Another story from my collection: Life Happens. This one has also been published in a couple of short story anthologies. Set in Darwin and Tasmania, a long time ago now. Hope you enjoy!
My father’s feet were quite remarkable, indeed unusual. A picture forms in my mind; clear, accurate, detailed: my father’s feet when he was a young man and I was but a toddler. My father’s feet are what I remember most accurately about him.
My father’s fee were ugly, deformed, strangely coloured, oddly shaped and held me fascinated for years as a child. When you were sitting near him on the floor you could not help but reach out to touch the unnatural lines and odd bumps that were his feet. Nor were they identical in their deformity. One foot – his left, I think – was more grotesque; the lump in the middle of his foot rising more angrily that the corresponding bump on the other foot. Both swellings were a reddish clay colour and looked sore all the time, as if they needed some balm frequently rubbed into them. The skin was drawn over them and seemed ready to tear at any flex of his foot. Both is big toes were long but one was at an awkward angle to the remaining toes, which also seemed abnormally long. His arches were high and pronounced. His souls were as tough as old boots and seemed impervious to pain.
There were other things about him that were memorable, unusual too. He had a strange voice, quite different to Mum’s and ours. (I didn’t realise how strange until I went to school and became a regular visitor in my friends’ homes.) His voice was deep and rich and melodious with hints of foreign places. In fact he was English but never sounded it to me and never owned up to it, often claiming to be Russian, or more frequently, Turkish.
Like some children I did not wish to be the same as everyone else so it was handy being able to claim a father who was different, and therefore claim that I, too, was of Russian (I preferred being Russian) extraction. I luxuriated in my ‘difference’ although I looked just the same as everyone else at school and despite my last name not being adequately awkward enough to pronounce. But then my cover was blown by my father’s appearance at school for a parent-teacher evening: the truth became apparent and my embarrassment was excruciating.
He never answered anything directly either. Although he knew a great deal, getting information out of my father was akin to dancing through a mine field – if you could pick and dodge your way through his enigmatic answers and reach safe ground you usually ended up with the answer of piece of information required, and often more-so. We could all think laterally and learnt how to phrase our questions precisely before any of us realised just how much we had learned.
And playing games! He never, not even once, let any of us win. He never deliberately lost to any of the children. He always played to win and expected us to do the same. And we did. Those early games of Monopoly, scrabble and chess were slaughters of epic proportions but we learnt quickly and effectively and despite never beating him at chess I could eventually make him fight for his victory.
We were a close family: evening meals together around the table, never – well the occasional Sunday night – in front of the telly. They both cooked – Mum and my father. His speciality was curry, usually a spicy sweet lamb curry with lots of pappadams (which Mum always cooked because my father made them too oily and she drained them on kitchen paper being efficient and fat conscious), pickles and sambals but never enough rice because my father didn’t like rice all that much and never made enough for us, believing that we felt as he did about the stuff.
We went out to dinner regularly from an early age. Not just pizza houses or cafes but proper sit down, behave-yourself restaurants. It was fun to dress up and have a late night out being grown up and vaguely sophisticated. (Very handy training ground for taking out sweet young things when I got old enough.) We were allowed a glass of wine and learned the difference between a good meal and an excellent one, knew how to behave in public and much later I appreciated the bravery of our parents taking us to such places when we were so young.
There were so many books in my house too – some for us but many belonging to Mum and my father. It was easy to distinguish his from hers but they were all interesting and held us spellbound at different stages of our childhood. Mum’s books were of greater interest to us than my father’s – too many involved, complicated, dry scientific books. But my father has read all the books in the house, including Mum’s of Egypt and Homer, myth and fantasy, history and Shakespeare and he would delight in telling us of the wonders therein as we sat at his feet mesmerised.
I think now that my fascination with my father’s feet should have died away long ago. But they never ceased to intrigue me, pull my eyes towards them, entice my fingers to touch them. It wasn’t as if they were often hidden from view. My father only wore shoes to work and when going out of an evening; and then he only wore lace up shoes because they were the only type of shoe he could wear day long without pain. For the rest of the time his feet were naked or thronged, exposed to the elements and our eyes.
I think of his feet driving the car, his big toe resting on the accelerator; of his feet walking on beaches and leaving strange prints for the tide to wash away; of his feet walking toughly on tropical asphalt; of his feet aching back into shoes again after the summer holidays; of his feet giving shoes the most unnatural lines.
