RIP Beryn Keep

Who was Beryn Keep? Why am I writing a memorial for someone you’ve never heard of?

Beryn Keep was my uncle. He grew up in poverty and he lived in poverty his whole life, subsisting on a disability support pension. Today I learned that he died a couple of years ago. My family is awesome like that: when my grandfather died no one told me for nearly two years either. I said something about him to my son then he said, “Oh, he died”. Apparently someone rang my son and said they were going to ring me so he didn’t think any more of it, and, of course, no one told me.

“He didn’t think any more of it” might sound terrible but my grandfather ran away from his wife and two children (Mum and Beryn) in the 1950s to marry another woman and have two more children while failing to pay any child support or undertake any fatherly responsibilities. He and his new family lived in the same suburb as Grandma, living in wealth while Grandma worked her ass off to care for her 5 children and layabout new husband in a 2-bedroom home. I only ever met my biological grandfather about 4 times. I was sad when he died but it was like being sad that a stranger died.

Until recently I thought Grandma had died too but, a few months ago, I phoned on a Friday to learn that she’s at home most Fridays but not the rest of the week. It wasn’t until today that I remembered to ask about Beryn. Grandma said she’s forgotten but she thinks he must have died because he used to visit her every week but she hasn’t seen him in a few years. As we talked she seemed to remember his cancer returned, he wasn’t sick long and then he died.

Beryn survived surgery that removed a brain tumour when he was 12 years old. He lived with Grandma until the mid-1980s because he was intellectually disabled while his father did fuck-all to help although living only a few kilometres away.

His father lived so close that, one day, Beryn walked to his father’s house and told him off for not helping with an elderly failing relative. The extended family was most impressed, praising Beryn.

Then Beryn went back and told his father off for not being a father.

The family was mortified. Why should an adult tell off his father who abandoned him when he was a few years old and when others were permanently caring for him in place of his biological father?

In the mid-1980s, Beryn moved into a supported-care village in Newtown and lived there until he didn’t.

I lived with Grandma off and on throughout my childhood because my parents didn’t want me so I was there when, in about 1979/80, Grandma found Beryn unconscious on his bedroom floor and had him carted off to hospital yet again. (This happened a few times during my high school years.)

I was there when Beryn had the DTs from toxic mismanagement of his prescription drugs.

Mary, my aunt, came home from teacher’s college one time drove him into the Emergency department and waited with Beryn while they were ignored by staff for several hours, Beryn shaking so badly he could have been having a seizure or hypothermia. According to Mary, no one came to check on him until the DTs subsided somewhat, then they were patronised out the door.

I was there when Beryn refused to keep up his physical therapy because he was worried that, if he had too much mobility, social security would kick him off the disability support pension and force him into unemployment queues. (Grandma tried to delicately explain that wouldn’t happen without telling him bluntly that he didn’t have the intellectual capacity necessary to be kicked off the disability pension.)

I was there when Grandma received the phone call telling her that Beryn nearly drowned in the Hobart Olympic Pool.

Questions were asked about what the fuck the life guard was doing while Beryn was drowning. I heard some suggestions that he was busy chatting up the ladies because he certainly wasn’t bothering to keep an eye on the pool. Beryn was under and not coming up. Other patrons started yelling before the lazy lifeguard got in the water.

Because Beryn was disabled, the Hobart Olympic Pool management blamed him for almost drowning and banned him from swimming in the pool. Swimming was a valuable therapy for Beryn that he enjoyed so he continued to swim but without a life guard in the Derwent River. (This was the second time this cycle of events occurred. I’m not sure if Beryn returned to the pool a third time once they’d forgotten him, as he did after the first near-drowning sometime in the 1970s.)

When I was in grade 9, Beryn’s sheltered workshop employer docked his meagre pay for arriving at work a little late. (He worked an 8 or 9 hour day for something appalling, a double-digit figure like $20 or $45 a week.) With his pay docked, he didn’t receive enough to cover work expenses and had to cover the cost of working by taking money out of his pension to pay for bus fares etcetera.

While I was in grade 10, Beryn quit his job at the sheltered workshop because it cost him too much to go to work and he was better off financially without the job.

To sell raffle tickets to support his football team, Beryn sat at a little card table outside Myer in the CBD in all kinds of weather while he couldn’t afford warm clothes or even a jumper without holes. I remember winters without warm jackets, the chill wind blowing off the snowy mountain cutting through clothing to freeze the body underneath. I couldn’t have sat outside in Hobart during winter but Beryn did. He used to take breaks, nicking inside Myer to warm up before going back to his table outside.

When Beryn was given a community service award, he wore another holey jumper to the ceremony. Grandma was cross because, if she’d known, she would have either mended it or tried to buy him a new one.

