The worst thing

Luke was nowhere to be seen when I arrived at the food bar. I stood amazed, then pirouetted frantically hoping that my desire to see him standing there clutching a bag of donuts might make him appear. There were only a few people and none of them were small and blond. A pit opened in my stomach.

 

I have a therapist. Once a week, I sit in front of him and tell him how I feel. He starts each session with, ‘How has your week been?’ and I spill over with anger and hurt at what Jenny, my ex-partner, has done this time. I first went to him when she stopped my mid-week visits to our son Luke. She said they were too disruptive. Since then it has been one incursion into my relationship with Luke after another. Phone calls are ‘disruptive’ too. If I write him letters she returns them. Not so long ago, he spent half of every week with me. Now, when I drop Luke back at Jenny’s, I have to park out the front of her house and say goodbye to him at the foot of the drive, watch him disappear through the gate with his little backpack. Under no circumstances am I to drive up her driveway. This decree is in her latest letter.

‘It’s like fucking Hitler,’ I say to the therapist. ‘Before anyone knew it he had half of Europe.’

 

Last weekend I took Luke to the football. When he got up, I made him put on his Carlton jumper. I pointed to the flag I bought him. ‘You can wave that whenever they score a goal.’ Luke shrugged and said, ‘Der.’ He started playing with his warrior spinning tops. He was writing in a little notebook, keeping track of which top won the most battles.

The last time I took Luke out into the park to play kick to kick, I tried to teach him how to hold the ball for a drop punt and a torpedo. He preferred to drop the ball lengthwise across his foot and kick it high in the air so that he could mark his own kick. I pressed him to make leads and have shots at goal, but he lost interest and said he was tired. When I insisted, he got upset and I felt like a bad father as well as being an every-second-weekend one.

Around midday, I was ready to head to the ground, only a short walk across Prince’s Park. I tempted Luke with the promise of chips and hot donuts. ‘We can kick the footy on the ground after the game,’ I said. ‘We’ll get in a bit of practice in the park beforehand.’ Luke didn’t acknowledge what I said and I fought the fear that he was already a casualty in his mother’s war against me. He was looking through a pair of binoculars at all the activity around the stadium, visible from his bedroom window. ‘I can see someone under a truck,’ he said, ‘He’s been there for ages.’

At the last minute Luke told me that he didn’t want to go to the game. He said he was tired and wanted to watch all the people for a bit. He was sitting in a chair with the binoculars around his neck. His feet were swinging. He looked like Jenny. I ruffled his hair to erase the resemblance, but he pushed my hand away and said, ‘Don’t.’ I got angry and pulled the tickets out of my wallet, ‘We have to go mate.’ He shrugged and I knelt down beside him, still wrestling with my anger. I gave one of his tops a spin, but it died on the carpet.

‘Come on, I reckon the Blues might win this one.’ I put my hand on Luke’s shoulder, guided him towards the door. He shrugged off my touch, walked ahead of me and yelled from the doorway, ‘Dad, it’s raining.’

‘No it’s not.’

‘Are you blind?’

‘Spitting. Won’t kill us. Anyway, the seats are under cover.’

In the park, Luke stood under a tree and when I kicked the ball to him, he let it drop rather than trying to mark it. There was not even enough rain to wet the grass. He kicked mongrel punts that I had to chase. Out of the corner of my eye, I watched a boy who couldn’t have been more than six take an overhead mark and then hit his father on the chest with a perfect drop punt.

‘Hold it straight up and down mate – laces out.’

I kicked a long ball to Luke. It was a low, straight drop punt that spun perfectly. He was too slow to get out of the way and it hit him on the chest quite hard. His arms wrapped reflexively around the ball so that when he fell he had hold of it. It dropped out when he hit the ground. When I reached him, he was crying and clutching at breath. I rubbed his chest.

‘It’s okay mate you’re just winded. You took a great mark.’ I laughed and gave him a hug.

‘Stop laughing at me.’ Luke twisted out of my embrace and started running towards the house. I gave chase and stopped him just before the road.

‘Hey, that’s enough! Take a few deep breaths and you’ll be okay.’

