Letter to Lily

It is Fathers Day 2012 and I am posting this for Lily Rae Hogg, who will never know her father and who I hope to meet someday.

Dear Lily,

Your father, Andrew, was my best friend for twelve years, and so I feel it is important that you know that he was not responsible for your name. Your mother was quite insistent that Rae was the traditional middle name for women in your maternal family, but pairing it with ‘Lily’ in front and ‘Hogg’ in back has the unfortunate effect of making you sound like a boot scooter. Still, in Townsville that probably isn’t the problem that it would be elsewhere. I hope it hasn’t been a burden to you so far.

You were born on the hottest night of summer and very quickly, urged on by the heat and the need to get outside, where it was cooler and there might be some breeze. At 10pm Andrew and I, sure we would never sleep, were watching the heat lightning out the front door, where our little green tree snake wrapped herself around the stair rail gasping for breath. At 6am he rang me from Townsville hospital to say you had arrived, small, angry and vociferous.

I am assuming that you have already heard the version of the story that places Andrew as a drug addict, an irresponsible father, a standard modern love story where the man is prey to his substance habit and therefore an unfit father, and the mother is a martyred being struggling against circumstance and a malevolent universe. Townsville is a great setting for these stories. In the heat and the humidity there is a reluctance to examine anything less banal and clichéd than the most obvious interpretation of any story, and the weather creates a languor, a disinclination to introspection. The stickiness makes all things move slowly, not least the human mind, and any kind of self-examination or consideration of cause and effect is too much effort for an overheated brain.
One side of your genetic heritage comes from Andrew. One day you will become interested in this small strand of your own history, and biology, and genetics, good and bad. Maybe in your troubled adolescence. At least you won’t have to pretend you were adopted, like the rest of us do at some point.

I knew a different person to the one your mother has told you about, or not told you about, and I knew him in different environments. Here is my pedigree: my friendship with Andrew survived three cars of mine, eight cars of his, five communal households, six companion animals (unfortunately including Chachiwawa the tabby cat who was torn apart by pit-bulls belonging to the bikies next door, and whose pitiful furry remains I had to remove from the scene of the crime before Andrew would go back) and sundry failed relationships, including your mother. He came with the recommendation of two deeply impressive women, Richelle and Penny, my camping companions and playmates at the time, who didn’t suffer foolish men gladly. It was a rich time for friendships in my life.

When he was little, Andrew knew that there was a horse that lived in the wooden box under his parents bed. The horse could fly, and it was bigger when it was outside, then smaller when it went back inside the box. I don’t think he had ever heard of Pegasus – your grandfather was much more enamoured of the real and solid than of the mythological, and made-up stories were not helpful when one grew up – but the winged horse was there for years, long past the point when most children believe that the monster is in the cupboard, that the creatures of imagining are real and tangible. Then one day there was just a box. The flying horse had gone.

Andrew was a reader of the most eclectic range of literature possible. He was the only person I have ever known who read Patrick White for light relief, although he once commented that even though White was a fascinating man, life with him must have been hell for Manoli. Both his love of good books and his equally passionate love for movies that could, at best, be described as B-grade are not dissimilar to the need for chemically altered moods. Both are ways of dismissing reality, or setting it at a different angle. I have never been convinced that reading is not a drug, although my own addiction, to the printed word and the kindle, does not stretch to the world of lesbian vampire zombies in seventies Goth garb, or post-apocalyptic landscapes rendered in papier mache.

Andrew came to information technology late, but quickly outdistanced my vague attempts to make my ancient laptop bend to my will, with the same patience and zeal he brought to the maintenance of old European cars. He persevered with my slow, unreliable country connection for days in bits and pieces, mainly so that we could play with an interactive map of Peter Pinney’s 1950s journey across Europe and the middle east. Peter Pinney was Andrew’s hero – he did minimalism beautifully, travelling with only a shirt and his shaving gear, but he was capable of fixing things and charming people to smooth his way through the world. We read his descriptions of a Calcutta crowd in the build-up to the monsoon out loud as we waited, on a -2 degree morning, for Acrobat to load.

