When a family tragedy is inextricably linked to your hometown, how far, and for how long, do you need to travel to reconcile your past with your future?
There is a red-brick mortuary in the Luisenstädtische Friedhof, a cemetery in the leafy end of Berlin’s Kreuzberg district. Like so many gentrified spaces in this ever-changing city, the mortuary is now a coffee house. The bones of fallen Berliners rest beneath, feet away from one’s morning milchkaffee and kuchen. I’ve overheard the owner, Olga, a solid woman with a bob cut, tell her customers it makes her feel more alive each day to be here.
Olga’s mortuary is my new local, a place I come to write and think. My girlfriend and I moved to Berlin two years ago, first living in a much grittier neighbourhood, where the cemeteries are not nearly as umbrageous, or caffeinated. We’ve just returned to Germany after a summer in our native Australia, and there has been much to write and think about.
Though I’d travelled and lived abroad many times during my 20s, it was only on this recent trip – amid the ultra-familiar scenes of a place I once confidently called home – that I first wondered whether ‘home’ could actually be elsewhere.
I’d onion-skinned a fresh version of myself in Deutschland, a freer one, less shackled by the limitations and potentials of the past. We got along, Berlin and I. Like Anna Funder did. Nick and Rowland S. Iggy and Bowie. It was an exciting, alluring new life.
It was both a comfort, and uncomfortable, to be at my parents’ house again. I butted heads with old versions of myself.
The jasmine got me first. The scent of it in the air, and hose water on cooked concrete. Sun-exposed residential blocks, the mental sequences of backstreets, ingrained like maze-routes.
It’s been two years since we flew to Berlin, over a decade since moving out of Fairfield, but whether I like it or not, so much of me remains there. On that first day back, I felt immediately like the past was smothering my every turn with flickers of fleeting reminiscence. Time is fiddled with, arching to and fro – me, as I was, me, as I am. It was both a comfort, and uncomfortable, to be at my parents’ house again. I butted heads with old versions of myself, as tinges of inadequacy crept in with the chagrin. This is the past’s turf, I thought, but I won’t let it wrest me back.
I felt this the most in Mum’s backyard, in the aching space by the back fence where my bungalow used to sit. It had been demolished years ago, my coming-of-age bedroom-barn – the ground zero of my adult life. The longings, yearnings, and frustrations were all born here, the spark of my evolutionary craving to be elsewhere, and the fragments of those memories, stowed in non-existent walls, lurking now in their absence.
One particular sequence returns potently, and won’t leave. It had been an innocuous morning like so many at the end of my teens: sun warming through stained glass; ceiling posters curling with dust; the long-suffering carpet, thirsting for 20 vacuums or more. A dope hangover slinked between my synapses as I bogarted into fantasyland, free, however fleetingly, of any serious notions of responsibility.
I heard a knock at the door, and unlatched the lock. Mum: her eyes, redder than mine; her chin, trembling, stumbling for words.
‘It’s Kev,’ she said, and his image filtered in: bearded, curl-locked, receding. Kev, the eccentric; Kev, the wandering artist; my uncle Kev, the everlasting dude.
Before the sun streamed in that morning, Kev woke from his bed in a house in the eastern suburbs, put on his clothes, walked out to a train line, lay his head on steel tracks, and waited for a train to come.
He’d been chatting with John Lennon and Kurt Cobain. Christ, too. That’s all he said when Mum and I saw him weeks earlier. He stared through us, his hair in knotted wisps. We pulled out his nylon string guitar, but he didn’t pick it up. I like to think he still knew who I was.
Cut the scene to 18 years earlier. Kev, recently graduated from high school, took a trip to his dad’s house in Healesville for a weekend visit. In the bathroom mirror he saw something that drained the colour from his face. Something to do with his veins, or blood. Only he saw it, and it terrified him.
‘Dad, you’ve got to kill me, you’ve got to kill me,’ he kept saying.
My grandfather, Tom, clutched him tight on the couch, inconsolable. They took a drive to the psychiatric ward in Dandenong, an open triage where disturbed men wandered about, erratic. A doctor saw him, told him he’d had a deep depressive episode. Nothing was mentioned about how this would become schizophrenia, and that at the age of 36, the voices in his head would coax him into annihilating himself.
It was a week or two into my December return. I drive out to Ringwood where Mum and Kev grew up, the suburb of my distant youth, that valley of malls and dealerships where freeway extensions snake around the power line colossi. A deeper past stalks me out here, as memory overlays the landscape like ink on a lithograph, coating the pine tree cul-de-sac where my Nana Barb used to live.
If the bungalow was my adolescent sanctuary, Barb’s was the childhood forerunner: a 1950s brown-brick home, its interior treated with embossed wallpaper, gold velvet décor, and too much brown – Barb, my second mother figure and best friend. Before I entered the world, the unexpressed grief from the miscarriage of her fifth child fast-tracked the end of Barb’s marriage to Tom. I think she was a lonely woman. I adored her, and I believe the feelings were mutual.