‘Let me go! I wanna go home! I’ve got a headache.’

‘You’ll be right.’

‘I wanna go home.’ I didn’t dare ask him where home was in case he meant his mother’s place.

‘We’re going to the footy,’ I said

 

Luke was five when Jenny and I split. We remained friends. We said we didn’t want lawyers and acrimony. I used to sit in her kitchen while Luke bounced on his trampoline or hammered nails into a piece of wood. Jenny seemed to like teasing me. ‘Found yourself a good woman? She would want to know how to cook!’ I would smile and say, ‘Not yet. What’s for dinner here tonight?’ In this way, we pretended our relationship was over. Now we cannot even talk without hostility. I tell the therapist how she baits me, says things like, You’re not in a position of power and You’re becoming angry, I am going to hang up now.  I imitate her deliberate, complacent tone.

‘Of course I’m fucking angry,’ I scream at the therapist. ‘It’s my son, my fucking son! How dare she –’ The anger chokes me. I shake my head, hammer my fists into the chair. I think I might cry but the thought of crying prevents the tears from coming. The therapist asks whether I tell her this, tell her I’m angry, that she’s stealing my son away from me. I shake my head and say that I can’t. ‘She never gives me a chance. Anyway, she’s right, I have no power. She’s she got the big weapon and she’ll use it.’

 

Luke and I took our seats just as the Carlton players were lining up to run through the banner. The club theme song filled the arena. The rain had stopped. Luke surprised me by waving the flag when the team sprinted towards the goals in their warm up. I felt a sense of hope and pointed out the players to him. I explained who would have to fire if the Blues were to win. When the opposition emerged from the race, a woman directly behind us screamed, ‘Go Sydney!’ Her voice was loud and at such a pitch that it entered my ear drums and set up a vibration that made me shudder. Luke put his fingers in his ears and we looked at each other and laughed.

‘We’re in trouble if Sydney has a good day.’

Luke nodded his head with his fingers still in his ears. ‘It’s like a sound-torpedo.’

I put my arm around him and pulled him to me and gave him a tickle. He laughed the way he used to as toddler. A deep chuckle. He was right. It was exactly like a sound-torpedo.

By half-time the game was as good as over; Carlton had capitulated. Luke said he wanted to go the toilet. ‘Can we get some donuts?’ We left our seats and made our way through the crowd. I kicked myself for not making him go just before we left the house. Jenny would not have forgotten. Nor would she have bought him a bottle of lemonade or a bucket of chips on the way in.

At the toilets there was a constant flow of people going in and out. I towed Luke behind me so that he wasn’t swallowed by the crowd. He looked over his shoulder a couple of times while peeing. He was so small standing next to the men. When he was finished, I made him wash his hands and we joined the donut queue.

‘In my day they were cheaper,’ I said. ‘We used to buy them from a purple van outside the ground. I think it was six for a dollar twenty.’ This impressed him because his maths was good enough to work out the difference.

We made it back to the seats and ate the donuts, which were oily and sugary and not as nice as they were when I was a kid. When the players ran out onto the ground, I told Luke to sit tight while I went for a leak.

‘Why didn’t you go when I went?’

‘Just didn’t.’ I made to leave. ‘Won’t be a sec.’

Luke stood up to follow me. ‘I’ll come too.’

‘You’ll miss the start of the third quarter.’

He shrugged and reached for my hand. I stopped. You only see him every second weekend, I told myself.  You get to spend two days with him every fortnight. You hardly know who he is any more.

‘C‘mon.’

The people who hadn’t already made their way back to their seats were almost all Carlton supporters. The siren blared out a few times, filling me with a sense of urgency. The toilet block was not far from where we were sitting. When we got there Luke said, ‘I’ll wait here, it stinks in there.’

‘Come on, you can’t wait outside a toilet.’

Luke didn’t move and shrugged his shoulders again, a habit that was starting to annoy me intensely. ‘Can I’ve another donut?’

I swore under my breath, but dug into my pocket and pulled out five bucks. ‘The donut place is just there.’ I pointed to a sign just off to my right.

‘I can read, Dad.

‘Yeah. I’ll meet you there.’

