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Right now it’s Sunday 10 April 2016 and I’m standing at the kitchen bench trying to uncover the beating heart of twenty-two years of being alive.
But I can’t. Whenever I pinpoint these moments they’re senseless: a thousand tiny hearts, a thousand syncopated beats.
‘That’s them,’ a voice says.
Nico and I stumble out of the Imperial Hotel bathroom into the arms of a Samoan bouncer with dreadlocks. He shoves us toward the exit.
‘Can’t two fags enjoy a good fuck?’ Nico asks.
‘No, they can’t!’ the bouncer says. He sticks his dirty flipper toward Newtown. ‘Get the fuck outta here.’
On the street we turn left at the petrol station, out of the bouncer’s line of sight.
We hear techno thump out of the Imperial’s basement.
We smoke a cigarette, swapping it between us.
Then get to work.
Nico gives me his tropical paisley shirt.
I take off my sweaty long sleeve.
He wears my glasses.
I put on his hat.
I remove my earrings, start unbuckling my trousers . . .
‘I’m not gonna fit into those,’ Nico says, laughing.
We join the line, give our IDs to the bouncer – and he’s fucking clueless.
These days Nico and his girlfriend Lauren make movies and spend every moment together and I’m seriously fine with it.
I get a Facebook message from Bobby.
It reads: ‘Mate, I’m so so sorry.’
When Angela calls I figure she’s wishing me a belated happy birthday, now that we’ve allowed the bad blood from our Thailand trip to settle – or maybe she’s forgiven me for breaking up with her on Christmas Eve (when she was working, mind you) in a sensational, I-just-can’t-take-it-anymore display outside of Northbridge Baker’s Delight while taking the leftover bread to the dumpster.
But of course that’s not why she’s calling.
‘Thought you deserved to know,’ she says.
Her sunny, disembodied voice doesn’t match the next words.
‘I fucked Bobby last night.’
The phone dies in my hand.
Nico paces in front of Town Hall steps while I lean against the stony wall, flicking a yoyo between my legs. I walk the dog then form a cat’s cradle. We’re too young to enter a pub but want to get drunk anyway. Bobby returns with two bags full of Strongbow cider longnecks.
‘Told the bartender I wanted longbows,’ he says, ‘and he asked: “Do you want some arrows, too?”’
I’m in Melbourne for the writers’ festival and I arrive at the hostel in a foul mood because a breakdown in the Sydney Harbour Tunnel delayed me by forty minutes, making me miss my flight, only to catch another plane two hours later at full price.
The two girls behind the reception desk wear matching T-shirts that read: FULL MOON PARTY 2011.
The year is 2015.
They slide an electronic room key along the granite tabletop.
‘Fourth floor,’ the taller one says.
Climbing the stairwell, I nod to a seemingly endless parade of young Europeans.
In my room I’m greeted by the absolute scent of death.
I pull my sleeve to my mouth.
There is a boy, maybe my age, asleep on the bottom bunk closest to the door, hooked up to a breathing apparatus.
It rattles and echoes through the windowless room.
I hurry downstairs, skipping two-at-a-time, then give the room key back to the concierge girls.
‘Problem with the room?’ the shorter one with dyed red hair asks. ‘If you don’t stay, we charge you anyway.’
‘That’s fine,’ I say. ‘You know there’s a dead guy in room 443?’
The last time I cried nobody saw me (this isn’t including when I watched that Aretha Franklin YouTube video). I cried when I remembered watching Mum water the veggie patch then suddenly recoil and yell and drop the hose and seize the place where the scalpel discovered her unwelcome guest.
Our teacher doesn’t make it to period seven Maths, so most kids jig it. But Nico and I stand on our desks, pop out the light fixture, draw a thick hairy cock with permanent marker, then put it back into place. It takes us twenty minutes to repeat this process on all twelve lights. We admire our hard work. Cocks fluoresce onto the tables, onto our classmates, onto our Maths teacher, who jolts through the door, breathless, pointing first at a fluorescent penis and then at our hands, blemished by permanent marker.
On Koh Phi Phi Angela orders fried rice from the Bob-Marley-themed bar and when the food arrives I say ‘Don’t eat that,’ but she does, and at 6am I wake up the hostel manager and we carry her out of the soiled bed and into a wheelbarrow, which we push along the shore for twenty minutes until we reach the hospital where we stay for five days because she can’t keep a glass of water down and I say don’t worry I’m fine I’m fine I’m fine until she falls asleep and, at last, I stumble to the communal hospital bathroom and vomit my insides out.
It’s an old trick: texting by touch under the dinner table.
‘Jackie boy,’ Dad says, ‘get some chicken on that rice.’
‘It’s alright, Chief,’ I say.
Mum grabs my plate and scoops a ladle into the pot of butter chicken. ‘Eat, habib! What’s wrong – are you sick? David, get him some Vitamin C.’
I stop texting. ‘I’m not sick,’ I say. ‘I just don’t want to eat meat…’ Mum stares at me, uncomprehending, ‘ever again.’
The sun descends past the university lake and all the spring mosquitoes eat our legs. Angela and I lie under the arched sculpture and lose vision of each other in the gathering darkness. I’m playing music from my iPhone. And although we think we’re in love we’re not really sure, but nine months from now I’ll figure her out and in the darkness she’ll disappear.
It’s been a rough week so I drink my wallet at the pub, say goodbye to my work mates, and after thirty-five minutes of a bone-rattling bus ride I’m walking down Longueville Road towards my parent’s house. On the walk I upturn a tipped-over shopping trolley and hop inside its mesh carapace. The trolley takes me past the desolate space where the abandoned house used to stand, where the only girl I’ve ever loved, Tanya, suggested we break in, and we did. Our hearts had only been alive for fourteen years. Once we wiggled through the open window we felt soothed by the daddy longlegs, the assortment of empty beer bottles, and how close to death the house was: it was our haven, no matter when; after school, on weekends, when we ‘just went for a walk’, even creeping out the study door in the dead of night. Its desolation was medicine. She unfolded a blanket we stole from my parent’s garage, lay it over the dust, and made me promise her something. I haven’t fulfilled that promise quite yet. This moment remains my fondest. It shines out everything else.
The shopping trolley hits a raised paver. I fall and scrape the skin off my knuckles. From the ground the house is blocked by birds-of-paradise. I get up, kiss the blood and grit from my bleeding knuckles. There’s a big hole in the ground, like the underside of a tortoise shell, where the house used to be. I remember the day we saw them knock down the house. We watched, with interlocked fingers, while strange men operating cranes and bulldozers destroyed it. She asked if I would still keep my promise. I said I would. But I haven’t, not quite yet.
And then, months later, I destroyed what was left.
I turn off King Street and amble down the road, checking each terrace house for my friends. I stroll the block several times until I hear Nico’s laughter, a lighter flick, and the crack of an opened beer. Nico and Lauren sit together, holding hands. I pull seven pale ales from my backpack. Nico scratches his Steve Aoki beard.
‘Nicked them from work,’ I say.
‘Sick cunt,’ he replies. ‘Fridge’s down the back.’
The door’s unlocked, I walk in.
‘Anyone home?’ I ask. Nico shrugs then holds out his cigarette for Lauren, who smokes from between his fingertips. The house is one horrendous mess. I walk past a wheezy couch, a roller bathroom door that is broken, at an angle, a skateboard wedged underneath it, an acoustic guitar with broken but unwound strings, a sink of rot and grime. I stuff the beers into the fridge and return outside, not knowing I’m acquainting myself with my future home.
In that abandoned house, on my parent’s blanket, I promised Tanya that I’d write a story for her. I doubt she’ll ever read it. But it’s right here.
Angela calls me at 4:37 on a Wednesday morning to say that she’s in Kings Cross, hailing a cab to my house.
‘Please not tonight,’ I say. I turn off my phone and fall asleep. Twenty minutes later I hear her screaming my name. I jump out of bed and run onto the street.
‘I told you not to take them.’ She slips and collapses onto the grass. She hits her heads and sobs.
‘I didn’t,’ she says. I give her my hand and help her stand.
‘I’m calling you a cab.’
‘Can I stay here tonight?’
‘Everyone is home.’
She pushes me.
‘Don’t-fucking-hit-me!’ she yells. She pushes me again. The sensor light next to my garage illuminates. ‘Stop it, Jack, stop hitting me!’
My mother is sprinting down the driveway, grabbing her left breast, already swearing in Arabic – a spectre of dressing gown and fanged fury.
It’s 8:57 on a Thursday night and I’m about to finish work when an old man starts talking to me. He claims he’s lived in twenty-two countries. He tells me a possum has more rights in this country than I do.
‘Ideas kill a lot of people,’ he says.
He tells me reading a book isn’t substitute for living, and that fucks me up. He says that intelligence is the measure of your ability to imagine things. He says intelligent people were thrown into gulags during Communist Russia because Joseph Stalin was afraid of their imagination.
I tell him I want to be a writer, but that I’d hate it if somebody read my story and knew everything about me.
He says that a prescribed imagination is a box with opaque walls and a limited amount of oxygen, and if you don’t try to get out then nobody will see you suffocate.
I’m in deep at the Pelvis Day Spa party. Staggeringly deep. I’m wearing a bathrobe and running around offering Minties to strangers.
‘Want a Mintie?’ I ask the sweaty, rolling girl beside me.
‘Got any caps?’ She slides her hand into mine. I pull out a Mintie and give it to her. ‘No,’ she says, sliding her mouth against my ear. ‘C-a-p-s.’
I shake my head. She releases me.
Ten minutes later I offer a Mintie to a tall handsome boy.
‘Don’t you know who it is?’ he asks.
I squint against the alternating red neon and darkness.
‘It’s Bobby. Don’t you recognise me at all?’
And I didn’t, even when he hugs me and apologises.
I still don’t.
This is all I remember: drinking bottom-shelf vodka with Georgie, straight from the bottle; Angela keeping her distance (glad, I think, to socialise with somebody other than me); rolling a kingskin joint then smoking it at the kitchen bench; getting punched by somebody; ignoring the pounding fists against the bathroom door as I kiss Georgie and Angela interchangeably; holding Angela’s hair as she vomits in the sink (right hand) and trying to coax Georgie into not opening the door (left hand)…
And then nothing.
I wake up in the early afternoon, naked and perspiring underneath a croaky ceiling fan. My head is fucked. It takes a minute for my senses to calibrate and realise I’m in Angela’s room. A few condoms are splayed on the floor next to my trousers, semen has leaked from their openings and onto the carpet. My nostrils are seared by splashes of amyl. A fleeting memory of Angela putting my cock in her mouth, then that too is gone. I put on my trousers and see a tear that begins at the crotch and streamlines down to the knee. A couple of cigarette butts have absorbed the dregs of an orange Berocca spilt all over my copy of Martin Amis’ London Fields.
I peer out the window, shifting the blind aside. In bed Angela yawns and rolls away from the sunlight. My car is parked on her yard, not in the driveway; it’s been driven straight over the rose bushes, up against the jacaranda tree. Christ, I fucking hope I didn’t drive. ‘Ange,’ I say, ‘did I drive us home?’ She kisses me on the nose and pulls me back onto the bed. I topple over, and, closing my eyes, let another eight months become darkness.
Just yesterday I read this excellent essay by David Foster Wallace called E Unibus Pluram: television and U.S. Fiction, and what struck me is his observation that fiction writers and lonely people are conjoined by their self-consciousness, although the way it manifests itself is totally opposite. The fiction writer spends his days ‘ogling’ people, analysing them, and the inability to switch off and see the world as it is means the fiction writer spends a great deal of time analysing themself; whereas the lonely person experiences that very same and very natural self-consciousness in the outside world (Wallace calls it agoraphobia) because they know that other people are analysing them, and when they notice all this they are repelled by the unsettling feeling of being watched. Wallace says lonely people are allergic to others. He theorises that watching television should appeal to both types of people, but it doesn’t. In general terms lonely people watch more television than the average person. Fiction writers tend to denounce it.
Most writers I know disapprove of what I’m trying to do. They say it’s self-indulgent and that maybe I’m better off trying again in twenty years when I really have something to say. But I’m not trying to say anything – not intentionally, at least. Writing is the carapace that deflects my loneliness every single day. If I sat around and watched TV all day, I’d be godamned lonely. But I don’t. I write. So in a way I’m not lonely; I’m just an ogler.
