Sunday, August 16, 2009

This Old Man

(This story was my winning entry in the 2008 Alan Marshall Short Story Award, published in Award Winning Australian Writing 2008)

My son is singing in the back seat as the car winds along the road between Cairns and Port Douglas. Every turn along the crumpled boundary of sea and land reveals something I have not seen before, the blank map in my mind flooding with colour and detail. Ben’s happy, I know. I can hear it in his voice: adventure and safety together in the warm sea wind blowing in his face through the half open window.

This old man
He played ... zero!
He played knickknack on my ... hero!

Dad, he calls out.

Yes Ben.

He played knickknack on my hero!

Yes Ben.

Is that funny Dad?

Umm … not unless you’re six years old.

Why not?

Well, once you got to zero — I shrug — he was either going to be playing knickknack on your hero, or on Robert De Niro.

Blessed silence for a time. There are smudges of smoke from the cane fires, and coconut palms and macadamias, and waves nibbling the black rocky shore, and great fibrous fruit in the trees, but the sky is a featureless grey glare. Here and there a wan stain of blue. My eyes blur, my back aches. It’s been a long drive.

This old man
He played five...


Yes Dad?

Can you stop singing that song for a bit please?

Okay Dad.

Then he sees something: Look!

He’s pointing in the direction of the sea, but I see nothing except the hard, flat light from the water.


Look! Look!

He’s about jumping out of his seatbelt.

I can’t Ben, I’m driving!

Oh you missed it! He’s furious now, his seraphic face instantly souring to something far less pleasant.

I’m sorry Ben. I’m trying to drive. What was it?

A tree, Dad! It was an amazing tree. Can we go back?

I get cunning. I’ve learned to negotiate the shape of his mind, the catching points of his personality, as one steps around furniture at home in the dark.

Oh the tree! Yes I saw that! It was amazing, wasn’t it?

For a moment in the rear view mirror I see him struggle to change emotional direction. Then the shadow passes from his face. Happiness is restored now he’s shared his wonder. He leans into that slice of wind that’s coming in through the window, his blue eyes flickering in the gusts, and his hair dancing free. Rapturous and forgetful he starts to sing:

This old man...


The moment when I learned of Ben’s existence is preserved in my memory with the miraculous detail of a fossil in amber. Maddy had just stepped through the front door. She was wearing a white angora jumper, the summer light that spilled down the hall making a fine soft haze around the fertile swell of her breasts. The sweet smell of wattle pollen followed her, the hum of bees and lawnmowers. She brushed past me. I’m pregnant. Even though we’d only been together for six months, three living together, even though she would never have planned it, I could tell she was happy. She kept moving, her back to me so I wouldn’t see the excitement just beneath the adult grimness she was officially wearing for the occasion. I made an ineffectual gesture with my open palms. I’d been knocked out of gear and my thoughts and emotions spun without engaging. I was empty of anything real, anything remotely adequate. Out of this general vapidity, a smile arose to take possession of my features, the involuntary smile that the immature sometimes wear on hearing of a death.

It wasn’t real: the news, the smile, anything. I instinctively knew there had to be a way out. Other than the obvious. There seemed to be a certain obscenity lurking in the word abortion which the now preferred term termination only went part way towards eradicating. If abortion was awful, blood-stained by right-to-life images of foetuses dismembered with boning scissors, termination had a sinister, newspeak ring to it. Didn’t the mafia, the CIA terminate? There had to be some other way, some escape clause between the binary alternatives, between back and white, yes and no. There always had been before.

Some time in the coming days, as the uncompromising nature of the situation began to dawn on me, I arrived at a position. I gallantly declared: Whatever you decide, I’ll support you. A politician’s line, of course, fooling nobody. Whatever you decide. A masterstroke of abnegation. I hated this new found emptiness that seemed to speak for me, this puppetry of understanding: nods caresses murmurs. I searched for the man, the father, but finding him absent jerked and muttered and marionetted my way through visits to clinics and counsellors. We started taking phone calls in the other room. We closed the door.


I’m carrying heavy suitcases up the stairs to our room at the resort, while Ben lugs his own little bag. At the top of the first flight of concrete stairs I stop to rest a moment. Ben is thrilled to spot a translucent gecko inhabiting the concrete seam between the wall and the ceiling of the corridor, a ghostly comic creature. The stairwell is open to the air at the back, allowing a view of tropical foliage, tangled liana and fat heavy leaves trailing spider webs.

