I Feel Free

While my daughter is away I feel free…

My elder daughter and I share an understanding: I will write pieces for this blog and she alone will post them. The arrangement rests upon our secure shared knowledge of my technical incapacity to do the posting.  It rests too upon the lovingkindness of the daughter*.

That daughter is away. A small item has germinated in the deep soils of my being and it presses urgently to find the light. That trifle cannot possibly be a blog post, because, as I have mentioned, the daughter alone is blogenabled. What follows must be something different. It is the unripe fruit of my liberty.

I met a man the other day who was unwell. The man smiled a mouth of American teeth. He wore a white shirt, a dark tie with a tiepin and a name tag. The name on the tag read ELDER BLOGS**. The man was young, slim, erect in his bearing and he was bearing up despite being quite unwell. Elder Bloggs was accompanied by another young man, equally erect, endowed likewise with enviable teeth, a similar black tie, a very white shirt and a nametag of his own. This read: ELDER MAO**. Elder Mao spoke American but he was evidently Chinese.

We spoke of illness and of healing and we agreed I should try my hand at the latter. The Elders visited me again the following day. Healing was underway and we had leisure now to speak of other matters.

I asked Brother Mao: Is your family still in China?

Yes.

The American teeth appeared in affirmation.

Do they share your faith?

Yes.

Is it permitted in China?

Yes. In the family. I mean privately.

More teeth, to allay any misgiving.

Addressing both Elders I asked: Are you preaching the Gospel here in Australia?

Yes. Nodding of heads. Many teeth.

But – reverting here to Brother Mao – Is it permitted to preach the Gospel in China?

Oh no.

My eyebrow invited the Elder to elaborate.

It is against Government policy. China is atheistic.

No teeth. A worried look.

I resumed: I understand Falung Gong followers can be punished for teaching their practices. Do the same rules apply to you?

A nod. A serious look. No words: not apparently free to elaborate further.

I remembered Tiananmen Square.

I remember the times.

I remember the times of the Aboriginal man in the Channel Country who reminisced on his days as a cattleman. He looked back on those days with pride, long days that stretched into weeks on the track. Those periods of freedom punctuated the other days, days that were years on the station where he was bound, not at liberty to leave the boss’ employ. One man did and the cops hauled him back to the station where the whitefeller bosses whipped hi with iron chains. I calculated our age difference. When this man was eighteen I was ten, growing up in liberty. I learned at school of William Wilberforce and the ending of slavery. I lived in Australia. We didn’t have slavery in Australia. I remember the times.

I remember the times when we took away the children and gave them to whitefellers. I heard my parents’ friends say: They are going to good homes.

I remember when liked to wear Nike running shoes. But then I learned of child slavery in Asian factories.

I remember the times in Broken Hill when children as young as twelve were dying in the mines, of accidents, of lead poisoning.

I remember the times when my tribes lived in Judea under the Romans. They were times when great rabbis were burned alive for studying Torah.

I remember the times when we were enslaved in Egypt, times when they stole the children and drowned the baby boys.

I remember slavery in Auschwitz. If I went to the right I went into slavery. The slaves were the luckier ones.

Tonight, at home here in lucky Australia, I’ll lean back, a free man, and I’ll drink four glasses. I’ll tell my generations of the times when I was a slave.

And if they ask: were you a slave, Saba? – I’ll tell them I’ve never been to Egypt but I remember the times. I’ll tell the children I mustn’t forget the times.  If I ever forget I won’t deserve to be free.

* both daughters actually. The younger, removed geographically, is spared the call of this blog.

