Dad’s 80th birthday party was held late last century in his favourite restaurant, a cavernous space in a middle-class Melbourne suburb with a tiled floor for easy cleaning, possibly even hosing down, and little in the way of warmth, charm or decoration. Clearly, you were here to eat until you were full.
Waiters balanced huge platters of food on their shoulders – grilled meats and fish and salads and dips and bread, bread, bread – delivering them to long tables of grandparents and their grandchildren, their daughters and sons-in-law, sons and daughters-in-law, and second and third cousins and their partners. The place forbade people from bringing their own drinks- instead you got them at the bar, or had them delivered to the table after a lengthy delay- and each time the waiters ventured down the aisles they were accosted by 10 burly customers, hands grabbing their shirts and threatening to unbalance the heaped trays. My water! Where’s my Diet Coke? I asked for a cappuccino! It’s been 10 minutes already and I’m dying of thirst!
Dad, on this, his day, had smuggled in orange juice and mineral water in a string bag. He’d stashed the bottles under his chair, from where he sneaked them out in full view of his grandchildren, his dark-brown eyes winking loudly: for if there can be such a thing as a winking noise, Dad had it in his repertoire. He was playing the big man, as my mother might have put it, a big shot with a string bag - as if this would fool anybody.
My mother’s voice was in my ear, but not because she was sitting beside me. Her voice lived in my head. She had been dead for 21 years. She didn’t make it to her 50th birthday, much less her 80th. Each time Dad reached a new milestone I did the calculation. Why couldn’t it be she who was celebrating, and he who was lying dead in the ground?
I know you’re not supposed to wish people dead. Was it his fault that he had a new wife and a new life? They had been together for at least 22 years - another calculation I would do, justifying my outrage on Mama’s behalf. I have always been good at calculations.
Mama had found a photograph of a strange woman along with a small hand mirror. They had been secured by a rubber band to the underside of the sun visor on the passenger side of our family car, a white 1963 Ford Falcon that Mama and Dad were still driving in the mid-1970s. The woman was standing by a dark-green shrub, smiling at the photographer, who may have been Dad.
She was attractive, I remember thinking, much too attractive for him, surely, a short man with greying black hair slicked straight back from his forehead. The girlfriend, as we came to think of her, was several years older but more vital-looking than Mama, who’d had chronic myeloid leukaemia for a couple of years by then.