The letter arrived the day
Matty Lamb got out of hospital. He ripped the envelope with his teeth and spat a wedge of
paper onto the bedroom floor. Then he unfolded and read the letter. The Examination Board
had granted him a postponement for English. His circumstances, they said, were special. He
threw off the bed-sheet and looked at his broken leg where pins penetrated the flesh at a
dozen points from ankle to hip. The pins were bolted into shattered bone. With every move
the pain struck like an electric shock. It was a hot cutting pain and it made him sweat.
He was tempted by the horse-strength painkillers in the brown bottle on his desk, but he
resisted, he wanted a clear mind. The car crash was a month ago today, and still Matty
remembered nothing. Today, Matty didnt feel so special.
Outside, the crows in the
jacaranda heralded a mournful summer. Matty looked out the window at the harvest dust over
the buildings and the silver light all scatterbright on the iron roofs, and knew, out
there in the town, thered be talk of the crash. The town was of a size where
ones business was everyones, where ones grief was shared, and where
blame and damnation could spread thick and fast. He knew people were coming out of the
shops onto to the dreary mainstreet, shooing flies, leaning on cars with arms folded, and
speculating. Pointing the finger. And in the hot air coming through his bedroom window,
Matty sensed his name whispered. But with this letter he now held, he also sensed beneath
his burden some hope rekindled. If he performed well in English then a scholarship
awaited. With a scholarship, Matty could escape this town. But without it, no pills would
relieve the pain of remaining. He reached beneath the bed for his crutches then shuffled
across to his desk. There he snatched up a pencil, put it in his mouth and bit down hard.
He flipped open Cloud Street and started reading. Fifty pages, he thought, then
He heard his mother coming:
cautious steps up the stairs, pausing in the hallway to prepare herself, then quietly
entering his bedroom. Meg Lamb had the dark round eyes of a frightened rabbit. The toll of
the past month was marked on her tired face and in the grey streaks of her hair. She
rubbed her hands as though it was cold. Matty was only half-way down the first page and
didnt look up; he kept reading, chewing his pencil.
That was Roseanne
OReilly on the phone, said Meg Lamb.
The pencil fell from
Mattys mouth. He looked at his mother. She was trying to say something else and she
lifted her chin to help the words out.
Dougald has woken up.
Matty heard the air-rush in his
mouth. He swiveled his chair to fully face his mother.
Is he okay, I mean is he
all right, as in?
She didnt say. That
was all she said to me.
Meg Lamb moved forward and
offered her hand, but Matty looked away. His eyes brushed across the cork-board above his
desk with the photographs. So many pictures of Dougald and Kirsty and him. The belt-like
grip he felt round his chest tightened a notch. Then his mother asked:
Will you want to see him?
And he glared at her.
Yes mum, its
probably something I should do.
She was crying again. She
stepped backwards and said as she left his bedroom:
Ill take you. When
They were in the car driving
through town. Kirstys house was up ahead. It was a small white fibro with a neat
lawn and a low fence, and as they passed he saw the curtains were drawn on its one
remaining occupant. Matty still hadnt spoken to Kirstys mother. Matty
hadnt spoken to anyone. Nobody had phoned him and nobody had come to see him. They
stopped at a pedestrian crossing on the main street. A few shoppers came out of
Zumbos supermarket, saw the car and looked away. They were women from the CWA, a
club of which his mother was a member. Matty looked at his mother, saw her staring
straight ahead, her hand poised on the gear stick, ready to move.
Whats going on mum,
People need to blame
somebody. Grief is...
Grief is what? What
bloody book did you read about grief in?
She put the car into gear and
Mum, what talk?
They say you were drunk.
Matty eyed the passing town
with hatred. Wide empty streets and huge backyards; all this space, but he only felt
smothered by it.
How could I be drunk when
Id only just finished the chemistry exam?
Thats just what
The usual people, Mathew.
Matty shook his head.
This fucking place, he
The road rose and crossed the
levy-bank at the edge of town and Meg Lamb said:
How much do you remember?
