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

Back in Print

This blog wears a yarmulke. It observes the many and protracted Feasts and Appointed Times of the Jewish religious calendar. It reflects, repents, atones and fasts over the High Holydays and it prays and feasts and feasts over the endless Festival of Tabernacles. The blogger gets holier, purer and fatter but writes not, nor blogs.

 

I’ve brought a note to explain my absence. It reads:

I have been walking in the ways of my fathers. As a result I didn’t write blog posts. It wasn’t a case of ‘couldn’t be bloggered’, just that you aren’t allowed to write on the holy days: writing is working.

 

Now I am back.

 

 

I’ll tell you a story. It’s a true story: I saw it happen with my own eyes.

 

It was on Yom Kippur, around the year 1956, that a small girl stood in the row in front of mine in the great synagogue and read her prayers. Small, bony, freckle faced, auburn haired, she stood among the men, close to her father and her brothers, and read those endless prayers. In all the empty vastness, beneath the great vaulted roof, the girl stood and read the order of service, word by word, letter by painstaking letter, in the archaic Hebrew.   

At intervals her small bony fist beat her left breast as she read the Musaph prayer, the long additional service. 

After twenty minutes or so the few men standing either side of her completed their reading and sat down. The child did not notice. Head down, with her right forearm a horizontal pendulum, her fist rising and falling against her left breast in slow periodicity, she beat out her ‘sins’:

“For the sin we committed in thy sight without intent, (thump);

And for the sin we committed in thy sight by lustful behaviour (thump).”

 

The synagogue swiftly filled. The cantor began his sung repetition of the Musaph prayer. The child, nowhere near finished, read on, beat on:

“For the sin we committed in thy sight by oppressing a fellow man (thump);

And for the sin we committed in thy sight by lewd association (thump)…”

 

As the repetition continued the congregation lifted its voices in chanted responses to the Cantor. At intervals the choir burst into song. Red head bowed, slow sentence by audible thump, the dogged child continued her reading. She had commenced, with the field, thirty minutes earlier. At this rate I reckoned she’d still be standing there, reading and beating for another twenty minutes.

 

A latecomer, a man, arrived to take his usual seat in this all-male section of the synagogue. Shaking thrice-annual hands – Gut Yomtov, Gut Yomtov – he progressed along the row of seasonal faces towards his seat. Bonhomie, smiles,  handshakes distracted him from the problem I could see coming. The man would be unable to reach his seat, let alone sit in it. A small red-headed child, a girl, oblivious of this world, stood in front of his seat reciting the Musaph Amidah, literally ‘the additional standing prayer.’

During an Amidah the worshipper stands in place, feet unmoving, until the end. Further, during this prayer speech is forbidden. I feared for the red-headed trespasser who would well know she should not yield place nor respond in speech to request or greeting or command until the grim end. What would she do?

 

Latecomer, standing in mutual discomfort between the feet of the incumbent in the penultimate seat, took in the sight of the obdurate breastbeater. His face registered incomprehension, then frustration, finally defeat. He backed out, apologizing, embarrassed, bonhomie eclipsed, hands not clasping friendly hands, back to the empty end of the now fully occupied row.

 

The man turned and left the synagogue.

 

“For the sin we committed in thy sight by haughty airs (thump);

And for the sin we committed against thee by scornful defiance (thump)…”

The child, all unwitting continued her reading to the end.

“I read it all, Daddy.”

Proud of herself, she trod lightly the much put-upon feet of the row of men, making her father’s seat. She climbed onto her father’s lap and settled there, sucking her thumb.

 

After a good while the usurped man returned to the synagogue. As he made his progress to his seat, he looked around. I saw, in addition to the normal prayer book and Tallith bag, he carried a small package. Arrived at his seat, he searched the rows for something or someone. At length he saw her, his trespasser. His face of serious purpose fell open into a wide smile. He waved to the child, caught her gaze. Uncertain, she smiled back. The man beckoned her to come to him. She looked at her father, who nodded.

Trampling again she slipped and wove her way along the row to the place of her earlier devotions.  The man stood, waiting. He took her right hand and shook it. He said something to the girl and handed her the package. He pinched her cheek gently as his smile once again broke his face open. 

 

The girl hurried back to her father. She opened her package and took out a miniature ladies’ handbag, elegantly crafted in parti-coloured leathers, an exquisite piece.

 

Whenever she attended synagogue I saw the child carrying that handbag, until maturity claimed her and she disappeared upstairs to the Ladies’ Gallery.