The Crux of the Matter
The girls are outside again. They turned up on their bikes, dumping them on my neatly mown grass verge. The blonde one has bought flowers and for a few moments they busy themselves arranging them. The other girl has a water bottle which she empties into the vase that was tied to my lamppost more than a year ago. Now they’re sitting on the berm chatting, their legs extended across the gutter and into the road. When it first happened, they used to turn up every few days. But lately, weeks have gone by between their visits. I thought I might finally be able to remove the white cross that turned up a week after it first happened, tied to the base of the lamppost so that no one can peacefully go about their business without knowing someone died here in Stafford Street. But here they are, back again.
It was seven days after the boy was killed that someone put the cross on the lamppost. I hadn’t noticed them putting it up so they must have done it at night after I’d gone to bed. Those first few weeks after the accident, the girls often turned up just when it was getting dark and I was already preparing to turn in for the night. I felt uncomfortable, like I should stay up. I didn’t think they’d do anything, not really, but I couldn’t just go to sleep with strangers hanging around outside my house. There were some sleepless nights. That was one of the reasons I got Smithy, that and a bit of company now that Jim’s gone. Every time someone pauses outside the property, Smithy starts grumbling at the front door, keen to chase them away. He’s grumbling away now at the sound of those girls! At least with him here, I don’t need to worry about intruders. He’d be onto them before they knew what was happening.
No one else seems bothered about the cross. The old man in the back flat doesn’t care. The woman next door thought it a little odd but wasn’t concerned enough to actually do anything about it. Everyone else seems happy to just avert their eyes. It’s probably a terrible thing to say but every time I catch a glimpse of that cross I feel annoyed. And I see it whenever I arrive home or go out, when I’m gardening or looking out the kitchen window while waiting for the kettle to boil. It’s hard to explain why it irritates me. I think, well, Jim would have called it vulgar, which about sums it up. It’s a great big show of grief, pushed in my face. I feel like I have to tiptoe around the grief of strangers in my own home, feel sad about a boy I never knew because of where I live. Of course I could never say that. So when I approached the neighbours I talked about real estate values, about how it won’t be easy to sell a house with that little icon overlooking the neighbourhood. But they all seem to think it’ll be gone soon enough, they’re not thinking of moving anyway, and it’s just a sign of respect. But it’s not just a wooden cross.
The accident happened on one of those irritating summer days, like today, when the nor’west has had your dander up all day. By dusk, when the gale finally drops and that familiar arch of cloud appears over the Alps, you feel like you’re almost drifting in the warm air you’re so relieved the damn wind’s died down. I guess that’s how the kids felt that night, like they could just let go and relax. I didn’t even know there was a party going on that night. It’s not like many parties happen on Stafford Street, at least not many that don’t involve birthday cake and cheerios or sponge cake and tea. I didn’t hear the tell-tale thump of music or any shouting. I was woken up at 10:07pm. I know that because the first thing I saw was the red geometric numbers of my alarm clock. The first thing I heard was a screech of brakes outside, closely followed by splintering timber and breaking glass in my front room. My little flat rocked with the impact. Next thing I know I’m standing on my front lawn in my bare feet and nightie staring at a beat-up old rust-brown Datsun with its nose buried in the front wall of my house. I dimly remember lights flicking on around the neighbourhood and people running towards me. The thing I remember most though is the sound of the car horn. Well, the sound when it stopped. I didn’t even notice the racket it was making until a man from across the road reached into the car and pushed the boy’s body back against the seat. As the silence grew, my neighbours and I stood stock still in our dishevelled pyjamas and nighties. That sense of mobilised panic that had brought us all running outside seemed to dissipate with the sound of the horn and was replaced by something much worse. The air seemed to crackle with some kind of other worldly static and we all knew the boy was dead without saying a word.
See, this is why I don’t like that cross. It’s not healthy to keep reliving it. When the police and the ambulance finally left as the sun began again its daily climb, taking the body and the broken car with them, I thought that was it for me, I just needed to get on with the clean-up. But the police turned up again a few hours later to take photos, measure skid marks and talk to witnesses. Not long after, the media arrived. And then, that night, a stream of teenagers, some with their parents, came to pay their respects, standing on the grass, leaving flowers in the gutter. I was looking at my ruined garden on the national news when I heard them outside. I could have wept. I’d won prizes from the council for that garden for the last two years running—the two wooden tablets, engraved with the council logo and adorned with a copper plate with my name on, still sit in pride of place on top of the telly. I know a garden can always be started again but still, it was a blow. I did think about going out to talk to the kids. I peeked through the net curtains at the girls in their pastel tracksuits with their arms around each other, mascara running, and the young men with red rimmed eyes, snivelling into the sleeves of their hoodies. I wondered if I should go and stand on the grass with them, gaze numbly at the lamppost that now lay in the gutter, snapped raggedly at the base, while listening to the blue plastic tarp the man across the road had slung over the hole in my weatherboards billow and snap in yet another bloody nor’west. But I couldn’t see how that was going to go so in the end I just stayed inside.
