Posted in Memoir

Happy Birthday Maria

Maria SOLO

Today would have been my mother-in-law Maria’s 84th birthday. She was a kind and generous woman and as a fellow writer/obsessive, she and I formed a close bond. When I first met her I was writing on index cards. She insisted that I needed a computer and when she upgraded to a new model she gave me her old one. It was a revelation. When my novel was accepted for publication she was ecstatic, but she died before it went to print. Those of her family she left behind put together a memorial booklet recording our memories of her. The following is my recollection:

On the last Saturday of Maria Teichel’s life, early in the afternoon, I got a phone call from her reminding me to stop by on my way home to collect a cake. This, I knew, would be no special occasion cake, just one of her ordinary cakes; that is to say a mouth-watering, three-layered monument to hedonism constructed entirely of chocolate. The layers of chocolate cake would be separated by layers of chocolate cream and the whole creation topped and covered on its sides with pale chocolate syrup, drizzled through with jagged lines of darker chocolate. It would present a challenge, being difficult to divide because of its unconventional shape.

She had a cake tin that was not the usual square or circle. As I look back now, it seems incredible that I could have missed the clue. She could have baked in any shape, but the cake she always made for us was shaped like a heart.

Maria Teichel was born on the 3rd April 1933 and died on Oaks Day, 3rd November 2011. It was fitting she should have chosen Ladies’ Day, for Maria first and foremost was a lady.
She was also a writer. And writing informed and consumed her existence, second only to her love of family. She published two novels and a script for a play. Over two hundred of her short stories appeared in Hungarian Life, the weekly Melbourne newspaper for the Hungarian expatriate community. In 1970, her novel “Sziget Utca 14” (14 Island Street) received the Award for Excellence from the Arpad Academy of Cleveland Ohio.
As a writer, Maria was always creating and inventing, breathing life into her inventions, considering their motivations, taking meticulous care with their backstories. For as every writer knows, there is always ‘backstory’. It is what takes place before the character appears on the page. For all of us here today, Maria entered each of our personal stories as a fully developed character with a backstory as eventful as any of her fictional creations.

I first met her in 1988. She was living alone in Camberwell and working for Telstra as a data processor. Her phenomenal keyboard skills were something I could only envy but as I got to know her I began to realise there was more. The people with whom she worked held her in the greatest esteem. These were highly intelligent people; witty, entertaining, articulate and thoughtful. They regarded her as one of their own. In spite of her difficulty with English, they saw through the language barrier and understood her.
As I too began to understand her, the first thing I noticed was her obsession with food. Any visit called for a banquet and even the politest of refusals was a mortal insult that called for pistols at dawn. I found this obsession odd but was keen on her daughter and thought it wise to keep Maria on-side. As the years passed and Maria cemented her role in my life as Mother-in-Law and Chief Caterer I was force-fed like some doomed pâté de foie gras duck. Gradually she broke my will and turned me into a food-addict. I became a willing slave to her culinary despotism. Over the course of two decades I made a slow and steady progress from Anorexia to Flab City. It was a sojourn filled with such delightful stopovers as Goulash, Bean Soup, Chicken Paprika, Apple Pastries, Cherry Pastries, Crunchies, Doughnuts, numerous other gems that I never knew the name of, and of course Chocolate Cake.

Another thing I saw in Maria was her quirky take on life. She was not exactly a contrarian but she had her own unique view of reality. At times she was downright hilarious, though perhaps not always intentionally. Once she told me that she hated kookaburras. “Why?” I asked. How could anyone hate a kookaburra? “Because they’re always laughing at me!” she declared. With anyone else I might have suspected a joke. I couldn’t quite keep a straight face when she told me this, but I’m glad I didn’t actually laugh out loud, because it was then that I got a bit more of her backstory.

Maria Teichel’s life spanned 78 years and 7 months exactly. She lived through some of the worst years of the 20th Century. Born only weeks after Hitler came to power, as a child she witnessed the incomprehensible depravity of Nazism. At the age of nine she saw corpses in the streets of Budapest and starving people reduced to subsisting on rotting horseflesh. For the rest of her life she associated hunger with suffering.
After the war, Hungary was a shattered wasteland and a new oppressor stood ready to envelop her in his cold embrace. When the Hungarians rebelled in 1956 and the Russian tanks came rolling across the border, the lives of Maria and other idealistic young intellectuals were in danger. Together with her husband Rezső and their young son, they spent the longest night of their lives crawling through a snowbound forest, hiding amongst the trees, listening for Soviet patrols, hearing the thud of bullets striking human flesh and the desperate cries for mercy that went unheeded.