I remember my father’s feet when we went south to live for a year because Mum had become too homesick after the birth of the last of us and it was either split the family or all of us travel off together. It was cold down there in Tasmania. We all acquired endless pairs of thick footy socks and ugg boots but my father was still bare footed as often as he could. Often blue and orange but still uncovered against the cold. Some nights in the heart of winter we would find his bare toes stretching towards the open fire; letting them warm and helping the orange and blue fade to a soft pink. We all liked in down south, grandparents and four seasons to a year, stone fruit and cold rain, but we returned after a couple of years. I sometimes wonder if we returned to the tropics for the sake of my father’s feet.
My father’s feet were often to be found entwined in my mother’s. Her feet were normal; perfectly shaped, often with painted nails; frequently a broad white thong maker showing against the brown regular lines of her feet. Her natural, normal feet only accentuated his deformities even more. Yet they would sit on the couch of an evening, one at each end, reading or watching TV, or talking with their feet touching and stroking, enmeshing together.
There is a photograph I have of him. In it he is holding an enormous fish – a queenie, I think. There is a superb white cat snaking around his feet, inches from the fish’s head, eyeing it expectantly. In the picture my father looks bronzed and fit. His beard is long and bushy and he looks as if he has been out of doors all his life. Yet it is to his feet my eyes are inexorably drawn. They are as brown as the rest of him but his arches look too high and his deformed lumps stand out like flashing beacons. His feet are what I examine when I look at that photograph, not the sixe of the fish, nor his proud smile, not even the cat’s hopeful gaze.
He was a young man in that photo. It was taken before he married Mum, but they were together then. The cat in the photo was her cat. I remember that cat – it was old when I was a baby but it used to come and sit with me in the play pen and curl up against the corner bars. It used to sit on their feet too. Curled in contentment of an evening – more often on Mum’s feet than my father’s. Now I think it was because he was her cat, then I used to think because my father’s feet were too uncomfortable to lie on.
I used to worry about my father’s feet. Worry about them in a purely selfish manner. Worry that they sprang from a disease that would eventually manifest itself in us. I used to examine each new sibling’s feet for signs to see if they had been born deformed, and when they showed no signs I would watch and wait for the bones to erupt and the skin to stretch and for our feet to resemble his. I wondered how long it would take. For years I lived in fear. I should have sought the truth sooner instead of letting his feet fester in my mind.
My father’s feet were not the product of genetics or disease; they were the outcome of an accident, as you might guess. A car accident when he was young, where he was lucky not to be killed. When I finally knew what had happened I felt such a surge of disappointment – how could such a source of endless fascination emanate from such a predictable event? But my feeling of loss soon vanished, for as I listened to the story I watched his feet and my hand stretched out in its normal fashion.
My father had been sixteen at the time – so difficult to imagine him at that age – out and about with his mates on a Saturday night; drinking, whistling at girls; too young for the pubs, so driving around. Of course, they smashed; driving too fast, ran off the road and caught the edge of a telegraph pole. No one was killed but four of them were injured. Amongst them, my father, who had been sitting in the front seat with his feet upon the dash, idly quaffing beer. My father’s feet were smashed to pieces; steel pins inserted in his ankles, his feet rebuilt; months in plaster in hospital unable to walk; lying in a bed in a ward of broken bones, learning to walk again; being thankful he hadn’t been totally wrecked, like the car.
As he grew older, after we had left home, his feet began to hurt him. The highness of his arches would make walking a chore; the thinness of his ankles seemed barely able to support his slight frame. The arthritis in his deformities would wrack his feet and keep him still; limit his mobility, anger him as he had to swallow pills to fight the pain. The warmth of the tropics did little to ward off the pain; the joy of his books and the beauty of his garden did little to comfort him; and my mother’s younger, able, mobile feet did nothing but upset him.
My father’s feet are what I remember most clearly about him – more than his love for us, more than his unusual voice; more than his love of reading; more than his obsessive way with games or his enigmatic answers – more than anything else about him. My father’s feet are what I remember the day I found him as I walked in his garden and came upon his feet as they dangled, deformed and lifeless form beneath the foliage of the Raintree. They were still, white, bloodless, old now; the bumps and lumps and unnatural contours free from pain and intrigue. I touched them for the last time and cut him from the tree.