Look Dad, says Ben.

Yes, I say, once again uncertain what I should be seeing.

It looks exciting doesn’t it?

It sure does, I say, and pick up the suitcases again to tackle the second flight of steps.

When I paid for it in Melbourne, I had imagined luxury, but the room is disappointing: a functional, anonymous ‘unit’ with a sliding door onto a tiny balcony that overlooks the swimming pool. In the aggressive overcast glare of the afternoon, some kids are playing pool volleyball. I stand there a while watching them while Ben plays with the little packets of soap deposited on the ends of the beds. Pretty girls with small, new breasts, a fat pasty kid and a taller, good looking one whose every lunge for the ball is alpha-male choreography. The girls giggle and tease and retreat, reserving the right to exploit the ambiguity that suspends the game between child’s play and courtship ritual. Not far away the thirtysomethings are arranged like shish kebabs on the plastic deckchairs, creased brown flesh exposed for the benefit of whatever UV makes it through the cloud. A bull-shouldered man in tiny speedos drinks on an underwater stool beside the pool bar, his pale eyes sliding and swivelling over his gin as the women go by.

Later we go into town for the first time, looking for something to eat. I hold Ben’s hand to cross the sandy streets of the tourist precinct, restaurant touts hail me, and even though I am hungry, the shouting garish shops, the steel chairs of the restaurant forecourts repel me and soon we have reached the place where the street meets the beach, boats jostling in the marina and twilight falling over the palm trees, but nowhere to eat. We have to backtrack. Ben is hungry and getting difficult, dragging his feet, so it’s eenie-meenie-minie-mo and whatever restaurant; we order pizzas and Ben colours in a pirate picture with crayons that the harried waitress brings—they’re a family-friendly restaurant.

But we’re not a family, objects Ben, who has recently discovered the joys of pedantry.

Yes we are.

But Mum isn’t here.

Two people can be a family.

No they can’t.

Look here’s your pizza.

There’s a woman eating alone across the way, her table an island of concentration and composure amid the hubbub. Middle aged, I think. Then: no, my age. The candle in front of her flickers in a subdued way, shimmering through the chardonnay she sips between carefully excised nibbles. She is not a family; I’m prepared to concede that.


We’re going to have fun. I take Ben up to Kuranda on the cable car, wobbling high over the treetops. Ulysses butterflies floating like little shreds of sky or flying fish between the swells of rainforest. At Kuranda we eat Golden Gaytimes and hot dogs for lunch, what the hell we’re on holiday, and Ben’s face is a mess of melted chocolate bits and tomato sauce. The heat saps us. He needs to go the toilet. Now. We have to run in the end, and some leaks out, wetting his trousers. He’s ashamed and won’t leave the toilet block even though the train is coming in ten to take us back down the mountain. It wrenches to command him in his wretched condition, but what choice do I have?

He doesn’t know it, but I am six years old too, feeling every miserable half-choked sob as he goes through the crowd, head hung, not knowing nobody notices or cares about his little accident. On the train he presses his grubby, tear-streaked face to the window, so the rowdy boy next to him won’t see his eyes, and I know not to hug him. Some burdens I cannot share. Then he loses himself in the passing gorges and waterfalls and suddenly he’s pointing out a coloured bird to me, the smile on his face like sun breaking through a wet day.


When I was six my father and I turned over rocks in tidal pools near Anglesea, and discovered many miracles that seem to have disappeared over the years. Perhaps it was the effect of people like us, reckless wonderers, even though we always put the rocks back the way they were. I once found a mysterious crimson brain on the rocks, some protean creature like raspberry aeroplane jelly spilled from its mould before it was fully set. I took it home in a jar, and I guess it died, whatever it was. It stank in unexpected and incredible ways and completely liquefied; the atrocious slime I poured out into the sandy backyard of our holiday house had no relation to the extraordinary creature I had found on the beach. I felt bad but I never suspected that in killing one, I might have contributed to killing them all.

