EARLY IN THE summer of 1978, I drove from St Kilda to my home town of Eildon in rural Victoria for the single purpose of saying hello to my father. I arrived in the early afternoon, gave my stepmother a kiss and walked out to the backyard. I knew I'd find Frank under the apple tree on the rickety banana lounge he'd rescued from the tip.
"Came up in that little bomb, did you?" he asked.
"The Mini? Yes."
He looked me over and attempted a smile – not a bad attempt, considering his despair. He reached down and picked up a copy of National Geographic from the lawn – the magazine that had succeeded Outdoors & Fishing and the Australasian Post as his preferred reading matter.
"Been there?" he said. The magazine was open at a picture essay on Madagascar: green mountains, fishermen, big lizards.
"No, not to Madagascar, Dad."
"Funny, I thought you did."
Tears were finding a path down the silver stubble on his cheeks. He wept easily in what turned out to be this final twelve months of his life. He wasn't ill, just unhappy.
We chatted for an hour or so about things he judged would be important to me – my three year-old son, my wife, the prospect of the Labor Party taking power in the next federal election. He wiped his cheeks with the back of his hand, never conceding that he was drying his tears and never doubting that I would be courteous enough not to mention them.
When it was time for me to leave, he said "Hope you didn't come all this way for me? You didn't, did you?"
"No, I had to see a man about a dog."
He smiled. "A man about a dog. Well, take care of yourself. Love to ... Pauline is it? Love to Pauline. And the little bloke."
Almost a clean getaway. The sentimentality that lately had taken a violent hold on my father had been kept in check. But he called me back.
I could see the blow coming.
"Do what you do do well, son," he said, quoting the lines of a Ned Miller song of some years back. "Do what you do do well."
"Yep," I said, and hurried away.
IN THE CAR on the way back to St Kilda, I hissed at myself for not having a big enough heart to respond more generously to my father's offering. What did I want from him? A pithy verse from Sheridan on the subject of parting? A page of Proust? For the remainder of the journey home and for a week afterwards, I carried on a neurotic interior monologue, all but accusing my father of sentimental abuse, then later accusing myself of disloyalty to a man who had struggled bravely to love me all his life. I went penitently to my home town a month later and left in the same state of distress. It wasn't Ned Miller who did the damage on this trip, but Slim Dusty.
My father died on a Saturday afternoon in the toilets of the Golden Trout Hotel, the only pub in my home town. He'd been feeling crook, according to friends who'd been drinking with him that day, and had hurried off to the toilet to vomit. He died in a cubicle, striking his head on the toilet bowl. The mark on his forehead left by the blow was clearly visible when I saw his body in the morgue.
My sister cried her heart out at the funeral. Her grief was so intense that she fainted when the coffin started its descent into the grave. My eyes remained dry, but I sorrowed. My stepmother dabbed her eyes with a Kleenex, leaned her head against my shoulder and whispered; "Oh God, Bobby, in a toilet, a toilet!"
Kind things were said about my father at his funeral; the same kind things that are said of everyone at the end. I was listening but I was also thinking of Ned Miller's song and of the way in which the line Frank had offered me a year earlier endorsed the hodgepodge of beliefs that he hoped he upheld. The story told in the song is of a wise and beloved father of a type found here and there in the real world, no doubt, but my own father was far more interesting.
He was an industrious philanderer for most of his life, a cheerful boozer, a man of large loyalties certainly – at least in the male domain – but also of unrestrained malice when he thought he'd been wronged. Although he bore no resemblance to the dad in the song, if he could have chosen the figure he most wished to be mistaken for, it would have been Ned Miller's folksy pop.
Well and good. We're allowed to fantasise. What had upset me about Frank's offering was that he'd spoken the lines without irony, without any acknowledgement of their silliness. It was unlike him. He was a fine satirist, usually happy to lampoon himself. Some power, some knack he'd always been able to rely on had abandoned him. What I'd thought of as embarrassment on that afternoon in 1978 was actually grief.
I AM ABOUT to make some fairly tendentious suggestions about the role of narrative in our lives, barely stopping short of foisting on the reader a well-rounded theory of imaginative function.
