‘Some say that without realising it we make it all up as we go along, embroidering and embellishing, and I am inclined to credit it, for Madam Memory is a great and subtle dissembler.’ John Banville’s Ancient Light (Alfred A. Knopf, 2012)
They were all home. They were running around, making noise. The blind was down, but there was light coming through it. Bright light, making it glow. He wanted a cigarette. He was thirsty. Water thirsty. Maybe his pills too. The bedroom door was shut. There was running on the floors, big thumps on the boards. Doors slamming. The dog barked. The clock showed nearly nine thirty. They weren’t at school. They weren’t at church. It must be Saturday. Or the house would be quiet.
He got up on one elbow towards his bedside table and rolled a cigarette.
‘Jill. Jill,’ he yelled, going to ask for some water, not to start anything about the kids. ‘Jill!’
It went quiet.
He lit the rollie and lay back in bed. The blind was too white. It was already getting too hot to stay in bed. She might give him water, or she might not. She might come in and plonk the glass down and stomp off without saying anything.
‘She’s at work.’ Ron calling. Not opening the door. Not saying ‘Dad’ as he should.
Sardines on toast.
He giggled, lying in his underpants in bed. He might get up and get sardines on toast. That was not why he giggled. He had seen those sardines all over the kitchen that time. When the kids hadn’t turned them off. The can was in a pot of boiling water to warm up, only the boiling water was long gone, forgotten, until the almighty bang. He’d rushed into the kitchen where the kids were looking up at the bits of sardines on the ceiling. Ron yelled and he smacked him, not hard, but to stop the panicky yelling. And the kids went away. That was not why he giggled. Maybe a bit. It was the tiny bits of sardines over every inch of ceiling and wall and fridge and table and … the only place not decorated by sardine bits was the floor. The pot must have sent the can’s innards up and out. It was like wallpaper. Sardine wallpaper. It was everywhere. It was … too much … to even start to clean. He must have gone to bed because he woke up with her yelling at him when she got home from night shift. Really going to town. Hysterical. And he’d giggled then too. It came out, looking at her in her creased work clothes, and cracked make-up and eye-creased crying as she screamed at him.
He heard the door open and turned his head. It was Viv, smiling. ‘Dad,’ she said. ‘Mum’s at work.’
‘Yeah. I knew. I forgot. Saturday.’
She came in and clambered up on the bed for a cuddle. He opened his left arm, holding the cigarette away in his right hand to let her snuggle into his shoulder.
Screaming. ‘Ah. Ah. Ah.’ One of the little ones.
Viv tense suddenly. He was tense.
The dog was going again. Ron’s voice. It was in the next bedroom. One of the littlies, ‘Ah, ah.’
Viv sat up on the bed, waiting for him to sort it.
He still couldn’t move. He yelled, ‘Ron, stop it!’ He leaned his cigarette out and flicked ash into the ashtray. Put the cigarette back to his mouth.
‘I didn’t do it.’
Viv was watching him. Waiting for him. He smiled at her.
‘Put your arm down and now your head. Stop crying.’
The crying stopped.
‘She’s stuck in the cupboard,’ yelled Leonie.
‘Twist your head down,’ said Ron. ‘Yeah, I-I’ll pull you.’
Viv said, ‘It’s Meredith. Stuck in the cupboard. We were playing hide and seek. She got in the cupboard in Ron’s room, on that shelf.’
He looked at her, trying to connect the words with meanings. She looked at him with big, hazel eyes, smiling. The shelf was pretty small. Meredith was pretty small too. Six? Five. She’d only just started school.
‘Ow,’ yelled Meredith.
‘I’m pulling you out,’ said Ron.
‘He’s pulling you out,’ said Leonie.
‘I hid in here,’ said Viv.
He’d decided against the sardines and was trying to grill gherkins and cheese on toast, but they kept shouting. They were playing hide and seek again.
Viv was counting in the lounge room, ‘… twenty-two, twenty-three, twenty-four.’
Leonie ran in and froze, standing by the kitchen table, looking at him by the stove. She turned and ran back out. Meredith ran in past him, squeezing between the freezer and the wall.
The freezer had been another thing. He’d found a way to save them money, signing up for the free freezer with the frozen food. Great frozen food. Frozen peas. Frozen mashed potatoes. Frozen hamburger patties. Even frozen carrots, peeled and cut. Frozen strawberries out of season. But she’d hit the roof over that one too. Who was the husband? Who was the man? Then she couldn’t even control the little buggers. They’d empty the freezer in a fortnight and it was supposed to last a month. Eat all the ice-cream and the crinkle cut chips first. He had to eat the strawberries in the first few nights just to get some. And now, when there were only corn and broccoli bits left, she’d make snide comments, when she had to do more shopping. When he’d been trying to save her that.
Keith went to the kitchen table to make a cigarette.
‘Coming ready, or not,’ yelled Viv. She pushed the sliding door from the lounge too hard and it crashed up against the stopper too hard and he dropped his makings.
‘No. Outside. Play outside. Now.’
Meredith darted out from behind the freezer and was gone like a blur. Viv stood, looking worried, like she’d done something wrong, which was only a bit true. He saw smoke coming from the grill and went back. Ron was now at the end of the room, looking in, like he did, looking to inject some of his mother’s disdain.
Viv said, ‘Can we do something today, Dad? Please.’
And he said, ‘Yes.’
And she smiled. And Ron shut up. And he could feel the quiet in the house now. The slight burn smell from the cheese was the only noise.
‘We can go to the lake.’ His own voice.
‘Yeah,’ came yells from the littlies somewhere in the hall.
Viv beamed. Love, undiluted.
Ron looked edgy. As usual. But he turned and said to the girls, ‘You’ll need your bathers and towels. Don’t forget your towels.’
Viv said, ‘That will make the best day, Dad.’ She ran off to change.
He felt at his pants pocket and touched the wad of money. It was true. He’d found it in one of Jill’s drawers when he’d dropped his lighter. It must have been that morning. Over twenty dollars in small bills. He wanted to check it again, but he took his toasted sandwich to the table to eat.
He felt the boy there. Not close but near enough. He cut at the edges away from the blackest bit in the middle.
‘Does Mum know?’ He said it quiet. Quiet, but annoying. But, half the time, he was worth listening to. Half the time, it was worth taking the time to think about the warning because if he thought about what the boy said, it would save him a lot of trouble later. He looked up at him, sharply.
He backed off a step, but said respectfully, ‘Does Mum know we’re going, Dad?’
Ron wanted to go. It was obvious.
‘Yes,’ said Keith. ‘I’m looking after you today and I said we’d go to the lake.’ Keith could see the gears whirring in the boy, trying to work out what he should do, trying to work out what his mother would want, even though he wanted to go to the lake and he wanted to believe his father. Keith said, ‘We’ll get a boat. Row to the other side.’
