Memories warm you up from the inside. They also tear you apart.’ Haruki Murakami.

His car is a Volvo, silver gold, in the days before Volvo drivers were mocked for their poor driving skills. In the days when the Hume highway was still a one lane highway, ragged in parts, and many people lost their lives speeding. 

My brother at the wheel. In his early twenties but pretending to be older with his three years older wife at his side. Such details matter. My brother is a man of pretension, a man who aspires to greatness and in the front seat behind the wheel of his Volvo he has it all. The promise of wealth, a fair haired and beautiful wife, his wife, carrying their first child, first grandchild of the next generation and the eucalypts on either side of the highway bow down as we approach.

‘Bow ye to Simon,’ he chanted when he was younger than I am now, in his mid-teens after a long stretch in hospital for infectious diseases where they nearly took off his leg, the infection in the bone so bad only penicillin could cure it until it didn’t. 

He was lucky but his leg bears the scar, a crater below the knee of his left leg and he likes to show it to us to fuel the fantasy of his superiority. 

‘Bow ye to Simon. King of kings, God of gods Ruler of all men.’ Spoken in his cultivated Oxford accent.  

The leather seats are sticky against my bare legs. The cusp of summer and already the grass in the fields to either side, dotted with cows and horses, are turning yellow. We’re in for another drought, the bureau has warned. Another stinker summer, but I have dreams of renewal. I am going places, too. The first person in my family to enter the University of Melbourne. The first woman among my generation of siblings and cousins to get the education my parents so admire. 

‘I need to pee,’ my sister-in-law says from the front seat beside her young husband, and he pulls the car over at the next service station, stops and points her in the direction of the toilet sign.

There’s no question of not stopping for her. The baby inside her weighs heavily on her bladder and she can’t wait. 

My brother watches her walk cross the bright concrete of the service station then turns around to peer at his two younger sisters in the back.

Look at you, his eyes seem to say. Such pathetic creatures. ‘You remembered to use deodorant?’ he asks as if we are twelve-year-olds who needed to learn about hygiene for the first time. I nod. ‘She taught me to use deodorant,’ he says looking toward the retreating figure of his wife. ‘Before she came along, I was a slob. You girls have no one to teach you what’s right. The oldies are useless.’ 

I’d like to agree with him but something in his patronising tone, something in the way he compares us to his new wife rankles. There’s no thought that we too might like a toilet stop and we’re both too scared to ask. We are there as his guests and he has generously offered to let us travel with him and his wife in the back seat of their car like two small children. But I am on the cusp of my eighteenth year and although I am not sophisticated enough yet to speak for myself, and although my body is large enough to give the impression of a woman in full flower, I feel small under the weight of my brother’s gaze.

It’s late by the time we pull into the caravan park, mid-afternoon and the dusty roads on the outskirts of Canberra before you hit the main drive, are studded with potholes. Inexpensive accommodation is all my parents can afford to get to the wedding of their first-born son, close on the heels of Simon’s wedding and we girls must get ourselves ready in the five minutes to spare before we travel into town for the celebration. A church wedding with all the trimmings. Three bridesmaids in emerald-green satin frocks with Shakespearian ruffles around the neck, all the way down to their feet, and the groomsmen in dark suits. 

The wedding, like most weddings, goes in a blur, over in minutes, even as the wife had asked for a nuptial Mass and the priest droned on endlessly when he blessed the lovely couple. 

I wore a long gypsy dress in a paisley pattern that went midway to my ankles. It too boasted a scrunched ruff around the neck that accentuated my cheek bones on my otherwise long face. I sat at the family table alongside siblings close by the bride and groom and their attendants, one of whom asked me to dance.

I had not been asked to dance since my school formal months earlier and the thrill of being chosen by a man thrilled me. This man was tall and old. As old as my decade older oldest brother and he spoke with an air of knowledgeability.

I cannot fathom that he was allowed to drive me home to the caravan park that night but something about the overflow of bodies and not enough drivers and cars to go around meant I ended up in a car alone with him late at night after the groom and bride had driven off to the strains of ‘Wish me luck as you wave me goodbye’.

I shall give him a name. Patrick, in place of my memory. The exhilaration of sitting in the front seat beside the driver and not stuck in the back like a small child, sent ripples of pleasure up my spine. 

‘Would you like to see the Canberra lights?’ Patrick asked. He needed no response from me, I was butter melting in his fingers. At the top of Black Mountain, we pulled into the lookout car park and gazed onto a thousand stars below. He leaned across and pulled me into him. I’d seen movies enough to know that he might kiss me then, but he did not.

‘I’d like to do things,’ he said. ‘But your brother is my friend.’ 

The past is shattered and can never be put back the way it was. There I was, on the edge of adventure with a man who smelled of Old Spice after shave and the mustiness of clothes left in wardrobes for too long. On the drive back down the mountain, like Cinderella as the clock struck midnight, I reverted to my small child self. Unlike the stars from the top of the mountain the cascade of lights from the tiny windows where people had not yet gone to sleep were like flickering candles and a disappointment from the grandeur of where I had been. 

