July 2021


The coast road

By Briohny Doyle
A daughter’s cross-border journey of memories and grief during the pandemic

In late September 2020 – the tail end of Victoria’s COVID-19 second wave lockdown – I barrelled up the Hume Highway in my dead father’s campervan. Travel beyond 5 kilometres from home was restricted, but armed with a sob story and a doctor’s note I hoped to break through the ring of steel and plead clemency at the border. There had been no funeral, no interment. Not knowing what else to do, I’d packed Dad’s ashes under the bed in the back of his van. I imagined hostile police opening the heavy plastic vessel, sniffing it, interrogating me. I’d been compulsively scanning news headlines, fuelling fears as to whether my situation would merit reprieve. I knew I could become an anecdote in someone else’s morning-news doomscroll, but the cop at the edge of Melbourne was kind. “Sorry for your loss,” he said, before warning that I’d probably get less sympathy from New South Wales authorities.

One hundred kilometres south of Albury, I was further from my house than I’d been in months. LED highway signs read “You are breaking the law”, but the land beyond was impossibly green. I tried to focus on the vista. If they turn me back at least I had a roadtrip, I thought. Long drives are medicine to me. Every highway holds the possibility of change, return, renewal, but no interstate trip ever felt as high stakes as this.

I waited 45 minutes at the border. It turned out sympathy wasn’t restricted to Victorian law enforcement. The army and NSW police wished me well and let me through. By Gundagai, I was in a foreign land. Maskless punters pawed produce at the servo. Kids played on the Tuckerbox. I gaped, backed away from strange hands reaching out to pat my dog. I was suddenly an alien on a road I’d travelled my whole life.

The plan was Sydney. The city I lived in with Dad. The city where he grew up. The plan was another 14 days alone, in quarantine, with the certainty of a hug at the end. By the ninth day I forgot to immediately google “COVID19 Victoria” upon waking. By the twelfth I was struck with the clear thought: my dad is dead. Comprehending this truth – uncrowded by dread and confusion – felt like a gift. I lay in the sun and cried. Melbourne would be in lockdown for another month, but in three more days I’d be at the pub, drinking a beer with my uncle and my dad’s best friend. People around us would be sitting close, laughing, sharing food. The campervan was a time machine; the highway a stretch of personal history.

A journalist by trade, Dad returned to Sydney from rural Victoria in the mid 1990s after a failed attempt at a sea change in Mallacoota. I followed shortly after. Through my teen years we had a close and unconventional relationship – “adventure based” rather than tethered to the domestic, an old high-school friend astutely observed. I told him how images of Dad were popping up all over the city. A sudden memory of Dad buying a soggy danish and cigarettes at Newtown Plaza. Two movies in a row at the Globe Cinema on Parramatta Road. Dad passing a $50 bill to a man sleeping rough in Hyde Park, then muttering: “Another old subeditor.” Me with my head over the sink in a tiny studio apartment, while Dad smoked, swore and, at my request, slapped blood-red dye on my hair. From the only window in that flat – a view of a half-built Anzac Bridge.

“Think of it like a pilgrimage,” my psychologist had suggested when I asked if she thought I should try to leave the state. “Anyway, you don’t want to stay here”, by which she meant my emotional state as much as Victoria under lockdown. Her letter of support was emphatic. Grief needs both space and connection. Grief takes time. I was aware then, as I am now, of how many people all over the world have not had that time or connection. Of how many people have lost loved ones and been unable to grieve by gathering together, or even begin processing loss in the face of constant precarity and fear. There are new divides wrought by crisis. 

I stayed in Sydney for five months. Working on Zoom during the day and going out with friends in the evenings felt like a miracle. I went to beaches. Camped on warm weekends. Here, COVID-19 and all its attendant anxieties were corralled in the past; something that happened last March. I could feel my nervous system recalibrating. I began to think about the future again, instead of just reacting to the present. Twice I felt ready to go home, back to my real life – whatever that was – and then, like clockwork: border closures. An outbreak in Sydney prompted the Victorian government to impose colour-coded zones – red, orange, green. Sydney was red: I could not re-cross the border. We all learnt a new lexicon that felt imported from somewhere war-torn, or divided by nations. And maybe we weren’t so far from that. Sydney friends remarked that no other state (did they mean government or citizenry?) would have been able to cope with a second wave, as Victoria had. “We just wouldn’t comply with that here,” someone said, and I couldn’t tell if I was being complimented or challenged to a fight. Could they understand how shell-shocked we Victorians were? The cost of this compliance, of conceptualising and accepting its necessity? Did they know we would comply again, and again if necessary?