The boy smiled. But he nodded before he went off. He nodded. Only ten or eleven years old, and he was giving his own father permission.
Keith looked to the flagon of Brandavino on the kitchen table next to his breakfast to see how much he’d left himself to get going.
You could think in the country. You could breathe. Keith felt better as soon as they got through Midland and were heading up Greenmount Hill. ‘Here’s Chipper’s Leap!’ he said, rolling a cigarette while he drove.
‘Chips?’ said one of the littlies.
Ron told it from the back seat, no longer sulking. ‘This white man stole something from the Aborigines and they were chasing him and he got to that rock there and they were behind him and he tried to jump across. Only he couldn’t jump that far. Splat. There wasn’t a road back then. And there was a rock on the other side he was trying to jump to. But that’s gone too.’
‘What did they steal?’ asked Meredith.
‘I don’t know.’
‘Food,’ said Keith.
Viv smiled in the passenger seat next to him. She’d wangled her way into the front of the VW, even though Ron had tried to pull rank with it being his turn. Keith had sent him into the back to look after the little ones.
Ron started on one of his games. ‘The first one to see a tractor – there!’ he yelled.
‘You saw,’ said Leonie, ‘before you said.’
‘Okay. I’ll be fair. First one to see a windmill and first one to see someone riding a bike.’
Viv returned to her telling of school, and Miss someone-or-other liking her picture and something about what some other children were doing at lunchtime. It was like a cheery bird song, chirruping happily.
Jill would be pleased when she got home. Hear about how he’d looked after them. Taken them on a picnic. Even she’d have to be impressed by that. Force a smile. He could probably get a job up here. They knew him. Keith from Wooroloo – the electrician. Line up a job for Monday, maybe. A cash job. He could get the money back into her drawer before she missed it. Not that he should need to. It was their money. See, that’s what Jill did. She undermined him. Like with the freezer. Like his confidence at work. With the kids. With the doctors, right from the start. She still had this power to get at him. From when he was sick and even when he wasn’t. A power to drain him of energy. The Brandavino helped. It helped calm him down. It helped him focus on his plans for the future. On who was who. Shut up the nagging voices too, that weren’t Jill but from somewhere else. Finally a bubble would grow around him and he could go to bed.
That had got a bit out of hand, of course. One day he noticed that they were ignoring him. Jill maybe had set that up. ‘Leave your father alone.’ Which seemed good, later at night, after dinner. But Keith realised they were soon doing it all the time. He was becoming a piece of furniture. Viv would talk to him. Cheer him up. But the others would slide around on the edges of where he was thinking at the kitchen table – a fridge opening somewhere, a tap turned on or something bubbling on the stove and nothing said, like he wasn’t there.
One Saturday, he’d had enough of them ignoring him. He put a hole through the wall between the kitchen and the lounge. He smashed and smashed. Should have seen Ron’s face, then. Jill came running out from somewhere. ‘Keith?’ Ha. Tricked you. Nothing wrong at all. He made a door. Put in a frame and a sliding door with a lintel over the top. Lick of paint. Only took a few days. He still had his skills. Now he could see them while he was at the kitchen table, see them and tell them when to be quiet while they were watching TV and slide the door shut too when he wanted.
Viv didn’t judge. Trusted him. Loved him. Talking like now about happy things. Meredith was good too. Hold her upside down or tickle her and she was happy – little scallywag. He wasn’t sure about Leonie though. He’d never quite catch her, but there’d be something too quiet, a bit like the cat, never quite in reach now. But it was Ron. Ron had changed. She’d got to him. There was a time when Ron would ask him how his day went, when he got home from work. Was a time when Ron would come with him on school holidays, doing the wiring in the new schools they were putting up.
He needed to get work again. Even up North. Get work up North and come home the big man. Even Jill would look grateful. Pay packets bursting with notes. Wife and four kids – you’d think you’d be loved.
They drove past the New Oxford in Chidlow. Good pub that, from before they closed the railway. From the old days when this was his stomping ground and the girls were chasing him. Money in his pocket in those days. They’d probably still remember him in the pub. People knew things in pubs. Drop in for a quiet one and ask about who was who and that. Spread the word. Keith from Wooroloo, the electrician, was looking for work. Good rates. Clean tradesman. Get a couple of days’ work. Maybe even a school. Lots of schools. Months of work. She’d be happy with that. Even she’d have to acknowledge that.
‘It’s down here,’ said Ron.
They were excited now.
‘There’s boats,’ said Viv. ‘Remember.’
Keith drove through the gates and up into the car park, stopping near the shop, so they could see some water under the tree canopy. Lots of people. Picnic tables full already. The lake full of splashes in the water. He started to roll a cigarette.
Viv opened her door and got out grabbing her towel. Ron pushed the back of her seat over and they all scrambled out, Meredith hopping around a bit on the bitumen. ‘Ow, I trod on a gumnut,’ she said.
‘Stand on the grass,’ said Ron.
‘Didn’t you bring your thongs?’ asked Leonie.
Viv came back and looked in at him through the open passenger door. ‘Aren’t you coming?’ Keith realised he hadn’t turned off the engine. Was still thinking about getting work, maybe? She looked sad, a bit pouty. He reached into his pocket and found some dollars, which made her face light up again.
‘What’s happening?’ said Ron, pushing in next to her. Suspicion. The pecking. Ready to spoil it.
Keith smiled. ‘Share this with the littlies. You can buy whatever you want.’
Ron took the money. Snatched it out of Viv’s hands before she was ready. But he was smiling. ‘Thanks Dad. Thanks!’
Ron turned and took the money to the littlies who were standing on the grass looking down towards the beach, but Viv stayed.
‘Where are you going?’
‘Just up the road. Going to take care of a few things.’
She looked down, glum again.
Keith found a fifty-cent piece and held it out. ‘Shh. Just for you.’
‘Back in a tick. And I’ll have a swim too.’
‘And get a boat?’
She shut the door, and she waved as he drove off. Good spot, Lake Leschenaultia. Lake in the middle of the hills in the middle of his old stomping ground. He’d learned to swim here. Have a swim. Kiss a girl. Head for the pub for a beer on a hot day. Money in your pocket. That’s the life. He was glad he’d gotten out of bed. Hard to do, but when you did, things could happen. He started whistling.
His smile made her happy. She was happy when he smiled at her but she was also happy when she saw him simply smiling at everything – at the world. He’d whistled as he drove them up into the hills listening to her tell about school.
Viv turned from the V-dub and walked down to the sand so she could see all of the water past the trees. The lake glistened with dragonflies and sparkles, the reeds washed back and forth. She smelt the fusty tang of the water and the bushy smell beyond. Families were on the grass and on the beach and out on the water. Small children scampered among the small rocks. There was a shallow cobbled pool, which seemed to stretch for acres.
