My Father’s Shopping List (Mark O’Flynn)

Verity La Lies to Live By

The trouble with having a doctor for a father is that you are brought up calling a spade a spade. Or more accurately a spatula a spatula, a scalpel a scalpel. There is no room for subtlety. You couldn’t, in our house call a hypodermic syringe a ‘needle’ and get away with it. I was forever being reminded that hearts pump blood, they don’t break and they don’t feel sorrow. You couldn’t call an egg whisk a whisker, nor could you call a test tube that glass thingy where the sperm and the egg were mixed so that some kind of conjunction might occur. No. Right term for the right instrument, that was my father’s edict. Especially in Woy Woy, where he was trying to raise me above the lowest common denominator. The trouble with having a doctor for a father is that you have to call everything by its proper name.

Every structural part, every bodily function had its own proper title. These I have inculcated from an early age. When I was but five years old, for instance, in grade-one, I raised my hand to ask if I could go to the toilet. A common enough, simple enough request, and one I had been trained for.

‘Yes Lauren, what is it?’ asked Miss York.

However the words that came out of my mouth were:

‘I need to micturate some urine.’

Silence.

Perhaps I had breached a matter of grade-one etiquette? Perhaps I had mixed up the noun and the verb? No one in the room knew what I was talking about, not even Miss York, whom I loved and would never have wanted to be rude to.

I soon learned there were two languages. One for ordinary, everyday things such as saucepan, butter knife, carrot, and another, proper language of which my father approved. Since my mother’s death in my infancy my father was the only one to do any approving in my life. It was a miserly currency. How far did I go out of my way  to seek this? If I grazed my knee in the play ground — no, no, I grazed my patella — I would explain to Miss York as she placed a band-aid on the wound. I also sometimes wondered whether or not I hurt myself on purpose so she might tend to me.

I did not chew my lunch, I masticated. I did not burp, I eructated. Soon enough I learned the perils of this second language. Miss York advised me to develop the habit of thinking before speaking. Of keeping mum. Scorn and frank disdain became my lot. Ostracism also. If it wasn’t for Hilary, my best friend, no, my only friend, I wouldn’t even have known I had so many nicknames. Smartarse, for one, Rudolf (as in having my nose in the air) for another, and Mickey (as in micturate). It is hard to live these things down. My father told me not to bother with them. They were plebeians.

‘Even Hilary?’

‘Even Hilary.’

Hilary’s father was an Anglican minister, so she was about as popular as me.

These events were so humiliating I resolved to never speak in the discourse of my father other than in his presence, when I wanted his praise, or some other currency. This came in handy whenever he had to compose a shopping list, (he had a doctor’s handwriting) and I was able to scribe for him.

‘We need something with a good balance of carbohydrate, sodium, sugars and protein.’

‘You mean Corn Flakes, dad.’

‘Yes, yes. That’s the stuff.’

I became his translator, whereas Hilary taught me the common argot of the schoolyard, which I can’t bring myself to repeat here as I was the brunt of so much of it. In this manner I grew. Schoolbus, homework, chalk and so on.

* * *

As one of the rare GPs of Woy Woy my father delivered a good deal of the babies born in the district. Many of the local women therefore thought he was wonderful, or more colloquially, they thought the sun shone out of his trousers. He was often on call at the hospital which serviced the clutch of small surrounding towns. As such he was a local identity. This was in the days before the era of home birthing, or even the now common presence of the progenitor — see, it’s a hard habit to break, this seeking my father’s approval — in the delivery room.

One day my progenitor arrived home tired and cranky. The latest baby had kept him waiting. Dystocia. I had learned to cook from a young age and I presented him with a cheese and gherkin sandwich. I must have been home on my own, for I can’t recall anyone looking after me, guiding my hand holding the breadknife. After eating it, he bundled me into his car, a Valiant Chrysler, and drove to a strange house only a few minutes away. It was dark. He piggy-backed me down the path at the side of the house, past the garbage bins. There was a radio playing. He opened the gate and we went into the back yard. A light illuminated the kitchen window which was steamed over. Inside, a man stood at the sink. I could hear the clatter of plates and cutlery. Perhaps it was only one plate. Dad went up close and told me to knock on the window. I did. The man gave a start, shielding his eyes so as to be able to see out into the darkness. He rubbed clear a circle in the steam. He saw me sitting on my father’s back.

‘Tim,’ my father called out.

‘Yes?’ said the man called Tim. ‘Is that Doctor Harrison?’

‘Congratulations. It’s a boy.’

‘A boy?’

‘Yes. A male. Six pounds three ounces.’

A slow smile spread across the man’s face like welcome rain down a dry creek.

‘And then look what happens,’ he proffered me over his shoulder, shoving me into the light from the window. ‘You can’t stop them growing. They’re like weeds. It’s a jolly good game.’

