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.