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…here is the conclusion to ‘I tried hard to be a father…’
Sacred Waters of Lake Burley Griffin + Finger + Lamb Roast
Ben had woken up a month in the past, but that didn’t entirely explain where he had woken? Or more to the point, who precisely he was?
He tried to comprehend what Judy was saying to him. Suddenly, all his memories, his life… his very sense of himself seemed to be at question.
It took him a moment to realise Judy was still talking, her voice thick with sleep.
‘Ben, you’re nominated for the ACT Australian of the Year award. How could you forget? Did “working late” last night include drinks with Dean again?’
Another wave of nausea rolled through his stomach. He got out of bed, mumbling something about having to get ready for work, and entered the bathroom.
He looked in the mirror. He thought he looked like himself, as much as anyone has a photographic recollection of what they really look like. The Butthole Surfers line popped into his head ‘you never know just how you look through someone else’s eyes.’
He’d always liked that lyric. But never mind other people, how are you supposed to look through your own eyes?
He poked and prodded his face, drawing closer to the mirror, trying to recall how he was supposed to look.
His hair appeared to have been cut more recently than he could recall. And had he put on a little weight? He stared down at the slightly bulging stomach. Had it always bulged exactly that much?
Perhaps he hit his head last night, and suffered some kind of concussion. Maybe false memories or cognitive impairment follow a severe head injury. Or had he just dreamt it all? Or hallucinated his conversation with Judy just now? If he left the bathroom, would she be dressing for work, and his old cracked phone be back on the dresser table? Showing the date as 8 December instead of 9 November?
The reflection in the mirror offered no answers to these questions.
As he stood there staring down at his stomach, trying to use his now largely concealed penis as a point of reference (was that bigger too?), wave of memories suddenly began to flood into his head. It was as though someone had plugged him into a computer and started uploading information.
He sat down on the toilet, holding his head; feeling like he would vomit.
All his usual memories, those he had in his head before this morning were still there. Taking the kids to school, the broken bat, the argument about roast lamb… and thousands of similar memories. But now new ones were appearing too. Memories of work and deadlines and late nights and overseas travel and….
…a new memory of being in Dean’s office. All those years ago.
Alongside the old memory.
Except, this time, he accepted the job.
There were two meetings.
He took a deep breath and stood up and returned to the mirror. Who was this new Ben?
Stay at home dad or wealth-providing father?
It seemed the only way to find out was to see where this day, and life, would take him.
He showered and left the bathroom to discover the bedroom as he had left it, complete with Judy still curled up in bed. He checked his phone, which belligerently still showed the same date, its shiny newness mocking him. Or at least, the old him.
He opened his wardrobe and found several ironed shirts and new suits. He dressed and considered the first of the many meetings he apparently had today. He realised his new memories were becoming more entrenched. They were revealing not only the images of his new past, but the emotions he has felt with each. These memories were informing his future too. He was surprised to discover that he knew exactly what each of today’s meetings were about and what he wanted to achieve out of them.
He was a smart guy who had indeed achieved much.
He grabbed a muesli bar and put his hand on the door knob, before realising he had not said goodbye to anyone in the house
He ran back into the bedroom to find Judy slowly rising.
‘It’s okay. I know you need to run. We will see you at the awards,’ she said.
He tentatively pecked her on the lips. That seemed to surprise her, and awkwardly she kissed him back a second time.
He next entered the kids’ room. He was shocked to find only James asleep in the single bed. He seemed the same as Ben always remembered him, as he knelt down and kissed him gently on the cheek. It was only as he exited his room he realised there was a new corridor in the house. In his earlier rush he hadn’t bothered to turn any lights on and the corridor was difficult to make out in the early morning darkness.
As he walked down the hall he found the house had a new extension. Through one partially ajar door he could see Kelly asleep. She too seemed unchanged. Further down the corridor there was another bathroom and what appeared to be a children’s playroom.
He entered Kelly’s room and knelt down to kiss her. She stirred as his lips touched her cheek.
‘Daddy,’ she said sleepily. ‘What’s wrong?’
‘I’m just saying goodbye before… going to work.’
‘You never usually say goodbye,’ she said rolling over so her back was now facing him
He paused to consider the significance of what she had said. But before he could properly process it, he felt a vibration in his pocket. Only 15 minutes to the meeting.
He had to leave.
He exited the house and found two new cars sitting in the driveway. He was getting used to discovering he knew things even as they surprised (the old) him. The feeling was almost indescribable, but the closest he could come up with was a constant feeling of déjà vu.
He already knew on some subconscious level that the black Ford sedan was his and the red Corolla was Judy’s.
