Yeah, yeah, it’s all very interesting, but really, I can’t see what all the fuss is about. In all honesty, I was more comfortable being unborn.
I mean, look at it. The work, the pain, the stupidity, the pointlessness of it all. It starts even before birth when all that sperm, over 200 million of them, suddenly spat into the unknown darkness of my mother’s vagina, driven by some primal madness, battle through an obstacle course of acids and bacterial death traps. Only about 1 million make it into the uterus, then they’ve got to battle through all kinds of passages and winding halls and dogleg turns in a mad race to the Fallopian tube. Only about 1000 get there. The rest get caught in the mucus lining the junction. And out of those 1,000 only about 200 reach the egg. There, leaving the dying screams of its companions behind it, one of them has to beat, cut, push, thrash its way in, and begin the exhaustive and never ending process of dividing.
And this is only the beginning.
At that point I’m drawn out of my reverie in the tranquil silence of universal potential and crammed into this madly dividing kernel - and the mayhem never ended.
I mean … who could be bothered?
Since then I’ve been filling in time, wandering through the wreckage looking for answers - drawn by the single flashing question that constantly floats above my head - that gives it all meaning. That forms the only reason I stay.
What a magical word it is. It includes every other question - what’s it all for? When will it end? Why did it begin? What’s the point? And ‘what if?’
That single word, ‘why’ has filled in all the spaces and given me purpose. It’s driven me on through the strange and traumatic. It’s given reason to the banal and mundane and turned the tedium of this life into a fascinating journey.
Added to which, it’s circular … like a Möbius strip, it goes everywhere but never ends. How beautiful is that. Why am I doing this? Oh that’s right - to find out why I’m doing it. A life can be lived on as little as that. And that’s what I’ve done.
I discovered why very early.
Actually, I remember the day I found it. I was dawdled along a footpath behind my mother somewhere.
‘Can I have an ice-cream?’
‘Why can’t I have an ice-cream?’
‘Because we can’t afford it.’
‘Why can’t we afford it?’
‘Because we’re poor.’
‘Why are we poor?
You get the idea. On and on it went as I wandered along behind her. We were poor because we didn’t have money. We didn’t have money because my father didn’t make enough. He didn’t make enough because he kept changing jobs. He kept changing jobs because he was an idiot. He was an idiot because …
‘ … because god made him that way, that’s why.’
But even the invocation of the divine, seemingly the point at which all questioning stops, didn’t stop me. And that’s when I realised ‘why’ is infinite, ubiquitous and omnipresent. It even transcended god. In fact, ‘why’ IS god.
‘But why did god say so?’
‘Because god hates everybody …’
That made me pause.
‘Why does …’
‘Okay! You can have an ice-cream …’
That stopped me. And I realised questions stop when you get what you want. I wasn’t sure I liked it. Maybe that’s why I’ve never got exactly what I wanted. Who knows? Interesting question, but I let it go. For the moment. Nevertheless, my discovery had been made- the gorgeous, universal and infinite why.
And what a fascinating life it’s built for me.
I mean, if I had to have a life, it’s been everything I’ve needed to stay engaged. Exciting. Unique. Mystifying. Confronting. Magical even. Circumstance in combination with the god of WHY has driven me to experiences and situations few could imagine or understand, as you will see. Through varying combinations of design, accident, idiot audacity, drunkenness or sheer stupidity, I’ve found myself in situations which, even as they were happening, I was amazed that such a thing could actually happen.
Which is why I’ve written this book I suppose.
To see it in words is to know it actually happened, as incredible as it was - and perhaps also in seeing it in words, there is also the hope that it all might finally make sense. Because seriously, after the 63 years I’ve lived, I still can’t see the point.
But … ever onwards …
I was born in a small mining town called Southern Cross in the flat, sun baked goldfields of West Australia. My father, newly released from the war and university, was working in one of the gold mines in the district as a mining engineer.
Southern Cross was one of those dusty Australian towns that have become an Aussie cliché - flat, brutally hot, teeming with flies, with thin lipped people squinting through brilliant white sunlight and talking broad vowels out of the sides of their mouth.
