“He pulled down the straps of her tank top with his teeth and bit her neck..Afterwards, she pretended it didn’t happen”: a short story by Auckland writer Leanne Radojkovich
A teenager riding an e-scooter shot across the intersection towards Patsy, she stepped aside, the front wheel took the kerb sideways and the scooter spun out from under him; he cracked headfirst onto the footpath, blood sprayed out. He’s dead, Patsy thought and squatted beside him. “Don’t touch him,” a man wearing a face mask ran over the road. The boy groaned and foam trickled out of his mouth. She sat back. “Ring 111,” the man said as he dragged off his jacket and laid it across the boy’s chest. She was shaking and couldn’t tap in the numbers. He pulled out his phone and dialled. A dog rounded the corner and sniffed the boy’s shoulder, Patsy shoved it away. “Help’s on the way,” she quietly told the boy, “just hold on, hold on.”
The ambulance drove onto the footpath. She rose and almost fainted. Pain shot through her lower abdomen; squatting was a mistake. She watched until the ambulance disappeared, it felt as if part of her went with it. Then she turned and continued down the hill to catch her train.
Patsy’s oldest friend, Sharon, had called the day before and asked her to go down, “I’m going crazy in this shit town.” Sharon had flown in from Aussie because her Dad died and she was sorting out his house and cremation. Her brother was stuck in Brisbane with a sick kid, so it was all up to her. She spoke without drama, she’d always been matter of fact, and Patsy, who’d recently had surgery and wasn’t meant to drive, said, “Sure, I’ll come for the weekend.”
A woman wearing a polka-dot face mask entered the carriage first. She and Patsy were the only passengers, trains were still running but no-one knew for how long. Patsy waited for the woman to choose her seat. She wondered about putting on her mask, then didn’t. She had disposable ones from the chemist, they reminded her of hospitals and made her feel claustrophobic. The woman settled on the back seat and pulled a cap low across her brow so only a finger-width of eye showed. Patsy sat at the front, the maximum social distancing possible, although it was way more than required. She tried to remember if they had to be one metre apart, or two? The rules kept morphing, however face masks were not yet compulsory.
The train to her home town had been reinstated a month ago after being mothballed for 30 years. Her and Sharon used to laugh about their town being a hillbilly village. As teenagers they’d taken the train up to the real city for a concert, the night was largely lost to drugs and booze. They’d bought the cheapest seats at the top of the stadium’s amphitheatre, they were so far away from the stage that the band, when they came on, were ants. A guitar note spangled out and the audience in the centre gelled into a massive anemone, their raised arms were wavering hairs. It was only much later, in the petri dish of memory, that the tiny band members enlarged into the mane-tossing glory of the posters on her bedroom wall.
The carriage doors slid together. The train moved slowly past the platform then accelerated. The backs of shops flickered by; a mural of squirrels hopping from building to building, wire fencing with rubbish blown into the diamonds, blowsy late-summer fennel grown man-high. The sky was a pure, surgical blue. Patsy rested her head against the window. The night before she’d taken tramadol and despite sleeping well, her mind floated… she thought of the boy on the footpath, blood pooling around his head. She thought of the oxygen mask pressed over her face. “Relax, now count backwards from ten,” and bliss spiralled up.
She woke at midday, the sun burned white. She shaded her eyes and gazed at the countryside passing by. Summer-crisp paddocks stretched to a craggy mountain range in the distance. The train crossed the bridge over the river. She’d swum in that river, swung across on willow fronds, sat beside it at night smoking and gossiping with school friends. She’d tried to run from it, once – but the river’s muddy edge snared her ankle and she’d dropped like the boy that morning. Her stomach cramped.
The train pulled into a stop. A father and son stepped into the carriage. The son, aged about eight, had a toy rifle slung across his shoulder. “Morning,” Patsy said as they walked by. The father gave her a nod, and sat precisely in the middle. The son pointed the gun at her, behind his father’s back, and pulled the trigger. Then he sent her a shy, angelic grin – she smiled at him; her heart turned into air.
The train trembled then slid out of the station. She saw her reflection in the window. Her dress was unbleached linen, ghostly on the glass, the square neckline seemed to emphasise how prominent her collarbones had become.
