I was eleven years old, and I opened the batting for the Brushgrove under-twelve cricket team. Making the jump from the under-ten team had been tough, and I had a watchful, defensive style that meant Mr. Little thought I should open the batting. I hated the bouncers, the tight field, the fizz of the new ball as it rushed by, the feeling you couldn’t open your shoulders and play an aggressive stroke.
But today was different. We were playing in Yamba on an athletics track, the pitch wet with mist and the boundaries short. I took eight off the first over. Twelve off the second. As a batsman, it was my finest hour. I was set to make a high of thirty for the first time (that was the most you could score in a game of under-twelves) and lead our team to victory. Then a low roll of cloud came in and washed the game out.
I sat in Dad’s Statesman, my cricket whites steaming, staring ahead at the maroon-coloured dash.
“What’s the matter, kiddo?”
“Nothing.” Silence as we crossed Oyster Channel. “It’s just, I finally make some runs and then the game gets washed out. It’s crap!”
I crossed my arms in protest. Dad turned the radio down.
“I thought you looked great out there today.”
“That’s what I mean!” I slapped the seat. “I finally made some runs and it didn’t matter!”
“I dunno. You made me really proud today.”
“So, can we get fish and chips on the way back?”
“What do you think, I’m made of money?”
That never happened, by the way. My batting in Yamba was spectacular, and the fish and chips from the co-op always great and greasy. I just never had a dad who said he was proud of me.
My first dad, Donald Simpson, my sister’s father, never took me to sports on the weekend. He was a kind-hearted drunk who never thought of me as his child, because I was not biologically his. He was my only male role model until I was six or seven, and when he died of cancer thirteen years later it didn’t occur to me to attend his funeral. He was just that rat-faced idiot who tried to break my family up.
I am nineteen, and I am reading Plato’s Republic on my father’s trampoline. Dad lives in Bellambi, and his wife and pre-teen son have gone for a jog down to the beach.
“Plato.” I look up and Dad is offering me a cold bottle of Tooheys New. I take the bottle and keep talking. “I don’t think I get it. Like, he’s saying that democracy is a necessary evil? I’m supposed to do a tutorial write-up, but I don’t even know if I’m getting it.” I take a swig of the beer. “It’s freaking me out.”
“No human thing is of serious importance, son.”
“I mean, it’s just a mid-term assessment. The stakes are low. Don’t sweat the small stuff, kiddo.”
“Umm, sure, but that doesn’t really help me right now.”
He gives me his one-eyebrow-higher-than-the-other look.
“Fine. You eaten?”
My father inclines his beer toward mine and we clink the beverages. He is calm and assertive, kind and proud. I hope to be like him and considered as his equal one day.
“Thanks, Dad. That’d be great.”
As you might guess, this also never happened. I did read Plato on my father’s trampoline, but when he came out to talk to me it was to berate me for the stupidity of my degree. No son of his, he remarked, was going to grow up to be an overeducated, underpaid teacher with a head full of bullshit. Two weeks later, he threatened to beat me up unless I helped out around the house.
I met Ken, my biological father, through a girly magazine. Mum sent in the one photo we had of him, this Tony Danza-wannabe, with short dark hair, big teeth, a brown polo shirt. And he replied. From the age of twelve to twenty-one he terrified me, wolf-whistling at girls on the street, picking fights with guys in traffic, telling me all I needed to succeed was a good kick up the arse. Ken lived in a two-bedroom fibro shack by the train tracks in Bellambi. He drove a white Holden Kingswood and ran a small business selling hi-fi speaker stands out of his two-door garage. When I didn’t visit him in 2005 for my birthday, he stopped calling. I haven’t heard from him since.
In 2007, when my mum and grandpa showed up for graduation, they got lost on the way and missed the ceremony. As I stepped out into the foyer, Mum ran up to me crying, clutching me like a lifeline.
“Oh my baby boy, I am so sorry.” Pa was standing behind, his arms folded across his chest.
“What were you thinking, hiding the auditorium like this?”
I rolled my eyes. “Sorry, Pa.” I gave him a hug. “I thought you’d had another prang on the way down.”
“Don’t you talk to me about accidents, young man. You still owe me $300 for my radiator, don’t you know?”
“Leave it alone, you two,” Mum says. “Show us this fancy bit of paper.” She unrolls the tube and does a double take. “Graduated with distinction? Oh my god!”
“Jeez Mum, turn it down.”
I hug her as she’s crying into my dumb gown, and I take off my mortarboard and hand it to Pa as he’s watching us embrace. A couple of other families are having moments like this, and all I can think of is how crappy the complimentary orange juice is, looking over at it in those dumb glass jugs, and how I wish the university had bought proper juice ’cause Pa hated that fake orange shit.
This also didn’t happen. Pa was crushed by a 4WD in 2006. I had returned to Grafton to visit friends and borrowed his car. Two days later, he was riding his pushbike to the club and an old woman hit him as he was cycling through a roundabout. He probably would have lived if the woman hadn’t panicked and backed over him. The last time I saw him he was being airlifted to the Gold Coast and I felt like the helicopter was a submarine and I was standing at the bottom of a cold, dark sea.
A year after his cremation, I returned to Wollongong and applied to graduate. The ceremony, I was told, would cost $130 for me to attend with two guests and dress in cap and gown. Mum told me she couldn’t afford it; that it was a rip off. I agreed. My degree came in the mail, and I took the cardboard tube and opened it in the lounge room of the sharehouse I was squatting in. I was sitting on a beautiful old couch, green velvet and stained wood, destroyed by carelessness and time.
My tall friend with the hat walked into the kitchen.
“Is everything okay?”
“Yeah man,” I said, “but I did just graduate.”
Daniel East is an Australian writer living in Paris. His work has been published in Going Down Swinging, Cordite, SBS Comedy, Pantograph Punch and Contrappasso. He hopes you are well.
Matt Bissett-Johnson is a freelance cartoonist, illustrator, animator and musician. He won the Stanley Award for Cartoonist Animator in 2015 from the Australian Cartoonists’ Association. More of his animations can be seen on Flonkers Channel on YouTube.