I know how permanent this is now: his troubled face. The image of it lives on my insides, is stretched under my eyelids while his gawky hyena laugh – Jesus, that’s the most penetrating thing of all – vibrates over the drum of my ear like real noise.
At first I accepted the way his – and what do you call it: spirit, soul, poltergeist, phantom? – moved in. Actually, to be frank, if it was going to be temporary I was willing to ignore the moiling and mewling that went on. But as the weeks passed, as his ghostly behaviour grew evermore precocious and constant, I changed my mind. Having asking him to leave – as if an apparition can take charge of itself – I began to wish it and when that failed I did my best to oust his haunting presence. I played Strauss at full volume, trekked along the endless pavements of this nice suburb, I even swallowed a few choice pharmaceuticals. But when all that failed and I could see there was nothing else for it, nothing to be done, there was only the obvious left. He was, after all, with me, inured, embalmed, inculcated into my blood and bone. And his company, quite simply, had become too much.
While I contemplate all this, I stare into the mirror above the pit of my empty fireplace. My reflection stares back defiantly. Nothing is mooted as if I owe myself zip, as if even the old expression What did you expect? is too much. Funny that the dark-wood panelling, the threadbare olive-green furniture screams its opinion without hesitation, knows exactly why all this has occurred and what needs to be coughed up: the truth! In fact, everything and everyone knows there’s been something, a craw-grabbing dastardly something. I’m the only one I’m keeping it from. And I had every intention of carrying on the delusion. Of galvanising myself to the lie that some other person or circumstance had intervened to cause his disappearance. But, as I’ve said, Angus’s face, his maniacal laugh and kinetic lunge live in me like a moving picture, sutured, most uncomfortably, to my mind. I can’t breath without him taking flight.
I glare at my square eyes, murky in my nuggetty face of fifty-three years; they’re molluscs under unkempt straw hair, the grey wiry, all frizzed up. I have become an enigma. Lost. Everything I once lived by has passed out of me. Only my shell – available for inspection – remains to be dealt with.
I turn. There’s no point trying to pin down the one in the mirror, she’s the doer, not the thinker.
Marlin, my huge cat, his tumescent ginger form unimpressed, is sitting by his bowl in the kitchen. His eyes narrow, kiss shut. He’ll be fine until my brother – certain to do as I ask – arrives. I fill his dish two or three times over, check the cat door is open by giving it a soft kick.
At the sink I wipe the chrome of my old plumbing. I’m a stickler for the slightest drop. Perhaps that’s what I was trying to do above everything else, clean things up, make life tidy. But tidy isn’t a word to be attributed to life, it’s the anti-life of life, it has nothing to do with anything. I know that now. Know it amongst other things, things they should have told me, things such as: Angus could break a window with the punch of his head, he could lunge full-bodied across a ten-foot gap, he could grip and twist skin with the force of a vice.
I wrench open my back door. Rain has made it bulge. Outside, darkness is applied like paint. I let my eyes adjust. A shiny film emerges making everything glossy. There’s the smell of iron filings, and then the doer, the one with the smart bully-girl tactics, takes my stocky body over my stepping-stone path, past the passionfruit vine, through the lush grass.
Over the back fence looms the large oak – a shadowy figure, a massive gargoyle leering in the deep blue-black. It’s under the umbrella of the oak’s branches, between the long tangle of its deep roots, that the council installed the twirling apparatus. They didn’t notice I’d buried something in their trenches, laid Angus in a grave in their diggings, smoothing the dirt over, stomping it flat so he now lies under the contraption, his hoots and hollers emanating upwards every time a gym shoe belonging to a neighbourhood kid paddles or scoops at the ground. He loved the turning platform when we’d been to one in another suburb: taking him, those he lived with: doing her job, doing her job.
My eyes glance over at my vegetable patch. It’s nearly recovered from its own excavation; police in plastic overalls with probes and spades. They’d wanted to bring in a bobcat but their suspicions shifted when Angus’s mother, newly-remarried, concocted a story intimating that her ex, Angus’s stepfather, had done-away with Angus to get back at her, interrupt her plans. The authorities went north on a manhunt and my backyard, free of Angus’s body anyway, escaped further scrutiny. Steeled by a belief I’d done the right thing – saved a boy rather than held him under – it wasn’t exactly relief I felt, but hope, hope that the stepfather would be easily cleared and that Angus would be left where he lay, at home in the new playground.
