When I arrive, his head is in the newspaper, an inch from it, studying the form. Concentrated, taking it all in, every word, every statistic, working it out.
“You’ve got a visitor” calls Dee, who is looking after him today. The visitor, me, walks in.
“Hello!” I say and he says “Oh!” and his arms reach out but I am afraid I still have a cold and stand back, explaining.
“Oh” he says again, because I do this a lot – no one wants to pass on germs that my father will not be able to withstand but I have taken the scare to heart and according to my inner physician, I am ill with a cold or bug most days of the year and need to be cautious. Which sounds suspicious but I am too on guard to take notice. I would rather be ill but not ill and say hello from the corner of the room or call out from the street than elsewhere or otherwise.
For now, I say hello from the end of my father’s chair and he looks happy to see me.
Sheilagh is at the shops picking up lunch but when she arrives she carries in about fifteen bags of groceries. She plops them on the kitchen floor. “There’s a bit more in the car” she says and runs off to get them.
I start unpacking, bit by bit. I’m not sure where things go but it seems like they still go in the same places they did when I was twelve, when I was fifteen, when I was thirty one and moved back after London.
I find some old fruit in the fruit bowl although I don’t think it was there when I was thirty one. I take it out, just in case and exchange it for bright green and red apples, a small bunch of tropical looking bananas wrapped in plastic (that bit is not tropical) and some nice, yellow pears. There.
Dad is still in the paper, scanning, scanning. The Melbourne Cup, “The Race that Stops a Nation” is on, not now but only an hour away and we are ready. My father is easily the most ready. The three minute race but an all day occasion where pretty hats fly through the stands throughout the day, where the men are suited and dapper, where champagne is the flow of life. We watch from our living rooms or satellite parties and join in as though it were happening in living rooms or satellite parties.
My father scans the horses, jockeys, every statistic. He looks for how many of them have run over two miles. He takes note if they have, cracking the form, weighing up track records, weighing up odds, weighing, weighing, weighing.
The television is on and there is lot to see but so far, not the race.
“What time does it start?” I ask. I should know, I love this race, I love this day, but it always starts at an obscure time, according to my inner time keeper, like three minutes past three or thirty past two and I can never remember.
“The paper’s there” says Sheilagh, “you can look it up.” But such is the iconic sway of this race, even the paper can’t be bothered to state the race time; everyone knows it already, everyone present in this country, we have memorised it from birth. Printing it would be a waste of editorial space.
Dee has finished for the day and gone home and my father, Sheilagh and I gather around the table that has been pulled close to my father’s chair, my father in it. The race form is loose from his hands but close by. Sheilagh has made a salad and bought a quiche from France. The quiche tastes very fresh but it is definitely French. Amazing.
My father eats only a small piece, as usual, whereas Sheilagh and I have two and in my case, I am being polite.
“Would you like a little bit more, Dad ?” It is so yummy, they must have whisked it out here by comet. But with natural politeness he declines. His appetite, among many vital functions, is not functioning vitally. It’s all linked – in a way that would read like a medical search engine so I will not go into it – but while I am prepared for the response, it is still not easy to accept.
Then there is tea, with little cakes, presumably from Paris, but nobody is ready for the cakes and my father says he will have his later.
At three o’clock, or thereabouts, we see the jockeys line up. The horses are jostling in their stalls. We are waiting for the sound that signals the great start but my father has found the form again, has it in front of his eyes and is working it.
“Dad!” I say but he doesn’t hear me.
“Fred!” Sheilagh calls and with a swoop, whisks the page from his grasp, afraid that he will miss it.
And just like that, they’re off! And it’s so exciting, it always is. I hope the horses like it because is infectiously thrilling. We try to keep up with who is ahead, who is ahead now, but the names and jockey numbers keep tumbling back and forth like coloured silks in a washing machine, swish, swish, swish.
My father solves the problem by going back to the form, until Sheilagh discovers him and makes him put it down again. She doesn’t want him to miss anything, she says. He’s been up since early this morning preparing for this.
In the end, which is only three minutes later, one of my father’s horses comes in second but a female jockey makes Australian history by coming in first, also only the fourth ever female jockey to (beat the odds and) enter the race.
Everyone is happy.
It is just before rush hour so I need to go. We haven’t had much of a chat, my father and I, the race stole his attention but that’s okay, somehow it has made it nicer. A few weeks ago he sang “Old Man River” to me over the telephone from the smallest room of the house. Quirky is the new normal.
More lately, meaning over the last two weeks, it has become an extraordinary effort for him to simply maintain awareness. His strength is sapped by a physique that is running out of supplies. How he manages to keep so sweet I have no idea. Everything is a challenge, he is uncomfortable. He maintains his being with the help of forces I cannot see.
The next day I call him to debrief. The female jockey has stolen the nations heart, her story pitching straight at our shared feelings love and courage and battling it out.
“The first female jockey to ever win” he tells me, proudly.
“Yes” I say “it’s amazing.”
I listen to him share new information, new history. Then he asks about the garden, a return to the familiar things he knows, to family, love.
The Fairy Bridget and the Kookaburra, by Ida Rentoul Outhwaite