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The Tower Mill
By James Moloney
University of Queensland PressCopyright © 2012 James Moloney
All rights reserved.
After an anxious hour at the Qantas desk, I fell heavily into my seat, a reckless move given the belt buckle then had to be fished out from beneath me. Contortions completed, I stared absently through the porthole and there they were, four digits picked out by the glow from the terminal. Even if I'd missed them in that first brief glimpse, the little beggars would have been there for me to see in the dawn over Turkey, taunting me to give them meaning, when others would have seen only numbers stencilled on an aircraft's wing.
Why were they there? A serial number for the maintenance crew, perhaps, but why in that particular order when, lined up as they were, they made such a blatant connection to my presence on board that plane? Why not 7-1-9-1 or, if they were so keen to reference the twentieth century, why not 1-9-1-7? I turned away.
Did anything truly important happen in 1-9-7-1? Nothing came to mind while I fastened my seatbelt. There must be almanacs with the tides and temperatures and obituaries for the good and the great who'll forever have that date bracketed after their names, but I wasn't interested in any of that.
A year of minor events, then. A year of things that influenced only the lives they touched intimately. I wondered whether an almanac on some duty shelf somewhere recorded that, in 1971, the South African Rugby team toured Australia and my fathers fell in love with a girl who married one of them, when it was the other she loved? Not the second part, surely, and even if there was such a record, there'd be no mention that the marriage didn't last, since a marriage needs time to disintegrate and almanacs end abruptly on New Year's Eve. No mention, either, that it would be another ten years before the woman settled down with a French banker who, somewhat irrelevantly, was mad about Rugby.
Football and blighted romance; to most eyes, they must seem disparate entities, yet they came together in me, since that tour by South Africa's Springboks removed a significant obstacle to my birth, while my mother's romances have shaped my life in ways that took me a long time to work out. I was still working out what to do with my accidental life on the night that plane rose into the sky over London.
My mother is Susan Kinnane. To many people, that name means nothing, I'm sure, but at the height of her career it appeared in the newspapers almost daily; not articles about her – she's not an actor or a model or a politician – but those who read front page leaders or the occasional opinion piece will know who she is.
She wasn't a columnist, though, in 1971. Thanks to the Springboks' tour, journalists of the day quickly learned the politics of Rugby at a time when that ugliest of words, apartheid, set South Africa apart. Some dusted off grim obfuscations such as defenestration to describe the fate of activists who died during police interrogation in Johannesburg, raising a chuckle among the besieged Afrikaners, no doubt. But if there was a rigid middle finger the regime most liked to shove in the face of noisy scolds, it was their triumphant Rugby team.
And in the winter of 1971, the Springboks came to Brisbane where I'd recently been conceived, where I grew up and where, as my plane backed away from the terminal at Heathrow that evening in 2003, I hadn't set foot for many years.
I listened half-heartedly to the safety briefing, with the window teasing me on the left and one of Susan's unwanted lovers on my right. There wasn't much room, since we were both over six feet tall, but it was all the space we'd have until we stretched our legs more freely on the other side of the globe.
'We made it,' said Dad. 'I was afraid they'd send us back to your flat.'
He leaned across me for a glance through the porthole, but if he saw the numbers on the wing they didn't speak to him as they had to me, and with little to see he sat back, slipping a well-thumbed collection of verse into the seat pocket. He noticed me eyeing the poems. 'Suzy Wilson wants me to do a reading at Riverbend Books next week.'
'Must feel good to be feted, at last,' I said.
'Feted? Being read is enough.'
'If I was staying in Brisbane longer I'd be there.'
My return flight was already confirmed, which was a relief. Our seats to Australia had needed hours of pleading calls just to get into the stand-by queue and in the end Dad had been forced to play the bereavement card. By rights, it should have been me on the phone. I was the grieving son. Sometimes I felt that was my only identity.
I was ten years old before the laws of biology caught up with me and I discovered that a boy can have only one father and one mother. Until then I'd had two of each and wondered why life was so parsimonious towards my friends. Nothing had been kept from me, or none of the basic facts, at least, and I didn't suddenly lose my surplus parents to this disconcerting news, either. All four had names, and if one lacked a face, I didn't question why it remained hidden in those shadows that children know, on trust alone, are not to be looked into. Until trust erodes, of course, and once it's gone you're not a child any more. That was a fair definition of growing up, I discovered – the slow weathering of God-like beings who once rose above you as immutable as a mountain range.
The aircraft's slow taxiing became a surge until we were suddenly in the clouds and banking towards the English Channel.
'It's a long way,' said Dad.