Patrick opened my car door, offered a hug and drove away. 

I did not know then I would never see him again. Two states apart and all those kilometres along the Hume Highway, he flickered from my memory like the confetti that fell to the ground outside the church. In the next rain it would be pulverised into a pulp and washed down the drainpipes into the rivers then the sea. An extra incumbrance to the horrors of climate change, only I did not know that then, too. 

Only then I was thrilled and saddened back in the Volvo behind my brother and his wife, alongside my younger sister with thoughts of what might have been. And a cow looked up from chewing grass to watch our car speed by. 

Other people’s words

It’s taken me years to pay attention to the meaning of songs. Typically, the music carries me and as much as the lyrics that accompany the rousing swell of chords and trills and all the other things that make up the sounds in my ears, entrance me, I have forgotten to pay attention. 

By chance the other day I came across an old YouTube clip of the comedian Norman Gunston hamming up the famed version of Delilah. The underlying descriptor: family violence, and I realised this song deals with murder. 

Our narrator takes a knife to his beloved Delilah and begs her forgiveness after he shoves his knife into her for laughing at him. That is after he confronts her for making love to another man, because ‘he just couldn’t take any more’.

A song like this would not make the airwaves today. It conveys everything we know to be problematic about a person’s inability to handle feelings of jealousy or rage or whatever it is that the character who sings to Delilah just can’t take. As if it’s okay to knife someone out of thwarted love or desire.

A couple walking past our house this morning stopped to ask whether the gargoyle in our front garden is one of Graham Foote’s. It is, I told her, and we talked of the sculptor who has plastered Melbourne with gargoyles far and wide, on roof tops and in gardens. 

We bought our gargoyle from Graham Foote when he worked from rooms in a huge and grand Queen Anne style house in Canterbury Road not far from where we live. Foote’s gargoyles graced this old building too. 

Things were tight in those days, and we chose to pay for our gargoyles on the drip feed. Every month I visited the office in the Canterbury house with a cheque for $100.00. I paid off the cost, as Foote worked on the gargoyle. 

It was a tough time for me then. Between babies, I had developed a breast lump that I feared might be cancer – it was not – and soon suffered a miscarriage.

The gargoyle represented something from my childhood. There were gargoyles on the roof of the building over the road from my school which the nuns must have owned. A Victorian single storey house, they converted its interior into a studio were the art students painted on Saturday mornings. 

My elder sister was one such budding artist and one day she came home with a charcoal sketch of a gargoyle and told me about the creature’s origins. How gargoyles sat on roof spires and along the gutters to ward off evil spirits. They were meant to be hideous as a warning to troublemakers. It seems a much gentler way to say ‘stay away’ compared to a knife in the heart such as Delilah copped.

From the bottom of a well, the stars above look huge, or so Haruki Murakami tells us in his Wind Up Bird Chronicles. The notion intrigues me. As though the tunnel of the well becomes a telescope into the night sky and with all other distractions in the landscape eliminated, the person at the bottom of the well gets a clear view of the night sky above.

You can do something similar on a much smaller scale if you cup your hands together to form a cylinder and then look through the space you have created. Whatever you observe seems magnified, purely because it has lost all peripheral elements which might dwarf its size. 

Is this why we speak of tunnel vision when people can only see things close-up but in limited quantities, as though they can’t take in the perimeters of their lives and other people’s lives. Like horses in blinkers who are blocked from seeing what lies beyond the road ahead. They stay focussed on the task. 

It puts me in mind of the word ‘hoodwink’, the way it derives from the hood falconers once used, and presumably continue to use, to cover their birds’ heads when resting, so that they will not be distracted by the sight of potential prey. 

Prey drive, our dog trainer tells us, is a compelling force for a dog and once in prey drive, it’s as if the dog loses all sense of control. The dog does not hear you then, so intent on hunting down their prey. 

For a dog it can be as simple as a ball on the other side of a field. That is for a dog who is ball-obsessed. A look in the eye that in itself becomes one of tunnel vision. A stance that says, I must have that ball. Like our narrator in Tom Jones’s Delilah who just can’t take any more.

I spent eight years of my life working on a thesis that explored the nature of life writing and the desire for revenge. A feeling that can so possess a person, they lose their reason. But as I argued in my thesis, the desire for revenge is part of a journey. That is, if we can hold onto the feelings, the sensations of pain and rage and not act on them. If we can sit in our blinkered state nursing our griefs and rage, pain that is typically attached to shame, then we can emerge with a clearer view. 

Like a rising star or the moon in full glow, to use someone else’s words borrowed from somewhere. I can’t remember where, so many words cross my field of vision, so many ideas clutter my crowded mind. 

Other’s people’s words have long intrigued me. When I was young and read books, I thought that I would never be able to put ideas into words. I borrowed other people’s words almost verbatim, ashamed to put my own thoughts into my own words. 

It has taken me years to get beyond this tunnel view that says other people’s words are superior.

Everybody’s words matter but how they’re used makes all the difference.