The train rolls slowly into the platform, and there he is - the man who for over four decades I have thought of as tough and critical, a man who could impale me with a few carefully chosen words. As I alight and walk towards him, I wonder what the hell the next few days will bring.
When Pamela Bradley stepped off the train in Murwillumbah to visit her father, who at seventy-eight had chosen to live a solitary life Up North far from his family, she had no idea she was at the beginning of an intensely emotional journey. Faced with his slow decline, she set out to delve into his past to find those influences that might have shaped his character and helped to define her own, discovering much along the way that came as a complete surprise.
In Maybe I'll Be Cleverer Tomorrow, Bradley shares an honest and personal memoir told with insight, humour and tenderness as she seamlessly moves between past and present. Throughout the story, she weaves some of the vital issues about loss, ageing and death that affect everyone, while the vignettes of a childhood and adolescence in the 1940s, '50s and '60s offer glimpses into an Australia that has long since disappeared.
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Maybe I'll Be Cleverer Tomorrow
A Reflection on a Complex and Often Prickly Father/Daughter Relationship
By Pamela Bradley
Balboa PressCopyright © 2016 Pamela Bradley
All rights reserved.
An XPT to Murwillumbah
Barely a day goes by now when I don't think of the solitary life my elderly father lives Up North — casually sidelined, some might think, by his adult children busy with the distractions of their lives.
But that's not really true.
We didn't sideline him. He made a choice.
At an age when many old people move closer to the kids, my tough, independent father did the opposite. A year after the death of my mother ended their marriage of fifty-five years, he left Sydney's south, where he had lived all his adult life, and transplanted himself 900 kilometres Up North. At the time, I was reminded somewhat of Frank, the cantankerous old bugger in David Williamson's classic 1979 play Travelling North. But unlike Frank, Dad was travelling alone when he flew to the brash and tinselly resort strip of Surfers Paradise, where he had previously bought several units on the beach and where he and his 'girl' were planning to settle into a gracious retirement. Not only did he distance himself physically, he began to withdraw emotionally from family and friends — everything that reminded him of his previous life.
I often wondered if he felt abandoned by Mum's death, and that brought back into play patterns from his childhood and a determination to survive no matter what. Perhaps he feared the family would somehow diminish him by curbing his independence if he remained Down South. On the other hand, he may have felt a sense of freedom, of release from the duty of looking after her, and – cordoned off from his former social life – seen an opportunity to make a fresh start, to experience something new.
I'm not sure if any of us really knew what motivated him, but he joined the wealthy, ageing couples and glitzy middle-aged widows and divorcees fleeing the bitter winters, memories, and ex-husbands of the southern cities. Surfers Paradise seemed to suit him. He could just pop downstairs to pick up groceries and his newspaper, the nearby bottle shop delivered his weekly order of white wine and Johnnie Walker Scotch, and there were plenty of places within walking distance to have lunch.
That experiment lasted no more than a year. On an impulse, he up and left. He moved to the Tweed Valley town of Murwillumbah in northern NSW, a most un-Dad-like place – one with which he had no former association – and purchased a three-bedroom unit in a retirement village 5 kilometres from the centre of town.
So that's where I'm headed. It's 1998 and my first visit since he moved there.
* * *
I verify the timetable for the North Coast Rail Service and check my ticket: first class, Carriage C, close to the buffet car. I'm twenty minutes early according to the huge bronze clock suspended over the cavernous 1907 Grand Concourse of Sydney's Central Country Railway Station. The XPT is already waiting at Platform 1, and the hall is slowly filling. Apart from three backpackers and a few homeless men asleep in a corner, the majority of people in the domed hall appear to be what are referred to now as seniors.
My father, no matter how old, would never take the train; too slow for him. He is an impatient man, eager to get wherever he is going as quickly as possible. Delays of any kind irritate him.
The elderly pensioners – on one of their two free first-class trips a year – move at a snail's pace towards the far end of the platform, their wheeled luggage thwacking against the tiles. From time to time, one poor old thing has to wrestle to keep his or her case going in the right direction.
