A sen­ti­men­tal bloke

In his new mem­oir, Graeme Blundell re­calls a re­la­tion­ship with a fa­ther shaped by war

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Feature -

IWAS born in Mel­bourne on Au­gust 7, 1945, the day af­ter a US Su­per­fortress dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima. ‘‘ A large city some­where in a far­away place called Ja­pan,’’ said my mother, Jean. The bomb was nick­named Lit­tle Boy, she told me some years later when I asked her about it. ‘‘ The world stopped for a while when you were a lit­tle boy and no one thought it would ever be the same again.’’

My fa­ther, lead­ing air­craft­man Jack Blundell, a wireless op­er­a­tor with the RAAF, was still away at war up north.

Just be­fore Christ­mas, Jean re­ceived a tele­gram say­ing Jack would be home that day. Then he was at the front door. He was thin and his skin was yel­low from the anti- malar­ial drug he had taken in New Guinea.

Mum told me of an evening a long time ago when my fa­ther had just turned 21. It was 1942 and they were sit­ting on a Carl­ton park bench, near where my fa­ther lived with his fam­ily in a small ter­race.

‘‘ The Japs look like com­ing here,’’ he told her in his shy way, his voice qui­etly mod­u­lated. ‘‘ I can’t let other peo­ple fight my bat­tles.’’

He was sent to Good­e­nough Is­land in Pa­pua New Guinea, one of the D’En­tre­casteaux group in Milne Bay, where the con­di­tions were prim­i­tive and ticks and fleas car­ried ty­phus fever. My fa­ther spent nights on re­con­nais­sance, lis­ten­ing to the traf­fic of ra­dio sig­nals; he dodged air raids, and ran a two- up school. Now, at the end of 1945, my frail fa­ther was back. G. N. Ray­mond, the large shoe com­pany to which he had been ap­pren­ticed, had re­quested his release from the air force, stat­ing he was needed back in his old job as a pat­tern cut­ter.

We lived in Brid­port Street, South Mel­bourne, for nearly three years. When my brother Den­nis was born we moved into a large Vic­to­rian- style house at Clifton Hill. But Jack went to hospi­tal for a fis­tula op­er­a­tion and was un­able to help in the move. He had come back from New Guinea with bowel can­cer, we later dis­cov­ered, and was of­ten sick.

Then we moved to Reser­voir at the end of the train line that ran north, where the land was cheap. My mother’s first im­pres­sions of the Blundell block were of scotch this­tles ev­ery­where, piles of tarpaulined tim­ber and bricks, makeshift hous­ing, sheds and work­man’s huts. ‘‘ I some­times feel we’re liv­ing in a refugee camp,’’ she once said.

My fa­ther had been build­ing a sin­gle- storey weath­er­board house on week­ends, with the as­sis­tance of the War Ser­vice Homes Scheme. Once the frame was up, we moved to the grassy, boul­der- rid­den block, where sheep grazed dur­ing the day. You could smell fires at night and the air was wet in the win­ter. Wind hissed through the alu­minium chas­sis of our car­a­van. It was hard in the new sub­urbs af­ter the war. The baker, ice­man and milk­man man­aged to de­liver to the halfer­ected houses in horse- drawn carts, or some­times in rick­ety trucks that were al­ways los­ing hub caps.

Most Fri­day nights the par­ents pushed prams up the muddy road to the pic­ture the­atre in Reser­voir, sev­eral miles through the pad­docks, my fa­ther singing in his soft tenor: ‘‘ It’s just a lit­tle street where old friends meet and treat you in the same old way.’’

Be­fore tele­vi­sion ar­rived on a large scale in Aus­tralia, peo­ple formed big crowds out­side the win­dows of elec­tri­cal stores con­tain­ing the most re­cently im­ported sets. We used to drive in Dad’s bat­tered Es­sex down High Street to William Won­der’s Store in Pre­ston, with Ther­moses and corned beef sand­wiches, to watch Drag­net and I Love Lucy. Within a year Dad had bought a set.

Dad’s fam­ily was a strange mix­ture of Ir­ish, Ger­man and re­cal­ci­trant English. There were larce­nous butch­ers, do­mes­tic ser­vants from Cork and mu­si­cal Ger­mans. The fam­ily was so full of ec­centrics, it was dif­fi­cult to know why he had cho­sen a life in shoes. I over­heard con­ver­sa­tions about soft­en­ers and tan­nage, elas­tomers and sol­vents, sur­fac­tants and plas­ti­cis­ers, but as we grew up, my fa­ther rarely spoke about his work to us.

‘‘ Jack didn’t like talk,’’ my mother said. ‘‘ He wasn’t in­ter­ested.’’ He was cour­te­ous, though. He told Jean that in New Guinea he thought of his mother and how he had never helped her enough. ‘‘ I made up my mind that my chil­dren would al­ways wait un­til their mother came to the ta­ble be­fore they started eat­ing,’’ he said.

It had been a hard war for Jack Blundell and he would die be­cause of it. But he loved telling sto­ries about his ad­ven­tures. He told sto­ries at home in Reser­voir. When he told them there was al­ways some­thing more than his soft, res­o­nant voice; more than a gaunt man in a quiet room with his chil­dren. There was the bond that had held sol­diers to­gether, the shared ex­pe­ri­ence and suf­fer­ing of war.

Dad de­scribed the per­va­sive res­ig­na­tion of the men, with their thoughts of home. But they tried to give life to the games of cricket and foot­ball they played on windswept tracts of cleared land.