** I have changed the Elders’ names.

Happy Breathing

Earlier this year I wrote of the man who, when a youthful slave in a Nazi slave camp, wished he’d been sent to Auschwitz. He’d been envious at that time of the greater food rations allowed to slaves at Auschwitz. When I met him, seventy years after liberation, the man was shackled to an oxygen cylinder.
We bumped into each other again today. “Where’s the oxygen tank, Jan?” The skull that is Jan’s face split into a grin: “I am supposed to use oxygen sixteen hours a day. Outside of home I am free. I enjoy my free hours. My wife and I will drive sometimes to the city. We walk around, we are away from home longer sometimes than eight hours, sometimes ten.” Big skull-splitting smile. Big lung-filling gulps of ordinary ambient air.
“I see you are watching my breathing, Doctor. I like breathing. It is easier, of course, with oxygen.” Jan leaned forward, confidingly, sharing one of life’s large jokes: “You know, Doctor, oxygen can be addictive…
“I used to smoke, but never heavily, and I stopped many years before now. Yet my lungs are quite wrecked. Our greatest teacher is our body. Of course we ignore it , we abuse it. Of course life is not even. It has its up and its down. But you accept… I have not any complaints.”
“We have our little span of life, we humans. Surprising that we humans rule the planet. Insects of course have been here first, well before the human. The insects are our seniors. They should rule the planet. They would do a better job.” When Jan uses words like ‘job’, he soften the hard letter ’j’ so the word comes out as ‘chob.’ ‘The insects doing a better chob’ – delivered with the Jan smile and punctuated by the heaving of the shattered chest – becomes a fanciful idea of unexpected weight.
‘’First we had ‘The War to End All Wars’. Soon after we finished that one we started to prepare for the next, which was worse. Now of course, we see them preparing for the Third.”
“You think so, Jan?”
“It is inevitable. They are grooming for it. It will happen because Man’s stupidity does not end.”
“How did you come to settle in Australia, Jan?”
“In 1944 I made myself useful to the Americans. I spoke, of course, Czech, and naturally Hungarian, also ‘Cherman’. The Americans in ‘Chermany’ needed intelligence about the Jerries they held. My languages were helpful. And so I improved my English. And the Americans paid me.”
“I returned to my own country, to my city, and the Communists were there. They decided I was interesting to them. Some kind person told the Commies my family used to have shops. So we were Capitalists. I was nineteen and the Commies decided I was an Enemy of the People. This had a familiar look, an uncomfortable look. I had been an enemy before. Also some helpful Jerry told the Commies I was slippery, an escaper. A friend said, ‘They will come for you tomorrow morning at four.’ So I left. I took a train.”
“To Vienna?”
“No, they closed that border. I went East, to Bratislava. From there, west again, to Prague.”
Another grin of bones. Throughout Jan’s discourse, in which his breezy phrases alternated with king tides of respiration, Jan stopped frequently to smile, either at his own serpentine cleverness or at the great joke of existence. “So I made my way from Prague to the border, which of course, our Commie friends patrolled. So I waited until dark and I watched and found a place in the wire furthest from the sentry posts. And I went under the wire.
And I left Comrade Stalin behind me forever. I came to Australia and visited Sydney.”
Jan’s wife, who knows these stories, who has heard them now for longer than the six decades of their marriage, listens actively, nodding, beaming, a happy audience. At this point she reminded Jan: “That’s where we met.”
“Yes, I met this girl but I did not settle then in Sydney. The government was sending men to the Snowy River but I went north and became a cane cutter.”
Jan is short and slight. In his old age he is bent like a banana. Work on the canefields is tough for the most robust and the humid heat is brutal. It is hard to picture Jan at this work.
“On the coast I saw a traditional Pacific Islander sailing boat, hollow, with an outrigger. My own country has no coast. I decided I would learn to sail. With an Aboriginal friend I found a tall straight tree and chopped it down and hollowed it with an axe. I made a boat and I sailed it to Sydney. I stopped here and there to work when I needed money. I stopped further south and there was this same girl and I took her to South Mole Island…”
Jan embarked for Sydney on December 26, 1951. He arrived in Sydney on December 26, 1953. Jan enjoys recalling precise dates. There were newsreel cameramen filming his arrival. “I was quite famous.”
Jan spoke of his work laying railway tracks, of his initiative in reinforcing curved sections to prevent derailments. The smiles flashed, signalling pride in serious work perfomed well. He married ‘the girl’ and they settled in sugar cane country where they raised red pawpaws and four children Jan spoke of his generations, of his ‘tribe of fifty.’
“You have fifty descendants, Jan?”
“Yes, they number fifty; children and grandchildren, and grandgrandchildren. Some from my children, some from step-grandchildren: it is not different, all the same, all my tribe. When we come together, all are the same. All are one.”
As I sat and listened to Jan, our heads bowed close to allow his soft words to breach my hard ears, I tasted his ideas of peace that ends to soon, of insects that should rule; I reflected how a life that started in Old Europe – “I am a relic the old Austro-Hungarian Empire” – flowered in this new country, how a sole person now has a tribe of half an hundred. I thought of my grandchildren and his ‘grandgrandchildren’, all of whom who must grow in this world. I thought of Jan’s eighty-eight years of living and breathing and smiling. Somehow this spirited man radiated a joy that quite defeated glooms past and pushed away gloom to come.