Don’t get me wrong: Beryn wasn’t a hero.

Back track to the 1970s: when I was 6 and living with Grandma after revelations of what my stepfather did to me, Beryn, Alec,Donny and Mary (my uncles and aunt, ranging in age from about 20 down to 13) took me to the Bellerive Fort, a turn-of-the-century fortification built to defend against Tsarist Russia invading little old Hobart. We climbed down into a hole in the ground with stone walls and floor. They pulled the cover over the entrance so we were in the dark then told me we couldn’t get out. Beryn and Donny were the worst and, even when I was hysterical, screaming with fear, screaming for help, only Alec stood up for me and insisted they let me out. Even then he had to argue with the others to let me out. He probably couldn’t have opened the entrance himself: although only 18 years old, he was ill and dying with less than two years to live.

Beryn was my half-brothers’ favourite relative. He was loud and would play at being “Big Ben the Baddie”, big and loud and threatening violence. By this stage I was back living with mum, a transition made when Alec became too ill for Grandma to care for me too. I was used to mum shouting and hitting me so I found Beryn very stressful. When my toddler half-sister cried and said he was scaring her, I stood up for her. Mum called me a liar and said I was just trying to ruin everyone’s fun. This was probably the one time I really stood up to Mum, defending my little sister. I think I gained a concession: he’d chase the boys but leave us girls alone.

One night when Beryn was visiting Mum, my stepfather & siblings etc, we were both drying the dishes. Beryn was tricksy like Gollum. If he didn’t want to do a chore, he’d do it as badly as possible so he wouldn’t have to do it anymore. So, of course, Beryn was just vaguely waving his tea towel at whatever he picked up and putting it on the table still wet. Mum saw a saucepan with water still in it, shouted at me and hit me around the head. It wasn’t until she’d calmed down that I managed to explain I hadn’t dried up ANY saucepans and I pointed out that I put things away when I dried them up. Beryn finally — reluctantly and too late — admitted that he’d taken the saucepan. Then he got out of the chores while I had a headache and finished the chores alone.

By the time I moved back in with Grandma when I was 11 (1979), Beryn knew he could bully me and even beat me up without consequences. Or so he thought.

When he came home from the football every Saturday, we knew if his team had won or lost by how loudly the back door closed. If he slammed the back door, we were in for a rough weekend.

One time I’d been out and was sitting at home in my ‘good’ clothes watching TV. The door slammed. He told me to refill the kerosene heater immediately or else. I figured he wasn’t my mother so I kept watching TV. When he came back into the living room and discovered I hadn’t followed instructions, he hit me so hard I landed flat on my back, winded. I refilled the kerosene heater while trying desperately not to ruin the best clothes I owned (most of my clothes were at least 10 years out of date from op shops and many were in poor condition).

Another time no one else was at home, Beryn started yelling at me to do his chores as well as mine. I refused, saying I’d already cooked dinner and I had to do my homework. (I was 12 years old and this was my nightly routine.) He yelled. He became violent. I started screaming my lungs out then ran outside and hid in the dark until Grandpa came home. I think someone had phoned him at the RSL to intervene in a murder or something. Grandma and Grandpa were more concerned about ‘what would the neighbours think’ than the fact that Beryn was violent and abusive but their embarrassment in front of the neighbours was a powerful protection, one I never had living in an isolated house in the bush with my mother. But it wasn’t until I was 13 and took up Judo at the local Police Citizens and Youth Club that Beryn stopped hitting me. It also helped that I started growing at the same time so I wasn’t such a short-ass any more.

Beryn loved comic books: superhero stories, romances, the works. He couldn’t see to read books because there were too many words on the page but he loved comics. Unfortunately, if he’d kept them all his collection would probably have been worth a fortune, but he generously passed his comics around and they inevitably ended up in the rubbish. I appreciated his generosity and was always horrified when he binned them.

Beryn adored Doctor Who and other BBC TV series like Come Back Mrs Noah and Some Mothers Do Have ‘Em. Although both Grandma and Beryn loved Norman Gunston’s and Ruth Cracknell’s Mother and Son, I couldn’t help but see some parallels. We used to watch TV together: Grandma, Beryn and I in separate chairs (them in old armchairs and me on a kitchen chair). Beryn scooted his bottom forward on the chair to lean backwards. He was an obsessive tea-drinker (never coffee and absolutely never alcohol because of his medication), so he’d perch his mug of tea on his small pot belly while he watched TV.

One day while I was in high school I realised he was putting postage stamps on upside down. On the rare occasions I used stamps, I was careful to put them on the right way up and as neatly in the corners as possible. Beryn said he deliberately put the stamps on upside down in memory of a family member (I can’t remember who) and, he hoped, one day I might put stamps on upside down in memory of him.

