Love

I realise I have written little in this blog that does not touch on death in some way or other. I have written less of love. Probably I write of death as one preparing for that moment of truth. I write myself toward it and around it as one not yet in it. The pursuit, neither morbid nor frivolous, is the necessary (if deplorable) corollary of growing up. If I write little of love it is because I dwell within it and have done all my days. But the third day of December arrives every year and it reminds me.

Here then, conceived on December 3 2017, is a love story.

My wife is married to a pleasant enough man. I’ve known him for a long time, and although I admire him generously, yet I concede he is not perfect. My wife has put up with imperfection, with hopes incompletely realised for 48 years. On December 3 this year she gave her spouse a card, upon which the following words appeared:

This is my wish for you…

 

Comfort on difficult days,

Smiles when sadness intrudes,

Rainbows to follow the clouds,

Laughter to kiss your lips,

Sunsets to warm your heart,

Hugs when spirits sag,

Beauty for your eyes to see,

Friendships to brighten your being,

Faith so you can believe,

Confidence for when you doubt,

Courage to know yourself,

Patience to accept the truth,

Love to complete your life.

 

 

Better than the average Hallmark homily, I thought. And indeed the name I read beneath these lines was Ralph Waldo Emerson.

But the platitudes of the great philosopher were not penned by my wife. I opened the card and read her handwritten message.

I won’t share those words beyond this: my wife commanded herself to love me for a further 48 years. I did a little weep for joy and for thanksgiving. And the words remained in me, resonating, lighting the damp and darkened world about me. We drove to the country to lunch as the guests of our recently widowed friend. Aged in her mid-nineties, our host prepared our meal with dogged independence and perfect accuracy. We sat in her sylvan retreat and we shared her sorrow. For the first time in our long friendship our host’s beloved was absent. Only love abided.

Outside the window the green world was soaked by unseasonable rains. Behind and above the green the world was grey. Suddenly my wife started: ‘Look!’ she said. I turned and looked and there, a glory of gold and green, sat a king parrot, nibbling the widow’s birdseed.

Love lit my night. I recited my morning prayers and read the Shema with its credo. Immediately following the words of that key formula of faith was a concrete Commandment. And the command was love.

I opened the novel* that my men’s book club will discuss tonight. The editor wrote: If the novel can be said to have one central idea, it is surely of love, the many forms love takes…’a passion neither of the mind nor of the heart… a force that comprehends them both.’

 

 

 

 

*’Stoner’, by John Williams

 

 

 

 

 

The Night Away from my Wife

At breakfast yesterday morning I said to my wife: ‘I won’t be coming home tonight.’

My wife was reading the paper. She said, ‘Le Pen looks ominous.’

I said: ‘I won’t be coming home tonight. I’ll be sleeping out.’

‘That’s nice, darling.’

I said, ‘I’ll be sleeping with a stranger. For money.’

‘That’s nice darling.’

I kissed my wife goodbye. She said, ‘Have a good one.’

I went to work.

 

After work I went to the place that offers the services I desired. Discreet premises, modest, not flamboyant at all. I knocked on the door. The person who opened the door was a man. He asked my name. I said, ‘Howard.’

‘Goldenberg?’ – he smiled. A nice smile. ‘I’ll be looking after you first’, he said. ‘Then my colleague will take over. I’ll just measure you now – as a preliminary. So my colleague will have an idea of your…dimensions.’

The pleasant man measured me here and there and wrote in a file. ‘Come this way, ‘he said, you can take your clothes off and shower first. Then you can change into something, ah, a little less formal.’

He showed me down the corridor past a series of doorways to a small room in which I found a small table and a chair, a TV and a bed. The bed was larger than a single, cosy for two. Three, I reckoned, would be a crowd.

 

The pleasant man turned to go. ‘What about payment?’ – I asked. ‘I don’t deal with the money. You pay your particular worker for their services.’

I felt unhappy about this – not the matter of emolument but the grammar. ‘Their services’ sat poorly with me for one worker. Or – a late thought – would I be spending the night with more workers than one? This might be expensive.

