Closing Time

Closing Time

How our Marriage Broke Down

"Here they come again."

The rattle of trolleys preceded the nursing sisters who came to administer four-hourly medications. They seemed to like the old man, called him Frank as though they had known him all of his life.

"Well, they are only doing their job," he said. "We expect these interruptions and have learned to work around them. What is it this time? Medications, blood thinners, they say. If it is not that, it will be bedsores, or physiotherapy on the legs or one of a dozen other things. When you are not here, I appreciate their attention because they bring the latest news and make me laugh. I also appreciate your passionate interest in the Oral History Program and realise time is running out - my time, that is. Most of my story is recorded already on one of your clever little video cameras that erase the pauses and give the impression of continuity.

"The first thirty-six years of my life and the last forty-two were packed with achievements and respect, and it's a pleasant exercise to relate the highlights. The regrettable phase began when you insisted that this middle passage is an essential, pivotal period. As a last attempt to atone for my failure as your father, I am including it despite the pain associated with disclosure, although it was no secret at the time. It was a very public fall from grace. Like the soldiers' stories of being bombed in the trenches and seeing a mate disintegrate before their eyes, every detail remains to haunt my body, mind and spirit, contrary to the popular belief that old age and memory loss are inseparable. Ah! Now, the nurses have moved to the next room and we can resume until the next invasion."

The noise of trolleys faded into the distance and music from a radio floated through the half-closed door. Recording resumed.

You need to be reminded that this happened in the late 1940's and everything was different then. Well, not everything, but life and cultural attitudes have undergone radical changes. Small, handheld video cameras did not exist then, for instance, and I'm grateful for that.

I was a loving husband, father of six children aged between fourteen and two years - you were the baby. I was a respected world-class athlete who had represented the country here and abroad, and was manager of a department in the public service. When long service time came around, your mother and I decided that entering the business-world would enable us to earn enough money to pay for our children's education. Athletes were not financially rewarded then as they are now, we were expected to play for the love of the game. Indeed, we did just that, but when it came to supporting the family, we had to play catch-up with others who had been working full-time since they left school. We decided upon a hotel in a country town where I could run the bar and, with hired help, your mother could manage the meals and accommodation without neglecting you children. We believed that my reputation would attract a good clientele.

Neither of us had business experience but we were enthusiastic learners, and the outgoing licensees stayed with us for three weeks, introducing us, and demonstrating the daily routine. We soon realised that visiting a hotel, hearing the congenial hum of voices, the sociable clinking of glasses and the sparkle of light on mirrors and windows, gives a sociable impression of pleasant company and fellowship. However, it is the opposite next morning. Inside there is a stench of stale smoke, spilt drinks, filthy mess on the floor and overturned furniture. All of this must be scrubbed, deodorised, shining and serene before opening time. The hotel we chose was in a pastoral town situated in a fertile valley favoured by dairy farmers, four hours bus ride from the city. I have never owned a car; we always lived near public transport.

Everyone in the family was excited and curious on moving day and paid attention to the bus driver's patter. He directed our attention to native trees and ferns, rare flowers, and birds the older children had learned about in nature studies. Near the top of the range, he paused in lush, dense forest under a canopy of leafy trees, giving us a rare chance to hear bellbirds. In the background, whipbirds called their unique sound deep in the undergrowth and, as we continued through the columns of trees, I experienced a feeling of elation, like going through a tunnel into a new life where I would face and overcome new challenges.

Timber and reforestation provided the second industry in the region. The Forestry Department employed new immigrants from Europe and provided full accommodation on site for them. We welcomed them on payday when they came to town, all dressed up in suits with long, thick hairstyles and drooping shoulders, but we did not get to know them well. The nuns had told the school children about war and its atrocities; the best we could do was offer smiles and handshakes, which they acknowledged with serious nods and wry smiles. We wished we had learned languages at school.

If you study photographs of the town, you get an impression of a small, unhurried community with one Anzac memorial, one chemist, one milk bar, one general store and so on. In real life you also discover many fascinating characters; some were potential customers, some accomplished artists, farmers, bauxite miners, and Country Women's Association members who always had urgent work to do, talking in groups that changed size as some arrived and some hurried off, I did not meet all of them but they eventually knew all about me.

