Miriam Bailey remembered how the sound of the car crash became incorporated into the dream she was having that morning.
There were large tire tracks, changing in form from the black skids on the pavement to the deeply imprinted patterns in the wet soil. The smoke from the engine billowed into the humid air while the alarm sounded out in monotonous circles of disquiet. There was also a massive hole where the wall had collapsed, with rocky sediments strewn throughout the neat flowerbed and the occasional grey slab. The geraniums and the begonias were destroyed. And the delicate petunias didn't stand a chance under the wheels of a Ford either. Also, the bluebells were ripped from the ground, but they were going out of season anyway.
The sirens of the oncoming ambulance became entwined with the sound of the car alarm, transmuting the chaos into something more immediate and waking the neighbours who slept through the earlier collision.
Miriam's first thought was one of relief. The night before, it appeared that her grandchildren would stay the night, but there was a late change of plan. That morning she put on her nightgown and hurried to the front door. Miriam's greying shoulder-length hair had a beguiling habit of expressing through its sway and bellow her every emotion. She was never demoralised by anything, and she had lived through as much tragedy as an older woman can expect. But when she opened the door and saw a fire truck and two police cars parked on the footpath, her breathing stiffened in her throat as though choking her. There was death in the air. Miriam could smell it, and it wasn't the first time. How could she forget the death of Jack, her husband, four years earlier. But that was different. It was slow and relentless, yes, but the death was something they did together. It was a long journey to a specific destination, a journey that included trips to the hospital and consultations with doctors. They made that journey together until Jack completed the last step alone. But on this bright morning, there was no time to prepare. There was no opportunity to talk herself through the process, to reorganize her life now that it would never be the same again.
'Are you the owner of the house, Mrs?' The police officer said. Miriam couldn't remember answering, but she must have spoken in the affirmative. Shortly after, she was making tea for a group of officers in the kitchen. She could have done this with her eyes closed. How many times had she made tea? That was an interesting question. In fact, how many cups of tea does the average person drink in a year, and is it true that consumption of tea goes up in times of tragedy or war?
Miriam wondered if this was how shock felt. She didn't have time to analyse the situation. She waited for the moment where things would be markedly different from before. There was supposed to be an invisible line drawn between the time before and the time after the moment that changed everything. Then one of the officers dropped his mug. The tea was very hot, he said. Miriam swept up the pieces and dropped them into the bin. It was one of her finer mugs, but she didn't care much about it.
The garden was cleaned up the next day. A man knocked on Miriam's door and asked if it was okay for his crew to enter the garden. Miriam said it was fine, and then for a moment, she was going to caution them about stepping in the flowerbed. But she remembered the flowers were gone. Instead, she left the men alone to do their work. Later she made them tea, only doling out the old cups. Later that day, Mrs. Mulvihill called to see Miriam. She was the first person to do this, and Miriam didn't know whether to be glad or not. Everyone who lived on the street was still in a state of shock. The black skid marks were still present on the footpath, and the electricity poll where the car ricocheted onto the pavement was still dented from the force of the impact. Some people swore they could still gather the stench of catalytic converter in the air. It smelled like rotten eggs, one boy said.
'We still don't know what to make of it.' Mrs. Mulvihill said, talking about her husband. 'I see they removed the dirt and rocks left over from the wall.' She continued, 'it's just awful.' Miriam had not even thought about it. The massive hole in the wall. The scuffed stones where the soil from the main flowerbed was destroyed. The whole event was like a jigsaw puzzle with the pieces just removed from the box. Miriam didn't know how things should look, but she knew there must be some congruency amid the rubble. 'Robert thought it might be a good time to do up the whole garden anyway, what with the mess and everything.' Mrs. Mulvihill said.
Shortly after, Miriam stood in her living room and looked out the front window onto the garden. She hadn't noticed the blue and white tape which covered the hole where the wall had been. Her garden had become a scene for forensic examination. There were many questions still to answer. How fast was the car going? Did the driver accelerate into the wall? Who was the driver? Miriam did not even consider this. A man died right there in her garden, and yet she did not know his name. She didn't know who he was or where his mother was.
