Gerard Holsworth turns to Gilly. ‘Like it?’ he asks.
They have just left the outskirts of the town, and his brand new Roadster is purring along at a little over the limit.
Well, quite a bit over the limit, actually. Gerard doesn’t know much about cars. Neither does he care very much about them. What he does know about is image. And he knows with absolute certainty that driving a canary-yellow BMW Roadster with the top down improves his image enormously.
This is the first time Gilly has ever ridden in any sort of sports car. She has a pretty good idea of the cost of such vehicles, and likes the fact that she, alone amongst the staff at Holsworth & Associates, has been invited to ‘go for a spin’, as Gerard put it.
It is lunchtime. Gerard’s plan is for them to take a quick trip down to the newly opened restaurant in a village recently by-passed by the new motorway, have a relaxed and rather luxurious lunch, and then...well, he’d think about that later. The restaurant has attracted a great deal of attention in gourmet reviews, and he is eager to give it a try.
Gilly is twenty-five, and works for the time being as the publicist at Holsworth & Associates. She turns to smile at her boss. ‘Love it,’ she breathes, and nestles back into the luxurious Italian leather.
Gerard reaches over and pats her knee, letting his hand linger for a moment on her beautiful thigh. He smiles at her too; they are having a wonderful time.
As they near the village, Gerard drifts left into the exit lane, slowing further as they reach an intersection. The village and the restaurant are less than half a kilometre away.
The Roadster is mid-way across the intersection when suddenly a white Ford appears on their left, roaring around the corner. Gerard hardly has time to see it, but instinctively stamps on the brakes and swings the steering wheel as hard as he can to the right. Gilly screams in fright, clinging desperately to the door handle.
The Ford attempts to swing away from the Roadster, but it is travelling far too fast; unable to maintain stability, it rolls onto its roof and smashes into the back of the Roadster, forcing it into a spin. Gerard tries to correct the spin, but he has lost control, the tyres screaming as they slide sideways over the hot tarmac.
A police car has been chasing the Ford, lights flashing. It is travelling even faster than the Ford had been, and rockets around the corner, only to be confronted by the two vehicles. There is a narrow gap between the two crashed vehicles, but it is far too narrow for the police car, a Holden, to negotiate. Constable Boyd Chatswood, driving, can do little to avoid adding to the carnage. He is aware that his partner, Patrick Myer, is not wearing his seatbelt—something about which he has warned time and time again during their eight-month partnership.
The Ford and the Roadster are still careering along the road when the police car hits them. The Ford rolls again, once, twice, and screeches on its side before thudding into a tree-trunk with a sickening sound of finality. Its horn blares for a while, then dies just as suddenly as it started. Cockatoos, alarmed by the noise of the crashes, take to the air, adding their screeches to the cacophony.
The Roadster takes the greatest part of the collision from the police car side on. Gilly is thrown from the vehicle, arms and legs flying in an untidy cartwheel through the sky to land in crushing impact on the edge of the tarmac twenty metres further on.
Gerard’s face has been smashed on the steering wheel, leaving him unconscious and disfigured. The airbags have not functioned correctly, perhaps because the first collision was to the rear of the car.
There is silence at the scene, though the cockatoos continue to wheel above in raucous excitement. There is no movement from any of those involved, though after a few moments Boyd, the police driver, begins to moan. A flame flickers beside the Ford as some electrical current ignites the trickle of petrol from its upturned fuel-tank. The flame spreads like a pale blue blanket in the strong midday sunlight, running across the grass and the tarmac along the route of the overturning Ford. Suddenly, there is a loud whoomp and the Ford is engulfed in flame. There is still no movement from any of the cars or from the crumpled body further down the road. A column of black smoke ascends from the Ford.
Boyd Chatswood has been protected from much of the impact by the airbags, which now hang limply around him. He is stunned; his right leg is causing him great pain and his left arm appears to be broken: aware that his partner was not wearing his seatbelt, Boyd had thrown out a protective arm in the hope of holding him in his seat. A forlorn hope, of course: Patrick is draped over what remains of the passenger door, suspended by his smashed and bleeding hips. Boyd doesn’t need to examine Patrick to know he is dead. His first thought is for Patrick’s wife, Maria, pregnant with their second child. What is he going to say to her?
He cannot move. He can see the Ford burning at the edge of the woods. He can see the yellow Roadster not far from him on the wrong side of the road. He reaches for his radio, the handset clipped to his left shoulder, but he is unable to reach it. He doesn’t understand why not.
As he sits, Boyd realises the enormity of the event. The stolen Ford, the joyriders, the high-speed chase, Patrick egging him on. He’s had it, of course. He’s in deep shit.
