Howard is a doctor, marathon runner and author. He has written two non-fiction books, My Father’s Compass (2007) and Raft (2009). Carrots and Jaffas (2014) is his first novel. His latest novel is A Threefold Cord (Hybrid, 2107)
We’ve rushed here today, to the Operating Theatre. During this Rotation we are to follow the surgeons wherever their work takes them. A couple of weeks ago the young surgeon whispered: Don’t rush home this evening, Howard. Something’s going to happen, something historic. I didn’t rush home and history did happen – Australia’s first heart transplantation. A few of us stood outside Theatre and waited. Somehow it didn’t feel anticlimactic to miss the experience, to stand adjacent as history happened. We sensed the meaning.
This afternoon the call came: Emergency surgery in Theatre. Come now! The boy on the table was riding his bike home from school when he was hit. He wasn’t too bad at first but then his blood pressure fell, and his heart started to race. His skin colour turned to parchment and his belly began to swell. His trolley bursts into Theatre and the Surgeon’s Apprentice begins to cut into the distended belly without waiting for anaesthesia: the boy had been deeply unconscious since he arrived in the ambulance. The Chief arrives, flings on gown and gloves, no time to wash, takes over the operation. A mild man of about sixty, wise, he’s not reflective now as he slashes the belly widely open and a tide of blood pours over both surgeons, onto the floor. Suction! Artery forceps! Artery forceps! Artery forceps! Frantic action above the table, quick mopping at the feet of the surgeons, lest they slip and fall. The tide of blood does not abate. No speech, nothing heard apart from fast movement of limbs as they grope and suck and search slippery viscera for the bleeder. Artery forceps grab suspect bleeding sources but the flood does not slow. The blood they are transfusing is insufficient. More blood! A second transfusion starts. The anaesthetist’s voice says, we’ve lost the heartbeat. There’s no blood pressure. The surgeon works by feel beneath the surface, groping, hoping, grasping at straws for the unseen splenic pedicle. The anaesthetist injects adrenaline, massages the heart. He looks at the boy’s pupils. They’ve dilated. He shines a light to see if the pupils will shrink by reflex. He’s searching for vitality of a brain that’s had no supply of blood – for how long? Too long. The reflex is absent. He leans over the boy’s pale face to his colleague and taps him on the arm: He’s gone. We’ve lost him.
All this took place in 1967. I don’t remember feeling stricken. Was I numb perhaps, with horror? With self-terror? I caught the event but I missed the meaning. The boy was twelve years old. His hair was fair and he was lightly freckled. Today he’d be old enough for the pension. I feel stricken now. Riding my bike – yes, a bike: the connection passes me by – riding to the shops this morning, I feel the enormity and my feet fail on the pedals.
(This is the first in a series in which this old doctor recalls and reflects and wonders.)
Someone called the Clinic the other day and left this message: ‘Alexa Rosa wanted to speak to the doctor who treated her mother a long time ago. And she wanted to buy your book.’ Did I know an Alexa Rosa? I thought somehow I should. A scene came back to me: a cold winter’s day in Melbourne, a young family in a front room, a sick mother, her worried husband, their adult daughter.
If this truly was my Alexa, then her story was strong and bright in my recall. I could never forget it. It was the winter of 1971. I had a new marriage, a new licence to practise medicine outside of the hospital and a brother about to marry in the United Kingdom. In order to raise the fares to the wedding I moonlighted as a radio locum. A radio locum installed a two-way radio in his car and travelled, like a taxi driver, to wherever the job called. On this occasion the call came to the Migrant Hostel in Kororoit Creek Road Altona. My bride, an able map reader, sat at my side and navigated.
Kororoit Creek Road in Atona was a long drive from everywhere else. When we arrived and parked in a vast car park, Annette (the bride) repeated the Controller’s directions, “Building 19, apartment 5.” I stepped outside. Here, at Melbourne’s western edge, you could see the setting sun disappearing beneath the horizon and the world darkening.
I didn’t feel happy leaving Annette there in the dark. I looked beyond the carpark toward the distant buildings. Would Annette be any safer in that lowering mass? Annette said, “I’ll be alright here. Just go.” Troubled, I went. How would I find building Nineteen where someone needed a doctor, someone who was suffering from something, possibly something serious? Having now reached the first of the buildings I could see my search was hopeless. The buildings were all great bulky cuboids of concrete. All were unli. And the dark was cold. I wandered and looked for numbers. No number nineteen anywhere, no five. I knocked on a door to enquire. The door opened, I asked, Can you direct me to Flat Five? A hand flew to the heart. The head shook: I not English. I sorry.
I felt sorry too. I turned dully away. Of course no English, everyone here newly arrived, everyone indoors, appalled, like me, by the cold. Movement in the shadow on my left. I hailed the shadow: Excuse me, do you speak English? The head shook no, while the face smiled a wide yes. The shadow, a young man, beckoned, and signed me to follow. I followed. He moved swiftly along cement paths, in and out between buildings, along corridors, until abruptly he stopped in his tracks, pointing and nodding furiously. The shadow knocked on a door, turning to me, smiling. Pointing towards the door, the shadow said, English! The door opened and a voice spoke: Good evening. How can I help you? Did you send for a doctor? No. Is this Apartment Five? No. This is seven. Is this Building Nineteen? No but I’ll take you to Number Five..
