Sadie

The baby slid into our lives one day earlier this month. I can’t recall exactly which particular day, but the day was particular for the sliding.

Doctors inspect, find all parts present and correct, a girl. Parents check: not simply present and correct, but perfect, their girl child. 

Grandparents arrive, enter the dimmed room, quieting exultation. They sight the child, suppressing gasps of joy. 

They behold, astonished by smallness, their newest beloved. Already, immediately beloved.  

Lips a circlet of pink, the baby in stillness. Parents drained – but for now – electric with joy, unaware of their deepening sleep deficit, aware only of baby, baby, baby, miracle, fact, miracle.  

What is this love that bursts into being? This finer, purer love, this love that seeks nothing of the child, this love that demands nothing beyond that she be? This love, this agape? The grandparents are certainly agape. At this child, this miracle, fact, miracle.

In the quiet and stillness, in this room, tenderness has her domain. This room contains a new human person who sleeps, whose lips flicker and semaphore mystically. She sleeps and she teaches love.

 

 
 

 

Bob in Starbucks 

I’d like a soy chai latte, please.

Grande? Venti?

A shake of my ignorant head.

The young man explains.

Grande please.

Marker pen raised above paper cup: What’s your name, sir?

Howard.

Pardon me?

HOWARD.

 

Next time, a different Starbucks: what’s your name sir?

Howard.

Pardon me?

Bob.

Sure, Bob. Won’t be long.

 

Bob loiters and in truth it is not long before he is drinking the curiously tolerable blend of sugar, sugar, sugar, spices and soy.

 

My name has always been plastic.

I keep at home a newspaper cutting from ‘The Murrumbidgee Irrigator’ of early January 1946, announcing the birth of Yvonne and Myer Goldenberg’s second child: ‘Myer and Yvonne Goldenberg are delighted to welcome their second child, Adrian. Brother to Dennis.’

Friends flocked to the Leeton District Hospital to congratulate Myer and Yvonne and to commiserate with Adrian. Horrible name, they said to my parents. Do you really hate him that much?

Ben and Ethel visited, bringing their four-year old boy, Howard. Mum looked at Dad, Dad looked at Mum and Adrian became Howard.

 

I got used to Howard. The softness in Mum’s voice as she spoke the name, the pride in Dad’s, convinced me Howard was good. I used it for a long time.

 

I came to Melbourne, became an adult and learned to drink coffee. I patronised Universita Café where a short, round young waitress named Theresa asked me my name.

Howard.

Pardon?

Howard.

OK John, I’ll bring your cappuccino to your table.

She did, John drank and the coffee was excellent.

John patronised the Universita for twenty years.

One day I bumped into a man there whom I knew. (I had his baby son’s foreskin at home, but that is another story.)

Hello Zev.

Hello Howard.

We sat down.

Theresa brought our coffees. Handing me my cappuccino, she said, There you are John.

Zev said, Who’s John? This is Howard.

Theresa looked confused. Mortified actually.

I never had the heart to return to the Universita.

 

I reverted to Howard for a further score of years. And remained Howard. Until I broached the threshold of Starbucks.

 

On Turning Seventy

 

At some time on January 8, 1946, at St Andrews Hospital in East Melbourne, Yvonne Mayer Goldenberg (nee Coleman) gave birth to her second child, a son. The precise hour of the child’s birth is no longer known. St Andrews Hospital no longer exists and, sadly for this son, neither does Yvonne. Since the moment (unspecified) of his birth, that child has enjoyed an ambivalent relationship with Time. 

  
The temporal relationship was subjected to distorting stress even before the child was born. Although Myer Goldenberg delivered hundreds of other people’s babies every year in the Leeton District Hospital he determined his own children would be delivered by obstetric specialists in Melbourne. Two weeks before the second babe was due Myer drove Yvonne to Melbourne, dropped her at his parents’ house and returned to his patients in Leeton. Once Nature had taken its course he would return to meet the baby. Yvonne came into labour at night. Her father-in-law, Joseph Hyman Goldenberg, an excitable man and an erratic driver, bundled Yvonne into the car and raced towards East Melbourne. Joseph Hyman had no obstetric ambitions of his own: emphatically he did not wish to get down and bloody with Yvonne. He drove anxiously. In those days doctors erected a red light outside their medical premises to inform the passing trade. At every red light Joseph Hyman slowed to ask Yvonne, Should we stop here? Are you sure the baby is not coming? The pair passed from East St Kilda to Fitzroy Street, where red lights abounded: doctors were not the only practitioners with red lights. In this manner, slowing and accelerating by turns, the two proceeded to St Andrews where the child was born.

