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James held his breath and poked the shovel one more time into the pile of manure. He did not know how one horse could produce so much dung and he did not see why he had to clear it up when it was not even his horse.
“I can ride my bike faster than any horse,” he had said, when his father first proposed the idea, “and I don’t have to feed it or clean up after it.”
His father had thought he was smart, beating the oil shortage by buying a horse – nag more like. James had been the butt of jokes at school for weeks until the girls started coming round to pet the horse and the boys realised that the best way to impress the girls was to claim to be able to ride the horse. Riding had lasted one week until the fourth boy fell off and James’ father had stopped them from riding.
“The horse is for transport,” he said, “so we must train it to pull the cart.”
The cart. That was another object of ridicule: a converted trailer with a sports canopy on top.
“We have to work with the materials we have,” his father had explained, “and your mother can hardly go grocery shopping or take your sister to school on a bicycle.”
James was so embarrassed the first time his father took the cart out that he had spent the day at home rather than let anybody he knew see his father riding around on the contraption. But that had been two months ago and he did not worry so much about appearances any more because their lives had changed so much, and all because of the oil ban.
He had never really thought about how much gas the old car used, nor where it all came from, although he had been aware of the prices creeping steadily upwards and his parents’ worries. When they told him he would have to give up baseball because they could not longer afford to drive to the games he was furious and sulked for a week, arguing each time the car was taken out that the journey was not as important as his baseball game but gradually all his friends gave up their sports and activities too. The lucky people who had electric cars had been able to keep driving for a few more weeks but then the government banned the recharging of cars and overnight all means of transport other than public trams were banned, and even they were rationed by a very selective coupon system.
That was when James noticed how far it was to everywhere, even on his bike. Riding the half hour to the skate park had never seemed a chore before, but now it was half an hour on his bike to the library, to school, to almost anywhere he wanted to go, and of course he had to carry his stuff with him. The smart kids had bought bike panniers when the crisis started but by the time James thought of that the store had sold out and of course with no new goods coming into the country there was a shortage of everything.
His mother still taught at the elementary school, although the number of students was declining each week as more and more kids stayed at home to help with finding food and work. His father had given up his job in the city once he could no longer get there on a daily basis and was now stuck at home, trying out this crazy scheme of using a horse and wagon as a taxi service, and he, James had to clean up the taxi poop.
It was just not fair.
Anna pushed open the door and stepped into the waiting room. The buzz and chatter died down while those assembled inside turned their heads towards her, the newcomer. Their curiosity satisfied, they resumed their mumblings and moaning, and Anna was able to creep to an empty seat, where she shrunk down, hugging her knees to her body, trying to become invisible.
She hadn’t wanted to come. Somehow it was like admitting defeat to come here, to wait in this room, hoping. She looked around her and wondered if she looked like the other people: they had a sort of desperate air about them, as if they had nothing to lose.
In the corner an old lady sat, mumbling to herself. Her head was nodding, like one of those plastic dogs people used to put in the back of their cars. Anna watched, fascinated, while the old lady’s head nodded around all the way to the right, until she was staring at the wall. The head paused, then began the journey back again, nod, nod, nod, all the way. Anna caught the lady’s eye on the return journey, and smiled, in what she hoped was a reassuring way but the woman just stared right through her with barely a pause in the nodding.
The chair next to Anna was unoccupied, but there was a newspaper lying across it. Anna reached out a hand to move the newspaper and a man in a chair on the other side of it frowned at her.
“Do you mind?” he said, in a voice that showed he minded very much, “I am reading that.” Anna pulled her hand back.
At the far end of the room a door opened and a woman in a white coat came through, carrying a clipboard. She looked around the waiting room and called loudly, “Mrs Pierce?”
Opposite Anna a lady stood up. Anna could tell from her clothes that she was quite wealthy, and she moved with an air of disdain, as though everyone else in the room were beneath her. Anna wondered what she was doing there: she did not look as if she belonged.
The designer clothes were swallowed up by the door and the room sunk into torpor again. A small baby mewled and its mother tried to hush it but the baby cried even louder and the mother looked around the room, apologizing silently for the disturbance. An older girl took some toys from a chest and banged them noisily on the floor. A couple of women deep in conversation looked over at the toddler and frowned, then resumed their discussion.
