In 2009 Elspeth Muir’s youngest brother, Alexander, finished his last university exam and went out with some mates on the town. Later that night he jumped from the Story Bridge and drowned in the Brisbane River. Alexander’s blood-alcohol reading was almost five times the legal limit for driving.
In Wasted, Elspeth Muir explores our drinking culture through the lens of her terrible grief and her own experience of drinking. Books+Publishing describes it as ‘intricately crafted...An intimate portrait of a grieving family and a nation unable to reconcile itself to the harmful effects of its drinking culture...Reminiscent of writers such as Chloe Hooper and Helen Garner.’
Read an extract from Wasted below.
We grew up on a dead-end street in an inner-city suburb. At the southern end, next to a thin horse-paddock, was a sluggish, muddy creek, obscured by dark-green mangroves. Faded creaming-soda cans and Paddle Pop wrappers caught in the aerial roots that stuck out of its dark mud banks, sharp, and dense as tongue papillae.
The creek had its own smell—sweet and dirty—of hot clay, silt, sulphur, horseshit, eucalypt, grass seed, ducks, brackish water and mould. It was the smell of our childhood, and as I got older it was stultifying. To a teenager, the dead-end street was a cage.
I wanted to touch boys, and crack the thick rind of guilt, boredom and frustration wrapped tight around my life, under which everything worth doing bubbled. Drinking seemed the quickest route to dissolving my shyness.
For as long as I could remember Mum had warned us about alcohol. ‘Your dad’s side of the family can’t drink, and my side of the family can drink too well,’ she would say. She was one of twelve children. When she was young, they would peel wine labels off bottles and paste them to the cellar walls with their father.
My grandfather was a big man with a white moustache and soft white hair that ran in finger waves across his scalp. He was irascible and intelligent, charming and divisive. He adored women and children as people to be petted, was wary of teenagers, and respected men. We called him Papim. He called us woofy farts.
If Papim was on the piss, which he often was, he was happy, funny and loud. Then he was cross. If he was cross, he yelled at Granny and the whole room flinched, aside from Granny, who ignored him.
When Papim visited from Adelaide he started reading Mum’s stash of Mills & Boons or Harlequins, and drinking whisky, at eleven in the morning. He didn’t stop, except to nap in the afternoon.
If Papim was on the piss, which he often was, he was happy, funny and loud. Then he was cross. If he was cross, he yelled at Granny and the whole room flinched, aside from Granny, who ignored him. One evening when we were putting the dishes away she said to me: ‘Never marry a man who drinks.’
The only thing Papim loved as much as drinking was driving, so he never stayed long. He grew tired of Mum’s cooking and us, so he packed Granny into the car again and they drove south or west, along circuitous routes, with no stopping except for toilets. Sometimes it was the two of them. Other times they took friends or one of their children.
Mum was with Papim in the few days before he died. He couldn’t drink, and she thought he was probably going through withdrawal. He could feel imaginary ants crawling up his body and was having convulsions.
During his eulogy my aunt told a story that had been told to her by some of his friends. My grandfather was at a formal party. In the early hours of the morning, when he was too pissed to walk straight, he got into his car to drive himself home.
After fumbling around for a while he was approached by a police officer, who asked him, politely, if he was okay.
My grandfather looked up at the policeman and said, ‘I’m very glad you’re here, officer, because someone has stolen my steering wheel.’
The policeman looked at him and said, ‘You’re in the backseat, sir.’
This was long after we had left home, but Mum’s warnings didn’t make a difference anyway.
The first time I got drunk was in a friend’s bedroom while we got ready for a dance. We shared a bag of Fruity Lexia between four of us, pouring it into plastic cups and, as we got drunker, sucking from the black plastic spout. It was sweet, which was our only requirement for alcoholic beverages. We stopped intermittently to assess each other’s level of drunkenness, getting more and more giggly, falling off the bed, drawing eyeliner up our eyelids, snatching the goon bag from one another, discussing ways to hide our state so that we would be composed enough to enter the dance without being caught.
We woke up more tired than usual the next day, but that was all. When you’re fifteen you have to drink a lot to get a hangover.
The first time I got drunk was in a friend’s bedroom while we got ready for a dance. We shared a bag of Fruity Lexia between four of us, pouring it into plastic cups and, as we got drunker, sucking from the black plastic spout.
When Alexander was fifteen he was arrested for the first time. He was drunk and breaking into cars with a couple of other friends to steal mobile phones and loose change when the police came. Alexander’s friends ran, but he had just had a knee operation and could only limp. He hobbled down the road and tried to hide behind a tree. It was there that the cops found him.
Patrick and I were incredulous, not that he had been arrested, but that he had tried to avoid notice by standing behind a tree, which everyone knows from days of playing hide-and-seek is an amateur hide. I didn’t think about how what he had done was stupid and irresponsible and an abuse of privilege: had Alexander needed money or a phone, he could have just asked. Instead I felt slightly proud. He had an aura of outlaw glamour. A few years later I would boast that ‘I was the only child in my family who hadn’t been arrested,’ as if it were some great feat.
Some months after the incident with the cars there was a knock on the side door around 10 a.m. I was the only one home and just getting out of bed. There were two men standing on the small porch outside. They flashed badges at me and told me they were detectives from the nearby police station. One had his right trouser leg rolled up slightly to make room for the fat handgun strapped to his ankle. They were looking for Alexander.
