When someone dies that’s close to you a piece of you dies with them. Death of a loved one can often throw up unanswered questions, things about that person and their life you never thought about when they were alive, or perhaps never even knew. What you are about to read is a true story. I know because I was there. This is my dad’s story, and also mine. It’s a chance for me to remember a winter in Sydney a long time gone.
‘Life is so unpredictable. Be grateful for every moment’
In mid 2016 I flew to Queensland to help my sister sort out funeral arrangements for my ailing mother. We’d spent most of the day with mum at the nursing home where she’d been moved after it became obvious she was becoming too much for my sister to handle. When I arrived, she was brighter than I had expected, frail but putting on a good show for us. Mum always understood the importance of drama in day to day life, she’d lost none of her fight and could still raise a little hell if need be. I sat on her bed holding her hand, while mum bitched about one of the nursing staff, a girl she disliked. ‘The bloody bitch’ mum called her repeatedly. ‘I said to her, oh your nothing but a bloody bitch. I’m going to report you.’ I remember thinking mum knew her time was almost up, even though she behaved as if it was business as usual. She didn’t miss a trick, her blue eyes darting about, keeping a watchful eye over every move my sister and I made. Eventually, I snuck out and chatted with her doctor in privacy of the busy corridor. He confirmed the need for us to have mum’s funeral arrangements in place before I returned to Melbourne. “There will be no next year for mum” he warned me. “Her body is shutting down. But, she’s got her sense of humour back, good and strong.” The doctor was right, mum had got her sense of humour back…and that ‘bloody bitch of a nurse’ was now part of mum’s morning routine.
Later that day, I’d just settled in at my sister’s place in Brisbane when out of the blue she handed me a cup of coffee and a selection of photos of mum singing when she was younger, then she added, “I thought you might want this, mum’s marriage certificate and this (she passed me a letter) do you know what’s written inside? You won’t believe it? Guess?” I had no idea what my sister was talking about, or why the mystery? “It’s mum’s statement, maybe for the police. She wrote a letter about Andy (my dad but my sister’s stepfather), you know when he was murdered. What happened that night. Can you believe mum kept it?” Well, no I couldn’t. It was a long time ago when dad died, I was ten years old in fact. My father’s death and ‘why it happened’ had been a mystery in our family for years, often discussed at family get togethers, but never with any clear answers. A piece of the puzzle was always missing. Indeed, mum if she knew more, wasn’t ever going to let on, not now, not ever!
‘Life is not a problem to be solved, but a reality to be experienced’
THE FACTS OF LIFE – To say my father was good man would be a lie. In my mind, I remember him in a series of flashbacks, moments of violent domestic mayhem and flashes of toothy smiles and kindness, followed by a gentle pat on the head. To say when he died of massive brain injuries to the head in Sydney, I wasn’t relieved, would be untrue. I was relieved, and so was mum probably. But, also to say that I didn’t feel the loss of my father’s love, would be a lie. I clearly recall my mother sitting beside me in the car outside Canterbury Hospital and announcing dad’s death. “Your father passed away. He’s dead, son” she said, plain and simple. “They killed him. The bastards.” We sat huddled together in the car a long time, mum crying. Years later when I thought about dad, and his temperament, I thought he was just probably very unhappy with his lot in life.
In the years since dad’s murder that moment of ‘hugging mum’ in the car has played out in my mind on repeat. From that time on, my childhood was never going to be the same as any other kid in Australia, I thought. That one single moment of death, relief and loss reshaped mum’s life and our future relationship. It brought us close together in my teenage years and introduced a communication shortcut between us, we were unflinching in our honesty when we chatted alone, but it distanced me from her a little when I grew up. It also changed my perception of how I would ‘live my life’ to this day. It made me strong, stronger than I might have been, if dad had lived a long prosperous life. If I had things to do then I would do them. Life was not a box of Fantales, the only thing you can be certain of for sure in life I decided at ten years old is death, our final destination. Later I would understand the beauty in the tragedy of my father’s death, and its affect on my creativity, but that beauty took a long time to find me.
‘Remember, time is frozen. No matter what, we can never get away from where we’ve been’
I opened my mum’s letter and sipped my coffee, I sat with my sister reading mum’s statement about that night, the night my father was beaten to death outside a Sydney hotel in a brawl. There were many things that we both wondered about in mum’s statement. Why was he was beaten by the bouncers? What had he done? Why was I up so late? “Why weren’t you in bed Noel? 9pm? That’s very late for mum to have you up? Particularly in those days. Didn’t you have to go to school?” my sister said, looking puzzled. “Maybe I was on holidays” I replied. Mum’s statement was typed, using a typewriter. This was before computers of course. “She couldn’t have typed this. Someone must have typed it for her,” my sister insisted. “Maybe I typed it,” I added. “I had this old green Olivetti typewriter. Do you remember? I was always writing. I think that’s my paper?’ (I clearly remember having a large pad of very fine writing paper at home). “Maybe she got me to do it for her?” “No Noel, you were just a little boy. She wouldn’t get you to do it,” my sister argued. I thought for a second, then added “Suzanne, I was always typing.”
“There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.”
Mum’s statement contained detailed information, told from her perspective, of the night my father was beaten to a pulp on the property of a suburban hotel in Narwee, Sydney. In mum’s statement, she names the men, the bouncers employed by the hotel, that were there at the time of his death. She describes finding my father in the car park ‘laying in a pool of blood.’ She adds, a hotel punter drinking there at the time, asked the doorman ‘who has done this to this man?’ The hotel doorman responds with ‘we did, and if you don’t get away you’ll get the same.’ Mum also says later in her letter ‘that the punter (who she names) wanted to call the police but there wasn’t time as my husband was in a bad way.’ But, perhaps the biggest surprise was the affect finding mum’s statement had on me. The memories it brought back, memories of an unsolved mystery, set in the world of my childhood. In 1968 Australia had a population of just twelve million people. That year, Harold Holt the prime minister disappeared while swimming at Portsea, NGV opened its doors for the first time, and the pop group The Seekers were named Australians of the Year. In my childhood there were no computers, or mobile phones with cameras, in 1968 people could get away with murder.
Like all murder mysteries my dad’s death has a surprise twist. Believe it or not, in a car near by on that cold winter’s night in Sydney years ago, innocently drinking a flavoured lemonade with a mate, watching a brawl taking place in the hotel carpark…was me. Unbeknownst to me, I sat watching my father being beaten unconscious at the local pub. He was in the middle of a circle of men, punches flying. I didn’t see his face. A week later he was stone cold dead in Canterbury Hospital and I was without a dad. From that moment on, nothing would ever be the same for mum, dad or me. That night my childhood ended.
“Noel get into the back seat of the car. Go on. Your father been bashed. We have to get him to hospital. Move love. Oh, Jesus, there’s blood everywhere” mum said, many winters ago.
PART 2 CONTINUES NEXT MONTH
Who Killed My Father? The True Stories Collection
ABOUT THE AUTHOR – Noel has directed over 50 theatrical productions and worked in film and TV. He completed NIDA’s Playwright Studio in 1996 and studied directing in London and New York. Noel’s written work includes the play Andy Warhol’s Fifteen Minutes of Fame and the musical Audrey Hepburn and I Consider Our Assets. Noel believes in the power of music, pop art and Campbell’s Soup (thanks to Mr Warhol). Learn more: Noel Anderson’s Website