Fiction

Flight

Opaque smudge, a Dickinson sh-sh-shift of light and I know better than to try to catch the exact moment the Sydney Tower lights turn off and anyway, eyes on the road.

Tell the truth but tell it slant, Emily said, and that’s what I’ve done my whole life and look where it’s got me, as I dash – one good arm for steering and the other hanging useless. But I’m on the road north before dawn, two hours before he wakes. If I could pinch myself I would.

 

That day, the sun beat down on me, pressed its burn hard on the back of my neck, across my shoulders, as I worked the garden. Planting for the summer I always dreaded for its sleeveless dresses and short shorts and fake tan spray never the right shade of blue-black.

The potato patch was his, but weeks had ticked on while he sowed seed elsewhere (a gross turn of phrase but perfect) so I took the tubers from the bag in the shed and picked up the spade and started to dig. Worms glistened and twitched bah humbug to the blade, believing their own regeneration hype. The truth is, only the end with the head will survive and, even then, it’s touch and go. I did my best to work around them because who was I to be judgey about self-preservation?

I thought it was a stone at first, the scrape of metal against clunk. Kept digging and turning and if it wasn’t for the sun I would have missed it. But it caught itself a ray; yeah, Emily, a dazzle, nothing gradual about it, fleeting and blinding me quite still with its thin silver shaft. The spare key for the car – the one he lost last summer, he searched for it high and low but not here, not in the potato patch. When all the dirt was scraped out of the grooves, it grew warm in the palm of my hand.

I put the key away. First, I put it in a sock in the drawers in the spare bedroom, but then I thought: what if he says I’m going to clean out the drawers in the spare bedroom and he picks up the sock and feels something in it, like the bone of a small ankle but it can’t be that because the child never lived, so he turns the sock inside out and the key chooses his palm to be warm in?

So, I moved it. Taped it to the back of a framed photo on the wall in the hallway. But then I thought: what if he punches the wall and the frame falls down like last time and hey ho, what’s this? and good luck with an answer to that. So, I moved it again. And again.

 

Last night, as I emptied his pockets for the washing machine, a crumpled slip of white paper. A petrol station receipt and when I smoothed it out flat on the laundry bench I saw that on the way home, he’d had a pie and a bottle of coke and $98 of petrol and I’ve no idea how near that might be to a full tank but it’s enough to go on.

And when he came at me late in the night, when I felt the sick click of my shoulder giving way, I pressed my face hard into the pillow until the key pressed back.

Hey you. Eyes on the road.

When I was a kid, I tried each night to catch the moment when the light went on, on the top of the mountain. To see it happen would be lucky. I never did, which just goes to show. I check again now and sure enough, the tower has slipped out of its ball gown. The tower is naked and grey.

The tail-lights of cars ahead; a ruby necklace climbing the hill. Then, one gemstone brighter than the rest. The car right in front of me brakes, and in its headlight glow, there is a cat. It is black and the reason I can see it is because in this lilac moment, it’s soaring high and slow through the air.

The cat is as graceful as a ballerina and at the mid-point of the arc, it twitches; not a saut de chat but a sassy twerk: a spine flick, a kick of back paws. Then, it tumble turns to the side of the road.

The car that hit it doesn’t stop. Nor should I. I know that; I am not a lucky person. But I slow down and pull over to the slipway. As I open the car door, I hope with all my flipping heart that the cat is already dead.

I can’t find it. I search and search, the gutter and the verge and then under the hedges and around the other side of them. I’m in someone’s garden now and I can’t help but notice it needs attention; that they’ve left their summer planting too late. Emily, the lucky recluse, had a glasshouse. She was into spices. She sent flowers instead of herself to birthday parties. May these molest as fondly, she wrote on the cards.

I bend down, pull out a weed. It comes away easily. And another. Once you start, it’s so very hard to stop. I’ll tell you, Emily, how the sun rose – not a ribbon at a time, and maybe the steeple did swim in amethyst, but I missed that moment too.

I wonder what the cat’s name is. I call out to it. Here kitty, here kitty, over and over, louder now, above the rising swish of a new day’s traffic.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Dec 4, 2021 as "Flight".

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Sue Orr is a New Zealand writer. Her new novel, Loop Tracks, is published in Australia in March 2022 by Upswell.