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Contents
Memoir

The bystander

A survivor's guide to dying

No matter how you twist it,
life stays frozen in the headlights
John Ashbery

 

 

THERE WERE SEVEN of us. Five in the car, two in the boot. We were driving to a party no one knew for sure was happening. This is how our nights played out. We followed hints and whisper-trails of action, motivated by the thrill of the chase, or maybe just the fear of staying still and missing out and remaining unseen by the enormous crowd of people that populated our imaginations.

Except now, with smartphones and social media, we were one step closer and three steps further away from the crowd. We didn’t need to be creative. We could see with our own eyes, in real time, exactly what we were missing out on and who we weren’t being seen by. So we climbed in cars and drove in the general direction of attention.

The trip began on a semi-rural street. Narrow road. Trees climbed higher than my line of sight. Before we left, I snuck outside and jumped in the front passenger’s seat. I was short and chubby with dark hair that ran a mess beneath my ears.

Tim sat in the middle of the back. Tall and square jawed. He’d been my best mate since Year 8. We went to St Mary’s, an all-boy’s Catholic school near the centre of Toowoomba.

Everyone else went to Downlands, a more elite private school on the richer side of the city. Henry was back left. Soft features and bottom lip permanently split. Will was back right. Large and laidback. Dom was the designated driver. He was excitable with a hint of an American accent.

The final two were out of view. They drew the short straw of the boot. Hamish had pale and lanky limbs. He was quiet with a sly grin. Nick was short with thick arms and legs, a wild and prodigiously gifted rugby league player.

Eighteen months earlier Nick switched to Downlands on a rugby union scholarship, drawing Tim and me into a different social orbit altogether. My dad was a country publican. Tim’s dad was a meat worker. We’d been accepted into a sphere of old money and new homes built on sprawling acreages. It was our final year of high school. Everything was ahead of us.

Up front there was nothing between the road and me except the windscreen. The speakers blasted ‘Wonderwall’ by Oasis, an elegy hidden inside a singalong. My memory is a blinking mixture of lyrics screamed out incoherently and the stink of beer and sweat and cigarette smoke. A million things and nothing in particular.

The trees disappeared abruptly, razed for the New England Highway. We waited at a freshly erected set of traffic lights. To our right was Highfields, a planned community fifteen minutes north of Toowoomba.

When the bottom circle of the lights blazed green, we turned left towards the city. No other traffic to clash with. The singing petered out. We concentrated on our phones or on the windscreen. The car accelerated. Sixty, seventy, eighty, ninety. I kept my eyes straight and breath bated. Billboards flicked white streaks behind me. I felt light in the head and heavy in the feet. The road, half-lit and disappearing, burnt a blur into my brain.

My iPhone began to vibrate. I’d been texting a girl about a rendezvous planned for later that night. Sex was at the centre of my attention. I looked down to read the message. It was littered with emoticons. I typed a one-word response with two exclamation marks, but I never got around to pressing send.

There was a glitch in our direction. My gaze shifted quickly between the two competing sheets of glass. We’d drifted onto the left-hand shoulder of the highway. The back tyre left the road for a fraction of a second, spinning out in the mouth of a gravel driveway.

Dom reefed on the steering wheel, a kneejerk attempt to regain control. He overcorrected the overcorrection. We zigzagged across the highway – right towards the median strip, left towards the shoulder, and right towards the median strip again.

My first instinct was exhilaration. It looked like we were driving into farmland. Nothing serious enough to scream about. But my geometry was bad. Blame it on velocity. At ninety-five kilometres per hour, the car moved twenty-five metres every second. It took us approximately three seconds to travel from the gravel of the hard shoulder to the trees on the median strip.

The car ploughed front first into the vegetation. The windscreen filled with greenery. As we flew through the branches, the front of the car scraped the stump of a tree, spinning us another 90 degrees.

