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.

Two Doctors in Doomadgee

Letter from Doomadgee

27 January, 2014.

 

Dear Australia,

 

Before I arrived the only thing I knew of Doomadgee was the name; that was the surname of the man who died on Palm Island. That name seemed compounded of doom and tragedy. But of the community itself I was glad to know nothing in advance of my arriving.

 

Steve the factotum drove me from the airfield. The aged street sign said:

 

Welcome to Doomadgee

Population 1200

 

Steve said: “More like 2000.”

I met the young Aboriginal doctor. He said: “More like 3000.”

 

A road sign said:

 

NT Border 103 KM.

 

The weather forecast said: Cloudy. Maximum 34 degrees.

That night the nurse said:” It felt hot so I looked at the thermometer on my verandah. The thermometer said: ‘52 degrees.’”

 

I said to the young Aboriginal doctor from Mt Isa, himself a grandson of respected elders of this community: “I’m the wrong doctor. I don’t have the language, the cultural currency…You are the right sort of doctor.”

He said: “There are nearly one hundred of us now. There were quite a few of us in my year at James Cook.”

The two of us spent most of Saturday together indoors. Between snatches of cricket and tennis on TV and poring over Murtagh’s tome on General Practice, he wanted to talk about religion (his new found Christianity, my old found Judaism), about work, about vocation. He asked me to name my favourite story from the Bible.

He told me his. I waited for a parable. Instead he said: “Jephtah and his daughter. I read that story and I put the book down and I said, ‘Lord, I need time to come to terms with this.’”

We spoke of our families and our upbringing, how he hankered for some city life while knowing his destiny lay in the country – on country – this country, this country his father had shown him and taught him and inculcated into him from early years; and I told him of my lifelong hankering for life outside the city while knowing my destiny lay there.

I said: “I wrote a book about my father – he was a country GP – and about my childhood in the country. And another book about my experiences working in remote Aboriginal communities. You can get copies of those books if you’re interested.”

He said: “No. I don’t read books. Only medical textbooks.”

I looked at him.

He conceded: “I did read two other books. My teacher said if I didn’t read them I couldn’t pass English.”

I looked at him again. I said: “I know you read. You read all the time – the Bible.”

Yes. Yes, that’s so. I’m always reading the Bible. But books, they’re not in my background. We didn’t have books at home.”

After hours of searching conversation my colleague posed a question. He preceded it with a statement. He said: “I want my work to mean something. I want my working life to improve the lives of Aboriginal people.” He swallowed the consonants whenever he spoke that word. He softened the ‘g’ in ‘Aboriginal’ so it was like a triple ‘n’, gutturalised. He paced and paused, paced again. He said: “I want to ask you a question. You’ve been a GP for a long time; I am just starting. What should I do? I mean what should I do now, while I’m completing my training? What particular field should I try to master? What will be most useful for Aborinnnal people?”

I offered some answers, thinking aloud, feeling my way through a variety of ideas. Eventually I said: “Any answer I give will be less important than the question.”

What do you mean?”

I mean, you aren’t asking a casual question. This is a quest. So long as you keep asking I think the quest will lead you where you need to go.”

Then I said: “You know we whitefellas do our best but we never achieve what we set out to do. I think the answers won’t come from whitefellas alone; some of the changes have to come from blackfellas. It will be like cancer – you don’t find the cure, the single thing that wipes out the entire problem; you find an improvement here, a sectional breakthrough there. So the Pearsons and Yunipingus and Langtons and the others, they’ll come up with some initiatives; and some of those will take root and some might bear fruit.”

My friend nodded hard. He said: “Exactly!”

 

***

 

On Australia Eve, the rain belted the roof all night. Australia Day dawned bright, cooler. We went down to the river. At the spillway the Nicholson flowed a kilometre wide. Warm brown water, shallow. Steve had said: “No big crocs here. Only little snappers – freshies.”

I trusted him. I waded with the younger doctor through warm shallows down to the waterfall. Everywhere we went in those shallows Aboriginal toddlers paddled, babies sat on the laps of slender young mums. The Nicholson flowed a thin caramel around and over shiny brown bodies.

The young doctor spoke to all he met. All were, one way or another, his kin. He said: “Hello brother”, and “Hello sister.”

He said, “Hello Aunty”, and “Hello Uncle.”

He knew what to say, how to say it. He found connections with strangers.

He knew his country; he was the right doctor; he had the language.

