You were driving and the light was like honey. It was raining, one of those autumn days when the sky above you is blue and the rain is coming out of nowhere. The sun was going down and between that, the oncoming clouds and the haze of pot smoke filling the van the afternoon was putting on a real show.
Tinny guitars shrieking out of its crappy speakers your little van floated, like a bubble of dissent, through the dimming lights of suburbia. I had my feet up on the dash and I remember you grinning into the rear view mirror and laughing that soft, breathy laugh.
We didn’t talk. I smoked, you smoked, we smoked and then neither of us did. I’ve smoked hundreds of joints in cars, thousands of cigarettes, but every time since that time, I remember that time. You laughing quietly and wreathed in gloom and smoke and golden sunlight. You punishing that poor little van through roundabouts and corners, too fast, barely holding it together and laughing that annoying breathy chuckle.
That laugh! Man it gave me the shits. I’d known you for years and I’d never heard you laugh normally. Always either quietly and somehow bitter, or too loud and painfully, awkwardly clear. Either way I felt like you knew something I didn’t, something you thought was clever. It pissed me off.
You pissed me off. Your presumption, your aggression, your secret, shameful cowardice. All those facets of the overall persona you wore of knowing more, of being better. You were the worst person I’ve ever known and the best friend I’ve ever had.
Safe to say I don’t regret what I did, and I don’t think you would either.
Safe to say you had it coming.
When you finally spoke I felt like I’d been watching a rock teeter on a cliff. Words started coming out and I knew it could be an avalanche I was witnessing. Even knew it could kill me, I think. I’ve always had an instinct for survival.
“Did you see that fucking cunt?!” You laughed, slamming your swollen fist down on the dash.
“Did you see his face when I popped his knee with that bat?! He looked like someone’d pulled a hooker off his dick!” You imitated Craig’s desperate hands and pounded on the wheel again, the car full of your too loud laughter.
I had that feeling again, in my head the rock was teetering. I thought about my life. I thought about being 16 and too nervous to walk into my own house, I thought about the fiction I’d read as a kid and all the heroes I’d thought I could be. I thought about the fiction I still read and the heroes I wanted to be. I thought, briefly, of what you might say and then I thought “Fuck It” and in my head that rock started to roll.
“You’re a fucking idiot” I spat. Wildly inadequate but a start. My voice came out hard and flat and distant anyway and in the back of my clouded mind I was glad.
You stopped laughing immediately. That was evidence, if I’d needed it, that it was forced. The laughter, I mean. It was like someone had turned off the tap. The noise just stopped. Your hand was still on the dash but it wasn’t a fist. It splayed out over the hard black plastic like a dead fish. I stared at the crust of blood and platelets across your knuckles and wondered who they came from. I felt a strange anger and sickness rise in me as I focused on the yellowish tinge of tobacco on your fingers. I cursed myself for a coward and I looked in your eyes, mocking and blue. You opened your mouth and I felt that sick, angry something rise up in my gut. You must have seen it too ‘cause your eyes lost a bit of their shine and you shut your mouth. The silence was an impasse and for a second we looked at each other, not sure how to go on. Then you shrugged and a glimmer of the same mocking look came into your eye. You turned off the radio and asked into the silence
“Why?” For a second I was too stunned to speak. I made some stupid sound and thrashed around in my seat to give you the hardest look I could.
“Are you serious?!” I almost squeaked. You shrugged again. Something about that shrug was so nonchalant, so smug, that I felt that stomach feeling solidify and become red rage. I punched the little bubble windscreen of your van so hard that three tremulous cracks spider-webbed their way out from my knuckles. I didn’t want to look at you so I watched the road through them and held my throbbing hand in my lap. Silence boomed over the music for an eternal moment then;
You mumbled it into your chest like a school boy.
Violence shocked you. It always did. I never understood why. You knew where I came from, what I came from. Somehow though you couldn’t believe my anger until it overflowed me and took some form. You idolized violence but seemed to forget you weren’t the only one capable of it.
