It is an ambiguous, unsettling noise that demands attention, and I pull the edge of the curtain back slightly. A muffled footstep on the concrete driveway? A shuffle of boots on the doorstep? But no-one and nothing; not a ring, knock or hello. Not another sound, not a sign of life. I should have questioned.
Curtains exorcise the sharp sunlight pouring in through bay windows, and the lounge room settles back into peace. My child builds houses with coloured plastic blocks, and keeps a watchful eye that I have not escaped into the absence of sleep. A daytime drama drones on in the tedium of mild suburban life, but my children, at least, are happy. As happy as anyone can judge a small block-building boy, and a contented, sleeping baby.
The stranger was confused as he ran from the first woman’s house. Her startled scream pinged around his brain for a while until he slowed, breathless, shocked that it would be like this. He thought she would easily submit, like the cute girls in his videos, their plump pink lips, and hungry, soft round bodies. This one seemed eager. How she glanced at him on the bus, turned as he walked close behind her, begging him to follow. But he was wrong.
Fuck it, he thought. There’s plenty more out there.
He walked at random in the biting early afternoon sunshine, hoping to catch one off-guard; gardening, glistening breasts peeking out from a tank top. That’d be perfect.
The sweat from his forehead rolled into his eyebrows and he wiped it with his hand, then pushed back the sodden brown curls from his neck.
As he came to the next side road, a delivery truck turned in front of him. On its side a cartoon; a smiling orange pouring its bright, sweet juice into a frosty glass.
A sign, for sure, he thought. Mr. Quenchy. Yup, that’s me alright.
When the doorbell rings, it catches me off guard.
I slide the chain across its track, admitting to myself an uncharitable attitude to strangers. Particularly those who intrude through telephones, and come to doors uninvited. The stranger asks if I want deliveries of juice. Regular fresh chilled orange juice. I’ve seen the truck before, and wondered how can anyone afford such luxury, with mortgages and food and plastic blocks to buy? I force a smiling No thank you, not today. A hinted compromise that maybe, if he came another day, the answer could be yes. But it’s a lie.
My son holds onto the door at my knees and I notice the man has pulled the screen door back and stands inside its gaping mouth. I see his dark shadowed eyes, and yellowed teeth as he speaks, too close for comfort, and gently guide my son’s hand away from the pried-open edges of our world. I wait with apprehension, for him to leave, until he turns and walks down the driveway, out of sight.
The baby stays asleep and the small boy plays, calm and still. We are unbreached.
I have missed that the truck passed around the quiet street earlier and left. That the stranger wears torn jeans and a scruffy, sleeveless shirt bearing no resemblance to uniform. That his face is red and wet with the sweat of exertion. I am blind to these things.
Fucking bitch, he hissed beneath his breath. Who does she think she is, with her jeans and t-shirt and silky ponytail, like a kid? And a mum too.
His mother never dressed that way. She was tiny in her billowing cotton housedresses, but brutal. She demanded respect. Beat the boys and then the girls. His sisters would never dare dress like that. Shit no! The old lady would rip a switch from the willow tree outback and pull ‘em all outside, one by one. And if you ran, she chased you down, and it’d be worse, with a beating from dad thrown in too when he came home from the pub. The girls would all scream and bawl, but not the boys. They weren’t allowed. They swallowed down the pain and watched as the girls got theirs.
I bet that one never had a beating like that. His blood simmered to think of the nice little wives in nice little houses, waiting for fat husbands in their Mercedes, eating steak and playing with their bratty, spoiled kids.
He turned the nearest corner and turned again until he was back at the house. He knew what he was going to do and felt the warm metal blade like grey satin between his fingers.
My son sits happily on the carpet at my feet, fastidiously aligning rows of small cars, until the shaded dreariness of the afternoon is broken, this time, by two familiar and intentional noises. The rasping of wood sliding in metal is unmistakable, and the creak of a trodden floorboard triggers an internal alarm.
A wooden door separates the front of the house where we are sitting, and the back. Beyond that door is the laundry room which leads out to the backyard. At the very end is the nursery. The baby is still quiet, as I open the door to this long hallway.
The first thing that strikes me is how very young the stranger is up close. The damp curls and randomly absent teeth are familiar. His body emanates a pungent blend of cigarettes and sweat. He has the startled look of a snared rabbit, but I am also startled and let out an impotent scream as my brain searches for a way to react. We move in a synchrony of stepping back and pushing forwards that feels like slow dancing. I retreat to the front room where the television drones on, oblivious, as we step on plastic houses and neatly parked cars. The normal things of childhood, suddenly scattered under our feet.