'Long-haul flights are a birthright for Australians,' I said, to tease him. This had been his first trip to England; my sisters and I, and certainly Susan, had all beaten him there.
He responded with a shrug, as though he was in no mood for such banter. I did my best to accommodate him, only for him to pipe up soon after.
'You've gone quiet.'
'I'm thinking about the funeral,' I said. 'There won't be anyone there named Stoddard, not even me.'
'You don't have to share a man's name to carry his blood in your veins, Tom.'
'Doesn't seem right, though. I should bear his name for one day, at least, even if it's his last.'
'We certainly managed to confuse things for you,' he conceded, although no one did more to see I lived a carefree life than Dad.
We did fall silent after that, while the rest of the passengers fidgeted, swapped items from seat pocket to overhead locker, then settled finally, until most seemed lost in their own little world and content to stare at the seat-back in front of them. Twenty-four hours in an airline seat leaves a lot of time for thinking. Was that part of an Australian's birthright, as well? After those numbers on the wing, and then the exchange with Dad, there was only one thing I would contemplate, all the way to Brisbane.
Whenever my thoughts drifted onto my unusual provenance, it was the Kinnanes who took priority. Susan's parents, Len, and especially Joyce, were the ground I grew out of, it was their dna I could feel in mine, even though theirs was another name I had never carried. Years ago, I was shown an anniversary portrait of them surrounded by their children, the youngest of my uncles lying in his mother's arms at the centre of the photo, his legs like pudgy sausages and his feet in snow white booties. Seated beside Joyce, Len balanced another of my uncles on his knee and there at his elbow, solid on her six-year-old legs and with a face that would frighten lions, was my mother.
'Why does she look ready to eat someone?' I'd asked when shown the photo as a teenager.
The picture was thirty years old, but my aunty Diane had a ready answer: 'Because Mum had just told her off for making faces. We were all in a silly mood, specially Ritchie.' She pointed to a boy some inches taller than my mother. 'But it was Susan who copped Mum's wrath.'
Even then, I thought. I must have been fifteen at the time – old enough to sniff something toxic between them. Grandma Joyce was kryptonite to my mother's Supersusan, or perhaps I had it the wrong way around. I'd had to piece so much of my mother together over the years, little by little, whenever she gave me the chance. I learned to love her in the same way.
It was Diane who pushed the photo into my hands that day. She told me, too, that Susan hadn't been quite old enough for her to play with as an equal, yet she wasn't so much younger that Diane could mother her, as she did the two younger boys. A born mother was Aunty Diane; at least one of Joyce's daughters took to the role.
The Kinnanes were good Catholics, of course. Their boys went to high school at St Laurence's, and, for the girls, Avila College was across the road from St Teresa's, their parish church. Apparently, when the sisters seemed sure Susan would win a scholarship to university Joyce began to get ideas: what a wonderful thing it would be if her daughter ended up teaching at Avila, now that the ranks of Irish nuns were thinning out.
My mother quickly scuttled that plan, but she did take me to Avila College, once – on the same day I was shown the family photograph, in fact; she just veered off Logan Road on an apparent whim and pulled up outside.
She was delaying the moment with her mother, I realised later; Joyce had only recently been diagnosed with cancer. Must have been Christmas, 1987, then, because Susan had been back in the country only a few weeks and it wasn't until after my birthday in March she began coming to Brisbane for the Fitzgerald hearings. Whatever the dates, I was in my mid-teens so no wonder I cringed with the self-consciousness of a schoolboy made to traipse around the silent buildings of a girls' school.
'It hasn't changed much,' she decided, as we, or rather she explored the playground. 'Bit more money to spread around for walkways and gardens.'
I remember she pushed aside an agapanthus that drooped from a raised flower bed beside the path and kept on, with me slouching, hands in pockets, behind her until we reached a stairwell. There were no gates, no security patrols, nothing to stop us climbing higher to wander along the balconies and peer into the classrooms.
'Come on, you can see the city from up there.'
What could I do but follow?
'They added this top floor while I was in Senior,' she told me, with her back pressed against the railing. 'Finished halfway through the year. In fact, Mrs Fenster taught the first lesson in that room.' She pointed to the middle of three. 'I remember because it was my history class and we talked about Vietnam and how the war was turning against the Americans.'
She was suddenly overwhelmed by an enthusiasm to tell me things, even though our relationship at the time was so fractured we struggled to find anything to say at all.
'It was 1968, you see. What a year that was. Student riots in Paris, Russian tanks in Dubcek's Prague ...'
