TUESDAY: Loneliness and Fear

BY PATRICIA HEGARTY

Copyright is held by the author.

THERE WAS no egress. The local police unit had cordoned off the exit from the narrow laneway that led onto the main street. What had happened? They were blocked in. What a stifling feeling; yet they had done no wrong. A telephone call from a neighbour confirmed that they couldn’t leave.

Lord, what an inconvenience. Then Justine reflected. How selfish of her! She didn’t have a clue what had happened and all she could think was how her day was being compromised.

“Christine, I’m going out to take a look. If we’re going to be stuck here all day, we’re better off knowing now before it gets any later.”

Christine, her host, just nodded her head and opened her packet of cigarettes again. She flicked on her lighter but it took several tries before she was finally able to ignite her cigarette. Every movement was an effort for her and changes in her limited routine frustrated her more and more.

Christine sat down on the kitchen chair and looked out into the backyard. The ground surface was covered in flagstone paving and surrounded on three sides by a three-foot wall, the house itself completing the rectangle. There was little to relieve the boredom of the little yard. A few potted plants had been neglected and only stalks remained. It could have looked so attractive with a garden table, chairs and a selection of colourful plants, but she was too old, tired and feeble to care for such things and became irritated if she received them as gifts. Many things irritated her these days and it was reasonable. She used to have so much energy. She never stopped working from early morning until late in the evening: cooking, cleaning and caring for all of them. Now she was reduced to being a lonely, tired, bent-over, old woman, bothered by constant pain. Justine and her siblings visited her often and just listened to her comments and tried to help out where possible.

Justine had planned to bring Christine to the shopping mall that morning. Christine wanted to buy groceries and look for some new clothes. Now it seemed that their plans were stymied by an accident that prevented them leaving the area. Justine could walk but it was way too far for Christine. She couldn’t possibly walk that distance.

Justine left the house, almost certain that she heard the click of the key in the door before she was out of earshot. Christine’s home was one of a group of 10 townhouses, all in a line, uniform, predictably similar, in various states of repair. Each grouping of four was joined, making a few of them semi-detached, with a side access. Justine knew that many single people occupied the homes and guarded their neighbourhood and their possessions with a fierce tenacity. Fear of intrusion plagued each and every occupant. Some dealt with the issue by planting huge hedges and installing wooden fences even in the front of their homes (against all the rules of the townhouse association and the advice of the local police who strongly advised maintaining clear access.) Others had a series of bolts; turnkey locks and alarm systems that would have kept out the most hardened criminals. Justine shuddered to think of the pandemonium that would result in the event of a fire. Christine too, double locked the front door with a key that she carried up to her bedroom at night. The backdoor was locked and that key was hidden behind a Kleenex box close by, knowledge useless to all but the owner. She recalled mentioning her fear of a fire soon after she arrived. Still Christine wouldn’t give her a separate key. She said she was weary of people talking about fires when there was no risk of one. She, Justine, was a little girl all over again.

It was a chilly morning, the first since she’d arrived. She hesitated, feeling the wind pass through her thin summer blouse, wondering if she’d go back and get a jacket. No, that would involve her friend coming to open the door, explanations and another five minutes chat. Passing between the cars in the busy parking lot, she ran through the connecting alleyway to the entrance of the lane that was completely deserted, not even a stray cat. Evidently everyone knew what had happened. They had all moved off. Continuing down the lane to the street she immediately saw the obstruction — a single storey bus stopped in the centre of the street and a bicycle abandoned. Only a small pool of blood turning a deep scarlet provided any evidence that an accident had taken place. There was no body. The earlier siren had clearly been an ambulance.

Shivers went up and down her spine. The local policemen and crime scene investigators were taking photographs and other forensic evidence from the site. Going as close as she dared to the ribbon, she peeked up and down the street – no sign of life; not a car, no busybodies how bizarre! She could scarcely believe that there were no on-lookers. Where were the Mrs. O’Learys and the gossipy Ryans gone? There was a time when nothing would have escaped their attention. They were guaranteed to have seen the incident and to have known all concerned, their people and where they came from. They would have known details like family history of drinking or violence, tragedies, the victim, the perpetrator. They would have voiced an opinion as to why so-and-so was guilty even if it had no basis in logic. Where were these people? Didn’t anyone care anymore, even superficially? Had accidents and people’s misfortunes become so banal?

