Third Place for the Literary
By Henry Plunkett
See all the winners in the 2017 Special Winners Edition
So, I get in from work, banjaxed, and kick off the boots. Like any hallway, we’ve a row of coat hooks and a shoe rack, but that’s where the normality ends. In the kitchen, Rita is dabbing one of her herbal tea-bags in a glass of hot water. Lately, Rita has a different herbal for every knuckle in her day, honey-lemon in the mornings, rooibos at midday, and camomile towards evening. My wife is not herself since we got here. Out of nowhere, she’s started to hound me about sustainability and reducing our carbon footprint. She’s started telling me I need to divide the soft from the hard plastics, the food scraps from the rubbish, telling me I oughtn’t to let onion into the composting.
—We should think about solar, she said recently.
—We live in a rental, I said.
Lately, she keeps a lunch box of food scraps sitting on the draining board. It’s like an urn of recent meals. On top of that, she rarely leaves the house. This day is no different, I get in the door and she’s wearing the tracksuit from earlier.
—How was work, she asks?
Right now, she’s chopping a banana skin into slivers.
—What are you doing?
—Composts better, she says.
—Where’s Anika, I ask?
Anika is our eighteen-year-old.
—She’s getting ready to go out, says Rita.
I lift the lids on some saucepans and it’s pure disheartening. Rice, steamed broccoli, sausages; no love.
Thomas, our twenty-year-old, is at the table. He neither looks up nor says hello. He’s not that kind of person. And he slides these deadpan eyes now, from beneath the black hoodie, across the rim of his laptop. Drops them, no warmth whatsoever.
Beside him, Rosie, our three-year-old granddaughter, is kneeling on a chair by the table. Her face is hovering a bare inch above her iPad, flickering blue.
Rosie is Anika’s girl, but that’s a whole other story.
Rosie is wearing both tutus this evening, the green beneath the pink. Her nose is near dabbed on the screen of the iPad. And straight up, my humour for the night is set.
I find Anika in her room. All shower-reddened flesh and towels, stooped over and flailing through a mound of clothes. One towel wrapped around her, another wound on her head. And I find myself stood at this discomfited angle to her. I try not to start with the state of the room. When we moved to Australia, Anika culled nothing, couldn’t be dissuaded, all the old toys from the attic, the posters of the boybands she’d outgrown, they’re all back up on the walls now. Kian from Westlife, is back in his sleeveless black t-shirt, with the buttery smile, pouting above her headboard.
—How was your mother today, I ask.
—All right, says Anika —just quiet.
Anika finds what she’s looking for. She lifts a slip of material to the light. I lift one of Anika’s university books from the cupboard, leaf a few pages and settle on one of those skinless anatomical diagrams. The one that bares all the ligature and muscle of the body.
Anika is studying midwifery.
—Are you keeping up with all this?
I shake the textbook at Anika. She shrugs.
—I won’t know until the exams.
—You won’t know until the exams.
I put the book down. Anika throws the slip of material back onto her pile.
—Anika, that child of yours, the way she’s using that iPad, she’ll melt the eyes from her head.
Anika looks up, seismic scowls rupture the blue plaster of her face mask.
—I said, Rosie is going to blind herself with that iPad.
Anika undoes the towel from her head, switches the hair about. That same whip of red hair as her mother, combs fingers through it, then redoes the towel.
—Jesus dad, you told us our eyes would turn rectangular.
And that’s how it happens, I’m picking a fight I never intended to pick. But I’m dug in, so I keep going.
—And where are you going anyway, I say?
—With what money?
—Dad, says our eighteen-year-old daughter, straightening, and enunciating —I’m. A. Cheap. Date.
She tweaks the towel about her midriff, stoops again to her mound of clothes, and sets again to flailing.
I go ask Rita, where Anika is getting money for all this gallivanting. Thomas has an earphone removed. He has an ear cocked towards us.
—I gave her some, now would you move, Rita says. And I weave from her way, so she can slide the plate of grilled sausages to shrivel even worse in the oven.
—How much did you give her?
—Not much, Rita says, shunting past.
I follow her up the hallway.
—In my day, you had no money, you went nowhere.
—That was your day, Rita says, closing the batroom door.
—But what lesson are you teaching her, I say.
—Not everything’s a lesson, says Rita —and didn’t she miss out on her youth when Rosie came along?
