WE MET AT work. I thought he was unattainable and I mostly felt like a young girl when I was around him. One day we were standing by the fax machine and it was beeping and I made a joke about how maybe the message would come out in reverse and he laughed.
When we found out he was dying we didn't know what we should do but we knew it had to be something special. Our relationship had developed this particular style – sexy and funny and ironic, just like in the movies. We did things like drive in his big old car and play Dean Martin on the tape deck and drink vodka. We were relentless piss-takers. Our fucking was everywhere and rude and other people wanted to be us.
In the doctor's waiting room one day – this is after he decided he didn't want chemo or anything – he found an old coverless copy of the Australian Women's Weekly at the bottom of the kiddie toy box. In it was this story that really cracked us up. It was about some local councillor from south-east Queensland and how he had been on a junket in France studying sheep when he ended up in Lourdes on a day trip. While he was in the grotto of the Virgin, praying for a cure for his gout, God came upon him and told him to go home and build a statue of Jesus 157 feet high. We liked the way God was specific.
It was an issue from 1963 and at the time of publication the bloke was about to pour the slab.
He told me that before he died – which would be soon – we could go and see what happened with this big Jesus. Straightaway I could see the possibilities. Firstly, there was the whole road trip thing, which we'd both love. More Dean Martin and vodka and hotel lovemaking and sitting back watching the road through the chrome hood ornament. Also we both had a thing for the piss-weak. I said to him that maybe on the way up to Queensland to see this big Jesus we could have a bit of a tour of all the other big things. He really liked that idea.
We were just workers so he extended the credit on all the cards he had and applied for all the ones he didn't. It was easy. We bought new cowboy boots and I organised new tyres and brakes for the Valiant. He bought me a road atlas and I plotted a course to Jesus with all the bigs marked in pink highlighter. He said goodbye to everyone.
Mostly I let him do that on his own – so he could truly be himself. I went with him a few times – like the time we went to see his mum – but I found it very hard to deal with. The best people to visit were the ones who were into the trip and who asked us where we were going and to send them postcards and stuff, or the ones who made suggestions about where the best big things were. People who said things like 'you never know what will happen' annoyed me because it was like they were saying that he wasn't going to die, which was just a lie. One of them even said 'see you later' as we left.
The guys from work got together and bought him an instant camera and heaps of film. I don't know why but I thought that was a really good present. People who are dying can be hard to buy for. At the party he took photos of them all and he mounted them on the dash of the Valiant. Later he would put photos of all the big things there as well.
THE TUESDAY WE left Melbourne I was sitting in the car and a truck near us started beeping as it reversed and I thought about how, when he laughed at my corny joke by the fax machine, that day he didn't know he was dying.
At the Big Merino we bought sheepskin seat covers from the gift shop next door and fitted them right there in the car park. We didn't go inside. We just smoked a joint for his pain and watched busloads of tourists wash in and out of its giant fibreglass arse. I really wondered why the hell anyone ever bothered doing anything. He put the Polaroid of the Big Merino on the dashboard next to the one of the Big Trout. His framing was real nice.
We had sex more than was necessary. Even though we were loaded we stayed in cheap motels. Sometimes we would get smashed and spend the night running a commentary on the decor.
We decided we would like to meet the sales rep for all that lime green and orange and dark blue Laminex. We reckoned he probably had a thing going with the women who had the territory for the fake wood panelling. When they bumped into each other at some second-rate small-town motel they would pretend not to know each other. Later, after they put away their sample books, they would secretly get together.
He decided how long we stayed in each place. I would have the car packed and all of a sudden he would decide he didn't want to leave – that he liked something particular – like the water pressure or a tree. Other times I would be asleep and he would wake me and tell me he wanted us to drive. He was trying to time it all. I think the plan was to find Jesus and then die in my arms. It was a lot to take on.
We picked up a couple of hitchhikers, two young Swiss guys who were on some sort of elaborate dodge of national service. They had incredibly good dope and after a long conversation about which TV shows got dubbed into Swiss German we settled into a quiet mood and drove with all the windows down and with warm air blowing across us.
North of Newcastle we came to the best piss-weak big thing – the remains of Leyland Brothers World. When I was a kid we lived opposite one of the Leyland brothers at Lake Macquarie. I don't remember if it was Mike or Mal but I remember that one time I was playing on a pile of rubble on the vacant lot next to his house and one of the Mrs Leyland Brothers yelled at me.
The thing about Leyland Brothers World – which is now a truck stop – is that the main attraction was a huge fibreglass replica of Ayers Rock. It is still there and it could be the biggest of the bigs for all I know. What I really like though is that the big Ayers Rock is much smaller than the real Uluru and breaks the one and only rule of big things – be bigger than the thing.
I hadn't told him that this was coming up around the next corner and I had put Solid Rock by Goanna on the tape deck. When he saw that stupid big red bastard he started laughing like I hadn't heard since before we found out. We sat in the car park and laughed until we both had gobs of snot hanging from our noses. When the part of the song about living on borrowed time came on I panicked but he just laughed at that as well. I was glad I could do that for him – make him laugh like that. Sometimes I imagined moments like that helped eat cancer.
The thing we had been hiding from – signs of dying – came at Taree. He just started spewing up everywhere and all over the new seat covers. It scared the hell out of both of us. I didn't really know what to do for him. I tried not to show panic as I knew how he wanted to play it like Mr Cool. He wanted it to be like one of those art-house movies – his favourites were Betty Blue and Paris, Texas. That's some pressure. He spewed and spewed and spewed and all I could do was hold his hair and wonder how much more his stomach held. He said to me when he finished spewing that it must have been the oyster. That cracked me up because we had just been to the Big Oyster.