 

The parents named the child Adrian*. 

 

The baby was blessed with two distinct exemplars in the matter of Time. Myer Goldenberg was a stickler for punctuality. He tried to stickle his wife, but Mum wasn’t sticklish. So unpunctual was Mum, so indifferent to Time’s pursuit, Dad claimed:  Yvonne can’t tell the time. Mum’s riposte became famous: I can tell the time, I just don’t approve of it.

 

I took after Mum.

 

When I was nine years old I decided to become wealthy. Mum offered to pay me to shine shoes at one penny a shoe. Dad had about four pairs, Mum twice that number. I polished and I banked the proceeds. After shining two thousand, four hundred shoes I had accumulated ten pounds in my Commonwealth Bank account. I withdrew that sum and I bought a wristwatch. With that purchase I won my chance for mastery over Time.

I won it and I blew it.

 

School and life offered challenges, adult tasks, endless opportunity for a dysnumerate adolescent to strain his brain with numbers. Tomorrow always appealed. Later was better than now. Soon, Dad, soon.

 

After taking up middle distance running in my ‘teens I became interested in my pulse rate. I discovered my heart beat precisely sixty times a minute. I spent many lessons with my right index finger pulp resting over my left radial artery, counting the wrist minutes to the end of class.

 

My father had the impressive ability to awaken from sleep at a designated hour. He’d pack the boat at nine in the evening, we’d all climb into our bunks, and we’d sleep until the roar and throb of the marine engine told us Dad had awakened, as he’d planned, with the turn of the tide.  Such a skill seemed to me mystical. I know it now to be physiological, supported by a time-swollen prostate, the older man’s alarm clock.

 

Dad was always awake. I’d awaken and wonder why I had; or, more precisely, why now? And go back to sleep. I came to realise I could estimate the passing of time with remarkable accuracy. Let us say I heard the News on the ABC at seven AM and then went about my business through the day until mid-afternoon. I found I could stand still, rehearse the movements and actions of the intervening time, and calculate the hour. I’d say, I reckon it must be about four, or maybe a bit after. We’d hail someone wearing a watch who’d confirm it was five minutes after Four.

 

Curiously Time stalked me. I never chased it; it wasn’t particularly interesting to me. Now, at threescore years and ten I have discovered a new skill, equally unexpected: ask me when someone died, when someone else married or divorced or when she published her second-last book, I’ll declare, five or six years ago. Or, the Easter before last – and I’ll be right. Time has slipped through my hands. I never gripped it firmly but I have felt its mass, I can weigh it in my mind and give you the quantum of time that has passed.

 

Of course my time with Time is limited. The psalm I recite every shabbat reminds me: the days of our years are threescore and ten…I’ve had my threescore and ten. I’ve spent them and enjoyed them. I have seen much, I have loved many. Many are the books I have read, many the teachers who showed me their light. But what of my books unread, my books unwritten? What of the cracks in my world I was going to fix? What of the love I owe and never paid? Happily my psalm offers an extension: but with heroic effort, eighty years… 
At medical school I came across a novel and striking notion: senescence proceeds from birth, hand in hand with growth. The processes continue. Like a plucked fruit I ripen and I decay. In the house at night you can hear me snoring. In a coffee shop the other day I sipped my cappuccino while peeking at the attractive barrista. My thigh felt suddenly hot. I turned from the young woman and saw my cup held on its side, coffee streaming onto my flesh. I realised I have come to a stage where I can no longer perve and drink coffee at the same time. On the anniversary of my birth the grandchildren celebrated me. One wrote: Saba, I love you more than mangoes. Another, We will put you in a Home.
In Time there will be time ample for sleep. For now I sleep less, as if to waste no moment of the light. I hear less but I appear to miss little. Deafness is my censor, filtering out much noise, admitting much signal. I taste Time and it remains fresh and sweet. It passes, slipping away, slipping, like a breath. New times will follow and, like all times, they will pass into memory, after that into a memory of memory, and finally into forgetting. 
I can feel Time passing by weightlessly. Time as quantum wields no heft, bears no moment: somewhere I have a wristwatch, capable of measuring time. I have set it aside: I just don’t approve of it. 

