Fiction

The other side of silence

IT'S TRUE I wanted him dead and would gladly have done it myself. I wonder about the days before fingerprinting, before CCTV, forensic analysis and Google Earth: how easy it would have been to do away with someone. It's hard to believe to look at me, but it goes against nature when a child predeceases her parents and one might assume I was acting in an unnaturally emotive manner at the time. Revenge, I have since discovered, is merely the wish that no one else experience the life denied the person you have lost.

In the modern, friendly courtroom, where the sentence was handed down (a mere two years! on a prison farm!), it felt as if the entire world were a poorly constructed billycart that had lost a wheel, only to continue careening down the asphalt, chunking up sparks as it went. After sentencing, the judge, a chap called Roger Hilliard, a fellow I actually knew of through friends of friends, plumped his papers and swept from the courtroom, steadfastly refusing to meet my eye. Well might he have been ashamed at his part in a system that had so obviously failed to punish adequately the man who killed my daughter. The entire thing was a disgrace.

Meanwhile, the dolt in question exhaled noisily like the pig he was, turned to his dumpy wife and smiled a tight smile of Oh well, honey, it could have been worse, while she dabbed at her lurid mascara. They referred to the crime as an accident, which was true technically, but let's face it, nobody forced the man to drink twenty glasses of beer, jump in his ute and speed through the first red light he encountered. Nobody had a gun to his head.

 

MARIE AND I struggled to have a child at all, and as a result Carol had been much hoped for, much loved and occasionally much spoilt. It is true that parent-hood erases utterly the life you lived before, but even after the child has departed it is impossible to return to the things that might otherwise have occupied your time. The massive space that develops in one's heart to accommodate a child does not, womblike, shrink after the child is gone. For a long time afterwards, both Marie and I woke early in the morning and wondered what to do with ourselves. What we did before Carol came along had been, in the early days of parenthood, the question we asked ourselves. Now the question was: what could we do now she had gone?

I felt Carol's loss deeply but it was Marie who mourned for her most elaborately. She visited her grave regularly, often alone, and hoarded her personal items for longer than was necessary. They were the closest mother and daughter I had ever had the pleasure of knowing, distinguishable from a distance by their characteristic manner of walking arm in arm in a clumsy but touching pas de deux. Marie moved a framed photo, in which Carol was at her most beautiful and at her most assured, to different locations throughout the apartment – now on the bedside table, now on the bookcase, now to the kitchen bench – as if she might give our beloved daughter the animation she now otherwise lacked. More than once she dialled Carol's number for a chat, only for her to realise, with a horror that never really dims over time, that she was calling a number now registered to a complete stranger.

I'd have done anything to ease her pain and it is no exaggeration to say that I would gladly have swapped places with Carol – stepped off that kerb into the path of that speeding truck – if it meant that she and Marie could have enjoyed more years together. Grief is not one of life's human journeys, as those saccharine New Age mystics might tell you, nor is it a destination; rather, grief is an entire continent, apparently endless, with its very own topography and foreign tongue, a nation in which one loses one's passport and papers and must spend the foreseeable future.

After the hullabaloo diminished, Marie and I resolved to take a few weeks away from our interfering families and the inevitable follow-ups from the dogged press. On a whim we decided to revisit the coastal town of Mallacoota, where we had spent two weeks thirty years earlier, before Carol was even born, a place we remembered with great affection, a place where our sorrows might even be unknown to the general public and thus more easily forgotten. It was a simple and isolated place. There was a time when, having been elevated to such lofty heights in our personal history, we would use Mallacoota as a sort of touchstone when assessing the worth of other destinations. We would shake our heads and say – laughingly, but also with complete sincerity – things like, ‘The Dalmatian coast was nice, but it was no Mallacoota.'

In this way, the humble Victorian seaside town assumed almost mythical proportions and I suppose that was part of the appeal of revisiting: the hope that, after all the tragedy of the past few years, the solitude and peace might offer us solace, rejuvenation, a chance to set the world to rights. And so it did, but in the most peculiar of ways.

We arrived at night, as we did three decades ago, located the house we had reserved several days before and received our instructions from our landlady, a gnome of a woman with energetic eyebrows that tumbled and leapt across her forehead like a pair of lithe gymnasts. She activated the utilities, explained the neighbourhood, such as it was, and showed us how to work the automatic garage door. Before she departed, she issued us with a photocopied sheet with a map and a list of names and phone numbers for various services we might require in the township: boat hire, takeaway food, massages and so forth. She assured us we would be undisturbed and urged us to call her should we require anything at all.

