GOOD INTENTIONS Ch 3 (Version 3, 2000 words)

3

The police cordoned off our house as a crime scene. We booked into a motel near the airport, not that we could afford it. Dad stood outside smoking and staring at traffic. Mum sat inside, looking at TV, but not particularly taking anything in. I was restless. I never did get to school today. Mum wrote me an absentee letter to give to the deputy headmaster tomorrow morning, explaining that there’d been a sudden “bereavement” in the family. It was all a terrible shock. It was near enough to the truth.

I did what I’ve always done when things get too much. I wrote. I wrote all evening. There was nothing else for it. Nothing on TV held my interest. Everything seemed garish and stupid and loud. In my mind all I could see was the dead man’s face, the texture of his skin, his part-closed eyes, the angle of his slump against my door. Again, I wondered how it could all have happened without my noticing a thing? Why, of all the houses on our street, in our suburb, in our area, did this man choose our house? Was the killer following him, and so knew where to find him? Was it somehow random? Could it have been any house, so why not ours? Or had we been selected? I didn’t know which was worse.

What had the killer been searching for? That was another weird thing. That was something that made me think the choice of our house, and my room, was deliberate. The killer seemed to believe I had something stashed away in my room. Maybe that’s why the victim was in there, too. Maybe that’s what they were both doing there. Could they have been a team, only it went sour somehow, and one turned on the other?

I can’t remember anything the dead man was wearing–but I remember the exact texture of his skin. I remember that smell. I can still smell it on me, and in my nose. Since we’ve been here at the motel I’ve had two very thorough scrubbing-type showers, and I can still smell it on me. Mum says I reek of it. She says we all do, but me especially.

She’s wondering what we’re going to do about tea tonight. Dad unhelpfully says he’s not hungry. He’s thinking of heading out to see a couple of mates. “Fine,” Mum says. “Whatever you say, Phil.”

It’s just about lights out for the night. No sign of Dad’s return. It’s after midnight. Weird. It’s not the first time he’s done this, staying out all night. I just hope he’s all right. He and Mum have their problems, and their shortcomings (I can only imagine what they’d say if invited to list my shortcomings!), but they’re the only parents I have. I need them. I need both of them. Even if they were no longer together–I’ve been getting used to thinking about that possibility for a couple of years now–I still need my mum and dad. I just hope, if it came to that, they wouldn’t marry new people. That would be mental. Step-parents! God!

Lights out! Last time I turned the lights out, my whole world exploded. I hope things are quieter tonight.

XXX

Dad was “home”, with us, at the motel, when I woke this morning. I had hardly slept. I had known the motel was near the airport, but during the endless night that fact was repeatedly emphasised. We were not simply near the airport: we were directly under one of the main flight-paths coming to or leaving the airport. It was unbearable. And I was a kid who had always loved visiting the airport. I loved seeing the planes coming and going. I remember the time the first-ever Boeing 747 came to Perth, and just about all of Perth flocked out to see the extraordinary beast. One of my earliest memories is sitting in the airport terminal one night, working my way through a Dr Suess book, which might have been Green Eggs and Ham, and feeling pleased because this was a book I was reading on my own. I loved standing out on the open-air observation deck, in the wind and the freezing night, inhaling the kerosene waft of jet fuel, staring at gleaming planes. I loved it. I wanted to fly. I wanted to see the world. I wanted to get out of Perth. Perth was everything I hated.

But last night I hated the airport, and I hated my dad. Things were bad. I needed my folks to hold things together, to provide a stable floor beneath me, to stop this awful sense of plummeting doomward freefall. Ever since I woke yesterday morning, when my sense of routine reality had blown up in my face, I’d been in this long fall away from stability, tumbling end over end, screaming. When I closed my eyes, even for a moment, I saw the dead man. I saw the blood on my copy of Robert Heinlein’s HAVE SPACESUIT WILL TRAVEL. And the smell was still all over me. I think I showered for at least twenty minutes this morning, so long that Mum banged on the door a few times to get me to come out because I was going to be late for school, but all I could think about was scrubbing, scouring, scraping at my skin. If I could have flayed my skin right off and grown new skin, free of the clinging horror of that stink, I would have. I already felt flayed and vulnerable, a crab without a shell. My room was gone, so gone I may never get it back in a form I would recognise or accept. I might at some point receive an acceptable form of the physical space itself, the room, but everything about it that made it mine, my shelter from everything beyond its door, was gone. It would take me a long time to understand what that meant.

Dad gave me a lift to school. It was a long drive. We didn’t say much. Dad fiddled with the radio, but couldn’t find anything he wanted to listen to. The static and chatter of AM radio made me flinch and jerk, as if attacked. I was tense, hunched over, watching everything. My dad’s every restless move was annoying. I tried to just sit there and look at the world of traffic and rain outside. It was cold. All the windows rolled up, but I still felt as if a cold draft blasted through me. I could feel goose-flesh on my arms and chest.

Just as we pulled up at school, as I opened the door to get out, Dad said, “Mate?”

I slumped back in my seat. Not even nine a.m., and I was already exhausted and fed up. “What?”

“Listen. Watch out, okay, watch out for strangers today. Will you do that?”

I looked at him. Dad always looked like he was walking a tightrope across a deep canyon. He always looked sweaty and tense, as if worried about falling, uncertain of his grip. Always wiping his sweaty hands. Looking around everywhere, and always sitting with his back to the wall, so he could keep an eye on the doors. But right now, sincerity was coming off him like radiation. He hadn’t had a wink of sleep since yesterday or the night before, but right this moment, he was concerned about me to a degree that was highly unusual. He looked like he was reluctant to let me go out there on my own.

“It’s okay, Dad. I’ll be careful.”

“It’s just, you’re–” And he couldn’t say the rest. He face seemed to fracture and collapse, and he rubbed at it with his hand. “Now get bloody going before I kick your fat arse out of me car, now git!” He made “shoo!” gestures.

