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Famous Reporter # 36





                 The Recollections of Matty Lamb


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 didn’t 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, there’d be talk of the crash. The town was of a size where one’s business was everyone’s, where one’s 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 a pill.

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 didn’t look up; he kept reading, chewing his pencil.

—That was Roseanne O’Reilly on the phone, said Meg Lamb.

The pencil fell from Matty’s 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 didn’t 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, it’s probably something I should do.

She was crying again. She stepped backwards and said as she left his bedroom:

—I’ll take you. When you’re ready.

They were in the car driving through town. Kirsty’s 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 hadn’t spoken to Kirsty’s mother. Matty hadn’t 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 Zumbo’s 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.

—What’s going on mum, he said.

—There’s talk, that’s all.

—What talk?

—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 drove on.

—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 I’d only just finished the chemistry exam?

—That’s just what they’re saying.


—The usual people, Mathew.

Matty shook his head.

—This fucking place, he said.

The road rose and crossed the levy-bank at the edge of town and Meg Lamb said:

—How much do you remember?

Matty didn’t 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 wasn’t drunk.

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 Kirsty’s picture in the newspaper; how they blackened her eyes so that if you didn’t know her, didn’t know what happened, you’d know she was dead. Then he saw her hanging upside-down, her hair strewn across her face in bloodied ropes, and a voice, the officer’s voice, calm and measured, saying: leave the girl, she’s 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, had vanished.

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 couldn’t 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.

—I’ll get the damn crutches, he said.

Inside the hospital, they were directed to Dougald’s 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 antiseptic.

—I want to go in alone, said Matty.

—Of course, said Meg Lamb.

She sat down and picked up a magazine. Matty found his way to Dougald’s 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. Dougald’s 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 could’ve 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 O’Reilly, Dougald’s mother. Her make-up was so thick you could scrape it off with a blunt knife, but the make-up didn’t hide the tension in her face. Matty moved closer to the bed.

—How’s it going, Dougald?

—He doesn’t move, he doesn’t speak, said Roseanne O’Reilly.

—Mrs O’Reilly, I can’t begin to…

—Look at him. Take a good look at what you’ve 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 they’d all gone away, over to the coast to celebrate the end of school. Maybe they had. Matty didn’t know where his friends were…. Dougald’s 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. Dougald’s eye shot up and away from his mother. Roseanne turned to Matty and said:

—You’ve got five minutes.

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. Dougald’s eye steadied and locked in on Matty.

—What’s with the hair, man, said Matty.

He ruffled Dougald’s hair, erasing the side-part.

—That’s more like it. Was starting to wonder who the bloody hell you were.

This didn’t last, this talk. Matty felt a great pressure in his chest. Then he cried and it came out of him in heaves. He hadn’t cried since primary school and wasn’t 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 God’s name what have I done? Kirsty, she’s dead, man. They buried her next to her old man and I wasn’t there, they never told me till after. Our fucking town, the fucking people, I can’t believe it. I’ve got to leave. We’ve got to leave. We’ll go okay, when you’re better we’ll go. Kirsty’s dead, man. I know you loved her and that’s okay, we both did mate. She’d 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 Dougald’s throat, and shone a pen-torch in the open eye. He stood straight, touched the gadgets in his pocket, and turned to leave. Then Matty said:

—How is he? How is Dougald?

The doctor stopped and looked at Matty, looked down at his leg.

—Too early to tell. It’s a waiting game. Time will tell. Time is of…

—Fuck all that shit. Is my friend a vegetable?

—Who exactly are you?

—I’m 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 Matty’s leg.

—There are some signs, he said.

—Like what?

The doctor looked over his shoulder.

—He seems to get distressed in the presence of his mother.

—That’s a positive sign, he hates his mother, said Matty.

The doctor took out his pen, clicked, but put it back when he heard Roseanne O’Reilly’s heels come clacking in on the lino. Dougald’s hand clamped and quivered. The doctor nodded then left the room. Matty took hold of Dougald’s hand.

—I know you can hear me, Dougald. When you’re out of here we’ll move away. I got another go at the scholarship. We’ll both go to Sydney, okay. Our town doesn’t forget stuff like this. You and me, we’ll 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 Dougald’s 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 was gone.

As Matty left he turned around and saw Roseanne O’Reilly brushing Dougald’s 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, he said.

—No need, Mathew, no need.

They held each other tight.

—How is he?

—Not good.

Matty relaxed into his crutches.
—Mum, I need you to drive me to the weir, to the crash site.

—Of course. When you’re ready.

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 jewellry… Kirsty’s face in the rear-view mirror, lips pouting like a seductress, toying with him, sucking her finger, blowing him kisses. Dougald’s 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 Dougald’s 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? What’s wrong?

—It’s just… nothing, it’s just my leg.

—Do you want to see the tree where they’ve put the cross? They’ve put flowers there too. It’s a little further along.

—No, it’s okay. I’m 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 mother.

—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.


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