  

   
 
*The parents named their new baby Adrian. Years later my mother showed me the notice she and my father placed in ‘The Murrumbidgee Irrigator’: Myer and Yvonne Goldenberg are pleased to announce the birth in Melbourne of their second son, Adrian.

Over the following ten days of her confinement, Yvonne received a stream of visitors, all of whom asked the name of the newborn, and all of whom vomited. Presently their friends Ben and Ethel visited, bringing with them their son, Howard. After the vomiting my father looked at my mother, my mother looked at my father, they both turned to Ben and Ethel, asked did they mind, and Adrian became Howard. Baby Adrian was not consulted.

The Seventh Day of Spring 

She slipped out of her mother into my palms on the seventh day of spring almost two score years ago. Small and slippery and vernix-spattered, with opalescent pink skin, she lay in my hands and opened her eyes and astonished me. Shortly afterwards her nine-month co-tenant peeked out, hesitated, retreated then plopped into a steel dish. The placenta lay in the dish, mute. The baby cried. She had fingers and toes and a belly and limbs and a face and girl bits and a mouth.

We took the baby home.
Seven is a mystical number, springtime a magical season. In a story I wrote about her I called her Pleasant Spring Goldenmountain. That name will serve for this story too.
Born of midget parents, she was tiny. The Pleasant One, being pocket sized and portable, was perfect for carrying and cuddling and tickling and flinging into the air and (generally) catching on the way down. She’d laugh and scream and I’d chuck her towards the ceiling time and again until once, gasping, she cried: ‘Stop! I’m not a toy, Dad.’ Chastened, I stopped.

  
The little one loved her father, attaching herself to him as if to a placenta. While she was still far too young to appreciate it the dad read ‘Great Expectations’ to little Springtime. She listened to the connection between Joe Gargery and Pip. She would say to her dad, ‘Ever the best of friends old chap. Ever the best of friends.’

  
Around the age of twelve her classmates shot up so much she had to crane her neck to talk with them. When her neck tired she’d address her friends’ belly buttons. A doctor friend recommended growth hormone injections. By this stage the Pleasant One knew her life’s mission: to mother early and often. She knew too that a short person’s small skeleton often had a small pelvis too narrow to allow a baby through. Some short mothers couldn’t give birth naturally. 
Every day for three years the Pleasant One injected her belly with the hormone and she grew. Her mandible grew wide enough to accommodate her teeth and her long bones flung her up to a towering five feet, two and a half inches, plenty big enough for babies. ‘I’m tall, Dad’, she said. And she stopped injecting.
Growing up in a family that lacked nothing other than fiscal discipline, Springtime would hear her parents groaning over the bills they had to pay. On weekends the child worked as a medical receptionist and saved her earnings. When she wanted new clothes she chose and paid for her own. Aged fifteen she decided she’d like a holiday in North Queensland. She worked and saved and paid for it herself. Aged sixteen she wanted to improve her French. She worked and saved and travelled to Paris where a man exposed himself to her outside the produce market. To improve her Hebrew she enrolled in a girls’ boarding school in Jerusalem for her summer holidays. Soon she could speak like the prophet Isaiah.

 
One day Springtime said something that made her older sister and her brother laugh. Her parents laughed too. ‘That’s funny, darling’, said her father. ‘I know Dad. I’m funny.’ ‘I’m funny too, darling’, said her dad. Springtime rolled her eyes like an epileptic. And laughed.
When she entered her early twenties Pleasant Springtime determined her father was not perfect. She told him so. From time to time, lest this slip her father’s imperfect mind, she repeated this information, adducing evidence. Her mother shared this surprising opinion and voiced it aloud. The two made a chorus and seemed to enjoy it.
Pleasant Springtime collected a couple of degrees, became a psychologist, gathering a bouquet of diplomas, coing to leadership of a large team of professional peers, some a good deal older than she. A number of fruitless connections came and passed before she met the good man I will call Running Bear. She married the bear and she bore him two infants, a Minor Prophet and a red gem.

