There were still spaces in between, grassy fields and long strips of reclaimed land waiting for a highway that would never come. The streets cut through the hills and gullies, doubling back in cul-de-sacs, a casual grid of red roofs and black bitumen streets. The houses were set out in rows, arranged on blocks of land with big front and back yards. There was hardly any noise, just the distant sound of cars on the main road and the cry of lost magpies.
Some older houses survived. One was a fibro cottage, occupied by a retired night soil man, and next to it was a field where someone had planted an English Oak tree. A horse lived under the tree, looking disappointed, barely moving.
“C’mon stupid horse, grass,” William said, holding out weeds.
“Stupid horse,” Mark said.
“What’s wrong with him?”
The children walked to the top of Grove Street where the white concrete path leading to school began.
“I ‘spect the horse likes hay better.”
Mark looked at his sister following behind.
“Are you mental?”
“They eat hay, any idiot knows that.”
“Go away Rebecca,” William pointed at her, “You don’t know anything.”
“I know more than you do.”
“Oh yeah? Who was the first man in space?”
The two boys laughed.
“Wrong, you’re wrong,” Mark mocked. “Ha-ha, wrong.”
The path followed Lovell Road over the hill, past the vacant lots of overgrown weeds and rusting tin cans, and finished at the pedestrian crossing opposite Denistone East Primary School. The children waited for the light to turn red.
Miss Baker had a nervous condition. No one really understood what that meant but the children knew to look for her orange Volkswagen. If it was parked in the staff car park, it would be a normal day. If it wasn’t there, Mr. Field would be filling in.
It was a non-car day.
ANTIDISESTABLISHMENTARIANISM was written in a flowing hand that stretched across the black board. Field sat at the front of the class reading the newspaper. The students were trying to see how many words they could find in the incomprehensible array of letters. Field turned his newspaper over and started on the sports news.
William looked at his school book. RAIN, MEN, TABLE. He was stumped. He tapped David on the elbow with his pencil.
“Craig Anderson said that Yuri Gagarin was the first man in space. I thought it was John Glenn.”
David put his finger over his lips and glared at William.
“We’ll have to check the book,” he whispered.
David pulled a book out from beneath his desk. William could just see the title: Man And Space.
“Wow, can I have a look?”
“Later … after school,” David said, glancing up at Mr. Field.
“Please, come on.”
“Later,” David said.
Mr. Field looked up from the racing section.
“I hope you fellows are discussing the denunciation of power vested in the Church of England.”
“Get back to work.”
William looked at the clock. It was 3pm. He couldn’t find any more words, so he drew a picture of a Lunar Excursion Module on the rest of the page instead. He knew the basic shape but the details were vague. It was a square on a rectangle with legs and had all sorts of antennae and dishes. He improvised on the details, adding some extra rockets and began sketching in the lunar landscape – a crater here and there and some impressive mountains on the horizon. He was about to draw in the Earth when the home bell rang.
David was smart, William decided, as he looked at his list of words. He didn’t recognise most of them – DISINTER, ESTIMATE, ESTIMABLE. Getting David to lend the book would be hard work, William knew, but it was worth a try. Maybe a swap?
“I have the Question and Answer Book of Space and the Time Life Book of Space,” William started.
“I’ve got that one. It’s good the Time Life Book of Space.”
“It’s got good pictures.”
The boys sat at the bus stop. David lived two suburbs away and caught the bus to school every day. William walked to school and never waited for the bus. It must be obvious, he thought, that he wanted the book, so why didn’t David just give it to him?
“The bus is 5 minutes and 27 seconds late,” David said, looking at his watch.
They watched the Lollipop Lady escorting children across the road. At 3.15pm there were streams of children. Mothers waited on the grass, smoking and talking, leaving as their children arrived, slowly dwindling down to just one or two locked in serious gossip. The Lollipop Lady was waiting for dawdlers.
“What’s next?” William asked.
“Mars by 1973,” David said.
A whole planet this time and maybe even some life too. It was great. Really, really great.
“Maybe Venus or Mercury, who knows? Did you get the Lunar Excursion Module in Frosty Flakes?”
“My mother won’t buy it for me anymore. I just got the model out and threw away the rest, they’re really bad.”
William made a retching noise and they both laughed.
“I’ve got the whole set,” David said. “I made the Sea of Tranquillity in the sand pit.”
