Cholera tornado

There is a last time for everything, and sometimes I get scared when I think a ‘last time’ is drawing close. The last time I said I loved my father? I can’t tell you when it was. I think I stopped saying it in my twenties, when we still caught up for dinner every few weeks on a Friday night. For a long time I still felt that love weighing heavy on my lonely heart. It was definitely there; I just couldn’t tell him anymore. All through my childhood our telephone calls would end, routinely, with ‘Lah-voo.’ It was so casual it just rolled off the tongue anytime we spoke. Despite this frequent frankness, I only ever saw him cry at my great-grandfather’s funeral when I was 4 – and only because I cried. I was a little angel in small white shoes with caramel blonde hair, a tear running down her porcelain-white face. He was a muscular man in his prime who usually bested his countless foes: his orphanage bully; other towtruck drivers vying for the same job; cancer.

My favourite game as a child was playing cards with him. He taught me the basics of blackjack, 500, and solitaire. He called it patience, but he had none. He would often wait until I’d nearly won and then trump me with his wild cards, then laugh when I had a tantrum. One particular time like that, I told him I hated him. His temper turned like the flames in our loungeroom fireplace, a square cut out of the wall with a handmade metal frame he welded in his shed. He snatched our cards into his busted fist – fingers off-centre, fingers that I used to tape nightly to a metal frame he made after crushing his hand on a job. He flung the cards into the fire where they browned and burned. That was the last I saw of the seventies-style nudie girl deck; smiling eyelined women with long teased hair, huge nipples and perfect breasts, thatches of pubic hair. I can laugh now at the two sides of him. His charisma and his temper. The advantages of being his daughter, and the drawbacks. The life I had as his child, and the life I lead now without him.

Dad was born in 1949 to a woman named Winifred. I used to have a tiny black and white portrait of her at thirteen, encased in a yellowed cardboard wrap-around holder. Her eyes were too serious for the rest of her face, which depicted delightful pixie mischief. At thirteen I felt like a failure at everything I attempted to do. Basketball. Socialising. Being a beautiful daughter. Win’s husband Joseph John, nicknamed Jack, was stocky, strong, and heavy-handed. Dad spent at least a few of his pre-teen years at a boy’s home in Auckland, the city where he was born. When I was about 7 or 8 I would beg him to tell me all about it. I never got a straight story which made it exciting each time he finally gave in and started to remember, laying on our brown velour couches and his big red cushion. He said that the staff there included a young man named Sonny who hated him in particular. Sonny loved it when Dad misbehaved, and would punish him by tearing the bottom of his earlobes away from his jaw. The flesh would heal and Sonny wait to tear the wound again. He loved telling this story. Loved. Telling. This. Story.

Dad migrated to Australia at roughly 20 years old. He said he had 40 cents in his pocket when he got off the plane. He rarely raised the fact that he left behind an ex-wife and two sons barely out of nappies. His younger friend from the boy’s home, Malcolm, followed a few years later. Dad thought of himself as a mentor to my Uncle Mal, who was reed-thin and somehow smoked even more than Dad. When they caught up it was serious talk only – work, tow trucks, driving, speedway. No playing with my girls’ toys, no riding bikes with me. It was smoking in the lounge, or smoking in the shed. I see movies now where the epitome of luxurious socialising involves great indulgences in wine, food, laughter. I never saw them drink together, and neither of them ate very much. Dad loathed fat people. He delighted in shouting at them in public. Once at Hungry Jack’s, he berated the teenage boy behind the counter for serving the two women preceding us. They were hamburger princesses, he proclaimed, and needed to be banned from the store.

None of these events involved any alcohol. His mood swings were not under the influence. To the contrary, I loved him even more when he was drinking. He’s a Gemini, did I tell you that? He was so light-hearted, so free. A joker who loved to take his clothes off, chase people around, jump naked into swimming pools. He never took offence at any remarks, even the ones about his shrinking manhood. A celebratory event was a relief for me, if not slightly embarrassing for my mother, who watched on with her arms folded and shook her head. Yes, she would drive him home. No, she would not get him another drink, or buy him any more cigarettes. She only had her grocery money, and if he wanted more treats he could buy them himself.