The median strip led to the other side of the highway. We emerged boot-first into a flood of oncoming headlights. Screams howled from the back seat. ‘I’m dead,’ I thought. Then it hit. Another car, speed meeting speed, like two protons colliding.

 

I DIDN’T GET the luxury of a concussion. I stayed awake the whole way through. There was a glimpse of black, a few seconds max, when my head reeled from the soft impact against the dashboard. White pinwheels spun on the inside of my eyelids. Blood flooded back into my feet and fingers.

After that everything went berserk. Liquids pissed from unseen engines. Radiators hissed with steam. The windscreen was missing. The wipers whipped against thin air.

I sat there for a long time, dazed and amazed to be alive, staring blankly at the bonnet, which faced back towards the missing windscreen. I couldn’t see what we’d hit or been hit by. A sticky fluid broke waves against my ankles.

‘I’ve pissed myself,’ I thought.

I looked down with mixed relief. Half a carton of wasted beers. I pulled my feet back towards the seat. My thongs floated in the foam. I unclicked the belt. My hand was like the claw inside a toy machine. I made it move without feeling anything. I wiped blood that wasn’t mine onto the sleeve of my jumper. I flicked shards of glass from my clothes with numb fingers.

My iPhone was missing. I searched frantically and found it down beside the seat adjuster. The screen resembled the windscreen, completely shattered, but that damage was pre-existing. It was 9.53 pm. I looked beside me. Dom lay face down on the steering wheel. I looked behind me. A mess of heads and limbs leaned forward. Will and Tim and Henry. Necks bent at unnatural angles. Sick sounds issuing from their lips.

I reached out and shook each of them by the arm, gently and then more urgently, to absolutely no avail.

‘Oi,’ I yelled. ‘Hey!’

This was the loneliest moment of my life. It was like waking up in a nuclear bunker where everyone else had been gassed.

So I waited. At no stage did it occur to me that they may not wake up. I underestimated death, the ease and speed with which it can sneak under your guard. My only visits from the grim reaper came in the dim minutes every morning and night via radio and TV. Earthquakes and tidal waves. Hijacked planes and celebrity suicides.

Death had less credibility to me than a reality TV show.

 

A SHADOW STREAKED across the headlights. This came as a revelation to me. I could leave any time I liked. The shadow came to the driver’s side window. It belonged to a heavy guy with terrified eyes.

‘Shit!’ he screamed. ‘What happened?’

‘I don’t know,’ I said.

‘Shit! Shit! Can you turn the car off?’

I hadn’t noticed it was still going. The engine revved and dropped again, lead foot on the accelerator. I reached for the keys. The ignition was missing. It was hidden in a mess of plastic.

‘I can’t find them,’ I said.

The man stuck his hand into the plastic and made the motor stop. Everything he said confirmed the dire straits we were stranded in.

‘HEY CHAMP! Relax. Everything’s gonna be fine!’

I reached for the door handle. It had been obliterated on impact. The window winder was gone. Mine was the only window still intact. I was trapped in a fast-moving disaster. Each new fact was more startling than the last.

Meanwhile, a team of swift Samaritans was assembling beside the car. They divvied up the serious injuries between them. A blonde woman joined the man at the window. She was fearless. Later I found out she was a nurse on her way home from patching up other people’s broken body pieces.

‘Get me out!’ I screamed. At this stage in proceedings, the police reports describe me as being hysterical. The reports have only a passing resemblance to my memory.

‘Sweetie,’ said the woman, ‘I’m going to need you to be brave. To sit still for a little bit. Is that something you can do for me?’

I nodded dishonestly. I had no intention of staying in the wreck a second longer. My eyes scanned for an exit route. I found one through the driver’s side window. The woman’s eyes went wide with denial.

‘No! Don’t!’

I climbed over the top of Dom, hands pitched into the void, leaving the first responders with no choice. Cowardice is easy to commit and difficult to live with. They helped yank me to safety. My feet hit the bitumen with relief. I started running to the rear of the vehicle.

