Monday, 1 December 2008
In the undergrowth
You hear people talking all around you when you’re a child. You’re too busy to listen, of course; it’s more a constant buzzing that encircles you, filled with boredom.
You learn to respond to certain tones or commands; else you’ll be grabbed, slapped or worse. But soon you find that the odd word begins to slip inside; is allowed through the net of interference and white noise.
I remember, when I was six years old, I heard my parents use the word murder in front of me for the first time. It’s funny how with some words you just know what they mean. Straight away, I knew this word was tinged with violence and death. I was scared of this word, but more I was scared of something I’d seen the week before.
On the bus on the way home from school, I’d seen a man lying in the undergrowth. I told the children on the bus and they laughed. I told my mum when I got home and she told me to stop being silly. When I insisted, she dismissed me by saying: “He was probably just having a lie down.”
I thought about it all night and in the morning, when dad was helping me to get dressed I told him I had seen a murder. He was shocked, of course, but from my description he soon realised my misunderstanding of the word ‘murder’, for it was the victim I thought I’d seen.
He didn’t tell my mum where we were going but we set out on his bike, me riding pillion and going faster than ever before.
I remembered a patch of “yellow flowers”. Weeds they were really but I called them yellow flowers. There were so many patches of these plants, from Naylor’s Farm all along the lane to Turnpike Road. It all seemed so familiar and my dad was shouting at me to remember and to stop bloody crying.
And then I saw the hand; rising from the grass like it just wanted to shake mine. I jumped up and down and moved in to grab it, but my dad stopped me. I looked once and saw a huge beetle perched on a white-brown index finger. I looked away then, for as long as I could.
I listened to what the noises of the undergrowth could tell me. I heard my dad flagging down a passing car. I heard him speaking something to a man and him joining us at the roadside. I heard one of them break a branch to use as a stick. Then rustling in the grass and the buzz of insects. Then a cry from a man and the sound of retching.
I opened my eyes and saw a stick lying on the roadside. My eyes scanned around it and there, in the undergrowth lay the uncovered hand connected to an uncovered arm, which was unconnected from anything else.
Everything else about that day fades away into a soft-edged dream. Mists come all over and swathe my memories in ambiguity. But I remember every detail of every moment I’d looked upon that repugnant limb.
I’d stared so hard at the severed arm; it felt like my eyelids had frozen. I’d stared until my dad regained his composure and picked me up and held me close so that I couldn’t see anything anymore.
Later, he would say sorry and hug me in front of my scowling mother. Later still, he would take it upon himself to come and comfort me, at my bedside, every night that I woke up screaming.