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Authors: Graeme Sparkes

Tags: #Memoir, #Mental Health, #Gambling, #Relationships, #Family, #Fathers

You Never Met My Father

BOOK: You Never Met My Father
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You Never Met My Father

Graeme Sparkes

Published by Classic Author and Publishing Services Pty Ltd

Imprint of Jo Jo Publishing publishing

First published 2014

JoJo Publishing

‘Yarra's Edge'

2203/80 Lorimer Street

Docklands VIC 3008

Australia

Email:
[email protected]
or visit
www.classic-jojo.com

© Graeme Sparkes

All rights reserved. No part of this printed or video publication may be reproduced, stored in or introduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form, or by any means (electrical, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise) without the prior written permission of the publisher and copyright owner.

JoJo Publishing

Editor: Julie Athanasiou

Designer / typesetter: Chameleon Print Design

National Library of Australia Cataloguing-in-Publication entry

Author: Sparkes, Graeme, 1951- author.

Title: You never met my father / Graeme Sparkes.

ISBN: 978-0-9925900-4-8 (eBook)

Subjects: Sparkes, Graeme, 1951–Childhood and youth.

Fathers and sons—Australia—Biography.

Mentally ill—Australia—Biography.

Compulsive gamblers—Australia—Biography.

Dewey Number: 306.8742

Digital edition published by

Port Campbell Press

www.portcampbellpress.com.au

Conversion by
Winking Billy

For John.

2007

The young manager of Alice Springs Reptile Centre appeared flustered. The seating for her daily lecture was in disarray, moved by inconsiderate tourists. She ushered the gathering into another room and repositioned the plastic chairs into sensible arcing rows. Even then, on return, one or two still claimed the right to tweak her careful floor plan.

My mother clicked her tongue, as she often did when she disapproved of something. “You wonder how they were brought up, don't you?” she said, loud enough for those around us to titter.

I led her to a chair, away from the disputed territory, to avoid smirking faces, which might have provoked further remarks about good manners.

Once everyone was seated the manager began her lecture. She found her rhythm and relaxed, speaking knowledgeably about her beloved creatures. She allowed some kids in the front row to handle a couple of sluggish lizards, and was about to introduce the star attraction when she anticipated another interruption.

“I'd ask anyone who's got a phobia of snakes to leave before the next segment, please.” Her request came with an unintended sigh. “Too often someone panics when they see this little baby out of its enclosure.”

Nobody left.

She shrugged and made a fatalistic gesture as she went to fetch the resident python.

When she returned, the magnificent satin creature was draped across her shoulders and coiled around her arm, its diamond eyes searching for potential prey.

“I'm not feeling so well,” my mother murmured.

Her mouth and shoulders drooped. I'd forgotten her fear of snakes. But she had made no effort to leave. No doubt she didn't want to cause a fuss.

On this trip she already considered herself a burden. She was eighty and getting frail, with a heart attack and triple bypass behind her. I had accompanied her to Central Australia, in particular to Ayer's Rock, as she still called Uluru, because as far back as I could remember she had wanted to see it but never had the opportunity or enough savings while my father was alive.

With us was Sonia, my companion for so long that my mother referred to her as my wife. We had flown directly from Melbourne, hired a four-wheel-drive and spent a couple of days at Uluru and Kata Tjuta. Then we had driven to Kings Canyon and along the treacherous desert route to Hermannsburg and Palm Valley, before travelling on to Alice Springs, a distance in excess of a thousand kilometres. The journey home would be on the legendary outbacktrain, The Ghan, another of my mother's cherished wishes.

She had walked a little at the base of Uluru, where the terrain was flat, but had found even the least arduous treks at Kata Tjuta and King's Canyon daunting. I had planned this holiday some ten years earlier, but never with any urgency. A day or two after arriving I began to think I had delayed it far too long. She walked at a funereal pace and stopped often to rest. We had trouble finding shady spots for her to sit. She resisted drinking water, preferring to wait for a cup of tea back at the resort. When other tourists overtook us along the scorching tracks, I began to see her through their eyes and was astonished to discover an ailing octogenarian suffering in the desert heat. I could tell from their glances they thought I was an uncaring son. How could I explain to them that her age had crept up and taken me by surprise?

When the python appeared on the manager's shoulders and my mother murmured she felt poorly, Sonia tried to get her to sip some water. But my mother was past caring. Her dentures protruded. She slumped towards my lap.

As well as her, I caught the teeth, and had the presence of mind to wrap them in some tissues, slip them into my pocket, out of sight, to preserve her dignity, while Sonia recklessly interrupted the speech to ask if there was a doctor present.

The manager had sensed it wasn't going to be her day. She handed the python to her assistant, an alarmed work-experience student, and went to phone the paramedics.

