by Anita Naughton
One Sunday, at dusk, just as we were having tea, four horses wandered through an open gate, and onto the railway tracks behind our house. We heard a grinding screech followed by a succession of incredibly loud punch-like thuds. Then came a silence that rolled over the Millbank like a wave. My mother went pale. She stood up from the table and looked out of the window. Mrs. Thompson was the first to come out onto the street in her white fluffy Harrods slippers followed by her daughter, Susan, and Mrs. Thorpe, from number one, wearing a royal blue dressing gown and special thick tights for her varicose veins. Up and down the Millbank, clusters of neighbors stood. My brother slipped away, but I stayed sitting at the table watching everyone through the window. Moments later the telephone began to ring. It was only when it stopped that I thought that it may have been my father.
Some of the men and kids went off to the tracks to see the accident while the women gossiped with folded arms. There was a buzz of excitement, everyone stayed outside until it was suddenly dark and, calling out their good nights, they reluctantly returned to their own homes.
That night, while mum was watching telly, I went into our garden and waited by the fence for my brother. He still hadn't come back and I wanted to know what was going on. There was an awful smell of burning and I could hear the distant voices of men, working. I didn't see Paul until he was in front of me thrusting something warm and velvety into my arms.
"A horse's calf," he said.
It really was a horse’s calf, torn at the top and with the hoof still attached at the bottom.
I screamed, shoving it back at him. "Throw it away! Throw it away!"
He stared at me for a moment, then he pitched it so it landed in the Wong’s garden. He rubbed his hands on his jeans and went off inside. From the tracks there came a terrible whinnying sound, so high-pitched that it could have been machinery. I ran inside.
Later, in bed, my brother described what he'd seen. Parts of horse everywhere. Two were still alive, wet with sweat and blood. A severed horse's head had its mouth wide open by the trunk of a tree as if it were about to take a bite. "I'd have brought it home,' he whispered. 'But it was too big." He was eight, three years younger than me but his mind was like a scientist's. Nothing scared him.
The Millbank was shaped like a horseshoe with a set of houses dotting the outside ring and then another set of houses in the inside ring; that meant everyone looked out on another person’s house. Our house was on the outside ring, number seven, directly opposite the Thompsons. A tall hedge hid our front lawn. My dad used to cut it, but since he'd left it had grown too high for my mum to reach. A low chain-link fence divided everyone’s back garden. Behind ours were the woods, and then the railway track, and beyond that, the Millpond.
After my brother had fallen asleep, I stared out of the window. It was summer and all along the Millbank windows were open. Once in a while you'd hear a fit of coughing or a sudden cry. I knew this street so well that it came to have its own feel and character. I let my imagination drift through our neighbor’s homes. I saw their rooms, the expression on their sleeping faces, even the shapes they made in their beds.
I was still leaning out of the window when I heard a low whistle from further up the street. I retreated back into the darkness and peered around the side of the curtain. Mr. Jackson was taking his dog for a walk. He whistled again and Bessie, his white Labrador, came running out of the Thompson's garden. The Jacksons lived at the top of the Millbank. Every Sunday they'd go to church and Mr. Jackson would carry his wife in his arms to the car, her legs wrapped in a brightly colored wool rug. She looked yellow because she had some sort of wasting disease that was making all her bones useless. He was a tall man, and I watched now as he ambled along in his shorts. A week earlier, my best friend Josephine and I were dragging our go-cart up the street when we passed him washing his car. He stopped and asked if we were having fun. I don't know who noticed it first, but as he reached up with his soapy leather and took a swipe at the roof, a testicle hung out of his shorts. We giggled. He asked us what was so funny, and our laughter became uncontrollable. Josephine said later that it reminded her of an elephant's trunk, but I thought of the pink of a sow's ear. I think about it again as I watch him. The lone crinkled testicle and the controlled, easy expression on his face.