After Christmas 2020, I took a holiday rental in an orange zone. In two weeks I’d be free to go home. I cleaned out Dad’s van – donated his fishing tackle and thin mattress, kept his hip flask and brass Zippo lighter. At the end of the summer, I drove slowly south along the coast road. It felt like a drive back in time, an inverse journey to the one I’d taken five months before, and I was scared that crisis awaited me there. As I wound through the bush, I remembered being a child, bouncing around in the back of Dad’s janky Land Rover with the border collie. Or kicking stones at some truck stop while he crawled under the chassis with a spanner.

I stopped to see friends in Bermagui and Moruya. There, crisis still meant bushfire as well as pandemic. We talked about how they’d survived, what they’d seen and how it had changed them. Everyone I spoke to adamantly disclaimed how others, elsewhere, had it worse. In Pambula, a friend said that as he watched the fires on the emergency services app it looked like they were stopped at the border. He imagined a battalion of NSW firefighters holding back flames. “You idiot,” his wife had quipped. She understood that the two state crews weren’t communicating via the same apps and infographics. Maybe they weren’t even communicating with each other. But the app, the news, they all made it seem possible that crisis could be contained within state lines, could be one group’s damage and responsibility but not another’s.

All along the NSW South Coast I dawdled, shot the breeze, took detours – fully aware I was delaying the inevitable. From Boydtown Beach I looked out across the water at bald hills. Eucalypts bristled with new growth all the way from the base of the trunk, like botched cloning experiments when compared with the graceful trees around Pambula Lake. I had my border-crossing permit but there was no official checkpoint to re-enter Victoria, just a pushed-over LED sign, charred bush one side of the road and an ad hoc COVID testing centre on the other.

In the 1990s, Dad sank huge debt into a restaurant in Mallacoota just in time for the recession Paul Keating said we had to have. When the restaurant went bust, so did his marriage. Our lives snag on crises and attendant economic consequences. Decades later, Dad’s working life would draw to a close alongside the unceremonious redundancy of so many other subeditors, old and young. The campervan was his retirement plan. He thought he’d travel around the northern states of Australia; write, take photographs. Live the life of the rambling man. But he smoked and drank despite chronic respiratory disease. He got frail, sick and tired. He needed some stability, some company. I thought he needed me, and campaigned for a southern migration.

In 2019, he was back in Victoria despite the cold. At one of our regular lunch and movie outings he broke my heart a little by saying he’d probably never drive the coast road again. He changed his mind, though, on Christmas Day of Black Summer, after looking at photographs of the fires. “Yeah maybe,” he said. “Once more, just to see.” It was an impulse towards dark tourism I know, but one that takes in the life of the tourist, too. We planned to drive there together in his campervan, in April 2020, for our birthdays. Instead, we spent them locked in our respective homes, anxiously monitoring the news. We were divided by the 5-kilometre travel restriction, and the regional–metro ring of steel. “Remember to call me,” Dad said, uncharacteristically. “I’m likely to go nuts with much more of this.” When I next saw him in person – in the break between lockdowns – I was so shocked I called an ambulance. Later I’d call doctors, government call centres and council service providers, trying desperately and largely without success, to set up an in-home aged-care package. Dad was in and out of hospital for the final months of his life, getting fluids, oxygen, three square meals, human contact.

In February 2021, I turned off the highway at Genoa and drove the thin, damaged road into Mallacoota. The frames of new homes glinted skeletally in the purple dusk. I parked the van at Dad’s old restaurant, now the reception centre for a caravan park. I got fish and chips and watched one of the most spectacular moonrises I’ve ever seen. A huge white orb rising over the inlet. To my left, the landscape was deeply scarred by fire, but across the water it appeared steadfast. Gently crashing waves. Pelicans and pink sky. Another day over, with nothing returned or renewed except the night. By noon the next day I’d be back in Melbourne, checking the news again and wondering what comes next.

Briohny Doyle

Briohny Doyle is the author of Why We Are Here, Echolalia, Adult Fantasy and The Island Will Sink. She is a lecturer at the University of Sydney.

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