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.

 

 

Paul’s Passing

An attentive reader of this blog will recognise the name Paul Jarrett. Paul was my friend. He died last week aged ninety-nine years and eleven months. We had known each other by email for ten years. By the time we met in the flesh Paul was ninety-four. We were together in the flesh but thrice, and spent but five days in each other’s company. Yet his friendship enriched me. So long as my mind knows the truth Paul Jarrett will be with me.

 

 

 

Every day Paul sent out numerous emails to his friends and family, who numbered about eighty souls. I became one of those fourscore followers. By the time we became

e-friends Paul had retired from Surgery, he’d ceased piloting aircraft, he was living alone with his memories and his collection of ragged stray cats. The TV news fed his active mind, which would turn often to past world events. He’d recall those as well as people from his private life, teachers, relatives, colleagues, friends, and most keenly of all, his deceased wife Beverley. Paul would send emails, four or five or six in number. I read them all.

 

 

 

 

I came to know a man who believed in God, who attended his Methodist church every Sunday, who voted Republican, who supported gun ownership, who disliked Obama and who loathed Hilary Clinton and who loved cats. Paul described himself as a conservative. He said, I’m to the right of Barry Goldwater and he showed me a photograph of the two, taken around the time of Goldwater’s run for the Presidency. Goldwater was far to the right of any US president of my lifetime  (with the exception of the present incumbent, whose position can only be the fruit of daily conjecture and of analysis of the tea leaves of his Twitter account). Characteristically Paul never mentioned to me that Goldwater intended to appoint him to his Cabinet as national chief of Health.

 

 

 

 

I was none of those things that Paul was, yet a friendship grew. Paul and I both entertained a veneration of our late fathers and mothers that bordered on ancestor worship, we both loved Medicine, we cherished old friendships, we preferred the burnished past to the distasteful present, and we could smile at human error and laugh at ourselves. I’d read Paul’s emails and I’d enter a different world; I learned about earlier eras, I met remarkable people, I was challenged with novel viewpoints (frequently opposed to my own), I relearned Medicine I’d long forgotten. I knew I stood in Paul’s shadow but he saw me in my own light. I’m sure I felt flattered that such a man would treat me as his equal.

 

 

 

Paul and I shared a real friendship. I’d challenge him when his politics got up my nose and, unoffended, he’d defend his position. Paul’s penultimate year was spent grieving for the America he loved. He detested the Democrat candidate and felt offended by the Republican. He knew duty would call him to cast his vote. In his distress Paul’s agony was spiritual in its intensity. He would not shirk his duty. He must serve his country. Patriotism, that quality that cynics dismiss as the refuge of the scoundrel, burned brightly in my friend and he suffered for it. 

 

 

Let me share with you some of Paul’s very many letters. 

 

 August 2, 2015

My mind returns to the days when I would, by my mood and demeanor, sour a bowl of honey.

Beverley, who was acutely attuned to my moods would pinch my cheek, give me a pixyish

smile and say, “Be Happy”!

At first this would annoy me, then I realized that she never acted like I did, so there must be some choice in presenting a foul mood.

Some of us pull an ill disposition around us like a protective blanket.

Not Bev.  She was as careful about her demeanor as she was about her appearance.

 

August 11, 2015

I am not sure where the admonition to, “Feed My Sheep” ends and Backshish begins.

Never have I seen such a drive and competition for charitable funds nor such a constant demand for our attention so that we can be hit-up.  By phone, by mail, by door to door solicitation, through the Media and other advertising.  The sheer volume makes one suspicious that such an army of petitioners can not contain only those with charity in their hearts.

And all of this attention is not devoted toward appeal for charitable donations.  The phone just rang.  It was a canned message.  It said, “How are you?  Good.  Can you hear me all right?  Good.  (I had not said a word.)  Congratulations are in order, you have just won a vacation trip with two guests, all expenses paid, all you can eat—“  At this point I hung up.  That automatic dialer will call me back tomorrow.  Hopefully my automatic answering machine will converse with their automatic dialing machine and transcription.

Saturday I received 5 pieces of regular mail, 4 of which were appeals for money and one an advertisement for a Mexican Restaurant. 

I will admit that I could be a more cheerful giver, but in addition to wanting to hang on to my money, I am beginning to question whether or not I am getting my money’s worth?

We are living in times that can only be described as “Devious”.

 

 

 

“Now the Day is over, Night is drawing nigh.  Shadows of the Evening steal across the sky”.

And what a day it was.  The temperature hit 117 in the shade, and to add to the disasters brought in by August, Beverley’s Grandmother clock jammed the chain on the weight that powers the clock itself when it ran down.  My vision is not sufficient to fix it any more.  It has happened before and I have been able to get it going again, but my vision is no longer capable of accomplishing this.  Her clock was amazingly accurate, and I enjoyed hearing it chime the hours and quarter hours, during the day and through the night.