The house itself was large and comfortable, almost as tastefully appointed as our own apartment. We unpacked our supplies and it wasn't long before we were nestled on the couch with a fire blazing in the hearth and glasses of red wine cradled in our hands. The silence was deep and tranquil, interrupted only by the occasional crackle and pop from a burning log or the call of an owl in the night.

That night we lay in the unfamiliar bed, deep and warm, under heavy blankets, and stared into the darkness, into the past and into the future, such as it was. I wondered what the man who killed our daughter was doing and hoped that, at that precise moment, 3.15 am, he was being abused in a dreadful fashion by some lunatic prison inmate.

 

OVER THE WEEK we began to recover some of our former selves. We both knew it would be a long haul, but at least there were the beginnings of some sort of adjustment. We would rise early to eat toast spread with local marmalade on the sunny lawn overlooking one of the series of lakes fed by the nearby ocean. Contemplatively, we watched boats tacking back and forth in the late afternoon breeze. Arm in arm we walked the pier to inspect the catch of the men and boys fishing there. Marie, with her binoculars always to hand, sought out birds, checking them against a book bought especially for the purpose of identification. At night we watched DVDs or read quietly, rising now and then to prod the fire or refill our wine glasses. A view of the horizon and the nippy sea air, carrying on it the scent of distant places, combined to make us feel more positive, more hopeful. Even Marie seemed to display flashes of her former self.

There was, it was true, an occasional melancholy that settled upon us when we were reminded of Carol's absence – often by the most obscure object, a TV show, say, that we knew she would have enjoyed or a jumper in a local shop she might have liked – but these episodes became more manageable, almost companionable, like adjusting warily to the presence of a stranger.

The peace and quiet came to a halt, however, one night when a group of about fifty descended on a neighbouring house and proceeded to have the loudest party I have ever heard. I had observed them with some foreboding as they arrived by the carload throughout the afternoon. Marie chastised me for being a fuddy-duddy when I expressed my fear they would disturb our precarious solitude, but it turned out my fears were well founded. From 8 pm, the night was full to the brim with a brew of the most appalling thudding music, the screech of drunken women and the hoarse arguments of young men.

At first we tried to ignore it and passed the evening as we had passed the previous seven. I told myself that it was all fair enough, that I had most likely kept a few people awake during my more reckless years, but as the hours wore on I became increasingly agitated. As a man, one feels the burden of having to do something on such occasions, so when 1 am rolled around and the noise gave no indication of abating, I got out of bed and dressed.

‘What will you do?' Marie asked.

I shrugged in the darkness. ‘Just ask them to stop. Have some consideration for us.' It sounded pathetic, and I knew it.

Marie sat up. ‘Well. Be careful. Don't say anything foolish, Clive. Please.'

I pulled on my sandals and reassured her, but she insisted on getting out of bed and said she would observe proceedings through her binoculars. I knew the set of her voice and declined to talk her out of it, even as I thought it a pointless idea.

 

THE TWO PROPERTIES were separated by nothing more than a large stand of pine trees, and as I padded beneath them and out into the party's penumbra of light and noise I felt as if I were entering an obscure circle of hell: people thronged about in various states of undress and evident intoxication; girls huddled here and there on the lawn. The music was obviously, unbelievably, even louder. I was aware of people observing my progress with slightly bemused contempt, as they might a dog walking on its hind legs, and yet I pressed on.

The house was larger than the one in which we were staying and was lit up like a film set. People danced. A tide of young people ran past me, yelling and calling to each other. They all shone from a day at the beach and were smartly dressed, evidently enjoying the hospitality at the beach house of one of their parents. I crossed the lawn, ducked beneath a tangle of coloured lights strung across the terrace and stood on the threshold to a living room. In the short walk across the lawn I had run through a variety of scenarios, all of which involved me emerging victorious from whatever altercation I was about to engage in, but now I was here, in the thick of it, my resolve ran from me like water. I gazed around at them, at the way they sprawled on couches and bounded up the stairs. It was horrifying in a way that only dimly came to me as I stood there being jostled by passers-by; what galled me most, I realised after several minutes, was that they all had life, were fairly bursting with it, while my daughter, dear Carol, lay crumbling in a box in the earth, cold and alone, miles from us. A couple smiled at me as they squeezed past. I wondered if Marie were observing me through her binoculars and felt my masculine pride under scrutiny, but retreated nonetheless; back to our temporary home, back to bed.

