Monday, February 14, 2005


by Emile Zola. It's part of the Rougon-Macquart series, 20 or so novels covering the period from the middle of the French Second Empire to the beginning of the third. Maybe from about 1848 until about 1890 (I may be a little rusty on the dates). I've read maybe half the series, alas, in English. Which is possibly why I've only read half the series. Some installments exist in 5 or 6 translations; others seem never to have been translated or if they were it was in 1927 and it's impossible to track down a copy.

I managed to find a copy of Pot-Bouille at the local Half Price Books shop here in Phoenix. It's a bit slow to start but well worth the persistence. But my favourite of the series is L'Assomoir. I know when I read it that I'm really seeing scenes from Melbourne in the late 1950's and early 1960's but I could almost place every single scene of the novel into a location in Footscray or Seddon or Collingwood. Of course, I'm remembering the Seddon of 1962; slum city, where houses were falling apart and the paint had peeled off every surface. I'm also remembering my father; a drunkard who beat my mother and who once, in front of me, broke an empty beer bottle over my grandmothers head because she refused to give him money for more beer. I can remember crying over her blooded head as he triumphantly took her purse and the money for the following day or two's food. You understand of course that this is an adult retrospective; I very much doubt I was thinking in those terms at the time.

Another time he stubbed out a cigarette on my knee.

He died on a Wednesday (just so's Johann Gerell isn't disappointed it was September 7th 1960 - and please Johann, don't be offended ). My very last memory of him alive is from the Tuesday before, when I came home from school and asked for threepence for lollies (sweets, candy). This would have been about 3:45 in the afternoon and already he was well in his cups. After the usual serving of swear words I was flung against a wall. It was almost expected; which proves how hope springs eternal in the human breast etc etc yadda yadda. Or maybe it proves how a 6 year old hasn't yet learned to hate.

Many years later my mother told my sisters and I the story of that morning (the morning he died). Now I'm trusting you lot. Don't let me down!

He awoke that morning at about 7 am, complaining that he felt crook. Chest pains etc. His mother (forgetting the broken beer bottle) diagnosed it as a possible heart attack and enjoined my mother to run to the doctors (we didn't have a telephone). My mother says that she walked slowly to the doctors house. I know the route well; it's maybe 200 metres.

When the doctor got to the house it was all over.

I slept through all of this. Sometime later my youngest sister, who slept in their room in a cot against the wall, came skipping into the kitchen. She was chanting 'Daddy's dead, daddy's dead.'. She was 3 and a half years old so I think we'll all agree she didn't really understand.

On Friday September 9th 1960 my father was buried. I know this because in late 1972 I went searching for his grave in Footscray Cemetery and found the date in the records (indeed that's how I know he died on the 7th). I wasn't allowed to attend the funeral; I was in school instead. I have memories I know are false of his coffin on the kitchen table surrounded by cupcakes and sardine sandwiches. I know I saw his coffin but it strains belief that it was on the kitchen table; much more likely it was in the lounge room.

How do I feel about all of this? Remember I said I was trusting you. Going on the memories I have of my father I say my mother made the right decision. Nonetheless, I sometimes, to this day, feel the lack of a father. But I will never feel anything other than gratitude to my mother for her decision on that day.

How's that for a Zola Pot-Bouille?

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