I have eaten a frozen dinner prepared for me by Ann, and am about to settle down in front of the television and nap before time to go to bed.  This is the daily routine.

A gracious good evening to all of you.

G’nite!

 

 August 16, 2015

It promises to hit 117 again this afternoon.

The poor cats do not have refrigeration, but they have cool spots under the shacks

and have thrived in this heat for many years. Sylvester as spokesman for the Etudiants,

scolds me for not permitting them to come inside where it is cool, but this falls on deaf ears when I consider the life of Riley they lead, and the amount of fur they leave behind.

I try and keep the bed outside the Breakfast Nook moist when it comes into the shade in the afternoon, which is the only air conditioning they are going to get.

When you stop and think about it, it takes some temerity to lecture me about the weather, and Sylvester may be spending some time in attitude modification in the near future.  He has lost a lower right canine tooth (if cats can have canine teeth), but I have observed no loss of appetite.  They are eating me out of house and home.

I worry about them though when I am called to my reward (whatever that may be).

 

 

 

 

 August 29, 2015

I was thinking about some unusual surgical cases I found myself involved with without adequate training or experience.  A surprise after opening the patient.

Having no other source of help in the urgency of the moment I prayed urgently and silently.

That ordinary people can accomplish extraordinary things with God’s help, I can affirm.

 

 

 

October 11, 2015

I received a call from Bob and Dianne at the Cabin with Nikki this week-end.

Bob has the knowledge and ability to provide Satellite telephone service up there, and it works well.

They have had a lot of rain, the Pack Rat problem appears to be under control and the weather is nice with Fall in the offing.  Bob reports that the road up to the Cabin is in need of repair from rain damage, and he will be able to do that with his new tractor.  I think they return tomorrow.  There are some apples that are ripening and they will bring some for me.

Those Western Delicious yellow apples from Stark’s Nurseries are the best I have ever tasted, although late freezes make them available about once in ten years.

It is warm here, although comfortable.  We have what my Mother would call a “Buttermilk Sky”.  Little sun, a slight breeze and a great day to sit on the Patio and smoke a cigar.

It looks as if I may be around another Christmas, and I am making plans to prepare envelopes for my Family to insure their delivery.

The cats have made me a present of the head of a Roof Rat which they laid out on the Patio door mat.  I discarded it because I have no recipe for Roof Rat heads, although I appreciate the gesture.

 

 

 

Paul Jarrett has died. America has lost one of its big men, a patriot, a man of substance and integrity. Medicine has seen the passing of the last of his kind. A congregation has lost a faithful worshipper. We who were Paul’s friends have lost a wise man, a sort of prophet. Phoenix has lost an ornament. But whatever his greatness in the wide world, it was in the little corners of life where I saw Paul Jarrett’s meaning writ clear. It might be seen in his solicitude for the unpromising cats he succoured, in the empathy and in the respect he extended to those battered living things. Born into an era where males were born to rule, Paul esteemed women higher. 

 

 

 

Paul was the son who honoured his father and his mother; of two brothers Paul treasured and measured the greatness of the one, and cherished the second in his deformity. Paul was the husband who never ceased to love and to sing the praise of the wife he outlived for so many lonely years. Paul was the father proud of those stalwart sons, adoring of that dandled daughter; Paul was the grandfather who inspired grandson Benjamin to follow him into the guild and bond of medicine; Paul was the Methodist whose whole heart could celebrate his great-grandson’s bris. The measure of the man, Paul Jarrett, was the honour he paid to those he loved.  

 

 

 

More than once Paul wrote, “Great was the celebration in Heaven when Beverley arrived.” Such was the simplicity of Paul’s faith. Mine differs. But it gives me pleasure to imagine how great might be the celebration for that good and faithful man. 

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.

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.

The Continuing Silence

Paul, beloved friend,

Are you there?

Can you hear me, can you hear or feel or know the love I send?

Three weeks, four, have passed without a letter from my friend.

My friend kept me informed: he told me of the tribe of cats who lived in his caritas, his agape, his lovingkindness.  He called each of them by name.

My friend wrote of the roadrunner (likewise given a name; he kept me apprised of the rattlesnakes that swarmed in his wilderness places, as well as of the evangelist rattlesnakes on tv, and of the rattlesnakes who called by phone to extort from him in the name of righteousness.

My friend wrote of his work in the rivers of venereal pus that flowed among his captive patients in WWII. He wrote of aviation, of the sober joys and disciplines of flight. He wrote of his instructor, one Pemberton, whose memory and example he cherished.

My friend taught this doctor, a long generation younger than he, much of the medicine that had escaped him in his undergraduate days, and that eluded him until the happy day that Paul strode into his life and became a preceptor.

My friend wrote of prayer, of his habitation in the house of prayer.

My friend wrote on his bended knees as he prayed for his fracturing nation.

My friend sent me funny stories, he sent me risque stories, he sent me the news from the frontiers of science, and he sent me the news of tabloid headline that were of little science.These he derided with fine despatch.