I arrive at the small shed where my garden implements greet me. Silted light from the electric bulb skips across the handles of rakes and spades, crowbars and woodchoppers. Even in my seaside-suburb home I’ve managed to keep some connection to the country life of my childhood. I’m from strong stock. That’s what had allowed me – that and the adrenaline shooting through my veins – to manoeuvre Angus’s sinewy form into a plastic bag, tape it up, pivot him onto a trolley; a trolley meant for boxes of food or newly acquired furniture. I’d transported him through the house, hoicked him into the boot of my car and driven to the park behind my home. I’d noticed the diggings made by the council’s machines a few days before. More than a coincidence it felt like serendipity. There was a moon, large and yellow, weightless on the horizon. I remember the air, as still as a photograph and as cold as doubt. I can hear the chilling sound of my spade cutting into the earth.
Despite the recollections it’s hard to tell the difference between truth and imaginings. Now it’s all one reality, baked into the one cake I cooked so often for Angus, cake he devoured, cake I wiped from his face.
Cleaning him after he ate was a tricky business that just had to be carried out if the food was to be kept off the furniture, the walls. No mucking about, no giving him the heads up, just a flannel to his thrashing around, a firm hand and a swipe to get everything extraneous to his gob. That’s what had been attractive about the opportunity that presented itself; his face was clean, everything about him, spotless.
He was in the bath at the time, the other residents already in bed. I was the only night worker – nothing unusual in that – and had the run of the place. His head was poking up over the rim of the tub and, for once, he was still; his splashing and swooning about like a seal, done. He lay placid in the warm soapiness that’d stung his eyes, roiled in his nostrils just a moment ago.
Long thin contusion across the chest and upper arms, the coroner’s report would read if they’d found his body. But they didn’t and wouldn’t except for the letter, posted this afternoon and now in a mail truck rumbling along to a property in the far east of the state where my brother will read the awful truth and know what he must do. I’ve apologised profusely in my cursive hand for relying on him. But as I pointed out, I can’t stop the visions or silence the noises and I need for him to be the messenger and not to be sad. This is what I wish, I wrote. I stood up and I want you to be proud of me. This is what I hope for.
In the shed, thinking of my dear brother, I pick up two old sill bricks. They’re half as thick as the normal sort, with nibbled, blunt edges. I hook a finger around a roll of twine as if I’m pilfering the damn thing and remember my stocky fingers straightening my tomato plants, nimbly tying them to a stake.
Saying goodbye to my hoes and picks, I take my spoils across the yard and push on my back door, crunch it open. Marlin sits beside his bowl like a guard beside a priceless piece of art. I pack the bricks in a bag, give him a smooch goodbye – which he squeezes awkwardly out of – and, leaving the hall light on, I walk, although it feels more like gliding, through the front door. Pausing, I teeter with a moment’s sentimentality, my palm resting on the hardwood of my old house. But the doer takes over and she’s turning, stepping forward as if she might be going to a church fundraiser and not to where I think she’s going.
On the road, streetlights throw gold splashes in front of me. My little car devours them.
I remember my delight at getting the job where Angus and three others lived – the house, empty now until the matter of a missing person is dealt with. Residential Carer Position, the notice said. Must be available for rostered shifts. Driver’s license required. Qualifications preferred but not essential. That was me, the not essential part.
At the interview, even though I’d mostly worked in outdoor settings – market gardens that were slowly disappearing under housing estates – they said I had the makings of a wonderful worker. Strange that they used the word worker, as if they were talking about a labourer when, in my mind, they were referring to a privileged position in which work, at least the backbreaking type, was off the agenda. (Another silliness on my part; there was plenty of backbreaking work as it turned out.) They went on, then, about my maturity, my life experience, my ability to care for plants and my stints as a forewoman on a team of pickers three times a year. They said all that proved I had more than enough skills to bring to the job. It was official. I had potential.
For three years I proved them right and then … well, a large part of me still thinks I was doing them proud when I held Angus under with the handling bar – a large steel T covered in rubber, a necessary item to stop him grabbing at us, pulling on our clothing, trying to get us into the bath with him. It was a clean, efficient way to send him off. And I’ve always been one for a clean efficient tidying up of matters. Even amongst the dirt of the market gardens I had a penchant for order, the neatness of vegetables in rows, the tidiness of the packing sheds, the cool-store. But then, as I’ve said, that’s an irrelevance I should have put aside.