I wake up sometime late in the afternoon with urgent uni work waiting for me, but instead of taking a shower, eating something greasy, and getting to work, I reach for my iPhone and read Pat’s message.
Pat: how was your night? i’m so hung lol.
Me: lol me too. i had a sick one tho.
Pat: me too. i have mysterious bruises. i did ket. i got a girls number then i lost it.
Me: oh nice. i took mdma. i got my friends to take it too.
Pat: i can’t take mdma because of my antidepressants, which means i’ve been saving my serotonin and money for months now.
Me: i went to a house party and i didn’t know anybody. i stole beers from labor kids. there was a young politician who was wearing a scarf even though it was spring. i nearly kissed a girl but then her gay friend swooped in and by the time he left it was like 3:30am and she was yawning and kept spilling her cider on me.
Pat: i love that. you know her name. today you’re going to add her on facebook if you don’t already have her. tune. that. chick. consider verbally lamenting that you didn’t ask for her number last night.
Me: i thought that nearly kissing a girl would make me feel better but it somehow made me feel, i dunno, lonelier.
Pat: want me to come over?
Me: bring me beer.
I smoke a lot of weed these days because I hate going out, mostly because we always go to clubs in Kings Cross, which, well, you know – and Nico has sort of alienated me because he can’t stand my new girlfriend, Angela. Whenever we go out Angela’s taking pills. She thinks I don’t know but of course I can tell. She spends more time sweating in front of the big ceiling fan that swoops across the dance floor than with me. But after smoking weed I can arrange my face into this dopey affectionate look that allows me to cruise through a whole evening sipping on beer and smoking Camels and feigning that I’m unaware.
The instructions are tricky, but at Petersham Park we find the man smoking a cigarette beneath a wilting jacaranda tree. With a green marker he draws a spiral on our wrists then tells us to walk along Parramatta Road until we see the girl in a rabbit costume.
Bobby strides ahead with those lanky legs, talking excitedly about the DJ. I lag behind trying to light a smoke, trying to gee myself up, psyching up the prospect of maybe getting laid. (It’s been a while.) I drink greedily from a Schweppes bottle full of gin and tonic – and though I haven’t shared any with Bobby yet, he knows not to ask. Things are still a little rocky between us.
‘Reckon we took a wrong turn,’ I say.
‘Can’t take a wrong turn on Parra Road,’ Bobby says.
Then we spot her.
Dressed in white, she shimmers pearlescent under the streetlamp. Her arms are crossed. It’s not the raunchy bunny we expected but the full puffy suit. She checks our spirals then directs us around the side of a paint store.
To enter the party we slide through a paint store’s entrance just off the main drag, an entrance that looks conspicuously forced, but when we’re inside Bobby and I unload our heavy backpacks’ worth of beer, mescal, ketamine, MDMA, amyl nitrate, MXE, and LSD. Most of it isn’t for us. We drink the beer while taking turns sipping mescal from the bottle. I’m hoping the agave worm at the bottom will tumble into his mouth, not mine.
‘Did you hear about Angela?’ he asks.
But of course I do, and Bobby, frowning quizzically, clicks his tongue, knowing this.
‘She went to surf school,’ he says.
‘What the fuck’s surf school?’
A topless perspiring girl approaches Bobby. I can’t hear them over the sounds of techno but it looks as though they know each other.
‘Hold this,’ she says, handing me a bottle of something, which I sip liberally (right hand) alongside the mescal (left hand) until the exchange of money for caps is over. The girl plucks the liquor bottle from my hand then saunters into the crowd.
‘She’s been living with this guy, right…’
I thrust both liquor bottles into his chest.
‘Don’t tell me his name.’
‘Okay, okay: “her boyfriend”. She moved into his apartment, I dunno, six months ago? And she told him she’s going to surf school, right, that she wants to become an instructor, so he says: right, babe, I’ll pay the rent s’long as you’re studying.’
‘She literally never surfed when we were together,’ I say.
‘But one day he comes home sick from work and finds her in the apartment, stoned, drawing spirals in her notebook with a fat black marker.’
‘Don’t care,’ I say.
‘And, get this, right, when he challenges her she admits to lying…’
‘That’s an improvement at least.’
‘But when he asks why she lied, she says her dad died.’
I stop swaying to the music. ‘Phil’s dead?’
I think of his Crown Lager, his cramped workshop beside the garage (where he built a rocking horse for his niece and a bookshelf for me), and the way he laughed off that time I was so gin-drunk that I mistook the laundry for the bathroom and pissed all over their clean washing (in my defence it was the second time I’d ever come back to Angela’s, and in the dark the bathroom and laundry doors look identical along the hallway, the only difference being that the laundry is to the right and the bathroom to the left).
‘Nah, fucking course not,’ Bobby says. ‘I was selling him schooners at the RSL on Tuesday.’
I’m standing at the kitchen bench when Mum’s car heaves itself up the alleyway. The garage’s electronic door wails open, tires squawk as the car rolls in, and then the mechanics fight against the rust to close again. From the kitchen window I can see that a small light stays on inside the garage. It illuminates my cousin Matt as he helps Mum unload the groceries.
Whenever we’re both at home at the same time (not so often anymore) my mother worries about me, says I’m working too much, that I’m not smiling like I used to, that I don’t see my friends as much anymore. Whenever she’s home she hugs me and says, ‘Don’t go, don’t leave me,’ but later that night she’ll catch me, usually while I’m reading in bed, and confess, ‘You know I don’t mean it – I want you to go.’ It’s not long now until I move to Newtown with Nico (and, by proxy, I guess, Lauren). Every night, lying in my bed, I imagine things are going to change. I set my alarm for 5:30am. I ignore my cousin’s offer to get stoned and watch Adult Swim on my laptop. Usually I’ll brew his ‘sleepy herbal tea’ and that’ll pacify him, even though after four cups I remain unaffected by its supposed somnolent properties. And then there’s the dripping amalgam of joy and sadness whenever I think about my cousin living with us. He moved in about three months ago after finding out that his eldest brother had been caught trafficking fifty kilograms of cocaine in Fiji. My mother came in to work to tell me the news. We spoke next to the escalators in hushed voices. I draped an arm around her shoulders. We didn’t know what to say. Words seemed so futile. Just recently Matt’s brother was sentenced to fourteen years’ jail. Back in New South Wales, sometime in the nine months between being arrested and sentenced, his daughter Penelope was born. I don’t think Matt’s been to visit. He doesn’t talk about the situation very often but whenever he does I can tell he wants to purge himself. Maybe he’s moved away from that life, and maybe a little version of me has been born, a new brother of sorts, and a tiny version of himself has been locked away, or silenced its beating heart.
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As luck would have it, the day before I was due to file this piece I ended up the emergency room with my ten-year-old daughter. She was burning up, had stomach pains. The fever clocked in at forty degrees. They took pieces of her away for testing. They stuck needles in her. I sat by her bed and we put our heads very close to the TV remote’s speaker and from time to time, people came to make sure she was okay.Read More
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I remember this moment back in November 2013. I was living at my ex-girlfriend’s house and it was hot and I’d been at home writing all day from 9am to 6pm, not really eating or forgetting to eat, just listening to Clams Casino’s Rainforest on repeat, editing, editing, reading, writing. I’d been getting these headaches from staring at my laptop for so long but I didn’t care or I cared a lot but at that point the pain was manageable and I didn’t know but maybe knew that I was done with my book but that thought seemed terrifying because how can we ever, really, be done with anything?Read More
I hated the glass cabinet at the entrance to his room. There were many sad and distressing things to face when I visited the nursing home – from the woman who had forgotten that her parents were long dead and kept crying out Mama and Papa, to watching the residents have bibs clipped around their necks before being spoon fed. My sister was most struck by the smell as we walked from the entrance to his room, which she described as sulphuric. There was also something malignant in the air, besides the accidental bodily functions; abundant pain and grief.
The nursing home called the cabinets ‘memory boxes’. They were designed to help forgetful residents find their rooms and prevent them from barging in on others. ‘Memory boxes are also an attractive addition to any corridor,’ boasted the nursing home’s newsletter, which I found years later. Apart from being signposts and adding to the décor, the memory boxes were also meant to stimulate memories.
The residents were encouraged to display their personal memorabilia, but it was the family members who decided which memories went in the box, particularly for those in the high-level nursing area, like my grandfather Jack, whom we called Popsi.
The memory boxes were a random assortment of personal items that survived whatever circumstances led the person into care. Before my grandparents’ apartment was sold, my family and I culled their collections of souvenirs, photographs and ornaments, making quick decisions about which possessions to keep. All of their furniture was taken away on a charity truck, including the lounge suite Popsi won on Wheel of Fortune. He loved Wheel of Fortune as much as the game Scrabble; they allowed him to show off his intellect.
One of our relatives told us that his father, Popsi’s brother, used to talk about his ‘highly intelligent brother Itskal’. The nickname Itskal was devised when they were growing up because Popsi, who loved school so much, used to call out, ‘It’s school, it’s school!’ when it was time to go.
He was a bright scholar who topped many of his subjects at school, including Hebrew and Tanach, a Jewish text. He once told my dad that he had been planning to study to become a Rabbi but that required him to wait a year and he was impatient. Popsi was fascinated by the ‘poetry of numbers’, according to my dad, and was able to multiply long numbers quickly to a captivated audience. He also loved spelling, playing around with words and working on anagrams and crosswords. He valued his mind, memory and education above most material things.
Popsi’s move into the home was so quick that we didn’t give his memory box much thought. The nursing home did not guide us, and we didn’t know what to include to help him remember his life. Stimulating his memory seemed cruel, almost like torture. I believed that photos and objects from the past would distress him.
We had taken some framed photographs from my grandparents’ living room, a couple of clear paperweights with floating pieces of London Bridge inside them, and a small menorah from Popsi’s favourite Jewish festival of Chanukah and arranged them in the memory box. It was the only tangible remainder of my grandparents’ life together but it felt jarring and tokenistic.
Still, I doubted that Popsi ever looked inside. My grandmother had died a few months before he moved in and he didn’t care about anything apart from when his next cup of tea would arrive and how to work the complex new television in his life.
A nurse had watched us arrange the chosen items in the cabinet, rushing us so that she could lock it. She told us officiously that we could request the key if we wanted to change or remove anything.
There were many visual distractions in the public areas of the nursing home to compensate for the sense of loss in the rooms. The memory boxes felt extremely personal but all the visiting families stared at them as they walked down the hallways.
There were traces of Popsi’s old life in his sterile new home. Not his gaunt body, so small now in his blue blazer and holding little resemblance to the way he used to look. The room, an artificial recreation of his old home, similar to the memory boxes, was primarily for the sake of the visiting families, as the residents did not seem interested in their surroundings. There was a framed photograph of my grandmother on a table, his precious World War Two medals in a drawer near his bed, an untouched Bryce Courtenay novel, a couple of travel knickknacks, and prints and paintings densely covering the walls, as colourful and wild as they looked at home. One that stood out to me was a Japanese painting of a wild horse. There was a still-life of some fruit, a bottle of wine and a book.
Still-life paintings seemed ironic in the nursing home setting, as the objects in the room and the residents themselves rarely moved. His room was furnished by the nursing home, and was very utilitarian. There was a bed with an emergency button that he never seemed able to locate when he needed it most. There was a table on wheels, used for tea times and some of his meals. There were cabinets, closets and a large television.
Popsi often got confused and thought he was in hospital. It must have been disorientating to sleep night after night in an unfamiliar bed.
Soon after he moved in, my sister and I spent an afternoon hanging up his paintings in an effort to make him feel more comfortable. We were in the middle of hanging the last, feeling proud of our work even if Popsi had barely noticed, when a nurse burst into the room.
‘You can’t put those up yourselves! You have to go through the office and they will get someone to put them up safely.’
We took them down, flushed, not saying a word.
When he first moved in, Popsi was somewhat animated and hospitable. He shuffled around his room, offering a chocolate he had hidden in his mini fridge or trying to share the drink that came on his lunch tray, a special thickened juice to aid digestion, which I turned down as politely as I could.
After he had lived there for a while, he was diagnosed with dementia. Our visits changed as he did. I would sit with my sister or parents in the window seat at the back of the room, the closest point to the outside world; you could see the bursts of green from the grass and trees and a blur of movement from the cars passing by, and remember that life continued to exist outside the nursing home. We often read the paper or attempted conversation with Popsi, but he was progressively unresponsive.