That particular day my father was deep down beneath the surface of the earth doing whatever he did, so my mother, feeling the first pangs of contractions as her body prepared to fling me into the unknown, packed a cardboard suitcase and caught a taxi to the local hospital. There at 11.30 in the morning on 19th of May 1954, she spat me into existence.
And I mean ‘spat’ literally.
She’d never given birth before so she didn’t know what to do, and no-one thought to tell her it seems. The matron parked her in an iron bed in a room and left her there until it was her time. Luckily another woman was in the next bed, also waiting to give birth - an aboriginal woman. My mother says she turned to this woman and asked what she should be doing.
The woman gave a wide toothless grin and said, ‘Push, love, just push.’
So that’s what my mother did. She pushed. She huffed and puffed and pushed with all her heart and didn’t stop pushing, because no-one told her to stop. And when they wheeled her in to the surgery give birth she was still pushing. Result being I was shoved rudely through the frantically constricting passage of her vagina - no gentle crowning then graceful slipping into the world for me - I shot out like a bullet from a gun and slid into the doctors hands so fast he fumbled and almost dropped me to the floor.
‘... and you’ve been in shock ever since,’ my mother wryly observes when she tells the story.
My father meanwhile, many hundreds of feet below the surface of the earth in the gold mine, received a note that had been passed hand to hand down the shafts and along the tunnels, to tell him he had a son. The miners all cheered and he, no doubt, felt great satisfaction. Like any father of the time, he might have visualised his son following him in kind - enthusiastic footballer and champion boxer at school, hunter, pukka stalwart of empire and queen - the whole post war ‘50’s package that he had crammed himself into.
Boy, was he in for a surprise.
Because when we met for the first time, me swaddled in hospital cloth, him released from work for the day, newly showered and wearing the loose flannel trousers and open neck shirt he favoured, it was as if each of us had prescient knowledge of what was to come. He said recently, ‘I remember holding you, and I knew as soon as I looked into your eyes, that you would steal my wife from me.’
And me? My first memory of him was his smell. The hairy, musky animal smell of the enemy.
My father was many things - courageous, intrepid, complex, but essentially he was a damaged man.
He was damaged because his father before him had been damaged. And that damage was passed on to me and onto my own ill-fated son - which is why this story begins with my grandfather, and a terrible event which, like a curse, sent shockwaves through us all.
So it goes.
My father, Rene Galtier Wells, was born to a British ex Indian army officer - Andrew Milton Wells, and his French wife, Honorine Galtier Wells.
Andrew was the son of a British artist by the same name, and a hard faced bitch who my mother met when we were in England,who she called the ‘iron fist in the velvet glove’ - an upper middle class snob who referred to Australia as ‘the colonies’, and wouldn’t let us into her loungeroom of her house because my mother’s father had been ‘in trade’ as a butcher.
Little Andrew, as the apple of his mother’s eye, had been spoilt rotten then sent to Sandhurst Military College to learn to be an officer in the British army, so in his own mind, he was of the blessed class, and assumed the accompanying arrogance.
As an officer he’d was known for giving transgressors what he must have thought was a death stare, but in actual fact was a boggle eyed glare, then frothing at the mouth and screaming when it didn’t work. In World War I he fought in France, then was sent to India, to be one of a vast army of administrators until the British government began demobbing their forces in India in the early 1900’s. Trouble was, they didn’t want all of these Indian army chaps coming home to Britain - it would have caused problems, so they offered the officers farms in the colonies.
Now, these Indian army blokes were largely toffy nosed sahibs like my grandfather - men who’d been used to ruling the world from the bottom of gin and tonics served by hot and cold running servants after lazy tropical days in their palatial villas. No doubt, they assumed it might be a similar life in Australia - visions of lots of trees and fertile soil, servants, an easy life in the colonies. So when the British government offered them farms,I imagine they leapt at it.
The reality was utterly the opposite of their expectations. What the government did was buy up a couple of large sheep stations in the Western District of Victoria, then subdivide them into smaller holdings of about 500 acres. Small houses were built for the men, and though superficially, I’m sure it seemed like a sweet deal - 500 acres -the problem was, the land in that part of Australia, with its shallow top-soil and deep clay underneath, was not able to support intensive agriculture of the kind that had been imagined in Britain where these decisions were being made. So 500 acres was not enough to support anybody, let alone in the style they’d been accustomed to
Not only that, but most of the small farmers who were left in that part of the Western district were Irish descendants who hated the British. So all these pukka officers came out to what was an intensely hostile, dry, hot environment - and within years, either blew their brains out, turned to alcohol, or sold up and went elsewhere.