He told me and my brother how he would run for the trenches half­way through his tea and look up to see per­fect for­ma­tions of Ja­panese planes sur­rounded by burst­ing shells. ‘‘ Above me there were dog­fights to the death,’’ he said.

The sol­diers sat in their cam­ou­flaged tent at night, five men rang­ing in age from 20 to 35, ev­ery one of them with a marked dif­fer­ence in char­ac­ter. ‘‘ When a man lives cut off from the rest of the world, he finds he wants to talk, and try to ex­plain what he is think­ing. The best of a man comes out up there; he re­alises he just didn’t ap­pre­ci­ate what the good things in life meant to him: like a good home, his fam­ily and the love of a woman. One of the good things of a war is that it soft­ens a man’s heart and tends to make him more un­der­stand­ing.’’

When I think of Jack now, he al­ways seems to wear faint lines on his face that are barely vis­i­ble, like a 40- year- old wear­ing a 20- year- old’s skin. He was al­ways tired, but tried hard to be af­fa­ble. He hated ar­gu­ments.

I have no doubt that he came back from the war with a vi­sion of a bet­ter fu­ture, but he seemed caught be­tween his nat­u­ral de­cency and a war’s un­der­stand­ing of the in­evitabil­ity of life’s cru­el­ties. When he ap­pears in my mind, I can only see the out­lines of a dis­tant man over­whelmed by a col­laps­ing body. ‘‘ I can’t go to work to­day,’’ he some­times told my mother, and he would spend the day silently in bed.

The one thing that his health never stood in the way of was cricket. I wanted to be spo­ken about the way peo­ple talked of my fa­ther when it came to cricket, for he was a quiet man peo­ple re­spected. He was a fluid and wristy bats­man, and played district cricket be­fore the war and then sub- district cricket for Port Mel­bourne, Bal­wyn and Ivan­hoe with con­sid­er­able suc­cess.

Cricket was the fam­ily’s ob­ses­sion. ‘‘ That’s all the fam­ily ever talks about,’’ Mum of­ten said.

My mother re­mem­bers my dad com­ing home on hot Satur­day nights af­ter the match, when he was very sick, and sit­ting out­side our weath­er­board house on a long wooden ramp that led up to the kitchen from the back yard. The can­cer was killing him but no bats­man in the Pre­ston and North­cote Churches Com­pe­ti­tion, where he ended his play­ing ca­reer, would ever make as many runs again. ‘‘ Why do you do it?’’ she asked him. ‘‘ Be­cause I love it,’’ he replied.

His ill­ness qui­etly and in­sid­i­ously took him away from us. He died to­wards the end of 1962. The hard time for my mother be­gan the night she came home from the Royal Mel­bourne Hospi­tal with baby Kathryn. My new lit­tle sis­ter.

Soon af­ter she re­turned from the hospi­tal, Jack col­lapsed in the bath. Dad was taken to the same hospi­tal Mum had just left.

That af­ter­noon we went to the hospi­tal to see him as he was re­cu­per­at­ing from an op­er­a­tion for bowel can­cer. All we knew was that Dad was se­ri­ously ill. When we reached his ward, my mother was shocked to see all his tubes had been taken away. The nurse told us he was in a coma and the end was very near.

‘‘ It was so quiet in the hospi­tal ex­cept for the wind that seemed to be howl­ing around the pas­sages,’’ my mother re­mem­bered.

Out­side the small room where my co­matose fa­ther breathed harshly, hang­ing on to life, was a small line of wooden chairs as close to­gether as stacked plates. I sat there, or looked in at my mother who sat next to Jack, say­ing noth­ing. Oc­ca­sion­ally I cud­dled Kathryn while she slept in my arms. I had never un­der­stood the no­tion of a per­son’s world col­laps­ing in an in­stant. But all at once, that was how I felt, as if the walls, the ceil­ing and the floor be­gan to suck in to­wards my mother and me, rush­ing the air out of the nar­row hospi­tal pas­sage­way and us with it.

At times I closed my eyes and tried to re­mem­ber my fa­ther with other peo­ple, and mo­ments that should have been as vivid as Ko­dak snap­shots. But noth­ing came. Even­tu­ally all I could think of was my fa­ther singing How Much is that Dog­gie in the Win­dow? be­cause I loved the sounds he made of the dog bark­ing.

We were sent home from the hospi­tal later in the evening to get some rest. The next morn­ing Den­nis, who was 15, nine- year- old Mar­garet and I sat with Mum around the din­ing ta­ble, and Mr Stelling, the new Bap­tist min­is­ter, came to tell us Jack had died.

‘‘ Af­ter Jack went we had to get on with our lives,’’ my mother said. We all took turns car­ing for Kathy, chang­ing nap­pies, feed­ing, bathing and just be­ing around her. It was hard.

Jack Blundell was al­ways neatly at­tired in a crisp white shirt, the mid­dle but­ton of his suit done up, his trousers still creased from Mum’s iron­ing. He of­ten brought home beau­ti­fully coloured pa­per, har­lequin de­sign that was used to wrap the fine shoes he cre­ated. And I still re­mem­ber the pen­cils he gave me in wooden boxes sur­rounded by frag­ile white tis­sue pa­per. Edited ex­tract from The Naked Truth: A Life in Parts by Graeme Blundell ( Ha­chette Aus­tralia, $ 35). Blundell will ap­pear at this month’s Bris­bane Writ­ers Fes­ti­val.

Af­ter the war: A fam­ily out­ing; Graeme Blundell,

main pic­ture; and with his dad, Jack, inset

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