I’m notorious for trying to drown my cousin in 1973. We were at Pipers River, she was five, I was three. As we played in the thinning shallows while the tide ran out, I wondered what would happen if I sat on her. She was face down. She struggled. I suppose water went into her mouth, maybe up her nose. The result of my little experiment in murder was quite unexpected. From out of nowhere a rough hand grabbed my arm and I flew from my cousin’s back in a wide arc, in slow motion or so it now seems. With the shock of being more-or-less airborne and the gruffness of my grandfather’s voice I erupted into open-mouthed tears. I stood alone and suddenly unpopular on the wet sand, red faced and howling. I don’t know what my cousin thought of it all.
I suppose I’ve been fascinated with murder and death ever since. In another life I’ve mixed with murderers and rapists, drug dealers and thieves, but always with a professional veneer in place. I never wanted to be one of them, but was intrigued every day by the details of ordinary lives that would seep from their mouths. Stories and excuses. Some of them true, no doubt. But no, I was never again tempted to experiment with mysterious murder.
But now, quite suddenly, I find myself revisiting murder in my mind. Almost nightly this week, a couple of times last week. A whole hell of a lot the week before that.
I know the frenzy of a crime scene
You see, a friend’s father was murdered recently, with an axe, or so they say. I never met the man, only saw him once from afar at a wedding. I never knew him, but his murderer did. Allegedly. And the axe became intimately acquainted, it would seem. I never knew him but I can imagine the look on his face as he realised the axe was for him. The twisted horror of his mouth as he felt it enter his flesh. The crushing blow resounding throughout his body. The thud as he fell to the floor. The arc of blood splatters on the wall.
I don’t have to try too hard to imagine these things. I’ve talked at length with those who have killed. I know the frenzy of a crime scene, the frantic efforts to clean up, to destroy evidence. The dulled senses of the killer who can no more atone for his actions than I can fly to the moon. I used to think I was toughened by my experience with the underbelly. I thought I was world-weary and wise. I liked working with murderers, they were the least scary. They did it once, they went to prison. Easy.
I reacted with harsh, nauseating grief at my friend’s loss and at the bewilderment of such a senseless thing. Tears burned behind my eyes. Something ugly seemed to squeeze the breath from me. But the insidiousness of murder is richer than grief, it is murkier than tears. Like a silent invader, this murder has been a sneak-thief, stealing away my courage. Bit by gradual bit. Alone at night I leave lights on all over the house like a beacon. I keep a mobile phone in my bed, hoping that 000 can magically detect my location in the event of the unexpected. On bad nights I sleep fully clothed, in case I need to run. On worse nights I fall into a hesitant slumber with my fingers curled around the handle of a wooden mallet under the doona. Just in case. Fearing sleeplessness most of all, I take double my normal dose of Valerian. In the warm bath of daylight I have no fear. In company I have no fear. I am rational and strong. But from somewhere in the dark, from the death of a man I never met, I now jump at my own shadow and harken to the sound of silence. Just in case.
This is just a phase, a process. But forever now I will understand, in such a small small way, the shock waves that roll silently through a community when murder comes to town. It is but a tiny ripple that has landed at my feet, yet I feel how easily I could drown beneath its pull. The fear my cousin must have felt, with her head below water unable to breathe. After all these years I can finally understand why I never saw her again.