I’ve always had a funny feeling about that stretch of road, a long straight, a delineation between cow paddocks and feral watsonia weeds fringing the south side. The watsonias bristle with orange and pink flowers spikes in the summer. Once I passed a little red car on its roof in the ditch there. I imagined that I saw the wheels still spinning in the air but it had an orange ‘This vehicle has been reported’ sticker on the passenger side window, so I guess I made up that mental image later. Years later, driving home from an all-night party, I fell asleep at the wheel in the same place, waking only as my van slewed into the wrong lane.
The road rounds a sudden bend and just past the bend and onto the next straight, the bitumen is painted with squiggles, circles and lines; strange glyphs that only those trained to analyse catastrophe can read. The white road markers, the ones with reflector discs, are made of plastic and so, instead of a row of smashed wooden posts where he ploughed them down, they flipped back into upright position like nothing had ever happened after the accident. For some reason I found this inanimate insouciance really disturbing. How dare those posts stand back up again? Don’t they know what has happened here?
A few weeks ago, Stormboy went the crash site to clean up. He had a mate with him. When he told me, I felt pride in him and fear for him, common feelings during this time of extremes. Considering that Stormboy couldn’t even drive that stretch after the accident, couldn’t look at a photograph of his Dad, couldn’t hear any details without walking out of the room, it was a huge thing for him to do and I’m glad that others didn’t go earlier to pick up all of the refuse from the paramedics and bits of car plastic. Stormboy does things when he is ready and it’s been a whole new learning curve for this mother to understand that about her child.
I sat there alone in the cleared area in a state of incomprehension the day after the accident. Tea trees, bottle brushes and scrubby heath around me. The bush was ending its flowering season and my disbelief was countered by the smell of petrol and engine oil. At my feet lay an electrode like the ones stuck to his pale chest by the paramedics, and one of his boots. Plastic bandage wrappers. The boot is in my garden now and the electrode in the console of my car. ‘Do you think that’s weird?’ I asked Flame. ‘Whatever it takes,’ she replied, but she looked dubious. The electrode is there to remind me. Keep your eyes on the road and your hands upon the wheel. Whatever it takes.
I’ve always felt funny about that stretch of road. I thought it would be me who would come unstuck there and once, long ago, I nearly did. It’s the weirdest thing that eight months earlier, he had an accident - in the same place, in the same car - and came out of it with nary a scratch. His mate broke a few ribs. They walked back to his house and used the four-wheel drive to tow it out of the ditch. This time though, he was under the blood alcohol limit and didn’t survive it.
Dad, my sister and I went to visit the Field of Light exhibition not long after the funeral. I was a reluctant participant. It was just past ANZAC day and our town was enduring a festival of Anzackery thanks to federal funding for the recent centennial of the Gallipoli landing. Field of Light was an installation by an international artist, of LED lights leading up to the war memorial. It was nearing the end of the installation and the car park was frantic. Hundreds of people struggled to find parking. There was an app to download so we could listen to individual’s stories and letters from the war. People strode by the lights filming themselves on their phones. One woman took selfies at every interpretive plaque with her Labrador.
The lights changed colour from orange to green to red to white and they changed in waves. Tens of thousands of lights, to represent every person who had died in the war. The coloured lights seemed to represent panic, fear, love, anger.
My sister and I stood where we could see the lights stretch up the hill towards the memorial. She took my hand and silently we watched the thousands of lights change colour. I was crying. The violence of it all. It was dark but my sister is an empath and so she took my hand. Both of us had recently experienced violent deaths; that irreconcilable trauma inflicted upon the bodies of those whom we love. She’d taught baby rhyme time to the children who were murdered by their grandfather and I’d lost my son’s father to blunt force injuries to the head and neck. We stood together, holding hands, watching the lights change colour.
‘It would have been like a washing machine,’ the police officer from Major Crash told me on the phone, speaking about his car full of tools. She paused and waited while I breathed.
He had the face like the figure of Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man. Straight brow, straight nose and a moustache and beard, similar in form the Vitruvian’s outspread arms, straight torso and wide-stance legs. It may seem strange, that a man’s face can look that that famous image but there you go. That was one of the thoughts that slunk into my mind as I fell against the wall, in the process of formal identification of his body for the police. That classic handsomeness of a symmetrical face. Straight of brow and nose. Despite a rather unsafe life, he’d retained these physical coordinates. His oldest son, my son’s brother from another mother, hugged me so hard that I could feel my sunglasses bite into my skull. A midgie, or an insect of some sort, flickered around his father’s bandaged face. I wondered where that insect had found him. Was it there in the bush, or later at the morgue? I think about that insect a lot. I like to think that it was a familiar. That, despite our horrified efforts to shoo it away, it stayed with him to keep him company.