There were two jetties. One was close by, with rowboats moored and big kids diving and doing bombies off the end. On the far side at the end of the causeway, past the kids on canoes and families on rowboats, was another jetty. It looked like people were fishing. The whole lake shimmered as if it were alive with itself and the possibilities it held – all manner of good things a kid could want to do, all in one place. Viv could feel her body fill with the murmur of the lake. The day smiled.
‘We’ll put our towels here and I’ll tie the money in my shirt.’ Ron’s voice. ‘And we’ll get lunch later. And not swim too deep. And we’ll sit in the shade sometimes.’
‘Isn’t it lunchtime now?’ asked Leonie.
‘Can we buy lollies?’ asked Meredith.
Ron looked up at the sky and so did Viv. The sun was hard to find because of the clouds but seemed brightest overhead. They had been up for some time before they had left home. It could be lunchtime.
‘Yeah, maybe it is.’
Viv could see her brother thinking, finally thinking they should spend the money before their dad came back or they might not get to.
‘Okay. Let’s go to the shop.’
He got the money from his knotted shirt. He looked at her, watching, her towel still in her hand. ‘We’re going to the shop for lunch.’
He looked at her, his lip curling slightly.
She turned her back and started towards the water, dropping her towel away from their pile. ‘I’m going to swim first.’
She could feel him watching her, fuming, losing, and finally giving up. The water’s edge was warm, but colder as she edged in. When it was up to her ankles she turned around and watched Ron and the littlies tiptoeing barefooted through the sharp gumnuts in the car park on their way to the stone shop.
Viv took off her t-shirt and put it back on her towel before going to explore the water. She went until the water came up to her knees, but stopped there, not wanting to go further. She could swim, but not well. She remembered how the river and the ocean often dropped away fast, like the darkness of the water was grabbing at you and pulling. In the ocean it really pulled, as the waves went back out, then pushed and tumbled you with such strength that it was frightening. The lake wasn’t like that. The lake was friendly and knowable and not full of tricks or surprises. The lake always gave her time to get to know it. She felt with her feet, edging from one large smooth cobble to the next without falling.
Along the beach other kids were playing in the sand and families clustered under trees and on blankets. More people were up on the grass. Viv watched them. Mums and dads and granddads and grandmothers and aunties. Teenagers. A car radio was on and the music blew up loud and away in snatches. A barbecue was smoking thickly. A single red and white beach umbrella was stuck in the sand. But mostly people sat in the sun, or in the shade of the marri trees which grew down to the water.
‘We spent your money because you didn’t come.’
Viv looked over to see Ron and the littlies over near the towels. They had pies, syrupy brown where they’d bitten and chewed at the tops poking out of the brown paper bags. They had white paper bags too, twisted at the top, which must have held lollies. Meredith was already sucking on a green jubey snake.
Viv smiled. Leonie was giving up his lie behind him. Besides he wouldn’t. He’d be in too much trouble with Dad and Mum later. The money would be there. ‘No you didn’t.’ And she still had fifty cents in her shirt pocket.
He got mad. Threw some coins down hard on the towel, and turned away to eat his pie. The silver colour of the coins flashed in the sun, like fish skittering away in the shallows of the lake.
Leonie slid her pie back into the paper bag and gathered up the coins and stowed them under the towels.
Viv moved away from them, crouched down in the water, up to her neck, as though she were a floating leaf, drifting along the cobbled water, carried past the other kids paddling and the kids digging and the parents watching.
A larger rock poked up out of the water. It was the only one. Viv floated to it and leaned her arm, leaving a blacker wet mark on its smooth dark surface. It began drying as soon as she took her arm away, dissolving in the sun and gone. She scooped water over the rock turning it all black and watched it go to grey and dry again.
Rough splashing nearby and child squeals turned her to see a man in bathers carrying two little boys into the water. He had one over his shoulder and one under his other arm. They squirmed, but were held. As he jogged passed her rock, he winked at Viv, before dropping into the deep water beyond. He floated on his back, holding both boys as they floated, gasping.
‘Stop squiggling and squirming,’ he said.
‘Don’t take them too far,’ said a lady. Viv turned to see her standing in the water near her. She wore denim shorts and a green halter-top with white flowers. Her hair was blond and tumbled up on her head like a film star. She looked at Viv and said, ‘You’ve got a good rock.’
‘It’s the only one out of the water.’
The lady nodded, then turned to watch her children again, saying, ‘Until the tide comes in.’
‘It’s a lake.’
The lady turned back to look at Viv. Really look. Viv thought she might be angry only she suddenly laughed. It was loud and long with no embarrassment at all in the display of her joy. Then, as Viv began to suspect the laughter was at her expense, the lady stopped and pointed at her and said, ‘You are a smart one.’ She turned and watched her husband swimming back towards them.
Viv didn’t want to give her up. She said, ‘You can sit on my rock, if you like, while you wait for your family.’
‘Why thank you. Very kind.’ She waded around to the deep side of the rock and sat on it.
‘How old are they,’ said Viv.
‘Two and four,’ she said, but added, ‘and twenty-five. What a handful, all of them.’
‘Ha ha,’ said Viv, ‘I know, I have little brothers. Boy.’ It was out before she thought about it.
The lady smiled, looking about her. ‘They here?’
‘Yes. But over there.’ Viv pointed off towards the jetty at the end of the beach, not letting her eyes dwell on where she’d left the others. ‘Dad will be getting on a barbecue, while Mum does the salad. I usually help her but she said go and swim. I’m the oldest.’
‘Which reminds me.’ She stood and yelled, ‘Come on you lot. Lunch.’
‘Do you want some help?’ asked Viv.
‘What about your mum and dad … and your brothers?’
Viv splashed the rock. It gave her time to think about what the lady was saying and to recall what she had said and to think what to do. ‘I could help you first. I’m not hungry yet.’
The lady was splashing back towards the shore. ‘Alright.’
Viv followed her up onto the sand where the family’s things were. An esky and a basket and bags were piled where the sand dipped up to the grass area. A tree root ran out and down into the sand like a giant’s arm.
‘They’ll be proud of me, knowing I’m helping others,’ said Viv.
‘I’m sure,’ said the lady, and Viv knew she was bunging it on too thick. It was what Ron did, wanting adults to pat him on the head all the time.
‘Get the other end of this blanket and we’ll spread it out on the grass up here. Not much room mind.’
Viv helped her spread it out.
The lady pushed up the esky. ‘You can get the food out while I get the plates.’
‘Who’s this?’ said the father, standing on the sand and dripping water. The boys scrambled up, scattering sand onto the grass and blanket.
‘Hang on you boys. Slow down,’ said the mum.
‘I’m Julia,’ said Viv.
‘She’s helping me.’
‘Well, hope she doesn’t eat much.’
‘Oh, I won’t eat anything.’
The smallest boy pushed himself onto Viv’s lap and Viv said, ‘You’re still wet.’
‘You want to dry them,’ the lady said to the father, ‘while we get lunch.’
