Mantra of a Common Man

Joe Manchon worried about his future. He also worried about his past, the state of his health, his financial and emotional wellbeing, the national economy, his falling arches, the existence of God, and whether whoever stole his newspaper from outside the door had done it again this morning. None of this was unusual; Joe was a very worried man.

The anxious prospects of the future harried his imagination when he opened his eyes on the morning of the day that changed his life. As he lay beside his wife, Louise, the future loomed as a menacing timescape of loss and disaster, stretching away through interminable days of hardship and dissatisfaction, towards the end of life. The prospect caused him to break out in a sweat. He lay in the lightening gloom of the bedroom, breathing in ragged gasps, trembling with borderline terror. This also was not unusual. Joe’s worry was the defining influence of his life.

When he dragged himself from bed, crushed by doom and extinction, he was already half defeated. The eyes that bleared back at him in the bathroom mirror scanned anxiously for dandruff, teeth decay, skin cancer, revolting tongue colouring and other signs of terminal middle age. They were all there, just as he feared. He was about to succumb to a dispiriting re-run of how his life had become such a mess of when he remembered the morning paper outside the door. Flopping in down-at-heel slippers, he shuffled at speed towards the front hall, muttering “bastards” under his breath.

The newspaper was on the mat when he opened the door. He advanced threateningly into the hallway, looking up and down the stairwell, his spectacles reflecting the morning light as he searched for the culprit. The deserted stairs revealed no trace of the paper snatcher. Unappeased, he retrieved the Sydney Morning Herald and went back inside. Later, over toast and coffee, the clamouring headlines confirmed his fears and reinforced his anxieties. It was all just as he imagined; the predictions had it getting much worse.

 Worry had been Joe Manchon’s constant companion for most of his life. Years of anxiety carved deep furrows across his forehead and down his cheeks. His perpetual look of startled dismay was as if a mugger confronted him in a dark alleyway. Life contained the possibility of constant ambush, and he moved through it ready to put his hands in the air at the first grunt of command. On some level he knew that this was how others perceived him, which of course, worried him.

His wife, Louise, a long reassuring woman, had 32 years of married life to blunt her ambitions of ever changing him. She had, perforce, become as calm as a Buddha, adopting a defensive serenity invulnerable as a tortoise’s shell. Infrequent nips of gin supplemented her natural placidity and allowed her to weather Joe’s anxieties, endowing her with sufficient equanimity to ameliorate some of his wilder frights of concern that threatened to tear the fabric of their life.

The scope of Joe’s concerns spread out in concentric circles from a core of worry about his own and Louise’s’ immediate future, to anxiety of what would happen when the expanding universe reached its limits and began to contract. Would time reverse? Would sentient life be reborn? Was matter going to be compressed into black holes? And what would happen to any parallel dimensions? These concerns exercised any remaining capacity Joe had left after worrying about everything already under the sun. Somewhere between these parameters in the hierarchy of Joe’s concern featured, Mr Ching.

Mr Ching lived next door to Joe and Louise, in one of three apartments on the same floor in a tall Potts Point building. He was a worry because of his great age; well over 80 to Joe’s reckonings. With his seasoned oriental countenance he could have been over a hundred. Joe worried that nobody ever came to visit Mr Ching, except some young people from a Chinese community welfare group, and they only came once a week. Something could happen to Mr Ching on days when no one came to visit.

“Suppose he falls down or gets a heart attack and dies after they’ve left on Tuesday? He could be in there, lying on the floor, suffering for a whole week,” he said to Louise at the breakfast table.

“If he’s dead how could he be suffering?” she asked callously, employing a technique she had found to be effective in the past, not lifting her attention from the crossword. This time it failed to deflect Joe’s imaginings. He was at the open front door, peering anxiously through a crack as three young Chinese made their smiling farewells to a beaming Mr Ching.

“Come away from there, what will people think?” hissed Louise, rustling the newspaper angrily.

Turning to go back inside, Mr Ching caught sight of Joe’s worried stare. He waved a frail hand and smiled, displaying an impressive mouth of stained but strong teeth. Caught in the act Joe opened the door wider, and stepped, embarrassed, into the hallway.

“How are you, alright?” he asked, showing his palms to prompt an answer.

Mr Ching nodded, smiling, his almost hairless head reflecting the light.

“Yes, I’m perfectly fine, thank you,” he replied in the perfectly accented English that Joe found so disconcerting.

And it seemed true, even to Joe’s biased scrutiny. Mr Ching looked well, almost robust for a man of such aged frailty. His posture was erect, his step lithe, the eyes beneath his bushy white eyebrows were alert and shining. In the face of such exuberant health it was Joe who felt himself unwell. He excused himself and went back inside, going straight to the bathroom where he again examined the colour of his cheeks, the red tracery of veins in his eyes and took his pulse before deciding to take an extra ginseng tablet in addition to the smorgasbord of vitamins and mineral supplements already consumed at breakfast. He avoided anti-depressants because he worried they might affect his ability to recognise symptoms. He lay down for half an hour until his heart stopped pounding.

Resignation had never been part of Joe’s affliction; he worried about being so worried, worried that being worried was bad for his health. It was a nightmare from which he had no hope of ever waking. He could not remember when it all began; his adolescence seemed to have emerged from a childhood vortex of timidity, fear of being left alone, and a constant deep-seated sense that he had lost or forgotten something of vital importance. As a young man he battled with performance anxiety, free-floating existential angst, and fear of halitosis in the proximity of girls. Somehow he subsumed his worry into a semblance of normality for most of his adult life, anxiety and stress being such an integral part of contemporary lives that, if anything, he merely appeared more ambitious than most.

