Category Archives: fear

Miss Wheelock began playing O Love Divine and Tender

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“But soon we shall die and all memory (of others) will have left the earth, and we ourselves shall be loved for a while and forgotten. But the love will have been enough; all those impulses of love return to the love that made them. Even memory is not necessary for love. There is a land of the living and a land of the dead and the bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning”Thornton Wilder, The Bridge at San Luis Rey 

And there always was love. Even behind the serious faces of the black and white photographs that we call the past.

So.

There was once a beautiful, dark haired lady named Kate Campbell and, in 1910, she came from Scotland to this windswept, lonesome town clinging to the western edge of a great, dry island continent.  She was my great aunt. At the end of the first decade of the 20th Century my little town boasted a population of less than seven hundred people.  That is, if you didn’t count the local Ingaada people, and no one did.

Kate had come half way around the world to be with her sister, Georgina, who was left with a baby girl to raise after the drowning of her husband in 1907. And as one sister fought to survive the loss of love, the other found it.  In July 1911, on the afternoon of a mild winter’s Wednesday, Kate married a young blue-eyed, brown haired shire clerk who was a popular player in the local football team. He had flat feet and a scar on his left hand. His name was Charlie Lee and he loved her.

The little Congregational church was full and above the door the boys from the footy club had created a banner that read “God bless our comrade Charlie Lee and his bride.”  The organist, Miss Wheelock, began playing O Love Divine and Tender as the bride and groom entered the church.  Outside a quiet breeze blew off the Indian Ocean; there was a faint smell of salt and dust and camel dung in the dirt streets.  Kate held onto a piece of white heather, a token of her homeland, and a spray of fresh orange blossom.   She wore a gown of cream crepe de chine.

Miss Wheelock’s sister, Jessie, walked behind as bridesmaid and Kate’s little niece, my grandmother, stood close by with mauve ribbons in her hair.  She was four and her name was Sheila.

Afterwards everyone returned to Georgina’s house and danced to the music of the local band of which Charlie was also a performer.  Later, he presented his wife with a gold bangle.  It was early morning on Thursday before the crowd dispersed to lives now unknown and gone and dust.

But we do know this: that Charlie and Kate moved to the city 600 miles south and in 1914 she died giving birth to stillborn twins.  Where does love go and where is the bridge to love when love is gone?

A few months later, in March 1915 Charlie, by now a stockman, signed up for World War One. War is a good place to be when you have nothing else to lose. Charlie carried Kate’s memory to Alexandria and then to Marseilles and that bloody battle for Ypres in Belgium. Does the loss of love make us fearless or does it make us reckless? It earned Charlie Lee the Military Medal for bravery. Did he care too much or care too little as he drove his truck through a hail of enemy shells over and over again until the road became impassable?

Then he came home.  He never remarried and like so many of his fellow soldiers he lived out a life of silent dignity.  He left no child to remember him. But I will.

When the little girl with the mauve ribbons grew up and married, Charlie was there to give her away.  So perhaps it is true, that the bridge really is love, the only survival and the only meaning.

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Filed under australia, death, fear, life, loss, Love, Marriage, memory, war

A broken shell

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A couple of years ago, a friend and I spent five days camping on these isolated cliffs about a thousand kilometres from where we live. We spent the time fishing and swimming and sitting in this big cave on the beach.  Each sunset we’d drink beers in our cave.  Then I’d cook tea on the gas stove, we’d eat and finish the day with wine.  One night a small kangaroo came into the campsite and we fed it lettuce from our hands.

 

Steve and I had been friends for more than 20 years.  We had worked together, lived together for two years and travelled to Europe and Asia.  Now he was getting scared of things, talked too much about doctors and specialists, anxiety attacks.  When we fished he would no longer come to the cliffs with me but prefer the beach even when he knew the chances of catching something were less. 

