By Susi Lovell
It’s easy now. Her body has remembered. Her legs fly like they used to years ago when she won the sprint in fourth grade. Her lungs heave. Not long now, Ellie tells them.
She passes the statue of the old man gazing up into the sky, a look of wonder on his face. She looks up too. She can’t help it, she never can. Past the shoe shop with its green, hand-painted signs peeling off the window into the dark store behind: 10% off, 30% off, 70% off, Best Offer – Closing Soon. Past the dry cleaners, the co-op and the boarded-up windows of the chocolate-maker. On summer evenings she and Bobby used to eat their ice creams at a little table outside the store, double chocolate for him, butter-crunch for her. Past For Sale signs that sprout like tulips in spring. No sunset tonight, just a heavy thickening of cloud.
A woman thrusts her fist in front of Ellie, opening it to show a shriveled knob of brown-spotted fruit. “Oranges, grapefruits,” she says. “Fresh. I picked them myself. Please try one.” Ellie brushes her aside, hears her stumble, but there’s no time to stop.
On the other side of the park, the bus depot. Home and dry, Ellie tells her lungs. No, not home. Away. Away.
“One ticket please. One way.” Ellie wonders if it shows yet, the soreness over her eye.
“Nine thirty’s full,” says the man at the ticket office. “You should’ve booked in advance. The nine thirty’s always full. Everybody knows that. Everyone’s going into the city these days. Best to stay here, missy. I’m not saying it’s good here, it’s not. But the tide’s got to turn sometime. Nothing till six thirty tomorrow morning. But that one fills too.”
“One ticket for the six thirty. One way.” Ellie reaches for her purse and feels air. The purse is on the floor in the bedroom. She hadn’t thought to grab it when she’d picked herself up, when she’d stepped away from Bobby’s outstretched hand, from the stricken expression in his eyes. “Ellie, please Ellie, I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean to…You know I’d never…”
Through the broken iron gates into the park. Over the wet grass, the fallen, sodden leaves. Past the playground where boys, too old to be in a playground, hunker together by the slides. Ducks and geese huddle on the wooden platform in the middle of the silted-up pond. Her legs and lungs give out and she collapses on a bench beside the pond in the shadow of a clutch of scrawny bushes.
From nearby comes the sound of soft humming. A neon light on the other side of the pond flickers on with a yellowish glow, then off again. Already the warmth from running is seeping out of her. She rubs her arms, blows on her cold hands. Her coat is in the bedroom too. She should have thought, made a plan. But there’d been no time to think.
The humming is soothing, like a lullaby. It’s a long while since she and Bobby used to come here to feed the ducks and geese and watch the speckled orange fish glide beneath the lilies, and the water bubble into the shell held by the dancing cherub on its plinth in the middle of the pond. Now the cherub’s shell is broken, together with its thumb and two fingers. Her breathing calms. A large swan waddles past. The neon light flickers on, then off again. She touches her left eyebrow and looks around for the hummer. The sound is coming from a bundled-up figure on the next bench.
Bear with her, she’s borne a lot, poor soul. That’s what Ellie’s Gran will say as she brews a cup of tea for the two of them. Her Gran will bustle around the kitchen, arthritic fingers fumbling, knocking mugs, already chipped, against each other, dropping spoons, splashing boiling water from the kettle over herself and over the floor. She’ll think she’s saying it in her head, that Ellie can’t hear. Or that she’s saying it to Frieda, her sister, who’s been dead for twenty years. She’ll try not to say I told you so, but sooner or later she won’t be able to help herself, it’ll burst out: I told you so.
Ellie won’t mind. She’ll tell her Gran it’s not what’s past that’s important, it’s what happens next. She’ll say, there, there, no need to cry, Gran, and hug her tight, then she’ll go upstairs to make up the bed in her old room.
Now the humming is louder and sounds more like keening. Bobby will be getting worried. He’ll be wondering where she is, listening for the phone to ring. Ambulance, police, hospital, he’d think, at the first ring. Then he’d hear her voice, whispering. Sorry, she’d be saying. I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have. And he’d be saying sorry too, I’m so sorry. But this time she isn’t going to call. She isn’t sorry, not this time.
From all around come whisperings and whittlings. She’s not frightened, it’s only the birds, restless as they settle down for the night, the swans in the reeds laying their heads down along their backs, the ducks in the shelter of the bushes, fluffing and preening before tucking their bills under their wings.
She shouldn’t have argued with Bobby, she knows he doesn’t like it. What does it matter if there are dark clouds overhead? If he wants a lovely evening, why shouldn’t it be a lovely evening? Why can’t she just keep her mouth closed? It’s too cold on the bench in the park. She’d at least be warm in the bus station while she decides what to do. She stands up.
Bobby rounds the pond, shoes spitting gravel. He peers from side to side into the dark, even now refusing to wear the glasses he needs. It annoys Ellie, having to read the newspaper to him, a message someone has left for him, a sign post, but now she is glad he can’t see well.
Quickly she steps into the bushes. Branches and twigs drag at her shoulders, stick into her ribs, orange and brown leaves cling to her skin. The ducks squawk, alarmed. She crouches low. Something wet drips down her back.
“Seen her, have you? Short girl, dark haired? Yellow dress?” His voice is rough, raspy, as though he’s been on an all-night binge. The woman humming on the bench doesn’t seem to notice him. Bobby looks around, turning this way and that, unsure, her hooded jacket and scarf in his arms. He squints into the gloom, his breath misting fleetingly as the park light flickers on.
“Ellie?” he calls. “Ellie love?”
In the bushes she presses the pulpy bump over her eyebrow. The surprise of it, always the surprise. The not knowing – what’s happened? what is it? – even as she hears it, and feels it, his hand hard against her face. After the surprise, the pain. But even more, the relief. There, that’s it. It’s over with. For now. The horrified stare in his eyes. Ellie, please Ellie, I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean to…You know I’d never… And then the running. Away, away, away, her running feet always sing, and her lungs open to take in great gulps of air.
A bat swoops. And another. The ducks creep back to their places and tuck their heads under their wings once more. The cherub dances on its plinth in the middle of the pond. Ellie’s dress, heavy from the wet grass and bushes, is colder even than her skin. She can feel the goose pimples, the raised hair, on her bare arms. Her toes curl under, she clenches her teeth to stop them chattering.
Ellie crouches lower into the yellow leaves, crosses her arms over her stomach, hunches her shoulders. The earth smells of must and mould. Bobby hesitates, sits down next to the hummer, Ellie’s coat and scarf across his knees.
Shush, Ellie wants to tell the hummer. Best to shush now. He doesn’t like coughs and hm’s and throat clearings.
“I don’t know where else to look,” he says.
From behind she can see his hair hangs long and jagged over his jacket collar. She wants to even the ends out. She wants to tell him not to worry, she’ll be fine. That her Gran will be happy to have her back. That she can look after herself. That she’s not going back with him, not this time.
Her breath catches in her throat. Bobby’s voice has joined the hummer’s. He’s singing the words. She hadn’t realized it was an actual song. What a beautiful voice he has. So deep and resonant. So rich, and so gentle. How come she never knew he had such a beautiful voice?
Bobby’s shadow stretches out behind him, reaching into the lowest branches of the bushes. Ellie’s scarf slips off his knee to the ground. The air vibrates with humming. The neon light blinks on and off, on and off, catching splinters of golds and crimsons, coppers and cinnamons in the falling leaves. The cherub dances at the edge of the flickering amber light, reaching with its broken hand. Ellie presses the softness over her eyebrow hard, so it hurts.
Copyright Lovell 2012