Watsonia – Nuclear target 10 km
Some idiot was telling his mate he was a legend or something.
‘Bullshit mate,’ this ugly-looking bloke barked into his mobile, ‘She was all over you? Legend. Mate, you’re a dead-set iron-clad legend.’
The words didn’t sink in immediately. They’d flashed past my eyes. I guess they were suspended in space some place, just waiting for my brain to reassemble them like Joey built the XD’s engine. Joey. That’s a name I hadn’t thought of for a while.
The idiot’s feet were up on the seat in front of him, his huge dirty runners pressed against the back of the seat. Some neat little office worker would get on the train in a few hours and get off it with the dirt from this wanker’s shoes all over their arse. People like that piss me off.
‘Nah mate. Nah, don’t call her tonight. No way. She be beggin’ for it when ya give her a call.’ He listened intently to his phone. I couldn’t tell if he was nodding or if his head was moving in unison to the clickity-clack, clickity-clack motion of the train.
‘I’ll see you at Crown. Yeah, usual place. We’ll talk about it then. Should be right though,’ he continued. I found myself torn away from the stillborn image of the graffiti. I imagined the other half of the conversation until the whole of it belonged to me. Then I got lost in my own little world until the sign was re-assembled inside my head.
Watsonia – Nuclear target 10 km
It took me another stop or so before I caught up with the meaning of the words.
The part about Watsonia – who gives a stuff – I’ve only ever been there once before. That was a lifetime ago now. The nuclear target bit – whatever. Ten kilometres. I’d walk a million miles to have it all back the way it was. Well, maybe not walk the whole million miles, but I’d sure as hell like to give it a crack.
I must have seen the graffiti like a thousand times before.
When my mate Joey and me wanted to cut class we’d haul arse to the train station, jump the barrier before the bloke got out of the ticket booth and scramble aboard any city-bound train that came trundling along. We’d ride the rails all the way into town.
On those crazy trips, Joey’d be like a ball of orange flame. He’d be climbing the walls of the carriage, hanging from the straps, racing round inside the carriage like a pinball. He’d spend most of the time urging the train to get to where it was going that little bit quicker.
He’d stick his head out the window or sometimes he’d wedge the door open and holler down the length of the train stuff like, ‘Hasn’t this fucker got another gear?’ It was useless me saying anything. I was three and a half months older than Joey but he never listened to me. Or anyone.
Little old ladies would shift uncomfortably in their seats and move carriages the very next opportunity. I reckon it was Joey’s aim to get us a carriage all by ourselves. He nearly always managed it too.
He’d look out for the Watsonia graffiti as if it were an old friend, his nose pressed against the window like he’d seen some puppy in a pet shop. I don’t know what drew him to the words. We never talked about why that bit of graffiti caught his eye and the hundreds of other tags and scrawls up and down the line were just random splotches of meaningless colour. When he saw it, he’d recite the words like they contained a nugget of truth just under their surface: ‘Watsonia. Nuclear target. 10 kilometres.’
Then he’d pause, lean in so closely you could smell the cheap aftershave he wore like a tattered badge of manhood, and whisper demonically, ‘Whoosh.’ The imagined sound of the unimaginable explosion. He didn’t just do it me. No way, he’d do it anyone left in our carriage, young or old. Like I said, we nearly always had the carriage to ourselves when the train shuddered to a halt at Flinders Street.
Don’t get me wrong, Joey wasn’t just like that on the trains. It was kind of like he had to not be where he was at just about any given moment in time.
Joey had so much energy he was built like a human whippet. He might have been skinny looking but he had muscles – even way back then. We was only thirteen when he started helping out his Uncle Enzo on building sites. Enzo ran a construction company, putting up squat little houses in places like Croydon and Cranbourne. Occasionally, I’d meet up with Joey early Saturday mornings and Enzo would drive us out to the sticks. I’d hang out while Joey worked on one of Enzo’s buildings. He’d lay some brick, dig a trench or two, and maybe help one of the other guys pour some concrete or slap up the frame.
