortable enough to sleep. For the next two hours the Princess of Araby slumbers in Seat 22F. She awakens as we descend, smiles, shakes my hand and asks, ‘When will I meet you again, Howard?’

Summer Stories: Just Dirt

Before arriving in Coober Pedy I read of The Breakaways, an accessible scenic spot of some sacred significance. Once in town I asked directions. These were simple enough to alarm me: ‘Turn right at the Stuart Highway, turn right at the signposted track and drive to the end of the road.’  And – ‘You  best get there in time for sunset or sunrise, when the colours are stronger. Other times it’s bleached by the sun.’

The Stuart bisects our continent. I’ve never found myself alone on the Stuart before. The road roars with lorries and road trains that hug the tail of your smaller vehicle at their permitted 110 kilometres an hour. But this early morning my car alone moved through the dark along the Stuart. Cloud covered the stars. The car radio was silent. A velvet cloak sat upon the earth. I knew I was alone.

The kilometres slipped behind me as I raced to catch a doubtful sunrise. A tiny signpost flashed into sight and out. Had I missed the turnoff? I laughed aloud at my famed ability to get lost. But no – a few minutes on a large sign read: THE BREAKAWAYS. So-named, I read, because chunks of the planet appear broken off from the surrounding scarp.  One or two locals, indigenous people, shrugged when I mentioned The Breakaways: ‘Never been’, said one. ‘Just dirt’, said a second.

The velvet was breaking up. Teal blues split the clouds, a lightening over my shoulder from the east, the dark surface now reddening, the black grasses greening. Earth awakening, but everywhere, silence, stillness. The dirt track shifted beneath my tyres, the car, tipsy, slid from side to side, my passage never quite controlled, not fully skidding. Up a rise, the end of the road. Once out the car the first sensation a blast of wind, night-cooled, but warming towards today’s 46 maximum.  A wooden barrier separated me from a sudden void. The earth fell away at my feet, a vast valley, roughchopped, opened before me. The wind tore up the slopes and away. Nothing else moved. No sound. No life. Stepping forward felt like sacrilege.

I stood still and gazed, astonished. Unprepared for an encounter none could prepare for, I simply stood. My eyes flew up the slopes of table-topped massifs and followed the fall of abrupt clefts. Hills of caramel pink and nude rocks of white ochre in a repeating pattern of rise and fall, fall and rise. And no sound at all. Was this the birthplace of the world? Would that scrubby shrub at the valley floor burst into unconsuming flame?

I stood for some time as one at prayer. I knew an aloneness and a silence and a stillness that must have spoken to my soul. In time I returned to time and I took up the elements of my ritual dawn prayers and I prayed and I gave thanks. I felt kin to others who have stood here over the millennia and contemplated creation. I made my poor homage.

At length a living thing came to me in the stillness, a blowfly. The fly sniffed and sipped, and finding my skin dry, it went its ways. The wind whipped my tallith which made to join the insect in flight. Alone again, no human on earth today had better access to his Creator. If a voice had called, ‘Howard, Howard’, I believe I’d have answered, Hineni.

My prayers done I walked to the display that detailed the nearby salients. The text, authorized by a local elder, hinted opaquely at their sacred significance. The place has its true name, Kangu. Behind me at a short remove was the bearded dragon, Cadney, over there was Pupa, two dogs lying down.  And in front was Kalayu, the emu, father caring for his chicks. The area is an initiation site for young boys. Its elaborated meanings are secret, forbidden. This is meet. Sufficient to be here in mystery.

A side track to Pupa beckoned and I ran. Ochreous powder cushioned my feet. The track took me down and around. Soon I was at the valley floor and the mighty forms rose up, thronging about me. This was ‘just dirt’ and I human clay, a small thing in all the greatness. I thought of the miracle of being, I thought of annihilation. So easy here, to slip, to fall, to break an ankle. In a day or two the heat would finish a crippled runner. The thoughts carried no drama, little colour. Death in this valley would be ordinary; it was living and moving that were out of the order of things.

I was alive and moving. I turned and I ran back up the hills.