In spite of everything, Miriam slept well that night. It was the first bit of rest she had since the crash. But when she woke up, she felt a hollow sensation in her chest. She went into the bathroom to prepare for the day. The fluffy white rug was cold under her feet, and on the spruce, ceramic walls lay a diffuse reflection of her bathrobe. Miriam examined her reflection in the mirror. Her face was round and complemented by a healthy olive-coloured complexion. She traced her fingers around the edge of her cheeks and chin. Her eyes were green, and she still had the fullness of youth in her lips. She was still beautiful after all these years, and it appeared as though nothing could spoil the grace and poise of her smile. After a moment, she washed her hands and got dressed in her bedroom.
Later that morning, Miriam's daughter, Anna, arrived. She heard the news on the radio and arranged for a neighbour to watch her two children. Over the previous two days, Miriam hadn't thought to contact anyone and tell them what had happened. Anna was annoyed, but when her mother opened the front door, she cried and fell forward into Miriam's arms. 'Oh, Mum! Mum, I nearly died when I heard…' She said. They went to the kitchen, and Miriam made tea. There were only two teabags left. Anna sat at the dinner table, shaking and wiping her teary eyes with a napkin. They spoke, but only between lengthy pauses. Anna said it was a blessing the children hadn't stayed over that night. They were aged six and seven. It would have been frightening for them. Rob, her husband, heard the news first but wanted to wait for Miriam to contact them in case she didn't want to be disturbed. 'I mean, I was angry when I found out that he already knew. I said, 'why didn't you tell me, but he was just…I don't know.' Anna said. Miriam nodded and sipped her tea. Anna went outside to bring her clothes from the car. She said she would stay for a few days until things were sorted. When she returned, Anna mentioned the flowers and cards along the wall. Miriam had not seen them.
'Do you know the man's name…have the police not said anything?' Anna wondered. Miriam didn't know. She thought again about the driver of the car. After thinking some more, and when the tea had gone cold, she asked Anna to leave. 'Ah, Mum, it's okay. I want to stay. It's no trouble.' But Miriam said she wanted to be alone. She said she would contact Anna soon. They would go for coffee and talk about everything then. Anna agreed and kissed her mother goodbye. She drove slowly down the street, but Miriam was already gone back inside the house. A few hours later, Miriam went outside to examine the memorial at the front of the garden. There were many flowers laid on the ground, lilies, and carnations in transparent wraps with small cards attached. Miriam took one of the cards and read the message. The victim's name was Julian. Miriam read the other cards quietly, thinking all the time about the accident. She tried to imagine how and why the crash occurred. The more she thought about it, the more anxious she became to understand the whole tragedy. The police had not contacted her since that morning. She went to bed that night, and the hollow sensation still lingered in her chest. Eventually, she fell asleep, her body settling quietly into the mattress under the stillness of the night.
The next morning Miriam was going to boil some eggs for breakfast, but there were none left. She had a bowl of muesli with milk and sliced up a grapefruit. The living room was cold and musty. Miriam hadn't lived in it for some time. She spent many hours in the back garden tending to the flowers and watering the soil. On other occasions, she visited friends for coffee or went for walks along the esplanade. But when she walked into the living room after breakfast, she looked at some of the photographs on the mantelpiece. She held in her hand one photo she had always loved. It was a photograph with her husband, Jack. They were on a barge with the wind blowing through their hair; Jack smiling from behind Miriam, his arms around her shoulders and his chin resting by her ear, her hair tickling his cheek. Miriam remembered the day the photo was taken. It was only three years before his death. They were always happy together. Afterward, Miriam got dressed and decided she should buy groceries. She looked at her face again in the bathroom mirror. Nothing had changed since the previous morning. She applied dark eyeshadow, some bronzer, and mocha coloured lipstick she had long favoured. She looked especially beautiful, and she knew she appeared younger than her years, owing to a good diet and occasional exercise. However, when she reached for her keys, she realised it was the first time she was leaving the house since the accident. This made her nervous, but she thought things would work themselves out if she carried on as normal.
