May 2015

Essays

Tim Winton

Havoc

© Nick Moir / Fairfax Syndication
A life in accidents

One summer night, after a few hours surfcasting for tailor, my father and I were driving home along a lonely road between the dunes and the bush. I felt snug and a little sleepy in the passenger’s seat, but it was my job to keep the gas lantern from tipping over, so I clamped it tight between my heels and resisted the urge to drift off. We’d gone down at sunset and caught a feed, but at the age of nine I could take or leave the fishing. The chief attraction of an outing like this was the chance to be alone with my father.

I

 

One summer night, after a few hours surfcasting for tailor, my father and I were driving home along a lonely road between the dunes and the bush. I felt snug and a little sleepy in the passenger’s seat, but it was my job to keep the gas lantern from tipping over, so I clamped it tight between my heels and resisted the urge to drift off. We’d gone down at sunset and caught a feed, but at the age of nine I could take or leave the fishing. The chief attraction of an outing like this was the chance to be alone with my father.

The evening had gotten cool and the windows were up. I remember the ordinary, reassuring smells inside the vehicle: the pilchards we used for bait, the burnt-toast whiff of the gas mantle, and the old man himself. In those days his personal scent was a cocktail of Dencorub and Quick-Eze. He hadn’t always smelt like that.

For a moment the inside of our car was bleached with light. I saw my own shadow creep across the dash. And then, with a yowl, a motorbike pulled out from behind and overtook us on the long straight towards town. There were no streetlights, no other cars. Either side of us there was just bush. The road had only recently been sealed. All my life it had been a limestone track. But now the city had reached the beach. Things were changing.

As the rider blew by, the old man gave a low whistle and I straightened a moment in my seat. Dad had complicated views about speed. He adored motorbikes; he’d ridden them all his life and he loved to ride fast. As a traffic cop he did it for a living. But then, half his job was to chase folks and pull them over for speeding. The rest of the time he picked up the pieces when things came unstuck. To me, speed was no thrill, and I was especially leery of motorbikes. My father’s medicinal smell was a constant reminder of both.

The lantern glass jinked and tinkled between my legs. Out ahead there was nothing to see but the black road and the single red eye of the rider’s tail-light. Then it was gone. The light didn’t shrink into the distance – suddenly it just wasn’t there.

Within half a second the night was jerked out of shape, and in the few minutes that followed, I felt that my life might warp and capsize along with it. I didn’t see the rider fall but I still think of him and his machine skittering on divergent trajectories across the rough-metalled bitumen. The old man pounded the brakes and we came to a howling halt. Dad got out and, with a startling new authority in his voice, told me to stay exactly where I was. Not that I needed telling.

I craned forward, stunned; my neck hurt from where the seatbelt had caught me. In the high beams I saw a motionless body on the limestone shoulder of the road. My father strode over and knelt beside the rider. His shadow was enormous; the headlights gave every movement and colour a nightmarish cast. The old man got up again. He dragged the motorbike off the road. When I wound down the window, I could smell petrol and all the salty, minty scents of the coastal scrub. A moment later the old man got back in. I was rattled by what I’d seen and disturbed by how businesslike Dad was. This drama did not seem to impress him. He sighed, buckled his seatbelt and started the car. He said we had to find a phone and call an ambulance. To my horror, we drove away and left the rider out there at the roadside. There was a bus terminal not far up the road, a lonely floodlit yard full of hulking green vehicles, and a sleepy security guard let Dad use the phone.

When we returned to the crash site, the injured rider began to stir. I didn’t know it then but he was convulsing. It was as if he was being shot through with electricity. As Dad climbed out of the car, he said he had an important job for me. I was to stamp on the brake pedal over and over again without stopping, so the ambulance crew could see our red lights in the distance. The idea made practical sense, but I’m sure it was mostly a means of keeping me occupied and out of harm’s way. Many years later, by another roadside, I employed a similar tactic to keep my own kids from seeing something worse. As a kid it was good to be commissioned, to feel useful for a short while, and as I clung to the steering wheel and jabbed at the brake pedal, which I could barely reach, my father crouched out there in the lights, talking to the fallen rider, who kept fluttering in and out of consciousness, trying to get up on his shuddering legs. Every time the man turned his head I saw that his face was raw meat. Some of it hung off in strips, like paperbark. It was red, white and yellow. His leather jacket was glossy with blood. He tried to haul himself up on his elbows. Then he was screaming.

