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.

Dinner with Some Old Teenagers

Word reached me, and when it came, it came obliquely. My writer friend in England, Hilary Custance Green, forwarded a letter that had reached her by way of one or another of the virtual media. ‘I wasn’t certain what to do with this,’ she wrote, ‘I thought it might be spam, but I decided to forward it, just in case.’ The writer of the letter asked Hilary if she could forward it to her old doctor. The letter bore strong feelings that had brewed and bubbled within the writer over years.
‘Dear Dr Goldenberg, I don’t know if you remember me but I remember you and I have wanted to contact you for a long time.’ There followed the remarkable declaration that my actions had saved the writer, now aged fifty-five, when she was a girl of seventeen. She owed her present happy life, she wrote, to my intervention, as well as the help of some others around that time. 

The letter, and the memories it evoked, thudded, jolted within me. Yes I did remember the girl, firstborn of three, trapped in a hell where her violent alcoholic father abused all in the home. I remember the face, fair skinned, the coronet of fair hair. And her brave, fugitive smile. 

I read on, and as I read the girl’s name came to me, a diminutive in the Australian way, never Anna but ‘Annie.’ Annie’s father was a helpless, hopeless drunk, and when drunk prone to unpredictable extremity. Annie would await his return from the pub with dread, hoping he’d keep away, hoping helplessly her mother and sisters would be safe. She’d have fled the family home long before but father had screamed and waved his gun at her. His words – ‘If you try to leave I’ll shoot you and the others and myself’ – shocked me. Uselessly, helplessly, I trembled for the child. The child confided she never brought a friend into that house, for fear of the shame. She told me these things, forty years ago, and I recognised a further shame, even deeper, Annie’s self-disgrace to be ashamed of her own father.    

In her letter Annie reminded me of the Saturday night she finally escaped. Father had drunk all that day and into the night. Annie sheltered in her bedroom but when father burst in she ran from him, wearing only her nightclothes. Father screamed behind her, ‘You’ll never come back into this house, girl!’ The girl walked through the early hours, avoiding exposed places. She found herself in the deep dark of a railway culvert and, terrified in that blackness she decided, ‘This is where I’ll have to sleep from now on.’
Annie wrote, ‘I walked to the clinic and laid down and waited there for you to arrive. You’d always been kind and understanding. I knew you worked the Sunday mornings. I didn’t have anywhere else. You took me in when you arrived and after work you drove me home so I could safely collect some clothes. Then you drove me to a refuge.’

Annie’s account of that last-first morning was only dimly familiar. I felt small stirrings of pride, and a tenderness for the girl in the nightdress. Much stronger was my shock as I realised I had not thought of her since the ‘rescue.’ Annie had disappeared from the days of those busy years. She had lived, thrived, suffered reverses, sought salvation, recovered, blossomed, become the assertive woman her mother could never be, married happily and raised children, good citizens, and now saw grandchildren. Forty years and no thought by her wonderful caring doctor. That child had come into her own and that doctor had reached his prime and passed it.
Perturbed, I wrote to Hilary to thank her for sending word, for her gift.
The word found me in the outback. I wrote to Annie, giving my phone number and told her I was anxious to speak to her. My phone rang as I rode my bike across the railway line. I dismounted and answered and the voice said it was Annie and for twenty minutes I listened to her narration of the events of a turbulent life. We agreed we’d meet after my return from the outback.
In the exchange of emails that followed a second voice entered, followed by a third, then a fourth. Later a fifth and a sixth made contact. The writers, all roughly contemporaries, had been my patients in their teenage years. Each bore a burden of recollection which pressed now to be discharged.

Three women, matrons now, waited for me at the restaurant. I opened the door to faces that shone. I saw three faces of girls in their teens. I stepped forward and found myself clasped. Lined faces kissed mine, ample bodies held me close.

We sat. The women said how young I looked, I said how good they looked. The past was with us, the past with its beauty and its horror. The past, reverberating with friendships I had forgotten and the three had remembered. 
How had I forgotten?
The waitress came, hovered, departed. Again she came and we promised we’d soon choose and order. It was not soon. Forty years here, twenty there, so much event, so much life. Babies – it turned out I had delivered them – were now adults, some even parents.  
The waitress returned. Jerked into the present we ordered.

Girls Numbers Two and Three are sisters. I asked after their parents, immigrants, older than me by ten years, proud people, beavers in the general community and within their own. Mum was alive, still vibrant – ‘and fat, like all of us!’ Shrieks of laughter. And Dad?

‘Dad’s fat too, and dementing. The grog; it’s Korsakov’s.’ The speaker is Number Two, now a nurse. In the care of their aging parents she’s the officer commanding Number Three and their brothers. 

Both Three and Two were married when I last knew them. They’d married matching buffoons, agreeable blokes when sober, not often sober, not often enough agreeable. Three spoke: ‘Even before we married I saw how my father in law treated his wife. He’d tell her she was stupid, shout at her to shut up when she spoke. One time I saw him belting into her – he was full as usual. I froze. We never saw that. Mum and Dad would drink a couple of gins after work but they never got nasty. Not like that.’ 

Memories returned to me of the mother in law. A tall trembling lady, her face pink and scarred, she’d address me in a soft trembly voice, describing symptoms I could never fathom, never cure. Now I understood.

