The Things That Define Us

by Giselle Whiteaker


“What is this rubbish?” said my father, angrily stabbing his finger towards the frying pan where a trio of wiener schnitzels lay slowly browning.

His girlfriend Jude looked at him with disdain. “Dinner.”

“This is not dinner,” he yelled, his red-rimmed eyes bulging. “This couldn’t have taken more than ten minutes to put together.”

His face was turning purple as he raged, a vein at his temple pulsating, his anger a palpable force in the confined space. I wanted to interrupt. I wanted to tell him I chose the meal. It wasn’t Jude’s cooking that was questionable; it was my finicky food tastes. At twelve, I hadn’t outgrown my hatred for vegetables that were not white. If I’d been braver, if I’d known him better, I might have said something.

My father had all but ignored my arrival several days earlier. I’d waved a handkerchief at the plane window like my grandmother did so that mum knew where I was sitting as I departed Devonport, Tasmania, my eyes trickling. It was a long flight to Darwin in the Northern Territory. The two states are as far away from each other as possible within Australia’s broad expanse, a fitting metaphor for my parents’ relationship.

I hadn’t seen my father in years – too many to recall a specific number. I had only vague memories of his last visit, when he’d shown up unexpectedly in my bedroom and stood in the corner, asking me if I knew who he was. His blue eyes were piercing. I thought I knew him, but I was too scared to say anything in case the semi-stranger laughed at me. I sat mute, wrapped securely in the bedclothes with my knees drawn up to my chest, until he gave up and left the room. We lived in a different house then, in a different city, in a different state. It felt like a lifetime ago.

I only remember one other visit. Mum and I flew to Darwin during the school holidays when I was about seven. Dad lived on a sailing boat then, the Singha Bettina, and wore sarongs. Every inch the fading hippy, he led a seemingly carefree existence, all leathery skin and bare feet. One day, fishing from the boat, he caught a shark and when he sliced it open, there were three babies inside. He gently released them into the water and with tiny flicks of their tails they glided away: a successful shark caesarian. We ate the mother pan-friend for breakfast. My father, my hero.

Another day, he caught an enormous mud crab in a crayfish pot. I was scared of crabs. I still am. They are the spiders of the sea. The huge creature was wedged into a plastic bucket in the belly of the dinghy Dad used as a fishing boat, its claws scrabbling at the edges in a futile attempt to escape. I sat as far away as possible, mesmerised by that blue vessel.

“Tip it overboard,” Dad instructed.

I shook my head and inched further away.

“Go on. Tip it,” he said more forcefully.

“I can’t,” I replied.

He pushed the bucket towards me with his toe as I backed all the way to the prow of the boat. Any further and I’d be overboard. I sensed his exasperation. I knew he wanted me to face my fears, but I couldn’t bear to get close to that beast. Tears poured down my face as I gripped the sides of the metal boat, quivering with a combination of terror and shame. I wanted to please him, but I couldn’t conquer my fear of the eight-legged monster. He grabbed the bucket and in one swift motion threw the creature into the sea. It hit the surface of the water with a loud splash and sunk into oblivion. I could sense Dad’s disgust at my weakness, but inside I felt a glimmer of pride. I faced a fear that day: the fear of my father’s disapproval.

In the intervening years, he wrote letters. Missives that extended to several pages and included drawings, sketched in coloured pencils. One of me with a yellow face after I told him I was in the yellow sports group at school. I don’t know how he knew what I looked like. Perhaps it was the me of his imagination. Another of a hand grasping a bunch of multi-hued flowers, the roots dangling in mid-air. It covered an entire page. Tiny fish swam underneath the tangle and I wondered how they could breathe. “For you,” was written at the top, “From me,” at the bottom.

The letters now lie with a few sentimental keepsakes in a wooden box with brass hinges, inside a plastic container in my mother’s garage. Bundled with the envelopes labelled with my father’s flowing script are love letters written in clumsy primary-school scrawl from boys I never spoke to; a cat collar I wore as a bracelet, gifted from a teen punk boyfriend; photos of my grandmother. The remnants of my past, gathering dust in a corner while I travel the world.

He wrote in the poetic prose of the romantics, his sentences trailing off in dots and question marks. I imagined his thoughts did the same thing. My replies were filled with the enthusiasm of youth, punctuated with multiple exclamation marks and capital letters.

Every now and then, there would be a gift. A package would arrive unexpectedly and the excitement would be unbearable. More often than not, the postal surprise would be delivered in October with a note saying “Happy Birthday. Sorry it’s late.” I was born in November. It didn’t matter. Nothing could dull the excitement of those packaged reminders of him.