I lug my suitcase up the three steps into the carriage, stow it out of the way, and find my seat. On the other side of the aisle, a woman – as frail as a bird and breathing in shallow gulps – sinks into the window seat. A man on a cane, with a gaunt face and a few strands of grey hair, settles gingerly beside her.
There's a commotion at the far end of the carriage as a blue-blazered group block the aisle with their luggage. A robust man with a heavy gold neck chain and dyed black hair issues instructions about the placement of bags. He has a strong accent: Greek, I think. A beefy woman, sun-damaged with bleached hair, also adorned in gold, is speaking on one of the latest Nokia 5100s with a pale blue snap-on cover.
'Oh, for God's sake, Elene, put that thing away,' the man says.
'Can't you let her be?' he snorts.
She ignores him and continues her last-minute conversation.
A whistle, followed by a series of light clacks and thumps, announces our departure, and the train slithers out of the station. It proceeds slowly for the first few kilometres past a mix of inner-city backyards, some still looking like they did in the 1950s – slums, we used to call them when I was a child – and others recently gentrified. Members of the group are still dithering, some swapping seats and teetering in the aisle. As we approach Strathfield station, Con, the organiser, hangs out of the door searching for more of the blue blazers.
A bald bloke clutching a takeaway coffee that spills as the train jerks forward falls into the remaining seat beside me. He reeks of cigarettes. 'Hi,' I say. He barely nods. This is not going to be good.
A sweet sickly perfume hangs in the air. I'd take a guess at Elene. She and her friends have settled in the seats behind me, gossiping and giggling like a bunch of schoolgirls on an excursion. The men, who have occupied the area closest to the buffet car, pull out packs of cards and deposit little piles of money in front of them, the whole scene reminiscent of the back room of a taverna in Athens, minus the ouzo and the blue clouds of cigarette smoke.
Before we've even left the metropolitan area, the man beside me is up. He's restless – flexing, stretching, and pacing the aisle as if he's on a bloody plane. A corporate-suited fifty-something woman opposite is absorbed in highlighting pages of text. She barely raises her head.
The train rattles over the Hawkesbury River Bridge and picks up speed through the rugged sandstone landscape of cuttings and tunnels. The frail old couple have already been lulled into sleep by the click-clacking rhythm of the wheels, and the chatter behind me strays from bowling to grandchildren. I need a coffee and swing down the aisle towards the buffet car, passing the men absorbed in their card game.
'How far are you guys going?' I ask.
'Grafton. To a bowling tournament.'
'Sounds like fun,' I say, but I don't mean it.
On my return, balancing a cardboard tray with coffee and a stodgy doorstopper of a railway muffin, the women's conversation has toned down somewhat.
'Maria's such a good daughter. Visits every day.'
Her words thrum in my ears.
'... married forty years ... not coping with her grief at all.'
And I wonder if men adjust to their losses more easily than women even when they've been happily married for a long time.
* * *
After Mum's death but before he moved Up North, my father was living alone in his Sydney unit in the CBD. I had caught the bus in from Balmain to check if he was okay. He must have seen me through his peephole, for he answered the door in his singlet and underpants. 'Hi darl. Can't stop for long. I'm off to the Eastern Suburbs.'
'So what's in the Eastern Suburbs, Dad?'
'Just something new I want to check out,' he said and disappeared to get dressed.
In the daily paper, left open on the dining table, was a circled advertisement urging men suffering erectile dysfunction to contact a clinic in Bondi Junction. I'm somewhat shocked, but then I remember: 'My girl and I know all that sexy stuff,' he used to say, trying to impress us.
Did I now expect him to forsake all that 'sexy stuff' until he died?
He reappeared from the bedroom all dressed up, walked over to the newspaper, and folded it in two.
'Do you miss Mum terribly?' I asked. I had been somewhere in the air on my way home from Egypt when she died. A 'sudden cerebrovascular accident', the death certificate said. I never said goodbye to her.
'What the bloody hell do you think?' he snapped. 'Are you a complete dill?'
'It's just that ...'
'You think I'm not grieving enough, is that it?'
'No ... not really,' I lied.
'I did most of my grieving in bed beside her when I found she'd gone.'
'I'm sorry. Just worried about you, Dad.'
'Well, don't be. We all have to die. What do you want me to do? I've got to go on.'
