I come from a long, staggering line of alcoholics. My grandfather died at 53 – multiple heart attacks. An uncle in his 40s to the needle sublime. The men in my family die young, and my older brother Charlie was no exception.
Growing up it was just my mother, me, and Charlie. We spent our childhood punching on until, aged 14, I dropped him with a lump of wood. Lights out. He got up and kicked the shit out of me but it was a lesson learned.
Charlie quit school. Did time for bullshit I was too smart to get caught for, before getting the choice of the army or prison. He trained at Kapooka, Puckapunyl, then went north to Townsville where the Bundy and Coke was cold and the weather wasn’t. One Christmas he flew home to Melbourne for three weeks’ leave that were a blur of drink, smoke and slander; small words, deep impacts.
Just before his leave ended a car appeared in the driveway. It was an ugly square yellow Nissan Bluebird but it had a six cylinder and rally-tuned suspension. Quick, it hugged the road like a long-lost aunt. To this day I don’t know if he bought the car or stole it.
The pair of us were polar opposites in intellect, education and ethics, but it was fair to say I was still a fuck-up. The Friday before his leave ended he asked if I wanted to drive to Townsville with him. Problem was, being a drunk I hadn’t bothered to get my licence.
“Fuck yeah!” I said, so 5am Saturday I was in the passenger seat when Charlie backed out of the driveway – destination FNQ.
Around 8am we crossed the muddy Murray at Tocumwal. Near Finley, a flock of sheep pushed along the Newell by a couple of farmers forced us to a crawl. We inched forward through the dung-scented dust of the mob’s footsteps for forever before the herd eventually parted and Charlie could put his foot to the floor.
We hurtled north under belting summer sun until Dubbo, where we stopped for Maccas and Charlie threw me the keys.
“I’m sure,” he said, dipping the last of his fries into a sundae.
I pointed the car north: Gilgandra, Coonabarabran, Narrabri and Moree flashing by. Giddy, it was the furthest – and fastest – I’d driven.
Charlie slept until we got to Goondiwindi. He drove to Brisbane where we dozed fitfully and moved again before dawn. On the Bruce Highway we sat on 140kmh and didn’t see the Pacific until Sarina. By then, purple-hued storm clouds were piled high. It was early Monday morning when we reached Townsville, negotiating torrential rain for the last part of the 3000km journey.
I worked nights bouncing, him days driving ‘grunts’ around. Afternoons we’d drink cheap beer on base. We were at each other’s throats all summer. By April I’d gotten into strife and skipped town; Charlie happy to see me go.
A few years passed then a few more until one day there’d been nearly a quarter of a century of silence between us.
Then the phone rang. Charlie, 50, had died.
“Figured he’d be in jail or dead,” I said to my never-met nephew, Jack.
“Coming to the funeral?”
“I’m sure,” I said, dropping ice in my drink.
Jack and I talked for a bit. Cars mostly. But I did tell him that thinking back, those two days on the road were the closest his father and I had ever been, though truthfully, we’d never been further apart.