At last they made their way across the Austrian border to safety and their journey to the other side of the world had begun. When they came to Australia, they lived at the migrant hostel in Bonegilla, a clearing house for Europe’s dispossessed. She hated her time there. After life as a fledgling film editor in Budapest, rubbing shoulders with artists and intellectuals, rural Australia was a cultural desert. The raucous hilarity of the kookaburras was a constant reminder of the life left behind. Fate was laughing at her.
Yet in spite of the difficulties of her early years in Australia, she thrived in her role as wife and mother. She worked full-time in various unfulfilling jobs to help support her family and late at night and in the early hours of the morning she wrote. She loomed large in the Australian-Hungarian community. Her stories, although unknown to the wider Australian public, were a source of sustenance and succour to her fellow expatriates. And of course there was always the cooking. Food for her was a symbol of plenty, an affirmation of life. Feeding people, any people: visitors, work colleagues, friends and friends of friends, but above all family, became her life’s mission. It was for her, the purest expression of love.

There were times when she drove me to distraction – urgent dramatic phone calls at work, demanding that I stop in on my way home and collect the chicken soup or goulash or one of a host of other dishes. It wasn’t always convenient, sometimes it was a nuisance. “For God’s sake Maria! I’m in a hurry! We’ve got a fridge full of food and we don’t need it!” I was occasionally tempted to say, but never did.
On that last day when we spoke together it wasn’t really convenient to stop by. I was busy and needed to be elsewhere but I’m glad I found the time to collect the cake and take it home for us to eat. Just one of her ordinary cakes. Nothing special. Made of chocolate, covered in chocolate, shaped like a heart.

Posted in Memoir

Alex Barker

Alex Barker belonged to a generation that spent its youth in war.  It was a role that cast a long shadow over his life – a shadow that darkened as the years passed. He was tormented by memories of that brutal war until the day he died.

I didn’t know Alex until his final years. I met him at the aged care facility where he lived and where I work. By the time I knew him, his eyesight had gone. He could make out shapes but little detail. He liked to listen to the radio and had his own corner in the B wing lounge where he would sit and listen. For all of us who knew him, that spot, no matter who might sit there now, will always be Alex’s corner.

He was fond of talking books. I thought I’d get him some material from the local library so I asked him what sort of stories he liked. Westerns he told me. “Do you have any favourite authors, Alex? Anyone I should keep an eye out for?” “No,” he said. “Anyone’ll do.” Great, I thought. This’ll be easy. I didn’t know much about western authors but I’d heard about Zane Grey. He was a legend. Zane Grey and the Riders of the Purple Sage. There was bound to be a shelf load of his stuff at the library. Easy. Piece of cake. I had it all figured out. And then Alex said, “Except that bloody Zane Grey! That bloke gives me the shits. He takes half an hour just to describe a tree.” So we dropped Zane Grey and The Riders of the Purple Sage.  And we went for Ben Coady and The Abandoned Outlaw instead.

Alex’s close mate was Lindsay Nancarrow and the two of them would spend a lot of time together, not always talking, but just being together as people who are close will do. I used to chuckle watching the two of them coming back from breakfast, side by side along the corridor in their wheelchairs in a slow motion race.

Alex & Lindsay photo
Alex (left) and Lindsay farewell each other ‘just in case’ prior to Lindsay entering hospital for surgery. Alex died, aged 93, on July 23rd 2015. Lindsay died three months later.

Everything about Alex was slow – apart from his mind of course. He was in his own time bubble. And the pace around him, of carers and other staff, of visitors, must have seemed like warp speed to him. But when you took the time to enter his bubble, to slow down and listen, he could take you back into his world, through his memories of other times and places when the pace had been faster and at times even frantic.

Alex Bell Barker was born on 23rd June 1922 at his parents’ home in Maryborough Queensland. He was the youngest of four children born to Mary Eliza Barker (neé Bell) and Herbert John Barker, who was known to all as Bert. Mary was a sometime journalist who contributed to both the Woman’s Mirror magazine and the Maryborough Chronicle. Bert was a decorative painter who came from a family of coach builders. Alex remembers his father as an artist with the dagger liner, a fine brush required for the most intricate work.

The eldest of Alex’s siblings was his sister Ruda (christened Gertrude), followed by Bill, then John. John would later become a fully qualified butter maker at the Maryborough Butter Factory, while Bill would, at the age of eighteen, become Queensland’s youngest ever fully qualified pharmacist.

