The Back of My Father’s Neck, by Anna Ryan-Punch

Anna Ryan-Punch is a Melbourne writer. Her previous publications include work in WesterlyAntipodesThe AgeIslandOverlandSoutherly, and the anthology Prayers of a Secular World. Her work has also appeared in issues Four, Six, and Thirteen of Tincture Journal.

This piece appears in Issue Eighteen of Tincture Journal alongside much more. Please support our work by buying a copy or subscribing.

There was no way I was going down to breakfast. Even school was looking unlikely, but having to trudge through cornflakes while my father efficiently dispatched his own meal was out of the question. He’d always start with coffee (instant, cheapest available; it smelled like Weetbix). Stirred the cup five times round, then dinged the spoon on the rim of porcelain twice. Ding ding. The noise of an angry tram. Ding ding. Such an ineffective sound, like a fairy stamping its foot. Ding ding.

Then came toast. Every day he was Grandpa Simpson: “I set the toaster to three; medium brown”. He smeared exactly 15 grams of butter across his bland bread and topped it with a flitting scrape of Vegemite. The butter was always right to the edges, but the Vegemite left a one centimetre border of yellow. Cut in half (always rectangles). The whole family would pause as the butter oozed between his wide-set teeth. Then he would smooth out the already-flat newspaper on the table, frown, and begin to read.

Here we all relaxed a little, as his head burned through the pages. Toast and coffee disappeared in military silence as he read. My mother, brother and I were always quiet at the table. Not out of fear, exactly. He was never once violent, or even threatened it. It was the weight of his concentration that muted us.

Breakfast with my father was like church. I always felt if I spoke, it would echo embarrassingly. Everyone would frown, and shush. God would disapprove from somewhere behind that biblical beard.

At 8.15 precisely, my father would carefully lift his chair back from the table (chair legs scraping on the floorboards was a pet hate of his). He’d brush non-existent crumbs from his lap in two short strokes, and clear his throat. “Well, I’m off. Be good, try to learn something. See you tonight.” The door would click shut behind him, our shoulders drop down from our ears. You could almost feel the whole house breathe out. That was the routine. End act one.

That morning, I couldn’t face it. Janie was acting weird, even though we’d been going out for three weeks. The year twelve homework had started to take on a sinister aspect. (Shut up. I’m top in English and Lit, I’m allowed to say things like ‘sinister aspect’.) So when Mum sang “Corrrrrrrn-FLAKES!” up the stairs, I screwed down under the doona and pressed my knees together. It made me feel invisible. The song came again after a few minutes: “Emiiiiiil! They’re getting sooooogggggggyyyyy!”

I wormed further into my sheets. Eventually I heard the front door click neatly shut, and I knew my father had gone to work. My mother’s footsteps immediately creaked up the staircase.

“Emil.” I kept my face under the doona. “Emil.” It was an order. I peeled the covers down over my nose. Funeral music played in my head. I almost enjoyed my little death scene. Mum’s face was all eyebrows. “Are you sick? You know we have breakfast together, unless you’re sick.”

I tried to look pale. Tears drew my eyes bright. I didn’t really have to try, that’s how tense I was. “Janie’s acting weird. I haven’t slept much.”

“Oh, honey.” Mum melted into concern, and I instantly felt bad. I reasoned with myself: you haven’t lied. You may have linked one truth with irrelevant other truths, but—

Mum interrupted my thoughts before I had time to spiral further into self-pity. “Well, you rest up. You look pale. There’s soup in the fridge.” I nodded. Avoided eye-contact. I slid back under my doona, and guilt rose with the blankets. Why was I being so melodramatic all of a sudden? It’s not like it was different to any other day.

I heard my brother leave. I even heard my mother sigh as he left. Sound carries hard in our house. Then I heard her careful movement—dishes, benches, a tacking sound as she put her shoes on. “Emil?” The ribbon of her voice wound up the stairs. “I’ll be home by three. If you need anything, the number’s on the phone?” She paused for my answer, even though it wasn’t technically a question. I considered stubborn silence. Gave in.

