February 2024

Arts & Letters

Pictures of you

By Tony Birch
The award-winning author kicks off our new fiction series with a story of coming to terms with a troubled father’s obsessions

When the manager of the nursing home called, I was busy creating a map. “You may want to come in soon,” she said. I asked her how long it would be. She paused and remained noncommittal, beyond suggesting “a couple of hours, or perhaps a day”. Generalisations leave me anxious, particularly when they relate to time. I sat at my desk, looked down at my unfinished map and accepted that I wouldn’t be completing it that morning. For weeks, I’d surveyed each walking path and unmarked trail within the national park near my home, dividing the many kilometres into precisely measured segments, using familiar landmarks as my beginning and end points. I intended to carry the map with me until I’d memorised it and would be able to calculate the distance of my daily run, whichever route I took.

For example, the section on the map marked toilet block to asylum monument is 700 metres in length. The falls to farm trail that follows the river is precisely one kilometre. And the Vic Park to Kanes Footbridge section measures two kilometres and 200 metres. In all, I’d divided the park into 27 sections. It’s where I run 10 kilometres each morning, seven days a week. Obviously, I could have bought an expensive sports watch that would record the distance and time of each run for me. But that would be cheating.

After years away, I returned to distance running as an adult and never break my routine. When I began training, my pace was around four minutes 30 seconds a kilometre, and I could run under four minutes each kilometre during a half marathon race. These days my training pace is around a minute longer per kilometre, at five and a half minutes. I’ve had few injuries throughout the years, although more recently I’ve had the occasional fall, resulting in bruises and grazes, and have returned home bloodied and covered in dirt. I sometimes feel like a boy who has survived an act of mischief.

My father was never a runner – not that I know of, at least. His exercise routine was purely physical. Brutal, in fact. He began a regimented mail-order program of bodybuilding shortly after his mother died, when he was only a teenager. He built himself a crude barbell that he lifted each night in the backyard. It consisted of two one-gallon paint tins that had been filled with cement and held together with an iron pinch-bar that he retrieved from a vacant allotment next to the factory where he worked as a fitter’s apprentice. Although he stopped using the makeshift bar once he’d saved for a proper set of weights, he kept it as a reminder of his initial dedication. The bar remained in a corner of the back shed in our rented house for many years. When I was a boy, I’d walk into the shed, look at the barbell and try to lift it, just as my father had. I always failed.

Eventually, he joined a gymnasium in Melbourne’s CBD. It was operated by a famous retired tennis player and was located four floors above the Capitol Theatre on Swanston Street. My father trained religiously each weeknight after he’d finished work for the day, sculpting his body until it resembled a marble statue. He was a menacing presence, and although he never raised his voice at me, or struck me, I was always afraid of him. He liked to admire himself and would pose in front of the wardrobe mirror for hours, wearing only a brief pair of bathers. One night he came home from the gym with a framed photograph wrapped in brown paper. “This was taken by a professional,” he proudly announced, unwrapping the frame and placing it carefully on the mantelpiece above the lounge-room fireplace.

After his death, I unwillingly inherited the photograph, along with other belongings of his. It sits in the darkened bottom of a wooden box that also contains his ashes. Occasionally I dip into the box, take the photograph out and study it. In the image he is standing on the roof of the Capitol building, wearing the same pair of bathers he pranced about in at home. The city skyline is in the background. He has a chiselled torso and biceps that appear ready to explode. Holding the picture frame in my hands, it is difficult to accept that this is the same man my father would eventually become. Some years later, when the collapse arrived, my father’s body turned to fat. Although I have no photographs of that time in his life, I remember him as a stranded whale struggling with a pale underbelly, unable to return to the water.

Several years ago, a cousin of mine drowned in the Yarra River. His body was found floating face down in the water beneath Princes Bridge. Although an open conversation was avoided, it was whispered within the family that he’d committed suicide. He’d just turned 25 and had suffered a breakdown some months earlier when his girlfriend of four years left him without explanation. The wake was held in a local pub two doors away from the funeral parlour where burial services had been held for members of my family for decades. A great aunt, who I vaguely remembered from my childhood, sat me down and announced that all the men in the family were “certifiably insane – your father included, of course”. At the time he was a resident at a psychiatric home in the northern suburbs. After fetching her a cup of tea and a cream biscuit, my aunt told a story about my father that shocked me.

