Karlene Morgan, Contributor
The first time she saw him, he was balancing three or four trays of eggs, peering over the top to make sure he didn't miss his step. Distracted by a sound, he stopped and saw two animals locked in the final stage of mating. Placing the trays on a bench, he picked up a stick and an old paint can and tiptoed towards them. When he was close, he banged loudly. The dogs yelped and disappeared in an eight-legged skitter round the back of the building.
The boy leaned against a tree weak with merriment, and only when he was through laughing did he spot Vera Marsden on the verandah. In that moment, as his eyes made four with hers, Vera fell in love.
She had come to be interviewed for a job as matron at New Dawn Boys' Home. She wasn't to get it. 'The buildings are old and our subvention is small,' the board chairman explained. 'We can't afford to make all the adjustments to accommodate your wheelchair.'
At the time, she worked as a telephone operator in a government office. Her station was a dimly lit closet behind the receptionist's desk. She wanted to be in the open; to meet people; to have young men pass by and call out to her;
'Hi, Vera. What's up, girl?'
'You tell me, nuh!'
'Don't ask, unless you can handle it.'
'Go 'bout you business. I could be your auntie.'
'Auntie my foot, and you just brushing 25!'
And they would laugh, knowing there was nothing to it except that she was woman, they were men, andthey were all alive.
The rejection hit her hard, and when it started to drizzle she thought it an appropriate end to the day. Her taxi pulled up to the curb and the boy reappeared with an umbrella.
'What's your name?'
'Roderick, but they call me Rudie.'
'I can see why.'
He glanced at her, not sure if he was being reprimanded. Then, seeing the amusement in her eyes, he grinned and ran back to the veranda.
It was some three or four years later that she ran into the superintendent of the home and enquired about the boy.
'He ran away.'
'But he seemed such a nice, bright boy!'
'You never know with those children. One moment they seem to be adjusting and the next, they're gone.'
Vera escaped her job and started to sell cakes from home. She bought a scooter, changed her studio apartment for a one-bedroom flat, and was almost happy. But sometimes, on a drizzly day, she would look out her window and wonder what had happened to the little boy who had held the umbrella for her. In her mind he remained nine or ten, the age when he would still want to lick her mixing bowl or tear the sticky, caramelised edge from her potato pudding. He was the child she would have liked to have.
One Friday morning, as she waited for the lights to change at a busy intersection, she heard angry voices. A motorist was shouting at a tall, lanky boy who had attempted to wipe his windscreen. The boy sauntered off. Then, changing his mind, he turned back and shouted: 'You too b-c- mean! I bet this lady don't mind if I wipe her glass.'
He approached Vera and made an elaborate pretence at wiping a windscreen her scooter didn't have. Laughing, she raised a hand to dismiss him and found herself looking into eyes she would have recognised anywhere.
'You know me?' His face became guarded.
She reminded him of their first meeting. He said he had never been in a home. She gave him money and, as she rode off, he raised his squeegee in a mock salute and called out, 'You can come for a wipe anytime.'
She began to seek him out. He used to go to school, he said, but the teachers were stupid and didn't like it when he asked questions. He lived with his mother.
'When I went home the first time, she was glad to see me, she say it's because I was bad they put me in a home and I understand.' He realised his slip and covered his mouth.
'So where do you live?'
He was lying. One morning, passing earlier than usual, she spotted him emerging from layers of old clothing under the eaves of the parish church. Then, some time in October, after rain had pelted the city for days, he wasn't at the usual corner. 'Rudie sick,' one of his companions told her. She bumped along the cracked walkway to the back of the church and found him huddled in one of the room-like tombs there. His body was racked with fever. She took him home.
'You have a big strapping street boy living with you?' Her sister screamed over the phone.
'He is thirteen and not exactly big.'
'Listen to me. Give the boy some cough medicine and put him back where you get him.'
Vera cut her off. Sandie had two strong legs, a man and three children. What did she know?
She arranged for him to go back to school. He was trying on his uniform when she noticed the unmistakable imprint of a clothes iron on his back.
'Jesus! How did this happen?'
'I don't remember.'
He dressed quickly and was withdrawn for the rest of the day. She learned not to ask questions.
'Some of the big man them a' b... man. They pick up the boys and carry them away in them car.' This, one evening after a television news feature on a gruesome upper St. Andrew murder.
'And you, were you ever picked up?'
