441 Kilometres to Go…

By Gabrielle Blondell

“John.” He made my name a statement, nothing more.

“Pete.” I said.

He shut the passenger door and sat stiffly, staring along the road leading out of Cunungra barracks.

I reached toward the GPS, selected Dangarsleigh Road, Armidale, and pressed START. “Four hundred and forty-one kilometres to go,” I said.

Pete was a distant cousin, so distant, I wasn’t sure how we were related except that my Aunt Jas on my mother’s side was involved. It was she who suggested Pete and I share the expense of a trip to her daughter’s wedding.

“So….” I said, pulling out onto the main road. “How are things? I heard you saw action in Afghanistan.”

All Pete did was turn his head a couple of degrees and squint at me through the outer edge of his eye.

“Right,” I said. Right.

I was trying hard to picture Pete back when we were kids. He was a year below me in school and only present for the briefest of times before he and his family moved on. I thought of a little kid with the yellow hair and the pink birthmark on his forehead. He struck a chord with me, but when I threw another glance Pete’s way, no birthmark. So, not him. The thing was, while I was good with people, my memory was woeful.

We were coming into the township of Beaudesert, when I said, “So, how exactly are we related again.? Distant cousins through Aunt Jas, isn’t it?”

“Hmmm,” Pete said, and I was unsure whether he was agreeing to the distant cousin theory or it meant nothing to him.

I indicated left and put my foot down. “I hope you don’t get motion sickness,” I said. “I am thinking of going up over the Lions Road.” It was a fantastically winding road, which snaked its way over the mountain range between Queensland and New South Wales.

Pete peered across at me and shook his head. “Flying combat helicopters will cure you of that or kill you trying.”

“Right,” I said. Wanker, I thought. “Well hang on then.”

Pete sat looser in his seat than ever.

Apart from a few sips from my water bottle, I kept my mouth shut all the way over the border and into the township of Casino.

“Do you mind if we stop for a toilet break?”

Pete assented with a single energy-saving nod.

I pulled over into a parking bay of an old service station, all thin tubular steel poles with a crazy roof-line. Pete was out of the car before I had taken the keys from the ignition. To give him some privacy, I stood outside in the sunshine staring across the road into a grassy paddock. Finally, when he had failed to appear, I made the dash for the paint-peeled door marked with a bloke in a top hat, like it was 1954. Even in the split second it took to confront the urinal, I knew he wasn’t there.

Outside the sun was blinding. I walked around to the shop and bought a couple of packets of potato chips by way of payment for the use of the facilities. The attendant looked like he had been dipped in engine oil, fondue-style.

“Seen a big guy in a brown coat?” I asked, when he leaned over the cluttered counter to give me my change.

“That him?” He pointed out of the grimy window. Pete sat on the bonnet of the car staring out into the same grassy paddock.

315 kilometres to go….

We took the Bruxner Highway toward Tenterfield and just when I was getting comfortable with the silence, Pete said, “So John, what do you do?”

I looked over to find him examining me. “I’m an estate lawyer. I help people set up and administer wills.”

Pete nodded more to himself than me, but I felt heartened by his interest.

“Yes, its an interesting side of the law,” I said. “People often think it’s a less ambiguous field, but you would be surprised at the moral challenges it represents.” I looked over at Pete, but he continued to stare through the windscreen. I continued on. “There are occasions when a client will wish to make their feelings known to their family by giving all they have to charity, for example. I try to counsel more moderate views. A bit thrown here and there in the right corners can make all the difference in the end.”

“But they will be dead, won’t they?” Pete asked, pointedly.

“Well, yes.”

“So why would they care if the relatives are pissed off?”

He stared at me openly and I stared back for as long as I could before almost running off the road. I gripped the wheel more firmly and concentrated on my cornering.

Pete was staring out over the hills and the cows when he asked me, “Are you married?”

“I was,” I said, “but it didn’t work out.”

“Right.”

“Are you married?” I asked him.

“No.”

“Never married?” I tried again.

“No.”

Silence descended, as if this was a perfectly acceptable and complete conversation. My hand fluttered toward the radio controls. “Do you mind?” I asked.