Andrew didn’t. Being a stubborn man - probably his finest quality - he stuck it out.
He’d been married for some years before - swept Honorine Galtier off her feet in the little café where he found her working as a serving girl in Marseilles, and took her to India, where I imagine she’d lead a lovely life as the wife of an officer.
She never bothered to learn English - they’d always spoken French. So when they eventually arrived in the Western District to travel by train, then horse and cart to their little house on their plot of land, her shock must have been quite traumatic. As far as I know, she never learnt to speak English, and stayed isolated on the farm.
To his credit, as all his fellow officers blew their brains out or scarpered, Andrew got to work. With no knowledge of farming, or sheep or business, he made a go of it - sheep in the paddocks, chooks in the yard, a new shearing shed and shearers quarters, fencing - it was all done. The days must have been long and hard as he built their life there.
He was lucky - the market for wool was good, so as his fellow officers disappeared, he bought up a few of the next door properties and added them to his lot, gradually accumulating around 2000 acres in all.
Then Honorine began spitting out kids - William was the first, then my father, Rene, then Andrew, then George, and much later, Helen. There was another son who died young, I think they’d named him Michael.
All good - except little Andrew, as my mother used to call him, ran his family and farm like the military unit he never had credibility with. In this, their isolation worked for him. And because she couldn’t speak English, Honorine was essentially housebound. So Andrew had the kids out in the paddocks herding sheep in bare feet, and doing all the work, while he swanned about the countryside in his horse and buggy, having affairs with the many widows and single women about the place, including the local school teacher.
My father looked at photos of little Andrew recently, which I’d scanned from an album and took to show him. He shook his head, saying, ‘He looks short, doesn’t he … he was a giant to me.’
Problem for my father was, with his blonde hair, bright blue eyes and symmetrical beauty, he was Honorine’s favourite, which for some reason, rankled little Andrew fantastically. So he was harder on my father than with the other boys, making him run through paddocks ridden with bur-clover with those spiked seeds that penetrate the feet, and scotch thistles and snakes. Yet my father worshipped him. He worshipped him pathetically. Which would mark him terribly later, when his father would betray him, and damage him for life.
‘Little Andrew was an arrogant, strutting, puffed up fool of a man, with an sickeningly sentimental view of himself,’ was how my mother described the old man. ‘Lived on coffee, cheese and red wine, snarling and snapping all over the place. Sarcastic little bastard. He only ever thought of himself.’
Living in isolation with such a man must have been hell for Honorine, so one day she gathered up her three sons (Helen hadn’t been born yet) and left. She took a boat back to Marseilles, vowing never to come back.
Of course, her extended family were glad she’d left the mad Englishman, so she was welcomed home, and for a few short months, she, my father and brothers basked in the amiable arms of the Galtier family in Marseilles. Until Andrew came and convinced her to come home - a decision she would come to regret.
Life on Grassgunyah was hard - my father and his brothers had to walk for miles across paddocks to get to school, and when they came home they became sheepdogs for their imperious father, screaming orders at them from the back of his horse, as they herded sheep from one paddock to the next.
But wool prices held up, so the farm was doing well. Well enough for the old man to resume the many affairs he was having with women all about the place. In conversation, my father, who as he got older, idolised his father, denied this was the case. But I rather trust my mother on this.
‘Little Andrew!’ she hissed. ‘Oh he was always putting it about … god knows what he was up to, but we know for sure he’d been having an affair with the local school teacher … and he married Ina Skipworth, the nurse who tended to Honorine ...’
Which brings us to a terrible event, which still reverberates in the genetic memory of my family to this day. Like a tuning fork struck by a hammer, it has resonated throughout my father’s entire life and mine since I can remember. I can still feel it jittering and juddering in the cells of my own body as I write.
And I suppose it always will.
Nobody’s really sure exactly what happened that afternoon, or who was responsible - even my father, central to it this episode, recounted oddly conflicting memories throughput his life - as did his brother Bill, who gives a different account. But then, such is the way if tragic events, that they are remembered more through the prism of emotions, than as facts.