Hold on, I might’ve sworn it was Anika’s gallivanting got her pregnant in the first place. So, I try the door handle. And it’s open. A sure sign of a troubled romance.
My wife is up-close in the bathroom mirror, prodding the skin around her eyes, making O-shapes with her mouth.
The first memory I have of Rita she’d just been crowned The Queen of the Harp, and was sitting on a bale of hay on a flat-bed trailer, getting towed up main street, Granard, by a Massey Ferguson 165, drove by Moxy O’Rourke. Moxy was ebullient. Rita was nineteen. I was nursing a pint in the doorway of the Greville Arms. And it was shaping to drizzle.
And another memory that often follows that one, is later, when Anika was born, telling Rita that thankfully the child was blessed with her mother’s looks. And Rita taking Anika back from me and saying: do you know what, Jim, those looks will just be another thing she’s expected to look after.
—Sweetheart, says Rita now — it will all be ok, just go and get your dinner from the oven.
—I’m sorry, I say —I am.
I fill the kettle and stand watching it boil. Behind me, Thomas slows in the pace of the clacking on his laptop. There comes gravel and angles in the silence between us. I chance a look at Thomas. Both earphones are out. The kettle clicks off. Gradually, his clacking recoups its velocity.
I don’t need to ask what Thomas is doing on his laptop. I know he’s not looking for work. Short odds are, Thomas is befuddling his mind with the latest conspiracy-theory bullshite. He’s been through them all: The Freemasons, and the New World Order; 9/11 and why the Jews never showed up to work; and why, why-oh-why, were there no scorch marks on the front lawn of the Pentagon?
Get this, a few evenings ago, Thomas, oddly chatty, says:
—Dad, if you incinerated a plane to the point where there was no trace left of the fuselage, how would you identify the 184 people on board?
I look up from my bowl of watery stew, and see through the rising steam that the lad is deadly earnest. The hoodie is down, so it’s a big occasion, and he’s pitched all eager in the seat. I drop the spoon, glance for direction at Rita, who pokes this look, go on, engage. I twist a face like I’m honestly trying to un-puzzle his conundrum. But I’m distracted, and worrying with my spoon, a hunk of potato through gravy.
And this here, I find, is precisely the quandary with Thomas, do you tell him to cop the hell on, quit filling his head with this shite, or do you humour him, pay no heed, under the hope that one day, better sense might prevail?
—Go on son, I say, finally —enlighten me.
—You couldn’t, Thomas says —that’s the thing, it would’ve been impossible.
—Well, they tell us the inferno obliterated all trace of the fuselage, he says —all that metal, titanium even, and yet, they also tell us the victims were positively identified through their DNA and dental records.
Who’s They, I want to ask. I hear a lot of people whispering conspiracies about They?
And Thomas keeps looking at me, nodding, smiling. Then, seemingly satisfied that whatever his point is, it’s proven, he’s pushing back in the chair. He’s shaping like a doctor who’s just granted me the all-clear. You can leave now sir. All blasé, the cut of him. And I find all this especially galling because, that evening, of all evenings, I’m famished, and worn-out. That whole long day I worked for the Department of Parks and Wildlife. Twenty-whatever degrees of white Australian heat, with a brush cutter, maintaining fire breaks in the John Forrest National Park. All day, coping with the rip of a of a two-stroke petrol engine, togged like a bomb disposal technician in regulation PPE, and sweltering, getting ball rash. And then these are the questions I’m expected to front in the evenings?
—It’s an unreasonable suspension in basic logic, says Thomas.
I drop the spoon, glance at Rita, who’s giving me this discreetly pressurised look, telling me she doesn’t have the energy to witness a ruction. She’s urging a platitude from me.
—Well, I suppose it is, son.
But, on this evening, I take my mug of tea and sit between Rosie and Thomas. I picture taking the iPad from Rosie. Now Rita, I know, could affect all this without causing a squall. Bit of distraction or whatnot. But me, I’m a warship taking a berth. And knowing this fact is not enough to offset it. The grind of my chair on the floorboards has Thomas peeping between the drapes of his hairstyle and slanting his dark looks across the rim of the laptop. The clacking slows again.
—Come on child, I beseech in a whisper to Rosie —you’ll melt the eyes from your head.
