‘What are those?’
‘B&H Ultras. Trying to cut down.’
Ha! Rain falling up. Salmon swimming less. Springsteen singing ‘isn’t’ instead of ‘ain’t’… Nina cutting down was never going to happen. Cigarettes were her thing, and by association they’d become my thing, too. Lying on her wrought-iron bed in the flat below her parents’ house in Lenah Valley, we’d smoke and watch TV, exhaling towards the open window so the nicotine fug wouldn’t circle up the stairwell (Jean upstairs didn’t mind, but Big Nev would get shitty). Nina really knew how to smoke – a talent honed through years working behind the bar and further years studying for her Psych degree, reading late, coffee rings on the table, ashtray brimming. There was a native nonchalance in the act: the angle of the wrist; the hollowing of the jaw; the way she held in the smoke until she’d finished her sentence. She never exhaled through her nose. She never had yellow fingers. Never even coughed. Borderline divine.
‘At least you don’t have a cigarette lighter in this thing. Might help… What time do we have to be there?’
‘One. But I told them we’d be late.’
We were always late. Mostly because we’d been lying around in bed, smoking.
Nina’s little white Austin-Healy Sprite puttered across the causeway to Midway Point, flashed past the solitary petrol station then hit the second causeway before the suburb had time to register. Who the hell lived at Midway Point, anyway? The few houses there were drab ‘60s brown-brick numbers, hunkered down in the lagoon air, tiled roofs and aluminium window frames dulled to a salty patina. The tide washed around the headland in a slow surge, stirring the muddy shallows and leaving everything funky and damp. At night the flounder fishermen waded in off the rocks with spears resting on their shoulders, their torches faltering in the darkness like distant wicks.
‘What do think of the stereo? Donovan put it in on Tuesday.’
Fucking Donovan. ‘Donnie’ to his mates. The rock singer. He’d left Nina two years ago for a hairdresser called Barbie (Barbie!), and now that I was on the scene he was hanging around like a bad smell. Trying to assuage his guilt. Screening me for appropriateness. Testing me. Attempting sabotage, sauntering up between sets at Café Who and saying, ‘Can I borrow you for a joint?’. Under different circumstances I would have liked the guy… I reached down and cranked up the volume: Del Amitri’s ‘Here And Now’. Sounded perfect.
Donnie sang in the best (only) originals outfit Tasmania could muster in the early 1990s. They wheeled out wet, mainstream soft-rock fodder as per the rest of the home-grown pap on Australian radio at the time: 1927, Rick Price, James Reyne post-Australian Crawl, Jimmy Barnes post-Cold Chisel… They’d managed an uninspiring single or two which earned them a TV slot on the lame Hey Hey It’s Saturday variety show, which in turn landed them a gig opening for Bryan Adams at the Derwent Entertainment Centre. In a little city, they were a big deal. By 1995 Donnie had done his musical dash, but he was still everybody’s small-town hero. Donnie sang like Bono. Donnie looked like Daniel Day Lewis. Donnie installed the stereo in Nina’s Austin-Healey. Fucking Donovan… I stewed for a long, silent minute then steered the conversation elsewhere.
‘Starting to rain…’
Nina wheeled up next to a newsagent in Sorell and went inside to buy a lighter. I jumped out, opened the boot and wrestled the Sprite’s black canvass roof up over its tube-steel frame, snapping the fat press studs down with wet thumbs. Over my shoulder a dark brood of clouds massed behind Mt Wellington but seemed content to stay there. A late summer shower. I climbed back into the Sprite and watched the runnels on the windscreen.
The moment before you die, does your whole life flash by you like they say it does? Or does your mind boil it down to a few distilled, shining moments? As my father lay dying he wrote a list of the moments he wanted to take with him: my sister’s laugh; the smell of Erinmore tobacco when he first opened the tin; the view from Down Gate after he’d trudged over the common behind his uncle’s house in Devonshire.
Moments matter. Donnie the rock singer didn’t matter. We didn’t know it that summer Saturday, but Nina and I had seven good years ahead of us. She came out of the newsagent, stopped to ignite a B&H Ultra, then climbed back behind the wheel.