I tried hard to be a Father….but instead I was a Dad (Part 1)

Andrew,  visiting Canberra all the way from Scotland nominated three items that had particular significance for him during his visit to Canberra. A story emerged that was too big to reveal in a single telling…

Sacred Waters of Lake Burley Griffin + Finger + Lamb Roast

Final Plan for Canberraroast lambfinger picture

Ben smiled at his son, trying his best to hide his emotions. A whirlpool of anger, confusion and doubt swirling inside. Somehow, he was simultaneously suppressing laughter, tears and an urge to yell.

He hoped, perhaps naively, that on the outside he was the picture of a cool and calm Dad.

This was not an uncommon feeling. He feared it may be becoming his most dominant mood. He could recall three separate incidents just in the last hour that had spurned similar tumultuous emotions – let alone the countless days and weeks past.

When was the last day he hadn’t felt like this?

He figured this is what it felt like to be a parent. At least, this is what it felt like for him to a parent.

He glanced over at Judy, trying to read her. She smiled back. It looked genuine enough, but was it? Was she feeling the same way? Or judging his inability to hold his shit together?

After all this time together, you would think he would be able to read a look on his wife’s face. There had been a time when he would have sworn the two of them were in constant sync. They had some innate ability to communicate without words; to know what the other was thinking.

Something had changed. When she was pregnant with Kelly, he had read something about having a child irrevocably changing your relationship with your partner. He wondered at the time what that meant.

He stared down at his sausages (he hated sausages), took a deep breath, and tried to mask all those emotions for his children.

‘I’m sorry Kelly, we can’t have roast lamb…’

But before Ben could explain further, Kelly had interrupted…for the third time…in the last hour.

‘But Dad, Davey’s family have roast lamb every Sunday.’

Ben took another deep breath (he counted that as the fourth time since the meal was served).

What was he going to say? They couldn’t afford roast lamb. They could barely afford the cheap sausages and frozen peas he had cooked tonight. Not if they were going to eventually save up for a house, so the kids could get their own rooms and he could stop tripping over computer cords and toys everywhere he walked.

James picked up a pea on his spoon and flicked it across the table, hitting Kelly in the face.

‘Hey!’ she squealed.

‘I hate peas,’ was all James offered in return, shrugging his shoulders, and slumping into his seat.

Before Ben or Judy could intervene, Kelly had picked up a pea from her plate, and thrown it back at James. It thudded into his chest.

‘That’s it!’ Ben yelled, finally losing his cool. ‘That’s the end of dinner. Everyone into the bath.’

He tried to ignore the look Judy was giving him as he ushered the disappointed children towards the bathroom, their small shoulders slumped over. Behind him, he heard her sigh, and began to pack away the mess of dinner.

Later, in bed, trying to read his book, he couldn’t shake his memory of dinner. He realised he hadn’t spoken to Judy since. Part of him wanted to hold his ground, not admit to any wrongdoing, but he knew such stubbornness would only make things worse. And he had to ask Judy a favour.

‘I’m sorry….about before,’ he blurted out.

Judy sighed and put her book down, but didn’t make eye contact with him. The strap of her black nightie had slipped below one of her shoulders, which in different circumstances may have been seductive. However, tonight, as most nights, it was anything but; more a sign that Judy was completely unaware of her appearance in front of him.

Ben couldn’t recall the last time they’d had sex.

‘It’s not your fault….it’s just….It’s not how I imagined our family dinners would be,’ Judy said.

‘She’s got a point, doesn’t she? About the lamb I mean.’

Judy nodded

‘She does. But we still can’t afford it.’

Ben saw an opening. It was now or never.

‘I’ve been offered a bit of freelance work. Enough to buy us a couple of roast dinners. But it’s on Saturday. The same time as James has that birthday party.’

He felt Judy tense up next to him. She still wasn’t making eye contact with him.

‘Ben, I’m not sure we should be splurging on roast lamb, even if you do the work. Did you get my email about that new place that was listed on Allhomes today? If we scrimped on a few things, we could nearly afford what they’re asking.’