Sometimes we could elicit a wan smile from him through conversation. Other times he just smiled when we came in and cried when we left – loud, choking sobs that echoed in the dining area and startled his fellow diners, who then stared at us as we backed out of the room, feeling like criminals.
Wanting to do something, we put energy into Popsi’s physical wellbeing. My parents called to ensure that his nails were clipped and that his hair was cut at the salon at the nursing home.
‘You had a haircut!’ we would exclaim with mock surprise when we arrived. ‘Don’t you look good!’
He would smile in response, completely apathetic about his hair but pleased by our enthusiasm. His personal appearance used to be important to him. As a child, I was intrigued that he had an old-fashioned shaving brush made out of an exotic animal’s fur, as well as a brush for cleaning under his nails. His hair had always been cut by a barber, his beard shaved and his nails cut short. Now, he wouldn’t have cared if his hair fell past his shoulders, or if his nails curled up in spirals.
He refused to wear any of the new clothes we bought him, insisting on shabby, disintegrating outfits. All of his shirts and trousers were labelled with his name, like children’s clothing on a school camp. But there was nothing sentimental about these tags, made by an employee in the laundry room with a labelling machine.
Most noticeable was the change in the way he communicated with us. He had always been quite the conversationalist. He loved to make puns and Dad-jokes and used catchphrases like ‘We’ve arrived and to prove it we’re here!’ He taught my sister and me his work telephone number by singing ‘Two, two’ like ‘Choo, choo’ in the song Chattanooga Choo Choo. He performed complicated card tricks, relishing in his audience’s reactions.
At Passover, Popsi was one of the few still alert and buzzing late at night, desperate to sing the long, complex songs Chad Gadya and Echad Mi Yodeah. He loved bursting into songs and poems that had multiple verses to remember, showing off his exceptional memory.
Now, at best he would watch us. Often, he wept over the passing of time or from watching an old movie that triggered a memory, or seeing one of his old diaries. He kept going back in time and would suddenly insist he was 75 rather than 91. Sometimes he loved reminiscing about the war with visitors while other times it was a taboo topic that made him very distressed.
From what I could see, the full-time nursing staff did little to help with the residents’ emotional states. I was never sure whether they were trying and failing, or whether they didn’t have the time or inclination. Some of the patients were prescribed anti-depressants by the doctors who came through the nursing home periodically. It took a couple of months before Popsi was diagnosed with depression.
I found it saddest that Popsi kept forgetting that his wife Marie, my grandmother, had died. Convinced that he was in the hospital recovering and that he would be home soon, he would ask, ‘When do I leave the hospital? How long have I been here?’
He worried about how my grandmother was coping at home without him, and asked, with a regularity we came to dread, ‘How’s Marie?’
Every time he asked, ‘How’s Marie?’, it was tempting to respond with ‘good’ or ‘fine’, but it felt wrong to lie to him. I didn’t want to contribute to a fantasy world where his wife was alive. Popsi deserved honesty and integrity. Yet if we reminded him of her death, he sobbed uncontrollably for the rest of our visit. His sobbing didn’t seem like expressing grief, just suffering.
My uncle eventually discovered how to get around the question ‘How’s Marie?’ without lying, by responding ‘Much the same, really.’
Seven years earlier, when I turned 20, my grandparents started dying. My grief was immense. We are a small, close-knit family, and my four grandparents played a monumental role in my life, like additional parents. I used to think their apartments would belong to them forever, seeing the objects within them as permanent fixtures. I viewed my grandparents as if they were immortal, thinking they would be around when I wanted to learn more about them.
Some people excel at preserving the past. I have friends who write down and collect every family recipe, others cleverly ask their relatives the important questions while they have their memories intact, and even record the responses. Many items that I treasure have only survived due to other people’s diligence.
In high school, my sister and I had to research and write lengthy essays about our family history. I studied my mum’s side of the family, and when it was my sister’s turn she studied our dad’s dad, Popsi. We conducted interviews, found diaries from the time, collected maps, medals and certificates, and read historical sources.
At the time, it was just a project. It was interesting, but we felt no sense of urgency to hear these stories before it was too late. Also, there was a sense that war stories were not for girls. I don’t know if this was just the general attitude in our community and wider society at the time, or just something my family believed. Now I wish I had asked him to tell more stories about being a soldier.
When we were packing up the apartment, we found my sister’s essay on Popsi. All of his war stories, written in his journal and relayed to my sister, were told in relation to his beloved Marie, our Nana. My sister interviewed Nana about her experiences at the time, including her memories of sandbags, gas masks, ration books and the Blitz. She recalled Churchill’s most memorable speeches (‘We can offer only blood, sweat and tears’) and the changing roles for women during the war effort. However, while she was happy to tell stories of the Home Front, my sister felt Nana believed that Popsi’s story was the one worth telling.
My sister’s essay on Popsi contains many exciting, funny and obscure details that I regret not hearing from him myself. I learnt that in 1937, 21-year-old Jack was popular and a ladies man who went dancing every Saturday night. He met 17-year-old Marie in 1938 at a Communist youth camp in England when she cheekily asked him to share the steak he was cooking. They began to date.
Several days before World War Two broke out, Jack developed appendicitis and was evacuated to a place called Bedford. Marie visited regularly with her friends. War was declared in September 1939. After several days he was allowed to return to London and was conscripted into the British Army in January 1940. On arrival, the men were tested and divided into their units. Popsi was given a Royal Corps of Signals, meaning he would learn Morse code and become a signaller.
According to my sister’s notes from her interviews and his diaries:
The men were ‘kitted out’ with uniforms and sent back to London, to live in a large house in the suburb of Enfield. Each room of the house housed about 12 men, who slept on palliasses, or straw mattresses. The men were taught Morse code and tested every Friday. The three top scorers were given a free weekend to go into town. Jack received the top mark every week. On these free weekends, Jack caught a bus and met up with Marie, who lived in Angel Islington. For the first six months of the war, known as the ‘Phoney War’, Jack and Marie would go dancing or to see movies every weekend.
It was unsurprising to read that Popsi topped every test, no doubt due to his overwhelming desire to see Nana.
Jack proposed to Marie in August 1940 while he was on leave, six months into serving, with a ring he had purchased for 22 pounds.
A couple of months after their engagement, Jack was stationed in Melrose, Scotland, working as a signaller. The night duty was particularly hard, with temperatures below zero. They slept for four hours and guarded for two hours at a time. He described these shifts as ‘Bloody awful.’
I can sense Popsi’s frustration and impatience when I read his diary. In an entry dated October 1940, he wrote, ‘Nine months today. Dear me. What a waste of a career.’
In April 1941, Jack was given four days’ notice that he was being sent overseas. He went absent without leave, hitchhiking 300 miles to see Marie, his fiancée. They spent the day together. He returned to be tried before the Court Marshall for his punishment, which turned out to be two weeks of jankers – domestic duties, and no pay. According to my sister’s notes, many other men had the same idea at the time. ‘95 unaccounted for this morning,’ Jack noted in his diary on 18 April 1941.
Jack spent years overseas as a signaller, using Morse code to send and receive messages. His departure had all the flair he deserved. Rather than taking a regular battleship down the Gibraltar and through the Mediterranean to get to the Middle East, the British Army used a luxury passenger ship because it skirted the danger of U-Boats, or submarines. The men slept in numbered hammocks, which were set up in large ballrooms.
He was most proud of his time served in Tobruk, where the soldiers were referred to as the Rats of Tobruk as they were surrounded and hemmed in on all sides by the Germans. They lived in caves or holes in the ground. My sister’s essay captures the stress of this time.
The weather was 35 degrees Celsius during the day, and five at night. Jack needed to sleep in a big coat and leather jacket and there were many fleas. Food consisted of a daily ration of corned beef and biscuits, with water being distributed once a day. Tobruk was completely deserted and devoid of civilians. The only inhabitants were the Army and the Italians. Every two or three days there was a sand storm.
He wrote in his diary: ‘Shells, bombs, digging and sand storms. Hellish sand storms. Sand in lungs, eyes, nose, mouth, ears, everywhere. In food, drink, clothes. What a life.’
After Tobruk, he was on his way to defend Malaya from the Japanese when Singapore fell. The soldiers were diverted to Bombay, India, to control Hindu resistance during Gandhi’s ascendancy.
What transpired in India, from what I imagine reading my sister’s essay, reminds me a bit of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, or any of the myriad films in which British people arrive in India and look around in amazement.
Jack was stationed in India for three years. He got malaria on the Burmese border. Later, he developed a hernia from playing football and was recovering in an army hospital just as his unit was due to be dropped in by parachutes behind the enemy line, known as chindits. His hernia saved his life, as half the men were killed. After the British pushed back the Japanese they were given leave. Jack spent two weeks in Kodaicanal in southern India, a place up in the mountains ‘which overlooked the clouds’, he told my sister. The American missionaries he stayed with fed him breakfast, ‘elevenses’, lunch, afternoon tea, dinner, supper and cakes with every meal. His body couldn’t handle the rich, abundant food and he ended up with colic.
After three years and eight months overseas, seven years after he met Marie, he was sent home to England. In his journal dated January 1945, he wrote, ‘And so ends one more not-so-happy year, but with a fine ending, going home.’
Jack arrived home in a navy-blue and white striped suit known as a demob suit. They were mass produced, out of date, civilian clothing provided by the army to soldiers returning from service. Nana spoke of Popsi’s suit fondly.
My grandparents’ wedding was planned in three weeks. With an additional week of leave for a honeymoon, Popsi returned to service the week after.
He was sent to join the army of occupation in Germany, taking over as interpreter since he spoke fluent German. There was a policy of non-fraternisation under which the British were forbidden to speak with Germans.
Popsi loved to tell us the story of when he violated this policy by giving chocolates to German children, and was called to the officer to be reprimanded. He argued that the policy was unreasonable and it was dropped.
My dad, who enjoyed hearing war stories, heard a different version. As a child, he asked Popsi ethical questions about killing enemies in the war, curious about whether this constituted murder. He asked, ‘Did you ever kill anyone?’ but only ever heard one story with any violence in it. It was about a time when starving German children came begging, their country devastated by war and defeat, and a British soldier slapped one of the children. Popsi yelled at him to stop and ‘knocked him down’, having been quite the boxer in his youth.
Later, he was transferred to Bayeux, France, and then Calais, where he was put in charge of the local telephone exchange. Popsi recalled this time in an email to me when I was visiting France. ‘Can you imagine the calls I managed to make to Nana in London, free of charge of course. So many memories!’
Nana and Popsi were married for 63 years. Their last anniversary was less than a month before Nana died. I learnt so much about love from them. I used to smile – even when feeling admonished – when Popsi stuck his hand in the air if people were interrupting his wife and said, ‘Marie’s talking,’ in a no-nonsense voice. I loved the way that it was ritualistic for them to chant ‘Tea?’ day and night, upon entering a room, putting down a newspaper or after a meal. When I visited, there was nothing more endearing than the sight of Nana and Popsi tucked into bed drinking their cups of tea, often clasping each other’s hands.
You could make a clichéd, very fitting reference to them being like a pair of animals who mate for life, such as swans and turtle doves, or perhaps gibbons and vultures – since Nana liked obscure information. They spent their lives besotted with each other. I get the feeling that while Nana deeply respected Popsi’s war years, the rest of their life was Nana’s domain. It was his job to ensure she had an audience.
There are so many family stories of the way Nana and Popsi belonged together. My mother remembers the tale of Nana wandering through Grace Brothers in the Sydney CBD and hearing a public phone ringing. She picked it up to tell the caller they had the wrong number and found Popsi on the other line, trying to reach her. These stories feel like family myths, sometimes unbelievable, always entertaining and worth remembering.
Nana and Popsi moved their young family to Australia in the fifties, lured by cheap fares and the promise of a good lifestyle. Popsi built up a successful career in insurance, pairing math skills with his love of people. Recently, my sister found one of his letters that he used to pitch to future clients. His words are personable and highly persuasive. Nana worked as a secretary, skilled in stenography and shorthand, and trained in first aid and nursing during the war, which, according to my dad, ‘was handy for two sickly/hypochondriac children.’
