I really loved your piece. (Eggshells) I thought it was original, moving, and had a very authentic and poetic voice. . . . that final image is still lingering
Gayelene Carbis, Writer, Poet, Educator
I watched model and actor Jerry Hall interviewed on television. She was in Melbourne in 2013 promoting her role as Mrs Robinson, in the play of the same name. The statuesque Texan spoke of her childhood, what it was like living with her father, an emotionally scarred veteran from the Second World War. He drank and gambled away the family home and was prone to angry outbursts. ‘It was like walking on eggshells,’ she said. To avoid her father she left home at sixteen and went to Paris; the rest is history. She was discovered walking along the beach of St Tropez, then shacked up with singer Brian Ferry for a while until she met Mick Jagger.
What struck me about the interview was how children find their own way to live with their father’s emotional war wounds. I left home at eighteen and went to Perth, about as far away from Melbourne as you could get without needing a passport. By no means was my escape as glamorous or exciting as Jerry Hall’s. My father didn’t gamble and didn’t drink. But he did have angry outbursts, was controlling and there were many times when I walked on eggshells. I thought that was just the way life was.
My dad was a stickler for certain things. Well-behaved children who didn’t talk back was the primary one. If you tried to tell your side of the story or had an opinion, you were talking back, being cheeky and disrespectful, which could be met with slaps and a raised voice.
He’d also react badly to loud noises. For instance, when I slammed a door once he screamed at me, ‘Come back here and close that door quietly.’
I placed my hand through the door-handle and slid the door on its worn runners until it made a slight thud against the doorjamb. But this was too loud. He pulled the door wide open and it made a clunking sound when it stopped. ‘Close it again and don’t slam it. Close it gently.’
‘It didn’t slam.’ My voice was shaky and weak.
He lent his face closer to mine. ‘Don’t talk back. Close it.’ I blinked away the burning tears and slipped my hand through the handle again and moved the door gradually, until it nearly closed, then paused, and moved it quietly against the doorjamb. All I heard was my head pounding.
He yanked the door wide open one more time. ‘Close it.’ I started to tremble as I slipped my hand through the handle, which made it more difficult to control the door. But I was successful.
‘Whew! No sound,’ I thought.
‘Once more,’ he pulled the door wide open. ‘And again.’ By this time, I was sensitive to the movement of the door on its runners and closed it quietly in one movement. ‘I don’t ever want to hear you slam it again, do you hear me?’
I stared up at him. ‘Stop yelling.’
‘Did you hear what I said?’ He leant over me again. ‘Answer me.’
‘No. I mean yes, I hear you and no I won’t slam it again.’
His cheeks were flushed and his chest moved up and down. He turned and walked back to the lounge-room and as he flopped into his chair he let out a loud sigh. I walked to my bedroom, fell face down on my bed and cried into my pillow.
Twenty years after my father’s death, my brother attended an Anzac Day gathering in Melbourne when the lens through which I remembered my father was shifted. A blurted recollection from an old soldier, perhaps caused by the surprise of my brother’s strong resemblance to my father, disclosed a heartbreaking wartime secret. My brother still finds it difficult to talk about.
It was November 1943; Dad was part of a regiment sent to Lae, New Guinea, to set up camp. The mission was to take over from the men who had been fighting the Japanese in the jungles for months. During an Inspection of Arms, my father’s Owen submachine gun accidently discharged, shooting a soldier standing directly in front of him in the back of the head. It is not clear how it happened. Was a bullet lodged in the barrel, invisible to the eye, and sharp movement caused it to discharge? Or did my father not have the safety switch on? No one knows. The soldier died twenty minutes later. Dad was admitted to hospital and his medical records show he never recovered from the shock and trauma. He had a nervous breakdown and was discharged medically unfit, sixteen months later. War diaries show Dad was to be tried at a District Court Martial, for the killing of Lance Bombardier Joseph Arthur Forrester. We don’t know whether the court martial took place. Staff at the Australian War Memorial couldn’t find any record and there was no mention of the court martial on his Service and Casualty Form.
I can only speculate how profoundly the sudden bang of a slamming door reverberated within him. I wonder whether it brought back the memory of his gun accidently discharging, and the tragic consequences that followed. Perhaps, fuelled by an adrenaline-charged cocktail of remorse, guilt and anger, his reaction was to discharge his rage–at me.