‘Wait!’ said the man, or the woman, or maybe it was neither of them. Fresh responders were arriving every second.

The boot was ripped open like a tin of tuna. Hamish reclined against the bumper. One hand reached back inside the boot. I used my iPhone to light up his face. Eyelids shut and unblinking. Blood dripped behind his ear.

The rest of the boot was crushed into a crawl space. I searched frantically below and beside the car. Nick was nowhere to be seen. I wondered if he’d ever been in the boot to begin with. I hadn’t seen him climb in. I just knew – that sudden certainty produced by a stray sound or throwaway phrase.

A woman rubbed my shoulder. The situation permitted these strangers to lay their fingers all over me.

‘He’ll be okay!’ she said.

I broke free and searched further afield from the car. Twenty metres away, I located a silhouette on the highway. I sprinted over to the shadow, using my iPhone as a searchlight.

Nick lay parallel to the fog line, eyes facing his brain. The glow from my iPhone illuminated the white shock of his skull. He’d been ejected headlong from the boot. A crooked Z was carved from his hairline to his eyebrow, deep and gushing with blood.

I noticed bystanders behind me. Half-a-dozen of them. Where did they keep coming from? A shadow pulled me aside, no gender in the lunar gloom.

‘Leave him be,’ the stranger announced to me. ‘He’s fucked.’

‘Ambulances are on their way,’ said another.

They were right. I heard the faint suggestion of sirens. The bystanders seemed downbeat, afraid of losing their proximity to the action. I clapped my hands enthusiastically.

‘Hang in there, buddy!’ I yelled. ‘You’ll be right!’

The bystanders looked my way admiringly. I just stood there, grimacing, wishing I were somewhere else.

 

SOON THE DEAD-END of the highway was alive. Sirens screamed in the south-easterly wind. Cones of red and blue spun on the road like strobe lights. Fire engines. Police vehicles. Ambulances. Utes and four-wheel-drives of indeterminate authority. It was a nightclub for lifesavers. An endless stream of high-visibility men and women, pirouetting between each other seamlessly.

The emergency workers didn’t need to learn the narrative. This was bread-and-butter stuff. Saturday night. The high-speed ambition for mischief and risk. Young men bored literally to death. It was the same operation every weekend since they became accredited. They relieved the first responders of their responsibilities. They herded bystanders to cheaper seats further away from the main stage. And then they tried to save lives.

This would be a fine opportunity to describe what it’s like to watch your best friends dying and being revived across a highway, or the shocking split between stopwatch youth and clockwork eternity, but from this point onwards I don’t really remember anything about my friends. I seem to remember everything except their bodies and the medical attention they were getting.

Life is easy to see. Death is left to guesswork.

I drifted barefoot across the blacktop, careful not to land on broken glass, mostly unfazed by the mayhem. My main impulse was to put some distance between my body and the metal wreckage.

There was a grass clearing adjacent to the highway. I slipped into a spontaneous mob of onlookers. People swarmed from parked cars and nearby properties. They were drawn like mosquitos to the LEDs erected at opposite ends of the crash site, a plague of strangers in a nightscape exploding with light. I became a blank face in a contamination of curiosity. Nobody suspected my allegiance to the event.

Beside me was a man wearing boxer shorts and thongs. He gripped his jaw like it might fall apart if he let go for just a second.

‘Well fuck me dead,’ he said.

I shook my head indecisively. The sirens went quiet. The spotlights shone like twin midnight suns. I heard the same ringtone sing from different phones. Someone offered me a cigarette. I declined. Ambulances left. The sirens started again. More bystanders arrived. They tried to appear only mildly interested in the wreckage. Bodies faced away from the road, necks craned back towards the spectacle. This is where everything met. Death, energy, attention. The saving graces of a mundane life.

‘So what do you reckon happened?’ he asked.

I stared hard at the cars. The roof of our 1989 Ford Fairlane was pitched into a tent. The doors were bent off their hinges. Blood covered what was left of the rear windscreen. I ran one hand through my hair and the other across my chest.

