AUSTRALIA, ANY CITY, Saturday night: red unsteady men in pastel shirts and designer sneakers have groping sweaty fists and angry eyes; bored tall thin men in black jeans, pointed leather shoes and structured mullets stand in copses holding conspicuously cheap beer. Lone middle-aged men in tight shirts with tattooed biceps stretch jewelled fingers and survey the crowd. Eighteen-year-old men travel in excited, sexed-up packs.
Crowds breathe in and out, and the air is flammable with alcohol and fucking and angry, tense excitement as people reel and jolt through the night. Around three in the morning they begin to fall into taxis. The drivers are patient and change the radio if requested. They are the feeder fish in this alcoholic mire. They decipher garbled addresses and shrug off drunken slurs. They take the long route if they can.
In between a Commonwealth Bank ATM and a Night Owl convenience store sits a tattoo parlour with floor-to-ceiling glass frontage. It's open late, and people wait on pleather benches for their turn, listening to the dentist drill ring of the tattoo gun. Across from the shop is a brick rotunda where an old Indigenous couple sit, ask for money, drink and watch the world stagger by.
On a corner outside a car park a solemn white man in a hotdog hat stands in front of his cart fielding insults from passers-by. There are kebab shops and hot food stands and an all-night café that serves a four-dollar breakfast. Here is the shop with huge pizza slices where once I got into a fight with four men over an imagined slight and had to be ushered outside by the friend whose honour I was defending. We stepped onto the footpath where an unconscious man lay with a bloody gash on his forehead, gaping mouth askew. He hadn't been there when we'd gone into the pizza shop five minutes earlier. 'Someone hit him for no reason,' the girl who was sitting with him said. 'They just hit him and walked off.'
'You're lucky that isn't you,' my friend said.
AUSTRALIA, ANY CITY, Saturday night: women stuffed into sausage-skin dresses squeeze bare breasts and buttocks into the air no matter the temperature. They sway on seven-centimetre heels, turning hazy searchlight eyes that don't connect but skid instead. In bathrooms they cackle and cry and shriek if you take too long on the toilet because everyone saves their pee until they may or may not make it to the front of the queue with their smarting, overblown bladders and made-up faces melting.
Once, standing in an endless toilet line, bloated with beer, nineteen-year-old me managed to make it past the cubicle door but not to the toilet. I pissed my pants, grey woollen pants. Wiping them damp with toilet paper, I lurched out the door of the bar, down the street, towards home.
I started drinking when I was fifteen. By 'drinking', I mean getting drunk. I was young compared to some people and old compared to others, although generally, my peers started at that age. We had no limitations, except price. Price meant severe quality limitations, and my early drinking life was a series of sickly, sticky-sweet nights fuelled by warm Fruity Lexia, Passion Pop, peach schnapps and half bottles of Bundaberg rum.
I grew up in Brisbane, where the air is warm and smells like tamarind paste. In summer everything is overripe and drunk with fermentation, including people. When we weren't drunk we were, being underage, scheming about how to get drunk. If you or your friend had an amenable older brother, sister or parents, or you had a working fake ID, life blossomed.
I was odd and shy and desperate to fit in at my private Catholic girls' school, so alcohol was important to me. It was an equaliser. If you drank you were deemed okay. At least peripherally okay – within were many other social qualifiers, which were more difficult to live up to, let alone comprehend. You must be pretty, you must be outspoken, you must wear brand names, you must know boys, you must be straight. But if you didn't measure up to some of these criteria, all it took was a functioning pharynx and oesophagus, and the opportunity.
I drank when possible, and when possible to excess, although I wasn't notably wild. I didn't drink at school, I didn't drink every weekend, I didn't even steal my parent's liquor and make rocket fuel. I was fairly lame compared to the other girls.
Despite that, my first empty memory is from when I was fifteen, when I drank half a bottle of rum at a friend's brother's eighteenth birthday party. All I know is that I was hauled out from under their house by a man covered in my vomit. My friends told me the next day. I called it contraceptive vomit and tried to make them laugh.
At seventeen, hanging out at some house with my friend and five or six men who my friend had met at schoolies, I drank three-quarters of a bottle of tequila and woke up naked on a bare mattress. A fat man was lying naked on a bed in the opposite corner. He saw that I had woken up and said, 'You wouldn't let me sleep next to you. You kicked me out. After.' Then he rolled over and went back to sleep.
Twenty minutes later he sat back up. He said, 'Do you remember last night?'