Three bottles of whiskey were allowed us each month. The priest and the police sergeant reserved one each and the hotel was forced to ration the remaining one. Townspeople knew when the next order was due by watching the temper of the policeman and the priest, rather like the farmers reading the patterns of clouds. Travelling salesmen arrived intermittently searching out regular clients and seeking new contacts, looking more like tourists than businessmen. They were moderate drinkers needing clear heads for buying and selling. Statistically, the odds were in favour of our earning a decent living and keeping the family together; I had faced and overcome another challenge when I paid all debts in record time and started having a drink with the customers. The slide downhill from there was like a skier on a steep slope.

Customers began to drift in at 10.00am and the bar was busy until closing time. By noon, I felt entitled to relax and have a drink with them after being on my feet since 5.00am preparing for business. Sometimes, I would take a rifle from a boarder's room and go to the balcony overlooking the main street when I knew my wife was shopping. I aimed it at her but she was past caring, and did not change direction, nor look back. When the downhill slide was gathering momentum, I kept my two eldest children from school and directed proceedings while they served drinks at the bar that was almost at their eye level, rolled kegs around that grown men considered heavy, cleaned stinking messes from spilt drinks and farmers' muddy shoes in an atmosphere laden with smoke and swearing, until the sergeant threatened me. Singing in bars was an offence but one of the customers had an outstanding baritone voice and the children urged him to sing when he was half drunk. His favourite song was The Rose That Grows in No Man's Land and every time he sang it he would be arrested and spent the night in the lock-up, serenading the sergeant. After I was warned about having children in the bar, I ordered your mother to do her share while I dribbled and drooled and drank, still expecting her to love, honour and obey. Countless times I fell to the floor and asked customers to pass my drink down to me. Eventually, they just stepped over me.

The children, confused and deprived of all that was familiar, stopped going to school and one stole comics from the newsagent. They set fire to the stables when teaching each other to smoke. Your mother overdosed on sleeping pills, and a commercial traveller rushed her to hospital in the next town. Two of her brothers took time off work, cleaned me up, and fearing their efforts would be in vain, tried to terrorise me with barbaric threats that would make Hitler turn pale. In my better days I could have beaten both at once, but now I cowered. A commercial traveller drove me to visit your mother and at the bedside I saw for a brief instant the chaos I was causing. I sobbed and pleaded for forgiveness, while telling her that suicide was a mortal sin. I accused her of attempting to leave the children motherless. Despite the doctor's advice and her own instincts, she agreed to give me one last chance. When the ambulance brought her 'home' I was swaying in the front entrance insisting I had not touched a drop.

My brother, sports colleagues, work associates; even an old teacher came, offering advice and support, dreading that their words were wasted. I listened with head bowed in shame, agreed with all of them, did a boozed-up dance of relief when they left and continued on my almighty binge. In retrospect, trying to stop it would have been like trying to stop a tsunami.

The police sergeant threatened to close me down. Why had I not thought of that before? I had been concerned about this and that one's opinions when all I needed to do was close the door. I was like Samson and the booze was Delilah. I fell unconscious hugging assorted bottles close to my chest as once I had held my wife. At night, I rolled heavy wooden barrels around on wooden floors keeping everyone awake. Organ music seemed to come out of the walls and frogs in tin helmets climbed those same walls. Fear crept in and occupied my mind. Dark shapes followed me. When I turned quickly to confront them, they flitted behind me, always just out of reach. I could never catch the one that drank out of my bottle. I would open one, gulp a mouthful, listen to the organ music for a while, and when I put the bottle back to my mouth, it was empty. I cried then like one of my babies when it needed a bottle of milk. Somebody called the priest. That was a laugh, he would have competed with me. I'm sure the sergeant was jealous too. Few people get to drink a pub dry.

You cannot remember this; but can imagine the chaos when your exhausted mother packed up and fled to her mother's house with our damaged, terrified children. Our twelve-year-old son chose to stay with me and called my brother who once hero-worshipped me but had learned to despise me. He drove us to my mother's place. Mothers, they never give up. I can still see tears running down her face as she peeled stinking clothes off me and bathed cuts and bruises. She tried to heal me until the day she died. My son, your brother, rescued me from all sorts of predicaments; fights, beatings, police lock-ups and emergency wards, in parts of the town a boy should not even know existed. His mind retreated into the shadow-world of mental illness; he never recovered.

Then, I stopped drinking. In a moment it ended. But it will never be over because I relive it in dreams and wake weeping. I relive it in memory and ache all over. I relive it in weekly confessions and my heart pounds. I cannot understand it, the uncanny inevitableness of it.

You can turn the recorder off now. It is closing time for the story, for shame and for me.