‘What happened?' Marie asked when I was under the covers, ten minutes later.

‘Nothing, really.'

‘You didn't talk to anyone?'

‘No.'

‘How old were they?'

‘Were you not watching?'

‘Yes,' she admitted.

‘Well. They were in their mid-twenties, I suppose.'

Marie drew breath. ‘Carol's age.'

‘Yes. Carol's age, more or less.'

With seemingly endless goodbyes and the slamming of car doors, the party finally dissolved sometime shortly before dawn. Marie and I got up early nonetheless and set out for a walk just after sunrise. The day was misty but, if the past week were any guide, would clear up by mid-morning. We didn't mention the party in detail, or only to say how tired we were. I felt positively ancient, beyond living. We walked along the road for a short distance before cutting down a sandy track to a headland that looked over the curving beach. We stood and the wind whipped about our legs and sang through the stubby tea-trees. Marie peered through her binoculars out to sea in an effort to spot some bird or other she hadn't yet managed to tick off her list. I huddled in my coat and watched the progress of a person surfing far below. A man, I eventually discerned, who determinedly paddled out on his board through the roiling surf and waited for the right wave to ride back into shore. He didn't seem particularly good at it and was dumped repeatedly, often before he even had a chance to ride the board for more than a few seconds.

I FOUND MYSELF willing the surfer on, urging him to stay upright longer, and felt unaccountable disappointment at his failures. After fifteen minutes of this, he appeared to get into difficulty. The board that had been lashed to his ankle came free in a particularly smashing wave and he found himself past the breaking waves in evidently deep water, flailing somewhat, his black, wet-suited arms waving about amid the foam like a beetle drowning in milk. A quick scan revealed there was no one else on the beach, indeed no sign of humans at all as far as I could make out, even though I knew the township was just beyond the scrubby dunes. Immediately I tapped Marie's shoulder and told her there appeared to be a man drowning down in the surf.

She swung her binoculared gaze to where I had indicated. ‘Clive. Have you got your mobile phone?'

I fumbled through my pockets and located the damn thing, as small as a Matchbox car.

‘Call someone. Call Triple 0. Quickly. They can probably get the rescue people out there. A boat. Save him.'

I was wrestling with the mobile phone, struggling with the tiny keypad when Marie, still with her eyes glued to the binoculars, placed a hand firmly on my forearm. ‘Wait,' she said. A pair of gulls wheeled down out of the sky, landed on the grass nearby and shrugged their wings. ‘It's one of them.'

I managed to unlock the phone and was dialling. ‘What? Who?'

Marie's voice was astringent. ‘One of those...arseholes from last night.'

It was extremely rare for Marie to swear. Even throughout the trial, she had managed to withhold her anger, even if I could detect its presence by the tight-lipped set of her mouth. I waited with phone in hand. The wind buffeted us where we stood, out there on the headland, exposed to the elements. We didn't speak a word. I was aware of Marie, my beloved wife, steadying herself against the gusting wind. I was aware of her short brown hair flicking this way and that, of her unzipped jacket flapping about as if the fingers of the wind were searching for something hidden about her person – some grief, most likely – that might be taken away and discarded. Marie kept her hand on my arm. Her grip tightened slightly, almost imperceptibly. I understood at once what she was communicating.

It was then I saw us as if from a distance – as one of the wheeling seagulls might have – two old things in their all-weather jackets on a windswept headland, made tiny by nature. I dropped the phone back into a pocket and we watched, Marie and I, somewhat greedily, I am ashamed to say, as the surfer struggled against the tide, his head disappearing and reappearing within the creaming waves, his dark mouth, visible even at this distance as it opened hungrily for air, until he reappeared no more.

By the time we made our way down to the sand, half an hour later, a small crowd was hovering around the fellow's body like birds. As if she had read my mind, Marie coughed into her fist and began to speak above the sound of the wind. ‘Do you know,' she said with some satisfaction, ‘that the collective noun for herons is a siege? A siege of herons.' Our progress was unwieldy; the sand was heavy and thick, our old bodies tired. We huddled and bent into the whipping wind until we approached the group, who were by now standing around with their arms across their chests, obviously waiting for the ambulance or police. We did not stop. One or two of their number looked up but if they recognised me from the party the night before they showed no sign of it, and we offered no greeting of our own. We kept on and by the time we left the beach, stamped our shoes free of sand and went into the house – now quiet, now peaceful – I expect the ambulance would have arrived and pronounced the fellow dead.

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