 

I took a shower. It was not until the hot water was running over my grateful shoulders that I realised I’d brought no soap. I looked around and saw a liquid soap dispenser above the sink at the opposite side of the bathroom. I turned off the shower, emerged, dried myself, pumped a palmful of semen-coloured liquid, (which, upon sniffing, I found to be some innocent hydrocarbon derivative) and returned to the shower recess, where I employed a busy free hand to turn on the water, to adjust the temperature and to dip into the reservoir-palm for moieties of soap, which I then deployed to those portions of my body I judged strategic for the encounter ahead. 

I dried myself and wrapped my glowing body in something a little more comfortable. The time was seven fifty. The room was booked to me until seven the next morning. When I booked no-one actually told me when my worker/s would commence work. I sat on the bed and crossed my legs. I moved to the chair and sat. And waited. Nothing happened, no-one arrived at my door. I listened and I heard voices, other doors than mine opening, doors closing, then silence.

What to do? Perhaps I should read. I went to my daypack and found a book. Edited by the former Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, the book was my siddur, the book of Jewish Prayer. I opened the book and I prayed for strength and guidance. There came a knock at the door. Engaged in my devotions, I did not answer. Another knock. More silent prayer. Another knock, and a voice that said, ‘Knock, knock. Anyone there?’ That, I reflected, is precisely what the worshipper is asking at prayerful moments. The door opened behind me. A voice, a pleasant voice, said, ‘Good evening, I’m your…’ – then choked: ‘Oh! I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.’ I heard the door close behind me.

 

 After a time I finished, replaced my siddur in my pack and went in search of my visitor. I found the owner of the pleasant voice, a woman, younger than I, perhaps half my age. She looked Samoan. Her voice spoke a volley of apologies, my voice answered with assurances and then she said, ‘My name is Hortense. And you’re…’ she was studying my folder in which her male colleague had recorded my dimensions… ‘You’re Howard. Let’s go to your room Howard.’ I did as I was bid.

 

‘Would you like to sit on the bed, Howard?’ It didn’t seem like Hortense expected any verbal reply. I sat. She stood facing me, looking down at the top of my head. ‘How do you keep those on? Do you wear it everywhere? I mean, all the time? Like in bed?’ I explained. Then I had questions of my own: ’Hortense, will anyone else be joining us tonight?’ ‘No, just me, Howard. I think I’ll manage alright. I’ve done this before. You’re not nervous are you? You don’t need to feel nervous.’ I reassured Hortense I was not nervous. I too had done it before. 

 

‘First I’m going to tie you up,’ said Hortense, indicating the forest of leather straps and wires festooning a rail on the far wall. As Hortense leaned generously forward, ‘tying me up’, her crucifix dangled just above my nose, pendulating and tickling me as she moved. It was a not-unpleasant preliminary.

Hortense returned to her folder. ‘Oh, you’re a doctor!’ There was delight in her voice. She looked again at my yarmulke. ‘Well Doctor, I suppose you do circumcisions?’

‘I used to. Hundreds of them, not anymore.’

‘It’s so much better, isn’t it.’

‘Isn’t what?’

‘Much nicer. Don’t you think?’

I could not fashion a suitable response.

‘Well, look at me’, said my companion for the night, ‘I’ve been dating for a long time now, quite a number of partners. It does look much nicer, doesn’t it. Cleaner too, you know, once they’re done?’ I couldn’t really say, so I didn’t say anything. Hortense took my silence as affirmation.

 

I had a pleasant enough night with Hortense. She said, ‘I suggest you take a shower before you go home to your wife.’ I did so, paid my money, jumped onto my bike and rode home through the rain, accumulating grit and road grime as I rode. As her drowned rat of a husband came sweating through the door, my wife was breakfasting: ‘Le Pen did badly,’ she said.

 

The Man said to the Woman

The man said to the woman, look how beautiful is the wide blue sea. The woman looked at the sea and saw what the man saw. She saw how the sea sparkled in the light of beginning. She saw its beauty and she knew this was what she wanted. She wanted to share it with the man. She felt something in her hand and when she looked she saw the man’s hand was holding hers. The two hands looked comfortable and strong together.
 

