Ecclesiastes, 12, 1

A letter arrived inviting me to join a panel of former students addressing a bunch of peers from my old school. Panelists were to discuss a number of questions which all boiled down to If you knew then what you know now, what would you have done differently?

The questions made me think about my schooldays. I loved school. I felt happy. I thought the brutality of our teachers was somehow just the way of things, neither wrong nor right, simply conduct that lay beyond judgement. I didn’t like it – in fact when I witnessed it I’d whinny with the ugly mirth of the unpunished; when I received it I felt I might vomit. But then I didn’t like winter either. Winter and corporal punishment were both unpleasant and both lay beyond lawmaking.

As I reviewed our jungle behaviour my older self felt sad and ashamed. I wished we had been kinder. An instinct revealed to us whoever was the most vulnerable. Arriving as a new boy in mid-term I was conspicuously vulnerable and the hounds duly bayed and pursued me. Being new was a temporary condition; others suffered perpetually. In my turn I identified one or two of these and I teased them with relish.

In time I saw how that fat child, this gay person, that person whose father belted her every day, attracted the crows, and I declined to join in the pecking. In time two of these three were to die by their own hand; the third tried and failed.

I wasn’t fat, or gay. My father didn’t beat me. My schooldays were happy. Inspiring teachers inspired me; loving mentors nurtured me. I suppose I blossomed.

Half a century and more have passed since I lived in that arena of mind-nurture and bloodsport. My eyes, clouded now with cataract, my knees grating, my hearing dimmed, my balance wonky, my farting – ever a reckless delight – now hazardous, what advice would I offer today’s schoolchild? Should I say Rejoice in the days of your youth before the evil days come when you will say, “I have no pleasure in them”?

I watch those tender green shoots anxiously as they don school garb and they venture into their jungles. I hold my breath and hope. Will she make her way? Will she find a friend? What wise words might I proffer?

Instead of speaking words I hope I might hold my peace and let her be, and let her become.

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.

Summer Stories 2: Chilled Bill and the Blue Baby

At medical school in Melbourne I met a tall bloke with a hyphen in his surname. His forename was Bill. He was bigger than I and much smarter. Bill came from Tasmania. In Melbourne Bill met Sally, a nurse, also from Tasmania. Sally too had a hyphen. The two married and they hyphenated each other ever after.

My first clear memory of Bill is of finding him in shorts and a short sleeved shirt, seated at his desk one evening in his room at Farrer Hall. The window was open and Melbourne’s winter breezes fluttered the curtains and cooled the room. Bill asked if I’d like to join him in a run. I hadn’t run since schooldays but I said yes.

We ran hard and long through the cold evening. We met and climbed hills, we plunged down the further side, reckless and joyful, we saw our breath white and vaporous in the street lights. Like Falstaff and the young King Hal we heard the chimes at midnight. We ran and our chests burned, and we kept going until we had outrun all chill. From that day to this I have run. It was Bill who started it.

Bill and the hyphenated Sally started making babies. The first was a girl, Joanna. She was born blue. For a year or more Joanna stayed blue; there was hole in her heart. Bill and Sally travelled to Auckland where the reigning champion repairer of babies’ hearts fixed up Joanna’s. A second baby, Jackie, followed Joanna into the world. Jackie was pink, hale and whole.

Annette and I and our own pink baby visited the Hyphens in Auckland. I took a picture of three pink toddlers laughing themselves silly in a bathtub in Auckland.

Eighteen years later I visited northern Tasmania for the ritual removal of a foreskin. While there I visited Bill and Sally. Joanna, by now a physio student in Melbourne, was also visiting. Still pink, Joanna had become a runner. We went for a run together, Jo and I. We ran hard and long through the cold evening. We met and climbed hills, we plunged down the further side, reckless and joyful, we saw our breath white and vaporous in the street lights. Like Falstaff and the young King Hal we heard the chimes at midnight. We ran and our chests burned, and we kept going until we had outrun all chill.

Such a runner was Jo that she’d won the Burnie 10K in open company as a junior. She went on to represent Australia in the World Junior Olympics in Rumania.

Back in Tasmania recently (for medical work that endangered no foreskins) I looked up Bill and Sally. Bill’s total knee replacement surgery of two months ago has been a success. He’s about ready to go running again.