From there, the day was a blur. Each piece of work and meeting starting with mild fear, which quickly gave way to understanding and knowledge. Much like at home, his workplace was full of new luxuries. A corner office, reserved car parking space and a range of IT gadgets amongst them. He also discovered that he loved his work. As Dean had promised all those years ago, he was indeed ‘changing the world’; making a difference, helping those less fortunate.
It also appeared he was earning a decent wage doing it.
Another of the new discoveries at work was his Executive Assistant, Bev, an older and amazingly capable woman. He became so engrossed in his work that he may have missed the awards ceremony completely, had she not gently knocked on his door late in the afternoon to tell him he should probably leave.
An hour later he entered the grand space of the National Gallery’s Gandel Hall; its gold plated doors, high ceilings and formal seating gave the ceremony a regal air. A buzz of chatter and sea of smiling faces, many completely alien to Ben, greeted him.
He found Judy, Kelly and James sitting uncomfortably in the front of row. He guessed the children were squirming as much because they needed to sit still, as they found their new clothes stifling and stiff in the warm hall. He recalled how much Kelly hated wearing dresses and James leather shoes.
‘Don’t worry mate, you can get out of those shoes as soon as the awards are over,’ he said, sitting down next to him.
James looked up at him surprised.
‘These are my favourites, Daddy.’
Ben considered this. Obviously, other things had changed in his life. Did Kelly now love dresses? What sort of father didn’t know what clothes his children liked to wear?
He tried to brush such concerns off, and smiled weakly towards Judy, who smiled back. Had she noticed anything different about him? They had barely spoken all day. Was that normal? Did she have any concept that her husband woke up this morning believing that he had been transported back in time to an entirely new life?
Although this new life wasn’t feeling quite that new and alien any more. His nervousness about work had quickly washed away through the endless meetings and mountain of work. Yet he had loved every minute of it, and looked forward to returning tomorrow.
Before he could consider which of his lives felt more real, the ceremony commenced as a confident man in a grey suit strode to the microphone. If Ben had needed any assistance in piecing together his new life, the ceremony quickly provided it. Earlier award announcements were interspersed with videos summarising the achievements of the four shortlisted nominees for the ACT Australian of the Year.
Normally, Ben felt uncomfortable watching himself on video, but this truly was a surreal experience. The video included many of the memories that had come to him through the day, but it put them in some context. The video also added some information, that he knew at some subconscious level, but hadn’t processed in any detail.
In short, his life, since accepting that job with Dean, had been amazing. He had achieved all he had dreamed of and more. Best of all, many of the apparently countless people he had helped spoke on the video, gushing about how his work had changed their lives.
He glanced over at Judy to find James had moved on to her lap. She was holding him tightly to stop him from leaping away.
Dean was now speaking on the screen.
‘Ben changed our business. Without him, we would not have been able to achieve the things we have. The hundreds… thousands of people and families Ben has assisted would never have been reached.’
The video ended, and the grey suited man returned, this time with the Chief Minister.
The Chief Minister opened envelope, and read out Ben’s name.
He had won.
Ben was ushered on to the stage, and found himself looking out at a sea of people. All staring back at him, idolising him, for achievements and actions he was only just recalling and understanding.
He felt equal parts fraud and jubilant. The wave of nausea of the morning returned, although he didn’t know if it was because of the nervousness of speaking in front of so many people, or the continued teething problems of combining two lives into one head.
Whatever the reason, he recalled the video, and the feeling drifted away on a sea of pride. Words started pouring out of his mouth, without him really thinking about what to say. He thanked many people, people that he knew intimately, and those he just felt he should thank, although he wasn’t sure why. He congratulated the other nominees, and finished on what he thought was the most important point.
‘And finally to my wonderful family – my wife Judy and children Ben and Kelly. Without you, none of this would be possible.’
He looked over at Judy and the children, looking forward to their reaction. But Ben had collapsed into a crumpled ball at Judy’s feet, tears streaming down his face. Both Kelly and Judy were knealing down, trying to console him.
They may not have even heard what he said.
Applause rang out through the hall as he left the stage. Judy pushed through the crowd of people congratulating him. She pecked him on the cheek.
‘I expect Dean will take you out for drink to celebrate. I’ll take the kids. Have a good night.’
Before he could respond, she was gone.
Hours later, he crept into the house, stumbling and giggling as he entered the bedroom. He took off his clothes, and slipped into bed next to Judy, beginning to slip his hands under her nightie.
‘Ben,’ she said irritably. ‘What are you doing?’
He giggled again, burying his head in the pillow to try and remain quiet.
‘Tryin’ to give youth a proper fank you,’ he slurred.
She sighed and rolled over.
‘Ben, now, really? Now you want to do this? It is most definitely not the time. Go to sleep!’
Before he could respond, she had turned her back on him, forcibly removing his hand from her body.