The woman said, yes, it’s very beautiful. It looks like it has no end.

 

The man said, we’ll need to build a boat. The man and the woman looked down and both saw how each hand held the other; how the hands were comfortable and strong together. The woman said, we can build this boat together and we can sail it together on this sea that has no end. And the man said, we’ll build our boat and we’ll care for it together and we’ll sail on the endless sea together and we’ll never stop.

 

The woman and the man understood it would take a long time to build a boat. They had long dreamed of the beautiful voyage that had no end. In their dreams their longing moved to their lips, and one murmured about the beautiful sea, and the other murmured about the voyage that has no ending, and the murmurs entered their sleeping ears and when they awoke they both knew they would build and sail together.

 

They knew too a boat must be safe and strong. They both knew that the beautiful sea could become fierce and dark and stormy. Their boat would have to be strong enough for great storms, for hot weather and for cold, for rain and for long dry times. Their boat would need high walls to keep out the sea, especially if children might come aboard.

 

The man and the woman worked hard and patiently. In childhood they had floated sticks in the rain that ran down the gutters into the great drains and they had pretended their sticks were sailing ships. But neither had never built a real boat before. They chose the good stout timbers of the kauri tree. They weathered the timbers and after one year the timbers were ready for shipbuilding. The man and the woman measured and sawed and glued and soon their timbers took the form of a boat. Then the man and the woman caulked the gaps between the timbers, and they daubed the inside with tar. Finally they painted the hull with marine varnish, and below the waterline they applied anti-fouling to stop barnacles from spoiling the stout kauri timbers.

 

The boat was ready to float. The man built a cabin to keep the sun and the rain and the wind from his crew; and the woman built bunks inside the cabin and a galley where food would be made for the crew.

The man and the woman slipped their boat into the water and they saw it floating and their faces shone like the sun that blazed upon the bright blue sea.

 

The final task was to create a crew. This took time and care. The crew arrived one at a time. They were very, very small. The woman placed each one gently onto a bunk that she had made. After a good many years the man and the woman had a full crew of small children, and the children knew no home other than their good safe boat and they grew there and became strong on the face of that shining sea. The woman looked at the crew, all hale and bronzed from the sun, and she said to the man, let’s set sail on our journey of no end.

The journey took them years. The children grew bigger and stronger. All of the children suffered falls and cuts and bruises and burned in the strong sun, but all of them healed. The man and the woman steered their boat away from storms and pirates, away from icebergs and reefs that might crash or tear their boat apart. Together the man and the woman and their crew visited islands and ports, from Mombasa to Saskatchewan. They saw volcanoes from Vesuvius to the great extinct Mount Erebus. They saw the great leviathan that leaped and blew, they loved the merry dolphins that escorted them, they knew the flying fishes and the jelly fishes, the octopus, the inky squid, the dinified seahorse. Their strong boat housed them and moved them and kept them afloat and the crew and the woman and the man knew their planet as they knew their boat, which was their world.

 

Sometimes a sudden tempest would arise. The children would cling to their bunks as the waves threw the craft high upon crests then plunged it deep into troughs, and the winds shrieked in the sheets and the rain fell in torrents that ran down the decking and into the sea. The children looked at the great waves of dark green and the foaming crests of white and their world was angry and unkind. Deep inside themselves they feared their boat would break and they’d all be lost. And they felt a mighty fear for the man and the woman who made their world and kept it afloat. The children wept but their cries could not be heard over the scream of the wind and the thunder of the skies. And the woman did not come and the man did not come and each child feared and cried and shivered alone.  

 

And as suddenly as the squall arose it would subside. The sun shone upon a gleaming world and the terrified crew came up from below and joined the man and the woman who commanded their boat. And in that sunshine the world was at peace, the craft sailed on and the crew recovered.

 

In every storm the children knew those fears. And in every storm they understood the man and the woman could not comfort them. But luckily, after a few frightening storms the children found their own way to feel safe. The biggest child opened his eyes just as the boat climbed up, up, up a mighty wave then down, down, down the far side, and he saw the smaller crew weeping through closed eyes, and he sang to them. And as he sang the smaller ones heard snatches of sweet sound, a lullaby, and they opened their eyes and saw the singer was their big brother and they managed to smile. From that time, when storms came the crew would all climb onto the big bunk where the man and the woman slept, and they would hold each other and sing or hum and all knew they were not alone.

