Childhood was looser in the 80s. Kids snapped their bones in trees and rode their bikes off jetties. When I was a kid, Dad would stay in the car and let me buy his smokes – Benson and Hedges Ultra Mild. They came in a golden pack. Even though my nose was level with the box of liquorice straps on the counter and I was wearing a pink jumper with a koala pumping iron on it, the shopkeeper sold me the smokes. What used to be Benson and Hedges is now More, a cheap German cigarette, because Dad is saving money.
Dad’s once ginger hair is now white; the stress of Mum being sick has wrecked him. He stares at the magpies in the tree over the back fence and takes a long drag of More. In his hand is a glass of scotch; he jingles the ice cubes, his wedding ring finger folded inwards so that the fingernail rests against his glass. This is something that runs in my family – Dupuytren’s contracture, a shortening of the tendon in the hand that makes it impossible to straighten the fourth finger without surgery. I’m starting to notice it in myself. The osteopath says it points to Viking blood. Others call it Celtic Hand. So there’s Dad, with a raging case of Celtic Hand, staring at the magpies and nearly dropping dead from the stress of it all.
Dad picks me up from Perth Airport. Seeing him is a hard shock. Cancer has a way of dragging a family through hell, leaving them scorched, smouldering, with a fear of hospital waiting rooms, Arnott’s Family Assorted and public health waiting lists.
Dad rushes me out of the airport. As I walk in the direction of short-term parking, he points; ‘Car’s over here. In the courier bay. Little trick of mine.’
The car is Dad’s courier van, a one-tonne white rectangle that he uses to deliver goods to the outstretched hands of Perth. As soon as my backpack is in the back, he lights a cigarette. He turns on the air con – it’s only 7 am, but it’s going to be a scorcher. The van fills up with second-hand smoke. Dad puts The Police on the stereo, and I foolishly think that I will soon be napping on one of Mum’s handmade quilts.
Dad has no intention of taking me home. He has decided that I am his sidekick for the day’s work.
Dad has no intention of taking me home. He has decided that I am his sidekick for the day’s work. I find myself carrying boxes of dental supplies into a dentist in Forrest Chase, boxes of chips into outer suburban supermarkets, stationery to secretaries with high functioning ice addictions. About four hours in to my unpaid shift we make a delivery not far from Mum and Dad’s house, but he still keeps me.
My sister Jane is on the phone. ‘Where are you?’
‘Dad’s kidnapped me. He took me from the airport. And now he’s making me listen to The Police over and over. I’m dying. We just drove past Warwick.’
Forty-two degrees. We drive past the new arts centre being built in the city. It looks like it was made by a bee that ate too many blue M&M’s.
‘Look at this bleedin’ thing. Bloody eyesore that is. They coulda used the money it took to build that to fix up the Glory pitch.’
To illustrate his point Dad, former sweeper for second division Crystal Palace United, drives me past the dustbowl that is home to Perth’s soccer team. The pitch could be a film set for a zombie apocalypse.
One o’clock and we are in a traffic jam. I’m starving. All I’ve had to eat are some dodgy rice-paper rolls from an industrial estate canteen that I picked up while Dad was dropping off some paper. Dad reaches across the dashboard, picks up a dental flossing stick and proceeds to thoroughly clean his teeth. He takes great pride in his teeth, which are perfect. He urges me to try one. So there we are, with our Celtic hands, flossing our teeth.
The Police song plays:
Oh can’t you see
You belong to me?
How my poor heart aches with every step you take…
‘Dad. This song is about stalking you know.’
My Melbourne infused single origin smart-arsery pisses Dad off, and he changes the CD to Patsy Cline. I consider opening the door and making a break for it. My phone rings – it’s Jane again, still incredulous at my kidnapping and wanting to know if I will be home for tea.
Dad talks and talks. It’s out of character for him to talk this much, but we’re waiting to find out the date of Mum’s surgery and are all losing our minds. Mum copes the way she has always coped, through the medium of craft. Dad copes by chain smoking and flossing. Jane copes by pumping iron to George Michael’s ‘Freedom’. My other sister Ann, a doctor, copes by listening with enhanced empathy to heroin addicts as they try to con her into prescribing temazepam. I cope by dating bearded narcissistic men.
It’s out of character for Dad to talk this much, but we’re waiting to find out the date of Mum’s surgery and are all losing our minds.
I have a headache from all the smoke and Patsy Cline. We stop for lunch at a shopping centre and Dad talks about how big it is. ‘They’re building the biggest shopping centre in the southern ‘emisphere at Joondalup.’
Sometimes when I come home to visit, I feel like my family are trying to talk Perth up by regaling me with tales of peri-urban development, but what I miss about Perth is the beach and people not being wankers.
Dad eats hardly anything at lunch and says something about a sandwich in the car. He stops smoking and offers me a plum from a plastic bag.
‘Remember that time we had a potassium eating contest?’
The first time Mum was in remission, my parents moved to Mount Tamborine. There was a dingo farm at the bottom of the mountain and when a dingo howled the sound would spin up and out. I went to visit them, and it rained incessantly – we were stuck indoors for days.
It started with Dad eating a banana; I said, ‘I see your banana and I raise you this thickly applied vegemite on toast’. Then Dad and I started getting things out of the cupboards to read the potassium content in the ingredients. That stay ended with Mum clenching an embroidery hoop and screaming at me, ‘I love you to distraction. Selfish little shit.’
As we deliver a carton of cigarettes, my true nature shines forth and I ask Dad how much the box I am carrying is worth. ‘About eight thousand’, he says, and I think: we should steal this. We could sell them on the black market and use the money for Mum’s operation. But I don’t mention my plan to Dad – I’ve never known him to steal anything, except in childhood anecdotes where he went scrumping or stole the brake blocks from his sister’s bike.
As we drop off the cigarettes at a pub, I notice Dad’s legs. His once strong soccer legs, capable of snapping an opponent’s shin, are now those of an old man. Bleeding scabs and liver spots. My parents are old.
His once strong soccer legs, capable of snapping an opponent’s shin, are now those of an old man.
We finally make it home. Dad stops on the way to buy More and some nectarines. Mum puts down the quilt she is appliquéing to hug me hello, and to greet Dad whose face is puffed. ‘Just gonna ‘ave a quick shower, love,’ Dad’s voice trails off.
Mum looks at me. ‘There’s cheese in the fridge.’
Mum is admitted to hospital the next day. At dusk, after visiting hours have ended, Dad and I drive home from Joondalup in silence. A fox runs in front of the car. When we get home, Dad pours us both a whiskey and we sit outside staring at the bushland.
That night my father and I begin a serious dart contest that lasts several nights. Mum is in hospital. The dart board is on the brick wall outside the house. The stress of Mum maybe dying results in us deciding to apply Olympic rules to our dart game. We look up on the internet how far back we have to stand (236.86 centimetres) from the face of the dartboard which we measure with a measuring tape I find in Mum’s craft corner. Dad teaches me cockney dart scores like ‘bag o nuts’. Over several nights we play, drink, fight, laugh and cry.
Five years have passed; Mum survived and is making a quilt. Dad retired, has liver complications and is growing heirloom tomatoes. Jane just competed in Tough Mudder and Ann works in an inner city drug clinic. I have stopped dating unsuitable men.
Sitting here, I look at the shortening tendon in my hand and it occurs to me that maybe, just maybe, my Celtic hand has evolved to hold a dart.