In Memory of Jayson and Michael. A story of teenage love, fast cars and tragedy
“It is said that you can go back to the place, but not the time”
Her scream was as intense as the silence that followed after she fainted. It had been three years since Jayson and Michael had died, and the memory of that night and the events that followed still reside in a hiding place where I cast aside unwanted recollections. Many times, I have tried to write this story but I have never progressed beyond the chaos of my tears. This time I know I will finish it because I must, if only to paint an indelible memory of Jayson and his best mate Michael firmly in my mind. I also want the reader to be privy to the reckless pursuits of youth and its unwanted consequences. It is better to be comforted with the truth than be controlled by lies.
It was 26 February two thousand and seven when our lives were changed forever. I awoke to incessant ringing from our front door bell. I looked at the illuminated orange numbers staring at me from the digital clock radio on my bedside table. Two twenty am it announced. The relentless ringing also woke my wife Felicity and she was at my side when I opened the front door.
At the time of these events, we were regular people living with the luggage that comes with being family. We lived in a medium-sized house in a provincial town in country Victoria I was a barrister and partner in a small but successful law firm “Courtney and Collins”. I am Thomas Courtney. My partner Wallace was also a neighbor who lived four houses away. At our parents insistence Felicity and I had married quite young. Felicity was eighteen and I was twenty, Felicity came from a family with a long church history. In fact, her father was a Pastor who despite his pious image had a progressive theology that complemented a great sense of humor and loving nature. He and his wife gave our marriage their blessing in spite of my agnosticism. I think however they could see that we were going to end up in bed sooner rather than later and it suited us because we had been infatuated with each other since high school.
Our first child Joel was conceived on our honeymoon and developed into a bookish lad who devoured knowledge as a baby would milk. The twins Jodie and Jayson (we call him Jay) came two years and two months later. They were both as intelligent as Joel was but did not have his passion for learning. Instead, they both had carefree dispositions with a natural charm that delighted people. They took risks that sometimes I abhorred and at other times secretly thrilled me.
Joel was the son that every family wished for and was dedicated to the twins. He played with Jay and Michael in the local senior football team. Jay had considerable ability and was in the mix for the national draft. Joel on the other hand just made up the numbers. When asked why he persisted, when he could have been a better than average golfer he always answered
’Jay needs me’.
‘Dad he would say. I feel that some day something terrible is going to happen and I need to be there for him’
I admired his brotherly devotion but was uneasy with his comment.
Jodie’s boyfriend Michael was the only son of my partner Wallace. He was never happy with the relationship and frequently let me know it.
‘We cannot choose relationships for them Wal’ Anyway they have been friends since kindergarten and adore each other’.
Wal would always answer by suggesting that it was just puppy love and the boy should go to church more often where he would learn something. Wal and his wife Margo were both devout Catholics and Margo in particular was one of those women who are nice in the worst possible sense of the word. If Wal and Margo only knew the full extent of their relationship, I sagaciously thought to myself.
‘When you look at the way the teenagers of this town behave we should at least be grateful that ours don’t get into the booze’ I said. Wal would always jokingly respond by suggesting that if it were not for the behavior of the town’s young people our business would be down twenty-five per cent.
Jodie was the apple of my eye and I had named her Tagger when she was little because she could always be seen tagging along behind Joel, Michael and Jay wherever they went. She was a bit of a tomboy though. Frequently she could be seen with her head under the bonnet of the 1980 Holden Torana that Jay and Michael had purchased from me by saving their pocket-money and doing odd jobs here and there.
I had inherited the vehicle from a client named Bill Forsyth who could not afford to pay me for work I had done on a will settlement. He allowed them to use the garage in which the vehicle was stored on his farm a short distance from town, and with his help, the three of them had quickly started restoring the vehicle to its former glory.
With the duco painted scarlet red, we were all introduced to the restored Torana in mid February. We had a small picnic on the farm to celebrate their achievement. Joel being the only one to have a license was given the honor of taking it on the road for the first time. When they returned they were all chuffed with the car’s performance and Bill Forsyth congratulated them on their application and diligence in restoring the car.
