Bill Lee had been working for the Border Mail for twenty-nine years. He’d started out
like cadet journalist Gennie Drynan – fetes, car accidents, biggest bulls at the Scots School (his kids had gone there), tractor pulls, the local member’s monthly reannouncements – small town stuff that kept the paper going. He’d fit right in, got to know the locals (all of them, even the meth-heads in Wodonga), bought a hobby farm at Thurgoona, bred, joined Rotary, cooked sausages on carols’ night. At the time of this incident he was 56 years old. And not a healthy 56. Double hernias, high blood pressure and cholesterol, smoker’s cough (he always had a rollie in his hand), gout, newly-discovered haemorrhoids. Gennie, in contrast, was 24. Pretty, long hair, brown eyes, smart, always asking questions, always telling Bill (whom she was shadowing) if he’d mind not smoking so close, or at all. Outstanding shorthand and typing speed, a tendency for over-description, perhaps, but Bill was working on that.
The incident began on a Thursday, around eleven in the morning, Bill and Gennie
travelling along the Mowbray Highway, past the abandoned Dazzleland, the Murray River lapping at the crumbling causeway, Bill determined to get some insight, some understanding – so the locals could get their head around what had happened earlier that morning. An old couple, Chris and Gabby Grandison, had died after their 1992 Hyundai had accidentally left Berryman Road (as it twisted its way towards Mount Berryman) and fallen thirty metres onto the Mowbray Highway below.
Accidentally, perhaps, although Bill suspected it was more than that. He knew Chris
had Stage Two liver cancer, and that never ended well (he’d had an uncle who’d lasted three weeks post diagnosis). So when the call came, when Bill heard the Grandison’s car had been found at the base of Mount Berryman, he’d said to Gennie (waiting for her coffee at The Proprietor), ‘Accident, my arse.’ She’d said, ‘What do you mean?’ He’d told her about Chris, and his cancer, and Gabby, everyone knew Gabby, her scones, her old hands, her big eyes, her Parkinson’s. Ten years along, and she shook like an overloaded washer and, well, that was sad, but plenty of people had worse, and she was old, and what could you do?
So Thursday, the car crushed into the exit lane of the highway, and Bill pulled up,
surveyed the scene and knew right away it was no accident. After all, Chris was pragmatic. He’d been a welder; knew how to fix things; knew simple was best. No mucking around with awkward emotions, and if a thing needed doing you just had to get on and do it. Anyway, he’d heard Sam Todd on the scanner telling Bauer there were no skid marks on Berryman Road, and that could only mean one thing. So he approached the car, studied its shape and imagined its trajectory, a pair of cowboy boots on the road, Gabby’s walker protruding from the boot, the vague, char-grilled shapes of the old couple, a Stenson with its tag still attached. Gennie stood back, afraid to commit. Todd told Bauer to get closer, closer, I told you, you have to get used to this sort of thing. Bill approached him and said, ‘What dyer reckon?’
‘Accident, you reckon?’ Grinning.
‘Until the coroner says otherwise, Bill.’
‘What do you reckon?’
At first, Bill didn’t reply, just craned his head and studied the fence hanging loose high
up on Berryman Road, the remains of a few shrubs and trees, another copper in overalls taking photos. Took a moment to think, moved his head and body in relation to the sun to study the angles, then said, ‘What time?’
‘Eight. A bit after.’
‘Headed south. Couldn’t have been the sun.’
‘Chris woulda seen that corner. He was a good driver. He didn’t take risks.’
The sergeant wouldn’t be drawn. He’d been quoted out of context in the Mail before.
Some old boy who’d apparently blown out his brains, but in the end, it was his neighbour.
‘For god sake, Sam, liver cancer, her with ther shakes …?’
Todd told Bauer to check their pockets – for a note, perhaps – but there was no note,
no indication, and Bill said, ‘That makes sense, Sam. I couldn’t imagine Chris writing
something … dramatic. A man of few words, eh?’
‘Two angles,’ Bill said to Gennie, as they drove towards Chris and Gabby Grandison’s house.
He took out a rollie, placed it between his lips, retreated from his cadet’s glare, shoved
it back in his pocket and said, ‘One, it was an accident. Then we’d be asking the mayor why the road wasn’t properly sign-posted, why there wasn’t a better barrier … stuff like that, right?’
She didn’t reply – just stared out at the lambskin hills, the Hume Weir spilling into the
valley, copses of willows that made her think of home.
