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)
This blog has spent the winter in a lazy silence. No-one complained. In breaking my silence I’m mindful of the judgement of Tim Minchin, who spoke (on ‘Australian Story’) of the morbid addictiveness of seeking affirmation. This blog was created precisely with that intention: I would write and you would like.
I’ve been thinking about this unattractive reality. I can’t see any way of sharing my writing without courting some sort of warm response. I could simply write and show no-one. Emily Dickenson wrote many, many poems and showed very few. Emily was shy; I am the opposite. So here we are, about to estivate.
Allow me to plead a single, small justification for posting my writing in public. Some years ago a nurse I used work with in an extremely remote community, contacted me after I had posted some piece of writing. She told me she looked forward to my posts. She said, Óut here you can feel forgotten by the world you knew. There are no papers here. You look forward to contact. After I’ve read whatever you post, you come back here and we talk all day in my head. I missed your posts when they stopped coming.
One of the reasons I write is a simple delight in words. When I suffered a (very) minor stroke a year or so ago, it struck my words. A little blood vessel in my brain aged, shriveled and died. As a result a bit of braindied. That bit (called the pons) is responsible for speech. The stroke was slight, just a caress really. For a short while I slurred sibilants at the end of words. ‘S’ words came out in an unshapely rattle.
If my fate had been to destroy the pons entirely I might have lost all speech, a stroke of good luck for some, perhaps, but unbearably sad for me. So here I am, bursting into words as my world bursts into spring. I’ll try to bloom and I hope you’ll like. Just don’t tell me.
Winter in Melbourne. The sun observes the curfew longer than we humans do. It stays in bed and rises late if it rises at all. Today the sun sleeps in. The wind blows, the rain falls and two figures run through the dark and the wet, down to the wet and dark of the Bay. As we run, Toby sings his morning song:
Nice and freezing
Nice and freezing
Nice and freezing
He sings these lyrics to the initial bars of ‘Shortening Bread’.
Toby sings the lyrics with the sincerity of one who is underdressed for the weather. It falls to me to state the obvious: ‘It’s raining, Toby.’
‘Nice and freezing
Nice and freez…’
The rain reminds me: ‘In Papua it rains every day, Toby. I hope Mr Jones is keeping dry. I hope he’s well… I hope he’s alive.’
‘Saba, that newspaper report from Leeton about Mr Jones’ daughter Amelia Bodelia – do you think it’s true? I mean can a person’s heart really burst with love? Can they die of it?’
‘Toby, doctors now know that grief or shock can kill. There are cases where a person who never had heart disease before received sad news then suffered a heart attack and died. Maybe something like that killed Amelia B.’
‘Saba, when Amelia Nee died, our chances of contacting Noel Henry Jones died with her.’
‘I’ve been hoping that newspaper message was mistake, hoping she might be moribund, or just stunned. I’ve been checking my emails. Nothing. Poor Ameila must be really truly dead.
Toby speeds up and leaves me behind. For a while he runs alone. It’s hard to tell in the rain and the dark, but I think I heard tears in Toby’s voice when he said our chances died with her. After a while Toby slows down and allows me to catch up. Together we shiver home companionably. Once inside I find myself at the computer. Where is Mister Jones? How will I find him? I open my emails. There’s lots of SPAM but there is no information.
The snail mail arrives. Lots of letters, addressed to me by machines. Toby envies me for the many letters I receive daily: ‘In a whole year I hardly get any. What’s that letter you’re reading Saba?’
‘The lost dogs’ home wants a donation, Toby.’
‘Saba, if the dogs are lost, the home doesn’t need donations!’
‘Good point, Toby.’
There’s a letter advertising pizza and a flyer for a new gym.
The next letter is the Gas Bill.
‘Saba, can I open one and read it to you?’
‘OK, Toby. Golly, what do you think of my gas bill, Toby?’