After a long time there was a siren in the distance, the distinctive two-note sound of an ambulance, and the noise seemed to inflame the fallen rider, whose yelling and swearing and struggling grew more violent. He needed to go, he kept bawling. Where was his bike? When Dad suggested he stay put for his own benefit, the bloke wanted to fight. Dad held him down by the arms.

I thought everything would be fine once the ambulance arrived, but when it finally pulled up the whole scene intensified, as though some fresh madness had arrived with the help. There were suddenly more bodies, more voices, more flashing lights and lurid shadows. And at some point a different man – an even louder bloke – appeared, announcing himself as the rider’s father. I don’t know how he got there or how he’d been informed but I could see he was staggering drunk, and I felt myself come to a new level of alertness. There was something vicious and unpredictable about him. His eyes were wild. He had the look of a mistreated dog. As he stumbled towards his son, who’d already been lifted onto a gurney, he was weeping and blubbering. Then he went crazy. It looked as though he was trying to throttle his son. When my father and the ambos hauled him off, he wheeled on them, snarling, and began to swing at them.

I didn’t stop pumping the brakes; I’d been drafted and I took it seriously. It was as if I’d woken in a cinema during the final reel of a horror movie. Everything was way over my head. And it wouldn’t stop. I’d never witnessed anything like this before – all the blood, the flashing teeth and fists, the screamed obscenities. This was mayhem. As a kid I’d been shielded from drunks. I had no experience of violence, domestic or otherwise. I’d certainly never seen a grown man act like this before. I couldn’t believe he could hurt his injured son like that. And I was deeply disturbed by the prospect of him hurting my father. I was outraged and terrified, and so paralysed it felt like I’d been booted with an electric charge myself. A wild man was attacking my dad. He was lurching and lunging at the ambos, too, but they were uniformed strangers, and to me they were just shadows dancing, I barely took them in; I only had eyes for the old man. And it didn’t matter that he was fending off every blow with an ease bordering on contempt. What I saw was my father under siege, in danger. And I couldn’t help him. I stayed where I was, lashed to the wheel, in a state I had no language for.

Eventually the police came. The scene quickly resolved itself. Dad dusted himself off and came clopping back to the car in his thongs, chuckling at something the coppers had said. We were late for tea now, and he was eager to be on his way. I could hardly speak. At home, Dad did what he could to minimise this lurid little interlude. His account of it to Mum was cursory. But the experience stayed with me. There was something dangerous and outsized about the emotions it had stirred up, and the sensation was like being caught in a rip: no purchase, no control.

That scene has puzzled me all my life, haunted me in a way. I was a middle-aged man before I understood why I’d been so afraid. Of course it’s distressing for any child to see a parent under threat, but what was happening for me that night was a little more complicated. I was cast back into an old fear and a much earlier accident.

By the time I was nine there were things about the old man I’d gotten used to. The scar on his neck was silvery by then, and when he came out of the shower the divots in his hip weren’t so livid any more. The ever-present tubes of Dencorub were just part of him now, as was the roll of Quick-Eze forever sliding across the dashboard. I was so accustomed to all this I’d forgotten what the heat rub was for. He’d been dealing with chronic pain for years. Dencorub was the only relief he had once the quack had taken him off the anti-inflammatory drugs, and those wretched pills had left him with stomach ulcers, which was why he chewed antacids as if they were lollies. He’d been taken away from me before. I’d seen him all but destroyed. And it had been only three or four years since his prang. Now I went fishing every chance I could. To be close to him, as if unconsciously I feared he’d be taken away again. Clinging to the wheel of his car that night, half out of my mind, it was as if someone had kicked the chocks out from under me. The sight of my father under threat again was almost too much to bear. We’d been delivered, Mum and my siblings and me, and for a long time I’d felt safe again, and now, quite suddenly, I wasn’t safe at all.


In my fiction I’ve been a chronicler of sudden moments like these. The abrupt and headlong are old familiars. For all the comforts and privileges that have come my way over the years, my life feels like a topography of accidents. Sometimes, for better or worse, they are the landmarks by which I take my bearings. I suppose you could say they form a large part of my sentimental education. They’re havoc’s vanguard. They fascinate me. I respect them. But I dread them too.


II

 

I grew up in safety. In our home in the Perth suburb of Karrinyup there was nothing to fear and no one to second-guess. My mother did everything in her power to give my siblings and me a life free of the disorder she’d known as a child and the violence she’d endured as a young woman. She was determined to provide an environment that was predictable and nurturing. Our father was of like mind. He was a gentle man and he was careful to shield us from the things he saw as a cop. All the same, we lived in the shadow of havoc. There might not have been trouble at home, but trouble was the family business, and ours was a house of accidents.