‘Alternatively, Chris drove off the cliff. What sorta story could we get outa that? Interview the son – I think he works in Melbourne – the neighbours, coupla nice pictures on the front page, talk to the doctor about Gabby, everyone knows she’s a shaker.’
‘Sorry, but, people know, it won’t come as a shock, but what they won’t know, what
they won’t understand, Gennie (funny, Gennie with a G, eh?) is why. What drove them to this. Was it Chris, or had they agreed, and if so, was it something … grim, or at least necessary, or was it more … were they happy checking out? That’s what people’ll want to know, to understand, and if we, you and me, are doing our job properly, Gennie with a G, we’ll need to get to the bottom of it, right?’
She wanted to tell him to shove his Gennie with a G, his old shit-box Toyota, the foot-
wells full of fast food wrappers and cans and butts, his tape player, his Spandau Ballet Best Of, his yellow fingertips and long nails. ‘But isn’t our job to work out what really happened?’
‘Well, perhaps … but technically, that’s Sam’s job.’
‘Yes, of course, the truth, always the truth first, but assuming it was a double suicide
…’ Smiling, soaking in the sun. The left front shocker was fucked, and they kept jumping in their seats.
‘But Sam said …’
‘I know. But he’s paid to say that.’
Sam had told them that Chris and Gabby had been headed to Wangaratta for a dance –a square dance, barn dance, something hokey – that night. They drove all over the place to go to dances. Their case, in the boot, was full of shiny pants and sequined shirts and an old Slim Dusty CD with the label still on from a servo in Ceduna.
‘Maybe they were trying to hide it, make people think … so it wouldn’t cause distress,
afterwards, see? No one wants to be remembered as …’ Tapping his head, and grimacing. ‘Cos you gotta be a bit sick in the head to do something like that, don’t you?’
‘But what if they didn’t do something like that?’
‘But what if they did? Surely they’d want people to think it was an accident, and surely,
if that were the case …’
‘I’m not sure, Bill.’
‘All I mean’s … they could’ve, or maybe a change of heart on the way?’
‘Or maybe it was an accident?’
‘Maybe … but you gotta admit, Gennie with a G, if it was a suicide, eh? Get the town
‘We’ll have to wait for the police, I guess … and could you slow down?’
Bill braked lightly, but made up the speed on the next bend. ‘The police may never
know. Or it might take months, and even that could be inconclusive.’
He made a too-tight turn, the front left wheel lifted and she kept on at him to slow, but
he wasn’t listening, turned into Cedar Street, stopped in front of 1 and said, ‘Journalism lesson number two, Gennie with a G. Footwork.’ They got out and studied the Grandison’s front yard through a high hedge, clipped lawns and camellias, an old mansion that’d once been a luxury wedding venue. Bill said, ‘I never understood how the old boy afforded this.’ He saw a neighbour, and called over the hiss of his hose: ‘You’re Chris and Gabby’s neighbour?’
This man stopped his water, said, ‘Pardon?’ Bill repeated himself, then explained what
had happened – horrible, a horrible accident, only a few hours ago – and the man was horrified. ‘Dead?’
‘Jesus. I was just in there last night, I helped Chris change a globe, a high one, he
couldn’t get up the ladder anymore and … dead?’
‘Correct. Bit of a shock, I guess, and sorry to be the bearer of bad news but … he seemed okay, recently?’
‘How?’ Dropping his hose on the front lawn.
‘Wasn’t like … you know, withdrawn?’
‘No … what do you mean?’
‘What I mean is, he came off a high cliff, and that’s what killed them, and surely Chris
would’ve known that road, he’d probably driven it a thousand times, and I’m trying to
understand – ’
‘You’re barking up the wrong tree … who are you, even?’
Bill introduced himself, the Mail, and this man, whose name was Ted, said he’d been
reading his stuff for years, but no, no, what you’re thinking isn’t right, Bill, Chris loved Gabby more than any man could … he adored her, he showered her and helped her with her toilet and… no, Bill, don’t go thinking all that, that’s not right, I can tell you.
‘Right,’ Bill replied. ‘But you think you know a person.’
‘I hope you’re not thinking of writing anything like that, cos it wouldn’t be true, and
it’d be unfair, it’d be mean.’
Bill had heard enough. Ted was too involved, he couldn’t see things for what they (most probably) were.
‘I think he’s got a point,’ Gennie said to Bill. ‘An old couple. Married that long.’ It was
like, she thought, he’d already decided what had happened. No matter the facts, whatever the police said, he knew people, he knew Chris and Gabby better, and therefore his theory was correct. ‘People do have accidents.’ But she was drowned out by an old woman a few doors up starting her mower. Bill fast-walked the few feet, waved to catch her attention, she cut the engine, removed her ear muffs, walked over and Bill explained again, and she said, ‘Oh my, that’s sad, isn’t it?’