Anna wanted to jump up and scream, she was so nervous, but she knew she should not. Maybe, if she were lucky…. She wondered how the lady with the fancy clothes was getting on behind the closed door. People with money always got what they wanted, but maybe money did not count here. Anna watched a young boy of about her own age sitting with his mother who was fussing about his appearance. She fixed his collar, wiped some flecks off his jacket, then produced a comb and tried to comb his hair; the boy pushed her away irritably.
Anna hugged her knees again and stared at the clock on the wall. The jerky movements of the thinnest hand marked out the passage of seconds that stretched into minutes. Anna was able to shut out the murmurings of the waiting room as she focused on the moving pointer. Tick, tick, tick. It seemed an eternity. Nod, nod, nod; in the corner the old lady’s head moved in time to the clock.
The door at the far end of the room opened again, and this time it was the young boy’s turn. His mother followed him to the door, straightening his clothes all the way.
“I’m sorry, but you can’t come in,” said the woman in the white coat. The boy’s mother looked as if she would have a fit on the spot.
“But I’m his mother,” she spluttered, “I have to be there!”
“I’m sorry,” clipboard lady repeated, “but it’s not allowed.” She turned, propelling the boy before her and shut the door, leaving the boy’s mother gaping.
Rejected, the mother shut her mouth and looked around the waiting room, as if looking for somebody to blame. Her eyes settled on the young mother, who had just succeeded in getting her baby to sleep.
“Don’t think you’ll be allowed in, just because your children are babies,” hissed the boy’s mother. The little girl, who had been playing with the pots from the toy chest looked up indignantly.
“I’m not a baby,” she said loudly. The real baby woke up and began to cry. Its mother hushed it and looked daggers at the other woman.
Anna wondered if it would be better to have somebody with you. At least they would be a comforting presence. Still, the boy can’t have had too many problems as the clipboard lady was back again, this time taking one of the talking ladies with her. The hubbub that had started up when the baby cried died down now that the remaining gossiper had nobody left to talk to. The clock ticked, the old woman nodded and Mr Newspaper Man folded and unfolded his paper, hitting it occasionally to keep it straight, all the time making sure that some pages were left on the chairs at each side of him, warding off strangers.
A young lady entered the waiting room and once again the noise died down, while the occupants appraised the new arrival. She looked nervous and avoided looking anybody in the eye. This meant she did not get a seat, as Mr Newspaper Man did not offer to remove his papers and there were no other seats left. Anna wondered whether she should give up her seat, then decided everybody would look at her if she did and she would die of shame, so she wrapped her hands even more tightly around her knees and tried again to become invisible.
Anna must have dozed off, for she jumped when she heard her name being called.
“Annabella,” the lady with the clipboard repeated it, louder.
Anna uncoiled herself and stood up. Mr Newspaper Man was gone, and Timid Lady was sitting in one of the vacated chairs. The only other person still in the room was the nodding crone, still keeping time with the clock.
Anna followed the lady with the clipboard down a long dark passageway until they came to a large well lit room with a long table down the centre. On one side of the table were four people, three men and a lady, all wearing identical white coats while on the other side was a single chair. Anna was directed to this chair and told to sit down. “Why are you here?” asked one of the men in the white coats.
Anna took a deep breath to study her nerves then spoke.
“I want to be an angel,” she said. “I drowned in my Dad’s swimming pool and the person who brought me here said I could have one wish before I move into the eternity room.” She looked down at her feet and spoke very quietly. “I want to become a guardian angel and look after my little brother so that my mother doesn’t lose him too: she thinks it’s her fault that I am here, because she let me go to my Dad’s house, but it’s really my fault. I didn’t listen when Dad told me not to dive in the shallow end, then I hit my head and everything went black.”
The three men scribbled on paper in front of them. The lady just stared at Anna, without any emotion on her face. Anna waited to hear the verdict, but could not take her eyes off the lady’s face. She stared and stared, as if trying to bore a hole through Anna’s eyes. Anna squirmed and tried to hug her legs again but could not move her arms. She felt as if a great weight were bearing down on her, crushing her mind.
