You learn things in life, don’t you, whether you like it or not. God, it’s awful.
I’m eleven years old. Our father fills the bath with cold water, orders me to dump a tray of ice cubes into it, and tells my older brother Patrick to strip off his clothes. Our father is tall, angular and taciturn; a man accustomed to being obeyed by his family, if no one else. His crucial error is to mistake disdain for respect. He has a stopwatch in one hand.
‘We’ll see what you’re made of,’ he sniffs.
I stand in the dim hallway looking up at him, listening intently to his instructions; I know they will be issued only once and I risk a clip around the ear if I ask him to repeat them. Our little sister Janet lingers in the doorway with a strand of hair in her mouth, staring, like always. She’s only nine. Our mother is out somewhere. My brother’s face is grim but stoic as he realises what is about to happen. It is mid-winter. Rain is drumming on the roof. It dawns on me that I will remember this afternoon for the rest of my life.
Our father is adamant that Patrick and I be toughened up. He has devised a variety of techniques to ensure we will never be the slightest bit girly. When we play soccer in the backyard, for instance, he never allows us to win because that doesn’t happen in the real world. He refuses to help us up if we fall down. (‘Self-inflicted,’ he says. ‘No crying. Stand up, little man.’) Years earlier – and this is embarrassing – I faltered one cold night in my toilet training and our father took me outside, yanked off my pyjamas and hosed me down as a method of instruction.
Our father doesn’t drink, doesn’t smoke and thinks those who do are damn fools. He has no time for sentimentality, and the few jokes he utters are usually at someone’s expense. The world is a harsh place and it’s his job to equip his sons the best way he knows how. After all, it was good enough for him; we could do a lot worse than turn out like he did. Little does he know exactly what this will entail.
The bath test and the toilet training happened long before the accident, of course. Afterwards, he wouldn’t have dared.
There is a lot packed into a kiss. Even now, years later, it is one particular kiss I remember as the defining moment of my life. It wasn’t even a kiss given or received by me, but one I glimpsed from a darkened hallway. It was at that moment that I realised a kiss is never only between the two people concerned; there are always others, out beyond the footlights, unseen.
The afternoon of the kiss was a hot Sunday, ten years after our father’s accident. Everything became so horribly clear that I blushed not only at my own naivety, but at the thought that everyone else in the street probably realised what had been going on all this time in my parents’ house. It was a good, middle-class area that kept its reputation trimmed by the brisk, constantly whirring blades of gossip. People must have suspected something. What had they seen that I, unbelievably, had missed? Did they think I was in some way implicated?
I was twenty-one that summer, in many ways still an innocent. I had started going out with a pleasant, bovine girl called Julie who did deliveries for the bike shop where I worked on weekends. My brother Patrick was taller than me, more athletic, much better looking and possessed a roguish charm that invariably attracted the type of girl willing to do things nice girls were not. He played guitar. He had been born missing the tip of the little finger on his left hand, a disfigurement that, curiously, heightened his appeal rather than diminished it, as it might have done in other boys. My brother also had a competitive streak that prohibited him from gaining any real pleasure from his success with girls or sport. He could be cruel, as I knew only too well: he forgot people’s names on purpose; he mimicked people mercilessly behind their backs; he told vicious jokes about neighbours and classmates; he had long called me ‘Mr Einstein’, on account of my interest in the great physicist’s theories of time and space.
But this. This kiss. The knowledge of it almost made me swoon with its dark power. I thought of Robert Oppenheimer, and the dismal thrill the American must have felt upon discovering the technology for The Bomb. Like all discoveries, the information had been there all along, for years, waiting for someone to figure it out.
After witnessing this particular kiss – when I had sufficiently composed myself – I eased away from the study doorway, crept down the hallway to the lounge room, gathered my jacket and bag and left without saying goodbye to anyone. Long after the gnashing implements were out of earshot, I heard the snip snip snip of garden shears as our father hobbled about the backyard.
