- Published: 18 September 2017
- ISBN: 9780857987129
- Imprint: Vintage Australia
- Format: Paperback
- Pages: 400
- RRP: $26.00
Crimes of the Father
Docherty Comes to Australia
1 July 1996
Sarah Fagan was driving a cab. Some might think her cab-driving a pathetic attempt to meet men. In fact, it was a genuine attempt to allow a recovery of her brain, which was depleted, and a revival of her spirit, which had been rendered numb from all that had happened to her.
Driving was an art, but it also allowed intellectual vacuity, plain rituals of conversation. And if Sarah did not want to converse on the issue of why a woman like her was driving a cab, she would say, ‘We’re all filling in for my husband, who has cancer.’ The ‘we’re all’ implied a tough family hanging together in a crisis; that she was not, therefore, in favour of being messed around by passengers. She suspected that a decision about whether she would stay in neutral gear for the rest of her life, or might pull herself out of it, would most probably arise not from conscious thought or frantic self-analysis, but with her brain muted by routine. Listening to and exchanging banalities with her passengers, she hoped she would hear some healing neutral words. She might then learn to live in the same room as the tiger, the flesh-tearing fury.
A Friday morning at Sydney Airport provided taxi drivers with lots of fares. The line of cabs was prodigious by seven o’clock, with a dozen ahead of her. But the stream of morning arrivals kept it moving, and as Sarah was a cab driver more for the therapy of it than for sustenance she was unfazed by the wait.
When eventually the last cab in front of her had cleared off, Sarah’s fare proved to be a tall, lean man, studiouslooking, in his late fifties or early sixties – you couldn’t tell in an age when even the old went to gymnasia and sweated themselves thin. This fellow hauled a modern suitcase on wheels, and in his other hand carried a briefcase. The suitcase was not massively packed nor the briefcase of the latest design. A sensible traveller, but neither a conventional businessman nor tourist. A chiropractor, she thought, or a health-shop owner.
‘Good morning,’ he said as she got out and came around the cab to watch him putting his bags briskly into the boot whose lid she had released. When he was finished, he set out walking around the car to take the other front seat, as was the custom with Australian men of his age, a residual gesture of egalitarianism. It was only then he noticed she was a woman and was struck by doubt.
‘What should I do?’ he asked her in a level, earnest voice.
‘Would you like me to sit in the back?’
She told him it was his choice − he was the passenger.
So, after weighing the matter, he took the front seat. She asked him where to, and he said Gladesville – he believed he knew the way, he said, since he used to live in the area.
He mentioned a street. ‘We’ll work it out as we go,’ he said.
She pulled out and asked him if it had been a good flight, and he said it had been passable – given the time change he preferred to fly by day than by night. But he hadn’t had a choice this time.
Where had he come from?
‘Vancouver,’ he told her.
‘Oh,’ she said vaguely, because all points of departure were equal to her. She liked these conversations, but did not want to take on any of their weight. ‘They say it’s a little like Sydney,’ she remembered to contribute.
‘Yes,’ he said, ‘it is like Sydney, and yet they’re both their own places. They’re like siblings − very much the same and very much different.’
It was what she wanted to hear. Something unchallenging, which still transcended plainness.
‘So you’re pleased to be home.’
‘Proud Australian boy,’ he said. ‘Though I live in Canada.’
She asked when he was going back and he said in three weeks’ time. His mother had a few mobility problems, he said. She was old enough to warrant his coming to see her.
Did he live in Vancouver? No, he said. Ontario, over in the east. Flat country but very pleasant. She asked him what the winters were like and he laughed. ‘Unspeakable.
Sometimes I think it’s amazing that any Canadian survived before 1900.’ He shook his head. ‘And yet, when you live there you just take it as it comes. Pretty much the way Australians accept their summers.’
Apart from such superficial issues as geography and weather, she generally left her passengers free of enquiry.
It was astonishing, however, how many would offer particulars without her asking. Humans were natural confessors, and she was sure it was this, rather than the sophistication of police forces, that landed many people in the criminal dock.
He said, ‘Things have certainly changed in Australia.’
‘In what way?’ she asked. She wondered if it was wise to ask.
‘Well, it was all freckle-faced Celts and Anglo-Saxons when I was a kid. Now the faces are Asian, Middle Eastern.
And women driving cabs. The old crustaceans around me when I was a kid wouldn’t have considered them safe enough drivers!’
‘You haven’t seen it in Canada?’
‘Not particularly. Well, yes. There’s an Ojibwe woman in Waterloo who drives for her husband because he’s got diabetes. You see, I live in a sort of big country town. But also . . . well, I always thought the Canadians a bit more progressive.’ And then he laughed. ‘In a backwards sort of way.’
She said nothing.
‘Are you driving for your husband?’ he asked.
She did laugh at that, and was aware it wasn’t an entirely kindly laugh. She said, ‘Why would I need a taxi owner for a husband to make it all right for me to drive a cab?’
He held up a hand. ‘You’re quite right; forgive me. I’m a sexist brute. Women in Canada tell me I am all the time.’