“I’m going, I’m going.” And I went. Dad gave me five dollars in change so I could get some lunch. He also said, just before driving off, “Don’t worry so much. It’ll be okay. Your mum and me. We’ll be okay, all of us.”

“Coulda fooled me, Dad,” I said as he drove off.

I gave my absentee letter to the deputy headmaster. He and I had a long history, none of it good. I got to stand in front of his desk, often soaked through with rain, while he went through my various letters and medical certificates, and sundry other reasons to explain where I had been and why I had not been at school. What I needed was someone who would write me an authoritative letter which said, “Robbie did not attend school yesterday because he had a reasonable and well-founded fear of psychological, interpersonal abuse, and physical threats to his life.” Failing that, I had letters like the one Mum wrote. The deputy head wrote in his ledgers with his expensive purple fountain pen, did some aggressive and noisy stamping that made me flinch, and in due course sent me on my way.

Then I went to my locker to get the books and stuff I would need for my first class, the looming horror of Maths 1. Other kids bustled, larked, yelled, boiled, and tussled around me, yelling and laughing, making chaos. I ignored them as much as I could. Some wanted to know where I was yesterday. A few remarked that I smelled worse than usual, and I was surprised at how little that bothered me. The day before yesterday, a comment like that would have killed me. Now? Now I hardly even noticed. I was hardly even there, occupying that space. I felt as if the important parts of myself were somewhere else, doing something else. Maybe trying to find out who the dead man had been, and what he had been doing in my room. I felt as if I no longer had any interest in all this, so to speak, “kid stuff”, bullying and schoolyard bullshit and hostile teachers. Not when a man had been murdered in my bedroom.

Even so, much as all this school stuff felt like a remote abstraction, I did have to get through it. It was my job. The police would do what they could to figure out who the dead man was and how he came to die in my bedroom. Mum and Dad would do their things, too. Life would grind on. So I got my locker key out. I needed to get my books for Maths class.

Locker key in locker padlock. Zik, click, snap, pop. Lock opened. I pulled open the door.

“What the hell?” I whispered.

There was something in my locker that I had not put there.

As well as the usual jumble of worn and scribbled-over textbooks and file-folders and pencil-cases, there was also a big vibrantly yellow plastic bag with heavy black markings. There was something in the bag.

This was one of those moments, I knew this right away. This was something big. Things would come from this. I also suspected this yellow bag was somehow connected to the dead man in my bedroom. It had to be. Should I contact the police? Should I tell Detective Lockley? It seemed like I should. To do that I would have to go to Reception in the Admin Block and ask to use their phone.

I grabbed the bag, heart banging in my mouth. I felt sick with tension. I could see the dead man’s half-closed eyes.

The bag was marked, in heavy black writing,

JB HIFI

Which, I gathered, was a retailer for electronics, computers, and much else. Computers? They sold mainframes? Or did they sell machines like the TRS-80, and the Sinclair things, glorified calculators? In any case, I’d never heard of them. They must be an eastern states firm, like Harvey Norman, who you only ever heard about on late night chat shows, like Don Lane, when they were doing their Wheel of Fortune segment. JB HiFi must have come up as a sponsor on that and I just missed it.

I looked inside the bag.

There was a white box, and the writing on the box said,

Apple iPhone 7.

XXX

MEMOIR: THE OUTBOARD MOTOR INCIDENT

MEMOIR: THE OUTBOARD MOTOR INCIDENT

The salient point in this story about my dad is that he insisted, when he heard I was writing this book, that I had to include this story. “You gotta include the outboard motor story,” he said, with a huge grin.

It’s another of our family legends, and like others it has lived on since it first happened because of the way it captures and illustrates crucial aspects of the characters involved.

And in this story my dad was a proper arsehole. He couldn’t help it, but he was. He even admits it these days. In those days, when I was a nervous, moody kid, forever unsure what state my dad was going to be in from moment to moment, always trying to find out from Mum after school if she had heard anything from Dad at work, so we had some idea what to expect. It was hard, but it could have been so much worse. He could have been a drunk. He could have been an abuser. But he was neither of these things. He was just a hot mess of a bloke, making it up as he went, and doing the best he could to look after his family.

I never understood until quite late that my dad loved me. I never understood that my dad was sick, that we had the same illness, until I was first getting treated for mine, as I have said. Treatment transformed him. It was the making of him, as it was for me. And as it was for me, it took many years for the treatment to take hold, to settle, for things to become stable. Those were hard years. We fought often. There was yelling and door-slamming and angry brooding.

There was a strange period, when I was around 17, when my dad took overdoses of his medication sometimes. Not with serious suicidal intent so much (though the first couple of times we did worry greatly about that) as the idea that he felt badly messed up inside, so if he made himself sufficiently ill he would end up at the hospital, where they would have to fix him. This happened several times. He never got the fixing he was looking for. In time je gave up doing it. We were all grateful. But for a while I was very angry about it. I lost a lot of respect for my dad. Where was the flashy larrikin guy who raced speedboats? Little did I realise, but he was still there, but locked inside him, drowning.

I feel lousy remembering all this. It was a dreadful time for all of us. Mum had it worst of all. She was the one who had a sick husband and a sick son. The sick son was either an inpatient at D20 or an outpatient, heavily involved still with the hospital at least some of the time. That went on for a couple of years, until I was 18, when they let me go. Dad during this time had his own health crises.

And one day in the middle of all this, while I was in D20, Mum had a heart attack, and wound up in the Emergency Room. One of D20’s male nurses took me aside for a very serious talk about, gently edging around the explosive topic, worried about how I might react.

I mention all this to give proper context for the incident with the outboard motor, when I was a kid.

We were having a cheap, no-frills holiday in Bunbury, the only sort of holiday we could afford. It was all very cheap and cheerful. But one of Dad’s mates in the boat caper had an old aluminium dinghy (what are commonly called “tinnies”) that he lent us for the weekend. It had a ten-horsepower outboard motor on the back.