This was someone not lost in language nor in space. Feeling found, I followed. A building or two or three later, my guide stopped and knocked on a door. I noted a large numeral 5 next to the doorway and felt almost hopeful. The door opened and a pretty young woman appeared. Behind her stood a man, older than she; behind him a couple of small children, curious and fearful, clutched at the man’s legs and peeked. The young woman saw my medical bag. She told me her name and said, Come in Doctor. Thank you for coming. My mother is sick.
Mother lay on a couch. She did not look well. Her daughter explained: We arrived just today from Spain. During the flight Mother started to cough and it was hard for her to breathe. Now she has a fever. We didn’t know how to call a doctor. Thank you for coming.
I examined the lady. I thought I heard altered breathing sounds in one lung. I bent and listened hard. The air struggled into one side of the chest, it rattled and squeaked.This was bronchopneumonia. Ordinarily a hospital matter, this called for X-RAY, possibly intravenous treatment as an inpatient. How would this lady get to hospital? Would Medicare cover a new arrival? Would the ambulance take her? Was there another way?
I straightened and addressed the man through his adult daughter. Mother is sick. She has an infection in her chest. She needs strong antibiotic medicine, she might need to go into hospital. If you wish I can start some treatment here, now. And with luck she will improve quickly.
The daughter translated for her father. The two spoke with the mother, the three nodded. They had decided. The daughter spoke. Thank you doctor, yes, we would like you to treat her. Thank you doctor…we don’t want hospital. I fished out some penicillin – no, mother is not allergic – and gave the lady a hefty dose by injection. I wrote out a prescription for oral penicillin to commence the next day.
Leaving detailed instructions for a range of eventualities I prepared to take my troubled leave. I wished the lady well, I wished the whole family good health in Australia. The daughter reached for a purse. How much do we pay you, Doctor? I did not want payment. A doctor who deserted his sick patient didn’t deserve payment. I said something like, There is no charge. To myself I said, You have paid me, you’ve paid off my guilt. The young woman protested, No Doctor, we must pay you. We don’t know who sent you. How did you know we needed you? I didn’t know. Once again I wished them well and I left, my ears burning with blessings I could not accept.
Back in the car, I found Annette unharmed. I said, I couldn’t find my patient. And I told her the story.
It might have been six months later when I was called to the Delivery Suite for the birth of a baby. Birth was not expected for some weeks. Labour was well advanced when they called me and birth was imminent. I needed the mother to help. ‘Push, hard, push! The mother didn’t speak English. A masked figure at her side coached her, translating my words: Big, long push. Push….The mother pushed, her face turning deep red, the veins standing out on her forehead. Stop pushing now! Don’t push! Breathe, breathe…The mother breathed and with each breath the head advanced. The mother breathed her baby into this life, accompanied by fluids, red and clear and mucoid, and followed by the placenta and cries from the baby and crying from the mother. I counted fingers and toes and other parts and placed the baby on the mother’s chest and wished the new family joy. I pulled off my mask and thanked the person whose interpreting had made the birth smoother. I extended a hand, My name’s Howard. We have met, she said, removing her mask. I am Alexa.
Alexa explained she had come to visit her friend, now a new mother, in her ward. Abruptly, labour started and accelerated. The hospital discovered there was no-one to interpret for a Spanish speaker so Alexa volunteered. We chatted. She told me her own mother was well, recovery had gone smoothly. She, Alexa, was working as a wardsperson in this hospital. She told me she hoped to study nursing.
I said, I don’t know if you realised I had been called by an entirely different person on the day you arrived from Spain. I never found that person. I never discovered how I fund your Mum. I know, said Alexa. God sent you.
A few weeks later my father told me a new family had started seeing him as their local doctor. They’re from Spain, he said. They tell me you treated the mother for pneumonia.
Forty-nine years passed. Locked down, I’m doing Telehealth from home. A message arrived for me, asking me to contact an Alexa whom I had know years before. I rang the number. Alexa speaking, said a voice. The voice sounded Aussie. I told Alexa who I was. She asked, Do you remember us? If you arrived from Spain in 1971, then yes I do. How could I forget? We did. It was 1971. I guess you were about nineteen then. Exactly. So you’re sixty-eight now? Yes. And I did do nursing. I’m still nursing. We talked for a while. Mum is still alive. She’s ninety-three now. Dad only died last year. Do you remember what you said when you left us that night? What did I say? You said, I wish you health and happiness in this country. You blessed us and your words came true. I reminded Alexa of her words to me in the Delivery suite. You said, ‘God sent you.’ That’s right. God did send you. It’s the only explanation. That was the night I became a believer. I found God in the Hostel.