She admired the calm demeanor of the police crew. How could they remain so unruffled? She looked from one to the other: neatly dressed in dark shirts all wearing bulletproof vests and dark navy pants. They quietly and efficiently surveyed the area using the latest laser equipment. Wow, that surprised her. The Irish police force had funding for sophisticated investigative tools. Her estimate of their abilities took a giant leap. Irreverently she thought that the guy nearest the doctor’s surgery was cute. God! How could she? Justine wanted to ask them if the victim had survived, but felt they would dismiss her questions as intrusive. Instead she asked if they’d be there for long.

“Excuse me, do you think we’ll be blocked in for much longer?” she enquired.

“We’ll be out of here within an hour,” one of them answered, in a friendly tone.

Darn, she thought, she could have asked for some further information but she didn’t know how and now she’d lost the moment. It would have to wait.

A voice interrupted her troubled thoughts.

“Did you know him, lovie?” said an old grey-haired woman, bent and leaning on a walking stick.

“Know who?” she said, trying to focus on the speaker.

“The poor fellow. God help us. He was coming from the doctor’s surgery, you know.”

“No, no, I didn’t know him. I’m just a visitor, a traveler.”

“He was on crutches and he wasn’t that old either, about sixty-seven, a widower.”

“I’m sorry. Was he some relative of yours then?” she politely enquired, though it was of little consequence to her.

“Ah sure no, but we all know each other here in the village. He lives two doors up from me,” the woman said, tears now glistening in her kind, weathered eyes.

“I’m sorry,” she repeated, at a loss to find an appropriate phrase or word to cover the situation.

“What happened? I mean, will he be alright?” she said, taking in the lonely length of the deserted street: no people, no traffic, just a few lone policemen containing the crime scene, if indeed there had been any crime.

“There was nothing anyone could have done — he stepped out from behind the bus —the cyclist had no time to stop. Poor Padraig! He was rushed off in the ambulance with head injuries.”

But what about the bus? Why is the bus there? She wanted to know, but didn’t ask for fear of upsetting the woman further. Justine could see the tears starting to course their way through the lines and crevices on her weathered skin. Instead she laid her hand on the woman’s arm and they both just stood there looking at the policemen and taking in the scene.

After what seemed an age, the woman crossed herself and said goodbye to Justine. Then she shuffled around the police ribbon and slowly made her way to her door, leaning heavily on her walking stick. Justine watched as she went.

The sidewalk wouldn’t give up its secrets. The houses stood mute and there were no other witnesses. How tragic! Justine was overwhelmed with sadness and felt tears welling up in her eyes and down her cheeks.

After some minutes she looked around and became rather embarrassed. Life was returning to the streets and she was attracting attention from both pedestrians and drivers alike. Realizing that misery was better suited to a graveyard than a street corner; she took a deep breath, yanked out a handkerchief from her jacket pocket and wiped her eyes. She then blew her nose, straightened her shoulders and made her way back to where she was staying.

Ringing the doorbell she could hear fumbling with a key and the handle being moved into a position where the door could then be opened. Withholding any frustration she might have felt at this unnecessary and ineffective security, (the backdoor was always wide open,) she thanked Christine who then moved painfully back into the little sitting room ahead of her.

“Was anyone hurt? What’s happening out there now?” asked Christine, regaining her chair. Though impatient, perhaps intolerant of the delay, she still found time to light up yet another cigarette and pull on it deeply.

“There was an old woman out there. She says she lives in the cottage with the brown door on the right-hand side. Dressed in a dark tweed coat, heavyset. Do you know her?”

“Ah, that would have been old Kit. You know she was broken into recently. They only found 20 Euros but they beat her up pretty badly. What did she have to say? Did she know what happened?”

“She said it was someone called Padraig on his way back from the doctor. He was trying to cross the road behind the bus when a cyclist hit him.”

“Oh, Lord save us. Padraig! Will he be okay? Did she say?”

“No, she said he was taken away in an ambulance,” said Justine, omitting the sight of the pool of blood in the middle of the road. Hopefully the police would have cleaned it up before they drove out.

“When can we go?” said Christine, anxious to get her shopping done before she got too tired to go out.

“We can leave in a few minutes. I’ll go and check one more time.”

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