When I was six years old my father walked out of my life for good. Actually, if the truth be told, he’d been absent almost from the beginning. I can draw on maybe three clear memories from that time that involve him, all of them negative.
A bright Saturday morning when my kid brother and I climbed into bed with our parents. We’d wriggled in between them and lay soaking up their body warmth like a couple of little lizards. Of course, kids being kids, we were all elbows and knees and barely contained giggles.
Some fathers would’ve told us to settle down or go away. Some might have joined in and tickled us into submission. My father had his own methods.
Without warning, his big hand closed over the front of my pajama top and lifted me bodily from the bed. Plastic buttons were popping in all direction as he swung me out over the edge of the mattress and unceremoniously dumped me onto my arse on the cold floor. My brother soon followed in a similarly undignified manner, bursting into tears as his own backside hit the parquetry.
It was an act so sudden and dispassionate that it left me in a state of shock for hours. I never climbed into my parent’s bed again, and neither did my brother. We were five and three respectively.
The time I came crying to my father with a bad toothache. Smiling, he put down his newspaper and patted his knee, bidding me sit. Sobs of self-pity racked my small body as I climbed up onto his lap. Then he told me to open wide and I felt his rough fingers probe my mouth.
‘Is it loose’ he asked?
I shook my head solemnly. In the next instant, he’d whipped out a handkerchief from his pocket and, tilting my head well back, gripped the offending molar. Before I’d had time to register what was about to happen he’d yanked it from the gum. A stabbing bolt of agony ripped through my mouth but he neatly stifled my scream with the balled up hanky.
‘Keep that there ‘till the bleeding stops.’ Was his only comment as he plopped me, wailing, back onto my feet and returned to his paper.
My sixth Christmas, my brother and I up at the crack of dawn, unable to keep our hands from the bright packages piled beneath the plastic tree for a single moment longer than absolutely necessary.
Mum getting up with us to sit smiling and yawning as we rip through the layers of wrapping paper unmoved by its feeble efforts to keep us from our hearts desire. My father was nowhere to be seen. All the cards on the presents read ‘Love from mum and dad’ but only mum was there to hand them to us.
After all the parcels had been dismembered and their contents road tested to our satisfaction, it was time to get ready to go to my Grandparents house a few blocks away in Byron Street. The entire family was living around Coogee at that time and they’d all be there today. Apart from the obvious presents, a happy consequence of having so many
Aunts and Uncles, there’d be turkey and roast pork and Nana’s amazing trifle to be eagerly devoured. A lot of the time the best meat mum could afford was rabbit, so Christmas lunch was always a big deal.
Eventually, she got us scrubbed, dressed and combed, no easy task with all those shiny new playthings exerting their influence over our meager attention spans. In the end, though, we were ready to leave. My brother and I were each allowed to bring just one of our new toys with us and, after an agony of indecision, clutched our choices possessively as we waited for mum to lock the door.
At that moment, I looked up to see my father standing, silent, on the other side of our front gate.
‘Hello, boys, what d’you have there?’
‘Batmobile,’ I said holding it out for him to see.
‘Hotwheels,’ said my little brother doing the same.
‘Who’d you get those from?’
‘You,’ hissed my mother coming up behind us and placing a hand protectively on each of our small shoulders. ‘You come home some time then, or have you just come by to borrow money?’
My father didn’t deign to reply, ruefully returning mum’s gaze. They both stood that way for a long moment. Even at this tender age I could sense the lines of resentment tensioning out between them.
Finally, with an exasperated sigh, she reached into her purse and withdrew a ten Dollar note Thrusting it towards him.
‘That’s all I’ve got. Try not to drink it all. Jesus Jim, it’s Christmas day.’
My father took the bill without comment and tucked it into the breast pocket of his shirt. Then he was gone, walking away from us. I watched his broad back disappear down the street feeling the first sharp sting of a rejection that was to stick to me through all the years ahead.
I have no other useful memories of my father from this time. When I was seven my mother took us to live in England and all contact with this mysterious and unsatisfying man was severed.
I saw him just once more. When I was eighteen my brother, who’d reestablished contact with him some years earlier, took me from Canberra, where we were now living, back to Sydney, to spend a weekend at our father’s flat. A much smaller, more faded version of the man I remembered met me at the door and embraced me, calling me son.
Inside he offered me a beer and a place on his couch and, for the rest of the time I was there, acted as though we’d never been estranged. By this I mean he made no attempt to get to know me at all. His girlfriend, the woman he’d eventually left our mother for, showed far more interest and curiosity in me than he seemed able to muster.
When it was all over, the sum total of the fatherly wisdom he’d managed to pass on was this vital piece of advice, when you’re in the shower and the water’s too hot, don’t turn the cold tap up, turn the hot down. It’s cheaper that way, words to live by.
I’ve never seen him again since that weekend and he’s made no attempt to contact me.