I don’t think my relationship with Beryn ever recovered from living with him. We always seemed to rub each other up the wrong way, like when Beryn looped a seat beat around his neck so that, in case of an accident, his neck would be broken by the seatbelt instead of his life saved by the damn thing. I always made an issue of wearing seatbelts correctly but Mum and Grandma insisted Beryn be allowed to do his thing. One time in the early 1990s, my partner and I were driving Beryn home from a family Christmas lunch on a hot day and Beryn pulled this trick. When I realised what Beryn had done, I insisted the car pull over and wait for Beryn to put his seat belt on properly. Eventually he did then we drove him home. When we returned for the tail end of the Christmas get together, Mum and Grandma interrogated me on the short trip to Beryn’s place. They were appalled that I’d insisted Beryn do the responsible thing. They were even more surprised when they realised that Beryn had, eventually, complied. They thought he would have walked home instead. After all, it was only a few kilometres and Beryn had his pride.

However, when my son turned 3 we took Beryn with us to visit the Alpine Railway in Claremont, a miniature railway set in scale models of the Swiss Alps. Both Beryn and my son were very much into trains and buses. Beryn expressed a hope that Daniel would take after him so he could leave his collection of books about trains and buses to a family member who would appreciate them.

Unfortunately, this show of goodwill didn’t last. One time Grandma brought Beryn to visit when she was running errands in Hobart (she lived down the Channel at this time). Beryn asked for a cup of tea. I said I’d make one but stayed chatting to Grandma for a couple more minutes. Huffing and puffing like a steam engine, Beryn stomped into the kitchen. I expected to hear him filling the kettle because he knew how to make a cup of tea and did so regularly. When I didn’t hear the water running, I hurried into the kitchen to find that he was in the process of plugging in and switching on every appliance in the kitchen, including turning on every hot plate on the stove and turning on the oven. I rushed around turning everything off, saying “I’ll make you a cup of tea, just wait in the lounge room”. Beryn followed me around turning everything back on again. My voice rose in pitch and volume, expecting disaster, telling him I’d make the tea, just get out of the kitchen so I could. Grandma came in and told me to make the cup of tea before turning anything off. So I filled the kettle (about the only thing he hadn’t plugged in) and switched it on, just in time for the fuse to blow. Beryn had plugged in and switched on the sandwich toaster, which melted the cord for the kettle. I turned everything off, almost crying because we were so broke, a replacement cord was going to have to come out of our food budget. I offered to boil water in a saucepan for a cup of tea but Grandma and Beryn left. Later I told Grandma that Beryn either had to stay out of the kitchen or not come because, when he lost his temper, he was dangerous and we couldn’t afford ongoing repairs.

For about twenty years before he died, Beryn visited Grandma when she lived down the Channel (at Middleton then in Margate). He chopped wood for her and did various other things. I always thought of Beryn as freeloading off poor Grandma who couldn’t afford nice things for herself but Grandma insisted he was a big help. Even today Grandma started by saying she thinks he must have died because he used to come every week and look after her but he stopped. Gradually the story came out. Pondering seemed to bring some details back to the surface in spite of Alzheimer’s. I guess sometimes Alzheimer’s is a blessing: to forget one’s grief at the death of a second child.

My relationship with Beryn was difficult but he was family. I thought that, now that my partner and I are more comfortably off, I could start to look after the poverty-stricken members of my family a little. Beryn had a shitty life, robbed of many of the joys of others due to his disability, legal and financial constraints. While worrying about whether Grandma was alive, I’d been daydreaming about buying Beryn jumpers without holes and a jacket to withstand Hobart’s weather. Abandoned by his father at a tender age with no real resolution, Beryn saw his sister — my mother — reunited with their father when their father wanted her to care for him in his old age. At least Beryn had Grandma, his mother, all the days of his life.

I just prepared my Christmas letters for this year, including putting stamps on envelopes. As I put the first stamp on, the right way up, I remembered Beryn’s request to remember him by putting stamps on upside down. Although the stamps are butterflies that look a bit silly flying downwards, the rest of the stamps went on upside down in memory of Beryn.

Beryn was a complicated man who suffered much in his life but he loved his football, comics and TV and supported his community as well as being a kick-ass uncle to two hero-worshipping little boys.

My relationship with Beryn was mixed but, as part of my family, he was part of me. As I went through my Christmas mailing list this year, I crossed out several addresses of people who’ve died in the past few years — both my partner’s grandparents, Beryn and his father — and I feel diminished by loss.

All my old family photos are in storage so I’ll add a photo later, when I can.