Flea Market

A hazy day in Jaffa. The Old City is full of blind turns and all turns are the right ones and no crooked street or alleyway disappoints. Galleries abound and every one repays our curiosity. The blaze of sun and the blue of sea have penetrated the local artists like an inoculum. Helpless, they turn out vivacious works bursting with colour. Over a number of hours we come across nothing that is dull or derivative or second rate.
 

Every so often we tumble from a narrow and twisting descent into an open space crammed with broken bric a brac. By one such space, a dusty shop manned by a torpid, pear-shaped man sells old art works of varying mediocrity and unvarying neglect. Here in this luminous place I come across a stark photograph. The image in black and white shows a cinematic scene that surely predates all cinema. In the picture a large man in a formal black suit stands at one side of a square like the Jaffa square at our shoulder. He faces a group of men who wear white suits. These men stand in a rank with rifles raised and trained at the man in black.     

 

We are about to witness an execution. As witnesses we cannot escape the victim’s aloneness. As witnesses we become complicit in something awful, something we cannot comprehend. The photographer has caught the moment, snapping the scene from a vantage above and behind the riflemen. They wear hats that would previously have been white like their suits, but the white is soiled. On closer view the suits do not appear pristine. The faces of the riflemen cannot be seen.

 

Our simple sympathy for the one, who, unarmed faces the many, gives way to complexity. The soiled suits and grimy hats hint at long labour in the field. The raised guns of the executioners rest on slack, uneven shoulders; these weary men are not ready to fire. Do they identify with their victim? War-weary, do they wonder whether when the guns will be trained on them? Do they perhaps reverence the man in the black suit? The victim who stands uncowed, the man who stares at his killers, the human who was sufficiently free only that morning to dress himself with such sober dignity looks older than the riflemen. Is he the father of one of them who fights for an opposing force in some civil war? Is he a burgher, or perhaps (as he too is hatted) even their rabbi?

  

I gaze at the photograph that captures so much. It stands loosely affixed to its frail wooden frame, grimy with age, eloquent of truth. And, importantly to me, the truth here is not easy. Fertile with hints, arid of certainty, the photo invites enquiry. How long has the image waited for its interlocutor?

 

I know I want this photograph that has so much to say to me. Can I afford it? Where in our artcrowded house will my wife allow me to hang such a miserable scene? How will I safely bring that frail and awkward thing home to Australia?

 

My granddaughter dwells in sunshine. She wonders, ‘Why on earth would you want a picture like that?

‘Why not, darling?’

‘It’s cruel, Saba.’

‘What if the man had to be punished, darling?’

‘Saba, do you believe in capital punishment?’ – she shakes her blond head, shocked by her grandfather’s response.

‘No darling, I don’t. I don’t believe in easy answers. And war asks hard questions, this picture asks hard questions.’

Another shake: ’ What, Saba? You know they make mistakes!’

 

I look around. Here is the photo, here the dusty premises, open, apparently abandoned; where is the vendor? I race through the doorway into an adjacent shop with my breathless enquiry. ‘Next door’, says that vendor. Slingshot back to the first premises I collide with the cushioning belly of Homer Simpson. No it’s not Homer. The face above the torso is stubbled grey.

‘How much is this picture?’

The man looks at my shoes, running shoes, tourist shoes. He calculates for a while, silently measuring, calibrating opportunity and innocence. He names a sum of astonishing modesty. ‘Fifty?’ – I ask, incredulous.

‘Alright, forty shekels.’

I hand the man his forty pieces of silver.

 

Hours later my mind floats and thuds to earth. Another sunny outdoor scene, one I witnessed myself in 1995. The location of the latter scene from real life was unambiguous: in the grounds of Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust memorial, I paused while ascending a slope to read the inscription beneath a cattle truck perched at an angle on a section of rail line.

 

I read a Hebrew text explaining it was in such trucks that millions were crammed during their journey of some days to the extermination camps. There they died, ‘al Kiddush Hashem’, in sanctification of the Name.

 

Labouring up the slope towards me an older couple, aged, I guessed, in their seventies, puffed and sweated. They took a breather at my side. The man, plump and snowy haired, read the inscription and scowled. He grunted angrily. Between breaths he managed to declare: ‘There was no sanctification. I was there. I know!’ In the face of that knowing I stood silent. The man’s wife, younger than he, tried to calm him. Turning to me she apologised; ‘He always gets upset here. He always comes here on the first morning in Jerusalem. Always here in the morning, then the Wall.’

