Big C | Ian Harrison

Never regret the parent that sticks around.

Big C

By Ian Harrison

For the What We Talk About When We Talk About Love Award


‘Charles Winston Brooker’ was printed on his birth certificate, but I reckon the only time he ever heard it in full was when he was in trouble with his mother – my gran – as a kid. He answered to plenty of nicknames – Charlie, Big C, Chuckles, but I alone got to call him ‘Dad’.

My dad taught me just about everything I know.

When I was a kid, I’d choose a storybook. Mum would collect it, and she and Dad would read to me together. I can still recite the first half of all my old favourites from memory. Second halves are hazy – even though I loved the way Dad never got tired of reading, making the silly animal sounds or singing songs, or how engrossed I was in the stories, I rarely lasted until the final page. But I have fond memories of Mum kissing me goodnight and tucking me in a little tighter as Dad finished the story off.

He taught me how to work with wood – how to hold hammer and nail so you didn’t whack your thumb. One trick of his with those little nail-tacks, is to push the nail through a thin, narrow slip of paper and hold the nail upright by keeping the paper taut and steady from a distance. Once the nail is half-way in, you can tear the paper away, drive the nail home and your fingers will survive.

Dad showed me the way to hold your hands so you didn’t hurt your fingers when catching a ball; and how to throw one too. Even how to swing a new cricket ball, and bowl a googly with an old one. Anything too boisterous and Mum would admonish me, telling me to take it outside. Boomerangs and footballs were strictly for the great outdoors too.

I can see his bald head, shining in the sun, as he explained how car gears worked. “Larger cogs and smaller cogs, meshing together to drive the wheels.”

“Automatics are dodgem cars with brakes,” he’d say, often, in a dismissive tone. “In a manual, that’s when you’re properly in the driver’s seat.”

Dad and his catch-phrases. “Give it some herbs. Use your gears to slow you down. Brake into a corner and accelerate out. That’s why you change down through the gears – so you can get the power down to the wheels again.”

His advice on driving got me through the exam, first go.

“Look at how I’m doing it. When you shave, you should go with the grain, son – you remember how we’ve talked about woodworking. Wood and hair are natural – they each grow a particular way. So, work with nature and not against it.”

The old hippy – he just never had the locks for it.

Body surfing, maths, science. They were his topics. He’d tell me, over and over, how to solve problems and how to read the beach, and how to balance work, rest and recreation.

“Life is short. Too bloody – I mean – too short. Find like-minded people and do what you need to do. Not what you have to do or want to do… what you need; have a deep yearning for. Do it, do it often and do it well.”

When I got curious about girls, he had all the answers. Boy, did he! He ummed and ahhed a bit but he went into all sorts of detail that would’ve curled my hair, if it wasn’t curly already.

“Give them strength to admire. But not just muscles. Any idiot can grow muscles – plenty of blokes, that’s all they do. I mean true strength. In integrity, keeping your word, knowing when to say ‘no’, and when to say ‘yes’. Remember, the most beautiful part of a woman is between her ears. Make-up can do wonders, but you want someone who can laugh at you and with you; cry with you and for you – but never because of you.”

Tonight, my dad, still not looking a day over thirty, is toasting me.

I see him. Suddenly realising how gaunt he is. And it’s not just pride making it difficult for him to get the words out. He’s a handsome man, smiling that genuine grin I somehow inherited. A candle warms my heart, matching the eighteen on the cake.

“I know I’ve done a lot of the talking; but it’s only because I’ve had plenty to tell you over the years. I hope that some of it has been useful. Congratulations, son, and happy birthday.”

As he is speaking, Mum comes up to me and slips an arm around my waist, resting her head on my chest.

Her eyes are glistening – as are his.

“I’m proud of you. Thanks especially for looking after your mum for me. It would’ve been our twentieth anniversary this year,” says the final video of my dad – Big Charlie, recorded fifteen years prior.

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