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.