The Security Lobby

I am free. They said, you are free to go. For the moment. I’m not in Gitmo. I haven’t been rendered. Not yet. I’m taking the opportunity to set it all down.

There’s not that much to tell. Step this way please sir.

The officer in Security at SFO spoke politely. All her colleagues – in a short space I met quite a few – spoke politely. I followed the officer to an open space at one side of the XRAY scanner. Your XRAY was not satisfactory, sir. My colleague will pat you down.

Her colleague is male. He pats me down, very thoroughly from the rear. From the front he pats me down vigorously, albeit selectively. A man asks me to touch some paper. After I do so the paper is tested in a machine. Your fingers show the presence of residues, sir. For a short space we stand in silence. The silence of the officers is an interrogation. I offer my own silence in return. How will this play out? It is only six am. I arose this morning at four. What have my fingers touched over these hours? I mean, what chemicals?

The officers asked me to come this way. Politely. This way is a small room. A third officer joined us and closed the door. The smallness of the room brought all occupants closer. Opposite me, smiling broadly, the patting officer, broad and tall. A powerful man. The presiding officer slim, female, perhaps forty years of age, standing at my right, the line of fine dark hairs running along her upper lip interrupted by the fine surgical scar of her neatly repaired hare lip. The last-entered officer took up his position behind me, between me and the door.

Are these your items, sir? I looked at the items resting mysteriously on the bench behind the widely smiling Patting Officer. The items are mine. I said so.  Please open them sir. I did so as they watched and waited – for what? Explosives? Firearms? Tweezers? 

The lady pulled open a box of sky blue plastic gloves, inserted her delicate hands and groped inside my baggage. I pointed out the small velvet bag containing my ritual gear – phylacteries, prayer shawl: Those are holy. Please handle them with respect. The officers, being American, respected ‘holy’.

The groping of my backpack completed, they turned to my roll on. The gloves were pulled off and tested for residues, a fresh pair pulled on. Grope, grope: What are all these books?

They are gifts for family, books. I wrote them.

Really?

Eyebrows shot up, faces turned from my items to me; for the first time the officers – all three – reacted to the unexpected. They looked impressed. Or something. For my part I misgave: perhaps ‘writer’ equals ‘leftist’, equals ‘intellectual’, equals ‘terrorist’? Should I have said, I am a doctor? That might remind them of terrorist doctors from George Habash to the English train bombers to hapless cousin Mohammad Hanif, who wasn’t, but who owned a guilty Sim Card. 

What guilty information lies concealed in my laptop?

What traitorous phone calls hide in my phone? They wilI find I have advocated for refugees, cheats, Muslims, border violators.

 

I reverted to silence as the chief Groper resumed groping and the others seem to disengage. The silence was very silent. Only a few feet distant from this room hundreds of bootless feet passed through Security. The hall that buzzed and rang around me a few minutes ago was not heard in here. It occurred to me that just as I did not hear the world, the world was unable hear me.

 

Groper looked up. Her hand rested upon something I did not see, something I own. Do all these items belong to you?

To the best of my knowledge, yes, they do.

To the best of your knowledge.  A harder edge to the voice.  An unpleasant pause.