Matty didnt answer. Off
to the right was the Weir Road. It was a dusty corrugated track laid out on a red dirt
plain. About a kilometre along, the road disappeared into the shadows of eucalypts and it
was here where the crash occurred. He wondered how that afternoon could be lost, buried in
the stratum of past events. He looked at the road and he looked at the trees, and beyond
them he saw the glint of the weir. But nothing came to him. Cool water and sunburn was all
he could conjure. Finally, he said:
I remember that I
An hour later they arrived in
the city and parked near the emergency entrance to the hospital. Matty opened the door and
lifted his broken leg, like it was some precious object, out onto the pavement. He watched
an ambulance drive up the ramp and park in the emergency bay. A nurse came out of the
hospital to meet the officers. As they pulled out the stretcher, an arm escaped from under
the blood-stained sheet and the nurse quickly tucked it back in. One of the officers
listed numbers, figures, dosages, and the nurse held a saline drip above the patient,
listening. There was no haste, no panic. They rolled the stretcher into the hospital. The
siren on the ambulance had been silenced, but the lights still flashed. Matty thought
about Kirstys picture in the newspaper; how they blackened her eyes so that if you
didnt know her, didnt know what happened, youd know she was dead. Then
he saw her hanging upside-down, her hair strewn across her face in bloodied ropes, and a
voice, the officers voice, calm and measured, saying: leave the girl, shes
gone. Get the boy. The image startled him; perhaps it was a flicker of memory and he
tried to retrieve it, but the image, as though illuminated by a single strobe of light,
Matty hauled himself out of the
car, lost balance, and had to right himself by weighing down hard on his broken leg. The
pain turned his vision white. His mother took his arm.
Are you okay Mathew?
He couldnt speak. Sweat
slid off his face, he felt rivers of it run down his back.
Let me get your crutches,
said Meg Lamb.
He pulled away from her and
coughed into his fist.
Ill get the damn
crutches, he said.
Inside the hospital, they were
directed to Dougalds ward. They took the elevator down two levels and came out into
a narrow corridor bathed in a jaundiced light. Further along, the corridor opened out into
a reception area with plastic chairs, fake plants, and old magazines. It smelt of
I want to go in alone,
Of course, said Meg Lamb.
She sat down and picked up a
magazine. Matty found his way to Dougalds room. The door was shut. He pushed it open
with his crutch and hurried in before the door swung back and caught him off balance. He
stood there looking at his friend. Dougalds head was set at an awkward angle on a
pile of pillows. One eye was shut, the other darted around like it was tracking a fly. His
face was divided down the midline: one half contorted and twitched with a kind of
desperate confusion, the other was so still and lifeless it couldve been the face of
a dead man. He had a plastic tube inserted in his throat and the tube was connected to a
machine with lights and dials and buttons that wheezed away like a sick dog at the side of
his bed. His hair was combed and parted to the side. On the other side of his bed,
standing perfectly still and looking at Matty, was Roseanne OReilly, Dougalds
mother. Her make-up was so thick you could scrape it off with a blunt knife, but the
make-up didnt hide the tension in her face. Matty moved closer to the bed.
Hows it going,
He doesnt move, he
doesnt speak, said Roseanne OReilly.
Mrs OReilly, I
cant begin to
Look at him. Take a good
look at what youve done, she said.
The muscles in her jaw pulsed
like the gills of a fish, and the venom in those pale green eyes left Matty paralyzed,
unable to look at her, unable to reply. Instead, he looked around the room. Cards and
flowers everywhere. A wreath made of crushed VB cans on the wall, signatures of friends on
cardboard beneath it. He read the names; all of them his friends too. He thought
theyd all gone away, over to the coast to celebrate the end of school. Maybe they
had. Matty didnt know where his friends were
. Dougalds hand moved. It
clenched and shook and fell limp again. Spit bubbled at the corner of his mouth. Roseanne
took a tissue from her sleeve and wiped away the dribble. Dougalds eye shot up and
away from his mother. Roseanne turned to Matty and said:
Youve got five
She snatched up her hand-bag
and left the room, dragging with her the thick smell of perfume. The machine by the bed
snorted and sighed. Dougalds eye steadied and locked in on Matty.
Whats with the
hair, man, said Matty.
He ruffled Dougalds hair,
erasing the side-part.
Thats more like it.
Was starting to wonder who the bloody hell you were.
This didnt last, this
talk. Matty felt a great pressure in his chest. Then he cried and it came out of him in
heaves. He hadnt cried since primary school and wasnt sure what to make of it
so he started talking, fast, the words spilling over each other:
Jesus, mate, what have I
done, oh Jesus-H-Christ what have I done to you, you poor bastard. Fuck, in Gods
name what have I done? Kirsty, shes dead, man. They buried her next to her old man
and I wasnt there, they never told me till after. Our fucking town, the fucking
people, I cant believe it. Ive got to leave. Weve got to leave.