 

After every storm the children came out and looked anxiously at their boat, but the boat looked sound and the children mostly lost their fears. But the eldest child worried: how much violence, how many storms could the boat sustain and survive?

 

The storms came more often and they went on longer. The howling winds and the crashing seas were slower to make peace, and the children clung to each other and sang and hummed as they trembled and tried not to show their fear.

 

From time to time the man and the woman would steer the craft to a port and put in for repairs. And the boat’s invisible tears and strains and cracks and leaks were glued and tarred and caulked, the barnacles were sanded off the kauri and the hull repainted as before. And the boat seemed safe and strong. And the crew and the man and the woman continued their voyage.

 

One day the crew awoke to a frightful storm. They heard roaring and screaming. It was the voice of the wind that screamed and the voice of the sea and the thunder that roared. And the boat shook and the small crew members saw cracks opening between the timbers and water pouring in. The biggest little crew man grabbed a bucket and the smaller crew grabbed cups and bowls from the galley and all the small people filled their cups and bowls and bucket with the sea water and threw it over the side. Each of the crew filled and bailed and threw the waters away, each of them sensing they had to be the one who would save the boat. But it was no use: the waters came up through the floor boards and up to their ankles, then their knees. Now the woman came below and the man came with her and they told the crew what they already feared. Perhaps they already knew. Perhaps the sea waters had told the young crew that their beloved boat could no longer take them on their journey safely.

 

The woman spoke kindly and the man spoke gently. The man said, we will always protect you and you will sail again in peaceful waters. The woman said, you will always be our crew even when we no longer sail this boat that was so beautiful. And as the two spoke gently and kindly, the children realised the screaming and the roaring had stopped. And the small ones thought, no, that’s not going to happen; this beautiful boat will be made better and we will all sail in it again. But the biggest crew child looked at the boards, all swollen and splintering, and he knew the boat would not sail again.

 

The boat did not sink straight away. The brave man and the sad woman steered it and sailed it to a safe place. The bow of the boat rested on dry land, and the man jumped ashore and the woman lifted the children from the broken boat and passed the crew, one by one, to the man who set them down on the shore. The smallest crew person wasn’t used to the feel of sand and grass underfoot, and started to cry. The other crew tried to comfort the smallest one, but they could not speak; their throats were full of a great ball of sadness, and when the man and the woman tried to cheer the sobbing child their throats blocked too. Suddenly all found voice and the voice they found was the voice of sadness and they wept together. And when at last they all finished weeping they looked one last time towards the boat they loved. But the boat had gone. Only a swirl on the surface of the sea marked where it had been.

He Wished to be an Inmate at Auschwitz

“I was born in mitteleuropa. You would say ‘central Europe.’ I had a happy life. I still have a happy life.” The man’s smile is wide, unmistakeable through the oxygen mask.

“When the War came I was a boy. My father and his partner had a business, so although there was war we had enough. But then the Nazis came and claimed my country. The great German Volk needed more livingsroom.” A smile, no bitterness, the smile of a man who sees the joke that is nationalism, the extended joke that is human history.

“The Nazis made lists, they liked lists. They made one list of Jewish businesses. My father’s business partner was Jewish, so the Nazis found it necessary to confiscate the business. My father found work as a clerk. It was not much but we got by for a while until one day they took my father away. I was at school when they came for Father. My older sister had to stop her studies. Later she disappeared, then Mother. There was just me. I stayed at home until a friend of Father said to me, ‘They will come for you tonight.’ I ran and I stayed with a friend in the country.

“This was, I think, 1942. I was bigger, still a boy, but big enough to work, big enough to become a slave for the Nazis. The Gestapo found me and were taking me on the trolley bus to their HQ for questioning. The trolley slowed for a corner and I jumped and ran. I was fast and small and I got away.

I took a train to a town where we used to ski in the mountains. I knew that place, we had friends there.

