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.

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.

Not Running with the Devil

The longest night in the southern calendar, June 21, gave birth to a splendid and frigid morning in Traralgon. By the time we started running the temperature was four degrees celsius, a good deal cooler than Boston where, a couple of months earlier, self-pity and hypothermia had congealed within me. Wiser this time, I enclosed myself in layers. A Michelin Man, I set off, discarding layers as I warmed. The layers were, I realised, like geological striae, those stripes in a rockface that are time’s memorial. First to go at twenty five metres in was the remarkably ugly tangerine rain jacket (discarded in Boston by another runner who decided wetness and cold were preferable to Adidas’ ugliest.) Next to go were the elegant little white gloves that cocooned my fingers during winters in the eighties when we’d run the alps of the Diamond Valley. (Ahh, my friends, my friends…) At the twenty kilometre mark I left my stripy thermal top (Kathmandu, 2014) and the Stepping Strong top that honours Gillian Reny, the young dancer whose legs were shattered by a Tsarnaev bomb (Boston, 2013). At 35 kilometres I divested the Miles for Michael shirt (Boston 2013). This left a salted wreck whose overheated genitals must abide within undies (Leigh Creek supermarket, c. 1999), olive green tights (Kathmandu, 2000) and New Balance running shorts, veterans of seventeen marathons (Leigh Creek, 2008). 

In the dawn no wind blew. Silent and shapely, six plumes rose pink against the indigo sky. Delicate and pretty the smoke of Loy Yang poisoned my world. 

 

I ran the first half hard with legs confident from last weekend’s fast training run from Babinda to the Boulders and back, a distance of fifteen kilometres, longer than one third of a marathon. My wristwatch read 74 minutes. This absurdly quick time suggested I’d regained some speed. I reckoned in Traralgon I’d take a full hour off the Personal Worst that was Boston. I ran first with Leanne, a shrivelled fifty-year old, light of step, a lean machine. I kept up with her, keeping myself honest. Leaving her behind I chased a rounder matron who took a bit of catching. She said, I just want to finish. We swapped names; the matron’s name was Marlene. Keeping pace with Marlene did me good – in the moral sense. I had to reach deep for Nobility and Courage. After Marlene left me behind with benediction, I ran alone for a while, this time on a stony dirt track. Mother earth beneath my feet, hard but fair, took me back to childhood in the country. My reverie – have I been dreaming, have I slowed? – was interrupted by busy footfalls pattering behind. Light of foot my pursuer spurred my own feet and I worked to stay ahead. Three kilometres later the pattering feet drew alongside and they belonged, not as I expected, to a female but to a bloke named Duc. We exchanged the lead a few times before I sent Duc on ahead with my blessings.

 

Next came Sam. Short like me, bearded like me, his fleshy face a crop of smiling peaches, Sam didn’t look like he was made for distance running, his well-fed body the antithesis of the ascetic distance runner’s. But Sam too left me behind. I would see him again as I approached the turn and once again, much later, as I staggered past the 41 kilometre mark; Sam, smiling still, had finished a full hour earlier.

 

At the halfway mark I met the Devil. In fact he’d run with me all the way, quietly waiting his moment. (In Judaism the Devil is not personified much; if anything he is The Adversary. He lives, not in hell but within us as desire, ‘the evil inclination’, which is ordinary, domestic, human weakness. As such the Devil doesn’t really earn his capital letter.) The devil was up and about early in Traralgon.

 

With my friend Nick and his febrile son Darcy waiting for me with love and drinks at the Half, I paused. The sun shone in a windless sky as the devil murmured in my ear, congratulating me on my time, which, while not the blinding brevity of Babinda, was quickish, respectable even. The devil suggested I needn’t knock myself about so much. He counselled me, drink slowly, recharge your energies. It might be wise, he insinuated, to hold something in reserve. He whispered something to my bones, to my thighs, something I didn’t catch. He reminded me the turn wasn’t really halfway; the second half doesn’t start until 32 kilometres, when you’ve got ten more to go. The sun was soft now on my face. It felt good. And so I jogged. 

 

Jogging isn’t running. When you run you leave the devil behind. Jogging along past kilometre marks that came and went agreeably, time did not count. I looked at the sky and followed the flight of ducks. I looked long at the smoke stacks of Loy Yang, pondering my own complicity. I smelled the cows. Runners passed me and we’d exchange congratulation and encouragement. A large vehicle came up behind, slowed and swerved close. Two female faces shone with enthusiasm and screamed you are awesome! Never mind these words have been bled white of meaning in a million million facebook ‘likes’, these girls transfused the words back to life. I felt wonderful. Just ahead the girls called the same to a much speedier runner who just grunted. Wonderful girls, aren’t they, I said. He grunted again, his face a mask.

 

I jogged on. When I turned into Black But Road the devil slouched over to me with some advice: the stones underfoot here on this unmade track can hurt your feet. Best to walk here. A little walk can’t hurt… Over the remaining fourteen kilometres I enjoyed a number of little walks. They didn’t hurt at all.