They passed more parched paddocks with cows sitting still as rocks beneath ancient alder trees. The old factory’s smokestacks appeared. The factory had shut long ago and rusting iron sheets covered windows and doors. Her father had worked there. Each morning her mother made him a packed lunch and thermos of tea and they’d pecked each other’s cheek goodbye. Her father had made it to 63 and her mother to 49, the same age she is now. A hawk rose above the smokestacks, light as ash, slowly circling higher on a thermal.
The carriage doors opened and Patsy stepped onto an extended, renovated platform – sleek and modern and unrecognisable from her childhood. Her trolley bag purred along the smooth concrete path then clackety-clacked along the pitted tarseal footpath outside. Her step quickened as she approached the maze of streets and cul de sac’s, everything seemed smaller than she remembered. She stopped outside her old home. Wooden venetian blinds lined the windows where net curtains had moved in the breeze. She remembered the grandfather clock’s asthmatic tick-tick and rickety chime on the hour. Like sands through the hourglass… she’d heard a million times on TV, intoned as if a priest were reading scripture. Her mother had watched every episode in a swoon. “Muuum… Muuum!” a child called from the back of the property. Patsy moved on. Heat shimmied up from the footpath – more than that, tears blurred her vision. She wiped her eyes.
The bus shelter was just up ahead. Her and Sharon used to scramble down the bank behind it to the river. A boardwalk had been built across the bank and a circular lookout looped around. She crossed the road and walked out to the farthest point. The river’s pickled tang sheeted up; she hadn’t smelt that fragrance for years. Muscular currents were braiding and unbraiding, relentless – even in the shallows she could see the water slithering through stones hissing with busyness. One afternoon, she’d stared at the river for so long it was no longer an expanse of water; it was a creature – a vast eel with rippling skin. She’d been frightened of eels ever since. Sharon would freak her out saying they oozed out of the river at night and climbed up the bank to her house. Once, Patsy found a dead elver, its body a leathery sock, its eye a pecked-out hole. “What kills little eels?” she’d asked her father. “Bigger ones,” he’d laughed.
A broken-off branch sailed past and its wake glittered, slicing like memory, like the eyes of the hatchlings. She’d been swinging off a tree branch when it snapped and a nest smashed to the ground. Pairs of sun-pricked eyes stared up at her. She should have put them out of their misery, instead she’d turned to stone as life twitched out of them. The mother bird circled the tree shrieking until night fell. Another, deeper memory of sharp eyes began to slice through. Patsy spun away. The sun was so strong against her back she felt x-rayed. She was a glass eel, she’d said when the doctor showed her the image of her organs clearly defined in a gin-coloured body.
She pulled her trolley bag across the road and headed to Sharon’s. A skip was parked on the verge outside, it was full, the legs of an upside-down chair poked out. Huge orange cosmos plants grew in the front garden, stalks spidering out in all directions like tumble weeds.
The door opened and there she was – looking just the same and also completely different. They stood there smiling at each other. Sharon was much broader and her faced deeply tanned and lined.
Sharon suddenly put her arms around her and lifted her off her feet. “Make yourself at home,” she said, “I’ll make a pot of tea.”
The lounge was empty except for a sofa, a coffee table, and a TV sitting on a beer crate. It was hot, yet all the windows were open. The Phoenix palm at the end of the section had mushroomed in size. A starling disappeared into a cavity at the top of the trunk, it reminded Patsy of sneaking out at night with Sharon. They’d fit themselves into the hollows and gaps of hedges and fences and creep to the end of the road. In winter, they’d slip into the bus shelter, just to have their own space. In summer, they’d climb down the bank to the river. The water whooshed past while they sat around telling porno jokes about their teachers or the deputy principal – his mad frizz of hair, how he strutted around the grounds like a rooster nursing haemorrhoids. Miss Clarke, the ancient office lady who pencilled on eyebrows in a cartoon arch of surprise, her cherry lipstick. At home, Patsy’s mother was coughing up blood; she’d told no one, not even Sharon. Her ridiculous idea that not speaking about it was dialling down the reality. Her mother’s rattly breathing in the night hurt her heart; same as the rat that gasped its last beneath the kitchen floorboards one morning. Did rats cry? Did they have souls? In the silence that followed, she’d felt the dead rat’s presence in the crawlspace beneath her feet.
