“Would you like a glass of champagne to toast my good health? To make my birthday bright and glorious? Today I am turning 31.”
The man at the bar asked me as soon as I walked in.
I was on my way to pick up my daughter from my ex-wife, who lives in Warrnambool with her new husband. Penny called the night before and begged me to take her away from her mother. I cancelled my meeting and lunch arrangements and was on my way to pick Penny up.
After two and a half hours of driving, I needed to refresh myself a little before facing a highly strung teenage girl. I got off the Princes Highway at Camperdown, drove into the town centre and walked into a local bar.
The man took my hesitation as accepting his invitation. He ordered champagne for me. I quickly stopped him.
“I don’t want champagne.”
“Aha, you are beer man. Tony give me mate a beer.” Then he turned around to face me. “Don’t you think 31 is a good age?”
“I guess so. I don’t remember what 31 years old feels like, it has long gone for me.”
“How about 35? Last week I was 35, the week before I was 39, this time I’ll stick to 31 for a while, at least till tomorrow.”
I raise my beer. “Happy birthday, whatever your age is.”
On his clean young face, I saw a pair of old eyes, they were hollow and empty. He wasn’t drunk, the dispassionate expression made him look like an old man. I often saw that look on nursing home residents, never on a young person.
“Where you headed to mate?”
“Business or pleasure?”
“Ahhhhhh, a man of few words.”
“It’s a family affair.”
I wasn’t going to tell him my worries and problems, that Penny was 13 years old and wanted to stay with me, that she dislikes her mother and step-father. I was not in a position to have her move right in with me.
First of all, I had lived in half of an old house ever since Joy and I parted. It only has one bedroom. It has an ensuite which is good for me but an inconvenience for others who aren’t occupying the bedroom. When Penny comes and visits me, she sleeps on the sofa bed in the lounge. It is fine for a couple of days but impossible as a permanent arrangement.
Secondly, a girl that age needs her mother. Joy is a good mother, she looks after her and she knows how to handle her. I couldn’t handle a wife, how could I handle a teenage daughter?
Thirdly, my job involves travel. That was a big part of the reason that my marriage broke up. Joy never let me forget about it. My absence sent Joy to another man’s arms, what would it send Penny to do? I didn’t want to even think about it.
On the other hand, I can’t say no to my daughter. I want to give her the best I can. Anything that she wants, as long as I am able to, I would get it for her.
She wanted to ski when she was 10. I spent $4000 to buy her the outfit that she wanted, half an hour later she said she disliked the cold and gave up skiing. She never tried again and her outfit is too small for her to wear now.
Last year, Penny complained that all her friends from her music class have a piano at home, that she couldn’t practice after lessons without one so she was behind. So I gave Joy $5000 to buy her one. This year she stopped going to the lessons because piano is not fashionable any more.
I eat out a lot, that’s not the way to bring up a child. What can I do? I don’t have the time to run both a business and a household.
There was no way I could say no to Penny, my precious little darling. She is growing up so fast, I don’t want her to hate me, to think I didn’t do what a father is supposed to do.
What is a father supposed to do anyway? To give your child everything she wants?
“Where have you come from?” the man asked, bringing me back from my deep thoughts.
“City dweller huh? I couldn’t live in the big smoke, it’s too busy for me, I’d get dizzy. What do you do for a crust, mate?”
To avoid answering his personal questions, I stared to ask him questions.
“Have you ever been to Melbourne?”
“Yeah, I like the Grand Hyatt hotel on Collins Street. We don’t have hotels like that here.”
“That’s a 5 star hotel, it’d better be good.”
“Once I went to Melbourne just to stay at the Grand Hyatt hotel. I didn’t want to go anywhere else. I like their room service, they give you chocolate when they turn down the bed. So cool, after two days I was bore.”
“Did you do any sightseeing?”
“Nah, didn’t like anything in the brochures. Who wants to go to a museum to see an imitation of the actual world?”
“Do you like animals?”
“Yeah, I love steaks.”
“Nah, my dad took me shopping once in Sydney – the psychiatrist said I should get out more.”
“Then what do you like to do in your spare time?”
Tony poked his head out from under the glass racks and laughed out loud. “Ian’s whole life is ‘spare time’.”
