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Short Story Prize

Nothing in the night | Runner-up, VU Short Story Prize

The boy is running again. You can tell by his feet that’s what he is doing. It takes you some time to understand he is running – in the beginning the sound of those feet isn’t any way peculiar to the other morning sounds. I was once a boy myself but I was never like that: my steps never made that small smacking sound, smacking in their little rhythm along Sadlier Street.

I push down with my hands, inhale and sit up. The curtain over the front window shifts, as if I’ve created some breeze. Beyond the curtain the day is turning on. It’s not there yet. The mynahs call out, long and low, and the boy appears back and forth inside the window frame, and he is running.

The first time I saw the boy he was outside a different window. I thought I recognised him as a kid from next door. He was going up and down the driveway, outside the kitchen window. As far as I could tell that’s all he was doing – running down to the bottom of the driveway and back up. The thing was I couldn’t see his whole self all that well because between the window where I was and the running boy there was a wooden fence. The fence belonged to us and to him, but the fence was falling down. So the first I saw of the boy, if I can strip it right back, was his straight black hair as it flicked up and down through the broken down fence. His hair was fairly short but not short enough that it couldn’t lift off his head like a billion tiny hands, waving at me. He was small, I’ll say that. The t-shirt he wore was too big.

This was yesterday; the day before my wife up and died – she was in the bedroom eating a bowl of muesli because she knew how much the spoon smacking on the edge of the porcelain disturbed me when I worked. I was standing at the window, washing up a glass. I remember because I saw the boy’s hair waving at me and this alarmed me. In response I dropped the glass. My wife came out of the window, screaming. This confused me. I wanted to tell her the boy was out there. But then I recalled he was only a boy, he was nothing, and my wife went back into the bedroom to finish her cereal after she stood in the doorway saying something to me about the working and the drinking and the cut glass on the floor. I said I would take care of the glass. When I looked for him the boy was gone. I sat down to work. But then I put the pencil down because I remembered the glass. I went back into the kitchen to take care of it but then my wife called out, one last time, from the bed. I lay down beside her and we both fell asleep. When I woke up she was dead. It was really amazing to me to be looking at her dead and to understand completely that if I didn’t call the ambulance immediately I’d be lying there with a dead body on my arm, voluntarily. I was going to hit the alarm but in the end I couldn’t do it. I got out of bed and poured out a drink and sat down to work. I worked with my wife in the next room. Dead, yes, but still there.

I don’t mind saying I was dying then, as well. I was dying the first day I saw the running boy and I am dying now looking at him running this time out the front. I’m sick with something rare – I’ve got this dizziness and I keep losing things. I’ve lost so much this year: my reading glasses, six hundred dollars cash, one cat with a distinctive black mark on her nose. The year my wife died I lost all kinds of things and then I came down with this dizziness for one, and this nausea, and these headaches. I’ve seen some doctors, don’t get me wrong, but anyone take the actual time to ask me how it feels like they can’t tell just by looking I’d say it was the feeling of two large, thick hands about the brain. Squeezing. Applying this unbelievable pressure in my skull so the places where it hurts comes thickly, dripping down. But that’s something apart from the running boy. He’s out the front, beyond the low red brick fence, he is going back and forth, running.

I get up off the lounge. That’s a thing to do and I do it. And since I’m doing one thing, I guess I’ll do another. So I open the door and walk out onto the verandah. I stand there with one hand on the railing looking at the steps, which I mean to go down but every time I move my feet to go the running boy comes along and I have to pause for him, look up. I can’t miss him. I’ll say something this time, that’s what I’ll do. I don’t know why it’s never occurred to me before that I should say something to him while I still have the time. But the hands squeeze inside, claiming the space in my head, absolving me of a certain responsibility I have. To speak to him, now. To tell him something concrete. But the hands squeeze, they’re made of nothing but they’ll be the end of me.

His steps make that crucial flat smacking sound on the concrete and those fine black hairs lift well clear of his small, steady head. Those hairs rise and fall in a tremendous, friendly way. My eyes, I swear, magnificent in my head! While the whole of you dies various parts see their end, they hold on, amazing, expelling their pride, surprising themselves and fascinating you. I want to move my neck around to look better at the boy but the fingers, at the tips, are jet cool on my spine and I can’t move my neck for what the fingers might do. All I can do is stand here on the deck with one hand on the railing and the other by my side with my wife in the next room beating out the porcelain time. Then I remember my wife is still dead. She did that on my arm, which I set there for her to sleep on every night for sixty years.

We didn’t meet at the beginning, my wife and I. This was a long time after everything was done and it was with one another that we understood it wasn’t possible to start again but we would do it anyway. We did it. We made this little life together. We lived inside of that. We had to go on some crazy long time past the normal end, past ordinary. We had a special party and buried him in the yard. We planted marigolds on top, we did this especially for my wife, but my wife changed her mind in the middle of the night and we drew back the dirt with our fingers, our nails, and we set him between us in the bed, in the box. And my wife felt better. But the next morning I told her, ‘You better get some help.’ I drove her to the beach. She looked out at the grey ocean, all foam and tips. ‘He was the greatest thing that ever happened to me,’ she said, ‘and I don’t know his name.’ She screwed up her fists and rained them down on her thighs. ‘We called him Ben,’ I said. ‘We called him Benjamin.’ But she put her head into the headrest fast, five hundred times.