Toby does not reply. He’s engrossed in a letter. I glance at the envelope, addressed not by a machine but by a human with shaky handwriting. The address reads:
dR hOWARD jONATHAN gOLDENBERG
formerly of Leeton
now in Melbourne
The handwriting is really hard to read, but there’s something familiar about the ink. My memory stirs. Long ago, when I was just a kid, younger than Toby, I once used a pen with ink like that. I’m pretty sure I know that ink. I do recognise it. It’s Parker Pen ink.
I look at the back of the envelope. I read: Sender’s Address: MANUS ISLAND. Isn’t that in Papua New Guinea? What does all this mean – familiar ink, familiar address?
Meanwhile Toby holds the scrap of paper in the air, he’s squinting, concentrating hard, his forehead wrinkly as a dartos muscle in winter. He mutters, ‘I can hardly read any of this writing, just a few words: Leeton, carrot…Amelia.
Saba! – he exclaims.
I hand the envelope to Toby and he passes me the letter. We speak simultaneously: look at that! I hold the scrap of notepaper and I read.
At that same moment I recalled the true owner of the Parker pen. I jump to my feet and shout, Toby!
‘Toby, we’ve found him. ‘He found us actually. But I don’t think we’ll ever see him. He says all his cannibal tribesmen have died.’
‘How come, Saba?’
‘Old age, perhaps. Maybe COVID 19.’
‘Saba, I saw on the National Geographic Channel there’s an etiquette among cannibals. At times of famine – that means there’s no humans to eat – the elders offer themselves to be eaten by the youngers. Until there are only two left.’
‘Well, Toby, Mister Jones wrote he thinks he’ll die soon.’
Toby grabs the letter and peers at it hard. He shakes his head. ‘I can’t read this spidery writing, Saba. Mister Jones can’t die! We have to contact him.’
‘Toby, darling. Everyone dies. Old people understand they can die at any time. Old people reach an age when they know they have lived their life and their time is near to leave it. Often the person who dies is not sad; as death comes closer it’s the people who love the old person who feel frightened. And afterwards they feel sadness and emptiness.’
‘But Saba, not Mister Jones. Not yet. What about grace?’
The boy throws his arms around me and holds me hard. Who is he comforting – me, or himself?
‘Toby, you’ve put your finger on my question. Grace is my problem, not Mr Jones’. He’s at peace. I’m the one with unfinished business. Somehow Noel Henry Jones, that kind and gentle man, seems to remember me kindly. He says he had a daughter, Amelia Bodelia; he never had a boy, but I was like a son! He doesn’t even mention my pen pinching. I don’t know whether he ever forgave that. And now I’m afraid I’ll never know.’
Time passes. COVID crowds our days, curfew squeezes our nights, danger lurks, darkness reigns. In my dreams I walk from Number 10 Wade Avenue in Leeton, past the Fire Brigade, past the Library, past Major Dooley Park. My legs take me around a corner and there, before me is Leeton Public Primary School. Night after night the streets of Leeton open before me, I walk towards the school but before I arrive, I awaken. The school is there, waiting. Time after time Mr Jones’ classroom stands open before me, but I never enter.
Weeks later, the sun appears. One morning Toby and I return in sunlight from an early morning run. I open my emails, hoping for news. Nothing. Just a message from Australia Post to expect some delivery. Probably the masks that I ordered.
A knock at the door. Toby answers and brings in a very small package, too small for the masks we’re waiting for. I’m curious. Toby says he wants to open the package. I let him. This is what we see:
I take the pen in my hand. Through tears I read the words engraved there: Noel Henry Jones.
The first signs, mere hints, come creeping into our lives. Mornings aren’t so dark, the air doesn’t bite, birds sing their old early songs, bobbing figures are sighted in the streetscape. The wind turns northerly, bearing scents and pollens. Gardens burst into sudden colour, the sky seems higher, its lowering grey gives way to – to what? Can this be blue? We don’t readily trust these auguries, for this winter has frostbitten our trust in nature’s cycles. But soon it is undeniable: spring, SPRING is here!
