Fiction is the cornerstone of reality. It’s trite and somewhat obvious to point out that the world is the way we think it is. But if you spend enough time with this truth, it will become too comfortable, too familiar. I had become quite comfortable within it myself. If you were to tell me five days and 12 hours ago that two of the most influential men in my life were in fact stories I invented, I probably would have said “Sorry, I’m running late to a Roald Dahl movie I’m watching with my Mum called To Olivia.” But, if you had told me this fact just two hours later, I probably would have stopped and listened.
The little role my Godfather played in my life counted for a lot. It was a birthday present. A book wrapped in puzzle-piece paper. George’s Marvellous Medicine by Roald Dahl. On my seventh birthday, I was able to read independently, and I decided that I liked it. Compared to corporate author H. I. Larry’s Zac Power, Dahl’s voice felt like it was respectful of its audience. It was tender and understanding, as though the nonsensical story was really the sort of thing grown-ups couldn’t understand. I proceeded to read everything he had ever written. And then I read it all again.
My ninth birthday party was Roald Dahl-themed. I know. Still the coolest party I’ve ever been to. My parents spent money they didn’t have to bring Dahl’s fiction into reality. My Dad has a degree in fine arts, which he used to recreate Blake’s illustrations. Somehow, he found time to do that in-between looking after four kids, studying for his third tertiary qualification, working two jobs, and being married to his one wife. My Mum invented and ran the games, she always brings an indefatigable spark of wonder into everything and everyone she touches. It was her idea to replace party bags with copies of Dahl’s books wrapped in brown paper with string.
Dahl’s melody was the song my childhood sang.
My favourite book was Danny the Champion of the World. Danny lives alone with his father; they fix cars together and live an altogether simple and fulfilling life. Danny believes his life can be improved only with his mother, who died during childbirth. Danny discovers a dark side to his father, an addiction to hunting. He uses his intelligence to invent a pheasant hunting strategy so endlessly humane and ruthlessly efficient as to end the moral dilemmas forever associated with the likes of Robin Hood.
I was desperately envious of Danny. I idolised my dad. If only I could spend time with him as Danny got with his dad. I borrowed an engineering book from the library when I was 10 so that I could talk to my dad about cars. I just assumed that he liked cars, because that’s the sort of thing manly men like him liked. I studied that book and bided my time to flex my newfound automobile-relevant knowledge. I remember sucking up the courage to tap him on the shoulder and pose:
“So…what do you think of split differential systems? Pretty cool right?”
Dad wasn’t really a car guy. He does like Troop Carriers though.
Dahl’s voice guided me along a path to the classics. A path which led me to Sherlock Holmes, to my first celebrity crush Jane Eyre (Yes. My first celebrity crush was the fictional character, Jane Eyre. The very same Jane Eyre referred to as ‘plain’ ‘unattractive’ and ‘ill-humoured.’ I don’t know what I saw in her), to Samuel Beckett, Pink Floyd and the Beatles, Thomas Hobbes, Baudrillard, and to the ANU. The parts of me that love reading and writing, the parts of me which led me to write these words sometimes feel like they aren’t mine. I feel like I inherited these from him. I brought all my Roald Dahl books to Canberra. When I see the spines of his work looking down on me from my bookshelf, I feel like my essays aren’t really mine either.
A part of me is indisputably Roald Dahl. But…for all my discipleship I didn’t really know him. I didn’t know that his daughter died of measles before he published Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. I didn’t know that his wife was an actor. I didn’t know that he was an alcoholic. I didn’t know that he was exceptionally good at making breakfast. In fact, these details of his life rudely found themselves in my head only recently.
To Olivia is a film about Roald and his wife coming to terms with the untimely demise of their eldest daughter. Well, that’s the plot. The film is really about looking at our storytellers as well as listening to them. That’s the part that I didn’t like. It felt offensive to see Dahl drunkenly yell at his wife and daughter. It was hurtful to see him sprawled on his bed. And disappointing to see him fail to love and care for the people he was supposed to provide for. His voice, the one I saw berate his wife and child, was the voice I had allowed so innocently into my life. The man I saw on screen seemed to be entirely distinct from the man who authored my childhood.
I was the sort of person who read books – you know the type. I was excluded, by my own apprehensions, from every team sport I ever tried. But my dad also read many books, he recommended many of the influential works in my life that I listed above. In all honesty, I don’t really know why a split differential system is cool…and if someone were to ask me if it was cool, I would probably just say ‘…yep’ as well. Falsely, I assumed that my dad was someone alien to me. But when Dahl was exposed as alien, I was better able to appreciate the similarities I had failed to see growing up.
I have always struggled with sleep. I like thinking and action too much to find rest fulfilling. I started sleeping easier during the heights of puberty, but as I mature, I feel the dregs of familiar nocturnalism returning. We were living in Wagga Wagga at the time. The summer nights were sticky and hot. You would sleep without a shirt to stay cool, and the sheets would cling to your skin. It was probably around one or two in the morning. Insects hummed outside in the way that sounds like rain.
I crept out of my room into the hallway. The L.E.D. kitchen light was on. Usually, that meant Mum and Dad were still awake, a signal to go back to bed. I didn’t go back to bed. Maybe it was to avoid the boredom of my bedroom ceiling, maybe it was because I found the silence disquieting; I don’t know what led me to the edge of that room. When I peaked in, I saw my dad hunched over the kitchen table. He was wearing a white singlet and shorts. His face was buried in his arms. I noticed the way the muscles in his shoulders flexed as they gently shook. I think he was crying.
I am now the same age my dad was when he met my mum. The pressures he bore on those shoulders are becoming more intelligible to me. I am becoming a man who, like his father at this age, may one day play the role of fatherhood. Fathers are born, dads are made. Any man can be a father. But dads are made by men possessing dignity, responsibility, and tender love. Dads can also be made by little boys who feel unalterably alone amongst a sea of people noticeably different from them. One day I may need to make a dad out of myself too.
A lot of stories go into making a person. I used to have this idea that fiction lived on the peripheral vision of reality. Now I think that reality is made of fiction. My dad was a story I told myself. Roald Dahl was a story I told myself. Deep down I know that I was the author of their story. When I felt alone, I invented a dad out of a disembodied name on the front of my favourite book. If only I knew I didn’t need another one. This pretty average film forced me to see as fiction that which I had written to be reality. Maybe that takes it from 5/10 to 6.5/10.
Originally published in Woroni Vol. 72 Issue 4 ‘Alien’
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