Rosie, without looking up, tightens a clutch on her iPad. And I don’t have the heart to pull it from her. I know the uproar. I lift Rosie onto my lap and she drags the tablet with her.
She leans into me.
Our granddaughter is translucent blond, these icy blue eyes, like you’d see in a Disney cartoon. Half-Baltic, apparently. Those were the rumours doing the rounds before we left Granard. Lithuanian, or Latvian, or some class of Russian, allegedly, the father. Of course, Anika wouldn’t point him out, said it made no odds.
—It makes odds to me, I said.
—Just leave it Jim, Rita said, with an arm around Anika —haven’t you done enough.
Haven’t you done enough?
Anyway, this night, I decide to let it go about the iPad. And I turn to Thomas.
—What are you reading son?
Thomas pushes back from the laptop, tweaks the hoodie to shorten the shadows on his face. Stretches the fingers, each one, very deliberately. You’d near swear he’d been working a shovel all day. He parts the hair from his eyes, straightens himself. He’s tall, our Thomas. He might be a good-looking lad, one day, if the acne doesn’t scar when it clears.
—Do you really want to know, he says?
Thomas pauses, clicks about on the laptop, emerges slightly from the hoodie.
—OK, he says —I’m reading about The Mandela Effect.
—Nelson or Winnie, I ask. But he doesn’t get it.
—Whatever, he says —so, there’s this thing called collective memory, which is like heaps of strangers all sharing the same memory, right?
—And there are huge numbers of people, out there, who remember Nelson Mandela dying in prison sometime in the eighties.
And here it is: my son is giving me that half-smile again, like he’s just proved something.
—Hold on, I say —did Nelson Mandela not just croak there, lately enough?
Swat of a hand from Thomas.
—And none of these people know each other, he says —and they come from all over the world, and yet they all share this same, very clear, memory.
—But wasn’t it all over the news, I say —a few years back. When Mandela died. Wasn’t the TV blighted?
—Well, Thomas says —that’s your memory. But the fact remains that a huge amount of people around the world do remember that Nelson Mandela died in the eighties.
—But they’re wrong, I say.
—Maybe, maybe not, says Thomas —maybe a memory is just a memory, maybe it gathers its validity from its existence.
You see, this is the danger with Thomas, if you let him get going.
—Maybe their memory is as valid as yours, he says.
—But you saw the news, I say —so they’re wrong. And that’s that.
—Look, that’s just one example of the phenomenon, says Thomas, starting to scrabble about through his laptop —There’s heaps of others. Can you picture the Volkswagen logo, the VW? Can you picture the V and the W connected to each other, or separate?
Now, I owned a diesel Passat —best-in-class for boot space —the one time, back home, back in the tail-end of the boom, back when the banks were handing out cash, and we thought that all you needed to do was sign for it.
—Connected, I say —V sitting on top of the W.
—Don’t be so sure, Thomas says.
And next he’s spinning me the laptop, showing me a Volkswagen logo with a small bar of white space between the V and the W.
—Bullshite, I say.
—And there are heaps of examples like this, Thomas says, waving at the laptop —It’s all over the internet.
—All over the internet?
—Well, to explain the phenomenon, Thomas says —some people are saying, and it is only one possible explanation, but, that, the existence of alternate universes might be one possible explanation. Collective memory might be explained by like, a slippage between parallel universes.
He keeps pinching emphasis on the word might, disowning already whatever it is that he’s trying to tell me.
—An alternate universe?
The thing about Thomas is, he’s logjammed. Too many theories that are all in disagreement.
—Dad, says Thomas —Dad, it’s just a theory, it’s just a bit of fun.
—Tell me son, did you spend any time today looking for a job?
Thomas closes his eyes for a moment. The calm before. He pushes the laptop off to one side, leans in to me, draws breath enough to last a few rounds.
—Some, he says.
—Some, I say?
—Yeah, some, he says.
—Hmmm indeed, he says.
—And do you reckon, Thomas, I say —that, in your parallel universe, you’re less of a fucking waster, than you are here in this one?
That’s it. Thomas, up, back of the knees knocking over the chair, all posture and unfilled body frame, swiping the hair back out of the eyes.
—You know Dad, everything was fine till you came home.
—Was it, says I, on the feet and getting all high-pitched —everything was fine, was it? This here child sitting on her iPad, going blind, eyes melting from her head, and not-a-sinner paying heed on her? And everything was fine, was it?