In the few days that have passed since Alexa opened the closed door on half a century, I’ve felt excitement and perturbation. I’m excited that Alexa and I will ‘meet’ again, that I’ll ‘see’ my pneumonia patient again, spry and vital; that I’ll meet the children and their father, that I’ll learn their stories. At the same time, some different, powerful feeling operates and unsettles me. It’s the thought of the power of a word, the reverberation of a small act. Alexa sees the hand of the Divine. Does that make me somehow an instrument in a plan? I cannot begin to recognise anything so lofty. I dismiss any idea of some special mission I might have; I find that sort of belief a burden, an embarrassment; it makes me want to run away.
But I’ve been moved to tears thinking how a simple act might lodge in memory, might germinate as a seed, might influence a life; that somehow, quite without intent or thought or awareness, a simple act could take root, help, lift, encourage, perhaps inspire. That thought brings with it a glow, the sense I have done as I know my father did before me – many times – some act of unwitting goodness that lived on afterwards. I’ve felt overcome with a feeling of blessing, perhaps of being a small link in a long chain that might continue on, in lives undreamed…
The date comes up on his screen, September five. Instantly he sees a round face, lightly freckled. Her wavy hair is light brown.
He’s known her two brothers for years and her two elder sisters, both of them young ladies in their late teens. But this is the first summer he and she have noticed each other: she’s 11 years old and he’s fourteen. While the slow afternoons make everyone else drowsy, the two go for walks to nowhere in particular. They talk comfortably about their mums and dads and their brothers and sisters. They both come from large families and there’s lots to tell. Last week it was his birthday. Hers is in spring. One afternoon they find themselves at the far end of the island. There in the long grass they sit. Something tells him to move closer. He kisses her. Soon after they walk back to their families on their neighbouring boats.
The next afternoon he looks for her, but she and her mum have gone shopping in town on the further shore.
He doesn’t find her the next day either.
On the third day her elder sister says she went back to Geelong with Dad to buy her schoolbooks. He confesses to the elder sister he’s missing her. Her response surprises him: Sometimes a young girl can feel confused if she has feelings she’s never felt before. It can scare her.
Summer ends and they don’t meet again. Most years he thinks of her on September five.
He’s about sixty when he buys a book by John Marsden. Its title is ‘This I Believe’. In it he reads the credos of one hundred eminent Australians. One essay is written by a woman shortly before she dies, too young, of breast cancer. A companion essay is written by her eminent daughter. He doesn’t recognise the surnames of the two women. The essays move him. He notes the dates of birth and death of the mother. She has been dead now for some years.
At some time on January 8, 1946, at St Andrews Hospital in East Melbourne, Yvonne Mayer Goldenberg (nee Coleman) gave birth to her second child, a son. The precise hour of the child’s birth is no longer known. St Andrews Hospital no longer exists and, sadly for this son, neither does Yvonne. Since the moment (unspecified) of his birth, that child has enjoyed an ambivalent relationship with Time.
The temporal relationship was subjected to distorting stress even before the child was born. Although Myer Goldenberg delivered hundreds of other people’s babies every year in the Leeton District Hospital he determined his own children would be delivered by obstetric specialists in Melbourne. Two weeks before the second babe was due Myer drove Yvonne to Melbourne, dropped her at his parents’ house and returned to his patients in Leeton. Once Nature had taken its course he would return to meet the baby. Yvonne came into labour at night. Her father-in-law, Joseph Hyman Goldenberg, an excitable man and an erratic driver, bundled Yvonne into the car and raced towards East Melbourne. Joseph Hyman had no obstetric ambitions of his own: emphatically he did not wish to get down and bloody with Yvonne. He drove anxiously. In those days doctors erected a red light outside their medical premises to inform the passing trade. At every red light Joseph Hyman slowed to ask Yvonne, Should we stop here? Are you sure the baby is not coming? The pair passed from East St Kilda to Fitzroy Street, where red lights abounded: doctors were not the only practitioners with red lights. In this manner, slowing and accelerating by turns, the two proceeded to St Andrews where the child was born.
The parents named the child Adrian*.
The baby was blessed with two distinct exemplars in the matter of Time. Myer Goldenberg was a stickler for punctuality. He tried to stickle his wife, but Mum wasn’t sticklish. So unpunctual was Mum, so indifferent to Time’s pursuit, Dad claimed: Yvonne can’t tell the time. Mum’s riposte became famous: I can tell the time, I just don’t approve of it.
I took after Mum.
When I was nine years old I decided to become wealthy. Mum offered to pay me to shine shoes at one penny a shoe. Dad had about four pairs, Mum twice that number. I polished and I banked the proceeds. After shining two thousand, four hundred shoes I had accumulated ten pounds in my Commonwealth Bank account. I withdrew that sum and I bought a wristwatch. With that purchase I won my chance for mastery over Time.
I won it and I blew it.
School and life offered challenges, adult tasks, endless opportunity for a dysnumerate adolescent to strain his brain with numbers. Tomorrow always appealed. Later was better than now. Soon, Dad, soon.
After taking up middle distance running in my ‘teens I became interested in my pulse rate. I discovered my heart beat precisely sixty times a minute. I spent many lessons with my right index finger pulp resting over my left radial artery, counting the wrist minutes to the end of class.