Dad was literally “in Accidents”. He was a motorcycle cop working in the Accident Branch of the Traffic Office. At the end of a shift he rode his black BSA down the drive, gave the throttle a final blat and then propped it on its stand in the carport. When he climbed off the bike in his gloves and gaiters, his leathers gave off a distinctive creak. His own father, who’d also been a policeman, had made the same leathery groan climbing down off the horse at day’s end. To me, that saddle creak was precious; it was the sound of safe return.

Around the house Dad was pretty oblique about work. All the same, I absorbed plenty of lore and perhaps too much information. As a small boy I knew the lingo. If he was late home it was because he’d had to go to a prang. And of course he didn’t just go – he attended. I knew, too, about the various species of prang. The worst of all were the fatals. I knew when he’d been at a fatal because when he came in his mood was strangely subdued. Then, the talk between the adults was hushed and the smells different. Dad’s tunic would stink of Dettol and petrol. Sometimes there was no chat at all, just a hug that went on too long. On rare occasions there was muffled weeping behind closed doors.

Any kid with a parent who works shifts learns to creep, to be mindful. For a copper’s family there are extra weights to bear, unspoken things you experience vicariously. Like the constant physical weariness, and the moral fatigue that accumulates over time, because cops are never fresh and after a while they can’t disguise their endless disappointment in people. They become weary, guarded, sceptical. They’re always keeping an eye out for trouble. They expect it, anticipate it. And as a kid you sense this. As if by osmosis you learn what humans do at their lowest moments, at their most idiotic or vile, and you register the outcomes, which are invariably awful. Humans, you come to understand, are frail creatures. Yet in a second, from thin air, they can manufacture chaos and carnage. And it was this mortal ruin the old man sought to keep at bay.

But he brought havoc home, anyway – on his tunic, in his limbs and in midnight whispers. When he was out on the road I could read the fear of it in my mother’s face.

There’s an old song in Ry Cooder’s back catalogue about a man stalked by misfortune. In the chorus the old trouper sings:

Trouble, you can’t fool me, I see you behind that tree.
Trouble, you can’t fool me, tryin’ to get the ups on me.

But the bloke’s kidding himself. He can’t forestall trouble, and that’s the charm of the song. Although trouble loves the careless and the impulsive, first seeking out the selfish and the intemperate, in the end it’s pretty democratic; it’ll jump anyone, really, for neither virtue nor prudence will inoculate you against it. Just as the rain will fall on the just and the unjust alike, trouble of some sort visits everyone eventually. Real trouble isn’t just inconvenient – it’s catastrophic. That’s how it felt the year I turned five, when it came to me and to my family.

In December of 1965, as he was riding back from a prang, the old man was hit by a driver who’d run a stop sign. The errant car slammed him into a brick wall with such force that it crushed his chest, his shoulder and his hip. He suffered a massive concussion, and because his ribs were crushed and his lungs collapsed, paramedics found him suffocating and close to death. To save him, they were forced to perform an emergency tracheotomy as he lay in the street.

Mum was told he’d been in a bingle but that it probably wasn’t serious, so she didn’t understand the gravity of the situation until she was mistakenly given the blood-soaked uniform that had been cut off him in Casualty. She had two small boys, five and three, and a daughter barely six months old. No one had prepared her for what was coming her way. Her husband, the sole breadwinner of the household, was in a coma. And she didn’t know it yet, but nobody fancied his chances. For days he lay in the Resuscitation Room at Royal Perth Hospital. There was an unspoken understanding that he would never “be himself” again, and so traumatic were his injuries that two of his colleagues resigned shortly after visiting him. Even when he finally regained consciousness, nobody could really offer Mum much hope. I was not allowed to visit him. I came to suspect that he was really dead and no one had the nerve to tell me. Mum kept up a brave front. And she was genuinely courageous. But I was there to see the mess she hid from everyone else.

When I think of that long, hard summer, I remember the wordless heaviness in the house, the fog of dread we were all trapped in. My brother and sister were too young to understand what was happening. In a sense it was just Mum and me, and a kid in kindergarten can’t offer his mother much by way of solace. She must have done a lot of hoping. All the same, there wasn’t a hopeful air in the house. Even when they brought him home from hospital, a broken man – an effigy, really – there was no surge of optimism for any of us to ride. The grown-ups who visited spoke in riddles and whispers. I had to imbibe the gravity of our situation the way a dog will, reading the smells and the postures and hierarchies. You forget how much a child absorbs physically and then has to process unaided.