She was beginning to ebb. She placed her hand on the windowsill so as not to lose balance.
Sharon came in carrying a tray loaded with teapot, mugs and a cake still in the supermarket wrapping. “I spent all morning baking this for you.”
“Not too much,” Patsy said.
Sharon carved off a large slice. “You look like you need a decent feed.”
How to say she couldn’t eat? That everything tasted of metal? Patsy took the plate and a fork and placed them on the armrest. “It’s like my first flat – I think that’s the same beer crate!”
“Dad was a real hoarder. I’ve filled three skips since I’ve been here. Never threw out a nail, or a pair of shoes. Want a smoke? I gave up but coming here made me start again.” Sharon went to the kitchen and returned with a packet, drew out two cigarettes, lit them both and held one out.
“Probably shouldn’t….” Patsy took a small puff, it made her dizzy.
“We had our first in the bus shelter.” Sharon said. “You stole them from your mum.”
“I’d forgotten that.”
“Did you see the tip’s gone? It’s a farm now. Cows grazing on top of our rubbish. It’s enough to put you off milk.”
“I saw cows at the old factory. They were wandering around where the big floral clock used to be.” She was functioning close to normal, thought Patsy, or perhaps that was an illusion? Her vision blurred again. She stubbed out her smoke in a saucer. A cow was drawn on the saucer – no – a horse.
“Let’s go for a wander – see what else has changed,” said Sharon. “Can’t climb down to the river anymore. Did you see the boardwalk? Remember that time we thought the police were after us for smoking pot and we all took off – but you went the other way and we lost you? You were so lucky.”
“Yeah,” Patsy agreed flatly.
“Hey, are you ok? You look a bit pale.”
“I’m not feeling too great. Could I just lie down for a bit?”
“Of course. Come with me,” Sharon led Patsy to her brother’s old room. It contained a single bed and a chair. “Can I get you anything?”
“No, it’s just the heat, I’ll be ok.”
Sharon closed the door behind her and Patsy listened to her jandals slap down the hall.
She never thought she’d be staying in the brother’s bedroom. It was a cold, shocking sensation but she had to lie down and couldn’t argue it; so much was unspeakable.
Sharon’s brother was high on more than pot and beer the night he came to the river, he seemed knife-sharp and paced the small beach while everyone else sat around passing joints. Sharon said he’d turned up the Saturday before, at three in the morning, punched a hole through their front door.
There were seven of them and he was the eighth. It was a sticky evening, screaming cicadas clasped the stalks of threadbare toetoe. Sharon told a long story about Miss Clarke’s eyebrows. Patsy had been too stoned to grasp the punchline and laughed along to fit in. A police siren began howling and everyone jumped up. Her ankle turned in the mud and she fell back. When she sat up, the others had disappeared – except for him, his eyes glinting. Her chest tightened. She tried to stand, her twisted ankle couldn’t take the weight. She hopped ahead on her other leg, two hops, then lost her balance on the squishy mud and crumpled again.
With terrible confidence he was on top of her. He pulled down the straps of her tank top with his teeth and bit her neck. She froze. The stink of him, his scraggly hair smothering her face.
Afterwards, she pretended it didn’t happen; and at the same time had perfect recall. Lately, at night, she’d feel his stinking breath and the shock of what happened, and reach for the tramadol. No need to suffer, the doctor had said, that much they could help with. She pulled a sachet of pills from her pocket and swallowed a double dose; one for pretending, one for remembering.
She had a sense of falling apart very slowly until all her feelings had oozed out. She observed her breath, the impersonal functioning of body parts – then that focus drained away, too. The doctor had said it might end soon, or it might not.
“Double Dose”is taken from the author’s new collection of short stories Hailman published by The Emma Press in the UK. It will be launched during the Auckland Writers Festival on May 11 at Mojo Bledisloe, 24 Wellesley St West.