Ten years ago he reached crisis, when he woke from a nightmare of nuclear meltdown apocalypse, drenched in sweat and shivering with terror. His devastation was so complete it riveted him to the bed, face towards the wall, unable to move, much less get up and face the day. Louise broke her long-term policy of not reacting to his hypochondriac personality breakdowns and reluctantly called in their doctor. Faced with the shivering wreck whimpering on the bed, the medical man set in motion an odyssey that took Joe through an archipelago of therapies.

His first landfall was with a pathologist who ran tests on every organ and tissue in his body, only to pronounce him free from physical defect or abnormality. Moving on, he ventured into the realms of psychiatrists, psychologists and in a rapidly widening orbit, fuelled by a sense of having little to lose, he passed through the sundry wisdoms of chiropractors, gurus, naturopaths, re-birthers, advocates of isolation-tanks, astrologers, masseuses, manipulators and gazers into opaque crystals, all in a futile attempt to regain peace of mind, the possession of which, even before his crisis, had been spasmodic and illusionary. Nothing worked, neither lying on a couch remembering the curve of his uncle’s handlebar moustaches, nor floating in the salty darkness of a plastic coffin filled with brine, nor yet the energetic deep-breathing espoused by the yogi at the classes in the YMCA on a Tuesday night. As he progressed along the pilgrimage of treatments, the worry that he might fail to respond to each new nostrum brought on renewed performance anxiety, which made his further failure inevitable.

Despite the strain and worry that accompanied his quest through the therapeutic forests he did survive, if not exactly thrive. Thereafter, in resignation, his solution was to order his life in such a way that nothing ever changed. By sticking to a regimen of such regularity it would have made a Swiss watch seem erratic, he managed to get through the days without suffering from more anxiety than he could handle. Whenever he found himself overly stressed, as he was after his meeting with Mr Ching, lying down on his bed and keeping his eyes tightly shut, helped restore his equilibrium.

He lay there in the dark for an hour before his steady heartbeat gave him sufficient encouragement to rise and head back into the bathroom. For the third time that day he examined his worried visage in the mirror. It gave him no more hope than it had earlier.

Exactly what it was that triggered his belief Mr Ching had finally fallen over and badly hurt himself, he could later give no satisfactory answer. Perhaps the echo of an un-uttered cry escaping from his own anxious mind, echoing around the central canyon of the building, a desolate void of grey cement walls, crisscrossed with plumbing, rain pipes and spotted with frosted bathroom windows. Whatever it was, it checked Joe in his examination of the whites of his eyes, making him cock his head and listen intently. No other sound followed.

He pushed open the bathroom window and thrust his head out. Somewhere an asthmatic fridge laboured into inefficiency, a car alarm brayed uselessly in the distance, a toilet flushed and water rushed earthwards through red clay piping. To Joe’s attentive ears these were as so much static, behind which reverberated vibrations of whatever he had heard – a cry, a call for help? It seemed to have come from Mr Ching’s apartment.

“Did you hear anything?” he asked Louise, emerging from the bathroom to where she was watching television in the lounge.

“What thing?” she asked, suspiciously.

He ignored her, crossing to the small hallway and opening the front door. The landing was deserted. Three doors faced on to it: the Manchon’s, Mr Ching’s, and that of a blonde-haired woman who called herself Mrs Golden, of whom Louise held the gravest suspicions.

Joe went over and listened outside Mr Ching’s door. He heard nothing. Louise, despite herself, was drawn to the open door from where she regarded him with distrustful eyes.

“What are you doing out here, in public, in your vest?” she asked. “Get in before someone comes.”

“Shush! Listen. I think he’s fallen and hurt himself. Listen!” whispered Joe, urgently.

She came to stand beside him, leaning to hear.

“I can’t hear anything,” she said.

“Shush! ” he commanded, pressing his ear hard against the door.

“Shush yourself. Get away from there. Come back inside. Someone’ll come,” she remonstrated.

“I tell you he’s hurt, I heard something,” protested Joe.

“You’re barmy,” retorted Louise. “Round the twist. Come back inside.”

She grabbed his arm and pulled him away. He came, reluctantly, worried.

“He might be lying in there, just inside the door, unable to speak or signal. We have to do something. Look, I’ll knock and find out, OK? No harm in that.”

He stepped up to the door and knocked twice, loudly and rapidly. Louise rolled her eyes, went back inside and came out with a shirt she tried to put on over his vest as he stood by the door.

“Mr Ching,” he called.

There was no answer. He knocked and called again.

“There you see. He’s fallen over and can’t come to the door. He’s hurt. We have to get help. Phone Turner and tell him to bring his keys.”

“Don’t be silly, he’s more than likely gone out,” said Louise, nervous now in the face of her husband’s enthusiasm.

“Mr Ching, oh Mr Ching,” she knocked and called herself. “It’s Louise Manchon, please open the door.”

“I tell you, he’s in there, stricken. If you won’t, I’ll phone Turner,” said Joe.

He dashed inside, leaving Louise knocking on the door with increasing urgency.

“Mr Ching, oh please open up, it’s Mrs Manchon, open up Mr Ching.”

The door of Mrs. Golden’s apartment cracked open a vigilant inch and Louise found herself the subject of suspicious scrutiny.

“It’s Mr Ching, Joe thinks he’s fallen and hurt himself, but he’s more than likely not in at all …” she found herself explaining, trailing off as the door closed against her justification.

“Damn, damn, damn!” she said, forgetting to stamp her foot.