I held my mother to prevent her falling, certain these were her final moments.

My sisters were the first to occupy my thoughts. Would they forgive me for killing her, for fooling her into believing she could undertake such an arduous trip at her age? Since Melbourne she had been joking about how her local lawn bowls club were about to present her with a Super Veteran's Medal. The ‘OBE', she called it, ‘Over Bloody Eighty', reminding us in her inimitable way that she was getting old. But this was no longer a laughing matter. I looked at the back of her head. Her grey hair, permed as it always had been, looked unhealthy and thin. And the skin on her neck was crinkled and redundant. A wave of premature grief swept over me.
Don't die like this, dear ol' Mum. Not yet. So far from home. Not before our trip back on The Ghan. Not in my arms like this. Not on my watch, for goodness sake…

An odd thing happened when I met her at Melbourne Airport at the start of our trip. She insisted on showing me another medal, which had recently been sent to her, as a War Widow, by the Veterans Affairs Department, commemorating the sixtieth anniversary of the end of the Second World War. My father, who had been too young to be sent to the war, was posted to Japan with the Occupational Forces, not long after the Americans had dropped their second atomic bomb. No doubt the purpose of the gold-plated medal had been to honour those who had served our country. But my mother had been so indignant it wasn't enough for her to tell me on the phone, as she had done several times; I had to view the object of her scorn, and by doing so, appreciate the intensity of her feelings. Still, I was surprised to see her with the over-sized, glittering thing amongst her hand luggage; it seemed so superfluous to a Central Australian excursion. I wondered whether she was beginning to lose her marbles. As she handed it to me, she repeated her telephone fulmination. “What good is this to me? What a waste of money! Why didn't they spend it on something those poor boys they sent off to Japan needed. Gas masks or something. Denny might be alive today if they'd done that.”

Notwithstanding the uselessness of gas masks to the Occupational Forces, who moved amongst the radioactive ruins of Hiroshima, and the fact that the money spent on the medals was recent revenue, I understood her point. She was convinced his cancer was caused by exposure to radiation. And the statistics seemed to back her up. But why such enduring rage? My father had been dead for over twenty years, and when he was alive he had made her life—our lives—a misery.

It often occurred to me that my mother thought Japan was the starting point for all the dramas that followed. And if he had behaved insufferably most of our lives together, what he had experienced there went a long way towards excusing him. One thing was certain, she was still loyal to him, two decades after his death. And I couldn't understand it.

I could never talk frankly to her about him. Even after he was gone she wanted to protect him, which for her meant concealing the truth with vague statements about his misfortunes, his ‘dirty rotten luck', as she called it.

Whether or not what happened was all down to luck, those years living with him had left me chronically anxious, not just when matters of importance or significant moments in my life arose, but over trivial matters done almost automatically, like washing dishes, shopping, going out to socialise, where I rushed to get ready, rushed from one thing to the next, worrying about time, worrying about what's next to worry about, and in my haste, forgetting to do things or take things, rushing back to rectify omissions, forgetting other things, never doing anything or going anywhere calmly, prudently. When I looked back, that seemed to be the pattern of my life. I found it almost impossible to relax. Even sitting alone on a remote beach in summer holidays, as I did sometimes, watching the timeless approach of waves, contemplating the wonders of nature and life, anxious thoughts would intrude: shouldn't I be somewhere else? Shouldn't I be doing something more productive?

I don't know whether it was justified but I blamed my father.

For many years I thought if I wrote down what I remembered of our life together, it would help me to understand him a little better, it might lay some ghosts to rest, it might even grant me some peace of mind. But I hesitated while my mother was alive. I wrote about other matters. I had doubts about my motives. I wanted to be published. She wouldn't want people reading about our darker moments. She knew from experience they wouldn't understand.

For the first time in my life I stroked her head. I hugged her to me.

When the paramedics arrived, they took her blood pressure, which was dangerously low, put her on a drip and a stretcher, and took her to the local hospital where they gave her an ECG.

It wasn't her heart; she was just dehydrated.

Later in the day I returned to the Reptile Centre and apologised to the young manager, who was gracious despite a ruined lecture. She asked me where we were staying and sent flowers.

The next day my mother was well enough for the trip home on The Ghan.

Uncharacteristically, as we travelled through the arid land, she was mostly silent. But at one point, while Sonia was fetching coffee, she turned to me and, to my astonishment, said, “I'm glad you brought your son, John, down to meet me that one time”. She nodded sincerely to assure me that this wasn't one of her occasional sarcastic comments. “I always wondered what he would be like. He looked just like you, you know. And he was quiet. A nice boy. A pity your father never met him.”

If she was expecting a response she never got one. She watched the desert for a while until her eyelids drooped and closed.

BOOK: You Never Met My Father
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