It is twenty minutes before help reaches them. People in the village notice the sudden racket from the cockatoos, and soon after, the column of black smoke rising above the trees. Phil Spracket from the garage says he’ll go and look, and jumps into his ute. He has only a few hundred metres to go before coming across the crash site. He thumbs his two-way into life and hurriedly raises the alarm, staying back from the cars. He waits grimly, noticing the body not far from him on the edge of the road.
Boyd Chatswood is on suspension. It is seven months since the crash, and though there will eventually be an investigation, there seems no hurry to initiate it. The four deaths which resulted from his car chase were only the latest in a series of such catastrophes, and there have been two more fatal car chases since. The media are having a field day.
Boyd has insisted on attending the funerals. His right ankle and left arm were both broken during the crash, but his wife, Carol, has stoically pushed his wheelchair and stood beside him as he sobs in remorse and contrition through three cremations and a burial. It is the death of Gilly that causes him most anguish; even so, the death of the two teenage joy-riders, Billy Harris and Wayne Forsythe, has had a huge effect on him. With a long list of offences behind them which, in Billy’s case included a rape, and in Wayne’s case two armed robberies, their loss to the community was probably not great; but Boyd is only too aware that, ultimately, he was the cause of their deaths.
The death of his partner, Patrick Myer, elicits a complicated jumble of emotions. Boyd is aware that Patrick has been carrying on an affair for the last three months, ever since his wife became pregnant. He was a bully, a pugnacious, unpleasant man, always ready to break rules, to wriggle out of agreements, to lie his way out of any difficulties. There was no way Boyd would ever have relied on Patrick’s loyalty: the man had none. This is not to say, however, that Boyd isn’t deeply upset at having caused his death. But a secret voice in his head keeps telling him that if someone had to die, he is glad that it is Patrick, rather than someone else.
Gerard sits morosely in his apartment. It is a soulless place, and he has done little to make it a home.
Holsworth & Associates has survived his continued absence and survived the scandal of Gilly’s death. The firm continues to provide an income, though naturally things are much tougher than before the crash. His staff is mostly intact; his senior designer is still in place, though demanding a higher salary now that he has the responsibility of running the firm. Two of the juniors have left to find studios with better prospects.
The concussion he suffered during the crash was only a minor part of his injuries, though it took many months for him to recover. Perhaps, he thinks, he has not actually recovered at all.
His face has been destroyed. His nose was almost torn off, his mouth smashed and most of his teeth missing. His jaw has been broken in five places, his skull cracked. The sight in one eye has been destroyed and the eye socket damaged. Surgeons claim that they can rebuild his face in time, incrementally. He has no faith in their promises, and cringes at the thought of the repeated pain such surgery will entail.
He has enough insight to recognise that he has been destroyed: quite apart from his horrific appearance, he has lost all his self-confidence, his creativity, his flair, his initiative. Sometimes, just after waking, he recognises that he must shake himself out of this condition; but the fog that is surrounding him soon returns, and he sinks back into apathy.
He has attended Gilly’s funeral, his head swathed in bandages. He had expected Gilly’s family to object to his presence. Instead, they acknowledged him with their eyes and he took that as forgiveness. Nothing had happened between him and Gilly, after all. The fact that it might have, given a few more hours, neither he nor Gilly’s family have admitted.
At the graveside he finds himself sobbing piteously and has to turn away as her parents and cousins and one or two friends sprinkle dry, powdery soil into the grave. He isn’t totally self-obsessed, after all.
Gerard spends most of his days in his apartment, curtains drawn, sitting. Is he thinking things over? He doesn’t think so. His mind seems empty, except for the film playing over and over in his head: the cattle grid, the turn, the Ford flying around the corner glimpsed only from the corner of his eye, the terrified shriek from Gilly, the crumpling impact as the Ford strikes and seconds later the solid, fatal impact from the police car. Gilly, her shoulder having slid out of the seatbelt, wrenched from the Roadster and flying sideways from the car. The shrieking cockatoos. The heat of the sun. Returning to consciousness in the hospital. He is not thinking of these things, simply witnessing them over and over. Even when his eyes are open, this is what he is seeing.
When the telephone rings he picks it up without thinking. It has not rung once in the four months he has been in the apartment. ‘Yes,’ he says.
It is Boyd Chatswood. ‘Mr Holsworth? Gerard Holsworth?’
Gerard sighs. ‘Yes,’ he answers.
‘This is Boyd Chatswood.‘
Gerard doesn’t know the name.
‘You know, the police driver?‘
‘I was wondering, you know... if you’re okay, like?’
There is just a slight, sibilant hissing from the line for a moment or two. Then, ‘Yeah. Like, is everything okay with you?’
A flash of irritation. ‘Okay? Of course I’m not okay. What d’you think? How could I be okay?’
His tongue is thick in his mouth, his jaw doesn’t move quite as it should. His diction is blurred.
