The Australian

‘Strewth!’

It was one word; loud and familiar. Real too, I was sure I hadn’t dreamed it. The word punctuated the bubble of market sounds and toppled memories from long ago that I’d held safe by living overseas. I left my desk and stood at the open window of my one-bedroom retreat in Bali.

Before me, the smell of ripe fruit laid out on endless tables baked in the early morning humidity. I made myself breathe deeply, wanting the pong of ripe durian and rumbutan to override the cascade of fear set off by the sound of that one familiar word.

For a few moments I watched one man dressed in long grren pants, a mauve shirt, and a straw hat. He moved with purpose. Was it him that had used the Australian slang? He moved past several fruit stores before stopping at a kiosk with familiar black and yellow advertising indicating that it sold Kodak film. He haggled in a loud Australian voice with large gestures over his potential purchase. Eventually the vendor threw his hands up and relented. When the tourist left the kiosk, moving along the aisles of stalls laden with colourful fruit and tourist paraphernalia, the vendor threw a curse at the man’s retreating back.

But the memory persisted. As I watched the Australian, my father faded into view. He was standing at the door of his car with a scowl on his face. He’d been eyeing the mess on the back seat left by overnight thieves and his whole body shook.

“Strewth!” he had ground out between clamped teeth. Mum had stroked his arm then cried quietly. Instantly his body relaxed and he wound his arm around her shoulder, drew her closer to him. He flicked a look in my direction, his blue eyes intense as he raised one eyebrow. No words were spoken but I understood the silent query. There was a time, long ago, when I would have been offended or incensed that he believed one of my friends had rummaged through this car. Nico and Corey were dealers now, so they didn’t need to do this kind of petty theft.  

I shook my head, mouthing a noiseless denial. Did I know who had emptied papers from the small tidy bag on the floor? Yes. Did I know who mashed mandarin peel into the newly shampooed seats? Yes. Did I know who upended the empty soft drink can and poured the last drips across the leather steering wheel cover? Yes. But worse still, I knew who had spat large globules of coloured venom in meticulous patterns on every seat. I would not tell him who had chewed the beetroot coloured gum and dropped the resulting saliva everywhere. He already knew.

      His features hardened. He had grunted then sought the mobile phone in his pocket. He called someone, all the time daring me with his eyes to tell the truth. I think he must have been a human lie detector in his previous life. He always seemed to think the worst of me because he never believed me when I denied knowledge of some matter that upset his internal sense of world domination. Of course, it was my fault that Australia was in the grip of the “recession we had to have”. Why didn’t I know that I was to blame for the kidnappings that happened in Belanglo, New South Wales? Of course, the road toll was always my fault, too.

“Martin?”

Uh-oh, I knew who he was calling. My father let go of Mum and dropped down on his haunches to eye the keyhole in the drivers’ door.

“Yep!” he declared.

 I could hear garbled sounds from the phone but couldn’t quite make out what Martin was saying. My father suddenly wheeled around, looking for something. When he found it, he smiled a mirthless smile and turned to study me. He listened again. “Yep. Aha! Oh, I see.” The last words echoed despair. Uh-oh.

He disconnected the call, turned back to mum and gently herded her away. What was he looking for? I turned slowly in a circle to see what my father had found, and my heart skipped a beat. It wouldn’t be long before my father knew everything, well almost everything about what happened to his beloved car. Reaching from the corner of the car park, on a tall, white pole was a small box, panning back and forth. When was that installed? I had better come clean about what I knew, and fast.

As his only child, his only son, I knew I was a constant embarrassment to him, especially when I refused to fight back when he pummeled me for some perceived misdemeanor towards him or mum. His car was his pride and joy. Not me. And what I did to his perfect car was me fighting back in the only way I knew how. But my father’s retaliation would be swift and vicious, and I knew I had gone too far this time.

“This is flamin’ daylight robbery!” the stranger squawked. Clearly, he did not like the market prices. “Whaddya think this is?” he insisted. “Bush week?” I mouthed his answer before he said it. It was familiar and strange at the same time. Australians were common tourists here, but this one was different.

Through the bars of my room on the second floor I could see a tanned face below a dusty bushman’s hat. He turned sideways, and his once short black hair had been replaced with tufts of white peeking form under his hat. His faded green trousers were familiar too. My father had worn green Yakka pants all his working life. Mum would wash the week’s shirts and trousers every Saturday morning. They would be pegged in a neat row across a long wire clothesline; five green pairs of trousers, five green shirts; then jocks, then the socks in pairs, always in the same order, every Saturday. Every Saturday afternoon she would gather them all, iron each shirt and pair of trousers and store them for the coming week.

