I’ve known him since we were thirteen
and in high school together
he used to trail around behind me chanting
You’ve got a moustache! He loved me even then.
Applied in writing to my father
for permission to take me to the school dance:
I guarantee to have your daughter home
by ten o’clock, yours faithfully, Denis Brown.
Smoked against his parents’ wishes in the days
when disobedience was not tolerated
and justice was dealt out with a buckled belt.
One day he was puffing away safely, he thought
at the tennis and was spotted by his stepfather
who was watching at home on TV.
Met the train at Moonah, belted Denis,
That’ll teach you to try and deceive me!
My real father wouldn’t be like that, he told me,
with venom. I knew that real fathers would
but tried to comfort him. You’ll find your Dad one day.
and he did, by proxy; Harry Burwood Britain Brown,
who ran away with his baby son in ‘49
when his marriage ended. They caught him, locked him up
he later went to Perth and killed himself.
We saw the photos, from the old aunties,
and the official studio portrait with the Koori edited out.
I’ll send this one to Mum with a note saying I know
you would rather he had looked like this.
Denis is not a forgiving man.
My father loved him. He was the son Dad wanted
after six daughters. And he’s worth ten
of those university bastards put together
Dad said, referring to his other sons-in-law.
The mystery of our marriage remains just that.
I’m never going to let anyone hurt you
ever again was his proposal. At the time
it sounded all right to me.
There were good times when he was happy
would play his violin or sing Caruso or Beniamino Gigli,
lay bricks or shovel concrete with my father
while I, retired at last from being a builder’s labour
all my childhood, lay on the bed and read.
Quite suddenly it seemed, we had three children
(two sick ones) we wanted seven
but I’d lost heart and faith by then. We grieved
in silence, our losses heaped between us
like a reo concrete wall.
He had a penchant for invention, you never knew
what next. There was the time we had
the backyard full of old washing machines,
that was the sheepskin tanning phase
and then there was his shit-driven engine:
run out of fuel in the middle of the street
and hey presto you’re on your way again.
He’s kept up his preoccupation with shit, it seems,
His latest, Becky tells me, is a wonderful new invention
for use in hospital loos.
Why? Why? he cried when I was leaving.
If I don’t, I’ll die, was all that I could say.
He married again last January. Now he has
6 kids – 5 teenagers and a baby – no wonder
he’s going bald. His new wife Margaret
is such a kindred spirit; they brought the baby
to us a week after she was born.
Will she have curly hair? we wondered,
looking at her auburn fuzz.
Well Denis has, said Margaret, and your hair
is quite wavy. But I’m the ex-wife,
my genes don’t count. No, I suppose not,
she said slowly, but she didn’t sound so sure.
It’s like Joliffe’s Outback down there at Lucaston
kids visit at weekends, come back grimy,
clothes in tatters, with hair-raising yarns.
Mick – the youngest – goes shooting and drives the ute,
it’s got no brakes and only one forward gear.
Just don’t tell me, I remember only too well
them swinging off the third-floor framing
or using power tools at age five or six.
Don’t saw the cord was the only instruction
their father ever gave.
He is nothing if not enterprising and his kids
are just the same. One day while he was off in Huonville
for smokes and a game of snooker they mixed
a batch of concrete and built a king-size cubby
with most of the house bricks. His only comment
was that they hadn’t designed it properly
because the chimney didn’t draw.
One week later he sawed up all the pine
for the internal cladding into 4-inch lengths
to make ashtrays to sell to tourists.
The idea didn’t catch on.
I have my memories too: the time
he filled the generator while it was running
cigarette hanging from his lip.
I sat up all night that time
treating him for burns and shock.
Last cracker night, Mick says, Dad got aviation fuel
for the bonfire, heaped up tyres, stood downhill
and hurled it on. Some ran into the holes
in his sandshoes, he went up like a torch.
He had to jump into the dam. We cracked up laughing,
it was the best bonfire night we’d ever had.
Then there was the day he drove the beehives
up to Gilbert’s in the ute, twelve kilometres
up a dirt road. He opened up one of the hives
to see how the bees were getting on when he got there –
this time he cleared two fences with the bees after him
and took a header into Gilbert’s dam.
Gilbert rolled on the ground laughing. I am
indignant. He could have been hurt!
I’ll say, Bec added, he dived in on top
of a snake that was swimming in the dam.
By Terry Whitebeach.
Published in Bird Dream, Penguin, 1993.