Later he said he thought it was the strong dope that the Swiss guys had given him that had made him spew. I agreed with him so we could stay in denial. He stuck a Polaroid of the oyster on the dashboard and we went on a mission for a real ugly room.
When we crossed into Queensland two things happened. First, we hit a patch of big. The dashboard was getting full now and it looked real nice. We got shots of the Mower, the Cow and the Pineapple in just two days. Also, he had started to get right into it. The Polaroid camera was very good and heaps better than those old ones you find at flea markets. It had shutter and aperture control and he taught me about depth of field and exposure. His favourite part was holding the negative up to the light and watching the image appear on the white paper by magic. He said that waving it back and forth in the air made the picture come out better. I liked to watch him do that.
At the Big Cow we sat around all day just waiting for the right light. He got it with this blood-red sunset behind it and it was worth the wait but at the Big Pineapple it seemed like he got really fussy for no reason. He used six cartridges of film before he was happy. Part of me wondered whether he was just trying to use up all the film so that he could die sooner.
He didn't know I had been restocking the cartridge box since Coffs Harbour.
The other thing we did was we started asking people about this big Jesus. We weren't stupid about it – we didn't ask just anybody. We went to local councils and spoke to planning people and we went to old people's homes and asked people from 1963 and we went to churches and asked church people and we asked those old bastards in the old-bastard pubs who look like they think they know everything. No one had heard of it.
NEAR TOOWOOMBA HE started lying down in the back seat as I drove. I would tell him if there was anything interesting to look at or he would ask me if he was missing anything good and I would say yes or no. Once I lied and told him that his favourite model Valiant was coming the other way just so he would sit up. At the next town he bought a copy of a book called Ulysses and started to read it to me out loud as punishment. Sometime during page five he threw it out of the window and asked me what was the point of anything.
At Toowoomba we stopped at the Big Cane Toad. The thing I like about cane toads is you can kill them and not feel guilty. The place was really just a reptile park with a cardboard frog out the front but I wanted to show him a trick a girl from Townsville had taught me.
A cane toad has a hard plate at the back of its head and if you find the right spot you can hold it between your teeth while it does the escape paddle. It really spins people out. I grabbed a toad from a display tank and shoved it in my mouth but I did it wrong and I swallowed some of the cane toad poison. I was off my tits in about 30 seconds. It was great. He didn't believe me when I told him cane toad poison can get you off and how licky dogs get addicted to it all the time. I wiped some of the white foam from the toad's head onto my finger and stuck it in his mouth.
Not many guys would let you do something like that.
He put a fresh toad down his shirt and we bolted. We bought some hot chips and drove up to a place called Picnic Point and ate the chips and got off our faces taking it in turns to lick the toad. We were watching the sunset over the valley and down below some agricultural machine started beeping and I thought about how when he laughed at my corny joke by the fax machine that day he didn't know he was dying.
At Dalby he started to get real sick and I started to believe that we weren't going to find this Jesus and that we were stupid for trusting Women's Weekly. We stayed at a good motel so the bed would be firm and the air-conditioner quiet and so he could have a bath and watch the Discovery channel and so we could make our own toast.
I went out every day trying to find someone who knew this Jesus but by lunchtime I would just end up at the pub. I asked everyone who came in if they knew Jesus. The first day, a guy called Noel tried to save me. The second day, a guy called Brian asked me to save him. On the third day, a guy called Trevor told me he had been saved already and he drew me a map. I was surprised at how close we were.
He was real happy when I told him. He just cried and cried. We didn't go straightaway. We stayed in the motel for a while – he was working on the timing. We ate well and we stopped smoking. We took small walks and sat in the pool and let the spa wash over us. He slept a lot but I hardly slept – I just watched him breathe mostly. One morning he said that we should hit the road.
On the last day I watched him in the rear-view mirror as I drove. He tried to load a new film cartridge into the camera. At first I smiled at what a determined bastard he was. Then I was sad because I started to think about how it was his last photo and then I panicked because I realised we hadn't taken a nice photo of us together and then I remembered there were lots at home.
I started to cry because I realised we hadn't made love for the last time and then I remembered how before all of this he had once said he wanted to die inside me. I panicked because I thought that was maybe what he wanted to do now but then I looked in the mirror and watched him trying to load the camera and I realised he just wanted to take his photo of Jesus and die.
He looked up at me and our eyes met and I could see he was letting go right there and then on the back seat. He asked me if I was sure we were going the right way and I said yes but I didn't tell him I had been this far before.
After Trevor drew me the map I drove straight out here to check that Jesus was in the paddock like he said. I started to think about how bad it would be to get out here and find only a heap of cows or something. Then I panicked too because I thought that if Jesus wasn't in the paddock we would just end up driving around forever so, in the end, I turned around and went back to the motel and didn't say anything.
We came to the end of the road. When I lifted him from the car his lightness offended me. I carried him along the cow track. It was a blue day with a breeze and birds and I said he must be happy at how it all looked like in a movie and he said he couldn't see anymore. I told him the grass was green and that the sky was blue. I told him that when my mum was a little kid she used to stand in cow shit to keep her feet warm.
I carried him a long way before I found the place. I sat us down in the middle of the paddock and held him in front of me. We sat for a while and then I loaded the cartridge into the camera. I held his hands around it and I lifted it up for him. I lined up a nice shot like he'd taught me and I put his finger on the shutter button for him.
He said he would send me a sign from the afterlife and then we pressed the shutter button together.
I held the negative high in the air above us and waved it about the way he liked but it never developed.
It just stayed white.