My father never talked to me about sex when I was growing up. He was a conservative and private man who seemed to love his children but without intimacy, without engagement, without the exchange of spirit that, I am told, happens in the happiest families. I never heard the word sex from him until the year he died; and the secret and personal things he spoke of then aroused something in me so unexpected that I could not talk to my wife about it for weeks. I still dream of it from time to time, and though I have done what I was asked to do, I still feel that a cloud of uncertainty, even of accident, hangs about my life. One day someone visiting the cemetery might ask for an explanation of what I did, though I do not expect that someone to be one of my siblings, who have all, in their own ways, withdrawn from the life of the family.
At the time of my mother’s dying, the four of us shared all that had to be done. We were all young then, and wanted to be involved, even Joseph, then in his last months at school. My father, suddenly frail that year, seemed to be content with this.
Twelve years later, as my father’s long widower years ground themselves arthritically to their end, it was all left to me. I still saw Joseph occasionally, on visiting days at the prison. Maryanne was somewhere in Mexico, address unknown; she had run away from the Diplomat and left him in Washington with their two daughters. Alexander was fifty per cent of the police presence in forty per cent of the state, and rarely came to the city.
It became my duty, the duty of the oldest child, to keep an eye on our father, call in on him regularly, make sure he kept his bills paid, took his medication, went to the doctor when he was unwell. And so on. While I was travelling daily to Wombat Ridge I could, with a minor deviation from my route, call in on my father and do whatever was needed. In his last two years, when he could no longer go to the supermarket and the bank by himself, Jane called once a week and helped him.
There was an elderly cat in my father’s house, a pugnacious black desexed tom called Enzo, who fled when Jane or I arrived. For this behaviour our children were to blame; when they and the cat were young they used to treat it so roughly that it grew to hate all children and assumed that Jane’s or my arrival meant that its tormenters were in tow. But Enzo loved my father, and for most of the day, most of the week, was his only companion.
My father had plenty of time to talk to the cat, potter in his garden, watch television, and fall asleep in his armchair. He told me one day that he spent a lot of his time thinking about the past (an unspectacular life calmly lived). When he was fifty, he had surgery for lung cancer and in the next thirty years defied the statistics by surviving with one lung and a damaged larynx. The lung cancer never returned. Years later, my mother died from her cancer, a malignancy that burnt its way, at the speed of an autumn bushfire, through her reproductive organs.
I often wonder: did my father talk to Enzo about these cancers? Was there something niggling away, some question that Enzo couldn’t answer? On one night my father gave me an insight into his fears, and indirectly into his sex life, that I didn’t welcome then, though I now feel somehow enriched by the fact that his question showed some confidence in me, some willingness to get close. This feeling, when it surfaces, is always countered by the appalling implications of the second thing he told me.
We hadn’t always been close, but I was now the only one of his children who lived anywhere near him, and little by little I was learning to appreciate his needs. In a busy week, if I couldn’t call in, I used to ring him in the evening and talk to him for a few minutes.
It is not easy to telephone a man who is partly deaf and lives in a house where the telephone is in the front hall. My father used to shut himself and the cat Enzo in the lounge room, with the television turned up loud, and then both went to sleep. When I tried to ring him, at seven o’clock and at half-hour intervals after that, he sometimes did not hear the phone. I would swear and get angry, and eventually give up preparing lessons and get into the car and drive across six suburbs to see if he was asleep or dead.
On the night of the unexpected question, I had let myself in and gone into the lounge room. Enzo immediately hid behind the television set. I looked at my father, still faithful to my mother’s instruction that he spread a towel across the back of the armchair so that his oily hair wouldn’t stain the fabric. He woke up, gave what we always called his silly grin, and told me that he had a new bottle of port.
I knew that. Jane had bought it the week before and put it in the sideboard. We had fallen into a ritual, my father and I: we’d sit side by side, facing the television, and drink a glass of port. Then I would turn the sound down, and we would talk, of trivial things like some oddity in one of my classes, or some small achievement of one of my children. My father said little, opened up no topics.
“Have you been asleep?” I said.
