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The night we lost the girls, and everything changed

Lisa, Chloe and Carlie Higgins in Mudgee, 1997.

When my father speaks about the accident, he opens with the line: "When I killed my daughters …" Lately, I have been trying to correct him. I give him books to read, make him come running with me, secure us back-to-back appointments with a psychologist. I do not know if it’s working.

I remember clearly what happened that night, the hour before the police arrived: my mother lets herself in through the front door, balancing keys in one hand, Bellissimo’s garlic pizza and a plastic container of fettuccine carbonara in the other.

"It’s ready," she calls to me, her small mouth turned up into a smile.

I stack my study notes on top of my books and push them to one side, knowing I’ll need them again soon: it is my final year of high school. Along with thousands of students around Australia, I am about to sit a series of trial exams that will contribute to my final grade for high school, which will in turn determine what university course I am accepted into. I am overeager and studious, and the first of those trial exams is scheduled for the next day.

After dinner, Mum moves into the lounge room. I don’t know what she was watching that night, but at the time her favourite TV show was Home and Away, whose small-town characters were hit by cancer or murder or drug use each week and who took long walks by the ocean to figure out solutions together.

I return to the dining room to continue rote-learning quotes from The Tempest for the exam essay the following morning. I have little interest in the Shakespeare play, but putting the study notes away at 7pm isn’t how you get accepted into the University of Sydney’s Bachelor of Psychology program.

From left to right: Carlie, Chloe, Maurice, Lisa and Rhonda Higgins at a family wedding in 2003.

Dad and my two sisters are away skiing for the weekend in the Snowy Mountains, five hours south of our home in western Sydney. It is an annual routine. Each winter my father takes us girls skiing while my mother stays home, away from the cold. This is the first year I’ve not gone. Carlie and Lisa are 14 and nine, and have both been skiing since they were eight.

The sound of knocking rings through the house and my mother stands to answer it. The front wall of our house is one large window and I see two police officers: light blue button-up shirts, navy slacks, hard-capped boots, a pistol at each of their waists.

My parents are in their mid-40s and have been together 24 years. It is July 31, 2005. I am 17 years old.

Earlier that Sunday, I had friends over for a group study session. Spread out across the dining-room table, our notes were a mess; we were convinced the score given at the end of the year would determine the rest of our lives.

As my friends and I recited quotes memorised off flash-cards, the phone rang. My father’s friend Dean was calling, to ask if I’d heard from Dad. Dean and his family had gone on the trip too. They’d taken separate cars, two kids in each. That afternoon, I later found out, Dad and the girls had headed home before Dean’s family.

"No, I haven’t heard from Dad," I answered, skimming my study notes.

That was around 5pm.

Now, around 8pm, my mother answers the door. I’m hunched over my books.

"Mrs Higgins?" "Yes?" Mum says, confused. Her body is thick but short, and she looks small beside the officers.

I put my pen down. "Is everything okay?" she asks. "There’s been an accident." "What kind of accident?" I push my chair back, the timber legs scraping against the kitchen tiles. The table has been handed down through the generations and one day, one of us girls will own it.

"There was an accident on the Monaro Highway. Your husband’s in Canberra Hospital. You might want to pack some things and go there."

"And my girls? Jackie must be looking after them?" Jackie is Dean’s wife. Here, my memory fails me. (I had lunch once with a 72-year-old woman. She told me stories of growing up north-east of Kalgoorlie in outback Australia and teaching her nine-year-old to drive. I was impressed with how detailed her memories were. I told her so. "I haven’t suffered real trauma," she replied.)

I imagine the cop saying: "No ma’am, I’m sorry. Your girls didn’t make it."

Years later, when I explain what I’m writing, my mother says: "The police didn’t come to the door, they rang the phone."

Another time, she tells me that she doesn’t remember my friends being at our house that afternoon. This freaks me out. What else am I not remembering correctly? I open Facebook, send my friend a message asking if she remembers studying at my house the day of the accident.

Yes! comes her reply. And we were eating tinned spaghetti.

I speak to my father about memory discrepancy and he begins emailing me documents I am too afraid to open. There are 16 of them in total and they sit – flagged and unread – in my inbox for many months.

It is odd, I think, how he seems to avoid my questions and yet is voracious in his emailing of records. In 2016, it was the diary he kept immediately following the accident. By 2018, the documents have become more legal in nature. First, the coroner’s report. Then, the doctor’s report. The personal statement I submitted to reschedule my HSC exams, information about carbon monoxide poisoning, the police inquest, a letter from Dad’s solicitor, a list of questions Dad sent to Dean that I glimpse in the body of an email:

Six seconds (180 metres) on wrong side of the road and two cars blasting their horns and flashing their lights, is this normal, does it reflect a micro sleep, does it reflect someone falling asleep?

