Jim is Dead

December 18, 1969. A large moon rises before me in the geriatric wing of the Royal Hobart Hospital. This is unexpected as we are indoors and it is noon. The moon shines across the room in my direction. Beneath the bright disc sits a white clerical collar. Just below the disc’s equator a set of white teeth smiles widely. The smile advances, a pink fleshy hand extends and a voice says, ‘Hello. I’m Father Jim. I’m a chaplain here. Call me Jim.’ The hand is warm and kind. I am a new doctor. Today is my first day in my first job. All around me old people drool and gibber in a manner to overwhelm a new doctor.

The moonfaced Friar Tuck is delighted to meet Howard Goldenberg. He says, ‘You’re new here Howard? Welcome to the Royal. I hope you’ll be very happy here.’

Fifty metres distant stands the weatherboard shack which houses the new doctor and his new wife. The new doctor says, ‘Jim, will you join my wife and me for lunch? We’re going to eat soon. Fish…it’s an Indonesian recipe.’ Jim would love to. Thirty minutes later Jim and his new friends Annette and Howard are seated in the shack eating a luncheon of fish bones and curry. Jim fossicks for flesh among the fine bones, eats up and does not complain. And Annette and I have made the first new friend of our married lives.

April 6, 2016. My Facebook-facing daughter forwards the following:

Dear Howard, I am sorry to have to post a message like this via Facebook but I am sad to say that your good friend Jim Smith has died this week, here in London. My name is John and I am his partner, Jim & I met you in North London when you were visiting your family, I think in 2014. Jim had a stroke last year and I was caring for him at home, he had to go into hospital with a pulmonary embolus and then had complications which led to his death on Sunday. I know he always enjoyed his conversations with you, if you have any special memories you would like to send me I can include them in a JimMemory book I intend to put together. I will let you know when the funeral is, if you would like to light a candle and say a prayer for him.

PS RIP Jim! He was quite comfortable and free of pain (he had some back trouble) at the last. John

Jim is dead. Faster than tears an image flashes before me. I see a black and white photo in a family album of a moon-faced man seated outside our rustic house in a village outside Melbourne. The large face is crowned with a white handkerchief knotted at its corners. Upon the lap of the large man sits a small child, our angel Raphael, aged not many months. A perfectly ordinary image: no collar, no ecclesiasticals, no pretence; just a man nurturing a child. The image says enough. A man, a child. Poignant as a Pieta the image drives me from my screen to Annette. My voice disintegrates as I tell her the news. I ring my daughter who is tearful too.

Father Jim Smith married hundreds of heathen nurses to hundreds of pagan doctors in his days at the Royal. All those unbelievers flocked to this man who seemed to personify something missing from the lives of those science-infested people. But around 1990 Jim quit marrying. He said, ‘I marry them, they make vows, then they divorce.’ He felt the losses, each by each, personally. ‘It’s as if their marriage meant more to me than to them’, he said.

Father Jim introduced us to his partner in goodness, Jim Turley. Now we had two Father Jim friends. The two – together with a non-priest – created what might have been Australia’s first refuge. They called it St Michael’s Priory and to it flocked beaten wives, beaten children, lonely people, people mad and broken. All were taken in, housed and fed, and where possible, repaired.

The Priory rested upon the slender incomes of the three and upon donations from parishioners, who brought laying hens, a milch cow, produce – and a pair of Nubian goats. The Jims took us down to shed and showed us two sleekly beautiful creatures. Their coats of Nugget Dark Tan shone on the backs of their aristocratic bodies. Shy, their slender faces darting, their small ears rising and turning to sound, they looked like deer. ‘Meet the Goldenbergs’, said Jim Smith. He was addressing Annette and me, not the goats: ‘This one is Ruth and this is Naomi. They’re pedigreed. We were told we should register them. You could register them by name, so we chose from the Bible. Then Jim and I said, “Ruth and Naomi are Jewish names. Let’s give them Jewish surnames”. So we called them Goldenberg, after our Jewish friends.’

Years later Annette and I gave our third child a Biblical name. She became Naomi Goldenberg, named after a relative at St Michael’s Priory in Hobart.

