Glenthorne Cadle Prior (1934 – 1964) [November 18]
Fifty years ago today my father died. This is a chapter from ‘Shy: a memoir’ (Text Publishing) in which i wrote about his death:
Sometimes when I’m at a surf beach I half expect to see him out there, floating serenely in the waves. He’s enjoying the feel of the water on his broad shoulders, the warmth of the sun on his wet scalp. He’ll come in soon and towel off, squinting into the glare, and then he’ll smile at me with my own shy smile, my mirror-face. We’ll sit together under a striped umbrella and watch the families gathered in little clutches around their blue and white Eskies, or spread out in human join-the-dots patterns, playing with wet tennis balls. The children with sand clinging to their legs, women tugging at their bikinis, men standing in pairs at the water’s edge, arms crossed in identical poses as they exchange information about the latest cricket scores.
But that’s not how the beach looked that day. That day the beach was wind-whipped and empty, until the busload of blinking orchestral musicians piled out onto the sand. A day when no one should have been swimming but some couldn’t resist. That’s what I’ve been told. I think. I can’t be sure now.
There were two of them leading the way to the water’s edge, young ones, feeling immortal. I picture them hopping over the waves, their pale musicians’ arms flapping at the froth under the scudding clouds. Then quickly sucked out beyond the shallows by the furtive rip. Arms flapping harder now, salt water leaping into their mouths. Frog-legs kicking. Frog-voices croaking uselessly under the roar of the breakers.
And the father suddenly forgetting about himself and hauling off his shirt. Running now, running away from his wife and children and into the clutching water. Those trumpeter’s lungs breathing deep, that blonde head diving over and under the waves as he heads for the furthest immortal.
And the rest of the orchestra watching, not breathing, as the slow-motion father reaches the furthest immortal and puts his hand under a chin and hauls the young body backwards through the over-taking waves until he can feel the sandy bottom under his feet.
Is this what happened? Or was there a rope around his waist and a silent group of onlookers at the other end, slow-motion-tugging them back to shore? I’m not sure. I have to fill in the gaps for you. And for me.
The rest of the orchestra is watching, breathing again, as the first immortal staggers onto the shore. But the father turns (isn’t one enough? why so helpful?) and goes out again. He’s tiring now, trumpeter’s lungs seared with salt, legs kicking slower, but he makes it to the gulping violinist. Again that strong hand under a chin and the slow progress away from the horizon. The onlookers turn to each other, shaking their heads in amazement. A hero!
My mother looks down at her eldest daughter and mouths ‘yes’ in response to a question that can hardly be heard over the whipping wind.
And when they all turn back the second immortal is safe.
Safe but alone.
The father has disappeared.
I imagine it as an upside down pyramid of suffering in the remnants of our family that day, gradually diluting as it goes down the family structure. Margot first: pure scarifying misery. But how can I conjure that?
My five-year-old sister is next, the one who had asked our mother ‘is he coming back,?’ The one to whom Margot replied ‘yes’ (but did my sister really say that? Have I made it up? Embellished the story?)
Then my brother, nearly two years old and so like his father already, everybody says so, the spitting image. Holding onto our mother’s legs for dear life as the sand whips around his chubby ankles.
And at the bottom of the pyramid there is me, the three-month old baby, blissfully unaware. Safe in Margot’s arms, eyes shielded from the whipping sand by a soft blanket. But I feel her heartbeat. It thuds against my ear, too fast. I feel her chest rising and falling as the fear sucks the air from her oboist’s lungs. I feel her arms tightening around me.
Perhaps too tight.
There is a photo I’ve seen (or do I imagine I’ve seen?) in another yellowing news clipping. Pinned up at my grandfather Stan Prior’s place, maybe. A woman is standing on a beach. Standing where the wet sand meets the dry, looking out to sea. She looks so alone, in spite of the three small children with her. She’s waiting, as I sometimes do, to see those shoulders rise above the waves and begin the slow swim back to shore.
Perhaps it’s not a photo I remember but a dream. I wonder if all four of us have had variations of the same one. He waits until we’re asleep and then he appears way out beyond the breakers and he’s swimming towards us. Pretty soon he’s stumbling through the shallows to the shore, tired but safe. We’re relieved but we’re also angry. Where have you been all these years, we ask? Why didn’t you come back? Didn’t you realise we’d be worried sick? Did you think about us at all before you leapt into the surf to save someone else’s children?
Sometimes when I’m swimming in surf I dive under the waves and stay down there while the water pummels my legs. I try to imagine how it must have felt for him in those last moments. Did he crash into some hidden rocks and then know nothing more? Or did he feel that pummelling too and fight to be able to breathe again? I wait until my lungs are screaming and then I surface, gasping like a fish, and stumble through the shallows to the shore, tired but safe. Like my dream father.