My first memory of hiding from my father’s sober temper was one morning before school when I was about 5. I was dressed in my school uniform – green and yellow shirt with a train on the chest – and I hid under my bed. It was a dark reddish-brown piece, with a pastel pink Pierrot bedspread, and woven cane forming little hexagons in the bedhead. I had a matching dresser with 6 drawers, all neatly inlaid with scented paper. I was also meant to have a matching wardrobe, but Dad said it was all made by Minda, and when he went to collect the set someone had accidentally sold the wardrobe separately. Later that week when he was having a lie down in his bedroom, I asked him to promise me he would never get mad again. He said he would try, but he couldn’t promise me that. I hated his yelling the most. It was deep and fierce, forceful, enraged. And usually accompanied by the shattering of random kitchen items. Coffee and sugar jars were normally the first to go, as they were always out on the chipboard bench and within easy reach. After that, any dishes drying in the rack, and once I think some canisters on top of the fridge were sideswiped and flew towards the bathroom door. From there, things could go to the lounge or the bedroom. Years later I was using the telephone in Mum and Dad’s bedroom to talk to my best friend, and I heard things start up in the lounge; I told her to wait while I put my hand over the receiver. I was pretty sure the lounge room coffee table splintered in half, but I can’t remember seeing it in pieces. It was probably turfed straight into the open fireplace so nobody would have to talk about cleaning up this time. Two glass windows looked out from the lounge over the hill that descended below and led down to the Murray River. Two glassy blue eyes, forlorn and looking out for someone to please, come; please, stop him from getting angry again.

When I was sick Dad would make me Milo in my special cup. It was shimmery and holographic, peachy pink on the outside and pearly white on the inside. It tapered in a little as it got to the base. The handle was quite thick and it felt safe. I only ever used it when I was home from school for being too sick, and Dad was home at the same time, which was rare. I used to get sick quite often. I had huge tonsils and brothers with asthma, but for some reason no doctor suggested removing my tonsils until I was 16. In the meantime Mum put ‘No Smoking’ stickers on the doors for guests to take a hint. Some ignored it. It was a time when smoking in restaurants was still normal; when people who sat in non-smoking sections incurred Dad’s wrath. He would keep smoking until they left. The man was physically dominant and worked as a scrap trader, driving to yard sales hours away and offering his services for free – or for a fee, if he could manage to talk some unknowing property owner into forking out for the favour.

One night I woke up in my bed and didn’t know what time it was. I couldn’t go back to sleep – I tried and tried, but I was all alone in the dark night. I was about six years old, so I did the only things I really knew how to do. I read books, of which I had many. I cuddled my teddy bears, of which I also had many. And when none of those worked, I cried. I heard Dad wake up and his feet swing out from the bed, trudge down the hallway and peer into my room. I was so relieved. He would help me sleep. He stood in the doorway to my room but didn’t come in. ‘Get your pillow,’ he said. And I got my pillow. Were we going to the lounge to watch the telly together? No – it wasn’t summer; it was far too cold outside. In summer sometimes we would watch the cricket matches late at night, when the air in the house was still and the brick walls were still radiating heat. There was no fan in the house, no air conditioning. Just windows. We would set up the small electric fans next to us on the couch, and I would suck on iceblocks while he smoked his Winfield Reds. But on this night there was no cricket and no fans; instead he locked me out of the house.

The last time I remember being in that house was the last week of May, in 2000. It was just after his 51st birthday. It was a blessing; a tornado falling on a village riddled with cholera. It all happened at night time, like most of the significant events of my life. I don’t remember what we had for dinner. My parents had gradually become so silently hostile toward each other that we were probably all eating in separate rooms. I was in my room, reading in bed. My half-brother, an on-off again drug addict who probably has fewer kind memories of our father than I do, was in his bedroom. For a few weeks he’d been with us, under Dad’s eye, supposedly to detox. He announced to Dad that he wanted to go back to his mother’s house; that he’d had enough of living with us. I knew the feeling. The wind often whistled through the front door, a dimpled glass number with a white wooden frame. The handle needed squeezing if you wanted to leave quietly, otherwise it would squeak like a rat and announce your intentions to everyone else in the house. I left through that door in a rush with my mother and half-brother somewhere around nine o’clock that night, barefoot and moving quickly through the dark to get away from the danger. The threat that could no longer be predicted or reasoned with. The torrent of hate that was trapped in my father’s body still rages, just against different people now. I wish I could save him, and them. But I can’t. All at once, and for such a long time, he was the best and worst person I’d ever known.

Dad taught me how to fight once. Well, a few times, but one stays in my memory most of all. I came home from school and announced that I wasn’t going back; I was too petrified to return. A popular and pretty girl from high school had declared war on me. Mum didn’t have any solutions I thought would work with this girl, who just wanted to fight. So I walked up our long, dusty and rocky driveway up to Dad’s shed. I passed the bamboo at the crest of the hill, where you can stand and watch the semi-trailers breezing past in the evening. Then I kept going up to the shed at the side of the road. The huge corrugated sliding doors opened up onto the road. He’d work in that shed while blue skies faded to night, with the air warm and clear, the cigarette smoke a shadowy grey against his permanently tanned, deeply-lined face. He taught me not to be scared, and to stand my ground, and to defend, and then to advance. Not to think of others, just to think of myself. He laughed when I would faithfully repeat his code: ‘Don’t trust anyone,’ he would say. ‘Not even you’, I would return. At his instruction.