23B: DOWN AND OUT IN TRIGG BEACH
My dearest son–
Listen. I have so much to tell you. And right now it’s so cold where I am and I feel so awful I can hardly hold this pen. My hand is killing me, so please excuse all the cross-outs and rips in the paper. Try and imagine how it looks in my imagination, not how shabby it looks in your grown-up hand.
That’s still spinning me round like a record, that the Robbie who’s reading this is older than I am right now. That is doing my head in. But it also gives me an idea I’ve been thinking about. I’ll come back to it in a bit. I have some urgent news first. Things you need to know.
FIRST: Your mum and I appear to be over, son. I’m so sorry. It’s my fault. It’s entirely my fault. I take full blame. Do not blame your beautiful, wonderful mother one bit. She’s been trying to find a way to love me despite this injury to our union for weeks now, and now we are done.
It’s impossible to explain, yet also only too simple. There was a woman. Her name was Fiona. We had been seeing each other. Your mum found out–I think Fiona told her, in fact. She–
I’ve just got home from my visit to the Time Capsule vault. I’ve made a light dinner, and a cup of tea, and now I’m sitting on my couch, rugged up against the grip of cold this winter night, slogging through my dad’s huge letter. It’s all in his typical BLOCK CAPS style, with things not simply crossed out but Marked For Death. The pages stink of dead cigarettes and hopelessness. It’s only too easy to imagine him sitting up for long hours at night writing all this, his face screwed up, trying, somehow, to convey his truth to me, his side of the story.
But even so, this bit about a woman named Fiona–what!?
I sit with this information for a long while as the rain pounds on the roof. Fiona again. She keeps showing up. She’s a woman on a mission. I thought of my dad, a man in dreadful pain but unable to express it, not even to his own wife, who one day happens somehow to meet a woman who seems to simply understand what he’s thinking. As if she can read his mind. As if they’re kindred souls. It doesn’t even matter what she looks like: for Dad it’s a meeting of minds. At last someone who knows him without his having to say a word. A glance, a gesture, a touch, and she simply knows what he means. And she knows him so well because she’s read about him in my notebook.
Because, now I’m aware of this, I can feel the whole sorry saga unfolding in my teenage memories, the time Mum and Dad split up because Dad had an affair with a woman named Fiona. It over-writes what I had previously understood about my teenage history. Even now, as I sit here, writing this in my journal, it feels like this is what happened. My recollection of Mum and Dad staying together into their old age is fading.
What about Mum and Dad becoming filthy rich from investing in computers?
I look across the room at the dining table where I left the stack of Dad’s books. They’re still there. He and Mum split up, but they maintained their investments.
Who got Zonk?
What was I going to do about bloody Fiona? Should I meet her? Should I talk to the police, even just to talk? Just to get some advice? That sounds like a harmless enough thought. But what if a harmless impulse gets Robbie killed? That’s the thing. He’s caught in a web where pulling on one outside string causes the centre to tighten unto death. Absolutely anything, action or inaction, could kill him.
Where was she hiding Robbie? I was planning a trip to the property where, in 1979, Detective Lockley found Fiona’s station wagon.
I’m still holding the sheaf of stinking, ragged pages of Dad’s letter. My hands are shaking. I haven’t touched my tea. My guts are knotted up. I can hardly bear to read his confession.
Fiona understood me like water understands sunlight. She was the most remarkable woman I ever met. I would have married her. Not because I loved her. I didn’t love her. It was more than that. With her I never needed to speak or articulate what I felt or thought. She simply understood. She anticipated what I might think. It was remarkable. She and I were key and lock. It was much more than mere love. It was kismet.
I never understood why she told your mother about it.
Whereas I understood only too well, knowing Fiona as I did. Fiona is and was on a mission. Her goal has always been to burn down the world, and specifically the world of us, those of us who had anything to do with her. She is out to destroy our family. Her anger is less an explosion that erupts and happens and is over, and more a burning star. She can burn for billions of years, and then devour the entire solar system. She is a virago. She is Medea. She is every woman who has ever felt profoundly wronged and sought bloody, epic revenge, even knowing before she begins that revenge is a hollow thing that provides no satisfaction in the end. It doesn’t matter. What does matter is the burning, the destruction. Fiona does not intend to survive this experience.