When I climbed down the short rocky cliff face into the cave, he went down a sandy path and then walked around from the beach.  It was sad to watch because he is not old or unfit.  He’s just become scared of stuff, unnameable, ill defined but real like a toothache.  I made a promise to myself never to get scared like that but I also knew that sometimes you don’t have a choice.  Sometimes life breaks you and there is nothing you can do about it.

 

On the last day we went out to the end of a rocky point to watch the surfers.  I climbed to the top of the tall scythe of rocky cliff that pointed out to sea. On the way I frightened some kangaroos escaping the mid-morning heat under some low trees.  Then we packed up and headed south again.  We’d promised ourselves to stop at beach we’d spotted on the way in a few days before, just on the off chance that the fishing might be good.  But the water was shallow and the bottom mainly rocks and reef.

 

The tide was coming in and waves were pushing up under the low cliffs we were standing on.  Broken coral, rocks and shells were being bustled up and back by the surging water.  I walked a few metres then stopped when something dark caught my eyes in the sand below.  A cowrie shell, still intact was sitting shimmering in a momentary lull in the tide’s relentless attack on the cliff. 

I found a point midway down the cliff where I could get enough footing to launch myself safely into the water below.  But the shell had disappeared already.  Under the cliff there was a narrow strip of sand where all the detritus of the reef was being tumbled together, broken and scratched.  I searched for the shell for about five minutes and had nearly given up when I found it resting high and dry under a low ledge.

 

I held it in my hand.  It was old and its colours had run together like wet paint, blacks and greys and white.  A few dots of the original pattern still clung to the bottom edges.  One side had been scratched of any pattern at all.  That shell was a survivor though.  The air was hot and the sea raced up around my legs filling my shoes with sand.  Except for swimming, I had not bathed for 5 days.  I was brown, my hair stiff with salt.  There was salt too on my lips and in my mouth.  I held the shell.  I looked for Steve but the cliff top was empty.  I stared down at the shell then out to sea again.

 

The shape of the cowrie in my hand started to become the only sensation.  Then gradually I knew that I was exactly where I was meant to be; this moment, this piece of the earth, this age, this friend, this me. And the shell was sent there to remind me that I was alive.  And there was nothing to be scared of.  I felt happy.

 

When I climbed back up my friend handed me a pile of shells he had found further along the beach.  I noticed his hand shake slightly. 

“Did you find anything down there?” he asked.

 

I slipped the shell in my pocket.  There are some things men don’t talk to each other about.  “Nah, nothing, mate.  Just broken stuff.”

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Filed under australia, fear, friends, life, loss, Men

A body in the Potomac River

gpc_work_large_285.jpgThe other night the phone rings and a voice says, “Do you know who this is?” and I say, “Yes, it’s Dan, isn’t it?” 

The voice is still the same even twenty years after Dan and his girlfriend, Rachael, and I hung out together.  He was smart but reserved.  My sister told me once that Dan could do anything – he was dux of his school, did commerce at university, and was a natural horse rider.  We drank wine and discussed philosophy and were proud of our intellects, Rachel and I passionate and embarrassing and Dan just calm and smiling. 

He had a smile that was so deeply beautiful that it could make you stop talking. 

Anyway, then he went to Europe and America and when he came back people said he was mad.  I didn’t believe it; thought he had always been mildly eccentric and perhaps travel had just accentuated this.  I rang him and he came to visit me and we got drunk.  I was relieved that he seemed just the same as ever. 

Then, late into the night he says to me, “Did you hear about that plane crash in Washington D.C. a couple of years ago?”  Sure, I remembered; iced wings in winter, most everyone died in the freezing river. “The FBI and CIA tried to blame me for that,” he says.  I look at him and wait for the punch line but there is none. “What are you talking about?” I ask.   

“The FBI chased my friends and me all across America trying to blame us for that crash.”   

And he has gone; I know I have lost Dan just as sure as if he too had gone down into the icy Potomac River.  The next time we meet he is worse, keeps going off into strange reveries and when he returns to me just smiles like we have both shared some wonderful secret.  He looks and sounds like Dan but he is like no one I know. 