My father had the impressive ability to awaken from sleep at a designated hour. He’d pack the boat at nine in the evening, we’d all climb into our bunks, and we’d sleep until the roar and throb of the marine engine told us Dad had awakened, as he’d planned, with the turn of the tide. Such a skill seemed to me mystical. I know it now to be physiological, supported by a time-swollen prostate, the older man’s alarm clock.
Dad was always awake. I’d awaken and wonder why I had; or, more precisely, why now? And go back to sleep. I came to realise I could estimate the passing of time with remarkable accuracy. Let us say I heard the News on the ABC at seven AM and then went about my business through the day until mid-afternoon. I found I could stand still, rehearse the movements and actions of the intervening time, and calculate the hour. I’d say, I reckon it must be about four, or maybe a bit after. We’d hail someone wearing a watch who’d confirm it was five minutes after Four.
Curiously Time stalked me. I never chased it; it wasn’t particularly interesting to me. Now, at threescore years and ten I have discovered a new skill, equally unexpected: ask me when someone died, when someone else married or divorced or when she published her second-last book, I’ll declare, five or six years ago. Or, the Easter before last – and I’ll be right. Time has slipped through my hands. I never gripped it firmly but I have felt its mass, I can weigh it in my mind and give you the quantum of time that has passed.
Of course my time with Time is limited. The psalm I recite every shabbat reminds me: the days of our years are threescore and ten…I’ve had my threescore and ten. I’ve spent them and enjoyed them. I have seen much, I have loved many. Many are the books I have read, many the teachers who showed me their light. But what of my books unread, my books unwritten? What of the cracks in my world I was going to fix? What of the love I owe and never paid? Happily my psalm offers an extension: but with heroic effort, eighty years…
At medical school I came across a novel and striking notion: senescence proceeds from birth, hand in hand with growth. The processes continue. Like a plucked fruit I ripen and I decay. In the house at night you can hear me snoring. In a coffee shop the other day I sipped my cappuccino while peeking at the attractive barrista. My thigh felt suddenly hot. I turned from the young woman and saw my cup held on its side, coffee streaming onto my flesh. I realised I have come to a stage where I can no longer perve and drink coffee at the same time. On the anniversary of my birth the grandchildren celebrated me. One wrote: Saba, I love you more than mangoes. Another, We will put you in a Home.
In Time there will be time ample for sleep. For now I sleep less, as if to waste no moment of the light. I hear less but I appear to miss little. Deafness is my censor, filtering out much noise, admitting much signal. I taste Time and it remains fresh and sweet. It passes, slipping away, slipping, like a breath. New times will follow and, like all times, they will pass into memory, after that into a memory of memory, and finally into forgetting.
I can feel Time passing by weightlessly. Time as quantum wields no heft, bears no moment: somewhere I have a wristwatch, capable of measuring time. I have set it aside: I just don’t approve of it.
*The parents named their new baby Adrian. Years later my mother showed me the notice she and my father placed in ‘The Murrumbidgee Irrigator’: Myer and Yvonne Goldenberg are pleased to announce the birth in Melbourne of their second son, Adrian.
Over the following ten days of her confinement, Yvonne received a stream of visitors, all of whom asked the name of the newborn, and all of whom vomited. Presently their friends Ben and Ethel visited, bringing with them their son, Howard. After the vomiting my father looked at my mother, my mother looked at my father, they both turned to Ben and Ethel, asked did they mind, and Adrian became Howard. Baby Adrian was not consulted.
I found the photograph I had been missing. It was found, as most of my misplaced objects are, precisely where I had placed it; in this case it was safely at the bottom of my backpack. I wanted it for remembrance.
The photo sits in its small oval frame. It shows two small boys sitting side by side. Their cheeks have been pinked by some process of photographic enhancement common to photos from the ‘fifties. One boy sits cradling a large teddy bear. The boy’s face is a narrow oval, his expression unsmiling, alert, guarded, attentive to the photographer who is an adult in a frightening world controlled by adults. The second boy, taller, wider, rounder, has a fuller face, topped with wavy titian hair. He has the daughter of a smile on his face. His is the image I have sought, this the face of the person I wish to hold in remembrance.
The portrait conveys much of what I wish to hold: the elder boy is Dennis, his parents’ firstborn, my brother. His destiny is here to be read. It’s all here – firstborn, male, cherished; good-natured, close to his younger brother – and fat. In this photograph Dennis must be about four. In less than sixty years he will be dead.
Literally translated, the Hebrew word yizkor means ‘he will remember’. Over the recent Festival period I recited the yizkor prayer for my father, my mother, my wife’s father; and for Adrian, my consuegro; and I remembered them all tenderly. It was only when I prayed for Dennis that I cried. I cried for the protective brother I could not protect, for the always-advising brother I could not advise, for the firstborn who worshipped this usurper as a hero.
Dennis did not ask to be born fat. He did not ask to be born first. He loved his father as his father loved him – not wisely but too well.