Five years after that, on the same beach, I stood at the top of a dune on an overcast day heavy with coming rain and watched my father running below, pursued by the dog. In his singlet and shorts he looked both skinny and paunchy— suddenly middle-aged — and he was wheezing and puffing even as he laughed like a child, the dog nipping at his heels. I was pierced by twin arrows of love and fear, afraid he might fall, that his heart might fail, afraid to see the old man in him, the first shadow of death. There is no one to save us, I saw. We are all children. And so I passed one of the unheralded markers on the road to adulthood.


Ben and I wander along a dun-coloured beach near Port Douglas. On the wide flat sand, the worms one never sees have left their little spiralled sand-turds by the million, evidence of the vast hidden industry of life. We walk into mangroves stinking and gnat-ridden, and find the remains of a bird: white knotted bones, ants in the sandy shrivel of flesh. Ben pauses to look, serious, his mind turning in some deep way, understanding something.

We push deeper into the smelly tidal swamp. I scare Ben just enough with crocodile stories to inject the right expeditionary frisson, and he digs joyfully with a stick among the jabbing mangrove roots. I sit higher up on the ground where some hardy beach succulent keeps my bum dry. My hand finds a rusty hook and a sinker, still tied to the sand by a line like a couch grass root, a thin unbreakable garrotte leading toward the sea.


At sixteen weeks the ultrasound — I guess I’d prevaricated long enough that the decision had made itself, or Maddy had made it without me. The doctor lifted Maddy’s shirt and smeared conductive gel over the tightening drum of her skin. On a screen, snow-storm static turned liquid and something began to take shape, some odd fish that rolled and transformed as the doctor slid her magic device around the shiny brown curves of Maddy’s belly. We heard an aquatic heart beat, a rapid pulsing boom like Morse from a far galaxy, life discovered in Andromeda. Then she found the right angle and the child appeared, sucking its minute thumb, its spine as fine and fragile as a sardine’s. For a span of unknown heartbeats my breath was stolen, ohmygodprotectit. How stupid had I been? Oh my god, protect it. And if god won’t, then let me try. Let me try.


I take Ben out to the reef. We are going to have fun. We go flying over the waves on a white ferry with engines strong as a jumbo jet’s, standing at the prow, drunk with wind and speed as the boat chops and sprays the sea. When we open our mouths to speak we swallow great gallons of air. The impatient ferry cleaves the horizon like an axe. I feel Ben tugging my sleeve. He points, and there below us are dolphins leaping alongside, improbably keeping pace, improbably joyous. In all wild nature they are our only friends, gregarious in spite of everything.

We reach the reef, and everyone begins the mad scramble for masks and snorkels. But even though he can swim and I promise to hold his hand, Ben is afraid. He says he doesn’t want to go in the water. But you wait, you wait, I tell him. You won’t believe what it’s like down there.

I don’t care, he says. I want to go back.

We can’t go back.

We can sit inside.

Then the phone in my pocket rings. It’s Maddy. I turn away from Ben, holding the phone in a little shelter made by my hand against the wind.

Hi, I say.


What is it? Have you found a place yet?

Yes I have. It’s only ten minutes away from the house. I’m moving most of my stuff tomorrow. Where are you?

I’m on the Great Barrier Reef.

You having fun?

Come on Maddy.

Have you told him yet?

I can’t. I just ... can’t.

Greg, you have to tell him before you come home on Saturday.

I know. I’m going to, okay? Tonight. I just ... I just don’t know how to say it that’s all.

But we agreed on what you’d say.

We should have told him before, Maddy. We should have told him together.



I know. We’ve fucked it up haven’t we?

For a while I’m standing there on the deck like a fool, knuckles gripping the silence. Then her voice again, broken: But it’s too late now. He has to know before he gets home.

Look I better go. We’re on the Barrier Reef, and I’m not leaving without seeing it.

Please tell him Greg.

I will, I promise. Bye Maddy.

I snap the phone shut.

Dad, says Ben.

Yes sweetie.

I think I want to go in now.

I crouch down in front of him.


Uh huh.

Good lad! Let’s go get some snorkels!

I fit the mask to his face, careful not to snag his hair, and arrange the snorkel, then we sit side by side on the platform, our legs dangling in the dark slapping water, in mystery. I hold his hand, small as a starfish.

You ready?

He nods.

And we slide down into the quiet blue.