He was born in South Africa, in Johannesburg, in 1934; May 5th — but even about this I only have a memory. His father was Afrikaans; his mother Turkish — or at least came from or via Turkey. Again I know little, so the following errors show only the limits of this. His name was Joseph Swanepoel. He left South Africa in the ’60s, maybe earlier, and whether directly or other found his way to Toronto, Canada where he spent the rest of his life.
He was a mechanic. Truck driver. Ran a waste paper recycling factory in Scarborough. Smoked and had a mustache. Answered the ‘phone, “Y’ello?”. Once he cut the knuckle of his thumb and a ball of dark blood oozed out. He would read in bed with his knees up and I would hide or play under the tent beneath his legs.
He gave me a Turkish middle name. Though I only found out much later about the Turkish part. He would sit up late watching TV and I would sometimes sneak down to join him. Once, when I was sick, I threw up on his shoulder. Once, when driving his truck back from the factory we stopped for donuts. He bought two boxes, one for everyone when we got home, and one for us alone as we drove, our secret. He cut the rear axel off the truck with a gas axe in the alley behind Eaton Ave. He tried to teach me to drive a forklift when I was maybe four; I almost crashed it into the pit where the new automated conveyer system was to be installed.
He changed his name to Stanton. He wanted to forget South Africa, or at least this is what I remember. A name that I was told had no significance. I remember him more from the voice on the phone and letters with his scrawling handwriting than any image of him, his face or himself as a whole.
Before I was born he had an operation on his back; a bone spur. A fifty percent chance of surviving. He did, but with this came his belief they’d implanted a transistor in his back to monitor him. Or again, this is the story I remember, or remember being told. He said we had to leave because the Italians who worked for him were trying to take over his factory and were planning on… something… so he got us out of the country. This in a letter much later.
With the more incredible stories, so too did his handwriting deteriorate. More paranoia, or perhaps not, perhaps it was true. But no way of knowing and I didn’t want to get too close to this aspect of the family for my own sake; I could feel my own self slipping before this.
We left, for New Zealand. A place I felt nothing for. I wanted to stay with him. I asked him to shave off his mustache before we left. A stranger came into the kitchen. Joe without hair above his lip.
He gave up smoking. I had a photo of him, much later, a passport photo. thick greying hair with a high temple swept up and back. A big nose. He might look like an older middle-aged taxi driver in Berlin. I think I lost this photo. Another one; him on a Skidoo in winter. Snow. I lost this also.
I went to see him, in 2003. From Guangzhou. I wrote to him saying I was coming, to the address he’d had for years — he’d lost the house and business after us. He said he wished he’d travelled more, wished he’d seen Hong Kong. I flew from Beijing in winter, darkness but not quite snow, to a street not far from where I’d once lived, near of Pape and Danforth. I walked to that house, unsure if I could recognise it, unclearly remembering the address. But from there to school, down the street, through the parks up and around the corner, it was all without question. I felt nothing though. Someone else’s memories, or as if I was watching a film I should respond to but … feel nothing.
Winter came properly on Christmas day. Deep snow. I was there over a month, vacillating over going to see him before I took the train to Scarborough. The address was near the station, near a mall. It was cold; bright blue sky. I arrived at a post office. It was not his home. He had his mail sent and held here. I asked about him, said I’d come from Australia and he was my father. They relented to give him a call but on his post box information there was no address, no number, no way of finding him. I left a note.
I left too, shortly after, angry, crying in the taxi, dusk on the way to the airport.
Six months later in Vienna I found he’d been in hospital the whole time with a series of bad heart attacks. I found also he’d been in contact with the rest of my family, he’d always told me I was the only one he spoke with. I got drunk fast on cocktails in the Burgtheater at a reception for the mayor and others. I wanted to hurt someone.
I never wrote to him again until earlier this year. He was in hospital again in intensive care with shingles and another round of heart attacks. I called but didn’t speak with him, sent an email via the hospital. I heard he’d received it but was confused also. About me. He didn’t return to the boarding house or wherever he’d lived for those years since we’d left. They packed up what little he had, sold most, gave the rest to him, told him the nursing home was where he would live until he recovered more, then he could go home. I’d planned to ring him, even tried once.
He died last night. Another heart attack. I hadn’t spoken to him.
I was living in an old brothel in my late teens, above a sex shop in K’road, Auckland. He would ring me about once every six months and letters every couple of months, wherever I’d moved to next, sometimes with a cheque folded in the papers. I’d told him what was going on in my life then and that if he didn’t like it he could fuck off. He’d written that he didn’t know why I was so angry but he loved me and supported me if this is what would make me happy. I sat on the wooden stairs talking with him. I can remember his voice, saying, “y’ello”, saying my name.