Authors: Charlotte Wood
We waited our turn to pick up the pen and make the cross. We tried to entertain and look after our baby brother, bouncing his bassinette, tickling him, dipping his dummy into chocolate Quik or honey to stop him crying. One day Mum told us we had something special to look forward to—a trunk-call telephone conversation with Dad. We learned about it weeks in advance and the night approached like Christmas.
‘You’ll have to think carefully about what you’re going to say to him,’ our mother warned us. ‘You’ll hardly have time for anything. I’ll give you the phone and you’ll just have time to say, “Hello, Dad, I’m missing you!” and not much else. Do you understand? Don’t waste time, because it will be terribly expensive. Maybe you should write something down so you don’t go blank.’
That night in bed I stared sightlessly at my library book, racking my brains. There was so much to say to Dad, about the presents he’d sent and the shells and how careful I was being, how hard we were trying to be well behaved all the time like he wanted and how our little brother had a new tooth, and the pool and the shoelaces. These were all things that had to be said, but I wouldn’t be able to say them because Mum, not to mention my sister, would be hovering right behind me listening to every word. We’d all be eavesdropping on each other, measuring our own self-censorship.
The date of the trunk call approached and we began to gear up for it, ready for that phone ringing like it was a starter pistol, or a signal to commence an exam. My head felt thick with unsaid things; declarations and anecdotes, secret grievances and pangs of guilt. The night before the call I lay in bed sorting and assembling, evaluating, editing and discarding, sick for the sound of his voice and the knowledge that he would be listening, the words tumbling and ebbing and churning together in my brain. Not the big, expected words, the easy ones, but the small, precious words you only found at the very end. It all seemed so fragile and breakable. I could hear the rustling of paper from my sister’s bed, the sound of a pencil scribbling something out.
‘What are you doing?’ I said.
‘None of your business.’
We were as keyed up and jumpy as racehorses when the call finally came the next evening. I watched my mother speak into the receiver, frowning and stopping and starting, her shoulder curving away from us as she listened.
Nobody to put the pool up without you and I fixed a puncture on my
bike by myself your chair looks so empty without you when are you coming
home when is it going to be normal again
then my sister taking the receiver and smiling shyly, listening and answering sweetly in monosyllables, using up all that money Mum had told us about, not saying anything, just replying
Little Pete’s got a new tooth and I didn’t mean to laugh when you left
I was really crying, I don’t know what happened
then the phone receiver was handed to me and when I listened I heard the whistling empty echo of thousands of miles between us and here it was, my only chance in a year.
‘Hello, Dad, I’m missing you!’ I called cheerily, boisterously; the one you didn’t have to worry about, the one who liked blue.
Everything unsaid trickled, repressed, back into silence—an underground tributary, a thread of unacknowledged self, tender as the root of a tooth. This to me defines the sheer haplessness of childhood: the ability to recognise what must be kept hidden to survive. It flows through us while we stand wretched and utterly straitjacketed by a world too complex for us; it is an endless, subdued relinquishing of the will. ‘I could control you with a look,’ is something my mother says now to my sister and myself, with something like reminiscent pride in her voice, that she could keep us in line while her husband was away, leaving her with three young children. They seem like measures of another age now—to never speak unless spoken to, to never answer back or contradict, to garner praise by staying dull and dutiful and inoffensive—like pointless, hard-won medals in a war everyone would prefer to forget. Except for the inexorable secret life that grows away from this dominion, like tiny weeds that grow sideways in the darkness under an unyielding slab of stone, threadlike and white and spindly but still forming somewhere, enduring the deforming pressure but still in complex circumvention towards the light.
In the year of my father’s Vietnam posting, carefully checking our small treasures in our music boxes and waiting for our turn to mark off and obliterate another day on the calendar, my sister and I understood the difference between his quiet presence and the silence of true absence. That silence, so palpable and heavy, renders you mute in return. You are left with small things, your stored treasures, the brief shocking moment of recognition when you glance at your sister’s face as you hand back the phone, and see sympathy, raw and unmistakable. Then your eyes drop away. You know you didn’t imagine it, but even this—maybe especially this—stays unsaid. Things unsaid fill up every room.
Before he died I self-published the memoirs my father had been working on for years as a surprise for him, but the timeframe never reached the period of his time in Vietnam. On a tape I have he tries to begin it, his voice a hoarse painful whisper due to the surgery he’d just undergone for thyroid cancer. He describes how the Australian soldiers stationed in Vung Tau with him helped build and maintain the An Phong orphanage nearby, filled with Vietnamese war orphans.