Ten minutes later Haz Turner, the building supervisor, stepped from the lift onto the third floor landing. He was a big, red-faced man with a large yellow moustache, glaring eyes, a stomach swelling out from a blue flannel shirt. A radio was clasped tightly to his close-shaven head. Joe’s call had interrupted the screening of the Windies test at the Gabba. The news that Mr Ching was lying stricken, possibly fatally, behind the locked door of his flat, had been weighed against the possibility of Lara getting a century in the next five overs. It was a close call but Joe was irresistible in his urgency, and so Turner had come to force an entry with his set of master keys.

He began by knocking loudly on the door.

“Mr Ching, are you there, open up, it’s Turner,” he fairly bellowed.

There was no answer.

“Are you sure you heard him call for help?” he asked Joe, who was jigging from side to side with impatience.

“Yes, of course I did, what did I tell you? He’s sick in there. Come on, open the door.” His anxiety was a palpable presence driving them on.

“Shush!” said Turner suddenly, cocking his head.

“What? I can’t hear anything,” said Joe, straining to hear.

“They got ’im. Lara is out, bowled McDermot, caught Border, you beauty,” exclaimed Turner, pressing the radio against his head with elation.

“Oh for goodness sake,” said Joe, making a grab for the keys.

“No, I’ll do it,” admonished Turner, serious again.

He fitted the key and turned, but the door refused to open. It appeared to be held top and bottom by bolts.

“We’ll have to break it down,” said Joe, grimly.

“What? Are you crazy? We can’t do that,” said Turner, horrified.

Joe fixed him with a worried stare.

“He might die if we don’t,” he said.

The intensity of Joe’s worry was the deciding factor, its quality of almost hysterical anxiety propelled Turner to apply a 20-pound hammer to the hardwood door. He had a feeling something was going terribly wrong, even before Boon dropped a thick edge off McDermot’s short-pitched ball to Richardson.

There was still a lot of power in Turner’s trunk-like arms. The solid door splintered and gave away at the hinges after less than half a dozen, ear-splitting, hammer blows. It swung awkwardly from a variety of chains and locks. Knocking aside hanging splinters Turner climbed through the gap closely followed by Joe, eager as a hound at a kill.

“Mr Ching, hello, where are you?” bellowed Haz, striding down the corridor, glancing into the rooms opening to the right. There was no answer. Joe moved swiftly into the bedroom, expecting for no good reason an injured man to be in bed. There was nothing.

He was close on Turner’s heels entering the living room and ran hard up against him as the supervisor came to a sudden halt. A startled Mr Ching, earphones in place, leapt to his feet from a couch in front of a big-screen television on which he was watching the test. The sudden eruption of Turner and Joe into his living room caused him to stumble backwards. The three stared uncomprehendingly from one to the other. McDermot was hit for a six by Richardson on the silent and totally ignored screen.

The complications of outrage and indemnity that ensued during the following horrible half-hour of confusion and embarrassment eventually petered out, leaving Joe, hugely chagrined, and Mr Ching, inscrutably forgiving. An apoplectic Turner, alternatively apologising to Mr Ching for braking down his door while threatening Joe with dire results up to and including law, eviction and physical retribution, finally retired, promising to return and repair the damage. Louise, once the situation had been grasped in all its tangled ramifications, merely sighed and disappeared back indoors.

Joe attempted to mollify and placate everyone by promising to pay for all the damage, taking the blame with such unconditional acceptance that Turner was only restrained from thumping him by Mr Ching’s hand on his arm. Only Mr Ching, once recovered from his amazement, was unperturbed. With solvent diplomacy he set about dissolving the angry scene, assuring Turner of his gratitude for the demonstration of concern, reiterating how satisfying it was to live surrounded by so many vigilant, kind-hearted, if misdirected neighbours, of how safe he felt, living in a building supervised by such caring management. It was to this mellifluous accompaniment that Turner eventually left, unable to disguise the homicidal glint in his eye as he nodded curtly at Joe on the way.

Joe and Mr Ching surveyed one another in silence. Joe moved towards the door, gesturing towards the hall.

“I should be going, sorry about the mess,” he began.

“No, don’t go, Mr Manchon. I think we should talk,” said Mr Ching, stepping back and inviting Joe towards the couch.

“Joe, call me Joe,” muttered the instigator of the fracas as he lowered himself carefully onto the edge of the couch. Mr Ching sat opposite on a straight-backed chair. The sun bore down on the Gabba as the silent figures moved around in their obscure ballet on the screen.

Mr Ching’s living room was furnished with a combination of western comfort and eastern aesthetics – a vast over-stuffed couch and two armchairs, glowing big-screen television and a dinner trolley to eat from while watching the set. A flight of plaster ducks arrowed the wall surrounded by a number of English hunting scenes of red-coated riders navigating rustic fences and ditches. Two large Oriental screens, one decorated with pictures of bamboo, the other flowers and birds, blocked off the kitchen, a tall, lacquered blackwood, glass-fronted, intricately carved, display case took up one wall. Elaborate, formal, curtains enshrined the window.

Mr Ching settled himself facing Joe, leaning forward, hands on his knees. He was dressed in a maroon tracksuit and loose canvas shoes and his whole attention was directed on the abashed Joe.

“First of all, I wish to express my thanks to you for your concern over my well being, Mr Manchon,” he began, his accent, as usual, reminding Joe of British television shows on the ABC. “Although this time the results were rather unfortunate, it might so easily have been the proper course. You could have saved my life, if any accident, such as you imagined, had actually occurred.”