Later he is diagnosed with some form of mental illness and moves into a home for people like him.  He never works or loves or travels again.  He finds God and probably talks to him personally.  I go north and never hear from him or try to contact him. 

Now here is his voice on the phone.  I want to ask him, “Are you still mad?” but I don’t have to; he has that way of talking like he is a ghost, like he is the memory of himself.  It is like talking to the dead.   

My stomach is churning for the Dan I loved and who went away.  And I am sick with the guilt of not loving this sick stranger who looks like someone I knew. 

He wants to catch up, have a drink.  Sure, I say, give me your number and he does.  “I’ll call you,” I lie. I have no pen, no paper.  I just stand there listening to a memory of a boy called Dan who was and then was not. 

When I hang up, my daughter asks, “Who was that?” 

“No-one,” I tell her.

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Filed under cowardice, fear, friends, life, loss, memory, Men, mental illness, self

200 Philistine Foreskins

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I think in the back of every atheist’s mind is the comforting thought that, even if they got it wrong and Heaven and Hell do exist, God will give them credit for integrity.  I mean, not believing in God is the expression of the very free will God granted, isn’t it?  And, if we are to believe anything that the Church says at all, why not the bit that says God is love. 

Or is that kind of like hedging your bets?  As if we can rely on God to forgive us because he’s merciful.   

But what if he’s not?  What if he is actually an extremely angry and punitive Father and he really art in Heaven? 

And there is definite evidence of God’s magnanimity in the Old Testament.  For example, one day King Saul offers David, Beloved of God, his daughter’s hand in marriage on the condition that he kill 100 Philistines and return with their foreskins as proof.  David, an early over-achiever, returns with 200 foreskins, which works out to be a really bad day for the court foreskin-counter.   

Now, according to the word of God, those Philistines really came in for a hammering and many and varied are the ways in which they meet their sticky ends.  Or, in this case, many are the ways in which their ends became sticky. 

And I don’t think atheists should go to their own just reward with the faint hope that Jesus will stick up for them.  Even he lost it sometimes, as is evidenced by his somewhat violent behaviour towards the sellers in the temple.  What will he make of some left wing, smart arse intellectual who spent his life claiming he had no father? 

It all sounds a bit risky to me.  Perhaps, as the foreskin-free Philistines found, no matter which we you cut it, not believing in God is even more dangerous than smoking.  Verily.

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Filed under atheism, Bible, death, fear, foreskins, jesus, Religion

Irma and the Doctors

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One morning Irma Grese woke up, as we all will eventually, on the day she was to die.  She was 21, a girl who had left school while still in her elementary years, had worked for some time on farms and then tried unsuccessfully to become a nurse.  Finally she found employment as a guard at Birkenau and then Auschwitz concentration camps. Here she carried out her tasks with alacrity. When women ran and hid from the fatal selections of Dr Mengele, Irma would seek them out, beat them and return them for gassing. 

And, as it often does, on a cold winters day, justice came marching loudly to the door of Irma’s cell.  As the youngest, it was decided to hang her first so that she would not be upset by the sound of the traps opening as the other 11 prisoners were hanged the same morning.  At 9.34 she walked to the centre of the execution chamber, apparently calm, and uttered only one word after the cap was pulled over her head, “Schnell.”  Twenty minutes later she was pronounced dead and taken down for burial. 

I can’t cry for Irma Grese; there are tears enough for the 6 million men, women and children who died before her.  She was uneducated, unsophisticated, the child of a brutish time grown fully and fitfully into a brute.  What can you expect from a pig but a grunt? 