'But you're still vulnerable right now.'
'Come on, get out; I need to lock up. Don't waste your bloody time worrying about me.'
* * *
The train windows rattle as a southbound XPT whooshes past. The landscape has changed to lush rolling hills, sunlight highlighting their contours. I catch my reflection in the dusty window, and for a brief moment see something of my father in my own facial contours. Lately I've come to acknowledge other similarities, like my 'withering' honesty, pointed out by a friend. Or was it 'brutal'? I can't really remember the context of her backhanded compliment. And then there's our rather similar scathing humour. I suspect I'm becoming much more like Dad as I age, and it's an unsettling revelation.
Three and a half hours after we leave Sydney, we rumble into the station of the small Hunter Valley town of Dungog. The twitchy man beside me, carrying only a small overnight bag and taking his foul stench with him, is already striding to the carriage door – anxious, I suspect, to light up. The professional woman opposite is still absorbed in her editing, underlining with a yellow marker pen.
I focus on the purr and gentle rumble of the train, noting the periodic clack of wheels on joints in the track, counting to see if there's a pattern. The old bloke on the other side of the aisle has woken himself up with a barking cough, but his wife doesn't stir. A heavily built XPT employee moves through the carriage taking orders and payment for hot lunches: 'A juicy Chicken Maryland or lovely Beef and Vegetable Casserole,' he calls. The bowlers opt for the cooked meal; I decline, and the old man shakes his head. He turns to me and says, 'We brought our own ham sandwiches with us.'
'Sensible of you,' I say. 'Where are you off to?'
'Home to Urunga. We've been in Sydney to a specialist. My sister has a problem with her heart.'
His sister! 'So you look after her?'
'That's the way it goes, love.'
'She's lucky to have family to care for her.'
'Just the two of us left now.'
'It must be tough on you,' I say.
He shrugs his bony shoulders. 'That's what families do, isn't it?' He turns to his sister and touches her arm. 'Grace.' I look away, and in my mind's eye I see the future: limited family contacts with Dad and the brief obligatory call-ins on the way to somewhere else.
If only I'd spent more time with him over the years, shared more intimate thoughts, got to know how he really felt about things. But he never opened up about his inner feelings to me, only ever about his love for Mum. And most of our conversations as I grew older had somewhat of an edge to them. But maybe it's not too late.
The train wheels squeal as we lurch to a halt in the middle of nowhere. As if this trip isn't bloody long enough!
Thirty minutes later, we begin to crawl haltingly along the track. Someone cheers, and the driver toots at a cluster of workmen gathered on the side of the line as the lunch announcement from the buffet car leads to a mass exodus of bowlers. I wait until they stagger back with their meals before heading to the bar for a wilted salad and a small bottle of Chardonnay. On my return, I hear one of the bowlers complain as he picks through his soggy vegetables, 'It's a bit light on the meat, don't you think?'
At Urunga, the old man and his grey-faced sister leave the train, and from behind me, I hear, 'My sugar's been sky-high again. Just been put onto a new medication, seems to be working, but I have terrible diarrhoea.'
Please ... spare me the details.
Another voice: 'Have a look at this.'
'Ah, that's ter ... rible.'
I'm trying to imagine what is being revealed behind me when another voice chimes in, 'Decided to have the veins in my left leg stripped later in the year.'
For the next half hour or so, I'm subjected to a series of horror stories about haemorrhoids and colonoscopies, removal of centimetres of lower intestine, streptococcus caught during a hospital stay, and mammograms and mastectomies. Why is it that for many older people, medical conditions become the primary preoccupation?
I make my way once again to the buffet car, countering the swaying motion of the train and gulping down two more small plastic glasses of wine.
At Coffs Harbour, the professional woman departs with her manuscripts or annual company reports or ... whatever. How would I know? She initiated no conversation the entire way from Sydney. I fit headphones into my ears and, as the train negotiates the series of Red Hill Tunnels, slip my tape of Don McLean's 1970s American Pie into my tape recorder.