I understood that a stranger had ruined my father. And I was enraged. But I had no idea just how grim the prognosis was and how this might shape our future. My mother never let on, but it appeared that the police service was expecting to pension him off. Still breastfeeding my baby sister, and with two small boys not yet in school, she was now married to an invalid. Someone told her, correctly as it turned out, that insurance and compensation would take years to settle. I couldn’t know the many ways in which the parameters of her life – and my own along with it – had been radically redrawn in an instant, but I did understand that the world had changed for us. My father’s life had been spared and we were glad, but we were no longer the safe, confident people we’d been.

As a child I was always something of an eavesdropper. I was also an inveterate prowler with a peculiar fascination with the potency of certain objects. Sometime during that long convalescence, I came upon the helmet Dad had been wearing when he was hit. Made of laminated cork, it was cumbersome, and it felt unstable in my hands. The crazed pattern of cracks dulling its whiteness gave it an unnerving broken-eggshell texture. For a long time – for years, I think – I continued to seek it out, to turn it over in my hands, to sniff the Brylcreem interior, and try to imagine the sudden moment, the awful impact, and the faceless stranger behind all this damage. Inside it smelt of my father, but it was as if you could almost sniff death on the outside. This flimsy artefact had held my father’s living head, his brain, his memory, all his jokes; it was all that had stood between him and the void – a crust no thicker than my finger. The older I got, the darker those conjectures became. By all accounts I was an intense little boy. Perhaps it was wise of my parents to get rid of the sacramental helmet when they did.

How quick children are to absorb the unexpressed anxieties of their parents; how fluent they become in the unconscious art of compensation, and how instinctive is their assumption of responsibility. The margins between coping and not coping, between psychological survival and total collapse, are so narrow and often so arbitrary, that it’s uncomfortable to look back and consider what might have been. The long months of my father’s convalescence had a lasting impact on me. By these events I was drafted into the world of consequences. I became “Mummy’s little helper”. The little man. I was assigned the role of sibling enforcer and family protector. I was the keeper of grown-up secrets, the compensator and listener. I had to be “wise beyond my years”, to assume an unlikely authority, to understand what I could not pronounce.

During this time Mum was stoic and subdued. Dad lived in bed and obediently swallowed the pills that would chew the holes in his guts. My parents’ bedroom was perpetually dim, and the apprehension within it seemed to infect the rest of the house. With the curtains drawn against the heat, the place was infused with a faint amber light, and in that atmosphere of bewilderment there were times when the only signs of animation were the churn and swirl of dust motes. Since the crash Dad had lost a lot of weight but he was still too heavy for Mum to lift. There was no way she could get him in and out of a bath, so she had to wash him in bed.

That summer there were many visits from family and neighbours, but the person who distinguished himself above all others was a complete unknown. He turned up unannounced and uninvited. He offered to bathe my father. It was weird. But his unexpected arrival and strange proposal soon brought a new energy to the house. Also a new awkwardness. I didn’t know what to make of this turn of events. I took my cues from Mum, who was hesitant at first, even a little resistant. But she was desperate for help and here was a helper, a volunteer from who-knew and who-cared-where. She let him in, and straight away he went to work.

I observed everything carefully, suspiciously. Here was some bloke entering my parents’ bedroom, introducing himself to my father, who consented to be undressed, lifted from his sickbed and carried like a child to the bathroom. There, the door wasn’t exactly shut in my face but it was pushed to, slightly ajar. My world was already out of whack, but this new set-up was discombobulating, especially when, after a few minutes, my mother decided to leave the men to it and get on with her many jobs. I stood outside in the narrow corridor listening to the sounds of water and the low, deep quiet voices. It was appalling to think of that guy kneeling at the bath and washing my father as if he were an infant. Mum caught me camped by the door and tried to shoo me away, but I drifted back. In the weeks ahead, every time that stranger returned, I was there at the door like a sentry, straining to hear, keeping tabs.

I couldn’t really follow what the men said in the bathroom, as they slowly got to know each other. They always spoke quietly. There was none of the hearty blather you heard blokes falling into at the footy or across the fence. I was wary of this soft-spoken interloper. No doubt I was threatened by his presence. And yet his brief tenure in our home helped break down the anxious malaise that oppressed us. His arrival and his subsequent actions taught me something new about strangers – they could wreck your life and do you harm but they were also capable of mysterious kindness.