But I was angry. Your guilt wasn’t wanted, I ignored it. I ground you up into little pieces with my mind, chewed up your remorse and spat it viciously into the decaying mound of your regrets. I was tired of you and it was at that moment, like a river changing course, that I realized it.
I didn’t care anymore.
“You raped her.” It wasn’t a question and this time my voice was calm. You looked at me and I saw fear and shame in your eyes.
You felt it too. Something in the balance had shifted.
Your mouth worked for a long second before any sound came.
“I don’t know.” You stopped, rubbing at your temple where the pressure built.
“What’s it called when the girl passes out ‘cause she’s too pissed and then her brother walks in while you’re still going?” You laughed then and it was the most real laugh I’d ever heard from you. A bark. One syllable of bitterness, frustration and loathing.
“You raped her” I said again
“She woke up” You begged.
“She woke up right before Craig came in the door. I was still going, she freaked out. I was trying to calm her down but the door burst in and everything went to shit.”
I wasn’t buying it; your stories only ever had one master, one purpose.
“You hit her” I said. You shook your head but said nothing.
“You hit her and you hit Craig and his mate. You kicked the shit out of Craig and you left the party without me. Forgive me if I didn’t plead your innocence then. I certainly don’t fucking believe you now!”
Even in my anger I knew that was unfair. At the time I had been asleep. Passed out on a couch, dreaming in Tequila clouds. Everything I’d just said was hearsay but it was hearsay with the ring of truth. Someone woke me up. Someone frantic. That and the thick taste of sick in my mouth were my first memories sober memories.
The whole place had been buzzing like flies on a shit and someone’s hands were shaking as they told me I had to find you. That I had to, quickly. I was drunk though, and I’m always braver when I’m drunk. Sometimes I’m brave enough to be honest.
I told them you could go fuck yourself. Halfway through their edgy, horrified recitation I shoved them so hard they nearly fell over a table and told them they could go find you if they cared. That I didn’t care, so fuck off.
I remember them, whoever they were, looking at me with confused eyes as I staggered away. They didn’t understand. How could they know I was sick of you? How many times I’d left a party chasing after you? How the whole thing felt to me like a nauseating movie stuck on repeat.
I left the house.
I like to think that if you’d been there I would have said everything to your face. Maybe our reckoning would have happened then and things would be different.
But you weren’t. You were skulking in the night like a beaten dog and that made all the difference.
I made it home somehow. I woke up on the lawn.
The first time I met you we were drunk. I think that’s the only why as to how we became friends. You forgive the worst in someone when you’re drunk, especially when it looks so much like the worst in you.
We were drunk the first time we met and it quickly became the standard. We were brothers in bars. Alcohol was our Mother.
We argued about which bar it had been but I guess it didn’t matter. We were drunk, drunker than Russians I liked to say. I’ve never made a secret of the fact I’m a miserable prick when I’m drunk. Location is irrelevant.
My strongest memories of that night are sculling red wine in a toilet cubicle and the sting as I stamped out a cigarette on my stomach in some dark alleyway as you laughed in the shadows.
You liked me. I remember knowing I’d won you over pretty early on but worrying, even then, that you might be dangerous. I could feel the violence in you straining at the leash. I was too drunk to care much and, as the night went on, I embraced it. Another theme of the night to be tied into the melody of the whole. Overdressed girls, drunk drivers, aggressive cops. Any one of them could kill me. So could you.
At some point things came to a head. You told me the next morning that I’d leapt out of my seat in a beer garden somewhere, driving my head into the mouth of an unsuspecting bouncer. He’d shook me awake and that had been my response. In a way I still blame you for that. A prick I may be but I’ve rarely been a violent one. I think that was my attempt to show you we were cut from the same cloth, that I too was a violent, reckless and dissatisfied mind.
It worked. You were amazed, even though I had the shit kicked out of me. You picked me up from the gutter, laughing and clapping me on the shoulder as I spat blood and curses on the concrete.
We made it home somehow that night too. I woke up on the floor in a puddle of guilt & pain.
Things went on that way for a while.