In town recently … I was driving up the main street. It was a foul day; freezing cold with bouts of hail. Several cars were parked on the lawn beside the church. A woman wearing a beanie stopped to pick (or pinch) some narcissus from the church gardens. A man with an extraordinarily large nose walked past her. He was wearing white ear buds. I was looking for wine and most of the bottle shops were shut. It was a Sunday. They both had sunglasses and beanies, so it must have been May or early June, when the sun is low on the horizon all day and we need sunnies and we also need to be warm.
The hospital can be a place that we drive away from and everything has changed. A new life has been added or an old one deleted. I often think about that stretch of road between the hospital and the school/supermarket/pharmacy, and the amount of people who drive that few hundred metres knowing that everything in their life is different now. That things will never be the same again. The thoughts in all those people’s minds as they navigate the crappy T-section, or pull into the florist to buy flowers, they stay with me. I remember him saying after Stormboy was born that his life took on a new meaning during that drive. While driving he’d told himself this cycle of family violence ends with me. It’s over.
I also remember the conversation I had with him a few years ago. You have to respect the women who’ve given birth to your sons, I’d said to him. No one else has done that for you. You must respect us!
Forgive me for my morbid words. I’m still trying to work this shit out. Eduardo Galeano, when he notes that writers and artists are especially blighted, wrote “Writing springs from the wounded consciousness of the writer and is projected onto the world.” Projected … how very noble. It’s been real a fucking blast. So, while we artists continue writing about pain, violence and love, know that sometimes at night, like every other human being, I will find myself with my hand across my mouth because the whole thing has just been so bloody sad. I wonder, as I have done in the past, how to get through this. The last time, it was about someone who is still alive. At the time he’d said, ‘It’s like you have died but it’s even worse because you’re still alive.’ This new situation is somewhat different. Now I am wandering into the forest and thinking, yes, Stormboy’s father is light now and whenever I see light in its myriad incarnations, (rainbows, water, eclipse, moon, sun, a meteor) I know that somewhere in there is him.
Two years ago, my son totally mulched my bicycle. I’d loaned him my tent, my swag and my bike when he was in a tricky spot with his home to work situation. The tent and the swag survived but my bike came home with a buckled front rim and bent forks.
‘What have you done to my bike?’
‘Nothing mum! It was fine yesterday …’
‘Bullshit Stormboy. You’ve completely fucked my bike.’
Aussie was with me at the time and we both looked at the bike, then at him. I suspected he was doing jumps or crashing into potholes with my beautiful vintage Indi 500. Anyway, I would never ride my beloved bike again. Stormboy tried hammering out the kinks in the wheel rim in a belated goodwill gesture but both of us knew that it was no use. So I pinged him recently about the ancient bikes in his dad’s shearing shed. ‘You owe me a bike,’ I told him and the next time I went to the farm, the old Raleigh with the sheepskin seat and a dynamo light was propped outside the shearing shed on a milk crate, for me.
Sometimes I dream about him, my son. I am holding him like he is a baby to my chest and he is a baby in my dream but also a sort of baby/man/child. It feels like he is colicky and there is nothing I can do to comfort him. No Band-Aids, no kissing it better. Nothing works.
Recently I dreamed of his dad. I’ve been waiting for this one. The dead or dying come to me, more often when I’m awake than asleep. In the forest through beams of light, a flash of recognition as they disappear around the end of a supermarket aisle, those brindled hounds caught by the corner of my eye as they bound away through deep grass. It is both uncanny and every day.
I sit on the carpet in the middle of his childhood bedroom. The room is empty, cleared of his bed and cupboards. I am sitting cross legged, facing the window and he walks through the doorway behind me. Dreams of course offer 360 vision and so I can see that his head is still wrapped in the same bloodied bandages as when I saw him at the morgue. He puts his hand on my shoulder and then he sits down beside me on the floor. He feels gentle and kind. We sit together, silent, looking out through his bedroom window to the tree line.