On Fridays, we’d hang out over hot bowls of Campbell’s spaghetti and re-runs of The Golden Girls. She’d tape her shows until the VHS reel disintegrated into white static. My legs would wander out to the corridor during ad breaks, her average and almost empty family home seeming like a manor in my eyes, the hallway cavernous and ‘heebie’-inducing when left to the night-time shadows.
Kev was probably around 20 here, still living at home, his room first on the left where The Beatles records spun faint and crackly on a turntable, a stale stink of tobacco and weed hanging about the air. His floor was somewhere beneath a mountain of jeans and sweaters, and in the corner was a sketching lamp angled over a desk where he painted and drew.
‘This one’s got you in it,’ he said one night, revealing a fantastical scene of mythic creatures and clouds, and me soaring through the ether, a freckly wunderkind in a red cape.
‘You’re flying, dude,’ he said.
Kev boarded a Greyhound to Sydney after Barb died and he didn’t come back for a long time. I accepted losing her to cancer as I’m sure many eight-year-olds would: my emotional armour kicked in seamlessly, muting the full brunt of grief that would only manifest later, when I was an adult. Kev’s armour, on the other hand, was only so strong.
I only speculate about what went on inside Kev’s head after Barb died, where his sanctuary was lost and his family unit scattered. It seems to me that Kev’s motivations became underpinned by an aching and largely subconscious desire to get as far away as possible from what he’d known until then; and begin a long, and in the end, fruitless search for the stuff he felt he was lacking inside.
He wrote to us with tales of bungee jumping in Kuranda; walking over fire; a stint on a horse ranch, tending the land in the day and riding for hours at dusk. He’d describe the wind in his face as he and his horse, Banjo, dodged low-hanging branches, and galloped through rivers.
Leaving his steed, he rode on: to Europe, Britain, the United States. He lay down ‘King of the Road’ in a streetside recording booth in Nashville. Wandered onto the set of a Ron Howard film in New York, approached the director, shook hands, offered his services (Ron politely declined, I’m told). From afar, an image of Kev captured my imagination: a benevolent wanderer, a fallible, curious adventure man.
He returned to us one Christmas after claiming spiritual home in Northern Queensland, where he’d been making a living selling handcrafted portraits on the street. He presented with pride a colour picture he’d sketched of a local indigenous elder who thought Kev possessed the humility and rare eye that could adequately capture his people’s essence. They invited him to their corroborees: Kev was the only white person in attendance.
In a subtle way I’ve only begun to appreciate through the detachment of long distance, I revere Kev as the crucial influence in my own gravitation towards a more expressive, and probably irregular, life. My straight-laced family tended to a more conventional wave than on what my uncle was inclined to jive. Career. Routine. House and security. As I grew older I felt an affinity both with him, and for his disposition – not to the same extent, perhaps: a bona fide ‘right brainer’ to the ‘N’th, incompatible with the voracious and aesthetically moribund demands of orthodox life.
But then, in straddling both sides of this divide – on the one hand, striving to be an artist while at the same time appeasing more ‘practical’ demands, I had work cut out for me when it came to honing a clear and balanced identity, one that came to be loaded with its own set of tensions and doubts.
As the doubts began to snowball, I started to run. Forrest Gump style, usually at night when the air was cool, and Melbourne’s glow marbled the sky into gunmetal and scorched brass.
His death also punctured – and punctuated – a moment in my life where the ground was shifting. During my early 20s I felt as if I was captaining a slow boat to China, my life a leaky junk rigged with a low rent compass and riddled with cracks. As friends polished off degrees and secured jobs, I battled identity crisis and harsh internal inadequacies. I had no idea where I fit in at home. At night in the bungalow, I dreamed of planes – often spiralling, sometimes crashing; trains too, on winding tracks, through tunnels. I feared that my skills and talents would not be enough to get me through this life – that they were not valued, and had little place.
As the doubts began to snowball, I started to run. Forrest Gump style, usually at night when the air was cool, and Melbourne’s glow marbled the sky into gunmetal and scorched brass. The reward was the sweat of temporary salvation: wind in the sail, a blood and endorphin rush, the accompanying soundtrack eliciting euphoria. Movement. That kept the doubts at bay. Still, my doubt lingered, and my unrealised impulses hungered for acknowledgement.
It might have been Kev’s influence, or perhaps it was reading Paolo Coelho’s The Alchemist tucked in a Batman doona after Barb died. Whatever triggered it, travelling helped further dampen that voice.
It wasn’t too long after Kev died that I set off on my own journeys. To the night trains of Marrakech and the souks of Istanbul; the Roman fields of the Camino de Santiago, and the tenement rows of San Francisco; the neon of New York City, the secluded woods of Minnesota – my mutiny, an attempt, however in vain, to try and kill the self-limiting voice inside.
Some nights I found myself waking in panic, ravenous for breath. Voices, old and fresh, whispered with acerbic self-negation. Voices declaring I’d failed for some reason,
In each new city, I ran. I lived a while in Queens, in a tenement apartment by 61st Street and Roosevelt. Beneath the iron overgrounds and low flying La Guardia-bound jets, I’d jog to Calvary cemetery, a vast graveyard on the southern edge of Woodside.