And he did. He got their towels and he patiently dried them off and then put t-shirts on them and then hats, while the lady and Viv brought out the treasures that were in the basket and the esky.
From the basket she pulled a big plastic ball which she opened by twisting a catch to take the top off, revealing lots of plates and cups inside. It was like a magic trick that made Viv gasp in delight and the lady give her long, lovely laugh again. While Viv set out the plates, the lady brought out plastic Tupperware tumblers. They were tall and frosted in pastel colours.
‘They’re pretty,’ said Viv.
‘Yes, they are,’ said the lady and then smiled at the dad, who winked back, then said to the oldest boy, ‘See. Ladies like pretty.’
The boy came back dry and sat again in Viv’s lap. ‘Hello,’ said Viv. ‘You’re dry now. You’re a wriggly one, aren’t you?’
The lady opened the esky and brought out a circular tray with another handle that poked through a plastic lid. Inside were triangular compartments. There were cheese cubes and carrots and tomatoes and gherkins and round black things and other food Viv didn’t recognise. There was another plastic container with half boiled eggs that had yellow stuff on top, that the lady said were devils, and also cold chicken and ham and meat with white bits in it.
‘Can you pour the juice, Julia?’
Viv was busy grabbing the smallest boy’s arm back from the plates and looked up to see the lady looking at her, a bit long. ‘Oh, yes.’
She went to the esky finding fruit juice in a plastic pourer with a tight lid. There was also a bottle of wine. It was thin and not like the fat bottles her dad drank. Ice sparkled. Under the drinks were many small pieces of ice. She took a piece and put it in her mouth, sucking.
‘Me,’ said the older boy.
Viv looked quickly to the parents, aghast, that she’d helped herself, but they smiled, nodding.
Viv fished in the esky and brought out a piece for each boy. And they sucked, wetly, coolly, dribbly, while the mum dished food onto plates.
But, when they started eating, the lady asked questions. ‘So, where do you live, Julia?’
‘In Inglewood. Our house has green grass and lots of shade and smells of roses. We live over the road from a church, next to the lady who has a turtle in her front yard.’
‘A turtle,’ said the dad.
‘A turtle,’ said the four-year-old.
‘Yes, but you have to be really patient to see it come out from under the bushes and when it does or it already is out, you have to be really patient to see it move because it doesn’t go very fast.’
‘A slow turtle. Imagine that,’ said the dad.
The mum glared at him.
Viv said, ‘Mum works at the school canteen. Dad. Dad is a schoolteacher. He used to be a headmaster at a country school and be headmaster and teacher to all the kids.’
‘I didn’t think they did that anymore,’ said the dad.
Viv was starting not to like him. ‘Yes, they do. In little towns with only one room for the whole school. Wooden schools with metal fences.’
‘But now he teaches in the city.’ Viv was getting dizzy from the telling, reaching quickly into bits and pieces from her memory about her grandfather and about other mothers and families at school. ‘That’s where Dad met Mum. At a school. She’s a teacher too. She was. She was a teacher and he was the headmaster and they met and fell in love and now she’s not a teacher but a mum looking after us four.’
‘Four?’ said the lady.
‘I thought he was the only teacher at the school?’
‘Yes, four. Dad and me and my two brothers,’ she said to the mother. ‘That was a different school,’ she said to the father. Viv tried to picture her mother’s father who was the headmaster. She recalled that he had died of TB when her mum was quite young. And her mother’s mother died when Viv was not even at school yet. And her father’s mother died when her dad was born and his dad was dead. She was sure he was dead too. She suddenly blurted out, ‘I don’t have any grandparents. They’re all dead.’
‘Poor you,’ the lady said.
The dad was looking at her strangely.
Viv smiled brightly, knowingly, reassuring. ‘I haven’t had any for so long that I don’t miss them or anything. I have to go to the toilet now,’ she said to both of them, and got up and took two steps towards where she’d left her towel, before she remembered where the toilets were at the lake, and turned up towards the car park. She had gone too far, too fast and without reason.
She stopped to look for where it would say Boys or Girls or Men or Women. Sometimes there were pictures of top hats and lady hats. Sometimes it said Gents and Ladies.
‘You alright there, love?’
Viv turned to see a man in a car near the toilets. He had a white whiskery moustache like a man she remembered in the family. An old uncle who squeezed elbows and knees too hard. He was sitting in his car, smoking. ‘Off to the toilets, eh?’
‘Not that hot today, but hot enough for an ice-cream, I reckon.’ He had horse races on the car radio. A man’s radio voice was quickly listing the funny names of the horses like serious nonsense. The man in the car had an open newspaper in his lap, resting on the steering wheel.
‘Would you like an ice-cream?’
Viv wondered whether she did, or should.
‘You look a bit lost,’ he said, reaching down to the car door handle.
‘No,’ Viv said, and went around the other side of the toilets, where she found the Ladies sign.
She did need to go, after all. She sniffed at the hot sweet fug of unflushed urine. She made sure she kept her bathers up off the floor away from the sand and leaves and honky nuts. She watched a spider behind the door, as it tended what looked like a single strand of web. She could hear flies buzzing, but there were none in the spider’s web.
She supposed she couldn’t go back to the lady with her boys now. She supposed she’d spoiled it. They’d smelled her lies, as adults could. She’d like to explain how they weren’t really lies, not bad ones. Making believe to fit in, was all. A tiny sob broke through her chest like a hiccup. It came from nowhere and was like a hurt, but was gone and now she felt sick and dizzy until she got hold of her breaths.
Meredith pushed a piece of gravel along a road that they’d made amidst the intricate sand city Ron had helped them build.
‘This is a car,’ said Meredith.
‘A tractor,’ said Leonie. ‘There’s a farm out here.’
‘Those honky nuts can be cows and horses.’
‘I thought the honky nuts were boats in our harbour.’
‘They keep sinking.’
‘Leaves would be better.’
‘Where’s Ron?’ asked Meredith.
Leonie pointed over to the causeway that topped the bank holding in the lake. ‘He went down over the other side of that thing over there.’
‘Viv was having lunch with those people but I can’t see her now. Do you want to go and find them?’
Meredith sat up and looked out on the lake. ‘There’s more canoes than other boats.’
Leonie sat up to look.
Meredith said, ‘There’s big canoes with a few people in and little canoes with one person. Boys try to tip each other out in the middle.’
‘They can swim, I suppose.’
‘Or they all drowned.’
‘There’s silver boats too. The big rowboats.’
‘They’re hire boats.’
Meredith continued to search the lake. ‘Have you got any lollies left?’
‘Are we going to go on a boat?’
‘Not if Dad doesn’t come back.’
‘Ron could take us.’
‘He said he doesn’t have any money left.’
‘What about Viv’s money. You picked it up and put it under our towels.’
Leonie said, ‘We are not going to use Viv’s money.’