Bill repeated his questions, did she see him out much, was he spritely, and she said,
‘Oh, very much so, always out gardening, and look at that lawn, always trimmed low.’
Gennie, crossed arms, shrugged at Bill.
‘And he took a lot of pride in his flowers – water, pruning, fertiliser, outstanding roses,
you can smell them a mile off.’
Gennie, head tilted, eyebrow raised. ‘So why would he fertilise his roses, Bill?’
As they continued up the road looking for more neighbours, Bill said, ‘Sometimes these people … they like to tidy up the clutter, leave it neat, you know, cancel the milk, pay the rates, so it’s not left to … or maybe, once you’ve decided, you’ve got something to look forward to. Like going to the movies.’
She smiled. ‘The movies. Like Spiderman? Fun times, eh, Bill?’
Bill didn’t like this – smarmy, with her two earrings in each lobe, rounded vowels, no
contractions, a pointless journalism degree. Like all of the titty blondes, lacking respect. ‘You should listen up. You’ve got a way to go yet, young lady.’
‘Lesson number three: persistence.’
‘Or number four: the truth of the matter. Even if you think it’d make a good story.’
Another neighbour claimed to have seen them out walking the previous evening,
strolling to the shop, returning with milk and bread. Bill realised they were getting nowhere, and turned and headed back to his car. ‘Maybe you’re right, Gennie.’ Taking out a rollie, lighting up. She said, ‘You should give those up.’
‘At your age.’
‘What age? Fifty-six? I got years in me yet.’
‘Not if you keep smoking those.’
But he kept going. ‘It doesn’t add up. Something about Chris and … but I suppose
you’re right, an accident, eh?’
She didn’t reply. Smelt the viburnum, drifted back twenty years, sitting at her window
smelling the tree her dad had planted, the washed-out sky full of clouds in the shape of people, dogs, Einstein’s hair. The brain, she realised, was capable of making much out of little – needed to, perhaps, if we were to fill our days, the hours we’d been granted. The Wren kid crying, again, someone’s Def Leppard up loud. All of it beyond the sort of sense that Bill wanted to find, or make.
Bill sat on a post box and sucked his rollie. ‘You gotta wanna get outta bed in the
morning, eh, Gen?’
This pissed her off, too.
‘Gotta want to face the day, make something of it … something more, something better, and if you can’t, perhaps it’s best that …’
‘I’m older, old enough, and fat and wheezing enough to realise it’s probably not worth
‘What isn’t?’ Intrigued by this man (at last).
‘Thing is, it mighta been better not being born at all. Maybe that’s what he was thinking, Gen?’ Sucking his smoke back to the stump.
‘Yeah. Given. But, life can be a bucket of shit … and we can’t see it coming, can we,
‘See what coming?’
‘How awful it can be, in the end, with his wife and … shitting herself.’
She didn’t understand him sometimes. ‘But that’s what makes it worthwhile, Bill.’
‘Cos of what we can do for others … isn’t it?’
As she stood at the window, her sister coming in, putting her hand on her shoulder,
telling her their mum would be home tomorrow, there’s no doubt, no question about it,
tomorrow. ‘And if that’s the case, it was an accident, Bill, surely, an accident.’
He ground out his smoke.
‘Haven’t you ever wiped someone’s arse, Bill?’
Smiling, because although she knew her mother wasn’t coming home, there was always her sister, and her aunt, and a roof over their heads, and a street full of good people, and the tinny ring of the old bell on the Thomas boy’s bike.
Bill said, ‘I can barely wipe my own arse,’ and she smiled again, realised he wasn’t so
bad, if he could just clear away the rubble of his firebombed life.
Bill looked back at the Grandison place. ‘There’s one way to know for sure.’ Stood,
crossed the road (nearly getting hit by a car), opened the Grandison’s gate, walked down the drive to the front door, and Gennie stood at the gate, refusing to enter, calling, ‘Bill, what the hell are you doing?’
He looked around, a little pretend knock, tried the front door, but it was locked, went
around the side of the house, around the back, and this time Gennie followed him. ‘Bill, you can’t … what are you doing?’
He smiled at her. ‘If it’s any consolation … I’m sure you’re right, Gennie.’ Touched
the back door, and it opened.
‘You’re breaking the law.’
