It is a painful act to bury your father when he dies, or so I have been told. Once buried a dead father stays in the ground, cold and silent. A dead father is literally beneath your contempt and beyond your affection. You grieve and hate and mourn and love, then perhaps, in time, move on. You may return on occasions to grief or hatred, mourning or loving, yet a dead father can add nothing to what he has already done. He can take nothing from you that he has not already taken, for he himself has been so utterly and decisively taken.
The pain of burying a living father is far greater.
Such pain is only imagined by those with the comfort of a corpse before them. A living father when buried is far more dangerous. In his desperate search for air and light, a living father may yet claw his way up, ready to give and take all over again. His triumphant fist might suddenly break the clods and by sheer willpower pull his whole body struggling and gasping back to the surface. If it does, you will know that some time in the future another painful burial will have to take place for this heaving, mud-encrusted father standing before you. And you have no way of knowing whether he will be dead or alive at the time. Next time.
If my father had done this to me I could have blamed him for the grief his re-emergence brought over the next twelve months, but it wasn’t really his fault. It was my own doing. Curiosity got the better of me and I dug him up all by myself. I don’t know why. Maybe I thought I was going to impress him now that I was in my late twenties and over all the teenage stuff I was going through when he left. Perhaps I’d hoped he’d explain the mute decisions he’d made in the months prior to leaving, the late nights out, the sneaky phone calls. Or maybe I hoped he’d tell me how he’d broken the news to Mum in such a way that made her sob so loudly late at nights. When he’d gone, he’d left Mum as a shell. “She’s a scarlet woman with the spirit of Jezebel,” she’d snap, when she could summon the strength to get angry.
Whatever it was I ended twelve years of silence with a few casual clicks through the White Pages online. There were only two “P. McEvoys”, one in a pricey coastal suburb near Fremantle and the other near the industrial strip that separated the coastal plain from the eastern foothills. I punted on the latter, figuring there was just no way my old man would have changed that much, or done so well for himself that he’d be able to afford proximity to the beach. Lotto would have been Dad’s only hope and I’m sure I would have read about it if he’d won. Or heard about it from Mum. In spite of everything, she’d have smelt it.
I dialled, and counted eight rings before he answered.
“Hello?” he asked all breathy like he’d been running, his strong Belfast brogue lengthening the “o”.
“Hi Dad, it’s me.”
“Who?” he asked.
“Robert,” I said.
“Robert who?” Perhaps I just thought it, but he sounded confused.
“Robert,” I repeated, “Your son Robert.” It sounded forced like I’d been rehearsing it.
“Aach away on Robert!! Is it really… it’s good to…is it…?” he tailed off anxiously. “Your mother and brothers, they’re okay?” he almost whispered.
“They’re fine Dad.” I said.
“I’m okay, just phoning to say hi, it’s been a while.”
“It has been a few years,” he said, gathering breath and composure. “What’s it been? Ten?”
“Twelve,” I said, “twelve next month.” As phone calls like this go, I wasn’t doing great. That last bit sounded bad, like I was having a go at him.
We talked for over an hour, the longest conversation I’d had with him in my life to that point. He asked about the other boys, sounding proud when I told him how Stuart was overseas studying and how Bevan and Chris were in the building trade and had made some money buying and renovating old weatherboard houses. Perhaps it was pride in his voice, or maybe just relief knowing that mum wouldn’t be blaming him for us turning into junkies or screwing our lives up. Mind you, I’m not sure my life isn’t screwed up, I just don’t know if it’s his fault or mine. Maybe I just need someone to blame.
Gracie was out shopping when I’d called and he’d been in the garden, so it was a good time to talk. He told me what I already knew, that he’d married Gracie straight after divorcing mum, and that he didn’t work anymore.
“Bad back,” he said, “That’s why I’m home during the days. Gracie does a bit of book-keeping, I’m on the pension.”
I’d seen Gracie once before, at court eleven years ago. Mum had gotten it into her head that it was a good idea to bring us all to the Family Court the day of her divorce.
“For support,” she’d claimed, as the five of us squeezed into her old Honda Civic on the big day and drove off, “for support, and to show him what he’s giving up.” My unease at that last comment was confirmed in the gloomy corridors of the court-house. “This is what you’re giving up Phil,” she said when she caught sight of him, pointing to us like spoils of war, “What do you have to say to them?”