Ben stared at the ceiling for a moment, trying to comprehend what she was saying through the haze. Before he could make sense of it, he was asleep.
The next few weeks were such a blur of work and media commitments about his award that he barely had time to think about his old life, or the realities of his new one.
It was only when two back to back meetings were cancelled that Bev intervened to remind him. She gently knocked on his partially closed office door, and crept in. Ben was hunched over his computer.
‘Ben, maybe you should take this chance to go home early. Tuck the kids in, you know?’
He only glanced up at her, before returning to the screen.
‘Yep, will do, just as soon as I’ve finished this email to Jim in Scotland.’
‘That’s the third time this week you’ve said that, and you’ve left two hours later. The email can wait.’
He stopped typing and took a deep breath. He felt the conflicting obligations of work and home tugging at him. Dean had stressed the urgency of making contact with Scotland, and had even hinted that a late night phone call direct might be needed because of the time difference.
On the other hand, he had barely thought about his ‘old’ life for weeks. As he considered Bev’s suggestion, he realised he had been running on credits he probably didn’t have in this life. While he could recall all those times he, Kelly and James had spent time together, they had never happened for the children. They may as well be a figment of Ben’s imagination.
Maybe they were.
‘Alright Bev, you’re right. I’ll head home. I’ll have the mobile if needed. See you tomorrow.’
As he drove home, he was surprised how excited he was about the possibility of actually having a proper conversation with Judy and the kids. Maybe they could even have dinner together.
Then a thought occurred to him. He could bring dinner home: Roast lamb – finally give James his wish. He could certainly afford it now.
Thirty minutes later, he burst through the front door, and ran into the house. He found the children curled up on the couch, watching television.
‘Surprise! I’ve brought dinner home.’
Judy called out from the kitchen.
‘We’ve already eaten.’
Ben walked in, feeling dejected.
‘But I’ve got roast lamb!’ he exclaimed.
‘I hate roast lamb,’ James called from the other room.
‘But, we can’t afford it,’ Ben said quietly, not entirely realising he had said it aloud.
‘What did you say?’ Judy asked, turning to face him.
Ben shook his head.
‘Nothing, nothing. I thought I would surprise you with a posh dinner.’
Judy chuckled wryly.
‘Well, we’ve already eaten, sorry. Although, it would have taken a while to roast that lamb Ben, and I’m not sure it counts as a ‘posh’ dinner. Lucky I’m the one who gave up on the career for the home life, not sure you could cut it as a full time home chef!’
A flash of anger welled up in Ben, and he spoke without thinking
‘And we both know you wouldn’t earn as much,’ he said quietly. But, not so quietly that Judy didn’t hear.
She leapt to her feet, pointing her finger in his chest.
‘I’m not sure we do both know that Ben, and if it is true, that’s say more about what’s wrong with the world instead of what’s wrong with me.’
Ben looking down at her finger, and nodded, feeling guilty.
She was right.
Utterly defeated, Ben left the room, his shoulders slumped. Had an Australian of the Year nominee ever felt this flat?
‘At least you can tuck the kids in?’ Judy called after him.
He helped with bath time too, recalling what a chore it had felt like to do every night. But this time, he loved every minute of it, playing up to the children by putting bubbles in the bath, and then teaching them how to use them as fake beards.
At one point, Judy stuck her head into the bathroom, to find them all giggling at the bubbles smeared on their faces.
‘You guys are having a great time, maybe you should do it more often, Ben!’
Later, as he tucked Kelly into bed, he considered Judy’s comment more closely.
‘Kel, how about we cook that roast lamb tomorrow night, and all sit together in the dining room like the ol…. like a family dinner? Maybe it could be a regular thing.
‘Will you be there?’ she asked sleepily, staring up at him.
‘Of course I’ll be there, that’s the point. I’ll come home early and we can have the roast I bought.’
‘I’ll eat anything Daddy, if it means you’ll be there.’
Ben smiled weakly, realising that tears were welling up in his eyes. He quickly kissed her and left the room, hoping she hadn’t noticed.
He was determined to change things.
The next morning as he drove to work, he rehearsed a speech for Dean. He would demand less time at work, stress the need to spend time with his family. However, as he exited the lift and entered the company’s foyer, he found an irate Dean waiting for him.
‘Ben, about time. Where have you been? And where were you last night? We’ve been calling constantly!’
Ben pulled his new iPhone out of his pocket and realised it had been set to silent. There were six missed calls from the office and Dean’s mobile.
‘The Scottish deal is about to fall over. We have to get on the phone to Edinburgh right now. We’ll deal with your tardiness later.’
And with that, he marched out of the foyer and into the conference room.
Ben followed, realising now was not the time for his speech.
