by Stephen Sewell

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My father was nearly killed in a motorbike accident a month after I was born.  When he finally came to, he couldn’t recognise me or my mother and didn’t know who he was. My Aunt Mary tried to tell him, but he didn’t know who she was, either. That was the first blow my parents received. My mother returned to factory work and with the help of her family and my father’s, principally Mary, but also my other aunts, they scraped through. He eventually came home, only to suffer what the doctors called a nervous breakdown that put him in Morisset Psychiatric Hospital getting shock treatment and pleading with my mother to get him out of there. This was just the beginning of many such breakdowns that were to last the rest of his life. One day when I was going to school he stopped me at the back door and asked me if he was dead. I told him I didn’t think so, but he wasn’t there that afternoon when I came home. I didn’t know what was wrong with my father, and still don’t. Maybe it wasn’t that different to what’s wrong with me. Whether he was mentally ill or had been hit so often he’d cracked I can’t say, but the blows kept coming and it must have been hard waking up to realise whatever his hopes were, of living a life of freedom and fulfillment, maybe even a little dignity, were being slowly devoured as first one, then another, then a third son appeared and he had to take on the burden of breadwinner when he’d left school at twelve and was staring at Australia from the bottom up. There were plenty of people like that, men and women trying to make sense of the new world as the great hopes at the end of the Second World War, for a victory over fascism and a new life for all, were replaced by the sullen gloom of the Cold War. That was the era of suburban backyards and kids playing cricket under an aeroplane jelly sky, but it was also an era of fear and suspicion, of Reds under the beds and the threat of cataclysmic atomic war; of visions and signs of the coming apocalypse. And in the house me and my brothers grew up in, the great battles of the era were fought around us in loud, frightened voices and hushed urgent whispers behind closed doors. My father had walked away from the Catholic faith after his parish priest had knocked him to the presbytery floor for questioning the Virgin birth, and his spiritual quest led him across the spectrum of the new religions coming from America, the Jehova’s Witnesses, the Seventh Day Adventists, Billy Graham evangelism. In fact he was a sucker for any kind of revivalism emanating from the US, which had saved us from the Japs when the Poms let us down in Singapore. It was a bad time to be interested in anything beyond your own fence, let alone politics, as the McCarthyites cut their way through freedom and the American Left and ASIO and Special Branch were unleashed on trade unionists and communists here, and my father’s wartime sympathies quickly wilted under the onslaught of a rapidly militarising state preparing for what looked like the inevitable war with the Soviet Union.  And while my father lamented our fate, snarling between angry, gritted teeth Who’d bring a child into a world like this?  his harshest words concerned our spiritual lives as he struggled with my mother about the truth of Christ and the veracity of the Bible. Hard, raised voices and crying angry tears tearing at the walls about Hell and immortality and the Resurrection of the Dead; terrible fights that hammered through the late night darkness in the world of linoleum and wood chip heaters. It was like living in the snake’s eye. My father’s love of guns continued. A gun for him was the sign that no matter how he was treated by the foreman, he was still a man. My name is Jack, he’d roar defiantly at a system that didn’t care what his name was, as long as he turned up on time. But with a gun in his hand, he was a man, and I know now he was right. A man needs respect – we all need respect – because without respect you’re nothing, you’re dead, and that’s what it felt like back then. We were nothing. Nothing driving around pubs with hessian bags full of skinned rabbits Dad sold for a shilling a pop when he was out of work; nothing, standing around factory gates hoping they’d pick your father and not someone else’s because I could see his shame when he came home empty-handed; nothing slumping back to the car to tell Mum in the front seat with the baby they’d already got someone. The hard grind as the wheels chewed the two of them to bits. Waking up to my mother running into the room with a handful of bullets, crying Hide these, your father’s gone mad; watching our mother making the weekly wage stretch with jokes about bread and dripping she’d learnt herself as one of five kids, the daughter of a communist printer who got paid for printing Penfolds labels with bottles of wineThe hard grind of a world trying to put everyone back in their place before they got any uppity ideas.  And then all the rest of it, the things that kids love, whether there’s trouble or not, Christmases with our cousins and aunts and uncles up at our grandmother’s place, Aunty Eileen’s trifle and Uncle Joe’s pranks, summer twilights chasing through the long grass around the woodpile, wondering if there really was a snake in there. The wondering, wondering of it all, wondering if there really was going to be a war, and what it would be like if there was. Wondering if this was the end. My father was convinced it was. The end days, he said, the days of judgment. It can’t go on like this forever, he’d cry, and I never understood his despair till years later I held my own children; I never understood his sense of loss and sadness and failure; the terrible failure of a life set adrift in a world not of his making but for which he was paying in spades. I never understood it even as it was happening. But all lives end in failure, and his was no greater than mine. We try to live; we reach too far and slip and crash and then get up to do it all over again hoping that our children might succeed where we failed. And they might. They might succeed; they will succeed. Our children will succeed, because they’re better than us. They have to be. He never said that, my father, but I think he believed it, in his madness and his rage. Never lie and never work for another man is what he said. I’ve done both, but I hope to be a better man.

 

 

 

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