The Old City

October 26, 2023 | Posted by Guest Reviewer | LIFE, Short Stories | 1 Comment |

By Margot Jakobsen

Moments of teenage conflict with Dad, explode into my adult mind. “You treat me like the enemy!”, he says.

You are!” Then softening, “Dad, you’re damaged by the war.”

What!? Are you a psychiatrist, now?

You don’t win by yelling the loudest!

You don’t respect me.”

You have to deserve respect!

No surrender. I left Adelaide for Sydney, and that was hard for him to forgive.

Now my father, the school librarian, is in a beige, plastic casket in the wall to ceiling shelves that I made some time ago out of cypress floorboards. I enclosed some of the sections with recycled, kitchen-cabinet doors of rich, red cedar. But he’s out in the open, making his presence felt. He was not a beige personality. Despite nerves that were strung up on the Russian front, he was respected by the Adelaide ‘Balts’*. The urn’s been there for a year or two…or three, and something must be done. He must be moved from the shelf in the mountain house that I built, to his final resting place, and it must be done soon.

Zoom back a few years. I’m visiting Mum and Dad in South Australia and we’re on a day trip to the glorious, Fleurieu Peninsula. We’ve ended up at a double-gabled, tavern on Hindmarsh Island. The decor of pale, laminated wood is modern and functional. It’s afternoon and the place is basically empty. We’re sitting outside on the wrap-around verandah. Below, a lush, green lawn slopes down to the water. Nothing is lofty or aspirational in this placid landscape. The distant hills are low and spreading, the big sky and water are pastel stripes. It’s calming and peaceful. We watch a pelican flap and glide, flap and glide just above the still water, his long beak staunchly parallel to it. Then using his feet like water skis, he skids to a landing. Visibly relaxing, he settles and tucks his wings neatly away.

I haven’t achieved that much here,” Dad reflects, “maybe I should have changed the ‘k’ in ‘Jakobsen’ to a ‘c’.”

All I can say is, “I like the ‘k’!

Nothing about the impact of his story. The long journey from being the Police Commissioner’s boy, playing on the river in Rakvere, building a boat for paying passengers. How about a fleet of boats! To school dux. University studies. Dreams sunk by World War Two. Surviving the upheaval that washed him up on Australian shores. Still here, scarred, but always abundantly, larger than life.

Our coffees arrive and Dad’s suddenly talking about death, his.

I’d like my ashes to be scattered in Estonia, I don’t s’pose you’d do it,” he says.

The ‘you’ sounds derogatory and jarring in the limpid air. Aggression, to mask the vulnerability. I turn towards him, seeing right through it to the olive branch. A Truce. Travel. An opportunity for the second, ‘difficult’ child to accept responsibility within the family. I look him straight in the eye. I want him to know I mean it. That I understand. This is a job of grave importance.

Yes, I’ll do it!

So, I take his urn to the old city, where his father had been well-off and important, where Jakobsen with a ‘k’ wasn’t weird, where the buskers play violins and cellos, and choirs of men sing in taverns.

[NOTE: *Post, World War Two immigrants from the Baltic Sea countries, such as Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, were called ‘Balts’ by Australians.]

1 Comment

  1. Reply

    Ritchie Ho

    November 2, 2023

    That is a beautiful, bitter-sweet story. Love it.

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