2009 Winner - Martin Mandel's Parabola by Ashley Symes

Martin Mandel’s Parabola by Ashley Symes

This morning, Martin Mandel is out of sorts.

At eight minutes past five on a Wednesday in January, in the seventy-first summer of his life, he is cycling staunchly on a stationary bicycle in the upstairs section of his gym. Before him are tall windows active with reflections, overlooking the parking lot where lights are still burning. The sun as it rises will uncover green sports fields ahead and to the left a sweep of blue Cape mountains.

So far all is as it should be. Martin has found himself here Mondays to Fridays, a little after 5am, for the past five years. He exercises out of natural vigour and self-respect and admiration for the human body – and, more precisely, out of prudent regard for the good health and balance of Dr Mandel, paediatrician retired, and family man. He and his friend Denis Friedgood (anaesthetist retired), long agreed to meet at this hour in this spot for twenty minutes of cardiovascular exercise, preparatory to thirty gingerly minutes of weight training, ten minutes on the elliptical steppers, and some conscientious stretching to finish.

A clutch of anxiety seizes Martin as his glance falls on the video monitor streaming CNN live to his bicycle, soundlessly; today Martin has neglected to remember his headset. The screen flashes pictures of Gaza, wounded children, withdrawing tanks, livid lumps of white phosphorus amid rubble. Debra, her husband and his grandchildren will still be asleep in Tel Aviv. Yet none of this is good or just, Martin reminds himself, however expedient. The monitor has moved swiftly ahead of him to recount fresh agonies in the global economic downturn. After which it is some relief to glimpse America’s new president confident before serried ranks of citizens in their National Mall, allowing themselves to hope.

Confronted with the world’s turbulence, Martin rebounds upon what unsettles him closer to home. Waiting outside is his new Mercedes, a gift to himself in December but one which has proved capricious. Friday before last at noon, in an underground parking garage, he was stranded like a whale on a beach in his luxury vehicle, let down by failed auto electrics which jammed the central locking mechanism and the electric windows, and with no accessible signal for his mobile phone. Eventually a strolling security guard set in motion the necessaries for his rescue. But Martin has been deeply disconcerted and still approaches his Mercedes askance, as if it had bitten him. Having always delighted in technological ingenuity and tackled gadgets with gusto, in this experience he was defenceless. He acquired a membrane of frailty, instant and dismaying but – he suspects - permanent.

There is the matter too of a scarcely perceptible tremor in his left hand which he has mentioned to no-one, not even to Edith his wife. Although he did admit to himself on Sunday that he trembled five of the seven days in the preceding week.

His attention swerves to the statistics being diligently tracked by his bicycle to the side of the mouthing CNN anchorman. Seven and a half minutes gone, and his heart is beating at one hundred and thirty beats per minute. Denis Friedgood is not cycling alongside him, but he would typically start three or so minutes after Martin who has always been the earlier bird. Martin realises that he and Denis, cycling side by side these five years, have made an odd couple. His own appearance is benignly eccentric: unruly grey hair that harks back to Albert Einstein, pouches squirrelling in the sag of his cheeks, a paunchy trunk and chunky limbs. This solid fleshly self has kept its pattern for forty years and never intimidated his young patients. Contrast this with Denis who is compact and dapper, silver stubble covering his neat head, and with bright blue eyes that have always assessed the world with intelligence and irony – even as he looked over his surgical mask counting down the fearful into sleep.

As ten minutes notch up on his bicycle, anger at Denis’s absence this morning washes over Martin with physical heat. He glances at his watch and having seen the time shakes his wrist irritably as if the hours and minutes were to blame for Denis’s non-arrival. Then, being a mild and equitable man, he pulls himself up to inspect this reaction, this irregular eruption on the smooth surface of his habitual emotions. Immediately he intuits a connection between this anger and his helplessness in his Mercedes, but he cannot put his finger on the essential part of it.

A movement and a dull metallic thump to his right alert Martin to the presence of a fellow rider setting up the next-door bicycle. It is a small-ish, forty-ish woman who regularly appears at this hour and with whom there is invariably an exchange of greetings.

“Hallo,” says Martin.

“Good morning,” the woman replies and smiles.

She gets smartly down to business on her bicycle, outstripping him almost at once, it seems, on revolutions per minute. Martin returns to his inner conundrum.

