Diego always used to tell me that his mother died because her dreams were too big for the life she was destined.
‘It’ll kill a person,’ Diego would say, ‘wanting to be more than you are made for.’ He says it today and shrugs dispassionately, spitting his gum onto the dry grass, where it rests beside a flattened beer can.
‘I’ve been dreaming about the kid,’ I tell him, and he spits again even though there is no gum left.
‘The kid is dead,’ he says quietly. ‘You shouldn’t dream of the dead or you’ll chain them to the living.’
‘You’re right, Diego,’ I say, even though I don’t want to believe him.
He raises his hands palm forward, which is his signal the conversation is over. I leave him and go check the van is ready to go. When I turn the key the fuel light comes on but it’s always on. Five years of navigating the east coast will do that to a van. Today we’re heading to Byron. The Blues Fest is starting and that kind of crowd is always good for coin. We worked our way up to Port Macquarie along the coast but Coffs Harbour and Newcastle didn’t seem to be in a giving mood and the busking was more work than it was worth so we ended up going back inland to Tamworth – even though their music festival is over. Diego wants to rest a week after Byron because his elbow is playing up and he doesn’t want to drop me again like in Woodford.
‘Old age, Tumbles,’ he’d grimaced, rubbing the joint. ‘Don’t let it get you.’
‘Tumbles’ is what Diego calls me even though it isn’t anything like my real name. I’m happy about the rest because I hate it when he drops me. Not because it’s dangerous but because of how it gets to Diego, like he’s personally failed me. Before it didn’t matter, but it’s been this way since the kid died.
The furthest we’ve ever been is Darwin. That was before the kid. We did the Mindil Beach Markets and got a pretty good crowd just as the scattered clouds crossed the sun so we looked like kinetic angels caught up in its rays. Some drunk teen tried to steal our money and Diego beat him with a bright green juggling club. That got the biggest applause of the night and some old guy with no front teeth called out ‘Serves you right, Denny.’ Afterwards we watched the sun set over the top of the world and Diego asked me if I ever thought about the future.
‘There is no future, only right now,’ I told him biting into my snow cone and getting red dye all over my nose.
Diego laughed softly and ruffled my hair, and I didn’t see him again until the next morning when I found him sleeping on the beach beneath a sign that said Beware crocodiles.
‘Did they have a nibble?’ I asked.
‘Tried to,’ he smiled, ‘but I showed them.’
Diego and I don’t sleep together. We never did. Even when we wanted to back before, we never did and now no one wants to anymore.
I used to take guided tours through Melbourne Cemetery dressed as Dame Mary Gilmore, the woman from the ten-dollar note. I was actually supposed to be Lady Janet Clarke, the philanthropist and women’s rights activist, but no one knew who that was so I changed my identity to Dame Mary even though she’s buried up north. That’s where I met Diego. He wasn’t on a tour, but was standing in the Roman Catholic section juggling black and white rings when we passed by on our way to the Elvis memorial. A couple of people took pictures of him and we watched for a while but he ignored us. I found him again later and stood watching.
‘My kid brother,’ he said, his eyes still on the dancing rings. ‘Drowned in our pool.’
He indicated one of the graves with a slight flick of his head. It was an old family plot with the latest name recently engraved. There were plastic gerberas and half a rose bush so fresh it still had a clump of dirt at the bottom. I recognised it from the memorial garden beds at the entrance of the Cemetery.
‘I juggle too,’ I said and he paused.
This is how I met Diego.
The road from Tamworth to Byron is straight and boring – but I find all the inland roads boring. The first time I saw it I thought it was beautiful, like a yellow brick road taking us into some exciting new Oz. Now that I’ve been to Byron, I know this isn’t true. Normally when we drive I have the radio up loud and I sing along to songs I don’t know by making up new lyrics. The radio died a few months back on the Sunshine Coast. Now we mostly drive in silence.