It seemed that everyone changed in the months after our father’s accident, or that the entire family was reorganised in a way that was never clear to me. I felt I had lived through a revolution or natural disaster, where everything was different – but in ways too seismic to define. Our mother took up smoking, for a start, and became dry-witted and elegant. She began to say things like: Oh, that’s marvellous, or Sweetie, please don’t do that, I have a headache, while sitting on the couch in the afternoon, flicking through a glossy magazine. It seemed, in fact, that our mother had barely existed until the moment of our father’s accident. Even her name, Marie, which had seemed rather pedestrian before, assumed a more cinematic quality. She took to wearing lipstick around the house and having afternoon ‘kips’, a concept she had picked up from an American magazine. At first – in addition to everything else that had happened – it was somewhat disconcerting, but Patrick and me both came to like this new persona. In addition, she became the type of parent the other kids probably talked about at home with their own, more mundane families; it was a low-grade, schoolyard celebrity, like the Cambodian kid Nam whose brother had been shot by communists.
People admired our mother when she came to pick Patrick and I up from school. She had fallen pregnant with my brother when she was only seventeen, which made her thirty-one at the time. Our father was ten years older. She was still attractive and the other fathers paid her quite a bit of attention. I didn’t mind, but Patrick became furious if she flirted too long with Mr Jacobs and he refused to speak to her when we returned home. When this happened, our mother would expend considerable effort coaxing him from the cave of his mood, fetching treats from the pantry and swearing to behave herself in future. Come on, darling. There! Have an Iced Vo Vo.
Patrick changed as well. He emerged from the night of the accident into another, more restless person. He was fourteen, so he was hardly old, but now he refused to accompany me around the neighbourhood to see whose fruit trees we might climb. No more hide-and-seek. He even took to calling our mother Marie, rather than Mother or Mum, a practice she did nothing to discourage, even though our father disapproved.
Patrick and I still shared a room, and sometimes I would lie awake and stare at his sleeping profile, hoping to detect a clue to his sudden alteration. After all, it wasn’t like the accident had befallen him. Sometimes he prowled through the house at night and occasionally even slept elsewhere, on the couch in the living room, or on the daybed in our father’s study. On the single instance I crept after him, he turned in the hallway, wordlessly pressed a hand to my chest and shook his head in such a way that discouraged me from following him ever again. ‘Back off, Mr Einstein,’ he hissed.
Our father was a captain in the army. Before the accident, he liked to talk authoritatively at barbecues about immigration policy and ‘covert actions’ in South-East Asia, as if he were privy to secret information. But he merely shuffled bits of paper from one office to the next and overheard rumours in the canteen, along with everyone else who worked in his building. He had joined the army with the boyish hope of being sent overseas to some exotic war zone to battle terrorists or communists though he had never been closer to genuine military action than manoeuvres in Darwin one year, and he certainly wouldn’t be deployed now, considering his age – not to mention his injury.
His own father, our grandfather, had been in the army and had been bitter about being sent away to shoot people in Vietnam. Our father was bitter that he never had the opportunity to shoot at anyone. He was simply a public servant with a fancy uniform. If asked about his foot injury, he mumbled something about a ‘hunting mishap’, which was technically true, I suppose. Naturally, the accident changed our father most of all.
The morning of the accident was wet and frosty. I heard our father moving about in the bathroom next door. Patrick slept on in his bed on the other side of our room, blissfully unaware until our father burst in and roused each of us with a slap to the side of our heads. ‘Come on, lads,’ he said. ‘We move out in ten minutes.’
The car interior was almost as cold as it was outside. Our father didn’t believe in excessive comfort. Besides, we were rugged up. We were going hunting; there was no point getting too cosy. In the back seat, I breathed on the glass and drew a face in the damp, silvery fog.
Our father had been promising to take us hunting for some time, but my excitement at the prospect of shooting a real rifle was tempered with guilt. Our mother thought we were too young for such an expedition. She didn’t really approve of shooting animals for sport, either – objections our father disdainfully overruled.
‘My old man used to take me out here when I was about your age,’ our father was saying to Patrick, who was sitting beside him in the front seat.
