Memoir

On surviving survivor’s guilt

From bad times to end times

MY MOTHER’S ASHES got scattered at the end of Australia’s Black Summer. She’d been dead for eighteen months. But her family – my five foster siblings and their twelve children – hadn’t been together since the funeral. Now we belatedly congregated under storm clouds south of Coffs Harbour. I was given the duty of unscrewing the lid like a petrol can and pouring her remnants towards the tank of the Pacific Ocean.

My brother John, a car salesman in Bundaberg, recited ‘Clancy of the Overflow’ – a paen to solitude my mother cooed to us before sleep back in Wondai. It imbued us with the residual delusion that we grew up on a sheep farm, not at a pub filled by graziers and tradies shearing their brain cells with beer.

‘And the hurrying people daunt me, and their pallid faces haunt me,’ John whispered, ‘as they shoulder one another in their rush and nervous haste.’

This felt like the end of something. Not just the chill of Mum’s illness, the heat of her disappearance, or acclimatising to those polar opposites in the aftershock of my father’s death in 2011. But also the four years I’d spent writing about the car crash that killed three of my best friends in 2009, when I was seventeen. I walked away from the head-on collision without a scratch. The driver, Dom, had been sober and under the speed limit. I signed a deal to write a memoir about grief when I was twenty-four.

My creative process had been waylaid when I inherited my father’s motel. There were roughly twenty years left on the lease. I demanded action from the landlord on several maintenance issues. The landlord claimed that my brother John – who ran the business before me – had poisoned several gum trees. We entered an expensive three-year legal battle.

SOMEONE WANTED THESE TREES DEAD, said the front page of the local newspaper. The headline ran above a picture of the leafless trunks beside a superimposed bottle of poison, along with a skull and crossbones.

The sale of the motel had been delayed a final six months by the banking Royal Commission, which meant that nobody could get a loan to buy the lease off me.

Then my mother died. I was awake in the motel when the call came from the nursing home at 3 am because backpackers in the park across the street were celebrating England’s progress into the semi-finals of the FIFA World Cup. ‘Let’s go fucking mental,’ they sang.

A week later, Bundaberg’s most decorated meth dealer rented the two Honeymoon Suites. He intercepted an assassination attempt at 3 am and beat up the would-be assassin. Luckily, I was suffering from chronic insomnia, so I promptly called 000.

‘I’ve called the police,’ I shouted from the private quarters.

‘He called the pigs!’ yelled the meth dealer.

The armed felon led the cops on a high-speed chase through Rum City. They left me to evict the unwed, semi-dead drug fiends still occupying the Honeymoon Suites. At 5 am, I searched my illustrious guest on Google and discovered that he’d once been arrested in possession of a shotgun and a machete. Each morning for the next week, I waited on tenterhooks for a call from the motel broker to provide salvation. Around midday, I waved at two zookeepers from the Bundaberg Zoo taking their dingo for
a walk.

‘You wouldn’t be dead for quids, would ya?’ said one.

‘Nah,’ I said, but the pros of being alive were increasingly outweighed by the cons. I thus decided to walk away from my father’s pride and joy for a pittance.

So, I had good reason to be optimistic about greener pastures ahead, while dispersing my mother’s ashes in the immediate aftermath of catastrophic bushfires. The law of averages demanded some luck. The soul-sucking manuscript I’d worked on for four years would be completed in March and was due to published in August. Like a normal person, I could stop concentrating on grief and mortality, at least briefly.

‘Change is better than a holiday,’ I said in my impromptu eulogy at the scattering.

The next day, I crossed the Sydney Harbour Bridge at 3 am and arrived at my new life in Bondi Junction. On that first night, Sydney was hit by a freak electrical storm. A gas bottle flew from a balcony at The Rocks and struck a pedestrian in the head, killing him instantly. It was a hint of things to come.

