ISSN 1556-4975

OffCourse Literary Journal

 Published by Ricardo and Isabel Nirenberg since 1998


"Baby Face", a story by Alf Marks

All fuss and bother she crosses the lawn, me trailing after.

Our suburb, the whole city, is after-rain-green.       

“C’mon Syd, draggin’ the chain. We’ll be late again, mark my words.”

The dachshund shuffle. Like she has ten legs all scrabbling along.  Nothing she does that isn’t fast.

“Keep your shirt on,” I say. “It’s only four blocks, fifteen minutes.”

“Not the way you walk.”

Now that’s a low blow. Taking in the maintenance and repair jobs on the old bod, I reckon I keep up pretty well.

“Take your time, luv,” I say to her back as I stumble on the footpath, “you don’t want to get there all hot and sweaty.”

“I just want to get there,” she says.

“Have you ever been to a doc where the doc is on time?” I ask. 

“That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be on time.” she says.

That’s the missus. Stickler for the right thing.  Tough as teak but mush underneath. Last night I come into the lounge after watching the footy in the rumpus room and she’s blubbing again over that movie ‘Out of Africa.’

“How many times have you seen this movie?”  I say. “And you still choke up over it.”

“I know,” she says, “but it’s so beautiful.”

“You must know it scene by scene.”

“I do,” she says, “Come watch it with me.”

“No,” I say, “I’ve seen it more than once.”

“You don’t like it?”

I like it very much. Karen with her coffee farm, and Denys with his hunting. And Bror with his women, and poor old Berkeley and faithful Farah and the scenery and the music. But it’s sad. And lately sad movies give me the darks. Me, Syd, of all people.It happened sudden a couple of weeks before lockdown ended. And when lockdown did end and when I went out in the community again, I got the heebie-jeebies.

“You watch it luv,” I say. “I’m off to sweet dreams.”

“More like nightmares,” she says, “the way you’ve been thrashing about lately. The other night you punched me in the ribs and gave me such a kick.”

“Goodnight, luv,” I say but I don’t let on about the darks.

Anyway, it’s spring. A ripper day. The bottle brush, like British soldiers in their red coats, line the street. The new gum leaves puff out like parachutes at the end of their branches. The Birds of Paradise are out too, their orange and purple flowers looking like gas flames.

Spring. Missus and me listening to the radio, scent of Jasmine drifting through the open window. The radio bloke said Jasmine is the harbinger of spring. So I looked up the meaning of harbinger and it’s like an announcement, a messenger. The Jasmine is the harbinger of spring. Yea, I liked that.

Mind you, I didn’t like what a bloke on the radio said about the state of play in the world. How the Chinese dragon is hanging over us and breathing fire down our necks. He said “The sword of Damocles is dangling over the nation.”  So I looked up this bloke Damocles and found out the story, got the picture. This bloke Damocles was a courtier and he was jawing on about how extra happy his king Dionysius was. And what a good life kings lead. Kind of like pissing in the king’s pocket. So Dionysius asked Damocles over to dinner and seated him under this sword which was dangling over Damocles by one horse’s hair. Bloody sharp that sword was too and it made Damocles feel very uncomfortable. Dionysius was giving him a lesson but. Showing him just how dicey the lot of men in power is.

“Well, which is it?” says the missus. “Either it’s the fire breathing dragon or it’s the sword? But I get a picture of the fire breathing dragon about to use his flame thrower tongue and sear that last little supporting hair to smithereens. Yes, I get to thinking how free and easy it used to be. And I see this dark cloud hanging over us, no dragon or sword under it, just the cloud, my own invention. And seeing that dark cloud in my mind I get the darks worse than ever.

“C’mon Syd, why do you always walk five paces behind me? Step up and walk next to me, for goodness sake.”

“With my ticker, I can’t keep up.”

“Nonsense, you’ve always been the same. You walk five paces behind me but at the same speed. You might as well walk next to me.”

“Okay missus.” I step up.

We pass the dazzling, new duplex that is so white it hurts our eyes. Our friends Kate and Gerald lived there in their single story before The Whitehouse, our nickname for the duplex, was built. I think a lot about the real Whitehouse lately. But I try not to because I get the darks. I don’t want The Whitehouse to do a Kate and Jerry on us. They sold the single story and bought a unit at the beach, which is just a short ride away. Yet, since they left, we don’t see much of them anymore. Pity that. Out of sight out of mind. 