She described him as “a delicate child, girlie even”, born “with a ballerina’s body and a mop of dark curls, big brown eyes and long lashes”. The year he turned 15, his mother, my grandmother, died suddenly. At the time, the body of a loved family member who’d passed away remained in the home for several days after death, so that relatives and friends could call by, pay their respects and pray at the foot of the bed, if they felt the need. My aunt added that it was also important that the dead person themselves provide company for their grieving family. “Not like today,” she said, rolling her eyes. “At my age, it’s all over before your heart has stopped beating.” She nodded across the room. “This lot can’t wait to see the end of me.”

On the day of my grandmother’s death, my father was working at a factory at the bottom of the street they lived on. When he arrived home, he found the house full of people, relatives and family friends. The women sat silently around the table in the kitchen. Some of the men slouched against a wall in the hallway, others stood awkwardly in the backyard smoking. My grandmother’s body had been laid out on the bed that my father had shared with her from his birth. She was wearing her 20-year-old faded wedding dress and gripped a single rose in her hands. My aunt told me that my father jumped onto the bed, wrapped his own body around his mother’s and wept. He refused to let go of her and slept in the bed with her that night. The next morning an undertaker was called to take her away.

“He’d always been a sad one,” my aunt added. Over a second cup of tea, she told another story about my father that I’d not heard, which was hardly surprising, as he never spoke about his past with either my mother or me. “His father walked out on the family when your dad was only four years old.” She clenched an aged fist. “A bastard of a man, he was. The poor child would sit on the front step waiting for his daddy to come back to him.”

“How long did that go on?” I asked, offering her another biscuit from the tray.

“Oh, a good year or more,” she said. “Someone in the family needed to speak directly to your father. His poor mother, my own sister, couldn’t bring herself to do it. That job fell to me. As hard as it was to say so, I told the child he needed to stop waiting on the return of a selfish no-hoper. It took a long time for your father to toughen up.”

I have the evidence of my father having shed his softness once his mother was gone. After his own death, I found two photographs of him, pressed between the pages in a dog-eared Bible I discovered in a suitcase that had been stored at the nursing home. In one he is leaning against the wall of the factory where he was apprenticed, wearing a pair of overalls and a grubby T-shirt. He is the epitome of both cheek and innocence, and resembles the sketch of Huck, from the front cover of my favourite childhood novel, Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn. In the second photograph, taken two years after my grandmother’s death, according to the date scribbled in pencil on the back, his mop of hair has been shorn. He is wearing a crew cut and glares at the camera lens with dark rings under his eyes. His muscular arms are already noticeable.

When I was only a few years older than the same age my father was when he was abandoned, he became as fixated on my body as he was with his own. In the bottom drawer of my writing desk, I keep a tattered sheet of cardboard. It was originally the backing board for a handpainted photograph of my grandmother that, for many years, sat on the mantel alongside his bodybuilding photograph. I found the frame in the same suitcase that had stored his Bible. Strangely, the photograph itself had been removed.

The cardboard sheet is decorated with a series of lists and dates, measurements and weights, utilising the imperial scale. Some notations are written in blue ink, others red, and occasionally in pencil. The handwriting is my father’s. Reading through the lists, I know that on June 16, 1967, at the age of 10, I was four feet four inches tall. Earlier in the same year, on March 29, my waist measured 22 inches and I weighed five stones one ounce. On the same day, which was my 10th birthday, I managed to drop-kick a football 23 yards and six inches. A little over three months following the June measurements, on September 30, 1967, I’d grown only one half-inch taller.

In addition to extensively measuring and documenting my body shape and size each month – arms, chest, waist, thighs, calves and height – my father developed an exercise program for me, commencing on my eighth birthday, and consisting of a nightly weightlifting session followed by 30 minutes of free exercise. By the age of 10, I could complete 50 push-ups and 50 sit-ups with ease. In addition to the weightlifting and exercises, I would set off each night on a two-mile jog from the front door of the house, run along a busy peak-hour road and up a steep hill to St Vincent’s Hospital, before returning home through the leafy Fitzroy Gardens.

I was always hungry after a run. In fact, I was hungry most of the time. Supplementary to the fitness program, I was kept on a strict diet. My father smothered each of my meals with a protein powder that tasted like chalk. As a result, each meal, be it baked beans or roast beef, tasted the same. He avoided the white powder himself, in preference to carrot juice. And lots of it. He drank five pints of juice each day, prepared by my mother. She’d lug a bag of carrots home from the fruit shop, set up the juice extractor on the kitchen table and go to work. It was around the time of my father’s growing addiction to carrots – he also chewed on them continuously – that I realised he was crazy. I suspected that my mother felt the same way. But when I asked her why he drank so much carrot juice and gnawed at one while he watched TV of a night, she shrugged and said, “Your dad has his special ways and will not change them. He believes the carrots sharpen him.”