Alex started school at The Albert School a co-educational primary that covered the years up to seventh grade. He joined the Boy Scouts and it was here that he gained an introduction to semaphore and Morse code, two skills that would soon have a profound effect on his life. Alex loved his time in the scouts, relishing the mentorship of two adult leaders Mr Bertram and Mr Horne. Under their guidance and inspiration, Alex became a Patrol Leader but when they left the Scout troop they were replaced by a man called Crocker whose leadership skills were less satisfactory. When Alex helpfully pointed this out to Crocker he was given ‘scout punishment’ which entailed having cold water poured down his sleeve. Alex wasn’t having any of that. He (literally) got on his bike and that was the end of the Scouts.

After completing primary, Alex enrolled at Maryborough Boys Grammar in year 8, or what was then known as Junior year. He remained in secondary school until the end of Year 9.

Upon finishing school, at the age of 14, he began working at a local draper’s shop where he delivered parcels, swept the asphalt and cleaned windows.

The Second World War broke out little over two months after Alex’s seventeenth birthday and, lying about his age and claiming to be eighteen, he enlisted in the 47th Militia Battalion. Alex wanted to join the Regular Army but he needed to be 20 years old for that. Unfortunately when he lied about his age, his lie was not big enough.

After three months training at Enoggera Camp in Brisbane, Alex was assigned to the Signal Corps and posted to the Headquarters Wing in Brisbane. He would do 12 days’ straight duty in order to qualify for a weekend’s leave and then would travel by train to his parents’ home in Maryborough. Very often he would encounter Mr Crocker, his former Scoutmaster, who was now a porter on the railways. Alex sensed that Crocker was keen to chat, but Alex had no desire to renew the acquaintance. The only railway person he had any interest in was Hazel Messer, the Stationmaster’s daughter. Alex liked the look of her and decided that one day he would get the nerve to ask her out.

He had a mate called Frank Therkelsen and the two of them decided to have what was called in those days a “chop party”, the forerunner of the barbecue. Alex didn’t have a girlfriend, but decided to ask Nola Clemens who was a friend of the family. When Alex and Frank arrived at Nola’s home in Frank’s car, Nola announced that she was unable to come but had arranged for her friend Hazel to stand in for her. It wasn’t until much later that Alex realised the girls had, in his words, “cooked it up”.

Later that year, Alex was ordered to report to the Signals School near Brisbane. He qualified as a signaller and was enlisted in the Regular Army. By the end of 1940, and still an underage soldier, Alex was promoted to Corporal and began to instruct other men in the use of wireless, flags, heliograph and aldis lamp, all of which employed morse as the language of communication.

His various duties in Australia, included a posting at Fort Kissing Point, which sounds like something out of a ‘50s RomCom, but is an actual place. He also had a stint as a coast watcher on Magnetic Island. By now promoted to Sergeant, Alex was placed in charge of a detail of wireless operators whose role was to observe shipping and aircraft activity around Palm Island and report by radio to Townsville.

In June 1942, he turned 20, or according to the Army, 21, which meant that he could now join the AIF and be eligible for overseas service. He was posted to New Guinea. This assignment was interrupted when he became ill and was sent back to hospital in Cairns.

After being discharged from Cairns hospital, he was ordered to return to Brisbane. On the way he stopped over in Maryborough to visit his parents. He also spoke to Hazel’s father and gained his permission to marry.

Alex obtained leave that was owed and he and Hazel were married on the 7th of March 1943. They honeymooned at his parents’ holiday home on the coast. Alex took Hazel boating. They sailed from Tuan Point to Amity Point. Despite fine weather and a calm sea, Hazel spent the entire trip cowering in the bottom of the boat. Upon their return they encountered some local fishermen who told him that the Army wanted him in Brisbane. The honeymoon was over.

Alex was soon on his way back to Papua New Guinea and the time he spent there during the war left a lasting impression. Not all of it was bad. Some of his many anecdotes were hilarious. There were tales of being trapped in quicksand and of children rescued from crocodiles and of fishing with gelignite. Alex was always a keen fisherman. But the serious side of war was something else. The things he was prepared to talk about were bad enough, but the worst of it he kept to himself. The enemy he faced was ruthless and played by different rules. The experiences that traumatised him most were the outrages he witnessed against children. Many of his stories are not fit for repeating and the ones he left untold can only be imagined. One story he was prepared to tell, was of his futile attempt to save a native village.