In any case now I’ve got a clear view of the boy. And he is really running! From this angle I can see what he does, how he runs to the end of the street and hits the trunk of a big white ghost gum tree and runs back again, passing but not acknowledging me. If anything, as he comes closer, he puts his head further down. I can see close up like this how wet his t-shirt is. There’s liquid pouring from his head and that’s making his pink t-shirt stick down and his hair at the back is pressed down as well. I wonder, where could a mother find a pink t-shirt like that. Or perhaps it got that way in the wash. Now he runs clean past the banksia tree. He runs with his chest puffed way out and his arms working hard but in a way that isn’t neat. He works his arms in a way that isn’t natural like it is some great effort for him to move through the air. It’s hot I suppose, but I only feel cold. I can tell it is summer by the air that’s too thick because the boy is pushing through the air with his cupped hands but he will soon enough drown, doing it that way. I put one foot on the stairs because he’s disappeared again. But now I hear – yes back he comes – one small steady smack on the concrete, then another.

I don’t recall anything sharp about the way I got down but I know I must have done it because I’m standing here at the gate. Half the brick wall is to my right and the other half is to my left and I am right in the middle. I never thought a gate would benefit me this way. The gate is an old-fashioned one, it came with the house, and now I have both my hands wrapped around the iron at the top and that is propping me up. I pull up my knee caps and try to take out my chest. I hope that by doing this what’s in between will balance itself out, naturally.

And then the hands apply the pressure inside my skull so the hurt drips down as far as my right hip bone and stops. I have it in my head to go further out and lie down. I could go right through the gate if I could open it all the way and then I could lie down in the middle of Sadlier Street and wait for a car to come along. That would be something, to end in that way. Not this disaster.

The iron of the gate is cool and damp from the night. I remember exactly this place on the wall because this was the part of the wall where I couldn’t balance any books. When my wife died I thought I would get rid of all our books. They were balanced either side of the gate, one on top of the next up to four, all arranged alphabetically. I carried them out in a bag. I did two trips. I set all those books up along the low brick wall fence, A to L on one side of the gate and M to Z on the other. Then I went inside to see what would happen. This old man came along, I think older than myself. At least all old men seem that way to me. He was stooped over with a long jacket on and he picked up my collector’s edition of Grapes of Wrath. That’s a book I haven’t ever read to the end but as I watched him turn it over I remembered my wife giving it to me. I held onto the curtains with the tips of my swollen fingers and watched that old bastard turn page after page. He took his time. I honestly thought he would steal my favourite book. Then he put the book down, and walked slowly away. I dragged the big bag back out the front and pushed it up against the brick wall and swept the books right back in, armful at a time, and whichever books didn’t quite make it in I gave away to the Christian Care shop. But that was only a game I played. The next day I went straight down and bought all the books back.

There is no sign of the boy – I’ve forgotten him again. Or perhaps he’s changed his plan, perhaps he’s given up, perhaps he’s gone down Audley Street and he’s looping up Crystal and then he’ll be back, where I am. The midsummer air is cold on my teeth and nearly everywhere you go in our street, this time of day, a car door slams. The light is too deep. The light is too deep and too bright like a thumb tip between the brows pressing hard in your sleep and then the boy appears, easy, as if he’s never gone away. He runs past me from the direction of the driveway which belongs to the house where his family might live, the woman standing at the kitchen window next to a giant green bottle of washing detergent, very still. I’ve never seen her washing up. I’ve only ever seen her standing there at the sink, before the bottle, very still.

The boy looks at me as he runs my way. That’s a shock. He looks me square in the face and his eyes are very open but they don’t expect a thing from me, they simply look. The closer he gets the more I can see. Yes, his skin is very gold, that’s still true, but from under his hairline there are blessings of water running direct to two temples, they’re running quite slowly but running all the same. His body has made those blessings, in the shape of perfect squares, and now they’re falling in squares down the side of his face but all at different angles, they’re falling as themselves. And when he puts his head down and runs right past me I can see those diamonds, like liquid glass, make a glass trail along his neck. I am preparing myself to tell this to him, but then I change my mind. Something more urgent has come upon me and I have to say that, I have to speak out, I grip the iron of the gate with my fingers made of ice and I prepare myself to say what it is that’s on my mind. ‘That’s not running,’ I will say. ‘Whatever it is you think that you’re doing, that’s not running!’ But then I remember that these aren’t my words, I read them somewhere and they don’t belong to me. Or if they belong to me then they aren’t going anywhere. I can’t make them. They’re in my head and in my hips and my blood and whatever I say, when I say it, won’t change anything.

She said this to me under a Morton Bay Fig where we buried him finally and properly. She said she understood words wouldn’t change anything but it was also true, she said, that she could finally say what was wrong. ‘He was the biggest thing that ever happened to me,’ she said, ‘and he never happened. The biggest thing that ever happened to me never happened to me at all.’ I considered all this but I had to disagree. I told her. ‘He happened,’ I said. ‘He’s still happening.’

Look how he runs, how he shuffles his feet! And his chest, the way it puffs all the way out, breaking out of his front ribs and arriving everywhere first! His elbows are bent but not bent all the way – his arms are working the air at his sides but they’re drowning. I push off the gate, wanting to shout out. I plan to give it to him plain and straight: ‘That’s not running,’ I’ll say. ‘Hey whatever you think it is you’re doing, that’s not running!’ But the cold air pushes in, full of fresh dirt, and I can hear my wife working at the lock on the door. The sun is coming up, it’s slashing through the trees. And there are slips of red hair from the banksia trees all over the pavement on Sadlier Street where the boy runs, back and forth, and stops running.

I didn’t make the choice to leave anywhere but I am well through the gate when the sky turns to red. Now and then my wife turns the key. But apart from that sound which came to me, nothing in the night moved at all.

 

 

 

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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Ashleigh Synnott lives in Sydney. Her stories and essays have appeared in print and online in publications such as Overland, Meanjin, Antipodes and Award-Winning Australian Stories. Ashleigh is represented by the Jane Novak Literary Agency.

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