In this post:
- “And that’s when I thought I’m dead.”
- Stuff: light, links, movies.
- Video: The Dresden Dolls, ‘Sing’
Or: How A Childhood Best Friend Almost Got Me Killed And Made Me Who I Am.
The older a person gets the more of a past you have to live with. You start to question, or be grateful, for the choices you’ve made. But sometimes it’s not about choices; it’s about dumb luck, or bad luck, or fate.
I think most people, if they really thought about it, could trace who they are now back to two or three people who, early on, nudged them one way or the other. None of which was going through my head as I lay in a coma at the age of 8. I can trace two things to Scott, a kid who was my best friend from age 5 to 9: the desire to write, and depth of feeling. The first was the result of straight up personal influence, the second delivered by blunt force trauma.
“If There’s A Bright Centre To The Universe You’re On The Planet That It’s Farthest From.”
By contrast to my own parents – two very decent people who have no real interest in ever leaving Queensland – Di, mother of my best friend Scott, was an old-school child of the Sixties: she moved through yoga positions in the back yard at the crack of dawn, was a nudist like the rest of her family, and she had turned the outside wall of their house into ‘Paint Alley’ – a long outside space decked out with paints and brushes and a long white wall that Scott could turn into whatever he wanted. Scott had a trampoline. He was into music that I’d never heard of (Mi Sex, Adam and the Ants, The Sex Pistols). His father was an airline pilot. I couldn’t spend enough time around at Scott’s place soaking all this up.
So in 1977 I was at home, it was about 7:30 at night, and we were watching TV. I was lying on my front, on that old circular black-and-avocado rug we had, and a movie commercial came on: starfighters, laser blasts, running gun battles. It was playing at the drive-in. I immediately turned and asked if we could go see it and got a flat no. I remember not even questioning the decision, which is weird given how badly I wanted to see that movie.
Two days later I was told Di had invited me to go see it with Scott and her husband. And so I wound up lying against the windshield at 10pm watching Star Wars.
I had only been alive for five-and-a-half years at that point. All I’d known was cattle stations, the streets around my house, and the encyclopaedias I’d read twice already. What I saw was so much more interesting, and exciting, and powerful. And it centred around a character who seemed so much like me at the time: some schmuck stuck in the middle of nowhere with parents who considered chores more important than living an amazing life. I was five, so leaving home was out of the question. But that’s when I started escaping inward in a big way, copying out panels from comic books and trying to create something like Lucas had. That was the big drive: not escapism but creation. In hindsight a big part of that drive was probably an attempt to articulate who I was, or what I felt. At that point no one was listening, and certainly no one really got where I was coming from; it’s easy to dismiss a five-year-old kid. I was Christian Bale in that scene from Velvet Goldmine. I wanted to build something so big and powerful and wonderful that no-one could ignore it. Something I could point to and yell That’s me, that is.
I think that’s probably why I gave so much to Fateless. And part of why it was so hard to let go of. When you carry an ideal that big and fragile, eventually it’s easy to feel like you’ve broken it, and in doing so failed yourself. It’s a hell of a thing to get out from under when it happens.
So that’s the first part of Scott’s involvement in my being here. The second part is something that almost resulted in my not being here.
Four years later, 1980, still a rabid Star Wars aficionado, Scott took me to the top of Nolan Street. I was there with he and his friend. Nolan Street was a steep, steep stretch that ended at a T-intersection. Scott and his friend had been going up there with their bikes, saddling up and coasting down. They’d build up a breakneck pace and peel off at the end. It hadn’t worried me at the time. There were tracks in the bush around Cairns that were practically vertical, ending in leaps, so this didn’t seem like a big deal. Scott swapped bikes with me. I watched he and his friend go, hooting all the way, peeling away down Hillview Crescent at the end. I got onto Scott’s bike and kicked off.
I couldn’t believe how fast I was going. So fast, I realised, that I couldn’t turn the handlebars. So fast that hitting the brakes didn’t matter – there was so much gravel under the wheels.
The centrepiece of the T-intersection of Nolan and Hillview was a big tree.
The front wheel of Scott’s bike hit the gutter at what felt like about sixty miles an hour, and I catapulted over the handlebars. I hit the tree, full force, face-first. I’m told I hit it so hard that I just hung there like Wile E. Coyote after a rocket-skate mishap. The woman whose yard the tree was in had to come out and peel me off it. She had taken me inside her house, laid me down on a narrow bed and called my mother. Scott’s bike was a mangled write-off. I was unaware of any of this. I woke in pain, unable to speak, listening to my mother apologise to the woman who had taken me in. I remember being walked out of the house to the waiting car. I seem to remember Di being upset and my mother sort-of laughing it off, apologising again, not wanting to make a fuss. I’m almost certainly getting some or all of that wrong. My head was exploding, and the very act of my neck muscles keeping my head upright felt like being stabbed in the brain from beneath. Like my skull was full of molten lead.