Meredith kicked at the water with her heel.
Leonie finally said, ‘You use Viv’s money. I dare you.’
Meredith looked at her sister’s blue-eyed challenge. ‘Alright. I will.’ Meredith got up and started towards the pile of towels.
‘She will kill you.’
Meredith stopped. Pretended to look frightened. Pretended to change her mind. Stopped pretending anything. ‘Yeah. She might torture me first.’
Leonie went to the towels, picking up hers to put over her shoulders. ‘I think I’m getting sunburnt.’
‘Mum will put vinegar on you and you’ll smell like fish and chips for two days.’
‘I hate my skin burning.’
‘Your skin is always burning.’
‘I’ve got fair hair and fair skin with freckles and it burns.’
‘Do your freckles burn?’
‘I dunno. I guess.’
‘I’m dark,’ said Meredith examining one of her brown arms.
‘Adopted Aboriginal, that’s you.’
Meredith looked up sharply. ‘Don’t say that.’
Leonie dropped her smile. ‘I won’t. I was only joking. Ron’s only joking when he calls you a boong Arab. Dad’s dark. And Viv’s dark.’
‘Maybe you’re adopted. Maybe it’s you. Maybe you’re adopted from the North Pole.’
‘Look out, you girls. Watch out.’
They both turned to see one of the aluminium hire boats sweeping up to the shore and slicing through their sandcastle city.
Four boys jumped onto the beach, dripping water or sweat. They named cool drinks like Fanta and Passiona and choc milk as they stomped up the sand towards the shops.
‘Over there.’ Leonie pointed towards the far jetty. ‘See that boy. It’s him watching us.’
‘Liar.’ Meredith went to the boat. The back bobbed in the water as ripples came in to the shore. ‘It’s hardly on the land.’
‘Don’t touch it.’
‘Those boys might be mad.’
Meredith poked the boat. She turned to Leonie and poked her tongue out.
‘I’m telling,’ said Leonie. ‘I’m telling the fat one. He’ll sit on you.’
‘I’m telling. I’m telling him you called him fat.’
Meredith looked in the boat at the paddles left propped on the seat in the middle.
Leonie came closer but didn’t touch it. She looked back towards the shop.
Meredith said, ‘Three.’
The number three was painted on the side in large white paint.
Leonie said, ‘I wonder how many boats they have?’
Meredith climbed into the boat.
‘What are you doing?’
‘Ouch.’ Meredith banged her knee as she went over the side, scratching off an old scab starting it bleeding again.
‘I’m the captain,’ said Meredith, standing up in the boat.
‘I’ll be a shark.’
‘A landlubber. You can get in, it’s easy. If they come, we’ll get out. How do the oars work?’
Leonie looked into the boat and finally at the half-circle of metal that she didn’t know was called a rowlock on the side of the boat.
Meredith saw where she was looking and lifted up the oar, banging the heavy thing on the boat’s side as she lost control.
Leonie looked around to see some adults smiling towards their racket, but few seemed to notice them amidst all the other noises and action around the lake. Leonie took the blade end of the oar and they both manoeuvred it into the slot. It took them a while to realise that the metal collar halfway up the oar was to keep it from sliding down. When Meredith had the left oar in place she took a couple of experimental swishes with it in the air above the sand.
Leonie leant against the front to watch and felt the boat move back into the water. She stepped away quickly.
‘Did you feel that?’ said Meredith.
‘It’s going to float away.’
‘There isn’t an anchor.’ Meredith went to the back of the boat to look into the water and the boat moved off a few feet further.
Leonie ran forward and grabbed it. The boat was floating. ‘Meredith. I can’t hold it.’
‘I’m on the lake.’
‘Get out. It’s going to float away.’
‘Get in. We can row it.’
‘Get in Leonie. Let’s row it.’
Leonie looked at her sister who was looking back, excitement and dare and fear all half-frozen, waiting for her agreement to whatever it was going to be.
Leonie gasped a laugh of fearful glee, and leaped. She grabbed the side of the boat and got her tummy up over the side, but that dipped it slightly down and started the boat further into the water as she tumbled in with her sister.
They were in the rowboat. They were on the lake.
Leonie tried to stand, but the boat shook and she fell back, feeling a bit panicky, but Meredith laughed and stood up in the boat until it rocked her over onto the seat.
They both lay frozen, looking up at the sky from inside the boat, feeling it float and bob, laughing at the sky and their ludicrous bravery.
Leonie sat up first. They were ten feet from shore. ‘We should row back. You get that oar and I’ll get this one.’
They sat next to each other on the seat and brought the oars back.
‘Don’t bang me with it.’
‘Is yours in the water?’
‘Oh, I get it.’
They splashed. They circled in a three quarter arc. After considerable experimentation, with almost guttural talking – ‘That’s it.’ ‘No.’ ‘Faster. You.’ – they found some control. They took two good oar strokes back towards the shore.
Leonie said, ‘Hey, this isn’t so hard. We can get back.’
‘Let’s go out a bit further first. If we can get back anyway,’ said Meredith.
Leonie looked at Meredith, Meredith at Leonie. Merry and Lee. The littlies. They turned the boat with more difficulty. They headed out past the end of the jetty.
Leonie stopped rowing. ‘Do you remember when you jumped off that jetty into the river?’
‘Ron says it. You were little. Ron says all the big kids were jumping off the jetty and climbing up the ladder and he turned around because some boy said, Hey, Sis, get out of the way, and Ron says he turned around and it was you sinking down in the water, like it was your last breath.’
‘I remember he jumped in and got me. Yeah. He got me off the slide too and somewhere else.’
‘Well, you probably shouldn’t fall in now.’
‘Yeah. Oh, oh. You aren’t that good at swimming either.’
‘Ha ha ha.’
So where was he this particular afternoon? Where is their eleven-year-old protector, brother, Ron? Where was the future narrator? What has he been doing this afternoon?
He doesn’t remember.
I don’t remember.
Let’s suppose what seems most likely. Let’s start at that. Let’s take on trust for a moment that I later asked those present that day, who could remember, and I stitched this patchwork quilt from the varied, if uneven, quality of material that was and is to hand. I asked questions and referred to emails and letters and the occasional Googling to fill in what might have really happened in and on and under what I have constructed.
And so, to the boy. Hmm. Let me see. Yes. He would have seen to the equal division of money. He would have said something wise, like ‘Make sure you don’t just get lollies.’ He would have hovered, especially around the littlies. Laid down a couple of rules, perhaps, imagining what his mother would have said, or imagining what a big brother in charge might say. ‘Don’t go too far away.’ Possibly, probably, he would have played a game with them, even after Viv drifted to her nearby family. ‘Let’s make a sandcastle.’ ‘Let’s lay some rocks.’ They’d have started to follow his directions, to build their own version, imagining characters of their own. Meredith: This is a car. Leonie: A tractor. There’s a farm out here. Meredith: Cows and horses.
