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.’

188861_large

Dog Days

Fidel at the beach on his last day.

Fidel at the beach on his last day.

Patchett opens her story with, “Two days before my dog Rose died…”* Who of us who has ever loved a dog can resist the urge to read on? Flung into foreknowledge of a death – knowledge humans share, but which animals might be – who knows? – spared, we realise this death is imminent. While many of us imagine we’d welcome such foreknowing of our own end, few could bear it. Patchett, it is clear, feels that burden of knowing.

Then there’s the dog’s name, Rose: this dog is particular. She has an owner, a name giver. Giving a name is an act of appropriation, literally a claim of belonging. Rose belongs to Ann. Sahara belonged to my brother Dennis; and Fidel belonged to my son-in-law Pablo. And, to our surprise, a widening circle of others.

My firstborn brother spent most of his last decade as the sole resident in a family sized dwelling. A gregarious, family-minded man, his loneliness would have been bleak without Sahara. To those who did not love her, Sahara, was completely unlovable, too small, too low slung, raucous and aggressive; she was in addition a sneaking, nasty, opportunistic biter. To Dennis alone was she cherished; blind to her antisocial nature, her repellent effect on all creatures on two legs or four, Dennis pampered her. He loved Sahara. She was his housemate, his friend, his nearest relative.

Happily for Dennis he never saw Sahara’s last days. After he died, one of his friends materialised in our house of mourning and volunteered to take her in. Relieved of a most undesired heirloom, we seldom speak of her. She lives on, however, under her own name, between the covers of my novel ”Carrots and Jaffas”, in which she functions as an unexpected redeemer. My fear is she might be alive somewhere in the flesh. A roar, a blur, a quick bite, sudden blood, quicker flight, you’ll recognise Sahara by her toothmarks.

***

By any standard Fidel was a Border Collie gentleman of refined habits. He growled only when a stranger ventured too close to the latest newborn of his household; he barked only at the one great hound to invade his territory outside Alma Espresso; he was quite useless as a watchdog. Fidel’s sole lapse of etiquette was his habitual piddling on my mother’s loungeroom carpet, but we excused that as the imperative of territory.

Fidel loved to run. I loved to run. Long after my running companions fell away to ruined knees or rescued marriages, Fidel kept me company on long lonely early morning runs. Young women smiled at me, my maleness forgiven in the company of Fidel.
Fidel was first dog across the line in the Traralgon Marathon of 1998. He was photographed smiling at my side with his medal around his neck. The officials were not to know he’d travelled some of those 42.185 kilometres – unwillingly and under protest – in my daughter’s car.

Fidel parted with his testes without complaint, he raised three small boys and won the hearts of widening circles of kin with his never ending grin and his always sweet breath. Like all his bottom sniffing kind Fidel seemed immune to odour. He’d keep me company when I was seated on the loo. Once in that small room he ventured forward, making mistaken fellatious overtures. Fidel and I were close but I drew the line here.

One day Fidel seemed tired, the next day apathetic; the third day he was rescued by surgery and transfusion (at the hands of his loving vet-in-law) from death by catastrophic internal haemorrhage. The vet-in-law confided he had had incurable cancer. Six weeks later my wife and I said our goodbyes to Fidel – my jowls quiver and my lower lip trembles as I recall it – at the seaside, his happiest hunting grounds where he was wont ever to chase seagulls into mocking flight. We embraced him and whispered last words. We knew what we knew; we wondered what Fidel knew? Not for the first time I kissed him.

***

Ann Patchett won the Orange Prize and a Pulitzer for ‘Bel Canto’. She won me first with a small booklet titled ‘The Bookshop Strikes Back’ (Bloomsbury, 2013), a safe enough speculative buy at $2.50, handsomely rewarding.

In her remarkable book, “This is the Story of a Happy Marriage”, Ann Patchett describes the passing of Rose. Rose was small, lap-sized, not a real dog to love and run a marathon with. From her opening phrase Patchett won me.

After Rose dies, Patchett writes: “I came to realize…there was between me and every person I had ever loved some element of separation…arguments and disappointments…over time people break apart, no matter how enormous the love…and it is through the breaking and the reconciliation, the love and the doubting of love, the judgment and then the coming together again, that we find our own identity and define our relationships.
Except…I had never broken from Rose…”

Patchett recruited me into her love, convinced me, changed me, enlarged my understanding.
What more can we ask of a writer?

*This must be the most arresting start since Annie Proulx’ “Postcards”, which opens with the protagonist’s realisation that the person with whom he has – one breath past – shared an unspecified se xual act has died in that act.

Giving Thanks

Barry and Paul (in the tux)

Barry and Paul (in the tux)

 

Howard and Paul

Howard and Paul

My old and cherished friend, Paul Jarrett, writes from Phoenix Arizona:

 
“Thanksgiving is the day we reserve for giving thanks.
When I was small, every meal was preceded by “returning thanks” which was “Grace” before meals.  It was “returned” by my father if present, or mother if not.
This brief prayer was to express gratitude for God’s many blessings and to ask for His continuing guidance.  We did not eat before the “Blessing” was asked.
While it is true that when small I was impatient to get this ritual over so that I could scarf down my meal, it is also true that I can hear Dad today in my mind’s ear reciting the blessing and realize how important it was to him, no mere gesture or formality.
Once in awhile in a restaurant I see a person asking God’s blessing on the food they are about to eat, but very seldom.  I must admit that I do not do it myself so as not to attract attention.  For that matter I do not “return thanks” when I am by myself at home, a matter that I shall correct.
God doesn’t need these rituals, we do.”
 
Paul is exceedingly old and exceedingly wise. In his time he has been a military surgeon, an aviator, a morbid anatomist.  This means he could fly you to hospital, operate on you, and should you be ungrateful enough to die, Paul would, without hard feelings, carry out your autopsy. 
 
Paul describes himself as conservative. He claims to be to the right of Barry Goldwater. He shows a photo to prove it.
Nowadays, Paul cuts neither the living nor the dead. He contents himself with wise and sometimes splenetic observations about a world and a nation going to the dogs.
 
Paul’s reminiscences are always evocative. His recollections of Grace evoked this memory of my own:
Dear Paul
I recall growing up in a country town in new south wales where our family were the only Jews.
my closest friend’s family were Presbyterian.
like my friends the jarretts, the wanklyns provided kosher meals so i could eat with them.
dulcie wanklyn prefaced each meal with: FOR WHAT WE ARE ABOUT TO RECEIVE THE LORD MAKE US TRULY GRATEFUL.
i recall sitting through this small ritual, head down, in quiet uncharacteristic decorum.
i’d gaze at the linen napery, each napkin held furled inside its collar of china or silver or pewter.
it all seemed holy.
no-one ate, no-one spoke, until AMEN was heard.
it never occurred to me that the benedictions  my father taught me and which we recited before and after every meal, were likewise, Grace, and likewise holy
the problem with an everyday ritual is ritualisation, the normalisation of the quite audacious idea of finite man reaching with words towards infinte God
mrs wanklyn never made Grace feel mundane
love,
Howard