My brother Danny was always trying to leave. When he was fifteen he stole the family car and drove from Charters Towers to Brisbane.
Years later he told me, ‘It was a hole. There was nothing there.’
So he left. The incident, my mother always said, caused my father’s first heart
attack. In his desperate desire for the next adrenaline rush, the next high, Danny left cities, friends and family. He brutally tore people from his life, burned bridges and left behind a trail of bruised, torn flesh and wounded souls for those brave enough to follow. I was not. He was violent and quick tempered—the black sheep. People always said that I was just like him, and it wasn’t meant to be taken as a compliment. It was usually said after I had done something that was considered impulsive or stupid. His ultimate rejection, when it came, was final. In the early hours of the morning, in a lonely, isolated picnic area in Wooloongong, he took his own life. He was forty-five.
Danny led an exuberant life, quite remote from the life I lived in the sleepy seaside town of Sandgate. But there were similarities too. His first job was at the local Woolworths. It was also where I worked after I dropped out of school halfway through Year 11. Like me, he didn’t last long there, and moved quickly through various jobs. He was a radio technician for 4IP, working with the early ’80s radio celebrity, Waynee Poo. Next he was a bouncer at night clubs. Hours spent at the gym and sculling protein drinks had given him a massive physique. He worked the door of the Homestead in Boondall, standing legs-apart, triceps bulging, daring anyone to take him on. Formidable. He also sold life insurance; a conservative, dull job he loathed. None of these jobs held his attention. When he was twenty-four, he decided to do a photography course. This was a brave move. We were a working class family. You worked, you didn’t take photos. Halfway through the course he was already earning an income as a photographer, so he didn’t finish, though he still managed to top the class.
Recently, over a couple of drinks, I asked Gary our eldest brother, about Danny.
‘Things came too easy for him—mental things. But he just wasn’t practical,’ he said.
Gary bought himself a surf ski and for two months took it down to Cabbage Tree Creek to practise rowing in it. He laughed as he recalled how the wash from the trawlers always knocked him off.
‘But I’d just get back on,’ he said.
Perhaps trying to emulate his older brother, Danny also decided to buy a ski, but instead of taking it down the creek to get the feel for it, he took it straight out into the surf. There had always been fierce competition between the two brothers.
‘He nearly bloody drowned. And the next day,’ Gary said, shaking his head in disbelief, ‘he sold it.’ He stared off into the distance. ‘He wouldn’t stick at anything. If he couldn’t do something straight away, he’d just give up.’
Danny was a gifted photographer and within a year he had saved enough to go to America. He loved America, idolised it; “The Land of the Free.” He lived there for two years and when he next appeared on our doorstep, with a New York Yankees cap perched on top of his balding head, I was fifteen.
His eyes widened in shock and he took a step back as he said, ‘Look at the jugs on you!’
It was another couple of weeks before I spoke to him again, though he visited daily, so I missed out on the first batch of stories. I didn’t mind. Danny had often been absent from our lives, though never for as long, and he would always return like the prodigal son regaling us with stories. But neither he, nor the stories, seemed real to me. Danny had always seemed remote, worldlier than the rest of us, and after he came back from America the chasm widened.
He would come to visit with a girl on his arm, younger and prettier than the last. I would watch Michael, ten years younger than Danny, salivate as he eyed them, hoping that some of his older brother’s glamour would rub off on him and these girls, who must have seemed so unattainable to him, would also see something desirable in him. I saw them as life-sized Barbie dolls. I relished the discomfort of the girls as they sat in our two bedroom, weatherboard house wearing their designer clothes, smiles straining on their heavily made-up faces. It seemed obvious to me that the two worlds didn’t mix.
People flocked to be near him. I couldn’t understand it. I never wanted to be part of that world. It seemed fake, forced. I think he too wondered why he was given so much attention. He was a fashion photographer but the “real” money came from photographs taken for men’s magazines: Playboy and Penthouse.
I often said that I didn’t understand how women could do it—pose nude for magazines—and he replied, ‘They love it.’
I overheard Michael telling his mates about a photo shoot taken with a girl who had been a year ahead of me in school. It was on Stradbroke Island and he told them how she had been so turned on that Danny had to ‘keep wiping away her come with a towel.’ I could hear the titillation in his voice, his laughter low and crude. This first hand knowledge had earned him the respect of his mates, all Catholic private school boys. I felt sickened.