“I just need to sleep for a bit, Mum.” I imagined I could hear her brows crease together.

“Okay darling.” The word ‘darling’ is always strange when it’s called out loudly. DARLING. It should always be soft, darling. I waited. “I’ll call at lunch to check on you, okay?” I nodded, then realised she couldn’t see me.

“Okay!” I called. The front door snapped closed. While my father shut the door like an order, my mother pressed it closed like an apology. The house rang silent. I curled my knees to my chest. I played dead, pretended my guilt away. A few minutes later, the thought came: Now what?

From somewhere (probably my father), a voice said “Well, we can’t hang around here all day.” I paused. Five seconds later I shoved my legs out like pistons; steamed back the covers. I would go out for breakfast. That’s what I’d do.

The house was still. I tiptoed down the stairs, then stopped to laugh. Why was I quiet? But my laugh echoed; I stopped laughing. I scooped my bag quietly over one shoulder and winced as it scraped the wall. Everything was so loud. DARLING.

There was no evidence of breakfast. I paused in the kitchen and absent-mindedly scanned for crumbs. Nothing. It was always my mother who wiped up. Every morning she meticulously primed the kitchen for the onslaught of dinner. Ridiculously, the sight of the shining bench brought back those tears to my eyes. “Jesus, how old are you?” I said aloud. The ring of my voice around the marble benchtops faded slower than I would have liked. It was time to get out.

My door-slam was loud. Defiant. I hadn’t gone down to breakfast, I wasn’t going to school. I was eighteen, I could do whatever I liked. I grimaced inwardly at that thought. Holden would have called me a phoney at that point. We did Holden in year ten. I found him irritating, and said so every chance I got. Janie said I found him irritating because he was just like me. I didn’t discuss books with Janie after that.

The winter morning had peeled out an orange sun, hazy in the metal sky. I walked the grey pavements to the bus stop, always eyes-down. You never know what you might miss on the ground. This morning I found a two dollar coin, a silver earring, and a used condom. I left the condom where it drooped. But I looked at it for a while. It looked like a sad flower, a funeral offering weeks after someone had died. Wet and bleached of colour.

The bus was exactly on time. This never happens, but my day was already so out of routine that I almost didn’t notice. I stepped calmly into the smell of vinyl and old bananas that filled the carriage. There were two other passengers; a woman who looked like she’d save a seat for her change purse, and a teenager, maybe two years younger than me. He had better hair, so I sat as far away from him as I could. Do not feed the emos.

The bus door squeaked shut. We shuddered around corners, but ran along the straight bits like we were driving on glass. It occurred to me that I didn’t know exactly where I was going, but the flash of orange light past the windows grew into gold, and I got a bit distracted. I’ve always been a romantic like that. Janie says I’m just being a wanker. I couldn’t think of anything to say to that. Maybe that’s why she won’t talk to me at the moment: too much Holden Caulfield, not enough Ferris Bueller.

When the bus popped the brakes on in Northcote, I lurched to my feet. A spontaneous location suited my mood. Janie would have made her lips go thin and white, and then announced I was being spontaneous on purpose. But I was my own man today, I’d thrown off the mortal shackles of breakfast and school and I was both Ferris and Holden, beholden to no one. (I liked that line. “Holden, beholden to no one.” I would write that down later.)

I’d never walked along Westgarth Street before, though I knew I was in Northcote because my school train came through here every day. I raised my chin. I think it’s important to notice the urban landscape. So I curved my head upwards and wavered my eyes along the building tops. Done. Then I tilted my eyes down, right down to my feet before scanning along the cement ahead. There was a paperclip, a clod of earth with a crack in it, and a dead sparrow. I wondered if I should write a poem about the sparrow, but decided that might be clichéd. I already knew what Janie would say.

At the edge of an intersection I paused and looked left and right along each footpath, because we were studying Frost in Lit. But all the paths looked like they’d been travelled equally. There was a lot of dog shit in both directions. That’s the problem with applying literature to life—there’s never a road less travelled. If you’re lucky, there’s only a footpath less crapped on.