Next thing Rosie is plaiting herself between us. And the child, as always, is the valve. I pick her up and march for the hallway. Rita appears in the door of the bathroom, tut-tutting her disgust from her eyes. Anika appears, halfway into a pair of skin-tight jeans and unbalanced with the task of pulling them up.
—What’s this, I say —a guard of honour?
—Where are you going, asks Anika?
—Don’t be buying her chocolate, Anika says, hopping now, on the one foot, and trying to shock her hips down into her jeans —not at this hour.
I pull the door, fairly emphatic, about a note shy of a slam.
—Come on child, I whisper to Rosie.
—Where are we going Grandpa?
So that’s it, I’m out on Hubert St with Rosie now, after dark, all high strung.
And I’m not myself. My head won’t quit playing that game where you’re looping, in hypothetical-tense, everything you ought to have said. We start up the hill, stooped to the task of it, but I’m besieged by these perfected re-enactments of the ruction with Thomas. The whole way to the deli at the corner of Oat, I’m plagued with curations of the stance and the tone that I ought to have worn, to emasculate the little bollix.
—Come on child.
Rosie slews her weight from my arm and dances the cracks in the pavement. She’s at that age where everything must be an experience. She quite literally sticks her nose into every bush going up the road.
In the deli at the corner of Oat, we buy a caramel koala from the little Indian man. I grab a fistful of scratch-cards, scratch them in the doorway, and dump them in the bin outside.
—Don’t ever take to gambling, I tell Rosie.
She starts to laugh, these little underwater warbles that she’s developed lately.
—What’s gambling, she asks?
It’s sometime around seven. The last of the sun is lodging between two of the Homes-West blocks on the far side of Hubert. You can feel the heat of it dropping.
—It’s monetised hope, I tell Rosie.
And Hubert Street feels paused. Eff-all cars, just a few people here and there, doddering near their letterboxes. It has that eeriness, like you’d get in an empty church, or an empty airport lounge. We’ve lived on Hubert for near-on a year, and I’m yet to reconcile with it. I still can’t figure it for what class of neighbourhood. Our side is a litany of these little twenties-era weatherboard worker’s cottages. Overvalued shacks that are painted all in pastel notes and gone gentrified. If you can picture paved driveways and SUV’s, pop-up sprinkler heads fizzing after-dark in prim flower beds, rose stalks wove through lattice, that class of thing; retirees in their dressing gowns on their front lawns in the mornings with mugs of frothy coffee, poking about idly, dew on their slippers, and everyone on first name terms, that’s our side of Hubert. But then, opposite, and especially for the block between Dane and Somerset, you’ve got this run of four-story apartment blocks, all uniformly salmon brick, vaguely Soviet, and woefully dated. It’s like the municipality took the notion of dispersing the social housing, but didn’t commit properly to it. And we hear a lot of trouble from the blocks, music that descends into ructions.
Pot-heads, I’m guessing. You see them traipsing in scrims of two and three to the deli at all hours.
—What’s hope, grandpa?
Rosie is at that age, all curiosity, a warren of how’s and what’s; her little contraptions of why.
—It’s a class of annoyance, child.
Nearing home, and opting not to rise any more strife with Anika, don’t I kneel on the sidewalk to wipe the evidence of chocolate and trace hairs of caramel from Rosie’s chin. And don’t I kneel beneath the street’s only tree which, within the next twenty-four hours, I will Google, and learn is called a jacaranda —properly titled: Jacaranda-Mimosifolia: A sub-tropical tree native to south-central South America, regarded as an invasive species in parts of Australia, due to problems with the Blue Jacaranda preventing growth of native species
The ground around us is blue with dropped blossoms. It’s early December and over the course of the weeks just gone, one morning after the next, I’ve stepped from the door, and this jacaranda which was previously a knuckled shrub you’d hardly notice, kept filling and filling with colour. Until now, it’s this lurid class of blue, like a tree that’d been crayoned by a child.
—What’s monetised, asks Rosie.
—Never mind child.
Rosie, right now, is gathering handfuls of blossoms, and bringing them right up close to her nose.
—Quit that child, I say —a dog might have pissed there.
I swat the blossoms from her hand, and Rosie goes placid in my arms. There’s not an iota of squall nor devilment in her.