It was the end of a lovely sunny day. I and my Uncle Shane (seven years older than I was) had been swimming and having a laugh. There was a wall with a walkway, and Dad needed Mum, up on the walkway, to hold the rope attached to the boat, to keep the boat in place while he took the motor off the stern. But Mum got a bit distracted watching us kids, and the boat moved while Dad was holding the motor pressed against his chest.

The thing here is that Dad had an explosive temper, and he was always letting it go off. Mum and I were always in strife over all kinds of things, small (Adrian’s drunk all the milk again) or large (dinner’s overcooked again), and much else besides. Dad carried a huge freight of anger deep inside him, poisonous and full of barbs. And that day he’d already let it out a few times. So when Mum saw she’d let the boat drift while she was distracted, she yanked on the rope to pull the boat back. She didn’t want to get yelled at again.

But Dad was about to put the motor in the boat, just when the boat moved.

Dad and motor fell into the water with a huge splash! I still remember the splash. The two of them were completely submerged in the salty estuary water.

There was a pause as we up on the walkway, Mum still holding the boat rope, took in what had just happened.

Then Dad emerged, thunderous, furious, from the water, a volcano rising from the ocean. His titanic anger so great it has echoed down the decades in family legend. He let fly, and abused Mum and–

Sorry, but we were all much too busy laughing. And this is the point of the whole story. We laughed. We laughed and laughed and laughed. We laughed our guts out. We laughed like we had never laughed before and seldom since. The bully had been rendered ridiculous. He looked like a drowned cat down there sputtering and yelling, and it was hilarious. He looked small and pitiful. We couldn’t believe we had been afraid of this soggy bastard’s fury for so long.

And our laughter only made him angrier, as you might imagine. It was the funniest, most cathartic thing ever. The tyrant brought down to size. He was one of us again.

It took him a while, but by later that evening he admitted, grudgingly, that he could see the funny side of the whole thing.

And he did, as I said, just the other day, insist I include this story, because it illustrates my dad’s character so well. He is a kind and decent man whose untreated illness rendered him monstrous, as mine made me feel monstrous. He was consumed with frustration and anger, but it was all just his illness. Now, elderly, he is a sweet old man. He loves nothing better than sitting with our dog snoozing against him. He takes joy in all my doings. He’s interested in things. Concerned about his fading memory, but there’s a lot of that going around, I can report.

And that ten-horsepower outboard motor that got submerged in salt water? Ordinarily an accident like that would make the engine seize up inside and die. All the moving parts would lock up tight, encrusted with salt. But my dad was a genius with things. And he had a full can of this stuff called CRC, a seriously water-repellent spray. He used almost an entire can on the stripped-down parts of that motor. It took two hours, but in the end he had achieved a miracle, and the motor that had been fully submerged in salty water lived again. My dad was, and remains, an amazing guy.

GOOD INTENTIONS Ch 3 (Version 1)

3

The police cordoned off our house as a crime scene. We booked into a motel near the airport, not that we could afford it. Dad stood outside smoking and staring at traffic. Mum sat inside, looking at TV, but not particularly taking anything in. I was restless. I never did get to school today. Mum wrote me an absentee letter to give to the deputy headmaster tomorrow morning, explaining that there’d been a sudden “bereavement” in the family. It was all a terrible shock. It was near enough to the truth.

I did what I’ve always done when things get too much. I wrote. I wrote all evening. There was nothing else for it. Nothing on TV held my interest. Everything seemed garish and stupid and loud. In my mind all I could see was the dead man’s face, the texture of his skin, his part-closed eyes, the angle of his slump against my door. Again, I wondered how it could all have happened without my noticing a thing? Why, of all the houses on our street, in our suburb, in our area, did this man choose our house? Was the killer following him, and so knew where to find him? Was it somehow random? Could it have been any house, so why not ours? Or had we been selected? I didn’t know which was worse.

What had the killer been searching for? That was another weird thing. That was something that made me think the choice of our house, and my room, was deliberate. The killer seemed to believe I had something stashed away in my room. Maybe that’s why the victim was in there, too. Maybe that’s what they were both doing there. Could they have been a team, only it went sour somehow, and one turned on the other?

I can’t remember anything the dead man was wearing–but I remember the exact texture of his skin. I remember that smell. I can still smell it on me, and in my nose. Since we’ve been here at the motel I’ve had two very thorough scrubbing-type showers, and I can still smell it on me. Mum says I reek of it. She says we all do, but me especially.

She’s wondering what we’re going to do about tea tonight. Dad unhelpfully says he’s not hungry. He’s thinking of heading out to see a couple of mates. “Fine,” Mum says. “Whatever you say, Phil.”

MIDNIGHT ADMINISTRIVIA: ADMINISTRATIVE BOOGALOO

MIDNIGHT ADMINISTRIVIA: ADMINISTRATIVE BOOGALOO

I’ve moved all the drafts for my new GOOD INTENTIONS novel project to its own page next to the ABOUT page. If you want to see how it’s going, and I will likely be updating it more than once a day, please feel free. I’ll keep the main blog pages for other material, including more memoir-related pieces. I’ve been working with my parents for a few pieces about their background, and their recollections for two of them have just come through.

Thank you for your patience! 🙂

THE CONDENSED MILK INCIDENT (Updated)

All through this project I’ve struggled with the leftover toast crumbs of memory, and done my best to bring them to life without embroidering or otherwise writing actual fiction. But now that the project is winding down I thought it might be interesting to compare the things about a story that I remember with what was really going on. And since this story is about my mum, I asked her to provide the explanatory details.

WHAT I REMEMBER

Mum, furious, chasing after me, yelling, armed with a broom. Red country dust everywhere. Caravans. I was running for my life, but laughing. I had just been extremely naughty, eating an entire tin of Nestlé Condensed Milk despite being expressly told not to touch it. I ate the whole thing and it was yummy, and I went and found Mum and told her I did it, laughing. Then the chase, all through the caravans parked everywhere. I was very little, and could really run. Mum, only in her 20s, could run, too, and she was coming for me, and it was hilarious to see her run like that and I was laughing.

