THE TAXI WAS late, even later than usual. I was too tired to be angry. It would be a waste of precious energy, and besides, I know very well these taxi drivers are gold compared to most. Some don't show up at all. Most can't be bothered to get out of their vehicle to ring the doorbell of the nursing home. One compassionless bastard simply left Mum at the locked door. Luckily the staff found her before she wandered off and the police had to be called. So this father-and-son maxi-taxi team can look as potbellied and snaggle-toothed as they like. They may not be too dainty about deadlines, but they show up eventually. And despite the unprepossessing externals, they show up with a bit of heart.
I know all this, but still the waiting is hard. On the slide towards arsenic hour, Mum's thin grip on reality loosens and my nerves fray under the saw of her anxious repetitions.
What am I supposed to do now?
What am I supposed to do now?
What am I supposed to do now?
If only I knew, Mum, if only I knew.
Usually it's no more than an hour, an hour and a half past the arranged time and the taxi appears. And then her begging begins.
Aren't you coming with me? Can't I stay here?
Not possible, Mum. Not for me or you.
And every time the sickening wrench as I slide the van door shut. Just another Sunday afternoon in the suburbs.
But this Sunday something else happened. I'd cued Simon and Garfunkel on the iPod to fill the silence, music being one of the few bridges we could still cross together. Late afternoon sun filtered silver light through the trees. The man across the street mowed his verge while I stared at the empty driveway. Please come soon. Please come soon. My soundless prayer to the god of taxis.
Then something flashed across my field of vision. Something hallucinatory, strange. As with all clichés, given the exact circumstances, they are exactly true. I could not believe my eyes. A short, naked brown child darted across my driveway and up next door's in pursuit of a large brown hound. Leaving Mum in the lounge room, I went out into the dazzling light.
Even then I couldn't quite reconcile the evidence of my senses, until the dog reappeared and loped past me into my own backyard, the boy running behind. The man across the road kept mowing his verge. Wild children obviously didn't faze him. I glanced around helplessly, expecting the imminent manifestation of a responsible adult. None was forthcoming, so I followed the unlikely pair up the back.
Where is your Mum? What is your name? My name is Liana.
He immediately established a personal space I knew instinctively not to broach. This stocky brown boy-god had full command of himself. I knew the label 'vulnerable' was not inaccurate, but somehow it wouldn't stick. He was far from silent. The rhythms and intonations of his voice were theatrical, hypnotic. And the speech was accompanied by expansive and confident gestures more to be expected of a middle-aged actor than a five– or six-year-old child with missing front teeth. His skin was flawless, not glossy but taut and dusty brown. His gestures were unambiguous; his rapid, sure-fire speech full of energy and assurance, and absolutely incomprehensible.
I stood there helplessly fishing the occasional word – 'No!', 'Mum' – out of the babble when I heard the screen door click behind me. My mum emerged from the house and appraised the situation in a glance. Her knowing smile said it all. She recognised an apparition when she saw one.
I was outnumbered here. Neither Mum, nor the boy, nor the dog had a problem. But I sure did. With nothing to fall back on but manners, I introduced them.
This is my mum. Where is your mummy?
Yes, where the hell is your mummy or daddy? It was, given the circumstances, a rhetorical question.
The hound bounded back down towards the house and noisily hoovered up the cat's food and water. The boy edged closer. Close enough for me to see the scar down his breastbone. And hear the catarrh through which he continued to chatter animatedly.
Look, Mum, he's had heart surgery. Just like you.
Down syndrome was way too small a cage to capture this jungle boy of suburbia. He slipped through its bars and dealt with the world on his own terms.
I opened the back door and we all went inside. Crowded together in the small lounge room – boy, hound, Mum and me – we made quite a menagerie.
Our low glass coffee table holds several large glass bottles at a child's height. The lowering sun lit their jewelled colours. The boy, enchanted, reached out a delicate finger to touch a rim and smiled up his delight. My hand rested lightly on the hound's head. Nobody spoke. Twenty minutes had passed since the boy first appeared. Neither the taxi nor his guardians had appeared. I was the only one worrying.
I rang my husband's mobile and it went straight to voicemail. I went back to the lounge room. Situation the same. What on earth does duty of care mean, exactly? What is the correct etiquette when you are visited by an archetype on a Sunday afternoon? I don't want no god on my lawn / Just a flower I can help along.
Calling the police seemed extreme, a last resort. Better to at least try to deal with things in the community. If some distraught neighbour was out searching, calling the police might unnecessarily complicate matters. Incident reports. Trouble with Welfare. A few hours a week spent honouring family bonds was enough to wear me to exhausted despair. I was in no position to call judgement on some poor soul who had to deal with this force of nature full-time. Besides, I'd seen how fast the child could move.
For want of any better option, I herded us all out to the front veranda to await our fates. The light was fading. I sat flanked by twins of difference from each end of the life span, the cicatrix of the surgeon over each heart, a tribal bond. It was a Zen koan in four dimensions. Life is wild and mysterious and utterly beyond my control. I surrendered. That was all that was necessary.
Three vehicles appeared in swift succession.
The taxi. Sorry, love, there was a car rally and all the streets were blocked.
My husband's ute. Who's the storybook kid?
An old Valiant sedan. Get in the car... (then, an afterthought) ...thanks.
Her perfunctory nod wasted no energy. Her face showed traces of hard living. Her voice was the antithesis of her son's – flat, tired. It held no kindness, but neither was it harsh. The boy got in the car willingly enough.
As they drove off into the twilight the dog ran behind. I thought of the boy's skin. Not a mark on it – bar the mark of a long-ago decision in favour of life.