My father carried me back through the gate, careful to close it behind us. He drove home and I wondered about this matter of another being entering the world and how such news is announced, welcomed, dreaded. I knew all about the various stages of gravidity and parturition, and how such conditions came about, but nothing about the emotions that accompanied these physical, transformative states. Kneecap — patella; shoulderblade — scapular; tummy ache — constipation. But love? A heart does not break, nor does it feel sorrow. I grew up with this split vocabulary; with a painful awareness of euphemism. I had intuitions of emotion, but not the nomenclature to describe it.

Knowing the right terms did not necessarily prevent the blood rising in my cheeks, for example, as a symptomatic manifestation of embarrassment. Oh, I knew how to blush. I knew that it is euphemism that greases the social wheels. One of my adolescent names was the reverse of euphemism. I don’t know if there is a term for this. As a pimply teenager my nickname amongst the boys, so Hilary told me, was pus-face. It put me off boys. Some things traverse this double life of language. Some words have a foot in both camps as it were, that transcend the limitations of either house. One of these is period pain. Another is penis pump.

* * *

When I left home and went to university in Sydney my father continued his work in Gosford, living in the satellite town of Woy Woy. Despite his popularity he never wanted to remarry. He just wanted to help people. I had long outgrown this town with its nicknames and abbreviations, and quiet sense of exclusion. As soon as I could I moved into student accommodation on campus, where I studied languages, majoring in German. Hilary was at the University of New South Wales, so we were able to catch up on weekends, if we felt like it. Childhood faded behind us and we did not miss it.

Apart from delivering babies my father had all the other attendant duties of a GP in a rural community. Every ailment under the sun. Midwives took over a lot of his business. I guess delivering news about another being coming into the world was one of the more pleasant of these duties, and I never forgot the smile that came over that man’s face when Dad told him he had a brand new son. Another one was assisting people at the beginning of this process, namely engaging with issues of fertility. He appreciated the desperation with which some people wanted to have a baby.

One day he phoned me on the public phone in the foyer of the college dormitory. Someone had to come and find me. It saddens me to say I was doing nothing that I shouldn’t have been. Without divulging patient confidentiality he said that one of his patients, a male if I must know, was having some difficulties with maintaining blood supply. Was this a euphemism? Maintaining blood supply? Was he a haemophiliac? Well, I thought, put a band-aid on it or else he might bleed to death. But no, I wasn’t paying attention. In short, he wanted me, and I don’t know how many other fathers have asked this of their daughters, to purchase a penis pump.

I had never heard of a penis pump before. I’d heard of a breast pump for busy, lactating mothers, or else to help amease painful mastitis, but a pump for a penis? What did that look like? Was it like a bicycle pump? So this was the conversation we were now having.

‘Can’t you buy your own penis pump, Dad?’

‘It’s not for me.’

‘Who’s it for?’

‘I can’t tell you that.’

‘Is it for Mr. Nemeth who works in the post office?’

‘No.’

I could see I wasn’t going to get anywhere with that gossipy line of enquiry.

‘But Dad, I can’t do that.’

‘Why on earth not?’

‘Well, because I’m a girl.’

‘How many shops do you think sell penis pumps in Woy Woy?’

‘How many sell them in Sydney?’

‘Use your brain Lauren. A sex shop. Go to a sex shop.’

My father is saying he wants me to go to a sex shop.

‘You want me to buy you a sex toy?’

‘Not a toy. An aid. A medical aid to help ameliorate an erectile dysfunction in an unfortunate patient who is suffering.’

(This was in the days before the medical miracle of Viagra).

‘Is it for Mr. Carruthers, the baker?’

‘No.’

‘But Dad…’

‘You will be fully reimbursed.’

‘Well…’

‘What’s the problem here?’

‘Well, I suppose I could do that.’

‘Good girl.’

He had said the magic words.

‘Is that all you want?’ I thought I was going to have to make another shopping list.

‘That’s all for the moment.’

 

The next Sunday I met Hilary. I couldn’t bring myself to go on my own. We caught the train to Kings Cross, heart of the red light district. Even though it was Sunday morning the pubs were doing a roaring trade. Juke box music poured from their doors. There were greasy looking spruikers outside the strip clubs, the Pink Pussycat, Les Girls, trying to drum up interest.

‘Step this way ladies…’

Everyone on the street appeared hung-over, or as if they hadn’t slept at all, and the party was still going on. There were needles in the gutter — no, not needles, hypodermic syringes. A man lay asleep on the footpath outside the railway station. He was so still he might have been dead. People stepped around him. You could have put a bomb under him and he wouldn’t have budged. He certainly looked like he would have some trouble maintaining blood supply. Another man, wearing pyjamas, stood in the middle of the road directing traffic. Another fellow stood up to his knees in the floating dandelion of the El Alemein fountain. A young girl with torn stockings sat on an upside down milk crate outside a chemist. She was barely conscious, nodding to herself, listening to silent, opiate music. When you see these things you wonder if you are looking at lives that aren’t going to be long ones. They all seemed to gravitate to the Cross. Other people singing at the tops of their voices. Mad people talking to themselves, frothing at the mouth. Even they had families somewhere; even they once had had childhoods and mothers who loved them. Where were their families now?