THE REAL STORY

It was 1966, I was three years old, and I was an evil, wilful swine. Mum often talks, even these days, about how I would get a “look” in my eyes, and I would do these awful things, apparently for sport and enjoyment–the enjoyment of seeing my parents and especially my mum upset and angry. And on this occasion she was more angry, and more determined than at almost any other point in our relationship since. She talks about the Condensed Milk Incident the way you might talk about a creation myth. This is where our relationship became what it became, and where our characters were forged.

We were staying in a work camp near a spot in the middle of nowhere called Koolyanobbing, a place that wasn’t really a town so much as a place to park mining equipment. It had a general store, of sorts, where you might, possibly, on a good day, obtain some of the things you needed. For proper shopping you needed to drive forty miles over gravel roads to the town of Southern Cross, which had the nearest pub. I remember this camp for its red dirt, Ektachrome blue skies that went on forever, tiny white caravans, and giant yellow machines.

The government was installing one of the great infrastructure projects, the Standard Gauge Railway. Up this point each state had its own crazy ideas about rail gauge. To send something across the country you would have to unload and reload onto new rolling stock every time you crossed a state line. Fortunately, we don’t have many of those.

It was a huge job, and they needed people to do all kinds of work. My dad was employed as a mechanic, whose job was to look after, repair and maintain the giant yellow machines during the freezing cold nights so they’d always be ready to go during daylight hours.

We all lived in the makeshift caravan park nearby, in a caravan Mum says was only ten feet long. Imagine two and a bit people squeezed into such a tiny space, where the weather was either screaming hot without a breath of breeze, or freezing cold. And my mum and dad had me, a chubby little brown-haired bundle of chaos, living with them.

Living there was extraordinarily difficult. One of the main difficulties was getting supplies to live on, which meant somehow getting to either Koolyanobbing and hoping the sketchy shops there had what you needed, or making the arduous dusty gravelly journey to Southern Cross, where they probably had what you needed. Then you just needed to get it all back to the caravan, and hope the power stayed on.

One of most essential items to get was milk. I am assuming the fridge in a ten-foot caravan would be frustratingly small, and that would be why Mum and Dad relied on tinned condensed milk that you could keep at room temperature on a shelf in a cupboard.

Now my dad was working his guts out all night long, in the bitterest cold, on these immense machines, trying to keep them running. Mum would often take him a big hot meal in the middle of his night-shift, to make sure he ate well, and to give him some company. And when he got home to the tiny caravan, a place to live so small it was less like stepping inside, and more like pulling it on, like a jumper–he would want a cup of tea, and he would want milk in that tea.

But NestlĂ© Condensed Milk was wonderful. It was so thick, and so sweet. It was perfect. It was made for me. I could not keep my hands off it, which had to trouble in the past. Dad would come staggering in after a brutal night on the machines (and I have heard stories of how it was unbearable work, both because of the cold but also the isolation and loneliness, which must have done Dad’s illness no end of harm), and he’d want a cuppa. But what’s this? There’s no milk? Adrian ate all the milk–again? Despite all the Talks we’ve had about not doing that?

I felt terrible. I felt as if I were full of stolen stuff. It made me feel sick, as I could throw it all back up. Three years old and hating myself, for doing this to Dad. I didn’t understand what he did at his job, bit I understood that he needed to do it, for all of us. And when Mum was patiently explaining about our life out here in the dust, telling me to be careful to watch out for the huge machines and trucks that would come rumbling along the roads, she’d also explain that we were a very long way away from help, should we need it. And a very long way from shops. Eating the condensed milk was bad, but the prospect of having to find someone in the camp who had a car who might provide a lift to Koolyanobbing or even Southern Cross, was terrible. Everyone was doing it hard in near-impossible conditions.

But I kept doing it. I knew it was wrong, but it was so delicious, so sweet, so thick and gooey, and I was just having a little bit, and maybe a little bit more, and oh look, there’s plenty still left, so I’ll have a bit more. I don’t say this is exactly what I thought, but I certainly thought something like this. I was not to do it, for good reasons, but I did it anyway.

And one day, Mum had been sweeping outside, came into the caravan unexpectedly, and caught me red-handed. In flagrante delecto.

I ran, and Mum came hurtling after me, broom and all. To me, as soon as I got a look back over my shoulder at my mum on the rampage (my mum: not quite five feet tall, a bit overweight, bright, pale blonde hair and ghostly pale skin), coming after me, yelling that she was going to get me, it was the best fun of my brief life. It was hilarious! We should do this every day! Mum looked so funny running after me!

Other people in the camp watched the drama unfold, and offered “helpful” and funny comments as Mum pelted past, though sadly none of these comments have survived contact with history. But the image of the naughty little boy and the furious avenging mum in hot pursuit, with broom (“you’ll have to run faster that to take on your broom, luv” was, I think, one droll comment) no less, is immortal.

The stakes were the highest imaginable, as far as Mum was concerned. Every day she saw gigantic trucks, graders, dozers, haulpaks, rolling and rumbling all around here. Machines often bigger than houses. What they and their giant dusty wheels would do to a tiny wee boy she didn’t want to think about, but she was a worrier.

More viscerally personal there was the issue of parental authority. She says she knew she had to get me, despite how unlikely it seemed that she would or even could, given my condensed milk-fuelled naughty energy and sheer evil glee in running away. Of the two of us Mum was always going to tire first. She knew there was an excellent chance I would get away with it, and she was damned if she was going to let that happen.

So she ran and ran. Because if she didn’t catch me, and I got away, I would never again have reason to take her seriously as an authority figure. It would, she believed, poison our whole future relationship, and potentially my whole future life. We still talk about it, more than fifty years later. It’s one of the most seminal moments in our entire lives. Our relationship was forged here on this day. This is why, even now, as a man in my fifties, I pay attention when Mum tells me off about things I’ve done wrong (too many to list, believe me). This day is when I first realised that my mum was not to be messed with. She had spent her life up to this point dealing with the consequences of having been born with albinism. She was always very visibly different, and always underestimated, not taken too seriously.