Memories bully my mind. Angus sitting on a rug with all of us: rocking and hand-thrumming, a long droning hum in his throat. Every few minutes he’d throw his head back, blossoms of laughter winding out of him, drifting across the wide plain of parkland we were sitting in. Carmel, another resident, slid her large doleful eyes across to mine.
He’s having fun, she said, an unintentional sardonic note tuning her tone.
Nice to see, I replied, not meaning much.
He gives you so much curry, Lou, she said. Always curry.
At the beach I turn into a car park that’s familiar to me. Across the road large houses, mansions really, bloom with unnecessary lighting. Their facades frown at me. Here, my car will be found easily, a second, more-thorough examination revealing specks of Angus’s DNA in the boot, although I can’t imagine how; the plastic he was curled in so thick it would surely be impenetrable.
I take my bag and walk down the ramp to the beach. Cliffs curtain the suburbs into obscurity and only the lights of the city break the still bay, speak of humans. They’re so far away though, more like fairies’ lights.
My heart dances a polka.
My friend, the doer, leaps forward for duty, opening my bag, removing the bricks. I wonder for a moment if I want to take my clothes off and when I can’t decide I ask her. She says, Don’t be ridiculous. Why on earth would you allow yourself to be found in the undignified state of nakedness?
A little quarrelsome, I say, They’ll find Angus like that.
She says, Angus was an innocent who should have been euthanased at birth. You were making a statement when you buried him starkers.
I nod morosely and sit on the cold sand – like glass through my pants under my buttocks.
I attach the bricks to my shoes, winding the twine around and around.
Tonight the moon is white, chalky, a fisheye above me. It’s my witness, saving me from having to walk into the water unnoticed. A life for a life, I tell it, looking up. This is what is fair and just and right.
Like a pearl diver I begin my sojourn.
It’s then, for some unfathomable reason, I have an olfactory sensation, an indulgence. It’s the recollection of my favourite meal: steamed vegetables, a sprinkling of cheese. I see cubes of pumpkin, rounds of carrot, sprigs of broccoli. Green as green, orange as orange, yellow as yellow; so tasty. I’m sitting at the table in my kitchen. Marlin is a sentinel on the chair next to me; there’s a fur of steam on my window obscuring the view of the giant oak, and in the frost of glass I see Angus’s wobbly jagged walk, his head on a broken-neck angle; I hear his hyena screech.
The trestle of misgiving weighs in heavily and the bricks sink in the sand at the edge of the sea. It takes all my strength to shift myself forward. Soon enough though water is swirling in cool eddies around my calves and eventually around my knees. My corduroy pants are like a heavy towel wrapped around my legs and, when the water laps and nibbles at my waist, urine jettisons out of me: a warm release. I progress. When the sea streams at my neck I look up at the moon for the last time. It signals its farewell in swathes of light adhered to the water’s surface. My goodbyes pile into middens in my head. The doer, the other, the more me than me, takes over until I’m all the way under.
I see my boss, her black hair spiked, her lips a deep glossy mahogany. We don’t know how you do it, she’s saying to me. Handle Angus so well. You deserve a medal and, quite frankly, the organisation is indebted to you.
I think he’s in pain, I say. Bangs his head on the concrete to even it up … the pain that is.
Her eyes blink, cut away. We just wanted to say we appreciate what you do.
The water is murky and a large bubble escapes from me, waddles off. I put my hand out, want to scoop it back into my mouth but it’s out of reach. And my hand seems oddly dismembered from my body. I switch my head around as a large fish swims out of the darkness and, with some of the moonlight penetrating, I see its pink fin twisting, its goggle eye widening in surprise at my presence. I feel something brush my leg. Minnows rock to and fro in nervous turns before skidding away. My clothes ripple as if I’m in an unsure wind. My hair tugs like seaweed.
I’m not clear which way is up and I feel the first injection of water into my blood like a knife into bone. I look around absurdly for the fish, wanting it, thinking it might tell me something before my demise or let me grasp its fin, ride with it over the tide to a heaven under water. And as my eyeballs reel I can no longer decide if I am flesh or sea. I can no longer hold court or counsel. Peace infuses me. And then I hear him, his laugh rising mercurially. I can see him, his head back, his mouth open, a distorted frothy guffaw emanating. I realise where he is, that he’s hanging on as I push on the spinning platform, as I make it turn. And the slightest smile emerges on my face as I listen to his squeals, to his hyena laugh. He’s at play, happy with the wing of movement under him, happy at last.