The photograph shows Bill and Sally and the author’s grandson Toby. Toby is a brave and tough runner.

It’s Not How Long You’ve Got, It’s What You Do With It

I’ve got six to twelve, the older man said.

The younger man said quietly, they give me three to six.

But you never know, said the elder, my count is down. A little. I might get longer. Doctors can be wrong…If the count keeps falling, I might last longer than the twelve; I might be able to take the family to Greece next year. I’d love to go…

The younger man said I want to get to my brother’s wedding in February.

Silently we did the sums. February will be after three months.

The elder man’s oval face creased. He said to the younger: maybe you can get into a trial. I’m on a trial drug. My count is down, a bit. Are you on a trial?

No. I’m not eligible. I don’t have the mutation.

The elder urged the other to do things, to try things, not to accept predictions as solid fact: They can be wrong you know.

The young man smiled his crooked smile, stretching the wasted side into momentary symmetry. I know, he said. At first they gave me twelve months. That was five years ago.

The elder man’s eyebrows shot up. Wow, he said, that’s beating the odds. His earnest face relaxed, happier now. Are you on chemo?

I have been. On and off. It’s stopped working.

I keep hearing about people who have their brain tumours removed. Couldn’t they try that?

They did. Twice.

Twice? The elder man winced. He was trying everything, fighting the younger man’s disease.

Whenever he spoke the younger man’s voice was quiet. A physiotherapist, he was trained in disability. Now it had come to him, kept coming, unfolding in his body. His brain analysed each stumble, he processed the growing weakness down the left side, every step was improvised, his studied speech experimental, not bitter.

I stumble too, said the elder man. Last week, I was only one kilometre into the marathon when I stumbled. The ambulance men would have taken me away but Howard here wouldn’t let them. It’s just the foot, it flops.

The younger man said you can get an orthotic to keep the foot straight. They work. They’re not comfortable but you won’t stumble.

The ‘stumble’ was a crash. Down he went, his heavy body accruing momentum that his muscles could not brake. Six of the last eight months in hospital had seen powerful tissues soften and shrink, proud muscles, muscles that had carried this man 39 times the full 42.185 kilometres and across the Line. One of the Legendary Seven, last Sunday he lined up for his fortieth. He walked, he trotted, he shivered wildly, then he fell. Bent forward at my feet the man groaned loudly. He crouched, his head folded under his belly and he groaned again. Blood oozed, first from his knees, soon from the heels of his palms.  Two tall young men materialised, one on either side of the fallen man. They asked questions, good paramedical questions. The athlete groaned. I said, He’ll be alright.

The ambos said, He doesn’t look too flash.

I said, I’m his doctor.

What’s his diagnosis?

Everything, I said. He’ll be right.

At the prospect of unwelcome rescue the runner hauled himself up the helping arms of his son and his doctor. His sister-in-law mopped blood. The tissue was soon soaked. He said to his son, I’m shivering. Can I have your jumper?

He started walking again. People in the crowd recognised him. He was one of the Seven. Good on you, they cried. Legend! Keep going!

The man kept going. So did his teeth, chattering violently now, drumming time with his gait. The doctor in me wondered about fever, the return of infection that had seen him in hospital again and again.

A little short of the Fitzroy Street landmark his wife intercepted him. She took his arm and guided him gently to the kerb.

***

The younger man and the elder had not met before, although each had heard me speak of the other, a person like him, another with a problem that doctors could not cure.

The younger man regarded the elder. This rotund man, this athlete, this grandfather who’d three times risen from his sickbed to run so far. He sat at a remove from his stricken body, his face alight in wonder.

I nudged the younger: tell him what you’ve been doing since your diagnosis. The younger man spoke a little in the voice I have come to know, the voice he always uses when speaking of his living while dying. The voice speaks softly, a grin riding above the speaking mouth, ironic knowing in the background. The elder sat and listened. He heard of the classes the younger man runs for children with disabilities: They’re the kids no-one can do anything for. I mean no-one can fix them. There’s no cure for their cerebral palsy or their intellectual deficit or their severe ADHD.

