paul kelly was my dad

By Iain McLean

It was my job to clear the table and wash the dishes while Mum zedded in her chair. Every night after dinner was the same, she snored and I worked out how to place each dish at the best angle for the water to drain away. Forks had to go in the drainer, tynes down, but you had to make sure they didn’t catch on the holes. Knives point down. I had scars on my wrist to attest that my study had been rigorous. Everything had been accounted for. Carving knives don’t go in the drainer, they’re dried and carefully slipped back into the pine knife block. I did it all in silence. Then I would carefully prise two TimTams from the packet without making a sound and eat them in two bites each in the kitchenette so Mum wouldn’t get a whiff of the chocolate and wake up.

After doing the washing up and hanging the tea towel on the over door to dry I’d sit in silence on the sofa watching mum sleep in her chair until boredom won and I turned the telly on. I watched whatever was on but it had to be quiet, so usually I’d sit on the rug just in front of it. That made changing the channels easier too. I hated it when the weather came on. The way I saw it was we lived in Australia and we have better weather than anyone else, it just gets a bit cold and wet in winter, it gets warm in spring, then hotter in summer then cooler in autumn and it always happens the same so why pretend something different was going to happen. Other than that, I figured that the telly would let me know what I needed to know to get into the University of Hardnock. I heard two old blokes at the milk bar when I was buying Mum’s TimTams saying that was the best place to get an education. I think hardknock is somewhere up in Sydney. I couldn’t find it in our Melways. The telly taught me all about John Howard and Bloody Jeff Kennett. My Mother blamed him for everything, Bloody Jeff Kennett, she would say in response to any bad news. He must have been injured in a battle and that’s why they called him Bloody Jeff Kennet. Like the old days kings. We had a lot of bad news. Mum didn’t watch telly. She put it on after dinner then fell asleep except for Thursdays. Thursday she worked a shift at the Prince and didn’t come home until I was in bed. Sometimes I woke up on Friday mornings with her beside me still in her clothes. She had shifts on Saturday from lunch until close and Sunday afternoons.

Mum paid me two dollars every week for doing my jobs. I had saved up fifty three and spent five on Mum’s Christmas present last year. Other than that I was doing well for a seven and a half year old. I had an old soul, Mum had told me once. I wasn’t sure what it meant but Mum’s face was round and open when she said it so I must be good. It was Mum and me against the world. I kept all my money in a cardboard box under my bed. I had some notes but mostly coins. I was saving up to buy Mum a house because the one we had was a spare one the government had. And it wasn’t really a house. Mum kept telling me it was a flat. She said flats have no roofs. Roofs are pointy, so that’s why they call them flats. And Mum said the Bloody Wogs next door were a nuisance. They must have lost their battles because the old man who lives on the other side of our house kept shouting at them to bugger off back to where they came from. He looks like a skinny Santa and only ever wears a singlet so you can see his white hairy body. I don’t like him. I don’t think the Bloody Wogs were kings but they had a lot of parties like kings do. It’s all very confusing, so I just watched them when they went past me when I played in the hallway. The big one sometimes ruffled my hair. I like them. I noticed once he had a big gold chain. Maybe he’s a prince. Definitely not a king. I think.

We danced a lot, Mum and me. Triple R was always on in our house. We liked to go mad and be crazies to Acca Dacca. Mum always said “Bon’s better than Brian.”. I liked to pretend I could play bagpipes when It’s a Long Way To The Top came on. I puffed up my cheeks and pumped my arms while Mum sang with Bon. Mum loved Cold Chisel as well. She said Jimmy Barnes was too good for them and that’s why they broke up. She always turned Cold Chisel up. Jimmy’s voice needed room to breathe, she’d say. Then, in the quiet times, we’d dance slowly to Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds. Whenever they played Something’s Gotten Hold of my Heart on the radio, which wasn’t a lot, she’d take my hands in hers and hug me with her other hand and we danced slowly. Mum said I had to learn how to dance because when I was older it’d come in handy. “Thank God for Triple R,” she’d say. “Barry Bissell and his cronies at Fox wouldn’t know good music if it slapped them in the face.”

Once, it was a Saturday, and I can tell that because I was watching Rage. And it was late. That’s what I did on Saturdays because Mum worked late so I pretended I was grown up. I shouted at the telly about Bloody Jeff Kennett, pretended to be Brian Naylor saying “May your news be good news, and good-night,” then complained about that bloody Gold Medal drink truck being late again to an empty room. Then Transvision Vamp came on singing Baby I Don’t Care and I sat motionless, staring at the telly. I would have liked to dance with Wendy James. I think she’d appreciate Something’s Gotten Hold of My Heart. I ate another TimTam and slid the packet under to sofa so Mum wouldn’t know. I’d definitely share Mum’s TimTams with Wendy James.