Bored. Not quite bored. Not quite not bored. Would he see some boys? Boys and boats out on the lake. He’d drift off to see. If Leonie is right when she says later that Ron and Viv did their own thing and if Viv’s thing was to adopt herself into a family for the afternoon, then what did Ron do all day?
He would have gone to the edge of the causeway. It tops the man-made earth mound that creates the dam wall, holding in the lake. Down the bottom is a series of drains and a creek. He would have taken a last look back. Seen the girls, safe on the beach under the trees, a hundred yards away already. He would have checked. He would have known his responsibility. Maybe he would have scanned the car park for the light blue Volkswagen. What if it were without a backward glance that Ron went down to the creek where he began to gather the larger gravel boulders to make stepping stones?
Boys would have come. They always did. He would have charmed them in the uncomplicated way of boys, simply by doing something interesting. ‘What ya doin’?’ one would inevitably say. ‘Makin’ steps.’ They’d watch. Someone would point out a good rock. ‘That one.’ ‘You do it.’ ‘That’s a good one.’ Splash. Laughter. A boy would slip in. Cold. They’d see the game of that too. They’d all pile in, making it easier to lay the stones across. It was no-one’s game again, owned by all. He’d say something like, ‘This way old ladies and kids can get across.’ Maybe he’d change it, or someone else would in the boy democracy. ‘Let’s make a dam?’ They’d set about that until someone official or grumpy would eventually find them and yell, ‘You boys, don’t block that drain.’
But now there was band of them. A boy would say, ‘We’ve got a boat.’
There would be canoes, but also a rowboat hired from the store. He’d look back, maybe. He’d check back to assure his sisters’ safety, surely. The sun would be high in the sky. Clouds, but sunny. Sunburn. No hat. Brown skin and tough feet. He never got thirsty. Could go for hours, still, without drinking … water.
A long afternoon in different boats, near shore and ever further out.
He falls off the boat and doesn’t want to hear their laughter at him, so he swims down and opens his eyes. He sees small fish, silvery or brown. He looks up to the boat above against the bright haze and kicks up and pushes as hard as he can, but nothing happens, and so he comes up one side, behind them looking down in awe at the potential drowning and he grabs the side of the boat and lifts himself up and drops off again so the boat rocks fast and the boys fall the other way into the water too. His laughter now. Oh, oh. Someone’s floundering. Someone’s grabbing. A boy can’t swim. What? The boy helps, as others do, grabbing up the nearly drowner. Calming. Pushing. Anger now. An older brother. ‘You shouldn’t have tipped us.’ ‘You shouldn’t have pushed me.’
He swims away from them, no longer friends. He comes up on gravel and into shore on the farthest bank of the lake, laying on the patch of short, stony beach near the reeds, mulling the justice and injustice of his ousting from the boats. He might have decided on his innocence with a simmering anger. It is as likely he would have come to accept his exile, the stupidity of the act. He would have rerun the end of the argument, thinking that he could have said, ‘I didn’t know you couldn’t swim. I’m sorry.’ Unlikely, then or now.
He remembers the girls. He stands and peers back across the lake, but all he can make out are dots on the far beach and sun flashes glaring off the car windscreens behind. Then, he’d suddenly see himself from over there, his self-perception wheeling above the lake like fighting magpies, multiplied and soaring over and swooping back to look, seeing himself from above and across, he’d stand, dripping here, taking in his presence, now on the other side of the lake, the side he’d never been before.
The reeds. Happy to be on his own. Stalking a bird. There were ducks. And goannas and snakes. He might have stayed out in the reeds, imagining himself on an island, imagining himself a soldier amidst a war, a cowboy, a pirate, all things he’d gotten from books and television and could insert himself into without the need of others. But boys would find him. They always did. The same ones as before, or different. ‘Wot ya doing?’ ‘Looking for duck eggs.’ And they’d do that, and share knowledge and increasingly ludicrous lies about snakes and reeds and swans. Then, because it always went this way, he’d have said, ‘Good place to set up an ambush. Get the Gerries.’ He watched Combat. And The Lone Ranger. And Phantom Agents. He watched television from when he got home from school until he put himself to bed at 10 pm. And that’s what they’d do, somehow making so much noise among the reeds that all the snakes cleared off, because he never saw one.
No. Now, years later, I can’t recall seeing snakes at the lake. I can’t recall what he did that afternoon. Some of these things happened. These are things that were at the lake. Things I’d do. Maybe things I wish I’d done, even back then.
He must have filled his day, not with his sisters.
Adult calls would have occasionally intruded the day. Various yells from fathers and mothers for lunch and for going home. These calls would have gathered momentum now because the sun had dropped considerably. It was late afternoon, all of a sudden. It would be all of a sudden. Like waking up.
A dad, yelling ‘It’s late.’ A mum, ‘Look how muddy you are!’ The last other boy going home. And he’d stand up among all the flattened reeds and look across the lake to see the few people left on the beach. Perhaps he’d finally feel the cold now, the breeze flicking his hot, barely burnt skin, making it tingle. Let’s watch him giving a slight shiver as he walks barefoot along the empty trail over the causeway towards the car park and the nearly empty beach.
I have a letter from my mum, handwritten on unlined paper:
‘A family dinner, which so often leads to “Remember when” – Then Ron asking his sisters to write down something for him about a time when his father took them all to Lake Leschenaultia and left them there while he went to the pub – [ ] … I had no knowledge of this, and was quite upset to think that I hadn’t protected them from this experience, and that I hadn’t been told about it.’
The popular suggestion that writing is only 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration was turned nicely by Vladimir Nabokov in his autobiography Speak, Memory, in which he suggested that writing was 1% inspiration and 99% memory. Fifty-year-old Ron recalls the Nabokov quote but can’t remember the afternoon his sisters so readily retell.
Writer Ron perspires profusely, trying to rebuild that afternoon, the rich symbolic metaphor of the collective family memory while also trying to account for his own lack of recollection and his own part in it.
Viv email: ‘Then the families started leaving the park. The sun was low down shimmering on the lake.’
Leonie email: ‘The crowd was thinning out as the sun began to descend. My sunburn was turning to that stiff, shivery chill in my damp clothes. I was feeling hungry. Ready to go. There was no-one to take us.’
Ron’s fiction: Ron put on his t-shirt and stood watching the car park. A group of youths were standing at a car near the toilets drinking beer from bottles and laughing loudly. A couple were hugging under the trees watching the sunset over the water. No Volkswagen.
The shop was shut, its ice-cream signs hidden. It wouldn’t have occurred to them to ask to use a telephone because they didn’t have one at home and it was not a time when children called someone at work even if they knew the number.
The girls hunched in their towels, goose bumpy and shivering.
