The few memories I have of my father are in Canberra, though neither of us were natives. One of those memories is in Garema Place, which I skirted on my way to the second barber on my list. In 1973 I’d met him in Garema Place with his friend, Bunny O’Neill. Bunny gave me a fabulous Batmobile, one of those battery-powered tin toys that drove forward and changed direction when it bumped into something. A light flashed on top and it sang “Na-na-na-na-na-na-na-na, Batman”. Collectable nowadays.
On and off I’d spent a third of my life in Canberra since that day in 1973, and while I always remember it when I’m in that part of Civic, I‘d never given it much thought until now. What was troubling me elsewhere in life predisposed me to melancholic reflection. Events and experiences that were not repressed, but manifest only at certain times in life, were imbued now with new meaning. I was looking at the connection between my father and Canberra like never before.
Unshackled by a redundancy payout, at forty-five I took some time off work to study. A washed-up Sydney public servant, I was determined to make a career change and do something worthwhile for the first time in my life. Ten months later, with a fresh Masters and a high postgraduate GPA, I launched into job hunting with optimism and gusto.
After two-and-a-half months, demoralised and desperate, I took a job three hours from home in a city I’d escaped decades earlier.
In the rush, I started the job in Canberra without a fresh haircut. My sense of scruffiness was made more acute by the intensive three-day handover from an elegant high performance female. Handover done, Judy returned to Melbourne never to be seen again, and ironically now I had time to tidy up with a haircut.
My hair is troublesome when it gets a bit long. It goes boofy when I wash it, and I look like a throwback to the late 80s. Not that I’m above nostalgia for the period, but I find sorrily pathetic a person stuck in the style of their adolescence. School teachers seem especially prone to it. When my hair gets longer I avoid washing during the work week, but it’s a balancing act, because if it starts to get greasy I look like I’ve gutted a duck and stuffed my head in it, un-plucked. Bad hair makes me feel at least two inches shorter.
Far from home, my regular barber, Marino’s, was out of reach. I’d lived in Canberra as a kid, came back in my twenties to study, and now I’d returned for a short stint of work in my forties with no idea where to go for a haircut. I stuck it in Google. Three barbers in the Canberra CBD were open until 5:30. With its pretentious title, I put Ziggy’s Continental Hairdressers last on my list. Martino’s sounded promising. So did Barbero’s, which was closer.
My office was at the southwest corner of the CBD in New Acton, a district revitalized with funky new office buildings, an arts and entertainment quarter, and swanky hotels. My aunt told me that on the site of my new office, my late father once lived in a public service hostel when he and my mother first separated. Facts like this are disconcerting, and coming at a moment in life when I felt generally unsettled, it set the tone for the few months I worked down in Canberra.
I’ve always been not merely compared to my father, but cross-generational coincidences occur with such repetition and portent that meaning is attached by those making the observations. It seems at times as though I’m following a pre-determined path. As I approached my 27th year I was mildly conscious that it was the age at which he’d died. At 28 and 29 I sometimes casually remembered: ‘oh yes, I didn’t die’.
For all that, it had never been a preoccupation. It had always been at the periphery, not even an undercurrent. My uneasiness now was due to more immediate disruptions, none-the-least of which was travelling three-and-a-half hours from home every week for the type of work I was trying to give up. A fresh haircut would sharpen me up. I escaped the office on five and walked across to Civic.
As a taxi driver during my undergrad days I’d rounded Vernon Circuit countless times, and I was always curious about the park on the hill that it circled, so central to the Canberra CBD and yet always unpeopled. Now, decades later, in the crisp afternoon air of early spring, for the first time I walked through that park on the way to the first barber on my list. The leaves and the grass were dull greens still muted by recent winter. My curiosity wasn’t rewarded with anything more than a young threesome chatting over a beer at a picnic table.
I found Barbero’s deep in an arcade that was quiet after five. Bright and sparkling, Barbero’s had long glass frontages and expansive floor space, chrome framed mirrors and bench-tops, and a fresh painted mural of a seaside carnival on one wall. A classical guitar sat in one corner. Front and centre of the barber shop floor was a gleaming motorcycle, a Japanese make in retro style. I’m sure I walked in there with a grin. The barber stood polishing glass.
“Do you have an appointment?”
“No, I just …”
“I’m a bit busy sorry, I’ve got a booking arriving shortly,” he explained, casting a nod across the broad empty salon.
A booking? Back home in Sydney, walk into any barber at lunchtime or after five and they’ll stack you one on top of another.
Turning, I stole another glance at the bike, now an un-ridden affectation of manliness, and headed elsewhere.
I passed Garema Place on the way to the second barber. The sculpture and fountain where we’d met my father and Bunny O’Neill were gone. Had the nakedness of John Dowie’s Father and Son been recast by the sensitivities of our times and removed to some less public space? Reprinted on postcards and brochures, I’d always thought that sculpture and the geometric pond in which it stood a Canberra icon.
The barber shop, Martino’s, was decorated in faux ‘late colonial’, with walls, floor, ceiling, and bench covered in a pastiche of ‘old’ timberwork. The antique styled barber’s chair had a wrought-iron base and a seat in brown leather. On the walls, some statement was made of cutthroat razors and their leather sharpening belts. Moustache wax, beard oil, and hand-sheer-shaped trimmers decorated the shelves.