“I’m sorry!” shouted Anna, “I didn’t mean to!”
She hugged her knees, rolled into a ball and rocked herself, trying to avoid the penetrating stare. Her head hurt, and she could hardly breathe. The three men finished writing and tapped their pencils on the table. Tap, tap, tap, louder and louder, until it became a pounding that reverberated through her chest. Anna wished desperately that one of them would say something, anything.
She felt herself slide off the chair, and the room swam before her eyes. Now the three men were staring at her and the lady was holding the pencil, only it was not a pencil, it was a light, and she was shining it in Anna’s eyes.
Anna blinked and the men began to speak excitedly. She could not understand what they were saying, but she could recognise one of the voices. It was her father’s.
“It’s a miracle,” he said, “she’s alive!”
It was the smell that did it. Just a faint hint of grass and heathers, but it was enough to trigger the memories; memories she did not even know she had. She had felt restless for the past few days. Something was urging her to go, to leave this place and travel north. Now she knew she must find that smell once more; it was important.
She turned her head northwards and began the journey. Others around her were moving too. Perhaps they had remembered a smell of a grass or a rock or maybe they were imagining the days of their youth. Gentle, carefree days spent splashing in ponds and streams, with no worries of the future. She wondered idly how far she would have to travel. It would not matter; she was strong and had stored up plenty of food. Winter was coming and it would be good to be away before the temperature dropped.
Day after day she ploughed on. She fell into a rhythm and no longer thought about the effort. Her companions changed over the weeks but a few stayed constant. She had memories of one or two of them from games long ago when they were young and carefree, but she was shy and did not catch their eyes, although from time to time she was conscious of a large shape following her like a shadow. He did not come too close and after a while she began to think of him as her protector.
And they did need protection. They were attacked more than once and had to scurry for cover and hurry to get away from their assailants. After a while she realized that it was safer to travel with company so she kept close to her one time playmates and accepted the attention of her shadow.
It was tiring. Day after day, night after night, moving ever northwards. She felt herself grow weary and more than once caught herself thinking how easy it would be to sink into a gentle sleep; to just slip away and drift into oblivion. But then she remembered the smell and thought if she could just smell that heather and play in that rock pool one more time she would be content.
The journey became tougher. At first the way had been flat but after a while she found herself struggling uphill, making her way round obstacles, leaping over rocks and even backtracking on occasion. All the time her companion kept pace with her, encouraging her silently. It became harder to breathe; it felt different somehow. She slowed down, to adjust, and as she slowly breathed in the smell came back to her again. Even the light was familiar. She could remember the sunlight flickering through the heathers, the glinting of the water rippling over the stones. She was nearly home.
Would it have changed after so much time, she wondered, would she recognize it? She herself had changed. She was bigger now and different somehow. She looked across at her companion, struggling to keep up; he was different too, and the strain of the journey was showing. She must not give up, not now that she was so close.
At last she saw it. The pool she remembered from so long ago. And the smell; it was just as she had imagined. She stopped, taking time to savour the scene. The old tree was still there, its branches drooping down to the ground. She remembered hiding among the roots during a game of chase. The stepping stones had moved, but then they moved often. They seemed smaller, in fact the whole pool seemed smaller, or maybe it was she that was bigger. It was all so confusing and she was so tired.
Slowly she sank down onto the stones. With the last of her energy she dug a small hole and deposited her precious burden that she had carried all the way, back to her home. She was vaguely aware of her companion moving back and forth over her treasure. He must be helping to keep it safe.
And there was that smell again. Now she knew she was truly home, back where she belonged. She felt weak. She knew she did not have long to live, but at least she had made it home to her family, to the place she had been born. She did not move much more. She was content to watch the sunlight rippling upon the water and smell the heathers and the rocks. It was so very beautiful. One day her children would learn to love this place too and they would know the smell of home, as had her mother in her time.
The salmon gave one last flutter and was still. Her journey was over.
Julie parked the car and walked slowly over to the field where a dozen little girls were practicing swings and pitches. At the side of the field a group of parents were chatting, while a dog sniffed enthusiastically at their feet.
