Iced Coffee and a Rock’n Roll Road Trip

Driving to Sydney. January 20, 2020.

I was heading up to Sydney to see my sister, but it was around the time of the Australia Day holiday and a flight was going to cost more than an arm and a leg and another arm, so I decided to drive.  My invisible Camry was way overdue for a service, so I decided on a visit to the mechanic just in case. As I got into my car I noticed someone left a pair of sunglasses on the roof, which became my lucky sunglasses. They were a spick pair of tinted specs, but I was alarmed to see the word Police stencilled on the frame. I checked with my teenagers that I wouldn’t have to deal with a cop who knows I’ve got his glasses, because his name is written on them and they assure me it is a brand. I dropped the car off and walked home as the cooling rain fell after a run of stinking hot days. Umbrella-less businessmen and women smiled cheerily as their soaking garbs of finery clung to their bodies like a toddler at a Boxing Day sale.

The next day my friendly neighbourhood mechanic informed me my car is unregistered, in fact it’s long out of registration.  In my defence I’m not a car guy, besides when you work in the arts you don’t go chasing bills. I called VicRoads and after half an hour of elevator music and well-mannered recordings, I explained my foolishness and told a living helpful man I wanted to drive to Sydney next week. The VicRoads bloke confronted this situation like he’d done it a thousand times before; get a roadworthy, an unregistered vehicle permit, then drive to an appointment to register my car. When he checked for a vacancy he said there was nothing in the city until the end of January.  Helpful bloke said he’d look at towns up the Hume since I was heading to Sydney and secured me an appointment in Wangaratta on Monday.

The days that followed were a blur of forms, bills and begging that resulted in an unregistered vehicle permit sitting on my passenger seat as I headed down Sydney Road as it turned into the Hume Highway, which turned into the Hume Freeway, which turned into Sydney. At the obligatory top up of petrol and food I found my belly full of anxiety, so I fuelled up on iced coffee, propped my elbow on my open driver’s window and hit the highway to Wangaratta.

Hours later, with barely a song on my shuffle satisfying my journey, I pulled into Wangaratta and parked outside the VicRoads office two hours early. I decided to go in and check I was at the right place, which the woman with one foot in the CWA confirmed. When I told her I’d see her in two hours, she told me to wait after this bloke, then Shirl would sort me out. Shirl did sort me out and I swapped my licence plates with a screwdriver I remembered to bring, because I was an organised adult now.

I headed up the Hume and hit my classic album playlist. As heavy rain fell short of the border and Rainy Day Woman blasted from the speakers the anxiety drained from my body. Elvis sounded like the voice of God complete with backing angels. Springsteen sparkled with rock and roll rockabilly tales of the downtrodden. The Beatles are the perfection of everything else I’m hearing. And Dylan? He’s not a musician, he’s a fucking hypnotist.

As I got deeper into New South Wales the green fields got browner and the clouds covered the horizon. Huge hay bales lay randomly across bare paddocks, like a beanstalk giant spilt his packet of ciggie filters to feed the stock with nothing to graze. Then I found out why the non-cop left the lucky sunglasses on the roof of my car as the left lens popped out of the frame and like an Instagram hashtag, the world became #NoFilter.  My left eye saw the vegetation wasn’t as brown as I thought, but the sky wasn’t as blue either. Just then the opening strains of REM’s Everybody Hurts lilted to life as Michael Stipe’s ethereal longings expressed a pain that filled my vision. The sparse music emphasised the isolation and frustration I was feeling. The song and situation aligned perfectly in that moment as a connection to pain, loss and dread.

Those weren’t clouds on the horizon, they weren’t cumulo anything; it was a horizon lined with smoke. It wasn’t the black billowing of a raging bushfire, but the long ghostly tendrils of white menace creeping across the sky, like Nosferatu’s fingers reaching across the horizon to strangle the life from the land. When smoke covers the sky, it stays in your nostrils, your lizard brain telling you to run.  Instead you exchange meaningless pleasantries as the woman behind a petrol station counter hands me another ice coffee and she half turns to keep an ear on the radio for danger.

As the parched land coughed a dry dust of disgust and Michael Stipe pined his loss, the strings swelled as the drums and guitars built to turn sadness into defiance.” No, no, no you are not alone. No, no, no, no…”.

Later in Sydney one early morning I sat bolt upright in bed and thought “something is burning?” I was right. My country is burning, my planet is burning and so is my anger. I live on iced coffees now.


Stereo Story #489


Matt Quartermaine is a writer, actor and comedian who will do any work to pay for his son's pork crackling addiction.