 

I turned back onto the Traralgon-Maffra Road where busy cars sped past at their full entitlement of one hundred kilometres per hour. I crossed the Latrobe River, where, in all twelve of my previous Traralgon Marathons, my skyscanning eyes have sighted a sailing pelican, my white bird of hope. Always, gazing across to the chimneys, I’ve thought of the Ancient Mariner:

 

Nor dim nor red, like God’s own head,

The glorious Sun uprist:

Then all averred, I had killed the bird

That brought the fog and mist.

‘Twas right, said they, such birds to slay,

That bring the fog and mist.

 

Today, for the first time, I saw no white bird.

 

At thirty five kilometres I sighted the white car of Good Friend Nick. He accepted my sweat-laden shirts in exchange for my drink of Coca-Cola-and-orange-juice. This dysenteric-looking concoction contains sugar, potassium salt, sodium chloride and caffeine. And water. Ever since the turn my dry lips had been telling me I forgot to load up with water before the race. Now I loaded up with every molecule known to aid a depleted body.

Darcy, no longer feverish, looking at me, wanted to know, is it hard? His Dad looked at me and laughed. I said, yes Darcy it is. That’s why we do it.

Running slowly ahead of me, his aged body skew-wiff, his pace dogged, we sighted a Spartan as he pressed steadily onward. Over the next seven kilometres of straight road I saw his singlet of emerald green, a flag of courage that reminded me of my own lack of that quality.

 

Nick drove off to hide my final bottle of dysenteric elixir for me at the 40 km mark before hurrying back to Melbourne to watch his elder son play footy .

 

Now walking, now shuffling, now jogging, I pressed on. I knew a full-bodied run would hurt intolerably. I knew this because the devil told me so. Runners continued to pass me, every one of them urging on this bent wreck. Voices said, looking good. And, great effort. Not long now…

 

A small parcel of sinew and strings drew alongside. I recognised the woman’s face, full of years and resolve. I recognised the voice that hectored me for ten kilometres in 2013, before its owner hurried away to assist others with her wisdom. Now the voice said, I know you. I ran with you here once before. Today she didn’t not linger to advise, or assist, or direct or instruct me. Perhaps it was something I said.

 

I felt the caress of fingers dancing lightly on my left shoulder. I looked up to see an able body, young, upright, light of foot. I saw a face buried in a forest of auburn beard. In the depths of the forest I saw a smile and from them a voice blessing me, extolling me, praising my effort. The dancing fingers left a sensation that abides still, twenty-four hours later.

 

Here and there the Traralgon-Maffra Road undulates. From the 38 kilometre mark to 39 kms in a flat marathon course the road rises steadily. As I sailed downhill early in the outward half I marked this well, resolving I would not stop, nor even slow, during my return. Brave promises those, the promises of legs that feel fresh, of resolve not yet tested. Walking now I saw the road rise ahead of me. I stopped and took a deep breath and cranked my limbs into a shuffle. And then a slow run. Putting the devil behind me I ploughed uphill. I reached the top and turned and started the downhill run home. Now my legs started cramping. Earlier, when they’d have excused me from trying to run at all, I’d have welcomed these cramps, but not now. I decided to ignore them.

I ran studiously down the hill attempting a judicious balance between speed and cramp. Footsteps behind me, soft voices, closing on my left shoulder. The runners drew alongside, a bloke in his fifties, and a much younger female. Her face had the puppy fat of childhood. They saluted me and passed. I saw the child wore a pair of floral shorts. The freshness of her being, the stream of approval and encouragement flowing from her father, the sweet amity and unity of the two, these lifted my spirits and distracted me from pathetic thoughts and tremors.

 

Approaching the 40km mark I decided I wouldn’t stop for my drink. Here I was, maintaining a precarious run; if I stopped I mightn’t start again. So it was with mild puzzlement but no regret that I sighted no bottle at the 40 km marker. Ahead a marshall smiled and directed me to the second last turn, calling, you’re doing well, Howie. “Howie”. How did she know me? Now her little boy approached me, near to blocking my path. His outstretched hand held a small bottle of brown fluid.

Small kindnesses, these, potent with grace. I recalled other moments, over my previous forty five marathons. Crossing the Line at the finish of the New York Marathon in 1988 I heard a sweet voice singing. It came from a fellow runner, a student of opera at the famed Julliard School. He asked my name: Pheidipides.

Ah, Pheidipides. Reverting now to Greek he recited that runner’s dying words: ‘Rejoice my brothers, ours is the victory’.

 

On Patriots Day in Boston, Athens of the New World, a river of grace flows during its Marathon. Of three million Boston citizens fully one million come out – and stay out – to cheer on the runners, both the fleet of foot and the unfleet. They cheer us, they feed us – everything from bananas, to segments of orange, to candies to barbecued sausages dripping fat – they love us. When two explosions destroyed the ceremony of innocence that is a marathon, overwrought Bostonians overflowed with tender concern for their thwarted guests.