The younger man did not mention to the elder how he teaches children they can be anything, do anything. His own life is the textbook, held open to the kids.

How do they come to you? Do you advertise?

Not as such. More word of mouth.  And there’s the website*.

A smile dashed across the younger man’s face: We start off each time with a group hug. It’s more a gang tackle – they race across towards me and throw themselves onto me and we hold each other. It will be fun tonight. The younger man glanced at his failing left leg:  Until now my balance and strength have been fine. Tonight I’ll go down and I’ll stay down. He laughed. It was a merry laugh, no irony, just the laugh of a man looking forward to sharing with his small friends the joke that is his health. The joke that is all health that is broken or twisted or failing.

We ate, all of us suddenly hungry. The younger man’s left hand rested in his bowl of hot dhal. I looked down, wondering when he’d remove it. The hand stayed put. The brain that should have perceived and sent the message to the hand neglected its work. The brain has been invaded and the invasion continues.

I asked them both, Don’t you feel angry? (I felt angry.)

The older man said, Why would I feel angry? Look, I’ve lived, I’ve got my wife, my children, a grandchild. I have a lot, I’ve lived. I feel sorry for my mother. She rings me every day, every single day. She worries.

A moment passed while we thought our thoughts. I felt for the younger man sitting at the side of the elder and hearing of the joys of a life lived, of a man full with his generations.

The younger man said, I’m not angry about this. He pointed to his head. I just get angry when doctors won’t listen. I nodded. Some of my starchier colleagues are uncomfortable with a patient  who is more than his disease, one who charts his path, who travels his world so widely and deeply as my friend.

A week earlier I asked the younger man was he frightened of dying. He said no. Later, a characteristically quirky text appeared on my screen: On the way down in the lift I worked out why I wasn’t scared. Dying isn’t scary – if you get it wrong then you stay alive.

*www.camerongill.com.au

SCOOP INTERVIEW AND BOOK REPORT:

Literary Giants Hail ‘A Threefold Cord’

 

Since the quiet release of ‘A Threefold Cord’ last week, giants of literature and history have joined a lengthening queue to sing choruses in its praise. 

Leading the push is Leo Tolstoy who confided to your reporter: ‘I wish I’d written it instead of ‘’War and Peace.’’ Another writer remarked: ‘It is a truth universally acknowledged that a child in possession of a love of stories will much enjoy this book.’
The author penned the novel in 2013 at the age of sixty-seven years. For that somewhat flimsy reason he decided the work would consist of precisely 67 chapters. When he told his daughter-and-publicist the title was, ‘A Threefold Cord’, she replied: ‘That’s got to be a working title Dad.’ ‘No, that’s the title, darling.’ ‘No kid will buy a book with that title,’ was her crisp retort. For the pleasure of defying his firstborn the author determined the title would stay. 
From its inception the author of ‘A Threefold Cord’ has always spoken of it very highly. ‘It’s a cracker of a story’, he told your reporter. 

Intended for shared reading between a parent and an adult of eight years and above, the novel has been trialled in readings to primary school classes across Victoria. 

‘Listening to early chapters, children laughed. Upon meeting the enigmatic and sinister Dr Vandersluys they gasped. Upon hearing the testimony of Samara, sole survivor of a refugee family whose boat sank off Christmas Island, children were moved to tears. That wasn’t entirely unexpected,’ said the author. But when teachers wept I was surprised.’

I wondered whether the book was too sad for children? ‘No, not for children, but it might be too sad for grownups. Children like it because the three friends who make up the Threefold Cord are so brave, and loyal and clever and inspiring. And FUNNY.’
But Doctor Vandersluys, I wondered, ‘Is he a he or a she?’
‘I ask the same question’, said the author. ‘I hope to find out in the sequel.’
‘THE SEQUEL! Will there be a sequel?’
‘Yes, I’ve already written the first twenty-three of seventy-one chapters’, replied the 71-year old author.