“We’re running out of friends, Glady,” I say.

“Don’t be so glum, Syd,” she says, “We’ve made some new ones since our retirement.”

Then she totes up all the people in the neighbourhood who have passed away over the years and it comes to fourteen. And each one is a sad, sad tale I can tell you, so I say to Glady. “Don’t go into it luv, you know it only makes me down.” And she does steer clear, but the silence makes it plain what we are thinking. 

Anyway, the single story went under the wrecking ball and the duplex mushroomed up. Same story all over the suburb. Big, two story places that take up most of the block. Common wall between them, postage stamp back yard and front garden. A few token plants.

The place on the right has three small kiddies. Dunno where they play? I hardly ever see them. They must slink straight into the house after school and get on their I-pads.  Kiddies are such a worry nowadays what with the internet and talking to perverts, and being addicted to their programs.

We walk round the occasional car blocking the footpath. The missus whinges about how people nowadays use their garages as storage rooms and park their cars on the street. “They don’t park in their dinky front gardens,” she says. “There’s no space. They all park down the kerb or block us pedestrians. And when we’re driving, we can’t pass each other in the street anymore. One of the cars has to pull over to allow the other to go.”

“Half a second delay is it Glady,” I say.

“That’s for one car, but it gets a bit much pulling over five times a day. I mean, look at the size of those garages. You’d have a hard time getting a sewing machine in them, never mind a big six.”

On the corner we pass the house we’ve nicknamed The Opera House. Not because its roofline looks a little like the Opera House but because they are always working on the place. And the more they work on it the worse it gets. Noise day and night. Always scaffolding around it, painting it one god-awful colour after another. The yard is full of dumped sleepers for the landscaping that never happened. You know the type of bloke. Always changing something, same time stretching the rules. Got the council to detour the footpath around his saplings and then pulled them out. Gets the council to cut the lawn outside his place. Gets away with it. Certain kind of bloke. Knows the ins and outs. Pain in the arse.

“C’mon Syd. C’mon. Keep up. Keep up”

If she had my conditions, she’d also have trouble keeping up. Miss perfect health rousing on me for eating red meat and white bread and you name it. Hide my chocolate in the leadlight cabinet where the sugar Nazi can’t find it. Sugar. Not a grain of it to be found in our entire household. Anyway she’s always going at me for how unhealthy I am because I eat the wrong things and how healthy she is because she eats the right things. Looks after herself. Exercises every morning and walks every afternoon. Says I sleep in mornings and have a granddad nap in the afternoons. Her grandma nap is just closing her eyes. And she never has a little rest on the bed after exercising and showering.

And she says one morning, showing me her pert little boob that I have cupped in my hand so many times over the years. Those cute little boobs like two pannacottas with a strawberry on top. And she says, holding the underside of her left one “Is there anything just here?  My bras seem to rubbing on it.”

So I push my finger into the crook area and I feel crunchy lumps under there.  And I turn Eski cold because the evil message pulses into my fingers. Can’t mistake it even if I’m just a tradie and not a doc. Intuition— one of her five dollar words.

“You better get that seen to right away, luv.” I say.

And she says. “You reckon so? I just thought it was my bras getting old. I was going to ignore it. I’ll phone the doctor tomorrow.”

“No,” I say, “you’ll phone the doc today.”

And sure enough it’s the big C and they whip her into hospital and they lop off the left one and it leaves a perfect ridge across her left chest just where a general hangs his medals. And I make it my loving duty to caress her where she is flat as a boy so her cells can know life again and respond and not fall into destruction.

But all that was some years ago and I’m leaving out the chemo and other rigmaroles till we are now at the stage of the annual check-ups. And we have reached the time where we joke about the one pannacotta which has morphed into the wizened, fried egg. Wizened, that’s her word.  

But it put the willies up us. And the funny thing is that she did all the right things with her eating healthy and her exercising, and she still got it.  And it shook her I can tell you. She thought she was invulnerable, another of her five dollar words. The fittest filly in the paddock, untouchable while the rest of our mob were falling like dominoes all round.