By autumn my father began to make progress. His recovery was faster and more complete than anyone had expected. He was a big, strong man, but his injuries were awful, and to some the speed of his improvement was unsettling. It was only as an adult that I learnt about some of what went on in that tiny bathroom. For instance there was a day when Dad’s helper brought a bottle of oil with him. Olive oil, I gather, which wasn’t common in a house like ours. He anointed the old man with it in the manner of ancient Christian tradition, and he “laid hands on him”, as the saying goes, praying that Dad might be healed. Neither of my parents was ever keen to talk about this ritual, and they certainly made no special claims for its efficacy, but after the old man’s recovery they became devout Christians.

I’ve thought a lot about this unlikely turning. Like the accident, it had a profound effect on my own trajectory. It’s no small achievement to confound a copper’s lowered expectations of humankind. Still, being unmanned by injury and sidelined from the world of action had to have been traumatic. Dad was an outdoor, hands-on bloke, a practical fellow. Later he said that during his convalescence he’d had a lot of time to think. Perhaps, like the rest of us in the house that summer, he was left without armour, maybe even without hope – I don’t know. I don’t set much store by signs and wonders, but I try to keep an open mind.

All I can say is that I witnessed Dad’s swift restoration and renewal, and was grateful for it, and in much the same way I’d soaked up the fear and horror that preceded his recovery, I absorbed the new energy and purpose that came into his life and to Mum’s as a result of this stranger’s kindness. I think of it as an act of grace. Maybe that’s just a fancypants way of appreciating the loving-kindness of humans. But when there’s so much opportunity for people to be vile, it strikes me as a miracle that they choose mercy, restraint and decency as often as they do.


III

 

When he was well enough, the old man returned to light duties at Traffic. For a while he manned the Accident Desk. From there he went to the Plan Room, where he drew up schematic representations of major and fatal accidents for use in the courts. What it must have been like to return to such scenes of carnage, gimping out into intersections with his measuring tape and yellow crayon: the broken glass, the skid marks, the smells of blood and petrol. He said he was glad he had no memory of the prang. He loved his job and he certainly knew his way around a bingle. But it can’t have been easy. At first he walked with a limp. Then he had a bone graft and got fit. He stayed on in Accidents, and even got back on the bikes. Now and then he rode me to school on his new BSA and I arrived like a princeling. As I waved him off he’d burn away, letting off a lairish blurt of the siren to impress the kids. I hoped no one saw my legs trembling. I’d always loved the Beezers, but now a pillion ride was a secret terror. I never let on.

After all the disaster and uncertainty, we were out of the woods. My dad was back. He was strong once more and I felt safe again. It was the best feeling ever.


At some level every kid knows that their parents’ wellbeing is paramount to their own safety, even their sense of self. Mercifully, a child is rarely forced to confront the fact consciously. I suppose this is why the minor prang and roadside scuffle I witnessed a few years later were so traumatic. Seeing all that blood and screaming and violence, any small child would be disturbed. And I imagine the twisted motorbike, a ghastly echo of the old man’s smash, had an effect. But I wasn’t just upset. I felt as if I was unravelling. I was in no physical danger, yet I feared that everything was about to fall apart again right in front of me, that I might die at any moment.

Twenty-five years ago, around the time my first child was born, I wrote a short story, ‘A Blow, a Kiss’, about an event very similar to this. In the fictional version of events, the boy behind the wheel can’t bear to watch this scene play out another moment. He leaps from the vehicle and king-hits the drunk with the gas lantern. In a sense I let the kid do what I was incapable of, and though I doubt it served any therapeutic purpose, I’d be lying if I said I took no pleasure in letting him off the leash on my behalf.

In real life, the events of that evening weren’t so traumatic as to knock me out of kilter. But afterwards I knew the difference between calm and safety. Family life was good. In many senses we prospered. But now I knew that we were not – and never really would be – out of the woods. Everything you know and see is fragile, temporary, and if there’s any constant in life it’s contingency. Later I came to suspect that you don’t just relive these sudden moments in your head and in your sense memories, you repeat them in fresh events, as if ensnared in a pattern.


IV

 

Barely nine years later, less than a kilometre from home and 200 metres from where the motorcyclist fell, I too went through a brick wall.

