Almanac Poetry: ‘The Falling Road’ – Tommy Mallet




The Falling Road


By Tommy Mallet



The Old Man’s not well.
83, with a swollen prostate.
Fever from the infection.


It’s a long drive to visit him,
in the home since his
double stroke
a year ago.


The baby’s cranky,
Its potty training is hit and miss.
The car stinks
of urine.


Not unlike where we’re heading.


But, when distracted correctly,
she still manages magnificent smiles.




The road passes,
sweetly rolling cattle paddocks,
spring-fed hay bails
to the horizon.


This was once bush.


I used to find it beautiful.
Now, I want to cry.




The Old Man was born in Transylvania.
He can point to the village,
but not name the country.


There were so many conflicts
the border was a
living thing.


My wife’s from Venezuela,
she barely shrugs.


‘Well, as a kid,” I tell her,
“it impressed me.”


“Boys like war,” she says.




When the Old Man had a double stroke last year,
My wife and I were half way up a small river,
in the Far North tropics,
bumming around
as a family,
after my backbreaking work.
Looking for excuses to wash off
sweat, blood, a shit wage.


I remember how perfect
the bourbon tasted,
while watching our baby
bashing rocks together in


How clean
the water tasted,
when I slid in after her.


How simple it was,
barely moving hurting muscles.




When the Old Man had a double stroke,
in rural Victoria,
the doctor told us;
“If you want to say good-bye,
you might come now.”


It took a long drive
out of the Daintree’s still, mosquito-heavy winter,
a plane, a bus, a train,
a lift.


Money, time.


The tough old shoe was still critical.
He just watched our baby,


Finally, it took him two minutes to push out enough air
to house three syllables: “Beautiful…”


His first noise,
since clutching his heart.




Within fifteen minutes of forever-staring
at his granddaughter,
the Old Man dragged himself
off the critical list.


In sputtering farts and whistles,
he whispered
to her;
“Reason to live.”


Doctors and nurses came running,
when the reverse emergency happened.
Just to bare witness.


The baby’s two now.
I take in the way she watches
passing cows,
while we roll through
delicate scenery
towards the unknown.




The Old Man was
married to a witch for 38 years.


When he missed the toilet,
she’d grab the back of my head,
rub my face in it.


The witch never worked,
never gave that house warmth.


Threw out the telly,
his desk,
so when he came home
from 12 hour days,
he had to sit and watch her play bridge
in a room


with nothing on the walls.


She gave off that air.
His first word
became, almost always, “Sorry”.


“Old Man!” I’d scream,
over decades.
“You can’t appease spite!”


“No,” he’d say. “I’d be lost
without her.”




The Old Man’s a gentle soul,
But fierce,
in hushed ways.


He’s meant to be bed-bound,
yet there he stands,
in middle of the car park turning circle,
clean pants, clean shirt,


Smiling, proper, proud.




As a kid, the Old Man broke his hip
in the war,
playing paratroopers off his roof,
using a tea towel.


He dragged the buggered leg through life on the run,
then life in another world.


By 72 it finally made getting to work
too hard.


His wife kicked him out,
upsetting her routine.



Kept everything;


the shitty house,
clothes, cutlery,
his other son.


“No, no, that’s okay,” he told me.
“I don’t want to cause a fuss.”


I looked into having her killed, but decided
had to respect his wishes.




The Old Man’s face lights up
when he sees the baby,
as if the two of them are


Followed by a flood of envy,
of my wife.


He always liked ’em pretty,
yet settled for one who wasn’t,
not inside or out,
and never would be.



Yet was baffled I never
did the same.


“Oh boy!” he says, like a child,
kissing the baby’s cheek.


“Oh boy, oh boy!”




The Old Man was left with nothing at 72,
not even friends.


All those long hours, that hard work,


He saw it as a chance to finally
create art.


He took cardboard from garbage,
plywood from reject bins,
called them canvasses,


painting eighteen stories
of fleeing from Hungary,
through Germany,
onto an Italian frigate,
to Australia,
where he was put in an orphanage.


Every single one of those images,
there, in his cramped, bumfuck flat,
positive, warm…




The Old Man goes to kiss my wife.
I hear her say,
in that warming, Latino, summer-shade accent;
“Hello, Nagyapa…”,
then scream,


as he has a little fit,
and falls backwards,
towards the bitumen,


making no effort to stop himself
at all.





