Character


 

I heard Michael was a goatherd. I heard he was an ostrich farmer before that. Ostriches are tough, durable creatures, goats are the same. Michael’s country on the border between New South Wales and Queensland is hard and dry. Michael was tough and leathery and just as stubborn as his animals. I heard he’d visit a city with reluctance. Quickly restless in urban places, he’d be quick to flee. He spent half a day in Melbourne then bolted. Michael, I understood, was a character.

 

 

I learned the goat business wasn’t complicated: you’d drive a few hundred kilometres to relieve someone of their feral flock; you’d drive a good distance in another direction to buy another herd and you’d bring all the creatures back to his farm near the small town of Texas. Later you’d drive many more kilometres and sell the consolidated mob to someone who wanted to export them to Muslim countries to the north. So long as the selling price sufficiently exceeded the price of purchase that was a sound business. And, goats being droughtproof, Michael would survive through the long dry.

 

 

Doubtless there were goat traders somewhere in the city who used computers and create spreadsheets. Michael would scribble figures onto the back of an envelope; the back pocket of his work pants served as his filing system. It worked.

 

 

When I met Michael it was at his house in Texas, on a grassless property at the end of a dirt track that led from a narrow road that twisted and turned just inside New South Wales. He was a large man, older than I. When we first met, a smile as large as Texas wrapped itself around his face as his large hand wrapped itself around mine. He shook my hand gently as he looked down from his long and rangy frame. I don’t know what Michael saw but I suspect he’d made up his mind already: he was going to like me on account of my being a friend of his daughter. Twice  a week that daughter’s landline would ring. One person only called on the landline, and that was her father. The voice would speak, always somehow astonished, always  joyful; Hello beautiful! How are you going? It wasn’t hard to like Michael; everybody liked him. Or just about everybody. He carried himself with utter authenticity. He had no time for formality, no time for insect authority in the noisy flapping of its wings.

 

 

After a long epoch of rooflessness, Michael’s high house had only recently been reroofed. After the storm that tore off roof, the insurer was in no hurry. So Michael and his wife Lisa lived there for a year without a roof, waiting for the insurer to come good on the policy. I looked at the high house; you entered it at the top of a high staircase. I took a breath and climbed the stairs. Afterwards I reflected that climb demanded fluid joints and I misgave for Michael. I reckoned Michael’s old skeleton couldn’t possibly last in that house much longer. Likewise driving truck across the breadth of Queensland and New South Wales was surely beyond him. Better and safer to accept reality and stop driving altogether. But that would be the thinking of retirement inside the township, the thinking of a life spent indoors, life in a nice unit somewhere on a nice street that was paved, with new neighbours close. That was the thinking of a life that would be death, and Michael turned his back on it and kept on driving and buying and selling and climbing those stairs.

 

 

Years later I visited again. The stairs were just as high but Michael was not defeated. I met Elisa, a small woman from the Philippines whose will and durability were a match for Michael’s. Elisa and Michael managed to cater kosher for their new Jewish friend and Halal for the local doctor, a Muslim. I met their sons, a pair of pocket Hercules. The young men are body builders. Powerful bodies are all the go in Michael’s tribe.

 

 

Michael came down to Melbourne to watch his sons compete in a bodybuilding championship. I saw Michael breakfast at an outdoor table with his family around him and an old mate at his side. The mate was a rough scrubber, jovial withal. The men shared an enduring love for the bushman each saw in the other. They laughed over wild old times, wild days, wild nights. I looked at Michael and I saw Falstaff:

We have heard the chimes at midnight, master Shallow.

That we have, that we have, in faith John, we have… the days we have seen.

 

 

Bits of Michael’s body stopped working, important bits like his heart and his lungs and his kidneys. The local doctor, himself an individual tenacious in his faith, could recognise and respect another tenacious believer. He must have misgiven mightily as the goatherd kept on, regarding his body as he might regard his old truck: roadworthy or not, Michael would keep it on the road and keep on driving it. Late last year Michael bent to hitch a heavy steel trailer to his vehicle and something snapped in his spine. Unable to move, in agony, he took to his bed and endured. No, he would not go to hospital, certainly not in the capital, hundreds of kilometres distant. Bloody Brisbane? Be buggered!

 

 

Soon Michael was delirious with pain. In and out of consciousness he came to in a modern city hospital where every mode of doctor and specialist and every modality of imaging and investigation was brought to bear. All the king’s horses and all the king’s men… His descendants descended upon his sickbed from all parts and wept and prayed and wept, and looked to ever more doctors and ever-clever technology to – to do what? – to keep Michael alive? Amongst those closest to Michael the wiser ones saw what he would see. Love torments the lover; the lover must long for a recovery that she knows to fear.

 

 

Michael’s mind hovered, wavering between calm lucid periods and the opposite. In clear moments he’d hear a loved one reminisce upon a life lived on its own terms, a life hard and long. These were precious moments of calm understanding. After a time his mind stopped rebelling against his body and he inhabited a limbo, while all the time his family kept vigil. Days and nights, nights and days passed. All held their breath. At last Michael stopped breathing.