I was sitting in the dark, lost in the music, with only the telly for light, watching the bands and pop stars with my doona wrapped around me like a cocoon. It had the smell of us on it and its seams were coming apart, but it kept me safe, warm and close to Mum. She washed it once and it was like the first half of the story of us vanished with the soap. I had on my white undies and singlet because that’s all I had. Pyjamas weren’t a thing in our house. But it wasn’t quite spring yet and I had to cover my chest because I got sick easily. I was fighting off the sleep demons when I heard it. A key slid into the front door. It tried a few times before it got it right. Then it flung open. I was too tired to worry. So I listened: feet slapped into the hallway. Lots of feet, more than just Mum’s feet. I knew one of them was hers because I could tell her footfalls apart from the rest. Something fell from the phone stand. It sounded like the phone book but the phone was on top of it, so it must have been mum’s library book. I heard mum giggle, then shush herself. I was about to turn the telly off when I heard his voice. All he said was “Goodnight sweetheart, I’ll see you next week?” Then a kiss. Then the door closed quietly. I listened harder in the dark, with the light from the telly splashing me. Paul Kelly was playing Dumb Things on Rage. I liked him. Mum said I had his eyes because I saw what’s really happening behind the Nonsense. The Nonsense must be St Kilda because things happened a lot in St Kilda so we weren’t allowed to go there.

“Whatthebloodyhellareyoudoingup?” Her words slipped into each other like one big snake.

“Who was that, mum?”

She dropped her purse on the floor and collapsed into her chair, fumbled in her smock, in the large single pocket that ran across the front, pulled out her ciggies and lit one. She only smoked on the weekends because it helped her relax. She held her ciggie between her first two fingers and pointed at Paul Kelly, “You’re not wrong, you and me both.” Then she sang with him, grabbed my hands and we danced around the lounge room, “I’ve lost my shirt, I’ve pawned my rings, I’ve done all the dumb things.” She was lost in Kellyland. In the scattered moments when life got a little easier, mum would sing Paul Kelly songs in the house. She kept trying to teach me the words. Said art was important in a good man.

Mum said she felt a bit woozy so we stopped dancing. Paul Kelly kept on singing.

“Mum. Who was that?” I was standing up, a seven-year-old man of the house. “Do you know what time it is?”

She turned to me, her smile dissolving, drawing on the ciggie with a squint to stop the smoke going in her eye. “Who,” she tried again “Whod’youbloodythinkyou'retalkingto?” She reached out, pointing her ciggie at me, “Youbeengettinuptononsense? Eh?”

“Who was that?” I asked. It had only ever been Mum and me. At school I had heard about one boy who’s dad only came to see his mum at nights when he was pretending to sleep. I stared at her sadness. She caught my eye. I could see her working things out, thinking if she should tell me or tell me off.

“You want to know? You want to know who that was?” She took a hard drag on the ciggie. Winced. “That was your dad.”

My feet sank into the floor. I dropped the doona. Looked down the hallway to the darkness that gathered behind the front door. My dad had been here? “Did he know I’m here? Did he want to see me? What’s he like? What’s his name? Mum! What’s my Dad’s name?”

Mum was slipping into her weekend sleep in the armchair. I shoved her arm, shook her shoulder a little bit, “Mum, what’s he called?” Mum snored. Her eyes were closed. I thought carefully, but it was an emergency, so I put my fingers up her nose. She woke up, snap upright, flapping her hands over her face. I stood in front of her, in my undies and singlet, with my skinny white legs and a chocolate smile. She blinked focus into her eyes.

“Mum, what’s he called?” I asked.

Paul Kelly was winding down his song, saying something about throwing his hat into a ring.

An eye opened, “Huh? What’s he called? Paul Kelly. His name is Paul Kelly.”

I turned to watch the final seconds of Paul Kelly singing about the dumb things he had done. Paul Kelly was my dad.

Mum passed out in her chair and I began working it out. I had his eyes, and my eyebrows were a bit wild too.

The next morning I got up early to go to the milk bar to get some TimTams to replace to ones I’d eaten the night before. The money came out of my house savings, but it didn’t matter really. Skinny Santa was watering the plants he kept in pots at his front door. He nodded, “Morning, young fellah,” he said.

“Paul Kelly’s my dad,” I said on my way past.

“That’s as may be, son, that’s as may be.” He always called me son, and I never figured out why. He smiled at me, watering can in hand. Maybe he was just old and his brain had crumbled a bit. “But he’s no Johnny O’Keefe, now, is he?” He shimmied. I’d seen Mum do it. You had to loosen your legs to shimmy. Then he started crooning, “Well, I’ma just outta school, and I’ma real, real cool…” There were more important things in life that try to work out who Johnny O’Keefe was. At any rate, Skinny Santa liked him, but I needed to get more TimTams in case my Dad came to visit again and Mum found out I’d eaten them all. So I left Skinny Santa to it, shouting as I ran to the milk bar, “Paul Kelly is my dad!” because I had to let the world know. I’d found out who my dad was.