Well go okay, when youre better well go. Kirstys dead, man. I know
you loved her and thats okay, we both did mate. Shed dead
A doctor entered the room. He
took the chart from the foot of the bed, clicked his pen, and initialed the page. Then he
moved past Matty, flexed the tube in Dougalds throat, and shone a pen-torch in the
open eye. He stood straight, touched the gadgets in his pocket, and turned to leave. Then
How is he? How is
The doctor stopped and looked
at Matty, looked down at his leg.
Too early to tell.
Its a waiting game. Time will tell. Time is of
Fuck all that shit. Is my
friend a vegetable?
Who exactly are you?
Im the one who did
this to him.
The doctor tried to look
thoughtful by rubbing his chin, pinching his nose, taking a breath. Again, he looked at
There are some signs, he
The doctor looked over his
He seems to get
distressed in the presence of his mother.
Thats a positive
sign, he hates his mother, said Matty.
The doctor took out his pen,
clicked, but put it back when he heard Roseanne OReillys heels come clacking
in on the lino. Dougalds hand clamped and quivered. The doctor nodded then left the
room. Matty took hold of Dougalds hand.
I know you can hear me,
Dougald. When youre out of here well move away. I got another go at the
scholarship. Well both go to Sydney, okay. Our town doesnt forget stuff like
this. You and me, well go, okay.
He pulled back as Roseanne came
in and just as he released his grip, he felt a tiny embrace, the faintest hook of
Dougalds finger holding on, not wanting him to leave. He looked at his face, saw the
madness in it, and remembered his face in the car. The memory was hazy and brief like a
peak through a keyhole: Dougald in the passenger seat laughing, wide-eyed, crazy. Then it
As Matty left he turned around
and saw Roseanne OReilly brushing Dougalds hair, his head lolling side-to-side
as she cut a neat part from forehead to crown. Half his face writhed in anguish, and his
open eye darted round the room.
Meg Lamb sat in the reception
area, a New Idea open on her lap. She looked up and smiled at her son limping
towards her on crutches. Matty balanced on his good leg and held out his hands, and his
mother stood and embraced him.
Sorry for being a prick,
No need, Mathew, no need.
They held each other tight.
How is he?
Matty relaxed into his
Mum, I need you to drive me to the weir, to the crash site.
Of course. When
They turned onto Weir Road and
the hum of bitumen gave way to the crunch of sand and rock; the car shuddered on the
corrugations. Meg Lamb drove slowly, third gear, the car almost steering itself with the
wheels deep in the ruts. The eucalypts up ahead leant in to form a canopy, like entering a
tunnel. The low sun flickered between the trunks and the shadows lay in webs across the
road. There was something about the filtered light, and Matty closed his eyes and tried to
bring his memory into focus
The chemistry exam finished late, around five, and they
went to collect their bathers and towels. Of course they did, to swim in the weir. There
was no drinking. Why would there be? There was an English exam to study for. Matty opened
his eyes and let the light dazzle him. The sun-splashed leaves sparkled like
Kirstys face in the rear-view mirror, lips pouting like a seductress,
toying with him, sucking her finger, blowing him kisses. Dougalds arm out the
window, surfing the breeze. Kirsty, cheeky smile, slides her hand inside her bikini and
cups her breast, lifts it, flashes her nipple, giggles. Dougald sees her do it. He starts
whooping, laughing, whistling. He leans forward in his seat and drums on the dash-board.
He turns around, screams for her to do it again. He claps his hands, leans across, pulls
on the steering wheel. Stop it Dougald, stop it. She is laughing, but there is fear
in her eyes and in her voice. And in Dougald there is madness. And anger and jealousy.
Matty sees it in the curl of his lip. Dougald pulls on the wheel, harder this time. The
car pops out of the wheel ruts. Matty straightens the car and tries to push Dougalds
hand off the wheel, but his grip is solid. Then Dougald rips on the wheel. A volley
of dust and stone slaps the car. A tipping silence. Then a smack of metal
Pain currented up his leg.
Matty lunged forward in the seat and yelled:
Stop mum, stop!
What? Whats wrong?
nothing, its just my leg.
Do you want to see the
tree where theyve put the cross? Theyve put flowers there too. Its a
little further along.
No, its okay.
Im okay now. Just turn around.
Meg Lamb slowed the car and
pulled to the side. Matty let his head fall back against the seat. He looked at his
I need to go home and
study for this exam. I really need to study, he said.
The sun had set and the
light-spray from the car filled with bugs and dust. They drove on in silence. A kangaroo
hopped onto the road and Meg Lamb breaked hard as the grey doe brushed the bumper then
bounced on ahead of them, cutting a crooked path like a drunk.
Stupid, Meg Lamb said.
Yeah, Matty replied.
He sighed, leant back into the
seat, and looked out at the road.