The weather was warm, and the air felt heavy in her lungs. She removed her grey cardigan and threw it on the backseat of the car. The roads were quieter than usual, but she drove slowly. Later, when she returned home, Miriam fell back against the front door after shutting it behind her. She thought she would never make it back. She gasped for air as her clothes stuck to her body like clingfilm. Everything was fine in the beginning. She made it to the supermarket without any problems and picked up all the items she needed for the pantry at home. Soon her body began to itch from the irritation of watchful eyes. In all her years, Miriam never felt more uncomfortable in public than she did then. Was everyone really staring at her? Were there unkind rumours spreading around town? And after making herself tea, Miriam began to feel that hollow sensation catching in her throat again. It was as though a piece of her windpipe was missing. She closed her eyes, took deep breaths, and managed to calm herself again. For the next few hours, she just sat silently, paying attention to the air in her nostrils. But then her thoughts were invaded by the immediacy of the situation. Why did it have to be my house, she wondered. Of all the homes on this road, why did it have to be mine? Is this my fault… and when is the funeral? She looked at the day's newspaper. There was a notice of the young man's death in the obituaries section. His full name was Julian King. He was twenty-seven and left behind a mother and father, two sisters, and a niece. Any flowers should be donated to the St. Jude Foundation for the Homeless. The funeral mass would take place the following morning at 10 am. Miriam decided to go to the mass. It was in her local church too. It was the least she could do.
The funeral the next morning was well attended. Miriam applied a little more makeup than usual. She thought her face looked dehydrated and sallow. She did not eat a big breakfast, just a banana and a cup of coffee. When she got in the car, she had already forgotten about the panic attack the previous day, but the closeness of it remained in her lungs. The church was seated to full capacity, so Miriam stood at the back with her purse over her shoulder, and her hands clasped at her navel. There was a picture of Julian King on his coffin. Miriam couldn't see the photo clearly and wondered why she had never seen Julian before. It was strange considering how he lived locally. But she thought she recognised his mother. When the funeral was over, many mourners greeted the family at the front of the church to offer condolences. Miriam thought about doing this but decided not to. Words seemed useless at times like this, and the family might have wondered who she was and why she was in attendance at all. Miriam bought coffee in the town before returning home. She parked the car in the driveway, only two metres from the main patch of grass where Julian's car came to rest. Her attention was piqued when she exited her vehicle. She could see her neighbours watching from the other side of the street, shielded behind curtains. They must think I'm blind, she thought. The sun was shining intensely that morning.
Miriam wanted to get out of the heat and change into something comfortable. She was about to turn to her front door, but the surrounding stares pushed her restraint beyond the point of regress. She turned back to the street and marched in the direction of the on-looking neighbours. The curtains fluttered. The eyes abated. Miriam turned again, this time to study her garden. And it did not look the way she expected either. There was an emptiness beyond the missing wall and crumbling slabs that she could not quite explain. It was a distortion in the view that she could not detail in any definitive way, but one she could only feel in her body as she stood there at a distance. When she walked back to her side of the street, Miriam picked up some of the flowers that were laid down at the site. They were brown and wilting, crimpled under the heat of the sun. She took a black refuse bag from the house, threw the dying flowers in the bag, and tied it up. She slammed the front door behind her. Again, the hollow sensation lingered in her chest, pulsating like a drained heart craving blood.
Miriam's sleep was troubled that night. She woke every hour in a mess of sweat and confusion. When she finally drifted off into a slumber, she was awoken by a sudden clatter at dawn. She lifted herself from bed and looked out the window. It was clear that she had left the front gate open, and it was banging with the force of the wind. Miriam returned to bed. The wind won't blow forever, she thought. And she did find sleep again when she laid her head down. For the next few hours, she rested as though in a warm cocoon far above the ground. But later that morning, the gate banged again, and Miriam awoke with a jolt. The sound of the gate stirred a strange curiosity in her mind. It was as though this had happened before. In fact, it had happened before. On the morning of the crash, Miriam was woken up by the tragedy in the garden. She had been in the middle of a dream that was disturbed by the crashing car. And what was the dream, she tried to remember. She was planting flowers with Anna. Yes, they were planting flowers together. Anna was only a child. They would water the flowers every week and pray for equal amounts of rain and sunshine. The flowers will live forever, Miriam said to Anna, they'll live forever if all goes well.