That caveat displayed, I'm free to argue that individuals flourish according to the quality and complexity of the narratives they conjure for themselves. The narrative starts in childhood and may establish something as simple as a child's situation within the family. Perhaps our earliest narratives are no more than projections of paths to pleasure and reward.
The mature narrative – and maturity comes early, within our first decade – is our life story, supplemented by informed prophecy. By "life story", I mean the intimate yarn I tell myself each day; the yarn that I rely on to fashion something coherent out of my experiences; that I rewrite over and over to remind me of what I was, what I am, what I will be. I lie, I evade, I embroider, I conceal, but like any good writer, I maintain an approximate loyalty to reality. Themes emerge early on and endure forever. These themes may be limiting, but any scheme, however confining, is more important to me than the menacing breadth of total liberty. I am still relatively young when the volume of my experience begins to generate a synoptic mythology: I am one who cannot live without love; I have been chosen by an Implacable Will to suffer all my life; I am the captain of my soul. What liberty I still own I use to fashion fantasies of departure from my own narrative, for I am a tyrant of an author. My flight is brief. I return to the plot that I never truly left. There is no escape, short of madness. I am the language in which I imagine myself.
I publish sections of my narrative to the world. A condensed version of it becomes a foundation of prediction among my friends; "I know you," they tell me, and at least one will add "only too well!" The one who knows me only too well is my wife. Our mythologies being roughly compatible (or not) we create a family narrative, a family mythology: Mum wears the pants; As the twig is bent; Man may work from sun to sun, but woman's... It is a joy and a duty to pencil certain slogans into the narratives of my children, my sequels; and a duty, if not a joy, to insist they stay. Later I may share important fantasies with son and daughter: A green island, a tropic breeze, the sand, the sun, the ... Perhaps it's my sighs, my guilty smiles, so spooky, so thrilling that will make the moment memorable to my children. I've spoken the purest poetry to them, and hardly anything else I've had to say since they were born has made such an impression. I hadn't intended that; I wasn't attempting instruction; there was no moral to the poem. It was just...nonsense.
OTHER FANTASIES, OLDER than mine, help me fashion my own; other imaginations, stronger than mine, assist me in writing my narrative, as they assisted my father. He filleted songs and poems for lines that made his myths, fantasies and prejudices (a prejudice being a form of fantasy) more vivid to him. He was attracted to the sentimental, as we all are, and never resisted its pull. Tragedy freed him, but so did tales of triumph. Tragedy and triumph in the one tale was irresistible.
He read novels and works of non-fiction without making much distinction between the two; if a yarn were compelling enough and had a foundation in accepted histories, he treated it as fact. Tales set in the Rome of gladiators and extravagant public spectacle pleased him particularly (Daniel Mannix's Those about to Die) but he felt even more at home in the Middle Ages, surrounded by snorting steeds, haughty aristocrats certain to take a tumble before the tale was over, salacious peasant girls and chaps employing archaic verb forms while shooting arrows the size of picket palings from longbows (Arthur Conan Doyle's The White Company). The Crusades bowled him over. Armies of a hundred thousand marching all the way from London to Jerusalem! Helga Moray's historical romances filled him with admiration for her conscientious research. ("You know, Bobby, there are two sorts of Muslims, not just one.")
On those occasions when he did distinguish between fiction and non-fiction, it was usually to do with the gore and suffering in the book. Violence in historical novels was acceptable; documentary accounts of brutality distressed him. I grew up under a rural, working-class social regime that was fairly tolerant, if not uncritical, of everyday violence; wives could be physically abused, up to a point; children could have the living daylights belted out of them. Some of my friends suffered badly at the hands of their fathers.
Frank was not like that; if I deserved a thrashing, I got one – always brief and to-the-point. (Stole some comics from the newsagent; a fair cop.) As a boy, my father had been beaten severely and regularly by his stepfather. He might well have taken a pitiable sort of revenge on me and my sister, but I could tell by the anguish in his face when he gave me a hiding how much he hated what he was doing. Never a hint of relish. A tacit understanding grew up between us at thrashing time. I took the blows of his belt on my bare bum without crying, and when it was done, he would pat my head, smile and tug the lobes of my ears.