 

The therapist practices somatic psychotherapy. During the body work, he tells me that I can share any thoughts that arise. I lie on the table and remember a time before Jenny and I split up. We went to a barbecue at a friend’s home in the suburbs. Jenny reluctantly agreed to come. People weren’t her strong point. My friend, Jim, had mounted a marquee in his huge backyard and wedged speakers in a sunroom window. Luke played happily with Jim’s boy who was roughly the same age. They had a set of plastic golf clubs and they took it in turns belting a fake golf ball around the yard. They stopped occasionally to grab a sausage. Jenny said she wasn’t hungry and stood by my side all through lunch and frowned.

Half way through a game of backyard cricket, Jenny took Luke home. She had been standing, arms folded, at extra cover. I hit a ball that Luke chased and Jenny gathered him up and said, ‘Well done, it’s time to go home now.’ Luke shook his head vigorously and played dead to slide out of her grasp. He ran to pick up the ball. Jenny looked at me, eyes hard and glaring. She was standing in the middle of the pitch with everyone in suspension around her.

‘Jenny,’ I said, incredulous, ‘he hasn’t even had a turn at batting.’

‘He’s tired.’ she said and gathered Luke in again.

I thought I was being a good parent, not getting angry in front of my son.

I stood on Jim’s nature strip that afternoon holding the cricket bat, watching Jenny buckle Luke into the car. I knew I should be doing something. ‘I’ll get a taxi,’ I said, but Jenny said nothing. Luke looked miserable in his car seat. I waved goodbye, ‘See you at home mate.’ It was only four o’clock. I went back to the barbecue.

I tell the therapist the story haltingly. He says ‘mmm’ and ‘right’ to let me know he’s hearing me.

‘Should I have stopped her going?’

‘How did you feel?’

‘Robbed. Ashamed.’

‘Do you think you should have stopped her?’

 

Luke was nowhere to be seen when I arrived at the food bar. I stood amazed, then pirouetted frantically hoping that my desire to see him standing there clutching a bag of donuts might make him appear. There were only a few people and none of them were small and blond. A pit opened in my stomach.

‘Luke!’ I yelled, not quite loud because I still didn’t believe he was not there. The crowd roared. The whole stadium vibrated. I pushed away visions of Luke, distressed and unseen, looking up at all the faces.

‘Have you seen my son?’ I said to a woman cleaning greasy chips from a bench. She looked at me stupidly. I rephrased my question. ‘A boy, this high, blond hair?’

She raised her eyebrows.

‘Fuck off,’ I said unfairly and sprinted back to the toilets. There was no way he could be in there, but I called his name urgently. An old guy taking a leak said, ‘Try the cubicles.’ I kicked each door open, fearful of what I might find, but found nothing. I punched the wall of the last cubicle. The crowd roared and the sound moved through me, from my feet to the top of my head.

The ground manager’s office.  I knew I had to report my son missing. They would make an announcement, call the police. Jenny would have to be told. I ran back towards the seats to get my bag, took the steps two at a time. The Carlton fans all rose to their feet when I hit the landing. Goal! There was a frenzy of noise and movement and then everything subsided. I slid along the aisle to our now empty places. People craned their necks to see past me. I felt like crying. I jammed everything back into the bag and stood up straight. My ears were buzzing and I was dizzy. The crowd breathed and murmured around me. I stared out across the field as if I could take in every indifferent face. Someone yelled, ‘Sit down!’ but I stood breathing heavily, unable to move. Tears welled in my eyes. If I moved, Luke was lost.

A woman sitting to my right held up Luke’s coat. ‘You dropped this.’

That’s when I saw him. At the front of the stand, on the bottom step, leaning out over the rail, waving his flag. There was a bag of donuts at his feet. At first it looked as if he was celebrating Carlton’s last goal. Then I realized that he was looking at the flag itself, transfixed by its movement. He waved it in big, arcing circles.

I put my hand on the back of his neck and massaged it gently. He looked up at me with sugar crusting his smile. We didn’t return to our seats, but stayed leaning over the fence looking down at all the people, the field, the players. Carlton’s resurgence was enjoyable but short lived. Sydney kicked a goal and Luke continued to wave his navy blue flag in amongst all the red and white.