He quickly lost track of time, as he and Dean madly called multiple contacts in Scotland.
Many hours later, after they had salvaged the deal, Ben realised the time. If he rushed, maybe he could still make dinner.
But as he stood up, Dean held up his hand.
‘Don’t run off just yet, Ben. We need to talk.’
‘I know, I’m sorry Dean. But can we do this tomorrow? It’s just, I promised Judy and the…’
But Dean cut him off.
‘You left early for family reasons last night. We discussed this when you took the job. I need you here during core hours, which with this Scottish deal, is around the clock. I know the award has probably led you to reassess things, but some things here are just non-negotiable Ben, okay?’
Ben considered responding with his rehearsed speech of earlier. But surely Dean was right, at least for now. Those were the terms he had agreed, and his bargaining position was weak. Perhaps he could try again in a few weeks or months.
‘Sure, won’t happen again.’
‘Fine. Not much more we can do tonight. Go home and see your family, but warn them about what is ahead.’
Ben rushed home, hoping that despite the time he could still resurrect something from the evening. As he walked into the house, Ben found Judy sitting alone at the table, a barely touched leg of lamb sitting in front of her.
She sighed as she saw him.
‘We tried to eat without you. It was a disaster. The kids were distraught when you didn’t come home,’ she said quietly. Ben knew inside she would be seething.
‘I’m sorry, I left early last night and…’ he began, but for the second time in the hour, he was cut off mid-apology.
‘Early!’ Judy interjected. ‘You got home at seven. At any rate, there is nothing you can do now Ben. You could have at least texted. I think it is better for the kids if you don’t pretend to be something you’re not.’
She paused before continuing, her voice still barely above a whisper, each word weighed heavily with disappointment.
‘I’m not sure I can do this anymore. I’m too tired to talk now. I’m going to bed. But we need to talk about… this,’ she smiled ruefully. ‘Whatever this is.’
She stood up and left the room, and before Ben could react further, he heard their bedroom door closing shut.
He entered Kelly’s room, and found her sitting up reading. Her eyes were red with tears.
She looked at him forlornly.
‘You promised Daddy,’ she said, still fighting back tears.
He hugged her.
‘I’m sorry darling, I got held up at work. Maybe next week.’
‘I might go to sleep now,’ she replied turning off the light.
Ben wanted to do and say more. To somehow undo the pain he had caused. But he could think of no solution, and at any rate, Kelly had now lay down, her back to him.
The light was already off in James’s room, and he too had his back facing Ben.
‘I’m sorry buddy,’ he whispered.
If James was still awake he didn’t reply.
‘Maybe I can make it up to you with a game of cricket in the backyard on the weekend?’ Ben offered.
James rolled over to face him.
‘You mean the oval Dad,’ he said sleepily. ‘There is no room to play cricket here since you got that deck built last year.’
Oh yeah, thought Ben. He knew that.
‘The oval then?’ he said.
‘Maybe,’ James replied, and rolled over on to his side again.
Ben begrudgingly left his room, a whirlpool of conflicting emotions swirling inside him. Conscious of Dean’s anger from the night before, he glanced at his phone, which mercifully was free of missed calls.
It took him a moment to process the date: 7 December. The day of West’s lecture. More to the point, the night of his boat ride. Would he still be here in this world? Still testing his crazy theory out on the lake tonight?
If he hurried, he could still find out.
He quickly dressed quietly in warm clothing, trying not to disrupt Judy’s sleep. He looked over at her when he finished, silently promising that when they next met, things would be different.
He rushed to the lake, and sure enough, there was West, struggling with the boat. But this time alone.
He ran towards him, his mouth open, to call on him to stop. To let Ben come with him. To try and explain.
But then he stopped running. He closed his mouth. He watched West push the boat out.
The truth began to dawn on him. He could never mix his two realities. It was either stay here, or return to that old life. His experience told him that he was incapable of compromise. His destiny was to be the poor dad, or the rich father. It has always been like that for him. Like it was for his father.
Did he truly want to return to that life of poverty; an existence of complete anonymity, regrets swirling around his mind for a lifetime? Perhaps all the worse if he remembered his month spent in a different life, full of success and money and achievement.
He thought of the kids; those hours spent playing cricket and soccer, and walking to and from school, talking about the letterboxes and cats, and countless other mundane things they saw along the way, but that they had so many questions about.
He stood on the foreshore and stared at the boat. If he was going to go back, it had to be now. Not back at Dean’s office all those years ago, but here by the sacred waters of Lake Burley Griffin.
Like never before in his life, he had to be completely honest with himself: which life did he like better?
And if he just stood here, not moving, not calling out, the decision would be made for him.
He would forever be: a father.
“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.