Aussie novelist Tim Winton is without doubt my favourite writer. I especially love That Eye the Sky, a novel of a family that is put under pressure by a serious car accident, and finds relief in unexpected places. It has been made into a film and two stage plays.
And it turns out that so much of the storyline is taken from real events when Tim was just a boy, something that was maybe miraculous, and which made a deep impression on him and his whole family
The boy behind the curtain
Last year Tim released The boy behind the curtain, a memoir of autobiographical essays. Perhaps the most memorable essay is Havoc: a life in accidents, which begins with Tim describing a childhood event when his father and he, returning home from a day fishing, came across a motor cycle accident. Tim watches as his dad, an off-duty cop, deals with it all with quiet efficiency.
But the story means more than a chance opportunity to assist someone suffering, because it brings back painful memories as Tim remembers a short time earlier when it was his dad, who he once thought invincible, was the one laid low by a motor cycle accident.
“How fragile we are”
Tim’s dad was a motor cycle cop, too familiar with attending road accidents, facing blood carnage and death, and having to break the terrible news to relatives. Tim recalls those evenings when he’d attended a fatal accident:
when he came in his mood was strangely subdued. Then the talk between the adults was hushed and the smells were different. Dad’s tunic would stink of Dettol and petrol. Sometimes there was no chat at all just a hug that went on too long. On rare occasions there was muffled weeping behind closed doors.
But then came the day when it was his dad who was almost killed, hit by a drunk driver running a red light and left with severe injuries – crushed chest, shoulder and hip, concussion, broken ribs, collapsed lungs – and close to death. An emergency tracheotomy was performed as he lay in the street.
It was doubtful if he would recover, and Tim’s mum, looking after three pre-school children, had to face the possibility of life with an invalid as a husband instead of a breadwinner. Tim, as the oldest of the three kids, had to suddenly mature and support his mum.
When I think of that long, hard summer I remember the wordless heaviness in the house, the fog of dread we were all trapped in. My brother and sister were too young to understand what was happening. In a sense it was just mum and me …
How do you care for a big disabled cop?
Eventually they brought him home, “a broken man, an effigy really”. There was little hope. “My father’s life had been spared and we were glad, but we were no longer the safe, confident people we’d been before.”
His dad lived in bed. He’d lost a lot of weight but he was still too heavy for Tim’s mum to lift, so she had to wash him in bed.
“Stand in front of you, take the force of the blow”
One day, an unknown man turned up, uninvited and unexpected, and offered to bathe Tim’s dad. His mum was wary, but desperate. Tim was suspicious and watchful.
For weeks the man returned regularly, undressed his dad, carried him to the bathroom, washed him and talked with him. The men quietly got to know each other, the oppression in the house lifted a little, and Tim began to learn that, while strangers “could wreck your life and do you harm they were also capable of mysterious kindness.”
After a month or so, Tim’s father began to improve, despite his awful injuries. “His recovery was faster and more complete than anyone had expected.”
It was only years later ….
…. that Tim learnt more about what had occurred. One day, his dad’s helper brought a bottle of olive oil with him.
He anointed the old man with it in the manner of ancient Christian tradition, and ‘laid hands on him’, as the saying goes, praying that Dad might be healed. Neither of my parents was ever keen to talk about this ritual, and they certainly made no special claims for its efficacy, but after the old man’s recovery they became devout and lifelong Christians.
His dad was able to stay in the police force against all expectations, even though his body carried aches and weaknesses from then on.
“it had a profound effect on my own trajectory”
Tim says “I witnessed Dad’s swift restoration and renewal and was grateful for it“. He says he has thought a lot about this recovery. How his dad, long used to having a jaundiced view of his fellow humans because of his work, learnt to see the good side of humanity as well. How this one stranger’s actions brought hope and healing to a household on the edge.
I don’t know. I don’t set much store by signs and wonders, but I try to keep an open mind.
Tim Winton, from his Facebook page