 

Jenny is afraid of the world. When we were together, she would lie in bed with me and put a name to all the things that we needed to fear. Cot death, falls, choking. High temperatures, meningitis. There was the fear that some innocent kitchen product left in the wrong place could steal our son away from us. Worse than this, there were wolves in sheep’s clothing. Little playmates who were really vicious bullies. Incompetent teachers who could kill our son’s desire to learn. Well-meaning adults whose values might be poisonous. Strangers bearing sweets.

The therapist asks whether Jenny was a good mother. I tell him I suppose she was but can’t say any more than this. ‘She’s not a good mother now.’ I say. ‘How’s she going to live with herself? Knowing she destroyed her son’s relationship with his father.’ I am smouldering, smoking. The therapist waits for me to continue and I sit out the uncomfortable silence. I stare at his bookshelf and hope that he says something before I do.

‘Do you tell her these things?’

‘How the fuck can I?’ I explode. The therapist shits me. He doesn’t even have kids of his own.

‘If I say anything to her, she’ll punish me by taking Luke away,’ I say emphasizing each word.

‘Isn’t she already doing that?’

 

I didn’t bother kicking the footy on the ground with Luke after the game. We left when the final siren blew and walked across the park kicking the late afternoon chill off the grass. There were people everywhere; we got caught up in a group of young Sydney supporters walking arm in arm singing the Sydney theme song.

…lift that noble banner high …

Luke let go of my hand and ran along in front of them waving his Carlton flag. One Sydney supporter said, ‘Ball Kouta!’ and lifted Luke up in the air. Seeing me he dropped him at my feet and continued singing with his mates. I raised my hand in a gesture of acknowledgement and thanks. ‘Go Blues!’ we both yelled after them. We stood laughing while the day draped shadows all around us.

 

I tell the therapist that I am not the father I wanted to be. There was a time when Luke and I would go for ‘walks’. He had a trike with a trailer. I had attached a rope to the handlebars so that I could pull him up hills. He used to call me ‘Da’ and he’d pick up rubbish and put it in the trailer. We’d post it in the bin when we got home. ‘He’s here to clean up the world,’ I would say because he’d said this to me in a dream when he was still in his mother’s womb.

‘I was his father then.’

‘And you’re not his father now?’

‘No, I’m just someone who gets to borrow him very second weekend.’

The therapist does his silent, nodding thing, so I am compelled to keep speaking. I listen to my own voice as if from a distance. It’s a tirade full of fury that trails off. I shake my head at the floor. The carpet is brown, threadbare. I hate it.

‘What’s the worst thing that could happen?’

I look at the therapist. He’s a big man. He could have been a ruckman or centre half-back. Every time I see him, I wonder if he played footy.

‘What if you told her how you feel? What’s the worst thing that could happen?’

I can see Luke’s face. I remember how he used to come running in and bounce on our bed, bounce on me. I can’t bear to lose him.

‘She might do a runner. Go to Daylesford or something and – home school him. I don’t know – she might smother him and he’ll turn into a wimp.’ I laugh at how stupid I sound.

The therapist doesn’t laugh. He asks me to move my seat to the right. He’s going to talk to a part of me I’ve disowned. He speaks to me as if there is someone else living inside me. He asks the other me questions and it tells him what it thinks about me. ‘He’s soft,’ my disowned self says. ‘He’s got no balls. He’s a girl. He’s a pathetic soft-cock, useless piece of shit.  That slut – she needs a good fucken slap!’

When I am me again, I can’t stop crying. The therapist makes it worse. ‘It’s okay to be angry,’ he says. ‘It’s okay to feel whatever you feel.’

‘But I want to kill her,’ I blubber. ‘If I get angry, I’ll kill her.’

 

Long after the game was over, there were still many fathers in the park kicking the footy with their sons and daughters. They were there until the light had faded. I watched them from Luke’s bedroom window. When it was too dark to see outside, I drew the curtains. Luke was playing on the bedroom floor. An urge to talk to him rose up in me. I saw myself squatting beside him, speaking. His head was turned in my direction.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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