“Mars, I can’t wait.”
“Don’t wait too long.”
The two boys looked up. A man in a grey suit was standing next to the bench, smoking a cigarette.
“What?” William asked.
“I said don’t wait too long, it’ll never happen.”
The man had a deep voice.
“But David has a book that says…”
David grabbed William’s arm and whispered in his ear – “don’t talk to strangers”. William pulled away from David’s grip.
“We have to beat the Russians to Mars,” William continued.
The man began to laugh. His face was odd, William thought, blank and grey. There was something else, something familiar. He looked straight into the boy’s eyes and William felt suddenly cold.
“Listen kid, there are some things you just can’t change, you should try to remember that,” he said.
The bus passed the lights and pulled up. David ran to the opening door. William yelled goodbye but David didn’t look back.
“What’s wrong with David?” the man asked.
“Dunno,” William said.
The man dropped his cigarette on the foot path and stepped on the butt.
“I have to go home now,” William said, backing away.
“God,” the man said, looking at the school, “It’s so … small.”
William tripped on the edge of the footpath and fell backwards into the arms of the Lollipop Lady.
“Are you alright love?” she said.
When William looked up at her soft, fat face she was staring at the man.
“Do you know this child? Are you…”
“I just came back to look at my old school,” the man said, interrupting.
William watched the Lady’s face, tight and worried.
“Alright then, let’s cross the road,” the Lady said, dragging William across the road by his arm, waving her Lollipop at the oncoming traffic.
“Go right home now, bye.”
William walked down the street, looking back at the Lollipop Lady and the man talking. They didn’t seem to like one another.
The glass of milk and the sandwich, covered with tinfoil and sealed with a rubber band, were on the top of the washing machine. There was a note. “Here’s dinner, go to bed on time, love you, Mummy.”
William took the food and went into the lounge room and turned on the television. A dull man in a white shirt and black tie was talking about something to do with numbers. There was only sport on the other channels. If he waited long enough, he reasoned, something good might come on. He went to the front door.
The chicken on white bread sandwich tasted fresh and cold.
He opened the door and looked across the street. In the front yard of the red brick place, two girls were playing with a ball. One was Maria and the other was her little sister, Rosa. They were Italians. Wogs. No one ever spoke to them.
Rosa waved when she saw William watching. He closed the door quickly and went back to the TV.
Play Lunch was the designated 15 minutes between 11.30am and 11.45am when the kids would eat lollies – Redskins, Bananas and Freckles – or caramel slices or finger buns and drink milk. There wasn’t any time to play, although some kids tried. Mad Mario would dance around and sing and throw himself in the dirt but the rest of 3rd Class sat in the shade and talked, eating buns and drinking milk.
“There was this guy who had dreams,” William told the two boys. “And they were really real, like he could be somewhere and think it was real, but then he would wake up and it was a dream.”
“What was his name?” asked Mark.
“Dunno, but there was this other guy who was chasing the man in the dreams. He had powers, he could make his mind do things, like blow up a petrol station, and the guy, the guy who was dreaming, was trying to escape. Then, he went down the street and the petrol station had been blown up.”
“You mean in the dream or in real life?” David asked.
“In real life,” William explained. “He thought it was a dream but it was really blown up.”
Mark and David looked skeptical.
“What’s the name of the show?” Mark asked.
“Outer Limits. It’s on at nine o’clock.”
“You stayed up late?”
“I wish my dad was dead so I could watch TV late.”
“Don’t be stupid,” David said and kicked Mark’s school case.
“Get lost,” Mark said.
Mr. Moss, the teacher who wore his tie inside out, came around the corner of the building saying good morning to the boys.
“Mario, stop throwing yourself in the dirt,” Mr. Moss yelled across the play ground.
The boys looked at Mario lying on the cricket pitch, pretending to be dead.
“Don’t worry about him sir, he’s mad,” William said.
“Yes sir, he’s completely mental,” Mark said.
“No running Anderson,” Moss yelled at a boy across the field. “Why is that boy running?”
“Don’t know sir.”
“Come with me, Mr. Poole wants to see you.”
Moss walked off as William scrambled to collect his bag and follow. He looked back at Mark and David staring at him. Why did the headmaster want to see him? Then he remembered. He’d yelled at Miss Baker. He just opened his mouth and it came screaming out of his head like black poison. It just happened sometimes and then it went away.