Alex in uniform photoOne evening, Japanese aircraft passed overhead on their way to attack the US wharf at Giropa. Realising the enemy might mistake nearby native cooking fires for their target, Alex ran to warn the villagers. He was too late. As he approached, shouting his warning, bombs began to fall amongst the native huts. Women and children were blown to pieces and a scorching steel fragment struck his eye. Ultimately, this fragment, too deep to be removed, would cause a cancer. But the sight of those innocent women and children being slaughtered left a lifelong scar as well.

Not only the sights, but the smell of war as well left a lasting impact. A sickly odour would haunt battlefields long after the action ceased and Alex could never quite get the stench of death out of his nostrils. Years later he could still taste it in his food. The war became a burden that would weigh upon him for the rest of his life. Yet in spite of his inner torment, it never compromised his demeanour. He remained always courteous, thoughtful and appreciative. He was a gentlemen. The burden he shouldered, with such dignity and grace, has at last been lifted. Rest in peace Alex.  And farewell. It was a privilege to have known you. And we were proud to call you a friend.

 

Posted in Memoir

Metronome

They killed the town where I grew up. Broke its heart. Butchered and dismembered it. Carried away and cannibalised the parts deemed of value. Ploughed the rest under and turned it into a hole in the ground. You could just about taste the grief it caused; almost reach out and touch it. For people who’d lived their lives there, raised children or buried friends. But I thought it a fitting end. And had it been possible, I would have danced on its grave.

I am standing, as near as I can tell, where our house once stood, on one of two hills flanking the town’s western edge. Below me and to the east, dredgers like giant steel locusts crawl over the coalface, cutting it with great revolving bucket-wheels. Their work seems slow but it is inexorable. They shift housefuls of coal, but nothing seems to change. It does though. In its own time.

Everything changes in its own time, my father used to say. Even the hills change but so slowly we’ll never see it. There are trees up there, he once said, squinting eastward into the morning sun, there are trees up there in the Jeeralangs that fell over a hundred years ago and still haven’t rotted away.

He was a man obsessed by time; never could get enough of it. And he would measure it with his hands and feet, beating a tattoo on the kitchen table, tapping his soles against the floorboards, always anxious to be going, to keep moving.

And moving was something we did a lot of when I was young. First one town and then another as he chased promotion, chased a better life. And when I was ten years old, we came at last to Yallourn, a smug and coddled company town of immaculate streets and nominal rents and twice weekly garbage collections and paternalistic healthcare; some people’s idea of heaven on earth. I hated the place from the day I saw it.

We had come from Bendigo, a place I loved. A city with a history. A city of mullock heaps and gold shafts and poppet heads. A city that set the colony on its feet in the dizzy days of gold. I loved its raw red hungry earth. Loved the lichen-covered boulders strewn across the nearby hills as though they had been flung from the hands of giants. I loved the big sky and the wafer-thin clouds. I even loved a girl there, or thought I did.

And then we came to the heart of the Latrobe Valley, to the pampered legoland village of Yallourn. A dying town then, though I didn’t yet know it. A town that was dying before it was born. Conceived in the minds of engineers and accountants and built, for the purposes of economy, on a seam of coal – a decision that dooms it. Its days like the days of man are numbered. And its life-long labour, is to dig its own grave.

I watch the bucket-wheels cutting the coalface, slicing through time, dredging the past. As I stand there with my kids, I do some dredging of my own. I remember another time. And I am standing with my father watching the giant locusts devour the coal. He is pointing at the open cut, telling me time is layered against its walls and eons are measured in inches.

Long ago he says, long before the white man and the aborigine, there was a swamp and a forest that grew within it. It stretched beyond the horizon in all directions and as each tree died it fell into the swamp. Over a period of thirty million years, the trees were laid down, one upon the other, until the conditions that gave rise to it changed, and the forest at last died out.

Thirty million years he says, pausing for emphasis, raising his eyebrows.

How long is thirty million years Dad, I ask.

He looks at me and gives me one of his slow quiet smiles. How far from here to Melbourne he asks me. Ninety-three miles I say. Sounds about right to me he says. Now imagine ninety-odd miles is thirty million years. How old are you, ten? I nod my head. If thirty million years is from here to Melbourne, how long do you reckon ten years’d be? I dunno I say. He could tell me anything and I wouldn’t have a clue. Go on have a guess he says. A hundred yard dash do you reckon? A cricket pitch? A cricket pitch I say. He grins again and slowly pulls his right hand out from behind his back.

That’s me, he says, stretching his fingers as wide as he can, forty years. And you, he holds thumb and forefinger about two inches apart, that’s you; ten years old. And thirty million years is ninety miles. From here to Melbourne.