As an e-book A Threefold Cord is available from:

ITUNES:

https://itunes.apple.com/au/book/a-threefold-cord/id1237456156  
AMAZON:

KOBO:

https://m.indigo.ca/product/books/a-threefold-cord/9781925281415

ADVANCE COPIES OF THE PRINT EDITION OF  A Threefold Cord ARE AVAILABLE HERE NOW 

https://www.hybridpublishers.com.au/product/a-threefold-cord/
AUTOGRAPHED COPIES MAY BE OBTAINED DIRECTLY FROM THE AUTHOR

Striped Socks

In late 1969 the new doctor emerges half-baked from his progressive medical school. After graduation he spends three years in residence in major hospitals. He emerges from that great womb and enters family practice, feeling underdone still. But he blazes into his new work in a rural general with a few guiding verities. He will not create distance from his patients. He will not wear a white coat. He will wear bright socks, a signal to the young that he too is – was – is young. He will not hold himself aloof. He will not frighten children.

 

 

He starts his work and his feet are rainbows. When he treats children he sits next to them on the floor. Instinct rather than ideology guides the new doctor: he needs to be close; he wants to do away with barriers.

 

 

On his very first day, the ninth of April, 1972, the new doctor delivers a baby, a little girl. He becomes a long-term friend of the new mother. Every April ninth he remembers and often contacts the ‘baby’ – long after she grows, graduates, becomes a musicologist, a linguist, a creator of Aboriginal dictionaries.

 

 

He keeps changing his colourful socks but he does not change his ways. So long as his patients are, for the most part, young, the thin membrane that separates doctor from patient suffices for safety; the blurring of the professional and the human nurtures both the doctor and the doctored.

 

 

A young mother passes terrifying nights seated by her firstborn, watching him, willing his breathing as he gasps his inbreaths and wheezes his outbreaths. She brings the child to the new doctor. His concern comforts her. In time the boy’s asthma improves. The doctor meets and treats all three of that young woman’s children. He is drawn to the three, the thin boys gangling, the coal-eyed little girl, a faun. The children do not fear him. These too he befriends.

 

 

A few years pass and the young parents bring Grandfather to the doctor. The young family have taken the old man and Grandmother in to their home, thoroughly alarmed by the pneumonia he narrowly survived during the previous winter. Sixty years previously that man survived gassing in the trenches. His lungs are ruined, he might not get through another winter. Would the young doctor resume his care? He does, and further friendships grow.

 

 

Grandfather survives a dozen more winters in cheerful semi-invalidism, dying eventually in his late eighties. Grandmother, born in December 1899, lives to see three centuries and two millennia, living beyond all arithmetic probability, dying eventually, aged 104.

 

 

 

The father of the asthmatic boy likes to run. He’s a graduate in Architecture, a landscape artist who turns to teaching maths. He teaches at a school fifteen kilometres distant. Sometimes he runs those fifteen kms, up and down hills, across a couple of creeks to the school in the valley. The teacher shows his doctor friend the secrets and joys of running sandy country tracks. Up hills they run, sharing vistas of white, off-white, pale grey, deep grey, their breath white in the frosty mornings. Summer sees the two up and running before the heat strikes. Sweat-born raptures bind them in close friendship. The doctor showers and dresses for work in the en-suite bathroom of the aged matriarch. He tiptoes past the old lady lying asleep in her bedroom, greeting her after she has awakened. 

 

 

 

Years pass. Decades pass. All are older now. The Medical Board sends letter after letter to doctors, warning them to keep proper distance from patients. The Medical Board has never had the pleasure of being a country doctor. The doctor wears his garish socks still, unconsciously. He knows by now the byways of health, the pathways along which he and patients alike, stumble; ways that lead slowly or rapidly towards the universal destination. He knows his own vulnerability to the pain of others, the sorrows that seep through a thin membrane; and the power of hope to seep osmotically back. He knows too the cases where hopes of cure are cruel illusion. He seeks in these cases to be a guide, to keep company with his patient his friend. That a friend not pass, lost or alone, into finality.  

 

 

 

The running friend becomes unexpectedly breathless. Time passes and he cannot catch his breath. Tests show a shadow on a lung. Other tests reveal a tumour in the bowel. The years of torment begin. Surgery, chemotherapy, surgery again, scans and biopsies that show a third disorder, a serious chronic lung inflammation, nemesis now of three male generations. The teacher painter architect runner friend – what word can encapsulate a human person? – must take strong steroid medicines to stay alive, to breathe.