The Jims used to come to our shack in Gore Street, for Shabbat dinner on Friday nights. They’d stand silently in their yarmulkes while I’d recite Kiddush. Afterwards they’d make a fair fist of translating odd phrases from the Hebrew, to which they’d been introduced during their studies in Divinity. One Shabbat eve one of the Jims – I don’t remember who – challenged the second: ‘Jim, I don’t sense you are making any effort at all to convert the Goldenbergs.’ The other Jim confessed: ‘That’s true.’ And the second Jim nodded and admitted he too was remiss. And one said: ‘I don’t feel any call to change the Goldenbergs.’ That moment love shimmered before us at our Shabbat table: two men of God had each found grace sufficient to deny abstract vocation in favour of human feeling.

Eventually Jim Smith left the Royal, left Hobart, said goodbye to the Priory and to his celibate brethren. It might, for all we knew, have felt like dereliction. Today I picture it as burnout, as an escape from accumulating vicarious trauma.

Jim took a job in Melbourne as chaplain at Pentridge. There his parishioners were prisoners and warders. He sat and he listened to their confessions and to their unconfessions, their lies and their rationalisations. One godless murderer habitually visited Jim on the pretext of spiritual need where he simply craved intelligent conversation. That man had forced his way into a hairdressing salon where he splashed lighter fluid over his rejecting girlfriend before igniting it. The woman survived her horrible burns. Her hairdresser did not.

An equally godless, notoriously brutal warder used to seek Jim out in the Officers’ Mess. He’d ask Jim, ‘Do you mind if I join you?’ Jim decidedly did mind but avowed the reverse. The man, loathsome and unctuous, habitually chose Jim as his companion. Jim couldn’t say which of the two – the murderer or the officer – he liked less.

On one occasion the murderer made a singular confession: boastfully he declared, ‘When we want to punish a warder, we do. We have our ways.’ Jim, genuinely curious, asked –‘How?’ He regretted the question instantly. The prisoner said, ‘We piss in their tea.’

Some time later Jim went to the Officers’ Mess for lunch, took his seat at an isolated table and said, ‘Yes, of course’ when the warder asked to join him. Shortly a prisoner arrived to take their meal orders. Jim ordered his lunch, the warder ordered, the prisoner noted their requests, then asked, ‘Beverages, gentlemen?’ Jim requested tea, the warder said, ‘Same for me.’

Jim sat and enjoyed the warder’s conversation until a second prisoner arrived bearing their food and drink. This prisoner was none other than the murderer. He handed Jim his food, passed the officer his, then said, ‘Here’s your tea, Father.’ He walked around the table and, standing a little to the side and behind the warder, passed him a second mug. Winking hugely at Jim he said, ‘And this is yours, sir.’ Jim sat and watched and kept his peace.

Once again Jim and we were living in the same city. Often he’d would join us at our Shabbat table and at Passover Seder and he’d report on what he called, ‘my time in gaol.’

Later, with his usual genius for vocation among the desperate, among those who were losing and those who were lost, Jim became chaplain to Intensive Care at a major Melbourne hospital. In ICU something like one patient dies of every four who enter. The rates of loss are higher than in a theatre of war.

Eventually Jim retired. Amazing us all, since he’d been resolutely republican and a pronounced proletarian, Jim settled in Britain. Here he found love, a partner in John, and diabetes – the lot of many Friar Tucks.

Every Passover and every Jewish New Year a letter would arrive addressed and written in the child’s block lettering that was the Jim Smith calligraphy. The letters told us of the Jewish roots of Jim’s belief. They’d include clippings from the newspaper columns of ‘my favourite religious writer, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’, soon to become Chief Rabbi of the British Commonwealth. In his long London epoch Jim read widely and deepened his sense of following a Jewish Jesus. His pleasure in our friendship grew deeper and eventually he crossed the world to attend our eldest daughter’s wedding in Melbourne.

Jim lived with John, sharing travel with him as well as musical theatre, which he loved. A man great in his levity, Jim radiated a softness that healed, attaching him to old friend and to new. When I visited my daughter Naomi (the goat’s child) and her husband and children during their domicile in London, Jim, frailer now, crossed the great city with John for a visit. It was Shabbat and space and time had shrunk. Here was Jim, here were his old friends, here were our tender little ones. Jim was still Jim. The spark of joy still shone. But I wondered if we’d meet again. The moments passed.

And now Jim is dead.

  

Watching Women Drowning their Babies

London, heart of anglophone civilisation, cradle of British culture? ‘For british’ read ‘brutish’.

See below. This is a true story.