I bet he had blue eyes. He walked like my father, stiff backed, forward leaning with long strides that landed heavily. It almost looked like a march. Fine from here but up close I had wet myself on more than one occasion when he had advanced on me with rage in his eyes and violence in his fists. He always cornered me in a room where I couldn’t get away. He’d chant as he hammered my body and my head. Every blow was a condemnation of the world and everything that made it wrong. No amount of ducking or burying my head under my hands kept me safe from the fury in his fists. Mum said nothing about my bruises. She dabbed my face silently, using her band aids and iodine. When I was old enough to refuse her ministrations, she would purse her mouth and retreat to the kitchen and make a cup of tea.

When Martin confirmed it was me that rifled through his car, my father choked on his rage. That time he used a knuckle duster. Each metal strike he landed on my head and my body made me glad that I had already taken my own revenge on him. It went on for so long I was surprised when I woke up. I was discharged from hospital, two weeks later, sporting three broken ribs, seventeen stitches, a broken nose and a constant ringing in my ears. Backpack in hand, I sought mum out in the kitchen.

‘Bye mum,’ I tried to lean down and peck her cheek, but pain tore around my chest.  She dodged me, went to the pantry and drew out a small tea caddy. When she came back, she pressed a roll of fifty-dollar bills into my hand then went to make a cup of tea. As the kettle boiled, she turned to stare out at something in our back yard. I never returned to the house I was raised in.

 The man striding through the market in Denpesar, in the place I have lived for the last 22 years, could not be my father. My father was afraid to travel outside of his beloved town of Kyabram. And he would never be away from my mother. Never. But this man travelled alone. I couldn’t be sure of what I was seeing yet my heart beat a panicked rhythm.  How could he have found me? I had changed my name, my appearance. I had even adopted a fake British accent to ensure camouflage. As I thought incoherently of how I would escape this city if he had tracked me down, the man I studied, looked briefly in my direction. I jerked back, out of sight, but had he already seen me? Did he know I was furtively watching him through the bars that lined my balcony? I edged forwards, determined he would not see me. But he was gone, his retreating back moving at a brisk pace away from me where I stood almost paralytic with fear. I let out a breath, hoping I was feverish from being cooped up in my room for so long. That would explain my sweaty forehead more than my agitation. After the paralysis eased, my body felt the full adrenaline rush and the need to run, escape. I mentally scanned my room and knew I could pack and be gone within 15 minutes if necessary. I had purposefully travelled light and lived a spartan lifestyle for years in case such a scenario presented itself.

I needed to get the hell out of Dodge and I wasn’t sure where I could go now that my father had tracked me to the most forsaken place I had chosen for just that reason. My bubble of fear burst and voices haggling in the market below seemed normal again. The oppressive humidity made it hard to breathe for just a moment before I caught my breath and nodded to myself, knowing I could find the solution but not if I was in panic mode.

Should I follow him and make sure it wasn’t my father? If it was him, what then? Leave the country? Find another place of refuge that demanded little in the way of identification? If he was here without mum, did that mean she wasn’t around? Had she left or died? I hoped she had died because I suspect my father would have tracked HER to the ends of the earth and probably murdered her rather than live with the shame of people knowing his wife deserted him. I made a mental note to research the obituaries for the last few years in Kyabram, Australia just to make sure he hadn’t done away with her. But that could wait. Right now, I needed to follow that man and check out where he was staying or where he was travelling to. Hopefully, he planned no more than a short stop in this town. Best I pack and take my bag with me in case it was him. I didn’t want to risk him following me back here. I sighed, it had taken years for me to relax enough to join this community and not be ever watchful in case my father came looking for me. The longer time went on, the more assured I was that he had given up trying to find me.

The last episode was about 4 years ago when I realized there was a private detective following me. Dressed in something akin to a safari suit, and sporting a wide brimmed straw hat, he did not match my picture of a PI but when he confronted me in the local bar in Sanur, I knew my days in that area were numbered. I offered the guy all of my savings if he promised he would not report my whereabouts to my father. He refused so I shipped out that night and never went back. I slept rough for two weeks just so he couldn’t track me through the accommodation options available on this beautiful island.

Now, all my nightmares about my father finding me seemed to have coalesced into one humid afternoon of terror renewed by the sound of that ‘ocker’ curse here in my paradise of anonymity. The world under my feet was rumbling and I wanted to run, again. But at forty years of age, I should be able to stand up to this man. After decades alone and living in a vastly different environment to the one I grew up in, surely I could find it in myself to say hello. Just to satisfy my curiosity about how he found me before I disappeared again. If it took him this long to find me then I knew I could disappear again, and it would take him longer to find me next time. That thought gave me confidence.

If I followed him, I could see where he was staying, maybe observe him for a while before deciding if I wanted to speak to him. I nodded to myself, a side effect of living alone for so many years.