A young white clad figure threw a ball across the field then turned and beamed at Julie.
“Great work, Megan!” The coach’s deep voice carried on the warm evening air. Julie unfolded her chair and sat in a patch of sunlight, grateful to relax after a busy day. She did not feel like making conversation with the other parents, and in any case, she knew nothing about baseball. She closed her eyes and listened to the evening sounds.
The thwack of the bat as it hit the ball. The shouts of the girls, exhorting their team mates to run. The hum of the traffic in the distance. The murmuring of the other parents. And above it all the instructions from the coach: seemingly meaningless phrases, which lulled her off to sleep.
“Here’s a list of the game times.”
“Huh?” Julie sat up with a start and opened her eyes. The coach was standing in front of her, holding out a piece of paper.
“Sorry I woke you; you looked comfortable there,” he smiled and handed her the paper.
Julie’s heart did a flip and an unexpected tingle of excitement pulsed inside her.
“Oh, yes, sorry, ah, thank you!” she stammered all at once. What had happened? She felt breathless, and she had not even moved. She glanced at the coach, who was distributing the schedule to the other parents, and felt her chest tense.
Not again. Not another crush. And surely not her daughter’s coach!
Julie sighed and looked away. This was the third time in as many years that she had developed a sudden infatuation for a person she barely knew. She must be craving attention, or a relationship, or something.
She had had several crushes before Megan was born: flighty imaginings, but then parenthood had struck, and she found herself thrown into the world of small children, play groups and other parents. At first she had missed her job, and tried to imagine she was not really part of the group, but after a few years and another child, she had accepted the situation and settled to a routine life of her children’s school and activities.
Then, three years ago, the flutterings had started again, taking her completely by surprise.
The first time, it had been the assistant at the liquor store. He had not even said anything, merely smiled as Julie paid for her purchase, and she was hooked. She had begun browsing the wine shelves, taking up to half an hour at times to select a single bottle, watching the man out of the corner of her eye, sometimes summoning the courage to ask for a recommendation. Once she had collected a dozen empties to return, as another excuse for a visit, but then she decided this gave the wrong impression.
That craze had lasted almost four months. Then one day, she noticed her idol had pierced his ears and was wearing large metal rings in his lobes. Julie didn’t have anything against earrings, but her image had been shattered. In a peevish way she felt she should have been consulted, even though she had never spoken to the man, other than to discuss the merits of one red wine versus another. In the end, she had been relieved to get that craze over with, although she still had nineteen unopened bottles of various wines at home.
Then she had met Jenny.
Jenny was a volunteer at the Thrift store. She was highly efficient and perpetually cheerful. Julie began volunteering at the Thrift store too. She had not minded the work; in fact, she had actually rather enjoyed sorting through the clothes and other bric-a-brac. She had followed Jenny around for five weeks, hanging on her every word, admiring her efficiency, basking in her smile. Julie had worn similar skirts, hummed the same tunes, emulating her hero in every action.
It was not a sexual attraction; Julie was not that sort of person. She and Mike had been married now for almost twelve years and there had never been anybody else; and certainly not a woman. No, it was more an aspiration, to be a perfect person, as she believed Jenny to be.
The Jenny phase ended one day after Julie had put in an extra long shift at the store, pricing kitchenware, and had been forgotten at the staff party held at the end of the day; abandoned amongst the boxes in the back room, whilst Jenny and the other volunteers drank punch and ate cookies in the front.
Julie sighed, stood up and looked over at the coach who had finished handing out the schedules and was talking to the last parent. What was his name? Brendan?
Me, me! Come and talk to me! Julie felt the irrational thought process grip her, as her eyes willed the coach to turn around and look at her again. She felt like a teenager, crazed with hormones, and took a deep breath.
“Come on, Mum, the practice is over!”
A little hand tugging at her arm brought her back to earth. Perhaps these crazes were a longing, for what might have been, or just an escape from her daily chores. With a last wistful look at the coach’s broad back, Julie folded her chair and walked with her daughter to the car.
It was going to be an interesting baseball season.