Boyd hesitates. ‘Yeah,’ he says after a moment. ‘Same for me.’
Gerard has no idea how to respond. He is silent.
‘I’m downstairs, outside your place. I’ve been here for an hour or so.’
Gerard goes to the window and draws the curtain aside. It is raining. He looks down and sees a figure in the rain, holding a mobile phone to his ear. The figure is drenched. He could have taken shelter under the portico of the apartment block, but for some reason has chosen to stand out on the pavement. He is wearing a thin white tee shirt and jeans, almost black with rain. His hair is plastered to his face. The figure turns and looks up. Gerard has never seen this man before.
‘What do you want?’
‘I don’t know. I thought maybe, you know, perhaps we could talk?’
Gerard puts the phone back in its cradle and sits in the semi-darkness once more. The film in his head starts playing again. He realises that it had stopped for a while as he was on the phone.
Next morning Boyd rings again. Gerard goes to the window and draws the curtain back once again. The sun is shining brightly. Boyd is standing in the same spot, dressed in the same clothes. He is turned away from Gerard, and Gerard sees that although he looks no more than thirty or so, he is already balding. ‘What do you want now?’
‘I thought we could talk about it. It might help. Help me, anyway.‘
Gerard puts the phone down.
But the following morning Gerard finds himself waiting for Boyd’s call. When it comes, shortly after nine o’clock, Gerard lets it ring for a while, taking his usual glimpse from behind the curtains. Boyd is looking around while the phone is ringing, swinging around to look first one way, then the other. Gerard returns to his chair and picks up the phone.
‘Shall we have coffee?’
Boyd is pathetically keen to do so. Gerard names a place two blocks away.
‘Okay,’ Boyd says and walks away without looking up.
Gerard pulls on his jacket and a wide-brimmed hat, and hurries to the lift. It takes less than five minutes for him to reach the café. He has never been there before. It is a long, dark room with a counter running down the middle section of the room, tables scattered in the small remaining space. Boyd is waiting for him at the back of the café, seated at a tiny table.
Boyd leans forward over a cup of coffee. He looks up as Gerard approaches, but doesn’t rise. He quickly looks down again to his cup. Gerard pauses for a moment, then returns to the counter where he orders a flat white, double shot. The girl behind the counter looks at his face and winces, but gives him a table flag with a number on it, though they are the only patrons. Gerard returns to the table, puts the flag beside Boyd’s cup and sits opposite him. The table is tiny, and Boyd is resting his elbows on either side of his cup.
Neither talk until the girl brings Gerard’s coffee and takes away the flag.
Gerard waits. He sips his coffee. Boyd sighs.
‘You wanted to talk,’ Gerard says eventually.
Boyd seems reluctant. ‘Yeah.’ he says. ‘Yeah. The psychiatrist reckons I got to.’ ‘If I want to get well,’ he adds.
Gerard nods. What neither of them have appreciated yet is that while they both need to talk, neither of them wants to listen. Yet.
But the film has ground to a halt in Gerard’s head, and for once he is taking notice of things around him. He looks at Boyd, slumped, bemused, distracted, and realises that this is what he has been like.
He finishes his coffee and gestures to Boyd to do the same. ‘Come on,’ he says. ‘We’ll go somewhere else.’ He rises and goes to the counter. He pays for both of them, then walks out. Boyd, slowly, follows behind.
They walk for half an hour in silence. Near the centre of the town there is a lagoon, and beside it a public garden. Gerard leads the way and they sit on a shaded bench beside the water.
Boyd says, ‘It’s all over for me.’
‘Empty,’ Gerard says.
‘Empty. That’s how I feel.’
‘Oh.’ Then, ‘Same for me. Nothing matters any more.’
Boyd finally sits up, his elbows spread along the back of the bench, leaning back. ‘It’s all over for me,’ he says again. A tear is falling from his eye, hanging on the dry skin of his face.
He looks... forlorn, Gerard thinks.
‘I don’t think I can stand it no more.’
Not surprised, Gerard thinks. What’s he got left, poor bugger. What have I got left, come to that
‘What about your wife? I saw her with you at the burial.’
‘Gone,’ Boyd spits bitterly. His shoulders start shaking. ‘Took Emily...’ He leans forward, his elbows on his knees, his face in his hands, sobbing piteously.
They sit silently, the tall, balding young man and the older, disfigured one; misfits, not only with each other but with the world at large.
They begin to meet regularly, and bit by bit they exchange fragments of their lives. Boyd still receives his police salary, but living at the motel is eating into his pay-packet. Gerard offers him his spare room, but after a week Boyd finds he can’t stand the darkness and the silence and moves out again, finding himself a tiny apartment not far away. Both men are sunk in apathy.
Towards the end of November Boyd begins to talk of suicide. Gerard looks at him sceptically at first, but the idea holds considerable attraction for him. Though he has not so far mentioned it, taking his own life has been at the back of his mind.