They lived in what felt like a fairytale house during my childhood, with a pool in the backyard, before they moved to their apartment. Popsi swam what always struck me as an impressive number of laps regardless of the weather outside. He laughed as my sister and I huddled by the edge of the unheated pool, poking our toes in. ‘Come on, it’s warm as toast!’ he would say.
Nana and Popsi always seemed so busy to me when I was growing up, unlike most grandparents I knew. Popsi juggled his job, family, social life, and community work for the Lions Club. They travelled regularly for work and leisure, reconnecting with family in the UK and the USA. Highly social and generous, they made lasting friendships, including one that started at a hotel in Paris and lasted 50 years.
There are pictures of my grandparents wearing leis and tipsy smiles at a conference dinner in Hawaii. While the photograph is delightful enough on its own, the real gems are in Nana’s 1992 cruise ship diary from the Queen Elizabeth 2. I have to quote from this diary, which is a hearty counterargument to David Foster Wallace’s less positive account of cruising.
‘Last night we danced a bit. Had Popsi not wanted to dance, I could have snapped my fingers – and, presto! – a mature gentleman would have appeared dressed in coffee coloured jacket and cream slacks to niftily wiz me away to perform an expert fox-trot, and return me to my spouse, lone ladies take heart!’
Also, ‘O G-d. At 8pm we finished a five-course meal terminating with plum and apple crumble. Now we must go to the Columbian restaurant for a midnight feast. If we do not, what regrets will we succumb to when, supperless, we retire to bed for the night when we get back home.’ Then, a note scrawled later that night: ‘We did not go to supper! Stayed in our cabin and read new books and relaxed. What virtue.’
What you don’t read into her hilarious accounts on the ship is that she was quite the worrier and pessimist. Popsi complemented her perfectly, effortlessly managing his responsibilities and duties and remaining steadfastly optimistic. When family drama occurred, Popsi assured her everything would be okay.
His optimism was often a disadvantage, like when he was certain that there would be no traffic. I looked up to him as the positive, endlessly cheerful optimist in the family. If you ever asked how he was, there was only one answer: ‘Good, good.’ It was such a contrast to how I felt, with social anxiety. He had an answer to everything. I wanted to take on the ease with which he navigated his life, to be as calm, jovial and charming as he was, and stop worrying about what others thought.
Popsi spent many years of his life with the single focus of making sure Nana was comfortable and happy. He used to boom, ‘Your wish is my command, Madam.’
Any joy he felt over seeing his grandchildren was expressed in terms of Nana. ‘Nana was so delighted after your visit,’ he would say. ‘She just loves hearing from her girls.’ He sent surreptitious reminders when her birthday or their anniversary was approaching, to ensure all family contacted her.
As he got older and more fragile, he continued to insist on walking to the bank or post office himself. The younger Popsi could have walked to these places in ten minutes, but now it was taking him up to thirty and he was exhausted on his return. When he had the option to be wheeled by a family member or carer, he refused.
He had car accidents frequently. He would argue, ‘That pole wasn’t there when I parked!’ and failed his driving test, which had, unfortunately for him, just been introduced for over-85s in New South Wales. He immediately applied to retake the test and passed the second time. He was determined to drive, regardless of what his family said. He lost his licence permanently when he had a stroke at the wheel and crashed into a truck outside his building, ending up in hospital.
He had been experiencing strokes for years, but most weren’t debilitating. My parents and various government agency carers helped Nana while Popsi was in hospital until he came back and resumed his duties.
When family members took over the driving for him, he insisted that we pull up illegally at the front doors of the building. Part two of this process was going upstairs to collect Nana in her wheelchair, wheeling her out to the lift and to the front door, then helping her into the front seat and folding up her heavy wheelchair to put in the boot. All of this took a toll on his body, but he loved doing it for her.
His senior years neatly coincided with the invention of home computers, offering a new way to sweeten Nana’s life. The emails he sent to friends and relatives were about her, or from her; she used to dictate lengthy emails that he patiently typed – he would then print the responses in colour for her.
Popsi typed up the book Nana wrote about the wife of her beloved Charles Dickens. Dickens had been an awful husband but he remained Nana’s favourite writer. My dad remembers, ‘Popsi carefully typed the book on his computer, putting a totally unnecessary carriage return at the end of each line on the screen, because that’s how typewriters worked.’ According to Nana, the book wasn’t published because someone beat her to the idea. She wrote a play about Indigenous Australians and unwed mothers that was performed, and Popsi typed individual copies for the cast.
To what extent Popsi volunteered to do these things for her, I can only guess. Nana was good at organising people to do things. I love to remember her perched on her walker, the basket beneath filled to capacity with notepads, several lists, a cordless phone and many pens. She liked to call the local vet and inform them that they were mistreating their dogs by keeping them out in the sun with too little water. She always had projects and ideas. When we were little, she had an idea for a book called Silly Work, which was filled with creative activities for children to do.
Had she grown up in another time, she would have been a powerful businesswoman or a CEO. Or, perhaps, a teacher. Now that I am doing a Masters in Teaching, I see elements of Nana in so much of the work I do. A good teacher uses fun, imagination and creativity in their lessons.
She used to help us make bunnies, tying thread around the top of a ball of cotton wool to make a head, stretching out some ears, and drawing eyes on. She created activities and games for us, things that burst open our imaginations and made us love to write and draw.
Nana was a fairytale cliché of a grandmother, who used to get us to peep into tree trunks looking for fairies and pixies. As a teenager, it was impossible for me to consider that someone that good with young children could offer any advice to a cranky, confused version of the child she loved.
Nana often reminisced that as a child, I used to put my elbows on the table, lean my chin on my clasped hands, and tell her everything. I don’t remember doing this but it seemed important to her, having raised sons who were not quite as willing to talk about feelings, to establish that she had been my confidant. She would say, ‘Why don’t you come and sit on my bed and tell me about it? You liked to do that as a little girl.’
When I fell in love with a woman and entered a serious relationship with her, Nana didn’t mention it for the first couple of years.
One day, she finally addressed it as we sat in the waiting room of St Vincent’s Hospital, waiting for her appointment. She mentioned my girlfriend’s brother in the navy, and pointed out how attractive men in uniforms were – case in point being Popsi during World War Two. I demurred, turning down the idea of swapping partners within my girlfriend’s family.
‘Will you two have children?’
This was the first time I remember Nana acknowledging my relationship. She couldn’t quite look me in the eye but she seemed to genuinely want to know.
In shock, I shrugged and said possibly. This led to a conversation about how two women might achieve this without the helpful presence of a man. I’m certain that we talked far more about sperm than we ever would have if I were seeing a man.
Nana became close to my girlfriend and began to have long conversations with her. When we had to move out of our apartment for a few months, she offered us a room in their apartment, where we shared the bed. She had reached the point of realising that our company, and our arms and legs as we pushed her in her wheelchair to local restaurants and cafes, offered her a great deal of joy and that it wasn’t worth rejecting our relationship on principle.
At this stage, Popsi was already weak, physically, and mostly quiet, distracted and set in his ways. He didn’t mind us living there but would get irritated and fussy, quite uncharacteristically. He would count his change whenever anyone did the shopping for him. But Nana was so theatrical that he mostly went by unnoticed. Nana thrived during our time at their apartment, while Popsi started to fade.
My parents left Sydney in March 2006. My girlfriend and I moved to Melbourne at the end of that year. There were many reasons, but none that make sense to me now. My mum’s mother had passed away in 2004 and my family had never felt the same since. Our group of eight, just by losing one member, had come unstuck. I was sick of grief and conflict. I desired change. I believed that a new place offered a magical fix.
Moving away from my grandparents was one of the hardest things I’ve done.
Popsi avoided direct displays of emotion, and we never discussed missing each other the way Nana and I did. He showed his feelings by getting up early and escorting us to Central Station the day we left Sydney.
Unable to drive us, he put on his blue blazer – which I had adorned with a large Lions Club patch on the pocket, at Nana’s request – and ordered us a taxi. He kissed me goodbye and waved soberly from the window as the taxi driver did a U-turn and headed back towards his apartment.
Popsi showed his love and care through action. He would kiss his family members and generally chose the ‘show, don’t tell’ approach to love.
Years earlier, the way that I felt most connected to Popsi was through religion, even though none of us were particularly observant. My family’s progressive synagogue offered a twice-weekly service for particularly dedicated members at 6:45am. My dad and I used to go with Popsi. I was a high school student at the time, and chose to sacrifice my sleep for the tri-generational bonding time and also for the toast and tea after the service. Popsi insisted on joining us, getting up, shaving and dressing formally and waiting downstairs for us to pick him up. The Rabbi often gave him the honour of being called up to the Torah. When he turned 83, the synagogue offered him a second Bar Mitzvah, which is not common.
When Popsi moved into the nursing home, I particularly missed seeing him in the synagogue. I think Popsi felt happiest when our family practised religion. He loved the words, the melodies and the sense of community he found there. His parents were Romanian, which made him a Sephardic Jew, and he always valued the Yiddish language as well as traditional music. He loved using the Hebrew language, particularly through song. Languages came easily to him, like riddles to solve.
In Melbourne, I found that practising Judaism made me extremely sad. Most of the songs made me think of Popsi. Keeping Passover was distressing, as none of the songs were Popsi’s tunes, and the service lacked his commanding presence.
I travelled to Sydney regularly once I moved. My girlfriend and I were struggling financially at the time, and, after losing a significant amount of weight, I had found out that I had Grave’s Disease. My thyroid gets overactive, flooding my body with thyroid hormones that make my hands tremble and my heart beat incessantly. It is a genetic condition that is believed to be caused by stress.
Despite being highly anxious and ill, I obsessively organised trips back, which involved requesting leave and searching for last minute flights. I constantly feared that one of my grandparents would die.
Popsi turned 90 in November 2007 and Nana threw herself into planning an elaborate function. Despite family conflict that had been going on for years – which is a separate story entirely – she managed to gather most of their family together. It was a celebration of his life and included all of his favourite songs, some of which he jumped up and performed.
I was at work when I found out that Nana died. I saw multiple missed calls on my mobile and asked for permission to go and take a personal call. I broke down when my dad told me.
She had passed away in the night. It was the sort of the death that I always dreaded, as there was no chance to say goodbye, but was probably a good way to go. Popsi found her dead in their bedroom when he woke up.
My dad said, ‘I often wonder about Nana’s death, whether it was as instant and peaceful as I imagine, or whether she lay on the floor trying to wake up the snoring Popsi for a long time. I think he wondered that too, and that that was what finally broke his spirit.’
After Nana’s death, Popsi only lasted at home for a few months, unable to continue functioning without her. I was certain he only used a handful of objects, mostly the kettle and the computer riddled with viruses.
He began to fall, regularly, in his shower. He ended up in the hospital on a regular basis. The series of live-in ‘home sharers’ my parents found for him couldn’t keep him safe, and they quit one after the other, usually after one of his visits to the ER. He wept every time he was taken away in an ambulance or when a well-meaning acquaintance asked about his wife.
I didn’t notice at the time, but his personality had been changing while Nana was alive. Now that she was gone, he changed completely. When we went to visit him, he was distressed and weeping, angry, or apathetic.
Once he moved into the nursing home, I was forced to come to terms with his deterioration. I couldn’t tell if we had been oblivious to the extent of his decline or if his condition had worsened since his arrival. It was hard to believe he managed at home for so long. He always had such a sharp mind that he felt capable and refused help.
For someone so smart and logical, he hadn’t been realistic about his health and abilities. I wondered if his last few energetic years had been forced for Nana’s sake. He must have run on adrenaline and willpower. As long as she was around, he was mobile and desperate to do things for her. Once she was gone, he could give up.
I continued to travel to Sydney regularly, sometimes at the expense of my health. Even though Popsi rarely remembered my visits, I needed to see him. I would rush and stress to get there and then arrive at the nursing home to find total stillness.
I would leave Popsi’s nursing home and then head to Bondi to see my mum’s father, Deda. He was younger, and in better shape, so visiting him felt uplifting. He would ask how Popsi was, and would then shake his head sadly at the response, saying, ‘Poor Popsi.’
I maximised every moment in Sydney, squeezing in visits to family and friends. This meant rushing between places, always conscious of the time and my heart pounding.