“But the Nazis found me. They put me into slave camp.

Work I don’t mind so much. It is hunger that is bad. Hungry slavery, that is very hard. They give us only one hundred fifty grams of bread a day. You know how much is one hundred fifty?”

The man shows me how much is one hundred fifty with his hands. His thumb and forefinger describe the thickness of a slice for a slave of the Nazis, something under a centimetre. His right forefinger sketches the outline of the slice on the palm of his right hand.

The small hand and the fine fingers are pink and soft. The skin has forgotten and forgiven the slave years. As he speaks the man leans forward, his neck muscles and his upper thorax working hard between phrases as he sucks in gulps of oxygen. His ribs rise and fall with his phrases. When you listen no tide of incoming or outgoing air is heard. The lungs have been burned away.

“People said slaves at Auschwitz received two hundred fifty grams. Two hundred fifty! I wished I would be taken to Auschwitz.”

The smile has not ceased. Does he need the widened mouth to get a full insuck of air? – I wonder.

“They did transfer some of us, on a train. I did not know to where we would travel, I decided I would escape again. I went to the toilet and opened the small window. The train travelled passed through snow close to forests. As we climbed a hill I jumped. The snow was soft. I ran to the forest and joined the fighters. For more than one year we fought the Jerries.” Behind the mask the smile widens in happy recollection of fighting ‘the Jerries.’

“I knew that country from our skiing holidays. I went to a farmer I used to know and his wife left food for me in the forest. I fought against the Jerries. They never came looking for us in the forest. They were too frightened, they did not know those forests as we did.

“After the War I returned to my hometown. And my father and my mother were there. And my sister. Later I came to Australia and we” – he nods towards his wife – “ we found each other and married. That was in Brisbane. We have been together ever since.”

The man and the wife live in the last house in a street that ends at the foot of a mountain. Forests of dark green stretch up the nearby slopes. When I phone to arrange my visit it is the wife who answers. Her voice, clear and steady, speaks in distinctly Australian accents. I follow her directions and find a derelict-looking building in ancient rendered cement. I approach a tall grey structure with glassless window frames. Inside a clutter of ancient debris. And silence. Clearly the wrong place.

Walking back towards my car, I am startled by a steady, clear voice: “Come around the side. Be careful as you climb the stairs.”

The stairs are steep and uneven, the building high. Surely a barrier for any aged couple, certainly an impossible mountain for a man with no lung tissue. The voice guides me up a second flight and there, on a concrete deck, at an alarming elevation above the buffalo grass below, stands a tall woman in a long navy dress, her face deeply wrinkled, her smile of good, original teeth and outstretched hand bidding me welcome. The dress and the face arrest me; the dress rises from ankle height, a deep blue teepee speckled with small stars of wattle; the face a roadmap of antiquity charged with vitality, lit withal by that smile. A woman attractive enough to haul any man up those terrible stairs.

We sit and I listen to reminiscences of a life. The man pauses and works his breathing as his lung remnants fight for oxygen. The smile never fades, never loses its expressive energy. When memory slows the woman prompts him: “Tell Howard about…” “Did you mention the time…?”

We look across sunlit mountain forest as the man breathes and speaks. He says, “My life has been a happy life. It is a wonderful life, this is a wonderful world.”

Orpheus and Eurydice in the Yidinji Lands of Babinda

I have taken this story verbatim from the free brochure produced by Babinda Information Centre Volunteers and funded by the Cairns Regional Council. 

The volunteer who gave me my copy, a gracious and helpful lady a good deal older than I, told me: The authors wrote this a very long time ago. They were a man and a woman who became knowledgeable about the local tribes. They both passed away many years ago.” I acknowledge my debt to those writers. I trust I have violated no-one’s copyright. I will be pleased to receive any information that will put me in contact with the heirs of the authors. 

More fundamentally, I acknowledge the traditional owners of these lands and thank them for welcoming me here. I swam in these beautiful waters, enjoying them among the descendants of the original inhabitants. Mothers and fathers of brown kids and pink kids joined tourists, backpackers, Asian tour groups and an old white doctor, cooling upstream of all and danger and loss.  

