So it’s March 1998, and I’ve just moved to the other side of the world to be alone for a year. To allow myself to feel what I needed to feel, and to write, free from any distractions. I’ve found a room in a house at 34 Story Street in Melbourne, Australia, and I’ve decided that I’m going to write a screenplay based on my recent experience.
I knew that I had been suppressing every emotional response I’d had to my brother’s death, for the past two and a half years, and I knew that wasn’t a sustainable way to live. I had to deal with it. I just didn’t know what ‘deal with it’ actually meant.
My first approach was an academic one. If I was going to write about grief, then I wanted to try and learn as much as I could about how others cope with death. I needed to understand the whirlpool of emotions I had been fighting. I needed some sort of reassurance that my own feelings of guilt, and abandonment, and avoidance, were normal. And I needed to know if there would be a time when I could be happy again.
So I borrowed my housemate’s library card and initially I just spent my time across the street at Melbourne University library. The University also had basic internet access that I could use. I spent weeks reviewing books and articles about how parents respond to the death of a child. I read about how communities and schools cope with the death of a young person. I started to appreciate how religion and spirituality help people reach some sort of acceptance about death.
I began to see that ‘deal with it’ is one of those phrases that a lot of people use, to describe a process that very few people understand. Grief affects everyone in different ways. And there is no right way or accepted way to overcome it. For a start, it takes time. But I learned that it takes more than that. It requires work.
Frustratingly, I couldn’t find a single chapter in any book that discussed how the death of a sibling effects the surviving sibling. But I did start to understand and acknowledge some of my own feelings. I realized that for me the biggest question was ‘why?’ I had always believed that everything happened for a reason. So why had this happened? For what purpose did my brother have to die?
I decided that the first step of my writing project would be to just write everything down. Transcribe every feeling, every memory, every question I had, every moment of sadness, and every moment of guilt I’d had over the past couple of years. Everything I was ashamed of, everything that I was embarrassed about, everything that brought me down. Just get it all down on paper so that maybe I can get it out of my fucking head.
And then maybe, once it was out there, I could move on from it.
So that was Part 1 of the writing / grieving process. To get it all out. I started making lists of those moments, those scenes, those questions.
Part 2, I decided, was then to take all of those moments, and somehow try and weave them into a cohesive screenplay with characters and dialogue. Those was the tasks I set myself for the year.
My deadline for Part 1 was the end of July 1998. Although I had moved to Melbourne to be alone, my presence in Australia had acted as an incentive for some of my best friends to come and visit the country. Doctor Dave visited in May. Then Nelly, Stef and Jonny Graham made plans to visit, and I decided to join them on a road trip around Australia. They were to arrive July 22, 1998.
So through the first half of 1998, I worked on Part 1. It was autumn in Melbourne and the temperature cooled quickly. The nights got longer and the skies grayer. I tried different routines, writing in the afternoon, or in the evening. Sometimes I’d go for a run around Parkville at midnight, then come home and write into the wee hours. I treated it like a job, or like a dissertation. I gave myself deadlines and rewards. For example, if I could write 5 scenes in a week then I would get to go out on Friday night. I stuck to it and so I had a lot of Friday nights out at bars like the Hairy Canary, the Gin Palace, and the Supper Club.
Things were going well, but there were a couple of complications. Unfortunately I had not saved up enough money to go traveling around Australia. Also, there was the small distraction of World Cup 1998, and Scotland had qualified.
So I started looking for part-time bar and waiter jobs. I joined an agency and they would send me out to various jobs around town, like a busy lunch restaurant in Albert Park, or a fancy theater-restaurant in Hawthorn. I even bartended a couple of private parties in St. Kilda. Then I found a job as a waiter in an Italian café on Lygon Street called Café Trevi.
Lygon Street in Melbourne must have at least 20 Italian cafes on it, that’s what it is known for, and Café Trevi didn’t even try to stand out. But it was a job and the staff were all really nice. They were all really Italian too. I can’t remember how I managed to talk my way into that job, but I did. And it was fine. I could write all day until 8pm, and then work a late shift at the café until 2am or later on weekends.
Then as the World Cup approached in June, I had an idea. I needed to find a way to watch the football, but I still needed to work to save money for the road trip. One day I discovered that Café Trevi had an upstairs area with a bar that they never used. It was just a dusty old room with hardly any windows, and a lot of old broken chairs and tables. So I pitched an idea to the owners – maybe we could turn this unused space into a World Cup Bar?
The owners were huge soccer fans too – Juventus was their team – and again somehow I convinced them. So they gave me a few hundred bucks to go and buy booze and make some cocktail menus. And in a couple a days I created a World Cup Cocktail Bar. I even made a menu with a drink for every team in the World Cup.
So I got to watch the 1998 World Cup and I even made some money doing it. All of the games were on very late at night though, which meant we didn’t sell a whole lot of fruity cocktails. But we were packed for the Italy games, and overall it was a success.
Unfortunately the World Cup was not a success for Scotland, and they were knocked out in the first round as usual, after getting gubbed 3 nil by Morocco. At times like those, I was happy to be on the other side of the world.
All the while I kept writing and on my nights off I’d watch classic movies with my roommates for inspiration. I remember we had a week of Steve McQueen movies and the isolation and hope of his character in Papillon was something I recognized, and worked into the screenplay.