Sir, do you know or do you not know? Did you pack this bag? Has this bag been out of your direct sight at all?

I mumbled reassurance that made things no better, no clearer.

 

Blue gloves that had done groping touched strips of test paper. All quiet as the machine pondered my possible residues. 

Groper-chief officer straightened, exchanged a look with the tall broad man. A small movement from behind, a sensation of space encroached.

 

You can go, sir. The ritual fringes you wear set off our scanner. We see that in people of your faith. And you

must have touched something this morning, perhaps a bench in the Security Lobby. You are free to go. Have a safe trip, sir.


What Can We Do Once We Lose Our Freedom?

We started gmail and we surrendered the final shred of privacy. We used the net and opened ourselves to every hacker, most of them those we elected. We read of the twin towers and were alarmed; we saw the beheadings and were rattled. Those we elected rattle us often and hard and by reflex and in all sincerity and – as in the case of asylum seekers – in the sincere anxiety that we might unelect them. Once thoroughly rattled we allowed our governments to suspend habeas corpus. We are each of us now, all citizens, all merely Mohammad Hanifs, awaiting the knock on the door of our terror police.

Terror has triumphed. As it usually does. Terror wins when we pay heed – as we need to; it wins when we panic – as we need not.

So what can we do once we lose our freedoms?

I saw an odd movie a score or more years ago in which an Orwellian change had occurred and citizens were forbidden to own books. Books were collected and burned. Publishers were taken away for re-education. The Good Book says: ‘Of making books there is no end.’ But this was an end.

A few resisted, silently abandoning the cities, coming together to meet in the forest. Here each escapee became a talking book. One became ‘War and Peace’, another recited ‘Animal Farm’. Those whose mental muscles were less hypertrophied recited ‘Ozymandias’, or ‘Waiting for the Barbarians’, or the Twenty-third Psalm. All these texts threatened the regime that murdered thought. All reciters risked death but inherited life.

Back here in my real life. I resolve to read poetry every day. I’ll rescue myself and succour others.

Toby’s Fingers Stuck in the Bath Hole

My wife Annette and I are having an early dinner when my phone rings. It is Rachel, our elder daughter: “No-one is hurt, everyone is OK, but I’ve called an ambulance: Toby’s fingers are stuck in the bath hole.”

I reckon I’m equal to this little challenge: ”Darling, just soap his fingers liberally then they’ll become slippery and he can just slip them out.”
“I’ve done that, Dad, and it didn’t work. I’m attending to Toby, but I need help with the other kids. Can you come over?”
“We’re on our way. We’ll be 15 minutes.”

In the car, Annette looks at her watch and calculates that Rachel’s brother, Raphael, will be driving home about now. He might get to Rachel’s before we do. She calls Raph and indeed he is only a minute away from Rachel’s house. He isn’t driving; he’s on his bike.

We drive into Rachel’s street which is blocked by two large fire trucks, a smaller fire car, two ambulances and a police car. There is no smoke and there are no signs of a motor accident.
We park at a distance and make our way on foot to Rachel’s house. Flung to one side on the grass is Raphael’s bicycle. Ahead of us the large torso and bum of a fire officer protrude from the bathroom window. The head and shoulders are out of view, presumably inside.
We make our way to the interior. A large man walks purposefully ahead of us, lugging a heavy timber box of plumber’s tools. From the narrow hallway an ambulance officer carries a plastic drink bottle into the bathroom. The bathroom itself is small. What with the toilet, the shower recess and the old-fashioned claw-foot bath, two is a crowd here. This evening the crowd is larger: the ambulance officer, a young lady, is leaning forward, passing the drink bottle to a male colleague who sits on the edge of the bath. The missing fireman’s face and shoulders are framed in the window, as he leans inward, observing and giving advice and instructions to another fire officer lying on the floor. This is another partial fireman, his face and arms invisible beneath the curve of the steel bathtub.
What he lacks in extremities and face he makes up for in length: this is a very tall fireman.
In the tub, drained of its bathwater, sits Rachel, her back to the door. On her lap is the skinny white body of Toby, aged five, a runt, a set of bones with a piping voice. One of his arms extends to the bath hole. His fingers are not seen.
The mother is reading a story to her child.