Summer Stories: A Small Town in the Bush

This blog has just now awoken from a long nap. While asleep the blog saw or visited or dreamed a number of summer stories. Here’s the first.

You might have heard of Avoca’s rushes. The gold rush, the coal rush, the bull rush.

You drive in on the main street and the first thing you notice is nothing. I mean the main street is wide, country town wide. And nothing moves.

You know you’ve arrived in an Australian country town when nothing happens. Unlike the classic barroom scene in the Westerns, where the arrival of the newcomer throws the crowded bar into silent, menacing scrutiny of the arrival, you arrive in Avoca unremarked.

People reside in Avoca but no-one rushes here. The rushes are over. The bull rushes persist, but they persist in a gentle way. The bulls graze, they browse, they produce their climate-malignant methane and they do their business and they leave their calling cards. Only when serving a cow does the Avoca bull rush. Avoca is no Pamplona.

In the main street the structural element of the bovine persists in the shape of the Cow Shed Café. I saw the cafe and, metropolitan coffee snob that I am, I drove past. On a later visit the Cow Shed Café was still there. So I stopped. I found the shop is wider than it is deep. Within the narrow oblong between the shop’s front and the high counter you stand closely surrounded, indeed compressed, by handicrafts. You can buy doilies and crocheted items that are rich in colour and of no function that I could divine. They look like something your granny might make for charity or for therapy. But these are for commerce. You can buy them. Postcards that show the Cow Shed Café sit on the counter awaiting your purchase. Next to the postcards an array of jams and sauces and syrups and chutneys gleams at you. These are Avoca’s café’s crown jewels. Behind the counter a man as tall and narrow as his shop stands and awaits your pleasure. He’d be fifty, perhaps a decade more, the skin of his brown face hangs in deep furrows, his voice is deep, resonant and very pleasing. You hear the voice and you know you want to have a conversation with this jam and doily man.

‘Who makes these jams and sauces?’

‘Mother. Mother makes them all.’ A sweep of a long arm encompasses all the handicrafts and the comestible preserves. ‘Mother picked these raspberries this morning.’ I hadn’t noticed the berries. Bright like the doilies they call, Buy me! Buy me!

‘Lived here long?’

‘All my life. Mother too. We’ll all leave one day, feet first.’ The man smiles and the smile and the voice merge, a single harmonious entity.

I buy some bright things and I leave.

The historic records evoke old Avoca: “In 1827 Roderic O’Connor wrote in his journal – ‘There is a vacant space immediately at the junction of the South Esk and St Paul’s River. We beg to recommend reserving it’. In 1832 military troops, formerly at ‘St Paul’s Plains’, were recorded as garrisoned at Avoca.”

By 1834 Avoca was a town.

Apparently old Avoca was always a place of drama and event, as today. The record goes on: “Bona Vista’ (circa 1842) is a magnificent Georgian homestead built by Simeon Lord and doubtless the centre of society at the time. Martin Cash is said to have worked there as a groom before becoming a notorious bushranger. In 1853 bushrangers Dalton and Kelly made a raid on the house, committed a murder and robbed the house. Blood stains remain on the steps. In 1890 a young man named Beckitt was murdered at the homestead woodheap, his body dumped in the South Esk River to be discovered by Tom Badkin Jr.”

The stone building calls to me and I approach and mooch around, here and at the church. A country quiet enfolds all. The afternoon wind softly sighs and soughs. The sun shines upon the green and the old convict stones speak mutely of endurance, modestly of grandeur. So fine these stone walls, their patterning and proportions so pleasing to the eye that sees not the aching backs and the cruel sufferings of the convicts who were the unwilling labourers.

A Post Office opened at Avoca on 1st Jan 1838. It stands still on the main road. I slow and read a sign outside offering the fine stone structure for sale. I stop and mooch. Naturally I want to buy it. I could do with a Post Office. But I’ll stand aside for you if you want it too.

Avoca lies in the Fingal Valley. Forty kilometres distant, Fingal is a town similar to Avoca. A nurse I work with tells me: ‘I grew up in Fingal. But I left. I realized single in Fingal might be my epitaph so I left.’