Joey’s favourite word was ‘noggin’.
Joey’d be this skinny little wog kid giving lip to these big old skips Enzo employed as brickies or labourers.
‘Hey fatman,’ he’d challenge someone or other who was usually still hung over from being on the piss the night before, ‘you want for me to put this whole wall up while you finish your shit-flavoured meat pie?’
I don’t know if he said crap like that to impress me. If he did, it worked. The builder, furious, would go up to Enzo and complain about Joey giving him lip. Enzo’d be like, ‘What the fuck you doin’ sittin’ ‘round this time o’ day anyway? Huh? Don’t I pay you Saturday rates? Huh?’
I don’t know how many builders walked out on Enzo. He wasn’t worried though, Joey did the work of ten men.
After work on stray Saturdays like that Enzo’d hand Joey some cash and we’d go play the pinnies or hang out at the Central watching for the girls that never spoke to us at school.
‘Hey ladies, can I buy youse a drink?’ Joey would ask as he saw Caroline or that brunette chick – what’s her name – ah, doesn’t matter – walk by our table in the food court.
Caroline or what’s her name just looked down their nose at us. Occasionally, if they felt like fun they’d hang shit on us, ‘Why would we want a drink from you eh?’
‘Yeah,’ one of them might add, ‘is it the end of the world or what?’
‘Yeah,’ the other one might join in the teasing, ‘have they dropped a nuclear bomb?’
Joey’d smile his oh so white-toothed grin and toss them a knowing wink, ‘You’ll be back. Sooner or later you’ll use your noggin and understand what guys like Stevey and me have to offer.’
I wasn’t so sure we had anything to offer. Not back then anyway. Not even now when I come to think about it.
Watsonia – Nuclear target 10 km
A few years later – we was maybe sixteen – Joey bought himself an old XD with money he got working for Enzo. The thing was a big yellow shit heap with four flat tyres, a cracked windscreen and a leaky radiator that spewed foul-smelling rusty water out all over the driveway when the guy backed it off the tow truck. Joey said he’d fix it up and his old man let him keep it beside the garage. After school – if we went – we’d ride our bikes over to Joey’s place and I’d hand him spanners and shit and Joey’d crawl in under the car, pull something or other off the engine and then spend the next hour trying to figure out where all the greasy bits and pieces went.
One day, Joey was pulling something off the engine when about a hundred parts came crashing down around him. Joey was pissed off. He dragged himself out from under the car, picked up the biggest bit he could – I think it was the starter motor – and threw it clean across the yard.
‘Fucking mother fucker,’ he yelled loud enough for neighbours to peak at us through their kitchen windows. The neighbours were used to shit like that happening. Only it was usually Joey’s old man doing the swearing. He used to drag Joey out into the yard and belt him when Joey was younger – kinda like he was showing off and marking his territory.
The sound of the starter motor crashing on concrete and the yelling made all Joey’s mother’s chickens race around the yard like a bomb had gone off. They squawked and shrieked. Joey was so mad he chased them like a furious boxer in training. The last few years had seen Joey fill out a little. He was slim more than skinny and his muscles made his skin dance. Anyway, there he was running around the yard chasing chickens, black grease up to and beyond his elbows, cursing like a dockworker with the neighbours tut-tutting to themselves. It made me laugh. Man, it was funny.
‘Hey, fuck you Stevey. What’re you laughing at?’ Joey stopped to draw breath.
‘You. You look like a fuckin’ mental case.’
‘I’m just pissed off,’ he added, wiping his forehead and smearing oil all over it.
‘Relax, you’ll get there.’
‘If I can get the damn motor back together we can learn how to drive but.’
‘We’re not old enough,’ I argued.
‘We’ll get caught and the cops – or your olds – will take the car off of you.’
‘I want the fuckin’ thing working,’ he said savagely and went to retrieve the starter motor from near the hen house.
‘It’s ex-pursuit man. It’s got a cop motor in it – no one’ll catch us,’ Joey argued.
