Catherine Gillard (University of Western Australia, Australia)
Joanna was three when she realised that she didn’t have a daddy like the other kids. Back then she hadn’t cared. Her mother was enough. How could you miss what you’d never had?
In primary school the love for her mother transformed from worship to a tolerant affection. No longer the perfect being who could fix everything that went wrong, from a scraped knee or an empty belly to an emotional wound inflicted in the playground. By high school, Sharnie seemed only to irritate and frustrate her. She was repulsed by the ciggie that dangled from her mother’s mouth, the beers that took up half the fridge and the series of men at her bedroom door. The latest one, Vince, was a real creep. He tried way too hard to get more than three syllables out of Joanna.
Now, at sixteen, the blank space on Joanna’s birth certificate, where the name of her father should have been, rankled her, like an insect bite that would not stop itching.
‘I’m sorry, Jo-Jo’ her mother said, not sounding apologetic at all. ‘That’s the truth. It was such a long time ago. And I never knew. Not for sure, anyway.’
She got the same answer, or a variation on it, every time she brought up the subject.
‘I never told them about you.’
Them? Her mother had never gone as far as to provide a collective noun.
‘Tell me more about Them, Mum.’
Sharnie reached out to touch Joanna’s hair, crinkly, and a light rusty-brown, so unlike her mother’s straight black.
‘You haven’t wanted for anything, have you? I’ve done OK, haven’t I?’
Joanna remained silent, unwilling to reassure her. She handed her mother a pen and an empty gas bill envelope. ‘Write!’
‘What if you did find him? Are you going to knock on the door of a man, probably married with kids and say, Hi, I think you might be my dad?’
Good plan! Joanna was ready to fly the nest, though she suspected her wings were still too wet to survive on her own. A father might be handy; a source of finance to repay a lifetime’s emotional debt, at least until she had decided what she wanted to do with her life. Her friends whose parents had split had fathers who paid child support. And if they wanted extras—driving lessons, ball gowns, holidays—daddy always paid up. The way she figured it, he was in debt to her. Bigtime.
Sharnie chewed on the end of the pen, eventually writing in her large immature scrawl: Peter Combs? Coombs? Body-surfing at City Beach. Returned to New Zealand after several months on the East Coast???
‘I hadn’t planned to move here,’ her mother said, ‘but Pete invited me to cross the Nullarbor with him after we hooked up. He mostly needed someone to share the petrol and driving.’
Apparently Pete’s condom supply was exhausted somewhere into the 4,000 km drive across Australia, not long before their relationship. They had parted ways a few weeks after arriving in Sydney. By which time Sharnie suspected she was pregnant.
‘I knew there was no point telling him. Sure, we liked each other, but nothing more. And Pete made it clear he didn’t want ties. I respected his honesty.’
Joanna wrote to the four “P. Coombs” in the New Zealand phone books she trawled at the GPO, asking if they had travelled across Australia in 1981 with Sharnie Tan and if so, could they please contact her. After weeks of monitoring the letterbox she had almost given up when the phone call came.
‘It’s Joanna. Her daughter.’
The man spoke in a strong Kiwi accent. ‘Your mother wrote to me and asked me to call. Out of the blue. Well, I’m calling!’
‘I wrote. I signed her name.’
‘I think you might be my father.’
A spluttering. More silence.
‘Seven months after you and Mum split Sydney I was born.’
‘Didn’t think I was capable. Joanna, you said? Put it down to having the mumps as a kid.’
Joanna hadn’t thought past this moment. What had she expected? Genetic voice recognition?
‘Well, what do you think we should do about this?’ he eventually asked.
‘I don’t know.’ He was the adult. He should know.
‘Do you want to meet me?’
‘What colour’s your hair,’ she asked.
‘I’m bald as a bandicoot, love. Was brown. Ish.’ He paused. ‘How old are you, Joanna?’
He was doing mental maths. ‘Shall we do that… what’s it called?’
A few days later Peter rang back with the name of a laboratory in Sydney. She skipped school and caught the bus into town. A woman in a white coat swabbed the inside of her mouth and deposited the cotton tip in a test tube. ‘You’ll be sent a report,’ the woman said, ‘it’ll be around 90% accurate.’
The letter arrived within a week. Joanna opened it with trembling hands. A lot of numbers in tables, but she scanned to the bottom. Conclusion: Excluded.
Joanna screwed up the letter. Unrumpled it and presented it to her mother.
‘I’m sorry, Jojo. He was a nice guy.’
‘Why didn’t you just get rid of me?’
Her mother’s dark eyebrows furrowed. ‘I wanted to be a mother. And after I had you, there was nothing I wanted more.’
Sharnie wrote two more names on the back of the laboratory report.
Richard O’Reilly? O’Malley? O-something? – Irish backpacker – met at a bar in Northbridge. Family ran a pub in Dublin.
Dan? – medical student, part-time doorman at nightclub in Claremont.
‘I went out with the Irish guy,’ Sharnie said, ‘before I met Pete. But I don’t think he could be your father. He was a Good Catholic. Careful at making sure there’d be no babies. Well, most of the time.’
Sharnie tapped her teeth with the pen. ‘And the medical student he’d been very drunk and I’m not even sure we … well, I’ll spare you the details.’
‘What did they look like?’
‘The backpacker had this gorgeous black hair, cute butt-chin. Broad shoulders. Tall. Funny as. Could make you laugh telling you about a funeral.’
Joanna touched her smooth chin. ‘And the medical student?’
‘God! It was ages ago. I only met him the once. I do remember that he had to just about fold himself in half to get into my old Toyota hatchback.’
Joanna was much taller Sharnie. Taller than most of the girls in her class. And she didn’t mind science at school.
‘I was on the rebound from the Irish guy, feeling sorry for myself because he hadn’t asked me to come back to Ireland and meet his family. He told me he’d a childhood sweetheart waiting for him in Dublin. Came to Australia to sow his wild oats.’
But had he sown her? Joanna wondered.
Joanna graduated from Narrabeen Senior High School with a less-than-spotless attendance record, preferring to listen to her Walkman lying on the beach than follow any curriculum set by others.
While Sharnie created crème caramels in dainty glasses at some fancy restaurant, Joanna lay in her mother’s bed wondering how to locate the Dubliner and the doctor. A shaft of light alerted her to a shadow slipping into her mother’s room. ‘It’s just me,’ the voice whispered, before sliding under the doona.
She was too surprised to respond, but when his hot hand touched her arm she yelled.
‘I came over to see you, Joanna. Thought we could have a cuddle.’
‘Get out you creep!’
Vince sprang out of the bed and backed towards the door. ‘You won’t tell your mother?’
‘It’s just, I was lonely.’
‘I’m no fucking Lolita!’
Joanna packed her suitcase and lifted a hundred bucks from Vince’s wallet. She pilfered another hundred dollars from her mother’s rent jar on top of the fridge, leaving another note telling her she’d bought a one-way bus ticket to Perth. She’d call when she got there and pay the money back when she found a job.
The trip across the Nullarbor was the longest three days of her life. She stared at the barren emptiness and tried—unsuccessfully—to tune out to the chatter of the wattle-necked woman in the seat next to her. Clamping her Walkman to her ears didn’t stop the old bat’s stories.
The Greyhound pulled into East Perth terminus. She could finally stretch her legs and escape the bus trip from Hell. The driver gave her directions to a youth hostel in the city. Her companion across the Nullarbor, whose name she had already forgotten, June, or Jean, was met by her bedraggled looking daughter with several children hanging off her, and for the price of having to meet the grandkids for whom she had the whole boring biography, Joanna was given a ride to Northbridge.
She dumped her backpack in the hostel dorm, showered, and slept for twelve hours. When she awoke, itching from bed bugs, she counted the money in her purse. Twenty dollars. She called Sharnie from the phone booth at reception and watched her funds shrink further. Sharnie cried, but when she couldn’t convince Joanna to come back, told her daughter she loved her more than anything in the world, and understood that she needed to go on this journey.
‘Don’t worry about the money, Jo-Jo. I’ll try to send you some more til you get on your feet.’
Joanna calculated that Dan would have graduated around 1985 or 1986. A helpful librarian at the Perth University found the School of Medicine graduation photographs—which showed two “Daniels”—and suggested contacting the Australian Medical Association to see if they had contact details.
Dr Daniel Fielding was a specialist in psychiatry in West Perth, but the AMA had no details for Dr Daniel Hoffman, which meant that if he wasn’t dead, he had either moved interstate or overseas.
She caught a bus to West Perth and lurked behind a concrete pillar in the underground car park, watching men emerging from BMWs, Range Rovers, Mercedes Benzes. None of the drivers bore any semblance to the young Dr Daniel Fielding.
In the building lobby, a board with a map indicated the location of various medical specialists. She followed an expensively dressed woman in her late forties, slim with a short blonde bob, accompanied by a skeletal girl of about sixteen. The blonde woman announced to a receptionist dangling an earl grey tea bag in a mug. ‘We’re here for Dr Fielding.’
The receptionist asked them to take a seat. Joanna sat down too, picked up a magazine and flicked through the latest fashion and gossip. She was reading about Elle McPherson’s diet when a tall bald man appeared wearing a dark tailored suit and carrying a manila file.
‘Hello, Rebecca,’ he said, to the girl, who was all skin and bone and lank hair. ‘How are we today?’
‘I have no idea how you are, but I’m not happy about missing my gym class.’
As Rebecca followed Dr Fielding into his office the anorexic’s mother thumbed the latest Vogue. Joanna leaned against the reception desk, watched the receptionist push her mouse around and curse the bloody new operating system, in a faintly English accent. ‘May I help you, dear?’ she asked.
‘I’d like to see Dr Fielding please.’
The professional smile was dialled down. ‘What time is your appointment?’
‘I just need five minutes.’
‘Do you have your GP referral?’
Joanna shook her head.
‘I’m not a patient. I need to ask Dr Fielding something.’
Reluctant to say anything further, Joanna was also unwilling to give up now she was so close. She could wait for him to appear again. Or wait in the carpark and ambush him in another eight or so hours.
The receptionist stopped tapping the keyboard. ‘You could leave a note?’
Joanna crossed her arms. ‘It won’t take long.’
The woman half-smiled, and half-frowned at the same time. ‘He really is very full today…’
The woman pushed a pen and notepad towards her. ‘Write it down, then take a seat.’
Joanna picked up another magazine, but the words were a blurred jumble of black on white. A woman with large designer sunglasses on her head entered with an equally thin girl and the mothers exchanged fleeting smiles of recognition. Joanna had never had a problem with food. Only with father hunger.
Dr Fielding emerged with his sulky patient in toe, her eyes red-rimmed. The receptionist handed him a note and glanced at Joanna. His thick black eyebrows, strangely out of place below such baldness, shot up. ‘Joanna?’
She launched out of her seat towards him, as though time had slowed, and the air had thickened around her. Her mouth opened but no words arrived.
‘Please, step into my office.’
Dr Fielding gestured at a leather chair and sat in a matching two-seater opposite, crossed his legs. Joanna sunk into her seat, which made her feel like a little girl. She drank in his every feature, blinking as though her eyes were a camera, fixing the image in her memory forever. The moment she finally met her father.
He removed his glasses, a hesitant smile playing on his lips. ‘So you think I might be your father. That’s quite an assertion.’
She swallowed, then the words tumbled out. ‘She thought another man might have been my father, a Kiwi guy she travelled across Australia with. But he wasn’t. So she told me about a medical student from Perth University, called Dan, who worked at a nightclub in Claremont. Though there’s still a chance, I suppose, there was an Irish backpacker too. But he’s dark-haired and so is Mum so—’
‘Joanna, I can’t be your father. I never worked at a night club in Claremont. And I’ve always been Daniel, never Dan.’
Joanna stared at the box of tissues in front of her, determined not to cry.
Was he lying?
‘There’s no need for me to lie,’ he continued. ‘It’s not possible.’ He hesitated. ‘All my partners have been… men.’
Unshed tears pricked Joanna’s eyes. She stood up, wanting only to scurry away. ‘I’m sorry. I…’
‘Sit down,’ he said, gently. ‘Where’s home?’
‘So far away.’ He proffered the tissue box and this time she accepted.
They must go through a lot in this line of work, she thought. ‘If he knew about me… He should have known about me.’
‘There was an American guy called Danny. His surname escapes me, but I think he went back to the states after his internship.’
‘Yes. That’s him.’
‘I saw your graduation photo,’ she explained.
‘There was another Dan, who wouldn’t be in photo.
He dropped out, or more accurately, transferred to,’ he paused, ‘psychology, or neuroscience. Went on to become a Professor. I occasionally see him around at conferences.’
From the front row of the lecture hall Joanna could observe every detail about Professor Adams. An unobtrusive nose, a wide, thin mouth, retreating sandy hair, thick glasses which hid his eyes. Clichéd academic’s jacket— tweed with leather elbow patches. Not someone she’d look twice at in the street. And not her mother’s type at all.
Pictures of monkeys flashed up on a screen behind Professor Adams, their skulls sawn open, brain exposed. ‘Merzenich,’ he began, and the chatter faded, ‘removed a piece of a monkey’s skull and exposed a small portion of its brain to thread a microelectrode into the area of the cortex that registered sensations from one of its hands.’
His voice had a deep, melodious timbre that did not fit with his bland appearance.
‘Merzenich tapped the monkey’s hand in different places until the neuron beside the tip of the electrode fired. After methodically inserting and reinserting the electrode thousands of times over the course of a few days, he ended up with a map showing, in minute detail, individual nerve cells.’
He paused to cough and take a sip of water before continuing, ‘The second stage of his experiment involved using a scalpel to makes incisions in the hands of the monkey to sever the sensory nerve.’
There was an audible intake of breath from his audience. So cruel.
‘He wanted to find out how the brain reacted when a peripheral nerve system was damaged and then allowed to heal. The nerves in the monkey’s hands grew back in a haphazard fashion, as expected, and their brains, also as expected, became confused. When Merzenich touched the lower joint of a finger on the monkey’s hand, its brain told the animal that the sensation was coming from the tip of the finger. The signals had been crossed, the brain map scrambled.
He paused again, producing a handkerchief to wipe his streaming eyes. ‘But when he conducted the same sensory tests a few months later, he discovered something astonishing: the mental confusion had been cleared up. What the monkeys’ brains told them was happening to their hands now matched what was really happening.’
For several moments, immersed in the details of the gruesome experiment, Joanna forgot that this man might be her father. She glanced around her at the mostly serious expressions of students, scribbling notes, or staring ahead, soaking up the knowledge like sponges. What would it be like to belong here? To have a place and purpose, a career ahead. But how, apart from selling a kidney, could she afford it? There was also the minor matter of her uninspired effort in her final exams.
The image on the screen changed to a monkey holding a banana. Professor Adams blew his nose; he was a veritable snot factory. ‘The brain, Merzenich realized, had reorganized itself.’
The professor beamed; his features transformed to a sort of nerdy charisma. ‘The animals’ neural pathways have woven themselves into a new map that corresponded to the new arrangement of nerves in their hands. He couldn’t believe his eyes. Like every other neuroscientist, he’d been taught that the structure of the adult brain is fixed. But this was evidence of neuroplasticity …’
At the end of the lecture the students shoved their spiral pads into bags or under arms and decamped. All but one, intent on asking him a question.
‘Yes?’ he prompted, a small impatient smile.
‘Did you study Medicine?’ Joanna asked.
He cocked his head to one side, puzzled by a question that didn’t relate to monkeys and brain probes. ‘Yes, but—’
It was all she needed to know for now, she thought, as she fled. The next step was proof.
Joanna could wait all day if she had to. After half an hour the professor emerged from his office, coffee mug in hand. She supressed the urge to race to his door while a student and lecturer conversed nearby. She willed them away. Finally, the corridor was clear! She turned the handle. Not locked. She crossed straight to the rubbish bin under his desk, removed a handful of tissues, and stuffed them into her tote bag. She stared at the bottom of the bin, and snatched the hardened piece of gum as well.
Two week later she returned, letter in hand, rehearsed phrases looping in her head. He acknowledged her knock before making a stop sign with his palm. ‘I’m sorry, this isn’t my consulting hours…,’ he began, trailing off as she placed the letter on his desk.
‘What’s this?’ he asked. He read, then took off his glasses and stared.
‘You worked at a bar in Claremont? Security?’
He nodded. ‘Your mother…’
His brow crumpled in confusion. No ah-ha moment.
‘How did you get my DNA?’
Joanna pointed under his desk. ‘You had a cold a couple of weeks ago.’
The gum hadn’t been his.
The silence lengthened. What had she been expecting? That he would open his arms? Hug her to his chest?
‘We should get another test.’
‘You think I made this up?’ Joanna asked, biting her bottom lip, stopping only at the taste of blood.
She made sure Dan Adams saw her in the front row. And not just to be close to him. It seemed that psychology and neuroscience could answer so many of her questions. Like an owner’s manual for your own mind. How to live a happy, healthy, productive life and develop good relationships.
A few weeks later he waited for her at the end of the lecture.
‘It wasn’t that I didn’t believe you, or the laboratory. It’s just good science. Repeat the experiment, second opinion …’
There was no warmth in his voice when he asked: ‘What can I do for you, Joanna? How can I help you?’
‘I just want to know you. That’s all.’
He bought her a flash lunch at the University Club and she filled him in on the seventeen years of her life. He responded with a thumb sketch of his: one wife and two kids. His research on brain plasticity was safer ground for both of them.
‘Maybe you can stay with us for a few days? Just til you find your feet.’ His expression appeared suddenly stricken. ‘I’ll have to speak to my wife first. Or perhaps I could just help out.’ He reached for his wallet, then reconsidered. ‘Let me speak to Sarah, tonight. Then, all going well, I’ll come and collect you from the hostel tomorrow.’
Joanna heard them arguing about her in their bedroom while she watched Chloe in the bath. Dan was on her side. Sarah wanted her gone, the cuckoo in the nest.
‘The kids like having her around,’ Dan said. ‘And we can have more nights like this. Going out. Just the two of us.’
‘I hate how she’s always asking Chloe and Jack questions: the places we’ve been, what we’ve given them for birthdays and Christmas, family routines and rituals.’
‘She’s just filling in some history. Trying to get to know us better.’
‘She borrowed a jumper the other day. Didn’t even ask. I know she pokes around when we’re not here.’
‘It’s natural she’s curious about us.’
How was she to know they were “having issues” in their marriage. They were happy enough for the slave labour, with Jack just out of nappies and Sarah still hinting she wanted another child.
He must have sold her to Sarah as a kind of free live-in nanny.
They eventually left for dinner and she packed the kids off to bed. Just in time for Damien’s not too subtle knock on the back door.
She later imagined what it must have looked like from Dan and Sarah’s perspective when they got home. The music channel blaring. But not so loud they couldn’t hear Chloe crying. Sarah marching straight to the lounge room, jaw clenched, lips compressed. Dan going into Chloe’s bedroom, experiencing a moment of panic when he saw she wasn’t in her bed. Finding her eventually, under his and Sarah’s bed.
‘It’s the ghost!’ Chloe cried. ‘It’s come to get me!’
Dan coaxed his daughter out. By this time Sarah was shouting at Joanna. Dan headed to the frontline, Chloe clinging to him like a barnacle. He brushed past Damien making his escape, still doing up his shirt, red-face down.
‘She had a boy here,’ Sarah said, snatching Chloe from Dan.
