You were the brother I never had and always wanted. You were the funny, skinny red-haired, freckled kid with the self-deprecating, oddball humour, the boy whose idea of a hilarious prank was rigging door knobs so that when you grabbed them to open a door they’d come out, leaving you holding a door knob; you were the boy who had asthma in a bad way, but made a great comical show out of not wanting to take the medicine for it, a vile liquid you called “gluck”; and you were the boy who, when I first went to visit you at your house when we were 11, was using Lego to build the world’s most evil toilet, and I remember I laughed and laughed.
Right now it’s 30 long years since you were murdered. I still can’t get my head around it. I try, often, to imagine myself into what it must have been like for you when it happened. The Darwin CID contacted us last year, just before I went into hospital, to let us know your remains had at last been correctly identified (would you believe they had your remains the whole time but had you misidentified as Aboriginal? You always had a perverse sense of humour, and I can imagine a certain dry mirth over that).
The detective we met last year told me you were shot in the head. He said there was no question of suicide, because of the location and angle of the wound. They also don’t have all of you. It seems local animals might have interfered with your body over a period of time before you were found.
Bloody hell! What were you mixed up in? Towards the end, when you were having such a hard time with your parents’ divorce, when your work situation seemed uncertain, you took to the roads, sometimes hitchhiking, and sometimes in that giant purple Ford station wagon on which you painted all those strange and funny slogans. “He’ll never sell that car,” I said to myself the one time I saw it, that last time I saw you, when you came by to see me in Girrawheen, and you told me about your folks splitting up.
I was dismayed, obviously, to hear it, but not surprised. It was a catastrophe, but I felt it had been coming a long time. Even when we were ratbag kids together, when I came to visit you at your place it always felt tense there, and especially when your parents were there. There was an atmosphere of hostility. I never quite felt welcome, like I was under your parents’ feet, and another mouth to feed. Bad enough they already had four kids of their own, but me as well? In any case, that last time you came over, and told me about your parents, how the split had happened, that your dad was now living in a new place, and your mum somewhere else, it was awful, and it was the first-ever time I saw you upset. I’d known you since we were both eleven years old, and we were as close as brothers, but I’d never seen you cry.
I met you, I suppose the way people meet everyone in this world, through sheer chance, because my family decided to move from Wembley, and the house we’d inherited from my dad’s parents, to a rickety old rental place in Bassendean (a place Mum and Dad refer to as “Mrs Brown’s House”, but I have no idea who Mrs Brown was), a house so old and shambling, of fibro and probably asbestos and wood that it had a separate backyard toilet and laundry block in its vast backyard.
Moving to Bassendean, landing on a particular side of Walter Road, meant one ended up at a particular primary school, so I finished grade six and did grade seven there. And my first day of grade six at this new school, standing there in front of a room full of unfamilar, bemused, unimpressed kids, I was terrified. The teacher, a middle-aged guy who would prove to be okay by reading books to us one afternoon a week, assigned me purely at random to an empty desk down the back, next to you.
That was all there was to it. I never knew why we had to move house (though I later gathered there were financial and employment reasons), and the teacher plonked me just where there happened to be a spare desk. Your whole life can pivot like a bank vault door around certain key moments in time.
You and I got talking, a bit, nothing much, but I have a vague recollection that you were friendly, helpful–and funny. You didn’t hate me on sight. You didn’t recoil from me. It was an excellent start.
My parents, who wanted to give me siblings, but should not even have been able to produce me (unclear reasons, possibly due to my dad’s military service in tropical Queensland), thought you were a truly wonderful kid, and adopted you whole into the family, so to speak. You had open invitations to meals, overnight stays, and whatever you liked. And you seemed to enjoy your life with my family, possibly because I was an only child. It was quieter at my place (moody dad notwithstanding). At your place there was always chaos and noise and people, usually kids, yelling and protesting. Also, you were the eldest kid in that bunch: you were always supposed to be responsible, and I know you sometimes hated that.
When you took off travelling and working after your parents’ split, you sent me a series of letters from various places. Long, weird, interesting, disturbing letters, often with all kinds of drawings. I remember you designed a perverted kind of Tarot deck at one point. The story of the time you hired a prostitute in Kalgoorlie, and what an embarrassing disappointment it was. I did not know what to make of all this. You and I had never once, in all the years we knew each other, discussed girls, sex, or anything even remotely related. I mean, a kid who was a total stranger to me in a hospital bed next to mine, just the previous year to when you and I met, showed me a funny trick he could do with his willy, but as far as I ever knew you didn’t even have one.
These letters you sent were upsetting. You’d never spoken to me like that before. In them I got a powerful sense that you were going through a profoundly bad time, working a series of mining industry chemistry jobs after graduating from Curtin University. These jobs took you to some of the worst places in the country, and you wrote about them in harrowing detail. You were lonely, and sometimes turned to drugs, or girls, or whatever. The people you hung out with seemed unsavoury, to say the least.
That you ended up murdered in the midst of this experience doesn’t seem completely surprising. But it does seem tragic. You were yet young, as we both were in those days, just 24. I had only recently met Michelle. She and I were still just dating. My whirling instability was spinning down. I think I may have started working. It was a different world to the one we knew as kids.
All those letters you sent me, and I never responded. I never knew what to say. I was too upset. Too angry, too. You told me all the time in those letters that I needed to get off all my medication, that it was all a scam. I have a vague recollection of what these days we think of as conspiracy theories, but in those days were just crackpot notions, the stuff of tiny classified ads in the back of certain magazines. You saw some of what I went through with my first hospital experience, though I remember you also looked wary, and uncertain about it, about how to deal with me afterwards, and that’s fair enough. I was still figuring that out, too. But you knew I was sick, seriously not well, that it went through my dad’s family.
You did in your last, longest letter, apologise, and especially for that suggestion. I kept that letter, and gave a copy to the police and to your family. They had no idea about your travels and adventures, and were gobsmacked and terribly sad to hear of them. But, as I say, you did apologise. I appreciated it, too. It was a great letter to receive, all 20-odd handwritten, funny, heartwrenching pages of it. I could see you were coming out of the dark. You were more like yourself again. Your thinking was clearer. No crackpot theories. A funny story about trying to chat up a woman. Some amusing hitchhiking stories, some colourful vignettes.
You had also embarked on some actual fiction-writing. You produced two chapters of a werewolf-in-the-Outback story, and the thing that absolutely killed me, reading it last year after tearing our storage room apart trying to find this last letter from you for the police, was how good it was. It was rough, very unpolished, but the things wrong with it were technique things that could be fixed, could be unlearned. Under the sometimes clunky bits was some terrific lean, evocative prose. It shone out of the page, just a little obscured by some overgrowth. You could have been a writer.
What was it like when they killed you? The detective said it was most likely an execution-type murder. It’s possible one person did the whole thing, but I wonder. And why you? What were you involved with? Did you get mixed up with bad people, or some bad deals? Was it drugs and money? What were you doing? How did it happen? Why were you up that way at all? I suppose you thought about that yourself. How did my life come to this? What did I do? Am I here because Mum and Dad split up? Am I here because I got out of bed today? What happened? Why me?
I think about you all the time. I’ve been thinking about you while writing this book about my life. Your birthday is coming up next week. I always take a moment, each year, to remember you, the funny, red-haired, crazy bastard who was friends with the big dumpy guy. I’ll always love you for that, for being my friend. You were my best friend at a time when I needed one. You kept me alive, and in the world. You, in your funny way, made it possible for Michelle to find me.