Chapter One: This Is All That I Know
If I'm ever asked, "What's your father like?" a simple answer always escapes me.
Even though I can look back on a lifetime spent in his company, I have never been able to take his measure: One part of him is a shy, brooding Russian peasant who shows a certain air of naiveté, if not gullibility, with strangers. Then there is another side: alert, highly gregarious, and astonishingly worldly.
His unexpected appearance on my doorstep in Oxford one May afternoon in 1997 left me more mystified than ever.
I was walking back to my digs, weighted down by books that I'd just bought at Blackwell's bookshop. I was looking forward to getting home and immersing myself in a new purchase, the door of my study closed to the world for several hours.
As I let myself in I noticed a scrap of paper that had been slipped under the door. It was the stub of a boarding pass for a flight from Melbourne. Written on its margin was "OVER AT DAPHNES DAD."
I immediately recognized my father's handwriting: he wrote only in capital letters and without any punctuation. He had always formed his sentences like this; he'd grown up in eastern Europe during the Second World War and had had no formal schooling.
I was taken aback. I had spoken to my father on the phone only a couple of days earlier. He had been at home in Melbourne, watching television with my mother, and when I had asked how their week had been, all he would say was, "oh, it's been the same as usual here, son. Nothing much happens in this neck of the woods."
His tone had not altered in the slightest nor had his voice missed a beat when I asked what they were planning for the coming week: "No plans, really."
At that moment a slight clicking sound indicated that he had just turned on the speakerphone so that my mother could join in the conversation. He did this every time I called.
The three of us chatted on the phone for some time about things that had happened during the past week in Oxford, where I was a research student. We touched upon my plans to visit Tokyo — where I'd be for about four months, conducting research on a matsuri, or ritual festival — in about a month's time.
My father didn't have much to say about this, so the conversation drifted into silence. While he and my mother were always supportive of my path in life, the intense connection I'd always felt toward the culture and history of Japan slightly baffled them: it had become something of a family legend that as a child I would insist on dressing up as a miniature samurai before going to the corner shop to buy the milk and the bread.
I promised to call my parents again before my departure. Then, just as I was hanging up, I heard my father give a nervous little cough. This was often a sign that something was troubling him. I hesitated, but before I could ask him if all was well he had put the phone back on the hook. Throughout our conversation he'd given no other indication of the dramatic scenario that was forming in his mind.
My eyes fixed on the note again: "OVER AT DAPHNES DAD." Although it had to be true, I still couldn't quite believe that my father was here, and I felt a rising unease. What was he doing here? Ever since I'd been a student at Oxford I'd wanted him and my mother to visit me. My mother had been keen to do so but had always been held back by my father's reluctance: he hadn't been back to Europe since leaving in 1949 and was adamant that he didn't have the slightest interest in returning.
"That's the past," he'd insist fiercely, "there's nothing there for me. Australia's my home now."
As I was growing up, he often made such assertions, but none of us, family or friends, ever gave them much thought. We never asked him why he felt this way, and he never volunteered any particular explanation. Just like him, we were absorbed in the business of living in the bright and healthy sunshine of the "lucky country," as it was so often called.
I made my way over to Daphne's. Daphne was my elderly neighbor from across the street, and she must have been peeping through the curtains in her front room, because the door opened gently before I'd even knocked on it. She stood wide-eyed on her front step and pointed excitedly toward the back of her house. "It's your father!" she said, seemingly as astonished as I was. "But he seems to be nodding off," she whispered. "Come in quietly."
Daphne led me down the narrow hallway and opened the door to her living room. From the doorway I could see my father, his legs stretched out in front of him and his head resting against the wing of the chair so that his eyes were concealed from view. His arms were folded across the small brown case sitting on his lap.
I tiptoed farther into the room and whispered a thank-you to Daphne for taking my father in and looking after him. We'd been facing away from my father to avoid disturbing him. But from behind me I heard him stir, and I felt his eyes on me. I turned around. He had raised his head slightly and fixed his strong blue eyes on me with curiosity. I took in his familiar impish features: his arched eyebrows and his high and rosy cheeks gave him a permanently mischievous air. But I was struck by something else — it was as if I'd captured his image in a photograph and glimpsed an aura of sadness. But this quickly sank beneath the surface of his mobile features.
Reprinted by arrangement with Viking, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., from The Mascot by Mark Kurzem. Copyright Mark Kurzem 2007.