I once borrowed a copy of The Knights of Bushido from the home of a middle-class friend of mine. It was an account of Japanese World War II atrocities. The photographs and illustrations in the book were shocking, of course. When Frank spoke about the Japanese he'd fought in the Pacific War, he'd been excitingly blunt: they were animals. I thought he'd be taken with The Knights of Bushido but after glancing through it, he began shaking his head in agitation. Finally, he closed the book, slapped it against his thigh and sat gazing away at nothing. "This's going to the tip," he said. I protested that it was a borrowed book but Frank said again, "It's going to the tip." And so it did.
MY FATHER BELIEVED in himself as a singer, believed in the quality of his tenor voice. In fact, his voice was not all that flash, but nothing could persuade him to exercise a little modesty. He had an opportunity to perform at the parties that broke out all over our town on Saturday evenings, parties largely sponsored by the American engineers who were constructing a huge dam in Eildon in the early 1950s. I sat around with the kids of my age at these parties and listened in. The Americans sang sprightly songs like She Wore Red Feathers, while the locals sang tearjerkers. Frank's opener at these gatherings was an excruciating version of Smoke Gets in Your Eyes, followed by his show stopper, The Wild Colonial Boy. The distinct choices of the Americans and the locals could perhaps be explained by class temperament: the engineers were middle-class and interested in happiness; the locals were working-class and deeply attracted to stories of emotional blight and irreversible suffering. Frank was working-class on stilts; he towered above his comrades in his preference for songs about boys sent to the gallows by a callous magistracy.
Other venues at which Frank regaled an audience with tales of despair included the Progress Hall, site of fortnightly meetings of the Royal Antediluvian Order of Buffaloes, the RSL hall and the old Thornton pub, where men, women and children gathered around an open fire to listen to my father reciting The Green Eye of the Little Yellow God. Honey Moon, an aged and indomitable mezzo, was Frank's great rival in woe; perhaps I heard Honey raise her voice above the race call from Flemington on no more than a half-dozen occasions and not a thousand, but a thousand better conveys the impact on me. Honey's signature song was Jim Reeves' He'll Have to Go, anguishing enough, but in the right sort of maudlin mood, Frank's recital of The Face on the Bar-room Floor trumped Honey. It withered the roses in the brightest cheeks.
I THINK I'D nominate "bad luck", or badluck, as the informing genius of my father's mythology. It was there in song after song and in all but a few of the poems he enjoyed. His belief in badluck didn't make him bitter or envious and he didn't bang on about it all that much. Its attraction was its utility, its handiness. It was irresistible as a narrative device of resolution; a deus ex machina. He was not imaginative, unlike my mother, and he never went further than was strictly required in fashioning the yarn of his life. Marrying my mother; missing out on one or two comfy jobs over the years; being forced to endure the taunts and abuse of a nutcase stepfather; always being short of a quid; never winning a cracker in Tatts – badluck, all of it. In his latter years, I would sometimes pummel him with class theory, the poor thing, and although he was a committed trade unionist, nothing I had to say made the least impression on him. No, it was good oldbadluck every time for Frank – tried and true.
A theme that never made it into my father's mythology – it was too raw, too present for that, and a mythology, after all, must provide comfort – was that of the second chance, in the sense of Lord Jim's painful need for a second crack at things. I think the yearning for a second chance showed up particularly (and paradoxically) in the insistence of his warnings that the opportunity that had just been presented to me would come only the once. I had that one chance to win the boy's foot race at the RSL Christmas Party; the one chance to end the reign of a local bully by knocking his block off in a boxing match; the one chance to prove my worth to Bertie Fisher the butcher when he took me on as an apprentice against his better judgement. I didn't believe my father for a minute. I read his lack of conviction in his overwrought expression. In any case, he never bothered with the "one chance" thing when he was instructing me in something he himself did well, such as fishing. Then, he was endlessly patient, endlessly good-humoured.
