Rebecca Jessen


April 2013

The Family Files: Older Brother

When I go home to Sydney to visit for Christmas my brother picks me up from the airport. I get a late flight because it’s all I can afford but Mum doesn’t like to drive at night. She says her eyesight isn’t what it used to be and I guess that’s like a lot of things.

My brother drives through the back streets to avoid the tolls and we’re on this one stretch so long I think he’s lost his way. There are no streetlights and a lot of greenery so I know we’re far from home. We don’t talk much on the drive home. It’s like we’ve gotten to a point where we don’t really know what to say.

When we finally come out of it and we stop at lights someone on a motorbike careens past and we both turn and chase the figure into the darkness. I notice this instantly, the way we both turned at the sound, the sight, of the motorbike. I don’t know about my brother, but I find myself doing this often. He says it’s a nice bike and I agree, but what I don’t say is that when I see a motorbike I’m always thinking about our dad. Always thinking, about him leaving again.

I sense when we’re close to home, not because of the scenery which – in the years I’ve been gone, has remained unchanged – but, by the people. The people here have this look about them, an unmistakable indicator that I am home. My brother pulls up behind a Mercedes and the guy in the car next to us asks my brother about his car. He’s pretty into that stuff and I can tell because he’s smiling big like he’s proud and he doesn’t do that much anymore. The guy dares my brother to race ‘that shitbox’ in front of us and my brother laughs and revs his engine. I laugh too – not because it’s funny, but because I want to seem like I fit in too, with this family and these things they find so important.

My brother pulls into our driveway and says ‘it’s good to see you sis.’ I tell him the same and he tells me to say hi to mum for him. He doesn’t have time tonight; he has to get home to his family.

Mum says when my older brother is upset he drives down the coast and sits on the beach for hours. Sometimes he sleeps in his car overnight and drives back home in the morning. She tells me these things with such affection in her voice. Affection reserved only, for him.

She’s doing this thing that she does when she’s thinking too much about things that don’t really go together.

‘Dad would’ve kept your brother in line, if he was still around,’ she says and lights a cigarette. ‘Mum used to tell me that when Dad was upset he would drive out to the coast, get out of the car and scream his lungs out. That’s what your brother does. It’s weird,’ she says, smiling.

My brother drives down the coast so often that I have to wonder if he has any sense at all, of what might be going wrong. It’s as if he thinks he can stand on the edge of waves and let his weight slip into the dark, heavy water and pull back out to sea. I think about it too sometimes, the ease in which I could be pulled out, into nothing. But I don’t drive to the coast often.


The Family Files: Mum

Mum spends a lot of time watching the weather channel, especially when they’ve predicted it to be the hottest day on record in Sydney – or there’s a tropical low coming down off the coast and they’re calling it ‘the big wet’. Mum’s life isn’t very exciting, so I can’t blame her for dramatising even the most unremarkable weather events. The problem is, when I go home to visit I get sucked in to it too.

Mum blames everything on the weather. She says things like ‘the car alarm went off the other day, for no reason – it must have been the heat.’ She says these things with such conviction that I almost feel compelled to find out if such things are even possible.

On the hottest day on record in Sydney when it’s late afternoon and the tar that keeps the footpaths together is melting and the internet becomes slow and unresponsive, and my little brother gets aggressive about ‘shit not working in this damn house,’ Mum tells him ‘it’s the heat’. Then she calls up the phone company to find out how many hours she will have to put up with this. When she gets off the phone she complains to me how she should get those few hours of outage off her bill – because she doesn’t want to pay for a service she can’t use. And I don’t know if self-righteousness runs in the family but I make a promise to myself then and there, to never turn out like that.

While this is happening my sister and I are draped across the lounge room in various positions under the air-con, watching the weather channel. I walk outside every now and then throughout the day to feel the heat settle upon my shoulders and within a minute I’m back inside because I burn easy and it’s the day for it.

Mum says I was born during a cyclone and I don’t know if she’s being metaphorical or just stating fact. She says when she went into labour, the local hospital was closed and her and Dad had to drive an hour in the cyclone to the army hospital in Orange. My sister laughs at the fact I was born in a fruit and colour and I tell her that it at least makes interesting conversation.

After a while my little sister gets bored of the weather channel and disappears. She comes back with a handful of old photos and I never know where she gets them because Mum isn’t sentimental and throws most stuff like that out. I don’t know if it’s because she doesn’t want to be reminded of past mistakes or if she’s offended by her bad clothes and bleach blonde mullet. My sister and I laugh at the fact that in nearly every photo, Mum is holding a cigarette in her hand. Mum doesn’t let us take her photo anymore and maybe it’s something that happens when you get older because I’ve started to be the same.

While we’re laughing at Mum my sister stops, and says ‘I’m going to miss Becca,’ and Mum stares her down like she’s too tired for that talk. I try to fix the situation by stating how I’m really not that great company and I don’t even really say anything of substance. Mum says it will be quiet when I go and I’m too polite to point out that I don’t make a whole lot of noise and I have no idea what she means by those kind of statements.

When I leave my family see it as a reason to start again. Mum says she will start that new diet and get the kids off the sugar. Maybe she will even try and give up smoking.

‘Things are going to change around here,’ she says and laughs a little to herself. ‘Things will be different.’

She means it as a statement but it comes out like a question and I’ve heard it too many times to give a different answer. It’s not that I don’t believe her, it’s just that starting again is hard, and every time I visit, Mum gives the same impassioned speech and I think things won’t ever change too much because when you’re stuck in a place like that there’s not much room to try and be someone else.

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