But she did, and your mum told me that she knew. She was very quiet and calm about it. Your mum has always been like that when she is most angry. A flame that burns cold. She sat me down, and told me about how she met Fiona while shopping in Woolies. Fiona came up to her in the meat section, and just came out with it, the way you might comment on the weather or the cricket. She said, “I’ve been fucking Phil for three months. Bit of a dud, eh?” And she smiled, just two girls gossiping, sharing a bit of a joke.
Your mum repeated this line to me, whispering it, slowly, word by word, a piece at a time, as if shooting at me, taking her time with a revolver to make sure of her aim. It was precise. And each round hit me in the heart, deeper and deeper with each shot. I used to think I lived in my heart, that it was my fortress, with its thick muscular walls and fibrous interior. I lived in there, hiding away from the world inside the organ of feeling, alone with my thoughts and emotions, in my own world.
That world is now gone.
I now live in my car. I am writing this to you in my car. I am parked at Trigg Beach, in the carpark. Right in front of me is the Surf Life Saving Club building.
It’s been three days. I go to work each day, and come here at night. Food is hard. If I need to make a phone call, I have to walk to a phone box just up the road a bit, but for that I need coins. Money is hard. Clothes is hard. I have about a week’s worth of clean washing, then I need to find a laundromat. But that means coins, too. I have to use the phone box to talk to your mother about bills, the mortgage, the car loans, God, so much STUFF!
I’m cold, son. I’ve got blankets, but it’s not enough. I dare not run the car heater because I’ll flatten the battery.
I’m sorry, son. I am ashamed. I am ashamed.
I can’t bear it. It’s intolerable. And I’m not even finished yet. There’s more after this. There are marks on the paper that can only be tear-stains. The hand-writing is shockingly bad. He’s in terrible distress. I could imagine him taking his life, reading this. He is deep in the abyss. Not standing on the edge staring down into it and finding that it stares back, but abseiled deep down into the stygian interior. He’s on his own.
No, that’s not right. He’s got me. I realise that I, sitting here on my old IKEA couch, am the only thing keeping my dad alive, nearly four decades ago. The thought gives me chills.
Then I have a thought. Trigg Beach. Hmm. Something unfolds in my head. I look at the stack of Dad’s books. I get up and go over and look through them. There’s a set of four, a memoir in four parts, each volume short and pithy, published by Picador Modern Classic, no less, with moody black and white photographic covers. Review quote on the cover of the first volume: “Deserves comparison with Orwell.”
The first volume is titled, DOWN AND OUT IN TRIGG BEACH.
And then I see it. The photo is not some stock image. It’s a Polaroid of Dad’s yellow Monaro at Trigg Beach, in the carpark.
This is it. This is the moment Dad becomes an author. It’s his crucible.
My hands shaking, I open the book.
“Dedicated to my son Robert, so much older and wiser than I”.
Mouth dry, I turn to the first page, the first lines. “The best thing I ever did was the time I destroyed my life.”
Oh, Dad, I thought, sitting at the table, aware again of my brain fizzing as it reconfigures itself to make room for several years of new memories of me looking after a man who definitely did not want to be looked after, of flicking back and forth in time to bring him things which after a great deal of negotiation he would allow me to bring him. Black notebooks, not too fancy, pens, fresh fruit, hot coffee, coins for the laundromat and phone box. He sometimes let me bring him new clothes, as long as they came from op-shops. He hated the shaming thought of his son helping him. He managed to stay in various jobs over the years, which was lucky. His skills were always in demand. He had to move to other carparks over time as well. Local councils, when they found out he was camping in their carparks, forced him to move along. We spent a lot of time in correspondence with those councils, protesting the injustices, and I helped him with that.
At length, he completed that first book. I helped him prepare the manuscript. We had many huge, loud arguments about pissy little details. But it got done, and we started submitting it. Eventually it found a home with a local small-press, a specialist niche publisher with a focus on Western Australian writing.
And then, as they say, a miracle happened. The book appeared, to modest reviews and even more modest sales. But Dad got invited to the Perth Writers Festival. Where he shone. He told the blunt, honest, disarming truth about his life. By then he was living in an old caravan in my front yard, in the future. He still hated being helped, but he also hated poverty. We were forever negotiating over what he would allow me to help with and what he would not.
The Perth Writers Festival appearance led to other invitations to appear and speak, and to newspaper interviews. He became a passionate advocate for homeless people. Sales picked up. His publisher started asking about a follow-up volume.
But then, shortly before he was due to appear for an important interview in Sydney, he had a major breakdown instead, and was referred to a psychiatrist, who admitted him to a hospital for treatment.