 

By now the man had recovered breath. ‘Nothing holy there. Nothing…’ He looked up: ‘Except once. One time only I saw sanctification. I was in the camp, one of hundreds, all of us there, all hassidim, with our Rebbe. The SS officer ordered soldiers to strip the rabbi. Violently, they tore all his clothes off him, that holy, holy man. His hat they threw down. We looked away from the rabbi, we would not see his disgrace. The SS man screamed, ‘Any one who turns away will be shot!’

We knew they would shoot. We knew because they shot anyone who would not look while they hanged our people in the ghetto.

 

The officer screamed orders to the soldiers who raised their guns ready to shoot our Rebbe. The rabbi turned to the officer. We heard his voice: ‘Will you give me one minute to bless my people?’ The officer laughed. He mocked the Rebbe. ‘You want a minute? Have two minutes old man.’

 

The Rebbe turned away from the officer and the soldiers. He turned to us, his hassidim. He raised his arms and he called out, ‘’How goodly are thy tents O Jacob, your dwelling places O Israel.” Then the soldiers shot him while we watched.’

 

I remember the year of that visit precisely. Two days later an Israeli patriot shot dead his country’s prime minister.

 

A Small Town in the Bush

Water is the secret, the theme, the meaning, the life of the town. If the town is to die it will be the failing – or the flowing – of water that will see its death.

Driving in at night I missed the river. Unaware even of the fact of the bridge, watching always for suicidal kangaroo, I followed the bitumen and missed the river. After unpacking I ran the shower. Who farted? Mother earth, is the answer: borne on bore water were those sulphurous fumes from antiquity. I lathered and rinsed. And rinsed again. Still slimy with slippery salts I towelled myself with vengeful vigour.

In the morning I brewed a bore water cuppa. It tasted fine, of coffee, not of earth’s bowel.

Before work I went for a run. Here was Terry, a cheerful sixty-year-old hosing the wide grassy expanses that surround the hospital. Modern sprinklers invented in, say,1950, would see the extinction of this man’s job.

Memorial Park with its humble cylinder of brown marble rising less than three metres from its plinth. From its pediment I read names from the Great War. This very small town offered up too many. Two of the dead bore the same family name.

Below the names from the First War were listed those who died in WWII. These names took up two of four wide rectangles of space at the base of the monument. Two rectangles remain for future names of dead from a nation that has always fought the distant wars of others.

A team of workmen clustered at a roadside. Beefy men all in their high-vis yellows, they watched as one of their number swung a sledge hammer. The hammer was a mighty instrument, the hammerer broadest of all, taller when recumbent. Four watched as one swung. A cement gutter cracked, disintegrated. Five men at work, working to undo the work of yesterday.

The shops sit behind their generous tin verandahs, shaded by rooves supported on wooden poles. The shops, house-proud but not fancy, wear old livery touched up and respectable. A notice offers me the chance to buy one of two coffee shops in the main street: it lists ‘large shop, vacant possession, on generous grounds with six-car shed and outbuildings’. “Hunter’s Supermarket” sits in dignified desolation beneath its formal signage. Its windows are covered on the inside by broadsheet newspaper. ‘For Sale’, says the sign.

At lunchtime I visit the emporium. Triple fronted, its three doorways lead to three sections. One displays work clothes, a second sells ‘guns and ammo’ and cooking implements ranging from basic aluminium to imported chefware. The third section offers saddles, riding boots, rodeo hats. The floors are of wood, the high ceilings of patterned pressed metal. ‘Handsome ceilings’, I remark to the sales lady. She nods, smiles attractively, and observes, ‘They leak when it rains. And the owners aren’t keen to repair the roof.’ Water again.

I am not here for the superstructure but for my own infrastructure: I need new undies. Sales lady leads me to them and removes to a discreet distance. Slim, tall in her tooled rodeo boots, her jeans scrolled and silvered at the seat, she’s a distraction. I find a pack of two pairs in interesting colours. The brand name is ‘Heavy Lifters.’ The sales lady keeps a straightish face: ‘It’s the name of a whole range of work clothes, not just, ah, men’s personal things.’

I buy some men’s personal things.

I show interest in men’s work shirts. These too are in electric shades of lime and purple. ‘They’d alarm my bride,’ I say.