‘It wasn’t too long before Robbie was getting aggressive like his Dad. He’d go to the pub after work, get full, drive home drunk. I had my first girl, then the second. I thought, “No. This isn’t what I want for them, not what I want them to see.“ I rang Robbie and I said, “Don’t hurry home you drunken bum. Your wife and your kids have split.”’ Peals of laughter from Three, far the widest at our table. ‘Did he ever hit you?’ – I wondered. ‘Lot’s of times, but I’d belt him too!’ More jolly mirth. Three sits opposite me, her great arms a gallery of art in brilliant reds. Finer tattoos crawl upward from her bodice, another spiders around her neck.

‘Weren’t you scared, leaving him?’

‘No.’ The thought is a stranger to Three. She stares at my unexpected question. ‘There was no future there. I got up, took my girls and went.’

Did I raise an eyebrow? I certainly wondered at her resolve, her clarity. Her fearlessness. ‘Yeah, money was tight. I got a job and I worked and I looked after my girls. They’re good. Their blokes are lovely. And the three of us, we’re very close. Like me and sis here.’ The two women looked at each other and smiled.

Two reminded me: ‘I was a mother at nineteen. Got married. You delivered my babies, Howard. I was in labour, terrified, not knowing anything. You got up on the bed beside me and stroked my back.’ Did I? Nowadays the Medical Board would caution me for this sort of thing. They’d require me to undergo Education.

Two continued: ’You know everything about us. You’ve seen all our vaginas!’ Careless in their merriment the girls showed none of the self-consciousness that saw me look down and blush. ‘I’m diabetic now,’ continued Two. ‘But I’m good. After I left my husband I worked as a nurse, you know, State Enrolled. When my kids were adult and near-adult my partner encouraged me. He said, “You’ve always wanted to study. Do it.” So I did. I studied nursing at Melbourne University. Boy that’s a gap – from Victoria Uni to Melbourne. But I did well…’

‘Got Distinctions’, Three’s voice was proud.

‘I did all of it on scholarships. I had to perform. They can take the scholarship away if you get bare passes. Now I’m specializing in Mental Health, in charge of the ward. I love it.’

Three told me how she too had always worked in health, in administration. She described without bitterness how, after eighteen years, her institution had managed her out of her job and into retirement. ‘Now I write poetry. I go to Creative Writing classes. And every Wednesday I post a poem on Facebook. Wednesday is the hump of the week. I call my readers, my “humpies.” Here’s this week’s poem’. Three handed me her phone where I read her tidy quatrains. The verses spoke in anticipation of this gathering, in praise of the poet’s doctor, his kindness, his understanding. Blushing again I came across a ‘Like’ in response. The author of the Like was Four, another ex-teenager whose family I’d been close to. Four wrote, ‘I remember how Dr Howard comforted me when Karen died.’ Another thump. 

I remembered Four, a striking girl with olive skin, tight black curls, a smile that made you feel like singing. I remembered Karen, Karen who was lost, that sparkling child. Karen was in the car that drove to the pub in the bush hamlet twenty kilometres distant from my country practice. The pub filled the young driver up with grog and watched him drive the carful of friends home. How many died when the car missed the bend? Four? Five? Karen was extinguished in that crash. I remember speaking afterwards with Four. Was she the only one I was trying to comfort? I think I was trying to comfort myself too. A year or so later another young driver killed himself driving home from the same pub. His passenger suffered a fractured neck, became quadriplegic. From that time until left I doctored the human wreckage. And my rage burned against that pub. I nursed a futile wish to close it down.
*** 
The girls spoke of the men in their present lives. Annie had formed a lasting union with Ian that prospers still. She showed me the album her family made for her fiftieth birthday. Here were Annie’s mum, Annie at fifteen, Annie’s own grown children, Annie with Ian. I saw a tall man, angular and strong-looking, with a craggy face. Two and Three spoke warmly of their own blokes. All three had known some duds but the ‘girls’ bore no hostility to the male race. When, at the conclusion of the evening, Ian turned up to drive Annie home he towered over me. My not-small hand was lost in his handclasp. Instantly likable, solid as a wall, he smiled and I felt gladdened for Annie.

Two asked Annie: ‘Have you ever seen your father again?’ Quietly came the reply: ‘I always vowed I never would. Then four years ago he wrote to me, to all of us, Mum, my sisters. He said he was dying, in Mallacoota. His heart was failing, from the grog. He wanted to see us. Mum wouldn’t come, neither would my sisters. But I thought, “He can’t hurt me now.” So I went. He talked and he talked, poured out his side of our lives. He lay on the bed and asked me to lay by him and cuddle him.’ 
I looked at Annie, my eyes wide. 

‘I thought, “He can’t hurt me now. He’s old and he’s dying alone.” He’s got a partner but she’s not his blood. It’s not the same. I climbed up beside him and I held him. We laid there together for a good while. After a couple of days I went home. He died two weeks later.’

A Message of Love Smuggled into a Suitcase

We live in a world in pain. In that world dark deeds, harsh words, inhumane policies are normal. God is conscripted and deformed in every form of violence. Truth is lost, our planet poisoned.
Seeing all this, hearing it, feeling it,a person might surrender and despair.
Then life sends a message.
This is the message that came to me today.

  
Miles spent two weeks pocket money on this gift for his mother.