Viv, Leonie and Meredith, all in one piece, none of them drowned or carried off or even bleeding much. Ron was not lying in the reeds, snake bitten. They were survivors, huddled together on the shore, self-preservation only just beginning to occur to some of them.
There was a sound of breaking glass as a beer bottle was dropped or thrown.
Viv email: ‘I remembered complaining bitterly and Ron suggested we all try huddling in the boats tied up to the jetty. Seemed like salvation, but … as I raised my leg the boat drifted and half of my body was immersed in the icy water… Now I really was cold, and frightened and angry… Not at Dad for not being there but at Ron for not holding the boat still.’
Meredith email: ‘Can remember the place – comforting and a bit exciting at the same time. I think I remember waiting and the decision to walk.’
Viv: ‘… the dark came down around us and then the fear started to grow and Dad was nowhere in sight.’ ‘Ron made the decision that we should start walking and we bundled up our towels and…’
Leonie: ‘Out the gates and up the road. We knew the way. At least the bitumen was warm.’
Meredith: ‘I remember walking the road and the road feeling warm and close to my face.’
Leonie: ‘Ron was in the lead, then Viv, me and Meredith. All in the correct pecking order and on the right side of the road, checking hopefully for car lights. The road was a lot longer when you have to walk it.’
At the time, the road from the lake to the tiny village of Chidlow (and the pub in Chidlow at the turn-off) was part of a minor back way highway to the townships of Gidgegannup and Toodyay. It was barely two lanes wide with no street lights. I don’t remember houses in those days along the mile to the pub. There are few, even now. It’s another mile to the Great Eastern Highway and a ludicrously long walk down through the hills and miles of urban sprawl to their asbestos house in Embleton. He’d probably know to turn at Guildford and find his way via Bassendean to Bayswater. If he could have found his way to the railway line, then surely he could have found their way home. Maybe young Ron did know the way. I hope however, his plan included checking to see if the Volkswagen Beatle was in Chidlow, or to see if the pub was open so they could throw themselves on the mercy of the assembled drinkers. Knowing his aversion to shame, at all costs, I do believe he would have attempted the walk.
Meredith: ‘You must have done a good job of not being distressed yourself if that’s how you were feeling because I think I would have picked up on that. Maybe I just can’t remember.’
Leonie: ‘We sang. Was it the Quartermaster’s Store?’
I can’t answer. I don’t know. We used to sing a lot and sometimes it was that song.
Meredith: ‘From my point of view we spent a lot of time without adult supervision and although it was dark and a long way away and we were alone – I don’t think any of these things perturbed me.’
I’m damned sure they would have perturbed me. And what is even more disturbing now, now that I am contemplating these events and now that I am asking for my sisters’ far fuller recollections about all kinds of things, including especially our father, is how much I don’t remember. I don’t remember much of this day and I don’t remember all kinds of things about my life with my father.
For instance, I recall coming home every day after school to an empty house, of eating a bowl of Weeties, letting the dog lick the bowl, watching TV and doing homework while playing with my tiny Africa Corps soldiers. Mum swears that for the four years before we left him, Dad did not work. She thought he was home. Mum says that Dad stayed in bed a lot back then. Mum suggests he was at the kitchen table too, if not in bed, with the sliding door closed. I remember the sliding door.
I remember the sardines can exploding. I remember the sardines all over the kitchen. What I don’t remember, but adult Viv claims, is that when Dad came in, he hit me. I ask why, these forty years later. ‘What did I do? Why hit me.’ Viv guesses that he was scared and he lashed out. I think it is interesting that he lashed out at me, but I must have said the wrong thing or in the wrong way. I keep trying to reconstruct, using guesses at psychology and logic to fill in the gaps. Anyway, her recollection is that we went out and stood next to the letterbox and waited for Mum to come home.
I can picture that. I can imagine, easily, four kids ranging from eleven years down to six, standing out by the letterbox on a warm night in Embleton. We are wearing our summer pyjamas. They are short, light things that quiver in the breeze. I know we had a brick letterbox, quite close to the road. I remember we had no front fence. But I don’t remember being hit and I don’t remember waiting for Mum.
I do remember sleeping at Mum’s work one night. I don’t know how old I was but I remember lying in bed in the dormitory where Mum had night shift. There were rows of beds and a glass booth at the end where Mum and another lady moved. The overhead lights in the dormitory were off but a dull glow came from where Mum was. And a growing smell of wee welled up from the beds around me. Mum worked at a place called Pyrton which housed mentally retarded kids. That’s what we called them, ’back in the day’. Later they were called ‘clients’. Then ‘intellectually disabled’. I don’t know what this disability is called now. Pyrton has been closed.
What I don’t remember, without the aid of others, is the reason why I slept at Pyrton. Mum recounts it later, much later, during other family dinners and other ‘Remember whens’. Dad was going to kill me. Apparently, he was going to save me from the evil world and the best way to do this would be to kill me, while Mum was at work. I don’t know whether he was keen to kill my sisters. I’m guessing not, or they’d have been in beds next to me that night. But I don’t remember the threats. I don’t remember my age. Mostly, I remember the smell of wee in the morning.
And at an even later now I am not even so sure about the glass booth where Mum worked. I’m re-reading the account and wondering if I stole these images from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest or whether that film has augmented, reinforced and/or enhanced the real booth.
Too little memory. Such a poor excuse for a writer, I am.
Googled fact: ‘Lake Leschenaultia is a man-made lake constructed c.1897 as key infrastructure for the Western Australian Government Railways.’ It is forty-five minutes from Perth by car (on a good day). It holds ‘approximately 520 million litres of water’ (in a good year). It was probably gallons in 1970. To summarise more facts, it was built to service a rail line that terminated in nearby Chidlow’s Well, which became Chidlow in 1920. The rail line was closed in 1966. Fact. The Chidlow Tavern burnt down in 1908. It was rebuilt at its present site and renamed the New Oxford Hotel and renamed the Chidlow Inn Tavern in 1973. We are pretty sure that’s where Dad went. I’m guessing it was his old stomping ground because he grew up in Wooroloo, a place we often visited as children and only four miles from Chidlow, a recently confirmed distance when I drove there in an unsuccessful bid to open up the blocked pathways of my clogged memory. It is still a nice lake.
Fact. My father had schizophrenia, although I don’t remember it ever being called that when I was young. According to Mum, he ‘got sick’ while she was having Leonie, so I guess I was about four years old. (Leonie subsequently said she thought it was while Mum was having Meredith, by the way.) I remember lots of things about visiting Dad in a place I later learnt was Heathcote Hospital. I remember him chasing the cat, when it scratched him and having it trapped under a bed and visitors trying to drag him away from it with placating voices. I believe it is a voice I sometimes used with him.
Schizophrenia is not simply a split personality, which is very rare and now called dissociative identity disorder. Schizophrenia ‘is an illness, a medical condition. It affects the normal functioning of the brain, interfering with a person’s ability to think, feel and act.’ The symptoms can include confused thinking and delusions. It can be medicated. Its symptoms can include anxiety, disorders and depression.