When Andrew decided himself that altered consciousness was, in fact, a bad thing, he stopped using heroin in the shortest time I had ever seen anyone manage. Our minds were clearer, sharper in the cold. It seemed easier to make the possibility of change real. None of the normal reasons for attempting to stop using heroin seemed to apply – he wasn’t stealing, he hadn’t overdosed, no one had intervened, or threatened to break his kneecaps if he didn’t pay back money, he had just decided it was the right time. I wish now that I had asked more about the decisions he made- asked if maybe he wanted to be able to see you without difficulty in the future, if that was part of his reasoning. I think that he realised that any chance he had of further contact, not only with you but with his older daughter too, was dependent on him ceasing to use heroin.

There is a certain regret about giving up a drug. Cocteau said it best when he remarked ‘the dead drug leaves a ghost behind…at certain hours it haunts the house’ (1958:60). All the articles I religiously pored over through this period were not optimistic. Recidivism rates were high, long term abstinence was unlikely. I kept our more experimental friends away. Apparently the presence of social norms ‘defining use as desirable or appropriate’ (Siegal, 2005: 298) is disastrous. Although Siegal also said that the social environment of overcrowded slum areas is where one finds ‘a cultural atmosphere conducive to and tolerant of a range of deviant behaviours’. Perhaps there was a reason why medical journal articles were proving less helpful than Cocteau and de Quincy.

I wonder what he said to himself. I imagine him, as I so often saw him, a multi-meter in one hand and a screwdriver in the other, except instead of advancing the timing of a 1961 Peugeot 403 or repairing the carburettor of a Lancia Beta, he is making minute adjustments to his psyche. He was the only person I know to have performed his own intervention. We were amazed, disbelieving, and, when it became apparent that this strange approach to self-hypnosis has worked, deeply impressed. I never asked him if he used a feeler gauge to re-set the gaps in his heart that heroin had filled. I wish I had, now.

The last time I spoke to Andrew he said he’d text me his new Brisbane address so I couldn’t forget it . We were both capable of confusing or reversing the most basic of travel directions, becoming lost in a dazed inability to tell our right from our left even in familiar territory. We both said we were looking forward to the weekend. We intended to eat as much Indian food as humanly possible at a thali house which fascinated him because it was oddly located in a run-down shopping mall in Annerley.

Your paternal grandfather and I find each other unbearable. His dogmatic voice on the other end of the phone line had plagued me for years, always critical, always lodging a complaint. I was so busy trying to tune out most of what he was saying that the news he was trying to relay this time filtered through very slowly. It is strange that I spent years worrying about Andrew. Worrying about him dying of a drug overdose; in a car accident brought about by un-roadworthy mechanical part whose existence I was unaware of; in a ferry accident off Goa; in a fall from a motorbike ridden along the sliding red clay heights and the cumbrous underbrush of the CREB track, in some kind of dramatic way, some way that really was untimely. In the end it was not anything dramatic, not anything to do with far places, or vehicles, or the hazy realm beyond immediacy where drugs take you. It was nothing indicative of the way he had lived his life. The dying was separate from the living – a blood clot in the lung. At the florist, making my request for a wreath of orange gerberas, the florist told me she had made wreaths for two people dead from blood clots in the past week alone. No one had bought them orange gerberas, though.

So here is your father. He loved animals, and distrusted men who disliked cats, because ‘men that hate cats are control freaks – a dog will do what it’s told, but a cat never will’. He had no hidden agenda, no manipulative urge, no ego-driven narrative. He would do things for people because these things were easy for him, and made a difference in someone else’s life – fix their cars, look after their animals, cook for them or give them books. He reacted to the dogmatic gloom of your paternal grandfather by always seeing both sides of any argument, by refusing to acknowledge any gender divide and by rejecting any form of materialism. He maintained that real men wore pink shirts, and that you could always find out how to fix or build anything by asking someone.