From the family room, children’s voices are calling: Toby’s twin, Miles, and their older brother, Jesse, have sighted us: “Saba! Savta! Toby is stuck. His fingers are stuck in the bath!
Look! Lollies! Raph is giving us a special treat.
The boys peel themselves from the arms of their uncle Raphael, who stands with his bare chest, wet with the sweat of his bike ride on this hot evening of 30 plus degrees.
Miles and Jesse pull at our clothing, dragging us to the bathroom, to see Toby and his missing fingers. They squeeze past the ambos, step onto the prostrate fireman and clamber into the bath. We follow them, secreting ourselves along the far wall and we greet Rachel. Raph stands behind us in the doorway.
Rachel smiles the smile that we’ve seen before, the smile that welcomes mere chaos that unseats tragedy.
Pasted over her fear, and threat and alarm, Rachel’s smile invites us to see and share the joke.
It is hot in the bathroom. Toby’s free hand wields a lollypop that disappears and reappears in and out of the recesses of his mouth. He cries out his greetings, his words emerging through a slop of saliva and lolly juice. He is having a pretty good time.

Rachel gives us a synopsis: “I called the ambulance and told them that Toby’s finger was stuck. These guys came and called the fire brigade. While I was on the phone, Toby’s free fingers were curled up and cramped, so he made them more comfortable by poking another couple into the plughole. Now there are three fingers that are stuck.
“The fire guys have all the right tools and equipment. They get fingers out of plug holes all the time. I didn’t know that bathplugs are a fireman’s specialty.”
The fire chief in the window frame elaborates: “Normally, a plughole is a ten-minute job. They’re all plastic nowadays. But this bath is a genuine antique, made of genuine steel. The plughole itself is probably made of toughened steel: it’s usually a disc about half an inch thick, with half a dozen circular holes, all of them just about the width of a toddler’s finger.
“The plan is to cut away the drain pipe. This will allow us to raise the bath from the floor, so that Steve can get right underneath and free Toby’s fingers from below. He’ll push up on Toby’s fingertips with his own finger.
If that fails, we’ll have to saw away the steel drain and free Toby from the tub, and then tackle the fingers.

“You and your family won’t be taking baths for a while, Rachel. This bath will be in pieces once we’ve finished here.”
I take a look at my watch. 7.45 pm. Toby has been in the bath for an hour and a half.
While we’ve been talking, the home phone has rung and rung out. My own mobile has rung unattended. Now Annette’s phone rings and it is Toby’s Aunty Naomi, calling from Sydney. She had called earlier, just when Rachel was racing between the stuck child and the other children and her urgent phone calls for help. Since that time, Naomi has learned sufficient to frighten, and nothing to comfort an aunt who has visions of fingers lost by strangulation or by nightmare surgery. Naomi has no children of her own yet and she loves her Melbourne nephews and niece with an intensity which increases with the distance.

Naomi asks to speak to Toby. “Toby, would you like me to sing Rainbow?”
Toby nods, his mouth occupied by his lollypop.
Rachel switches the phone to Speaker and says:
” Toby is busy with a lolly. He does want you to sing.”
Naomi’s voice floats into the bathroom.
“Somewhere, over the rainbow,
Way up high…”
The phrases float, spacious, into the bathroom, the words a familiar caress for the boys at their bedtime. Naomi’s singing voice is a sweet soprano, usually crystalline. Tonight the voice is thickened with an unfamiliar tremolo.
“ there’s a land that I heard of
Once, in a lullaby…”
Toby is transfixed. His brothers are still. Three lollypops are held, suspended, while Naomi sings.
All conversations stops. The lengthy plumber pulls his face out from under the steel belly of the tub. His face is wet with sweat. Bathroom lint clings to his chin and brow. He lifts his head and listens. The ambos and the fire chief stand, arrested. The voice rises, crests a high note and falls. The singing undoes us, soft family and hardy professionals alike.