I found you the day after the party where I knew you would be. I’d heard that Craig and his mates were out looking for you but I didn’t worry too much. You knew more places to hide in this city than they knew places to eat. My real worry was what I’d do when I found you. I hadn’t shaken off that feeling from the night before. I still didn’t want to have to be the one to deal with this, to pick you up and make your excuses. I knew where to find you. I knew what I’d say and what you’d say back. I even had ideas on how to make things alright with Craig. It all felt like a well-rehearsed script. What I didn’t know was whether I wanted a part in any of it. I’d spent so much time and energy being your friend that I was exhausted by the task. Still, I came looking. As I reversed out of my driveway I called myself every name under the sun. The one that came back, again and again, was coward.
I didn’t have far to drive so I drove it in silence. The hum of my shitty little engine had the sound of fate drawing me on. Some inexorable machine. Outside the car people drove, walked or rode their bikes and felt more distant & strange to me than ever before in my life. Never had it felt so clear that I was something different, something worlds apart. Normal people didn’t deal with this shit.
I pulled over when I saw your van. I killed the car and got out feeling driven. Not motivated or strong but like my body was a mechanism. Like a stick in a river or some dumb animal walking into a trap. Things were happening to me and I, as always had no control over any of them.
I crossed the uneven footpath and stepped into the alley. Broken glass and syringes lined the corners where the brick walls met the paving stones. Graffiti shone off the walls in patches of evening sunlight and led me on into gloom and shade.
This was our place. The night of the bouncer, the night we first met, we had stumbled into it broken, bleeding and pissed.
The ground floor was a concrete car park that it seemed no one knew. It had the feeling of a tomb, dust dry and vacant for years. When you looked up though it was a church. A place of worship for some old god of clockworks and industry. Two stories of rusted steel girders, I-beams and wires, pipes, bricks and bars. There was no roof so from the ground you were looking through a maze of man-made structure and rubble and out to the stars.
You were there, where I knew you would be. In one corner of the car park an ancient, broken piece of security fencing leant against the burnt and decaying bricks. Above it was a platform, like a catwalk above a stage but decrepit and barely stable. You were up there, sitting with your knees drawn into your chest like a lost child. I had the feeling you knew I was coming, you didn’t seem surprised to see me. I had that feeling again of being dragged along and hated it. I stopped and looked up at you. You looked back and from somewhere you pulled a bottle of wine and took a long swallow. Your eyes never left mine. You put down the bottle with exaggerated care and smacked your lips heavily.
“Comin’ up?” you asked.
I remembered that first night climbing on the girders and laughing hysterically. I remembered your dealer friend Tahlia who came to meet us with some mushroom caps. I remembered drinking red wine and seeing the red dust of corrosion on my hands mingle with spilt wine and blood from careless climbing.
“No” I said, seeing red again. I squashed it down.
“No, but I think you should come down.”
“Why?” You asked, petulant as a child. “I just rolled a joint. Come up.”
“No” I spat, some of that red anger spilling out in my voice.
“Why…” You started to ask but I cut you off hard.
“Because I’m not here to make you feel better. I’m fucking mad at you. I’m here to try and make sure you don’t get killed.” That hung in the air for a second and I felt like a child. You looked at me and smirked so I turned to walk away.
“Wait” You said, right as I said “I don’t even know why I came.”
Right then, right as you started climbing awkwardly down that broken piece of fence, the reason I was there showed up too.
You were climbing with your back to the alley so you didn’t see. I did and for a second my breath left me.
I couldn’t speak as I watched Craig, hard faced and silent, walk past the mouth of the alley in the golden evening light.
He wasn’t alone.
A menagerie of hard, animal faces and clenched fists trailed him and it was only the last one, right as I started to exhale, who looked down the alley and locked his beady eyes on mine.
I took two steps back but it was too late. I heard him shout
“They’re down ‘ere” and then came the pounding of many feet. My blood was up and I could feel it throbbing in my neck and temple, racing in my chest and twitching in my suddenly aching clenched fists.
