Last drop of the day, a store in Newtown, block after next.
Chris looked upwards through the dusty windscreen of his small delivery truck. A
hot sun up there was urging a detour to Bondi after this. He could swim in his
work shorts; they needed a wash.
He found Triple J on the truck’s radio and cranked it up
because the weekend starts on a Friday arvo, so long as there’s a decent
soundtrack. Back to the windscreen, he saw the traffic up ahead had suddenly
stopped. Some idiot was trying to reverse a trailer into a lane off the busy
Chris hit the brakes, but nothing happened. He didn’t slow
down. He pumped them again, and again. Nothing! He could see, if he didn’t do
something fast, he was going to slam into the back of the car in front.
He had only two seconds, and he used the first one to
dismiss the crowded footpath to his left. He snatched his eyes to the right,
across an oncoming bus. No one on that footpath on that side of the road, and
there was a vacant demolition site with a pile of old bricks and roofing iron
that might just slow his truck down.
It was just a chance. And he grabbed it.
He plunged the accelerator to the floor and swerved
violently across the prow of the bus. With a jolting thud, his truck bounced
over the kerb and onto the rubble-strewn lot, smashing straight through the pile
of bricks and rusting iron. A cloud of demolition dust exploded across his
windshield, and his engine stalled to a halt just two metres before he would
have slammed into the solid brick wall at the back of the site.
He let out a grunt of relief and flopped back into his
sheepskin seat cover. The self-absorbed prattle of the radio DJ, oblivious to
the drama that had just happened, was irritatingly loud. Chris snapped it off.
Hero! he began his mental accolades in the quiet.
‘You lunatic!’ a voice raged, through the settling dust
Chris looked out through his open side-window and saw a
furious man with a blanched face running towards him from the footpath.
‘Settle down, mate,’ he shouted back, unclicking his
‘You ran straight into it!’ the man screamed.
Chris looked back at the crumpled iron behind his truck.
‘Bloody oath, I did,’ he chirped with a cheeky pride. ‘Had
‘They were in there!’ the man shrieked, as he ran towards
the flattened stack.
‘What was?’ Chris said, casually opening the door and
stepping down from his truck.
‘It’s their cubby. Oh, God, you ran right over them!’
The distance from hero to villain can sometimes be measured
in fate. The exact same actions would have earned Chris such enthusiastic praise
if there hadn’t been three children playing in that pile of tin.
But there were three children playing in that pile of tin.
The charge sheet was read out to the hollow courtroom.
Chris only caught odd phrases. “Recklessly driving… defective braking system…
inappropriate speed… blah, blah, blah”. He wasn’t listening. He’d already
condemned himself, these proceedings were a mere formality. He sat silent,
numbed by a massive blend of guilt, regret, and sorrow. It wasn’t what he’d done
that he was ashamed of, it was the consequence of doing it, and the barrage of
courtroom jargon so far made no mention of that. The next three words, however,
did, and they slammed into him like an out of control truck.
“Criminally negligent manslaughter”.
He glanced at his parents. They looked at the floor.
The judge took into consideration that Chris was only
twenty-six, and had no previous convictions.
‘I further accept that you were attempting to avoid a
collision,’ he said, ‘but your defence that you were unaware there were children
in the vacant lot is invalid. Your deliberate and dangerous course of action
resulted in the tragic loss of three young lives, and that can not be taken
He was ready to make his determination, and he turned to
the clerk of courts. ‘Three thousand dollars,’ he declared, ‘and an
eighteen-month custodial sentence with a set minimum period of three months.’ He
looked at Chris. ‘The balance being subject to the usual condition that the
defendant does not re-offend during the term of the parole.’
Chris had nothing to say.
‘Driver’s licence suspended for the full eighteen months,’
the judge added.
Suspended. Guilt itself is suspended by a single Damoclean
hair, and it can hang over a conscience for far longer than eighteen months.
His mother visited him twice the first week he was in jail,
and then only three more times during his term. His girlfriend, Josie, only
visited him once. His father never came at all, but Chris sent word to ask him
to sell his car for him and use the money to pay the fine. Which he did.
Three months in prison is ninety days. Ninety days of not
having to think about dodging left or right to avoid a line of inmates shuffling
along the corridor. No piles of rubble to decide whether or not to drive into.
Everything was directed by the guards, by the system. It was their
responsibility; Chris was merely a passenger now.
But ninety days is also ninety nights. Ninety nights of
staring at the corridor lightbulb glowing in through the small gap high up in
his cell wall. He couldn’t escape from what happened in Newtown. He re-ran that
afternoon, and each time he steered his truck around the pile of roofing iron.
Each time, the kids poked their heads out and giggled at the silly man in the
truck. Each time.
And then he remembered that’s not how it happened.
He was sitting eating his dinner in the food hall one day
in his second week when a fellow prisoner walked over with his own meal tray and
sat beside him. Chris didn’t even notice he was there.
‘Sausages,’ the prisoner said. ‘Two big, fat turds on a
Chris didn’t respond.
‘You’re a freshie,’ the prisoner went on. ‘What you in
The last thing Chris wanted was to relive his accident. He
just shrugged and continued to eat.
‘Hey, gronk,’ the prisoner said, ‘I asked you a fucking
Chris paused eating. He sat very still before he slowly
raised his face, numb with emptiness, and looked dispassionately, straight into
his inquisitor’s eyes.
And right through them.
‘Yeah, all right, don’t go the spinner on me,’ the
prisoner said nervously, mistaking melancholy for malevolence. ‘We all done
something, haven’t we? That’s why we’re here. No offence.’