The main reason Joey bought that old heap was because the cops once owned it. Apparently it had some special stuff in the engine. Don’t ask me what though.
I couldn’t help myself.
‘Who are you,’ I quizzed him, ‘Elwood Blues?’
‘Fuck you,’ Joey said. But I could tell he didn’t mean it.
‘Hey man,’ I continued, ‘You need a book. A Manual.’
‘I’ll do it myself,’ Joey said petulantly.
He came over to the car and handed me the part, ‘But Stevey, it’d be great if you knew something about engines.’
I looked that shit heap up and down, ‘And brakes, and suspension and electrics and every-fucking-thing else.’
A couple of days later we was riding past the library on the way to somewhere or other and I said to Joey that we should go inside.
‘What for?’ he asked, genuinely puzzled.
‘We can take a look around to see if they’ve got a book about how to be a mechanic or something.’
‘Fuck that,’ Joey spat an arc of saliva across the footpath at a tree.
We looked inside and Caroline and that brunette chick, what’s her name, was inside. Caroline had turned into a real looker so I said to Joey that he should go say hello and I’d go look for a book on being a mechanic.
He nodded, ‘But if I score, I’m outta there – with or without you.’
I looked through the glass at the two girls, still in their school uniforms despite it being well past four o’clock, ‘Fair enough.’ I couldn’t argue with that.
We went inside and Joey went over and started talking to the girls like he was their best friend or something. Like we’d never had any knock backs down the Central all those years ago. I went and checked the catalogue on the computer. I could hear Caroline laughing and this sour-looking librarian went over to tell them all to shush up.
Amanda. That’s right, that brunette was named Amanda. Snooty-nosed bitch.
Anyway, Joey slid in beside where Caroline was sitting down doing some homework. He started making some quiet small talk so the librarian let them be. There was a whole heap of books on mechanics. I spent a while going through them all, hoping for one that talked about XDs. None of them did. In the end I grabbed three or four books and made my way back around to where Joey and the girls were. Amanda was there but there was no sign of the others.
‘Hi,’ I said awkwardly, ‘where’s Joey at?’
Amanda looked at me like I was a huge pile of stinking Great Dane turds. I remember to this day that look. I actually saw her nose wrinkle up as she nodded towards the front door of the library. She didn’t say a fucking word. Not one.
‘It’s a pleasure talking to you,’ I said, ‘but between you and me, you might want to work on that stutter of yours.’
Outside, I was quietly thrilled by the cutting remark I made when I ran into Joey and Caroline making out on the park bench near where we dumped the bikes.
I nearly dropped the books I was carrying.
Caroline was kissing him and working over his shoulders like he was some sort of super hero. It was only Joey though.
Joey had that puppy dog look on his face like he’d just figured out how far he’s got to go to get to Watsonia.
Watsonia – Nuclear target 10 km
After he started going out with Caroline that old Ford sat beside Joey’s garage for six months without him so much as lifting the bonnet on it. The chickens must have forgiven him for the starter motor incident because a few of them moved into the back seat. Now it looked like a shit heap and smelt like one too.
Joey reckoned he and Caroline did the deed in the back seat but I reckon he was bullshitting because there was no way anyone other than Joey could put up with the stink. Fair dinkum, it was a good thing Joey’s old man busted his nose for giving him lip. Joey couldn’t smell how badly the XD reeked.
The three of us were in the city wagging one Autumn day when I noticed this bookshop with books just about cars and trucks and motorbikes and stuff. The shop was hidden down a dodgy old lane we’d never been down before.
I grabbed Joey by the arm and started steering him towards the door.
‘What’re you doing?’ he protested.
‘We might be able to get a manual,’ I said, ‘We can get back to fixing the beast.’
‘I don’t need a manual. I can do it on my own,’ Joey said defiantly.
‘Come on,’ Caroline said helpfully,’ let’s go have a look anyway.’ We practically dragged Joey to the door.
‘Can I help you?’ the bloke behind the counter asked. He was eating a tuna sandwich or something and his breath smacked us in the face as we came through the door.