You turned to look at me as soon as your feet hit the ground.
“Un-fucking-believable” we said together, smiling at the stupid poetry of it all.
We both knew you deserved what was coming, for this and a hundred other things. We both felt the changes that were already on us. Life had changed and we might never speak again but in that moment I knew I couldn’t ever leave you like that, that I would fight with you, that it would be bloody and brutal and glorious and that despite everything you were my brother and my friend.
There was no talking.
They came in full of fast and righteous fury, Craig charging like a bull at their head. You side stepped his right hand and clipped his jaw. He hit the ground without putting out a hand.
The first to reach me I met with an elbow in the face, he staggered and I planted and uppercut on his chin. It was only when he hit the ground, red faced and cross-eyed, that I saw the knife in his hand and I bellowed it loud, like an angry bull.
It echoed around the car park but nobody cared enough to hear.
The next guy had a bat.
I dodged two wild swings and punched him in the throat hard. He crumpled and I smiled as I kicked the bat out of his hands. Smiled again as I felt his nose flatten and bloom under my knee.
There is something magnificent in violence. Something sickeningly beautiful. It’s so vain and so purely aggressive. You are an animal, trying to survive in the most brutal sense, and you win or you die. You are the victor or the vanquished and anything else that mattered before doesn’t even exist anymore. If you’re still standing at the end you are the better man and you win.
Every blow you land, every bone you break and every body that falls at your feet is a testament to your dominance and the fact that you are alive.
Gloriously, joyfully alive.
No more nagging doubts or second guessing. No more gnawing memories.
All the fear and anxiety is burned away in action. The freedom of it sings in your blood and crackles like voltage and not even a blow the other guy lands can touch you.
I scream sometimes when I fight. I don’t know what I say but I know I do it. You’ve told me so more than once. All I remember after is the sound of it. Loud, grating, eager and menacing.
I think the idea is to look like I want it. Look mad and exalted and wild and sometimes people hesitate.
I looked up from the one with the bat as he fell clutching at his face. There were four guys on the ground now and four who had hesitated as they came through the door. I saw them hesitate again when I turned on them and started to scream.
I don’t know what I was saying but I saw the fear hollow out their eyes as I advanced on them.
I risked a glance in your direction, saw you straddling someone on the ground, and turned back to see one guy step forward. I screamed again and suddenly I was right in front of him, right in his face, and I could see the wide trembling whites of his eyes and the sweat catching on his blonde eyebrows. I saw the flecks of my spit hit him as I screamed and saw the muscles in his face twitch. I saw him step back, shocked, and try to raise his hands. I watched my fist drive hard into his clenched teeth and felt his lip split and swell under my knuckles.
I hit him three times in succession and he fell to the ground, right next to the bat. I scooped it up in one hand, threw it end-over-end with savage intent at the others, and left him groaning and stunned to run after it.
The bat struck one guy in the ribs but he was big and barrel chested, it was a glancing blow and he didn’t even seem to feel it. I jumped the last metre, trying to close the distance and capitalise on the bat, but he shrugged me off with ease and into the arms of his partners.
A fist filled my vision and my head rang a stunned alarm. I couldn’t see. I tucked my chin and tried desperately to protect my head but my arms were pinned. Two more clouts hammered insistently at my consciousness but I could feel, even then, that there was no intent behind them. The guy was huge and insanely strong but he didn’t want to hurt me.
I opened my eyes to watch him draw back the next punch and saw you standing over a now limp body. I gritted my teeth and as the next punch came in slow motion I tilted my head towards it, stiffened my neck and rammed his behemoth fist just off the line of his arm. I grinned in pleasure at the crack of breaking bone. He howled but it was cut short when I kicked him, hard as I could, in the groin.
He dropped like a stone and in that instant of shock the two arms holding mine relaxed and I wriggled free, turning to face my antagonists as you stepped up beside me, bat in your fist.
All of a sudden there was two of us and two of them and I’d never felt so feral in my life. I was a wild dog with the blood of unsheltered lambs dripping off my jaw. I wasn’t screaming anymore. I didn’t need to. The fear coming off those bodies was palpable.