‘He’s not here,’ I told them.
The men were politely intimidating. They stood with legs apart and hands clasped. They questioned me about Alexander’s movements the previous night.
‘He was at home,’ I told them. ‘It was a school night.’
They told me there’d been an incident and Alexander was a suspect. Their questioning was persistent and repetitive, and the ankle gun was unnecessarily threatening on a weekday morning in a suburban street.
‘Well, he was here last night,’ I said again. ‘But he’s at school now.’ Finally they were satisfied and I watched them go back down the driveway to their unmarked car.
One Christmas, I took a morning flight back to Brisbane. Mum picked me up and, when I got home, I went into Alexander’s room to wake him up. There was a court order unfolded on his bed.
‘What’s this?’ I asked.
‘Nothing. Don’t tell Mum,’ he replied.
Later in that holiday Patrick, Alexander and I were sitting around talking. Paddy told us how lucky he was. He’d been driving from a friend’s house to a footy field in suburban Brisbane with a bunch of mates in the back of his ute. There was an esky full of beer on the tray and everyone was drinking. The footy field was about five minutes from this friend’s house, and he was a minute away when he heard a siren.
Paddy pulled over and wound down his window. In the side mirror he could see an irate cop walking towards him.
The cop came level with the driver’s side door. ‘Do you know how many rules you’re breaking right now?’ he said.
‘I know. I’m sorry, officer.’ Paddy said he thought he was gone. He said a friend of his who had been arrested for a serious offence, and whose case was still going through the courts, was sitting on the ute tray getting ready to bail. ‘Peter was going to run. Then the cop came back and I was like, This is it. I am absolutely fucked.’ The cop came up to the window. ‘Mate, this is the luckiest day of your life.’
‘He’d run out of tickets. I couldn’t believe it! He couldn’t do anything.’ The cop told Patrick if he ever saw him breaking the law again he’d lock him up, but that hardly mattered. ‘It was one of the best afternoons of my life,’ Patrick said. He and his mates continued to the footy field, drank beer, kicked the ball and laughed at their fortune.
We were outside at the square wooden table on the back deck. It was summer and the frangipani tree was fragrant with rotting flowers. Alexander laughed. ‘I am so unlucky,’ he said.
He told us he had been out the week before. It was midnight and he was walking home from the pub. He was crossing a park when he realised he had to wee urgently.
He found a bush that he thought was in the middle of the park, unzipped his fly, pulled down his undies and started to wee on it. ‘I was standing there when I heard a siren and I thought, Oh, fuck. I looked around and I could see a cop car, with its lights and sirens and everything, headed towards me. Then this cop opens the door and she was yelling at me, asking me what the hell I was doing. I was like, “I’m doing a wee. I just needed to do a wee.”’
I can imagine him, my tall shaggy-haired brother, standing next to the dark bush with his pants down, the look of surprise on his face. Fleetingly contemplating the unlikelihood of the situation before being shoved into the car and taken to the station.
‘They charged me with indecent exposure and took my fingerprints,’ Alexander said. As usual, Patrick and I were indignant. ‘For weeing? They fingerprinted you? That’s crazy.’
I don’t know why it was so important that there was alcohol, always. To go without just seemed to not be an option. Without it, I would rub up against the elements of the world, and chafe and blister. With it, everything was softer, easier.
Apart from Papim, we weren’t really exposed to drunkenness when we were growing up. My parents had a glass of wine at dinner each night and cognac on Fridays. Sometimes when we were little, if we were at a barbecue and he was drinking it, Dad let us have a sip of his beer and we told him it was disgusting. Most kids I knew were allowed to have a sip of their parents’ drinks at some point, and most had the same reaction.
When I was seventeen my mum gave me two light beers to take to a party—it was the only time she ever gave me alcohol when I was underage. This was common practice among parents at the time. ‘At least if I give these to you I know what you’re drinking,’ she said. I had been drinking for years by then—two light beers was a paltry amount. I accidentally dropped them on the way in to the party, so I shared some bottles of Passion Pop with a friend instead.
If we wanted to drink we stole wine from my parents’ stash or arranged for someone’s older sibling to buy it for us. Other kids tried their luck at the bottle shop or got a fake ID.
I don’t know why it was so important that there was alcohol, always. To go without just seemed to not be an option. Without it, I would rub up against the elements of the world, and chafe and blister. With it, everything was softer, easier. You had a drink and you slid into nonchalance and from there into conversations and new situations and adventures and forgetfulness.
My brothers and I were different, but people who knew us sometimes remarked that our familial similarities were evident when we were drunk. We seemed to go slightly further than everyone else.
One night a couple of years ago Patrick told me he could trace ‘pretty much every problem in his life’ back to drinking. ‘But I enjoy it. I enjoy it so much that sometimes...’ He paused. ‘I should stop drinking, because of the problems that stem from it, but I just enjoy it.’
‘I feel the same,’ I said, excitedly, as though we had just discovered matching star-shaped moles on our thumbs. ‘It’s the same for me, too.’
On my desk is On Booze, a compendium of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s writings on drinking. It’s lying face down next to a cup of coloured felt pens and broken plaster fragments I mean one day to glue back together. The pull quote on the book’s back cover is, ‘First you take a drink, then the drink takes a drink, then the drink takes you.’ This makes sense to me.
Wasted is available now online and in bookshops.