Mr. Jackson passed the Wong's driveway, but instead of carrying on along the pavement he changed direction and walked onto our front lawn, stopping by the forsythia bush. Was he going to have a pee? I'd seen my brother do it often enough. Then I heard the side gate open and my mum appeared. She's going to ask him what he's doing on our lawn, I thought, but silently she reached out to him, and in a moment their bodies merged in the darkness below. Their murmuring voices drifted up, almost loud against the deserted backdrop of the street. Then it was quiet and the creamy, stout, arthritic body of Bessie, hobbled away like a ghost dog, followed by Mr. Jackson. They both vanished behind our hedge. Mr. Jackson whistled a few notes. I retreated to my room, the sudden darkness dazing me. I heard the sound of our kitchen door closing and my mum moving about downstairs.
The next morning at breakfast I couldn't stop watching my mother. It was if she were a stranger. Her backside, big in black slacks, swayed from side to side as she moved. Her hair was brushed and pinned up, her make up done. In ten minutes she'd be on her way to the doctor's office where she worked as a receptionist. She gazed out the window as she rinsed a milk bottle, then, turned and, noticing me staring, gave a bright smile.
I waited for Mr. Jackson to come again. It was only when I heard my mum go to bed that I did the same. I wondered if I'd dreamt it all. I thought of telling my brother, but I could never be sure how he'd react. He spent a lot of time daydreaming. Sometimes in the middle of the night he had a fit. I was meant to wake my mum, but I didn't like the way she hovered over him so anxiously. Instead I'd open the curtain a little to let in the light from the streetlamp, and sit on his bed. He'd make strange hiccupping sounds and his eyes rolled back as if he were staring at me from a remote and distant place. I'd hold his hand and whisper, 'everyone loves you and you have tons of friends.' He didn't, but I thought it might fill up the void of being a loner. After the noises stopped, his eyes closed and his breathing hushed. Once, during a fit I heard the loud insistent tap of stilettos walking up the Millbank, by the time I looked out whoever she was had gone.
I waited up the next three nights but Mr. Jackson never came. I spent so long staring at the forsythia bush that its long sinewy tendrils, covered in yellow blossoms, turned into arms reaching out. One night I thought I saw my dad coming up the street with his knapsack on his back, but it was a stranger.
The next morning, I had advance warning: mum looked different. Her mood was light and softer than usual. As I climbed the stairs for bed I had this brilliant idea. Why not hide behind the forsythia bush? There was a narrow space between the bush and the windowsill that was full of cigarette butts that my mum used to toss out the window. My brother found the longest butts and re lit them with an old lighter, smoking them right down to the filter. Where had he learnt everything?
My mum came up the stairs to check on us. I lay on my front, my long hair covering my face. She opened the door, and the light spilled in from the landing. She stood there for a long time, listening, but then she left and closed the door. I waited until she turned off the TV; then I got out of bed, put on my slippers, and as quietly as possible opened my bedroom door. She was in the kitchen now. I hurried down the carpeted stairs. The window in the living room was wide open and blue smoke spiraled out. A little dot of light still showed on the television set. I heard my mum cough. I ran across the living room to the window, grabbed one hand on the window frame and the other on the ledge and hoisted myself up and over. It was a few feet to the grass below. The back of my leg scraped on the narrow ledge and the branches scratched my face. The space was much narrower than I remembered. Seconds later mum coughed again, right above me, as she closed the window.
It felt like hours that I waited. My knees were pressed to my chest and I tried not to imagine all the insects swarming beneath me. After a while I worried that mum may have locked the kitchen door, and I'd have to spend the night outside. Then I heard a low whistle. I kept perfectly still. I heard him treading softly over the grass or at least I think I did. To the right of me came the gentle click of our gate. I imagined my mother stepping towards him, tripping into his arms. I was too low down to see anything but in my minds I saw the negative space surrounding them like a felt pen drawn around their bodies.
The branches of the bush stirred and I realized that his dog was trying to nudge her way through to me. Mr. Jackson must have grabbed at Bessie's collar because she stopped.
"Can you come in?" My mother rasped. I'd never heard that voice before and it gave me an odd thrill.