The silence stretched out for an age. They were broken, they just didn’t know it. They found out when Craig stirred from the ground. He heaved slowly up off his chest and tried to stand. You turned coolly, bat describing nonchalant loops in your hand, as Craig dragged himself onto one knee. He saw you coming and rushed upwards, a mountain unfolding from the earth.
With lazy cruelty you stepped forward and drove the bat in a savage arc to shatter the bigger man’s knee.
He collapsed again like rubble, mouth forming a shocked “O” that broke into a furious and agonised scream before he could bite it down.
I watched this happen, hating and loving it in the same breath, and at the same time I watched the faces of our two would be attackers lose all colour. You turned away from Craig and his shuddering torment and something in your face made the last two men step backwards, hesitate & then run.
I almost ran with them.
We stood, for a second, in silence. Whimpers and groans echoed around the bricks and mortar like bats in the darkness but we stood still. All that adrenaline, all that battery acid in the blood, was gone and I felt heavy and wooden and dumb. My hands ached and I realised my tongue was probing at the stinging lump of a split and bloody lip. I stopped, started again immediately, and turned to you. My head was a tonne of stone and my spine as it twisted was made of broken twigs.
You were staring at the floor, eyes lost in the chips and fractures of the concrete patina and your face was that of a lost child.
The violence had ebbed away. The storm of emotion was subsided, a wave leaching back swiftly through the sand.
If there is beauty in violence then its aftermath is like the worst of withdrawals from the cruellest of drugs. Like waking up scrawny, dried out and broken to realise that your addiction has swallowed you whole and wasted all the things you loved.
Like waking up to your life on a comedown. Not just to your life but to the realisation that this is the life you have made for yourself, that you don’t want it anymore and that the road to change is long and steep and covered with the broken glass of all of your mistakes.
The wave had drawn back from the sand and left exposed the bones, corpses and bare black rock of truth that could cut you like a knife.
Craig rolled onto his back, ruined knee drawn up close to his chest, and started to curse us. I didn’t hear him so much as realise he was talking. I could see his mouth moving but the words came like sounds underwater. I saw you realise it too. You’re eyes refocused and you watched him for a second with your head tiled to one side like a curious bird.
“…fucking dead cunt!”
The sound came back on. Flecks of spit were flying from his lip as he screamed up at you. Your eyes narrowed and I saw you heft the baseball bat in your hands. Craig saw it too but, to his credit he didn’t flinch. If anything he got louder, screaming abuse and daring you to hit him again. I could see the anger building in you and I could see your hesitation.
The moment was gone. Any violence done now was done in cold blood to a helpless and beaten man.
I stepped between you and the hissing, spitting form of Craig on the floor. I looked you in the eyes and saw the conflict there. For a moment you tensed like you would push past me but I grabbed your wrist, placed a hand on your chest and you stopped. I took the bat from your unresisting hand and dropped it on the ground.
You looked past me to the man lying broken on the concrete and your lips parted, your eyes softened as if you wanted to explain, to make peace.
Craig saw it too and he spewed his hatred with renewed energy. Your eyes became flints again, your jaw clenched and you spat through it at the concrete, close enough to Craig’s face to make him flinch.
“Let’s go” I said, turning you forcibly by the shoulder.
We walked back through the vastness of concrete, bricks and steel, into the shadowed and damp alleyway and followed it out into a still and beautiful sunset where the light was thick and gold like honey. We climbed into your van without saying a word and as you turned the key in the ignition and the engine roared to life you flicked me the joint from your jacket pocket and winked.
I held it for a moment in my hand, noticing how it tapered from thick end to thin and thinking of the baseball bat you had spun in your hand.
You pulled out recklessly from the curb and I sighed, shaking my head to clear it before I made it cloudy. I fished a lighter from my pocket and as I lit it you turned on the radio.
Tinny guitars shrieked from the vans crappy speakers and as I took my first long inhale we were driving away.