Our father didn’t usually speak unless necessary, and only then in a clipped manner that suggested he was keen to be done with talking as soon as he had made his point. But now I recognised in his voice the tone he reserved for speeches on ‘The state of the economy’, ‘The difference between men and women’, or ‘How to tell the ABC has been overrun by lefties’.
From the back seat, sitting directly behind our father, I could see my brother’s face in profile. Patrick was weirdly lit in the alien glow from the dashboard lights, so that his skin appeared dusted with green phosphorescence. A crescent-shaped scar was visible on his right cheek where he had fallen during a game of chasey years earlier. Patrick inclined his head slightly to show he was listening. I knew he hated these little homilies, but endured them with the same stoicism he marshalled for the occasional strapping across the leg for misbehaviour. He was a serious boy, introspective, given to harbouring grudges – all of which I dimly knew on this cold morning. I loved and admired my brother, even though he intimidated me slightly, because it seemed that, should it ever become necessary, he would get by very well without any of us, me included.
Our father changed gears and slowed the car to cross a railway line.
‘You never really knew your grandfather, but he was a great man. Really, a great man.’ The car bobbled over the tracks. ‘I loved those trips. Just me and him. The men, you know. ’Course, we used to eat the rabbits. Take them home for mum to cook. Make nice stews, she did.’
I listened over the thrum of the car’s engine. Although directed at Patrick, I knew our father’s speeches were intended for anyone within earshot. My own memories of our grandfather were vague: a grizzled muzzle; the smell of urine; a wing of grey, greasy hair pasted across his forehead. Patrick and I were both slightly fearful of the late widower, who had lived nearby and visited every few days to have dinner and watch television. Although our father had often extolled his virtues and urged us to respect him, neither Patrick nor I had ever felt comfortable with him and we’d avoided being alone with him. When he died a year earlier, our mother told us – as she told all family members and visitors – not to mention our grandfather’s name in our father’s presence in case we upset him.
‘When I was your age,’ our father was saying, ‘we used to lay traps. Caught a wild dog once. Stupid thing. Those traps were hard to set. Always a chance of getting snagged . . . ’
I stopped listening and wiped my bleary window clean with the sleeve of my duffle coat. My nose ran with the cold. I thought of my warm bed, and of our mother, who would by now be standing at the kitchen window in her dressing gown, drinking tea with the serious expression she adopted for her morning ritual. Janet would be playing with her teddy on the lounge room floor. The image prompted in me a flood of wild, helpless love, and suddenly I wished I were at home with them instead of sitting in this freezing car. A kookaburra on a wire fence watched us pass.
‘…and I guess,’ our father was saying when I tuned in again, ‘I guess that the thing I would hope for us – for you boys and me – is that you would respect me like I respected my father. That’s why sometimes I’m hard on you. That’s all. It’s for your own good, you know.’
It was the most personal speech I had ever heard our father make and I was amazed to detect a quaver of emotion in his voice. Neither Patrick nor I said anything, but my brother reached a hand over and patted our father gently on the shoulder. ‘It’s okay,’ he said, and turned to me in the back seat. ‘We understand, don’t we, Nick?’ I mumbled agreement. For the next hour we drove in companionable silence, as if we had used all the words allocated us for the morning.
We arrived at an isolated car park at around nine o’clock and piled out of the car. We unloaded the rifles and knapsacks and set out immediately for the campsite, which was two kilometres across a grassy stretch of bushland. The frosty grass crunched beneath our boots and our hot exhalations billowed around us in the glinting morning sunlight. Small birds darted about in the high grass. I felt anxious, as if my guts were aware of something hidden from the more articulate parts of myself, but perhaps that is just how I remember it.
Waking in the half-light, I slid from the couch. Richie Benaud was calling the cricket in a droning voice that sounded like a small plane perpetually losing altitude. It was hot and I had staggered over to the couch and fallen asleep after the Sunday roast our mother organised every few weeks. By this time, I had moved out of home and was undertaking a degree in physics. Patrick had stayed on while he tried to be a rock star. The lunches were always desultory affairs peppered with small talk, and afterwards each of us dissolved into different parts of the house, like water seeping into a sponge.