Runners come out of hibernation; it is they whom we sight bobbing up and down on our streets, all of them preparing for the Melbourne Marathon. They bob but I bob not. My wretched, traitorous right calf locks and bites with every step, hissing at me, Pheidipides, you can forget the Marathon this October.
Meanwhile two identical envelopes arrive in the mail, both addressed to Pheidipides Goldenberg, both from the marathon people. I open the first and find my runner’s bib and the electronic chip that will time my run. A wry pleasure, these, tokens of a challenge that might yet defeat me before I start. The second envelope contains a second electronic chip and a second bib with PHEIDIPIDES printed across it with a runner’s number below. That number is not the same number as on bib Number One. What can this mean? Am I two persons? (Come to that, am I one person?) My I.T. skills being as they are I must have completed an entry form, hit ‘pay’, sent it off, forgotten I’d done it and repeated the entire process. So here I am, a runner torn, forlorn, with two identities.
This Melbourne Marathon will be – would be – my forty-eighth. Not a novelty then, but yet entirely different. Come October 18 I won’t run for myself but as a companion, a support person to a true hero, one of the very few runners to have completed every single Melbourne Marathon. I wrote of this hero last year: how, recently diagnosed with a serious condition, then treated with rays and our medical poisons, he ran and managed to grind out a finish despite his disease. To accompany this modest man will be a privilege. He responds to my self-invitation, Howard, I can’t allow you to sacrifice your marathon for mine. I’ll slow you down…
Inwardly I laughed. This man who knows fears and deeps far beyond my knowing, cannot know my capacity for running a new Personal Worst. And with two electronic chips, each secured to a running shoe, and each uniquely linked to a bib number, I will follow myself over the Line and finish both last and second last.
Walking to shule early on a shabbat morning in spring, walking along, swinging along, here’s my neighbour approaching, walking along, swinging along, along with Jarrah his handsome, brainless hound.
We discuss the terror raids. A Sydney paper runs the headline: SYDNEY UNDER SEIGE. I wonder aloud about a climate of alarmism. Hugo trusts the government to protect the people. I trust any government to protect itself. We agree to disagree.
Walking long, swinging along Meadow Street, swinging towards the park, there’s a man ahead of me, singing. He’s walking along, singing along, singing aloud, singing with sunny uncaring, his ears clasped by headphones. A brown man, tall, a head of tight dark curls, his voice ringing out in the swinging morning.
I walk behind and I wonder. What is this singing, what the tongue, what type of singing? Some droning, drawn-out notes, long phrases, thick gutturals: might be mid-eastern, might be something different..
I swing faster, draw alongside, address the singing man; ‘What are you singing?’
The singing man smiles, stops his singing, removes his earphones. ‘Listen’, he says, his accent unemphatic, possibly sub-continental. He clasps my ears with his ‘phones. Soft rushes of sibilant sounds – unaccompanied percussion – fill my ears.
‘That’s not the music, that’s just the rhythm, the backing. I make the music, my song…’
‘Is the song your own? Do you compose it?’
‘Yes.’ Another smile. “I will record it in a sound studio, make a tape and try to sell it.”
‘What are you singing about?’
‘A beautiful girl, so beautiful she shames the sun.’
‘Will you sing it for me?’
The man smiles, replaces his earphones, bursts into song, full-throated, and we swing together along Meadow Street. The singing man creates waves of sound, rhythmic, patterned. I can discern the lines, pick out sound rhymes.
It is lovely.
‘Will you translate for me?’
‘” Do not go out ino the sun, my beauty,
Do not go into the sun;
If you go into the sun, my beauty,
The sun will look pale,
You will shame the beauty of the sun”‘
‘Thank you. That is beautiful.’
We swing together along Meadow Street. When we reach the corner, I say goodbye. ‘Good luck with your song.’
I turn the corner, heading for the park and for shule beyond.
The man calls to me, ‘Have a good shabbat.’