“Sorry darling,” I whisper an apology to my child, who momentarily wonders why his mother and the man are treating his small games with such disregard.
He tugs at my jeans and asks:
“Who dat, mummy?”
I look in the stranger’s eyes and answer,
“It’s no-one, my love, no-one.”
What the fuck is that? He thought.
No-one? Rude bitch, I’ll show her I’m not No-one. Tell the kid I’m a No-one with a big scary Nothing in my pocket.
The stranger had carried a knife as long as he could remember, a weapon to protect himself from playground bullies. He had been used to a beating, but they were worse. They beat him with bats. Broke his wrists, split his nose and mouth, until he choked on his dislodged teeth, and swallowed them down with his own bloody spit. He never got his teeth fixed. Can’t afford it, his mum said, and after that he carried the knife and they left him alone.
So. I may be a No-one to you and your kid, but I’ll show you what a No-one can do.
Fully focused on the intruder’s face, a glint hints at something in his hand, appearing from the pocket of his jeans, and I raise another empty squeal that leaves my mouth in silence. Still joined in the dance, I slowly raise my arms to my chest, a prizefighter’s stance, with clenched hands, aiming to protect not attack.
As he speaks, I take small steps. The compass in my brain spins to an escape route, and I mentally trade cuts from the knife against my hands and arms and the need for life itself. I can’t run but I can try moving slowly forward, in unnoticed steps, edging him back, dancing nervously in very slow motion.
“Take off your jeans,” the stranger finally says in monotone, and presses the tip of the blade at the back of my right hand, the knuckles white where I am curling my fingers to my chest, ready to be sliced or pierced. I can feel my son’s grip tightening on the fabric of my jeans, and I carefully lower one hand to give him a soft, reassuring touch on his head.
From nowhere, a storm of calm pours down over me and I think this will not happen. I can hear my thought, speaking with the strength of certainty.
“You really don’t want to do that.” I say, and the intruder looks at me again with the surprise of a trapped animal.
We are so close his musty odour settles in a tangible, enveloping cloud around us. His breath is rank through the half demolished rows of teeth. There is something about the total lack of care, disrepair and emptiness that touches my soul, and finds the image of a vulnerable, damaged child. I notice my son is quiet, staring up at the stranger, his huge blue eyes expanded by innocent curiosity, and a plan instantly brews in my mind. I know we are going to be alright.
“I have a disease.” I say. Real, persuasive. “I had an appointment with the doctor this morning. He says I have a….. disease. "
I keep talking because he is listening, and I see his shoulders drop.
“And he gave me medication to take.” I am insistent and with authority, but I need to capitalise on the lie.
“I can get them. I’ll show you.” It is an offer that might kill me if he calls my bluff, but he stays silent, caught between belief and fear, until I speak again.
This one is something, he thought. Tough as guts.
But he wasn't sure if she was for real. Last thing he needed was a disease, down there. He heard it hurts like hell, and makes you wish it’d just drop off to stop the hurting. He remembered his dad’s mate, Eddie, from the pub.
He had one of those diseases and man; he was screwed. His old lady was having it off with a butcher with the clap. Funny eh?
He thought for a few seconds about leaving, and felt the slow rhythm of their movement, as she pressed forwards, compelling him now to retreat. Talking and advancing, she filled his head with words he needed to hear.
“If you just go, just leave now. I won’t tell anyone anything about this. I promise. On my children’s lives.” I say.
I have taken control of the dance, reversed direction. The knife is still out and glinting in the light filtering through the glass of the door. Slowly, I lower my arms, aching to stretch them out straight. I reach the top step and my brain buzzes with a rhythmic inner voice, locked in the moment.
Keep going, you’re nearly there. Keep going, you’re nearly —
I reach out to the lock.
It clicks, door opens and he is out.
Jesus! He finally exhaled out in the full light of late afternoon. That didn’t go as planned.
He was angry with himself, and it was getting late, but there was still time.
The heat rose solid from the pavement, so thick he could taste its dust and chew its dryness.
I shut the door and click the lock. Kneel and hug my son.
“Good boy,” I say, “Good job.”
He looks at me, confused, unable to understand why I am shaking, and have tears forcing down my cheeks that plop like a sudden storm on the top of his small blonde head.
I run through to the laundry room and notice a neatly incised slit. I imagine the knife blade and fingers wiggling through to unlock. The boogeyman breaching my sanctuary.
And then the life-preserving clarity ends and I feel my brain turning to a mush incapable of coherent thought. I need the police. I need help, but the number is gone and I cannot remember my neighbour’s name. 000 seems easy enough on an ordinary day, but it won’t come now when I need it. A baby cries in the back of the house and I wonder who owns it. Until her brother tugs at my jeans again and says:
“Mummy, bubby’s crying.”