He sees that he has tried to fill his life with the youthful and the energetic, with flourishing and stalwart things. He lists the ways. Even as a doctor his efforts have always been on the side of the positive, to nurture the growing young, to preserve the healthy ones, to heal the sick and vanquish their diseases. As an individual, he has been ensconced in his community: not religious, no, but with inner attentiveness on the High Holy Days and with joy in the communal festivals; knowing the Law and the obligations even where failing them; honouring his parents and remembering those of their families who died in Eastern Europe before he was seven years old. In this troubled African country where he was born, he did not take the path of activism but tried to discern just and unjust, to act accordingly, and to be of service. He chose his wife for her laughter, her sound character and her common sense. They raised three excellent children, all now with families of their own: one daughter living in Israel, his second daughter a counsellor and volunteer in the cause of prisoner rehabilitation, and his remarkable son a cardiologist and keen competitive cyclist.

Of course it is true that he has sat by the side of dying children and their families: he is well acquainted with grief. He knows the intricate concatenation of the phases described as shock, disbelief, denial, bargaining, yearning, anger, depression, resignation, acceptance, awakening. Then, he is acquainted too with the ineluctable shape of life, at least from a rational perspective. Each life is bounded by a line from birth to death, whether long or short, and by a physical body, whether sturdy or weak. Martin has known since the geometry of his school days that a point moving in relation to just such a set line and fixed body traces a parabola. He is perfectly familiar with the idea of human experience as an arc. Yet this morning he is struck – as if by a stone - by the sequence of ascent and descent in that trajectory.

At the same moment his eye is caught by the time indicator on his monitor, which is tracing his progress from zero minutes to twenty in an accreting curve of green electronic segments. These segments are now tailing downward past the halfway mark; “14:48,” says the display.

How obvious that the common human life comprises another linked chain, a litanous swell of energy, vigour, passion, knowledge, confidence, assertion, achievement - and at some point a series of fallings away from all of these. Entropy, it occurs to Martin, an ugly word. And when did Martin crest his peak of wellbeing, at what moment did his descent begin? At thirty-five, at forty-five, ten days ago? Has it only so recently happened, or has it rather taken him so long to apprehend?

It is certain that exactly two months have passed since Denis was there beside him, running a commentary on this and that, leaning to squint at Martin’s monitor and pace himself. Martin knows, he knows that Denis will never come again. He swats now at his face and arms with his sweat towel, swigs from his water bottle, wishing urgently to dispel the compression in his chest and throat.

In September was found, beneath the shelter of Denis’s skull, a neoplasm – another ugly word: a malignant inoperable growth. It would be quick, Denis was informed and he relayed this to everyone he cared to tell at all. On the second-last Friday in November, as they betook their dishevelled selves from the gym into the early morning air, Denis said to Martin: “I won’t be joining you on Monday”. That was three weeks before Hanukkah, Martin’s seventieth birthday, and the delivery of the Mercedes whose selection they had much discussed. Denis attended the Mandels’ celebrations. Now he remains exclusively at home with his wife and youngest daughter, receiving a few visitors, fading but impatient and ironic still.

Here, more pressing than the throbbing of his temples, more vivid than the sudden ringing in his ears, bursts upon Martin an imaginary but dizzying sensory profusion. The sea, the mountains, the desert, morning birds and a lion’s roar; the eyes of his father and the hands of his mother, the expressions of those around his table at the Seder, the faces of patients from years ago; the astringent smell of hospitals and the redolence of baking bread; the tastes of coffee, of sesame, of vanilla and lime; the wedding photograph on his wife’s dressing table and the crunching of glass under his heel; David crying and crying through the night as a baby, massed voices intoning. May there be peace and life on all of us.

“Maximum time of 20 minutes has expired,” reads red text scrolling from right to left across the top of his bicycle’s monitor. Martin presses Stop. “Cool down,” instructs his bicycle, and he slows the turning of his legs without stopping. Martin generally would cool down a little at this point while Denis caught up on his own twenty minutes and before they went downstairs to the free weights area. Now Martin considers his next move. He feels raw and ill at ease.

He pictures the large, sunny kitchen at home, the newspaper lying on the breakfast counter, Edith preparing fruit on a board placed before the blender which she will use to whip up a smoothie for his breakfast. His legs keep slowing down. He hits Stop a second time and all his statistics disappear from the monitor; CNN carries on regardless. He rotates the pedals once and stretches out his calf muscles on the right; he circles again and stretches those on the left. He makes a decision. His wife will be taken aback at his early return, will perhaps leap to concern about him or further misbehaviour of the car. But for today, as an exception, he will forgo the weights and the elliptical trainer.

Just for today, Martin Mandel believes he has done enough.
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