The first time Mum mentioned him I was so upset I ran to our church and hid in the crypt for the rest of the afternoon. “Dad,” she’d informed me, wasn’t my real father. He’d wanted to be my real father. But there was something wrong. My real father was a strange man who’d donated into a test tube. She explained this to me as if it was something titillating.
When I emerged from the crypt at dinner time, red eyed, and confronted him “Dad” tried lying. If he’d slapped me, maybe I would have believed him. But he spoke in his work voice, the one he used in the pulpit on Sundays, and I could tell he was making it up.
After that we abandoned all attempts at communication. I got the impression he was ashamed that he hadn’t been able to provide me with his genetic material. He mooched round the house like a stranger, a shadow with a dog collar. When he got the bad news about his heart it was as if he already knew. It was his punishment.
After his death I was shredding his old sermons for the compost pile when I found the correspondence from the clinic. Foolscap isn’t a paper size we’ve used in this country for a long time and the words had been stippled onto the pages by a dot matrix printer. One letter talked about matching the donor’s characteristics to the husband’s as if this was an after thought. There they were: blue eyes, orange hair, medium build, freckled complexion. It sounded like donating blood. Match Type A to Type A, Type B to Type B. Except that a litre of Type A doesn’t come knocking twenty years later.
I showed Mum and she said, “Oh, that,” as if it was her husband’s old Masonic apron. My brother was equally dismissive. “Let them fatten the worms,” he told me. My brother talked like the bible. It was easy for him. He’d been the miracle who arrived a year later, the accident that was never supposed to happen. And of course, thanks to the matching, no one could tell. We looked like full siblings, only he had all his family tree while mine had somehow grown over the neighbours’ fence and been lopped off without my consent. Where were the missing branches, I longed to know.
The sperm clinic had long shut up shop. Corporatisation. Outsourcing. Something like that. The hospital said donor information was unavailable because probably nothing had ever been written down. Couples were pretty thoughtless in those days. What they wanted was results and they didn’t care a scrap about book keeping. There was one nurse left who’d worked at the clinic, supervising collections. She looked at my foolscap sheets and said yes, she remembered noting the characteristics of the donors. Did she remember this one?
“Of course. There were only half a dozen.”
“Half a dozen?”
She counted on her fingers. “There was the short one, the tall one, the good looking one, the ugly one—he was really ugly, lucky you didn’t get him—the ethnic one and the red headed one. The red head always used the donation room. It had this sign on the door, ‘Carlton supporter. Do not disturb.’ It was a joke.”
Half a dozen? I’d expected … well, hundreds. Not a measly six. I felt cheated, as if I’d sprung from something shabby, two-bit. All the same, I had to ask. Did she have any clue where the red headed one might be?
“Still in Sydney. He went up there for work. He was a plastic surgeon.” So much for confidentiality.
People expected my brother to go into the ministry, like his dad. He had a nice speaking voice and when he read out of the bible at prayer meetings he waved his arms as if he really meant it. But instead he became a professional hypnotist. It was something he’d fallen into at school. At first he did club shows, calling himself the Great Calvin. Then he moved up to Sydney and bought a flat in Parramatta. It was after his dad died and about the same time that our mother had her varicose veins ripped out and started dropping hints about looking for a new husband. “Why don’t you try tracking down the donor,” I told her, “at least you’d have something in common.”
“Would we?” she said.
“Maybe I can track him down for you,” I said.
I flew to Sydney and stayed at my brother’s flat. The Great Calvin wasn’t having much luck finding hypnotism work, so he was making ends meet by driving tour buses, showing convict buildings to loads of old biddies.
For someone who might have gone into the church I found him pretty unsympathetic. “What are you worried about?” he said to me when I explained. “It’s no big deal. I used to think I was adopted. What difference does it make?”
“Well, for a start I keep worrying if I go out with someone I might be related to them.”
“How’s that different to normal? Dad could have had an affair? I might be going out with someone I’m related to. You can’t waste time thinking about that.”
My half-brother’s dad was hardly the sort of man to have had an affair. He was completely unqualified. He didn’t even have what it takes to save his own life when it came down to it. As he lay in his hospital bed waiting for a donor to cough up a new heart the son of one of his parishioners was decapitated in a car accident returning from a dirty weekend in Lorne. I would have thought that this qualified as an act of God. But my brother’s father let the surgeons place the organ in someone else. Not a donor who was known to him, he said, that wouldn’t be right. Another chance will come. But it didn’t come and he was doomed. How could such a man have had an affair?
