HERE IS MY father's dictionary, the one thing of his I felt I had to have. The Webster's Collegiate, fifth edition: 1,274 pages, dense as a big old brick in its dark green binding. On the flyleaf is his name, John C Veitch, signed with panache in black ink, and beneath that is the date: Nov 2 1945 – the day the book finally became his. Dad was eighteen. At fifteen he'd started working for Sydney's Daily Telegraph as a copyboy, and by the time he got the dictionary he was a graded journalist. When so many older men were away at the war, those were the kinds of opportunities open to a bright, eager kid.
He's written his address under the date: 31 Sydenham Rd, Marrickville, N.S.W – the ramshackle weatherboard where he lived with his mother and four younger siblings during the war while my grandfather was in the Navy. In 1940 Pop was stationed at Garden Island and the family came up from Melbourne on the train to join him – Nanna seven months pregnant – only to find he'd been shipped out to Darwin the day before. They knew no one in Sydney, had no money left, and, whether from the shock or the long train trip, Nanna had a miscarriage that nearly killed her. During the weeks she was in hospital, the five kids were split up among three different orphanages. If Nanna had died that would have been it, but she survived, rescued her brood, and badgered the Navy till they found her the house in Marrickville. Dad was selling papers on the street corner even before he became a copyboy.
On the dictionary's inside back cover is pencilled its price: nine pounds fifteen shillings. An immense outlay, and most of Dad's pay was going to support his mother and the younger kids. He had it on lay-by for nearly two years, paying it off a couple of shillings at a time. I imagine the day he put down the last few bob, the pride with which he'd have carried it home and shown his mother who'd been a country school teacher before her marriage. Nanna always encouraged his writing. Her clever eldest: handsome Johnny. It's there in the swagger of his signature: I have my tools, I'm on my way.
THE OTHER TOOL was his portable typewriter, which my eldest brother has since restored to mint condition. An uncommon make, a Rheinmetall, with J C VEITCH stencilled in white paint on the front of its hard black case. Snap the precision engineered catches and the lid lifts off, leaving the machine sitting on a padded felt floor. He preferred writing on this machine all his life, or at least for as long as he could write. Pounding away with that furious two-fingered attack common to men who became professional writers in an era when only women actually learned to type. Dad loved that typewriter, but the Webster's was our family's bible, quoted with relish as the final authority. This despite the allowances which had to be made for its American spelling, which my parents seemed to regard as an unfortunate affliction to which one shouldn't draw undue attention.
'Get the dictionary,' either my mother or father would cry after yet another dinner table argument about the precise meaning or etymology of a word. What exactly was the difference between infer and imply? Did thehomo in homosexuality derive from the Greek for same or the Latin for man? Both inclined to the dramatic gesture, they would often rise to their feet, even thump the table. 'Get the dictionary!' And one of us kids would scurry to the bookcase and lug the great thing back, delivering it to whichever parent had made the call. The tense moments of waiting while pages were flipped, until finally there came the triumphant 'Hah!', or the deflated 'Oh'.
BEFORE DAD TURNED twenty-eight he'd become the father of three kids; I was that third, and the only daughter. That same year he also became features editor of the Melbourne Argus – alas, just before it folded. A colleague who'd started a public relations business invited him to join, and for the rest of Dad's working life he occupied, with characteristic brio, that shifting ground between writing and advertising. I never knew my father as a newspaperman, but what he remained proudest of was having been an A-grade journalist.
My mother kept every single thing she wrote, almost down to shopping lists; she left filing cabinets stuffed with paper. Dad had a clippings book, and that was that. But among his few other papers I found a birthday card I'd made for him when I was around seven: a stick-figure girl holding the hand of a stick-figure man, surrounded by flowers, and inside I'd written in my plain and careful hand, Happy Birthday Dear Old Dad. Rest in Peace. He kindly didn't point out my inauspicious choice of words, leaving me to discover at some later date that 'rest in peace' didn't actually mean 'have a nice sleep-in'. Finding it (when I was considerably older than he'd been when I'd given it to him) I wondered why he'd kept that little card. Dad had a sentimental streak as wide as the muddy brown Yarra, but like his temper it was a passing thing, there and gone in an instant, and triggered more by thoughts and stories than mementoes. I decided it must have been the misused catchphrase: it would have amused him, and I was grateful that he had spared, back then, my seven-year-old dignity.
When I was a child I never heard my father swear. Decent men of his generation didn't, at least not in front of women or children. But if one of us insisted on expressing a point of view he thought was nonsense, he would dismiss it with an explosively scornful, 'Ah, bunny-rabbits!' In the new permissiveness of the '70s, that changed and Dad started to say 'bullshit' instead. I remember thinking that I should be pleased he was becoming less straight, swearing like me and my friends, but in fact I felt sad. Something – those idiosyncratic bunny-rabbits – had been lost, and I would miss them.
