The Family Files (Rebecca Jessen)

The Magic Mile

We lived at the end of the magic mile, bordering a dense forest of trees; if you ended up at the Sizzler, you’d gone too far. Lansdowne Caravan Park was a refuge for all the kinds of people you’d expect to find in such a place. There were a lot of people like us, poor families with parents that always fought and kids that terrorised the streets, single dads with five o’clock shadows and unhappy dispositions.

Of course, at the time, I never thought of us as being any worse off than anyone else. We’d moved from Army housing to a tiny two bedroom tin caravan. When my Mum met him, my stepdad was living in a caravan in his mother’s backyard; this wasn’t so different, except he had a family now. The caravan park was huge, with heaps of space to ride our bikes, until they got stolen, and even a swimming pool and games room. It was like being on a permanent holiday, only, it wasn’t the kind of place you’d take your kids on holiday, not if you could help it.

Last year Mum and I were driving along that stretch of highway and I caught a glimpse of our old home as we passed by. Lansdowne Caravan Park was no more. I don’t know how long it’s been gone, but I imagine it’s been some time. The park had been cleared of the vans, the streets repaired, blocks of land neatly squared off and fenced. There’s a sandstone sign as you drive in that reads ‘Willow Waters Estate’. It looks like the kind of place you see on TV ads these days, a self-contained world, with its own parks and shops and neatly paved paths. A place where nuclear families go to live and die.

How About This Weather

It was my family’s first Christmas since my stepfather left. I still remember that day so clearly. Somehow, his absence had impressed upon the family dynamic with such force that nothing would ever be the same after that.

Mum started drinking early that day. Earlier than usual. Maybe it was because she needed a way to deal with the chaos of our lives, or, she finally had a reason to.

Extended family came and went throughout the day and in the late afternoon my dad arrived with my older brother. I stood outside with my dad and we ate Mum’s homemade rumballs. The air was heavy with the scent of smoke. There had been bushfires in the area and the sky was tinged an eerie orange.

‘Shit, come look at this,’ I heard Mum call from the lounge room.

I knew straightaway, that she was watching the weather channel.

Dad and I walked inside, my brothers sat on the couch next to Mum, staring at the TV.

‘They reckon it’s gonna get all the way down Cowpasture Road,’ Mum said.

‘That’s still pretty far away,’ I said.

‘Yeah, but fire moves fast, sis,’ my older brother added.

Mum turned up the volume. ‘We should go for a drive and have a look.’

‘Nah, they wouldn’t let you in close,’ my brother said.

I looked outside at the sky darkening and felt the room close in around us. Mum had a way of dramatising the most unsurprising news, especially the weather. She would spend half hour blocks watching the weather channel, trying to find something in the satellite maps and lightning radars to comment on or fuss over. It started with the weather, but as I got older, I realised this was her way with everything.

Heaven Help My Heart

Mum wakes us up early on Saturday. She tells me she’s going to the hospital with my older brother. That she’ll probably be gone all day. She leaves a twenty dollar note on the kitchen bench, kisses each of us goodbye and leaves.

It is March 2006. I’m fresh out of school and studying at TAFE. My little brother is nine, and my sister only five, a week and a half shy of her sixth birthday. Her birthday will forever be stained with this loss. I feel for her. I feel for them both. Their dad left so soon after my sister’s birth that she’d barely just learned to open her eyes before she noticed he was gone.

Truth is, I probably knew their dad better than they ever had the chance to. I am grateful for those years, troubled and turbulent as they were.
They know very little about what has happened. They are both so young, how could they possibly understand. An accident at work. An explosion. A coma he may never emerge from.

There’s no food in the house so I take the twenty dollars and my brother and sister and we walk to the McDonalds close by. I get the kids a happy meal each and we sit in silence near the playground. After a while, my sister asks ‘Is our dad going to die?’

I shake my head and say I’m not sure. This is the truth, at the time, but it feels cruel to not give them any hope. I haven’t heard from Mum since she left, it could already be over. My chips have gone cold and I push them away. In the background I hear ‘Heaven Help My Heart’ playing through the speakers and this is what I will remember for all the years that follow. 

To read more by Rebecca Jessen, and for information about her latest book, Gap, visit her blog.