I must have drifted off, for I am awakened by a flurry of activity. My head is throbbing – bloody cheap wine! Bags are being pushed and pulled towards the door. We have reached Grafton, where the blue-blazer brigade alight. I rewind the tape and play McLean's moving 'Starry Starry Night' as the train rumbles on to Casino, after which it crosses the tableland and descends through the lush hinterland hills towards the coast. It's dark by the time we pass through the villages of Bangalow, Byron Bay, Mooball, and Burringbar to our final destination of Murwillumbah, almost two hours late.
I wonder if he'll be there, as it's well past his normal bedtime and he's bound to be pissed off at the delay.CHAPTER 2
An Old Bomb and a Set of Hot Rollers
The train rolls slowly into the platform, and there he is – the man who for over four decades I have thought of as tough and critical, a man who could impale me with a few carefully chosen words. As I alight and walk towards him, I wonder what the hell the next few days will bring.
He looks up, smiles, and announces to a middle-aged woman standing beside him, 'My eldest offspring.'
'Who was she?' I ask when we reach the car park.
'Don't have a bloody clue,' he says, heading towards a beat-up old bomb that looks like something from the early 1980s. Surely that doesn't belong to him. What the hell can he have been thinking?
He throws my bag into the boot, gives the passengerside door a few jiggles followed by a firm tug, and helps me in. The car smells of body odour and stale car freshener. He starts it up. There's a crunch and a knock as he puts it in first gear and does a teenage-like half wheelie in the slowly emptying car park. By the light of the dashboard, I catch him grinning as he moves out into the dimly lit road that leads into town.
What happened to the man who prided himself on a perfectly functioning machine and the purr of a well-maintained motor, the man who'd power along the highway with his head stuck out the car window listening for an elusive click or ping, never giving up until he found it? Of course, these days his hearing is bad, the price of working on the factory floor among his men for all those years – but surely a partly deaf old mechanical engineer would still be able to feel when something wasn't quite right.
Excerpted from Maybe I'll Be Cleverer Tomorrow by Pamela Bradley. Copyright © 2016 Pamela Bradley. Excerpted by permission of Balboa Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
ContentsForeword by Alison Whitelock, xi,
Part 1: Up North, 1,
1 An XPT to Murwillumbah, 3,
2 An Old Bomb and a Set of Hot Rollers, 13,
3 A Sleeping Bag and a Lladro Figurine, 21,
4 Further Unexpected Surprises, 26,
5 A Country Pub and Salvador Dali, 33,
6 Thoughts in a Tweed Valley Cemetery, 39,
7 Tracksuit and Tucker Time at Tumbulgum, 44,
8 A Cunning Old Bugger, 53,
9 A Last Hurrah and a Diminishing World, 59,
10 Turning Points, 67,
11 Revelations at Coolangatta Airport, 75,
Part 2: Down South, 81,
12 Room 22, South Wing, 83,
13 Fellow Residents and a Family Day, 88,
14 A Funny Old Geezer, 95,
15 If Only I Didn't Have to Go, 103,
16 An Intriguing Postcard, 108,
17 I Lived Here Once Long Ago, 113,
18 A Laundry and a Concrete Slab, 120,
19 Out the Back, Down the Back, and Inside, 124,
20 A Floppy Blue Hat and a Concert, 133,
21 A Place of Diamond-Bright Days, 138,
22 Oysters and Prawns at a Sutherland Hotel, 143,
23 Getting Back to Basics, 147,
24 Moving On, 153,
25 Not Quite Good Enough, 158,
26 Rearing Its Ugly Head, 165,
27 A Bridge, a River, and a Lion, 170,
28 A Bus Trip with Harriet, 177,
29 One Day I'll Show Him, 183,
30 A Seventeen-Year-Old Parrot, 190,
31 The House That Greg Built, 195,
32 Marriage and Swinging England, 202,
33 Fishermen and Grandfathers, 208,
34 Alcohol and Family Brawls, 215,
35 Christmas: A Whole Load of Humbug, 222,
36 A Club on the Water and a Dream of a Car Accident, 229,
Part 3: Towards the West, 239,
37 Departures and Letting Go, 241,
38 Contemplation at 9,000 Metres, 248,
39 Still With Me, 253,
40 The Changing Moods of Praiano, 258,
41 The Beginning of the End, 263,
42 A Winter Send-Off, 271,