“Have you tried fishing?”
“Nah! Couldn’t be bothered exaggerating or becoming a liar.”
“There must be something you like.”
“Do you have a family?”
“Yeah, my banker provided by nature.”
“Do you live with your Dad then?”
“Nah, Dad lives with Tina.”
“Maybe you need a wife.”
“I’d rather be incomplete then finished.”
I finished the beer and offered to buy him a drink.
“You can buy me another champagne, just tell Tony to put it on my account.”
Ian looked like a young man in his early 20s, at the age where he should be full of life and energy. Instead he had no interest in any activity or even living.
I saw many young men similar to his age. They were almost always full of themselves, thought the whole world was in their hands, that they could manipulate whatever they liked. The arrogance in some men made me wonder how they could get away with an attitude like that.
Ian was totally opposite to the young men I employed. For some reason or another, I quite liked him. He caught my attention.
“So Ian, did you grow up in this town?”
“Yep, I am a local boy, me Mum and Dad were both born here like me.”
“It’s a beautiful town.”
“It sure is. I’ll be buried here next to me Mum when I’m gone.”
“How long ago did you lose your Mum?”
“I lost me Mum soon after I was born. Dad buried her 18 months ago but who’s counting?”
He saw the puzzlement on my face.
“Ya see, I was a twin. My brother Paul was born 10 minutes after me. He was born without a spinal cord and some part of his brain was missing. The doctor said he was blind, deaf, unconscious and unable to feel pain.
Mum didn’t believe the doctor. She thought that if she gave Paul enough love, Paul would snap out of it, just like his twin brother – me!
She focussed her energy on Paul, 24/7. She read to him, sang to him and talked to him.
I was cared for by a nanny.
Mum would get excited when Paul responded to a sound or touch. The doctor said it was just a reflex action. Mom said the doctor didn’t know what he was talking about.
She wouldn’t go out, she didn’t care about anything I did. Paul was the only concern on her mind.
Mum never went to my school’s teacher and parents nights, she didn’t want to miss when Paul gained consciousness. What about me? She missed my very first step, my first day of school. Why was Paul more important than me? Sometimes I wished I was the one without a brain and spinal cord.
The doctor told her Paul would die soon after birth but Paul lived to 21. The doctor said it was a miracle.
After Paul died, I thought at last Mum would be mine now. Wrong! Mum still spent her time in Paul’s room, talking to the empty room as if Paul was alive.
I moved out, I couldn’t take it anymore. I waited for 21 years for Mum to realise that I was her son too. Nah, I lost me Mum when I was born, it just took me 21 years to realise that.
Soon after I moved out, me Dad moved out too. He said he stayed there for my sake. Once I moved out, he had no reason to stay.
Mum was on her own, except for Sandy. She had worked for us all her life, she had no place of her own so she and me Mum lived in the big house on their own.
On the anniversary of Paul’s death, Mum visited me. I was so happy, at last Mum had taken notice of me. I made a hot cuppa for her, ya know, she loved Earl Grey. I can’t stand the taste but I bought it just in case she ever dropped in and, fair and square, she did.
When I opened the door and saw Mom standing outside me front door, I was out of this world happy. Dad had arranged a cleaner once a week to do the house cleaning, lucky she just been that morning. Changed the bed sheets and made the bed, cleaned up all the dirty clothes on the floor, polished the kitchen bench, mopped the floor.
Mum looked around the house, walked to the backyard and looked at the distant view, like she was an inspector from the local health department. I think I got her approval, she told me she loved me place.
She asked me how’s me Dad’s place like? I knew then that she’d never been to Dad’s place either. I told her I would accompany her if she wanted to visit Dad. She said nothing, I took that as a no.
She didn’t finish her tea. She said she had to get back to Paul, no one knew how to take care of Paul like her.
I knew then something was wrong and I noticed she walked much slower than the last time I saw her.
Next morning, Sandy found her dead on Paul’s bed.
She must have missed Paul terribly, could not live any longer when faced with the anniversary of his death.
Why couldn’t she see me as her son too? Me psychiatrist said she’s not against me, she just couldn’t let go of Paul. I don’t get it, I just don’t get it.”
