My father died yesterday.
He’d been suffering from dementia for quite some time, the result of a condition called Primary Progressive Aphasia, as well as the degenerative effects of a lifetime spent in dangerous manual labour, with its attendant injuries. The decline was underway for several years. He’d been in steep decline for the last couple of years. Three days ago he slipped into a coma from which he never awoke, and at 9.30am yesterday morning he took his last breath. He was 75 years old.
Truth is, we weren’t close, and as callous as it might sound, I find myself relatively untroubled by his death.
Most of my childhood memories of him centre around some form of lingering fear: not so much violence as the ever-present threat of violence; a simmering, rolling anger that permeated our family life just below the skin.
Memories of thrown beer bottles when barbecues wouldn’t light; of my mother bundling us into the car pre-dawn and racing out to try and catch him before he passed the gates of a worksite– where she could not intrude– hitting 140 kilometres an hour in the days before mandatory seat belts because he had forgotten his lunch and this was safer than facing whatever mood he’d be in when he got home if he didn’t have it; waking one morning to find the back door kicked off its hinges– he’d missed dinner because he was out drinking with friends, Mum had gone to the pub to confront him and been laughed out of the Men-only bar, my father leading the laughter, she’d returned home and locked him out, and he’d kicked his way inside because it was his house and who did she think she was?
Their marriage finally imploded when I was thirteen. They’d married when she was 25, and he was 22. Three weeks after the wedding, he told her that he’d made a mistake: he still loved another woman and wanted to go back to her. I was never told how that one was resolved, but it colours the shadows of what I understand about their married life. Why they had kids, I’ll never know. How they lasted 18 years, I’ll never remotely understand.
Anyway, 1984: one too many affairs, or at least, one too obviously public to be ignored. She kicked him out, took him back, woke one morning to find he’d left in the middle of the night, changed the locks. He held all the financial advantages: he bought her share of the equity in the house, and evicted us so he could sell the house “for his new life”.
I only saw him on brief occasions between 1984 and leaving home in 1992. But his influence remained: my mother had nobody else to talk to, so from thirteen I was combination blamehound and confessional. “You’re just like your father,” became the deadliest thing she could say to my brother and I, so much so that I still search my looks, mannerisms and behaviour for similarities, and work obsessively to suppress or change them. She started dating. He invited her to his motel and refused to let her leave, throwing her to the floor and kneeling on her chest as he told her “You’re my wife”.
He helped me move home. He paid for my first car, and let me pay him back at $25 a fortnight for years. When I bought my first home, he gave me a shed he was deconstructing, and we worked together to lay the concrete base for it– that couple of weekends are my favourite memory of him. We went away one week, and came back to find a new set of gates he’d built, delivered, and installed. When my first wife died, he organised a suicide watch over me for a month. He helped with every house move I undertook, helped with house renovations, dug bores with me, came with me to buy cars. If it was something practical, he was there to offer advice, tools, and assistance.
He had a string of anti-black jokes he thought were hilarious. He was a lifelong fan of Notts County, and had their magpie logo tattooed on his arm. He played darts. He tried out for Derby as a goalkeeper, and played football until his body could no longer handle it. He was married to his second wife, Di, for over 30 years, until his death. He would complain that Australia was nowhere as good as his memories of England, then travel back there for a holiday, and tell us how the country had changed for the worse and he could never go back there. Then the memory would fade, and the cycle would begin again…… He would talk about how immigration was ruining England, and how the blacks were taking over: an English immigrant to Australia, with not a single hint of irony present.
He could cook like you wouldn’t believe: he’d started out as an apprentice chef and never lost his skills. He was a steward in the merchant marine. He built big cat cages for the Perth Zoo. He was once charged for making a prank bomb threat during the IRA years, and it was thrown out of court when he proved that the ‘witness’ wasn’t there at the time. We moved from Narrogin to Rockingham using a trailer he had built himself from an old station wagon. He used to make extra cash by building roo bars for friends, and once pilfered enough materiel from a site he worked at to set up a complete engineering business in another town.
He was the toughest man I knew: he once crushed his thumb between giant concrete pipes when they slipped in the harness of the overhead crane while he was guiding them. His thumb, to quote the doctor, “popped like a sausage”. It was reconstructed, put in a sling, and he was escorted from his work the following day when he tried to go back to work instead of taking the 6 weeks off he’d been ordered to.
He could never remember the names of my children, or their birthdays, and I resented it until I realised that it was just the first sign of what had followed.
He was complex, and complicated, and once I reached fifteen or so he made no secret of the fact that he simply didn’t understand my desires, or my motivations, or ambitions, but that he was happy that I was my own man. He loved the concept of family, to the point of getting deeply involved in researching the Battersby genealogy, even while being utterly incapable of knowing how to have one of his own. It is because of him that I know what my crest is, where my name comes from, how we connect to the Norman Invasion, and how Charles Battersby “hanged himself in a fit of insanity after a night of drinking at the pub” in the early 1600s.
He was hard to love, impossible not to like– as a person, he was incredibly charming and personable when the mood was upon him– and the sadness, for me, comes from the knowledge that we should have had a brilliant relationship. But when it mattered, when I needed a father to lead me through childhood and into adulthood, when we should have been forging bonds that went deeper and reinforced more strongly than any beam in concrete, there was simply a vacuum. And by the time he wanted to connect– he told me once that he had no idea how to ‘deal’ with kids and that my brother and I should come back to him when we were adults– it was too late.
Because of him, I was already my own man.
There are people in this world who loved him– none more so than my stepmother, Di– and for those people I am genuinely sorry for their loss.
So, Raymond Battersby, 26 February 1944 – 15 July 2019. I hope you got what you wanted from your life.
If you don’t recognise the reference in the title of this post, here’s the song it comes from. It’s as good a way of summing up our relationship as I’ve found: