Julio Cortázar said that the novel wins by points, whereas the short story by knockout. Christos Tsiolkas’s short story, “Genetic Material,” is a knockout from which it is hard to recover long after the story ends. Tsiolkas delves into the dark matter from which DNA is comprised, and asks what genetic material really is. It could be said that genetic material is the matter found in the father’s testicles and the mother’s ovaries, but what does this information contribute to us? Are childhood experiences, a slap the father had dealt in his rage and a mother’s emotional abstention, also considered genetic material? Does emotional deprivation, the “lack,” shape us just like the “material” does? And maybe the lack is also genetic material whose DNA simply hasn’t been decoded yet? The genetic material of the demented father who dives to his end in Tsiolkas’s story is the yearning for the woman he had desired his entire life. The material has worn out, and all that is left is the primal longing. And when the body is finally consumed? The “genetic material” in Tsiolkas’s story is the promise that life will continue even after we die. While everything we are, the emotions and the longings, will perish with us, they will also remain in our children, in what we had created.
I say, ‘Hi, dad, how are you doing?’
His eyes snap in my direction, there is a sudden jerk of his body as he recoils from my voice, then he slumps back in his chair. There’s nothing in his eyes: no light, no emotion, no recollection. ‘Who are you?’ he asks me, his voice listless.
I’m your son, Dad, I’m your fucking son.
But I don’t say that, of course. My sister has instructed me—as is her way, not once but over and over—‘You have to remind him of who you are, you have to give him a narrative that he can make sense of.’
‘I am David. I’m your son. I’m Sophie’s brother.’
The eyes looking up at me are still blank. I resent my sibling’s use of the word narrative; I know she has gleaned it from the medicos and the social workers. I am irritated every time she uses the word, as if it contains a metallic core that whips against my ear as she says it. There’s no narrative for this old man: no illumination I can offer him, no characters he can identify with, no descriptions to orientate him, no plot strands for him to follow. I feel useless. Much worse, I think he is useless.
‘We’re living too long.’ Mick’s father is eighty-seven. He has a walking frame, has had his right knee reconstructed, his hips replaced. It takes him an age to walk to the coffee shop on High Street where he has his coffee with his Maco mates.
Every morning he wakes up and says, ‘Why didn’t the damn night take me? Who wants this useless body? We’re living too long.’
Mick’s mother, Adriana, mocks him, shouts, ‘Then why the bloody hell don’t you take your shotgun and blow your brains out?’ She is ten years younger than her husband, she is sprightly, still thin, will only ever eat half of the food on her plate, and rushes from the grocers to the supermarket to the butcher without having to stop for a rest or take a breath. At Sunday lunch she hovers over all of us, making sure we have enough food on our plates, and enough beer in our glasses.
Adriana is always on the go. ‘I walk,’ she admonishes her husband. ‘I have always walked; I walked ten miles to school and back every day as a child and I still walk every evening. If you walked,’ she yells at him in Macedonian, ‘if you had walked instead of coming home and sitting in front of the bloody television, you wouldn’t need a new hip, you wouldn’t need a new knee.’
I stand next to her, helping dry the dishes, listening to her abuse her husband.
Then she will lower her voice, and whisper to me in English, ‘But he’s right. We are living too long.’
My father, who doesn’t recognise me, who doesn’t know where I fit into the story, because he has no story left beyond his nursing-home bed and the slow shuffle to the canteen where he eats, is purposefully ignoring me. If he looks at me the fear returns. So instead he sits staring out of the window to the stretch of even mown lawn beyond. The grass is such a vivid green it seems plastic, as do the beds of hydrangeas. He is dressed in striped blue and white pyjamas, like the people in Auschwitz, I cruelly think, or Mauthausen or Bergen-Belsen. My father doesn’t recognise me and I think if only I had a shotgun I would put it on his lap. He’d take it and blow his brains out. That’s what he’d want to do, that’s how he’d want his narrative to end.
I place the newspaper on the bed. He glances up from his seat by the window and then quickly looks away. I know when I have left he will pick it up and turn straight to the sports section. The news of the world, the news from Australia, also scares him. But he remembers that he follows the Collingwood Football Club. He remembers that.
‘I am your son David,’ I repeat. ‘I am Sophie’s brother. And Sophie has just had another baby—you’re a grandfather again. His name is Nicholas. Sophie has named him after you.’
The old man is still staring out the window. He won’t look in my direction.
I wish Sophie was here, I wish my mother was here. My sister talks to our father as if he was another one of her children; my mother refuses to believe that her husband doesn’t know who she is, that forty years of marriage and sharing a home and arguing and raising children and sleeping together and loving each other can be erased from memory. She tells him what their neighbours are doing, what their grandchildren are saying, what they do at school, where they went on their holiday. She stares at his vacant expression and refuses to see the panic it is masking; she doesn’t see his struggle to resist the terror of this stranger invading his room, this woman who won’t stop babbling at him. What she sees is the man she married; she sees the man she loves.
I usually make sure to visit when Sophie or my mother are there, when I can stand in the corner and watch them chatter away over him, adjust his bed, wash him, feed him. The times he gets angry, his moments of fury, when he screams at them, throws his tray across the room, shouts at them to fuck off, just fuck off, those are the times I can’t help but feel vindicated. That’s the father I remember, the father I know. He won’t play your game, I want to tell them, he won’t submit to being a child for you. He is a man; you women don’t understand that this is all that matters to my father: that he be a man.
But now, alone with him in his room, I find myself prattling, treating him as I would my nephews, or Mick’s godchild. ‘Looks like the sun will come out, don’t you think, Dad? Maybe we can take a walk outside.’ The bitter look he throws my way reflects the contempt I feel for the empty words I am saying.
I walk over to the window. The trees along the edge of the car park are spindly and denuded of leaves; spring has yet to touch them. As I pass him I place a hand on his shoulder and he slaps it away. I catch the overpowering reek of urine. Sometime after his morning feed the old man has wet himself.
‘Dad,’ I say, my voice shaking so much it ends up slipping into a higher register, ‘I am going to wash you; will that be okay?’
His head flicks towards me again but now there is relief. ‘Are you the new nurse?’
I nod. ‘Yes,’ I answer, ‘I’m the new nurse.’
All my life it was said of my father that he was a handsome man. And it was true: his was a ravishing beauty, accentuated by a virility that cleaved from it any hint of effeminacy. He was raised on the land, and even though he was only an adolescent when he came to the city to start his apprenticeship, he always made time to return to the bush. As youngsters every weekend would be spent out of Melbourne; we would follow him into steep ravines, walk for hours in the forests behind the Great Ocean Road. There were times when we walked so far, walked so long, that all I wanted was to sit down on a rock and weep. But I never did. I knew I had to be as tough as him, I knew he would never love me if I wasn’t as strong as him. So I walked: I walked with blisters on my feet, I walked in the burning sun; I walked in the drizzle, in the sleet and in the rain.
My mother, my sister and I had always lived in the shadow of his good looks. Not that my mother wasn’t herself attractive, or that Sophie and I were ugly. Quite the contrary. However, my father was the kind of man who could walk into a crowded room and draw every set of eyes to him. Wherever he was, he would be the centre of attention. There were moments when I witnessed women literally draw in their breath at the sight of him. It was also his good fortune to be possessed of a disarming larrikin charm, a natural gift for telling stories and jokes, and a speaking voice that was both melodic and of a rich baritone timbre. He entered the room and everyone turned his way; everyone wanted to be close to him, to be captivated by him.
I wouldn’t have been more than six or seven when I first became aware of the power of such beauty. It was in the middle of summer, a wretchedly hot day, and our parents had decided to take us to Mordialloc Beach. My father had taught us to swim when we were very young and one of my earliest memories was of giggling while he held me over gently lapping waves. He would often swim out far from shore, outdistancing the other swimmers, his strokes carrying him so far that my mother would rise from her beach towel and come to stand beside my sister and me to make sure that he had not completely disappeared from view, that she could still make out the faint speck of him on the horizon. A smile would spread across her face once she glimpsed him returning to us through the waves, his strokes measured and unforced, his outline slowly gaining shape and solidity. She would lie back on the sand, return to her book, and await the moment his shadow would fall across her, the sea water dripping onto her body as he stood over her towelling himself dry, his eyes ablaze with the pleasure of the swim. Sophie and I would look up to see him fall to his knees on the sand, kiss our mother’s shoulder, put on his sunglasses and lie down beside her in the sun. It was one of the most comforting sights of my childhood.
On this particular day an unexpectedly dramatic wave had run up the beach, terrifying Sophie and demolishing the sandcastle we had so carefully been building. My sister started to wail and I, confused, had looked towards my parents for guidance. My mother was upright, peering over her sunglasses and calling for Sophie to come to her. My sister had run to my mother and been swept into her arms, and I followed slowly. I might have been fearful that I was going to be punished for my sister’s distress. I was the older child, a position in the family that always felt laden with responsibility. But my father too had half risen from his towel, had taken off his sunglasses and was beckoning me to come over. He was smiling and I started to run towards him.
His right arm was raised, he was scratching the back of his head while the other hand was gently tousling Sophie’s hair as she burrowed further into my mother’s embrace. The hair under my father’s arm seemed shockingly abundant, chestnut in colour, glistening from sea and from sweat: possibly the jolt of it, it seeming so animal, so untamed, was what was so tantalising. The summer had tinted his skin bronze, his green-grey eyes were alert and shining and full of love for me. I had no language then to name what I was experiencing. All I knew was that the shock of my father’s underarm hair was blistering, that I felt knocked off my feet, that the sand and the sky and the sun were spiralling madly around me. So overwhelming were the emotions I was feeling, so ferocious this inexplicable need to touch him, to sink into him, to press myself against him, that there seemed only one thing I could do.
I walked up to my father and, mustering all the force I could, I punched him in the mouth.
The strike would have been wildly ineffectual, but there may have been a residue of fine sand on the underside of my palm, or the angle of my blow was such that a fingernail may have gone into my father’s eye; for once I struck him he let out a curse, an almighty holler, and bent over with a hand cupped to his left eye. His outrage started my sister off again on another bout of crying. Frightened, and with no idea of what I was doing, I began to run. I ran and I ran, the sand unyielding under my feet, burning my soles; but I kept running. Within moments I was conscious of my father behind me, of his shadow looming, gaining ground on me, and then of his arms scooping me into the air, holding me tight against his chest, of my mouth on his wet skin. ‘It’s alright, Davey,’ he was whispering, over and over, ‘it’s alright, son, I’m not angry.’
The hair on his chest is now white, and the brown knot of his belly button protrudes obscenely from his pink, fleshy belly. I strip him of his pyjama top and he steps out of his bottoms; I have to hold my breath from the stink of his piss and sweat. I fill the small basin with warm water, take the sponge and begin to soap down his body. I wash his neck, chest, shoulders, belly; I crouch down and wipe his thighs, his calves. He turns around and the soiled white underpants drop to his feet. His buttocks sag, pale as the moon. I wash him there, spread his arse cheeks and scrub vigorously between them. I run water to rinse the shit from the sponge and when I turn back he is facing me. The hair on his groin is white, sparse, as if he has gone bald down there. His testicles, bloated, almost purple in colour, hang low; his penis is wrinkled, speckles of white along the flesh of it. Carefully I lift his cock to wash under his scrotum: it feels limp and heavy in my hand, like a fillet of chicken thigh, like dead meat.
My father’s cock stiffens at the touch of my hand.
‘Alice, Alice,’ he sighs. But there is laughter in his voice, a tone I haven’t heard in years. ‘Alice,’ he repeats as he exhales, his bright eyes staring straight into mine, ‘we shouldn’t do this.’
Alice is not my mother’s name. I don’t know an Alice. But my own cock has swelled, pressing so hard against the denim of my jeans that it hurts. My hand tightens around him.
‘Do you want me to stop?’ My voice is hoarse, my skin is flushed. I am looking at my father, I am looking him straight in the eye and he is smiling; there is strength there again.