Joe waved his hand deprecatingly, “It was nothing, I’m sorry I caused so much damage.”

“That is not the point, the door can be easily repaired and Mr Turner’s embarrassment will pass. But what is of enduring interest is what it was that made you think you heard me cry out. Do you often hear such things? Are you perhaps worried about something? What is it?”

Joe found himself fixed by a pair of darkly luminous, almond eyes, inviting him to place his complete trust in their sincerity. The dapper ancient, with his clipped white moustache, emanated a blend of sympathy and interest that enveloped and smoothed the anxiety and tumult of the past hour.

Joe began talking, hesitantly and formal at first but quickly gaining confidence, loosening the lock on his reserve. He talked with increasing urgency and compulsion, disregarding the restraints of convention, pouring himself out in a flow of tumbling words that attempted to articulate the essence and innermost springs of his life. He began with an account of his fears concerning Mr Ching, how he thought he heard a cry of pain, but seamlessly, ineluctably, he moved into an exposition of the anxieties and fears that plagued his life, the years of morbid ruminations, the useless raking over of possibilities of ill-health and misfortune, of the ever-darkening of his life from paranoid fantasies about the people he passed on the street. He stopped in the way station of the sleepless nights, the tightly wound sheets and sweat-soaked pillows, not forgetting the trials of Louise who had grown weary of being woken in the night by his frantic demands that she start breathing again.

In the passage of an hour Joe talked more fluently than ever before, more revealingly than on the various analytic couches he had stretched out on over many years. He spoke hurriedly, as though there would never be enough time to tell his life, to retail the fears, the looming dread, the special and non-specific troubles that worried him to distraction. Nothing was held back, neither the intimate entanglements of the marriage bed in which he had lain for more than thirty years, nor the fearful imaginings of destitution and old age poverty that plagued him without rest. His voice quavered and sobbed, tears flooded his eyes, as he drifted away to a private universe of morbid regrets and real or imaginary failures. Sometimes his voice quivered with a susurrus of lament, sometimes the pauses would stretch out as though he was at an end, only to break again as he picked up the melancholy recital, breaching other crests of the endless dunes in the sorrowful desert of his loss.

Mr Ching sat motionless as a statue in the muted light of the living room, his head occasionally nodding slightly in empathic encouragement, his eyes intent, watching, brimming with interest. He only moved once, standing and crossing to the glass cabinet, fluidly motioning Joe to continue while he unlocked the glass door, reached in, and withdrew a bamboo object. Without interrupting the outpouring of complaint and bewilderment he returned to his seat, gently placing the bamboo on the table.

Finally, painfully, Joe lapsed into silence, reluctant to end, unable to continue, exhausted by the immensity of his pain and not a little embarrassed by the totality of his confession.

“I’m sorry, I don’t know what came over me, I don’t usually go on like this,” he trailed off, making to rise. He was stopped by the force of Mr Ching’s languidly raised hand.

“You are a worried man, Mr Manchon, an extremely worried man. Yet from what you have shared with me, there is nothing in your life to warrant such concern and anxiety,” said Mr Ching in his reassuringly modulated tones. “No,” he held up his hand again to cut off Joe’s protests. “Within the tolerances of this burdensome existence there is nothing in your state that I can see to give rise to this state of worry.

“However, you cannot continue in this way, not only because of the restrictions and pain it places on your life, but also for the sake of my front door and Mr Turner’s equilibrium. I have here something that may help.”

Mr Ching picked up the piece of bamboo, fished around inside his tracksuit for a pair of glasses, and through them peered closely at what turned out to be not just one piece but a tightly wrapped bundle of bamboo slivers. Bound with red silk threaded through holes pierced at both ends, the whole was constructed in such a way that four sides faced outward, making a seemingly solid piece of bamboo. Frowning with concentration Mr Ching began shuffling through the slivers of bamboo, turning one over after another, for all the world like a puzzle stick, perusing the tiny characters on each, sometimes reversing his selections, searching for the desired sequence.

Joe watched in a silence broken only by the faint clicking noise of the bamboo. At length, with a final and louder click than the others, Mr Ching secured the four outward faces he required and held up the little bundle in front of Joe.

“This, Mr Manchon, is a wand, a Taoist implement of some antiquity, the purpose of which is to effect beneficial change in the life and fortunes of its owner. I think you will find it useful.”

He passed the wand to Joe who received it gingerly, holding it tentatively between his fingers, turning it carefully, before glancing inquiringly at the imperturbable Mr Ching.

“Do not be afraid,” continued this worthy. “Although superstition, as a response to obsessive anxiety, may be seen as a palliative use of incident and object in an attempt to impose meaning on chaotic, everyday, events, there are more things under heaven than man in his philosophy had dreamt of… Never mind,” he finished, noting the increasing frown on Joe’s brow. “It will do you good.”

He reached over and took the wand back from Joe’s unresisting hands.

“Observe here, there is a line of motto on each side. When combined, these four lines make up a mantra, a type of poem that has been designed to alleviate the problem of anxiety you are suffering from. You will notice it is written in three languages: English, Mandarin and Sanskrit. Although it is my opinion that only in Sanskrit can the true poetic cadences of the mantra be savoured, the pragmatic efficacy of its recitation is quite unchanged in translation. A significant achievement by the monks who specialise in this production.”

He again handed the wand back to the speechless Joe, who found the formal cast of Mr Ching’s speech uninterruptable. The other continued, as a doctor giving a patient prescriptive advice.

“Do not read the words now, wait until you are more relaxed. The mantra must be read aloud, three times, with the utmost concentration, before retiring at night. Do so every night and I am assured you will begin to feel better, very soon.”