According to Mum, she read a study which suggested that when you live with a person with Dad’s mental problems, the children have a seven in ten chance of developing the same illness. The chances go down to three in ten if you don’t live with the affected parent.
I remember my father as a constant smoker and an earnest, methodical drinker, but for most of my childhood I had little to compare that with. My mother didn’t smoke or drink. I recall we had few visitors and they were mostly women from Mum’s work and the occasional school friend of us kids. Whether it was the condition or the medicine or how Dad looked, I remember he had yellowy bloodshot, poppy eyes. But that memory might be from later, when I hunted him up.
An un-vague memory. I was about eighteen and lying in bed with Sian talking as we did, way into the night, and she said, ‘What about your dad?’
‘What do you mean?’ I remember saying.
She said, ‘You talk about your sisters and your mum and you never ever mention your dad.’
‘Really. Don’t I? Oh, well…’
And I started to tell Sian about my father, who we’d left when I was about eleven or twelve. He was sick when I was little. I added in things I had found out since which included that my mother and father got married because my mother was pregnant with me. I think I mentioned the story about him chasing the cat. At some point, while telling these matter of fact events, I started to hyperventilate. I couldn’t breathe and this wasn’t helped when huge loud sobs started to come from deep in my chest, and not stop, even though I wasn’t crying and hadn’t a moment before even felt upset. I grew panicky, I remember, because it had seemed like an ambush by my own emotions. I hadn’t seen any of it coming. I conclude that I had been blanking him, but also blanking the emotions connected to him. I don’t particularly want to go back to that feeling again. Ever. But, what did come from that was the decision to go and find my dad.
I have good memories of visiting Dad about once a year after finding him. I remember the very first time I went to the house where my Aunty Les had said he lived and him answering the door, and me saying, ‘Dad,’ and him saying, ‘Ron,’ like I’d just been to the shops. I remember, still as a uni student, having a beer with him in a pub in Subi, and him asking, ‘How are you off for money?’ I assured him that I was fine. And he said, ‘No. How are you off?’ I got it. He was hitting me up, a uni student on a 32 dollar-a-week scholarship. It was funny, but I expressed my poverty early in most conversations after that. I remember taking him a bottle of beer in a halfway house on Cambridge Street and sharing it with him in his front verandah bedroom and talking like two adults about life.
Dad’s father died on the operating table as they tried to fix his liver. Dad’s mother died earlier, when Dad was a baby. She hung herself on the back verandah. He found out how she died when he was older. After he got married I believe. He might have blamed himself. She may have had postnatal depression. Not a regular diagnosis seventy years ago. She may have had plain old depression. There’s a story told to me recently that she used to lay her head on the train track in Wooroloo because it helped ease her headaches. Maybe she had what Dad was later to have, an illness beyond depression.
Dad had been an electrician. He said to me, in one of our catch-ups, that he had too much time to think in those dark roofs in which he worked.
I remember a unit in Girrawheen. The unit was filthy. His beard was long and tangled. He had long black fingernails. I remember him crying, tears coming down the many lines in his face. He said, ‘Ron, I’m so lonely.’ It was an unanswerable cry of anguish. Or just an unanswered cry.
I left Perth. I worked for ABC television, in Hobart and Melbourne and bought a house in Sydney. And when I came back to Perth, ten years later, to start my own family, I didn’t try to find him again. Until the message came that he was in Royal Perth Hospital with lung cancer. When I visited him in a hospice, I entered the dark room, and said, ‘Dad.’ ‘Ron,’ he said, as he did, pleased and as if no time had passed. There was someone else there I didn’t know. Dad said, ‘This is my son, Ron.’
I took charge of the funeral arrangements. Yet when we were gathering to go into the service, and the funeral folks were asking for pallbearers, I refused. I didn’t carry him in and I didn’t speak for him. I think we kids got confused at the funeral. I thought I was siding with Mum, an old habit no longer needed – or appropriate. Maybe it was the shame. Too many years of shame, and feeling ashamed again. Anyway, when the minister called for those who wanted to say goodbye to Keith to come up (to touch the coffin), I didn’t go. The only person who went up was an old, (I’m guessing) recovering alcoholic, showing more class than the rest of the room. Viv gasped. I heard her cry out in pain five or six pews away. If I had gone, I know others would have. But I didn’t.
‘If I had been making a proper story out of this, I would have ended it, I think, with my mother not answering and going ahead of me across the pasture. That would have done. I didn’t stop there, I suppose, because I wanted to find out more, remember more.’ Alice Munro’s ‘The Ottawa Valley’ from Selected Stories (Vintage Books, 1996)
And I would have us eternally walking down the lake road, guided only by the heat of it and the wonderful, defiant boy who was leading, as they sang, walking home or wherever because they wouldn’t accept to stay. And my sisters, variously oblivious and impervious, strong, happy and magically protected, it seems, by forces outside our family, and perhaps within by whatever means we discovered at our disposal. I have always felt that we lived separate lives, us kids, parallel or diverging lines along the common events. Our memories are often different but so were our responses, events seen so differently through our individual frames that they literally were different things occurring. That night, we didn’t wait. We walked together, and we sang.
That’s why I want to tell this, even though I don’t remember it, because of what it means to me about who we were and how we are.
‘I remember an occasion when Keith was threatening to hit me when Ron stood between us. “Don’t you hit my mother.” That was when I talked to him first about us leaving his father. He asked me to stay, said he’d talked to Keith and that he had promised to change his behaviour.’
Leonie: ‘Another bend and still no sign of the pub. Then there were lights approaching. We hugged the side of the road so we wouldn’t get run over and hoped they were for us.’
Viv: ‘Then Dad’s lights appeared and we were happy to be rescued from our ordeal. We climbed into the safety of the car. Dad was giggling and Ron told him off… Dad yelled at Ron… And the picnic was over…’
Leonie: ‘Relief. We had survived another day with Dad.’
‘About six months after Ron said to me that he could see that his father wasn’t going to change, and it was okay with him if we left.
I still stayed for a bit longer.
I was sitting in my office one afternoon, by this time I was a supervisor, so no more shift work, when I just felt that I couldn’t do it any longer. I left work and drove down to Selby (Shenton Park) to see “Robbie”. I hadn’t been to her group since I started work, but she was the only person who understood, who I didn’t have to pretend to.
I sat in her room and cried, while she ignored me and went on with her paperwork, then she gave me something to settle me. I told her I couldn’t do it anymore and she said, “We didn’t expect that you would be able to keep going as long as you have” My reply – “Why didn’t someone tell me I could give up—“-’
‘Ron was in the lead, then Viv, me and Meredith. All in the correct pecking order and on the right side of the road, checking hopefully for car lights. The road was a lot longer when you have to walk it.’