The Middle of the Air
Where mortar can't hear
If walls could talk, this place would be a circus. Police cars spilling red-blue-red-blue onto the concourse. Uniforms blustering in, handcuffs jangling. Telephones would bleat, buzzers would whine. Harried workers in scrubs would gather in clusters, fingers pressed to their temples. Old folks in recliners, mouths agape, would swivel their bewildered heads like sideshow clowns.
You’d be gone, but the news crews would swoop in anyway. They’d train their cameras through gauzy windows, angling for a heart-tugging montage: bingo tables abandoned mid-game. A wilting Ficus. An octogenarian with a thousand-yard stare dribbling into a plastic bib. A crocheted blanket slumped on the institutional carpet. There’d be slow panning shots across the two-toned brick exterior, the sky gathering purple above.
These walls allege… TV anchors would say, their voices grave.
From your grimy cell at the remand centre, you’d hear the reports drift in.
A 24 year-old man was arrested today over the death of a woman at the Blue Wren aged care facility. The 75 year-old died last week in what doctors said were not suspicious circumstances. Then the walls broke their silence. A coronial inquest prompted by the walls' allegations found that the woman had been strangled. The man, now in custody, has worked at the facility for four years. Staff and residents are said to be shocked and saddened...
You’d chew over your plea. Guilty. Innocent. Neither. Both. You’d think of Sylvie. Same.
Such a wonderful mother, her sons would tell the papers. A vibrant, kind, generous woman. RIP Sylvie. Much loved. Taken too soon.
About you, your colleagues would give quiet, stunned accounts. Gentle young man, they’d recall. Always time for others. Didn’t see it coming. Never imagined…
You’d know your past would be dredged up soon enough, its grim lowlights splashed across the papers. Delinquent childhood. Broken home. That juvenile charge for animal cruelty.
Some childhood acquaintance would slither out of the woodwork. Loved to kill ants with a magnifying glass, they’d say. He'd burn them into the dirt, watch them writhing. That was the start of it. He moved on to rabbits. Then there was the cat of course. He’d get his victims in a chokehold and wait for the life to limp out of them. He used to boast about it; how fast he could do it, how quietly. When the Davidson’s Labrador died suddenly one day, I had my suspicions…
No mention of the bruises on your own pre-teen neck.
At the Blue Wren, there’d be hand wringing. How on earth did he get a police clearance? concerned families would ask. What kind of monsters do you employ here? Procedures would be overhauled, policies scrapped and re-drafted. The general manager would sob in the coffee room, shrill phone calls smarting in her ears. Couldn’t have known, kindly colleagues would tell her. Not your fault. She’d sob harder.
You’d weep too. For the sadness of everything, for your Mum. But not for yourself. You’d go over it all in your head. You’d do it again.
Getting the job wasn’t hard. God knows people weren’t queuing around the block to spend long, poorly paid hours tending to the old and the clapped out, watching them ghost about in wizened skins, losing their balance, clasping their marbles tight.
But you saw opportunity. At 20, you threw yourself into a carer’s role like your life depended on it. It was that, or become your old man: embittered, drug-wrecked, abusive, feared, with nothing to his name. You had other plans.
At the care facility, the residents were simple enough to befriend. They craved the loved ones they’d been wrenched away from; you just had to hang around and listen. You played the long game, sitting patiently at bedsides. Even as you hoisted incontinence pads over frail hips, or cut gnarled fingernails into yellowed crescents, or swilled antiseptic over dentures in plastic cups, you’d be listening.
Vintage Jaguars, one might say, tapping his nose. Still got a mint condition E-type in my daughter’s garage.
Three philandering husbands, sweetheart. Where do you think I got all these diamonds?
The more you were there, the more they shared. They’d all swum in the zeitgeist once; now they waded through their sunset years in a dank cloud of disinfectant and too-loud TVs and beige food and sedentary games, maintaining a fragile hold on their senses. The least you could do was be a confidante.
Sylvie made it easy. When she arrived, you honed in on her. She was always upbeat, smiling through the crippling sciatica that had her confined to a chair. Arthritis had made claws of her hands, but she stayed cheerful as you helped her into silk blouses and delicate gold chains, pinning mother-of-pearl combs into her soft white hair. Always so well put together, her friends would say later. Never complained. A glass half full woman. Only you saw her wincing, knobbly fists balled at her chest, when the angina squeezed at her lungs. Nobody came to visit.
Good boys, she’d say of her sons, smiling. Very busy.
I'm here, Sylvie, you'd say.
Every day for months you took her on outings around the grounds. Let's outrun this wretched old age, she'd joke as you wheeled her through the gardens. When you passed the vegetable patch, she’d remark on the progress of the slow-ripening tomatoes. Always looking forward, was Sylvie. Any day now, she’d say in her frail, smiling voice. Any day.
But not that day. That day, when you parked her wheelchair in front of the tomato bushes, their leaves browning at the ends, there was no sparkle in her eyes. Her mouth was pinched, her palm pressed to her sternum. You took a green fruit between your fingers, an attempt at distraction, and squeezed. When do you think it'll be ready? you asked. Any day now?
She glanced, mournful, at the tomato in your hand and sighed long and slow. I miss touch, her face was telegraphing. I miss being alive.
Then she fixed you with her watery grey eyes and let the smile drop from her lips. Today, she said. It’s time.
You were nowhere near a wall.
Honeyeaters chirped in the Durantas, whose branches swished in the breeze.
Help me, said Sylvie, her gaze steady. The rest landed in scraps, like ash deserting a bonfire. Pain... too much... too long... enough.
It was a variation on a tune Sylvie had been trying out for a while, tentatively, in an off-hand register. But this felt different. There was a gravitas to her whole being. Her involuntary twitches stilled as she reached for your hand.
If walls could talk, you might have taken this moment indoors so that now, the world might land more softly on you. But in that open-air garden, your spine pulled straight by a sense of purpose you’d never known, your thoughts were not of yourself. They were of courage and grace and trust. Of mercy.
Later in her narrow bed, Sylvie’s breath was thin. She crossed her misshapen hands neatly on the bodice of her nightgown, as if readying herself. Her eyes pleaded at you from their deep sockets. She blinked slowly, like an animal accepting its fate. A muscle memory twitched in your fingers.
The one thing you knew how to do – fast and quiet – you did for her.
The walls only knew the half of it.
Heartbreaking, I devoured every word.
Excellent choice of 2nd person narrative and the way the reader is lead back and forth - is he or is he not a villain?
Lovely reading your work :) I also read one of your flash fiction pieces and it was brilliant. So glad you wrote here again. Fan from NZ :)
Wonderful!!! Loved ir!!!💕💖