Mr Jones has a Great Big Carrot Between His Legs

“Noel Henry Jones has a great big carrot between his legs.”

John Wanklyn, Johnny Wank, my oldest friend in the world, is addressing an audience of venerable country folk in the Yellow Room of the Leeton Library. Wank is launching My Father’s Compass, the memoir of my father. This excellent book describes memories of the childhood years that Wank and I shared; now he is treating the audience – which includes my ancient Mum – to an anecdote.

Johnny begins: “Our teacher in Fourth Class was Noel Henry Jones. Noel Henry Jones was a kindly man who liked children and wouldn’t punish them, even when that would have been a wise and a fair thing to do.

There were two boys in his class for whom Wisdom and Justice would have prescribed punishment frequently.

“One morning, Howard arrives early. On the blackboard he draws a large stick figure of a man, whose legs are in the position that the military calls “At Ease”. In the space between those two great limbs, Howard draws a long cigar shaped object. He writes some words above the picture, then operates the hinged mechanism that folds his art work out of sight behind another blackboard.

The class arrives. Noel Henry Jones arrives and brings the class to reluctant attention. Instruction commences, with Mr. Jones writing on the vacant blackboard.

So far, so good.

In time the board is full. Mr. Jones swings the hinged mechanism, ready to write on the second board. The text and the artwork swing into view.

Howard’s classmates look and read.

Mr. Jones looks and reads.

Noel Henry Jones surveys his pupils, identifying at a glance the Usual Suspects. Noel Henry Jones looks hardest and longest at John Baikie Wanklyn and at Howard Jonathan Goldenberg.

He knows John Wanklyn cannot spell carrot correctly. He knows there is only one person in the class who can…”

I confess that I had forgotten entirely the events that Johnny describes. His description is accurate.

I do remember Mr. Jones.

We enter Fourth Class after the summer holidays, a period of healing from the year-long winter of Mrs. Savage’s Third Class.

Mr. Jones is tall. He bends over us and his long body is like a shelter above and about us. He does not shout.

Mr. Jones creates an orchestra. People who are musical are given instruments to play. Others play percussion. My instrument is the triangle.

No-one is left out. As a result, there is an audience of one, namely Noel Henry Jones. Mr. Jones conducts, we play, he hears the sounds, but he does not complain.

It is hot. Summer blazes on the tin roof of our schoolroom. The windows along the side of the classroom are opened. The sills are precisely at the level of our desks. Just down the road from Leeton Public School is the municipal swimming pool. Its turbid waters are cool and inviting.

Mr. Jones turns his back on the class to write on the blackboard, a modern, hinged affair with a series of boards that fold, one behind another.

While Mr. Jones writes, Wanklyn and Goldenberg exeunt by the open window.

This is the naughtiest act of our lives to date.

We take with us provisions, in the form of the large  lollies that you buy at the Milk Bar. I have funds, liberated from the desk in Dad’s consulting room.

Wanklyn and Goldenberg swim and suck, all the hot afternoon.

At school the next day we front Noel Henry Jones, who makes no mention of the events of yesterday.

He must have told our parents.

After school we front our parents. Mister and Missus Wanklyn say nothing, ask nothing about yesterday afternoon. My own parents seem pleased to see me. No questions.

Noel Henry Jones becomes a father. On the day of the baby’s birth, Mr. Jones is absent from class. This is a good opportunity to examine the contents of his desk. Nothing much of interest there, mainly pens and pencils. One pen has a silver cap, with a clasp in the form of an arrow.

Upon his return to class, Mr. Jones smiles a lot. His baby is a little girl, but he does not complain.

From time to time, Mr. Jones walks around the class as we do our written work.  He pauses at my desk and admires my pen. It has a silver clasp in the form of an arrow.

“Nice pen, Howard.”

(It is a nice pen. I chose it myself.)

“I believe that’s my pen, Howard,” – a remark tantamount to an accusation of theft.

“No, Mr. Jones. It’s mine.”

Mister Jones looks unconvinced.

“My parents gave it to me.”

“Really? Is that your name?”

Mr. Jones points to the engraved words that read, Noel Henry Jones.

For the sake of peaceability I surrender the pen.

It is the same Noel Henry Jones who opens the hinged blackboard and reads his name and confronts his likeness.

When, a short time later, I leave that school and my hometown, it is that same N.H. Jones who prepares a report for my new school. He writes of my excellent results in the half-year tests. He writes of my charm. He writes warmly and he wishes me well.