How could I possibly associate my racing thoughts and beating heart with this bloody artifice of body bags and CPR kits?

‘No idea,’ I said eventually.

An eavesdropper strode over like she’d just checked on the progress of her tomatoes in the front garden.

‘I got right up close,’ she said. ‘Beers everywhere. Kids no older than fifteen I reckon. Drunk. Probably on drugs! I just feel sorry for the other poor bastard. Brand new friggin’ car as well…’

I nodded with municipal vigour in my chin. Only now did I really see the other vehicle. It was a dark-blue Holden Viva. The driver of the other car was an old guy with no hair sitting on the bitumen. He was alive. Face cut up and bathed in blood.

Do I remember these details, or were they gleaned from the newspaper articles that came later?

The depiction renovates the event.

The narrative bleeds into reality.

In my memory, the driver leaned against the side of his destroyed pride and joy, same pissed-off face as in the paper, resistant to the paramedics, like he was trying to squeeze in private time with a dying loved one.

You can’t keep secrets in a catastrophe. News crews beat most of the emergency workers to the scene. They were bystanders for hire, capturing proof of the crash before it vanished entirely.

The presence of cameramen and women gave license to the amateur bystanders beside me. They spat clipped phrases into their phones – ‘THERE’S BEEN A CRASH!’ – the TV script of an emergency, making apologies for running late that were fake, of course, otherwise they would’ve climbed back in their cars and tried to leave. The truth is there’s nowhere in the world they would’ve rather been than here, observing the event in first person.

I looked into their eyes for a guide to what I should be seeing.

No fear, only awe.

Pretty soon they were on their third and fourth and fifth phone calls. ‘It’s pretty bad,’ they whispered.

Already, the priority of the bystander had skipped from witnessing to describing the event, which is why they missed most of what they were seeing, filling in the gaps later with lies and speculation.

The more candid bystanders cut out the middleman of memory. One guy aimed his smart phone in the direction of the cars. A flash exploded from the roadside. Digital devices cave in quick to our most primitive desires. Some of the witnesses held up phones without committing to the pictures, leaving their memories unverified, as if they only needed the screen to see.

I didn’t begrudge them souvenirs. I considered myself one of them. But I’d stood by long enough. I wandered in the general direction of the city. Nobody tried to stop me.

Traffic was backed up behind the horizon. Two columns of red and yellow pixels divided by a black strip. Police diverted a trickle of pissed-off motorists to the other side of the highway. Car horns blew so far and wide that it sounded like a cathedral organ.

How had I not heard that shrill sound until now?

I felt sick. Forget about death and grievous bodily harm. My biggest fear was recognition. The vista was a milky way of witnesses. Blank gazes framed by glass windscreens. Cars flanked by complete darkness. No stars in a slightly silver sky. My bones glowed with guilt. I started fading out, head light and body leaden, one step behind myself, hiding on the sidelines of my own life.

 

‘WE’VE BEEN LOOKING for you.’

The statement came from behind me. I turned around and came face to face with one of the police officers I’d been eagerly evading.

‘You were in the crash?’

The question sounded rhetorical. My legs trembled. A dry heat engulfed my throat. But I was ready to accept whatever plot twist was next suggested to me.

‘Yep,’ I said.

The policeman looked back towards the crash scene.

‘Come with me,’ he said.

We walked back towards the glowing dome. I hadn’t even left, I realised, having made it only twenty or so metres from where the multitude of witnesses began to thicken until containment by police tape.

Where did all the time go? Nowhere. I’ve just spent so many years remembering the intervening period between escape and discovery that those vivid few minutes have proliferated into hours.

The policeman veered unexpectedly away from the crowd. He turned right onto a driveway and right again onto the highway. We emerged into the darkness created by a shield of emergency vehicles. A policewoman was waiting beside a fire engine. They didn’t need to undo me through routine. The story was formed and pouring out of me in breathless declarations of innocence.