Invulnerable, she was not and all that time carping at me for not looking after meself and telling me I would get sick and threatening not to look after me if I did because it would serve me right and be my own fault. As if. As if she would do that when she’s all over me like a rash when I get the sniffles. I got sick in my own good time, just playing the numbers. Same as she did with the woman’s disease, mine was the man’s. It’s expected. I reckon the body is just like fruit: grows ripe and then goes rotten. Natural.

All the same I try and stop myself from thinking of it all.

“C’mon Syd, step on it. You’re lagging again.”

What a thing at the shopping village. People are sitting at the sidewalk café’s again. Those eating have shed their masks. They are wolfing down smashed avo on brown toast and relishing their cappuccinos. They are jabbering away as if two years of lockdown didn’t happen. A bright, delightful sun splashes over the tables. The trees have claimed back their leaves, stuck them, fresh as new hundred dollar notes, to their skeleton frames. The Crepe-Myrtles are enjoying a fine sun bath. The massive London Planes or are they Liquid Ambers, no one knows the difference, with their maple style leaves, throw dappled light over the patrons beneath them.

The still masked shoppers wander around like a bunch of surgeons looking for a lost patient. We pass the supermarket, the newspaper shop, the abandoned travel agent, the deserted hamburger joint.

“This disease is just like a bushfire,” says Glady. “Arbitrary. Burns one business misses the place next door. Shuts down the shop over the road.”

Arbitrary, another one of her five dollar words. She means the luck of the draw. “That’s not the disease,” I say, “that’s the government that’s done all that.”

“They did it for our own good,” she says.

“Yeah, they done it for our own good.”

We are on the railway bridge when a train, like a swaying earthworm, slithers beneath us. It’s off to the city centre but will it carry as many commuters in the future seeing that people have grown used to working from home. Anyway, being retired, it’s not my concern.

We pass the pub which has done terrible in the lockdown but sales from the bottle-o have gone through the roof. A block behind the shops, we come to the clinics and the labs.

Eagle eye missus brushes down my shirt front. “What have you spilled on you?” she asks. “It’s all stained. Honestly, it’s disgusting. And why did you wear this daggy shirt?  You’ve got plenty of good ones. Why didn’t you wear something decent?” What she means is what kind of people will this new young doc think we are?

“This is a decent shirt,” I say. “Are we going to the doctor or a fashion parade?”

“Honestlee,” she says in that way that makes a bloke feel that he’s not the sharpest tool in the shed.

On the footpath, outside the clinic, masked patients sit on white, plastic chairs. With our phones we check in to the QR code. Glady pushes the bell with her elbow. We wash our hands with disinfectant and sit down. When I first saw those QR codes, I thought they were some kind of new crossword puzzle or Sudoku but now I’m used to them.

From our outdoor waiting room, I picture the clinic inside. It’s an old house which has been jacked up to be a clinic. Modified is the word that Glady uses. Reception counter with a couple of secretaries behind it, a waiting room, passages leading off to the doctor’s offices. Neat, clean and bright. “Presentable.” as Glady says.  Small enough that your own doc looks after you. Not one of those cattle stations in a four story block.

Course, the big glass door is shut and there’s notices plastered all over it telling people not to come to the clinic if they’ve got the gunge but to shuffle off to their local hospital. We sit among the other masked bandits twiddling our thumbs waiting for the doc. I am not game enough to tell Glady, I told you so.

A secretary comes out clutching one of those thermometers that looks like a hand gun. She is all glossy hair and sparkling eyes and so sweet and confident and young. I think of the road ahead for her. I don’t want to get into that either.

“Mr. and Mrs. Salmon,” she calls out so very pleasant and looking out over the patients like she’s lost us.

We stand up. That’s us, Mr. and Mrs. Syd Salmon.

She comes flouncing over, all woman goodness and light. Can’t explain it but it’s like she gathers all the good spirits hovering round into her. She holds the thermometer up to Gladys’s forehead while Glady bows toward her. Then it’s my turn. I feel the machine scrape my temple, the click of the trigger.

“Which chamber has the bullet?” I ask. She looks at me puzzled. “It felt a bit like Russian Roulette,” I say.