Mr Ching stood up. To Joe’s mild astonishment it all seemed to make sense.

“Thank you,” he said, standing. “I’m sure it will be very useful.”

He became embarrassed, coughed, looking away.

“All those things I said, I wouldn’t take them too seriously, you know. I was very upset, a lot of it was plain fancy, not the good oil.”

Mr Ching smiled and waved his hand deprecatingly, leading the way in his slippers down the hall, to where Haz Turner was beginning to effect temporary repairs to the door, measuring pieces of timber on the frame of the shattered frame. He stood up, red-faced at Mr Ching and Joe’s approach.

“Ah, there you are,” said Mr Ching.

There was a passage of embarrassment as the three stood around the broken door. Turner glared at Joe who, in turn, studiously avoided meeting his eyes.

“Well, thank you for your understanding, Mr Ching. I’m truly sorry about the door, but Mr Turner here will soon fix it up and of course, I’ll pay for all the damage. Ah, g’day, Haz,” he finished, before slipping quickly around the corner and gaining the sanctuary of his own flat. Once inside he leaned back on the closed door, eyes closed, devastated. He was sweating and trembling, his pulse racing. Ignoring Louise’s call he made for the bathroom. Today’s symptoms required some serious medication.

It was nine o’clock that night when Joe came to examine the wand. Sitting at his desk after Louise had retired, he put on his spectacles, and began to decipher the writing. Each face of the square-sided wand had three lines of calligraphy inscribed in fine lines of small characters, one in Chinese pictograms, another in the elegant etchings of what he took to be Sanskrit and the other in English.

 He had no expectations of the results to be obtained by performing Mr Ching’s curious request, but a lifetime of hope that a doctor somewhere possessed something of use, had conditioned him into giving anything a try. Keeping his voice low he began tentatively to read the words out loud, stopping once to make sure Louise was nowhere in the vicinity, gaining confidence as he went on.

The care of living is as a misty morning

The passage of fear is as a moonlit night

Time is a cascade arching through space

A mirror pool contains the peace of the sky

In Joe’s opinion the sentiments tended towards the banal. As the sound of his voice faded he felt foolish, afraid Louise would wake and hear him. The dying cadence of sound brought vividly before him the memory of his father saying grace before meals. The clear and distinct remembrance filled him with sudden sadness, flooding his eyes with tears that trembled without spilling. He sat quietly until the mood passed, remonstrating with himself for being a sentimental fool. Then he recalled Mr Ching’s instructions to read the words three times.

He turned the wand in his hands and repeated the reading, his voice inflecting into a soft chant-like rendition. He noted his delivery with some unattached part of his attention, remarking on the natural, unforced, quality of his voice. It reminded him of his school days, of leading the choir during the end of year prize-giving concert. He had once been considered quite a talented boy soprano, outstanding among his schoolmates, favoured with the possibility of a musical scholarship by the music master. The early loss of his piping tone and place in the choir came as a devastating blow, not initially to him but to his mother, who surprised him by crying bitterly, revealing a depth of disappointment that left him bemused and guilty.

The memory annoyed him, making him uncomfortable. It was a familiar rite of remembrance, one he had explored at length on the psychiatrist’s couch. In fact, it had become the sticking point that decided him to discontinue therapy.

He shook his head irritably, setting himself to the last repetition of the mantra. As the by-now familiar words rolled out he smiled at the absurdity of being angry while reciting a mantra in the middle of the night. The mantra was supposed to relieve tension, not increase it, according to Mr Ching. After all what was past was gone, beyond help if not beyond recall. Memories are a storehouse from which good or bad, happy or melancholy images could be drawn. It was silly to concentrate on the losses and sadness, morbid even. It didn’t take a Chinese wand to tell him that.

He was aware of some obscure satisfaction in completing the ritual, even if it was all nonsense and superstition. It was the least he could do for Mr Ching after the incident of the door. He smiled as he put away the wand, recalling Haz Turner’s expression when he first proposed breaking down the door – talk about gobsmacked! Still, it wouldn’t do Haz’s reputation or standing with the tenants any harm. Mr Ching certainly appreciated the effort and the motive, however misguided. It showed conscientiousness and care.

He hummed quietly to himself as he went around switching off the lights, a tune he recognised, with faint surprise, as the school song. It had been a long time. He was still smiling a little as he went to bed.

Drifting though the hazy morning light that dropped into the interior canyon of the building the following day, a new and amazing sound came from the bathroom to Louise’s incredulous ears . She put her head around the door and stared disbelieving at Joe who, as he lathered his face, whistled piercingly, joyously, and completely out of tune. Such a sound had not escaped his worried lips for many a year. He waved and winked happily at her.

“Good morning, Louie dear, what a beautiful day it is, makes you feel good to be alive,” he said, before re-applying himself to his image in the mirror. Later he came out of the bedroom dressed in a smart jacket, trousers and shirt, holding a greasy crumpled old suit she had been trying to prise from his wardrobe for years.

“For the Smith Family,” he declared, dumping it by the door. “Breakfast ready?”

Louise nodded slowly, staring.

“Whenever you’re ready. Joe, are you all right?”

“All right? Sure I’m all right, why wouldn’t I be?”

“No reason, no reason,” she said. He made a playful swipe at her rear as he sat down to the table, where he ate double his usual portion of toast and marmalade.

After breakfast he announced his intention of going into the office, even though it was not his usual day. He kissed her with more enthusiasm than she could remember before heading out into the day. On his way through the hallway he spotted the dour figure of Haz Turner descending the back stairs towards the yard.