‘I was sitting up the front and saw the trees and next thing you know we skidded and got hit and I don’t know who hit who or which way we were going or where we were going or whose fault it was IT ALL HAPPENED SO QUICK you know what I mean? Like a bolt from the blue and Dom wasn’t even drinking or speeding we were just driving back into town it was so random…’

‘We know you’re still in shock,’ said the policewoman, ‘but later we’re going to need you to be clearer with us.’

That was it. No nice sentiments about keeping my chin up. They left me adrift in a wilderness of unlit bitumen. The roadside was a garbage tip. Broken glass sparkled in the dark. Shopping bags flapped along the fence like jellyfish trapped in a shark net.

I sat cross-legged on the blacktop, leaning against the bright red metal of a fire engine, wading through the meditative blamelessness of nobody knowing what I’d seen or been involved in.

After an extended delay, the same cops returned with bottled water and the news that I didn’t need to be there any longer.

‘You’re free to leave,’ said the man.

‘What do you mean?’

‘Unless you have more information,’ he said, ‘go home and get some rest. You’ve got a long road ahead of you.’

I had no intention of getting on that long road any sooner than I needed to. They were insistent. I gave them my sister’s mobile number. They called her and handed me the phone. Hannah was asleep twenty minutes away.

‘I’ve been in a car crash,’ I said.

Nothing about my tone suggested anything more serious than a minor traffic matter, but already Hannah was crying on the other end of the line, swiping through the mind archive of images that opens whenever you hear the phrase car crash.

‘I’m fine,’ I said.

The police gave her directions. I followed them around to the other side of the remaining fire engine. A few latecomers loitered miserably behind the police tape, ruing whatever they’d been doing at the expense of the event.

The only piece of trivia still at the scene was hidden in the backseat of a police car wrapped in a tinfoil cape like a lunatic. It came in plastic packaging that said ‘Survival Blanket’ on the front and ‘Made in China’ beneath the barcode on the underside. Asian labour for Australian mass emergency. I slumped to the side, eyes tightly shut, not because I was tired, but so I didn’t have to see my insane reflection without filter or special effect.

 

SUDDENLY MY SISTER was tapping her knuckles on the window of the police car and then she was hugging me for dear life on the highway and after that I was sitting in the backseat of her boyfriend’s white Toyota Camry as he sped over the ridge that made a colosseum of the crash site, no sound inside the car except for the whisper of the demister, a few lonely cones of red and blue blinking behind me like Christmas lights on Boxing Day. I was starving and needed to piss but there didn’t seem any sensitive way to say this.

‘The police told me you should go up to the hospital to get checked out,’ said my sister. ‘They told me there’s complications that can come up even if you feel completely fine. Brain bleeds. Blood clots. They said it’s not looking good for some of your friends. They might die, Lech. What the hell even happened?’

She knew more about the evolving storyline than me. ‘The car came out of nowhere,’ I said. ‘Like a shooting star.’

Hannah stared at me in the rearview, irritated then amazed. She saw a person where a ghost was supposed to be.

‘This isn’t poetry, Lech,’ she said. ‘This is real life!’

‘They’ll be fine,’ I said, falsely confident, and this seemed to settle the matter for the time being, windows demisted and the car interior regressing into a silence that seemed prehistoric.

We climbed over Blue Mountain Heights and began our descent into the outer limits of Toowoomba. The classroom myth I believed when I was a little kid is that my hometown was built in the crater of an extinct volcano, and that’s how it showed up to me now: low and half-lit suburbs spilling down slopes into a beaming CBD.

The descent evened out. The windscreen panned to street level. We idled at a red light. The light turned green. Within five hundred metres the heavy industry had been replaced with trees. No one spoke. I realised we were driving in the wrong direction home.

‘Where are we going?’

‘To the hospital,’ said Hannah. ‘Mum and Dad are meeting us there.’

