September 2023

Back to Issue 14

Two Desks

By Mark O'Flynn


          Dear Kofi Annan,

          not sure if you are aware, but at the age of twenty-one, after his return from Ireland, my father had a stroke… Collapsed in the doorway of the entrance hall to Ormond College, Melbourne University, where students stepped over him thinking he was inebriated. He wasn’t. The upshot of this episode, long before I was born, was a life-long limp which I never heard him complain about. The limp was accompanied by epileptic seizures, which neither inhibited his career nor prevented him having a family. Sixty years later they told him it was a misdiagnosis. It wasn’t a stroke after all, but some other mysterious neurological disorder like a stroke. But different. Nor were the seizures epilepsy. The medication he’d been on all his life was wrong. He said with curt disdain towards the medical establishment,

          ‘Well I’m not changing it now.’


            My father built two desks for me and my brother. This was in the years before Ikea, before DIY became a thing, if it’s right to call it by so vague a term as a thing. Dad considered himself to be pretty handy with his hands. He was proud of his garage full of tools. Wood planes coiling up Shirley Temple curls of shavings; well-worn vices; files. You name a labour-saving device he could use it. He kept an auger-and-bit in a smooth leather pouch. Those oil stains on the bench top were like maps of a newly charted world. I have said before that in my father’s house you were never more than a metre from a screwdriver.

            Some of the DIY projects that benefited from my father’s handyman skills included:

          1) Lapidary.

Dad set up his own gemstone polishing equipment in the garage and polished thousands of non-precious stones to within an inch of their recognisable lives. I still have some of the stones. He flooded the market with shiny, worthless trinkets, cuff-links mostly, made with Araldyte, a super adhesive epoxy resin. No one ever wore them, except himself. Cuff-links as a thing were already way past their use-by date. Best before 1960.

          2) The pool.

Middle class Melbourne. Dad wanted a pool. Admittedly he employed builders with digging skills to excavate the hole, although he did build the fence to keep the neighbourhood toddlers at bay. The idea was that because of his limp and gammy leg he had to maintain the strength in his upper body, and swimming was the solution he arrived at. Each morning at six o’clock, summer or winter, I’d wake to the gentle plash of him ploughing fifty slow-motion laps up and down the pool. (It was a short pool). He supervised the pouring and trowelling of the concrete. My father liked concrete. The later effect of this was that the air hummed all through the night with the rumbling of non-precious stones in their plastic barrels, while at the same time smelling perpetually of chlorine. Dad kept drums of the stuff right beside where Mum parked her car. It caught in your throat like thistle spore, or the fur off poisonous caterpillars. It became my job to sprinkle a cupful into the pool each afternoon. Only years later did I realise how haphazardly these chemicals were kept. How highly unstable they were. Unbeknown to us it was like a bomb sitting out there in the garage waiting for the right conditions to express itself.

           3) The desks.

That’s how I began this recollection. Something handmade of which he could be proud, even if it was cheap chipboard. The twin desks were sneakily concealed behind two cupboard doors beneath a bookshelf in the den. Later the den became my brother’s room and he was welcome to it as far as I was concerned.

            When not in use the twin desks were stored in a vertical position, ready to spring up via the ingenious application of a spring-and-hinge device when required for the studious application of our minds. Ha! Wishful thinking. The surface area of the desks came to rest, not on a horizontal plane, but closer to a thirty-seven-degree angle, thus anticipating the modern stand-up desks of the ergonomic era. We did not stand up. Who stood up at a desk? We sat on kitchen stools, leaning forward, our heads buried in the dim light of the cupboard. Any papers or books tended to slide off onto the floor. Dad had to glue a piece of dowel to the edge to stop things rolling away. Design flaw number one, if you don’t count the chlorine in drums in the garage as an affront to good order and safety.

           Having desks in middle class Melbourne, I guess, was a thing. However, no one else in my class, so far as I knew, had desks built by their father. I suspect that Dad’s goal, the vision of his inner carpenter, was so he could stand back and admire his two sons, side by side at their twin desks in pursuit of knowledge. However, my brother, Pete, was not a scholar. He spent much of his time trapped at the desk carving his name into the wood with a compass. It is probably at this point that I should admit that I was not a scholar either.

            In short, we never used them. They felt stupid. Too small, and the pencils kept sliding off. I don’t know what disappointment Dad felt towards this rejection of his handywork. No less than my eventual rejection of his forte – mathematics. Maths was my father’s thing. It must have been a great blow to have one otherwise studious son, for whom he’d built a desk, snub his metier, to not follow in his footsteps. Mathematics. I would say that the attitude I hold towards mathematics was akin to an allergic reaction. (It’s changed a bit over the years.) On any forms Dad was required to sign for school, excursions, parent-teacher nights and so on, under Father’s occupation he always irritably wrote Scientist. Nice and generalised. What sort of a scientist? He tried to teach me maths by his method but it wasn’t the way they’d showed us at school and I seethed in frustration and incompetence. I had to take remedial lessons. Dear old Mrs Jackson, I still remember her, with her red headed fright wig, did her best and tried to teach me her way. But failed. I still recall the palpable relief I felt at finally jettisoning mathematics. ‘Well, if that’s your decision…’ That sunny day of freedom. I still harbour a twinge of regret that I’m now not a merchant banker cleaning up on the futures market.