"She's waiting up for me," came Mr. Jackson's soft voice.
That sounded more like my mother; suspicious, challenging.
Mr. Jackson sighed. The sigh seemed to embrace all of us. A car sped away in the distance, and with it, a strange sense of disconnection and aloneness rushed into me. I had a sudden glimpse into the vast randomness of everything and the multitude of lives being lived at this moment. I thought about my father and the possibility that right now he, too, might be in the arms of a woman. The sound of the car receded.
"Why is she waiting up? Did she say anything?"
'Shh shh.' There followed little popping noises, and I knew he was kissing her face. It was strange to see a mass of blackness before my eyes and hear these disembodied voices.
Mrs. Thompson coughed across the street. Their back door slammed shut. She must have been letting the cat in. I wondered if the same thought occurred to my mother and Mr. Jackson.
"You better go", my mum said in a low voice. I imagined her face, no expression, and no drama, just stating the plain facts. The drama always came later. I heard the scampering of Bessie's paws on the pavement. I was desperate to move my legs but I sensed my mother was still there. She lit a cigarette and after a few moments returned to the house.
My legs were numb and I stood up with difficulty. I went round the back of the house and listened outside her bedroom window. The curtains were drawn but her light was on. Jazz music played softly on the radio. Outside the kitchen door I brushed off my pajamas. Once I was inside the kitchen, I knew I was safe. If she caught me now I'd say I was getting a glass of water. She didn't catch me though, and as I climbed into bed I thought: I won't ever do that again.
Two nights later I knew something was going on. Mum was twitchy and preoccupied. It was as if she was going through all the motions of cooking us dinner, and asking us how school was, but in reality she was somewhere else. I watched her closely. Once she turned, as if she felt my eyes on her back, but I pretended I was gazing into space.
I lay in bed waiting for her to turn the T.V off. She did, but then only seconds later I heard the kitchen door open. I sat up and peered out the window, but there was no one coming along the street. Was he already in the house? Then I saw mum walking up the Millbank. She walked along the curb out of the glare of the street lamps. Was she going to Mr. Jackson's? My mother never walked around the street. I couldn't believe it. I quickly got up and ran down the stairs. The kitchen door was unlocked and the gate slight ajar. It was too risky to follow her up the street, but I could go over the back gardens. Each garden was perhaps twenty feet across, and I only needed to cross five houses to get to the Jacksons!
The Wong's curtains were drawn, but unlike the heavy thick curtains in my room, they were light and see-through. Behind them I saw the compact shape of Mr. Wong crossing the room. In silhouette, sitting at a table, was his young and beautiful daughter Anne. In no time I had crossed over into the garden of the Steeples, a quiet, elderly couple who kept to themselves. Next was the airhostess’s house. Their curtains were open, and two of them were sitting at a table drinking something. One was looking out into the garden and l thought she was looking right at me, but she laughed and I saw that she was on the telephone. Then came the Gillespie's house. The whole family was on their summer holiday in Scotland so the house was dark. Next was the Jackson's.
The living room curtains were open, and Mrs. Jackson was in profile, watching television. I bent low, creeping over the lawn to the patio that was in front of the window. She had a blue rug over her knees and beside her was a little table covered in pill bottles. Her hands, looked like claws on her lap. Her cropped grey hair accentuated her thin bony neck and head. She was watching the game show, "The Generation Game," and I heard the faint sound of laughter coming from the television. Mr. Jackson entered the room carrying a glass of water. He came towards the window so I ducked. Above my head the curtains closed. I moved to the side of the house where there was a smaller window. Just like in our house, there was no curtain over it. I was now facing her, but I knew she couldn't see me if she was looking from the bright house into the dark garden. She was swallowing something from one hand and then taking sips of water. Mr. Jackson opened his hand, which was full of blue pills. She looked confused, but he said something to her and tipped them into her cupped hand. She stretched out her arm and dropped the pills on the carpet.