By then my father was the sergeant-in-charge of the local suburban police station, and I was 18, the sole passenger in a muscle car that smashed into a girls’ school. The first witnesses on the scene said we’d ploughed through the 2-metre-high perimeter wall and that the only thing that had prevented us from hitting the caretaker’s house was the concrete foundation of the rotary clothes hoist in his front yard. The driver, a boy I’d known since infancy, escaped unhurt. But the Slant 6 engine was almost in my lap, and the rubble had crushed the car all around me. I was slumped against the seatbelt, my only visible injury a split chin from the brick that knocked me senseless. Apparently I regained consciousness as people laboured to cut me free, but it was years before I regained any memory. When a couple of brief sequences did come back to me, like a brutal ambush, I had cause to wish it had all stayed safely in the vault. Again, the old smells of petrol and blood. And the voices of paramedics, a haze of brick dust, the ghastly hysteria of strobing lights. It was all a garish sideshow, absurd and sinister. I heard myself laughing like a deranged clown. I couldn’t even tell the ambos who the prime minister was. And in the ambulance I could not move a limb. Some bloke with hairy arms was holding me down. It wasn’t a rescue – it was a kidnapping.

Until this nasty flashback, my only other memory of the night was a brief moment in Casualty in which Mum fainted and Dad caught her. Maybe she was upset by the seizures I was having. Or perhaps it was just the crushing sense of déjà vu. For the rest I had to rely on the contradictory testimonies of others, as if I hadn’t even been at my own prang. In a general sense I know what occurred. What I’m unclear about is how it happened.

After a stint in hospital I came home as weak and doddery as a crone. And weeks into my convalescence I still felt like a ghost in my own body. I shouldn’t have been surprised. After all, this is a typical after-effect of road trauma and major concussion. All your organs have suffered an insult, not just your brain. Again, I should have known better, but I was unprepared for how long it took me to reconnect with the life I’d been living. I was feeble and mentally stuck.

I wondered if what I was feeling was a little like grief, or maybe shock. I’d seen both at work in others. I knew only too well what they did to a person, swinging down out of a clear sky. All my life I’d heard the old man talk about the dreaded midnight knock that every cop delivers sooner or later, bringing news of sudden death to some unsuspecting loved one. In fact, I’d done it myself. At 14, alongside my father, I’d had to break the news to a close mate that his father had been killed. The feeling is hideous. It’s like killing someone. They go down like a water buffalo felled by an axe, and some part of you believes it’s your fault.

But as a survivor, what I was feeling was not grief. Neither was it shock, whose physical effects recede soon enough. I just felt diminished. Not unmanned so much as bogged to the boards. Looking back I’d say I was depressed.

It’s galling to lie in bed for weeks, absorbing the results of someone else’s mistake. But the old man was right – convalescence does focus the mind. I was halfway through my first year of university and until then I’d been drifting along a bit. For quite a while I’d been thinking of myself as a writer, but I hadn’t knuckled down the way I’d planned to. I was in danger of becoming a bit of a pretender. Before the accident, there seemed to be plenty of time in which to find my way. But now I thought differently. Suddenly time was precious. So once I’d recovered I went to work, and by the time I graduated I’d written three books. Havoc, it seemed, had leant in and set me running.

But I hadn’t emerged unscathed. Everyone told me writing was a hell of a way to make a living, and I took them at their word. Indeed, it was hard to think of a vocation more uncertain or less likely, but I always figured I could supplement my income with physical labour: work the deck of a cray boat or sign on as a brickie’s labourer. (After all, bricks seemed to run in the family.) But in the wake of the accident my back was never the same. And my fallback plan was shot. Now, if I couldn’t rely on my wits alone I was buggered. And in this sense I think the prang was a gift. It shaped my life, which is to say, of course, that it bound me. In physical terms I feel this physical legacy every morning when I wake – that stiff and fluky back is the only thing I regret. But thanks to the accident I was goaded into beginning what I’d dreamt of doing since I was ten years old. Because of that one sudden moment I went harder at the writing game than anybody could believe, myself included. It was as if I had Robert Johnson’s hellhound on my trail.


V

 

As a teenager I flirted with death. It was an irrational impulse, but a powerful one. Risky behaviour of all sorts gave me a buzz. I particularly enjoyed shallow-water apnoea diving, especially under low-slung limestone reefs. I’d crawl into underwater ledges, some of them hardly wide enough to accommodate my body and my snorkel, and I’d crab and crawl my way through the gloom, backing myself to find a slim hole through which to shove my snorkel before my lungs gave out. I got myself into situations that give me the cold sweats when I think of them now. But when I emerged into full daylight and fresh air, half poisoned with carbon dioxide, I knew I was truly alive. And the feeling was blissful.