Immoderate in all he did Dennis loved his younger brother immoderately. I miss him, I pray for his rest as I pray for my own.
An internet friend sent me some thoughts last week about the writing of the 2014 Nobel winner Patrick Modiano and his preoccupation with the lost. At the same time I was steaming towards the end of ‘Kamchatka’, a novel of the Disappeared in Argentina. Modiano wrote of Rita Bruder, a young French Jewess who went missing from her safe haven in a convent during the German occupation of Paris. Modiano is driven to search out the child’s fate. He cannot let the past and the lost rest unpursued.
I found myself acutely vulnerable to my e-friend’s story of stories. Partly it was the menace quietly gathering in ‘Kamchatka’ of the inevitable disappearing of a loved one; but more, the Modiano quest brought home a long overdue quest of my own: my destined search for my mother’s lost cousins. My knowledge of the cousins in question is slight and fragmented. It shifts in memory’s half light, lacking solidity, its textures diaphanous with the partial attention I must have paid in early childhood to a story my Mum told me. Seventy years after their presumed deaths in Auschwitz I feel the weight of silence.
My mother’s parents died of natural causes in her early adolescence. Somehow the orphan never lost her faith in living or her relish in it. Failing her Year Ten examinations she left school, trained as a bookkeeper, went to work and saved. In 1939, at the age of twenty-one Mum travelled alone to France where she had good clean fun. She spoke of dining with the Captain and the young officers on the Dutch ship which took her to Europe. She spoke of the beauty of Bali, then a Dutch outpost, almost untouched. On my mother’s return to Australia her younger sister Doreen asked her: ‘Are you still a virgin, Yvonne?’ ‘Yes,’ came the reply, ‘But it wasn’t easy.’ Mum made friends with men wherever she went, two of whom would bob up in our Leeton home while I was still too young for school. The two men, to the best of my knowledge, never knew each other. Their visits were separate and apparently independent events. We’d form a threesome for picnics by the river, the respective Continental, Mum and Howard, her four-year old chaperon. The men’s mysterious names – ‘Syd Viberow’, ‘Romain Hudes’ – intrigue me to this day. Googling has not relieved my curiosity.
These matters I recall well. I recall the smooth Continental gentlemen basking with my young and attractive mother on the riverbank. On one of those picnics we ate kedgeree. On another was it curried hard-boiled eggs? Europe was – I am confident – earnestly wooing; Mum remained Mum, Plato on the riverbank. I mean platonic; Mum might well have enjoyed being admired, but assuredly she liked her good fun clean. My memories are scatterings. Atmospheres are clearer than some factual details. Mum’s prudent inclusion in the picnics of an attention-hogging four-year old was strategic.
More scatterings: In Paris Mum’s tight black curly hair excites the admiration of a German hairdresser who marshalled her best English to compliment her: ‘You have vonderful viskers, Mademoiselle’; Mum’s accounts of the anxious urgings of the family back in 1939, to ‘come home now! There’s going to be a war.’ Mum is in no hurry. She spends time in France with her young cousins. Eventually she sails for home: ‘We slept on deck that last week, half expecting every night to be sunk by a U-boat. We arrived in Fremantle on the day war was declared.’ More good fun.
Much less clearly come memories of Mum’s cousins. The names are feminine and French, that I recall. Or I believe I recall it. They must be the daughters of Mum’s mother’s cousin. In 1939 they are teenagers, while Mum is twenty-two.
Mum says nothing to us children touching her cousins’ fate. But she must have known. I know that from the international telegrams that sped across the world late in1944; from Melbourne to Paris, from New York to Paris, with mounting anxiety. From Paris silence. From Melbourne to New York, from New York to Melbourne, in tones of deepening dread, cousins ask for word. There is no word. “Oed’ und leer das Meer”, ‘empty and waste, the sea.’ I know Mum knew; I found these telegrams among her papers after she died.
Mum and Dad bring up their four children very Jewish in the Riverina. In Leeton we children never hear of the Holocaust. We are as far from Auschwitz as Jews can be. Only three hundred miles south of us, Melbourne, thronging with survivors, is as close to Auschwitz as Australia can be. At the age of nine and a half I am translated from the Riverina to Mount Scopus in Melbourne. There, in a classroom full of Jewish children I am one of very few with living grandparents. I experience myself as a Jew whose family was safe, intact.
I regret now that innocence. A child who sat at the side of his father every Ninth Day of the Month of Av, listening to Dad as he lamented the destruction of the Temple and the sack of Jerusalem in the year 70 CE, knew nothing of Europe only a few years earlier. We sat on the thin, scratchy carpet of our dining room floor, the house lights turned off, a single candle our only light as Dad chanted the Book of Lamentations in its distinctive moaning and sighing melody. Dad translated and together we bewailed the ‘breach of my people’ at the hands of Rome. Sixty-plus years later I can feel that carpet itching my thighs. But the Third Reich never touched me.