I shook my head.
He blinked. 'You said you didn't want to, but then you said it was okay that we... You didn't let me sleep next to you. You know – afterwards... You kicked me out. We used a condom.'
I was at a house somewhere in the suburbs that sprawl behind the Gold Coast beaches. I couldn't remember getting there. I couldn't remember meeting the fat guy, or anything about the night.
He drove me back to the house where my friend still was, via the beach so he could check the surf. We drove the long way. 'We're on the Gold Coast Indy track,' he told me.
WHEN I WAS twenty-one I moved to Melbourne. It was the first time I'd lived away from home. I moved in with my best friend. She was living in a crummy old mansion that had been subdivided into flats.
For the next four years I reeled from night to night, sharing cask after cask of red wine on the stained, worn-out carpet of whatever crumbling share house I was living in at the time with whomever I was living with.
It was how we punctuated our week; it was how everyone I knew punctuated their week. Tedious sentences of work, study, school, divided by glorious, gluttonous nights of foaming beer, tart wine, alcopops, cocktails in tall glasses, dancing, smoking, fucking, talking shit and laughing.
I passed out in toilets and in Chinese restaurants. I picked fights. I talked to myself in bars and woke up between dirty sheets in strange beds. I vomited. I vomited a lot: at home, at work, in a bowl, in the toilet, while falling down stairs, on the side of the road, in Brunswick, North Melbourne, South Yarra, Malvern, Parkville, Fitzroy, the CBD, Mount Waverley, St Kilda, Carlton.
But it was funny and we were fearless. One night we broke into an old cinema that was being demolished. The bare earth was shaped like an amphitheatre, yet the toilets were still functioning. I flushed one and heard a security guard yell, so I climbed into the shovel of an earthmover to hide, watching the flash of his torch. There were three of us and we made a break for the gate. It was chained, but there was a small opening to squeeze through. The guard came close, and we only just made it through. We ran to a nearby club, hid inside for a while and then, still smiling, we exited via the staff-only rear staircase onto the street. The cops were waiting for us.
Another night I stole a fluffy pink g-string from a sex shop. I made it thirty metres down the street before I was wrestled to the ground by the enormous man from behind the cash register. He said nothing, just took the g-string out of my hands and left me on the ground.
Over time I became, if possible, a worse drunk. I said incredibly cruel things to my friends, and promptly apologised the next day. 'You know I didn't mean it – I was drunk.' I cultivated what I call a Violet Crumble memory – pocked with holes. I began to anticipate nights out with excited dread, resigning myself to the fact that I would drink too much and do something regrettable.
There was no subterfuge to my drunkenness. I didn't have to know someone who knew someone who knew someone else to get pissed. We simply walked into any Dan Murphy's warehouse or local 24-hour bottle-o. It seemed to me that everyone was intoxicated. I remember reading in the paper during that time headlines like '260 a week arrested for public drunkenness' and 'Public drunkenness, while ugly, should not be a crime'.
ONE WEEKDAY MORNING in November 2009, before I had left for work, someone knocked on my front door. It was my aunt Helen. I was surprised to see her, seeing as she lived in South Australia.
'Hey,' I said. 'What a nice surprise. It's good to see you.'
'Not good,' she said, and started to cry. 'You have to go home.'
At this time I was the eldest of three children. I had two younger brothers who, like siblings in fairy tales, were tall and handsome and funny and brave. One still is. The other one went out one night and never came back. When Helen knocked on my door that morning, he'd been missing for a day and a night.
Helen bought me a ticket at the Qantas counter and we drank coffee in the lounge. We made polite conversation. On the plane we did the crossword. It took us the whole trip.
I was told that at around 2 am the night Alexander disappeared, the police had found his thongs and his wallet in a pile on the Story Bridge, a cantilevered bridge spanning the Brisbane River, connecting Fortitude Valley and Kangaroo Point.
When we arrived at my parents' house there were people everywhere. My brother's friends sat around the pool, not speaking. Elsewhere people were fussing, crying, falsely cheery, shaking their heads. Everyone kept trying to touch us, hug us.
My brother Patrick and I printed out missing person posters. We gave some to his friends to stick up. We went out in the car and stuck them up anywhere we thought that he might have gone.
No one called, except a young guy who thought he'd seen him the night before, swaying along the walkway down the side of the bridge. He thought it was one of his friends and had slowed down. The person he saw was pretty drunk, the young guy said.