‘Fair enough. Well, some freelance money wouldn’t hurt then. So should I do it?’

At last Judy rolled over and looked at him.

‘I know you work hard all week with the kids, and it makes sense for me to take him. It’s just….those mothers, the way they look at me.’

‘I think it’s your imagination, honey,’ Ben replied.

The moment of brief tenderness between them appeared to have passed.

‘Don’t tell me what I feel, Ben.’ Judy seethed, pointing her finger at his chest. ‘They judge me because I don’t do the school drop offs and picks up – because I’m not there to join their precious clique. Standing around with nothing better to do but gossip.’

‘Do you think that’s what I do?’ Ben asked quietly.

Judy realised her mistake.

‘No, no. I’m sorry. I know you don’t. It’s just different…’

‘Because I’m a man?’

Judy signed again.

‘Yeah, and because I’m a woman.’

Later, when he was struggling to sleep and trying to ignore the faint snores from Judy and the children, he considered whether this was the sort of father he wanted to be.

Indeed, was this the sort of life he wanted? He and Judy had discussed their plans so much while she was pregnant. How they were going to do things differently. How they would be modern parents. Judy would pursue her career, and he would concentrate on the kids. Look after them, take them to school as they grew, kick balls in the backyard with them, coach their teams, and help with homework.

Be the father he had never had.

At some point, he must have fallen into a fitful sleep, for he found himself back in Dean White’s room, who had challenged his ideals all those years ago.

He was sitting across from him at that large board table once again. Expensive art and technology all around them. Dean was leaning towards him, engaging with him directly, as though for those few seconds there was no one else in the room.

‘Ben, you’re clearly something special. When you came to us for your internship, obviously we were impressed with your university scores. But university scores, in our experience, only tell so much,’ he coughed nervously as he said this, and glanced over at Claire, his second in command, and who had been, for all intents and purposes, Ben’s boss.

Such praise from someone like Dean White meant a great deal to Ben. This was his professional champion; a man who apparently had it all. In his early fifties, he was still a relatively young man for all he had achieved. Despite being born in a poor family in Canberra’s west, Dean had not only devoted himself to a range of philanthropic causes, but had somehow also managed to make money and significantly changed countless lives for the better in his ‘day job’. He had won many awards, including an Order of Australia.

Ben had spent a year chasing him, emailing and phoning his office, for the chance to intern with him. He still remembered the butterflies in his stomach when the email had finally arrived confirming his placement.

The only thing missing, it seemed for Dean White, was a family. His personal life remained a mystery to Ben, but there was no talk of children and even less of a significant other.

The dream was so vivid, David felt he truly was at his final internship interview again. He could even smell Dean’s aftershave in the air.

‘Ben, we really want you to stay. You can make such a difference here. Not just to your own lives, but to so many of those we help. With your assistance that difference could even be intergenerational.’

Claire then chimed in.

‘Ben, I’m not exaggerating, when I say this is really the chance of a lifetime.’

She had actually said that, without a hint of hyperbole: “the chance of a lifetime”.

Ben wondered how many other young, naïve interns had heard this spiel. On the other hand, how much time would Dean White have to sit down with every work experience kid who went through his organisation?

‘I need to stress,’ Dean added. ‘It won’t be easy. You have shown good work ethic, but what we have in mind for you would be another step up.’

He cleared his throat again – that slight nervous tick Ben had noticed earlier – and glanced at Claire. As if on cue, she picked up the conversation.

‘You have a girlfriend, yeah?’ she asked.

‘Wife,’ Ben corrected.

‘Wife,’ Dean repeated nodding, again glancing at Claire. Shit, thought Ben, they’re doing some sort of good cop-bad cop thing.

‘And, she’s pregnant?’ Claire asked.

Ben nodded.

Dean shuffled uncomfortably in his seat.

‘It’s just…well Ben, we’ve had some other employees find the pressure of the work just too much to juggle with demands on the home front.’

Claire nodded in unison with her boss.

‘Ben, there is no doubt you are up to the job, but we have no paternity leave provisions in our agreement, and just lately, we’ve had a few staff leave because of home pressures.’