Sales lady points me to a different rack of iridescence: ‘Why not you buy your bride one of these pretty shirts for girls?’

I settle for Goondiwindi Cream Soap, picturing my wife’s limbs, clean as Gunsynd’s.

At work my patients are generally aged. One group consists of slow moving stout people, retired, in their fifties and early sixties, who live here in town. The others, slimmer, gnarled of knuckle and sun blighted, are in their seventies and eighties. These live out of town on cattle properties which they continue to work. For the trip into town these folk dress smartly. Lots of colour, a quiet elegance.

It’s more enjoyable doctoring the farm folk with their accidents of activity than the town folk, who, although younger, are less healthy with their illnesses of inactivity.

In the waiting room no-one checks a wristwatch. All appear unhurried and relaxed and friendly. All but one, a hunched small lady, 83 years of age, who wears a floral yellow dress and a fierce mien. ‘I won’t see that other doctor! And don’t you try and give that useless tablet he gave me!’

At this stage, unaware of the identity of that other doctor or of the useless tablet or of the condition treated, I am at a disadvantage. The lady has me pinned to the ropes where she continues to batter me for the next twenty minutes. ‘Those blue tablets, don’t give me those!’

‘Which blue tablets?’ – diffidently.

‘You know the ones. I won’t take them. So don’t try to make me. I might look old but I’m still manhandling steers and I’m not simple.’

I study her file for clues.

‘Well? What are you going to do for me? Don’t give me any of your soft soap, young man. I’ve put up with this for long enough.’

I point out that I’m not her adversary, that it’s up to her to decide whether or not to trust me, and if she doesn’t trust me she should not waste her time on me.

She falls silent, her large mouth hanging slack as she regards me in surprise. I am surprised too. I’m starting to enjoy myself.

A truce is declared. Later in the waiting room, she informs the office staff, bellowing, ‘That new young doctor’s all right. Don’t you try to make me see that other one. I won’t have a bar of him.’

Day after day the skies are cloudless, palest blue, arching high to eternity. Not a cloud in sight. But yesterday low grey cloud hovered. The waiting room was full of talk. Veterans of too much faithless cumulus, the farmers were skeptical. Today all is blue again; the old men were right. One old bloke with a great hole in his leg – he came off his motor bike, digging out a divot of flesh – tells me: ‘There are three year old frogs out on my farm that don’t know how to swim.’

He laughs. A wounded leg and a dry dry spring don’t exhaust his well of good humour.

‘Any cane toads?’

‘No, no toads. Too dry for them.’

He laughs again.

Not all laugh. The visiting psychologist tell me, ‘I go out to the farms and visit the farmers regularly. In the droughts some despair.’

The temperature reaches forty – in October – and no-one remarks on it. The Bureau predicts a thunderstorm. It duly arrives. One peal of thunder, the temperature falls but the rains do not.

‘How is it on the farm?’ – I enquire of every farmer.

All respond, ‘It’s dry.’

‘Are you worried?’

‘Yes, it’s very dry.’

‘Is this the driest you’ve known it?’

‘2003 was worse. But this is bad…’

No-one says so explicitly but the floods of 2012 were worse than bad. In those few days lives turned, settled families in their dynasties saw nature’s violent face anew.

By the third morning I still had not sighted the river. On previous morning runs I headed north and south. This time I went east. Past the library on the main street in premises vacated by the extinct cinema; past the pool gleaming fluoridated blue; past The Great Artesian Spa; up a rise to the edge of town – and there was the bridge, a modern structure of cement and steel, its slow length elegant against the sky. Below, far below, indolent waters were a silver ribbon. Tall green grasses pleased the eye.

A slender roo, disturbed by this sole intruder, widened the gap in graceful bounds, then stopped and looked me over at leisure. A moment of shared wonder.

At the approach to the bridge a wall of dark granite, cuboidal, taller than me and wider than the hammer-wielder of the first morning, detailed the floods. Undemonstratively, without self-sympathy, in the manner of farmer conversation, the wall of stone gave fact and context:

1864 – 9.56 m,1949 – 4.86 m, floods in 1950, 1954,

then, in February 1956 the waters reached 7 metres; and in April the same year, 9.26 metres. Photographs show island buildings, white against the silent black of inland sea. Some left town. Most remained to face flooding again – in 1983, 1990, 2010. Then came the waters of February 2012, peaking at 9.84 metres, breaking the record of 1864. People speak flatly of ‘before the floods’ and ‘after the floods.’ I hear the same throughout the state.