Dad didn’t have anything to say to us of course. He looked like he’d seen a ghost, scared and fascinated at the same time. No one had wanted a scene, except Mum. Her anger was at odds with the affected neutrality of her surrounds, all fake pot-plants and noticeboards filled with “Who to contact if” brochures. Admin staff walked by, turning their faces to the wall like passengers ignoring an assault on the train.
By the sounds of it Dad didn’t say much in court either. The four of us sat outside listening, never looking at one another, never talking, as Mum literally had her day in court. “I don’t accept this,” we could hear her say, “I don’t accept this, I don’t accept this.” She was still saying it on the drive home in the early twilight. It had started to rain and the Civic’s dodgy wipers were keeping in time with her as she muttered it over and over again. She nearly killed us missing a red light just before our street and her scream woke Bevan, making him cry with shock.
“I’ve got two more you know,” said Dad, just when I was trying to round off the call “Jesse’s eight, Lauren’s five.”
“A boy and a girl,” I said, just to confirm it, because I’d met a girl called Jesse once.
“Aye, but I had five boys before I got my little girl,” Dad said, sounding pleased with himself.
Mum was going to hate that. She’d always wanted a little girl. Mum was into all that Victoriana stuff; dolls, decoupage, fancy bedspreads. Her relief that all four of us boys were into backyard cricket and Scalectrix racing sets was tempered by the grief of a miscarriage back when twenty-four weeks was too young for her little girl to survive.
“When I had you four boys, I can’t say I was disappointed,” she’d say sounding disappointed, “but a girl would have been nice…” and she’d tail off. That was her cue to tell me, or the dinner guests, or whoever would listen, how when she was pregnant she’d picked me as a Pamela Rachel. And how after she’d had me she was so tired from the forceps, and the fifteen hours of pushing, she’d only thought of one boy’s name because she was expecting a girl.
“He was breach too,” she’d add pointedly, as if I’d come out bum first just to add insult to her injury. Everyone would laugh and I’d say “I can always have a sex change and be the Pamela you’ve never had,” making them shriek with mock horror, and Mum’s eyes would flash the pleasure she felt at me keeping her old joke going one more round.
From what Dad said, Gracie was everything Mum wasn’t. She could cook Asian food for a start.
“No more tatties and mince,” Dad said triumphantly. “Your mum’s food was always wholesome, but,” he added apologetically.
Nothing spicy ever made it onto our plates growing up. The closest we ever came to exotic food was the Chinese meal we had every year on the last day of our fortnight’s summer holiday in Busselton. After two weeks in a caravan we’d have used everything up “to lighten the load for the trip home”, as Mum would say. By that stage Mum was too tired anyway to cook another meal in the van’s cramped formica kitchen with its quaint doll’s house sink and oven. So it was off to the only Chinese restaurant in town for lemon chicken with cashews and fried rice. Dad always over-ordered so he’d have enough for a doggy bag for the trip home next morning. It was only a three hour drive, but we’d have to stop for lunch on the way. Our holiday was officially over every year when Dad stopped the car at the same park, an hour or so from the city. Mum’d do her usual dash for the dunny, us boys would kick the footy, and Dad would sit staring out the car window like a condemned man facing the gallows, and wring every bit of flavour out of his last worthwhile meal of the year.
“I’ll tell you what then son, why don’t you come over for dinner some time,” he said, “you can meet Gracie and the kids.”
It came out of left field, it was more than I expected. He caught my pause.
“Look son, Gracie’s okay with everything,” he said “and the kids know about…,” he tailed off at that point.
“No, that would be good Dad,” I said. “But give me a few weeks.”
“Well, we’ve got stuff on the next two weeks or so,” he said, and I could tell by his tone the conversation was winding down. “The kids have some birthday parties to go to, so after that eh?
“How about I give you a call next week?”
“Sure son, that’d be good.” I could sense the relief in his voice. “Thursday evening again, that’s when Gracie’s out shopping.”
Before I could say anything, he added, “Don’t worry I’ll smooth everything out with her, after all, you’re my son too, she’ll be pleased.”
When I hung up the phone my armpits were dripping with sweat. It had gotten dark without me noticing. I went round closing the curtains and switching on lights. I had a shower, then lay across my bed wondering what Mum would say when I told her. The kitchen clatter of my flat-mates woke me up an hour or so later, cold, wrapped in a damp towel and dying for a pee.
Warm Honey, by Dave Cornford and Steve McAlpine, is available here.