You mean because of work pressures, Ben thought.

‘I’ve been there Ben,’ Claire continued. ‘The sleepless nights, the anxiety. Your wife will need you. That’s why I took three years off to have my kids. And then I came back when we were ready, when they were settled into childcare and school. Even then, my husband was a wreck. Is your wife planning on having much time off?’

‘No, not really,’ Ben said quietly. Dean sighed.

‘So you understand our concerns?’

‘I understand,’ Ben replied. ‘Can you give me a day to think about it?’

In his dream version, he didn’t have to relive the part where he and Judy had argued and debated what Ben should do – when Judy had accused him of selling out on his ideals when he suggested he was taking the offer seriously. She reminded him that their plan had always been that Ben would finish his masters while caring for their child, so that Judy could return to work to save for a house.  Instead, Ben found himself making that dreaded phone call again.

Pushing his finger onto the numbers on the phone, he was once again rehearsing in his mind what he was going to say, over and over again.

The moment Dean answered, Ben began blurting it all out, in a clumsy and nervous fashion, declining the opportunity of his lifetime. An opportunity that he would surely never get back. In this dream version, the memory seemed different. Like it was obvious he had made the wrong decision. Had he felt like that at the time?

Dean had sounded disappointed, but he understood.

‘Get in touch if you change your mind Ben. It has been great having you here.’

And then, in this dream version, Ben remembered (or was it dreamt) a part of the conversation he had forgotten.

‘Ben,’ Dean said urgently, just as Ben was pointing the phone down. ‘Ben? Are you still there?’

Ben lifted the receiver back to his ear.

‘Yeah?’

‘If you change your mind, seek the crystal and the lake.’

‘The what?” Ben asked, but somewhere a noise was calling to him.  A distant buzzing. It was his alarm.

He opened his eyes, and sat up suddenly. He was sweating and shivering all over.

The crystal and the lake? What did that mean?

After dropping Kelly and James at school, Ben usually returned home to do some chores and work on his freelancing. If they were ever going to save enough to bid on that house Judy liked, he should really have sought every penny he could. But instead he found himself on a bus, bound for the city, and was soon wandering the streets of Canberra. His subconscious was obviously seeking something, but what that was he couldn’t say.

After strolling around the city for a while, he found himself walking down University Avenue, past the Street Theatre and courts to the ANU campus. It was a warm summer day, and the streets and footpaths were buzzing with students giggling and debating, sprawled out on the grassy knolls, sitting around café tables. While he was trying his best not to notice the nubile students in their thin summer dresses and tight jeans, his eyes drifted to a noticeboard outside the Refectory:

‘The Secret Plan for Canberra: Crystals, Architecture and the Lake:

Walking in the Footprints of Walter, Marion, Peter and Graham’

A Public Lecture by Associate Professor Adrian West

7 December, 1:00 pm’

The lecture was taking place at the Australian Academy of Science, known as the ‘Shine Dome’, the green alien-like circular building on the southeast edge of the ANU campus.

Ben’s dream again came to him, and he realised it hadn’t been far from his thoughts all morning. The lecture had already started, but if he hurried he would still catch most of it.

Could it explain something about his dream?

As he approached the building, he was amazed by how it appeared to float on the water surrounding it. The foyer was a tribute to the era of the building’s construction – all wood panelling and ageing carpet. He was ushered by a woman in a suit from the circular foyer into the main auditorium and was immediately struck by how much it reminded him of the General Assembly of the United Nations. He and Judy had visited ten years ago, but he couldn’t help but notice the similarities between the steeply slanted brown benches and arm chairs, looking down on a semi-circular ‘stage’. He quickly found a seat and looked down at the middle aged speaker, who he assumed was Professor West. He was snappily dressed in an open-collared purple shirt, brown chinos and pointed brown shoes. His blond hair was thick and parted in the middle.