“G’day Haz, how’s that new door coming on? Be sure to bill me for the repairs. If there’s anything I can help with give me a shout. Cheerio.”

His dapper figure disappeared through the sunlit hall with a jaunty salute to the dumbfounded Turner, who was so astonished he let slip the opportunity he had promised himself, of giving Joe a damn good cursing.

Through the new morning, in bright sunlight, Joe walked the drying streets of Kings Cross, breathing deep lungfuls of air redolent with the smells of damp trees, piles of uncollected garbage, exhaust fumes mixed with the occasional waft of strong coffee and roasting chickens. He strode with head up, moving vigorously, prepared to approve of everything he encountered.

For the first time in years the shifty-eyed loungers around the Alamain Fountain did not seem to be lying in ambush, preparing to mug him. He felt sympathy for their enervated ennui as he caught their unfocused eyes, registering a mild surprise as their nervy looks faltered and slid away. It was these self-same shifty eyes he had taken so much effort to avoid for years, seeking safety in a steadfast stare at the pavement in a welter of nervous anxiety every time he passed though the Cross.

The sensation of striding along with his head held high buoyed him immensely. He smiled as he matched gaze for gaze with passers-by, discovering in the process that most people on the street were harmless, normal. He nodded cheerfully, with so amiable a greeting, to a languid hooker about to solicit him that she did not bother to complete her trawl. Even the few conscientious spruikers at their posts outside the strip joints at this early hour changed their imprecations into ironical shrugs in the face of his resolute insouciance.

He missed the bus into the city, decided the walk down William Street would do him good, so he stepped out. Halfway down he was caught in a short sprinkle of chill rain. It reminded him of his boyhood.

“A sun shower,” he exclaimed, lifting his face to the sky.

By the time he reached the offices of Wren, Manchon and Tightman in York Street, his clothes and his hair were again almost dry. He stepped from the lift, straightened his shoulders and palmed the frosted glass door with an assurance he had not possessed in years.

Joe’s hyper-anxiety had wrecked havoc in all parts of his life and his career as an accountant was no exception. Following the onset of his nervous crisis, he struggled as a founding partner to meet his duties in the accountancy firm. Always a meticulous worker he progressively became obsessed with the possibility of making a mistake. The worry tied him to his desk late into the night, drew him into the office on weekends, set him to taking analgesics for headaches and induced a progressive trembling in his limbs, that eventually became so bad he had difficulty handling sheets of paper. Finally it all became too much and he resigned his partnership, downgrading his involvement with the firm to some part-time work, two or three days a week, the idea being that without the responsibility of a partnership his equilibrium would return. As events turned out the part-time work didn’t help, he still struggled and worried about everything.

There was at least one beneficial side effect of his disability. His rigorous tenacity in tracking errors and uncovering deliberate falsehoods was undiminished, even increased, and as the new levels of his obsessive accuracy became known in actuary circles, the reputation of the firm was enhanced. His partners would not hear of him removing his name from the firm, maintaining an open-door policy, reiterating that his partnership was there any time he wanted to return.

Since then, every Tuesday and Thursday, the partners and staff had become accustomed to his anxious presence, his brooding examination of the trickiest assessments put aside especially for his particular form of minute inspection. On this Tuesday however, they were presented with an entirely different attitude to the problems of business, as expounded by their part-time partner.

“Don’t worry about it, Ozzie,” he said, handing the file back to his startled partner. “The whole thing is a tissue of fraud from start to finish, worthy of winning the Booker prize for fiction. The way these bloody crooks cook the books no one could get them to balance. What they want from us isn’t an audit but a salvage job to make their whole shonky structure seem as though it hasn’t been raised from the bottom of the harbour. Then with our imprimatur, they serve it up to the taxman. Sod ’em, Ozzie. Send it back and inform them that no way is this a true and accurate account of anything they, or their shonky mates, have been engaged in.”

He paused at the door to lean against the frame and look sagely at his dumbfounded partner.

“Oh! And be sure to charge them full whack for that little gem of advice. We are professional men, after all.”

Oswald ’Ozzie’ Tightman was not the only member of the firm caught wrong footed by the new carefree Joe. The accounts girl, Kymble, watched in amazement as he signed off the expense accounts for the junior members of the staff, without querying so much as one item.

“Here, they’re a bunch of crooks, all of ’em. Tell them to pull their heads in or there’ll be deductions or worse,” he said with a smile, handing back the approved dockets.

As Mrs. French, the secretary, said to Ozzie Tightman, after Joe reviewed the files on his desk, relegated them all to non-urgent and left for the day with a cherry wave, it was lucky old Mr Wren was on extended vacation, otherwise the shock might well have killed him. Ozzie, dealing with a headache that had begun when Joe had arrived at the office and become progressively worse since he left, could only stare at her worried face and wonder, anxiously, what it was she was talking about.

The midday sun shone warmly on Hyde Park, on lunching office workers, girls in light summer dresses, pounding sweaty, joggers, scavenging ibises and an appreciative, strolling, Joe Manchon. A tempering zephyr from the harbour rustled lightly in the ragged tops of the palm trees leaving the late Spring day as calm and placid as Joe’s view of creation. He stopped to watch children feeding the ducks, and wished he had bread to share with them, his eyes spun him on his heel to follow the dancing flight of a large butterfly across the lawn, the cool moist air beneath the overhanging trees filled his lungs. He almost patted a passing dog.