So here I am, in situ now, kneeling on the sidewalk, beneath the jacaranda, scrubbing at Rosie’s chin with the wadded cuff of a spit dampened jumper. Just like you see me in the video.
No doubt, I’m still high-strung from the ruction with Thomas, but I’ve fell into some class of reverie too, remembering our own children, at Rosie’s age, and how it’s strange to think what might’ve been coded into them. For whatever reason, I don’t notice it. Edging unmercifully slow up Hubert, past the Franklin Tavern carpark, the late-model black Holden Commodore.
Nor do I notice the front passenger-side window rolling down.
Nor the boy in the white Arabic getup shaping to hang from it.
I give Rosie a kiss on the forehead. And I’m getting to my feet, when I see, finally, and much too late, the black Holden Commodore coming near abreast of us. Across Rosie’s head, I see a boy, same age as Thomas, or not far off, with that same physique, leaning from a car window.
And this boy, he is hefting a gun.
The gun is exactly as you’d imagine. An AK I’d suppose, with the wood trim on the stock, and the rest of it all bulky and black.
The next moments felt like a small kingdom of stillness. They felt like something that was queued to implode: This stretched-out moment of eye-contact; a wisp of Rosie’s blonde hair, lifting; the jacaranda, I’d near swear, drawing a breath.
The boy was hanging from the passenger window. He was got-up in the full billowing-white Arabic regalia. But he was a cartoon. And I can tell you that in retrospect. He was a character from Aladdin, right down to the golden braided rope that was looped about his head.
But this boy, he could affect all the shapes of manhood, and he dipped an ear onto a shoulder, adjusted his weight around the AK, closed one eye, and shot this malignant wink down the full dark length of it. I heard the clatter of gunshot noise. And I shit myself, figuratively, as you would.
Screech of rubber then, next a screech of laughter. The rip of a V6 engine and Rosie starting to wail. In the back seat of the Commodore, there was another youth, a girl this time, with a camera phone held up, blotting one half of her face. And that there, the camera phone, I didn’t know it then, but that there, was the real weapon.
Following evening, I jack the Corolla on the verge and I don’t know precisely what it is I’m expecting. I’ve been on the brush-cutter all day, and I can feel it all throughout. I feel like a rat that’s been shook by a terrier, and I sit with my legs outside the car for longer than it takes, dusting the bottoms of my trousers, which are smattered with the usual mulched-up bits of shrubbery and bugs. But even worse than the smattered bugs, is the near-daily occurrence, morning times, when I come across a blue-tongue, or a bob-tail lizard, hissing beneath a bush at the blades of the brush cutter. Scared shitless no doubt, but they’ll give you a jolt, the way they’ll bluff all set to attack, making anger and fear look one and the same. And then of course, in whatever percentage of cases, I end up mowing a lizard with the blades. And it’s always too late when you know it, there’s nothing to do but pass over again and try to call it a kindness. Sometimes you’ll see the little ones drop their tails and that’s the first and the last movement you’ll see of them, the camouflaged tail flicking about in the undergrowth.
I gather the lunch box and accoutrements from the passenger seat. And there’s an echo to everything I do. I have that sense of seeing myself, being myself. I’ve had it all day, like I’m my own puppeteer. I open the latch to the courtyard. Rita and Thomas are there, sitting on the two-seater wicker thingy. And I know I’m interrupting. Rita gives Thomas this meaningful clap on the leg, and stands. She walks right up close to me.
—I Do, I feel like saying to her —I Do.
She takes my face in her hands and pins this long and encouraging look on me.
—Thomas needs to tell you something, she says.
She leaves me this slow nod, turning away. I’m being entrusted with something of value.
I watch her walk down the hallway, past the door to the living room and the three doors that lead to our bedrooms. She takes a seat at the kitchen table, hands spare in her lap, waiting for whatever to transpire between Thomas and me. I’ve heard it said by younger men that I’m punching above my weight. And I can’t always see that, but right now, maybe I can, the way she’s framed at the end of the hallway, in that repose of hers
—How was your mother today, I ask Thomas?
—Pretty good, today.
—Talking to home?
I sigh to fill the space between us.
Through the window and sliced by the venetian blinds, inside, there’s Anika, in the room we call the living room. She’s lying on her stomach in the beanbag, reading a book with Rosie.
—Isn’t that the one good thing about Australia, I say, jabbing with a toe at a weed in a flower bed —damn all weeding to be done.