‘This auditorium is a fitting venue for our presentation today,’ the speaker was saying. ‘Much like the Griffins’ vision for Canberra, this building was intended to be a tribute to the modernist ideas of the 1950s. Today it is still a striking building, which still evokes images of a science-fiction inspired future architecture. Like the Griffins, it is also an award winner, and is one of seven projects the Royal Australian Institute of Architects has nominated to the World Register of Significant Twentieth Century Architecture.’

He paused, as though bracing himself by how the audience may respond to this next comment.

‘However, perhaps unlike this building, the modernist philosophy of the Griffins has largely been forgotten. These days they would likely be turning in their graves at how frequently the names and writings of Walter Burley Griffin and Marion Mahony Griffin are uttered as evidence for the status quo to remain. For modern developments to be refused in favour of a sparsely populated and under-utilised city.’

Several scoffs echoed around the wooden walls of the auditorium. Ben scanned the auditorium, and realised the extremes in the ages of the audience. There was a spattering of younger people, dressed in jeans and hoodies, likely architect students. The rest of the audience was much older, dressed in cardigans and slacks. Some were in suits. Several of the older audience members were now shaking their heads in disgust at what West had said.

West appeared unperturbed.

‘One exception to this falsehood is the work of Peter Proudfoot and Graham Pont. Beginning in the 1990s, they have written and talked of the modern vision the Griffins had for this city, most particularly in their underappreciated design.’

‘Proudfoot, with his seminal work, ‘The Secret Plan of Canberra’ notes that the Griffins’ design is about far more than the land axis and the surrounding hills. He uncovered the hidden symbolic elements of the Griffins’ drawings and design. Professor Proudfoot concluded that the plans were based on sacred crystals and the principles of sacred geometry or geomancy including the Chinese version known as feng shui. This informed the location of everything in the Griffins’ plan, down to the location of the roads.’

Ben again looked around, and saw several shaking heads. A few were scoffing more loudly than before.

‘Their plan was intended to be ‘ideal’ in every sense of the word. It was to be informed by modern and ancient theories of utopia. Central to this, no pun intended, is Canberra’s vesica, an ancient geometric symbol – a pointed oval shaped space created by intersecting circles. This was intended to reflect the intersection of the material and spiritual worlds. Canberra’s design has just such a vesica, created by the intersection of the surrounding mountains and main Land Axis. Proudfoot believed Canberra has affinities with Stonehenge, sacred Glastonbury, ancient Egyptian temples and pyramids, even with the concept of the new Jerusalem. He even posited that the siting and massing of Giurgola’s new Parliament House strongly suggests that he had in fact grasped the underlying geomantic order of the Griffins’ initial plan.’

Pont continued Proudfoot’s work, and discovered that using a compass set to one mile on the plan’s scale, he could draw a second vesica that contained within it yet another symbol. The Egypian symbol for city.’

‘So why is this part of Canberra’s design still such a secret? Pont suggests the Griffins believed architecture as a kind of supreme art, as a cosmic art, but that the staid Commonwealth Government, their client, would be cynical about such motives.’

He paused to look up towards the seats above him, smiling.

‘A cynicism that I dare say persists today.’

For the next 15 minutes, West continued in a similar vein. As he did so, the scoffing and derision became more obvious. Several people stood up and left, muttering under their breath as they did so.

At last he invited questions. An older man in a suit stood up.

‘I represent a major non-government planning organisation in Canberra, and I find your ideas about Griffin…’

West interrupted before the man could finish.

‘Griffins,’ he said, emphasising the s.

‘I’m sorry?’ the suited man asked, clearly even more upset at being interrupted than he had been before.

‘Plural. Marion and Walter are now jointly credited with the design.’

The suited man waved his hand in dismissal.

‘Yes, yes, I know, I know. The Griffins. The point is the Griffins never intended their design to be twisted in such a way as you and Proudfoot suggest. It is just ridiculous. And I won’t apologise for my organisation’s constant battle to stop the ACT and Commonwealth Governments destroying the Griffins’ legacy for our city.’

West again interrupted.

‘Even if in fact your ideas are completely contrary to the modern approach of the Griffins? Even if we have already moved so far away from so many parts of their designs that your arguments are meaningless, and are simply holding back this city?’