‘You crazy bitch,’ he whispers back to me, ‘of course I don’t want you to stop.’
My fist is sliding up and down, up and down. I know the door to the room could open any moment, I know we might be caught. But I don’t stop. My father’s eyes are closed but the smile still plays at the corner of his lips. He shudders, there is a groan, his jaw trembles; a thin liquid dribbles over my hand.
I grab the sponge again and wipe him clean. He is sheepish, embarrassed, the underpants still around his feet. I open a drawer in the dressing table next to his bed.
‘Lift your foot,’ I order. Obediently he lifts his right leg, then his left, and I put a clean pair of jocks on him. He lets me dress him in freshly ironed pyjamas.
When I am finished he takes his seat and watches me rinse out the sponge. ‘How’s Jimmy?’ he asks tenderly. ‘How are the kids?’
‘They’re fine, mate, they’re fine.’ I am thinking that he’s never asked after Mick with such affection, never inquired into my life with such warmth.
He starts speaking. I sit on the bed and listen to him as he starts talking about the time we were neighbours in Coburg, the house in which his son was born but which they had moved out of before Davey started to walk. He tells me how he has never found neighbours as good as Jimmy and me, how he misses the Sunday mornings he and Jimmy would go out to the bay to fish, the weekends we’d go shooting rabbits in Dandenong.
‘You know I loved Jimmy,’ he tells me.
‘He loved you too,’ I answer.
Then there is a knock on the door and a young nurse enters, all cheer and beaming smile, a small plastic container of apple juice in her hand. ‘How are you doing, Nick?’
The cheer has vanished from my father’s face. Unperturbed, she places the juice on a tray and motions for me to get off the bed. I obey and watch her strip the sheets.
‘We’ll change your bedding, Nick, you’ll have lovely clean sheets for tonight. You’ll like that, won’t you?’
Sullen, my father turns away from her.
‘I see your son has given you a wash, Nick, and changed your pyjamas. You’re very lucky to have a son like that.’
My father is looking out of the window, at the too-perfect lawn, the ugly red-brick buildings beyond, the grey sky above.
At the doorway to his room, I look back. ‘Bye, Dad.’
He offers no reply, he doesn’t look my way. The nurse calls out a farewell but I don’t answer.
Walking down the corridor, I glance through a window to the common room. An old woman sitting in a wheelchair is rocking back and forth, back and forth. Her right arm is raised and it shakes uncontrollably. She is mouthing words but I can’t hear them. Two other women, one in a pink nightgown, the other in a lemon-coloured robe, are sitting on chairs in front of the television, studiously ignoring the woman in the wheelchair.
I find the men’s toilets and walk in. I lock the door. I stand before the mirror and raise my hand. I can smell my father on me, the sour fish-sauce smell of semen. A small streak of it is drying, claggy and white, on my index finger. I bring it to my mouth, I lick at it. I taste of my father. My father tastes of me. I wash my hands in the basin, I wash my dad off me.
It’s alright, Davey, I’m not angry with you, son, it’s alright.
Holding me tight against his chest, my arms wrapped around his broad shoulders, walking past the couples and families sprawled on the beach towels on the sand, curious children peering at us, my howls seemingly unstoppable, my tears still falling, my father carries me back to my mother and sister on the beach. Gently he puts me down.
My mother is about to say something, to scold me, but my father motions for her to be quiet. She shrugs and takes up her book.
He is looking down at me. The wide black lenses of his sunglasses hide his eyes. I see a little boy reflected in each lens, pale and skinny and frightened.
I muster all the strength I have, I take in a breath and hold it, I force myself not to cry; I need not to cry, I have to show my father that I can not cry.
My father, a colossus soaring over me, a hero, a god, proffers me a dazzling smile and points out to the sea. ‘Go and play, David,’ he says. ‘Just go out there and have fun.’
At the water’s edge, the waves rushing at my feet, the gulls screaming above me, the sun beating down on me, I build myself another sandcastle.
*This Story is taken from “Merciless Gods”, Copyright © Christos Tsiolkas 2014.