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Tim Winton: living in the shadow of havoc

The popular author writes about the strange turn of events that brought his family to Christ

I grew up in safety. In our home in the Perth suburb of Karrinyup there was nothing to fear and no one to second-guess. My mother did everything in her power to give my siblings and me a life free of the disorder she’d known as a child and the violence she’d endured as a young woman. She was determined to provide an environment that was predictable and nurturing. Our father was of like mind. He was a gentle man and he was careful to shield us from the things he saw as a cop. Nevertheless we lived in the shadow of havoc. There might not have been trouble at home, but trouble was the family business, and ours was a house
of accidents.

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In December of 1965, as he was riding back from a prang, the old man was hit by a driver who’d run a stop sign. The errant car slammed him into a brick wall with such force it crushed his chest, his shoulder and his hip. He suffered a massive concussion, and because his ribs were broken and his lungs had collapsed the paramedics found him suffocating and close to death. To save him they were forced to perform an emergency tracheotomy as he lay in the street.

…she didn’t know it yet, but nobody fancied his chances.

When Mum was notified, she was told he’d been in a bingle but that it probably wasn’t serious, so she didn’t understand the gravity of the situation until she was mistakenly given the blood-soaked uniform that had been cut off him in Casualty. She had two small boys, five and three, and a daughter barely six months old. No one had prepared her for what was coming her way. Her husband, the sole breadwinner of the household, was in a coma. And she didn’t know it yet, but nobody fancied his chances. For days he lay in the resuscitation room at Royal Perth Hospital. There was an unspoken understanding that he would never “be himself” again, and so traumatic were his injuries that two of his colleagues resigned shortly after visiting him.

Even when he finally regained consciousness, nobody could really offer Mum much cause for optimism. I was not allowed to visit. I came to suspect he was actually dead and that no one had the nerve to tell me. Mum kept up a brave front, and she was genuinely courageous, but I was there to see the mess she hid from everyone else.

I couldn’t know the many ways in which the parameters of her life – and my own along with it – had been radically redrawn in an instant, but I did understand that the world had changed for us.

When I think of that long, hard summer I remember the wordless heaviness in the house, the fog of dread we were all trapped in. My brother and sister were too young to understand what was happening. In a sense it was just Mum and me, and a kid in kindergarten can’t offer his mother much by way of solace. She must have done a lot of hoping. All the same, there wasn’t a hopeful air in the house. Even when they brought him home from hospital, a broken man, an effigy really, there was no surge of buoyancy for any of us to ride. The grown-ups who visited spoke in riddles and whispers. I had to imbibe the gravity of our situation the way
a dog will, reading the smells and the postures and hierarchies, processing them physically.

I knew that a stranger had ruined my father. I was enraged. But I had no idea just how grim the prognosis was and how this might shape our future. My mother never let on but it appeared that the police service was expecting to pension him off. Still breastfeeding my baby sister, and with two boys not yet in school, she was now married to an invalid. Someone told her, correctly as it turned out, that insurance and compensation would take years to settle. I couldn’t know the many ways in which the parameters of her life – and my own along with it – had been radically redrawn in an instant, but I did understand that the world had changed for us. My father’s life had been spared and we were glad, but we were no longer the safe, confident people we’d been before.

That summer there were many visits, but the person who distinguished himself above all others was a complete unknown. He showed up unannounced and uninvited and offered to bathe my father. It was weird.

As a child I was always something of an eavesdropper. I was also an inveterate prowler with a peculiar fascination with the potency of certain objects. Sometime during that long convalescence I came upon the helmet Dad had been wearing when he was hit. Made of laminated cork, it was cumbersome, and it felt unstable in my hands. The crazed pattern of cracks dulling its whiteness gave it an unnerving broken-eggshell texture. For a long time – for years, I think – I continued to seek it out, to turn it over in my hands, to sniff the Brylcreem interior, and try to imagine the sudden moment, the awful impact, and the faceless stranger behind all this damage. The inside of the helmet smelt of my father, but it was as if you could almost smell death on the outside. This flimsy artefact had held my father’s living head, his brain, his memory, his jokes; it was all that had stood between him and the void – a crust no thicker than my finger. The older I got, the darker those conjectures became.

By most accounts I was an intense little boy. Perhaps it was wise of my parents to get rid of the sacramental helmet.

His actions taught me something new about strangers – that while they could wreck your life and do you harm they were also capable of mysterious kindness.

