this (re­morse­ful) life

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Contents - Derek Framp­ton

In the early 1960s I of­ten played chess with Serge Ru­bin­raut in a cof­fee shop called the Apol­lyon. It was a sub­ter­ranean es­tab­lish­ment, its clien­tele mostly from eastern Europe: older, tac­i­turn, se­ri­ous.

Serge quickly dis­pelled any pre­ten­sions I might have had to be­ing good at the game. (In 1976 he won the Aus­tralian Chess title.) I re­mem­ber beat­ing him on only one or two oc­ca­sions, of the very many that we played but, look­ing back, that may have been be­cause he felt sorry for me.

I liked Serge even though he was dif­fi­cult to talk to. He never spoke about his back­ground although I un­der­stood his mother es­caped the Holo­caust by flee­ing to China. He and his mother came to Aus­tralia from Shang­hai. I knew noth­ing about his fa­ther.

He lived a very in­ter­nal life and never seemed en­tirely happy. I read re­cently that in 2008 he suf­fered a heart at­tack, died and was buried in the Jewish sec­tion of the Rook­wood Ceme­tery in Syd­ney.

He once told me of the time he won the Aus­tralian title. It was a hard-fought con­test. To- wards the end he of­fered his op­po­nent a draw; they would have been joint hold­ers. His op­po­nent re­jected the of­fer and Serge went on to win on his own.

We of­ten went to wine bars to talk. Serge was very game when it came to chat­ting up girls. He would ap­proach them and make up im­prob­a­ble sto­ries about him­self.

I re­call one such evening at a venue called the Base­ment, near Cir­cu­lar Quay in Syd­ney; a pop­u­lar joint where the mu­sic was so loud that the con­ver­sa­tion didn’t have to be of a par­tic­u­larly high stan­dard.

Serge spied two nice-look­ing girls out to­gether on their own and went over to talk to them. Serge told them that we were novices study­ing for the priest­hood. He had not told me what he was go­ing to say and I was caught on the hop but fell in with the ruse.

The girls were fas­ci­nated and could not wait to find out more. I ad­mired Serge for such bold­ness — it was not some­thing I could have done.

A few years be­fore his death he rang me. I think I was in Can­berra at the time. He won­dered if I ever came to Syd­ney and, if I did, would I like to call on him. He was liv­ing in a room in a Red­fern ter­race. I took down his ad­dress but I never did call on him. He told me at the time he was not do­ing very well and in fact was suf­fer­ing from se­vere de­pres­sion.

Dis­cov­ery of his death filled me with re­morse. I see now that the phone call was prob­a­bly a plea for help and l ig­nored it. I should have given him some of my time.

Re­view wel­comes sub­mis­sions to This Life. To be con­sid­ered for pub­li­ca­tion, the work must be orig­i­nal and be­tween 450 and 500 words. Sub­mis­sions may be edited for clar­ity. Send emails to this­life@theaus­

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