Why was Mum silent? Assuredly she cared for ‘Sophie’ and ‘Josephine’ – names that lurk just beyond memory’s outer fringe, names that might even be true. Assuredly Mum knew. But she said nothing. No stranger to closer loss, Mum could and would speak of her beloved parents, tenderly but with a composure that unnerved this small child. Strangely disconnected from grief, Mum thrived as an orphan, much, much later as a widow, and even managed to live on in joy after losing her one lifelong companion, her sister Doreen; and after Doreen Mum lost her firstborn son. From her early years Mum knew loss but managed to keep sorrow a stranger.
At what cost, I wonder. I read Modiano and I understand the Nobel judges’ remark about ‘his art of memory.’ My mother practised her own arts of memory. Did she survive a life that was punctuated by loss by excision of sorrow? Perhaps what started as a young girl’s strategy led to atrophy and involution of the organs of sorrow. In that case my own memories of Mum’s account of Europe might be actually complete: do I in fact recall the entirety of the particles that Mum allowed herself?
I bless Mum for her faculty of joy. And now she is gone I must investigate my own faculty for grief. I want to find my cousins.
My oldest friend is named John Baikie Wanklyn. Johnny calls me Doff and I call him Johnny, and sometimes, Wank. We have been friends since the summer of 1950. We first met outside the front of his father’s shop, the Leeton Furnishing Company. At least that’s how I remember it: I was playing with something inconsequential, a little stick, perhaps a toy car too, on the concrete paving. An area of dark and pleasant shade thrown by the large verandah. I became aware I was no longer alone.
Did Wank walk up and say hello? Or did I wander along and join him? I don’t know. I was playing alone and then I was no longer alone. My mind holds the scene like a dream. And like a dream there are no borders to the image: my mind sees the cracks in the concrete where my fine stick ploughs and throws up a narrow furrow of dust. There is the deep shade and beyond the shade the great heat. I know that heat in my skin. Whenever I leave the coast in summer and move inland that dry heat greets me and welcomes me home.
An additional element in the scene is our smallness in the world. The shaded area would be about five metres by, say, about twelve metres. That area encompasses two fine figures of children of four years, the margins seeming distant from us as we play. One of us asks the second his name. The second asks the same question of the first.
‘It’s my birthday next week,’ says one.
‘It’s mine the week after. I’ll be four.’
The two resume playing until a parent calls one of the children. That child and his parents and elder sibling are going to visit the Harrises. The other child – this feels like me – goes home and finds his parents are taking him visiting too. He is cleaned up and taken along. And discovers he is at the Harrises where he plays with the Harris girls and another visitor, the new boy from the Leeton Furnishing Company. The three families drive down to the river and picnic there. The Murrumbidgee is the great fact of life in the area; it shapes our Huckleberry years.
The dimension of time has a distinct character: we meet in January of 1950; we part in June of 1955. In the course of those spacious years a pavement is laid in our lives. He is Johnny, I am Doff, we are friends. In that space we accumulate experiences together that fade in detail but burn in memory, in their texture, in their felt quality, in their great mass. By the time of our parting those few years account for more than half of our lives.
We shared enough for it to remain enough. Enough for Wank to refer – thirty years later – in conversation with a friend, to his ‘brother.’
The friend, confused, says ‘Who’s this brother Howard you speak of, John? I thought your parents only had the two children, you and Julieanne…’
‘That’s true. They did. But Howard Goldenberg is the closest I’ll come in this life to having a brother.’
One night in 2014 a bad dream disturbed my sleep: John Wanklyn had died. I awoke crying aloud, ‘Wank is dead!’ I wept: I’d never see him again. A moment later I was smiling. Of course I’d see Wank again; Annette and I were to drive to Albury to visit John and Christie next weekend.
Am I Wank’s best friend? Is he mine? We have never spoken on the matter. I know I’ve never addressed it. There is no need. The questions have no weight. They would be as strange to us as to blush or nudge-nudge at the word Wank. Neither of us has ever had a friend like the other. There can be but one first friend.
Jewish education called us from Melbourne and tore our family from Leeton. The tearing was painful for me. I saw before me a great gulf open. I kissed my friend goodbye. Wank looked at me, confused by an unexpected act.
We wrote to each other, signing our letters, ‘Your old school chum, Wank’, ‘Your old school chum, Doff.’ We managed to see each other a couple of times a year, inserting the other into lives that were changing fast. The visits continued until my barmitzvah.
Johnny and his parents came to Melbourne for the celebrations. He had never been in a synagogue. I saw my friend holding the unaccustomed cap, I saw the strangeness to him of prayers in Hebrew, I saw the strangeness of Melbourne Howard to Leeton John. I saw it and I felt it all painfully.
Years passed without further visits. Through the letters that our mothers wrote I knew the events of Wank’s life and he knew about mine. The two women loved each other. Their letters, always in blue ink and lovely copperplate, continued into old age until one declared her handwriting no longer ‘respectable.’
In 1967 a phone call came from Wank in Sydney where he was studying Pharmacy. As I was not at home, Johnny left a number. I was in residence at Queen Victoria Hospital in my fifth year of Medicine. Mum rang and gave me Wank’s number. But I misplaced it. I thought of it from time to time. And the years passed.