And yet, I sometimes think that Irma Grese is only the easy face of evil; her route to the gallows paved by something quite different.  Five years earlier, in an old villa in a quiet residential street, 15 men sat down to a small conference not far from a nearby popular swimming beach.   All of them held high positions in the government; nine of them had been awarded doctorates.  Their names sound impressive yet also somehow benign – Dr Joseph Buhler, Dr Roland Freisler, Dr Gerhardt Klopfer, Dr Friedrich Wilhelm Kritzinger. Why, one of them, Dr Neuman, had studied law and economics at the universities of Freiberg, Leipzig and Halle. 

These smart and energetic men sat down in Wannsee to plan the killing of the Jews of Europe.  Their final solution was to create the momentum for other smart men to build railways and timetables and wire and huts and schedules of great logistical complexity.  All to stop the heartbeats of innocent strangers. 

Irma and the good scholars would have seen themselves as worlds apart and yet they were bound by a cruelty that neither ignorance nor education could dent.  

I guess there is one thing you can say about education: it can make you smart but it can’t make you good. 

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Filed under death, education, fear, life, Nazism, racism, war

Friday morning, scarred for life

04_14896.jpgEarly this morning I’m riding my motorbike home from a friend’s house.  My head is foggy from too much wine, too much singing into the warm night.  Back there my friend is still sleeping; the world seems to be sleeping with him. 

The low autumn sun is behind me pushing my shadow along the road like a ghost of me; me and my bike.  I glance down at my hands and shift in the seat feeling my legs against the tank; it is one of those moments when you feel everything. 

 

And with the dawn comes a dawning; I realise I am not scared anymore.  The motorbike accident, that outback road and looking up through the blood-smeared visor of my helmet, the silent longing to be, to not lose consciousness, to stay alive to the blue, blue sky above me.  And my friend appearing over a hill and speeding towards me and cutting the bloody jeans from my legs and bathing the hole in my knee.  And me too shocked to feel anything, even the fractures and the torn and bloodied elbow.   Just the empty road and the smell of petrol pouring on to the ground and the taste of dust in my mouth.

 

Now it is this holiday Friday and I realise that my hands are my hands and that wind is washing my face.  I notice that I am actually here and that I am not afraid anymore.  Underneath my jacket and pants there are scars.  My ankle is still swollen after 6 months and there are these strange indelible bruises like birthmarks. And the motorbike is scarred too, scratches and gouges in its red paint, pieces torn away and discarded.  I instinctively and gently touch the cool tank with my hand. Well, fuck me, I think. Here we are, my motorbike and me, both of us scarred forever.

 

But at least we are scarred for life.

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Filed under australia, fear, life, Men, motorbikes, self

The Coward’s Curse

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BAGHDAD, Iraq (CNN) — The U.S. military is calling on all Iraqi leaders, Sunni and Shiite, to condemn the recent kidnapping and killing of 15 Iraqi police officers in retaliation for the alleged rape of a Sunni woman. CNN News  Australia is a member of the Coalition of the Willing. Here then is death.  Here is the end of dreams and hope and memory.  Fifteen mothers’ sons, born of love’s embraces and obliterated in a single moment of hate. The men were taken at night, tied and blindfolded, and in the morning they were forced to kneel in a field between date palms.  They smelt for the last time the ancient earth and the new morning.  They listened to the litany of sins for which they must pay – not because they committed them but because they represented them. Here is the hand that holds the gun that sends a bullet into the head of my brother.  Here is evil incarnate and dressed in the garb of righteousness.  Here is oblivion delivered for God. And my blood rises like a hot tide to drown all the evil of this world, to kill the man who kills the man, to rip away the criminal from his mask. And I, now hating, dare to judge and toss my coward’s curse at the feet of a coward.  And who am I, cloistered in my green street growing roses and sending soldiers off to fight the enemies of my friend?  Am I less a brute? Just because I do not pull the trigger or wipe the spattered brain from my shoes?   Just because I do not look on the result of what I do? Just because I kill with missiles? From a distance?  

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Filed under australia, cowardice, fear, Iraq, Islam, life, Men, Religion, war