My priority was always my grandparents, at the expense of some of my friendships. I couldn’t explain what I was going through, especially to those who hadn’t lost grandparents or others who were not as close to theirs. Losing both grandmothers – who had turned out to be the glue that kept our family together – made me terrified of losing my grandfathers.
On Melbourne Cup Day, my girlfriend and I flew to Sydney and went to the nursing home with our luggage. Popsi alternated between sleeping and staring ahead. We sat with him in silence, holding his hand.
We left to see Deda. All the buses were packed as the nursing home was so close to Randwick Racecourse. We tried to catch a taxi but despite waiting for almost an hour we had no luck. Finally we gave up and walked through Centennial Park, on a moody, overcast afternoon. We could barely laugh at the situation as we dragged our bags through the muddy park and were chased by black swans.
Usually we couldn’t afford for both of us to visit Sydney so I did these trips alone. I would then return to Melbourne late on a Sunday night, not in the best frame of mind to prepare for a week of work.
I was so grateful to have my girlfriend with me that trip. Going alone was fine when Popsi was stronger. Now that he was too weak to communicate, satisfied to sleep most of the day, it was hard to maintain a visit. Above all, it was very upsetting.
She hadn’t seen Popsi in a long time and told me he looked very frail. That was the last time she saw him.
My uncle called my dad on New Year’s Eve. I was staying with my parents at the time in northern New South Wales. My sister and girlfriend were overseas when the call came. Our families rarely spoke and most of the updates about Popsi came by email. This time it was different. Popsi was in hospital and they found gangrene in his foot that had led to infection.
I heard my dad say ‘Oh shit,’ and knew that it was the end.
My parents and I booked the earliest flights to Sydney on New Year’s Day. This turned out to be a time where airports are filled with hung-over travellers, all red-eyed and regretful about having booked the cheapest flight home.
At the nursing home, Popsi had been moved off the bed to a mat on the floor. There was a medical reason for this, related to the gangrene, but at the time there was an absurd jungle-gym feel to the room with its blue floor mats.
Nothing felt familiar about the room, where we spent two full days, and neither did Popsi. I have been in two rooms with dying grandparents and both times, what struck me was the lack of ownership I felt over my beloved grandparent. The medical interventions, which even the most sensitive nurses and doctors try to make non-invasive, make you feel removed, ignorant and helpless. With my previous grandparent’s death – my mum’s mother, Baba – the room was packed with relatives.
This changed once it became clear that there was nothing more the medical and nursing staff could offer beyond morphine doses.
My dad and I took over from my uncle and cousin when we arrived. Before they left, my cousin and I watched our British fathers act stoic and repeat information from the nurses. I realised I might have to help them express emotions, since basic conversation was stilted.
Popsi had been the same. As my dad recalls, ‘He was not good at expressing emotion, but that was the English way that they both cultivated so assiduously. He made up for that when the mini-strokes began to bite.’ The strokes made raw, primal emotion burst out at any moment.
My uncle left in the morning on the second day. I moved to the mat, right beside Popsi, and my dad watched me talk to him and hold his dad’s hand for a long time. With nobody present to judge his responses, my dad also took Popsi’s wrinkled, almost translucent hand. There was something innocent in the gesture, possibly the first time they had held hands in decades, apart from manly handshakes.
We watched Popsi for hours. The gaps between his breaths kept increasing. He was motionless and barely breathing. Each time, just as I was sure he had died, he would breathe in.
In between speaking to nurses and watching him for signs of life, I felt like I couldn’t possibly take anything seriously again. How can you justify fears and worries when you have seen what the end looks like? I could not imagine leaving Popsi’s room and fearing, or feeling, anything again.
It was the first time I watched a person die. There was something spiritual and pure about it, a sense of him leaving his painful body. It turned out that having views on heaven, souls or the afterlife was not important. I was startled by this sense of peace and comfort even in our grief, so unlike what I expected.
At Popsi’s funeral, we played the overture from Bizet’s opera Carmen, his favourite music of all time. He loved to roar the songs but I never understood what they meant. The translated Habanera begins with ‘Love is a rebellious bird that nobody can tame… Love is a gypsy’s child, it has never, ever, known a law…’
Music brought us great comfort. When my dad told Popsi’s British relatives that we unorthodoxly played it at the funeral he said we were ‘Risking him rising from the casket to conduct.’
Popsi’s ashes were scattered at a beach in Rose Bay, outside the RSL where his 90th birthday party was held. Nana’s ashes were in the same body of water.
A few weeks later, our families went through Popsi’s room. The staff unlocked the memory box and let us decide what to do with the objects. Nobody fought over the items in it, as they hadn’t really been that symbolic of his life. From Popsi’s bedside drawers I took his war medals, which he used to wear on ANZAC Day.
I now realise it wasn’t Popsi’s memory box. The entire room was a tribute to Nana and Popsi. Not a happy, loving tribute, but one trapped in time and grief. It was a tomb. We thought we were coming to visit him but we were standing at their graves, mourning their lives.
We are taking a short break and will be back in early January. In the meantime, here's some highlights from this year, as selected by the Seizure crew.Read More
The Doily and the Unsung Heroes: I was sitting at the launch of the Lip Magazine Anthology, that came out of a magazine published in Melbourne from 1976 to 1984. A feminist magazine, it was called a ‘lightning rod’ for art, theatre and journalism in the Women’s Movement.Read More
When has editing not been my worst nightmare? In my dreams the hands of a clock are tiny daggers falling onto my hunched shoulders as I flick rapidly though a finished copy of one of my current projects, encountering error after error. There is an implied and inevitable death that looms, and then I wake up all sweaty, wondering whether the dream is likely to come true later that day. Being awake is not much better.
An obvious disclaimer: I wouldn’t be editing if it didn’t make me feel fulfilled and alive. I don’t want to say love. What I find myself more fascinated by, on a macro level, is the amount of physical and emotional and mental anguish that I seem to thrive on when copyediting a 90,000-word manuscript.
Am I an editor in the sexy sense of the word? I stopped using my leather messenger bag almost straightaway when the hard round corner banged against my thigh often enough to form a bruise. I wear glasses but they are always dirty, so I am just as blind as without, though with the added bonus of looking very grubby. Anyway, I think most book editors would probably agree that the ‘sexy’ element of editing is largely steeped in myth. I do not commission books for publication. Also, I do not schmooze*, or float around industry events, wine glass in hand, kissing cheeks.
None of that matters. What matters is the word. The line. Beats. The repeated adjectives and the not-yet-fully formed narrative links or devices. Does this slight bend of a grammatical convention signal the author’s acrobatic prowess with words or their laziness? Do I care that the reader might need to work a little harder to make sense of this idea? Some of the most rewarding texts I’ve read required a support group to get through. There is always a line to observe between the necessary difficulty of a difficult idea and the unnecessary obfuscation of a writer attempting to be deliberately provocative or intimidating.
I’m trying hard not to spout clichés about editors. That we are by requirement solitary, nerdy beings. That committing a grammar sin in our vicinity might result in your eyebrows being singed in a fire-breathing rage, or worse. I care when I am paid to, or when I am your friend and you have asked. Or when I deem it a worthy contribution to a greater good. And even then, who knows, I might just query it. Editors who act like they know everything are bores. They are also likely to correct words or lines or sentences within a vacuum that ignores increasing common usage or nuances between spoken and written and regionally or culturally or sociologically based grammars.
This piece is difficult to write. As someone who is not a ‘natural’ writer, I am suspicious of those who claim that writing comes ‘naturally’ to them; my own, albeit limited, experiences suggest an emphatic opposite truth. Even when I am (you might think) ripping your novel into pieces and attempting to cleave it together again, I am never unaware of how arduous a task it is to write. I feel like writing and editing share something in common: the more you discover, the less you feel you know. One does not need to be a dictionary to be an editor, merely to be near one at all times. And one must always be viscous. By that I mean fluid, but not drippy; pliable and ready to accept that lessons, in writing as in life, are constantly learnt and relearnt.
Editing takes hours, days, weeks or months. It is a piece of string. An editor occupies their author’s text wholly, and yet must navigate a porous landscape of intention, effect, meaning and objectivity. It is an unnerving sensation to make suggestions to an author’s work. I cannot bring myself to defend too heartily the idea of the infallible editor. Editors might make errors of judgement or misread an author’s intention or, indeed, skim breezily over a comma splice without noticing. The editor is not a robot.
For me the editor’s role is an immediately counterintuitive one. I’ve learnt over the years that a lack of confidence in one’s work is potentially damaging to the integrity of the process (what author would trust the editor who does not trust herself?), and yet I’ve found it necessary to the job itself. Who was that exceedingly arrogant assistant who once thought she could possibly have anything useful to offer a writer’s work? There was something deliciously alluring about the prospect of working on books. I was drawn to both the creative collaboration and the ‘pure’ fealty to the power of language that such a position would require. The ability to disregard ego (whether one’s own or the author’s) while being sutured to it. These days I am less passionate about books than I am about words – the implications of historical and political inquiries into language itself. But that is a different story from the one I’m telling here.
Part of my vacillation stems from thinking about invisibility. Regarding the invisibility of editing, there is a feeling of tacit camaraderie. I want to champion the collective visibility of editors’ work, but at the same time, I value the privacy of my own. Editors, like most people who are absorbed by their work, love to talk about editing with others, but there is vulnerability for both editor and author in exposing the literal line edits and decisions one has made in the course of working through a manuscript. Moreover, whatever sense of union exists does not translate into an organised labour force. This is surprising, perhaps, until we remember that it is a lonely type of work filled with affective labour, by its very nature ‘service-like’ (the editor always in service to the author’s and publisher’s and market’s needs), dominated by women, and therefore characterised by large portions of unpaid and underpaid hours. The role of the editor is a role of dwindling importance within Western trade publishing logic, and I am conscious of a correlation between the perception of the work we do and the compensation historically received.
There’s a ‘value-adding’ component to editing. Something has to happen in between manuscript delivery and typesetting in order for the book to be realised in its commodity form, but the intellectual nature of editing renders this labour invisible. Very broadly, we might compare the work of editors to those of mothers, carers, wives: women whose work within the home contributed to aspects of capitalist reproduction and yet has been, for a long time, hidden from view. The inability to quantify such work under capitalism makes it is easier to justify as low-paid or unpaid.
For these reasons, privacy is not always a noble aim for an editor (though respect is always owed to the author). Privacy is where exploitation thrives, where suffering for the good of the work is silenced, where the work of editors is subsumed by the machinery of the products it helps create. To clarify: yes, books always pass through machine bellies before entering the world, but I mean machinery in the larger industry sense of the word too. I must nod vigorously to Diana Athill in regard to the private aspect of work: ‘The working breakfast, and taking work home at weekends – two activities regarded by many as necessary evidence of commitment . . . were to me an abomination.’ And then later in the same paragraph: ‘I was not ashamed of valuing my private life more highly than my work.’ Her point is characteristically acute, even over a decade since Stet was first published.
The overwhelming perception that we might require a blood-pact level of passion for the work of editing is damaging to wage levels and working conditions. My addiction to editing is complex. Even with the most dedicated and generous authors it often feels like quicksand, but I am happily sinking. The nightmare might after all be one I don’t want to wake from. Those who edit and those who have been edited well understand best that in this kind of work, the reward is not so clear-cut. The moment of being struck by the rare epiphany that reveals the story’s essence is invariably couched in long hours of slow trudging through viscous language. And then the triumphant moment is quickly snatched when author or publisher disagrees and we are back at the beginning. We work in a state of constant precipice. A new approach, or a fight worth having.
*Me and my co-editors at SUS press, Eddie Hopely and Astrid Lorange, occasionally ask our poet friends and subjects of our admiration to send us their small chapbook manuscripts, which we lay out and print and scan, so perhaps in this small, communally minded way, I am a schmoozer after all.
I want to modestly propose a potential solution to the ‘boat people’ problem (or should that be boat people ‘problem?’…sometimes I think certain segments of the right wing pronounce it boat ‘people’ problem. Like the term ‘Christian Scientist’, where I’m never sure which word the sceptical quote marks should embrace). Let’s call it the asylum seeker issue. Because words matter, and I’ll choose the blandest ones possible while navigating fraught political waters.
Here is the proposal.