I felt anxious and angry simultaneously.

‘Why,’ I said, ‘would you tell them?’

Hannah gave me a filthy look.

‘Because they’re our parents, Lech.’

We arrived at the hospital, a precinct of rectangular prisms that became a leviathan at night, shadows filling the gaps between right angles. I thanked my sister and her boyfriend without any real sense of gratitude. They lingered in the loading zone a minute, waving ridiculously in my direction, before driving quickly away.

 

NOTHING PREPARED ME for the vision I saw irradiated below the red glow of ‘Emergency’. My parents stood in quiet conversation, smiling tenderly at each other. They separated two years earlier. To the best of my knowledge they hadn’t been on speaking terms for three months.

‘Hey,’ I said.

Mum hugged me. ‘Baby!’

Dad shook my hand with too much firmness, nervously, like he’d been caught philandering but in reverse.

‘G’day mate!’

Only seeing them together in the flesh did it occur to me how outrageously old and worn down they were.

Mum was a textbook androgynous housewife. Liquor and cigarettes exhausted her at a quicker than normal clip. Short grey hair and husky voice. Skinny limbs and swelling pot belly. I had no idea she didn’t fit the bill of femininity until it was suggested to me, repeatedly, by high school friends and enemies alike, who told me she looked like a man or, less insultingly, a lesbian.

Dad was an exaggeration of his own gender. He reeked of bar-room charisma. Face red with high cholesterol. Beer gut bloomed into obesity. His menace was like good real estate, appreciating with age. Fists the size of bricks dead-ending arms thicker than fire extinguishers. Legs dark and carved with muscle.

Both of them were burning with questions. They wanted to know every gritty particular of the crash.

‘It came out of nowhere,’ I said again and again and again.

‘Oh Lech,’ said mum, ‘those poor other parents. We’re so lucky. You wouldn’t have gotten in the boot, would you?’

‘I don’t know. Probably.’

Dad nearly spat his fake teeth onto the footpath. ‘Christ! Get off your high horse, Lenore. We used to drive around with half the town hanging out the car. We’ve put our own kids in the boot!’

Mum put her rough fingers where blood was flecked on the sleeve of my cashmere sweater. ‘Remind me to get this soaking as soon as we get home,’ she whispered sombrely.

We stepped inside the sliding doors. The waiting room was a patchwork of late-night mishap. Babies wailed due to inscrutable ailments. Their parents wished they were dead or at the very least asleep. Everyone avoided making eye contact with each other except for the unashamedly insane.

A speed freak with dreadlocks and no shirt kept publicising a graze bleeding from his shoulder blade to the unwavering disinterest of the female administrator behind the plexiglass.

‘I’m gonna lose my fucking arm!’ he screamed.

‘Please remain patient until you arrive at the front of the line,’ she said into a table-mounted megaphone, dull tone and dead eyes.

I told my parents to sit down while I waited in line but they insisted on staying posted at my hip.

‘We’re here for you, baby,’ said Mum.

Dad sighed for five minutes, eyeballing anyone who breathed in our direction, before pulling me forward by the elbow without warning.

‘My son was in the car crash at Highfields!’ he declared to a line brimming with legitimately sick and injured citizens.

He had a strong presentiment to the currency of tragic events. Every eyeball in the line zoomed in my direction. A pregnant woman held her breath. An elderly man with a purple island floating over his cheek stepped from the front of the queue and ushered me forward.

‘Lucky bugger,’ he said. ‘Lucky lucky lucky.’

The previously sedate receptionist was wide awake.

‘Hi,’ she said. ‘They told me you might be coming. I’ll let the doctors know you’re here. Step right in.’

How on Earth did they know who I was?

The pressurised doors hissed and swung inward. The next hour was a whirlwind of medical professionals indemnifying themselves and pretending there might be something wrong with me.

The radiologist leaked tear streaks on my sweater before taking x-rays of my internal organs.

