Brian Nankervis
Driving To North Balwyn, July 2002
An extended Stereo Story

East along Carlisle Street, left into Orrong and right into Toorak. Left at Burke, cut through to Canterbury via Trafalgar. Left at Balwyn and right into Doncaster.

I’m driving from Elwood to North Balwyn on a grey morning to help my brother and mother arrange my father’s funeral. The yellow Peugeot rattles along familiar roads towards the family home of fifty years and I’m relieved to have time in the car to think and listen to music. Dad loved his cars and kept them serviced, cut and polished and shined by his magical chamois. I’ve never looked after cars and have no idea how they work, but I love the movement and the escape, the music and the radio, the abstract thoughts I can revel in.

We’re meeting again with the minister from Mum and Dad’s church to finalise the funeral running order. He’s already spoken to me at length about the importance of time limits for the speakers. We’ve invited Dad’s old mates to speak. A Rotarian, Frank from the R.S.L. and Uncle Don from Brisbane. Plus my brother and I, all trying to find the perfect words to do justice to eighty years of a wonderful life.

I’m late, stuck behind a tram in the rain in Balaclava. Graffiti on the wall says “Dicko is deranged”. I’m watching a bloke pick a fight with a mail box. I’m staring at strangers, wondering if their dads are alive. How often do they see them? Do they find their dads wise, embarrassing, or supportive? Reverie and envy turn to alarm when I realise the horn from the white ute behind is directed at me. I accelerate, turn up Bob Dylan’s Blonde On Blonde and offer a pathetic wave. The driver of the ute shakes his head, rolls his eyes and probably exhales loudly.

Mona Lisa must have had the highway blues
You can tell by the way she smiles … Visions Of Johanna

I focus on the road and retreat into Dylan’s 1966 masterpiece. Next to Highway 61 and The Basement Tapes, Blonde On Blonde is my favourite Dylan record. It occurs to me that I don’t really know what Dad thought about Bob Dylan. He probably couldn’t name one song and he was unaware that my passion for Bob bordered on obsession. I’m a Bobhead and proud of it. I told Dad a lot of things but never that I was a Bobhead. Mum, however, could probably hum the chorus of Just Like A Woman and identify Dylan’s harmonica. Dad’s listening in the car ranged from The Glorious Sound Of Paul Robeson to V.F.L. Legends Part 6, Teddy Whitten. Mostly he listened to sport on the radio. “Let’s get a score, son”, he liked to say.

Dad was a devoted driver. From North Balwyn to his office every working day for fifty years. Up and down The Newell Highway to Queensland. Driving home at dawn from fishing trips on The Goulburn River. He had amazing stamina behind the wheel, but in front of Sale Of The Century on the telly he’d nod off before Tony Barber stopped jogging. The first time I ever drove a car I sat on Dad’s lap, bouncing across a footy oval, listening to Jack Dyer sum up a victory to Dad’s Magpies over Richmond.

Now I’m driving to his house, following his preferred route, but he won’t be there. Turning into Burke Road, Stuck Inside Of Mobile With The Memphis Blues Again comes on.

Grandpa died last week and now he’s buried in the rocks
But everybody still talks about how badly they were shocked …Stuck Inside of Mobile With The Memphis Blues Again

I always meant to play Dylan’s great “comeback” record from 1997, Time Out Of Mind, to Dad. The songs deal with death and dying, with a few jokes for good measure. Maybe I was afraid of the inevitable silence between songs. Crossing Riversdale Road I’m thinking about the unread books I gave him, still on his bedside table, his clothes hanging in his wardrobe. I’m wondering what I can possibly say to a packed church while his body lies there in a coffin. I remember the last time he was conscious before medication took over. There was a desperation in his eyes I’d never seen before. He’d developed pneumonia. He wasn’t walking and had so little strength and breath he couldn’t speak. We held him, stroked his face and gripped his thin, smooth fingers.

Suddenly he became agitated and motioned us close. He was desperate to tell us something, but the words wouldn’t come. He wants to tell us he loves us, I think. He wants us to help him end it all. He’s tired, he’s had enough! Someone got paper and pen. Slowly, he wrote a series of letters in spidery handwriting. We made out two words … “icy pole”. We cried and we laughed and I remembered the orange icy poles we ate walking up Doncaster Road from the milk bar on hot nights. In shorts and thongs, hand in hand. The nurse gave him an ice cube and he flashed a big smile and gave a defiant thumbs up. I raised my thumb and tried to match the sparkle of those twinkling, brave eyes.

Now the preacher looked so baffled, when I asked him why he dressed
With twenty pounds of headlines, stapled to his chest
– Stuck Inside Of Mobile With The Memphis Blues Again.

Yesterday, when the minister asked me what area of Dad’s life my speech might cover, my mind was drifting. I was sitting in my usual seat at the lounge room table, making notes, eating chocolate crackles and helping plan the service, but I was a million miles away … trying to shake that image of Dad, lying still and gaunt and wide eyed after he stopped breathing … then suddenly I was thinking of the Dylan videos sent to me by Melbourne’s biggest Bobhead, J.L. from Glen Waverley. Specifically, Dylan accepting his Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1991 from Jack Nicholson. Bob and his band play Masters Of War and then he quotes his father in a bizarre acceptance speech. Back in the North Balwyn lounge room, I realise everyone is looking at me, waiting for my answer about my speech, so without explaining or setting the scene, I quote Bob quoting his dad:

“My daddy, he didn’t leave me too much. He was a simple man and he didn’t leave me a lot, but what he told me was this … he said it’s possible to become so defiled in this world that your own mother and father will abandon you … and if that happens, God will always believe in your own ability to mend your own ways”.

My mother is staring at me, my brother’s mouth drops open. “Right …” says the minister. “Well … let’s ring that bugler from the RSL, shall we?”

The Peugeot chugs up Balwyn Road. Dad won’t be weeding when I pull up and he won’t walk up the drive with the car when I leave. He won’t ask if I had a good run from Elwood, or how’s the car going, or is my insurance up to date, or are we still in the RACV, or how are the tyres and when did we last have a service? I’d reassure him and change the subject, thinking about what tape I was going to play or what show was on Triple R for the drive home. Today I won’t have to make those hasty, guilty excuses, but I won’t feel his hand on my shoulder through the open window and I won’t see that tender, goodbye smile.

Suddenly I’m in Doncaster Road, approaching the house. I turn into the driveway and stop next to his camellias. Late, sad and strangely stimulated. I rewind the tape to the last song on side one, Sooner Or Later, One Of Us Must Know and sit in the driveway, windows up, volume up, eyes wide open. Ready.

When I saw you say “goodbye” to your friend and smile
I thought that it was well understood
That you’d be comin’ back in a little while
I didn’t know that you were sayin’ “goodbye” for good

© Brian Nankervis. Brian is co-host and co-producer of the SBS program RocKwiz
This story was first published in The Age in April 2003