‘I didn’t realise I wasn’t allowed to,’ Joanna responded.
‘While you were having sex on my new white couch, Chloe was crying.’
‘We were not having sex! Damien was studying, we just—’
Sarah turned to Chloe. ‘Why were you scared, honey?’
‘I’m sorry,’ Joanna said, stepping towards Chloe. ‘I didn’t hear you.’
‘There was a ghost in my room.’
‘There’s no such thing as ghosts,’ Dan said.
‘Yes! There are! We have a ghost in the attic!’ A little index finger sought Joanna out. ‘She told me.’
‘We don’t have an attic,’ Dan said.
‘What did you tell her?’ Sarah demanded. ‘I can’t believe you’d tell a seven-year-old a ghost story.’
‘She asked for one,’ Joanna said. ‘And her other books were boring.’
Sarah handed Chloe back to Dan. ‘Put her back to bed and then we need to talk.’ Sarah headed towards her bedroom and returned moments later with a photo album.
‘Take a look at that!’ she said when Dad returned, stabbing a finger at the page.
‘At what?’ Dan asked.
‘Tell me that’s not disturbing.’
Dan flicked through the album and, after several pages, he understood. It contained new photographs. Of Joanna.
‘I want you gone!’ Sarah collected her handbag, and rifled through it to find her purse. ‘How much do you have on you?’ she asked Dan.
Dan pulled out $20 and a few gold coins. Sarah took the note and forced the money into Joanna’s hand. ‘Leave my home. Now!’
Dan watched Joanna from the doorway while she packed her backpack, Sarah’s money sitting on the bedspread. It would make the difference between starving and eating this coming week.
‘Don’t worry, Dad,’ Joanna said. ‘I’ll find somewhere.’
He said nothing, didn’t try to stop her and for once, he didn’t correct her. Dan, not Dad.
Jack started whimpering. Dan caught her eye, shook his head and went to him. Joanna threw her backpack into her second-hand bomb that Dan had bequeathed her. At the end of the street she realised she had left the money Sarah had thrown at her on the bed. She’d have to swallow her pride and retrieve it. She hit the brakes, did a sharp 180. Pulled in behind Dan’s BMW in the driveway, her hands clutching the steering wheel, summoning the will to go back in.
The garage door activated, began its slow ascent. Dan sat the car. What was he doing? Coming to look for her? She saw him glance in the rear vision mirror. Could he see from that distance that she was crying? He did nothing. He just waited for her to move out of the driveway. Perhaps he’d been sent on an emergency pharmacy trip for one of the kids, or Sarah had a migraine and had run out of pills.
Joanna started the Barina’s ignition, her mind a blank.
She surged forward as her foot slammed the accelerator.
She heard the bang. Felt a blow against her forehead as she hit the BMW’s rear fender.
An interval of darkness, before she could crane her neck towards light, colour and movement. Searing pain. Someone’s face between shards of glass. Sarah screaming. Or her. She didn’t understand the words. And then blackness again.
Dan didn’t buy her story about mistakenly engaging the gears in first instead of reverse, because he’d seen the burning hatred in her eyes the second before the impact.
Joanna went to his office to apologise, still wearing her neck brace. Dan offered to pay for Joanna to live on campus at St Ursula’s Women’s College, while she completed her Psychology degree. Sarah didn’t know about the extra money from consulting work. That went into a different bank account.
‘But, it’s best we don’t stay in contact.’
‘Best,’ Joanna echoed. The deal struck. ‘I never meant to hurt you.’
‘Who knows their own mind?’ Dan said. ‘A Freudian slip of the foot,’ he quipped.
She lifted the corner of her mouth. Freud, she’d already concluded, was full of shit.
Catherine Gillard lives in South Fremantle, Western Australia. She is currently doing a PhD in Creative Writing with a focus on how the elderly are represented in science fiction. Her work has appeared in Westerly and Verge (Uncanny edition 2019) and she was shortlisted for an unpublished manuscript for the TAG Hungerford Prize (2016).