In short, he was content, more, even happy, although he did not realise it, the feeling being so novel and in recent years, so far removed from his everyday experience. Once or twice he paused in his strolling, standing still, sunk in thought, trying to bring to mind something he had forgotten, but the memory lurked beyond recall and its loss did not worry him at all.

It was after two when he came bounding up the stairs to the third floor landing, disdaining the lift. He was in time to see Mr Ching bidding farewell to his two regular visitors from the Chinese youth organisation. He returned their smiles of greeting enthusiastically, standing aside as they descended the stairs.

“Ah, Mr Ching, the very man I want to see. How are you, and how’s the new door?” he ran his hand appreciatively against the newly hinged door. “A great job, eh? He knows a thing about wood work, does old Haz,” he said.

Mr Ching looked at him inquisitively.

“You have used the wand?” he asked, nodding his head in anticipatory assent.

“Oh that, yes, I did. ’Course it’s all mind over matter, isn’t it? The power of suggestion and all that.” He leaned confidentially closer. “To be frank, the rhymes were a bit too obscure for my taste, I’m more of a bush ballad man myself. Still, it started me on the right track, I’ll say that. The placebo effect, I imagine. It must have something going for it, because I feel better. But is there any way, you know, that it could really work, that’s what I want to know. Perhaps if I could change the mantra to something a bit more, you know, positive.”

Mr Ching gave a visible start and held up his hands.

“No, no, you must not try to interfere with the wand. The combining of mantra chi lines is a very skilled business known only to those who have studied the sources. If an untutored person, such as yourself, were to attempt it there could be disastrous results. You now have a mantra, it was given to you, you do not make your own mantra“.

The gravity and urgency of the warning took Joe aback.

“Oh, of course, I wouldn’t dream of it, just asking, you know. Wouldn’t dream of interfering with a gift. After all it’s the thought that counts, isn’t it?”

He backed off, shrugging and smiling to assuage Mr Ching’s concern.

“Thanks anyway. They’ve done a grand job with the door, haven’t they? Bye.”

Inside his apartment he stood in the hallway, pondering. “Bloody hell,” he muttered.

Louise called from the living room and he remembered the box of her favourite Austrian chocolates in his pocket.

“Coming,” he called, striding down the hallway with a smile.

Pain leaves no memory; nothing beyond the actuality of the event, the gripping vice of the cardiac arrest and fall in the street. The mind’s eye recalls the fall, the passers-by rushing to help, the swirling vision, but of the pain itself there is merciful, sanity-preserving, forgetfulness. And so it seems with worry and anxiety. Without present affect, it is impossible to recreate the previous state of despair and fear.

In the days and weeks that followed there was a carefree cheerfulness in Joe’s attitude to living. To see him walking spritely around the park, stopping to pat friendly dogs, saluting passers-by, keeping a watchful eye on the coming and goings of birds in the greening tree tops was to observe a man without a care in the world. Along the dispirited pavements of the Cross he resolutely initiated friendly banter with the vacant eyes and hard mouths that inhabited that embattled precinct. His step was lively, his manner congenial, his face open. His health problems cleared up, the critical mass of blood pressure tablets, vitamin supplements, nerve remedies and tonics were left to congeal in the bathroom cupboard. It was as if he had forgotten that worry and woe existed. He went about humming to himself. To Louise it was a trying period. It seemed at times she was married to a stranger, at others, to the young, ambitious idealist of their early years. She became edgy, worried.

He took to leaving the front door open when he went to the shops. When accosted by beggars in the street he stopped, dispensing coins from his purse, which he now refilled at regular intervals solely for that purpose. He acquired a regular clientele of panhandlers and street kids making little distinction between the deserving and the non-deserving, he seemed glad to hand out to whomever asked.

Perhaps the most astonishing aspect of his transformation was that he never once connected it to the mantras of Mr Ching’s wand. Not once, after that first morning, did he speculate that there may be some chain of action and reaction, some tie that bound the sudden onset of insouciance and the arcane ritual he performed in the night. Even when Mr Ching left suddenly for a visit to China, there was no gleam of recognition, no ray of understanding, to illuminate his growing belief in the goodness of life. The depth and fittingness of his contentment seemed so natural and justified, that any suggestion it may have grown through any force other than his own joy seemed preposterous.

Which really was a pity, because even the merest insight into the scope of his own transformation might have recalled to mind Mr Ching’s warning and given weight to his command not to tamper with the wand. But there was no such understanding and so, three weeks after the incident with the door, sitting at his desk during the night, he took out the wand for his nightly recital. Without questioning or belief he had embraced the ritual as a gesture of politeness to Mr Ching. This time he examined the wand with benign curiosity and began to fiddle with the arrangement of the bamboo.

At first, it was impervious to his picking fingers, seemingly fitted together so securely that it couldn’t be opened. Drawing on the endless patience that came with his new mood, he persevered and finally succeeded in flipping open one of the panels of bamboo. After one had moved it seemed as if the whole wand began to unravel in his hands. He flicked over the panels one after another, sliding them back and forward like a Rubik’s cube, composing a different set of faces with every move. Peering at the elegant lines of script he read out the aphoristic lines.

The fox listens to the heartbeat in the shadows

And again,

Leaves before wind bring on the storm.

He nodded sagely to himself, pursing his lips, for all the world like a child taking apart a toy to discover its secret, as he tried to work out how to untangle the red, waxed, string that held the panels together. Try as he might he could find no join in the string, no knot to unpick, no weave to unravel. He held the wand gently between his fingers, his curiosity was amiable, it was a gift, after all.

