The bike bucked as it went over the little bump in the driveway, and I bucked with it. The drain pump would have to be cleaned again this weekend, the refuse that builds up over time been forced out by sheer force of water. Dad had told me that water always followed the path of least resistance, but that when enough force builds up, you’d better move out of the way right quick.
I turned out onto the street and began the mental count of houses. The Avannis, or as my dad called them “the wogs”. I don’t think he ever intended to be mean, just the way he was raised. But, even so, when Johnny came around the term mysteriously disappeared.
Past them, and number four, were the Smiths. Mum called them “Potato Salad,” boring. Dunno why. Jake was a shit hot cricketer. They hosted all the barbies, “best snags anyone would ever have,” we were told. I still don’t know whether that was true, but hey, everyone needs something to be proud of, right?
I cycled past them, and banged on number three’s letterbox. They weren’t around much; at least, I never really saw their car. Only saw the bloke once, he was bald, I think. Not really sure of his wife. Or girlfriend, I never thought to ask after that, either. But when I got to number two? Nah, I always went faster when I went past that house. That flaking white veranda that revealed the grey wood underneath, a rusting mailbox and badly cracked concrete. Everyone knew what went on in that house. It was loud enough to make me wish I had a Walkman. That day, however, the house was silent. I risked a look at the windows. The curtains were drawn, and the car was absent. At any rate, I stopped counting after number two. The last house wasn’t terribly interesting anyway.
Streets flashed by, one by one. Every now and then, a dog would bark, or a person would wave, to whom I’d wave back, but not stop. Maybe on a Saturday, but not on a Sunday. Sundays were different for me and I was already late. A set of four white poles became visible in the distance, peeking over the tops of houses, then another four in opposition to them. As I drew closer, the slap of leather covered cork against wood could be heard, and the occasional cheer.
I came across a tangle of bikes stacked up against a single rail fence, dumped my bike, barely remembered to chain it and dipped under the railing in a single smooth motion. The kind of motion that comes from rote practice. ‘Who’s in?’ I shouted over the din.
One of the boys, I don’t remember who, replied. ‘Jake’s in, you’re gonna have to wait a while.’ Then he turned back to the pair running between the wickets, and rested his chin on his knees. I moved over and joined him, watching the game. It wasn’t serious of course; I don’t think any of us were all that serious about it. Except maybe Jake. It was just a bit of fun, right? But still, it was an escape from mundane life, same as any other. A helpful way to keep unpleasant things, like homework, familial disputes and detentions out of mind.
Sweat hung on the tip of my nose, reflected briefly in the harsh sunlight, then fell in fat drops down into the torn up dirt and grass below, causing the grit to rise up in a swell. The boy opposite me took his time, rolling his shoulders, taking paces. Then he bowled, and I batted. After that, I was running. Up and down, feet pounding up and down the dried grass and loose soil of the local oval. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Johnny leap, his hands tickling the underside the ball and crash to the ground in a heap, cherry-red ball clutched to his chest. Five feet away from the wicket I dragged my feet and came to a halt, plunking the end of the bat onto the ground, panting.
‘Looks like I’m back in,’ crowed Jake. They had been rotating people in and out of the queue as different kids had come and gone. Jake always seemed to find a way to get further ahead in the queue than others. I recall that this irritated me; perhaps more than it should have.
‘How much more light have we got left?’ asked Jake. The sun was rapidly sinking, the final dregs of light dripping between the gum trees that fringed the other side of the oval. Quite a few of the other boys ignored him, leaving to collect their bikes and ride off. Maybe they were sour about not having batted as much as they would have liked. Maybe they just didn’t care to pack up the gear, and were instead leaving others to do the work.
I stood and watched them trickle off in ones and twos, until it was only Jake, Johnny and I. ‘Sorry Jake, other things are going on.’
‘Tea,’ I said. Johnny nodded at me, but said nothing. Jack grunted, and threw a bag at me. I took it and began to dismantle the wicket nearest to me. Then I threw it back at him and he did the same with the other. Johnny retrieved his bat, then unchained his bike and waited. As three, we were a lonely trio, in contrast to the few dozen that had come and left before us. With no one on the field it looked awfully barren and absent. A sore, brown wound on the landscape. And then we left it to rot.
An ambulance whizzed past, the whirl of sirens blaring out a clear message: stay out of the way. We followed it, the flashing lights marking the streets we worked through. A beacon to light the way.
‘Who’s it for?’ Asked Johnny.
‘Dunno,’ said Jack.
I shrugged. I thought I knew, but it was an uncomfortable thought, so I kept quiet. I cringed inwards, the darker thoughts that I played cricket to avoid, even out of season. We cycled onwards. Streets went by and the street lights flicked on, and then, as we turned into our street, I thought myself proven right. The ambulance with its flashing lights had fallen silent, and there was an eerie silence hanging over old Elms street. People stood on verandas in rejection of the stern stares of police officers. Two cop cars sat, silent on the grass of the house everyone knew about, but no one talked about. A bag that held a body was wheeled towards the ambulance. The devices that had been readied for the preservation of life were unused. The bag was zipped. The only chatter was the static filled conversations carried on over police channels and the grim sighs of officers and paramedics.
As we rode past the cars, the figure in the car was not the one I expected. The woman that lived with the man, bruises blossoming up her arms like awful, sickening lotus flowers and a large black eye. She was handcuffed. She caught my eye for just a moment, and I looked away quickly. As I did, I looked towards the house. An officer came out with a zip-lock bag containing a carving knife. At least, I thought it was a carving knife. It was dark at the time, and we were on the other side of the street. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see the woman in the back of the police car watching us as we cruised by. As if to accuse us and our families of what happened. Of standing by, until one day, she snapped. I know this introspectively. I was a kid at then, but the look she gave still haunts me. Maybe the rest is simply the filled in details of my mind, darkly reminiscing of the eighties. Or maybe that particular scene was all true. What can I know of it?
What I can remember in detail is the way my dad put a hand on the back of my shoulder and pushed me inside, muttering about the “wife beater”. I went upstairs without tea and sat down, deep in thought. At the time, my thoughts weren’t about the dreadful reality of what just happened. Instead, I thought of the next game of cricket, next Saturday, when I’d try to beat Jack’s score again, despite not being any good at the game. The events of that night were never spoken of in my family again. Sometimes, I wondered whether I should be ashamed. Still, some thirty years later, I think of this often.
I imagine the battered woman, who sat handcuffed in the back of a cop car, must think about it more often than I do.
Image by: Tim Graf