‘Yeah,’ I smiled despite the stench, ‘Have you got a manual for an XD Ford?’
‘I reckon it’d be back there,’ he said casually, chewing with his mouth open. He pointed in the general direction of the furthermost corner of the store.
‘Thanks,’ Joey said sarcastically, ‘We’ll help ourselves. Don’t want to inconvenience you at all.’
The bloke looked back at Joey like he was trying to decide whether to toss him out the door or take his money for a book that’d probably been gathering dust for a decade or more. Money won.
‘It’ll be in the Ford section if it’s anywhere. Give me a ‘hoy’ if you can’t find it.’
‘Thanks,’ Caroline flashed him a thousand-watt smile.
Joey, Caroline and me spent maybe ten minutes scouring the place. We finally discovered two manuals for the XD. One was shrink-wrapped in plastic, new, and forty bucks. The other was dog-eared and coated in dark stains. It was twelve dollars. Between the three of us we could come up with fourteen bucks.
‘This is it I guess,’ I said as I handed Caroline the second-hand book to hold while I put the new book back on the shelf.
Joey glanced around the store. ‘Like fuck,’ he said quietly and grabbed the new book from Caroline. He shoved it under his jumper.
‘Come on guys,’ he said loud enough for the owner to hear, ‘There’s no manual here.’
‘Sure there is,’ the owner said turning to face us, ‘I’ll show you.’
‘Nah, it’s alright,’ Joey said casually, ‘you finish your lunch. We’ll try again when we’re next in town.’
As soon as we got outside we made a break for it.
On the train home I begged Joey to open the book but he said he was waiting for a sign.
Watsonia – Nuclear target 10 km
Caroline’s parents broke up shortly after we went to town that day. She went to live with her mum on the other side of the city so Joey only saw her every second weekend or so. I got myself a job working in a deli serving up sliced meat and stinky cheeses: gorgonzola was the worst, the smell of it seemed to stick to your tongue long after you left the store.
The job sucked but it gave me spending money. I spent my pay on beer and small bottles of whiskey, bourbon and vodka that this guy I knew at the Bottle Shop used to sell to me. Or rather, I’d pay him the money and he’d pocket the cash – danger money he called it – and the only one out of pocket was the boss man. How I came to love scotch – the way it burns all the way down until you don’t feel the burning no more.
About this time I started to see Joey a little less. He was working more and more for Enzo and eventually dropped right out of school. Fell clear off my radar. About once a month I’d peddle my bike over to Joey’s place and see what he’d done to the shit heap. I’d still hand him spanners and shifters and such, and he’d still fumble around under the bonnet but he seemed to be doing a better job.
One Sunday afternoon in Summer I went over to Joey’s. Cricket commentary came out of a radio like so much background noise. The car sat on a set of new tyres. The chickens had even been evicted. Its engine was spread out all over Joey’s old man’s workbench. There were lumps of machinery all over the place. Joey showed me how he’d bolted the starter motor in place so it’d never come off again. Ever. He showed me some new gadgets like timing lights and something he called an engine cylinder hone.
‘What’re you gunna do with that?’ I asked.
Joey looked at the tool closely then he grinned, ‘Don’t rightly know.’
‘You’re a nut Joey,’ I said and offered him a swig of whatever it was I was drinking. Blended malt probably. He took a mouthful, coughed a littler, and smiled widely.
‘Smooth,’ he said sarcastically, then he turned his attention to the mess surrounding him, ‘I’ve replaced the old pistons with some flat top ones and had the cylinders re-bored.’
I nodded like I knew what the hell he was talking about.
‘There’s a bloke coming over tomorrow to put in the windscreen. And I’ve got a new carbie on order for delivery at the end of the week. It’s a Holley, ‘he added helpfully.
‘Uh huh,’ I said. I took a swig of booze and breathed in the dense, grease-smelling air of the workshop.
Joey continued, ‘Pretty soon I’m gunna be able to turn this puppy over, poke it with a stick and see how loud she growls.’