My friend wrote often of the good people he had known, people who have long passed but whose good name and memory he kept alive with his remarkable recall and his great respect.

My friend wrote of Beverley who was the light of his life and the fire of his loins. He revered her, he missed and he yearned for her perpetually. Of her he wrote, ‘Great was the joy in heaven when she entered that kingdom’.

My friend’s body was wearying, wearing out, but his mind remained scythe-sharp.

My friend, his integrity unbending, was weakened by the cheating and the chicanery of the mendicants who plagued him. I felt Paul’s righteous being was affronted and his spirit distressed by these cheats.

My friend had standards and he never wavered.

My friend loved the human frame, the creation whose anatomy and parts he new so well. He saw in that frame the work of his Creator.

My friend wrote only weeks ago to report evidence of brain function persisting AFTER death.  What did he think of that? What now, stricken mute by stroke, does Paul think?

How are the mighty fallen.

My friend wrote to me with love. He wrote and he told me he was ready.

I am not ready.

Who, of Paul’s eighty faithful readers, can be ready?

Paul, I know nought of those awaiting your arrival above, but here on earth, great will the weeping if you leave us.

Paul, can you hear me?

Do you know our love?

Paul?

Paul?

Howard

Sightings I and II

I. Banana

Rushing for a train, racing down the steps to the underground avenues beneath Flinders Street Station, commuters plunge past the blue sleeping bag with scarcely a glance. There is much to distract the train-intent from the form that fills the sleeping bag; the endless tiled passage below the busy city streets speaks of public secrets; at once a passage and a place, its architectural style archaic. When drained of all footfalls save those of a solitary traveller its hollow emptiness evokes nervous ripples, small tremors. On the walls contemporary agitprop, messages to promote rail safety, sexual safety, philanthropy. Alongside these colourful eyecatchers, ancient stencilling in grey warns the traveller: SPITTING ON WALLS AND FLOORS IS FORBIDDEN.
The traveller of yesteryear would have to lie on the tiles on his back – the spitter would certainly be male – and spit upwards to the ceiling.

Racing for my own train I found my eyes drawn sideways by the bright blue of the bag. A warm downy sort of bag, not apparently a cheap one. Nearly tumbling down the stairs I pulled up short of a placard placed in front of the recumbent form. I could not see a head or any body part that would prove a human presence. No sign of life. But on this coldest winter morning in thirty years all in the station have covered up, torso and head alike.

In my skeltering I had no chance to read the text on the placard. I guessed it announced an autobiography along the lines of:

I AM HOMELESS AND SICK. CAN YOU SPARE ANY CHANGE?
In front of the placard a scatter of coins. And a banana.
Some benevolent passer-by, I surmised, judged food more nourishing than currency.
Two hours later, rush hour well past, I returned. No sign of sleeping bag, no sign of sleeper, placard or money. The banana alone remained.

II. Homeless on the Surface

Surfacing from the cryptic passages I hurried across Collins Street. Seated before the inviting premises of the chocolatier a man in his forties, draped with blankets, his bearded face rubicund, leaned towards the passer by who did not pass by. She, a fashionably dressed woman in her mid-thirties, warm in a long camel coat, bent over the seated man, speaking. The man’s face broke into a wide smile, the only smile I sighted on that broad and thronging street. The woman stroked the man’s face lightly. She straightened and walked off up Collins Street, half turning to wave.

The Princeling and the Premier

Mum has a brand new car. It’s not the Rover of Leeton days, it’s a Holden Premier. But it’s pretty fancy for a Holden – green duco with a metallic sparkle, luxurious bucket seats in rich tan leather.

Dennis’s close friend at Swinburne is Aly Ong, direct descendant of a line of Malay princes. One day Aly tells Dennis he has a date. Instantly Dennis offers Mum’s new car to Ali. Aly is amazed: ‘I can’t take your mother’s car!’
‘Yes you can.’
‘No I can’t. It’s brand new.’
Uncharacteristically, Dennis asks Mum’s permission.
‘Of course, Darling. With pleasure. Tell Aly to have a lovely evening.’

Is Aly a cautious driver? Has he a license to drive? Mum doesn’t think to ask.

At midnight Aly returns, knocks on our door looking desolated. ‘I need to speak to your mother. It’s terribly late, I hate to disturb her, but something terrible has happened.’
Night and day are one to Mum. She comes down the stairs, delighted to see Dennis’ friend: ‘Hello Aly. Did you have a nice time?’
‘No, Mrs Goldenberg… I ,mean yes. But something terrible has happened…’
Mum, concerned, her face softer than ever: ‘What, Aly? Are you alright?’
‘Yes, Mrs Goldenberg, I’m quite alright. But your car is not. I crashed your car!’
‘But you’re not hurt, Aly?’
‘No, not at all, but I’ve spoiled your lovely car.’
‘Thank goodness you’re not hurt, Aly. Come and sit down and I’ll make you some supper.’

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