Before the kid I’d hardly seen anyone die, only my grandmother who died while Diego and I detoured on our way to Dubbo. She was bed-bound with something that left her hacking up discoloured phlegm. By the time we called in she was drifting in and out of consciousness and reaching out for someone who wasn’t there.
‘She’s pissed herself,’ Diego muttered, and went to find clean linen whilst I took her searching hand and soothed her moist, burning forehead with my palm. I think she was delirious but she seemed to look straight at me and say – ‘I’m not ready’ and then she died right there in my arms. I heard her laboured breaths, then they stopped and I knew she was gone.
‘Should we call an ambulance?’ I asked Diego, who had faded white sheets trembling in his hands.
‘I’m going to the car,’ he said. ‘I’ll do it.’
And I could see he wanted to be alone in case he cried. That was all before.
Sometimes it’s tiring, all the travel, but then something happens like you lie on the grass in Carlton Gardens beneath the sprawling plane trees and a single dried leaf alights in the wind and lazily spirals down. And because you’re watching it so hard, for a brief moment the hurrying trams, howling engines, and shouting picnickers fade away. You can almost hear it, tumbling through the air, preparing to land – the sharp deciduous intake of breath, the tiny brittle grunt of exertion and the triumphant cry of a perfectly executed landing – before the city applause floods back in. I used to collect the leaves whenever we were in Melbourne until Diego reminded me they were dead and that this was the last trick they’d ever do.
When we get to Glen Innes, about four hours from Byron, we stop for lunch. There’s a nice spot with a good view of the standing stones. Lunch is toast with Vegemite. It’s the same as breakfast except sometimes we have fruit as well. Diego knows where all the free electricity points are across the whole east coast. He also knows which supermarkets have locks on their skips and which ones don’t. For a while I called him ‘4D’ – Diego the Daring Dumpster Diver – but nicknames are hard to remember all the time and when the kid died Diego didn’t want to laugh anymore. We sit in silence eating our cardboard toast.
‘I wrote a poem for you,’ I say, ‘for your birthday.’
Diego doesn’t look up.
‘It’s your birthday today,’ I remind him, and he eyes the half piece of toast in his hand disdainfully and tosses it aside.
‘What’s the poem?’ he asks after a while, his eyes not shifting.
I clear my throat theatrically and sit up straight.
“For Diego on his birthday,” I announce with a generous sweep of my hands. ‘“I thought I had fifteen words for you but I forgot where I put them.”’
I watch him, waiting for the lightbulb.
‘Get it?’ I press. ‘Do you get it?’
Diego doesn’t acknowledge me and picks at one grubby fingernail with another. Then he stands up, crumbs raining from his lap like confetti or dandruff.
‘I’m going for a walk,’ he says.
We usually avoid most of western Victoria because neither of us likes chasing childhood, but one time we went as far as Lorne because the Falls crowds there are huge. I saw a girl I knew from home and almost missed the flaming torch as it arced back down. She gave us two silver pieces –thirty cents in total – I think. It wasn’t worth how much remembering she caused me. Afterwards we sat on the sand at the main beach. I didn’t say anything because the girl from home was still in my head.
‘Imagine if you’d never left,’ Diego said softly, digging his hands into the fine sand and letting it fall like a dwindling hourglass. ‘All the things you’ve seen, you’d have never seen them.’
I didn’t say anything and got up and walked towards the van. Diego followed me and we waited on the curb to cross the road.
‘You always say “imagine if”,’ I said, watching him through the side of my sunglasses so he was proper colours and not the red tinge of my lenses.
‘My imagination is the best reality I’ve got,’ Diego said, and kicked an empty beer can out onto the road. It danced there for a minute, spinning like an industrial ballerina, before it crunched under the wheel of a dusty four-wheel-drive. Diego raised his hands palms forward and we crossed the road in silence.
When Diego returns, everything is packed back in the van and we are ready to leave Glen Innes. We drive along in silence.
