Tall Mac was driving, and that was the problem. There’s no doubt in my mind that if it had been Fat Mac instead, we would have been safe. Not that Fat Mac, eighteen as well and just as awash with testosterone as the rest of us, was any more immune to the lure of flooring the accelerator along Chandler Highway, or revving his engine at a stop light, just to hear it growl – far from it – but when it came to the road, Fat Mac had a natural affinity that none of us shared. Driving was something that lived in his bones. His nervous system came into focus at the turning of the ignition; he could no more come to harm behind the wheel than Mozart behind a piano.
More than that, Fat Mac’s car was his kingdom, a cherry-red ‘99 Nissan Skyline his parents had given him for his 18th birthday. He never would have been so careless as to put it in danger. While in person he left a trail of food scraps, cigarette butts, and crumpled litter in his wake, when it came to his car he was endlessly vigilant. He waxed and buffed its panels to a gleam every Saturday and immediately replaced anything that showed even the slightest hint of wear or scuff, be it a seat cover, a carburettor, or a dash needle.
But Fat Mac was elsewhere, and Tall Mac was driving. Tall Mac wasn’t one of us, and never would be one of us, but he’d appeared on the fringes of the group and done his best to fit in, with ready conversation and a willingness to join any activity. The effort was something we could appreciate, especially when coupled with his natural friendliness. It was no surprise when Lucy announced she was dating him, as we’d suspected she was the reason he was working so hard to get us on side. I doubt his pleasantries were a conscious choice on his part. Tall Mac simply, in his open, smiling way, wanted to be friends with the people who were friends with Lucy. Dean was in his second year with Crazy Adie at the time, and, at the time, Crazy Adie was Lucy’s best friend.
Crazy Adie was not nearly as energetic as her name may suggest. She was a pale, giggling girl who operated on a timed pressure valve; at parties and dinners she would inevitably enter a closed descent from an initial conversational high, talking less and smiling more and eventually quietly drifting away to the bathroom to lock herself away from crowds and loud noises. After a short while, always and without fail, she would emerge to explode in sound and fury at Dean, with little respect for the situation at hand. In public, in front of people’s parents, she would finally break down into loud, wracking sobs, inconsolable except by his attention. And then she would abruptly be fine. Her normalcy was so sudden and complete, every time, that it somehow erased our memories of her meltdowns, until the next time it happened, and Dean would have to deal with it once more.
It was a Friday night in summer, after a day that had been brutally hot. We’d finished high school, once and for all, six weeks before. Tall Mac was driving, and Lucy rode shotgun, and Crazy Adie sat between Dean and I in the back. The mood was quiet and tense, and only Tall Mac was satisfied, as he’d recovered the wallet he’d forgotten at work.
Our original plan for the night had been to pick up some beer and head to Dean’s place, to drink by the pool and enjoy a night that promised hours of heat, but Tall Mac had talked us into coming with him to pick up his wallet from a workmate, with a promise in exchange he would be our designated driver for the night. That we would be chauffeured in the splendour of Tall Mac’s father’s BMW only sweetened the offer. So we rode with Tall Mac to take care of his errand, only to find that Dean had already met the workmate, and the workmate’s friends, a month before, when they’d shown up uninvited at Crazy Adie’s holiday house and made themselves at home.
All of us, me and Dean and Crazy Adie, Lucy and Paul and James and Fiona and Rebecca, and the friends we had, and the friends they had, had gone to the beach for a week, a score of us divided across three houses we’d either rented together or begged the use of from family. That’s where Tall Mac, a friend of friends, had met Lucy for the first time. And Tall Mac by himself was a welcome presence. But the workmate and his friends, too far-removed and too presumptuous, with too much dirt in their white-boy dreadlocks and too much that was ratlike in their snaggled teeth, were not. They had somehow heard about the lack of a parental authority and decided to install themselves at Crazy Adie’s holiday house without knowing anyone there. I wasn’t staying at Crazy Adie’s, but I heard about how they showed up unannounced, helped themselves to food and alcohol, and made the girls uncomfortable with too-long stares and muffled, snickering comments. Almost immediately, they became persona non grata, and Dean had demanded they go.
And so we found ourselves, Dean and Crazy Adie and I, a platoon of three in hostile territory, sitting awkwardly around the black-painted backyard studio apartment of this workmate and his friends, waiting for Tall Mac to finish with his pleasantries and his introducing of Lucy, to get his wallet back and stand up so we could leave this ugly, grim little place of people who we didn’t like and who didn’t like us, and just be away. Korn’s first album, full of adolescent angst and arrested development was playing on the stereo. The floor and the walls were stained, and rough. I had no idea at the time that these were the people Dean had ejected. I simply knew there was an unspoken tension in the air, a tension that grew when Tall Mac went inside to get his wallet. The three of us sat in a huddled knot inside a circle of five, six guys, my ignored attempts at conversation simply highlighting the fact that no one here was our friend.