A skinny woman appears. She is Laura, Rachel’s best friend. Alarmed by the emergency vehicles congregating outside, she races in: “What’s wrong? Is everyone alright? Can I bring food?”
She listens, looks, offers cuddles, kisses the air with her famous loud smacking sounds and leaves, disappointed not to be catering. Laura makes me laugh, always has.

The tall man pulls his head in again. The Chief hands us a hacksaw. We pass it to the tall man. We hear sounds of sawing, long metal screams.
Alarmed, Rachel wonders aloud about Toby’s fingers: are they safely out of the way of the singing blade? The Chief says: “Don’t worry. Steve knows just where to cut. He leaves a margin of pipe just shorter than his own index finger.”

At length the drainpipe is sawn through. Everyone gets out of the bath excepting for Toby and Rachel. Annette, Raphael and I make room so the bath can be lifted. Eight adult hands hoist the tub aloft. Toby squeals with delight as he levitates.
Steve’s voice comes from the floor: “Toby, can you wriggle your fingers?”
Rachel and the ambos relay the request. Toby says, explaining the obvious to the unintelligent, “I can’t. They are stuck.”
The voice from the floor warns Rachel that he is about to push Toby’s fingertips upwards from below. Steve pushes, Toby says “Ow! You are hurting me!”
Apologising, Steve has another try and Toby cries:”Stop it, you bumhead!”
Steve stops.
The Chief retires to the fire truck, returning with some new cutting equipment which he passes to Steve. Steve now sets about cutting free the metal disc with its six perforations and its three child fingers.
The Chief invites Jesse and Miles to come and inspect the fire truck. He shows them the hoses and the heavy brass fittings, then hoists them high into the cabin and places them onto the driver’s seat, beneath the steering wheel. In the massive truck they are very small.
The Chief points out the siren, the two-way radio, the switches that elevate the ladders and all the usual automotive controls. Two boys are in paradise. I remove them before they drive off in search of a fire.

Back in the bathroom, Toby is pacific once more. He sits in the tub in his mother’s arms watching a DVD. The ambos take turns holding the portable screen at the right distance for Toby’s comfort. The DVD is in a language foreign to the ambos and fire crew. It is “Bob Esponja”, Sponge Bob in Spanish.
Now his brothers clamour to watch too. Raphael and I take them outside and hoist them onto the window sill recently vacated by the fire chief.
All of this takes place well past the bedtime of such small boys as maintain a normal, detached relationship with their bathtubs.
The boys watch and translate for the ambulance man and lady, Ross and Joelle (‘call me Jodie’) respectively. It is a cultural treat for Ross and Joelle, who have only previously enjoyed Sponge Bob in English with respective nephews.

It is about 9.00PM when the plughole with its nubbin of pipe and its heavy perforate disc is freed from the tub. Sponge Bob has finished. Toby looks at his naked self and the empty tub. He says mildly: “I am ready to get out now.”
Rachel rises, her bum and thighs numb after three hours, cradling Toby and his massive steel bracelet as she does so.
Escorted by Joelle and Ross, they make their way to the kitchen. Here Annette has covered the kitchen table with towels and a pillow for Toby’s head.
Annette takes Miles and Jesse to their bedrooms. Their protests are audible from the kitchen.
Jesse appears in the kitchen. He says,”I can’t sleep. I’m too worried.”
Somehow Annette persuades him to come back to his room. She lies down alongside him and tries to help him relax.

Now the Chief produces a narrow strip of steel blade, about a foot long and an eighth of an inch wide. Its surface is roughened and irregular; it looks like steel with acne. The Chief explains: “Diamond saw. It’s the only thing that will cut through that steel.”