Half asleep, I followed murmuring voices and found my mother and Patrick huddled at the study window watching our father as he limped across the lawn doing odd jobs in the garden. Our father didn’t know he was being observed, just as Patrick and Mother were unaware of me standing in the doorway to the darkened study. As they so often did, they were giggling at a private joke.
Although only twenty-three, two years older than me, Patrick seemed to live in another world entirely – a world to which, curiously, our mother had access. At that moment she had a cigarette in her right hand, and the elbow of that arm was cupped in the palm of her other hand. She turned her face away from Patrick and exhaled the grey smoke up into the study’s cool corners.
‘Look at him,’ she was saying, referring to our father as he struggled to raise himself from where he had been kneeling to weed a garden bed.
‘An old man in a dry month.’ She had been drinking wine at lunch.
Patrick didn’t say anything. She offered him her cigarette. He took it casually, barely noticing, drew on it and handed it back. I had never before seen my brother smoke a cigarette. It shocked me.
‘Do you ever regret what happened?’ our mother asked him.
Patrick exhaled his cigarette smoke, shaking his head. He looked at our mother, as if something had occurred to him. ‘Why? Do you?’
Mother rested her head on Patrick’s shoulder and laughed. ‘Hardly, darling. Hardly.’
And then the kiss.
Our father tells Patrick the cold water is excellent for his circulation. He smiles his smile that shows no teeth. ‘It’s only three minutes. You don’t even have to put your head under, like when I had to do it.’
I watch Patrick silently take off his clothes. He goes about it slowly and thoughtfully, as if memorising each movement for later use. He leaves his watch on. The watch belonged to our grandfather – he acquired it in Vietnam – and he gave it to Patrick not long before he died, much to our father’s chagrin. Our father said our grandfather was half blind and demented at the end. He only gave it to you because he thought you were me, he would say, a comment guaranteed to rile Patrick almost more than anything else.
Finally, when my brother is naked, skin puckered, shivering slightly, he walks down the hallway into the bathroom and steps gingerly into the bath, drawing a sharp breath.
We stopped and set up our tent in a bark-strewn clearing surrounded by eucalypt trees. Patrick and I built a fire. We cooked up some baked beans in the battered and blackened saucepan, then washed that down with cups of steaming tea. The dew-damp wood popped and smoked. After an hour or so we gathered the rifles and ropes and knives and set off. Our father led the way, pointing out trees and animals as we trudged through the undergrowth. Occasionally he muttered disparaging remarks about the changes to the landscape in the years since he had visited. It was about ten a.m.
I found it impossible to return to the family home after that kiss. Every few months my mother would ring to urge my attendance at lunch, but I always found a reason not to go – I had a report due, I was going to Wilsons Promontory with Julie, I was tired after a big night out at the pub with my mates.
‘Oh come on, sweetie,’ mother would slur down the phone line.
‘You know your brother would love to see you. And we always love to have that Julie around the house.’
Only my mother could so effortlessly squeeze two lies into such a short speech. The thought of kissing her lips made me queasy. The thought of seeing Patrick made me furious. The thought of seeing our father made me feel, strangely enough, almost unbearably sad.
After we had been tramping for an hour or so through thick bush, our father stopped and threw up a hand for us to halt. My heart began thumping. My mouth dried up. Were we actually going to shoot something? Patrick hefted his rifle. I followed suit. Our father crouched and peered into the undergrowth. Then he turned to us and mouthed the word pig. A pig? A wild pig. Now that would be something. Our father had told us how unlikely it would be to come across a pig but said rabbits would be fine for our first hunting expedition. ‘Nothing wrong with shooting little bunnies,’ he said. ‘It’s still hunting, after all.’