In the afternoon we sat on the back veranda. Talk turned to the type of birds each of us liked. One of my aunties tried to name a bird, but couldn't remember it, so described it instead. My dad took What Bird Is That? down from the bookshelf and searched through each page until he found one that fitted the description. 'I think that's it,' the aunty said.
The cops found Alexander the next morning. A family friend who was out jogging saw one of the posters we'd stuck up, and called. He was looking at a police boat in the river. They were pulling something in, he said. It was a body.
They turned up at our house an hour or so later and confirmed that it was him. Alexander had been arrested for a minor offence a year earlier, so his fingerprints were on file. The police had checked the fingerprints of the body against the ones they had on record.
Patrick made a noise I've never heard another human being make. It sounded like a kettle boiling. Someone told me later that he was keening.
At its highest point, the clearance below the Story Bridge is 30.4 metres, almost a hundred feet. There's a YouTube clip of someone jumping off it. This person only breaks his legs in the process. To survive a jump of that height you have to hold your body a certain way. You have to think about which limb enters first, and how to arrange your body so that the bones don't snap and crumple from the impact.
Once you're falling from above a certain height, I've learned, water is like concrete. The molecules may part and leap deceivingly, but your flesh hits a solid surface. Only then does the water that broke you go soft. It licks your fingers and plays with your hair. It bucks your scarecrow limbs in the wash. It sucks at your feet and torso with its long lips. If you are still somehow breathing, it fills your mouth, runs into your lungs and switches you off.
The young man who'd called the day before phoned again to see if we'd found my brother. My mum told him what happened.
'I'm sorry I didn't stop,' he said.
'How were you supposed to know?' she answered.
The people at the mortuary said it would be better if we didn't see his body. He had been in the river too long. When we went to the funeral home to view the coffin, my dad lifted one end to make sure he was in there.
A couple of days after Alexander's death we found an exercise book in his room. He had filled in a couple of pages, and I still remember two things that he wrote. The first was that he wanted to be a stand-up comedian. He'd never told any of us that before; he was studying to be an engineer. The second was that drinking made him feel down, but that he did it anyway.
The coroner's report, when we finally received it, stated Alexander's blood alcohol level was very high when he died. I don't know if he would have died if he hadn't been drunk. Maybe he just didn't want to be here anymore. But nothing about his behaviour suggested he was depressed. He had finished his final exams that day; it was only two weeks after his twenty-first birthday, and he was planning a trip to America. There was no letter, no note, no goodbye. Later, his best friend told us that a group of guys, including my brother, had been jumping off bridges for kicks for a while. Still, he'd never done it by himself. Whether he jumped because the alcohol made him feel gloomy, or because it made him feel indomitable – it no longer matters. All I can figure is that he wouldn't have died that night if he hadn't had so much to drink.
Drinking is inherent to Australian culture. In the late 1800s Marcus Clarke wrote of the new population of Australia, 'They are not a nation of snobs like the English or of extravagant boasters like the Americans or of reckless profligates like the French, they are simply a nation of drunkards.'
In 1955 the soon-to-be-Prime Minister Bob Hawke famously drank a yard glass – two and a half pints – of beer in eleven seconds, thus entering the Guinness Book of Records as the fastest beer drinker on the globe. 'This feat was to endear me to some of my fellow Australians more than anything else I ever achieved,' he once said.
Being drunk, and drinking, is fun. It's glorious to be without care or fear. Alcohol is an important and ubiquitous element in almost every human culture. It facilitates ease at social events, it complements meals, it's used to denote special occasions, it's a way to relax, it's a treat, it's something to share. But the way Australians drink to excess, the way we let young people drink – the question is no longer 'Why do we do that?' but 'How do we allow it?'
A few weeks ago now a new billboard appeared near my house. It's an ad for a well-known Australian beer. A line of attractive partygoers is pictured. A boy in the foreground holds up a beer; a beautiful girl clutches his other arm. The block writing is cartoonish. The tagline reads, 'Destiny is calling but beer is on the other line', and in the bottom right-hand corner are two words: 'Hello BEER'. Like that – italicised 'Hello' andregular 'BEER' – so when you say it out loud the o in 'Hello' is low and long.
I assume comprehensive research went into its intended audience, its placement, its copy. It uses the term 'destiny', a word that means, among other things, 'the inner purpose of a life that can be discovered and realised'. In twelve words it sums up the Australian experience of alcohol: that we forsake a lot for the sake of a feeling.