Without reply, Chris went back to chewing his food. His
demeanour was interpreted by everyone as the confident cruelty of a hard man,
which was just as well. Some prisoners need a victim to repay what they felt the
world was doing to them. Many of them have kids back on the outside so they
particularly seek out anyone who’s been charged with hurting children, and they
mete out a stern moral ‘justice’ on them.
Perhaps years of surfing and loading heavy boxes into the
work truck had given Chris a body that looked more dangerous than he actually
was. Perhaps his constant vacant gaze was taken to mean he was capable of
anything since he seemed to register nothing. Whatever it was, he survived the
three months without incident from anyone, and he used the time as though he’d
been cloistered in a monastery.
And found peace.
When he got out, he realised that staying with his parents
was unthinkable. For him as much as for them.
‘How are you going to get a job if you can’t drive for
another year or more?’ his father prodded. ‘You’ve got less than four grand left
from your car. That won’t last long. You’re going to have to buckle down now and
see what the real world’s about.’
His father thought Chris could have been so much more, that
he was a disappointment who had settled for an easy life, that he didn’t go to
uni or find himself a career and now he’d even lost the one crummy job he did
Chris wasn’t allowed to leave the state for the remainder
of his parole but he could move home, so long as he informed the police of his
Perhaps it was running away, or turning the page, but he
needed to start again. Somewhere completely different. Somewhere no one knew
anything about what had happened. And somewhere he could forget.
‘Wanna come?’ he asked Josie.
‘Maybe next year,’ she offered, neither expecting nor
wanting to follow up on that. ‘I’ve just been made section manager at work.’
He said he had to go now. That he couldn’t wait.
And he went.
The bus pulled out of the bus station into the early
morning, and the sharp sunlight squinting between the tall office blocks stabbed
Chris’s eyes. He pulled his beanie down over his forehead, he didn’t want to see
the city streets anyway. They were nothing to do with a beginning, they were
merely the ruins of an ending.
Fumbling the iPod from his jacket pocket, he pushed the
buds into his ears, selected the soundtrack for his escape, and cranked up the
volume. The music drowned both the motor and the thoughts, and he drifted into
A couple of hours or so later he raised his beanie and sat
up. He stared out of the bus window and watched the roadside unravelling like
wool from a snagged jumper. It was just something to look at like there was
something to look at.
A passenger in the row behind him pulled at his headrest as
they got up to move seats and brought Chris’s attention back inside the bus. A
child coughed from somewhere up in the front section. Was it a cough? Could
Chris looked forwards down the aisle and out through the
windscreen as the North oozed towards him. He was now the furthest he’d ever
been from Sydney, but he was still hours away from Byron.
Should’ve checked for a cheap flight, he thought.
Though maybe it was better that he established the distance properly by road;
flying cheats the scale.
There were hills to crawl up, where the driver shuffled the
gears with a jerk. There were small towns to dissect and larger ones to bypass.
A row of trees ended abruptly and fields of sugarcane monotonised the landscape.
The bus thrummed on until late in the afternoon when it
pulled into a servo and the disrupted passengers were invited to use the toilets
there, or to buy some hot brown liquid in a thin plastic cup and grab one of the
pre-made sandwiches suffocating in cling film.
That done, twenty minutes later, there was the straggling
back on-board and the erratic resettling into the seats. The driver hissed the
door closed and walked up the aisle, counting heads before the bus rolled out of
the parking area and back into the tedium of journeying once more. Chris watched
the window again till the sun melted into the horizon, and then he pulled his
beanie back over his eyes.
It was fully dark when the bus jerked to a stop in Byron’s
main street. A line of accommodation touts was standing at the rear of the
footpath, mostly there to rendezvous with the pre-booked, but two of them were
holding inviting pictures of the places they represented. Chris had heard that
Byron accommodation was tricky to get in summer, but he’d ignored that. He
didn’t necessarily believe the information was wrong, it was just he couldn’t
allow himself any doubt that this was where he had to go.
His only bag was the one he had stashed under his seat
onboard the bus, so there was no need for him to have to loiter with the other
passengers waiting for the driver to open the side luggage compartments. He
approached the tout closest to him before anyone else was ready to, and he ended
up scoring the last available bunk at the Arts Factory Backpackers, just a short
walk from the town centre.
He threw his bag onto his given bed and went to check out
the backpackers’ Buddha Bar. It was a large dim room with several statues of
Buddha set into the walls and behind the bar. He bought a beer and sat in one of
the little booths.
Suddenly, Sydney seemed a long way away. A long time ago.
Despite it being the busy season, with so many people
looking for a summer job, he found work the first day he looked. It was a
part-time job, collecting empty glasses from the tables at the Beach Hotel. The
same week, he scored a traineeship at the Dive Centre, where he helped kit-up
the tourists and scrub the boats in return for free dives and a discounted dive
licence. Within a month, he had his own room in a share house with Liam, another
glassie at the hotel, and called it “home”.
One Sunday morning, before his afternoon shift at the
hotel, he checked out the Byron Markets. It was a pageant of peddlers flogging
bric-a-brac, colourful costumes, and a varied menu of food. He bought a spinach
and ricotta crepe and a sugarcane juice, and sat on the grass for a few minutes,
listening to some guy with an accordion singing ‘Where do you go to, my lovely?’
Chris felt okay in Byron. It seemed something had changed
for him ever since he’d found a place to stay at the Buddha Backpackers.
Everything was suddenly good. It had all just gone so smoothly.
He leaned back, spread his hands across the grass, squinted
his eyes closed, and felt the warm sun painting a smile on his face. Smile. He
hadn’t done that for months. Maybe even years.
His fingers ran over something intriguing. He turned his
head, parted the grass and saw a small silver Buddha pendant. Abandoned,
dropped, forgotten. Waiting for him to find. A Buddha like the statues where his
new life began. This tiny token symbolised all that was right for him.
It was his good luck charm.