A little while later Joel took me aside and remarked on just how powerful the Torana was.
‘It frightens me’ he said. I just hope they are not tempted to take it for a drag on their own’ Hearing Joel’s remark prompted me to walk over to Wal and suggest to him that we have a chat with the three and reinforce the responsibilities they had to the community and themselves. Because of our little conference, they all agreed to apply for the advanced driving course conducted by the college they attended. After dinner on Monday, I witnessed all the application forms and attached a note about their accomplishment in restoring the Torana.
The following Saturday night Tagger and the boys were invited to the twenty first-birthday party of one of the boys in the cricket team. Nathan (Nut’s) Natal was his name.
He was very popular and the jokes that emanated from his nickname were often the source of much frivolity around the dinner table. Jodie had been at the local pool for most of the day and the boys had spent the afternoon of a very hot February day in the field chasing an unassailable score.
As was usual on Saturday nights the kids were getting ready to leave as we were preparing for bed. They had taken about three hours to get themselves ready. Why on earth, it takes teenagers who wear next to nothing in summer so long to dress is something beyond the limits of my legal mind. ‘
Well it takes time to select the right gear Dad’ Jay would always say. When Michael arrived he was in a fowl mood because Wal had insisted that he attend 7am mass.
‘I’ll have to go straight from the party’
‘When are you going to tell your parents about you and Jodie?’ I inquired.
‘I don’t think I ever will. They are emotionally incapable of understanding young love’ he answered with a touch of irony in his tone.
I laughed and suggested he should not leave it much longer. They left at 10 pm and as usual, Jay was always the last to say goodbye.
‘Don’t you two guys worry now! We have our minder with us’
He always gave us a hug and always whispered in my ear.
‘Seriously, Dad’ ‘Don’t worry’
Four and a half hours later, when I opened the door the solemn and tearful face of Police Senior Sergeant Danny Murphy confronted us. A chill of sinister apprehension impregnated my very being when Danny said.
‘I have some very bad news for you. Please, let’s go inside’
Danny had an Irish heritage and his family had lived in the district for generations. He was the senior coach of the football club and we considered him a family friend. As a copper, he was known and respected for being firm but fair. He had had to bring the boy’s into line a couple of times but it wasn’t anything serious. I also had a professional relationship in that he often prosecuted cases involving our clients. Little was I to know just how much I would rely on this man over the next month and beyond.
When we were all seated in the kitchen. Felicity spoke first.
‘What is it Danny? Are they all right, Oh Please, tell me it isn’t what I’m thinking?
Danny hesitated. Not knowing what to say. He had done this many times over the years and it was never easy, and this was different. These were his friends. The boys were boys he coached. Boy’s he loved and respected. They could be a little foolhardy. However, if every kid was like them the world would be a better place. Jay could even have become a champion footballer.
Felicity could read death in his eyes.
‘I don’t know how to tell you. There’s been an accident. I’m, just, I’m just so sorry.
‘Oh no, God no, tell me it isn’t so.’
Jay and Michael – the Torana, they hit a tree on Mills road.
‘They’re both dead aren’t they?’ I said looking Danny straight in the eye.
That was when Felicity screamed and we carried her into the living room. My mobile phone rang and Danny retrieved it from the bedroom.
‘Do you want me to answer it?’ Danny said. He did anyway. It was Joel. He handed me the phone.
‘What’s Danny doing there Dad?’
‘Never mind. IS Jodie with you?’
‘Yes. We are looking for Jay and Michael. For God’s sake tell me what’s happened he shouted’ and for the first time in my life I heard my son use an expletive that chilled me to the bone.’
‘They have had an accident,’ I answered.
I knew it. ‘They’re both dead aren’t they?’
‘Yes son’ I said. I heard Jodie scream. My mind was in overdrive.
‘What have I done Dad? What have I done?’ Joel kept repeating.