By the time the Old Man was let out
of the orphanage,
his dad had fucked off,
his mum was crook.


At 15 he had to work
three jobs, to raise
four siblings,
but, refusing to just survive,


also went to night school,
to learn to draw.


Still a freshly minted wog,
it took him three goes
to get the spelling right,
on his first job –
a butcher’s sign.




The Old Man framed his cardboard and plywood
for his first art exhibition
when he was 73,
expecting a few people he
once knew,
one maybe two family.
A few walk-ins.


Somehow the city’s Hungarian community
found out.


The pace overflowed with
high cheekbones, slicked back hair,
pointy, happy faces.


I’m not sure if the Old Man
was a loner,
or had just wanted to leave the past
in Europe,
but he’d had nothing to do with them.


But here they were.


“I had no idea there were so many…”
he whispered,
greeting them all.




A few of them tried to buy some


The Old Man had nothing,
had been eating pasta, with
white sugar
for sauce.


“No,’ he insisted. “They’re for my children.”


All of us dysfunctional;
my sister, with the claustrophobic grind
of her craft;
me perpetually on the road;
our half sister off in
the stars.


We can’t afford walls that fit something so big.


Yet, the size of his gesture
fed us all.




When the Old Man had a double stroke,
it fucked him.
He had to relearn to talk,
His hands forever shook,
as if always angry, or disappointed
in the remains of his mind.


Those hands were
my main memory of him
as a child.


Big on a small man,


Building a billy cart,
consuming my knee.


Now, they clasped bannisters,
of an old people’s home,
dragged him past hellish sing-alongs.


nervous butterflies,
they carried him through an environment
he loathed.




It wasn’t that the home’s occupants were
waiting to die,
more, with their dementia,
their weariness,
it felt, to the Old Man, like they had nothing left to give.


He drifted through the corridors,
their prayer groups,


craving someone to talk to,


not sure if they were ghosts,
or him.




The Old Man would always insist
on walking us out
of the home,


then stand,
watching green hills roll
into a park, the distant pub,
train station,
towards people and life
and the world.


Just stare hard,
trying to figure out escape plans,
his body could never keep.


Run you bastard!
As best you can!


Shuffle hard, crawl.


Don’t plan, don’t think.


None of your kids have a cent,
you taught us colour,
not common sense.


Your eldest son lives
perpetually on oily rags,
jumping from rock to rock,
just trying to cross water,
never realising they run downstream.


Rocks of bitumen,
hard jobs,
shit pay and open skies.


Your youngest son
is 40, bald, depressed.
He never left the clutches
of your controlling, sour ex-wife.
Not for a day.


You’ll never see him again.


None of us know how to deal
with pants full of shit.


It’s up to you, again!


Run, you magnificent bastard!
Make it ten metres,
two miles.
Find someone who’ll stroke your hair,
make you feel safe.


Run! It’s what I’d do,
then, while running,


figure out how to fade into that sunset
you find in bad movies.


Fuck that idiot box
they plant you in front of.
An apprentice coffin,
encroaching by the day,
until you realise you’re no longer alive.


Run! Run!
Run and if they come for you,


have the good sense to hide!




The Old Man falls backwards, and keeps falling.
My wife catches his arm,
but gravity has the rest.
His head hits the ground hard.


“Mi Amor, get help!”
she screams.


Blood pools,
he stops breathing,
as I charge in pleading for help,
as our baby cries.




When the Old Man
was first sentenced to a home,


rather than wither,
he forced his wobbling hands
to learn again,


by bracing his pencil hand against the desk edge,
then holding its wrist down,
with his opposing palm,


and, once steady enough,
drew every resident, doctor, staffer
and delivery man
the place had.


141 portraits of the living,
and soon dead,
and by the time he was done,
some already gone.


Then held an exhibition on its walls.


And made people happy again.




When the Old Man drew every patient
in the home,
then staff,
then delivery people –
sheet cleaners,
specialists –


almost every image was of
a person smiling.


Men and woman from other homes
came to visit for full days,
hoping to also be
noticed again.




My wife’s shaken
by her part in
falling empires.