Smithy doesn’t let me do that now. Since I got him, I’ve been forced to get out and about a bit more. He’s whining now, even though the girls finally left a few minutes ago. Better grab his lead and take him for his walk, I guess. Since I got him, Smithy and I’ve explored the whole neighbourhood. I especially like going down to the new subdivision a block or two away, walking through the skeletons of houses, trying to guess what the homeowners will put where and imagining our dream home. My dream home. I think Smithy’s main goal in life is to sniff the lamppost in front of my house. He tugs and strains on the leash every time we leave the house; half strangling himself he’s so desperate to get just a hint of the great smells he’s convinced are buried around that lamppost. Maybe it’s the flowers on the cross. He does like to walk around my garden sniffing the flowers. Although there’s also that bracelet braided from embroidery cotton and the thin strip of leather threaded with the tabs of aluminium cans hanging on the cross to tempt him. Usually I try to gently coax him away from the lamppost but last night I tugged his lead so briskly he squealed and then walked off so fast he had to scuttle after me. I still feel a little bad about that. He’s got me wrapped around his little finger.
It’s amazing really that we even had a new lamppost so quickly. The council erected a new wooden one within a few days, taking the broken one away. That was surprising. Thought my little spot on the street would be in the dark for weeks. I got a few tradesmen in within a couple of weeks to replace the lounge window, fix the broken weatherboards, and built a new front fence. All that remained of that terrible night was a dirty paddock for a front lawn and a gleaming white cross on the virgin wood of the new lamppost. I didn’t muck around. I went and bought bags of lawn seed, some new perennials, and a weeping willow sapling. I planted the sapling in the middle of what had been my front lawn and then did the hard yards digging over and sowing the ground with seed. I’d been standing in my kitchen admiring my handiwork, imagining what it would look like come the following year, when the two girls emerged from the dusk, both with fistfuls of flowers, and my attention was drawn back to that cross. I’d got everything looking almost back to normal but that reminded me it wasn’t. The cross is like a stubborn stain.
Once Smith and I reach the park by the subdivision, I let him off his leash. He runs straight for the line of pine trees at the back, where he loves to snuffle around the pine cones and needles. I don’t like walking under those huge trees. They creak and sway far above me as if they’re alive, the wind whistling through the leaves like faraway voices. And I’ve heard tales of people struck down by pinecones clocking them at just the right angle. Occasionally Smithy will refuse to come to my call and I’ll have to go and fetch him from under the trees. It’s all I can do not to walk with my arms wrapped over my head like a protective shell. The way those trees are bending and flexing, he’d better behave tonight. Reminds me of Jim too, those trees do. The track he died on was lined with large pine trees. We were just doing a day walk, a track on the edge of the city. Used to be one of our favourites but I haven’t been there since. First I had to leave him and run back to the car park to get help. Then, when I got back to him, I waited two hours under that blue sky for someone to come and take him away. Even though it was a pretty still day the trees groaned and moved above us as Jim grew colder and colder until it wasn’t him beside me anymore. And then, just before help arrived, a pine cone fell in the silence. There was this eerie swish as it dropped though the air before landing just to the left of me and rocking briefly in the grass. It didn’t give me a fright; it was as if it was happening far, far away.
Almost as if my memories are causing it, I look up and see a pinecone fall near Smithy. He yelps, though it doesn’t hit him, and runs at me barking. Scooping him up, I whisper soothingly in his ear and hold him to me before snapping his leash on to walk home. We walk briskly. He begins to strain on the leash and whine as we get near the lamppost again. I don’t want to look at that cross. It feels like a bad luck charm. Smithy should be able to bloody piss on the lamppost in front of my house if he wants. More right to piss there than on any of the neighbours’ posts. Reassuring myself that he won’t do much given he’s stopped at every second tree for the last half hour, I let Smithy off his lead. He rushes over with such excitement, cocking his leg before he’s even at the post. He unleashes a drizzle of yellow all over the white cross. I feel a thrill despite myself, before the world breaks in. Oh shit, it’ll get all over that bracelet. What if someone sees? “Smithy! Come here!” He looks at me with apprehension. Spinning around on the spot, I take in the street. The houses are like shops all shut up. Curtains down, lights off bar one overseeing the front window, no one to be seen.
I rush inside and stand by the front door until my heart begins to slow. Smithy looks at me questioningly, padding after me and whining softly as I prepare for bed and turn the lights off. But I can’t sleep. It’s the middle of the night now and I’m still listening to Smithy snuffle and snort out in the hallway. Perhaps a neighbour saw me. What if the girls come and realise what has happened? What they will say? What will they do? My thoughts circle and loop and turn in on each other. Finally, at 1:07, I give up, throw back the covers and run down the driveway in my nightgown and bare feet. The lawn is icy and damp. Seconds later I’m back in the house, standing in the dark hallway, my feet tingling as they warm up, looking at the cross, its stake caked in mud, wondering what the hell I have done. I can’t put it in the rubbish. Imagine that; if I just put it out with the recycling. In the end I prop it up against the hallway wall and get back into bed. I’m no closer to sleep for all that I’ve finally done what I wanted to do all along. I’m just lying here thinking, worrying.
Once the light starts to creep through my bedroom window I give up any hope of getting back to sleep. Still in my nightie, I carry the cross to the kitchen sink. The drying mud is easily brushed off with my bare hands. I wipe the timber clean with a damp cloth and dry the cross with an old towel. Standing at the kitchen bench, I look out over my garden for a moment holding the clean cross in my arms. It is perfectly still, the hangdog branches of the weeping willow reaching toward the dewy lawn in the grey morning light. Taking a deep breath, I step out my front door.
A.F. Tyson lives in Christchurch, working at an academic library and studying at the Hagley Writers’ Institute. She has a Master of Arts from the University of Canterbury and is currently working on a novel.
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