But make no mistake. Even though if you asked her if she felt she was in any way courageous she’d say no, not at all, and tell you she’s a bundle of anxiety and nerves, and there is truth to that–the fact is, on the evidence, she was and remains a formidable presence in my life.

She bloody well caught me that day, and I got the spanking and telling off of my life. It was so spectacular it became, at least within the walls of our family, mythic, like a constellation of stars in the sky. You could look up at night, see Orion, the Pleiades, and, oh, look, there’s the Condensed Milk–look, you can even see that it’s empty!

ADMINISTRIVIA

I’m just about finished the memoir project. The first draft should be finished this week, or possibly sooner. After that I will move all the posts into a Word document and start work on rewrites for the second draft. I won’t be posting the rewrites publicly, as these will go towards the manuscript that I will eventually try to get published as a book.

I do plan to try to keep posting here every day, using this page as an online writer’s journal, which is how it started out. I started this project on 19 May, and have not missed a day since, sometimes managing three pieces a day! I believe there are now more than 90 entries! I have enjoyed writing like this like nothing I’ve experienced since I was a boy, and in some ways this has been even better since now I feel healthy and enthusiastic. When I was a boy, and spending the entire day and a lot of the night at my typewriter, I was in a lot of back and neck pain from the chair I was using, and of course I was out of my tiny mind on mania. I could no sooner have stopped trying to write than I could stop my heart beating. My writing here, though, has made me feel alive and well. It’s been a genuine pleasure.

LOCAL RECLUSE ACHIEVES HUMAN CONTACT, SURVIVES

Today a man went out with his wife to meet two friends for coffee and chat at a nice cafĂ© in the city. It was a very pleasant afternoon out. Nothing bothered the man. He was able to sit and enjoy his friends’ company, people he hadn’t seen in at least six months (a time in which the man had withdrawn so much within himself that the only people he saw were his wife, cafĂ© staff, and doctors), and a fine time was had by all.

It was so unremarkable, so ordinary. Friends meeting for coffee and chatty catch-up. But to the man in question, your correspondent, it was seismic. It was gobsmacking.

I sat there the whole time and nothing bothered me. Again, you think this is dog-bites-man, that nothing newsworthy is going on here. Yet it’s all I can think about.

A year ago today I was in hospital. I was reminded of this detail by my Facebook Memory this morning, which showed me a photo I took while lying on my hospital bed. It was a grim day for me. I was beginning my second hospitalisation. I had already done seven weeks, been through a cyclone of wretchedness and bawled my eyes out much too often. But at last I had been declared okay enough to send home. Where I lasted only about ten days. The outside world, uncontrolled, unexpected, was too much, and most especially there were too many of the wrong sort of noises. I walked around, hunched and braced, alert, “hyper-vigilant” (the technical term). Ready to kill anyone who chewed their food near me, who clicked a pen, or dragged a chair, or used a knife and fork on a china plate. My dad’s voice was too loud. My wife eating a Tim Tam was unbearable. It was impossible. This was no way to live. It was exhausting because you’re always in fight/flight mode, ready to destroy anyone or anything that produces a triggering sound. And that all in turn leads to deepest, darkest anger and depression–and the fear that in abandoning your original medication, you’ve become permanently broken, that you’ll never be “right” again.

During that second stay in hospital I tried several new drugs and drug combinations. I was busy keeping track of moods and side-effects, and of course the most important data-point of all, the effect of whatever it was on my weight, which I was checking every day (see “The Scales”).

I was deeply sad to be back in hospital. I felt like I had failed. The hospital had fixed me up as best they could and sent me home, fully expecting I’d make a go of that first new drug routine. I had been extremely excited, thinking about all the things I might do. This may have also been around the time when I lost the “signal” from the radio transmitter sending me writing stuff. When the whole creative part of my mind simply vanished, leaving me grieving and empty. I started seriously looking into what I might do with myself if I wasn’t writing anymore. I’d always been a writer, but maybe that was over now? It was scary (see “Writing and Silence”).

The hospital staff were well-used to seeing patients come back. They had even told me before I left after the first hospitalisation that I should feel free to come back if necessary, in case it–Outside–was too much to deal with. I scoffed at their suggestion. I wouldn’t need to come back. I had my new medications, and I was going to bloody well conquer the world, or die trying.

But there I was, on a different floor in a different room and the airconditioning was out of whack, making the room feel terribly cold (I shivered, and complained to the staff, who told me there were chronic systemic problems with the airconditioning). It was bad, and it did not help that it was the middle of winter.

The world, meanwhile, remained unconquered. I lay there wearing my plush monster slippers, disappointed in myself. But I was also, secretly, pleased to be back. I was safe there. The staff were wonderful. It was quiet, at least most of the time. If I had to be a big emotional mess, this was definitely the place to be doing it.

It took enormous work to get me to today’s relaxed and fun coffee and chat with friends. As recently as a year ago I doubted I would ever be well enough for such an impossible undertaking. Ordinary conversation over coffee seemed out of reach. I remember sitting in a different cafĂ© near the hospital last year, where the ambient noise from the room around me, and from the unseen kitchen–where even the hissing and gurgling from the espresso machine, was making me sweat with anxiety. It was hard to breathe. I could not stand to stay there. I could have taken an axe to that espresso machine and no jury would convict me.

Today, as our friends were eating their lunch (cutlery on ceramic plates), I was highly aware of it. But it was okay. Rather than the previous response of going straight to fight/flight, today it felt more like the “readiness state” was raised to perhaps something like an Orange Alert. Aware, keeping an eye on the bogey, but no reason to go to anything like Defcon 1. I was glad when they finished their lunch, but even more glad that I could just sit and enjoy their company without the hyper-vigilance, without keeping an eye on the door in case I needed to leave at short notice. Without that knot of tension in my gut, the clenched feeling, the paying acute attention to every little gesture as they ate.