 

I TOOK THIS sliding-doors moment to sign up to a dating app called Hinge. In Sydney, my debut outing was with a medical student who knew nothing about me except my strange first name and unprofitable occupation. She limped with blistered heels from a new pair of black Dr Martens. We took a bottle of cabernet sauvignon and a packet of Red Rock Deli Chips to Tamarama Beach.

‘You wouldn’t be dead for quids, would ya?’ I said.

‘I guess,’ she replied.

Waves lapped at the black horizon. Pot wafted from a circle of English backpackers smoking a few hundred metres away. I couldn’t escape them.

‘Is that a dingo?’ I asked, pointing at a stray dog ten metres away.

‘It’s a fox,’ she said, grinning at my naiveté. ‘We have them here.’

On the unlit sand, I watched my cosmopolitan companion try to feed a handful of salt-and-vinegar chips to an orange fox. She got bitten on the hand. 

‘Do you need a tetanus shot?’ I asked.

‘It didn’t break the skin.’

Apart from the minor mauling by a wild animal, the night seemed like a success. I thought that I might be in love but hadn’t been on enough blind dates to appreciate this was a routine delusion caused by alcohol and the neurochemical equivalent of a new-car smell.

I’m not looking for anything serious, she wrote to me a few days later.

I sent a five-paragraph message in immaculate prose about how I, too, wasn’t looking for anything serious right now – but she didn’t buy it.

Unabated, I kept dating. Nothing stuck. At some point during the amicable dinners, the person sitting opposite asked what my parents did for a living. It was a question that means-tested the likelihood of a young writer from country Queensland buying real estate in the monied Eastern Suburbs.

I believed that brevity was the best medicine.

‘They’ve both passed away,’ I said. ‘But I’m doing alright for myself!’

The reassuring grin I delivered after that harrowing disclosure made me feel like a psychopath. So I began claiming my parents were property investors, using the past tense to make them sound retired rather than defunct.

 

TOWARDS THE END of February 2020, journalists reported on the spread of coronavirus. I kept telling whoever would listen it was ‘a storm in a teacup’, considering myself immune to the doomsday overreactions of human beings. Cases spread throughout Western Europe, endangering my blind denialism.

My brother John – a hard-working father of three – believed that Chinese communists were conspiring with European capitalists in an attempt to bring down the global economy. Why? To stitch up Donald Trump.

‘Don’t worry about it, mate,’ he said. ‘It’s an absolute hoax.’

His paranoia was a symptom of a vanishing middle ground. I was placed in the uncomfortable position of hoping that he was right this time.

‘Yeah,’ I said. ‘I think it’s a bit of a storm in a teacup.’

This was at the end of February. The plan was to see the sights of Sydney once I finished editing. Pretty much the only time I left my bedroom each day was to shit, piss and pick up a microwave dinner from the Coles at Bondi Junction.

I was living in a run-down terrace house with two mates from Toowoomba: a solicitor and an accountant, both of whom I’d known since school. We’d been blasé about hygiene until the widespread hypochondria about coronavirus.

‘It’s a storm in a teacup,’ I said to my neighbour Dave.

‘It’s a teacup in a tornado,’ he said. ‘But the teacups are lungs.’

It didn’t seem conceivable that the publication date of my book could be delayed yet again. My solipsism was now death-defying, not just girlfriend defying.

 

THE ONLY PERSON who could truly understand my cynicism towards the sensationalism of media spectacles was my friend Dom, the driver from the car crash that was the subject of my memoir. In 2011, he was acquitted of dangerous driving after facing two years of baseless accusations. Since 2017, Dom had been meditating and consuming magic mushrooms at an ashram in southern India. He finally forgave himself for the accident.

Dom arrived back in Australia at the end of 2020. He packed his belongings into a cheap car and fled Toowoomba for New South Wales a few weeks before the border back to Queensland was sealed shut like a Tupperware container.

My friend wore a hammer-and-sickle T-shirt given to him by a Vietnamese violinist in India. He had bright blue eyes, two nose piercings and a long, blond ponytail.

