Nathan Johnson
South-Eastern Australia, 1985

It is night time and I’m sitting quietly in the back seat of a Ford Falcon station wagon. My younger brother Daniel is sleeping alongside of me, his head resting against the passenger door. Mum is curled up in the front seat with her feet propped up on the dashboard. Dad is driving along the dark highway in a bid to reach the next main town where he has an appointment the following day. I can hear the quiet hum of the engine. A cassette – The Dream of the Blue Turtles – plays quietly.

In Europe and America,
There’s a growing feeling of hysteria,
Conditioned to respond to all the threats
In the rhetorical speeches of the Soviets.

We’re somewhere in the Victorian countryside in Dad’s company car. I love these journeys. It’s an adventure leaving behind Adelaide’s familiar suburbs and exploring the landscapes and towns of south-eastern Australia. Mt Gambier, Horsham, Warrnambool. We do this perhaps twice a year, combining Dad’s work trip with a family holiday. Dad meets with staff in regional hospitals for his marketing and sales role; the arrangement being that he goes inside the big hospital buildings for an hour or so while we play in a nearby park with Mum. Then Dad comes out and we drive down the highway to the next town – Ballarat, Bendigo, Mildura – where the same thing happens. Sometimes we travel far away and I feel like we’ve reached the end of the world. Wagga Wagga, Yass, Goulburn. I trace our route excitedly with a highlighter on my fold-out map of Australia.

I have lots of memories of these trips: of playing games with Daniel in the back seat to pass the time (and of our countless arguments); of Mum collecting soap and small bottles of shampoo and conditioner from the motels we stay in, to add to her enormous collection back home (she won’t have to buy soap for years); and of Dad only being able to buy petrol from Mobil service stations with his company petrol card, so that we learn where all the Mobils are located across the country (“Dad, keep going! There’s a Mobil in Keith, not Bordertown!”) Perhaps most of all, I remember the music; the soundtrack of my childhood.

Outside it’s dark and cold. But inside the car I feel warm, safe and secure. The family unit is intact and we are indestructible. The kilometre markers whizz by on the roadside. I seldom sleep in the car: I prefer to stay awake and keep Dad company and listen to Sting.

There is no historical precedent
To put words in the mouth of the President.
There’s no such thing as a winnable war;
It’s a lie we don’t believe anymore.

I’m six years old and have no conscious knowledge of the Cold War. Yet even at this age, Russians, somehow, speaks to me. I hear adults talk about the Americans and the Russians, but I don’t know Reagan or Khrushchev, and I’m certainly not familiar with Mutual Assured Destruction. Yet the lyrics and haunting music connect. The words are Sting’s while the melody is Prokofiev’s – an exotic sound from a faraway land I can’t begin to imagine but feels dark, brooding, cold and impenetrable.

I announce that Russians is my favourite song. It’s an unusual choice for a young boy, but Dad has been a fan of Sting since The Police days – even now he fondly recalls the sound from The Police gig at Memorial Drive in 1981 – so he encourages my interest. The black and white music video, which I see later on MTV, looks sinister and hints at an unknown world behind the Iron Curtain. Even at this tender age it’s a political awakening; one that would culminate in studying politics at university fifteen years later.

I ask Dad to rewind the tape so we can listen to Russians again. He happily obliges. Mum and Daniel remain asleep while I happily observe our course down the highway and listen to the song again. Dad says we’ll reach the next town soon. I’m in no hurry.

The Cold War ended a handful of years later. Our family unit, likewise, wasn’t as indestructible as I’d imagined. My parents have long since married other people better suited to them. But I still recall a childhood spent in the back seat of a station wagon, where the family unit remained intact for a short while, affording me feelings of warmth and safety. While Sting wondered how he could save his little boy from Oppenheimer’s deadly toy, I ponder too how I might offer my young son this same sense of security.

 

 

Based in Canberra, Nathan is a public servant who'd rather write short stories and novels. He has self-published two books - 'The Watermelon Seller: Short Stories of East Asia' (2011) and '16 Ways to Ride a Bicycle' (2015) - through Peacock Publications.