‘Are we going to do the unicycle act in Byron?’ I ask, even though I know we won’t.
Diego doesn’t answer. We developed the unicycle act not long after we started performing together back in Melbourne and it became our staple act because it always brought in money. Here’s how it works: it starts with me tumbling, doing flips and that kind of thing. Diego throws me around a bit because I’m small and he’s much bigger. Then he does this card trick that looks like he can find a card from anywhere in the pile. It looks really incredible, but it’s actually not. The thing is, I’m juggling seven balls at the same time so no one is really paying enough attention to notice how bad Diego’s card trick is. They get so distracted by me that by the time they look back to Diego, it looks like he’s found the card from out of nowhere and everyone thinks he’s amazing and they don’t realise it’s all fake, which Diego told me is all life really is, the first time we did it. Then we finish with the unicycle.
We don’t do the unicycle bit anymore. Not now.
An hour out from Byron I ask Diego if he wants me to take over driving. He shakes his head ‘no’.
‘If you’re tired you can sleep in the back,’ he says.
‘I wouldn’t want you to be lonely on your birthday,’ I smile at him.
‘Lonely’s fine,’ he says. ‘Everyone’s lonely.’
‘Not me.’ I shake my head, teasing him. ‘I never feel alone.’
‘We’re all lonely for something,’ Diego replies, ‘but good for you that you haven’t worked out what yet.’
When we arrive in Byron, we park by the foreshore towards the lighthouse and set up the camping stove for dinner. We usually eat pasta the nights before we perform. Diego says it is carb-loading and sometimes I would tease him and call him Mr. Schwarzenegger. Sometimes he’d stop what he was doing and strike a muscle man pose, surveying me from above a bulging bicep. I’d pretend to swoon and ask for his autograph and he’d say something unintelligible in a heavy Austrian accent.
Diego used to muck about all the time like he was a giant kid, but not anymore. He never talks about the kid even when I ask him to. I want him to talk about it because I want to know if my memory is the same as his; that I’ve remembered it all correctly and haven’t altered the details.
This is how I remember it. One day we’re down at Circular Quay doing a gig, this big crowd gathered around us. We’re doing the unicycle act and it’s gone so well and now we’re up to the unicycle bit. It’s not even dangerous, we have the unicycle out – Diego pedalling and me up on his shoulders – and we’ve done it a hundred times before and know it like clockwork. But this time Diego’s concentration lapses a moment and he loses his balance. I jump off his shoulders and he careens off into the crowd and this kid – this kid with deep brown eyes and a bright red t-shirt – this kid is somehow in the way and Diego knocks him and the two of them stagger towards the promenade edge, and because he’s so small the kid falls through the big gap in the railings and tumbles down into the harbour. Diego jumps in after him looking like a hero from an action movie, and everyone waits to applaud but all he returns with is a limp little body because the kid has knocked his head on the way down and hasn’t even had the chance to drown. It’s an accident. Everyone knows it. The crowd knows it, the police know it, the kid’s parents know it and what’s worse, even in the midst of their grief – they forgive Diego. Which is too much for him. It’s all too much for him. That’s how I remember it.
Tonight, by the Byron foreshore, we lie on the mattress in the back of the van, stretching our limbs because we know soon they will have to earn their keep. One of my ankles is cracking more than it used to, but not as much as Diego’s elbow – which sounds like a firecracker going off. We sit with the van door open, watching the stars play hide-and-seek in the purple-black sky. The night is warm but you can smell the cool change coming.
‘You should get married and have kids,’ Diego tells me and I laugh because I never want to do this. ‘I’m serious,’ he says. ‘Who else will love you and cradle your head while you die?’
‘You will,’ I tease him, resting my head in his lap.
He lets me and adjusts his arm so that we are both more comfortable.
‘Sure I will,’ he says and I snuggle deeper.
The next day Diego is gone.
Image: Unicycle / Scott NJ