Before our births, void of choice, we became part of the story,
During our lives, with a choice, we can't escape the story,
After death, abandoned choice, the story continues to seep.
- Andrew Mansell

He Wanted a Son

Beyond the lush farmland of Sandy Point and towering above Shallow Inlet, the Prom presents itself as a greener pasture despite its seeming isolation from the mainland. I can’t believe it has been 20 years since I watched the Prom dissipate the mist that grips with vapour like hands.

I would say the happiest times of my childhood were spent here on the farm with my seven sisters and mum while dad was away at war. The combined muscle of my not quite teenage slim frame and eight females was never enough to keep 600 acres of farmland in check. Fortunately for us, Uncle Jack helped mum with the heavy farm work despite having to maintain his own farm 3 miles away in the Fish Creek direction. Every time I offered to help Jack fix the plough or hunt the foxes that picked off our lambs, he patted me on the head and told me to go and look after my mother – suited me.

I would walk down to Shallow Inlet with my fishing rod and a pocket full of live worms. I’d catch the best flathead when the perfectly curled waves from Bass Straight broke and made their way to me on the inward tide. My mum was always more than grateful for the tucker. Once, I proudly brought back a flathead that was as long as a newborn lamb and she said,

‘Robert, we’ll be eating, nothing but fish for a week. You’ve saved us a chook again.’

While I fished there was plenty of waiting time between catches. I would stare endlessly at the Prom, transfixed by the magical rainbows that glittered through the surrounding mist. In the evenings I would paint the Prom’s fading colours and in the mornings, its fading darkness.

My sisters, all older than me, began to admire my short stories about the Prom. Catherine the eldest of my sisters, born ten years before me, would correct my gramma and offer bits of editing advice. My favourite story that I can recall telling my sisters was checking for a letter from dad at the post office. I told that fishermen who saw my sad face would offer to sail me over to the Prom, to cheer me up. I told of footprints on the beach that looked like dad’s and how I followed their trail for hours along beaches, into dense bush, between boulders, down gullies into clearings and back again in a huge loop but never finding dad. I hoped so much to fish with dad and the Prom was the faraway land he had gone to. We never got one letter.

I would also say that the worst times of my life, ended my childhood on this farm. Dad returned in 1946, a war hero. He didn’t talk about the war though, in fact he didn’t talk about anything, he simply demanded till he got his want. On my thirteenth birthday, with sticky fingers hindering my page turning, I read one my stories to mum and my sisters until dad interrupted us out on the veranda.

‘Robert,’ he said, ‘you’re thirteen now and it’s time you earned your keep. No more of your pussy footing around with fancy stories, you’re coming out to help me fix some fence posts. You hear me!’

‘Hang on a minute, I’m halfway through,’ I kept reading, naively.

‘Now,’ he shouted like I’d never heard before as his eyes focused on me like there was a prowling fox beneath them.

I kept on reading as best I could despite the uncomfortable hunger in my belly telling me to stop. I barely read another word. Dad ripped the pages I had carefully written and threw them onto the ground. In feeble retaliation I pushed him in the chest; I often wonder why I did? He then smacked me in the mouth, forcing me to the ground. I tried to play dead but he dragged me into the paddocks as if I was a lamb that had been shorn for the first time; leaving behind me a trail of my blood across the veranda.

Dad never swore in front of my sisters. He kept the swearing and his beatings for me.

‘Get up, you lazy fucking prick,’ he would say while hitting the side of my bed. When I did get up he would punch me in the arms and shoulders and tell me not to cry. I was only allowed breakfast if I chopped enough wood beforehand. With my bruised and aching arms, I often struggled to pick up the axe.

‘What are you made of boy? Bloody pus,’ he would scream and send me hungry to the fences, often kicking me up the backside with his army boots as I trudged away. Sitting down was painful and the blood on my undies was embarrassing.

‘I’ll make you harden the fuck up,’ he would say as I dug fence post holes. The tender blisters on my hands hadn’t a chance to peel before an even more painful set of new blisters developed, forcing me to meekly tap at the ground he wanted dug. I got no water till I finished and then he could throw the water into my sunburnt face leaving me on the brink of collapse. If it weren’t for mum, sneaking in late of an evening to feed me and tending to my wounds, I surely would have perished.

The Prom, the backdrop that had been my inspiration for my childish imagination and expression was now just an unwanted extra in a silent movie. Whenever a spare moment of respite from Dad surfaced and I happened to be facing the Prom, I didn’t see anything, I just looked. I began to see other things though. When leaning on a fence post as my father bent down to pull steel wire through, I imagined clobbering him over the head with a spade. Then there was the axe in the woodpile which I saw embedded between his eyes. I also thought about pushing him into the dam and holding him down to the bubbles stopped. I knew he couldn’t swim but I doubted that the struggle would be easily won as he was bigger and stronger than me. Even so, this seemed the least messy and most likely method I could get away with. You know, there’s still no police station in Sandy Point and I thought, by the time the police did get here, he would have completely decomposed, giving me immunity to any wrong doing.

I didn’t have it in me. Sure I could watch flathead wriggle and flip to their deaths but to watch a man do the same; scared me out of my comfort zone despite my imaginings of doing so. Killing a man, my own father, was therefore, out of my league. I did my best to put up with dad in the hope he would snap out of his war and return to how he was before the army took him. The memory of his proud face when I caught my first flathead somehow gave me hope, albeit false hope.

You know, the look on dad’s face when he’d unexpectedly wake me at 3 in the morning and wanted me ready for battle, still haunts me. I couldn’t take dad’s war any more. Between midnight and dusk on my 18th birthday; I left this farm. I hitched a ride on a logging truck and ended up in Wonthaggi. There was plenty of work in the coal mine so I stayed.

On the surface my life as a coal miner appeared dull. In reality it was even duller but I felt safe working underground, far away from dad. I worked long days, every day, guided by the whistle and got used to the company of men who also worked long and hard for their own reasons. When we weren’t shovelling coal, we would be playing cards and drinking hard to rinse the coal dust away from our throats. Being a bit under the weather every morning helped to blank out the fear of heading underground.

Mary, a local nurse, changed my life that was no doubt heading to an early resting place. She said that I was different to the other blokes, told me I was just tagging along. She could see a distance in my eyes. We got close, real close and when Greg was born in March 1965, I quit the drink. It was literally like coming out of the ground. I had been a forgotten seed buried too deep until the elements around me were finally strong enough to clear the pile of dirt from above me, allowing me to sprout in the sunlight. Mary got me reading and shared some literature about the trauma veterans suffered during the war. My dad was a victim of circumstance, of what he saw as an honourable duty to secure my future, the future of this land. Unfortunately my future was ruined for a while in the aftershock. They say the war officially ended in 1945 but those involved know it unofficially rages on. Still, I couldn’t keep blaming dad, the army, and war in general. I came to forgive my dad but never told him.

It was only last year, September 7th 1967 to be exact; I read my dad’s death notice and decided to return to Sandy Point.  I’m amazed, mum kept my little stories tucked away in her bottom draw all these years. I can’t wait to read them to Greg. Before that though, I’m going to show him how to properly tie a hook on a fishing line and catch some flathead.

The prom, as mystical as ever, still seems isolated in the distance but I know now of its connection with the mainland, even if that connection is only a thin strip of land, a solitary lifeline that ties me to my dad.

Andrew Mansell, May 2012.


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