It was like he’d stopped speaking English the minute he left school.
‘Cool,’ I said and changed the topic to gossip some about the kids we both knew.
He asked occasional questions but mostly he grunted as he worked away on disassembling everything.
‘Is that manual any good?’ I asked by way of making conversation.
‘Not bad,’ he answered distractedly. He was chewing on his tongue as he gently prised apart some delicate looking piece of equipment.
‘Where is it?’
I keep it inside so it doesn’t get dirty.’
We made some more small talk that afternoon and then I left him to his stripped-down existence. It seemed to me, even back then, that Joey’s life was encapsulated by what he was doing to that poor rusted-out old car. With me and Caroline gone there was nothing for Joey to do but look hard at all the bits that were supposed to go together but didn’t quite fit. When and if it was ever finally re-built, it’d go far. And fast.
I saved up enough money from the deli job to start me some driving lessons. I got this guy’s name out of the phone book and rang him up. Sure, he could fit me into his schedule, no problem. A couple of days later I was sitting out on the low brick wall outside my folks’ place when the guy pulls up in his Corolla. A goddamn Corolla. He introduced himself as Nigel or Reginald or something like that and I handed him a few bills and hoped in the driver’s seat. I remember bunny hopping that Corolla down the street, the smell of burning brakes wafting out from under the car. Nigel or Reginald or whatever was duck egg green by the time we got to the end of the street. He wasn’t a bad bloke really. I mean, he had a shit of a job and he did his shitty job well enough that after a dozen or so lessons over the next few months I got me a driver’s licence.
Man, I’ll never forget how I felt riding over to see Joey that day. It was a Thursday and I hadn’t been there in yonks. It was late afternoon so I knew he’d be home from work, labouring away in the garage.
‘Joey,’ I hollered as I dismounted and threw my bike into his mother’s well-tended pumpkin patch, ‘Look what I’ve got.’
Joey stuck his head out from behind the bonnet, ‘Notice anything different?’
I stopped in my tracks.
‘Fuck me,’ I said, ‘she’s red.’
Joey nodded. A big grin lit up his face, ‘Red goes faster.’
‘When’d you do it?’
‘Couple of weeks ago. Borrowed a compressor from a mate of Enzo’s. Looks nice eh?’
‘Yeah mate, you’ve done a good job.’ The XD had clean, sharp lines and the car looked a million dollars shiny, newly painted and race car red.
‘Let’s celebrate,’ I produced a bottle of something from my backpack.
Joey took the bottle from me and downed some of the acrid brown liquid. He handed the bottle back so I took a long swig.
‘What’ve you got?’
‘When you pulled up. You said you had something.’
‘Oh yeah. The paint job’s a bloody big shock. I’ve got me licence.’
I dug it out of my pocket and handed it to Joey. He examined it closely.
‘Fuck you’re ugly Stevey,’ he said, then he added sadly, ‘but you are three months and fifteen days older than me.’
‘You owe me a beer for my birthday.’
‘Yeah. Sorry I couldn’t be there Tuesday. Work and all.’
‘No problems.’ Joey and me didn’t go in for birthdays much. I was surprised he even remembered.
He slapped me on the shoulder and handed back my licence. In the gathering darkness, the two of us poked around under the bonnet some. Everything looked like it was in its place. As far as I could tell anyway. Joey and me downed some beers and had us a good time adding the finishing touches to the Ford. Joey looked a real professional, tightening this, bolting on that.
He produced some new number plates from the garage.
‘Had a mate of Enzo’s come over and do the roadworthy so I could get her registered,’ Joey said, ‘The bloke didn’t even need to lie. She’s A-one he reckoned.’
Joey screwed the number plates into position and stuck the registration sticker onto the windscreen.
‘It’s time to show you what she sounds like,’ Joey hopped into the car, inserted the key and turned the beast over.
It roared into life.
The big engine shook gently on the engine mounts. When Joey gunned the accelerator it roared like an angry lion.