‘These are unprecedented times,’ he said on the streets of Bondi Junction.

‘The most unprecedented times of all time,’ I said.

That autumn dusk, we unpacked his threadbare possessions – including a suitcase of herbs, spices and rations of rice – before walking slowly to Centennial Park. Low sun, teal sky and pink clouds. I felt like I was staring at a bag of fairy floss. We found a park bench a few hundred metres from the nearest footpath. Dom and I talked openly about the book. He wanted to read it and measure his memories of trauma and grief against mine.

‘Do you want to try some DMT?’ he asked.

‘What’s that?’

‘DMT simulates a near death experience within the brain.’

‘That sounds absolutely horrific.’

‘It’s like every orgasm you’ve ever had at the same time.’

Dom had bought the plant-based molecule from a shaman at a bush doof on the Sunshine Coast. That’s how I lost my virginity to hallucinogens.

‘This is disappointing,’ I said, visionless and feeling impotent.

‘Can’t you see anything yet?’ asked Dom, just as I got sucked like an air-hockey puck from Centennial Park into a parallel universe of perception.

I grew immobile and speechless. It was akin to sleep paralysis, except I never wanted to wake up. The leaves on the branches of the trees reconvened as hammers and sickles. They spun in the sky like the rows of a pokie machine. My parents were invisible but everywhere. The slow emotional epiphanies from a decade of therapy were condensed within a five-minute hallucination.

‘Fuck. Me. Dead,’ I said, as the trip dissipated in dribs and drabs.

Dom grinned. ‘It’s an algorithm that spits out gratitude,’ he said.

 

THE FINAL DEADLINE for editing my manuscript was 18 March 2020. On 13 March, Scott Morrison announced the cancellation of public events from the following Monday. That wet, blustering Saturday, I binge-ate three gourmet sausage rolls from the bakery before braving the local Coles. Consumers descended to stockpile toiletries and perishable food. I was one of the few people not wearing a face mask. A man slid his muzzle off to grill a checkout lady about not getting enough Flybuys.

‘This is the last thing I need!’ he said.

A few days later, my accountant housemate was sent home from work with a fever. At that point of maximum paranoia, I realised he’d been using my electric toothbrush for the previous three weeks.

‘I thought mine was the dirty toothbrush,’ he said.

‘Mine is the dirty one!’ I said. ‘That’s why I didn’t clean it.’

I started suffering from an infection equal to the accountant. We engaged in coughing competitions and moped around the house like inmates on death row. But both our symptoms disappeared as soon as we received negative test results.

In the midst of public and private chaos, I managed to submit the manuscript. It was a Thursday afternoon. By Friday morning, my already overdue book had been delayed for another twelve months, until at least 2021. That was assuming the Australian publishing industry – and Western civilisation – hadn’t evaporated before then.

I’d been determined to rejoin the slipstream of grinning citizens unblemished by premonitions of death. Instead, every single living person on planet Earth came down to my deranged level. Pedestrians traded suspicious glances on empty streets. Zombies with insomnia wandered aisles ready to bite out each other’s eyes for toilet-paper rolls and bottles of hand sanitiser.

‘Twenty-five per cent of the country could be dead by Easter,’ said the accountant, who medicated grim predictions with mango-flavored marijuana, home delivered.

The drunken English backpackers who had followed me from Bundaberg descended on the beaches of Bondi for one last hurrah. This sent Sydney into a strict coronavirus lockdown. I was at ground zero of Australia’s short-term battle against mass extinction, which had quickly eclipsed the more medium-term extinction posed by mere climate change.

‘I have a theory,’ my climate-change denying brother John confessed on the phone from Bundaberg, slightly sheepish. ‘Coronavirus is either nowhere near as bad as what they’re telling us. Or it’s so much worse.’

 

THE ENNUI OF middle-class life met with breathless TV reports of mass death. Unlike in the bushfires, everyone was imperilled. The threat wasn’t seasonal, nor issued via postcode or tax bracket. But I barely raised a sweat. I’d spent the last eleven years in existential limbo: survivor’s guilt dovetailing into depression.