Humans are paradoxical beings. There were times when the controlling, angry father was absent and he allowed, even relished in my siblings and me playing freely, such as when we rode on Melbourne’s old red-rattler trains to Flinders Street. I remember when Dad, my sister, my brother and I caught the train to the football at the Melbourne Cricket Ground. Victorian football was only played on Saturdays in the sixties, and the major game was played at the Melbourne Cricket Ground.
Waiting on the station platform, we vied for a train compartment to ourselves, because this meant we could use Victorian Rail as a playground. Under my father’s watchful gaze, we slipped into a world with fewer rules. I wonder whether during this time of transition, moving from one place to another, my father was reminded of a new found freedom he first felt in ship-board life, as a ten quid pom. He was twenty-three when he left his widowed mother and seven siblings to sail to Australia. Seven weeks on a ship on his own, not being accountable to anyone, would have been a relief for him. He only had himself to please; he could do whatever he wanted, when he wanted for the first time in his life. He had plenty of food and a warm place to sleep. This would have been a luxury he’d not experienced before.
I remember the story about the day he left England. On that morning, his mother stayed in bed. He knocked on her bedroom door to say goodbye gently at first, then louder when there was no answer. He opened the bedroom door just a bit and poked his head in. It took him a few seconds to focus in the darkened room. Her head had made an indent in the worn pillow.
‘I’m ont way now, Muther.’
She rolled over to the wall and put the blanket over her head.
‘I’ll write,’ he said. ‘As soon as I arrive in Melbourne I’ll write and tell you all ‘bout trip.’ He walked over and stood beside her bed. ‘I’m off now, Muther, I’ll write. Ta ta now.’
He waited. She didn’t move. ‘Please turn around. Please just look at me,’ he thought. He tried again. ‘I’m off now Muther, I’ll write.’
Again, she didn’t move. He walked back to the door and waited, hoping, willing her to turn over, get out of bed, kiss him on the cheek and say; ‘I love you son, have a great trip.’
‘Ta ta now Muther.’
The shape in the bed was motionless. He pulled the door closed behind him, picked up his bag and left for the wharf.
Responsibility was thrust upon him early. He was just twelve when his father died from pneumonia, as the eldest boy, his role was to become the breadwinner. Pulled out of school, he did whatever work a twelve-year-old could to make ends meet; peeled potatoes or shovelled coal. Maybe, when he was in this liminal space on the train travelling between home and Flinders Street the freedom he had experienced on the ship resonated within him and he relaxed.
As children, we made the most of this carefree father as we travelled into the city. We’d tuck our socks into our shoes and place them under the seat. Then we’d sit sideways on the train’s green leather seats, shimmy over on our bottoms so we were pressed hard against the wall cavity, and stick our legs out the opened windows. The cool breeze on my bare legs and feet felt rebellious and free. It didn’t matter how cold the weather. This was a time of breaking rules and a bit of fresh winter air wasn’t going to dampen the fun. When the train whizzed by a pole or tree, I quickly pulled my legs in as I thought my feet would be knocked off. The fear was thrilling. My siblings and I laughed and squealed with delight as we kicked our legs in the breeze. Dad sometimes watched amused, enjoying; other times he sat quietly reading his newspaper or the ‘Reader’s Digest.’ He’d let us know when the train was approaching a station. ‘Station coming up,’ he’d say without lifting his eyes. We assumed the position of good-children-sitting-on-a-train, hoping like hell that no one spoilt the day’s gymnastics by entering our compartment. After the train had slid out of each station, we resumed our antics.
When we arrived in the city, we walked to St Francis’ Church where we either went to Mass or confession or both. As soon as church was finished, we walked to Swanston Street to a shop with a state-of-the-art doughnut-making machine. Dad bought four doughnuts covered in cinnamon and sugar and four Four ‘N’ Twenty pies in separate brown paper bags. Each had a picture of black birds flying out of the top of a red pie. With our pies and doughnuts, we walked across Flinders Street to the Yarra River and found a spot to eat our lunch. For decades after, whenever I walked along the Yarra at that spot I could taste those Four ‘N’ Twenty pies. When we had our fill, we fed the squawking seagulls with what we couldn’t eat and then we kids ran along the Yarra, throwing stones into the water or racing one another to the next tree or seat. Dad strolled behind, with one of those far-away looks his face sometimes wore. We made our way to the Melbourne Cricket Ground and found a good spot up in the stands. I always wanted to sit with the cheer squad behind the goal posts and the goal-umpire in his white hat and white dust-coat because it looked like more fun. But Dad said he saw the game better from up high, as you could see the full ground.