He was a bloody fool, my half-brother commented at the time. “Would it make any difference who’s heart it was? Even an axe murderer’s would do.”
“Would you take an axe murderer’s heart?” I asked him.
“Sure. Why not?”
It was the tail end of the swimming season when I stayed in Sydney. While I wasn’t making plastic surgery inquiries I’d catch the train to Town Hall and then the 389 bus to Bondi. There I’d sit on the beach, going redder and more freckled while the Japanese tourists tottered on their rented surf boards under the eye of their muscular Aussie instructors. I’d scan the crowds of families, the young kids, the topless women at the south end with their leathery skin, even the occasional Moslem woman in a veil and I’d ponder about all the genetic diversity.
To get an appointment I had to invent a story about wanting a nose job. It made me feel uncomfortable because if this really was my biological father then I was asking him to undo some of his handiwork, as if I was ungrateful. For a few days I sat in a café on the opposite side of the road to his Darlinghurst rooms, watching him come and go. He was a man who liked to wear expensive suits. Each night he drove home to Vaucluse in an ugly yellow sports car, which I guessed was something to do with his thinning hair. He really did look like my father.
I turned up on the morning of the appointment a complete bundle of nerves, like I was going to meet my maker. I wanted to feel good, but somehow I just felt ugly. When I mentioned Melbourne he said quite matter-of-factly, “I used to live in Melbourne.” So I stated my case. He stopped typing into his laptop and looked at me over the top of his Ralph Lauren spectacles. Would he like to take a DNA test, I asked him. Would I like him to call the police, he responded. It was the last thing I’d expected. How could he be serious about calling the police? He was the guilty party, wasn’t he? But it only got worse. In the end I left with nothing resolved and that night I had to resort to sleeping pills.
I knew you could steal people’s DNA and I guessed this wouldn’t be a hard case for a professional. But then what was I trying to do, I asked myself. Was I seriously going to force this man to be my father against his will when it seemed entirely possible I might not like him as much as my mother’s dead husband? I couldn’t decide. My half-brother was useless. He was drumming up business with the local rugby club by offering sports hypnotism. “Are you trying to screw some money out of him?” he asked me.
“No,” I snapped. “I’m trying to….” But I wasn’t sure what I was trying to do.
I phoned my mother again and she ducked and weaved. “It was such a long time ago,” she said.
“What do you mean?”
“Maybe you should let sleeping dogs lie.”
“Mum, you started this.”
“Well, never mind, I’m glad you rang anyway. I was going to ring you myself. I’ve got some news. I’m getting married again.”
“To someone you know, actually. Your uncle Pete.”
“You mean your husband’s brother?”
“Yes, I suppose so. It’s funny because back at the start I was going to get married to him instead of your dad. But then he had to go and marry your Aunty Gladys in a bit of a hurry. He was such a larrikin in those days. You heard about him getting divorced.”
The truth was that I’d seen very little of Pete over the years. We were not taken to see him as children. My half brother got to know him off his own bat while he was in high school. Pete was a scoutmaster and my half-brother was a keen scout. It was Pete who’d introduced him to hypnotism and suggested the stage name. But our uncle never came to visit us. I was always told by my mother that Pete lived too far away, which was odd because he only lived at Lorne.
Pete had finally come to us when his brother was on his deathbed and it was then I noticed how alike they were. Peas in a pod. They might have been twins except that Pete was full of life while his brother was full of I don’t know what—the opposite of life, scripture. I didn’t say anything at the time. Only now, while my mother was chattering away on the phone from Melbourne, a strange new possibility dawned on me. As I listened to her explain about her new relationship it wasn’t anything particularly she said. She mainly talked about furniture and superannuation. It was the way she said it, as if this second marriage was something titillating.
“We’ll be spending our honeymoon in Lorne, just like I did with your father,” she said.
Just like you did with my father, I thought.
Simon Barker is an Australian living in Sydney although for a number of years he lived in the Bay Area of California. His work has recently appeared in Liars’ League, Prick of the Spindle and decomP.
© 2016, Simon Barker