Physically it’s only a relatively short journey from Woy Woy to the Cross, but they are worlds apart. Although we were aware of what went on in the red light district it wasn’t every day that Hilary and I, being studious introverts, got to witness it first hand. There were several sex shops to choose from. We chose The Venus Love-In, which, for some reason, looked slightly more salubrious than the others, with names like The Love Muscle or Jungle Juice. Perhaps we were swayed by the pink lettering stencilled across the window, or the absence of bars over the glass, or the bright XXXX sign over the doorway. We went in, checking first to see if we’d been noticed by anyone we knew. There was no one we knew. We went up the stairs. Several seedy looking men stood, round shouldered, at racks of magazines and videos. (This was back in the days before the DVD and before, I should point out, the convenience of online purchasing.) The shop was bristling with erotica, is that the correct term? Several technical phrases sprang to mind. There was a predominance of leather, and I don’t mean beige.

‘Look at those whips,’ Hilary whispered in astonishment.

Right at eye level, there in front of us, was a display of magazines. On the cover of one was the picture of a young man who looked like he was having a nice time relaxing in the sun, working on his tan, except that he had another man’s arm, what could be seen of it, right up his bottom. Hilary’s jaw was wide open in the colloquial language of shock. The magazine was called, in bold Germanic font — After Faust. That was calling a spade a spade, even if it was a German one. Hilary and I stared at each other. Was this real? Was this a part of the world we lived in?

‘Ladies,’ said the man behind the counter. ‘How can I help you?’

In a glass display cabinet behind him was a dizzying array of dildos in all shapes and sizes.

We kept our eyes straight ahead; this seemed to be the safest course. All around were mannequins wearing a range of corsetry: crotchless knickers, nippleless bras, studs, masks, dog-collars. Coloured condoms blown up into dirigibles. We didn’t know where to look.

‘We would like to buy a penis pump,’ I said, taking a breath. I tried to maintain the demeanour of a professional buyer after, perhaps, a trowel in the hardware section, as if it was something I ordered every day. Some of the dildos behind the man were huge. Others were enormous. At that moment I couldn’t rightly tell the difference.

‘Of course you do,’ said the man, who looked profoundly bored. Even his slick moustache drooped in boredom.

‘I don’t,’ said Hilary, distinguishing herself from our collective cause. ‘She does.’

‘It’s for a medical procedure.’

‘Hey, I’m not judging,’ said the man. ‘What colour?’

‘Er… We don’t mind.’

‘They come in ebony, red, tiger-striped or flesh-coloured.’

‘I really don’t mind.’

‘How about flesh coloured then?’

‘Fine.’

The seedy men at the magazine racks were studying us now. Listening with intent. After Faust was still enjoying the sun. It was hard to look away. How was that physically possible?

‘Now, what size?’

‘I…er…I guess about average.’

‘Good choice.’

The man disappeared through a plastic curtain to a store room out the back. We were left with an uninterrupted view of the cabinet of dildos. Hilary and I looked at each other again, struggling to keep our faces straight, on the verge of hysteria. Everywhere we looked there was something upright, protruding, gaping there in front of us. It was quite gynaecological. Soon he returned with an anonymous brown box.

‘Do you want me to show you how it works?’

Hilary and I answered simultaneously:

‘No.’

‘Yes.’

‘No, really it’s not necessary,’ I said.

‘Well, would you like it gift wrapped?’

‘No.’

‘Yes.’

‘No, it’ll be fine.’

‘Suit yourself.’

Hilary was having fun. She wanted it gift wrapped. She was starting to look around the place, her eyes agog.

I paid and we made our escape. At the door, however, I remembered and had to return to ask for a receipt. The transaction seemed to take forever. I guess not too many customers asked for receipts. Eventually we made it outside to the fresh air. Neither of us wanted to hold the box. We juggled it between us. Out on the footpath we yielded to our hysteria and laughed till our eyes watered, our voices quite shrill. No one took any notice of us. We blended right in with life on Darlinghurst Road.

‘Let’s have a look at it,’ said Hilary.

‘We can’t.’

‘Sure we can.’

I carefully opened the box and we glimpsed in — there was a flash of flesh-colour — but it was too awful to contemplate, so I slammed the lid shut. We laughed some more, weeping, recalling what we had seen inside the Venus Love-In.

‘… right up his bottom…’ Hilary squealed.

Exhausted and drained we wandered arm in arm down the road with the penis pump we had bought for a stranger under my elbow. A good deed, you’d have to think of it as a good deed, of all the good deeds possible, life going on all around us, chaotic, rambling, vaguely familiar.

 


Mark O’Flynn’s latest novel, The Last Days of Ava Langdon, was shortlisted for the 2017 Miles Franklin Award, the Prime Minister’s Literary Award, and was winner of the Voss Prize. He has published four novels and a collection of short stories, White Light (2013). He lives in the Blue Mountains.