I couldn’t say a word. I saw his pain, it reminded me it was time for me to visit my own mother in the nursing home. She had given me a good childhood, I had no complaints and sometimes I forgot how lucky I was.
I got up and got ready to leave. “Thank you for sharing your memories with me. Don’t torment yourself with the past, no one can change the past. Focus on the future, it’s in your hands. So enjoy your birthday.”
“Come back in the evening. After the Sun goes down, me birthday celebration begins. Have whatever you like, order whatever you want, as long as you keep me company, I’ll shout you anything from this bar.”
I walked out of the bar with his heavy story on my mind. I couldn’t wipe his deserted expression and depleted voice away. How chilling to know someone could be affected by the lack of a mother’s attention in such a destitute way.
A man was leaning on my car smoking. I had seen him in the bar earlier.
“Parents’ fault” he said.
“I beg your pardon?”
“Ian has everything anybody could possibly want. His parents took away his hopes and dreams. He never knew what a dream meant, he doesn’t have to earn a living or work for anything. He’s already bored with his life.”
On the way to Warrnambool, I couldn’t help thinking of Ian and the words that man told me outside the bar.
Ian’s parents seemed to have plenty of money. They gave him whatever he wanted; I understood that. If I had plenty of money, I would give Penny whatever she wanted, it’s only nature.
Ian never needed to work hard, to force himself to do better, to think how to succeed and to prove he could make it happen.
He didn’t have to because his parents gave him everything, they laid the red carpet out in front of him.
What do you think while you walk on a red carpet that means nothing to you? I guess you start to pick on little things. Like he’s got a bigger bedroom, she was dad’s favourite, grandma loves the baby more.
If you have to deliver brochures after school, to save up money to buy the bike that you’ve had your eye on for a long time, you wouldn’t put too much effort into complaining your brother’s room is bigger than yours.
Yes, it was a fact that your brother’s room was bigger than yours but it was just a room, not a big deal. You were more interested in dreaming of the bike, that shining brand new bike which would be yours one day.
Well, that’s the theory. That was my generation’s dream, Penny’s generation has different dreams I am sure.
I won’t let my Penny fall into the same hole as Ian. She should learn how to get along with her stepfather. Tolerance is good for everybody’s character.
Forty five minutes later I met up with Penny. She was all packed and ready to go. Joy’s tears didn’t soften her heart.
I told Penny the story that Ian had told me, word for word, hoping that it would have the same impact on her as it had on me.
“He obviously never had to deal with a stepfather, what a moron. I would give up everything to get mum off my back.”
“You don’t think Ian is a poor unloved child?”
“Oh please, a loving mother is suffocating. Ian is a fool and I would love to be in his shoes. Do you know how frustrated I am with mum?”
“Would you like me to talk to your mum? Ask her to give you some space?”
“I don’t think she knows how.”
“No one teaches parents how to behave with their children. Parents try their own ways, sometimes it doesn’t work. Most parents try very hard to be good parents and that’s not an easy task.
No matter what or why, most of us only see what we don’t have and ignore what we have.
Ian has everything. He had nothing to complain about so he chose to complain about his mother focussing on his brother, not him. It destroyed him! That was his choice.
His mother chose to look after the weaker son, that was her choice.
We all have choices in our lives. If one chooses to be happy, wherever one goes, one stays happy. If one chooses to be miserable, wherever one goes, one is miserable.”
For the first time ever since our marriage broke up, Joy and I sat with Penny and talked for a long while. No one yelled, pointed the finger or was angry. We communicated the way we were never able to, we listened to what the others had to say, we finally found that the others were actually quite reasonable to talk to.
Penny was most apologetic for changing her mind and not following me back to Melbourne. I didn’t let on too much that I was disappointed. Joy was more than relieved.
I thanked Ian in my heart that he taught me a lesson. If only I had learnt it earlier, my life would be a different story.
Joy hugged me when I was ready to leave. That trip softened the feelings between Joy and Penny as well as Joy and I. I guess we all learnt something from another’s misery.
Before I closed the car door and drove away, Joy bent over and said “Ian loves to tell stories to strangers. He wants to shock people, after all that’s his way to pass time. In fact, I know his mother, I’m playing tennis with her tomorrow.