But it was too late. He was in. She thought about it, started back up the drive, but
something called her back, and she turned, went into the house, felt the old people, smelt them, their skin and powder and feet and over-washed clothes. Like they were there, watching her. In a half-shout, half-whisper, she called: ‘Bill!’ Continuing up the hallway, freshly vacuumed carpet; into the kitchen, a fresh cake under a tea towel; the lounge, a shop-new smoker’s stand and that week’s TV Guide.
Bill came in with a pile of letters. ‘Look! Gas, power, rates. He hasn’t paid any of them.
Someone like Chris, he wouldn’t let things go past their due date.’ He presented them one by one, as proof. ‘And follow me.’
‘If we’re caught …’
‘Rule number five. You ain’t done nothing wrong less yer caught.’
Into the bedroom, beds unmade, sheets on the floor. Gennie opened the tallboy drawer: ironed underwear and handkerchiefs; the wardrobe, fresh shirts and pants.
So was killing yourself, Bill wondered, staring out the front window at the wide street
with its carpet of plane leaves, the ultimate act of neatness, or chaos? Gennie was right, surely there was always something left to live for. Surely it never got that bad. He turned to her and said, ‘Could you imagine it coming to this?’ She asked what, coming to what, and he said, ‘That you’d sit down and talk about it and say, Why don’t we …?’ He didn’t need to say anymore, because she knew exactly what he meant, heard the bike bell and the crows and the rustle of the old gum beside her window, the smell of microwave pizza, infomercials for a hundred-way ladder.
Bill jumped back behind the curtain, motioned for her to do the same, and he carefully
peered out at the neighbour peering in. ‘Chris and Gabby aren’t giving anything away, are they?’ She just shooshed him, said she thought she could hear a siren. Bill didn’t care, noticed an envelope propped up on a night-light on Chris’s side of the bed. He sat on the soft mattress, the fresh sheets, the floral quilt, picked it up, examined it, smelt it, held it up to the light, looked to Gennie to check, then opened it. He took out a slip of paper, unfolded it and read it. ‘See, I was right.’ And handed it to her. ‘Lesson number six. Trust your instincts. Come on.’ Standing and leaving the room.
Gennie followed him back down the hall. ‘We can’t take it.’
‘No? You want a career in journalism? You wanna make a name?’
‘It might’ve been an accident. He might’ve planned it, written his note, but when they
were … maybe he changed his mind, can’t you see, Bill, he might’ve changed his mind, he
might’ve looked at Gabby and remembered how much he loved her and he might’ve changed his mind, Bill, surely he did, surely, he had to … please, Bill, he had to.’
Bill could hear her voice cracking, see the damp around her eyes, and realised he didn’t know anything about her, really. Maybe no one knew anything about anyone except themselves, and even then, only a bit.
‘If we took it,’ she said, wiping a tear, ‘no one would know. Everyone would assume it
was an accident, and he loved her, till the end, and how much better would that be for everyone, Bill? For their son? For everyone.’
Bill stood, thinking. Maybe she was right. Maybe love was greater than the set of facts
that made the world. Maybe everything that existed in our shaking bodies, our failing cars and leaking homes and wardrobes, was nothing. Maybe it was easily left behind. Maybe that’s what Chris and Gabby had come to understand. Maybe they’d locked the front door, backed down the drive, maybe Chris had got out and shut the gate, maybe they’d driven off, onto the highway, and everything that followed. And happy! Maybe they were happy! The bell, the breeze, the moment when there was no more road to follow.
He placed the note in his pocket and said, ‘We should go. Todd and his mates are
probably on their way.’
They drove back towards the accident scene. They’d have to describe it, make it clear to their readers. Bill weaving, speeding, caught up in the sun and clouds. Gennie, too, thinking how this job wasn’t right for her, after all. How it didn’t resemble anything she’d seen from her bedroom window, and how this was the only view anyone ever saw, or understood.
As Bill sped along the winding road, grimaced, clutched his chest, leaned forward, the
car, the road, the world tumbling, the tree, the bark, the smell of petrol, the light so blinding (she thought, afterwards) that everything was illuminated, made clear, given by the god of bike bells as some sort of consolation for what had been lost.
The second accident on the Mowbray Highway that day; the second car fire; the second man and woman, like somehow, Probationary Constable Bauer thought, life was repeating, over and over, and if he could make sense of one tragedy, he could make sense of them all. He removed his mask, breathed the smoky air and read aloud to his sergeant the note he’d found in the Toyota’s glovebox: ‘Don’t misunderstand. It was all for the right reasons. We are the happiest
He looked at Sam Todd and said, ‘What dyer reckon that means?’