The front courtyard of the rental is hemmed by sandy strips that we call flower beds, for want of a better term. The beds have damn-all in them, a handful of succulents that require no water. The few weeds there is, would uproot, if you were to look sidewards at them. Low maintenance, the place was advertised.
—That used to be your job back home, I say —the weeding, weren’t you scourged with it?
—Transplanting mum’s geraniums come winter, says Thomas.
—Saving them from the frost, I say.
I stroll around by the picket fence, lift my nose to peer across it. Thomas then is standing beside me. The compost tumbler is between us on the sand, like a stoic Buddha.
—What do you make of this composting business that your mother is gone mad on.
—What do you mean?
—I mean, she was never like that, before.
—She could do worse, says Thomas.
—I don’t like it, I say.
Across the road in the flat-blocks, the music is starting up. There is a group moving from theFranklin Tavern. Slabs of beer, the lit flare of a face in the draw of a cigarette.
—There’ll be ructions later, I say.
—It’s just another type of stability, says Thomas.
The headlights of a car nib across the hill then, brushing the underside of the jacaranda tree. They move on past us, slowly, downhill, and I picture telling Thomas about the previous night, the fake gun and the mobile phone.
—Would you grab two of those beers from the fridge, I say.
Thomas returns, busts two beers from the cardboard. We stand looking over the road, like fenced horses.
—Do you know the name of that class of tree, I ask him, tipping a chin uphill.
His eyes follow mine.
—Jacaranda Mimosifolia, I say —I don’t reckon it’d grow back home, I don’t reckon it’d like the loamy soil.
Thomas gives me an odd look, deserved of that last comment. On the surface, this could be one of those moments you imagine sharing with your son. Father and son, shooting the breeze, with beers. But Thomas gets all wistful now, back to staring across the road, the lights in the flat- blocks, the shadows moving behind curtains.
—I’ve got a job, he says.
—You’ve got a job?
—Yeah, I have a job.
—What class of job, I say?
—A job, says Thomas.
I suppose you may as well know a bit more about Thomas, and jobs:
At age fifteen, our illustrious boyo, Thomas Patrick Ahearn, pale faced and ossified on ecstasy and hash, in the free house of Oaksey Mallon, took a circular saw to the legs of the Mallon’s furniture, and lowered their dining room tables and chairs by precisely 100mm.
For two weeks, the Mallon’s sat marginally lower at their dinner table, flummoxed you’d imagine, until a notion must have furrowed in Tracy and she upturned a chair and correlated the fresh cuts with the fine saw dust she’d been finding deep in the carpets. Next up, I’m at home watching EastEnders, and I’ve got Tracy Mallon bulling down the phone, telling me I owe her a new dining room suite. In Norwegian pine. From Ikea.
—Not Effing likely, I said —Thomas can get a job, and buy it himself.
Then there was all that talk of the court case. And do you think I could get Thomas to pick up a job? I wanted to sue him myself. I wanted to join Tracy Mallon in a class action, for the heartache caused.
—What class of job, I ask Thomas again?
He’s facing the ebb of the street, the cars, the walkers, the drunks from the Franklin tavern. He finishes his beer. Drops the bottle into the flower bed.
—Volunteering, he says.
—What, in the name of God class of job, is volunteering?
—In Greece, he says —there’s a refugee camp. And it won’t cost you a red cent. I’m crowd-funding it.
I hear all the usual noise of an evening, a dog chained somewhere, music from the flat blocks, noises all spun out of silence. And the silence, momentarily, I must say, between Thomas and me, it has no presence. Momentarily, it has no jostle. And there’s a rarity.
—You may grab the rest of those beers, I say, when I finish staring at the side of his face.
But Thomas, when Thomas comes back, is not fetching me beer. Rita and Anika are with him. Anika has the laptop cradled like an infant in the crook of her arm. Shaking it now in my face.
—What the hell is this dad?
She’s unpausing the video.
The front room, I’m frogmarched to it. I’m sat alone in the inquisitional centre of the sofa. Anika and Rita build thickets about me. Thomas hangs by the door. Rosie is cleared to the kitchen with her iPad. Here we go again.
—Gone viral, Anika announces, displaying the video.