  
And her Gargery father lived happily ever after.

Postscript: Twenty years after injecting herself full of Birth Canal Enlarging Hormone, Springtime elected to deliver her children by caesarean section.

Do You Have Children? 

She was the first patient in my day.
She was sent to this city in North Queensland by the foreign mining giant that employs her. 
I had never met her before. We introduced ourselves.
 She said: ‘I was woken by awful pain in my bladder. It’s an infection, I’ve had them before. I couldn’t sleep for the pain. It was four in the morning, but I got up and went out and walked the streets until I found a 7- eleven. I bought some Nurofen tablets for the pain.’
‘Did they help?’
‘A little.’
Her urinalysis was positive.
‘I think you’ll need an antibiotic. Antibiotics famously render the oral contraceptive pill inoperative. Maybe. So during this cycle you shouldn’t trust the pill… unless you want a baby.’
A smile and a shake of the head. The smile is not that smile that says, ‘Tread with care.’ She is a mature woman at peace with herself. Excepting for her hostile bladder. The smile licensed me:
‘Do you have children?’
‘No.’
Another smile as she sat and formulated a response to my silence.
‘I never thought I would. Now I realise I really have to decide – this month in fact. You see I’ll turn thirty-nine next month. I wouldn’t want to have a baby after forty.’
‘Why the late uncertainty?’
‘It hit me I might come to regret never experiencing that.’
 

She talked about childbearing and childraising, describing the contrasting experiences of her sisters. I agreed it was a momentous question. We talked about bladders and we parted.

 At home I asked myself how I’d describe my own experiences. I’d be unable to resist describing – at clear risk of malicious misinterpretation – the intense pleasures of bathing or changing soft bodies, the satiny skin, the small weightiness in arms or lap.
I thought about my feelings and the word that came was ‘intensity.’ Had she asked I might have said, ‘Becoming a parent deepened me. I believed I was tender towards children, but my firstborn taught me how I had tiptoed through mere shallows.’
I recalled an early piece of Martin Flanagan in the Melbourne ‘Age’. He described nursing his small daughter through a night of torrid fevers. From memory, I recall him writing, ‘I know I will never feel closer to this child than I have this night.’
I might have quoted an early patient who became an enduring friend. Her asthmatic sons struggled night after night for breath. She told me how she’d walked the floors, holding them, counting breaths, weighing ambulance against a dash in her own car.
Inevitably I was visited by verse.
I have walked and prayed for this young child an hour
And heard the sea-wind scream upon the tower,
And under the arches of the bridge, and scream
In the elms above the flooded stream….

(W B Yeats, ‘A Prayer for My Daughter’)

I might have described the common and uncommon thrill of feeling a newborn curling her fingers – by reflex – around the finger that I rest on her palm. I might have said, ‘The unearned trust of my child makes me know – as I have never known before – I am significant.
 

I might have said, ‘My children gave me a clarity that was visceral: I knew through them my task, the meaning of my being alive. I knew I would give my labour without question or measure or thought of recompense.

I could never have dreamed the reward that would follow – grandchildren. And of course, with grandchildren comes the renewal of mission, of labour, of redemption of my aging. Feeling anew that deep significance I stride towards my latter end with head high.’

 

Had she asked, that’s what I might have said. But of course we will not see each other again.
Postscript: But we did see each other again – the next morning. With her consent I read aloud the words you just read. I looked up. Her face was suffused, on her lips the widest smile, from her eyes a flow of tears.
She thanked me and in answer to my question she said, ‘Sure, you can publish that.’

My Sister Margot


May thirteen 1949 my sister emerged as the sun set and the sabbath arrived.


The doctor from the next town, nineteen miles distant, did not arrive – the Murrumbidgee had broken its banks and a sea separated Narranderra from our town of Leeton.

Dad was an accomplished accoucher.  The other doctors in our town did not come up to his standards so Mum had to give birth to her firstborn and to me in the City.  Third time around Dad had chosen that doctor in Narranderra – apparently he was competent enough to bring Dad’s children into the world.

But the waters held him distant.

So Dad delivered my parents’ third child, their first – and as it turned out – their only daughter.


She had red hair and she grew freckles, but my parents overlooked those abnormalities and rejoiced.

