Drawing for the Day and All That I Am
A traffic policeman stood on a podium in the road, arms moving from the elbows like a puppet. A scarlet bus careened into the kerb, disgorging its passengers, all of them with somewhere to go. They filed past a street-sweeper in a soft cap with a long-handled dustpan, they wove as if of a single understanding around a group of children being walked out of school. All around me life moved but I could not grasp it.
Although I knew then that there were real forces bearing down on us, this feeling has remained with me all my life, whether in the bustle of London or the beauty of Sydney, on water or land: that there is a complex machinery at work, there are invisible roads in the sea, and there is a meaning to all this which I cannot, for the life of me, uncover.
When Bev is gone I get out of bed and make my way down the hall to the front room. My balance is slightly out and I trail my fingertips along the wall. I flick the switch in the room. But the darkness has come inside! The ceiling is black – it is moulting and velvety. Bev must have left a window open; the bogong moths have come in on their migration and lined the place. The room shimmers with brief, misdirected life.
I am a vessel of memory in a world of forgetting.
I sit under the canopy of moths. It is deep dark outside. Everything out there, every squat, sun-bleached house and frangipani tree, the domed synagogue and brick school, the rag-tag shops, the cliffs with the ocean behind them, has vanished. The world has shrunk to a small area of light from the streetlamp. Lines of rain slash through its bright cone. The bogongs are welcome here.
I pick up Ernst. It occurs to me only now: he must have thought of me in his last hours in that hotel.
Toller was always kind to me, but it was clear he inhabited a different sphere. I was neither beautiful nor important enough to occupy a place in his world. But he did not send me this life of his with Dora put back in because I am her cousin. He has sent it because we had her in common. We were the two for whom she was the sun. We moved in her orbit and the force of her kept us going.
His book opens in my hands to this: ‘Most people have no imagination. If they could imagine the sufferings of others, they would not make them suffer so.’
This is what we all believed. It is what he believed, I suppose, till he could no longer.
Imagining the life of another is an act of compassion as holy as any. We drafted the leaflets, cyclostyled the truth. We told the stories on butter paper, in cigar canisters, smuggled them back into Germany. We risked our lives to help our fellows – there and in London – imagine. They did not imagine it. But Toller, great as he was, is not right. It is not that people lack an imagination. It is that they stop themselves using it. Because once you have imagined such suffering, how can you still do nothing?