“Oh, yes, Russian Roulette,” she says. She’s thinking these old blokes and their corny jokes. Bores his family stupid. I do.

“You’ve both been double vaccinated?”


“Good, the doctor will see you shortly,” she says, and goes back inside. I must get hold of a medical dictionary to see if shortly has a different meaning in medicine from what I understand it to be.

I twiddle my thumbs and cast over the masked patients dotted about the front lawn and the footpath. It’s disturbing to see them outside instead of sitting inside in the waiting room.  They look like hog creatures with blue snouts, aliens from a science fiction movie. It’s the strangeness of the scene that gets to me that this is happening all over the earth. Like the world has been transferred to a different place. I have no words for it. Glady uses the word ‘surreal’ whatever that means.  And the murky thoughts start creeping in on me. I see this dark cloud and hanging from it is the sword of Damocles. And it’s never a sword shining with holiness but a dull, grey, steel blade. Old Damocles come for a visit again.

But I give him the boot as the surgery door opens and the secretary calls us. We go inside about to meet Dr. McMaster for the very first time.  Glady predicted this two years ago. Out of the blue, while we were watching TV she started out. “You know, Syd, I’ve been thinking.” Uh, oh, that usually means work for me. “Malcolm is getting old, and so is Kevin and so is Tony. They’ll all retire soon. We’ll have to find new people.” That’s Glady, always ahead of the game. Because sure enough our doctor, our lawyer and our accountant fall off the professional perch in succession. Same goes for our plumber, our electrician and our locksmith. Glady talking about it made me uneasy. Finding new people knocks you back a bit. Don’t roll so well with the punches anymore.

An office door opens. “Mr. and Mrs. Salmon.” It’s our Doc McMaster. He comes into the waiting room. I can’t help my smile. He’s a kid, just a kid. We follow him into his office, a neat and tidy cubbyhole where you can hardly swing a cat. The junior partner’s office. He directs us to two chairs and sits side-saddle at his desk to view his computer. Then he turns to us. Baby face, baby blue eyes twinkling. He is a dead ringer to the son of one of our friends. But that son is already in his mid-forties. Does this kid break thirty?

“Before we go on to anything new,” he says, turning back to the computer, “we ought to update your medical records. Okay Mr. Salmon first.”

He begins the list. All the fancy names for heart, liver, bladder and reproduction repairs and on. Then the organs with barnacles they aren’t even going to worry about.







“Biopsy and Dx.”

“Yes, add that one.”

“Anything else?”

“Don’t forget the hernias.”

“No, they’re recorded. Chickenpox, shingles.”

“I forgot about those.” Then a few I can’t remember at all.

“Well, you must have had them. They are on the record.”

“I suppose I did?”

“Well, the record seems pretty comprehensive.”

“What about my lapsis fungus, doc?”

“You’re what?”

“You know, my lapsis fungus.” I look into those cobalt circles of liveliness. Maybe the slightest grin crosses my face. He gets it and breaks into a charming smile.

“Okay, Okay. Pull the other leg.”

Glady butts in making excuses for me. “He’s got enough real problems without making up diseases,” she says.

Young doc smiles, turns back to the computer.

“Okay, medicines. What do you take?”

“What don’t I take?”




“Yep, a half.”


“Err no.”

“It’s a statin.”

“Oh, you mean Rosuvastatin.”

“Yeah, same thing. Rabeprazole.”


“Yes, for your tummy. Aspirin.”

“A half, doc.”

“Okay Gladys, let’s have a look at your record.”  I don’t see any notes anywhere, any files scribbled with information. It’s all on the screen. All the info from the old doc to the new doc at the press of a button. We used to call that info-gen. Modern world.

He starts reeling off Glady’s history. Couple of ones there I never heard of. I’ll have to ask Glady about those. Typical Glady. Got an ache, no fuss. Just goes ahead and does. Visits the doc, gets a prescription. Doesn’t tell nobody. Or doesn’t take the prescription saying to herself, “What the hell is that going to do?”

But all the time I’m watching this kid and my smile is getting bigger. He is small, shiny, bright. He loves his profession. He is up to date with the latest tech and medicine. He hasn’t had forty years of runny noses and take this pill to blunt his enthusiasm. He does everything quick and smart. With alacrity as Glady later says. Another of her five dollar words.