I suppose that by the middle of my adolescence I’d come to feel safe enough to take such risks, even to need them somehow. Of course, the safety I felt was illusory. I’d buried a few memories by then and told myself a few lies.

Those years and that impulse are long behind me. But some of my friends still have that old craving for danger. As they like to say, when you’re safe you think you know yourself, but in extremis who are you really? By and large, this is not a question that troubles me, because, thanks to my history, I know. And it’s odd the extent to which your body remembers things your mind hides from you.

In my experience, at moments of extremity, you often become a person you know very well indeed. Whether you’re confronted by a kid who’s choking or by an adult in distress in the water, you follow a pattern, a script almost. Events swoop down upon you, unexpected but somehow not strange. The sudden, skin-prickling proximity to havoc is creepily familiar. And sometimes its arrival is no real surprise at all. Survivors of family violence talk about being able to sense the approach of savagery. Regular victims become hyper-vigilant. They feel the approach of trouble like a sudden change of air pressure. If you’re attuned, whether you’re in a volatile kitchen, a rough sea or out on the open road, you can see things coming unstuck before they begin to happen, and it’s an eerie feeling. The problem is that although you may know how trouble begins, you can’t predict where it will go or how it will end.

After havoc recedes, the mind often lets the detail slip. And that can be a mercy. But the body remembers. When you’re tumbling, out of control, upside down along a dirt road, you think calmly, weirdly, Oh, this again. Pressed to the seabed by tonnes of roiling whitewater, you catch yourself thinking, Ah, I know how this scene goes.

The sudden moment can come and go in a searing flash. Or it can settle in to become your day. You’re driving home from the city one day and a pillar of dust rises at the bend and you see the wrecked vehicle and the blood streaming down the door and the familiarity of the tableau turns you into an automaton. There’s a small girl running barefoot down the highway. In the blood-spattered van a driver lies crushed at the wheel. You know what this is, how it goes. You just don’t know how it ends. And as if you’re reading from a script you get out of the car. For some reason you have time to note that a Winton always wears thongs to a crisis. You commission your eldest child as you were once drafted yourself, and when the hysterical girl is safe in his care you do what you can to keep her mother alive until help arrives. There’s petrol everywhere. In the summer heat the smell of all that dark, viscous blood is foul. You crawl in through the broken windscreen and register the asymmetrical intimacy of the wreck and it’s frightening how calm you are. You’re certain that if the woman doesn’t go into cardiac arrest before the ambulance arrives she’ll lose her arm anyway. It doesn’t look anything like an arm any more and she’s turning puce as you watch. There’s nowhere to tie her limb off but she’s holding herself together by instinct somehow and all you can do is keep her conscious, so you talk until help arrives. You say the kindest things, the brightest things you can summon. And no one comes. You consider dragging her out and driving her in yourself, but you know the odds. The nearest hospital is an hour away. You have a car full of small children. You think of your father whispering to teenaged boys at the roadside as they died in his arms. You wish someone else would come along and delete you from this scene.

Afterwards, despite the happy outcome, you are, of course, a fucking mess. What you have been, all through your moment of extremity, is a casual-sounding robot. The state you’ve been in is probably nothing short of hysterical. Maybe that’s who you are.


VI

 

Being a copper’s son, I’ve always got one eye out for trouble. I can’t help it. But I don’t go looking for it any more. These days I crave stability. I don’t like surprises. I know folks who say they love a surprise, but I’ve travelled with a few of them and I know otherwise. Four seconds of unscheduled plummeting in a commercial aircraft and they’re wailing for their mothers. Me, I savour routine – I thrive on it. But I’m conscious that despite its virtues and comforts, the predictable life has its own dangers. Just as an ecosystem requires cataclysmic disruption now and then, the mind and body need a similar jolt. Communities need this too. Eventually a state of seamless predictability – a life without wildness – is a kind of sleepwalking. It attenuates the senses, blunts the imagination. Nobody has written about this mindset better than JG Ballard. In his novels he seems to suggest that where there is no wildness humans will create it. The characters of his masterpiece, Crash, having all but lost the capacity to feel, resort to participating in spectacles so shocking and lurid they offend every sense back to life. For them, there’s nothing left to feel but the grotesque and perverse. All other signals have grown too faint.