 

 

Almost a year has passed. A year in which my friend’s landline has not rung. In Texas – desolation; in all the places of their dispersion, among his loved ones, the silence weighs upon an emptiness. Michael was a big man.

 

 

I met Michael but a handful of times. I’d draw up and he’d smile hugely. Knowing him fleetingly, I experienced how deeply his character left its mark upon another. I saw his son-in-law, his grandsons, I saw how Michael’s being seized them, how they loved him, how character tells. How deeply they respect him still.

 

 

Empty, Empty and Desolate the Sea

I can’t see Manny anywhere. I stand and fret in St Kilda Road. The spring gale blows a clatter of discarded plastic drink cups along the great boulevard. The cups fly and land and take flight again, baffling the redshirted volunteers who try to arrest them. In all the great sweep of road it is only the volunteers who run, no others: the marathon field has swept past me as I keep my watch and ward, as I wait and wait for Manny.
 

It is eight thirty-five. The marathon runners have passed, the half-marathoners too. Where is Manny? We’d arranged to meet at seven thirty. When we saw each other a week ago Manny told me he could run only two hundred metres without breathlessness. I was treating him for the respiratory infection that he’s prone to: whether it’s his cancer therapy or the cancer itself or a recurrence of pneumonia, he’s been unable to train. ‘Until the other day’, he says hopefully, ‘I did 10K on the treadmill.’ Then he concedes, ‘I had to walk and jog.’

 

Last night Manny sent a message: I’m hoping miracles do happen. This will be my thirty-ninth Melbourne Marathon. I am determined to start. I don’t want to embarrass myself. I hope I make it to the five kilometre mark. I’ll meet you there around seven-thirty I hope.

 

I have been watching since seven-fifteen, searching faces, peering into the throngs for sight of Manny’s familiar features, his labouring body. The road has been full, but empty, empty and desolate. So Manny has been defeated at last. After running thirty-eight successive Melbourne marathons, one of only eight people who have started and completed every one, Manny has admitted defeat. And it is not the event that has defeated him, but his illness. The wind howls in my ears, dust flails my face. I am almost relieved that Manny does not have to run into the gale.

 

I turn for home then look back over my shoulder. At the extreme of sight two figures are dimly seen. Their bodies are shapes, undefined. They seem to move: are they moving towards me or away? I wait. Yes, two figures, moving slowly, making slow progress in my direction down St Kilda Road. Can this be Manny and another, a support person? I wait my turn to become the next in Manny’s chain of supportive escorts. The figures approach, they gain definition. They move comfortably, they laugh and wave. They are young, female, they are not Manny.

 

Sombrely I jog back, keeping pace now with some lagging half-marathoners. Sloggers, these, a sub-sub-sub elite, united in dour resolution. These runners have the Manny spirit, the spirit that brought him through and home in the last two full Melbourne Marathons.

 

Back home I try to call Manny. No luck. I call his devoted son – all his relatives love and cherish him: no answer. I leave an anxious message. Restless, I await news. Day ends without word. I send an email.

Finally the following arrives: With help from my wonderful family I did the impossible and finished the thirty-ninth Melbourne Marathon.

I did the Cliffy Young shuffle and someone was with me all the way to help me along. I’m feeling very sore and tired.

I’m sorry I missed you. Hopefully we can run together next year.

‘Next year’. Two years ago Manny’s cancer doctor warned him against running: You fractured a cancerous rib just by coughing. You might have cancer in any of your bones. You can’t afford to run. But Manny did run. In 2016 with the same warning echoing, he asked his GP what he thought; this GP said, I’ll run at your side. And that was our plan again this year. But I missed him.
I missed him but Manny ran. He shuffled through the spring gales and he completed the full forty-two kilometres, plus the final terrible two hundred metres. And I missed witnessing one of the great athletic feats, one of the triumphs of the spirit over the flesh.

 

Next year, Manny, next year.

 

THE MCG STANDS EMPTY, THE SOLE RUNNER, LIKE PHEIDIPIDES OF OLD, ENTERS ALONE

Blog Wail

A week or so ago this blog wailed about the darkness of the news, the darkness at the heart of man. Two readers responded.
One referred to my wailing as my de profundis, an expression I’d seen bobbing along on the high cultural current over my decades, passing by unpassed. Now it came to me: from the depths. That rang a bell: David, warrior poet, king of ancient Israel, wrote a psalm,
min ha’ma’amakim, From the depths I called…’

Well, two answered my call.