It was nice. It was huge. I am grateful.

THE CONDENSED MILK INCIDENT

WHAT I REMEMBER

Mum, furious, chasing after me, yelling, armed with a broom. Red country dust everywhere. Caravans. I was running for my life, but laughing. I had just been extremely naughty, eating an entire tin of Nestlé Condensed Milk despite being expressly told not to touch it. I ate the whole thing and it was yummy, and I went and found Mum and told her I did it, laughing. Then the chase, all through the caravans parked everywhere. I was very little, and could really run. Mum, only in her 20s, could run, too, and she was coming for me, and it was hilarious to see her run like that and I was laughing.

THE REAL STORY

It was 1966, I was three years old, and I was an evil, wilful swine. Mum often talks, even these days, about how I would get a “look” in my eyes, and I would do these awful things, apparently for sport and enjoyment–the enjoyment of seeing my parents and especially my mum upset and angry. And on this occasion she was more angry, and more determined than at almost any other point in our relationship since. She talks about the Condensed Milk Incident the way you might talk about a creation myth. This is where our relationship became what it became, and where our characters were forged.

We were staying in a work camp 40 miles outside a little red-dirt town in the middle of nowhere called Koolyanobbing, and a hundred miles from the regional centre, Southern Cross. Red dirt, Ektachrome blue skies that went on forever, tiny white caravans, and giant yellow machines.

The government was installing one of the great infrastructure projects, the Standard Gauge Railway. Up this point each state had its own crazy ideas about rail gauge. To send something across the country you would have to unload and reload onto new rolling stock every time you crossed a state line. Fortunately, we don’t have many of those.

It was a huge job, and they needed people to do all kinds of work. My dad was employed as a mechanic, whose job was to look after, repair and maintain the giant yellow machines during the freezing cold nights so they’d always be ready to go during daylight hours.

We all lived in the makeshift caravan park nearby, in a caravan Mum says was only ten feet long. Imagine two and a bit people squeezed into such a tiny space, where the weather was either screaming hot without a breath of breeze, or freezing cold. And my mum and dad had me, a chubby little brown-haired bundle of chaos, living with them.

Living there was extraordinarily difficult. One of the main difficulties was getting supplies to live on, which meant somehow getting to either Koolyanobbing and hoping the sketchy shops there had what you needed, or making the arduous dusty gravelly journey to Southern Cross, where they probably had what you needed. Then you just needed to get it all back to the caravan, and hope the power stayed on.

One of most essential items to get was milk. I am assuming the fridge in a ten-foot caravan would be frustratingly small, and that would be why Mum and Dad relied on tinned condensed milk that you could keep at room temperature on a shelf in a cupboard.

Now my dad was working his guts out all night long, in the bitterest cold, on these immense machines, trying to keep them running. Mum would often take him a big hot meal in the middle of his night-shift, to make sure he ate well, and to give him some company. And when he got home to the tiny caravan, a place to live so small it was less like stepping inside, and more like pulling it on, like a jumper–he would want a cup of tea, and he would want milk in that tea.

But NestlĂ© Condensed Milk was wonderful. It was so thick, and so sweet. It was perfect. It was made for me. I could not keep my hands off it, which had to trouble in the past. Dad would come staggering in after a brutal night on the machines (and I have heard stories of how it was unbearable work, both because of the cold but also the isolation and loneliness, which must have done Dad’s illness no end of harm), and he’d want a cuppa. But what’s this? There’s no milk? Adrian ate all the milk–again? Despite all the Talks we’ve had about not doing that?

I felt terrible. I felt as if I were full of stolen stuff. It made me feel sick, as I could throw it all back up. Three years old and hating myself, for doing this to Dad. I didn’t understand what he did at his job, bit I understood that he needed to do it, for all of us. And when Mum was patiently explaining about our life out here in the dust, telling me to be careful to watch out for the huge machines and trucks that would come rumbling along the roads, she’d also explain that we were a very long way away from help, should we need it. And a very long way from shops. Eating the condensed milk was bad, but the prospect of having to find someone in the camp who had a car who might provide a lift to Koolyanobbing or even Southern Cross, was terrible. Everyone was doing it hard in near-impossible conditions.

But I kept doing it. I knew it was wrong, but it was so delicious, so sweet, so thick and gooey, and I was just having a little bit, and maybe a little bit more, and oh look, there’s plenty still left, so I’ll have a bit more. I don’t say this is exactly what I thought, but I certainly thought something like this. I was not to do it, for good reasons, but I did it anyway.

And one day, Mum had been sweeping outside, came into the caravan unexpectedly, and caught me red-handed. In flagrante delecto.

I ran, and Mum came hurtling after me, broom and all. To me, as soon as I got a look back over my shoulder at my mum on the rampage (my mum: not quite five feet tall, a bit overweight, bright, pale blonde hair and ghostly pale skin), coming after me, yelling that she was going to get me, it was the best fun of my brief life. It was hilarious! We should do this every day! Mum looked so funny running after me!

Other people in the camp watched the drama unfold, and offered “helpful” and funny comments as Mum pelted past, though sadly none of these comments have survived contact with history. But the image of the naughty little boy and the furious avenging mum in hot pursuit, with broom (“you’ll have to run faster that to take on your broom, luv” was, I think, one droll comment) no less, is immortal.

The stakes were the highest imaginable, as far as Mum was concerned. Every day she saw gigantic trucks, graders, dozers, haulpaks, rolling and rumbling all around here. Machines often bigger than houses. What they and their giant dusty wheels would do to a tiny wee boy she didn’t want to think about, but she was a worrier.

More viscerally personal there was the issue of parental authority. She says she knew she had to get me, despite how unlikely it seemed that she would or even could, given my condensed milk-fuelled naughty energy and sheer evil glee in running away. Of the two of us Mum was always going to tire first. She knew there was an excellent chance I would get away with it, and she was damned if she was going to let that happen.