She stopped, her eyes seeing into a past that I had no way into, then she corrected herself, 'Except it was in religion class that we discussed that. Sister Bernadette railed at the Godless communists and what they would do to the poor Catholics, as though religion was the reason for the invasion. I remember being as stirred up as she was, though, because it was oppression, pure and simple.'
Swept up in school girl reminiscence she turned around to look out towards the distant skyscrapers. 'It's odd how some years slip by without a whimper and others stick in your mind. Sixty-eight was a year that just wouldn't quit.'
Pointing to the flagpole at one end of the playground, she said, 'I remember the flag at half-mast because the premier had died suddenly. Did he ever have a name, whoever he was? We didn't give a damn who replaced him, although we should have. Oh Christ, we should have.'
She turned to me. 'Do you know who I'm talking about, Tom?'
I shook my head and saw in her face a smug vindication, made all the more bewildering by her obvious disappointment. She offered no name to enlighten me.
'Even the Pope got in on the act that year,' she went on, as though determined to befuddle me entirely. She was staring at St Teresa's across the road, giving some context, at least.
'Diane was married in that church. 1968 again, you see. Christ, the planets must have aligned, something like that,' she said, with a bitter laugh. 'And there was a confirmation, too. One of my brothers. Can't remember which one ...'
By this time she wasn't talking to me at all. Just as well, because I didn't have a clue what she was on about.
I swapped the straps of my school bag from one red palm to the other, wishing, as I often did by the time we reached this corner, that I'd caught the bus instead. Karen strolled shoulder to shoulder with me on one side and Cathy Betts on the other. It was always this way, with me in the middle. I had further to go so maybe they let me have the narrow footpath to make the walking easier. We'd never talked about it.
Cathy always had fags in among her school books and we had just shared one among the overgrown trees on a vacant block set back from Logan Road. Whether we were smoking or walking or simply standing together on a street corner, we talked, not about anything much, but friends didn't talk about important things; that was their importance. It made a nice change from school, because in the classroom, where the topics were more serious, I talked myself hoarse.
Susan always has something to say in class and expresses herself resolutely, Sister Bernadette wrote on last year's report card. The bitch was having a dig, of course.
Mum chuckled to herself when she read the words but there was real pride in her face, I think, and later, too, when she'd shown the comment to Dad.
'Good to see you give your teachers the run-around and not just me,' she said, slipping her arm behind me while she stirred the gravy. Joyce was always quick with a loving hug when it was something she approved of.
As we crossed a side street, Karen tugged at her waist to adjust the folds of her uniform already bunched over her belt. We all used the same trick to look more like the models in Seventeen. Whenever the nuns sprang a uniform check, we just let the material fall naturally and sure enough, our hems finished perfectly in line with our knees.
'Any higher and some dirty old man will drive his car into a telephone pole,' I said to Karen, and all three of us sniggered at the mayhem we were capable of.
Actually, my legs were better than Karen's, which were too long and shapeless, like a giraffe's. Men liked my legs; I'd seen them looking on the way back from communion each Sunday, when I wore my skirts as short as Mum would let me.
We continued our weary way home, peering into brown backyards much like our own. First Cathy turned into her street, then Karen, who lived higher on the slope overlooking Holland Park, leaving me to lug my heavy bag another halfmile. Our place was a weatherboard Queenslander, like every other house in the street, although Dad had built a fibro extension at the side for my little brothers. It stuck out like an angry pimple, if you asked me. Even with the extension, I was the only one with a room to myself, and that was a recent privilege thanks to my sister getting married.
When I arrived home that day, the Torana parked out front told me Diane had come to visit. Great, there'll be cake, I thought, and my mouth began to water.
But there wasn't any cake. Mounting the front stairs I found Di in tears on the settee and Mum red-faced in the kitchen. I went back to the lounge room and slipped onto the cool vinyl beside my sister.
'You'll find out soon enough,' she answered, with a bitterness that just wasn't her.
'What does that mean? Has something happened to Jim?'
But I knew that if anything had happened to Diane's brand new husband, Joyce would be all sympathy and consoling arms around the shoulders.
Di stood suddenly and left the house without saying goodbye, and still none the wiser, I took my questions back to the kitchen.
'You're too young ...' Mum started to say, then stopped herself, afraid of tears. My mother wasn't one for crying.
At school the next day, I told Karen.
'I haven't seen them like this before. They never fight. I can't work it out.' Karen was the youngest of four sisters, but with so little to go on, not even she could come up with a cause.
Excerpted from The Tower Mill by James Moloney. Copyright © 2012 James Moloney. Excerpted by permission of University of Queensland Press.
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