The suited man had clearly had enough.

‘I don’t have to sit here and take this claptrap.’

He stood up and left. Several others joined him.

‘Any other questions?’ West asked.

He was met with silence.

A man in the front row stood up abruptly.

‘Well, I think we have all been challenged in a very healthy way by Professor West today, please join me in thanking him.’

A splattering of applause rung around the room. West smiled nervously and began packing up his papers.

Ben tentatively approached the professor.

‘Hi,’ he said quietly. ‘That was great.’

West looked up, surprised.

‘Oh, thank you. I feared you’d come to tell me how crazy I am. That’s usually the response I get to those theories,’ he stared up to the seats above as he spoke. ‘Still, fun to shake things up, eh!’

Ben nodded enthusiastically.

‘It sure is. But, I was wondering. Is there any tangible difference that comes from that design? I mean, apart from the symbolism?’

West hesitated, staring into Ben’s eyes, in way that made him feel uncomfortable. At last he spoke.

‘Young man, that’s exactly what I’ve been wondering myself. I have some….ideas of my own. I think they did intend consequences would flow if the city was built. We have moved away from many of their designs, but much of this symbolism, or spirituality remains. I am particularly interested in the idea of the material and spiritual words intersecting.’

He leaned closer, as those he and Ben were co-conspirators in some grand plan.

‘Are you just humouring me, or are you really interested?’ he whispered.

For some reason, Ben felt drawn to this man. And of course, there was the mystery of his dream.

‘Very interested. Particularly in your reference to the crystals?’

West leaned back and clapped his hands together, a smile breaking across his face.

‘Yes! The crystals! You are right. The crystals, or crystal, is critical.’

He leaned forward once more, again adopting the conspiratorial tones.

‘I am going to test out my own theories tonight, if you would like to observe. I believe, the waters of Lake Burley Griffin are sacred. That lake is pivotal to the intersection of the material and spiritual worlds. I will be heading out on a boat at eleven tonight, if you would like to join me?’

This guy is completely crazy, surely, thought Ben to himself. Crystals and spirits and the lake.

Yet, still, there was his dream.

And so Ben found himself agreeing.

As he left the auditorium, his phone rang, He looked down at the cracked screen on his ancient phone. It was Judy. He answered, and her voice indicated she was in a rush, but her cold tone from the night before was also still present. She had to work late and wouldn’t home in time to put the kids to bed. He agreed to do it, and considered telling her about his planned late night trip, but thought better of it. She wished him well at soccer practice, and he realised if he didn’t leave the city now he wouldn’t pick the kids up in time.

He simultaneously ran training for both kids’ teams, with the assistance of a couple of other parents. However, even after an hour of running around, the kids still begged to play some cricket in the backyard.  As he gently bowled to them, his mind drifted to his meeting with West, and whether he would venture out tonight to see him. It took him a moment to realise James was crying, staring down at the old cricket bat. For a moment, Ben thought he had managed to hit himself with it, and was in pain. However, he followed his son’s eyes down to the bat, and saw that the handle had snapped off.

‘Don’t’ worry James, we can buy a new one,’ he said, without really thinking. It took him a moment to realise that perhaps a new cricket bat was something they could not afford.

Before he put them to bed, he made the kids baked beans toasties for dinner, which their excited reaction helped to quell his guilt that there was nothing else in the fridge to cook. That, and the packaging claimed there was two serves of vegetables per can. That made him a good father, surely?

He went to bed early, and pretended to be asleep when Judy got home. He waited for her to fall asleep, before quietly rolling out of bed, getting dressed. Without really thinking about what he was doing, he found himself at Trevllian Quay on the Kingston Foreshore. As he walked amongst the revellers drinking and laughing outside the various bars and restaurants, he wondered if West would show? Did an academic of his standing really believe they would find something in the black of night in the middle of the lake?

But there he was, standing in a small row boat, waving to him. Ben waving nervously back and dropped his head, suddenly aware how strange two men in a row boat must look to the drinkers and diners around them.