“I was dreaming about Frieda.”
“That’s nice,” I said. “I remember how sick she was.”
We were watching a late news, without sound, and my father started to ask something. If he had been standing, he would have shuffled his feet and hung his head, but we were sitting side by side and he did not have to meet my eye.
“About Frieda,” he said. “I’ve been wondering.”
“Did I give that cancer to her?”
“What do you mean?”
It was hard for him to ask the question, but little by little he was able to put it together, the years of fear and self-blame worming their way out into the open in a musty room. He had been living with the thought that he had passed his cancer to my mother when they had had sex. He was taking responsibility for her cancer, and consequently for her death, and for the lonely years after she had gone.
“No, Dad. Cancer doesn’t work like that.”
“I could have given it to her, when we made love.”
“Believe me, Dad. It couldn’t happen.”
“I teach Biology, Dad. Remember?”
I changed the subject—we could always talk about Enzo—and we had another port, in silence. Then I left to drive home, and behind me, as I closed the door, I heard again the sound of the television. Enzo edged past me when I let myself out, and disappeared into the darkness of my father’s garden.
A few weeks later there was another late-night-and-six-suburbs trip to find out why he had not answered the phone. I found him, as usual, closed in the lounge with Enzo, the radiator on, the television off. He was looking through a box of old photographs. He sometimes liked to talk through them, educating me about who was who, aunts I had seen only rarely, cousins who farmed on Eyre Peninsula, girls in white dresses and veils strewing flowers for a religious procession, Maryanne among them. He had written on the backs of several, in the shivery scrawl his writing had become. We connected names to faces, sometimes faces to dates—Uncle Jack’s wedding to Auntie Nora, when my father was best man, Joseph with the Religion prize he got in Year Twelve.
Then he brought out a photograph of him and my mother leaving the wedding reception for their honeymoon.
“You look so happy, the two of you,” I said.
“We were,” he said. There was a long pause, and then he seemed to look into the distance. “I got Frieda pregnant on our honeymoon, you know.”
They had married on a hot January Saturday, during a famous dust storm, that I knew, and I had been born in February of the following year. Something didn’t make sense, and I tried to explain why to my father.
“Yes,” he said, “but we lost that baby.”
“She was—what? How far gone?”
“I don’t remember now. Maybe three months. And then you came along, not much later. You’ve been a good son.”
I needed that drink of port. The glasses had been put away unwashed, and I took them to the kitchen to clean them. This gave me time to think about the thing my father had casually dropped into my life: the information that I would never have existed if the other child—boy? girl?—had thrived. My whole existence was an accident. I suppose all lives are, in a way, one sperm swimming faster than the millions of others, but this was different, special, personal. I lived an unimaginable accidental life that owed its existence to the death, if that is the word, of another.
The tea towel was filthy. I put it in the laundry basket and got a clean one from the linen cupboard, and when I returned to the lounge room the box of photographs was on top of the sideboard and my father had turned on the television. I poured the port and as I handed him his glass I asked if the lost baby had been a boy or a girl.
“I don’t know,” he said. “How would anyone know?”
He said no more, and I could ask nothing more. As I left Enzo raced past me into the dark, and I drove home, my head full of my consternation. I had to stop at the Melba Street junction to wipe my eyes, and later, as I turned into Hargreaves Road, I managed to mount the kerb and sideswipe a wheelie bin. That’s when someone spoke to me.
“Hey. A bit more care, brother.” It was a voice from behind me, or around me. I started to reverse from the toppled bin.
“Aren’t you going to clean it up, then?”
There was no one in sight, there was no one else in the car. A voice in my head. I was certainly tired, and so I stopped at the end of Hargreaves Road to roll down both front windows and get some fresh air.
“I’m glad you stopped, brother. We can talk.” It was a male voice.
“Where are you?” I said.
“I’m here, Robert. Right beside you. In the car.”
There wasn’t anyone else in the car, and I decided that this was a hallucination, the result of tiredness and the surprise my father had given me. “You’re in my head. Who are you?”