“No,” Pete said. “I like music.”

“Ok.” I tuned the radio as best I could.

“Do you want me to do it?” Pete asked.

“Thanks,” I said.

Something popular blared out into the car and Pete adjusted the volume to a humane level. I noticed a slight dip of the chin and a jiggle of the knee to mark the rhythm and I thought this was something I might smile over later.

We ate fish and chips at a little café in Tenterfield before sliding out of town.

191 kilometes to go….

Somewhere between Tenterfield and Glen Innes the conversation started up again. Pete said, “So you really don’t remember me, do you?”

I tried again, sifting back through faces, I was pretty sure I was imagining anyway.

“No I’m sorry. I don’t have the best memory.”

He nodded firmly, as if he expected nothing more. Then he said, “You really are an arsehole. You know that, don’t you?”

“What?”

“You were a sneaky bastard back in the day,” he added.

“I was not.”

“Yes you were. You used to prance around thinking everyone loved you. Really, you were just a mean fuck.”

I said nothing to inflame the situation further. Instead, I bit down hard until my jaw ached. But, what the fuck? Who the hell was this guy? This was what resounded in my brain. Oh and thanks, Aunt Jas for landing me a road trip with a paranoid lunatic.

98 kilometres to go…

I left Pete in the car, when I took another toilet break at the McDonald’s in Glen Innes. I spent some time cogitating on the wholly surprising fact that Pete disliked me and then I rounded that up to ‘hated’ because ‘disliked’ didn’t quite capture it.

The air had chilled since we climbed the range. Back in the car, Pete sat hunkered down as much as a big man could and went to sleep in his giant brown coat. I took this time to look at him. There was none of any of the kids I knew in him. But then, maybe. I tuned into his eyebrows. They were thick, much darker than his hair and marched straight across his head in a military fashion. Something flickered. I took glances back at the road. Eyebrows. Road. Eyebrows.

88 kilometres to go…

Every so often Pete twitched as if he were recalling a war experience. I imagined scenarios with helicopters coming in under heavy fire, but I kept messing up the terrain. Vietnamese jungle from Apocalypse Now, rather than a rocky Afghani mountain range.

I hit a pothole on a long sweeping bend and Pete shifted. His body twisted sideways and his head lolled toward the centre console and I was looking at him almost upside down now. That’s when it came to me. I saw him as a kid, hanging high up in a big tree in the schoolyard with his legs crooked over a branch. There were a group of us older kids sitting, kneeling, standing on the wooden bench seats built around its trunk. I saw it as fresh as yesterday. Even now, I felt the dry roughness of the seat and feared the splinters big as daggers.

We were taking turns to smoke on the side of the tree hidden from Mrs MacWerter, who had already developed suspicions about us.

“You be the lookout,” I yelled to Pete, swinging up there, so high his knuckles could only graze the top of our heads.

“Okay Johnny,” he called to me.

Dougal McDougal (I swear to God that was his name) ducked behind the tree with me. He was big for his age. Dougal and Pete were in the same grade, but worlds apart. I handed over the lit cigarette. He pinched it between his thumb and forefinger and took a deep and impressive draw on it. I remembered the illicit thrill of it, being light-headed with smoke and beyond the law. I also remember thinking we would make be a good team, Dougal and I. Me, with my wits, and him with his size.

“She’s coming, Johnny,” Pete called. “It’s Mrs MacWerter. She’s coming!”

I heard the creaking of the tree branch, as Pete swung higher and higher in his agitation, and yelled louder and louder.

“Johnny, she will catch you. Johnny!”

I knew my blood was pounding then because it was pounding now. I know I snatched the cigarette out of Dougal’s paw and ground it under the heel of my shoe. Pete was still yelling, like an idiot and naming me.

“Shut up, you idiot! Shut the hell up!” I yelled back.

That was when I reached up and yanked on one of his flapping arms. He didn’t fall gracefully or even in a heap. He fell oddly. Strangely. His neck twisted and he seemed to take the brunt of the wooden bench on his shoulder, arm and one side of his head with the rest of his body trailing after. He was quiet then. Crumpled, and not moving.