The Chief threads the stiff blade between Toby’s index finger and the inner edge of the steel annulus. The sharp edge of the blade is applied to the steel and moved up and down. It seeks a niche or crack to bite at hard, but the steel is obdurate and the blade bounces off it. The Chief tries again and again. He is relentless. Steel against steel, the Chief versus the disc.
An exquisite Argentine proverb of Toby’s father, Pablo, runs: con paciencia y con saliva, el elefante se cogio a la hormiga.*
Over the next long time, the Chief will need all the patience and saliva he can muster. He sneaks the blade between the hard steel and the soft boy. The blade makes glancing contact with the disc, leaving a fine scratch in the steel. Now the blade comes again, finds the line of scratching and attacks. The linear scratch deepens minutely. It is nothing like a fissure. Many more passes of blade, many minutes in which Rachel braces Toby’s hand against movement. Rachel searches the face of the Chief. Is he discouraged? He is not. He is the elephant seducing the ant. He presses on.
The room heats up, the disc heats up and Toby protests. Now Jodie produces a green gadget and shows Toby. It looks like a fat whistle. “You put this in your mouth, Toby, and you breathe in. Then your hand will feel good again.”
Toby takes the toy, breathes in and out, relaxes and smiles. He likes his inhaled narcotic.
More laborious sawing, more minutes pass, many single tedious minutes, dragging themselves into hours. The disc is hot, the Chief is resolute, the ambos take turns positioning Toby’s wrist and the Toby rescue industry hums on. Eventually – it is around 10.00pm – Toby becomes fractious. He addresses Jody, the wrist-bearer of the moment. “Put my hand down.”
Jody explains: ”We have to hold it up high to get your fingers out, Toby. It won’t take long.”
Toby is not placated: “Stop it, bumhead!”
Bumhead’s offsider, Ross, gives Toby another suck of narcotic and he subsides.

A further half an hour passes, half an hour of sawing, story reading, perspiring and concentrating. The cluster around Toby and his still buoyant mother falls eventually into speechless reverie. Each person in her own thoughts, each concentrating on three thin fingers that remain pink and on a small boy’s face, pale now with medication and fatigue.

There is a bloke at the front gate who wants to talk to any member of the family. I am greeted by a shortish man with a warm smile and a huge camera. He’s from one of the TV stations. He apologises for his intrusion, he hopes he is not causing distress, would any member of the family be prepared to describe what is happening? I answer, “No.” The man accepts this gracefully and walks away.
I retrieve a phone call. It is Pablo, Toby’s aphoristic father. “Howardo, what’s happening? Is Toby OK? Should I come home?”
Pablo is up country, the indispensable leader of his team’s annual residential seminar. He is out of town but painfully in touch. It tears him in two.
“No, Pablo, Toby is safe and cheerful, his mum is cheerful and the house is full of fire people, ambulance people, family, friends and kibitzers. There’s no physical space for a mere father. OK?”
Pablo is OK, just. I am to ring back later with more news.
Back inside, Toby stirs, complains: “My hand feels uncomterful.” Jody confers with Ross, then turns to Rachel: ”We can’t give Toby any more of the painkiller in case it depresses his breathing. Any further doses need to be given in the Children’s Hospital, with anaesthetic and operating facilities.”

Rachel flows into action. She kisses her other boys goodnight, tells them that Toby will go to the hospital to get his fingers out and he’ll come home soon. She grabs Toby’s teddy bear, a couple of books and another DVD.
Toby says a warm goodnight to all the emergency people, not excluding bumheads.
Rachel wraps Toby in a rug, marches from the house into the open ambulance, concealing her son from the TV camera, and in a moment they are away.

I follow in my car. I work odd night shifts in the Emergency Department of that hospital. I might be useful in some way; I know people there.
By the time I arrive in Triage, Rachel and Toby are nowhere to be seen. The nurse in Triage seems to expect me. “Go into the Minor Procedures Room, Howard. They’re all in there.”

Indeed they “all” are. There are Jodie and Ross and a new fire team. Steve and the Chief and our previous team only do outpatients, it seems. The new bunch comes from another fire station and they do the inpatient jobs. There is a firelady and a fireman, both selected, surely, for their tenderness towards children. The fireman is as tall as Toby is minute. He looks at me, I look at him, Rachel looks at him. He says, “Hello Doctor Goldenberg. We met at your clinic. I married your patient, Robyn. Do you remember?” Indeed I do remember. He is Nick. Rachel is looking at him hard and long because he is so good looking.