If you are being processed as a refugee, as an asylum seeker; if your papers are not in order; if you’ve come by boat and have no papers; if you’re one of these ‘difficult to process’ people, the current solutions offered to you by the Australian government are… how do the politicians put it? Ah yes: ‘Less than ideal.’ Now I’m not a doctor, but as far as I understand it, the current procedure is to send you, the difficult person looking for a better life to which you are (definitely/maybe/not) entitled back to where you came from. Other solutions include preventing you from being annoying to real people Australians by shanghai-ing  you en route and putting you in a camp until your legal invisibility permeates your sense of self worth and you become transparent and disappear (?). I can’t say I really have my head around the (political) science, but I think that’s how it’s meant to work.
Ok, so you  are a difficult person to process. You want to come to Australia, but we’re  worried you might be an ‘economic migrant’ (someone who wants a better life, filthy freeloading chump), instead of a ‘real’ refugee (someone who wants not to die please, please). Here’s my modest proposal to you. I will phrase it in the form of a question, because I want you (the reader) to ‘join the conversation’ (please don’t threaten to punch me). What’s wrong with the idea of the Australian government presenting asylum seekers with this choice: You can be processed at the normal speed through the normal channels, or you can opt in to a fixed term of indentured servitude, national-service style for five years, after which we will give you a grant of money and let you loose in the community as a full citizen. What’s wrong with that idea? Other than the obvious problems with this maybe being a sort of illegal indentured servitude, obviously.
Certainly, the potential for abuse of power over vulnerable people who have thrown themselves on our mercy is…well actually, that potential seems somehow less ghastly in the glow of current and ongoing human rights abuses in our processing of refugees.
Indentured servitude is basically slavery, but it’s not indefinite detainment without hope of parole or escape or release – this proposal is in the form of an optional fixed-term contract. You’d buy your Australian citizenship with the sweat of your brow. I mean, even if you are a sneaky horrible person trying to buy a new life by risking limb and children on a leaky boat, old mate RSL racist is hardly going to say you haven’t worked for your right to live here if you’ve worked for your right to live here by working for your right to live here.
Think of the proud history of Australia! For hundreds of years, we’ve been exploiting beleaguered, displaced and harried people’s desire for a new life to build our nation! Convicts who were sent to Australia in the first couple of fleets would work out their prison term, and on being released, were often given a grant of land as an incentive to stay and build the new nation and then we had a nation with people in it. We let immigrants in to Australia to build the Snowy River thingy and now we have milk bars and people with ethnic grandparents who ask intrusive questions about your dating life. Jews snuck into Australia on dodgy papers after WWII and now we have my granny (she’s dead now though. Are you happy, bigots?).
It’s not just an Australia thing either. People join the French foreign legion all the time! Creepy people trying to escape dodgy histories can become French citizens just by doing push-ups for five years and risking their lives in dangerous warzones. I once met a French guy who told me that all Japanese people looked like monkeys. Are you saying the French are less racist than we are?
Seriously though. How is my proposed solution worse than the current situation, where new immigrants are treated like second-class citizens, and desperate asylum seekers are thrown into a limbo of discomfort and purposelessness and uncertainty for an indefinite period of time.
The fear of sneaky and calculating economic migrants would be allayed; anyone who is seeking to game the system for an easy life in Australia is likely to be turned off by the prospect of years and years of hard work. Even if you are a fake refugee, even if you are not running from persecution, or if you’re attracted to the idea of living in a better place, if you’re willing to work hard to build things to make a better Australia, you deserve to be here. Most great nations have been built on the backs of slaves and convicts, because there’s work that builds nations which is too expensive or long-sighted to justify in capitalist economic terms. Why not make slavery into a win-win situation? Let’s put people on infrastructure building; jobs that are not being done by Australian citizens, jobs where it’s too expensive to hire labour.
I do understand that the idea of people signing away human rights is insane. In the end though, people are usually happier signing away rights to achieve some end goal than having rights forcibly taken away. Just look at how willing we are to have people look at our dirty underpants in airport security.
Unfortunately, we’re not facing a situation where people and politics will accept kind, compassionate and generous immigration policies. Politically, if you’re a government that wants to be voted back in, you need to be seen to be taking a hard stance on asylum seekers. Why not let asylum seekers choose how hard they want to work for us?
1. The last thing I want is to write a whole article about transpacific boat travel and then have somebody from the transoceanic community accuse me of excluding the boats that happen to be crossing the Atlantic. That would totally hijack the discussion, making it about bodies of water and not about what we can practicably do to solve the problem of politically driven human geo-re-location.
2. No offence meant to the people of Shanghai. The term ‘to shanghai’ has co-opted and misrepresented your identity in a very colonial way, but since it is in common use, I will keep using it until I can think of another one. Sorry again.
3. Not actually you, ha ha of course. They don’t let refugees have the internet, don’t be an idiot.
4. Mainly older people who listen to talk-back radio, and idiots. Sorry (not sorry) if my repeated use of the term idiot to mean anyone that doesn’t agree with me is offensive.
5. This analogy is not entirely correct because it’s not illegal to seek asylum.
Machinery and technology have always intimidated me. I did not dare to use a motor-mower until I was in my fifties with sons old enough to help me start it. I bought a mobile phone fifteen years ago and have carried it ever since in the boot of my car. I make a phone call occasionally but have never even learned to store numbers in my machine. My previous car had a facility for playing audio tapes, and I succeeded in mastering it. However, the car that I bought four years ago plays only compact discs. I have a few discs that I listen to occasionally at home but not enough to warrant my struggling to master the thing in my dashboard. I can use the radio in my car but because I live in a remote district I can pick up only a few stations, and their programs fail to interest me. Luckily, I can pick up the station that broadcasts horse-races from all over Australia and even, sometimes, from New Zealand. I still call the station 3UZ, although it acquired a fancy new name some time ago.
Only a few years ago, the Herald Sun published every day the fields and riders for every race-meeting covered by the Victorian TAB. Nowadays, only a few meetings appear in print. No doubt the details of all the other meetings are available on some or another website, but a man who can’t use the cd-player in his car is hardly likely to be able to use computers. And so, when I’m driving on some lonely road in the far west of Victoria and I switch on my car-radio, the names of the horses in the race being described just then are more than likely names that I’ve never seen in print. The course where the race is being run is more than likely in the vast part of Australia where I’ve never been. What, then, do I see in mind while I hear a rapidly spoken report of the changing positions of horses unknown to me in a place I’ve seen only on maps?
Writing has for me at least one advantage over speaking. While I’m writing, I pause often to make sure that the words I’m about to set down are truly accurate. I might have told someone in conversation that I often see in mind, while I’m driving alone, a field of horses approaching a winning-post at Gunnedah or Rockhampton or Northam. But I’m not about to write that I see any such thing. I ought rather to write that a radio broadcast of a horse-race brings to my mind a swarm of vague, blurred images, a few being images of horses with jockeys up but most having no resemblance to horses or jockeys. The images, of course, are accompanied by feelings, some easy to report – such as my willing one or another horse to win – and others difficult indeed to describe.
Perhaps if I were a horseman, I would more easily call to mind the horses themselves while I listen to race-broadcasts. I might even imagine the race from the viewpoint of a jockey with a straining, pounding horse beneath him. The fact is though, that I’ve never sat astride a horse, let alone urged it into a gallop or even a canter. During all the countless hours that I’ve spent on racecourses, I’ve never really looked at a horse. When I recall some of the famous horses that have raced in front of me – Tulloch, Tobin Bronze, Vain, Kingston Town, and the like – I see in mind no images of bays or browns or chestnuts or whatever, with distinctive heads or conformation. Instead, I might recall, for example, the finish of the first race that Tulloch won in Melbourne on Caulfield Cup Day, 1956, or the newspaper pictures of his elderly owner during the weeks when the old fool dithered over Tulloch’s running in the 1957 Melbourne Cup. I would not fail to see an image of Tulloch’s racing colours – red and white striped jacket, black sleeves and cap. I would see also the features of the jockey who often rode Tulloch, Neville Sellwood, the same man who deliberately stopped Tulloch from winning the 1960 Melbourne Cup, just as he stopped the favourite, Yeman, from winning the 1958 Cup. (Of course I can’t prove these claims, but for me they are facts of history.) As well as seeing these things in mind, I would feel yet again the feelings forever bound up with those remembered images. I might even become again for a moment the troubled young man that I was when Tulloch was racing. But I don’t want to go there just now. I’m supposed to be writing about my present self, alone in my car on an empty road and hearing a report of a field of unknown horses on some far-away racecourse.
Many people seem to believe that what passes through their minds is a sort of mental film: a replay of things that have already happened or of things they would like to happen in the future. Perhaps some people do have films running through their minds, but most of the sequences in my mind are more like cartoons or comic-strips or surreal paintings. Often, the sounds of a race-broadcast will cause me to see in mind what I saw during the first years when I heard such sounds. Those were the years from 1944 to 1948, when I lived in a weatherboard cottage in Neale Street, Bendigo. I would have liked, during those years, to sit in the kitchen with my father of a Saturday afternoon and to listen with him to the radio-broadcasts of races from Flemington, Caulfield, Moonee Valley, or Mentone, but both my parents discouraged me from doing so. If they sensed already that their eldest child was on the way to becoming obsessed with horse-racing, then they were absolutely correct. If they sensed that he would one day gamble recklessly, crazily, on horses as his father was often apt to gamble, then his parents were wrong. And if they thought that their banning him from listening to race-broadcasts would take away his interest in horse-racing, then they were likewise wrong. Bendigo was a quiet place in the mid-1940s. Few motor vehicles passed along Neale Street or the nearby McIvor Road. Even halfway down the backyard, among my pretend-landscapes of farms and roads and townships each with a racecourse on its outskirts – even there I could hear as much as I needed to hear of the sounds from the mantel-radio in the kitchen. What I heard were not distinctive words but vocal sounds: a chant or a recitative that began quietly, progressed evenly, rose to a climax, and then subsided again. I had never, of course, seen a horse-race, but I saw every Wednesday the centre pages of the Sporting Globe. That thriving publication was always printed on pink newsprint, which made the dim reproductions of black-and-white photographs even more grey and grainy. The centre pages of the Globe, as everyone called it, were filled with results of the Melbourne race-meeting of the previous Saturday. Around the margins were detailed statistics, and on either side of the central gutter were the pictures that I pored over: two pictures for every race, one of the field at the home-turn and the other of the same field at the winning-post.
The pictures, as I wrote above, were grey and grainy. As well, several of the racecourses of Melbourne were so arranged that the winning post was overshadowed by the grandstand from mid-afternoon onwards. As a result, anyone wanting to see in the Globe the images of the horses themselves had to strain to distinguish them from the murky background. This, however, never troubled me. I learned all that I wanted to learn from the names of the horses, which were clearly printed in upper-case letters in the upper half of each illustration. Each name was enclosed in a boldly outlined rectangle, and from some part of the lower margin of each rectangle a shape like a curved stalactite led down to the head of the horse denoted by the name in the rectangle.
I recall still, nearly seventy years later, some of the first racehorse-names that I read in the Sporting Globe. More than that, I recall the effect on me of my reciting those names in the way that the racing commentators recited them. So strongly do I recall the effects of some names that I am able nowadays to put out of my mind the dictionary meanings of those names and to see the clusters of images that they promoted long ago and to feel the moods connected with the images. I did not know, for example, the dictionary meaning of the word Hiatus or even whether the word was to be found in any dictionary. Whenever I saw the world above the blurred image of a racehorse in the Globe, I saw at once an image of a bird in flight above a deserted seashore or estuary. Not until many years laters did I learn who were the Icene or who was Tamerlane. The word Icene above the blurred image of a racehorse brought to mind a long silver-white robe worn by some notable female personage and the pleasant sound of the train of the robe as it swept across a floor of cream-coloured marble. Tamerlane denoted for me a grassy pathway overhung by rows of tamarisk trees. Many names, of course, failed to impress me or even repelled me. (It seemed to me then, and it seems so still, that most racehorses are poorly named.) I can recall from the 1940s such drab names as Lord Baden, Cheery Boy, and Zezette. The bearers of such names fared badly in my early imaginary races, which were invariably won by horses with appealing names.
I have hardly begun to describe the complexity of what I saw and felt during those imaginary races, so to call them. Vague shapes of horses were in the background, but the foreground included more than names in upper-case letters and the imagery arising from those names. Hovering nearby were shadowy images of persons, most of them males in suits and ties and with grey felt hats low on their brows.