William stood outside Mark and Rebecca’s house. He climbed over the rockery next to the patio and looked in. No one was at home. Mark’s fish were swimming in their tank, and the Christmas tree was already up, lights blinking on and off.
William walked down to the street corner where the grass was long. He kicked off his sandals and felt the grass spiking the soles of his feet. He lay down, and wriggled into the blades. High above, a silver jet made long trails in the sky. A lawn mower droned.
Across the road, under the tree, the horse swished its tail. William walked over and leant against the wire fence. The horse snorted and looked at him. He said hello but the horse turned away and wandered over to a huge Mulberry bush growing near the opposite fence.
“Stupid horse,” William said.
“He’s a nice horse.”
It was Maria and Rosa wearing matching dresses.
“He’s a nice horse,” Maria said again.
“He won’t eat grass,” William said.
“That’s because he likes hay.”
Rosa had a runny nose and wiped the snot from her face with the back of her wrist.
“Go home and wipe your nose,” Maria said.
“I mean now… Subito!”
Rosa walked away towards the red brick house.
“Where are your friends today?”
“Mark and Rebecca are at their grandmother’s house.”
“You can play with me if you like.”
“I don’t play with girls.”
“Oh,” Maria said. “So what do you do?”
“I play soccer in the morning and then I climb trees or go for a walk at in the park or watch TV.”
“The afternoon movie, but only if it’s war or space.”
“What about fairies and witches?”
“Do you like magic?” she asked, crossing her arms.
“Sometimes, if there are good fights. With swords, or battle-axes. But not much.”
Maria kicked at the dust with her bare feet.
“Where’s your mother?”
“She’s at work,” William said.
“How old are you?”
“I’m eight. How old are you?”
The horse walked back along the fence. Maria put her hand out and the horse sniffed at it. A long pink tongue shot out of its mouth and licked her palm. She laughed and jumped back.
“I’ve never seen it do that before,” William said.
Maria wiped her hands on her dress.
“Do you want to come to our house?” she asked.
The inside of Maria’s house was odd. It had dark wooden furniture with no cushions and the TV set was old and small. On the walls were pictures of men in strange hats and there was a plastic cross with Jesus above a shell with water.
“Ma Maria, che stai pensando? Perche’ sei tornata con questo ragazzo dal vicino?” Maria’s mother asked, looking upset.
“He doesn’t have a father so we should give him something proper to eat … la pasta con sugo come noi mangiamo,” Maria said, pointing at William with her thumb.
“Do you… like… spaghetti?” the old woman asked.
“My mother says I’ll eat anything.”
The two children sat at the red laminate kitchen table. Maria pushed a basket of bread in front of William. He took a bun, pulled it apart and started eating. Maria took a bottle and dripped something on to the bread. She licked her fingers and ate.
“That’s olive oil,” Maria said. “Do you want some?”
“What’s olive oil?”
“What did he… che cosa dissi?” Maria’s mother said, turning from the stove
“He said… come mai non lo sa, l’olio d’oliva? Ma come!” Maria said, gesturing at the bottle of olive oil.
“Oddio!” Maria’s mother laughed. “Dio mio, Madonna Maria!”
“Who is that man?” Maria asked, pointing at the TV.
“That’s an astronaut.”
William didn’t understand. He was in a spacesuit, he was on the moon, there was a rocket. He was an astronaut.
“What’s he doing?”
“Exploring,” William explained.
That was a good question.
“They want to have a look around, see what’s there.”
Maria lay on her stomach on the lounge room floor, her head propped up on her hands.
“But nothing is going to happen.”
“It might,” he said.
When the movie was over Maria offered to show William some books. Since he couldn’t think of anything else to do, he agreed. Maria went into her bedroom and came back with an armful of books but they were girlie books, with pictures of fairies and witches. William found one picture of a giant but that was the only interesting thing in them.
“If you had magic powers, what would you do?”
William had never thought of magic powers, except perhaps the ability to destroy things with the power of his mind.
“Dunno,” he said. “What would you have?”
“I’d be invisible.”
That was interesting, William thought, to go inside people’s houses and see what they were doing.
“I’d have a magical pony that could fly…”
A pony that could fly? That sounded stupid.
“Come on, you must want to be able to do something magical?” Maria asked.