So we’ll go with the way my father tells it - he was 13 years old at the time. He and his four brothers were playing in the kitchen of the small wooden house that was their home on ‘Grasshunyah’.
It was Honorine’s birthday. She was getting ready to go into town with little Andrew. Of course Andrew wasn’t there - my mother reckons he was out about on his horse and cart pursuing an affair that afternoon.
Honorine was in the kitchen using a petrol iron to iron her clothes. The children were playing all around her - as boys do, squealing and tumbling about. She went back up to the bedroom to get dressed. She left the iron on the table. The can of petrol to fuel the iron had been left sitting to one side of the wood stove. Whether the can was left open, or the lid only lightly screwed on, I’m not sure. But it’s clear that the can had heated up and the fumes were gathering.
Bill and my father Rene were skylarking about in front of the stove, when suddenly the fumes caught in a flash of fire. I asked my father about this, and he says he thinks the can got pushed over. Regardless, the burst of fire set the lower bodies of my father and his brother Bill alight.
At the sound of screaming, Honorine ran out from the bedroom. She was wearing a faux silk shift made from synthetic material. Both Bill and my father were on fire, but she ran to my father first, to try and douse the fire on his legs. My father said, usually through tears by this time, that when she clutched him to her to smother the flames, the shift she was wearing was set alight - and being especially flammable, it exploded into flames all over her body.
Now, whether it was Bill or my father (both say it was them - maybe it was both) they reacted on instinct. They pushed Honorine out the door of the kitchen and down the stairs, and threw her to the ground, rolling her in the dirt to douse the flames.
I’m not sure what happened then. Suffice to say an ambulance was rung for. God knows what happened before it arrived - no doubt they set about ministering to Honorine, and putting out th fire, which had by now set the kitchen alight.
Andrew was just arriving home on his horse and cart as the ambulance was leaving. It passed him on the long drive between the house and the road to Hamilton where the hospital was. I suppose it picked him up. I’m not sure what happened.
It took three days for Honorine to die. It was tetanus that took her eventually. The melted material of her dress had burned her entire body, fusing with her flash, and chicken droppings in the dirt had infected the burns.
My father and Bill had their burns seen to, though the scars would remain on my fathers legs for all of his days
Every day for three days, they waited in the corridor of the hospital as their father sat with his wife in the ward.Their sister Helen was back on the farm in the care of a neighbor - she’d been born only months before.
My mother says, ‘Honorine wouldn‘t have wanted to live, I’m sure. She was hideously scarred and she would have known that little Andrew being who he was, he wouldn’t have been able to tolerate a scarred wife.’
Sure enough, she died. Andrew stalked out of the ward in a fury of grief - only pausing before his distraught children to snarl,
‘Are you happy now? You’ve killed your mother!’
With that he walked away, leaving them to follow.
Over the days that followed, it was my father who copped the brunt of the blame. In part because both his father and brothers had always known that, with his bright blue eyes and beautifully symmetrical features, he was the darling of his mother. And I imagine, because with both he and Bill on fire, it had been him Honorine had tried to save. So it could be seen that it was he who had been responsible for her terrible death.
I cannot imagine the pain they all felt, but moreso that of my father - isolated on the farm with a family who blamed for the death of the mother who had loved him so dearly. It would have been excrutiating.
My sisters and brothers and I have long speculated that it was this single event and the torture that followed, that killed my father’s heart.
And as you will see, it drove him mad in so many ways, as he spent the rest of his life trying to feel the love that would always be lost to him. Because love is a delicate and subtle sense, and needs vulnerability to exist. And we believe that in the days following Honorine’s death, our father’s heart simply shut down, simply because the pain was too extreme. The result was a man who spent the rest of his life seeking extremes of anything to fill the abyss in the core of him - to remind himself he was alive. He sought out pain, pleasure, fear and any texture of sensations, to remind himself that he was alive. He would create high emotion and violence, at the pitch of which he would roar with exultation, even as he smashed everything around him as we cowered and screamed. In later years he confessed to me, ‘I only feel alive when I’ve lost myself.’ and it explained a lot
And it exhausted him, and it exhausted my mother and us, as we followed him through the roller coaster of his desperate search for life.