When we came home and people were over for dinner he turned into the controlling father again. He had a distinct dislike for cigarette smoke. I used to think it was because he was a reformed smoker, but now I am not so sure. He told visitors to our house not to smoke in the kitchen. Back then, it was the norm for people to light up in your home and the kitchen was the hub where people congregated, sitting on the chrome and vinyl chairs set around the laminex table. He was straight-faced and his delivery firm. There was no saying no to him. His word was law in his home. He said if they couldn’t do as he asked, then they had better go. I can’t ever remember anyone leaving. As a small child, I wasn’t aware of the dynamics between grown-ups, but as a teenager I was mortified when he gave his ‘no smoking in the kitchen,’ speech. In an effort not to be humiliated I worded up my friends beforehand so they – well more to the point I – wouldn’t have to suffer the embarrassment of my father’s rules.
Knowing what I know now, I wonder whether the smell of nicotine smoke triggered memories of horrific times. Soldiers in battle stuffed cigarettes into their nostrils to keep out the smell of decomposing corpses in the jungles of New Guinea. It seems his reaction to unspeakable memories was the need to control; similar to the way he controlled me when I slammed the door. At times like this, there was no negotiation. It was easier and wiser to succumb.
Dad’s war scars didn’t always reverberate throughout our lives. He often played the clown and tap danced in the kitchen with a funny look on his face. He had a very dry sense of humour and was the first man to make me laugh. So my father was in some ways a complex man and in some ways a simple man. He was the master of his own house, and a disciplinarian. He was often off in his own world and looked as if he had the weight of the world on his shoulders. Like the times he walked behind us along the banks of the Yarra on the way to the Melbourne Football Ground; or sat in the lounge room at home staring at nothing; or when he watched me captain the criss-cross team at my primary school sports’ carnival. I was first across the line, and proud of myself. When I raced up to my parents after the race with my blue ribbon with a gold First stamped on it, pinned to my sports tunic, Mum smiled, but Dad’s face was blank. He looked bored. I felt as if I had disappointed or annoyed him. There was no enthusiasm, no celebration. I looked around at the crowd and saw other kids’ fathers making a fuss of their children who hadn’t come anywhere near first.
Then there were times when he was kind and gentle. He had unfathomable patience when helping me with long-division at the kitchen table, until I was so tired he would gently tell me it was time for bed and we would try again the next night. I was quite a sickly child with bouts of tonsillitis and a series of abscesses on both eardrums. When ill, it was Dad I wanted. He was the tonic. When pain interfered with my sleep, he rocked me in his arms quietly singing, Bing Crosby’s version of ‘Beautiful Dreamer’.
But I didn’t remember this for years.
My daughter Scarlett and I were baking a cake one day in the mid-nineties and I thought it a good opportunity to listen to a new CD of Roy Orbison’s Greatest Hits. Perfect background music while we baked together, I thought. Knowing most of the words to the more well-known songs, ‘Pretty Woman’, ‘Crying’, ‘She Wears my Ring’, I sang along while I showed my budding cook how to crack eggs without dropping shells into the mixture, and how to measure the sugar, flour and milk. Scarlett was greasing the cake tin and I was creaming the butter and sugar when the first few bars of the next track came on.
It was as if I had been shot. I stopped whisking. It must have been over thirty years since I’d heard ‘Beautiful Dreamer’. Then Orbison began the lyrics, his melancholic voice giving them the emotion they deserved.
I was transported back to being rocked in my father’s arms in my darkened bedroom. I dropped on to the kitchen chair and sobbed uncontrollably. The sense of grief and heartbreak was all consuming. My poor Scarlett was shocked. She walked over to me, carrying the half greased cake-tin. I tried to explain to her what this song meant to me and she began to cry.
‘It’s not fair. I didn’t get to meet my grandfather.’
We eventually finished the cake, and when it was done we sat under the tree in the garden and ate the first warm slices quietly together. As I daydreamed, wishing Dad could have shared a piece of cake with us, Scarlett dropped her fork; the clattering sound it made on the plate made me flinch.