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.


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