I run to the nursery and pick her up, gather the boy’s small fingers in my hand, grab house keys from a hook and leave.
Ernie is a good man. He answers the door with a bleary-eyed stare, as we stand on his doorstep, a ragtag bunch of refugees.
“A man broke into my house.” I tell him. “Can you call the police. Please?”
“I’ll get dressed,” Ernie tries to joke. He is dressed in striped flannel pyjamas, “The police will think I’m the pervert.”
I fake a smile through tears, to make him feel at ease, and he disappears into the back of the house.
The next stop the stranger made was one street away from the last. He spotted her at the mailbox, white envelopes in her hand. Preoccupied, she entered the front door, leaving it open, hurrying to answer a phone in the kitchen at the back of the house. And then he was in, a ghost behind her, waiting, hanging in the shadows and savouring the fantasy.
The woman hung up and turned to find him there, advancing with speed across the kitchen floor, past a small table. Without a second thought, she threw one of the chairs onto its back, the legs splaying out like arms as he stumbled, tangled in wood and vinyl. She seized the moment to run, at full speed, bursting through the back screen door, and out of sight.
The stranger, numbed by adrenaline, had not yet felt the destruction to his ankle and knew to follow, racing through the open side gate and emerging back at the front yard. But she had vanished.
He heard her voice from the end of the street, pleading for help, as he waited concealed behind the lush, cool foliage of a hedge. A patrol car, lights pulsing and no siren, stopped beside her.
Fuck you! Bitch. You invite me in, then run screaming to the cops? he thought.
By the time the car pulled into her driveway, the stranger had already limped away, pain finally breaking through with each tortuous step.
Within minutes a patrol car arrives at Ernie’s house, lights on. They were in the area, they say, but don’t explain. Someone rings my husband, John, and an hour later he appears, pale and worried, takes the boy and hugs him, kisses the baby. I don’t let go of her, and it feels as if I may never, until she hungry-cries. I feed her because it is such a normal thing to do, a comforting reminder of our little family. A once safe, humdrum life.
At the police station, I stare for hours at small, grey faces in black and white photos. At first I can see him, but this one becomes that. A longer nose, a thinner face. Page after endless page flips by until the eyes coalesce, the mouths disconnect, and no discernible differences materialise the one true face of a guilty man.
Detective Simpson is tall, broad shouldered with sandy hair. He is infinitely patient because he has been here a thousand times before and knows the effects of trauma and repulsion. I remember hair, the way a greasy curl hung down a forehead. I remember shape, long chin and narrow cheeks. Dark eyes and missing teeth. But nothing concrete comes together, and we both know the photo books are pointless.
“We will get him,” he says with matter-of-fact confidence. “You weren’t the only woman he did this to today.”
I am shocked and simultaneously relieved, but I don’t know why.
“He followed a woman home at Millside. She left the door open behind her and he came in. She screamed and he ran back outside.”
“Oh,” I say, struck most by the woman’s ability to scream. I remember my constricted throat and empty mouth, a soundless, useless gape.
“You ok?” He asks. “And there’s another one.”
I nod, smiling to make him feel comfortable, and he continues.
“He went to the street right behind yours and followed her in from the mailbox. Same deal. She ran out the back door.”
My mind jumps from scene to scene and abruptly lands back here.
“He seems determined to keep trying, but we will get him.” Detective Simpson sounds determined.
“Yes.” I say. “Can I go now?” There is dinner to make and kids to bathe, feed and get to sleep.
“Of course.” A consoling hand brushes my shoulder. “I’ll get you a ride home.”
The sameness of life is coming back as I robot through daily chores and try to live a nearly normal existence. John gets busy beefing up security in the house, reinforcing locks on doors and screens.
Family takes the kids for walks and lengthy visits, but something has happened to me that I can’t control. I spend each moment alone, crouched in a corner beside the front door, a carving knife glued to my hand, hugging my knees and crying in fear. The worst thing is I can’t stand to be outside and exposed, but home is not a stronghold either, and my mind can’t find a safe space between in and out, fortress and prison.
Almost a month later, Detective Simpson calls to say the stranger has been caught, and just like that, life is different again. Except for the fear of absolute silence. It feeds a compulsion to listen for an opening door, a creaking floor or a stranger’s random footstep. It is an obsession that lasts, long after the trial, long after the divorce, and long after the small blonde boy and his sister have children of their own.
Sometimes there are the ambiguous, unsettling noises that can never be forgotten.