At that moment my mother appeared in the lit corridor. She was wearing her black trousers and black shirt. Her face almost glowed, maybe from the light above. Mr. Jackson glanced over at her. His wife, as if sensing there was someone behind her tried to turn. My mother disappeared. Mr. Jackson moved in front of his wife so I couldn't see her properly. He bent over and said something. Her head suddenly popped into view as she shifted to the side of her chair. Then he put his large hand behind her head as if he were holding it up. With the other hand he grabbed a bottle of pills. I couldn't see what he was doing, but after a few moments he reached out for the glass of water. Every so often her face bobbed into sight for a fraction of a second.
The green bottle fell to the floor, and Mr. Jackson put the glass of water down on the table. He left the room. Mrs. Jackson was completely still. One of her white arms was up in mid air as if she'd suddenly turned to ice. Her eyes were wide open, just staring ahead. Years later, as an adult, I saw the exact same look on a stranger's face. Only then, I realized that it was a look of terror.
I smelt cigarettes and heard footsteps on the other side of the house. I peeked around the wall and saw my mum standing by the tall wooden fence, next to the kitchen. One hand was crossed over on her heart and the other hand moving up and down as she drew deep drags on her cigarette. I had this incredible desire to reveal myself, a bit like when you're climbing a steep hill and you want to throw yourself down. She dropped her cigarette and swiveled her shoe on it. Then she bent down, picked up the butt and flicked it over the fence. She went back inside, and I went back to the window.
Mrs. Jackson was slumped in her chair. Something white and foamy dribbled out of the corner of her mouth. Her lips were open and they kept twitching as if she had no control over them. Her eyes were semi closed. Mr. Jackson was standing in the next room, the dining room, with one hand on the table. He was standing in the dark. My mother came into the room and went up to him, and touched his shoulder. I thought he was crying but I wasn't sure. Mum looked over at Mrs. Jackson and started walking towards her. She was trying to be silent and there was an expression of concentration on her face. It reminded me of Mrs. Thorpe's cat, Tiptoes, as she was about to pounce on a bird.
She had nearly reached Mrs. Jackson when she stopped. Her hand flew to her mouth, and she looked distressed. She turned and walked quickly back to Mr. Jackson. She said something to him and he nodded.
At that moment, Mrs. Jackson shot her head up as though someone had reached underneath her throat and spiked her. Her eyes widened horribly and she turned back towards them, almost superhumanly. They were leaning on each other and unaware that she was watching.
Right then, I decided that I couldn't bear to see her face again. I raced back over the gardens, practically hurling myself over the fences, not caring that the wire on top of them dug into my stomach. As I reached the Wong's garden, there came a volley of barking. It was Taffy, the Wong's bad tempered old terrier. I slipped and fell onto something cold and hard. My hand found the horse’s calf. Taffy limped towards me, barking, but I scrambled the remaining few yards to the fence and threw myself over. So fast were my feet moving it felt as if I were flying.
Outside the kitchen door my hand was shaking as I took off my shoes. I noticed the small, white, Lily of the Valley growing behind the milk bottles. For all I knew my mum was already making her way down the street keeping to the shadows. The cold damp smell of the earth followed me into bed. I pulled the pillow to my face and breathed in the smell of soap powder and me. Then out of the darkness came an awful gurgling sound.
I jerked up, my heart pounding. It was my brother, having a fit. This time I didn't go to him. I lay in the dark, with my eyes closed, listening. Mrs. Jackson loomed in my mind. It was as if she was everywhere and I had to journey over the massive landscape of her, the pearly hollow of her throat up to the gaunt contours of her cheeks, all that vast space of sallow skin, until I came to the cold, bruised circles under her eyes. Then to the eyes themselves, so dark and dilated that they became the terrified, rolling eyes of a horse, black and enormous. I felt like I was floating, carried along on the strange other-worldliness of my brother's gulping cries. Then far back, somewhere, my father called my name. I soared way up over the Millbank, past the railway tracks and the woods, and beyond to the Millpond. There I hovered, surrounded by the cold dank smell of water and bulrushes.