Rod Moss and “One Thousand Cuts”

Rod Moss is a Ferntree Gully boy, a whitefella who found himself in Alice Springs thirty years ago and who stayed there.

In all the moral disorientation of the Centre, in its beauty, its grandeur, its squalor and its mystery; in the perplex of making and losing marriages, of fathering, of teaching, of reading deeply, of engagement with the dark cinema of darkest Europe, Rod Moss found friends in a clan of blackfellas living in Whitegate, one of the town camps.

Moss differed from most of us whitefellas who come to the Centre. He stayed. He painted (in a distinctive genre of his own creating) the lives of his friends. And through all the years of his staying and his painting and his friendships, Moss kept a journal. That journal gave birth to his first book, “The Hard Light of Day”. The book won the Prime Minister’s Prize for non-fiction. More significantly, the book won the praise of Ray Gaita, who described it as one of the best books he had ever read.

When I say Moss found himself in Alice Springs, I mean he found himself in ways most of us non-indigenous people never do: he found who he was, what he was doing here; he came to be in country.

When I say Moss found friends I also mean he lost them.

Those losses are recorded, drop by drop, blow following blow in Moss’ first book, and in the second, soberly titled, “One Thousand Cuts”.

I believe that in its swelling lament and its growing clarity, “One Thousand Cuts” surpasses even “The Hard Light of Day”.

In a remarkable sequence of events “One Thousand Cuts” will be launched at Readings in Carlton on Wednesday 9 October at 6.30pm. And a retrospective exhibition of Moss paintings will be opened at Anna Pappas Gallery two days later.

If Moss’ paintings are luminous, his writing a prolonged jazz riff,  the photographs are something else.

I invite readers of this blog to attend one or both of these events. I will be glad to see you.

Podcast of interview on Radio National with Waleed Aly, Howard Goldenberg and Rod Moss 8.10.13image

Broaden the Intervention?

I am working in my general practice in the CBD when the phone rings. The receptionist’s voice is urgent: Howard, there’s a man collapsed outside on the street. Can you go?

I can. Grabbing a few tools, I race out into the street where a small crowd is gathering around a man in a suit. He lies flat on his back on the footpath outside the bookshop. Behind his head is a cylindrical object in a brown paper bag. Liquor leaks through the brown paper.

The man lies hard against the foot of a large window displaying the cream of our written culture. The man would have leaned against the window for support, fallen and stayed where he fell.

The man lies, motionless. The authority of my stethoscope opens a space for me between spectators, ambulance callers, vociferous suggesters, silent gawkers, head cradlers. The stethoscope reassures, the suggesters fall silent.

The man we all regard, the man we all fear, does not respond to questions. Nor to deep pressure of my thumb against his forehead. He lies insensible in Martin Place, grunting his shallow breaths, creased face purpled and puffy, grey hair, grey suit awry. Beneath my finger a thin pulse beats, fast and feeble.

His breath is a brewery. The wrist in my hand is criss-crossed with ancient slash marks, white against ashen skin.

It is 10.00 a.m.

This is a human person of my age, nameless to us, nameless to himself, his being reduced by alcohol and secret griefs.

The ambulance arrives and I go back inside.

*** Continue reading

An Ancient Mariner

A tall man with silver hair and brown skin enters my consulting room, hunched forward a little. His voice is husky in the familiar way of his people, his speech deliberate.

“I cannot say quickly what is wrong, doctor. Please allow me time to explain.”

The face is a compound of care and charm. He is not young but he is well muscled and broad. He bends his torso somewhat, and inclines his head a little as he speaks, his mouth almost smiling  – in propitiation? Has a lifetime among white people taught him to smile as he speaks, even when – as now – his speech is full of sorrow and care?

“I have a boy”, he says. “He is twelve years old.”

(Irresistibly, he delivers his story. His words arrest me, the consultation has stopped; here is Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner: There was a ship, said he…)

My patient continues: “I’ve had him since he was a baby. He is my son’s boy.  The boy’s mother brought him to me when he was newly born. She said – ‘You take this boy. I cannot look after him.’  I told her – ‘You need to think about that. You take him away and think again. A child needs his mother…’ ”

The man breaks off his narrative to explain his meaning. “Doctor, I said that about a mother because I didn’t have my mother with me when I was a boy.”

“Well, she brought the baby back a couple days later. She said – ‘You take this boy. I can’t have him.’”

A pause.

“Doctor, I’ve lost my license to drive trucks. I want to get it back. I want to get back into work again. They say I can’t drive trucks any more because of my heart and because I used to have diabetes. So I went to Adelaide and had heart tests. They put a needle into your groin and they send dye into your heart – you know?”

I nod.

“They tell me I am good, my heart is good. I feel good, doctor. And when I came back, they tested me again, but they can’t find any diabetes, because I am eating good food – you know – no Kentucky  Fried… no Red Rooster. No grog either. I don’t smoke. But I am very strong, doctor, I am fit. Every morning and most nights I do hard exercise…”

I nod again, admiring again his lean, muscled body.

“I am going to school. I am learning computer. That’s hard, those words are very hard. I was raised on the Catholic mission, in the Kimberley, out Fitzroy Crossing way. They didn’t teach me much to read and write, not English. I learned mostly prayers…in Latin. I can still say all the prayers in Latin, but I don’t understand Latin. I didn’t have much schooling in the Kimberley.”

I look up and scan his face, looking for something that seems to be missing: where is the irony, where is the anger? He seems to have none.

“Last year my wife got sick. She was in the hospital, but in the end they say to me – ‘you take her’.

So I take her home. She was in the wheel chair, she liked to be outside, so I would take her out there, she’d sit in the chair with a mask on her face – for oxygen. The boy would come out to her and sit with her, and he would cry.

I see them and I cannot bear it.

I told the boy – you have to go to your mother now. I can’t look after you, you’re too big for me now. You need your mother…

A boy needs his mother.

I didn’t have…

The boy cried when I sent him back. He wanted to stop with me.

My wife died.

After a good while I went to my country, you know, the Kimberley, that’s good country. I wanted to see my sisters…”

I contemplate the distance from where we sit, in Alice Springs. “Did you fly?”

“I fly my car. I don’t mind the drive, it is good country, beautiful, all the way.

When I get there, the boy wants to be with me all the time. He camps with me, he won’t stop with his mother.”

The man pauses, looks at me. The part-smile returns. “Doctor, I need a letter so I can drive trucks again. I want to be working again. I have to do something…”

Heavily, I tell him that the doctor who decided he must not drive trucks is probably right. The Law says a doctor can’t let you drive trucks if you have a history of heart troubles. But I tell him I will obtain the reports from the Adelaide doctors and forward them to an independent heart doctor and see whether he can have another chance. I try not to raise his hopes.

The old man rises, takes my hand. The smile is full now, his hand large, dry, warm.

He thanks me and goes away. Sadder, wiser, I watch him go.

This is an excerpt from Raft by Howard Goldenberg. Hybrid Publishers, 2009.