In the 1940s, and for several decades afterwards, most racehorses in Australia were owned by one man alone, and all trainers and jockeys were men. Nowadays, syndicates predominate, many with ten or more members, but I grew up believing that the typical owner of a horse racing n Melbourne was a wealthy businessman or grazier or a medical or legal practitioner. The typical trainer may have lacked the social standing of the owners, his clients, but he looked hardly different, and if he was one of those described by racing journalists as shrewd or astute, he might have been even wealthier than they. Since no well-dressed or wealthy men were to be seen in the back streets of Bendigo, the image-men in my mind would have been derived from illustrations in newspapers. As for the men’s histories or personalities, I seemed to have understood already that these were of little account on a racecourse; an owner or a trainer was defined by the performance of his horses.
My image-horse had image-jockeys, of course, but these were mostly inscrutable. The nearest I had come to seeing an actual jockey was my standing beside my father at the Bendigo Showgrounds on a cold evening during the so-called Easter Fair while a few harness horses paraded before the race that was run as part of a program of foot-races and cycling-races and axemen’s contests. My father called out to a driver that he knew, and the man walked his horse to the outside fence, leaned back in his sulky, and exchanged a few words. While the horse and driver were approaching us, my father had told me that the driver was Clarry Long and the horse Great Dalla. Clarry, like many Bendigonians, was of Chinese descent and his mostly expressionless demeanour made him seem to me more self-assured than myself or my father. Clarry was wearing the first set of racing colours that I had seen, and the same weak light from atop the nearby stanchion that made Clarry’s face seem waxen worked also on the satin of his jacket. I have for long surmised that Great Dalla’s colours were brown with pale-blue stars and cap, but such was the play of light on the star-shapes, on that long-ago evening in far-away Bendigo, that I sometimes decide that the stars on the brown background were not pale blue but silver or even mauve or lilac.
The meagre details reported in the previous half-dozen paragraphs all went into the making of the complex imagery that appeared to me whenever I heard from the backyard the sounds of a race-broadcast. At different times while the chanted sounds reached me, I was aware of images of greyish pink horse-shapes, of horse-names in upper-case letters, of spectators looking out anxiously from under hat-brims, of jockeys with mask-like faces and vague-coloured jackets. I was aware too, of course, that much was at stake while these images jostled and vied.
The human voice is a marvellous instrument, and the ear that interprets it is hardly less so. I seem to have learned during my first days as a listener to race-broadcasts that a caller is sometimes able to signal to his listeners, even when the field is a hundred metres or more from the winning post, that one or another horse will almost certainly win. In some such races the likely winner may have broken clear from the rest; in many a race it may be some distance behind the leaders but gaining noticeably. Whatever the situation, the caller is able to utter the relevant name with such emphasis that his listeners are spared any further suspense. In the dusty backyard, I was often unable to make out a single name but still able to detect the emphatic utterance that signalled in advance the result of a race and to hope that the name thus emphasised was what I would have deemed a worthy name.
Driving alone nowadays and hearing reports of the progress of horses unknown to me, I often choose from a number of names the one that most appeals to me I then suppose myself to be one of the owners of the horse so named or to have backed it to win a large sum. Then I listen intently, hoping to hear my chosen name uttered with that certain emphasis that I learned, nearly seventy years ago, to recognise. On one such occasion recently, the invisible horse that I aligned myself with had a name that appealed to me greatly but was always toiling at the rear, to use one of the many stock expressions of race-callers and racing journalists. Even as a dreaming child, I had no wish to be a caller of races. I must have understood that I could never be cool enough or impartial enough during the running of a race to be able to report its developments accurately. And yet, I’ve been for most of my life moved often to hear in mind or to whisper under my breath or even, sometime when alone, to deliver aloud a few phrases or even a single word from a broadcast of some or another race never yet run on earth. I was thus moved on the occasion mentioned above, after the horse with the appealing name had finished among the tail-enders. I was driving at the time on a back road with bitumen wide enough for only one vehicle. I would have felt at liberty to express myself not just once but several times except that I saw from the rear-vision mirror that a huge truck was close behind me. Apparently I had slowed down while I was preoccupied with racing matters, and the driver of the truck was now anxious for me to get back to the speed limit or to pull over into the gravel and to let him pass. I saw just then a signpost ahead on the left and I flicked on my left-side blinker. The road that I turned into was of gravel and overhung with trees. I guessed that it led towards the Little Desert but the paddocks on either side were well grassed and dotted with sheep. I found a place wide enough for a safe U-turn and stopped. I wound down the driver’s side-window. I listened at first to the profound silence. Then I drew a deep breath and cried out once only what I had been urged for some time past to cry out. Then I watched perhaps a dozen sheep on the far side of the fence lift their heads and stare in my direction. I waited until every sheep had resumed its grazing and then I cried out again – not, of course, to the sheep but to the ideal listeners in the ideal world that I first populated nearly seventy years ago when I first heard a disembodied voice cry out with significant emphasis some such name as Something for the Pain.
Note from the author:
This piece of writing is the first section of a book-length work, not yet published, with the title Something for the Pain: A memoir of the turf.
I felt smaller in Berlin than I ever had before: the Northern Germans are, by and large, a big-boned people, the shanks of their legs are particularly impressive. My language teacher had taken to calling me ‘Fee-ona’, from the German word for fairy, or sprite; I couldn’t reach any of the pots in my billeted kitchen. And I was nervous that evening, as I always am at train stations, faced with the mechanised movement of so many people, so many ways to get swept up and out and along. The station was crawling with football fans headed to a screening of a match somewhere near the Brandenburg Gate and I knew, as it were, that the German trains would run on time.
I was wending my way west, I sat against a tinted window, the sinking of the sun slow and languorous as it is in the height of summer at these longitudes. It was dusk for almost all of my four-hour journey, only the last few towns finally sank into the dark. The window reflected, just off-centre, a glowing orange sun, the landscape passing on the other side of the train. The reflection blurred slightly, fuzzed around the edges, the long sun tinted the whole scene the strange sepia-orange of old polaroids. It was as if I was looking at the present landscape through some strange, shadowy resemblance of the past, a feeling I kept encountering in Berlin, as if I were filtering everything I saw through a photo album long gone grainy and crackled.
I was traveling west, after a month of intense language classes, and an even more intense schedule of visits to museums and makeshift bars with ex-pat poets, who delighted in the ridiculously low prices and large shots of hard spirits in Berlin. West, to the small city of Münster, which claims fame as the bicycle capital of Germany, and as the site of the gothic Lambertikirche cathedral, its clock face supporting three huge, blackened cages. These cages once held the corpses of the town’s most famous rebels, who had promoted propertylessness and polygamy in their agenda, and had controlled the city for eleven months, sometime in the sixteenth century. I hadn’t been to Münster for more than ten years, since a Winter-long student exchange in high school. My host family, in the first days of my visit, had borrowed a neighbour’s child’s bike for me. As I rode into school each day, at least one person would say oh, I had one of those when I was small. I had been well.
My host parents, Hannelore and Christian, picked me up from the train with their dog, a sleek, aloof and lanky thing, with a chest that swept magnificently upwards. In the front hallway, the very same deer-skulls still hung on the walls, the date they were hunted down written in black ink across their foreheads. The same Warhol print in the living room. The same tablecloth was in the kitchen, I’d remembered its print of culinary herbs and their cursive names, which had soaked into me a marvellous vocabulary, Basilikum, Thymian, Rosmarin, Salbei. In my attic bedroom with the sloping roof, the one I’d slept in all those years ago, a bunch of pale pink snapdragons, called Löwenmau – lions’ maws – were resting on the bedside table. The relief I felt was physical, a sudden heaviness of limb, an abandoning of the constant guardedness that Berlin had pressed upon me. I remembered waking early in this room, and watching nuns cycle past on thin-framed bikes, trying to catch the first snow of the season in my hands, thrust through the tiny window. On the small green writing desk was a ceramic dish filled with foil-wrapped marzipan. ‘You must still love marzipan!’ Hannelore said.
In Berlin, I couldn’t help but realise, very early on, that so much of what we know medically about hunger comes, however indirectly, from this land. That the two most notorious – and most thorough – studies of hunger came about because of the Second World War. The first of these is easier to talk about, because it happened at the University of Minnesota, in preparation for an eventuality that no one really knew the scale of yet. An academic hunger – it was 1944, and ethics boards were yet to be imagined into being.
The Minnesota Experiment recruited a group of healthy young men, mostly conscientious objectors, who had passed a rigorous series of physical and psychological tests to prove that they were specimens in their prime. These men were deliberately deprived of the full amount of food their bodies needed over a period of nine months, the changes in their weight, behaviour, physical functioning observed at a minute level, before a period of re-feeding later on. They were creating, in a controlled way, a microcosm of what whole populations were experiencing in Europe, trying to model what rehabilitation might need to look like once the war was won. At this stage, the scientists were thinking of the civilian damage of war – the famine caused by destruction of farmland, loss of manpower, disruption of infrastructure. No one could imagine yet what was happening in the camps.
The men ate boiled potatoes, swedes, macaroni, bread, the kinds of foods that Europe’s population was relying so heavily on. They were given small doses, occasionally and unpredictably, of sugar, butter or meat. They were expected to walk thirty-five kilometres each day, and lose twenty-five percent of their body weight in the first twelve weeks. One of the diagnostic requirements for of anorexia, in comparison, is a ten percent weight loss. The lead investigator, Ancel Keys, became well known in the 1960s for publishing several books on The Mediterranean Diet, advocating olive oil, antipasto and red wine. He also invented the BMI.
Keys’ subjects, these perfectly healthy young men, soon exhibited so much of the behaviour that I had, until I learnt about the study, only ever seen written as the symptomology of any eating disorder. The lists of things to watch for in your daughter, the tell-tale signs I’d been so steadfastly ignoring in myself. The men grew rigid around meal times and developed intricate meal rituals, eating slowly, guarding their plates, asking for extra salt and extra spices. (My use of garlic had become infamous within my family, my dishes inedible to everyone else.) They chewed each mouthful many times, cut their potatoes into miniscule, even pieces.
Some men drank up to fifteen cups of coffee a day, others chewed gum endlessly. They collected cookbooks and takeaway menus, became irritable, snappy, they squabbled. They were possessive. One man was caught rifling through the laboratory’s garbage, eating food scraps straight from the bin. Most bought and hoarded food – not to eat, just to own – and kept it in the wardrobes of their rooms. And every single one of the thirty-six volunteers eventually stole from the grocer in the town where they were staying.
I had been stealing, by the time I read about Minnesota, for over two years, mostly from the oversized, overstocked Coles on the first floor of Broadway, near my house. It wasn’t a matter of need, I could afford the items I was dropping to the bottom of my bag. I rarely ate them. I know I felt, at times, resentful at the idea of paying for food that I’d go to great lengths to avoid, that I only needed to feed to friends at dinner parties, or to give my pantry shelves some appearance of normality, but it’s still not something that I really understand. I said this out loud, once, inside the public hospital clinic I attended for my treatment, an eight-week, four-days-a-week group program that I finally acceded to after two full years of trying to get better on my own, and there was silence.
And then the other women started talking. One of them had stolen ice-cream and chocolate, in quantities she was embarrassed to run past the check-out staff. One had been unable to pay for her binges. Two had been caught by store detectives, one was forced to go to court.
None of us had ever spoken of our theft before. But part of us had become animal, gathering and squirrelling away the things we needed to survive, hoarding outside ourselves the things we kept in such dire shortage inside our bodies. None of us had ever said these things before.
The men grew apathetic, inattentive. They gave up on their studies, on their relationships, because they just couldn’t be bothered any more. They couldn’t concentrate. They stopped telling jokes. Their dreams, when they occurred, were about food. I only recently realised that most people don’t eat in their dreams.
The physical effects of starvation syndrome – as it came to be called – are much more familiar, more obvious. The body grows thin, the organs – especially the heart – slow, and shrink. Bones hollow, muscles waste as the body begins to feed off itself. The skin grows dull, flaky and grey; it breaks easily, and repairs itself with difficulty. It bruises. Hands and feet grow cold, hair and nails brittle. Keys described the process as a strange kind of accelerated ageing, a trimming back, economising on anything that isn’t essential to survival. The men fell more often, grew clumsier. But their senses stayed alert, and their mental acuity did too. Starvation is a state of constant sensual anxiety, even as the body powers down.
