In the early years of my life I dwelled in a paradise called Leeton. Leeton is a small country town in south-west New South Wales, designed by Walter Burley Griffin. Irrigation and imagination provided the infrastructure for small boys to live a life of freedom and adventure. However, quite abruptly, at the age of nine-and-a-half years, I was kidnapped by my parents and transported to a city where I have lived in captivity ever since.
It never occurred to me until recently that this abruption might be a trauma. But ever since I have contrived to escape the city for short intervals, to breathe cleaner air, to look at horizons, to listen to the silence. It is during such an escape that I am writing this. This escape is different from the many which have preceded it; my beloved is here with me.
Together my beloved and I have journeyed around the sun almost fifty-three times, but it is only today that we will visit my hometown together. It was here, in this small town that I spent my seed time. Here the seeds germinated; it is from this soil and this sun that the shoots of my whole life spring. The roots persist and grow and they sprout, ever green. This town, those times haunt me. They haunt my loved ones too, to their puzzlement.
Today, perhaps, my beloved will feel her own enchantment. And perhaps she will not. A small town in the country is, after all, a commonplace thing. You can walk the wide streets and find them empty of sound or movement, unremarkable and untouched by charm. Perhaps the charm lies solelyin memories which I have watered and cherished and improved over a lifetime of years.
What will I show her, my beloved? How to water her imagination?
Of course, we’ll visit the old house. The new owner gave us permission to explore alone, trusting us with his own new love. She’ll see the bathroomwhere, behind a locked door, we played Murder in the Chookhouse. I’ll show her the hallway where my younger brother was circumcised. She’ll see the space where we sat in the Succah and celebrated Tabernacles. On the front doorpost we might find the scars of Dad’s mezuzah. I’ll show her the odd, circular window high in the wall of Dad’s old consulting room. That’s how the light got in.
But the obvious landmarks in town, such as the school, the kindergarten, the hospital, the olive oil factory that Dad built, do not call to me as loudly as certain unexpected sites. Will we visit the railway bridge under which we chose to play, drawn by the special allure of the forbidden? Here we’d come into the domain of the locomotive, hot and blackand noisy, the very embodiment of implacable power. On one occasion we were playing under the bridge as the train entered, with its noise and its smoke. Too thrilled even for terror, we spent perhaps thirty unforgettable seconds in intimate relation to the monster, amazed dumb. I’ve never spoken of this escapade. My beloved will learn of it before you who read this.
Before we sight Leeton, we’ll pass Wamoon, where I’ll stop and we’ll walk across the bridge over the fatal canal. What will she see, what will she feel, this person who knows me so deeply and so long?
I’ll take her into the great park across the street from the old house. I’ll show her where the man lounging on a picnic rug with his girlfriend and a bottle of beer accepted my challenge to wrestle, one slow Shabbat afternoon. Here he pulled down my shorts. I’ll show her the Police Station just around the corner, where, a few days later, I went to report that strange event. Sergeant Stewart walked me to the spot and bid me look around. He asked, ‘Can you see the man you wrestled with?’ I could not, but to oblige the sergeant I pointed to a man at random. Sergeant Stewart observed: ‘Making a false accusation is a serious matter, Howard.’ The officer enlarged my vocabulary.
I’d like the two of us to climb the high boundary wall of Number Two Jarrah Street and peer over into the odd, kite-shaped backyard of my first friend’s home. That home was as much a refuge and a place of love for me as my own home, twenty yards distant. Through one rare day of soaking rain, that friend and I played in a room filled with enormous cardboard cartons, large enough to walk in. When, years later, that house was stolen and became a pizza shop I knew the meaning of sacrilege.
On the morning of our departure in 1955, my friend’s mother stood on her front step and took me and my elder brother into her arms and embracedus. She held us there and she delivered her benediction: You two boys have the duty to become the finest Jewish gentlemen ever – because of what your parents are giving up for you.
My parents? Did they suffer their own trauma? Did this commandment from our gentile friend shape my life?
Perhaps such memories are too strong for others to feel or know. Perhaps, in time, they can become malignant. Perhaps, on the other hand, I need to share them, to lay them bare to new eyes, to exorcise a haunting from the life I share with my beloved.
My beloved came, admired, and fell, quite charmed.