Wishing for a second chance made Frank a great fan of the young man who seized his first chance. The writers of the books he was attracted to were right into creating characters of this sort: Alexander in the Helga Moray novels; a gladiator from France (or somewhere) wrongly considered too refined to slug it out with kick-arse Nubians in Those about to Die; the tyro crusader who stood up to Saladin in a novel with a picture of a burning castle on the cover; and especially the man from Snowy River. Whenever Frank read me the poem, which was often enough, he magnified the dismissive manner of old Harrison studying the skinny kid at the muster, and grew almost mistily maternal when he came to Clancy's plea for the kid's inclusion in the chase. When the kid and his gutsy pony turned the heads of the renegades for home, Frank paused one time and whispered to me, "Picture it!"
The thwarted man attracted my father's sympathy as readily as the triumphant man attracted his admiration. The thwarting could be the action of fate or death or very likely, a woman. Mad Carew in The Green Eye of the Little Yellow God; the man who did his courting on top of Ol' Smoky; the world-renowned artist who expired on that bar-room floor; the "miner from the creeks" in The Shooting of Dan McGrew; the Wild Colonial Boy – all thwarted. The year 1960 was the high-water mark of Frank's sympathetic identification with the thwarted: Running Bear drowned; Laura was told that some doomed guy loved her and Teen Angel was run over by a train.
Coincidentally, 1960 was also the year that my father first shared the most treasured of all his fantasies with me. We were out fishing and the enforced leisure of waiting for the trout to bite provided the perfect opportunity for yarning. I asked Frank about the war, just to get him going. He took the bait. But, instead of combat, he told the tale of a tropical island he'd visited during the war, the sun, the sand, half-naked women of astonishing beauty, dark-skinned, full-breasted ... He paused in the telling to apologise for speaking of this fabulous land; paused to gaze wistfully over the shining surface of the river; paused to smile, to shrug. He'd be back there like a shot if he could, he said. Like a shot. Maybe one day ...
I was very impressed by the tale. Very. I journeyed to that island even as my father was speaking, and on each day that followed. A few years later, I bought a ticket from a travel agent and sailed into the Indian Ocean, my imagination colonised by my father's fantasy.
EVERYBODY HAS A soft spot for the thwarted, of course. Everybody knows what it's like to be baulked unjustly. But my father had real form. He was running a coconut shy at St Kilda Beach in 1938, full of enthusiasm about his good looks and the opportunities the job gave him for meeting pretty girls. The prettiest one he ever met was my mother, Hazel, a Moonee Ponds girl with the black hair and black eyes of her distant Basque kin. She became pregnant after a late-night session in a railway carriage at Moonee Ponds station and hoped to legalise her relationship with my father. Frank was a reluctant groom. He'd been looking forward to years of fun and had to be talked around by Hazel. "She carried on a bit," was the way he put it, many years later.
After the ceremony, my father whispered to Hazel on the steps of the Moonee Ponds Town Hall, "You think we'll be happy, but we won't." She was horrified, but "made sure it didn't spoil the pictures".
She kept trying not to spoil the pictures, but sometimes she had to. A year into the marriage, it was brought to her attention that my father was seeing another woman – a primary school teacher from Benalla. My mother made a visit to the school teacher's hostel with her baby, my sister, on her hip. "I told her Frank was a married man. She was very upset. She said he wasn't wearing a ring."
To be caught out before you've had the opportunity to spend your rage in denial is hard to bear, and my father didn't bear his disappointment well. His revenge on my mother took the obvious form: serial infidelities. Hazel toughed it out as long as she could, through the birth of a second child, the death of that child and the birth of a third child (me), conceding only after years of struggle that Frank did not love her – in fact, despised her.
After such knowledge, what forgiveness? An engaging Welsh immigrant arrived in Eildon one day, became Frank's friend, and fell in love with my mother. My father returned home from work on an evening in July 1953 and found a note on the kitchen table: "Dear Frank ..."
HAZEL WAS CONDEMMED for abandoning her children, even by women who'd suffered awful emotional neglect in marriage. You could run away, certainly, but you had to take the kids. My father enjoyed years of female commiseration and took the opportunity to test its limits. Then, showing poor judgement, he set up home with a woman who'd done a fair bit of running around herself and wasn't about to quit. She made him a cuckold many times over, may or may not have broken his heart but certainly broke his spirit. When I visited Frank in 1978 and went away with the advice that so pained me, he was beyond caring what Gwen was up to (she was up to plenty) so long as she didn't actually desert him.