The Jewish Sabbath doesn’t finish until nightfall on Saturday. It was eight o’clock on a Saturday night in the ‘nineties when Annette and I left Melbourne for the drive to Albury. It was midnight as we reached the border at Wodonga. I drove slowly, my eyes searching for something needed. There it was, black, silent, broad, gleaming in the moonlight – the Murray. It wasn’t the Murrumbidgee, river of Leeton days, but the river knew me and I knew it. We drove the few remaining minutes through quiet streets, turning left as directed at the Siamese restaurant. One turn to the right then we parked, got out and knocked. A giant – he’d have filled his father’s verandah shade outside the Leeton Furnishing Company – emerged from the house. He swept me into his arms and kissed me. Later we sat, Wank and Chrissie and Annette and I, speaking softly for children asleep. Wank said, ‘I kiss my boys and I just knew it would feel right to kiss you too, Doff.’
It was a hot summer’s day. A boy was playing alone and was no longer alone. Neither boy has been alone since.
Why would I wake after only four hours of sleep? Here I am, sleepless in Pittsburgh. It is 2.00am and for five days now I have slept too little. There is nothing to stop me sleeping: the house is quiet, snow falling outside hushes the world. Sleep is an ambition unrealised.
My mind has nothing useful to do other than to keep me from sleep. My mind visits my home in Diamond Creek. The date is December 7, 1974. I see it all in the dark from my bedroom upstairs in the house of friends in Pittsburgh.
Around 7.00 am
I am first to waken. I wash my hands and a noisy clanking in the pipes threatens the precious sleep of the children. Steam emerges when I turn on the hot tap. I turn it off. I pay no heed to the meaning of noises in the plumbing, to steam from the tap. These are practical concerns; I wash my hands of practical concerns. I remove my wedding ring to recite my morning prayers and go to my work, leaving the children unkissed, leaving the ring on the dresser, leaving Annette as she prepares for the day.
Around 8.15 am
The receptionist says: ‘Mrs. West is on the line. She says it’s an emergency.’ I take the call. Lynne says, ‘Howard. I think you’d better come home, straight away. There’s been an explosion at your house.’ I don’t come home straight away; Lynne West is an excitable person and I have a patient sitting before me. More patients wait in the waiting room. I see these patients and I drive to my house.
Around 8.10 am
The house exploded.
Around 9.15 am
I do not witness the explosion but Lynne is eager to regale me: ‘I heard a loud boom from your house and I looked over and a huge cloud of smoke came out of the roof. And the walls fell down.’
But before encountering Lynne and her tale of smoke and thunder I turn from the unmade road into our dirt driveway at 36 Deering Street. Lying flat on the ground to my left are the brick walls of my home. Before me the driveway leads to an empty carport. ‘Empty, ergo Annette is not at home, the children are not at home. Ergo I have lost nothing but bricks and mortar.’ And, as I will discover later, a wedding ring.
Until I married I disdained rings on men. Worse than effeminate, in my regard they were affected. A judgement made before I married. This ring was different: slender, of unostentatious white gold, engraved on the inner surface with words of love from Annette, words for my eyes only.
Around 10.05 am
I run Annette to ground at her sister’s house. She has dropped our firstborn at kindergarten early, as she always does. Earlier Annette sat in the armchair, breastfeeding the newborn while the older two watched Sesame Street on a couch in the same room. I ring Annette and tell her she is homeless. That we have been so since shortly after
Annette and the children left home for kindergarten. Punctual as always. Not only early, but early for early, as I was prone to point out irritably, in Annette’s overturning of my native tardiness.
Annette joins me at the wrecked house. We find two goldfish still alive, lying in the few milimetres of water on the surface of the kitchen table. That flimsy table is one of the few sticks of furniture that still stands. Paintings hang at angles from the walls, canvas gashed by flying debris. The dining table lies in heavy fractions, its geometry denuded. Ancestral bedroom furniture has collapsed. Of the wedding ring no trace.
My mind is fixed on the hot water service that exploded. Emplaced on the slope beneath the house, the hot water service – that ticking bomb – stood directly beneath the armchair where Annette sustained our baby with her milk; one metre removed from the suckling pair were the Sesame Street watchers, sitting in pleasant terror of Cookie Monster. Lynne West’s ‘smoke’ was the steam released by that bomb.
Annette is upset: unlike me she never held in her imagination the thought that arrested me for one second or perhaps two: that my loved ones are lost. Annette is a mother of children and she knows, as I will continue to refuse to know, that a family lacking a home is a frail thing, that we have lost our anchor upon this earth.
Our son, aged two and a half, knows something. Prior to December 7 he is a highly verbal person. From that time, for the next six months, Raphael will not speak.
I lie in the dark, useless to myself, tossing in all this unusable time. But unwelcome consciousness wastes nothing. It takes me back thirty-nine years in time. There were questions that Annette faced in those first few seconds, questions that my son asked in his mutism.
In the simplicity of 1976 I asked nothing. Now the darkness asks me:
What does it mean?