I stand near the coalface, now, not then, as a father, no longer a son. It occurs to me, for the first time, how idiosyncratic is that image, how typical of him. For time is distance, he always says, distance between things happening. But time for him is absolute. A relentless metronome measuring an unvarying beat. He thinks Einstein is a madman. If time can change, then it’s not time, it’s something else he says. But in this as in other things I will learn he is not infallible. He cannot conceive of time as elastic, yet the evidence is everywhere. I am back with my father looking forward and time seems to stretch forever. I stand beside my son looking backwards and wonder where it went.

It is said by some that everyone has a book inside them. If so, then my father’s is a novel about Roman Britain, about the clash of the Druids and the New God. He tells me as his retirement draws near he might just get around to it at last. When he’s on easy street. With time on his hands. I am dubious about this but refrain from saying so. I am sure he does have a book inside of him, but I’m not sure it’s a novel. I feel certain he lacks the imagination for such an undertaking. But in the end it is not lack of imagination that will thwart him.

Years after his death, my mother shows me an essay he wrote as a boy. It is an account of some forgotten Scottish princess journeying to her wedding; an imaginative and beautiful piece. Sixty years later I read it in a tumult of emotions. Pride competes with frustration at a talent gone untended. A father’s frustration. For in this confrontation with his secret past, I feel an unsettling sense of dislocation. As though our lives have been transposed. As though he is the son and I am the father.

Brown coal he is telling me, pointing at the strata. The Germans have it too he says, they call it lignite. Younger than black coal and safer too. Open cut mining you see, none of this burrowing underground, coughing your lungs up, dying before your time. This stuff’s beautiful he says. No miner’s lung here. No problems here with lungs. None that he knew about anyway. None he was told about. Asbestos is never mentioned. And all the while growing in his lungs is the condition that will kill him. The condition with the unpronouncable name mesalithelioma. Its work too is slow but it is inexorable as it dredges away the living tissue, transforming it into a detritus of shredded rags.

Later, much later or perhaps not so much later; half a handspan on his roadmap of time, he lies in a hospital bed, hooked up to a machine, oxygen fed to him through tubes. I’ll beat this thing he tells me. I don’t intend to chuck it in just yet. I have learned by now he is not infallible, he does not know everything, but just this one last time, I can almost believe him. A few days later he turns to my sister. Are you the nurse he asks. Are you the Navy nurse? He is dredging his own past now, peeling back the years.

I watch the dredger as it peels back the eons. I am standing in time, if not quite in place, much where my father stood – into my forties, the span of an outstretched hand. A couple of years before he dies my father asks me, any ideas on marriage. Got anyone in mind he wonders. I laugh. Why this sudden urge to marry me off I ask. He looks a little sheepish. Oh well he says, we like to see our kids fixed up before we shuffle off. Fixed up I hoot. We fall about laughing. Settled down, he says at last.

An autumnal wind whips through the valley, lifting a shadow of dust from the coal face, like mist from the crest of a wave. I hold my left hand out in front of me and stretch my fingers as wide as I can. I bring my right hand out as well, spreading it, holding it against the other, thumb to thumb. With luck I’ll make it. My children are still young, but it is my fervent hope I will live long enough to play with their children. If they wait as long as I did to start a family, it may not be possible.

I lower my hands and my daughter tugs at one. She has no hat and the wind is bothering her. Can we go now Dad she asks. Soon, I say. You can wait in the car if you like.

My son remains beside me, clutching my leg. He is eighteen months old. Less than a blade of grass on the verge of time, but already he is riding the great exponential curve, his brain digesting in days what his ancestors took millenia to master. Eons of evolution fast forwarding, as he learns to oppose his thumb, to walk and talk and understand his world. His tiny hand wraps around my finger. I seem like a giant to him; omnipotent and indestructible. Time will prove otherwise. As he grows and I diminish, he will bear witness to my fallibility.

My daughter sits in the car. Through the glass, I can hear her chattering in her trilling bird-like voice. Always chattering, always asking questions I can’t always answer.

My son looks up at me and in a gesture pre-dating language raises his arms. I pick him up and carry him toward the car.

In Wales, there is a mining town that lies beneath a lake. Stone houses and cobbled streets lay drowned by progress – a grim parody of Atlantis. There is no such resting place for Yallourn. It has turned to dust and like the men it killed, lives only in memory.

I start the car to begin our journey back to Melbourne. A journey of thirty million years.