How quick children are to absorb the unexpressed anxieties of their parents; how fluent they become in the unconscious art of compensation, and how instinctive is their assumption of responsibility. The margins between coping and not coping, between psychological survival and total collapse, are so narrow and often so arbitrary that it’s uncomfortable to look back and consider what might have been. The months of my father’s convalescence had a lasting impact on me. By these events I was drafted into the world of consequences. I became “mummy’s little helper.” The little man. I was assigned the role of sibling enforcer and family protector. I was the keeper of grown-up secrets, the compensator, the listener. I had to be “wise beyond my years,” to assume an unlikely authority, to understand what I could not pronounce.

During this time Mum was stoic and subdued. Dad lived in bed and obediently swallowed the pills that would chew the holes in his guts. He had lost a lot of weight but he was still too heavy for Mum to lift. There was no way she could get him in and out of a bath, so she had to wash him in bed. My parents’ bedroom was perpetually dim and the apprehension within it seemed to infect the rest of the house. With the curtains drawn against the heat, the place was infused with a faint amber light, and in that atmosphere of bewilderment there were times when the only signs of animation were the churn and swirl of dust motes.That summer there were many visits from family and neighbours, but the person who distinguished himself above all others was a complete unknown. He showed up unannounced and uninvited and offered to bathe my father. It was weird. But his unexpected arrival and strange proposal soon brought a new energy to the house. Also a new awkwardness. I didn’t know what to make of this turn of events. I took my cues from Mum, who was hesitant at first, even a little resistant. But she was desperate for help and here was a helper, a volunteer from who knew and who cared where. She relented and let him in, and straight away he went to work.

There was a day when Dad’s helper brought a bottle of oil with him … He anointed the old man with it in the manner of ancient Christian tradition, and he “laid hands on him,” as the saying goes, praying that Dad might be healed.

I observed everything carefully, suspiciously. Here was some bloke entering my parents’ bedroom, introducing himself to my father who consented to be undressed, lifted from his sickbed and carried like a child to the bathroom. There the door wasn’t exactly shut in my face but it was pushed to, slightly ajar. My world was already out of whack, but this new set-up was discombobulating, especially when, after a few minutes, my mother decided to leave the men to it and get on with her many jobs. I stood outside in the narrow corridor listening to the sounds of water and the low, deep voices. It was appalling to think of that guy kneeling at the bath and washing my father as if he were an infant. Mum caught me camped by the door and tried to shoo me away, but I drifted back. In the weeks ahead, every time that stranger returned, I was there at the door like a sentry, straining to hear, keeping tabs.

I couldn’t really follow what the men said in the bathroom, as they slowly got to know one another. They always spoke quietly. There was none of the hearty blather you heard blokes falling into at the footy or across the fence. I was wary of this soft-spoken interloper. No doubt I was threatened by his presence. And yet his brief tenure in our home helped break down the anxious malaise that oppressed us. His actions taught me something new about strangers – that while they could wreck your life and do you harm they were also capable of mysterious kindness.

Neither of my parents was ever keen to talk about this ritual, and they certainly made no special claims for its efficacy, but after the old man’s recovery they became devout and lifelong Christians.

By autumn my father began to make progress. His recovery was faster and more complete than anyone had expected. He was a big, strong man but his injuries were awful, and to some the speed of his improvement was unsettling. It was only as an adult that I learnt some of what had gone on in that tiny bathroom. There was a day when Dad’s helper brought a bottle of oil with him. Olive oil, I gather, which wasn’t common in a house like ours. He anointed the old man with it in the manner of ancient Christian tradition, and he “laid hands on him,” as the saying goes, praying that Dad might be healed. Neither of my parents was ever keen to talk about this ritual, and they certainly made no special claims for its efficacy, but after the old man’s recovery they became devout and lifelong Christians.

I think of it as an act of grace.

And I’ve thought a lot about this unlikely turning. Because, like the accident, it had a profound effect on my own trajectory. It’s no small achievement to confound a copper’s lowered expectations of humankind, for that’s a tough carapace to penetrate. Still, being unmanned by injury and sidelined from the world of action had to have been traumatic. Dad was an outdoor, hands-on bloke, a practical fellow. Later he said that during his convalescence he’d had a lot of time to think. Perhaps, like the rest of us in the house that summer, he was left without armour, maybe even without hope – I don’t know. I don’t set much store by signs and wonders, but I try to keep an open mind. All I can say is that I witnessed Dad’s swift restoration and renewal and was grateful for it, and in much the same way that I’d soaked up the fear and horror preceding his recovery, I absorbed the new energy and purpose that came into his life and into Mum’s as a result of this stranger’s compassion. I think of it as an act of grace. Maybe that’s just a fancypants way of appreciating the loving-kindness of humans. But when there’s so much opportunity for people to be vile, it strikes me as a miracle that they choose mercy, restraint and decency as often as they do.

Excerpt from “Havoc” in The Boy Behind the Curtain by Tim Winton, published by Hamish Hamilton, an imprint of Penguin Books.

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