Mrs MacWerter had reached the tree and spotted Pete. “What’s happened here?”

“He fell,” I said.

“Well, stop your gawking and run to the office. Tell them to ring for an ambulance,” she said to me.

I did run then. I saw myself pushing across the oval and up the hill and around the library to the administration building. Miss Dennison, who I helped with the photocopying from time to time was on the desk and could tell straight away something was wrong.

“What is it, Johnny?”

I stopped and heaved in a couple breaths. “A kid has fallen out of the tree on the oval. Mrs MacWerter wants you to ring for an ambulance.”

“Okay then, love. You go straight back down, like a brave lad, and tell her its on its way.”

45 kilometres to go…..

We were passing through Guyra, home of the highest caravan park in Australia, when Pete opened his eyes.

“Ahhh, so now he remembers,” he said.

I nodded, keeping my gaze on the road for safety’s sake.

“Funny thing is I didn’t remember a thing, either,” he said, shaking his head. “You know, they thought I’d broken my bloody neck. Then they thought I had brain damage. After that, they thought it was better to wait and see if there were any lasting effects.” He looked over at me. “So what do you think?”

“You look fine,” I said.

“That’s one way of putting it, I guess. My folks watched me all the time, like I might drop dead. I was tested every year until I was eighteen and could say no. Imagine what that might have been like, you smart arse.”

I sat still looking over the steering wheel. I would let him go on, allow the words to waft around me until he was done.

“Do you want to know how I found out it was you?”

I didn’t nod, didn’t move. Instead, I slowed for an old lady crossing the street pushing a walking frame with a carton of beer perched on its seat.

“It was Dougal who told me.”

Dougal?

“That surprises you, doesn’t it?” Pete was looking at me intently.

It was true. I was surprised, but also it made perfect sense. I don’t think Dougal hung out with us afterwards. I just didn’t wonder why.

We were closing in on Armidale now. Billboards for McDonalds and for smash repairers stood in paddocks of yellow grass.

“I’m sorry,” I said.

“What? Sorry just now? Not sorry back then. Not sorry enough to remember any of it? That’s how sorry you are.”

He was pulling wings of flies now. “God man, we were kids. Kids do stupid things all the time.”

Pete laughed then, a big jagged thing, which slashed around the car and inside my head.

We had reached our destination…

I pulled into a long drive through an avenue of trees. I could see a sign directing me to the car park up ahead and my urgency to be done with all of it was a high-pitched hum in my ears.

Pete continued, as if he hadn’t noticed us leaving the main road. “One thing though. Worrying about dying as a kid made me a good soldier. I could just fly into it without another thought.”

I drove into a park and pulled on the handbrake.

“All those years, being treated like I might keel over.  I learned to put it aside. If you are going to die, you are going die, right?”

I nodded, the most minimalist of movements in case I set him off again.

Pete let that pass. “They decorated me. The army did. Courage under fire, they said.”

“Well that’s good, isn’t it?” I know I should have said nothing. It was just a reflex, really. Something you say to finalise things and move on.

Pete pulled on the latch and swung his long legs out of the door. “Is that what you think, mate? What you did changed things. You get that, don’t you?”

I popped the boot for him and watched through a side mirror as he hoisted his bag onto his shoulder. I jumped when he slammed the car boot closed and clasped my hands in my lap to stop them shaking.

Wedding and beyond…

I didn’t see Pete at the ceremony or during the reception, but it was one of those big country weddings with marquees for this and that. But, even when I was kissing the bride and congratulating the groom, I was looking over their shoulders for him.

When I returned to the car, I found a note taped to the windscreen.

Don’t need a lift back, mate. Have a nice life. Pete.

I think of Pete from time to time. He bubbles up and I see him in my car or falling from that tree. I see him with his duffle bag on his shoulder, walking away that last time and I honestly wonder how he is. I wonder if he married. I wonder if he did another tour of duty somewhere and flew in fearlessly under fire. I wonder if he is still alive. I do.

The End

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