‘Jay!’ Leona’s voice arrowed through my thoughts and found their target right near my heart centre. My body rippled with the intensity of what I felt for her. She stood at the bottom of the stairs that lead to the room where I had been living for the last decade. Sunlight caught the highlights in her thick bundle of blonde hair pulled loosely into her version of an up-do. She was colourful in her tie-dyed top and skirt, bought locally from women who made their living from these bold and colourful fashion items.

She was smiling until I turned to look at her. Something in my face made her take the steps two at a time and run to stand in front of me. ‘Jay?’ she reached her hands to my face, turned my head to make sure I was engaged with her eyes.

I shook my head, stepped back, unsure how to deal with this sudden clash of my past with what I thought of as my future. Her face registered hurt and pangs of regret pinged along my nerve endings, reminding me that she was unaware of so much in my past. Despite that fact, she accepted me wholeheartedly even as she discovered that I am a damaged man; unable to commit and afraid of almost everything.

But now, how to explain this? I started packing, taking only essential items so I was done in less than 7 minutes. Leona watched me in silence, standing in the doorway with her hands spread in front of her in a silent question.

‘Two days, love, gimme two days. If I am not back by then, you know what to do.’

I hadn’t shared much about my past, but she had been perceptive when we met and, without realising it, we had discussed a plan for how to disappear quickly if it was necessary.

      She stepped aside as I left then put her hand on my forearm.

‘Two days, Jay. See you then.’

I opened my mouth to speak but no words escaped. She shook her head at me, ‘I know, you would say sorry if you could.’ Her smile was taut but she spoke with her eyes; those deep green eyes that reminded me of the Balinese waters. Then she stood on the balcony and watched me as I weaved my way through the market and off in the direction that loud Australian had taken. I pulled my baseball cap low over my eyes to shade my face from the sun but also to disguise me in case the Australian wasn’t as far ahead as I thought.

      Out past the market, the street pulsed with traffic and pedestrians. Here in Bali people cared nought for order when it came to crossing streets. Tourists and locals alike swerved between vehicles as they rushed from one side of the road to another. The heat exacerbated the stench from the sewers. Their contents spewed acrid vapours through the grates and along the small rivulets that tracked beside the pedestrian pathways. Where was he? I scanned left and right, looking for his straw hat among the many heads moving away from me along the footpath.

Bobbing as he strode, I caught sight of a straw hat that looked like it might be him. I followed at a safe distance, keeping my head down as I moved with the human tide of foot traffic. A car backfired within metres making me lose focus on my prey. When I looked again, the bobbing straw hat had disappeared. Dammit!

I stepped across to the side of the footpath nearest the small shops. Ahead was the Denpesar Convention centre with its luxury hotel attached. I walked past the doors and peeked without looking like I was staring. But the shine on the glass doors made it impossible to see anything but my own reflection. Should I go in? I scanned the street again and could not see the hat anywhere.

I braced myself and went in. As I opened the door, a distinctive voice rose above the whispering quiet of this hotel foyer. ‘Strewth, love, how do I get to the restaurant?’

I watched as the tall Australian turned side-on to the counter and pointed a fat finger at the brochure he held. The tiny Indonesian receptionist shook her head, smiled, and spoke softly while pointing to the left of reception. He harrumphed loudly and moved off in that direction.

I decided to wait a beat before following him. Once he disappeared, I took the same path and walked through a narrow corridor that led directly to a well-appointed eating area. Several waiters in smart turquoise jackets and black pants hovered near patrons or served meals from a moving trolley covered with shiny cloches.

My quarry was seated with a menu in his hands when I went to the maître d’ stand asking for a table for one. He smiled and I followed him to a table not far from the Australian, careful to avoid showing my face as I passed within a few feet of him..

I was part way through my meal when the Australian tried to catch my attention.

‘Where you from?’ he asked loudly. I stopped with my fork mid-air, aware that he was speaking to me as though I was a stranger. I was both relieved and inexplicably angry.

‘I’m a local,’ I said with my fake British accent.

‘Ha!’ he slapped his thigh loudly. ‘Son, you are as Indonesian as my Aunt Fanny!’ he laughed. Again, my hand froze, mid-air. Son? Was he playing with me? I remembered my accent and replied using my fake accent, ‘I’m from Bristol. I moved here when my father died.’

The twinkling blue eyes darkened. ‘You left your mother to come and live here?’ His tone accused me of abandoning my mother and unwittingly picked at my guilt for leaving her to deal with his brutality, alone. I shook my head, took a breath before I replied. Remembering her vacant look sometimes, I replied with the first thought that popped into my head. ‘She died a long time ago.’

‘Oh!’ he grunted between mouthfuls.

I stopped eating, stared at my plate, hoping he would take the hint. When I looked up, he was staring at me, or more specifically, he was staring at the anchor tattoo on my wrist. Shite! I panicked and my heart beat a tom-tom rhythm, fearing his recognition yet daring him to acknowledge me as his son.

