I often use the past tense when I talk about my father, which is strange, since he’s still alive, still an alcoholic, still a gambler and still, technically speaking, a criminal. At the end of 2002, he was released from a Brisbane prison after serving 20 months of a four-year sentence for armed robbery, which makes him sound dangerous and exciting. Far from it. He’s five foot nothing, wears thick spectacles, speaks slowly with a broad Dublin accent and is polite to strangers.
He was 56 at the time of the robbery. He was gambling in the Chinese Club in Fortitude Valley, Brisbane, and he’d run out of money. It was 3 a.m. A few months earlier he’d handed in his ATM card in an attempt to control his addiction. He’d arranged with the bank that he could only withdraw cash over the counter, during business hours. And now he was broke, living in a dosshouse, and desperate for some money so he could continue playing pokie machines.
He left the Chinese Club, walked into a 7-Eleven, went up to the counter and handed the girl behind the counter a piece of paper which said: ‘Give me all your money or I’ll shoot you.’ The girl emptied the till and gave my father the money. But he didn’t think he had enough, so he walked to the nearest McDonald’s, went up to the counter, and handed the same note to the girl who asked for his order: ‘Give me all your money or I’ll shoot you.’ He didn’t have a weapon.
When I found out that it was the same note, the same scrunched-up piece of paper, that my father handed to the girl in McDonald’s, I imagined him realising that he’d left it at the 7-Eleven and going back to pick it up. I imagined him saying: ‘Sorry. Just coming back for my piece of paper. I thought I might need it again.’ I imagined him saying something wry like this, because I always force myself to think of the one good thing about him: his wit.
At McDonald’s the girl emptied her till. My father took the money, put the note in his pocket, got into a taxi and went to the casino. The police were told about both robberies, watched the security footage, issued an ID to a local squad car, and started looking. They went to the casino first (a good place to start) and found him within 45 minutes of the first robbery.
He told me he nearly ‘got off on a technicality’. His legal aid lawyer employed a handwriting analyst whose report said that it was unlikely that the handwriting in the note was my father’s. But there were several witnesses and video footage. The technicality got him nowhere.
It was a condition of his early parole that he should work every day for the Salvation Army, sorting second-hand clothes into neat piles. But my father can’t stand the Salvos and he did a runner. I got a call from the Brisbane police a few months later. Did I know where he was? ‘No idea,’ I said.
The police tracked him down, without my help, and got an extradition order to fly him from Sydney, where he was staying in a halfway house run by the Wesley Mission, back to Brisbane. He didn’t like being arrested ‘out of the blue’, but said he was happier in prison, and spent two more months there, working in the carpentry shop, before being released on parole again, this time into the custody of the Wesley Mission.
Last year he called me. He was drunk. ‘I’ve called to say goodbye,’ he said. ‘I’ve got cancer. The doctors have given me six months to live.’ He sounded like he was crying. My partner was sitting on the couch. He turned the TV down. I put my hand over the mouthpiece of the phone and said: ‘It’s my dad. He’s pretending to have cancer.’ I knew he was lying by the time he got to the end of the first sentence – I’ve become very good at lie-detection. I can also smell alcohol on somebody’s breath at a hundred paces.