The night was an inky veil that had drawn itself tight around the spotlit road ahead. Their wheels whined in the lonely night and winter made its icy way through the slightly opened window. Dark clouds owned the night sky and sudden sheets of lightning lit the horizon in a macarbe strobe effect. The smell of ionised "rain coming" air filled the cab of the Commodore ute as the V8 grumbled quietly along the straight and empty road. They had been travelling for a half hour now, neither of them talking. Some tangible barrier kept them silent and Nev's hands gripped the wheel just a little too tightly, his knuckles showing white in the green glow of the dash.
The silence was as icy as the night outside. Like two dogs standing either side of a bone: neither wanting to retreat and neither brave enough to step up just yet, they danced silent circles of glances and glances away. Rob had never been good with silence. He was a funny bloke. Not peculiar, just funny. The sort of bloke who was always in the middle of the loudest laughing circle at the pub. Nev clamped his jaw tighter together just thinking over days gone by as if the physical effort of closing his mouth would stop the words from coming.
It was too much for Rob eventually, he just launched into conversation like the silence had never been there. His words made Nev jump in the drivers seat and stare even straighter down the road.
"So how've ya been mate?"
"Was fucken weird running into you like that."
Still no answer.
"Coulda stood on the side of the fucken road for days and fancy that, its fucken you who picks me up," Rob laughs and Nev lights another smoke. He'd pretty much chainsmoked a packet since stopping next to the hitchiker, leaning over and opening the door to see his old mate Rob.
"Hey remember that time we went fishing in Chinchilla."
Nev nods, not trusting yet his mouth to speak.
"Fuck that was a great weekend. Ha, I remember it rained that night and the ground was wet so I pulled the tinny up the bank a bit and rolled me swag out in that. You, ya bastard, ya pushed it back in the river when I was asleep. Hahaha..."
Nev smiles despite himself, still staring down the road. Rob wipes his forehead with the back of his sleeve, he's started bleeding again.
"Knew youse would come and find me though, I had all the eskies in the tinny..."
He bursts out laughing again and then starts coughing which seems to make the bleeding worse but all the time Nev is thinking to himself, "he doesn't even know". Nev chances a sideways glance and almost throws up - the blood is going everywhere, great rivers of it splashing on the seat, the dash, the floor and it just keeps on coming.
"Had eight fish on board and pissed as a newt by lunch time when I saw you sorry buggers walking through the scrub. Fuck I laughed."
And then a little seriously, "So where we heading Nev? Mitchell?"
Nev nods and wishes he hadn't.
"Hey you remember little Susie?"
Nev nods again resigned to the continued chatter, thinking, "might as well play along".
"She was a thing hey, playing us all those years."
Nev let his mind wander back to primary school and he could see that little red haired minx. She was a year younger than they had been and they were both head over heels in love with her. She played them off each other for a year and half till one day they were locked in battle. Blood noses, clenched fists and mean stares and heard her laughing.
Like they were sharing the memory Rob says, "Fucking Bill, eh? You and I giving her push bikes and doing her homework, walking her home from school, fighting like fucken mad with each other and all the time she's messing around with Bill."
Nev almost smiles, and says, "I coulda punched HER that day." He shakes his head at the memory then catching himself in conversation frowns and fumbles for another cigarette.
"Those things will fucken kill you mate," Rob laughs, "Yeah you and I fighting over who got to carry her port for her and she's laughing then we stopped and saw her kissing Bill. I reckon that's when we became mates, eh?"
Nev nods again still staring into the cold dark night.
"No moon tonight, eh?" says Rob not willing to let the silence return.
"So what's to see in Mitchell, mate? We goin to the pub?"
Nev's face twists in a way that looks like he not sure whether to vomit or speak, and he blurts "You just don't fucken get it mate! Have you got any fucken clue at all? Jesus fucken h on a tricycle!"
He's angry now and having given in to speaking to Rob he just cant seem to stop.
"Have you got any idea what it's been like for the rest of us? Fucken one day your there then next day you're gone. Fuck you. Yeah, fuck you very much, cunt."
The silence steals the car back from the two once friends and the V8 grumbles louder, picking up speed.
"I'm sorry man," says Nev. "I'm fucken sorry, OK. Really god damn mutha-fucken sorry."
Nev face contorts like an alien within it is trying to get out, then his eyes shower tears on his face. Great man sobs wrench themselves from his chest and the car slows, pulling to the side of the road. He hangs his head in his arms on the steering wheel. He doesnt hear Rob get out and looking up from his hands and not so private grief, Nev is almost surprised to find Rob gone. He shakes his head like he is trying to get a picture off the screen behind his eyes and steps out onto the lonely road.
"There you are" says Rob. "You got your shit together man?" It was gentle like a mate would offer it, and Nev nodded.