Nick has no hand for me to shake because his are occupied with an intriguing apparatus, whose principles he at length will explain. The principles are alarming.
Meanwhile I meet Lucy, who is operating a portable DVD player for Toby, who sits in his mother’s embrace on an operating table. Toby grips his pale blue teddy bear as he always does – with one of its arms in his mouth. Every night that bear develops a soggy upper limb. The bear keeps Toby company through his hospital stay and then disappears, forever lost. Bearnapped, we suppose.
There is a nurse who is helping a doctor administer intravenous pain killers to Toby. The doctor smiles and greets me. We know each other. A quarter of a century ago, when he was a boy, I used to be his family doctor. Then he became my medical student. Nowadays, when I work at the Royal Children’s, I operate under his direction. He is the paediatric consultant on duty tonight. His name is Dominic.

Nick explains his gadget. It is a miniature example of the famed ‘Jaws of Life’ that road emergency crews use to disimpact a crushed motor vehicle from its trapped occupant. Nick’s gadget is a menacing midget of frightening power. It looks like a pair of dark steel pincers emerging from a cylindrical contrivance connected by strong piping to a device that couches like sin on the floor of the O.R. That floor dweller is a pump that forces air under enormous pressure to the pincers, coercing them apart.
Nick introduces the fine pincers into one of the unoccupied annuluses of Toby’s steel ring. He allows the pressure to build and build. The steel of the annulus resists the steel of the jaws. All our jaws are clamped hard, as we watch in dread the application of irresistible force to an object not amenable to persuasion. I close my eyes briefly against a vision of a sudden sundering of the steel bracelet or else an explosion underfoot of the compressor. The latter would destroy the fourteen limbs standing nearby on the floor; the former could shatter my daughter and my grandson.
I adopt the business-as-usual expression that one always deploys when one’s gamble with a patient’s health hangs upon the coin that one has set spinning, spinning, as it falls to earth.
With a discrete metallic sigh the annulus cracks and gapes. Firelady Lucy hands Nick a diamond–blade saw, which he wields now with a free-swinging action well away from Toby’s flesh. As the saw makes its remorseless way through the steel disc, Dominic inserts a shield for Toby’s finger.
Millimetre by millimetre the blade divides the inviolate steel. Sixteen eyes follow the progress of the blade, a remorseless icebreaker freeing the trapped one. The saw falls still, a fraction short of the shield. Now Nick applies a wrench to the opposing shores of the bay where Toby’s finger is marooned. Another steel sigh and the disc surrenders. Toby’s finger is free. Watching Aladdin and his magic, he pays no heed to our drama.
Two more fingers to go. Pincers, saw, wrench – all are deployed in unhurried speed. Nick frees Toby’s digits, tears gather at the edges of my eyes as Rachel kisses those finger tips.

Dominic examines the fingers minutely. He is checking for tissue damage. There is the small skin indentation one sees when a ring has been a little tight. The skin is pink.
Dominic tells Toby to wriggle his fingers. Toby does so, his expression of scornful surprise registering wonder at the obtuseness of the adult world.
Dominic wants to be certain that there has been no damage to nerves and blood vessels. After x-rays he will keep Toby and Rachel here, in an annexe, until the morning, “just to be sure”.
The morning is not many hours away. I kiss my grandson and I hold my daughter’s face in my hands and squeeze her beloved flesh. Then I drive home.
On the way to the car, I phone Annette and share the news. And I forget all about phoning Pablo and Naomi.
***

In the bath a few weeks later 7 year old Jesse has an idea: “Why don’t you see if you can get your fingers into the bath hole, Toby?”.

 

* Pablo translates: With patience and with saliva, the elephant fucked the ant.

Melbourne Boy Rescued After Plug Hole Drama

Melbourne Boy Rescued After Plug Hole Drama