‘You can get cured of that, you know!’ she said, a little tersely.
In the silence that followed she wondered idly if he was married. She was not going to ask. He asked her about the present Australian government, but he was treading water and she gave a simple answer, discontented with politicians in the Australian way that expects no prophets ever to emerge from the desert.
She went left beside Hyde Park, reached Chinatown and crossed the Glebe Island Bridge. It was only when she turned into Rozelle that he recognised familiar landmarks on Victoria Road. ‘My father and uncle owned that pub,’ he told her. ‘If I called it an old stamping ground, you’d asked me what I stamped on it. But at least I’m familiar with it.’
He had a weird sense of humour, she thought. She said,
‘We’re close now.’ For some reason she said it for her own comfort. This one was just a notch too subtle for conversation.
Whereas she could live with ‘my old stamping ground’, she found ‘I don’t know what I stamped on it’ harder. She wanted clichés, not a smart aleck expatriate who turned them on their head. ‘Not far,’ she said, but again to reassure herself.
She had an opening to ask him what he did for a living, for she still couldn’t guess and she was certain he didn’t own pubs. She had a feeling the answer would be at least mildly interesting, but resisted saying anything because it would allow him the right of a question in return.
The morning beamed down on her windscreen and she put on her sunglasses.
‘Ah,’ he said, ‘Sydney light.’
‘Isn’t it just like Canadian light?’ she asked.
‘The light there on a bright cold day, twenty below freezing – it’s big honest light, too. The rays doubled up by reflections off the snow. So it’s like Sydney light but without the inconvenience of snow.’ She said, ‘The Canadians must appreciate you telling them that. I don’t think.’
He laughed. A low, short laugh. He was looking out of the window and drinking in what he could see of the suburbs and their shops and pubs, just like a returned, easily satisfied patriot. She took an exit and he was on familiar ground and could guide her.
‘I don’t know what number it is,’ he told her. ‘It’s a big sandstone place.’
They rolled along suburban streets and he watched schoolboys in cricket-style hats, brown shirts and shorts, and the little girls in their checked uniforms. At last he pointed to a nineteenth-century mansion that stood behind a reclusive, high-shrubbed, high-treed garden. She could see the Celtic cross at the apex of the facade and a smaller metal version above the front door. Convents sported such icons. So did monasteries. She felt a pulse of revulsion. The poisoned cross still boasting of its triumph over the suburb. Atop a smug garden and a smug antipodean sandstone mansion.
She punched the meter off and jabbed the button that released the boot.
‘That’s fine. Father, Brother, whichever you are. The trip’s on me. Don’t forget your bag.’ It would have been good to end it there and maintain functional, cold politeness. But she couldn’t. ‘Just get out, will you?’ she told him.
He was mystified. ‘No,’ he said earnestly, ‘the freeloading days for priests are gone. And they gave me taxi money especially for the airport.’
He pushed a fifty dollar note towards her but she would not take it. She sat stiffly and clung to the wheel. He tucked the note into a recess between the two seats. ‘I insist,’ he murmured.
Eyes fixed ahead, she said, with a deliberately chosen profanity, ‘Just fuck off, will you? Just get your bag and go.’
She could see out of the corner of her eye he was examining her face, as she fixed her gaze blankly on a couple of young mothers and their children across the street. She knew he was skimming through a number of options in his head – the job of a supposed general practitioner of the soul. Meanwhile, she both wanted him to react to her so she could unleash truer insults and passionately wanted him to vanish to save her the grief.
He said simply as he opened the door, ‘Just let me get my bag. And . . . I’m sorry I made you angry.’
It happened that Docherty knew well how ambiguous the Celtic cross, once the symbol of one of the most oppressed peoples in Europe, could be for the damaged. One of the purposes of his journey was to warn Australian clergy of this enlarging rage now loose in the world. If nobody listened, he believed such rage would grow to fill the sky.
This woman was clearly one of those damaged in the shadow of that sign. And no Southern Baptist, no Marxist, hated the sight of the Celtic cross with the intimate hostility that he could tell was in her. For he had encountered this before. Symptoms of unutterable harm. She had achieved equilibrium, he understood, driving her cab, but − perhaps to her own surprise − her effort of calm had been disrupted by getting too close to the gate of a suburban monastery. Quickly, he took one of his professional cards from his pocket, wrote his Sydney contacts on it and dropped it through the window on to the passenger seat. Then he fetched his bags from the angrily sprung trunk and made for the gate without looking back.
At the time of the discovery of the astonishingly ancient Learned Man, some decades back, my friend Peter Jorgensen, a scientist from Melbourne, was testing dried lake basins and their sediments for records of ancient rainfall oscillations.
Prologue Parramatta, November 1825 He really must do something about that door, he thought as he crossed the yard back to his quarters.
The fall had turned to winter and then back again without conviction, November’s chill taken up and dropped like a woman never wearing the right coat until finally December laughed and took hold.
Discarded medical equipment litters the floor: surgical tools blistered with rust, broken bottles, jars, the scratched spine of an old invalid chair.