He sent brightly coloured enamel beads and wooden masks from Indonesia, the paint peeling and faded. I had a collection of sharks’ jaws, the cartilage yellowing with age, and a tiny, gold Buddha amulet. Once, he sent a rock the size of an emu egg.

“This is a dream rock,” he wrote. “Imagine how far it’s travelled to become this smooth…”

I slept with it under my pillow even though it pressed coldly into my head. It was the best birthday present ever. My mother disguised her pique that a rock superseded the bicycle she scrimped and saved for.

A few months before boarding the plane, I’d been with my mother in a newsagency. While she bought a lotto ticket, I admired the minute silver music boxes on display at the front of the store. By winding the tiny handles, raised bumps tweaked the keys, as if the music was transmitted by brail-type. One of the shop attendants showed me how to magnify the sound by sitting the device on a shelf.

“I have one of these at home,” I told the woman proudly.

“Well, you could ask your father to attach it to a block of wood and that would make it louder,” she suggested.

“I don’t have a father,” I stated categorically, to my mother’s embarrassment.

Even the kindness of the air hostesses couldn’t calm my nerves throughout the flight, on my way to visit a father I didn’t claim and barely remembered. I was wearing the solo flyer badge that identified me as an unaccompanied child, so they checked on me frequently. I couldn’t tell them of my fears. What if I didn’t recognise my father at the airport? What if he didn’t recognise me? What if he didn’t like me?

After a bumpy landing, a hostess with bright red lips and blonde wavy hair collected me from my seat and walked me into the terminal, holding my hand. Sticky molten tar sucked at my shoes as I scuffed my feet over the hot tarmac into the squat, white single-story building. Adults stood in small clusters, wearing shorts and tie-dyed t-shirts, sweaty pools dampening their armpits. The rusty fans overhead lazily swirled the scorched air, doing nothing to alleviate the humidity.

I searched every face for a glimmer of recognition, but amidst the cropped brown curls, the blonde crew cuts and the tangled mullets there was nothing. I felt the panic accumulating in my chest, threatening to climb up my throat and burst from my mouth as an anguished wail. I clenched my teeth to keep my inner self in check and pivoted to search each face a second time. Still nothing. My cheeks flushed from the effort of restraining my humiliation, but inside I felt cold and numb. I didn’t recognise my own father.

Together, we collected my new blue suitcase, one of the few still circling the conveyor belt. It looked small and lonely, like me, as it looped through the terminal on its predetermined route. I took the handle and pulled it behind me, bumping my heels, following the air hostess to the information counter. She faded into the crowd and I gave the male attendant my father’s name.

“Ted Whiteaker. Please come to the information counter. Your daughter is waiting. Ted Whiteaker.”

I fidgeted as I wrote a message in the dust on the floor with my right sneaker. Carefully examining the end of my shoelaces, I waited for a stranger to claim me and the minutes dragged on.

“Ted Whiteaker. Please come to the information counter.”

I could see pity in the attendant’s eyes.

“Do you have a phone number for him?” he asked and I nodded, pulling a grubby piece of folded paper from the back pocket of my jeans.

He started to say something, then hesitated and shook his head, delicately picking at the corner of the paper as if unfolding an origami crane.

In the corner of my eye, I saw a large man with a bushy beard and weathered face making a beeline for the counter. Could this be him? He walked with purpose and I plastered a weak smile onto my face in welcome. I searched his eyes for empathy as he closed in, pulling my shoulders back, away from dejection.

The man barely noticed me, stepping over the wheels of my bag to lean his tattooed fists on the counter.

“Is the flight to Perth on time?” he growled in a gruff, unfamiliar voice.

“Yes it is. It’ll be departing at 1.35.”

He grunted and shuffled away, the loose straps on his bulging khaki backpack fluttering behind him like streamers. I let my shoulders return to their slump, biting my lower lip to stop it trembling.

The attendant picked up the phone receiver and I leant forward to watch his slim fingers twirl each of the numbers on the dial. I could hear the faint ringing from where I stood. On it rang, over and over.

Defeated, I sat on a bench opposite the counter and waited as the attendant gave me sympathetic glances. Every so often he would lift the phone receiver and dial. I watched him carefully every time, releasing my breath when he apologetically replaced the receiver back in the cradle with a sad shake of his head.

It took almost two hours for anyone to answer the phone and another forty minutes before my dad’s girlfriend rushed into the terminal, her sea-green eyes crinkled in concern, her amber tresses damp from a shower, wet patches on the shoulders of her white cheesecloth shirt sucking at her shoulders.

“I’m so sorry,” she said, grabbing my bag and guiding me to a battered white Ford in the car park. “It’s funny, you know. Your father and I had an argument last night about when you were coming. I told him it was today, but he insisted it was tomorrow.”

I wasn’t laughing.

Four days later, in the kitchen, I still didn’t recognise my father.