He studied my face, took in my long hair in dreadlocks and my nose piercing. He shook his head slowly not taking his eyes off me. Guilt and terror fought side by side as he sat and stared and stayed silent. I couldn’t eat any more and I waved off the waiter when he came to take my half empty plate.

I was almost convinced he wasn’t my father until he flicked part of this fringe away from his eyes. In that moment, my fear broke through to the surface and he registered it. His eyes widened then narrowed as his lips puckered into a thin line.

For a moment I held my breath wondering what he would say or do next. Should I leave now? Just take my rucksack and get the hell out of Dodge while I still had a decent set of teeth and my sanity and my lifeblood pumping? With enough people around my father would not dare attack me. I had to leave. Now. Get as far away as possible. Never look back and pray that he could not move fast enough to keep up with me. I knew plenty of places around Denpasar where I could disappear for two days until it was time to meet Leona. She knew where our meeting place was.

We stared at each other for a long time. Then he bared his teeth and his temper came to the surface, just as I rose to swipe my backpack and leave. I was barely out the door before the commotion started. A loud crash sent tables flying, followed by women shrieking and the sound of cutlery falling onto the ceramic floor. I was almost out the door, but I turned to see if he was still following. He wasn’t. Instead, he lay on the floor between the tables where we had just eaten, clutching his chest with his breath labouring in a ghastly way.

I stopped, torn between staying or going. On the floor, people gathered around him. One of the waiters approached me and waited for me to notice him.

‘You know this man?’ he peered at me, motioning towards the chaos behind him. A simple question really that provoked more questions than answers. I didn’t want to tell the waiter we were related. I knew who he was, but he did not know me. Not really. Our blood bond was old, cold, blighted and nothing I would willingly lay claim to. The waiter was searching my face, waiting for me to assist.

Against my will, I walked back to where my father lay gasping for breath, his eyes wild as he fought to take one more breath. The man next to me used his mobile to dial 112. An ambulance would be here shortly but by the look on my father’s face, it may be too late.

I wanted to grab his hand and hold it. When I did, it was clammy and thicker than I remembered it. In that moment I also remembered how this hand, smaller and leaner back then, had taken mine as I shook with fright when a bull had escaped and run wild in our town. Even now I could hear its heavy snorting and the feeling of being rooted to the spot. When I skidded too fast down the slide in our backyard and plunged headlong into the brown dirt at the end, he had hauled me up gently and wiped my tears and dusted my knees. And these hands had dampened a cloth and wiped my feverish face when I contracted measles and mum was out of town visiting her sister. These same hands had driven me from home and away from my country.

I let go and started CPR on his chest, unsure why I was so desperate to make him keep breathing. I don’t know how long I worked on him before the crowd suddenly opened a pathway for two men in white shirts. They sank to the floor and checked my father’s vitals before peeling open his shirt and charging a defibrillator. One placed two patches on my father’s chest before yelling, ‘Bersih!

After three more attempts, with my father arching from the voltage running though his body, he started breathing again. But he didn’t open his eyes. Maybe I would never hear him say “Strewth” or “Bush week” again. What I wanted to hear from him was, I knew, way more than he could ever say. He never said sorry when I was a kid, why did I suddenly need to hear it now? Sadness washed through me knowing I would never hear the words I needed to move on with my life, to be a man who is self-respecting, unafraid of vulnerability. Leona had taught me that to be fully present with her I needed to let go of my past. And here it was, laying on a cool floor in a Balinese restaurant among a crowd of strangers.

 Without knowing, I sighed deeply, suddenly realizing with certainty that what he did was unforgivable. No amount of sorry could ever repair the damage I endured, physically or emotionally, at the hands of his well-intentioned fathering. At my sigh, he opened his eyes. When he found me among the crowd his once twinkling blue eyes hardened then narrowed as his top lip pulled back in a sneer. With an effort, he drew one long rasping breath and spat his last venomous words, ‘You are dead to me!’

He never opened his eyes again. Never saw me again. Not that he really saw me anyway. I am in shock that death appeared without warning. There is a disturbing coldness about its sudden arrival and its permanent company. At the same time, I am deeply surprised by my need to feel connected just one more time, even though our kinship had long since withered and rotted on the vines of disconnection. Had there ever been room in my life for a man who beat me almost lifeless? If I had been man enough, strong enough, tough enough, could I have eventually come to terms with his brand of fathering? Could I have forgiven him enough to stay in touch? I doubt it. Especially after his last words.

With his death, I hope to be free of my past. I am on my way to meet Leona. Her green eyes and her laugh promise a future of acceptance and connection and I am a better man for understanding that a little part of me died and was reborn today. For now, I know what my first words to Leona will be. ‘I’m sorry.’