From England, author, bloggish fruitcake maker and novelist Hilary Custance Green is writing her account of her father, a POW in the same camp as Weary Dunlop. He was
one of many untrained medical orderlies who worked in the camp under Canadian surgeon Jacob Markovitz. She writes: “I used to weep continuously as I read these accounts, but I found a dreadful tendency to habituate to the misery and cruelty…”

Robert Hillman, Australian novelist and ghostwriter of lives in ghastly times and climes, sent an antidote:

“Dear Howard – I’ve read your De Frofundis, and your blog about the Richard Flanagan book. I’ll get that book, most certainly, after all you had to say about it. The De Profundis was wonderful in its sincerity, Howard. It’s what all of (us) want to say. But you actually said it. And yet, you know, thank God that there are people of courage and grace in the world who also have a say. I’ve just finished writing a book (‘The Wailing Song’) for a guy who served – most reluctantly – in the Iranian armed forces in the last two years of the Iran-Iraq war. A situation arose when his most senior officer made a mistake, failing to issue an order to 2500 men under his command to withdraw to a ceasefire position in the face of an Iraqi advance. My guy knew of the mistake, and after awful soul-searching, decided to issue the order himself. If he had not, those 2500 men would have been massacred by the vastly superior Iraqi force. Usurping the authority of a Colonel when you are no more than a humble corporal will almost certainly get you court-martialed and hanged in the Iranian army. My guy accepted that he would be hanged, but went ahead and issued the order anyway – he was circumstantially in a position to do so, without having his authority questioned. The men were saved, my guy wasn’t hanged, due to the difficulty the Colonel would have had in explaining his blunder. Its one of those existential situations, a moment of truth, when all that you hope about yourself and believe about yourself is suddenly up for testing: do you have the courage to die at the end of noose in order to save others? Will your life have any meaning if you find a way to duck out? It must be like being thrust into an arena, a bright light directed at you. Here’s your chance. Yes or no?”

I know that moment of moral choice. I know it from reading with growing dread Conrad’s Lord Jim. I read it in the dread of self-knowledge that I would not rise to that challenge. However, since the start of my sixth decade I have imagined that I might.
(Free advice: read ‘Joyful’, which I enthused over in this blog half a year ago. Hillman writes in his own and in many voices of those who struggle in these depths and of some who rise in them).

Manny the Marathon Man

Manny Karageorgiou ran 42.2 kilometres yesterday, racing his oldest foe. At 58 years, Manny is the youngest of the Glorious Ten who have competed in and completed every single Melbourne Marathon. ‘Forty two kilometres’ – it rolls off the eye easily, but it’s a long way to travel on foot. My car gets tired over that distance.

Manny ran with the most reluctant consent of his oncologist. He delayed his stem cell transplant so he could keep faith with the Ten. This GP consented more readily despite the rib that fractured as it filled with tumour, despite the remaining bones waiting for fracture in the merest trip, bones brittle and chalky from the medicines and radiation. The GP consented; who could say ‘no’ to that beautiful face, a child’s face, appealing, smiling through the pain and fear, gentle, mild even before the cancer, tenderer than ever since the rib broke, as Manny sought to comfort his fearful wife and his children.

They came around, the family. They ran the late kilometres with him, the bitter second half of the marathon, they ran, a caravanserai of love and hope and tearful joy, along the endless steppes of St Kilda Road. Manny’s son ran the whole distance at his side. Pana, as Manny calls him is a strapping footballer, vigorous and fearless. Afterwards he would say, ‘I don’t know how anyone could run another marathon after experiencing the pain of the first.’ But Manny has run the Melbourne Marathons thirty seven times. He has outrun the Reaper. So far.

Why does he run?

He runs for faith, he runs for pride, he runs to be humbled, he runs for the self-glory of mortifying his flesh. He runs because he lives. He runs for all of us.

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Why did the old lady cross the road?

Noon on a sunny winter’s day. As the traffic slows for a red light, an old lady advances a single step onto the roadway. She is preceded by a man who is older than she. The man steps well out into the path of my car, raising a gesturing hand for me to give way. He steps with shaky determination. His hair is grey, his face is grey, his jumper is the same. He has a soft shapelessness.
The elderly lady for whom he acts as traffic controller pushes a walker, a wheeled gadget that supports her while her good right leg drags the stroke-affected left leg forward.

The lady lacks the relative speed and vigour of her man. He gait is an adaggio – a stride and a drag, a stride and a drag. The lights turn green. The old lady has advanced one quarter of the way across this narrow road.

The old bloke looks up at me anxiously, sees I am waiting, plants himself in mid-road and waits.

The green lights signal to oncoming traffic to come on. They do. The old man stands where the plantation would be – if there were one – and waits. The old lady strides-drags, strides-drags her way to her man’s side. Together they wait, he alert, a sentinel, she fully engaged in the labour of remaining upright. There they stand in their island of unsafety, waiting for the tide of traffic to turn again.

Their passage across a narrow street will encompass five minutes of time and all their resources.

Heroes both, with no dream or thought of their heroism, they are everyman’s dad, everyone’s mum.

Are they you, are they me, in time to come?

Where will I find their courage and resolve?