So she ran and ran. Because if she didn’t catch me, and I got away, I would never again have reason to take her seriously as an authority figure. It would, she believed, poison our whole future relationship, and potentially my whole future life. We still talk about it, more than fifty years later. It’s one of the most seminal moments in our entire lives. Our relationship was forged here on this day. This is why, even now, as a man in my fifties, I pay attention when Mum tells me off about things I’ve done wrong (too many to list, believe me). This day is when I first realised that my mum was not to be messed with. She had spent her life up to this point dealing with the consequences of having been born with albinism. She was always very visibly different, and always underestimated, not taken too seriously.

But make no mistake. Even though if you asked her if she felt she was in any way courageous she’d say no, not at all, and tell you she’s a bundle of anxiety and nerves, and there is truth to that–the fact is, on the evidence, she was and remains a formidable presence in my life.

She bloody well caught me that day, and I got the spanking and telling off of my life. It was so spectacular it became, at least within the walls of our family, mythic, like a constellation of stars in the sky. You could look up at night, see Orion, the Pleiades, and, oh, look, there’s the Condensed Milk–look, you can even see that it’s empty!

SUPER-8

When I look back in time, why does everything seem so small and fragmentary and barely there? Even memories I think of as vivid are still on close-up inspection, barely there.

But I was there at the time. The world looked then as it looks now. The sky filled the whole sky. It was all blue. The ocean was vast and powerful (and inclined to eat incautious poor swimmers). Colours were bright and strong. Yellow was really yellow–it could take your head clean off if you weren’t careful with it. And music! The 1960s and 70s! LPs and 45 rpm singles and cassettes. Hi-fi systems, all brushed silver boxes with big chunky knobs and dials.

Why on one hand do I remember the past as if peering down the wrong end of a telescope, but on the other I know very well it was just as immediate and overwhelming as today, but the technology and styles were all different? Is it the difference between remembering and simply knowing better? Why don’t I remember better? Why am I stuck with these useless, dusty old photos and bits of Super-8 film?

I remember a big thing when I was a kid was movie nights (related phenomenon was the slide night), when you’d invite people around, and you’d all sit and watch Super-8 edited clips from feature films and documentaries. Dad was the showman, standing by the humming, ticking projector, handling the little rolls of film, threading the leader through onto the back reel, and attending to catastrophic jams where everything was fine until suddenly the film jammed in the gate and it began to burn and melt and it was somehow always traumatic to see that happen up on the screen.

My favourite was one about the Apollo 11 Moon Landing, which included the minute or so leading up to the actual landing. It’s the sequence I remember from watching live, when I was six, with the glare, and the shadows of the Lunar Modules legs drifting across the cratered landscape, and it was difficult to tell quite what was happening until everything stopped, and there was a pause, and the announcement. They had indeed landed. It always gave me such a thrill to see this roll of narrow film, and Dad was always very careful to run it for me in amongst everything else.

What was strange was that many of these little reels of film had no sound. Only the so-called Super-8 film had the stripe along the side with the soundtrack. Regular 8 mm film was silent, other than the noise from the projector. You sat there watching, making the odd comment. It made for a curious night’s entertainment.

What’s even stranger is seeing the Super-8 format coming back after all this time. I know Kodak have recently released a new camera system for the format, with a host of features to make it easy to digitalise the footage for easy editing. Michelle and I watch a great deal of Korean popular music, and we’ve started to see some more avant-garde acts making videos either on actual Super-8, or a digital filter or emulation of it. The graininess, the washed out colours, the strangeness of the way people look as they move about. I thought it was odd when I heard vinyl LPs were making a comeback, but the return of Super-8 is the weirdest.

I’m so used to thinking about that period, forty to fifty years ago, as if through a Super-8 filter, that it’s disorienting to see it show up now, making the present look like the past, like a sort of filmic time travel. But why don’t I think about the vividness, the immediacy, the there-ness of the past, as I do whenI think of the present? Why does the past have this sepia wash over everything? When I was there, it was all just like now, but different. Less a different time so much as a place, and a state of mind. Where everyone smoked. Where almost everyone was white. Where you could bus into the city, have lunch, see a movie, and bus home again for five dollars.

When I visit my parents, who are 76 (Mum) and 81 (Dad), we talk (and talk) about the past a lot. Some family legends I’ve been hearing about all my life. Some I was there for, that happened to me as well, and some that happened before I came along. But they chew over these stories endlessly, and laugh about the funny ones as much today as they must have laughed when the thing first happened, decades ago. I’m sometimes a bit cranky about that, a bit bored, but then I think about Michelle and me. We chew over material from our past together, too. We talk over and over about our trips overseas, usually to promote my books, for good or ill. Those trips were ripe with comment material, and it seems plausible that in our own old age we’ll be like my mum and dad, sitting there in their armchairs, wrapped in blankets because it’s so cold at the moment, still having a laugh at what so-and-so did or said, and how Mum gave a proper telling-off to that bastard!

We talk about these things all the time, but we lose the little details that make the stories real. It’s something I’ve really struggled with in writing this book. I want to make proper scenes, with telling details, with weather and mood and all the rest of it. What in film they call mise-en-scène. And it’s hard. I can often rattle off the bare bones of an anecdote, but I don’t want just anecdotes. I want character and incident, I want scenes. I want to bring the past to this end of the telescope, to drop it in your lap, alive and kicking and making a hot mess on your good clothes.

But too often all I have are the merest bits and pieces, little fragments, as if I’m less a memoirist than I am an archaeologist investigating ancient remains and all there is is little bits of bone and teeth, and from those I must conjure whole people and their busy, cluttered lives. Meanwhile, I hope the film of my own life doesn’t end up stuck in the projector’s gate, melting and burning in the pitiless light.

THE ACCUMULATION OF TIME

Pixel was very old, very sick, and as she leaned against me in the car, she didn’t shiver. She had always shivered, in the car, when we went to the vet. This, last, time, she slumped against me, exhausted, sleepy, and, I think, ready.