 

 

 

The breathing man works on a new painting. He paints a square-rigged ship negotiating a strait. He paints the ship then repaints it. His work reaches no finality. He shows the work to his doctor friend, who comes – as he used to in the running days – for breakfast. That’s a sound in New Zealand, a fiord really. It’s called ‘Doubtful Sound.’ Captain Cook came to the entrance, felt uncertain whether he’d get ‘The Endeavour’ out if he were to enter. He felt doubtful and he named the place for his doubt.

 

 

 

The painting shows a tall ship heeling before a strong wind. Its bow points bravely into the wind. The wind bears it towards the reef that guards the mouth of the sound. The rocks are a maw, open, baleful. The sails are close rigged. This is a ship under strain. Relieving that strain is a smaller boat whose heaving oarsmen pull the larger one towards safety. The doctor looks at the picture doubtfully. He was raised on boats. He’s negotiated dangerous narrows, but he had a motor to see him through.

 

 

 

That small boat, that’s a whaler. I used to row boats like that as a boy, on the Thames. In earlier times the master of a square rigger would launch the whaler to sound depths, but also, to help the mother vessel in places where the going was tight. When he felt doubt that he’d make it through.

 

 

 

The cortisone voice crackles, phrases punctuated by breathing pauses. The creator looks at his unfinishing work. Artful brushstrokes of blue, of greys, of white, create waves, wake, bow-wave. The ship holds its own. In all the stresses and forces it has not reached finality.

December Seventh

As I left my house this morning, my hand drifted up, as it often does on my leaving home, to touch the mezuzah on the doorpost. I kissed my fingers, as I often do, but this time quite consciously. I was visited by unexpected thoughts: I hope this house is still here when I return. Will I find my loved ones safe and well this evening?

 

 

Musing, I walked to the tram.

 

 

It’s December seventh today. Indelible date. A baby in my arms, born three months ago, named Aviva for the season. Small, pink, warm, her lips a rosebud. We return from a week in the wilderness, wife, the two older children and the baby, two days ago. Back at home the hot water tap runs cold. And stays cold. We call the plumber, he calls the electrician, he replaces the thermostat.

 

 

December seven I am up first. I go to wash for the dawn prayers; a clanking in the pipes, steam issuing from the hot tap. I think little of it. Back in the bedroom I remove the wedding ring that bears Annette’s inscription: ‘Howard, with love, Annette. I enfold myself in ritual gear and recite sleepy prayers. The family is up now. Annette sits in an armchair, breastfeeding springtime baby, while the three-year old and the five-year old sit and wait for Sesame Street. Kisses goodbye and I am off to work, leaving my wedding ring on the dressing table. The hands on the bedside clock point to 0745. 

 

 

Work is busy, absorbing. Quickly I slip into country doctoring. Families, wives, children, snot, cut legs, bruised feelings, breaking hearts, then a phone call from our neighbour: ‘Howard, I think you’d better come up home. There’s been a small explosion.’ I know the neighbour, an excitable person. There’s no rush. I see a few more patients before a voice says ‘go home’. I do so.

 

 

It’s sunny and pleasant. The warmth beguiles me as I drive up the unmade road that twists and turns on the way to number 43, Deering Street.

 

 

I turn into the steep driveway. Ahead I see the carport, tall, stout, ugly. The carport is empty. To the left I see the brick walls of our home lying flat on the rough grass. Grey oblong bricks, Besser Bricks, they call them, I don’t know why. The wooden house frame hangs drunkenly, the roof sits skew-whiff above the frame. A moment of amazement. Then a warming, a drenching flood of relief. The carport is empty. No-one is home. Annette, the kids, they’re safe. We have lost a house but I have lost nothing.

 

 

In the hours that follow I trace Annette to her sister’s house and tell her. She has to drive, to arrive, to look, to sift through rubble before she understands the import of the excitable neighbour’s ‘small explosion.’ A mother has lost her children’s nest. Our son loses speech for the next six months. One goldfish has lost its life, the second survives in the millimetre of water that covers the floor next to the shattered fishbowl.

 

In the bedroom the bedside table is a shatter of toothpicks. Of my wedding ring, no trace. Ever.