The lion takes heat from the eye of the sun

And again,

On the edge of a blade there are no footprints to follow

The final quartet of lines came together entirely by chance. He tired of examining the wand and squinting to read the small writing. Putting it down on the desk before him he pressed the loosed sides together and was surprised at the way they clicked into place, almost magnetically. He picked it back up again, turned it over and found it was again locked tightly against movement. It was difficult to see the join between the sides; it could have been made from a single piece of wood.

Intrigued he read the four new inscriptions, turning the wand in his hand.

The path is narrow at the top of the mountain
The dangerous bear is free from fear
At the hawk’s kill the bull roars
Walk over the cliffs with hands free

It would be untrue to say he felt the coursing of a spell through him. Vain to speculate on whether the new effect displaced the old, entirely, to some degree or not at all. He was, as has been noted, a man who after living for so many years immured in introspection, was now entirely at the disposal of his caprices, moods and whims. Life had become almost pure appetite to Joe, time his plaything.

So, no, he was as unaware of any further change in himself as he was when the first mantra had change his life. Only an account of his death the following day can add anything else to understanding. Even then it is, as usual, easier to speculate than confirm.

It was a sordid, everyday, incident of brutality and bullying, common enough on the misery-stained pavements of the Cross. The aggressor was a big lout, a red-faced, long-haired denizen of the underbelly of the city, part pimp, part thief, and part sponger, commonly found intimidating prostitutes already brutalised to chronic despair by fiercer thugs. He was punching with vicious regularity a battered blonde behind a bush in Macleay Park, when Joe entered, with jaunty step, his newspaper under his arm, a keen eye on the morning. It was not a scene, totally unfamiliar to Joe, or indeed to anyone who lives in Kings Cross. For many years he, like everyone else, when confronted by violence being meted out to another, hurried on after perhaps a half-hearted shout of remonstrance, looking for a policeman to take up the burden. This time however, as soon as he took in the scene, he advanced fearlessly towards the assault at a run, holding his rolled up paper as a weapon in front of him.

“Hoi you! Leave that woman alone. What the bloody hell do you think you’re doing?”

The knife was a small carpet cutter, a series of sharp steel triangles in an orange plastic handle. It was found under Joe’s body by the police, covered with his life’s blood, sticky, a haphazard implement of death. Witnesses disagreed, as they must if they are to give a true account of what they had seen. Pieced together in the official police report it appeared that Joe took the lout head-on, ramming his newspaper into his face, struggling to break the hold the other held on the woman. He was thrown to the ground, shook from the bigger man as a bull would toss a troublesome terrier. There was scarcely a break in the rhythm of assault on the wailing woman.

Joe was quickly to his feet and again threw himself at the big man, this time employing some half-remembered unarmed, combat training, he picked up years before, stiff fingers driving savagely for the neck. The attacker staggered under the assault from the older, man who kept coming at him, hands held in front in classical combat pose. The woman scrambled to her feet and, seizing her chance, ran. Mouthing a curse, her attacker tried to follow but was tripped by Joe and brought to the ground.

No one remembered seeing the knife in the lout’s massive fist. It was small, rusty. The two men grappled in unequal combat, the decision forgone as weight told against frailty, prime against age. They exchanged blows, many blows, Joe almost dancing as he lashed at the other’s head and neck with dexterity. But the knife decided the issue as it struck into Joe’s stomach, slashing across his abdomen, tearing him open. He grabbed desperately at his assailant, trying to smother the fatal cutting strokes. He fell, spitting blood, to be kicked at by the other.

“Stupid old git,” the lout yelled at the dying man, before running off after the woman, intent on continuing his original attack. When he was arrested three hours later, he could barely remember the encounter through a fog of drugs and booze, the prize of his standover tactics.

“He was a very brave man,” said the senior sergeant to Louise, standing in the cluttered flat, watching her cry as though her life had ended. He hated this part of the job.

“Not many men would have gone to her rescue. He saved her life,” lied the sergeant, hoping it could be true. Mrs Golden, expressionless, supportive, patted Louise’s hand with relentless reassurance.

Later, alone in the quiet of the apartment Louise wandered aimlessly, cried out for the time being, her fingers trailing, touching whatever she passed as if searching for a missing link, a vital component that had been mislaid. She was afraid, more afraid than she had ever been, deathly afraid of a life to be lived alone. She blamed Joe, and then, of course, herself for blaming him. It was simply that she did not understand. His action, termed brave by the sergeant, was so out of character for Joe, at least out of character for the man she had lived with for forty years. Only when she recalled how he had been during the last three weeks did his behaviour even begin to make sense, and then that didn’t make any sense at all. She just did not understand what had happened and was afraid, so very afraid, that she never would.

Her trailing fingers came across the Chinese wand on his desk. Although blind from the welling tears in her eyes, she picked it up as naturally as though it was the one thing she had been looking for. Perhaps on some obscure level she recognised that this polished piece of wood had played a part in the tragedy that had devastated her life. Although it had only been in Joe’s possession mere weeks, it somehow felt like the most familiar item of his she possessed.

Holding it tightly she sank into the chair by the window. Through misted eyes she automatically read the lines on the wand; they made no sense to her. She began crying again, opening to her loss, moaning at her pain. The thought of the days, and solitary years ahead of her, stretched out in an ache of loneliness. There was only her grief, but slowly, ever so slowly, something changed as the shadows deepened in the quiet room. She still did not understand, her sorrow was as profound as before, but as she held onto the wand, little by little, her fear ebbed away. There was no recognition on her part, if anything, she surrendered even more completely to her mourning. But now she was less afraid. She clasped the wand, hugging it close, rocking back and forward, mourning in the quiet of the darkening day.

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