Tall Mac reappeared, Lucy in tow, and asked if we wanted to hang around. We instantly said no, and we left. The sun had gone down while we waited, and I reminded myself to talk to Dean about the raw unpleasantness of what we’d just sat through when I had the chance. But in the interim, the car was quiet, and maybe Tall Mac, though unaware that his workmates disliked us and the feeling was mutual, recognised that the best idea was to get us to Dean’s as quickly as possible. And so we picked up speed as we cut through back streets, gradually building from five to ten to twenty kilometres an hour faster than we should have been going.
The streets we drove through, as most in the eastern suburbs of Melbourne are, were dark, and leafy. What illumination the lights overhead gave was shattered and shrouded by full, thick branches and overhanging limbs. My window was wound down, and the heat of the day radiated from off the tarmac; the air was soaked in it. Tall Mac coasted down a hill, and accelerated as he climbed the next, and I looked out the window, the rear left passenger side, to see a wooden sign, huge and brown, reading ‘Road Ends.’
Instantly, time slowed. Instantly, I recognised that Tall Mac couldn’t have seen the sign, or he wouldn’t be driving so fast. I turned to call out, or tried to. As soon as I did, I felt heavy, and leaden, surrounded by an unyielding thickness that left me weighed down – far too weighed down to ever respond in time.
In slow motion, I started to open my mouth as my brain coldly, instantaneously, and without verbalised thought, acknowledged that the car I was in was going too fast and the road ahead was going to end and beyond that was unknown danger, and then we hit the lip of the road and launched into the air.
It was hitting the first tree that saved us. One moment we were airborne, and flying straight ahead. The front corner of Tall Mac’s car clipped the tree and a giant, invisible hand swatted us to the right. I snapped back into real time as it happened, with the same sudden speed of flicking a switch. Dean threw his arm between the two front seats, a solid bar of muscle and bone blocking Crazy Adie from flying forward.
We hit the second tree like a thrown baseball, and stopped dead in a second. Crazy Adie began to scream, and Lucy began to cry, and Tall Mac and Dean and I unclipped our seat belts and opened our doors. The five of us went running back up through the park we’d flown into, away from a car that looked like a mouthguard, a tree trunk a foot and a half across embedded in its hood.
We ran back up to the road, where people were starting to come out of their houses. Tall Mac held Lucy’s hand and called his father. Dean wrapped his arms around Crazy Adie, who shook and sobbed over something tangible, for once. I lit a cigarette, and smoked it, and lit another as soon as the first was done.
The various neighbours brought us glasses of water and talked about how prone the road was to accidents. They breathed sighs of relief over our unbroken, unbruised skin. They told us about the deep ditch at the end of the park, the one we would have crashed into had we not hit the first tree and gone pinballing into the second. And when we were left alone again, Tall Mac whispered to us, ‘Guys, I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have had those shots when I was inside picking up my wallet.’
Tall Mac’s parents arrived, to give us a ride back to Dean’s, to deal with insurance claims, and to take Tall Mac and Lucy home. Dean’s mother listened to our story while making us hot, buttered toast. We shook our heads over our good fortune; I was struck by the fact that inside this familiar house, four solid walls surrounding me, the memory of Tall Mac’s father’s car wrapped around a tree seemed entirely unreal.
I was halfway through a slice of toast when Dean’s mother started to talk to me, and I realised that between one moment and another I had lost my ability to understand what she was saying. Furthermore, I suddenly knew there was no way I could swallow the chewed mouthful of bread in my mouth; it had become humanly impossible for me to do so. Somehow I decided no one could know this, so I nodded and smiled and chewed, while my throat closed up, while Dean’s mother’s lips moved and unintelligible sounds came from between them.
I had a vision of myself standing there in the kitchen, jaw clenched tight and moving robotically, my eyes wide and staring, and I mumbled something into my closed hand and went to the bathroom. I stealthily spat the mush of toast into the toilet bowl, and splashed cold water from the tap onto my face.
At the push of the toilet flush, my legs went out from under me; I have no idea of how long I was unconscious but I came to with the back of my head drumming on the white porcelain of the toilet. Slowly, I stopped shaking. I stared up at the roof and had no idea of who I was, or where.
Something drifted into my head about maybe I was at my grandmother’s, followed by the thought no, I’m at Dean’s. And I returned to myself, splashed some more water on my face, and calmly went to find my cigarettes.