“A long time ago, when the Yidinji tribe lived in the Babinda Valley, there was a tremendous upheaval that created these unusual shaped “Boulders” with their foaming, rushing waters. In the tribe was Oolana, a very beautiful young woman. Also in the tribe was Waroonoo, a very old, wise and respected elder. It was decided these two should be given in marriage to each other and so it was done. Some time later a visiting tribe can wandering through the valley and as was the custom of the friendly Yidinji, they made the strangers welcome, inviting them to stay. In the tribe was Dyga, a very handsome young man. All eyes were upon him for his grace and beauty. At first sight Dyga and Oolana fell in love.

 

“So great was their strong attraction for each other they arranged to meet secretly. Knowing full well their desire for one another would never be permitted they ran away. Oolana knew she could now never return as she was rightfully married to Waroonoo. They journeyed well up into the valley, spending wonderfully happy days together as they camped under Chooreechillum*, near the water’s edge.

The two tribes had been searching for them and it was at this spot they came upon the the two lovers. The wandering tribesemen seized Dyga, forcing him away 
(re)calling how they had been shamed and would never return and how they would travel far away and never return. The Yidinjis had taken hold of Ooolana and 
were dragging her back, forcing her to return with them to the rest of the tribe. Suddenly she broke away and violently flung herself into the gentle waters of the creek, as she called and cried for Dyga to return to her here, but the wandering tribe had gone and with them her handsome lover.

Would he ever return? Just at the very instant Oolana struck the water, a tremendous upheaval occurred. The land shook with terror and sorrow as Oolana cried for her lost lover to come to her. Her anguished cries spilled out as rushing water came cascading over the whole area. Huge boulders were thrown up and she disappeared into them. Oolana seemed to become part of the stones as if to guard the very spot where it all happened.

So to this day, her spirit remains.  Some say that at times her anguished calls cry out calling her lover to return – and that wandering travellers should take care

lest Oolana call them too close to her beautiful waters, for she is forever searching for her own lost lover, and this must always be.” 

Upstream the waters are wide and gentle. Downstream a little and around a bend the river narrows, the waters deepen and rush between mighty boulders that are 
grey and silent and solid and powerful. Leaping suddenly downward in great foaming furrows, the green waters crash from a height into a pool that roils and

froths in endless turmoil. “Very many have drowned here”, reads the notice. (“Caution, slippery kocks”, reads another notice, the capital ‘R’ helpfully altered to a ‘K’.) In the words of the copper in ‘Point Break’, pointing over his shoulders at the wild waters off Bells’ Beach where Patrick Swayzee has preceded them, “It’s death on a stick out there, mate.” 

 

Upstream where all is tranquil a young mother sat on the steps at the water’s edge, watching her children swim. She said, “It’s true. In my own lifetime in Babinda very many have drowned down there…very many. But only men drowned. Never a woman.” 


* Choorechillum, Queensland’s highest peak. Its whitefella name is Mt Bartle Frere.

Sylvia and Bruno, A Love Story

I watched an aged couple today as they made love.

She is in her late eighties, he’s a little older. Thirteen years ago, Sylvia (not her name)
became vague and forgetful. Bruno (not her husband’s name) passed the farm on to 
the children so he could care for Sylvia at home. For ten years this worked well, but as 
Sylvia became less active she gained weight and as Bruno aged he lost muscular 
strength, the strength that built the farm that sustained a family. Three years ago, Sylvia was admitted to the nearby nursing home. Bruno visits Sylvia every day.

Until today Sylvia had remained the most placid, easy-going resident in the home. When she was found this morning, burning with a high fever, pale and limp, helpless even to sit, breathing fast, her heart racing, her blood oxygen levels low, she remained that same tranquil, agreeable person.

“She’s severely demented”, said the nurse, “It’ll be cruel if we overtreat her. Let’s just 
keep her comfortable.” This is code for, let her die.’