In this grim solitude, through the sloping pathways, I’d be in the presence of three million dead – politicians and writers, mafia figures and gunners – as colossal Manhattan stared me down from beyond. At the right line of sight, the lofty scrapers merged with the mausoleums and slate, in what looked to me to be a united forest of monuments. But I didn’t realise then just how much death terrified me.
I learnt this during the homecoming. The weirdness peaked as the December weeks fell, so too the sensation of displacement. News-speak accents dished up the latest auction pass-in rates, as billboards heckled collective self-esteem with vehicle deals and body shame. All this is absent from my life in Berlin. There, I live as a writer-musician, on my own time; there, eight in ten people still rent; few drive; no one cares about your financial status (much less the squats you do in your lunch break). I yearned to be back there.
But an invisible tether kept us put, and we were soon lured to my girlfriend’s family beach house on South Australia’s wild Fleurieu peninsula. Our new temporary home, in a muted town with less than a thousand locals, runs on the staples of rural Australiana: BBQ by the butcher, a surf shop, a Sip ‘n’ Save. Cliffs coddle the solitary main beach, wild and scorched, tempered with alpenglow in the twilights – paradise, but a deeply isolating one.
Strange feelings followed me around during those drawn-out months. Winds howled at night, coursing through clearings behind the beach where the wallabies hid, as great husking whooshes swelled through the camphor laurels and willow myrtles. When there was no wind, the silence deafened, sending claustrophobia in to play tricks with my mind.
Some nights I found myself waking in panic, ravenous for breath. Voices, old and fresh, whispered with acerbic self-negation. Voices declaring I’d failed for some reason, that I was avoiding full participation in life, perhaps even hiding; that I didn’t meet the conventional standards of success.
The lack of a firm sense of home seemed to only amplify it. Anxiety crescendoed into irrational, invisible fear. The ground fell away, and distrust seeped in. I crept through the black house to the bathroom to catch my breath, my legs small again, the hallway full of shadows.
Some nights I found myself waking in panic, ravenous for breath. Voices, old and fresh, whispered with acerbic self-negation. Voices declaring I’d failed for some reason.
It wasn’t the first the time I wondered whether my voices are the same ones that poisoned Kev. But it was the first time I worried they might claim me too. I stared into the bathroom mirror at a receding hairline and fresh wrinkles, as intimations of a lost uncle, whose age I am now approaching, stared back.
I rode a horse called Banjo, I rode him long and fair,
The only time I miss him is when he isn’t there
I rode him like white lightning, ‘cross the wild winds, so to speak
When I got out of the saddle, I couldn’t walk for weeks
I rode through endless paddocks, I rode right into town
I rode a horse called Banjo, we never touched the ground.
There were coffee-stained books full of Kev’s songs and poems when he rode out for good. Buried in boxes of vinyl LPs, a time capsule of sound and memory. Weeks after the funeral, when the shimmer of Strawberry Fields and the croon of his Nashville recording lingered long, I spent nights alone in the hold of the bungalow listening to his albums. Each cover and warped groove spoke the essence of his soul, the pain of his dead heart, the vibe of his old room digging shelter amidst the brotherly dank of my own sanctuary. I lit candles, and joints, and shed tears.
It’s strange the way the brain tapestries the images we retain of people we’ve lost. The picture I reconstruct of Kev, the one still turning and metamorphosing as I transform, is little more than a flipbook of unreliable fragments. It’s a conceptual annexe to the impression constructed of him during those long years he spent so far away from us, spliced scenes, warbled sequences, quips, riffs and kinaesthetic encodings, almost all of them, in their own way fallible.
I always felt a sense of pride that I ‘got’ Kev; that I understood him when the others didn’t. But it was only when faced with my own isolation, and latent familial grief, that I began to comprehend the deeper picture of his existence – the maelstrom that must have impelled his inner world, the pain he lugged from hub to hub. The voices inside.
Kev and I jammed together that last Christmas, him on acoustic, me on sax – the first and last time we ever did. Then he cleared off again to some other place, as my image of him – the ideal, in red cape – flew on. Movement. Salvation. Temporarily so, for him.
Back in Berlin, the bells of the passionskirche toll through the kiez as I sit under herringbone archways at Olga’s cafe. Soon summer will be here again, and we’ll trade isolated beaches for long balmy twilights and canal-side eves. We’ll cycle and traipse over the cobblestone streets of a city whose past, so maligned, melds into a promising present.
My transient life continues here, though the anxieties appear to have quietened. Old voices spring up every so often, but I’m learning how to embrace the shadows. And while it might have been true in the past that I ran from home to evade my spectres – to escape, in vain, the reflections of my own mortality – I prefer to think I live the way I live now not to deny this reality but to sidle up closer to it. I still run at night, but not as much.
Olga shuffles about taking orders, as red squirrels dance over the graves that make her feel so alive. The peal of the bells rings out, offering peace to the graves, and the ghosts in the ground.