I remember getting into the back seat of the lime green Torana we had at the time. My cousin was staying with us at the time. She had come along for the ride and was in the front seat. I remember her looking back at me, her expression quickly collapsing to one of horror. And that’s when I thought I’m dead.
Later I learned that I’d smashed my nose, blackened my eyes so badly they swelled to the size of plums and couldn’t be opened; I’d punched my two middle teeth clean out of my head, and given myself a Harry-Potter-style lightning bolt skull fracture right between my eyes. Oxygen was leaking into my brain.
The next thing I remember is waking in the middle of my parents’ bed, in a lake of lumpy black blood which I’d thrown up. What I remember after that is waking up on a gurney in a darkened hospital hallway, my mother sitting on a chair across the way, and her bursting into tears when I groaned for her.
Turns out the hospital had left me lying there for six hours. By the time a doctor got around to checking on me I’d lapsed into a coma.
From the two weeks I was unconscious and critical the only dream I can remember is of a crashed astronaut in a blinding desert on his back, baking and dying of thirst, reaching up and out of shot to what I would understand much later was a menstruating woman. I have no idea where that came from, or why.
And then I woke up. The kids in my class had been made to write get well cards, delivered in a garbage bag. My grandparents made pie and brought it around. My father had been out of town when the accident happened. He had been working on a cattle station owned by a family friend and learned via CB what had happened. He drove back, high speed, in a few hours. Made it three blocks from the hospital and was T-boned at an intersection by a car that didn’t brake. The truck flipped a couple of times. People came running out of houses, asking if the driver got out. “Yeah,” Dad said. “How do you know?” “Because it was me.” No casualties, miraculously.
Also, fortunately, the two front teeth that I lost were baby teeth. So I only had to wait a few years for them to grow back.
Flash forward to 2007 or so. After 27 years I went back to Nolan Street. It’s not a steep, steep slope. It’s a gentle incline. The tree is still there though – and it’s not the muscular and primordial thing I remember. It’s just a tree. I cannot for the life of me work out how the bike got up enough speed to have done that sort of damage.
That same year I mentioned this story to a friend, and what he came away from it with was “Oh, so Walter’s you.” He was talking about the character of Walter from The Music of Razors: a four-year-old kid who is tricked into betraying the monster at the foot of his bed, and subsequently falls into a coma – which becomes a transformative journey in itself in which he is reunited with his monster in an unexpected way. “That was you.” It had never occurred to me that I was writing about something I’d gone through myself. Not once. Funny how we can be so close to something and never see it.
In the years following the accident something started happening. I got miserable. Oversensitive. Deeply desperate and depressed. Enough that I went along to a psych a couple of times at the age of 12. But it wasn’t until I spoke to a friend with a forty-year career in psych that I learned that head trauma can sometimes result in an amplification of a person’s emotional spectrum. They asked what the CAT scans turned up at the time of the accident and I had to tell them I’d never been CAT scanned. Cairns Base Hospital for the win.
But that kind of head trauma can sometimes jack what a person feels by about twenty percent. It was a nightmare as a kid, everything feeling large and looming and weird. Eventually, though, I guess I managed to recalibrate what I felt to a manageable level just like everyone else. It made me a crap brawler. Every punch I threw I pulled before it landed – it was too easy to imagine what I was doing, to feel it as I did it. Every fight hurt my feelings more than it hurt my body. Even as it was happening, year in year out, I was baffled by it. Clearly nobody else had these weird-assed compunctions.
In the end, though, whatever happened wasn’t a handicap; if anything it gave me access to a depth of feeling I might not otherwise have had. Not so much that I’m a basket case, but enough that I can walk around in someone’s shoes and feel it. And I think that’s been a real help and asset when it comes to creating characters and situations that can strike someone in the heart. So I’m very grateful for that. I still wish I could have learned that degree of empathy, rather than having it smashed through my face, but I guess we all play what we’re dealt.
Dmetri Kakmi is a fantastic editor, and has worked with some of the greats on some of their better known novels. But he’s also a novelist and essayist, and this essay on light was the first time I ever encountered him in that role. It’s a beautiful piece.
The first book of the six book series has been edited. Now applying notes. Cannot wait to get this to my agent.
Rough versions of the new website come in on Monday. Hoping to have the whole thing live within a month or so.
First draft of a 6-7 minute short film script coming along nicely. Hope to begin shooting early next year. Really excited about this.
Karma Collective off to a good start.
I’ve been put in touch with a screenwriter and graphic novelist in Hollywood. No idea where, if anywhere, this might lead but it’ll be cool finding out.
Video: The Dresden Dolls, ‘Sing’
In closing, a song I can only listen to sparingly it’s such a wellspring.