One farmer replies to my stock enquiry with a quiet,’The dams are both dry. It’s fortunate we have a couple of bores.’ I look at him, his face etched with decades of flood and drought. He knows fortune.

No-one in back in the Collins Street practice uses that expression, it’s fortunate.

Something missing here. Someone not heard, stories not told. Where are the first owners? Further morning runs uncover traces. At the Information Centre an elaborate sign invites me to follow the Yumba interpretive trail: ‘Mon-Thurs mornings.’ Below this a handmade sign amends tour times: ‘Tues and Thurs.’

And to one side a larger, handmade sign advises

NALINGU

ABORIGINAL

CORPORATION

WISH TO ADVISE THE

YUMBA

INTERPRETIVE TRAIL

AND MITCHELL YUMBA

IS CLOSED

UNTIL FURTHER NOTICE.

But the first people are here. I see them with their ailments and their children at the hospital and the clinic. In the main street, Nalingu has its dusty offices, and just down the same street is the Aboriginal Health Centre. Inside this hive a small lady of middle years buzzes with purpose. She searches my face, wondering whether perhaps I might be a JP. She needs a JP to certify photocopies of documents for the tall Finn standing at my side. He’s jackerooing on a station. (The Finn does not look Aboriginal. But some say I don’t ‘look Jewish.’)

The lady finds time for my questions: Yes, this is a health centre and yes she’s here four days a week helping local Aboriginal people with transport and health appointments in the bigger town one hour east of here. And no, the bigger town doesn’t have a doctor at the Health Centre either, not regularly, just a couple of days a month. ‘But I look after things.’ She tells me all this with evident pride, vibrating with energy and quiet command. She looks up at her curious visitor, radiating confidence and belief in her role. I guess she’s the dynamo of a community that might otherwise not be a community.

Back at the clinic, a tall man in his late fifties has plenty of time to chat. He’s intrigued by the phenomenon of a Jewish doctor way out west; and I’m interested in his experiences as a cattle man. He’s been out here all his life but he sent his daughters to boarding school in the city. I ask my usual questions – how’s the farm going, water, rain, feed?

‘Well it’s hard. If it wasn’t a challenge I’d have to go and find one. But surviving here calls for something. I like that. I like to be tested. Every difficulty demands something of me. I want to create, I don’t want a dull existence. I’m lucky with my life here.’ He smiles, a smile of good teeth and good skin, the smile of broad vitality. Why has he come to see me today? ‘I’m well, but I spend my life in the sun. Will you check my skin? Any other tests or checks a fifty-eight-year old should have?’

We do the medical stuff then conversation resumes. He employs backpackers from around the world. ‘I look for people others won’t take – people with problems. With patience you find the goodness in a person and help them become productive. I’ve had alcoholics. They come to the station, I let them dry out, I expect them to be temperamental until they settle. Then you find the person with a problem has some drive that might have got them into trouble; now they have a chance to direct the drive productively. There’s pride in that. A small start to a better way. After three months they leave, and we are both winners.’

The cow man has questions for me – about my origins, any children, a wife? He tells me about his girls, working in distant places, how he encourages them to pursue their passions in their occupations, not to settle for work that won’t fulfill them.

‘Have you been to Israel, doctor?’ – in the city this is the litmus question of my decency, out here it’s a question couched in curiosity or envy.

‘Israelis inspire me. They have never had it easy but you can see their drive to survive. And they do it by innovation, by creativity. They’ve never had enough rainfall where they are, but they farm, they feed their people and they have create a surplus to export.’

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The Blood of Your Children

The blood of your children cries out from the earth
And we hear their blood cry
Not again,
Not the children;
In the bowels of Christ
Not the children

The blood of your children cries out
And we in Australia
Ask why those guns?
In the bowels of Christ
All those guns
With your children
Paying the price?

And we in Australia
Wonder,
Why would a mother…
Why did his mother?

And mothers fear
For their little ones
And fathers fear
For their guns
And from fear
Is born fear

And from fear, anger
Comes, then danger
And we reach
For our little ones
Daughters and sons
And some reach again
For their guns

Copyright, Howard Goldenberg, 17 December, 2012