This morning I watched a group of six young mothers and their babies, aged six to fifteen months, in an indoor pool in London. The pool was heated: they’re very considerate here when they set out to torture their young. The mothers undressed their babies and clad them in little wet suits. Entering the water they held the babies close to their perfidious breasts, murmuring the tender endearments that loving mothers do. They walked backwards in a circle, bouncing their babes in the water, hoisting them high, beaming, beaming all the time. Choreographed by Nicola – that’s the name of the licensed water torturer – the same cooing, smiling mothers all splashed water into the faces of their young. Spluttering, the babes looked up, discomfited. Their mothers chorused “hooray!”, made loving whisper and song, reassured the children that what had passed was not real, then splashed them again. After half a dozen such passes it was time for holding on. Holding on is taught by placing the babe, until now an entirely earthbound being, facing a horizontal railing just inside the margin of the pool. The mothers all sang “Hold on! Hold On!” Nicola sang the same. A sweeter chorus you never heard. Then the mothers let go of the slippery bodies, singing gaily as the newborn of their flesh slipped below the surface. Here the babies enhanced their education by breathing in water. After a little bit of this, desperate bodies surfaced, flailing arms found the railing, and most survived. None looked happy, but the mothers beamed and sang and cried “Hooray!”

I looked at my watch. We had been going for only seven minutes of the thirty that the mothers had paid for. I braced myself.

Now came swimming. Swimming is done by having your face pushed beneath the surface and held there for two seconds. To condition you for this submersion your mother calls your name, once, twice, then drowns you briefly, smiling withal. Mother Malvolio brings you to the surface, cuddles and coos. When you are a year old or a little more or a little less, you still can recall those aqueous moments of birth, when you suffered anoxia, your first near-life experience. Here, during the your seconds underwater you go through it all again. You’ve been flatlining: you never felt so thoroughly alive.

Throughout your thirty minute session of education you drink a good deal of pool water, chlorinated for your safety (and to foster your eczema). When you have drunk all your small tummy can hold, you pee, re-warming the water for the next baby to drink. The mothers never drink, their faces held above water level as befits members of an air-breathing species. Instead the adult female bodies shed their dribs and their drabs of belly button fluff and sundry fluids, augmenting the brew drunk by their young.

After too long the session is at an end. Money passes to Nicola. Stunned babies, shuddering, shivering as the cooler air hits them, blue of lip, mute with disbelief and moral shock, nestle in mothers’ arms. Those adults smile at each other in congratulation of their depredations.
Scot-free they’ll congregate here again next Thursday and do it all again.

Waiting for the Wrong Bus

This bus I await
Is not mine
In the dark
On the 91 Line

I took the 91
Missed my stop;
Now look around
Outside a shop –

In a doorway
Two recline
Homeless among
Homed on the 91 Line

Her eyes closed,
His wide
She reposed
His rest denied

Not hunger,
Not dirt
On her face, her shirt;
His face younger

But pinched,
Eyes narrowed,
Jaws clenched,
Looks harrowed –

Ten feet
Just ten
Separate us
From them

Not an iphone
At his cheek
But a fruit ice –
A second peek

In not yet dawn
She wants warm
While he applies ice!
Wondering in gloom

I check my cash
Two large notes
None small; rash
I approach

“Could you use a quid
Or two?” “Mate,
I could.” (A schooled voice.)
Note unnoted, palmed, hid.

“Toothache?” “Mate, agony,
Three days now…”
Pain cries for relief
Not money…

I’ve three green
Gel tabs, ibuprofen:
These given, palmed,
Expose the fifty. Now

He sees, amazed
“O mate!”
And I, running late
Escape on the 91 –
The wrong bus;
The streets
Of London
Separate us –

Human Writes

While in London I’ve been reading the local Big Issue. Lots of ads.
I decided to respond to one, headed Human Writes.

The ad invites the reader to write to someone on Death Row in USA. To become penfriend to a condemned person.
I don’t know any murderers, not knowingly anyway.
I wouldn’t begin to know whether my future penfriend is guilty.
The little I know of criminal justice suggests the possibility that my penfriend would have been represented differently- ie better – in Australia. And the strong likelihood that he would be male and black.
I make the guess he is in fact guilty.
I don’t imagine I’ll ever know or want to know.

Should I enter upon this relationship?
I who have nothing to lose, much to gain?
I – a writer, who trawls his life for his materials – who might well become my penfriend’s exploiter?

I seek the reader’s reaction.

I will write to humanwritesuk@yahoo.co.uk

So can you.

20140331-081600.jpg