 

Together with every runner in the world I watched the telecast of the Olympic Marathon in Barcelona. In the final brutal kilometres as the runners raced up the slope of Monjuic, one of the lead bunch of five missed his drink at the drink stop. With a medal in sight and no time to be lost, he ran on without it. A rival passed his bottle and the two shared it.

 

I was one of a generation inspired by John Landy’s act in the 1956 National 1500 Metres Championship. A young Ron Clark fell at Landy’s feet. The champion stopped to assist him than ran on and won.

 

I ran my first marathon in Traralgon. On that occasion achilles tendonitis and unremitting cramps forced me to walk from the 30km mark to 40kms. I contrived a pathetic run for the last stanza, hobbling into view of the football club where all the other 140 finishers were enjoying refreshments. One caught sight of Pheidipides approaching in the gloom. To a man, my fellow runners abandoned their scones and passionfruit sponge cakes and sausage rolls to applaud the runner who ran on an hour after they’d finished.

 

After my mother-in-law-in-law survived Auschwitz she dedicated her life to fighting racism. A tiny woman of immense will, she was never scared to take me to task. She challenged me once with the folly of the ‘disordered’ (her term) pursuit of marathon running. Shortly afterwards I ran the New York Marathon and found my answer: my life is a marathon, an undistinguished passage through time and space; it is a passage made rich and significant by the people who run their race at my side.

  

Postscript: Yesterday in Traralgon I set a new PW of five hours nineteen minutes. My time of 5.13, Boston was a sprint in comparison.

 

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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Jeremiah Jan

She sits in the waiting room, reading. Any patient who enjoys a good read will enter my consulting room in a good mood. I do allow my patients time for a very good read.
The book she reads from is thick, with old-fashioned morocco covers and red-tipped pages. Looks like the Bible! She doesn’t look mortally ill. Perhaps she’s mortally afraid of the new young doctor.
‘Good morning, my name’s Howard.’
We shake hands. Her hand is fair, a youngish hand. The owner of the hand says, ‘Hello, I’m Jan.’
‘You’re reading the Bible? Which book?’
‘Jeremiah.’
Jeremiah the cheerless, prophet of doom, a man willing to be jailed for speaking truth to power. Serious reading. Might have been worse, could have been Job.
The serious reader sits down. She speaks: ‘Howard, I’ve come for a talk. I don’t need a diagnosis; if I want a diagnosis I’ll see Doctor Don. I don’t need a diagnosis, I need a talk.’
We have our talk.

Another visit by Jan, another long period in the reading room. Eventually I show her in. We are only about ten minutes into today’s talk when the phone interrupts us: ‘Howard, Doctor Don needs you in the Treatment Room. Now!’
‘Gotta go, Jan. Sorry.’
I go.

When I return, after about twenty five minutes, I resume: ‘So, Jan, you were about seven when…’
‘Howard, you can’t just do this.’
‘Do what, Jan?’
‘Take up our conversation without a break, as if nothing terrible or significant has just happened.’
‘Can’t I? Why not?’
‘You need time, some space. You need to come to terms with whatever it was that was so urgent. You are a person too, Howard.’

In my consulting room, situated at the furthest end of the building from the Treatment Room, Jan would not have seen the frantic mother, the pale plump doll that was the baby, the child inert, lifeless. She would not have felt the body still warm, not seen two adult males breathing desperate air into a new body that would not breathe again. She would not have seen the face of the mother passing through shock to grief to the start of lifelong self-accusation.
Did she perhaps hear sounds of stifled sobs?

Many chapters of Jeremiah and of Job have been read in the thirty-five years since that day. I remember the child, I have not forgotten the mother.
Nor have I forgotten Jan’s instruction.

What Would You Do – Part 2

I heard a story once, one of those stories that make you. A student driving his wreck along Toorak Road lost attention or lost his brakes and ran into the back of a larger car.  All attention now, he jumped out, preparing apologies.

The driver of the other car, an older man bore down on him:  “What happened son?”

The student fumbled for a voice, stumbled his explanation.

The older man seemed to be somewhere else. After a while he looked at the younger man’s car. He said: “ You’re not insured are you.”

“No.”

“You have any idea what a new panel costs for a Rolls?”

The student shook his head.

“More than you’ve got. More than you’ll have for a while. Am I right?”

“Yes.”

“I’ll tell you a story, son. I was your age once. I pranged a rich guy’s car. He said to me not to worry about it . He said to remember. He said one day I’d have the chance to do the same for someone else.”

The boy looked up, half unbelieving.

The man continued: ”Today you gave me my chance. Thank you.”

The older man turned to go. He opened his car door, stood for a moment, looked over his shoulder and said: “Remember, son.”

 

Rolls-Royce Corniche

Rolls-Royce Corniche (Photo credit: Wikipedia)