When I met Sylvia at 0630 she gazed at me, eyes wide. Was this recognition? The opposite? What, who, remained behind that enquiring gaze?
‘Hello, Sylvia, I am the new doctor.’
Sylvia, her face pale, yellowed, smiled. I thought of my mother, another placid smiler.
Sylvia spoke, a voice soft, barely reaching my hard ears.
I leaned over her and listened as she spoke again: “You’re the doctor.”  
Attending at her bedside in the early morning, clad in my running shorts, vivid cap and colourful singlet, I don’t look like anyone’s idea of a doctor  – or a runner. But Sylvia knew. 
These were not the words of one ‘severely demented.’ 

I called Bruno, made the call that relatives know will one day come, the call they dread: ‘Bruno, I’m the doctor caring for Sylvia. She has a fever. I thought you should know… She’s not in danger, but we need to decide what treatment will be best for her and I’d like you to come in and give me your advice.’ A lot of words, too many words. Words to paper over insecurity, uncertainty.
Bruno thanked me for calling. He asked, ‘When would you like me to come, Doctor?’
‘Any time that suits you, Bruno.’
‘No Doctor, you’re a busy man. My time is my own. When will it suit you best?’
We agreed to meet at nine-thirty.

I studied Sylvia’s file. There was a reason for her long stare – she has glaucoma. And diabetes which will make her vulnerable to infection.
I read the family’s biographical notes: ‘Sylvia is a gentle, happy, quiet and kind person; compliant; she has sons, husband, extended family, friends who visit her often; she likes fruit, enjoys stories on television; she understands, even though she answers with only a few words. Please speak to her slowly.’ 
Elsewhere I read a relative’s observation: ‘I believe Sylvia does not have the ability to consent to or decline treatment.’
Once again I thought of Mum, a patient who’d always agree with a doctor, always wish to defer, to oblige.

I found Sylvia’s End of Life Directives: ‘Keep her clean and dry and as free of pain as possible. Please do not provide therapy that is futile. In the event of acute deterioration or critical event, she may have IV fluids, IV antibiotics, CPR, defibrillation not more than twice, a short course of ventilation.’

I tried to decode the directives: the family allows resuscitation, ventilation and defibrillation – more or less Intensive Care – while excluding futile treatments. But you never know whether intensive treatments might be futile. You do know CPR must be vigorous to succeed. In the words of an Emergency Medicine Physician of my aquaintance, ‘If you don’t break any ribs you won’t save them.’  And short ventilation slides easily into prolonged. Dying is prolonged and deformed; and any living that remains is disfigured.
This constitutionally gentle soul, comfortable in her frailty, undistressed even in her febrile state, would she welcome such rough treatment? What roughness, which bodily incursions, can the family tolerate? 
I needed Bruno to help me untangle this nest of contradiction.

At nine-thirty, I found Bruno seated by Sylvia, holding her hand. On her bedside table, a pear, freshly peeled and sliced, waited Sylvia’s pleasure. I introduced myself. Once again I told Sylvia I was the doctor. She looked at me, then over to Bruno. He nodded and her wide face relaxed and fell into a smile. Since my earlier visit her temperature had fallen and her breathing improved.

I listened to the front of Sylvia’s chest. I wanted to examine further, to hear the breath sounds at the lung bases. Sylvia, aged, weak and ill, would need help to sit up. Ordinarily I’d ask a nurse to support her but Bruno was here. Sylvia would know, her body would remember the touch of Bruno’s hands.
‘Bruno, when I sit your wife up, will you hold her shoulders for me?’ 
I hauled Sylvia’s upper body upright and Bruno leaned forward and placed one hand on each shoulder and steadied her. My stethoscoped ears listened intently to the breath sounds. Faint crackling betrayed the pneumonia I suspected.

Pneumonia, the old person’s friend. Will antibiotics save Sylvia? ‘Bruno, this is pneumonia. It’s a dangerous illness. Do you want us to use antibiotics? We’d give them through a vein…’
But Bruno, raised in a time and a school where the doctor gave orders, replied: ‘You’re the doctor. Whatever you decide will be for the best.’ 