Why does the medical report say she died of incineration?

How long does it take to get a 17 per cent carbon monoxide reading?

More emails arrive. I continue flagging them and leaving them unread.

In among these, my father sends me memories of things we did together when I was younger. Him helping me make props for the kids' party business I had. Us trying to bring a frozen fish back to life during a caravan park holiday. Fine-tuning dance concerts and building cubby houses in the garage. Me, always creating something. Him, always sewing or cooking or answering questions.

There is only one thing worse than failure and that’s regret, he writes to me, a saying from my childhood. This feels ominous, and I can’t help but wonder if I will still agree once this book is out in the world.

Author Chloe Higgins.Credit:Christopher Pearce

When I finally open the documents, my eyes search for information about the police coming to our door. It is not there. I call Dean and ask him what happened.

"Your mum’s right. The police never went to your house. The car was registered to your dad’s business, so they thought the address was an office," he says. "When Jackie and I started thinking something was wrong, we called around the hospitals. Eventually we called Canberra Hospital. The staff told us he’d been admitted as a patient but wouldn’t tell us anything else. We told your mum to ring them, and that’s how she found out. When she called us, she was hysterical, screaming into the phone."

Memory is both fallible and painful.

Through the window, I watch the cops leave. Mum pulls the screen door shut, calls my grandparents, tells them to come over. It’s dark outside.

That’s the door I locked Carlie out of a few weeks earlier. We were fighting, and Dad called us into the kitchen and asked us to explain why. I gave my version of events and Carlie interrupted me to say "Bull, sh—" before Dad cut her off for swearing. I knew she was about to add an ‘e’, not an ‘it’, but neither of us said anything.

Chloe and Carlie at Manly in 1998.

A feeling of guilt sits in my stomach. Is this how she died? Thinking she had a sister who wouldn’t stick up for her, wouldn’t love her? I should have told Dad she wasn’t about to swear.

Mum sits on the lounge. This is the lounge we girls tumbled over the top of, somersaulting over the back onto the seat. This is the room where Lisa watched The Jellybean Team video on repeat until the whole family knew the words off by heart. This is the room where Dad let us build cubbyhouses made of blankets when Mum wasn’t home.

Nan and Pa arrive, bringing with them a family friend who is staying with them at the time. She is 60 or 65 with long, thin arms that pull me into a hug. I punch her arm and she stands there, taking it, me crying and blowing snot into her collar. Someone says we have to go to Canberra and I should pack a bag.

Kris, my boyfriend, arrives and someone tells him what happened.

"Bub," he says, pulling me onto his lap. He whispers something into my hair, but I can’t make out the words. He is 18 years old.

(Looking back now, 18 seems so young. We were desperate to rush forward into our lives, to get through high school, attain degrees, start living in our own house. A year or so later, Kris will fumble his university degree, so consumed by my grief and neediness and late-night phone calls that he will begin missing classes, failing subjects, falling behind.)

Someone says something about driving to Canberra Hospital to see Dad. When Kris announces he’s going home to get a change of clothes and toiletries, I want to go with him. I need to get out of the house, sit outside the bubble for a moment.

We drive the 10 minutes through suburbia in silence, Kris at the wheel with one hand steering and one hand holding mine. His frame is large, almost too large for the second-hand Nissan Skyline he loves, his height inherited from his father, his arms thick from the hours spent at the gym with his Italian, Greek, Croatian friends. We pass through the suburbs: small pockets of streets and restaurants where communities of migrants from various countries have settled over the past 50 years. First, the economic migrants from Europe. Then the postwar Vietnamese. Afterwards, former Yugoslavians from the Yugoslav Wars.

Kris must have texted ahead because when we arrive at his house his extended family sit silently around the dinner table. Their plates are piled with pasta and soup and vegetable dishes. No one eats or makes eye contact with me.

The Girls by Chloe Higgins.

I pull myself down into one corner of the kitchen, scrunch up on the cold tiles, the cupboards behind giving me some sense of support. Kris’s mother crouches down, tries to hold my wrists while I cry and tell her, over and over: "It’s not real. It’s not real. It’s not real."

I am outside my body, looking at my messy hair and scrunched-up fists, Kris’s mother’s short blonde hair, her back; I hear her voice soothing me in her familiar Polish accent. I’m surprised at myself for being such a good actress, for knowing how to perform what I think grief might look like. It isn’t a real sadness – that would be too painful. It’s a performed sadness, one I absorbed from TV and movies. It’s easier this way.

This is an edited extract from The Girls by Chloe Higgins (Picador, $32.99).

For help or information call SuicideLine on 1300 651 251 or Lifeline on 131 114, or visit beyondblue.org.au

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