“I’m your big, big brother. Part of your memories, now that Larry has told you.”
“I’m the baby they never had. They dreamed I’d be President, or something like that, and so I decided to hang around to see who got the job.”
“And just why were you able to do that?”
“Because Frieda remembered me, and so did Larry. They often talked about the baby they should have had. Me!”
“Larry didn’t even know if the baby was a boy or a girl.”
“Larry did know, because I told him. He just forgot. But now you know about me, and so the remembering can continue. I think I’m going to like you, Robert.”
“Get out of my head,” I said. “I’m going home.” I turned on the car radio, and drowned out the voice. Jane was asleep, and I packed my bag ready for school the next day. The voice had followed me inside.
“It was time for Larry to tell you about me. He hasn’t long to go.”
“Get lost,” I said.
“I’ll see you tomorrow. I’ll be waiting in the car. You’re too tired to talk now,” the voice said as I went to bed.
I didn’t sleep much that night, and was cursed for the next few days by the voice, trying to explain himself to me whenever he got the chance. I was to be the new repository of his life-wish, this persistent, ambitious foetus who had refused to cross into nothingness. He had, he said, quietly persisted in Frieda’s memory, and then in Larry’s. He had engineered the session with the photographs, planted the thought into Larry’s head that he should tell me about the miscarriage, and made the leap into my brain.
“It was either you or Enzo,” he said.
“Have you got a name?” I said.
“Primo! What sort of name is that?”
“You’re not Italian, for Christ’s sake. Mum was German and Dad’s people were Irish. You can’t be Italian.”
“I can be what I want,” he said. “Besides, I love Italians, I love Italy. Tuscany particularly. Italians are people who listen to the voices inside themselves. They don’t forget people just because they’re dead.”
“You talk bullshit,” I said.
“You know what Primo means, I hope,” he said. “First! Because I was the first. You came after me, and you owe me respect. Try showing it.”
Primo couldn’t stand classical music, I discovered, and as long as I kept the air full of Classic FM he couldn’t get through to me while I was driving. This took the pressure off, but made Primo angry. Jane, when I told her about Primo, suggested that I take some of my long service leave if the strain of the job was getting to me.
Then my father had a stroke, and died. “I told you he didn’t have long to go,” Primo said.
The arrangements for the funeral were left to me. Joseph was escorted from prison for the funeral, and was clucked over by the aunties who had never believed that their sweet boy with the Religion prize had turned armed robber. We could not locate Maryanne, but the Diplomat sent flowers. Alexander was in Coober Pedy hospital with a spear wound to his leg, from getting too close to a tribal feud.
After the burial there was cake and coffee. I was standing on the edge of a puddle of aunties, listening passively to their anecdotes about my father and mother. Primo, who had been missing for a couple of days, dropped into my head for a chat. “What do you want?” I said, muffling my words with a handkerchief.
Primo had been looking around the cemetery, and had a proposition. “What I’ve always wanted,” he said, “was just to be remembered. That’s why I stayed close to my parents, and then moved to you, Robert. I know I’ve made you stressed and angry.”
“Bloody right,” I said, causing a fluttering among the aunties.
“Well, listen to my proposition. I’ll get out of your life if you’ll give me something permanent. I’ve got some ideas.”
What he wanted was his name on the tombstone, preferably ahead of mine since he was the oldest. I took that as a negotiating ploy, an ambit claim. He settled for less, and I had the task of persuading the monumental mason, an old friend of my father, to add a postscript to the stone.
“It’s not that I don’t trust you,” said Primo, not trusting me, “but I’m hanging around until it’s done.” He did, and then he left forever.
I visit the cemetery every year, on Father’s Day, and lay flowers on the grave. The headstone reads:
Beloved wife of Lawrence
Mother of Robert, Alexander, Maryanne and Joseph
Loving husband and father of the above
Fond and only family of Primo
My self-designated older brother kept his word. Nobody has noticed the additional last line, but someone besides me has been to the grave. The last time I went there I found a postcard-sized Italian flag taped beside Primo’s name on the stone. I left it there for the sun and wind and rain to deal with.