There are stories in this van, in every seat, door to door, front to back, embedded in the crusty carpet, wafting out of the still-trusty air-conditioning, in every centimetre of space. You can look out the grimey rear window, like the children, wave goodbye to the ocean, see you next Christmas. You can lift up the boot door, fold down the seats, slide in the queen-size mattress over everything, climb on top together every night. Then slide it out again in anger, throw it into the gravel, leave her behind. You can see these back seats covered in blankets covering busted up trusty guitars, drums, cords, amps. You can smell it all. You can see every backseat passenger peering out at passing landscapes, or staring at the back of everyone’s heads: sleeping, dreaming, driving, looking out at where you pointed as it passes, then twisting around to look back at you, crack a smile and a joke. You can revisit every remembered highway, street, backlane and country road. You can squish up against bodies on either side or you can stretch out. Lie down. You have all four back seats to yourself, the road’s rhythm rocking you to sleep. This rusty white van was yours, is yours, will be yours. You can see it sitting empty, waiting for sale.
After I pop the boot from inside, I climb over the centre seats to slide the roaring side door open. Patrick’s there with a quadbox and a tangle of guitar leads, shouting for me to let him in. Opening the doors is a bit tricky from outside, even when you haven’t got your hands full with gear. Shitty handles, shitty locks, shitty van. At least the air-con’s good.
They start passing over the drums and amps and cases and all the rest, loading it in from both directions, and I get to work with my best Tetris manoeuvres. I don’t have much of my own gear to lug and set up, and my soundcheck is way simpler, so if I didn’t do stuff like this I might feel pretty bad about just being the singer, y’know? But yeah, still, I help where I can. And I have been writing a solid batch of songs lately. I dunno. I just feel like I have it easier. I can’t do anything but write and sing (if you can call it that), I don’t have a licence so I can’t help with the driving, and I’m the weediest out of all of us, so I just stay here minding the van while they haul all the gear in this heat. But in the end, I don’t think they mind too much. I hope they don’t. And I know it sounds lame, but, really, we just love playing together, even if all four of our sweaty arses have to cram into this shitbox and drive three hours up the coast for our next gig.
Sam says Evie’s its name. The van, I mean. He says it’s like EV, Econovan, but also like that Evie song that goes for like half an hour? I dunno. I’m not such a fan of much 70s stuff, and I always thought this van was an ’86 model anyway. Still, I guess it does kinda suit it: shitty name, shitty song, shitty van.
Before I know it, we’re loaded up. The other three climb in, and we’re off, heading out of town. “A well-oiled machine,” says James, and I’m not sure if he’s talking about us or the van. He flicks the headlights on as we cross a bridge from the peninsula back onto the highway. I can just make out the waves bursting white over the rockpools below.
We’ve been up and down the coast for a few weeks and Sam reckons we’re building a buzz, says there’s gonna be heaps of music industry types at our next gig in the big smoke. Says before we know it we’ll be trading in our shitty gear and this shitty van for hummers and limos and gold plated Stratocasters and diamond Samian cymbals, whatever the hell that means. I don’t even mind really. Again, I know it sounds lame, but whatever happens I’d just be happy touring up and down the coast forever with these guys, whether its singing to a crowd of thousands or just five indifferent derros at the pub. But what do I know? I’m just the singer.
Sam winds down his window and turns up the radio, shouts something about the guy who produced this song, how he wants to do our next EP, how he’s gonna help us make it big. I can’t quite hear him over the music and brackish wind. I pull my beanie over my eyes and lean my head against the window as we wind our way north, soaking it all in slowly: the sound, the salt air, the stories of tonight, past, present, potential. Waiting for whatever dreams will come.
My head starts brewing a new song. It’s a good one, I reckon. I’ll have to run it past the lads. See what they reckon. Next servo.
Front seat, passenger side
He’s going to leave me, I just know it. I can see it in the way he holds the wheel and the silence behind the blaring radio stations, in every spare space amongst the static and bumpy asphalt.
He’s taking the corners too sharp but I won’t say anything. The first word from me will be like flicking a switch. Blinding light or horrible dark, I don’t know, but there’s a rising grey tension between.
He used to sing along to the radio, when we started this trip. Or he’d talk about the things we saw, driving from place to place, one town to another. I realise now he hardly ever talked about himself. It was always the foreign country, other places, other people’s songs. Things outside himself. I thought he was letting me in. But even a one-way London to Sydney ticket wasn’t enough. Even with all extras included: the van, the petrol money, roadside pub food, groceries, camping cutlery, a mattress and a blanket in the back every night. None of it was a guarantee. I see that now.
He starts shouting. I don’t know what set him off. Me. Time. Maybe just his own lonely, broken head, his twisted heart. Words from deep within him are now pouring forth, but it’s like a dam has burst and I hear nothing but rushing water, overwhelming, so I wait it out, try to stay afloat as he screeches, stops, storms out, opens my door. I’m pulled out, and the mattress too and the bags and my things and even some of his and then the door slams. The engine roars. I wait for things to soften but I’m adrift, reeling, submerged.
Tyres spin and swerve, kicking up dust and gravel, spitting it in my face, and then the van drifts into the distance, leaving me amongst the calm aftermath, the wreckage.
But I don’t start sifting. And I surprise myself when I don’t start crying. I don’t stay standing there, waiting there at all. I don’t even hesitate.
I start walking.
Front seat, driver side
They won’t always be around, so I try to let it soak in, let the memories fill me. I can see them in the rear-view mirror, looking around dramatically for eye-spys. I think Tracey’s snoring. I glance over at her briefly. Head back, mouth open and she’s still as gorgeous as the day we met.
I always get nostalgic on the drive home. It’s that bittersweet feeling. The kids are happy, there’s a day of heading home, letting the drive ahead settle my thoughts, solidifying memories as the salty air fades. We’ll find the sand in our clothes and in the hidden corners of the van for weeks, for the rest of the year. There’s only a few more days before we’ve gotta get back to work, back to school, back to life as usual, then it’s one more year of looking forward, embracing the afternoons and weekends, until they’ll be too old to be seen with us. Then it’ll be just me and Trace, shuffling about in our big old house, hoping for phone calls. Sure, they’re good kids. Great kids. But they won’t always be able to visit. Guess we’ll have to sell this old girl eventually too. No sense with just us two. Maybe I’ll buy myself a nice shiny mid-life crisis by then. But it won’t be the same as this van. Everything it means, everything inside and out, everywhere it’s been. It’ll probably only go for a couple of thousand, but what this all means to me, well, I guess I’ll take the next best offer.
The kids are squealing. Tracey stirs. I keep my hands steady on the wheel, take in all their reflected faces, take it all in, and I tell them this is their last chance to see the big blue ocean before we all go up the mountain.
We look out the windows and we all wave goodbye.