Arthur Highway, Tasmania
The devils appear an hour after we leave town. I have my feet on the dashboard, the window open to the scent of mountain ash and damp soil. The billboard looms large, then flashes past: I catch sharp teeth from a wet red mouth.
‘Do you mind if we keep driving?’ you ask me. ‘Maybe we can stop on the way back.’
I nod. The sanctuary for Tasmanian devils retreats in the rear view mirror, then disappears. We’ve left Hobart behind for the day, and with it our gorgeous vintage 60s caravan. Immaculately restored and named ‘Connie’ in curling blue trim, she perches on the edge of a creek and shakes in the wind. We feel nothing but safe there, though, curled up inside with bottles of pinot, candles and each other’s company.
Port Arthur beckons. We’re intrigued by the gorgeous architecture and rich history. The sombre aspect of the latter, however, can’t be ignored. Port Arthur’s years as a penal colony were grim enough; the memory of the 1996 massacre, where 58 people were shot, make the shadows of Port Arthur even darker.
Black clouds hang low in the sky. I wonder if we’ll make it there before they break open. Eucalyptus leaves flick across the windscreen as I look through CDs. I want a song to take us forward, someone else’s stories to meld with the ones we’re forming as we drive, deep into Tasmania’s history.
You choose a song I don’t know. I listen to it build, loving the way the sounds move together. And then the lyrics begin.
The red bells beckon you to ride
A hand print on the driver’s side
It looks a lot like engine oil
And tastes like being poor and small
It’s beautiful, enigmatic and melancholy. It’s also, you explain, about a serial killer. The Green River killer is thought to have murdered over 90 women around Seattle before he was caught. The singer, Neko Case, grew up nearby, haunted by the story enough to put it to music. I imagine the hand prints on the door that the victims left, so ‘poor and small’ that they felt they had no option but to get into a stranger’s car. My heart hurts as we head towards Port Arthur. So much can depend on one moment; the café we walk into, the car that stops. And as we drive, I tell you about my moment.
I was late for class. The German department of La Trobe Uni was tucked away on the edge of campus. When I hurried towards the foyer I tripped, and almost tore the long skirt I’d borrowed from my sister. I remember slowing down, the fabric in my fist to lift it.
It was then I heard the bangs. Three of them from just inside the building, like metal boxes hitting the ground. I did pause, and the word skittered across my mind: gunshots? Don’t be foolish, I told myself. This isn’t the U.S. And I walked into the foyer.
I was knocked to the ground within seconds. The security guard didn’t stop. He flew up the staircase, his face so focused and ferocious I felt my protestations fade. I stood up, bewildered, and soon to be bruised. By the time I got to class, the sirens and helicopters were pure chaos, and my university was never the same again.
Deep red bells
Deep as I have been done
Deep red bells
Deep as I have been done
I didn’t cry when I heard the first shot had killed a man, the second shot wounded a young girl, and the third shot missed. I didn’t react when I learned the security guard had been chasing the gunman, who was mere seconds ahead of me in the foyer. If I’d looked up, I’d have seen him on the staircase. More to the point, if the gunman had looked down, he’d have seen me. I didn’t even shake when I saw him being led out in handcuffs, and realised it was a fellow student I’d gone on a weekend trip with. I stayed quiet, and numb. I didn’t feel I deserved a reaction – I was alive, wasn’t I? One long skirt, a few slower steps, and the extra seconds I needed to walk through my moment, and safely out the other side.
We’ve lost sight of the overpass
The daylight won’t remember that
No speckled fawns raise round your bones
Who took the time to fold your clothes
You know of this story, but not the details. You reach for my hand and I think of our cosy caravan, and the comfort ahead of us. I will find myself listening to the song many times in the days that follow. We see the Port Arthur sign. I wind my window down as far as it will go and lean my head out. There is rain on my face and it is lovely, it is a blessing, and it, too, becomes a moment to remember.