William thought hard. There was that Time Machine movie where the man could go back and forth in time and do things, fight monsters and talk to people about things. That would be good.
“I’d like to time travel.”
“How would you do it?”
“I’d build a laboratory and build a machine and then I’d travel in time.”
“That’s not magic, a machine isn’t magic.”
“It can be.”
“No,” Maria said emphatically, “A unicorn is magic, a machine is just a machine.”
She picked up a book and flipped through the pages. There was picture of a lady sleeping and a man bending over her.
“That’s Sleeping Beauty, that’s magic.”
“Because she has a curse on her and she won’t wake up until a prince comes along and kisses her.”
William thought about it.
“I like rocket ships better.”
Maria closed the book.
“I think it’s time you went home,” she said.
As William walked across the road to his house the street lights came on. It was starting to get dark. If someone came along, he thought, the princess would wake up. And if they didn’t come along? Then she would stay asleep, maybe forever.
William opened his eyes. The house was quiet except for the loud clicks from the refrigerator and the ticking of the bedside clock. The two dogs were still boxing, one dog’s glove going up and down for the seconds, the other dog’s paw winding up for a big punch, counting the minutes. Those two were always at it.
The blue night light flickered as the gas ran low.
He thought he might get up and go into the kitchen but he lay in bed and watched the shadows move on the ceiling. He had been dreaming, he remembered, about flying over the neighbourhood, looking down on the backyards, the swimming pools, swings and sand pits.
William stared hard into the darkness of the room. Shapes moved back and forth from the edges of the ceiling to the centre, winding around the hanging cord of the overhead light, then back again. Pictures started to appear in the shapes and for a moment he thought he was dreaming.
He could see the school yard and children going into the classrooms, one of them might have been Maria. Then he recognised a man’s face, the one who had been at the bus stop, looking down at him, smiling. William closed his eyes slowly, then opened them. The man had gone.
The pictures disappeared.
One minute he was awake, the next he was asleep.
William’s mother had made him promise that he would never tell her lies and so he never had. When she asked him what had happened to Maria, he told her honestly he didn’t know.
“Did you see anyone in the street, someone lurking around their house?”
William studied his mother’s face. She was talking softly but there was something very serious in her eyes.
“No, Mummy, I didn’t see anyone.”
“No, Mummy, I didn’t see anyone.”
She stood up and turned to the two tall policemen standing in the hall. One policeman was writing in a leather bound notebook, the other had his hands on his hips, the fingers of one hand resting lightly on the handle of a pistol. William realised they were so tall they could fix the broken hallway light without a ladder.
“This is really very important son, you didn’t see anything?”
“If William says he didn’t see anyone, he didn’t see anyone.”
“Alright,” the policeman said.
“When did you last see her? Do you play together?”
“I don’t play with girls,” William said.
The two policemen looked at each other.
“Have you ever been to her house?”
William thought about the question.
The other policeman looked at William and then wrote something down. He flipped his notebook closed.
“OK then,” the first policeman said. “This is the telephone number of the Eastwood police station.”
He handed William’s mother a piece of paper. She folded it and put it in her apron pocket.
“This is so… terrible.”
“Yes,” the policemen said as they left.
William watched the two men walk down the driveway and into the front yard of the next door house.
“Can I go outside?”
William’s mother looked up, the receiver of the telephone in her hand.
“Hang on a sec,” she said to someone on the phone. “What did you say?”
“Can I go outside?”
“OK, but just make sure you don’t go outside the yard. Stay where I can see you.”
There were police cars parked in the street. A white van with the letters ATN 7 was parked down the road. For as long as William could remember, there had never been this much excitement in Grove Street.
William stood at the gate, resting his toes on the crisscross wires of the fence. People were standing in the street and looking at Maria’s house. He opened the gate and walked down the hill to the field where the horse lived, but the horse was gone. His mother had kept saying that the horse would have to go one day, but William had never believed her.
Where had that stupid horse gone?
He imagined himself as an adult walking down the street, perhaps smoking a cigarette, smiling. He would tell people things they needed to know and they would remember the things he said.
What had happened, what had really, really happened to Maria, well, that was something he didn’t know, something that maybe he wouldn’t ever know.
But then, he realised, one day he would be grown up and he would know.
Taste: Fresh New Writing – The UTS Writers Anthology, Sydney: Halstead Press, 2003.
©Andrew Frost, 2003.