I wasn’t shocked by the prospect of my expiry, or the need to hold on for dear life – potentially for years until a vaccine was found. Selfish as it may sound to some, social isolation in the Eastern Suburbs was a plum way to bide my time compared with evicting meth heads from motel rooms in Bundaberg.

‘I think people like us have a higher tolerance for trauma,’ said Dom.

The footpaths of Bondi Junction filled with brand-new furniture thrown out by white-collar professionals with too much time on their hands.

‘The street giveth,’ said Dom. ‘And the street taketh away.’

Dom turned our lounge into a bedroom with a mattress, desk, tables and lamps recycled from alleyways. On the dole since getting back from overseas, he found work pulling eight-hour night shifts at a Best & Less factory in Blacktown. Six shifts a week equalled twelve forty-five minute drives.

‘Honey, I’m home,’ he announced upon arrival at 9 am each morning.

The tables had turned: Dom, the communist drifter, was the most productive housemate – at least according to the metrics of capitalism. The stoned accountant shaved his head and stalked the hallways in a shower gown, like a prophet of the apocalypse. He loafed on the couch with a shell-shocked expression due to rumours of redundancy. The other housemate, the solicitor, bought a Yamaha Gigmaker 310 Acoustic Guitar Pack as a coping mechanism for the lack of billable hours.

‘What if it stays like this forever?’ asked the accountant.

‘Let’s cross that bridge when we come to it,’ said the solicitor.

Like Dom, my fellow survivor, I thrived in the shadows. It was pretty hard to come unstuck when we didn’t have a centre of gravity to begin with.

I worked on an essay about Hillsong founder Brian Houston’s longing for the end of the world, and how it might influence his protégé Scott Morrison. Getting locked in a room to contemplate the private obsessions of public figures was my idea of heaven. Writing monetised the instinct for solitude, and Covid gave a palpable neurosis to the prose.

 

GOOD FRIDAY, I emerged from the psychological tomb of a 7,000-word essay about the End Times. The solicitor had been going on socially distanced dates in Centennial Park via Hinge. I decided to try my luck again and matched with a photographer living in Bondi. Mieka had sharp blue eyes and short blonde hair, inherited from Dutch grandparents on her mother’s side.

Wondering if you’re on Hinge for article research? she asked.

Haha nah not on here to do some Gonzo exposé on dating apps! I wrote.

Saturday, Mieka sent me a portrait of pegs on a clothesline: white sheets, blue skies. This made me grossly nostalgic for the geographically distant backyard of my Wondai childhood. I could smell lavender fabric softener and menthol cigarettes on my mother’s fingertips after she hung out the washing, and unleaded petrol from my father’s Victa lawnmower.

Not sure how you feel about Alain de Botton, wrote Mieka via text message, but I listened to a recent interview with him the other day and he said ‘the difficulty of life has thrown into relief the beauty of modest things’, which I thought was kind of nice.

I didn’t know much about Alain de Botton, but I sent a love heart.

I feel like the little beauties are the most sublime!!! I wrote.

Easter Sunday, I watched Brian Houston’s Hillsong service, even though my research was finished. At midday, Mieka hand-delivered a chocolate croissant to Bondi Junction. The brown paper bag had a love heart on it. She squealed easily with laughter, not the impassive photographer I anticipated.

She and I did a few socially distanced laps of Centennial Park while sedate police officers on horseback scrutinised edgy pedestrians for signs of illegal body contact. We sat on a bench and watched white ducks bob in the brown lake.

‘Do you want to come back to my place?’ she asked.

‘Sure,’ I said.

‘You aren’t allowed inside. My housemates would kill me.’

We walked to Mieka’s apartment in Bondi. She lived in a yellow block of art deco apartments. It was a middle-class commune of beautiful architects and artists, a million kilometres from the three-star motel in Bundaberg. I sat in the front garden watching waves break towards the people-free beach.

