I’m a superstitious writer. When I’m working on a novel, I develop rituals and collect objects that become talismans. The desk in my Dublin attic is crowded with ornaments and small ceramic creatures, including a fox, robin, goose and black cat. Before I press Save on my work, I need to touch each of them, often more than once.
Yet the object that means the most to me is one I rarely touch at all. It’s a worn metal disc on which the number 575 is painted. I live on the other side of the world, but it brings me back home every time I look at it. My dad gave it to me in the final months of 1999, in what turned out to be his own final months.
Dad was the railway stationmaster in Clare, South Australia. He moved there with Mum soon after they married. Within 12 years, they’d added seven children to the local population. We lived in a beautiful, rambling house, owned by the railways.
That house was our adventure playground. We played hide-and-seek in the tree-crowded, terraced front garden, occasionally disturbing snakes. We played football in the long hallway, until a missed mark broke the stained-glass window. We spent hours on the roof, playing chasey on the corrugated iron. The roof was also where I escaped to read, tucked up against the chimney, regularly changing position to stay in the shade.
I knew every inch of the garden, every detail of the house. I loved our simple address: 4 New Road. I also loved that our house had another number – 575 – stamped on a small metal disc affixed to a front verandah post. Dad told me the 575 was the railways’ property ID number.
Every five years, a team of railway painters arrived to redecorate. We got to know them all: Eastern European men employed by the railways after the Snowy Mountains scheme ended. The painters would take down the metal disc before they started work. One year, it wasn’t re-attached. Instead, it took up residency in my father’s bedside drawer.
My parents’ bedroom doubled as Dad’s study. He’d sit at a table sorting out household bills while offering us advice. I remember being in my early 20s and having to cut up my credit card in front of him after he’d bailed me out one too many times. To my shame, I also remember going in there as an 11-yearold the day his mother died, because it was pocket-money day. He was crying. Shocked, I kept talking, blurting out why I was there. He gave me my $2, still managing a smile, as we both ignored his red-rimmed eyes.
Dad was diagnosed with cancer on April 17, 1999. I remember the date because it was my 34th birthday. My husband and I were living in Hobart. Dad was in hospital in Adelaide, undergoing tests. His skin had turned yellow and we were all convinced it would turn out to be jaundice. He rang from his hospital bed to wish me a happy birthday. We were having a cheery conversation when I heard another voice in his room. “Hold on, Mick,” Dad said, using my family nickname. He put the phone down beside him, but I clearly heard the ensuing conversation. It was his consultant, unexpectedly delivering test results. “I’m sorry, Steve,” I heard him say. “It’s cancer.”
Dad was given a year to live. We moved back to South Australia to be near him and my family. In his final weeks, when his bedroom became his whole world, we took turns sitting beside him, talking quietly.
One night, he asked me if I’d sort out his bedside drawer. The first thing I found was the metal disc. I hadn’t seen it for years. Dad and I shared our memories of those railway painters, of the many visitors we always had. It was such a wonderful house to grow up in, I told him. He gave me a beautiful smile. In his last weeks, his smiles were so full of grace and love. He held out the disc. “Would you like to keep it, Mick?” he asked.
Dad made it to March 15, 2000. For the first months after he died, I used the disc as my keyring. It made me sad every time I saw it, but everything made me sad then. One day it fell off the keys, so I put it on my desk instead.
It’s still beside me, next to the fox, robin, goose and cat. I’ve had it for 18 years, through the writing of 12 novels. I’ve never polished it or even dusted it. I like to think Dad’s fingerprints are still on it somewhere. I don’t even need to touch it very often. It does its magic without my help.