Danny both loved and hated women. He loved having control over them, turning them into sexual objects, humiliating them. When he had a camera in his hand he was the one in power. He could look at these women from a safe distance, detached and unemotional. They probably seemed as unreal and unreachable to him as they did to Michael. They never lasted long in his life. Nothing did. Perhaps that was why he became a photographer. So he could capture the object and claim it as his own for a brief moment before it disappeared.
There was always a sense of sadness around Danny. He made a lot of money and went out with models, but nothing seemed to satisfy him. His passion burned fiercely, so it couldn’t last. The surreal world of pretty young women, wealth, sex and drugs promised moments of intense pleasure, if not happiness. Our world must have seemed quite boring in comparison. How could it compete with the intoxicating, glamorous world he chose to inhabit? Yet it is his quiet moments that I remember most clearly. Moments when he believed no one was looking, when his thoughts were turned inward and his eyes stared ahead, unseeing.
In a black and white self-portrait, taken while he was at college, he looks down, away from the lens towards the right. He averts his eyes, knowing too well what secrets the camera is able to reveal. Shirtless, his broad shoulders are just visible, a hint of the huge strength contained within the body unseen. The full mouth does not smile. In a moment of repose, Danny had exposed himself: wistful, introspective and doubtful. He caught himself unawares, capturing the person he was trying to avoid.
Danny drank a lot. He also gambled. A lot. I remember going to the Gold Coast Casino with Danny and in half an hour he blew a thousand dollars. I looked around the room and saw the sallow, creased faces. Under the harsh lights their naked desire for money burned in their eyes and glistened feverishly on their brows. The fierce intensity of their gaze never shifted from the table. They were mainly men—the breadwinners of the family. I felt awkward watching them, their vulnerability exposed, raw. I was filled with anguish and awe, knowing my brother was one of them.
The last time I saw Danny he turned up on my doorstep, drunk. He had his daughter Brooke, who was about two, in his arms.
‘I’ve had a fight with Danielle,’ he slurred, and began to call his wife a string of vulgar names. I let him in. Reluctantly. He was at his worst, caustic and cruel. My boyfriend hovered in the kitchen and I flushed hotly with embarrassment. I listened to him beret Danielle for over an hour. Too drunk to drive home, Danny stayed the night with Brooke. Chris and I finally escaped upstairs.
‘I just wish he would leave,’ I said. In the morning Danny was gone.
Two years later Danielle’s sister rang and said he was dead. While she was still speaking, I hung up the phone and went, dazed, into my neighbour’s house, saying my brother had died. I hadn’t found out at that point how it happened; all I knew was that he was dead. I had already had so much death in my life: my father, my mother, and now one of my brothers. My neighbours came over to sit with me while we waited for the next phone call that was sure to come. One of them asked how old he was. I hadn’t seen him in two years and I had to think for a minute—how old was he?
‘Forty-five,’ I said. And then it hit me that he was the same age my father had been when he died. ‘I bet he killed himself,’ I said.
Five minutes later the phone rang. He had committed suicide by gassing himself in a car. He was there ten days before he was found.
Even then, some part of me felt a sense of relief. There would be no more knocks on the door. No more smarmy debt collectors calling at odd hours wanting their money. Sometimes I forget about him completely, and then someone will mention suicide and I remember. Danny is no longer simply my brother; he is the embodiment of the word people whisper in fear: suicide.
Suicide is often said to be genetic. I have heard of families whose histories have been traced to reveal the tragic deaths of at least half a dozen members. You are genetically more like your siblings than anyone else on the planet. Your biological codes are more similar to theirs than they are to your own children. When my daughter left Brisbane to live with her boyfriend in central Queensland, over a year ago now, the thought of suicide went through my mind.
I don’t seem to be able to keep people around me. It is not me who leaves, but them. They die, or the relationship changes, or simply fades. I am always the one left behind. Never enough to make someone want to stay, I’m abandoned, left alone with memories and my own thoughts of death. Just once I want to be taken along. So I recreate Danny’s last hours, minutes, moments.
I thought a lot about Danny in those first few months without my daughter. He took the detour to the truck stop, clutching a photo of Brooke. He connected the hose to the exhaust and thrust the other end through the gap in the window. I saw him slump back inside the car, slamming the door, sitting, ready, waiting. He must have felt alive then, really alive. I listened to his heart pound as he realised there was no going back. I watched him struggle to breathe as carbon monoxide seeped silently into the car. Then I placed myself beside him so that he was not alone, because that is how he must have felt, utterly, unbearably alone. Just as I do.
‘Kind Of Temporary’ was first published in Liars Make the Best [Lovers] Writers: New Writing From QUT. Edited by Sam Martin et al. (2007)