Just Past Three in the Morning (5)
Me: I knew about Penny going to visit Norton. It seemed only right. And I was there at the hospital gift shop helping her pick out the flowers. Listening to her ask me: “This is okay right? Flowers for guys, it's not...?”
I ruffled her hair. “It's fine.”
I laughed at her while she stood in front of a reflective window, tossing her hair back into place. Me: the lump behind her, holding the flowers.
And I went with her on one of the visits. The guys all there. An almost festive atmosphere. Five of us passing around an oversized box of chocolates until the entire thing was empty.
Norton: “I gotta start saving more drunk girls from speeding cars.”
“He was,” said Penny, “he was speeding.”
“Was he even a he?”
Penny said: “I didn't see anything. Or I don't remember... I don't even know what colour it was.”
“Green,” said the boys altogether.
Not meaning to, in my corner, I burst out laughing. My own laughter sounded conspicuous in my ears, but I couldn't seem to rein it in.
“I dunno,” Pigsy admitted, “I didn't see the driver. I didn't even think about it. And it's not like he stopped and got out of the car or anything.”
“He or she,” I said, almost involuntarily.
“He or she,” Pigsy echoed.
But whoever it'd been they were long gone and clear, maybe haunted by the memory, maybe having spent the whole next week scouring the papers and internet, death notices, news articles, in fear that their accident had killed somebody. Maybe they were wondering and agonising about it still. Yeah, maybe. Or they'd moved on, stopped waiting for the sound of sirens; decided against taking a better look at their gift horse's dental work.
And I thought about Mum. And what she'd said to me.
I was twenty-four. Not exactly the oldest in our crowd to still be living at home – these days, these times, rents, all that – but when you think of it in terms of a quarter century, or close to a third of a lifetime...
And just knowing that Mum – even if only sometimes, and not really seriously – thought I shouldn't be there. I'm being honest here, that had hurt.
Maybe that's why I was ostentatious about it, flipping the paper over to the “To Let” section, making sure it flapped and rustled as I went. I could feel Mum look up at me as I did.
“Want the paper?”
She shook her head.
Go on. Tell me you didn't mean that, and of course you like having me around. Throw something in about family.
Instead: those few sentences sat in silence between us, an awkwardness I didn't feel ready to breach.
Behind me, Shelley came in dancing, with her headphones on – all black hair and piercings, a ragged and lacy cardigan held together with a safety pin. She tapped her fingers along the edge of the kitchen counter, playing it like drums, jumping out of her rhythm for just a couple of seconds to toss a slice of bread into the toaster, singing to herself, lost in all kinds of oblivion.
Did she know they'd been fighting about her? She'd have had to. But she seemed to float above it all, absolutely contained in herself. Seventeen.
My fingers ran down the columns. Flatmates Wanted.... Wanted to Rent... To Let...
There was a small crop on a Wednesday, mostly in the north end, mostly pretty studenty. I focussed for a minute on one in Cormorant Street. It sounded as if it had promise. Maybe... I could do a walk-by, if I was serious. Which I still hadn't decided if I was or not.
I slid my eyes towards Mum, trying to see if there was any reaction. But her face had a faraway look. There was something old and lined and sad about her, and I suddenly felt petty over the newspaper, my attention-seeking page turning. I wanted to get out of my chair and go put my arms around her. I wanted to – but some stubborn core inside me kept me rooted in my seat.
I ran into Pigsy a couple of weeks later. My head was all messed up with family stuff, and I'd made my escape from the house after hearing Dad suddenly blow up at Mum because she'd thrown away a magazine he hadn't finished reading. I knew the spiral, and I didn't want to be around to see it reach its frosty abyss. I'd grabbed my coat, a scarf of Shelley's, and I'd headed out to the park just to find some quiet and some sense of reason.
And Pigsy. He has a distinctive face. The kind of guy you meet once, and if you ever see him again, you know about it. A few visits to a hospital room and it was like seeing someone I'd known all my life. He was walking the same little winding path as I was, and we slid off to the side to a slightly damp bench to catch up.
“He's out,” Pigsy said of Norton.
I hunched into my scarf against a sudden gust of wind. “Good news, right?”
“Bloody relief. He was driving us all batty, actually. He's not a good patient.”
“I mean, about his leg?”
“Yeah. Look, they had to put a couple of screws in, and there's a scar. But he just thinks of that as something to show off about. Not sure if he'll walk just like new or not, but it won't be major. He'll be good.”
“That's all right then.”
“You look a bit frazzled.”
“If that's not overstepping any boundaries. You just look like you're worn thin.”
Thanks, buddy. But there was concern in his eyes. It was sweet. He was looking at me like he thought there was something to worry about. And look, me: I try to be the one who's got it all under control, the rock the others can lean on, the glue. I don't like admitting to weakness. I try not to let people notice. So ironically, it's nice – it touches something – when somebody does.
And I said, not able to help myself: “Ah, just family. It's nothing.”
And he said: “Family, it's always something.”
It could have come pouring out like a waterfall. It was tempting. Which is not really like me – the rock and all that, the tough old iron-skinned oak. I just shook my head. “They're getting hard to live with.”
“I can relate.”
“You live with yours?”
“I used to.”
I hesitated. Screw it. “Are you glad you made the move?”
“Yeah. I mean there were circumstances. And I miss the sound of other people in the house with me. And I do actually like them, generally speaking. But yeah, it's good where I am.”
“I'm seriously thinking...” I confided.
Pigsy grinned. It was a bright, world-including grin. “You just might have come to the right place.”
“It just so happens I might know a guy.”