'No, you mad! Any man do that I push a knife under him ribs.'
He said it with such cold certainty, she was afraid.
One night, she was awakened by what seemed to be the whimpering of a small child. She lay still, trying to figure out the source, and when her ears told her it came from the living room where Rudie slept, she wheeled herself out to him. He was a dark shadow on the floor, knees up to his chin, rocking to and fro. In the light from the window she saw his eyes, huge and terrified. She reached out to touch him and he lashed out, sending her chair clattering to the ground. The noise obviously jolted him, for in an instant he was his old self again.
'I sorry, I sorry.'
When he wheeled her back to her bedroom, he was reluctant to leave. She sensed the nightmare continued to haunt him. 'Come.' She patted the side of her bed nearest him and, without protest, he climbed in and was soon asleep, his head on her shoulder.
That became their sleeping arrangement from then on.
She dreamt she had a child. It was very sickly and cried endlessly. She tottered through the dark on uncertain legs, wondering what to do. The child's wails filled the night; they must have made her mad, for she broke into two. One part jeered at her: 'Your substance has dried up, you have nothing to give.' The other, a light spirit, stood on tiptoe grabbing at balloons as they floated by. Then a mouth was on her breast and she knew she must wake up, but she could not let go of the dream and the bright balloons which floated and exploded around her, and she pressed the sucking needy lips to her and wailed with the child in the night.
When daylight broke, she could not leave her bed for shame, and so it was much later that she realized he had gone.
She couldn't work. Cake orders lay unattended on the counter. She called her pastor and hung up. The policeman who scratched her statement into his log was unhelpful.
'Them boy can't stay one place you know, Ma'am. Maybe him come back, maybe him don't.'
'He wants a body,' she thought despairingly, as the policeman ruled his book in preparation for the next statement. 'He won't do anything until flies lead him to a body.' And, before she could wave it away, there was another, darker thought:
'Maybe a body would be better. Then you could wreath it with flowers, bury it and forget.'
She had almost stopped waiting for the gate to squeak, for thescratch of his key against lock when he reappeared. A sleek, current model car hummed at the gate. Weeks of worry, pain and guilt coalesced into anger.
'Where the hell were you, do you know what you put me through?'
'I was with my friends.'
'You have no friends, you have only me.'
She grabbed his wrist to shake him as she had done so often when he misbehaved, but now she was surprised by the thickness and strength of his arm, by the way the soft hair had coarsened, by how he had slipped away from her. She hung on, willing him to come back, begging for the boy with the paint can and the squeegee and the thousand little things that had made her place a home; but he yanked himself free, threw a knapsack over his shoulder and strode out.
'If you leave, don't come back!'
She cursed the chair that wouldn't turn fast enough, that bumped into things, so that when she reached the gate there was nothing but the shimmering heat from the street, the smell of unfamiliar cologne, and the mocking purr of the car as it turned the bend.
There is somebody in the house. It is the odour that reaches her first; the overwhelming stench of an unwashed body. It reaches her long before she hears the first soft footpad, long before the intruder stumbles in the dark. If I don't move, he will take what he wants and leave. If I don't move…She squeezes her eyes tight and wills herself invisible. The smell is overpowering now, it sucks the air from her lungs; inflames her brain; consumes her body. Now I lay me down to sleep, I am not worthy, Yea though I walk Prayers of her life tumble through her brain; then, like a wound down gramophone, they slow and grind to silence and she knows she has died.
A small child whimpers in the dark. He is a shadow on the floor, knees up to the chin, rocking to and fro. She is afraid of what the lights may show but knows that only light can stop this sound that threatens to shatter her mind. The whimpering stops; he blinks in the new light. Then he rises and comes unsteadily towards her. Shesees with renewed horror, blood - on his clothes, his hands, his face. She wants to call out, but her tongue is wood; she slides beneath the sheets, willing them to save her from the cloak of stench and blackness that is threatening to consume her, but the smell is on her bed, it is between her sheets; and, as he seeks out her breast, she thinks she hears him whisper, 'Mummy.'
On the street, a car prowls, blue lights flashing. It stops at the corner turns round and pauses at her gate. He is on top of her now, resting on his elbows, one hand over her mouth. They both lie rigid and wait. Then the car moves off again and she becomes aware him again
'Oh God!' It is a mindless gasp of alarm.
Then she says it again: 'Oh God.'