‘You can’t just give in,’ he tells Boyd half-heartedly. ‘What about Emily?’
‘She’d be better off without me.’
‘I can’t believe that.’ But deep inside he knows that Mark and Melissa would be happier, too, without having a monster as a father. He knows, though, that he should say nothing to encourage Boyd in his self-destructive thoughts.
But Christmas is hell for them both, cut off from their families, from their work, from the whole of society; and by mid-January both men are discussing ways of ending it all, hesitantly at first but with increasing fervour.
‘Together?’ Boyd asks.
‘I don’t see why not. We got ourselves into this together, we might as well go out together, too.’79 Yellow Roadster
For the first time since the crash, Boyd has something creative to do; he begins to look forward to their suicide, though he doesn’t recognise that his new enthusiasm is exactly what he has been missing.
Their plan begins to take shape. Neither has a car any more, but Boyd has a motorbike, a Honda road bike. ‘How about we just drive into a truck?’
Gerard grimaces. ‘I’d rather not involve anyone else. We’ve already hurt enough people.’
‘Oh, yeah. Sorry, mate, I didn’t think of that.’
They take the bike out for a run, to look for likely spots. Gerard has never been on a motorbike before, and realises that one of the compensations is that his hideous face is completely hidden. He immediately likes the helmet and the anonymity it offers. He swings his leg over the pillion seat and leans into Boyd’s back, resting the side of his face on Boyd’s leathers. He feels stupid, like a pea on a walnut.
The throbbing power of the machine is transmitted to Gerard’s body. The acceleration is amazing, nothing like that of a car, or at least, no car that Gerard has ever driven. They swerve through the mid-day traffic, pause for traffic lights and head for the highway out of town. Gerard holds on to the tiny handle behind his seat, terrified by the speed and the noise but elated by the balletic swooping as they lean into corners, first one side then other as the road winds through the countryside. On the sharper bends he is horrified by the angle which they make to the road surface: how do they stay on the road?
Boyd has not ridden since the crash, but has lost none of his expertise. He finds himself revelling in the motion, the noise, the speed. He likes the comradeship, too, of having Gerard pressed against his back, remembering how Carol used to cling to him and squeal with excitement before Emily was born. He had always wanted to join the Highway Patrol as a motor-cycle cop, but had never been accepted. Behind his visor, he smiles in delight. He still does not recognise that this elation is the very antidote to the depression that has been destroying him, is still keeping an eye out for a likely spot for himself to kill the two of them.
Gerard, though, secure in the comfortable cocoon of his helmet, is beginning to realise that perhaps there are, after all, one or two reasons to continue with life. 80
They drive east for another twenty minutes, reaching the motorway and heading north. Boyd opens out the bike, not caring about speed limits and traffic cops, not caring about anything. There is little traffic about, and he winds the bike up to one hundred and eighty kilometres an hour, a little more as they top each rise and swoop down the other side. They charge past cars and trucks as though they are stationary.
Gerard has become used to the sensation of speed and swooping, dulled to the racket of the exhaust. His elation has cooled, though he is still enjoying the ride tremendously. He is thinking about their pact, thinking that perhaps they have both been hasty. Sure, his old life is gone for good. No more pretty young things, no more admiring acolytes, no family life with Melanie and the children.
But perhaps it is possible, after all, to get enjoyment from life. Perhaps the surgery to repair his face might, after all, be worth the pain and the expense. Perhaps he can, with lots of help, learn to face people again. He pats Boyd on the shoulder, shouting for him to stop the bike.
Boyd, though, has become preoccupied with the task he has set himself. His earlier elation has turned to resentment that all of life cannot be like this. He focuses on the fact that this is the first enjoyment he has had in over a year, and in his mind the whole world is responsible for that. He can feel Gerard tapping his shoulder, feels the taps turning to slaps and then, as he refuses to respond, to blows with the fist.
Ahead he sees the motorway curving gracefully to the left as it winds through the hills, and beyond the other carriageway a cliff of solid rock. Between the two carriageways is a light barrier of shrubs and small trees, bottlebrush and grevillea, designed only to capture the headlights of opposing traffic at night.
Ignoring the beating Gerard is delivering to his shoulder, Boyd crouches over the handlebars and winds the bike up even further. The big engine growls, the exhaust becomes thunderous. He glances at the speedo and sees that he has exceeded two hundred kilometres an hour; he can do better than that, he thinks, and twists the throttle further. Two-twenty; two-forty.
Gerard tries to lean the bike over to make it take the bend, but Boyd keeps it upright. They leave the carriageway and rocket into the scrub, which parts easily. As they fly across the southbound 81 Yellow Roadster
carriageway towards the cliff, Gerard sees with relief that at least there is no on-coming traffic.