In the clinic, we were told that our bodies were like cars, we have to fill them up with petrol or they stop running. I said I was trying out solar power and was sent from the room like a naughty child.
The Minnesota Experiment was less successful around the question of rehabilitation – it wasn’t until the sweeping crises across Africa in the 1980s and 90s that scientists finally got a handle on the delicate processes of refeeding the starving body without causing it to completely to shut down in shock. The experiment had been designed to include two phases of refeeding: the first six weeks, a controlled and gradual stepping up, where different groups of men were given different supplements, different calories, but essentially the same meals, potatoes, swedes, butterless bread. This was to be followed by a ‘free’ phase, where the men were allowed to eat whatever they desired. But the men rebelled in the controlled phase, angry and impatient, and began eating outside of the program. They’d grown stubborn and rigid and controlling, impatient, they’d turned inwards, into themselves.
But as the men slowly became better fed, almost all of their symptoms reversed. With nutrition, the body healed itself, with energy, their concentration, attention returned. But behaviourally, psychologically, there were traces that remained, tactics learnt that just wouldn’t go away. All of the men ended the project weighing more than they had at the beginning, eating more, and more quickly, lest the food be taken from them again. Many of them battled with obesity for the rest of their lives, others claimed to never have lost their distrustfulness. Three of them left their studies to become chefs. I’ve met many ex-patients, throughout my treatment, who have become nurses, even more who are now studying psychology.
The body never forgets starvation. I think of my grandfather, still keeping old, but repairable watches, promotional DVDs from Sunday newspapers, recycled pieces of string inside his cupboards, having come of age in the Depression.
More and more I think that the body never forgets places, the spaces it has moved through. I walked through the empty bedrooms on the top floor of that house in Münster, where my host sisters, now studying in larger towns across the country, had grown up, remembered laughing with Marieke over her English homework (‘I think Simon fancies you!’), playing card games on the rolled-rag carpet, lighting candles with Daniele and strategising about her painful crush on her hockey coach, Micha. The flat tiles beneath my feet. I remembered Daniele convincing me that the pale gratings on my soft-serve ice-cream, which the Germans call Spaghetti-Eis were parmesan cheese, ordering a pizza with Erbsen because I didn’t know the word translated as green peas, how I started mimicking the way Daniele would stab her teaspoon through the paper lid of her emptied yoghurt, never peeling it off completely.
Downstairs the next morning, Hannelore and Christian were sitting at opposite ends of their dark, wooden table, the still points in a scattershot of newspaper, pots of marmalade and jam and plates of bread, a silver coffee service, squat peaches and crumbled eggshells. Hannelore leapt to her feet and hugged me. Fi-chen, she said, using the diminutive, ‘we take sweet breakfast here, but I just remembered you like cheese!’ She bounded to the cellar for another platter, more butter, they’d chosen regional specialties and a smoky raclette, which I didn’t remember having tried before until I bit into the wedge thrust on my plate. The body remembers.
One of my Australian friends now living in Berlin claims the trick to a German-style breakfast is to empty your pantry onto the table.
I was talking to Christian about Berlin, how fascinated I had been by the very visible layerings of history on the skin of the city, struggling to express this in my clumsy, flat-tongued German. Christian had been born there, but was evacuated as a small child to his relatives in the countryside near Hannover in the early stages of the war, only ever able to return on short visits after the division of the country. ‘You see, Fi-chen,’ he said suddenly, ‘This is why we think of you, still, as our Australian daughter! You were always interested, always keen to be involved. You were always curious. It was lovely, no?’
I stopped pushing my cheese around my plate, telescoped suddenly outside of my self. I saw the image had stayed frozen there, in someone else’s eyes, across the intervening years. I got a glimpse of my fuzzy sixteen-year-old self, overseas for the first time, as yet uncomplicated by disease. I’d been well then.
Hannelore took me to the markets that morning, where eggs were sorted into cartons according to the colour of their shell. She introduced me to their greengrocer, a bow-armed, braided woman, and bought me a dried fruit mix named ‘Sunshine’ because it made her think about my home. We stopped in at a church on the way home where a group of women were raising funds for the blind, by teaching passersby to type in braille using a six-pronged machine that looked almost musical, each thin, metal key ending with a raised lump for embossing the papers beneath it. I stepped up to have a try and the young woman in charge immediately asked ‘Können Sie Deutsch?’
Hannelore visibly expanded in pride. ‘Fiona,’ she said, ‘is a Germanist.’
I’d never though of myself in that way before, either.
In Berlin, I was constantly being asked why I had learnt German, even by the ex-pat writers I kept meeting, most of whom could only stumble through a menu or a ticket purchase, regardless of how long they had been living in the city. There were exceptions, of course: the students studying Heidegger, Marx or Kant, those who’d learnt bedroom intimacies from local girlfriends. No one ever believes me when I say I love the way the language sounds, how full and fleshy it feels in the mouth, how chewy. But it’s also a systematic language, bound by rules, by precise and careful delineations. It may well be that this is what appeals to me, this structure, this clarity. This regulation.
It took me some weeks to adjust to the different rhythm of time in Berlin. I’ve always been an early riser, but this city doesn’t shake itself awake, in summer at least, until close to noon. In this early stillness, I walked the streets of a morning, the furry blossoms of linden trees drifting in heaps around me, the footpaths uneven and cracked by their roots. In my first days, mapless, I went searching for remnants of the Wall, and traced instead the lines of metal plates embedded in the street to mark its footprint. I was barely three months out of the clinic, I wasn’t supposed to be walking like this, but this was Walter Benjamin’s home city, a flâneur’s city, I was terrified by the ferocity of the cyclists to boot. I took to having breakfast, once the shutters started rolling up, in a café called Suicide Sue.
In those first days I’d felt stiff-tongued and dumb. It had been at least six years since I’d last had cause to use my German, and my mouth had rusted over. I could understand everything that was being said to me, eavesdrop on conversations, but the words I wanted to use were always hovering somewhere just out of my reach. I spent a lot of time nodding, smiling my way through shop transactions, unable to participate properly in the small social exchanges of the everyday. I was without words, somehow, and I felt it all the more keenly, this slipping away of language, because I was in the city to write.
Even as I started to remember, to refamiliarise, I realised I still had to rely on simpler constructions, simpler approximations for the things I wanted to say. In German, I was unsubtle, convoluted, and anything but witty. In a foreign language I had a different personality and it was never possible to see a person that I recognised reflected in my interactions with other people.
Six months after my first stay in Münster was Daniele’s reciprocal visit to Sydney. My family’s house is perched on the edge of bushland, at the point where the valley that it covers becomes too steep to build on. Besides her hockey, Daniele had always been a jogger, she was muscular and strong, once jokingly referred to her lycra-clad body as a Kampfwürstchen, a little combat sausage. She was horrified by how few flat areas there were to jog near my house, but ventured out anyway, coming back with the prickles we’ve always called stickybeaks clinging to her socks.
Daniele’s family didn’t have a computer – they still don’t – so when she typed emails home to Christian’s university email, to school friends, she took close to an hour, staring at the keyboard and pressing each key individually with her index finger. I helped her out a few times, typing from her dictation, pausing occasionally to ask about unusual, beautiful words. In one email to Daniele’s best friend, I’d typed her words, Mein Eßverhältnis, Gott sei Dank, bleibt gut. My eating behaviour, thank god, is fine. I didn’t question her at the time, pretended that I didn’t understand the folded compound word. I didn’t know what lay ahead.
In Berlin, I was attending language classes at the Goethe-Institut, as a part of the exchange I was involved in. To help support their foreign students, the Institut, offered a series of cultural events: film screenings, walking tours, mini-golf. I loved the three-hour walking tours, of course, but also signed up for a daytrip, on a Sunday, catching the fast train northwards to Oranienberg and Sachsenhausen, the very first concentration camp built by the Nazi regime. I was sitting next to a broad-shouldered Canadian, who’d taken a liking to me earlier that week, when we’d surreptitiously, illicitly, held an English conversation in the Institut’s courtyard. He’d rocked up to our meeting point barely able to walk, clutching at a kebab and wearing a lipstick print on his cheekbone, mumbling about a club with a giant swing. I was furious at his goofy, boozy grin, and deliberately lost him as soon as we disembarked.
There’s a long walkway leading up to the gates of the camp, with wildflowers pressing up along its borders. I picked a small, orange poppy to wear in my hair.
Sachsenhausen is a terrible place, a fraught place, stark and bare, its triangular parade grounds open to the sky. It was a labour camp, filled at first with writers, artists, activists, conscientious objectors, homosexuals and criminals, before gypsies and Jews were added to the Hitler’s list of undesirables. Few buildings remain there now: three watchtowers, one barrack, the one morgue. The central ground is dominated by a red-brick monument, built by the GDR government in the 1960s, to commemorate the early German socialists who were interned there – the Party always claimed their state was founded by the people who had resisted fascism right throughout Hitler’s reign.
Sachsenhausen was not initially an extermination camp, although it was expanded later to include a series of gas chambers. It was the first camp allied with local industry. The inmates were made to walk endless laps of the parade ground to test the durability of shoes. In this camp, it was discovered that hungry inmates are less likely to have the energy to rebel.
Much of what we know about the physicality of starvation comes from studies conducted by and with the starving population of the Warsaw Ghetto during the Nazi occupation of Poland. In the two years that the studies ran, before the final liquidation of the Ghetto, almost thirty doctors, desperately malnourished themselves, studied growth rate, weight, organ size, dermatology, immunology, circulation, fluid retention, bone density, body temperature, vitamin retention, the functioning of the senses, of hormones, of digestion. In two years, they conducted 3658 autopsies. Only seven of the doctors survived the war. One pathologist, Theodosia Goliborska, emigrated to Australia in 1946, and continued to practice at least until the 1980s, in this country that has never had to understand such desperate, widespread hunger.
We learn about hunger through hardship, through war or famine, natural disaster or political crisis. We learn through bodies forced onto the edge, bodies that have become sites of trauma, some sort of collateral damage. It’s a terrible laboratory that our knowledge comes from, a horrific debt that is owed by my body. More and more I think these studies allow me to make sense of my hunger, which I first experienced as the result of a rare physical illness, one that took eighteen months to diagnose, by which time, I recognise now, I was in the depths of starvation syndrome, acting every bit as irrationally and unintentionally as those young men from Minnesota. I still have trouble, sometimes, recognising that I didn’t choose my hunger. That no one does.
I arrived in Berlin at the height of Spargelzeit, the two or three weeks in late spring when asparagus is ripe and abundant, sold in bunches as thick as my thigh, translucent white, or mottled green. The old-style German restaurants and pubs all display blackboards near their geranium beds, listing asparagus menus: asparagus quiche, asparagus soup, asparagus gratin, hollandaise; they continue to serve giant wurst and pork knuckles and schnitzels, peas and carrots out of cans. After Spargelzeit comes strawberry season; a stall sprouted suddenly outside my communist-era apartment block, painted red with a green canvas roof, and manned by a beautiful, bored strawberry-blonde in denim shorts.
Along with this celebration of the seasonality of food, I realised too that Germans believe – the word is not too strong – in butter. Skim milk only under sufferance. Consider cake part of their cultural heritage. It was barely three months since I’d been discharged from the clinic, but I could see how far I’d come against this backdrop.
On my last day in Münster, Hannelore and Christian took me to visit the ancestral home of the area’s most famous lyric poet, the eccentric, ardent Annette von Droste-Hülshoff. I walked through her low-roofed, top-floor bedroom, running my fingers across her writing desk, her curiousity cabinet filled with speckled-shelled blown eggs, pinned dragonflies. Her bed was hard and thin and narrow.
Hannelore packed a dinner for my train trip home: a two-cheese sandwich with butter, an apple and a peach. A box of chocolate biscuits, a box of pralines, a packet of Gummibärchen, and a glass bottle of mineral water. We had strawberry tart for afternoon tea, and Hannelore asked me if I wanted cream beside it. She smiled when I declined. ‘I didn’t think so,’ she said, ‘Daniele never takes cream either, you always had such similar tastes. I remember when we had pancakes, you both would pat them down with kitchen paper. Pat, pat, pat, with kitchen paper, before you ate them.’
I didn’t know what to say. I had been well then, I didn’t know what lay ahead.