Nev says quietly "You haven't changed a bit, you know. We all... me... the others we all got so old, you know. I'm married now mate, hows that, hey? She'll be wondering where I am."
Rob smiles gently and puts out a hand, "No wuckers mate, it's all good, no hardies eh?"
Nev reaches out to shake his hand and grabs a great handful of cold night air.
"Sucker..." laughs Rob from the passenger seat, "Come on mate, we were going somewhere, weren't we?"
Nev climbs back behind the wheel and pulling back out he says, "Yeah, mate - I've got something to show you."
"You always were a cryptic cunt - where we goin' then?"
Nev looked across at Rob and saw the bleeding had stopped. He really hadn't changed a bit either. Rob still looked like he was 18 years old, with that great shag of blond hair and bum fluffy mo, the stupid way-too-big gold stud and a grin like a kid stealing strawberries from old Mrs Johnson's garden. They had some memories the two of them. They had just about done everything together growing up.
"Hey Rob, you remember old Mrs Johnson."
Rob laughs - "Those strawberries mate, never tasted any like 'em again."
"Chasing us with the broom..." and they both dissolve in laughter to the point of tears.
The lights of Mitchell glow faint up ahead.
Rob says through sobs of laughter that quickly turn to a far away look, "I tell you who I do miss though - Rachel. I reckon I woulda married that girl you know."
Nevs heart sinks. "Mate, she's OK."
"She still around?" He asks, excited and hopeful.
"Yeah, mate but - well, you've been gone a while... She's, ah..."
"She married? Chicks like that don't stay single long mate, was bound to happen. What's he like, he good to her?"
"Yeah mate, I hear he's real good to her, I think you'd like him."
The town of Mitchell interupts their conversation by suddenly appearing out of the black night. A few streetlights try to shed some light on things but they are the only things awake. Dogs bark morse code to each other from yards across town and here and a dancing light in a window frame suggests that a television is at least still moving in the quiet and sleepy town.
"So where we goin' then?" asks Rob.
"Not much further now," says Nev and turns up a side street. He flicks the highbeam off and the V8 mumbles threats to the empty street.
"Here it is" Nev says stonily, like a government letter to a war hero's mum.
"What - you're fucken nuts mate, this is a cemetery" Rob says, thinking Nev has finally lost his mind.
The V8 shakes once or twice, then sleeps like a cat that stops and drops from purring.
Nev gets out and Rob joins him at the gates. Dark shadows flit and dance and a sliver of moonlight finds it's way through the heavy cloud falling on a dirt path through the headstones.
"Jesus Nev, this is creepy, hey, remember that time you and I took Charlene Smith out to the Roma Cemetry, Jesus now she was a freak. God, I learned a thing or two that night..."
"Shut the fuck up, Rob. This is serious. I want to show you something."
Nev switches on a torch and walks a well known route through the graves. Stopping, he turns the torch off.
"Rob, you remember that night after the footy grandfinal?"
"Yeah, pissed as newts we were. Slaughtered Goondi. What a night, hey?"
"No, after that - the drive home."
"Yeah mate - what's your point, you're freaking me out a little now. You lost your marbles?"
Nev looks Rob square on and sees the blood is coming back. Just little trickles now, but back again just the same.
Rob shrugs and moves nervously on the spot.
"What, the kangaroos you mean."
"Yeah mate - the kangaroos," says Nev.
"So what - we shot a few on the way home mate. Wasn't illegal back then, mate, what's your point?"
The blood is coming quicker now, arterial. It gathers red momentum and Nev gestures, embarrassed, to his own forehead and nods toward Rob.
"S'nothing mate, just a bump. We stopped and shot a couple of roos. You know, everyone did that back then."
Nev turns on the torch again and lifts it to the gravestone at their feet.
Rob looks and reads aloud, "Robert Peters. 1968 - 1987. What is this, mate? Some fucked up joke?"
"Rob, I'm sorry, I never got to tell you that before. But I really am sorry, mate. Every day I'm sorry. At first it was a nightmare I couldn't wake up from, but then I got good at forgetting, you know. It was the piss, mostly, 'til Rachel came back. She pulled me out of the bottle. She is a damn good woman mate and I still cry sometimes - looking at her, wishing I could give you back to her. She tells me every now then that it wasn't all my fault. But it was, mate. I'm sorry."
Rob just stares and looking down still, he nods. He turns then and looks at Nev.
"Mate, I was pissed, and so were you. I knew you were shooting across the roof. I knew you were probably lining up a shot. I just gotta be a funny cunt. You know me. I thought I'd jump up and yell out "Boo!" or some shit. Scare the living shit out of you and we could add it to our list of stories. Just bad timing, mate. Just bad timing."
Nev feels a hand rest on his shoulders, and the weight of it drops him to his knees in tears. Thunder rolls and the dark sky cries with him.