Gazing in at this Disneyesque study of the period, I was reminded of a visit a while back to the town of Bungendore near Canberra where my stepfather grew up. As a kid I’d spent idyllic weekends and holidays there. It’s where I went to stay with my grandparents when my little brother was born, a playground then of treehouses, ghost-houses, wild cousins, horses and carrot-patches, ferrets and yabbies, my grandparents’ service station and ancient cars in the field. I stopped on my way through years later, my grandparents long retired and living up the coast. Around a small square aside the highway someone had reconstructed historical scenes commemorating a local bushranger of the 1870s, complete with stuffed potato sacks moulded into courtroom figures. On one side of the square a pair of saloon doors were screwed to a painted scene on a wall, with “Saloon Bar” above them in Old-West type, and “Whiskey 5₡”. The town’s heritage had been gleaned from a Sergio Leone Western.
All that was missing at Martino’s was the haircutting brother of that hipster waiter from lunchtime, with his bushman’s beard, rolled up sleave check shirt, and his leather butcher’s apron. The doors were closed.
With time running short, in resignation I made way over to Ziggy’s, dreading what manner of extravagance I’d find at a “hairdressers” in this place. As I approached though, this strip of The Sydney Building along Northbourne Avenue looked curiously un-gentrified. Even the 1970s brown alloy frames of the grubby glass shop-frontage remained. Within them a clashing second-hand grey metal shop door of slightly different vintage had been fitted.
Back in the early 90s when I was driving taxis around Canberra, in place of Ziggy’s there’d been a kebab shop that served drunks at all hours coming out of the night club next door. Much of their cuisine ended up spilt or vomited onto the back seat of my taxi. Now, even the night club that had served two and a half generations was abandoned.
Ziggy’s Continental Hairdresser, it turned out, was a sub-continental hairdresser after all. Inside, a rectangular patch of worn light blue and grey patterned linoleum floor in one corner contrasted with scuffed brown floor tiles throughout the rest, signifying alternative fit-outs for long-gone occupants of the shop-space. A second-hand bench of mud-brown timber-patterned laminex had been transplanted onto the back wall, whose last coat of paint had been a dull orange. Customers sat in padded chairs of the type found in RSL Club dining rooms.
How could I have doubted? It made perfect sense, when you think about it. Who doesn’t love a Ziggy? Ziggy Marley, Ziggy Stardust. There’s Ziggy Switkowski, possibly the exception that proves the rule.
Excellent, I thought. This’ll be cheap. I sat and took off my specs and he said, “How would you like it?”
Cricket, of course. Ever the icebreaker with South Asians. I knew they were playing somewhere in the world, but at this time of year I couldn’t be sure where. Yes, I’d just finished work. No, he hadn’t had a busy day, except for lunch time. Despite attempts at conversation while he cut, Ziggy’s customer proved doggedly unresponsive, as though there was a cultural divide that could never be breached, to be played out eternally in the cricket world both on and off the pitch. As though egalitarianism were struggling to reconcile the caste system.
Where could I have begun to share my thoughts with Ziggy? Could I have summarised it as the weird feeling you get when you return after two decades to a place you once lived? The faces who aren’t there? I could have told him I was commuting from Sydney, or that my wife was flying to Jordan and my son would be home on his own for the first time. We hadn’t even done well at the small talk. Too lost in my thoughts, poor Ziggy had been left to surmise about his customer’s indifference.
When the cutting stopped, he combed at me swiftly and diligently. I replaced my spectacles and checked in the crooked mirror. Hmm … looked a bit rough, but I’d discreetly wait till I was out of Ziggy’s sight and then brush it back properly.
“Yes, that’s fine, thanks.”
At an entryway into the Woden shopping centre on the way back to my aunt’s place where I was staying, I realised I was at the last place I’d seen my father. He’d worn his CMF uniform to impress my sister and I, and possibly my mum. It didn’t work on my mother. I remembered a hurried escape, and some tears.
In time, Mum would develop regrets, particularly after, as she saw it, my brother’s children had been kept from him.
There’d been something more disquieting about comparisons with my father than his premature death. As a kid I’d cringed at comments “you’re just like your father”, or “you’re the spitting image”. There was something deeply shameful about him, and I didn’t know why. It was something stretching back so early into childhood that it preceded memory. It wasn’t until I approached adulthood and greater independence that my paternal grandparents, no longer fearful that I could be taken away from them, began to open up about him. I saw my father for the first time in a positive light.
Around the same time I started to work out that my mother’s family, parochials that they were, believed he’d been in a homosexual relationship with Bunny O’Neill. It comes up sometimes in hushed tones or oblique references to this day. I’ve never confirmed it, and I’ve observed some of those same people to be knowers of things despite evidence or fact, including doubtful assertions about the sexual ‘deviancy’ of numerous other people. The truth about my father is curious only in as much as it reconfirms their bigotry, and I love them no less for their simplicity. I’ve tried to track down Bunny O’Neill a few times over the years, seeking some connection to my father I suppose, but equally to tell him how very much that Bat-mobile meant.
* * *
Brushing my teeth before bed, I glanced in the mirror and realised how patchy my hair was. There were bunches and strands missed everywhere, leaving a head full of rat’s tails. When I got out of the shower the next morning to spruce up for work, I realised I was looking at the second worst haircut I’d ever had. At the front, one snip had mowed down to the scalp, and the next one had trimmed diagonally. I could have almost succumbed, like my bigoted kinfolk, to theories about the global labour market and anecdotes about call centres outsourced to India. But then I remembered the only worse haircut I ever had. That was the time I cut it myself.