‘I can’t believe you liked me on Hinge,’ she said.

Mieka made a confession: a few years earlier, she had listened to my interview with Richard Fidler about my family getting stalked by religious zealots. And she had read my most recent essay for The Monthly mentioning the death of both my parents. This should’ve been terrifying, but I was relieved. She wasn’t going to ask me what they did for a living.

‘You better get going,’ she said. ‘Before we start making out.’

At dusk, I walked lightheadedly along Bondi Road, carrying a bouquet of silver beet and kale from Mieka’s organic garden. Dom incorporated my haul of leafy green vegetables into a communal dinner of lentil soup.

‘You’re grinning like a Cheshire cat,’ he said.

‘I think I’ve cracked the code,’ I said.

On Monday afternoon, Mieka and I reconvened at Centennial Park for a stroll. We decided to officially start dating, thereby securing a loophole around the hygiene requirements and anxieties of her housemates.

House meeting scheduled for Wednesday, she wrote after going home. Current estimates indicate we could be making out by the end of the week.

Meanwhile, Dom had started dating his supervisor at the Best & Less factory. Between work and meditation, he read the draft of my memoir Car Crash. We sat in the courtyard talking about our survivor’s guilt and the toxic masculinity that led us to become reckless young men.

‘My dad was American,’ he said, ‘and I grew up there. I never felt like I really belonged in country Queensland. I did so many things that I’m not proud of. To fit in. To be considered a true-blue Aussie. She’ll be right, mate. And it wasn’t until I went overseas that I felt some kind of freedom.’

‘Freedom from needing to belong?’ I asked.

‘And from the car crash,’ he said. ‘I felt like people were watching me everywhere I went. It reminded me of The Truman Show. In India, I was completely anonymous. And I could be honest about who I really am.’

For a long time, I felt like I was the odd one out in the car crash because I read books and wrote poetry. But all of the other passengers had an equal significance. It’s just that most of them never got the opportunity to elucidate their true selves like Dom and me.

 

THE ELEVEN-YEAR ANNIVERSARY of the accident fell on a Saturday. My friend Rosie came over at dusk. She went through the grieving process with Dom and me back in 2009. Now she was a nurse in Sydney. We sat in the lounge room drinking Coronas. Rosie had wet eyes and a wry smile.

‘Do you ever feel like death is following you everywhere?’ she asked, referring to coronavirus, and the recent suicide of a high-school flame.

‘I never not feel like that,’ I said.

‘I left Queensland to get away from all that sadness,’ she said. ‘But the only time I feel understood is when I’m with people from Toowoomba.’

That night, I caught an Uber to Mieka’s place in Bondi. A salty breeze carried the scent of garlic and parsley from the kitchen down the hallway to the front door. Like Dom, Mieka was nearly finished reading my memoir about the car crash. It was an innovative way for a new girlfriend to know basically everything about me after dating for two weeks. But instead of recoiling from my embrace, Mieka laughed and flashed her freckled eyelids at me.

‘I’ve missed you,’ she said, hugging me tenderly.

She wore brown boots, a black apron and red lipstick. We ate pasta and a pistachio salad. Bob Dylan crackled from speakers. Through the windows, the lights of North Bondi sparkled above the dark sea. I savoured the taste of gin and lipstick, the sight of undivided eye contact above a mouth spilling with warm laughter. Such specific intimacies were what I’d been vaguely craving during my wasted years of stress and solitude.

‘Thanks for coming over,’ said Mieka. ‘I know it must be a tough day.’

‘I’m just sorry for hammering you with so much horror,’ I said.

‘You’re the opposite of the horror that I’m running from.’

In Mieka’s bedroom, the linen sheets were covered with silhouettes of strelitzia leaves, big and shivering. I helped her tuck the mosquito net underneath the mattress. She kissed me with an epic intensity. Invisibly, I defected from the archipelago of the dead to the mainland of the living.

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