Our father shuffled backwards and indicated for us to do the same. He looked scared. Patrick smirked. I saw something move about in the thick bushes. My heart was really pounding and my palms were moist. Again, I thought of our mother and Janet, safely at home listening to the radio. Then came a snuffling noise and my father raised his rifle, but what lumbered from the bushes was not a pig at all, but a huge wombat. Patrick cheered the creature’s snuffling entrance. The wombat – which was the size of a short-legged, obese dog – looked around for a moment then waddled off into the bushes. I thought it was cute, but our father was displeased. He gave us a stern look, as if it were our fault.
We trudged all over the countryside but didn’t have much luck that day. ‘It takes a while,’ our father said, ‘to get your eye in, to be able to spot things moving about and realise what they might be.’
Night fell quickly and we returned to our camp. We heated a chicken stew our mother had prepared. Our father hummed to himself as he ladled out the dinner and fiddled with the fire. He seemed possessed of a sense of well-being I didn’t recall ever observing.
Before we turned in, he got up and muttered something about going to the toilet, before picking his way into the darkness with the torch.
‘You should go that way,’ Patrick said, pointing in the opposite direction. ‘There’s a clearing through there. It’s easier to find your way.’ Our father turned and stood still, as if Patrick had said something quite unusual. He looked at both of us and his face was curiously animated by the light from the flickering fire. At that moment he appeared wholly unfamiliar to me, like a stranger just emerged from the bush.
‘Okay,’ he said at last. ‘Good man.’ And he set off the way Patrick had indicated, ruffling my brother’s hair as he went past.
The tree trunks trembled and twitched in the campfire light. My cheeks blazed from its heat. I was exhausted from the early morning drive and the endless tramping through bushland. Hunting wasn’t as fun as I thought it would be, and we still had an entire day left. Patrick threw wood onto the fire.
Then an awful scream.
Even at the age of thirteen, my brother is genuinely tough. Not in a show-offish way, but you can sense it about him, and perhaps it is this quality that drives our father to devise more rigorous tests. With a hand on each side of the tub for balance, Patrick lowers himself into the freezing water. The ice cubes joggle about his knees and chest. I can see he is suffering but my father won’t activate the stopwatch until Patrick is fully immersed. Eventually, Patrick takes a deep breath and lies back with his hands across his chest. I feel humiliated on his behalf as his penis shrivels to the size of a witchetty grub and his nipples turn liquorice coloured. Janet sidles away. Our father clicks the stopwatch.
‘Okay. We are…Go!’
It took Patrick and me only a minute to locate our father. He was lying on his back in a ditch. His eyes were clenched shut and his mouth set in a grimace of pain. ‘Get it off !’ he was saying. ‘Get it off! Get it off!’ His torch was on the ground nearby. Patrick picked it up and played the light over his face and down the length of his body. Our father’s ankle was clamped in a steel rabbit trap. His trousers were torn. There was thick blood, a flap of purple flesh. I squatted at his side, but Patrick yanked me back so hard that I fell to the damp ground. Our father was by this time writhing in agony, pounding at the damp earth with a fist.
‘Quick! Pull the latch, Patrick. Pull…the bloody…thing…back. Quick! Get it off me!’
When Patrick’s three minutes in the cold water are up, our father says:
‘Well done, little man. Out you get. Nick, fetch his towel.’
But Patrick doesn’t move, doesn’t say a word. He doesn’t even open his eyes. All he does is lift a hand from the water to scratch his nose, as if he were on the couch in front of the television. Again, our father tells him to come out, but Patrick won’t listen and he ends up staying in that bath for ages – maybe half an hour – until our mother comes back and asks what is going on. She is furious. By this time Patrick’s entire body is the colour of a fresh bruise. His lips are grey. Our father has stormed off and Janet is slumped in the hallway, crying. I help our mother lift Patrick out. He is shaking hard and he can barely walk, but his half-lit smile is the same one that will resurface the night of the accident, when he squatted down leisurely beside our screaming father, drew up the sleeve of his jacket to reveal his watch and said, ‘Okay. Let’s see what you’re made of. On my signal…Three minutes from…Now!’