            But back to the desks. They remained otiose. The hinges made a stupid squeaking sound whenever they were opened. Sometimes they would collapse and all our ‘work’ would fall to the floor. Above them in handmade bookshelves, which were painted green if I recall correctly, was a complete thirteen volume set of the British Encylopedia of Medical Practice, (Butterworth and Co, 1939). Volume ten became a prop for my father, who one day decided that to supplement the Father and Son facts-of-life talk we had recently attended at school he would show me something interesting. He pulled down volume P-S from the shelf. S – not for sex, as I later thought might have been the sensible move – but S for syphilis. Oh my God, but I still remember those black and white 1939 photographs of ordinary British men with great scabs and scars and lesions gouged out of their faces, suppurating reptilian penises, leprous eye lids, noses eaten away in a medical nightmare. Right there in the den. And the lesson to be learned from this visual horror show was:

          ‘Never go out with the wrong sort of girl. You mark my words.’

I did not think to ask, at that age, how will I know which is the wrong sort of girl?

          Horror is too bland a term, too prosaic for what I felt. How would I know which was the right sort of girl? I would never talk to a girl again. What did this have to do with the facts of life film we’d seen at school of blurry, indistinct tadpoles swimming about in a petri dish under a microscope? All the fathers gazing at the presenter, looking remote and calmly attentive so that they wouldn’t have to meet the bewildered eyes of their sons. Yes, Father and Son nights were a thing. These days no one bothers.

          This was further motivation for me never to sit at the sloping desk beneath the thirteen-volume set of encyclopedias. What if they fell from the shelves and opened at the wrong page? Who knew what further nightmares lay hidden in the other volumes? Years later I told Dad about the pictures of the unsmiling, syphilitic men from 1939, and although he couldn’t remember the lesson he still thought my reaction was pretty appropriate and what he’d probably been aiming for. Moral instruction well done.

          4) The seizures.

In addition to the limp he carried all his adult life my father had seizures, residue of the stroke that was not a stroke. My mother was very good at nursing these, which occurred regularly whenever he was stressed or wore a polyester shirt. Polyester shirts made him heat up and an elevated body temperature brought on fits. I could always tell when a fit was imminent by the way he would blink, screwing up his eyes in an exaggerated, myopic, owlish way. On a couple of occasions I was able to stop him driving when he was like this. When, during such moments, he became too heavy for my mother to lift she would summon me to pick him up off the floor of the shower, or wherever he happened to be, and shoulder him to bed where he’d sleep for twenty-four hours. My memory is that it was like carrying a scarecrow through no-man’s land. While many epileptic people report losing consciousness during such grande mal seizures, Dad said that he was always aware of what was going on around him, that he could recall what people said. The students at Ormond College stepping over him, for instance. The accumulative effect of these seizures on his brain was that, over time, his speech patterns became disarmingly slow. Not slurred. Just slow.    Steady.

Considered.     So considered that people would often try to finish his sentences for him. So considered you could see the murder in his eyes when they did. He would have hated me saying this about him. He would have said I’d got it all wrong.

          I wanted this to be a fond recollection of my father’s rough-and-ready handyman prowess. Something endearing to remember him by. Instead I’ve retraumatised myself with the British Encylopedia of Medical Practice. More recently I recall him, hospitalised again, a range of serious illnesses and conditions which afflicted the last ten years of his life, not least of which was the limp which had steadily deteriorated. Also deteriorating was his means of independence, which shrank from an adult sized tricycle on which he used to zip around town, to a Zimmer frame, to a motorised wheelchair, to a bed. His shrinking world. His loss of mobility was a great blow to his pride. My younger brother and I were always astonished that once he’d got over his resentment at doctors telling him what he now could or couldn’t do, how quickly he adapted to his new restrictions, and got on with it. A shrinking world is still a world. Stoic is the phrase that comes to mind. While he may not have accepted it, these new conditions, he at least adapted to them. He said that being an atheist, he intended to hang on to every scrap of life by his fingernails. He believed that doctors, in a broad generalisation, were out to compromise his human rights as well as his way of life. They did this by whittling away his freedoms, by talking to him as if he was a child, as if the slowness of his speech reflected the speed of his mind. It didn’t. He was sharp as a stick. In fact his papers reveal a number of letters written to Kofi Anan at the United Nations enumerating the occasions where doctors and nurses (he named them), had infringed his human rights. The hospital authorities and the government wouldn’t help him, so he had no choice but to go straight to the head man.

          He put up with a lot as his health issues became more pronounced. The quadruple bypass he underwent he described as a ‘doddle,’ compared to some of the other ailments he had to endure. The metres of bowel cut out of him for one. The stripping of arteries from his arms, (the legs were too frail), to help repair his damaged heart for another. The effect of this being that he had no pulse in his wrists. I was there one afternoon after such a bout of surgery when the doctor asked him how his pain was today, on a scale from one to ten where one was no pain and ten was unendurable.

          ‘Nine,’ was his answer, and I was shocked at how restrained he seemed, lying there flat and diminished (as Sylvia Plath wrote). I was also shocked at how remote our comprehension is of another person’s pain. That was the day I kissed him on the forehead as I left, thinking I might never see him again. 

          But I did. He knew how to hang on. They removed him from his home when my mother could no longer look after him and parked him in the nursing hospice. A change in his medication brought on further fits, (which incidentally had stopped the day he retired from work). He was sitting up in a chair by his bedside when I came into the hospital room. Unshaved. The newspaper crumpled on the floor. He looked up, glaring fiercely.

          ‘Do you know,’ he said, haltingly, ‘I’ve been sitting here     for four            hours.

They made me             get out of bed             and they’ve     left me here     when   all        I

want    to         do        is         is…’

          ‘Get back into bed?’

He flapped his hand irritably at me.

          ‘Do you want me to call a nurse?’

          ‘           No.      I want pen      and      paper.              ’

          Only now, so many years later, do I understand what he was trying to say. He wanted me with my young man’s muscles to lift him up. To stave off death. He wanted me to help him back into bed. To make him comfortable. Such a simple request which I now deeply regret I did not do for him.

          His pain was nine and no one knew.

          Kofi Annan never replied.