‘The army would bring all these little kids down to the back beach which was near our base, for a swim and a barbecue,’ he recalls. ‘There was one little bloke who stands out in my mind, who just stood back on his own. I went over to him, and he held my hand, for the whole day. Poor little bugger. Next time they came back, he ran up to me, and again, he was okay, but again he never left my side. That day when he got up on the truck to go back, he handed me a little parcel, a little hand-wrapped parcel. With a clean folded hanky inside.’
On the tape I hear my father’s voice crack and break. It wrenches with sobs.
‘I’d given him nothing,’ he whispers, ‘but he’d given me this. And these are the things that used to break my heart.’
The story of that little boy was about the only thing our father ever told my sister and me about Vietnam, and only then because we asked him about the handkerchief, which remained one of his most treasured possessions. In a story in one of my books, I used to think with a savage sense of having been cheated, it would have turned out that we would have adopted that little boy. That was how it should have ended, clicking into place with satisfying story-like inevitability, in a bigger world where bigger hearts ruled. I opened my books after that, and doubted their veracity. They were just pasteboard, really, holding together pages of paper in a certain order; their magic began to seem a little childish. Real life, colourless and hard and demanding to be endured, was the thing that would still be there when you woke up in the morning.
Over thirty-five years later, I listen on the tape to that poor little boy still breaking my father’s heart, then the sound of him manfully swallowing, trying to continue to speak. The words scrape faintly and huskily through his ravaged voice box, scarred with tumours, like every sentence hurts. In the background of the recording I hear my baby daughter start crying, demanding to be fed, and it seems like the cruellest irony that of all the things his cancer robbed him of, it took away his voice, ensuring that the rest of those stories would never be told, after all.
My golden-haired, cherubic brother was just over a year old when my father returned. Considering he’d missed his son’s first year of life in its entirety, my mother was anxious to have something, some ‘first’ he could be present for, and so she had valiantly fought a losing battle to keep my brother from toddling before Dad was home to witness it. She’d strapped him, squirming, into his stroller at the airport as we saw the plane carrying our father touch down and taxi towards us. As we waited, craning our heads in anticipation for Dad to appear through the doors at the end of the long corridor, she must have let the baby down for a brief respite from the confines of the stroller. My sister and I strained at the barricades we’d been expressly forbidden to step beyond.
When I saw the figure of my father striding towards us in the distance, thin and tanned and lanky in his fawn short-sleeved uniform, I became, for the second time in my life, a momentary stranger to myself. Heedlessly, I ducked under the barricade to run towards him. I think I remember feeling my sister hesitate, wavering between following me and maintaining obedience, and me running out alone, and my father bending down to sweep me up, the expression on his face one of unutterable relief.
He rose and kept walking, towards my mother and sister. A few more seconds and we were all over him . . . well, everyone except for my brother, who took one look at this stranger and burst into howling tears. Putting his newly acquired toddling skills to use, he took off in the opposite direction.
Now that I am a parent myself, I imagine how that must have felt to my father, watching his child run terrified from him, feeling the rest of us cling to him like he was a lifebuoy. I imagine everything he vowed in that moment, to subject none of his family to what he’d been through, to bear it in silence. Pain like this, I can see now, heals in us like an unset broken bone; the fracture knitted together uncertainly under the surface, something you can never quite trust to bear your weight.
As is the way with childhood, I look at that scene now and I doubt the exactness of my recollection. Memories get tumbled together like stones in this life, knocked together until they acquire a sort of polish, and hoarded into our own personal set of irregular gems. Our fingers slip along them, arranging and rearranging, sorting and rejecting.
I wonder whether this particular memory is burnished with retelling and revision, sealed under the cracked, fallible emulsion of old Polaroids. I wonder whether these elements are only here because they feel like they belong to the same strand of treasured, sentimental objects, beads and shells and teeth, strung together and counted through for comfort like a recited litany.
I observe them now, each shining smooth-edged piece, dense and solid and unerringly part of me. Here is the child running recklessly towards her father, the baby son running from him, the older sister hesitating between impulsiveness and the barricade, endlessly torn. Everything pivots on the tall uniformed man walking towards us all, his face stricken with all he would never speak of.
He grows larger as I run towards him, his face gathering more and more aching secrets into itself the closer I get. He’s holding in his hand a white folded handkerchief. Any moment, I think, he will shake it open, and raise it in surrender.
My brother wants to know what I am writing about. I tell him that I am writing about him and me, when we were young. My brother has a quality that women used to find fascinating. I don’t know if they still do. It has something to do with the boyish glint in his eyes, the way it plays against his smile.