I, on the other hand, was not. I’d never done this before. All my life up to this point, when family pets had to go the vet for the final time, Mum and Dad had always taken care of it. They had left home with a sick dog wrapped in a blanket, and come home some time later, grey and drawn, with an empty blanket. I did know more or less what happened. I knew there was an injection. When I was about 18 I remember seeing a local current affairs news program that, for inexplicable reasons, decided to do a story about animal euthanasia, and they filmed the entire procedure. It was extremely upsetting. Not because it was cruel in any way, of course not. It was upsetting simply because it was death. And I had always been protected from death.

My dad’s parents both died when I was little. My Pop had cancer, but I don’t remember what my Nanna died from. I only remember bits and pieces from that period. My parents would doubtless be able to tell me all about it. I knew my mum nursed Pop at home for a long time, that she was was devoted to him, night and day, as well as looking after Dad and me. Of that time I remember only Pop in his bed in the lounge room in the front part of the house, with the best light through the big windows. I don’t remember anything he said. He did once introduce me to the idea of Milo on vanilla ice cream, and I’ll always love him for that. Such a little thing made a lifelong impact. And of course it was him whom I embarrassed so much at Floreat Forum Shopping Centre that day when I climbed naked into the water fountain.

Mum and Dad did not take me to Nanna or Pop’s funerals. They said I was too young. I think I was about six or so. I was very little, and of course inclined to the weird side. I remember, both times, the silent hustle and bustle as they got dressed and ready to go, the dark clothes, the fussing, the tension. I remember standing around watching them, wishing I could go, wanting to go, wondering what would happen, wanting to say good-bye. It was upsetting. I always felt way out on the periphery of things, as if everything were a cricket match, and I was fielding, placed out on the boundary line, so far from where things were happening you can’t hear anything. Important grown-up events in my early life were like that, seen from a great distance and wondered about.

I remember Mum sitting in lounge chairs crying, someone holding her hand. I remember Dad restless and upset, but in motion, always moving. I think there were relatives.

When I was about fourteen, my beloved great-grandmother on Mum’s side passed away. When I was younger I was devoted to her. As I got older, began to be a sullen teen, began to feel depressed and awkward, a key that fit no known lock, I felt often a bit strange and out of place with my Grandma. She still talked to me, and treated me, as if I were little. She still, it seemed, delighted in me as if I were little. She was a wonderful lady. But I was not so wonderful. I was weird and odd and made of pointy angles. And when she died I did not go to her funeral. I don’t remember now whether I was invited this time. Fourteen seems definitely old enough, to me, but then I’m inclined to think that six would have been fine, too.

All my life, until I was in my forties, I attended no funerals. Death was something that happened away from me, that was secret and silent, a result of the accumulation of time. By the time I did start attending funerals, it felt strange and otherworldly, and I suppose it was exactly that. It was about sending someone to another place, another state of being.

I was constantly shocked, at the funerals I found myself attending, how small the coffins were. These were for my maternal grandparents, who had died of old age, in unpleasant circumstances. My grandmother in life had been short but plump; my grandfather (not, in fact, my biological grandfather, but only the man with whom my grandmother had been living my whole life) had been tall but bent over as he aged. It was hard to see them confined, reduced, compressed, into these tiny boxes. But it was good to be there to see them off, to be part of the process and ceremony.

My parents had also shielded me from the deaths of pets as I grew up. When I was very little indeed, and we lived in a new house in Fremantle next door to the sprawling old pile where my grandparents lived, we had a little terrier of some sort, who was poisoned. Someone threw a a poisoned bait over our fence, intending to kill our dog. It shocks me to think about it even now. I don’t know if it was just our dog, or whether it was all the dogs in the area, or what. My parents were and remain upset about it. My mum still has a fear of baits. But I did not know the dog had died. It simply went away.

A few years later, now living in Wembley in my Pop and Nanna’s house, one time we had a puppy who was ill with, I think, something like distemper, that terrible scourge. I doted on the sick puppy, besotted, wishing I could help save it through the overwhelming power of a sad boy’s simple, uncomplicated love. One morning I found the puppy lying very still in its basket, and cold and unresponsive to the touch. That was odd. The poor wee thing had not been bursting with energy the night before, I knew that, but it had shown some response to touch. But this? I’d never seen this before.

I picked the puppy up–and it was stiff, solid, as if frozen. One thing I knew about puppies who are healthy is that they are like a warm and furry liquid you can almost pour. This puppy, on the other hand, was like a furry puppy-shaped piece of wood. It was the most astonishing, most puzzling thing I’d ever seen.

I didn’t understand the bleeding obvious.

I took the solid puppy to show Mum. Look, I said. What’s happened to the puppy?

Mum came closer to take a look with her weak eyes. Oh, Adrian, she said, because she understood what I didn’t. She took the frozen puppy and put it back in its bed, to let it rest, she said, and that she and Dad would sort it out when he got home.

Mum and Dad took care of these things all my life. They would head out the door with a terribly ill dog wrapped in a blanket, and come home later with an empty blanket, as if the dog had evaporated.

And by the time we had Pixel, a Blue Heeler/Kelpie cross with keenly intelligent eyes, a sharp turn of speed, and dappled black markings against a white coat, a dog who never quite got used to the idea that she had to share Michelle with me, who believed Michelle was hers alone, and would bite me sometimes if I indicated I believed otherwise. Who took the paint off our bedroom door trying to get in over a period of years.

Pixel was our first dog. Our first big responsibility for another life, and I was determined that when Pixel’s time came, we would be there, right there, in the room with her, no matter what, to see her off.

And we did. I would not say it was beautiful. It had its horrifying moments. I felt at all times like I would have to leave the room because I was crying so much, and quite possibly the vet might have liked that, but I was determined to stay and do everything I could for Pixel. We both were. And then, suddenly, the vet told us, putting a stethoscope away, “She’s gone.” Her eyes were no longer responsive. There was no more breath. Michelle kissed her forehead.