The steep decline began with a blemish on his bottom lip. He studied it in the bathroom mirror one morning and, with a worried look on his face, asked my mother to also look at the sore. “It’s just a cold sore,” she said. “Don’t worry about it.” But he did worry. The following day he visited a local doctor to get a second opinion and was provided with the same diagnosis as my mother’s. He then picked at the sore until it bled, scabbed and eventually became infected. About a week later I came home from school one afternoon to find him seated at the kitchen table staring at the wall. As far as I could remember he’d never taken a day off work or missed a gym session. He didn’t seem to notice that I’d come into the flat and didn’t speak a word to me.

When my mother arrived home, she looked at him in disbelief, as if she’d come across a stranger in her kitchen. “What are you doing here?”

My father put a fingertip to his bottom lip. “It’s cancer,” he said, without a hint of emotion.

My mother dismissed his comment with the wave of a hand. “What are you talking about? Cancer? Have you seen that doctor again? Don’t listen to him. The man’s a drunk.”

“I don’t need a doctor to tell me what it is. I know. It’s a cancer.”

The cold sore on my father’s lip would prove to be more powerful than his iron frame, his disciplined decades of exercise and gallons of carrot juice. Convinced that he was suffering from a potentially terminal disease that others refused to recognise, my father slipped into a near comatose state. He was eventually examined by a psychiatric specialist, and it was decided he’d need to spend time in hospital. A psychiatric unit. The first time I saw him after he’d been admitted, I found him lying on his back on a couch in the hospital dayroom smoking a cigarette; an unhealthy habit he’d always been critical of.

My mother said nothing about the smoking. She prodded me to “say hello to your father”. When I did, he looked at me suspiciously and wouldn’t speak. He soon fell asleep. At my mother’s insistence I poked him in the ribs to wake him. As much as I poked at the bear, he didn’t respond, not that day, nor in the months and years after. With his looming frame absent from the home, I soon quit exercising, and, like my father, took up cigarette smoking. I was more gifted than he was and quickly mastered the perfect smoke ring. I would only return to exercise, and the comforting sense of order it provided me, as an adult and parent, having realised I’d created a trail of mess behind me.

Following the call from the nursing home, I made myself a cup of tea and sat on the couch, looking through a window frame in the kitchen to a square of clear blue sky. I then washed the teacup under the sink and dried it with a tea towel. I changed my shirt, brushed my teeth and emptied the overflowing rubbish bag from the bin below the kitchen sink. The walk to the nursing home, following a path beside a snaking creek, usually took me no more than 20 minutes. That day I was in no hurry to be anywhere but beside the water and its silted scent.

By the time I reached the home, my father was dead. A nurse, wearing a suitably sombre face, ushered me into a darkened room. I’d expected to find his face covered in a sheet, as it would have been in a Hollywood movie. But no, there he was, my father, looking up at me with his head resting on a pillow and his mouth wide open. It appeared that he was attempting to speak. Or perhaps catching a last breath.

Three weeks later, I collected his ashes from a funeral parlour in Preston. Walking into the office I heard a Cat Stevens song, “The Wind”. It was a favourite of his. If my mother had been with me, she’d have assured me that it was a sign – of what, I have no idea. I thanked the staff for the help they’d provided after my father’s death, and we travelled home together on the 86 tram. For the first time in my life, I felt comfortable, even safe with him. Months later, I would write about him and our journey home that morning. It would be a true story, a memoir, at least half of which I invented. But it was a poignant story, very funny, and most of all, as opposed to much of my experience with my living father, it was heartfelt.

At home, I sat my father’s ashes on the kitchen bench. He was housed in a foam container. Before leaving the funeral parlour, I’d been handed a brochure containing pictures of funeral urns offering a range of tasteful alternatives. One of the staff suggested that I might prefer to have my father’s ashes scattered in a memorable location. Scattered. The word sounded so untidy, chaotic even, that I immediately dismissed it. I lifted the container from the bench. It felt heavier than I’d expected, and I became curious.

I unscrewed the lid on the container and carried it to the other end of the kitchen bench. I lifted the container, tipped it forward and slowly poured around half its contents into a stainless-steel bowl attached to the kitchen scales. I checked the needle of the scales for weight before tipping the bowl’s contents into a large Tupperware dish. I then added the remaining portion of ashes to the bowl on the scales. When I was certain I’d fully emptied the contents, I again checked the needle. Adding the two figures together, I was able to accurately calculate that my father weighed 2.9 kilograms. Or 6.4 pounds on the imperial scale.

Tony Birch

Tony Birch is a Melbourne-based writer and historian.

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