Her front row seat,
complete with smell and sound.


I comfort her,
then get in the ambulance with
the Old Man.


They cut his clothes off,
attach machines.
He throws up a tan stew
of retirement home food.


I look for a reaction in his eyes,
as the ambulance crew roll him,
without pride, onto his side,
vomit on his teeth, in his hair,
on their uniforms.


He seems to be resisting


The ambulance crew or death,
I can’t tell.




The ambulance drives slowly,
smoothing out all country roads.


The doctor looks more like a publican,
but speaks softly.
“Your father has bleeding on the brain,
the elderly often recover poorly,
this could go either way.”


I respect him, and his science,
but know the Old Man’s


If he’s made it this far, he’ll come good.


The doctor watches me
in a way that beckons more.


“You know he has advanced prostate cancer?”
he adds.


I take in the Old Man,
so soft, proud,
and at last know what
those eyes were saying.


Even if I can’t put it into words.


“A win and a loss,” I mumble,
stroking his hair.




Living with our mother was chaos.


But Wednesday nights were always
Dinner With Dad.


Pizza, McDonalds,


Getting back home, Sis would run into the house,
answering punk’s vinyl call,
leaving the Old Man and I
in his car.


We wouldn’t say anything for the
longest time.


Just watch streetlights.


Sometimes, take off again,
drive nearer his home,
to take in refineries,
their flames.


Feel the rumble of container ships
as they parted suburbs.


In such quiet, everything was a story.


Finally, once, wanting to bond over answers that were
2/3rds in their tone,
ready for wisdom,
I asked:


“Dad, the moon’s there, between my finger
and thumb.
I have it!
But when I close them, it’s still
in the sky.”


He just whispered; “…Yeah!”


The generosity of that answer,
to this day, remains
the greatest gift
of all time.




The Old Man’s family scattered
long ago.


I contact the most important,
They’re the aged now, but family’s view
of family
doesn’t change.


His loving younger sister,
is still a loving younger sister.
His ratbag kid brother a
ratbag kid brother.


My half sister, who escaped
from her mum,
must have moved on,
but that’s all I know.


I tell them the Old Man has well-advanced cancer,
that he never told anyone,
and even now, in critical condition
due to the fall,
is insisting:


“What’s all the fuss about?”


Which surprises no-one.




The hospital functions like all others;
staffed by a checkerboard of
ambition, disdain,
immense care,


They come and go,
while the Old Man asks me for
childhood memories.


“Tell me some of the stuff
we used to do together…”


This mighty fisher.


He knows he is and was a worker,
that those moments are few.


He’s too smart to ever be fooled,
not before death, or during,
or after,
so I say nothing,


but, oh,
continue to love him without pause.




Doctors announce things I can tell.
The Old Man will pull through
his fall,
but, with the cancer, has a month to a year.


I kiss his head while
he grips my fingers with those
mighty hands,


then tells his partner,
he has another exhibition in mind,
not caring he’ll never get out
to see the current one.


Just do, you wrinkly old bastard!
Just draw,
Hold back that cunt-bastard clock!
Don’t waste a damn!


Don’t bother with the human condition,
that, boiled to bones,
too often sodomises us,
with the banality of it’s call.


Let the gold come when it will.


Just do, do!


Draw the damn world!


If Death comes,
draw her,
and put it on Hell’s wall.




We go to see the Old Man’s current exhibition for him,
in the new chocolate shop’s windows.


50 sketches, of incredible use
of line,
light, shape and simplicity.
These aspects of art,
a gentle man uses as exquisite, sharp tools.


Each drawing is of and about
the old wool mill.
There are no people in them,
yet they fill the wall with flesh,
make it breath.


I ring his partner, to ask about the
red dots
beside a few,
planning to buy one or two,
depending on cost.


“Oh, no! They’re free,
to those that want them!
He insisted,”
her voice smiles.




The chocolate shop owner
doesn’t look right,
standing outside in his smock,
under ambivalent weather.


“It’s a shame your father couldn’t afford
to frame them,” he says.


We look at the sticky-tape marks,
some images have slight
paper bends.


“Lo Importante, importe.”


What matters matters,
my wife tells him.


The End





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  1. Just amazing, Tommy.
    So many feelings.
    Reading this just about broke me.

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