MY FATHER'S NOTION of life's ultimate achievement was to write a book – and to have it published, obviously: why else would you do it? Writing was his job, not a compulsion and not necessarily a pleasure. But much as he wished to be an author there were obstacles, of temperament as well as finance. For one thing Dad was a sprinter, not a stayer; his instinct was for the short piece, which is what drew him to both reporting and PR. And, while he took great pride in finding 'the story, the human angle' even in a pamphlet on fencing wire, fiction didn't actually engage him. From my mother's voracious novel reading he picked up enough to fake his way through dinner-party conversations that turned to literature, but I don't think he ever tried his hand at so much as a short story. Non-fiction, given the right subject, could have been his strong suit, and when in the late '60s a distinguished Australian businessman approached him to write his life story, Dad threw himself into the task. Over the months of research and interviews, he loved to mention with seeming nonchalance that he'd been down at this man's mansion on the Mornington Peninsula – 'I'm writing his biography, you know'. We visited the place once; Dad pointed out the grand piano and the ocean views with a pride that made me uneasy. One look at the rich man's face was enough to tell you he was not, and never would be, what the eager boy from Marrickville had assumed: his friend.
When the book came out, my father was deeply wounded to find his name on the dust jacket only, not the enduring hard cover beneath. As told to John Veitch; not really the author of a biography after all. Just a hired hack. He never tried to write another book.
Nevertheless, it was to that same part of the Peninsula, albeit a far more modest house, that my parents moved three decades later when their inner city home became too much for them. They knew no one there and it was well over an hour's drive from Melbourne where my brothers and I all lived. My mother was clearly terrified of the move, but Dad insisted, for no reason he could explain. I came to the view that in my father's mind, to live in that area meant that you were unassailably successful. Secure. Safe. Three weeks after they moved in, while he was washing the dishes after dinner he heard a crash in the living room and found my mother collapsed, barely conscious, on the floor. Within hours, she had died.
We assumed Dad's helplessness and confusion was due to shock and grief, but it didn't abate. It wasn't until a few months after Mum's death, when I picked up one of the little notebooks that had started appearing all around that unfamiliar house, that I began to understand. Dad, whose peerless memory had made him seem at times like a human tape recorder, who could instantly recall any of hundreds of phone numbers, was writing down everything. Everything. Not just the names of his new neighbours but our names, mixed up with other family members. Who is Jeannie? Says she's my cousin. Birthday card? Reminders to himself to do the simplest of tasks, poignant in their urgency. If no money go to WESTPAC bank in main street. See ROBYN. Very kind. I stood there staring at the humble little spiral notebook and remembered Mum's complaints about his forgetfulness, his unreliability, over that last year, and how we had dismissed them. I stood there and thought I could foresee how hard the next bit of our lives was going to be. I didn't have a clue.
SIX YEARS LATER, only partway through that long awful journey, I gave those notebooks to a character in my first novel: Alex, the father whose children must reluctantly face the fact of his dementia. Theft? Tribute? Self-therapy? Yes, and yes, and yes. While I was writing the novel, my younger brother Michael began doing a series of interviews with the men who flew planes in World War II, his lifelong obsession. Our books were published in the same month, and together Mike and I took first copies to the nursing home where our father, by then, was living.
Michael had brought his wind-up gramophone and a selection of 78s, as was his wont. While the frail ancients, wreathed in smiles, listened and sang along in phrases and snatches to 'The Road to Gundagai' and 'White Cliffs of Dover', I knelt beside our father's chair, stroking his hand and reading aloud the title of Mike's book, Flak, running my finger under his name on the cover, repeating it, reminding Dad of my brother's fascination with those planes, of the model aircraft he used to make and then arrange in bombing formation, hung by fishing line from the ceiling of his room. My own book, Listen, was beside Flak, of course, but I felt there was more chance of the penny dropping with Michael's, who is not just the youngest of our family but the darling of us all.
And suddenly, a shock of recognition ran like electricity down my father's arm. 'Michael!' he cried. 'Book! Michael, book!' From his post beside the gramophone, across the wide table, Mike waved cheerfully. 'Yep, Dad, me!' Our father started blowing him kisses of delighted congratulation – his boy, an author! – and I burst into tears of joy, and a kind of triumph. Like a runner delivering a vital message to the battlefront, I had, in the nick of time, managed to get through.
For the last year or two of Dad's life, he sat in a wheelchair with the Herald-Sun – the tabloid he'd once scorned – in front of him, and spent the day slowly turning its pages. All memory of family was gone – I, visiting, was no more than a smiling stranger – along with the ability to walk, or feed himself, or have a conversation, but he could still read. From the front page to the back he went, thoroughly scanning each one, and then over to the front again, completely absorbed and apparently content. Occasionally I'd pause in my one-sided nattering and point to a headline. 'What's that say, Dad?' I would ask, and sometimes he'd read it to me. I could tell that by the time he got to the end of the headline the first words had been forgotten, but those black marks on newsprint were still the most compelling things in his world. The printed word remained, right till the end, my father's constant ally and enduring comfort.