Why has this happened – this loss?
Why has this happened – this being spared from loss?
What, as our lives were spared, are our lives for?
What will you do with, how will you use this time?
A novel experience, this guilt, this sense of time debt, the debt unserviced, accruing, unpaid. The infant at the breast, her elder brother, their big sister, each of them has employed the time, each has grown and grown, grown and learned, grown and created a family. Throughout all Annette has been their home.
What have I not attended to?
I must listen to the pipes. When the pipes, the pipes are calling I must listen. I must not wash my hands of practical matters. The practical reality was shrapnel of exploding wine bottles stacked next to the suckling chair, next to the Sesame watchers. Those jagged fragments were flung with force from floor through the ceiling into the roof space. Grenades of glass shattered the room of milk and sesame and soft infant flesh.
I must learn from the steam. Steam, as Lynne might put it, is smoke – and where there’s smoke, there’s fire. The steam warned me: get your loved ones to safety, far from the fire.
Why live? Why us? These teasing whys tease. Abstruse abstractions, they distract from the concrete, the practical.
And Annette? Annette is where truth is writ plain and practical. The truth lies with Annette.
These musings are, as I suggested at the beginning, the children of the muse melatonin. I am in foreign territory here, lost, perhaps even found, somewhere between memory and regret.
As if to answer the questions of the dark, questions I never spoke aloud, my host passes me ‘The Descent’, a poem of William Carlos Williams:
He’s a big bloke in all directions, tall and broad. His face is round and it smiles widely as he enters the Doc’s consulting room. He has an open gaze.
The Doc makes room for the big man to pass.
“Thanks Doc.” He offers a large hand. Doc’s hand disappears inside his patient’s. The grip is manly firm, manly gentle.
“My name’s Alexander, Doc. Call me Alex.”
“Good to meet you, Alex.”
“I’ve got hypertension. Need a repeat of my tablets.” He smiles, his jowls rise and shine and recede. He tells the Doc he is sixty six. He is a man who invites conversation.
The Doc asks Alex where he lives.
“Port Augusta. Been there forever. Born there. Father met mother there, in primary school.
They’re long gone.
I’ve got a sister, a good bit older.
I had a brother – we were twins…”
The glow on Alex’s large face gives way to something deeper as the man slows his flow. Something is happening. Homage? Damage?
The Doc wants to know: “Were you identical?”
Alex nods. “And close.”
He clears his throat.
“What happened to your twin?”
In Alex’s mouth, the word is a sentence.
“You know we only saw each other three times in the last thirty years, but we were close.”
The Doc looks at him.
“Very close…Thirty years back he went to New Zealand for a fortnight and he stayed. He came back to see me, stopped with me here, for 12 months. Here we are together.” Alex fishes in his wallet and pulls out an old colour photo. Two large round men in their thirties sit in a small fishing boat and smile goofily into the sun. The light bleaches their faces and sets fire to their red hair. One of the men rests his hand on the other’s shoulder.
“After that year he went back to N.Z. To his friends and his life.
Then he got sick and died. Cancer.”
“It was tough?”
The serious face recedes inward for a moment. The Doc is forgotten. Alex is alone with memory of the feeling, with feeling returned.
He looks out at the younger man: “Knocked me around something terrible.” He stops, shakes his head.
“People used to ask us: ‘What’s it like being twins?’
We’d ask each other: ‘What’s it like not being a twin?’”
The Doc looks away while the other man composes himself. At length he resumes. His face is earnest now as he searches for words to carry feeling: “You know, I lost my son. Suicide.
My wife and I only ever had the one son… Terrible…
I wouldn’t wish it on anyone.
But it’s my brother I think of. Half of me is gone.”
The old man’s eyes are wet. “It’s been seven years…”
A pause as he searches for dates…“Seven years and one day.
There wouldn’t be a single day when I don’t think of my brother.
The large man takes his prescription and shakes the Doc’s hand. He conjures a smile for the Doc and he leaves.
Whenever I wanted to read a poem to my father he’d make a face. He claimed he didn’t like poetry. I suspect it was the ambiguity in a poem that frustrated him. In fact Dad loved poems, the poems he committed to memory in his schooldays. He recited some of these often enough for them to take seed and grow inside me.
Now Dad is gone and it is I who recites his lines, learned at school around 1925:
Blow, blow, thou winter wind
Thou art not so unkind
As man’s ingratitude…
Thy tooth is not so keen
Because thou art not seen
Although thy breath be rude
I see Dad’s wry smile as he continued with lines that border on the cynical.
Sing Hey Ho, Hey ho unto the holly
Most friendship is feigning
Most loving mere folly
Dad was not cynical. So what appealed to him about this snatch from ‘The Tempest’?
I think it was the music.
Lots of people think they don’t like poetry. They would never read a poem – not willingly, not wittingly.
But they listen to songs. And a song is just a poem hidden inside music.
Think of the Beatles. Think of ‘Till there was you’. Think of ‘Elinor Mackenzie’. We loved those songs, not least for their poetry.