There was lots of light about, more than I’d noticed in other suburbs. Gold sprinkled through café and shop windows like Northcote thought it was North Carlton. I let my chest fill with air and forgot about breakfast and school. I just let my feet take me along. I walked for quite a while in one direction, then I walked back around another way. Then I reached a cinema and stopped. I’d never been to the Westgarth before, and something about seeing a film at ten in the morning appealed to me. It would make today into a morning I’d be jealous of, if someone else told me about it. I scanned the posters, curled my lip a bit at the offerings. Then my eyebrows shot up—a special ‘for-the-oldies’ screening of To Kill a Mockingbird at 10 am. Brilliant. This story was getting better and better.

I smiled at the ticket seller. She looked only a bit older than me.

“Concession to To Kill a Mockingbird, thanks.”

“Read the book?” she asked.

“We’re doing it in English,” I offered eagerly. She bit back a grin and I clenched my teeth. Hi, I am a pimply high-schooler, would you like to hear about salient themes, motifs and images? How about I just read you the Cliffs Notes word-for-word over a glass of lemonade?

“Shouldn’t you be in school?” she asked, still pulling her lips away from that smile.

“Research,” I muttered, and shuffled away from the desk.

“Your change?” she called. I shuffled back and grabbed the coins without looking up.

“Sorry. Thanks,” I said. This was not going well. I was definitely not Ferris. I was definitely not ordering a choc-top now.

The cinema was almost empty. I plonked down in my seat and attempted to shove my wallet back into my pocket. The lights dimmed as I glanced at the person one row in front of me. I stopped trying to put away my wallet.

I stopped fast. At first I started to stand up. Then I pressed back in my seat, and drew a breath carefully up into my lungs. I sat still. The man sitting in the seat almost directly in front of me was my father. I skipped the cinematic double-take and just stared. I ran my eyes up his shoulders, along his dodgy hairline and down again. I traced his outline like he was a dot-to-dot picture. After a few minutes, I realised he wasn’t going to move. I unclenched my teeth and felt a rush of release to the nerve endings in my gumline.

My father, who had ‘gone to work’ as he did every day. Sitting in a cinema, unmoving and timeless. Perhaps he did this every week? Perhaps he had escaped after breakfast and called in sick. Kind of like what I’d done. I felt myself do the ‘Finch Family Frown’. Just like him.

He was so close I could see the pores on the back of his neck. I stared, unblinking. Did he even go to work? I flew back over what he knew about me; not much. He knew I got good grades and didn’t smoke. He knew I had asthma and didn’t want to do Law like him. He knew I would probably do Arts/Law anyway. I flew back over what I knew about him; even less. I knew his breakfast toast and coffee, his symmetrical cheese and pickle sandwich, his cautious dinner. I knew he and my mother still loved each other because of the way he sometimes rested his hand on her shoulder, and the way her head tilted when he did. I knew his evening retreat to ‘research’. Research. That’s what I’d said to the ticket-seller.

The movie seemed to roll out in record time. There was a trial, and a black man, and Gregory Peck looking concerned a lot. I briefly registered why my aunty’s cats were named Scout and Jem. Mostly I stared at the back of my father’s neck.

The closing titles sprang up and I panicked. A crash from my left snapped my head across—an old woman had stumbled on the stairs. When I looked back to my father, he had risen; he was going to help her. My nerves leapt—if he should see me! I shuddered up out of my seat and stumbled along the row of seats with my heart beating against my forehead.

As the half-orange lights came up, my father turned a little, and I saw the man’s face.

My lips parted and a small noise escaped.

uh.

I noted a bristly beard where there should have been a clean chin. I registered a small nose where there should have been a beak, inherited from my grandfather. His hair was a little too off to the right, and a lot too grey. His suit wasn’t black like the one my father wore, it was navy.

The man who was not my father rushed to the elderly woman and raised her gently by the elbow.

Orange theatre lights warmed to yellow.

 

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