We let it idle for a long while, sucking in the exhaust fumes. The smell of freedom of movement.
‘Fuck catching the train from here on in,’ Joey said.
‘You’ve got three months to wait,’ I replied.
‘Like you’re gunna let me drive it?’
‘I trust you. We’re mates. You helped re-build her.’
‘You handed me the tools and kept buggin’ me to get a manual.’
I shrugged my shoulders, ‘Not tonight. I’ve been drinking. I don’t wanna lose my licence on the first day.’
‘Come on. We’ll just take it for a spin around the block. It’s been sitting here for so long, all I wanna do is see how it handles out on the road.’
I thought for, oh, I don’t know, about two seconds. My mind was swimming in a sea of beer and bourbon. It was clouded by exhaust fumes.
‘Shove over,’ I said. Joey slid along the bench seat to the passenger’s side. His smile lit up the cabin better than the pale light coming from the instrument panel.
‘One thing,’ he said.
‘You crash it and I will kill you.’
‘Fair enough Elwood.’
We both laughed.
‘Before I forget,’ Joey reached around behind the driver’s seat for something, ‘I think this belongs to you.’
Joey pulled out the XD manual. It was still sealed in its protective coating of shrink-wrapped plastic.
‘I told you I’d do it myself.’
I wound down the window.
‘Well,’ I said, ‘Let’s hope to fuck you did it right.’
I ripped the manual out of his hands and turfed into the pumpkin patch.
Watsonia – Nuclear target 10 km
I don’t quite know how it happened to this day. Maybe it was that the old Ford ran like a dream. Maybe it was the booze. Or the fresh air of freedom. Maybe it was the pull of the road and boys’ egos. Or plain stupidity. Whatever it was we found ourselves tearing out through Watsonia around midnight. Me at the wheel of the car Joey had rebuilt without any help from anyone. We’d picked Caroline up from her mother’s place earlier that night, bought us a slab from a drive-through and hit the road. Joey and Caroline squeezed into the front seat kissing like that first time at the library. Maybe Joey really was a super hero. I don’t know.
We talked about racing north to Queensland. One wild ride up the Newell stopping for fuel and food and really, when all was said and done, fuck the food. We talked about lying on the beach waking to the sound of crashing waves. We were free. We could do anything. For the briefest of moments we were the kings of the jungle. That old XD shimmered red like the devil himself under the passing parade of orange-glowing streetlights.
‘This is Watsonia eh?’ Joey asked, his mind back on the train trips of our misspent youth.
‘Guess so,’ I looked over at him and smiled. Caroline’s head rested on his strong shoulders.
I continued, ‘Was it worth the journey?’
I looked at Joey as he thought long and hard. His answer had so much meaning. So much potential.
‘Stevey,’ he screamed.
Caroline sat bolt upright.
The bomb went off.
Joey exhaled and seemed to utter a sound, ‘Whoosh.’
As far as I recall the bomb was detonated by the rear end of a truck. Maybe I’m wrong though. When I think about it nowadays it’s all fractured – a jigsaw puzzle put together, made whole, then picked up in anger and thrown against a wall. All I can see is Caroline’s body stuck through the windscreen and Joey’s severed head lying in my lap. His teeth white as chalk. His nose broken again.
Watsonia – Nuclear target 10 km
The train pulled into Flinders Street and I was waiting for the train driver to get out of the cabin and come see me when the idiot with the big feet tried to squeeze past me.
‘You right,’ I said to him.
‘You’re blocking the door mate,’ he said in the condescending fashion people like him speak to me these days.
‘Fuckin’ wait alright,’ I spat back at him.
‘What’s your problem?’
Just then his mobile phone rang. The theme from Bolero.
‘Hello,’ he said glaring at me, ‘I’m at Finders Street.’
People like him piss me off.
The driver finally turned up so now I could get off the train.
‘I’ll see you soon alright, I’ll be there in a minute,’ the idiot barked into the phone, ‘I’m just waiting for some cripple to get his fucking wheelchair outta the way.’