The great Australian writer Tim Winton talks to Linda Herrick.
Australian writer Tim Winton has dedicated his new book of essays The Boy Behind the Curtain to his mum and dad, now in their 80s. His subjects include surfing, asylum seekers, and other issues in the wider world, but a stand-out essay in the collection is entirely autobiographical – about a harrowing incident from childhood, when he was with his father, a motorbike-riding traffic cop in Perth.
The chapter, titled “Havoc: A Life in Accidents”, begins with father and son driving home one summer night after a happy evening together fishing. A light suddenly flooded the back of the car. A motorbike overtook them and roared ahead, the red eye of the tail-light fast receding.
“Then it was gone,” he writes. “The light didn’t shrink into the distance – suddenly it just wasn’t there.”
Winton’s dad slammed on the brakes and told Tim to stay in the car – but the boy could see the body, caught in the headlights. His father went and peered at the victim, dragged the bike off the road, then they drove away to look for a phone. Tim was in a state of shock, “rattled by what I’d seen and disturbed by how businesslike Dad was,” he writes.
“We went to a bus depot, we left the guy,” says Winton, 56, when I interviewed him by phone. “The guy was all over the road like a spilt pizza. I was not yet in a world of consequences, I was still in childhood. The old man wasn’t taking it as seriously as I expected because it was every-day to him. It was just a garden variety prang. For me, it was the most violent thing I’d ever seen in my life.”
After calling an ambulance, they returned to the crash site, and discovered the victim starting to move; in fact, he was convulsing. Winton’s dad gave Tim a job: sit in the driver’s seat and keep stamping on the brake pedal so the ambulance could see them.
“He was making me feel important but it was really about keeping me out of harm’s way,” he says. “He’d had so much experience of dealing with road trauma. It’s the sort of thing I’ve seen since in other people who know how to manage a situation even if they are feeling afraid. They manage to present calmly, thereby calming other people. That’s a very important skill – we don’t think about it enough. It’s the way teachers have to present – they are often in very awkward situations of crisis, and the amount of calm they project changes the room.
“It’s a skill that parents could probably attend to, the sense that it’s really worth making your children feel safe, even if they are not. Sadly, you see it all the time, when people can’t get past themselves enough to think of the kid first.”
As Tim sat jabbing at the brakes, he could see the rider, with a “face like raw meat”, shuddering, screaming, yelling and swearing. But when the ambulance arrived, another man also suddenly turned up, “announcing himself as the rider’s father”. He was staggering drunk.
“There was something vicious and unpredictable about him,” Winton writes. Sure enough, the man stumbled towards his son and tried to throttle him. Then he started flailing at Tim’s father and the ambulance officers. Winton writes: “I was outraged and terrified and so paralysed it felt like I’d been booted with an electric charge … what I saw was my father under siege, in danger. And I couldn’t help him.”
The mayhem – intensified by “flashing lights and lurid shadows” – stopped when the police arrived. But Winton has never forgotten the sights, sounds and smells of that strange scene.
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“I had never seen somebody hit someone before,” Winton says. “I didn’t grow up with violence so I didn’t know how to process it. You don’t know what you are doing but you are storing that stuff up. We have learnt a lot about trauma in the last decade or two and we know that that stuff doesn’t dissipate, you ingest it.
“It was certainly confronting to write. I was nervous, I wanted to get it right and I wanted to be just. There was a lot of thinking back into that scene. It was surprising how quickly I could step back into a part of that boy’s mind. I remember the physical sensations: clinging to the wheel, pounding the brakes, the smells.
“To be honest, if there was anything that was a little alarming about it, was how easily you go back into that mind that you thought you’d left behind.”
That awful night, with the accident, then watching his father being attacked, was deeply disturbing for the young boy. “That scene has puzzled me all my life, haunted me in a way,” he writes. “I was a middle-aged man before I understood why I’d been so afraid.”
It was because he had already seen his old man “all but destroyed … we’d been delivered, Mum and my siblings and me, and for a long time I’d felt safe again. And now, quite suddenly, I wasn’t safe at all.”
Three years earlier, in December 1965, his dad was almost wiped out by a driver who’d run a stop sign and slammed him and his BSA into a brick wall. He had a massive concussion, crushed ribs and collapsed lungs. By the time the medics arrived, he was suffocating, needing an emergency tracheotomy on the street.
Tim’s mother had two little boys and a six-month-old daughter, utterly reliant on Winton Senior’s income. He hovered on the brink of death right through the summer, so damaged that the kids were not allowed to visit him in hospital. Winton writes of “the wordless heaviness in the house, the fog of dread we were all trapped in”.
All the same, his father did come home, “a broken man – an effigy, really” – and the months of convalescence began, with Tim drafted in as “Mummy’s little helper”.
Looking back, Winton recalls hanging around doorways, listening to the adults whispering, looking for clues about what was happening.
“Let’s be honest – it was eavesdropping, trying to get more information to try and process what was happening and get control, mostly a failed effort,” he says. “Then it just became a habit, of listening in. When you are fearful, you’re like a dog, you tend to sit and freeze and watch.”
Unable to lift her husband, Tim’s mother had to wash him in bed – until “a complete unknown” turned up and offered to help. Tim, the “man of the house”, was outraged by this interloper, this “bloke … kneeling at the bath and washing my father as if he was an infant”.
“Yeah,” he laughs, “I was hostile towards the idea of an outsider. I was in a fully-fledged domestic xenophobia here, echoing John Howard. I was going to decide who and under what circumstances people were going to come into my little country. I’m sure I would have seen him as a rival to me and my father, an interruption to what was going on, which was pretty miserable. It was another element of chaos, it was like, ‘Give me a break.’
“But in fact it was a really practical thing. I guess he’d heard Mum was in trouble. Years later, Mum and Dad said he used to talk to Dad, who’d gone into a hole, from being vigorous and mobile, to being stuck, a cripple. His kids were a bit weird about him, too, because he looked all different. He was still breathing through the plaster on his neck, he used to whistle like a cast-out spinnaker.”
Winton’s father started to make progress. Some time later, Winton’s parents told him that one day, the man who had arrived as a stranger and became a practical friend, a helper, produced a bottle of olive oil, anointed his father and said a prayer for his recovery.
“Olive oil! That was a bit exotic for us,” he says. “A bit like garlic. Strewth! He made some modest little ritual and prayed over him. I suspect it was more the gesture of tenderness and caring. I don’t think there was any magic in the ritual – Mum and Dad later became converts of the Church of Christ and they were pretty shy of owning up to this little ritual. They didn’t want to claim any efficacy, any miraculous nature of this little thing.”
Winton’s father eventually made a remarkable recovery and returned to work, but he was in chronic pain. He applied Dencorub cream to soothe his scars and Quick-Eze to deal with the stomach ulcers caused by the anti-inflammatory drugs. Winton recalls how his father’s smell changed. Before the accident, he smelled of petrol and leather; afterwards, the cream and the Qick-Eze concoction gave him a rich, unpleasant fug.
“That was the post-accident scent,” Winton says. “It lasted for years and years until a man [a doctor] from Perth, who got the Nobel Prize, figured out the origin of stomach ulcers. He figured out there was a bacteria after initial damage to a stomach, the old man got a prescription and, suddenly, after 40 years of having ulcers, he came good again.
“But he still applies the Dencorub like it’s Chanel No 5. In fact, I just got into a taxi half an hour ago and the driver – yeah, Dencorub. Not one of my favourite smells.”
The Boy Behind the Curtain (Hamish Hamilton $45) by Tim Winton is available at Unity Books.