After my father's death, my sister went to great pains to locate our absent mother, finally tracking her to Brisbane. She had remained with the man she'd bolted with in 1953, the engaging Welshman, Kenny, and it was he who insisted that she respond to an advertisement my sister had placed in The Courier-Mail.
My last pre-departure memory of Hazel had been of her placing a white envelope on the kitchen table and bending down to whisper to me, bafflingly, that she might not be there when I got home from school. When I met her again in 1979, she certainly looked like the sort of woman who had provided that farewell; very assured, a little aloof. But then she clutched my wrist fiercely and had me sit on the couch close beside her. I could feel her whole body trembling in distress.
She was an unsentimental woman and, although plagued by guilt, considered such feelings a weakness to be argued down. "I did what I had to do," she said. She had prospered in the years since she'd left Eildon, working her way up from domestic cleaner to become state manager of a retail chain. She and Kenny had bought one house, sold it to buy a better place, then a better one still. She liked square dancing – something she'd picked up in Eildon at the Americans' parties. She showed me a wardrobe full of flouncy dresses.
She and Kenny had decided against having children, she told me over lunch shortly after our reunion. She added that Kenny was a marvellous lover and hoped that Marion and I wouldn't be embarrassed by her saying so. Kenny averted his eyes and when he looked up again, his cheeks were flushed with anger. He excused himself politely and left the room.
My sister hurried after him. Over the next few years, Kenny doted on Marion to such a degree that Hazel blew her stack and threatened to walk out. She'd start a new life elsewhere, she said. "I won't live with a man who doesn't love me. I suffered every day of my life with Frank. My little love, do you understand?"
HAZEL DID NOT rely on the poetry of popular songs to confirm the themes of her life and endorse her mythology, as my father did. Her imagination was too powerful to satisfy itself with the concrete, the evident. Potent cosmic forces shaped our destinies, she believed. She eavesdropped on the coded communications of galaxies, documented in the vast sci-fi library she kept in cupboards and drawers. I think it was her egotism that made her indifferent to boy-girl ballads of heartbreak and longing. What she had endured and enjoyed in life was too big for Ned Miller and Patsy Cline.
At the same time, the foundation of her narrative was not really all that complex. It was simply the vitality of love. She scripted a life for herself with Frank, and though he might protest that he did not love her, she couldn't accept his complaint. If he did not love her, he ought to, and would, and if the time came when it appeared that he truly did not, she would make the call. And so it was.
RE-CREATING HER LIFE in the way she did was an exceptional imaginative feat. In the letters she wrote to Kenny before she abandoned her old life, she describes the new life the two of them will live; the clothes she will be wearing when they set off; the emotions that will grip her. She sets out her requirements of Kenny; the quality of the love she expects to enjoy; the quality of the sex. She drafted her new life and signed the letters not "Hazel" but "Me".
Kenny was ten years younger than Hazel, but died five years before her. This was not the conclusion to the new life that Hazel had scripted, and she rejected it. She wrote to dead Kenny, chatted to him in the garden, left out a bottle of Scotch for him and recorded the decline in its level. Mostly, she despaired. Her powerful imagination now unemployed, she took to bed with ten-volume Tolkienesque fantasies and read herself into a stupour.
Frank's decline had opened the floodgates of sentimentality, so often a symptom of decayed passion. My mother didn't become sentimental in her final years but the complexity of the story she told herself declined. All the same, her mythology remained constant, if unavailing. She had found a list of quotations in a Valentine's Day issue of a magazine, years earlier, and a paraphrase of the famous lines from Don Juan took her fancy, especially: Love to a woman is life itself, To a man it's a thing apart. I offered her some complementary lines from Longfellow's The Golden Legend three months before she died: Love, that of every woman's heart/ Will have the whole and not the part,.../ Her light, her life, her very breath/ With no alternative but death.
She was delighted. "Now, a very wise man must have written that," she said. "Thank you, my little love. I'll tell Kenny."