‘When I heard,’ she said, ‘all I could think about was my son. Bradley. Same age as you. You kids think you’re bulletproof…’

I was led back to a doctor’s office where Mum and Dad sat holding hands. For a horrifying second I thought they’d been about to kiss. The only time I’d ever seen them press their lips together was on their twenty-fifth wedding anniversary. He opened his mouth over hers under intense pressure from Hannah and me.

After that were years of sighs and shouts followed by the tears and then silence of their separation.

Now they had something to celebrate again.

‘How’d ya go?’ asked Dad.

‘Great,’ I said.

The doctor was a tall man with a weak smile. He asked me the most mind-numbingly dumb questions: my full name, what day and month it was, who was the current prime minister of Australia.

‘Is all of this really necessary?’ I asked. ‘I feel fine.’

‘This is all just a precaution,’ he said. ‘We need to be extra careful with car crashes. Especially when there’s been a casualty.’

The room went silent.

Casualty.

What did he mean?

I knew what he meant, but I needed it spelled out for me.

‘Someone died?’

The doctor was stricken.

‘Um,’ he said.

‘Who?’

‘Ah,’ he said.

The doctor looked at my parents to save him, but they were even hungrier for an answer than me, so he reviewed the crash statistics on the clipboard in his glove-covered hands.

‘William,’ said the doctor. ‘He passed away on impact.’

Passed away.

I scrutinised the phrase for longer than I needed to, trying to find a loophole from the bleeding obvious.

‘He’s dead,’ I said.

‘Yes. I’m sorry. I thought you knew.’

The air sucked out of me. Silence drew attention to hospital clatter. Nothing mattered or made sense. I didn’t question how a person could be dead a metre away without me noticing. I wondered what was making the whirring sound down the hallway, fingers clicking like crickets, jingle of car keys and shrapnel in the pockets of passing patrons. My brain felt scraped out and put back in the wrong place. Everything so close and far away. The sensation of listening to voices underwater, in a different dialect, a distant century and tense. No line of thinking I could link with a distinct feeling.

 

I HAVE THE weakest recollection before leaving the hospital of hovering inside an emergency theatre leaking with light where Nick and Tim and Henry lay beside each other on metal beds, brains swelling against their skulls, breathing devices exploding from their throats, begged by their devastated parents to stay alive at least for the helicopter rides to Brisbane and the Gold Coast.

Will was dead. Hamish lay in a separate operating theatre. He passed away that morning. Henry died five days later in Brisbane. Nick came out of his induced coma within the next week, but he was never really the same. Tim stayed in a coma for months. He lost the ability to walk or talk without assistance. Dom spent the next two years in a state of legal and existential limbo. His legal team told him to hope for the best while expecting the worst: potentially five years in a prison cell. The jury found him not guilty.

I remained the same bystander from the beginning until the end, estranged from reality, present and completely apart, no physical or legal scars to verify my participation.

The bereaved families were amazingly gracious. They remained so throughout the tragedy, saying how glad they were I was okay, even if it came at the expense of their own flesh and blood.

What could I possibly say? I was a contortion of remorse. A mannequin reading from a script of bad clichés.

On that first night at the hospital, the least important details stick out in my memory. Ambulances at the end of the loading bay. The 3 am shadow of agony around the eyes of the mums and dads.

For the life of me I can’t remember the faces of my friends or any final sentences I might’ve said to them.

This is trauma. It’s an anti-virus program that deletes the most malicious content from your memory. The problem for some people is that the data resurfaces when they least expect it. My spyware was incredibly efficient. Trauma wiped my brain clean. The crash is a black hole expanding in the headlights, a fresh centre of gravity for the rest of my life to hang around indefinitely. There’s just blank space where my friends used to be. That doesn’t mean I’ll ever stop trying to see them. Missing content might be the lesser of two evils, but living with experiences you can’t remember is no easy fix.


From Griffith Review Edition 56: Millennials Strike Back © Copyright Griffith University & the author.

Griffith Review