In the lead up to publication of my novel, I’d like to write more about the ‘The Story Behind the Story’: the genesis of my novel, and the people and places that inspired it.
My paternal grandfather was one of eighteen children. I don’t know much about his parents or his early life and, as far as I’m aware, no one’s researched that branch of the family tree. I remember my father opening a tin of family photos (some are included in this post), inside which was a handwritten list of all my grandfather’s siblings and their dates of birth. There were only seventeen names on the list, but Dad couldn’t remember who’d been left out.
I don’t know how much schooling my grandfather had—I’m guessing he only completed primary school, like my grandmother. He worked on the wharf as a labourer, but only when a boat was in. To find out if he had work that week, he had to read the newspaper to see if his number was listed.
My grandparents didn’t have much money—partly because of my grandfather’s unskilled and sporadic work, and partly because of his drinking habit. They never owned a house or a car, and my grandfather rode a bike. When my father was a youngster, each payday my grandmother would send him around to the pub to collect his father’s pay before my grandfather spent it over the bar. Because he was too young to enter, Dad would wait outside until a mate of my grandfather’s walked past and Dad would ask him to fetch his father. My grandfather would send his mate back out to tell Dad he wasn’t there, but Dad knew he was because he could see his bike outside. So, his father started parking his bike in the street behind, so Dad wouldn’t see it.
My grandfather was a quiet fellow, except when he’d been drinking. He had the nickname ‘Adger’, which was short for ‘Agitator’, and my father became known as ‘Young Adge’—he inherited the title, and he also inherited his father’s trait of winding people up for the fun of it.
That wasn’t the only trait the two shared. They both loved the outdoors, and Dad’s family often went camping along the east coast of Tasmania, or fishing up the lakes, or ‘roo or duck shooting. Back then, with little money, the hunting and fishing was out of necessity—if my grandfather shot a kangaroo or caught some fish, it meant they had meat for the week, something they couldn’t have otherwise afforded.
Although he died before I turned six, my memories of my grandfather are vivid:
He wore dark grey trousers with braces, and a white shirt with copper-coloured bands around the sleeves. His fingers were tar-stained from smoking cigarettes, which he rolled himself, and he smelled of aftershave and Drum tobacco.
When my sister and I visited, he’d pour some of his hot tea onto his saucer and blow on it until it was cool enough for us to drink. He’d make us sit up straight, and hold the saucer to our lips while we sipped.
One day he poured real beer into a glass and gave it to my sister to drink.
My sister and I were fascinated by the smoke from his cigarettes, so he rolled matchsticks inside Tally-Ho papers, burnt the ends so they looked real, and gave them to us so we had our own smokes. (These sorts of things were acceptable in the ’70s!)
I didn’t realise my grandfather was short, just that my grandmother was taller, and I didn’t think that was odd.
Their bathroom had a huge copper that was taller than me, and their toilet cistern was up high near the ceiling, and had a chain you pulled to flush.
Their kitchen seemed dark, but warm. It had a leadlight dresser just inside the door, and a wood stove. It always smelled of cooking—onions, a stew, or freshly baked biscuits.
On race days, the transistor sat on the table, next to the newspaper, which lay open at the horse-racing page. My grandfather would mark the horses he’d bet on, and as each race started, he’d quieten. When the horses reached the home stretch, and the announcer’s voice accelerated, he leaned in closer and hissed, ‘Psssss, psssss …’ My sister and I would join him, hissing too, without knowing who or what we were hissing for.
I remember him sitting at the table and polishing his shoes to a gloss with nugget and a brush. He was an amateur cobbler, and whenever we broke a shoe, he’d repair it, good as new. When the buckle of my favourite shoe broke, he sewed it back on with dark brown thread. It didn’t match the purple of the suede or the other sandal, but I didn’t care because I had my favourite shoe back.
He had a ginger beer plant, which he kept in my father’s old bedroom. Before I saw the plant, I imagined it would be living and green, and was a bit disappointed it was a machine and grey. I was even more disappointed when I didn’t like the taste of ginger beer, but I pretended I did because I didn’t want to hurt my grandfather’s feelings.
There are a few things I don’t remember, like the unpainted boards of the exterior of their house, or the missing fence posts, or the small backyard of dust and no lawn—all of this I saw later, and only in photographs.
Not infrequently, my grandparents bickered, not enough to call it an argument, but they used a tone of voice with each other that they never used with us. I didn’t like their bickering—they were two of my favourite people and I wanted them to love each other.
One evening in early December 1972, the phone rang and Dad left to go to my grandparents’ house. We knew it was serious, and I remember waiting by the front window and hearing the siren in the distance that my mother said was the ambulance taking my grandfather to hospital.
The next morning, my mother told us that my grandfather had died overnight, and I told that for news at school that day.
My grandfather’s funeral was in the church next door to my school, and I don’t remember my father or my grandmother crying. Afterwards, my sister came back to my classroom with me while the rest of the congregation went to the gravesite. My sister wasn’t of school age, and although we were only playing with plasticine, she couldn’t do it very well and the teacher had to ask her what she’d made.
Sometime after that, I’m not sure when, we went to my grandparents’ house again. It had been cleared out because it was being demolished for a new highway. I ran through rooms that were empty and echoed, and I must have grown, because I was taller than the copper.
I doubt I looked back at their house as I left, even though it was the last time I ever saw it.
When writing a novel, it’s funny the stories that come back to you. Almost as soon as I started writing, my grandparents’ voices came to me. They had so much to say, and there was so much material in my family history that I had to use some of it in my novel.
My novel is not a family history—it’s completely fictional. But I did draw on memories—my own, and those of family members, stories I’d heard when I was growing up. I’ve shaved pieces off them, added bits, shuffled them around, and what remains bears little resemblance to what actually happened.
Yet, the characters are very familiar to me and probably to anyone who knew my grandparents.
I realised only recently what my novel actually is—it’s my attempt to explain where I come from, the background to my life. It wasn’t a conscious decision, or something I set out to do, but these things happen once you start writing …
A mother, father, and a baby are never alone in a room—that room is filled with ghosts. Past generations linger in every room a child enters as they’re growing up. I realise now how many ghosts were present in the rooms in which I grew up—some kind and loving, but others I wish I could have banished, especially with the hindsight I have now.
After my grandfather’s death, my grandmother started coming to our house every weekday, and she kept coming until I was 14-years-old. She was a gentle presence in my childhood. A role model, in fact.
Although I barely had time to get to know my grandfather, he was significant, too. There’s no doubt he was a bit of a rogue, but all he ever gave me was kindness and a sense of being loved and enjoyed.
I feel a deep connection with my grandparents, all of them, even my maternal grandfather who passed away before I was born. They inspired some of the main characters in my novel, and if you ever read it, I suspect you’ll spot them …