‘Benjamin, how wonderful of you to come!’ West said, as he approached. ‘Come, come, down the stairs and into the boat, and we shall be off on our adventure.’

Before he knew it, Ben was assisting the Professor to row out into the lake proper.

‘Where are we going?’ he asked, wondering why he hadn’t asked further details from West earlier.

‘My calculations suggest that one of the key intersections on the vesica occurs in the middle of these sacred waters. I believe, that if we can hold this crystal in the moonlight, at just the right angle, we will unlock the secret of the Griffins’ beliefs about the relationship between the spiritual and material worlds.’

‘And what exactly is that? I mean, what are you expecting will happen?’ Ben asked in a breathless voice, his arms already exhausted from rowing.

‘No idea!’ West exclaimed in response. ‘But I think we are nearly there. Let’s stop rowing and drift for a while.’

They had rowed to the middle of the Lake, just beyond the Carillon. To their left was the large, new ASIO building, and to their right the row of institutions along the Lake’s southern shore including the National Gallery and High Court. The gentle wind that had greeted them on land seemed to have grown stronger, and they stopped rowing. Their little boat bobbed around on the tide and wind. Nervously, the Professor stood up and produced a crystal from his pocked.

‘Careful,’ said Ben.’You could fall.’

‘I know, I know,’ the Professor said, trying to maintain his balance as the boat moved side to side. ‘But it is critical the crystal catches the moonlight at just the right angle. I also have to place my fingers in a certain pattern. I think this might be…’

But before he could finish, the Professor lost his balance, tumbling down onto Ben, the crystal touching Ben’s head as he did so.

Suddenly, Ben saw a bright flash of light before his eyes, and then everything went black.

Slowly, he became aware that his eyes were closed, perhaps from the shock of the Professor falling on him. He could feel the Professor’s body next to him. In fact, it felt as though he had his arm around him. As he slowly opened his eyes, he discovered he was no longer in the boat.

Instead, he appeared to be back in his bedroom, his arm draped across Judy’s body.

Had it all been a dream?

‘This makes a nice change,’ she murmured next to him.

‘What’s that?’ he asked, absentmindedly, still trying to take stock of where he was.

‘For you to lie in with me. Don’t you have a meeting first thing?’

A meeting? Did he have a meeting? He leaned over to the dresser next to him to check his phone, but it appeared to be missing. Had he left it somewhere last night? Perhaps he had gone to the boat after all, and the professor had driven home, leaving his phone behind. As he searched the top of the dresser further, he found a brand new iPhone.

‘Did you buy a new phone?’ Ben asked Judy.

‘No silly,’ she said sleepily. ‘That’s the new one work gave you, remember. They always give you the latest model.’

The latest model? Work? What was Judy talking about?

He swiped the screen and checked the calendar. It was full of appointments. Whoever owned the phone sure had a busy day. He looked more closely at the calendar. The date came into focus.

‘Judy?’

‘Yeah?’ she asked, rolling over.

‘What date is it?’

‘Umm,’ she said, wiping the sleep from her eyes. ‘The ninth I think? The day of the ceremony, yeah?’

Ben’s stomach turned over, and he felt a wave of nausea run through him. That was the date the phone showed too. The ninth.

Of November. A month earlier.

What the hell was going on?

He returned to the phone screen. The first meeting in this person’s calendar was with Dean White. He scrolled down through the appointments. Judy had said something about a ceremony. And sure enough, at 6:00pm there was an entry:

‘ACT Australian of the Year Awards Ceremony’

‘Judy?’

‘Yes,’ she said, rolling over to look at him.

‘Why are we going to the Australian of the Year Awards?

‘Are you feeling alright, Ben?’

‘Why?’ he asked, trying to remain calm.

‘Because we’re going for you. You were nominated, remember? For your work.’

 

To be continued….

 

Canberra Prelim Plan by WB Griffin 1913” by Original urban plan drawn by Walter Burley Griffin – Reproduction of plan from Supplement to “Building and Real Estate Magazine” in 1913. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons.

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