The baby’s name was Margot.

I look at the watercolour portrait of Margot that we grew up with and I see now she really was beautiful.

 

I could not see her beauty back then. She attached herself to her older brothers and wanted to go everywhere with them. One day when she was fifteen months old Dennis and I had urgent business at Iano’s Milk Bar. Margot, mother naked, wanted to come. We said no, closed the gate behind us and set off, ignoring her cries. 

At Iano’s someone said: Is that little girl your sister?

Margot had run across wide Wade Avenue and chased us three hundred metres. Here she was, unclothed in her girl way, and embarrassing. 

I said, I’ve never seen her before.

 

Margot grew taller and her golden hair grew longer. Eventually it hanged down to her freckled bum. The photographer from Melbourne Herald sighted all that flowing splendour and the photo appeared on the front page of the paper.

 

Margot married. In her innocence she was unaware her husband was a genius. She could not foresee how his talent would drain them from Australia to America where successive chairs in neuropsychopharmacology awaited his brains.


When Margot removed to New York our mother did the maths: a year was a twelvemonth; Mum had four children. Twelve divided by four equals three. Mum would spend three months of every twelve with Margot and the tribe she was creating in America. 

Dad stayed at home and worked and missed his freckled girl.


In my novel, ‘Carrots and Jaffas’ I create a titian-haired woman with freckled, sinewy legs who lives by the Hudson in Riverdale, New York. She runs like the wind and never tires. She is good to her brother.

 

She’ll turn sixty-six this may thirteenth.

Watching Women Drowning their Babies

London, heart of anglophone civilisation, cradle of British culture? ‘For british’ read ‘brutish’.

See below. This is a true story.

This morning I watched a group of six young mothers and their babies, aged six to fifteen months, in an indoor pool in London. The pool was heated: they’re very considerate here when they set out to torture their young. The mothers undressed their babies and clad them in little wet suits. Entering the water they held the babies close to their perfidious breasts, murmuring the tender endearments that loving mothers do. They walked backwards in a circle, bouncing their babes in the water, hoisting them high, beaming, beaming all the time. Choreographed by Nicola – that’s the name of the licensed water torturer – the same cooing, smiling mothers all splashed water into the faces of their young. Spluttering, the babes looked up, discomfited. Their mothers chorused “hooray!”, made loving whisper and song, reassured the children that what had passed was not real, then splashed them again. After half a dozen such passes it was time for holding on. Holding on is taught by placing the babe, until now an entirely earthbound being, facing a horizontal railing just inside the margin of the pool. The mothers all sang “Hold on! Hold On!” Nicola sang the same. A sweeter chorus you never heard. Then the mothers let go of the slippery bodies, singing gaily as the newborn of their flesh slipped below the surface. Here the babies enhanced their education by breathing in water. After a little bit of this, desperate bodies surfaced, flailing arms found the railing, and most survived. None looked happy, but the mothers beamed and sang and cried “Hooray!”

I looked at my watch. We had been going for only seven minutes of the thirty that the mothers had paid for. I braced myself.

Now came swimming. Swimming is done by having your face pushed beneath the surface and held there for two seconds. To condition you for this submersion your mother calls your name, once, twice, then drowns you briefly, smiling withal. Mother Malvolio brings you to the surface, cuddles and coos. When you are a year old or a little more or a little less, you still can recall those aqueous moments of birth, when you suffered anoxia, your first near-life experience. Here, during the your seconds underwater you go through it all again. You’ve been flatlining: you never felt so thoroughly alive.

Throughout your thirty minute session of education you drink a good deal of pool water, chlorinated for your safety (and to foster your eczema). When you have drunk all your small tummy can hold, you pee, re-warming the water for the next baby to drink. The mothers never drink, their faces held above water level as befits members of an air-breathing species. Instead the adult female bodies shed their dribs and their drabs of belly button fluff and sundry fluids, augmenting the brew drunk by their young.

After too long the session is at an end. Money passes to Nicola. Stunned babies, shuddering, shivering as the cooler air hits them, blue of lip, mute with disbelief and moral shock, nestle in mothers’ arms. Those adults smile at each other in congratulation of their depredations.
Scot-free they’ll congregate here again next Thursday and do it all again.