I don’t think humans have achieved Ballard’s dystopian state of anaesthesia quite yet. But in the most prosperous enclaves, humans have already come to believe they’ve domesticated chaos. Despite having developed social sensitivities that border on the neurasthenic, they’ve worked up an aesthetic weakness for the gothic and lurid. No longer living at the mercy of nature as our ancestors did, we live as if all wildness has been brought to heel. People have a kind of agency their forebears could not imagine, and on the surface this appears to be freedom without consequence, which is, after all, the consumer ideal. When we set out on a journey we assume we’ll arrive intact and on time. We press a button or swipe a screen and receive exactly what we’re expecting. The ping of a communications gadget gives us a measurable endorphin shot.

And when we don’t get what we anticipated, our reaction is outsized – instant rage. Any interruption to service is received like a blow to the head, an insult, because the consumer is groomed to expect evenness. Such flatness of expectations infects culture, too. Predictability has become a cinematic virtue and a default expectation in literature. In an environment where wildness is largely unknown, a sudden turning can provoke irritation. The editor of a New York magazine once respectfully rejected a story of mine on the grounds that “the shark attack came out of nowhere”. The implication was that such an event, insufficiently foreshadowed, was so unlikely as to seem improper, a thought I hold on to some days as I bob about in the surf.

For many, certainty has become the new normal. But it’s an illusion. Like it or not, as the song has it, trouble is “laying and waiting on you”. Each of us wades in the swamp of everyone else’s actions and intentions. We’ll forever be vulnerable to havoc. And no amount of insurance, risk management or technology will keep it from our door. You might not have sharks in your neighbourhood, but there’ll always be a catastrophic diagnosis in the wings, or a financial crash, or just some moron running a red light.


My old man survived his career in havoc. He did his 33 years and got his long-service medal. He’s retired now. He rode motorbikes until he was in his 70s. When I was in my 20s, he took me for a spin, though I needed some convincing. Afterwards he said I was a rotten pillion passenger, that it was like carting a hairy coffin.

And now I’ve been a writer longer than he was a copper. Both of us have tried to avoid trouble, and yet it’s been our business. Without strife, the cop and the novelist have nothing to work with. Perhaps it’s morbid to view your life through the prism of violent events, to feel yourself shaped by accidents. Safety is a great gift. Maybe it’s disrespectful to feel the interruptions to it more vividly than the long and peaceful interludes in between. But to be afraid is to be awake. And to exist at all in this universe is to be caught up at the scene of an accident, perhaps the happiest accident of all. By now we know how that scene goes. We’re just not sure how it ends.

Tim Winton

Tim Winton is a writer. His most recent novel is The Shepherd's Hut.

Cover image

May 2015

From the front page

Pub test: the republic

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‘Westwood: Punk, Icon, Activist’, an incomplete portrait

This nostalgic documentary about the eminent designer raises more questions than it answers

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‘The Old Man and the Gun’ and the outlaw Robert Redford

David Lowery’s new film pays too much tribute to the Sundance Kid

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The magnificently messy ‘House of Cards’

The show that made Netflix a major player comes to a satisfying and ludicrous end


In This Issue

Gut feelings

The mysteries of the microbiome

Received wisdom

David Malouf’s extraordinary musings on life and art

A crying shame

Women could use a little of the shameless confidence men take for granted

History repeats

The predictable patterns of Australian politics


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Looking for Scott Morrison

The rise, duck and weave of Australia’s no-fault prime minister

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I left the immigration department to speak out

An insider breaks ranks on offshore detention

Coloured transmission electron micrograph of a cross-section through a cancer cell

A new theory of cancer

After billions spent for little benefit, it’s time to look at the disease in a different way

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A golden age of popular Indigenous storytelling

Against the blinding whiteness on Australian stage and screens


Read on

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‘Westwood: Punk, Icon, Activist’, an incomplete portrait

This nostalgic documentary about the eminent designer raises more questions than it answers

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The magnificently messy ‘House of Cards’

The show that made Netflix a major player comes to a satisfying and ludicrous end

Image of Scott Morrison and the ScoMo Express

The ScoMo Express backfires

The PM’s farcical bus tour cements spin over substance as his brand

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Twisted sisters: Luca Guadagnino’s ‘Suspiria’

Sentimentality ruins the magic of this otherwise unsettling and actively cruel film


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