Curfew Tales: The Story of Mister Jones Chapter IV

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.

Autumn Notes, IV

As I write this it’s still autumn. I need to point that out lest winter arrive before this is posted. You know how pedantic my blogmeistress can be.

Winter is lurking, waiting its moment. I left the hospital last night and walked into the dark and rain. Rather than wait in the wet for the correct tram I took another which would take me close to the station. ‘Close’ was actually a mile or two. I enjoyed a philosophical walk through the bleak, absorbing heaven-sent water through hat, jacket and leather shoes. Three jolly Chinese women sheltered in a doorway beneath bright umbrellae that flapped in the wind. Nice and damp by now, I thought of the umbrella, a found object, furled, resting in my bag. If ever I’d have an umbrella moment this would be it. I don’t like umbrellas – a prejudice from childhood dressed up as a principle. The umbrella stayed furled.

On the tram this morning three young women sat and consulted their screens. Melbourne passed by them, damp, dark, unnoticed. Their devotion was religious. One of the three wore an eskimo jacket, her face fur-framed, her free hand clutching two slices of vegemite toast. The bread looked like rye. A semicircular bite in the upper slice showed where the screen interrupted the young woman’s breakfast. Twenty minutes after boarding, eskimo-lady alighted, her neglected toast undepleted. I mention the breakfast because it looked hearty, just right for the weather.

At the hospital last night I ate the meal I brought from home, a soup described as ‘Tuscan Lentil & Grain Broth’. A woman I know found the recipe in one of the weekend magazines. The soup was new to me. Among the ingredients were carrot, celery, onion (of course), garlic (gratefully), tomatoes, lentils, barley and a green called cavolo nero. That’s Italian for kale. I saw through the disguise; I don’t eat kale, like umbrellae – a matter of prejudice. Well I ate the soup, hot and hearty. Oh what a moment! The soup warmed me and filled me so all the wet and wind and cold that followed could not dampen the love I felt for the soupmaker. I decided I wanted her to be my wife. Which, happily, she is.

Autumn Notes 111

The ruler of this blog disqualified the title of my previous post. I’d proposed “Autumn Notes -III”, but the blogmeistress ruled that out. ‘It’s a book review, Dad, it’s nothing to do with autumn. You’ll confuse people if you call it that.’

I disagreed.

She insisted.

I demurred.

She overruled.

So here we ago again. I’m writing this in autumn. Brown leaves are falling, the air is chilling, malicious winds lash the streets. What’s more, I’m in the autumn of my days. And today when I visited my aunt I glimpsed Winter.

My mother-in-law is a beauty. At 91 years she dresses like my daughters and she’s still admired as a beauty. Her name’s Helen. As in Troy. Ma-in-Law Helen remarked to me once,   ‘Your Aunty B was the most beautiful bride I ever saw’. On a separate occasion Aunty B said to me ‘Your mother in law was the most beautiful bride I ever saw.’

I’ve seen wedding photos of them both and I can’t disagree with either of them.

Today I visited Aunty B. Family news had filtered through the dark: B isn’t doing well. I found her sleeping in her room, surrounded by her daughters and her doctor-granddaughter. I saw her, I saw that same face, beautiful still. I thought of Aunty B’s life of battles, of her buoyancy and grace, her good cheer. I remember how she took this bewildered country boy under her wing on lonely visits to Melbourne. Now Aunty opened an eye. Was that a smile? Her hand opened to my touch, the grip strong. My last surviving aunt opened her mouth to speak. No words. The eye closed and she slept. Like Hemingway’s Old Man (of the Sea), did she dream?

It’s not yet Winter but it’s coming.

During Wind and Rain

 

During Wind and Rain

Like Julius Caesar on the Ides of March, I defied my wife’s advice. She said, as I mounted the bike, ‘they predict wind and rain. Don’t go.’

I did go and a pleasant ride it was through darkened streets, shining in the streetlight. Clouds muffled sound, the traffic was not yet up or much about, my old legs pedalled a judicious way and I felt cheerful and vindicated, like Julius before the Rotunda. My rotunda struck with fine – indeed wifely – force in the park, about fifteen minutes out from warmth and shelter. 

The wind was a whip that circled and struck, now flinging the bike broadside, now howling head-on against me. I pushed the pedals and nothing moved except a wifely voice saying she told me so.

I could still feel my fingers but they were not the fingers of one alive. My face stung, my shapely legs experienced piloerection within the all-weather tights that now sogged and flapped. My nipples froze and I knew I’d never breastfeed.

I thought of Thomas Hardy, the voice of winter’s wintering and I was warmed and cheered.  I saw beneath my wheels ‘the sick leaves reel down in throngs.’ I bethought myself of my loved ones, both those warm and safe and those lying outdoors, as ‘down their carved names the rain drop ploughs.’

Remembering a loved poem is like meeting a loved friend. Hardy wrote ‘During Wind and Rain’ in 1917, five years after his wife died.

They sing their dearest songs—
He, she, all of them—yea,
Treble and tenor and bass,
And one to play;
With the candles mooning each face …
Ah, no; the years O!
How the sick leaves reel down in throngs!

They clear the creeping moss—
Elders and juniors—aye,
Making the pathways neat
And the garden gay;
And they build a shady seat…
Ah, no; the years, the years;
See the white storm-birds wing across!

They are blithely breakfasting all—
Men and maidens—yea,
Under the summer tree,
With a glimpse of the bay,
While pet fowl come to the knee…
Ah, no; the years O!
And the rotten rose is ript from the wall.

They change to a high new house,
He, she, all of them—aye,
Clocks and carpets and chairs
On the lawn all day,
And brightest things that are theirs…
Ah, no; the years, the years;
Down their carved names the rain-drop ploughs.

 

Thomas Hardy: During Wind and Rain