There I am, clear enough, no denial, down on one knee, scrubbing Rosie’s chin. There’s the jacaranda. There’s the too-tinny machine-gun rattle welting from the car-stereo. There’s me, starting to stand, casting those shadows on Rosie. There’s me, on the first clatter of noise, crab scuttling suddenly backwards. There’s Rosie falling. And they all still claim she was tripped by my foot. They all still claim I kicked her over. Regardless, say what you will. There’s Rosie sitting on the pavement, alone, the lip wobble gathering to a wail that shudders down the full frail length of her. Two meters back, there’s me, at the base of the jacaranda tree.
—You pushed her over, says Anika —What if that had been a real attack?
—It was real, I say —it felt real.
—Dad, says Thomas —was that just out there?
And Thomas is pointing through the front wall, over my head. Rita slumps into the bean bag, like the legs have been hacked from beneath her.
—Why Jim, she says —would you not just walk in the door and tell us what happened?
—Was that just out there, asks Thomas?
Then Anika is replaying the video. She’s pulled to a squint by the pixilation. She is studying in detail, my every twitch, the precise concatenation, and I can almost see her, extrapolating backwards from there, into every blow-up we’ve ever had. I can tell, just by the shape of her sitting, with the arms in the lap and the rocking and the whatnot, that she’s not just watching the video. She’s trying to unpuzzle something, about me, no doubt. So that she might understand herself. She is trying to designate the irrationality that led her, aged fifteen, to attempt the duration of a teenage pregnancy in dark baggy t-shirts and utter secrecy. And if Anika sets her mind to something, it’ll be done to the utmost. So not-a-sinner knew, not the school, and not us, and none of her friends. Not until she was found by her mother on the floor of the bathroom.
Haven’t you done enough, Jim?
Thomas draws this long melodramatic, daytime-TV, sigh, and crosses the hall to get a hoodie from his room.
I stand up.
—Why is nobody asking about the little shits that did this, I say —Is that not the better question?
—They’re just kids, says Rita.
—But what’s wrong with them?
I hear the front door latching open, and Thomas speaking, from behind the nib wall.
—You can’t blame the kids, he says —we haven’t had our chance yet to screw the world.
We all listen as Thomas leaves, to the gate of the courtyard latching.
—Here, give me that, I say to Anika.
But Anika won’t let me take the laptop from her. She scoots around by the back of the settee with it.
—What did they look like, asks Rita.
—I don’t know, I say —they were all got-up. One was the cut-out of Thomas.
And I’m starting to feel foolish stalking Anika in circles around the settee.
—Dad, says Anika now, —what did you promise Rosie to keep quiet. What did you promise so she’d keep your secret? What did you promise her dad?
Anika stops circling away from me, and her stopping circling make me stop following. She looks at me, and there’s this silence, claggy and unbreathable, like the silence of a packed elevator when you’re surrounded by strangers.
—OK that’s enough, Rita says —that is enough.
She’s up. She’s out of the bean bag. Someone has gathered her strings. It’s like the ding when the elevator reaches the floor and everyone gets out except you.
—Jim, she says —you need to go after Thomas. Anika, speak with Rosie and see that she’s ok.
Getting towards the brink of the hill, I see the feather-edge of headlight beginning to brush the underside of the jacaranda. And I find myself moving into the road. I see a car edging, slow enough. And I’m studying to see the shape of it, to see if I might recognise it.
I step, proper officious, into the road, waving. The car slows right down. I place both hands on the bonnet. I get down on my knees in front of the logo, right up close. It’s a Volkswagen. The V sitting on top of the W
—Bullshite, I say.
—The little. . .
The little Eff-er was right. There’s bar of white space between the V and the W. You’re never to quote me on this —but for that moment, and maybe only because of the way I found myself kneeling on the bitumen, and because of the way I was boxed by the funnels of headlight, with the shadow of a stranger stood over, telling to get the fuck off her car. —But for that tiny moment, I believed, vaguely and just momentarily, that I was living, somehow, in an alternate universe.
Henry Plunkett is the recipient of the 2017 WTP Third Place Literary Award for his short story “Drive-by.” He was born and grew up in rural Ireland. He lives now with his wife and child and a menagerie of small animals in the Perth hills. He is a student of creative writing at Curtin University. His current projects include a collection of short fiction, and an experimental literary website which he once described as a pseudo-modernist dystopic fake-news hub. Henry has previously been published in The Moth magazine. He prefers walking in the bush to lying on the beach.