But being here isn’t just to connect to the new doc. I report on my blocked sewer and he prescribes something for that. Then he examines the missus’s face for all the splotches there and declares that they are all just harmless. Then he does the old tyre pump blood pressure thing and gives us referrals for blood tests. After the tests come back, he wants us separate for a good once over, not just for a meet and greet.

Course, now that the consultation (Glady’s word) is ending, she has to be a sticky beak. Got to ask him all about himself. Does he live local? Is he married? Does he have any kids? And on.

He answers without concern. “Yes, married.” He has two kids. One aged four and a two-year-old. I can’t help it, it just slips out of me. “Who’s older,” I ask, “them or you?”

The missus gives me that if looks could kill look, but he takes it with a hearty laugh.


Heading from the clinic back to the shops, the missus is giving me the rounds of the kitchen.

“That was extremely rude of you, Sydney, commenting about his age.”

“You asked if he was married and how many kids he has, isn’t that just as rude.”

“That’s different, that’s just kind inquiry, but your comment questions his ability just because he is young.”

“Leave over luv, he took it in good part.”

“Rude, downright rude.”

Our footsteps pad on the pavement.

I think of the new young doc with his baby face, and how good a doctor he is and I have a surge of pride for him and the country that has produced him. And may he thrive in freedom and peace until his children grow older than what he is now, and may he age untroubled until he is as old as me and the missus are now. I think of how everything has worked out well with him after we fretted about the old doc retiring. And things have worked out well with the new accountant and the new lawyer. Nothing to worry about, one generation replaces another but people don’t like changes.

And boy, we’ve had some changes in our region lately. I get the darks again. Start thinking about “Out of Africa.” That character who says. “Aah, Denmark, the little country next to Germany.” Then I think, Aah, Australia, the big land with the small population just under China. What with China already banning our coal and our wheat and our barley and our wine. And taking over Hong Kong and threatening Tai Wan. And I begin to wonder again. Will the Yanks stand by us if push comes to shove? Will they? Can they? Are they capable? Will they fight beside us on our soil such a long way from their home? We are the west in the east. Just as easy to turn their backs and shrug. They might have to do what is expedient. ‘Expedient.’ Another of the missus’s five dollar words.

I look around trying to stop falling into the dark’s any further. People sprawl all over the sidewalk cafés. Shortly sprung from lockdown, they eat and jabber more eager beaver than usual under the London Planes and Liquid Ambers. The women show bare shoulders to the spring sun or wear their winter jumpers in the shade. Specially keen, they lean toward each other over their tables and tell family secrets. The ghost of lockdown hovers over their nattering.

I think how lucky we are in the lucky country to have this pretty shopping village where people can idly bludge an hour catching up in the mild sun or in the dotted shade under the leaves. I want to join them, I want to say to hell with this Covid crap, to hell with worrying over the kiddies, and the internet, to hell with the body cracking up, and having to change butcher, baker and candlestick maker. To hell with the fire breathing dragon hot panting down our necks. To hell with Damocles and his hovering sword. I want to transcend it all. (Transcend. Missus’s word.) For fifteen minutes I want to sit with the missus and sip a coffee and think of nothing much and enjoy the spotted sunshine under the trees.  

“C’mon Mrs. S,” I say, “I’ll buy you a cappuccino.” Sometimes you got to live while you can, put the darks out of your head.

“On one condition,” she says.

“I know. That we don’t talk about our health.”

When we were young, listening to old people talk, we promised that when we were old we wouldn’t talk about our health. We break that promise all the time.             


Born in South Africa, Alf Marks spent his early childhood in that country before moving with his parents to Zimbabwe (then Rhodesia) where he grew up.  After emigrating, he earned a degree in Journalism in Canada and an M.A. in Education in the USA. His journey subsequently took him to Australia where he has lived for many years.
He has worked as a reporter, a teacher, and an old wares and antiques dealer.
His African stories have been published in various magazines in Australia and South Africa. Entitled “The Heavens of Home,” they are available from Amazon. His Australian themed stories have been published in journals in Australia, Canada, and the USA. A second volume of his stories is due to be published soon under the title “The Gondwana Man.”

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