I could tell he was almost out of control. Danny grabbed the phone from me, and asked Joel where he was. Danny told him to stay where he was, rang headquarters and Joel and Jodie walked in the door fifteen minutes later. Danny then rang both sets of grandparents and when they arrived their combined contribution to the events that followed were extraordinary. My mother and father were the kind of people with whom people confided in without invitation. Felicity’s parents had all the grace that only years of ministering to people could bring.
The house became full of grieving people whose intent was well-meaning but all I wanted to do was console my wife and family. Joel had taken Jay’s football jersey from his room and put in on. He just sat in a corner sobbing and kept repeating.’ It’s my fault. It’s my fault’ Jodie was completely inconsolable and Danny called for a paramedic who sedated her.
Wal and Margo had received the news from a young female constable and when they walked in, Margo was hysterical and Wal was irrational. placing the blame for the accident squarely with Jay. Danny persuasively intervened telling Wal that at this stage no one knew who was driving. He said that there had been five boys in the vehicle. Besides Jay and Michael, there was Wayne Dutton, Mica Townsend and fifteen-year-old Toby Old-field. The impact when the car had hit the tree had thrown the four older boys from the car. Only Toby had survived and the police were hoping to interview him when he regained consciousness. Wal withdrew his unfounded accusation and I secretly prayed that he was wrong. In spite of Jay’s flair for adventure, I was sure he would not do anything so stupid.
An early morning morbidity had now descended like a mist upon our street. Danny had worked the phones throughout and informed me that he had to go to the hospital to interview young Toby who had regained consciousness. Before he left he took me aside and told me how necessary it was for me to keep myself together. Next would be the media, identifying the bodies, family conflicts, blame and the funeral.
‘Christ Danny, I don’t know if I am capable.’ I blurted incomprehensibly.
‘Have faith in God Tom’ He answered. I looked at him in utter surprise because he had never alluded to any religious sensibility in our long association.
‘I’m Irish Tom. Once a Catholic always a Catholic.’ he said as he left for the hospital.
With that, I gathered my thoughts and decided to use my experience in law to handle the circumstances. Much the same as I would for a client. I put a plan in place.
I marshaled everyone together and made a passionate plea for collective dignity and mutual support. I included Wal and Margo and we all agreed that the first thing to do was to visit the site of the accident.
‘It will not be pleasant for anyone but it might be the first phase in our recovery’ I suggested.
It was the worst experience of my life. When we arrived at the scene, it was chaotic with what seemed like hundreds of people all milling around embracing each other. There were school friends, players from both the football and cricket clubs, people from different churches. All comforting each other and placing flowers at the base of the tree that the Torana had hit. Higher up vivid marks of scarlet red gave testimony to the force of the impact. Television cameras were recording the collective pathos on display.
A young man who identified himself as Travis Johnson a reporter from a Melbourne tabloid newspaper approached me.
‘Is it true that your son was driving and that he had been drinking?’ he asked in an aggressive couldn’t care less manner. A never before experienced calm descended on me. I walked past him suggesting that he should acquire some understanding of the word grace. Never the less the next day the front page of the newspaper carried the headline.
‘”Four boys killed. Grog thought to be involved”
While we were there, Danny arrived back from the hospital and asked us to return home. He had a signed statement from Toby Old-field and wanted to convey its contents to us.
Our living room was full when Danny walked in. I knew of course that lawfully he was unable to disclose the full contents of Toby’s statement but he could give an aide memoir.
Before he began, I asked about the boy’s well being and Danny indicated that he was perfectly sound other than a bad headache a broken leg and a few bruises.
From what Toby revealed it appears that at the party Jay and Michael were telling Wayne and Mica about the Torana. Wayne offered to drive them to the farm to look it over. Apparently, Toby overheard and asked if he could tag along. When they got to the farm, they started the engine and the two older boys with exaggerated embellishment, praised Jay and Michael’s work and asked if they could take the car for a drag. An argument broke out between Jay and Michael. Jay didn’t think it was a good idea but Michael said it would be OK if they made a donation to the Michael and Jodie engagement ring fund.
‘The what?’ said Margo and Wal almost in unison.’ What engagement?’