After the World Cup, Nelly, Jonny and Stef arrived. I had romantic notions of us renting a camper van and doing our own road trip around the country, but they convinced me that we’d be better off on a hop on / hop off bus tour called the Oz Experience. The Oz Experience took care of all the driving and accommodation, and they sorted everyone out with additional day trips and excursions, all the way from Sydney up to Cairns.
Melbourne gets pretty cold in August, and the lads had come to Australia for a bit of sunshine, so after a couple of days with me, they decided to head up to Sydney without me, to get things sorted for the trip.
This gave me a few more days to finish up the last scenes I’d outlined for Part 1. And once I was done, I met up with the three of them in Sydney just before the bus departed.
We were all just one year removed from college and the hijinks of Forest Pump, so we quickly fell back into the old routine of partying every night.
We surfed in Byron Bay, we sailed through the Whitsunday Islands, we drove around and camped on Fraser Island, and we went snorkeling on the Great Barrier Reef. Along the way we would stop off in some tiny town with one pub and “raise it”. It was three weeks of non-stop fun. I could probably fill several chapters with those adventures, but there was one night worth mentioning.
I met a girl on the bus, or should I say, she met me. She was German and didn’t speak much English. I can’t remember her name, but the lads referred to her as Mrs. Pumpernickel. I have no idea why. She took a shine to me, again I have no idea why, but all of a sudden, our gang of four became five. The lads were not too happy about that.
Anyway one night in Byron Bay, Mrs. Pumpernickel and I decided to leave the others in the pub, and head back to the small hostel room I was sharing with Stef, Nelly and Jonny, for a bit of alone time. There were only two bunk beds in the room, and after we crawled into one of the bottom bunks, well, one thing led to another. Then we fell asleep.
Around 3am the lads stumbled in, simultaneously shouting about their night in the pub and shooshing each other. I pretended to be asleep and eventually the lads passed out in their beds. The next thing I remember is that Mrs. Pumpernickel is on top of me and her intentions are pretty clear. Although it was pitch black in the room, I’m pretty private when it comes to that sort of thing. That being said, it did seem like everyone else was asleep, so as quietly as possible, we got down to business.
I’m not sure how quiet we actually were though. Every so often, if I thought I heard one of the lads waking up, we would freeze. But then we would continue on. I really did think we were being quiet, but the bed was a bit squeaky, and I think Mrs. Pumpernickel was too.
Eventually it was all over and Mrs. Pumpernickel sneaked out of the dorm and back to her own room.
As soon as the door had closed behind her, Nelly sat up in his bed, put the light on and proclaimed “Thank fuck that’s over!” Stef and Jonny jumped up too saying that they had been traumatized, and that they were now scarred for life. I don’t think they saw anything, but apparently they’d heard everything. Every squeak, every squeal, every squelch.
I should have been embarrassed. Maybe I was a little bit. But all I could do was laugh. And then thank the lads for not interrupting.
A few days later, Mrs. Pumpernickel and I decided to go our separate ways, much to the relief of the lads and their sleeping habits. And so the four of us continued on up the east coast of Australia, emptying every little town of stubbies of beer, and boxes of wine.
The whole trip was great. At times, and especially towards the end though, I did start to get a bit restless. I had come to Australia to get away from everything, and to write. And I was only halfway through. I’d put my life on hold to deal with my grief, and now it felt like I was putting my grief on hold again. It was a lot of fun, but I probably didn’t enjoy it as much as I could have.
We made it all the way up to Northern Queensland together, north of Cairns. The lads were continuing their trip without me to Fiji, and then LA, and Vegas. After a few days in the rainforests of Cape Tribulation, it was time for them to leave. I ‘borrowed’ a CD from Nelly that I still have – ‘Who Can You Trust’ by Morcheeba. I had to keep it. There was a couple of lines in one song on that album that became my mantra for the year:
Focus, your mind will be strong, no distractions;
Soak up wisdom all year long, and then take action.
After Nelly, Stef and Jonny left, I stayed on in the beach resort at Cape Tribulation for a couple of days, listening to Morcheeba ,and getting back into alone mode, before flying back to Melbourne just in time for my 23rd birthday.
I was glad to be back in Story Street. We had a quiet birthday celebration with my housemates, and I met my new neighbor Kate. September and October were cold, rainy months in Melbourne. Perfect weather for me to stay in, and work on Part 2. And that’s what I did.
I remember that there was an explosion at Victoria’s main natural gas plant in September. In the aftermath, the entire city of Melbourne had no gas for almost 3 weeks. A lot of restaurants had to close and most people in the city had to take cold showers.
It was a really interesting time. It felt like the whole city was miserable. I read an article after the gas had been restored discussing the items that had sold more than normal during that period. It wasn’t electric frying pans or microwaves – it was deodorant. I guess everyone got sick of those cold showers.
Fortunately, our neighbors had an electric heated shower. It was around that time I started dating my neighbor Kate. There was something very apt about dating a neighbor while living in Melbourne, home to Australia’s greatest ever TV show ‘Neighbours’. All the while, writing my story, living on Story St.
Until we broke up, and she started seeing another bloke. And then I could hear everything that Kate and her new boyfriend were doing through the wall too. That wasn’t nice. I couldn’t really complain after what happened with me and Mrs. Pumpernickel. One day, I thought, this will all make a good story.
I did some of my best writing during those long winter months in Melbourne, and by the time summer arrived, I was almost finished with the screenplay and I knew that it would end positively. I’d found my answer to the question ‘why?’ And that’s where Chapter 1 of this story starts.