My garden and my life are full of things that Andrew fixed and built, because mending and creating was what he did best, and the recycled hinges on my gate are still painted a glossy, vivid scarlet.
Love, Franki

Living somewhere else

I am feeling fond of rural life at the moment. This is a state of being that comes and goes, depending on the weather, where I am working and whether or not I have had any fights with right-wing long-term residents about matters political in the previous day. I should be talking myself into moving to a city, or at least a regional centre, where I can get work that might stimulate my brain, but at the moment I feel springtime lazy and content.

In 2006, encouraged by my late best friend, Andrew, I accidentally bought a house. A little pale green witches cottage, where you can’t bash the walls in a temper or renovate because of all the asbestos, with a garden that my father claims is pure Horticulture 1. The house caught on fire two days after I signed the preliminary contract. Andrew pointed out that it was a pre-fire, designed to statistically decrease the chances of our pyromaniacal tendencies causing another fire too soon. It took eight months for the place to be rendered habitable again. One of the problems in regional Australia is the speed at which tradies work.

The house is in a tiny village, where weekend tourist traffic can sometimes be seen circling the one block slowly, looking in vain for a shop. There are line-dancing classes at the village hall on a Friday night. The local member spends his time on the hustings stirring jam for little old ladies while listening to complaints about the state of the main road, which spans two states, apparently relieving either state of any obligation to maintain the bitumen. The biggest excitement this August is a heated debate about the role of the local tip.

We are in the middle of a circle formed by five National Parks. The circle is filled in with wineries and local-food type businesses – a boutique jam maker, olive growers who import their olive products from Spain and sell them at an exorbitant mark-up, chocolate makers, small cafes. The winters are bleak but short and the night skies are beautiful.

It is always easy to get someone to feed our animals if we need to go away, and since acquiring a rescue mastiff I haven’t had to lock the doors. The arguments about the ‘future of the tip’ amuse me. If I run out of reading material I walk to a friends place and borrow some more. When my family visit they camp on the nature strip, a quieter option than Girraween National Park over Easter, but still within striking distance.

I think about where I will go and live if I want a ‘real’ job. I try and see myself living somewhere else. An urban centre with lots of free live music, and bookshops and markets. I’d like to live somewhere where there is a cinema for a change and I covet public transport, although everyone I know in Brisbane snorts at this. The dogs are big, lazy dogs. They’d be fine if we walked them every day. We probably won’t be able to take the alpacas, though.

There is a problem with this idea of urban bliss. I can’t actually see it in my mind. You have to be able to stand somewhere and look around and see yourself stepping out of a dwelling and going about your day. The only place lately where this has happened lately was a wildly impractical village in Poland, so little it is only on the most detailed of local maps. Kruhlik is close to the Belarus border, snuggled on the edge of a dam that was supposed to provide water for a large area of North-eastern Poland, until engineers discovered a geological problem with transporting the water. By Australian standards it is an enormous dam. Twitchers, Nordic walkers and families with fifty children and large dogs seem to be the main visitors, and it is difficult to see one side from the other. It has the kind of winters where elderly people and children die suddenly. I bet they have arguments about which community group should be maintaining the bird hide.

There are blueberries and raspberries growing wild in the woods in the summer, and, a little later in the year, mushrooms. There are rumoured to be elk, and there are definitely red deer, because I surprised one chomping happily away in a clearing in the forest. There are bicycle trails everywhere, looking sandy and quiet and covered in a chiaroscuro of shifting light and shade. If I lived there I could learn the names of all the wildflowers that blanket hollows and spill out of crevasses in the middle of summer.

Actually, I was supposed to be talking myself into living somewhere else where I could get a ‘real’ job. Clearly I am not ready for a move somewhere urban just yet.

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