They were planning to get engaged. said Felicity.
‘Over my dead body. said Wal and immediately regretting the comment. ‘You knew about this Tom?
‘Yes’ I replied and if you and Margo had not continuously tried to slam the moral virtues of Catholicism down his throat he may have shared his love for Jodie with you.
‘But she wasn’t a Catholic’ Margo said in disgust. Danny interrupted and continued. It appeared that when fifty dollars was offered to each of them, they agreed on condition that they both went with them. Jay gave his share of the money to Michael. Toby had jumped in the back seat unnoticed.
According to Toby, Wayne Dutton was the driver and Jay was in the passenger seat. Everything had been fine until they hit the long stretch in Mills Road and Wayne decided to let it rip. Jay and Michael pleaded with him to slow down but he just increased his speed. Eventually he lost control and hit the tree. According to Toby, they were virtually flying through the air for some time before the impact. After that, he remembers nothing. However, I should add that his story is corroborated by the fact that Michael had one hundred dollars in his shirt pocket. For a brief time everyone was silent. Then Joel looked at me with eyes that displayed the anguish and pain of the tormented and said. ‘Will you ever forgive me Dad’?
‘Son’ I said. ‘There is nothing to forgive you for. You were not your brother’s keeper’
‘But I was Dad; I always looked after the three of them.’ Felicity’s father moved over to where Joel was sitting and placed his arms around his grandson and his sobbing ceased. Jodie then addressed herself to Wal and Margo. ‘I have a request’ she said. Could I speak at Michael’s funeral?
‘It will be private, only family. said Margo abruptly with a sarcastic edge.
‘I was going to suggest we have a joint service in the college hall’ I ventured. Felicities father said he thought that Father Ladd would agree. Danny expressed his agreement. It was then that Joel said. ‘Tell them Jodie’
And almost in a whisper, Jodie said. ‘I’m pregnant. I’m having his baby’
I finish as I began. Three years have passed since we buried the boys. We did have the joint funeral service conducted by Father Ladd and Felicity’s father Pastor McMahon. The college hall was not large enough to cater for the huge crowd that attended and many more mingled outside. Both Joel and Jodie spoke about the boys and at times had the audience in riotous laughter when sharing their teenage escapades. At other times, they were in tears and when Jodie announced that she was pregnant with Michael’s child, a collective sigh reverberated around the auditorium.
Their best friends from the football and cricket clubs carried the caskets and pupils from the college formed a guard of honor. When Joel walked forward and placed Jay’s number ten jumper on his brother’s coffin, something inside me changed and I knew that life would never be the same again. A deep sadness had taken root and was not replaced until eight months later, when Michael Jay Courtney- Collins Junior was born. Jodie completed high school and went on to become a nurse at the local hospital. Wal and Margo are doting grand parents. Joel has cast aside the burden of guilt, married and has a baby daughter. The three of us regularly visit schools and clubs to tell our story. A story about making decisions. The good and the bad and knowing the difference between the two.
Jayson and Michael
After the coroner published a finding of misadventure and confirmed that no alcohol was involved, I phoned the editor of the Melbourne tabloid and vented my outrage at his newspapers lack of accuracy in reporting the accident and their deliberate sensationalizing of the events. His only reply was. ‘I’m busy, I’m here to sell papers mate. Now piss off’.
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Congratulations on a wonderfully written article on such a tragic event in the life of you and your extended families.I can understand why it took you so long to feel able to write about something that changed your whole life.I’m 65 and in my life I have lost a much loved cousin,a family friend like another son and my sister’s child all to car accidents and all 18yrs old.I now have 7 grandsons aged from 22 to 6 rs old.Five of them are driving,I am going to get them to read your article just to let them know the devastation that is left behind when they leave us in such awful circumstances.I hope you are all finding some sort of peace in your life now that you have new life to hold close and love.
Thinking of you all Janice Ford.
I love your stories but for God’s sake get a proofreader.
It’s ok, no-one was harmed in the making of this story. It is fiction.