Deep in cogitation, I applied the stethoscope again. Eventually I looked up. Two large brown hands, the joints wrecked by time and work on the farm, supported Sylvia’s creamy shoulders. Bent forward, held by her man, Sylvia gazed into Bruno’s eyes. I noticed her right hand. Sylvia moved it back and forth along the inside of Bruno’s forearm. Up to the elbow, back down to the wrist, up, down, Sylvia’s fingers stroked Bruno’s skin.
The fingers caressing, moving upon the silence.
Two people, oblivious of this interloper, oblivious of all, man and woman made love and confounded me: where I had wondered how much treatment would be too much, now I sensed how much the two still gave and received from each other, how precious to each was time with the other. 
How much treatment will be enough? 

The Sweet Taste of Revenge

The oldest friend of our married life is a parson. After inspiring and marrying hundreds of young believers and unbelievers and halfbelievers; and after watching their marriages fragment – fast or slow – and die, John concluded he was not a success in bringing people’s lives together. He left the parsonage and took up God’s work in a new business: in his own words, ‘I spent a year in gaol.’ The parson became a chaplain.
‘Long Bay Gaol was just like other congregations I’d worked in – lots of sinners, lots of righteous people (“I never did it… it was someone else’s fault…I was framed…”), and lots of people who couldn’t care less about religion. I didn’t mind the unreligious and they didn’t mind me. The convicted were just people, by and large. I found most of them likeable enough.
‘But a few of them were hard to like. There was one man who’d been convicted for trying to incinerate his girlfriend. She survived, horribly burned, but in the process he killed the masseuse who was treating her at the time. He was quite unrepentant, quite without conscience, but nevertheless he became one of my most frequent parishioners. He’d visit my office frequently, ostensibly for spiritual guidance. All he really wanted was the luxury of private conversation. I did not like him, but I couldn’t let on.
‘There were others in the gaol who were just as unlikeable. One was a warder, one of the ‘’screws’’, as the prisoners called them. This fellow treated the prisoners brutally. He was feared and hated. He used to visit me often and he was just as persistent, just as falsely pious and just as unwelcome as the murderer.
‘The murderer confided once how “cons” had their ways of getting back at the screws they hated most. He said, “Father, we piss in their tea.”
‘I understood how that might be. The best-behaved prisoners enjoyed the privilege of waiting on tables in the Officers’ Dining Room. That was where I ate. The prisoners prepared and serve beverages. One day I went to that Dining Room for lunch. I loaded my tray and sat at a table out of the way to enjoy some privacy. Out of the blue, bearing his own tray, that brutal fellow was at my shoulder, declaring, “Father, you don’t mind if I join you.”
I did mind of course, but I said the opposite, of course.
A prisoner turned up and asked us for our beverage order.
“Tea, white, two sugars,” said my guest.
I asked for the same. That waiter, my religious friend the incinerator, said, “Certainly, gentlemen, I’ll bring them presently.”
The con returned carrying two mugs. ‘This is yours, Father”, he said, as he laid my drink on the table. Then he walked to the other side of the table, placed the mug before the screw and said, “And this is yours, sir.” As he spoke he shot a huge wink in my direction.
‘What did you do, John?’
‘It was a moral emergency. If I remained silent I would be party to a wrong. If I spoke I would breach a confidence. I drank my tea. I watched the screw drink his.’

John’s story brought to mind my cousin’s account of certain events In Israel during the first Intifada. She wrote: ‘Consumers of a particular brand of hummus remarked on a change in the product. It didn’t taste bad, just subtly different. Closed circuit TV in the factory caught Palestinian workers wanking into the vats.’

***

Neither the hummus masturbators nor the prison micturators could have read the more recent American novel, The Help, in which a white racist woman consumes chocolate cake containing the ordure of the ‘help’ – an unfairly dismissed African-American woman.
I recount these stories to offer succour to a friend, a novelist, Margaret.
Now Margaret enjoys the attentions of a literary assassin, a relative by inheritance, a sort of outlaw-in-law. That person claims a critical authority and a mission to improve HCG by means of brutal dismissal.

The critic and the writer are destined to meet from time to time; what can Margaret do to fight back?

All the examples quoted have their appeal. The cake is of course, irresistible but time-consuming. The hummous is nourishing but beyond the resources of an unaided female. I suggest Margaret make her nemesis a cuppa tea – white, of course, with two sugars.