Jon Sumby

THERE are sounds that I cannot describe. The first one I heard a few years ago while sitting in my kitchen. I heard and realized it was different, out of place. I thought perhaps a truck had tipped a load at the bottom of the hill and went to investigate. The sirens got louder and passed me. Someone had got impatient waiting at the level crossing and decided to drive across, just as the evening express passed. The sound I heard was a car being shredded under a train and into the rocks of the railway track. The destruction was total, there was nothing left but the engine block and rear axle, I never saw the front axle but it seems it was caught up in the train’s undercarriage, which may be why it jumped the track. The other sound I can’t explain, because it is unique and what it means is painful to think about. The best I can do is to say that I can’t. It is the sound of a body being hit by a car.
As someone said, and as I learned from my Grandad’s silence about being rear-guard at Dunkirk, ‘you have to Know to understand’. The first time I heard this sound was sitting outside at Melissa’s café on Smith Street. Mid-morning, wakeup coffee. If you’re a freelancer you work odd hours. I had the paper, just lit up, and something — no sound — maybe a movement, maybe instinct, made me turn. Directly across the street from me a dumpy, conservatively dressed, grey-haired woman stepped out into the path of a brown and gold Commodore sedan. The sound happened. Strangely, she wasn’t thrown; she was kicked up from the bonnet of the car, about twice the height of the car and almost straight up. Her handbag and her shopping bags traveled through the air in the same way. In slow motion. The thing I remember is that the shoe from her left foot was thrown much higher and fell to the road after she did.

She hit the road hard, did not bounce, and did not move. People standing closer, more alert or less disconnected than I, ran to her side. Maybe I did not move because I was sitting, waiting for my flat white and have learned from several occasions not to move ‘til the risk is measured. I first learned this when a building collapsed on the work crew and running into the brick and concrete dust, with no visibility, I almost ran into the downed power-lines that hissed and sparked. Only by doing a knee-grating and fast limbo into the rubble did I slide under the wires to meet the crew climbing out of the wreckage.

Maybe it is because I have been in some fairly intense and violent situations that I knew that it would not add to the aid if I joined the rapidly growing crowd. So, I watched. I watched the man, as part of the couple sitting at the next table, get agitated and feel the need to contribute and run to the tram that had been stopped to tell everyone of an accident they all could see. To watch a well-meaning man grab the woman by both wrists and try and drag her to safety. ‘No’, I thought, ‘She may well have spinal damage’. I watched someone recover the lost shoe and try and put it back on the woman’s foot, but couldn’t so it was left hanging from her toes. I observed the variety of stress behaviours until the ambulance arrived, then my coffee, and I returned to reading the newspaper.

Last night I heard that sound again. There is always that moment, sitting in the comfort of your home, surrounded by the things you have bought and display in your house to say who you are, when the world intrudes. The moment when you think, ‘Can I ignore this?’ and to keep on watching the TV. When you wake up at 4 am to the sound of the shrieks and crashing that tell you someone is taking a beating and wonder if you should leave your bed to intervene … on that occasion I chose to wear my steelcaps and a lit cigarette worn at the knuckle … but I dressed slowly, hoping the sounds would stop so I could go back to sleep.

Last night I heard that sound again. As I watched TV, I did sit there and wonder if I should open my front door and let the world in. I did open the door, and saw someone across the street flick open their curtain, peer out, and then close the curtain, close out the world. ‘Right’, I thought, ‘I’m not going to live on the same level as a curtain-twitcher.’ So I walked out to the car stopped in the middle of the street. In the headlights, someone was twisted up under the front of the car. As I approached, he stood up and came to meet me.

‘You o.k?’ I asked.

‘Yeah’, he said, ‘Just hit a wallaby’.

Looking back I saw on the road outside my front door a dark lump.

‘The cars o.k. too, just checked’, he added.

He was young and chubby, wearing a shirt that had some US logo on it, something like, ‘Raiders’, in red. He was trying for a moustache, not full-grown yet, a sort of sparse, ugly, wannabe that was dewed with sweat. Remarkably, he was eating a hamburger.

Was he eating this hamburger before, during, and after he hit the wallaby? The wallaby was a silent lump and we made some small talk. Did he see it? No, it just hopped out from between the parked cars, my neighbours and mine, so it must have been standing just outside my front door.

I was assessing him for state of mind and asked him how he felt and was. He said fine and made to leave. As he did the wallaby kicked its back legs and the tail wind-milled. I said o shit its still alive and he said o well, see ya. He got into his car and drove away, the hamburger wrapper left behind. No intention to see the wallaby, no intention to move it from the road. He just left, dropping the hamburger wrapper.

I went to the wallaby and stroked it as it died. Soft supporting touches as it eased out, the touch I gave a little dog that I once saw crushed under the wheels of a car. I went to meet the dog, as it crawled nowhere in the middle of the road with a broken back. I saw the car that had hit it pull over, pause, then drive off. I picked up the dog, took it into a restaurant and put it on a table. It was strange, but I was both aware of and ignoring the diners in the room. I needed a place to lay the dog down that wasn’t the gutter or the sidewalk; the restaurant was warm and dry and had tables.

I read her tag, asked the manager to call her owners and as bright red blood poured out of the little dog’s nose onto my jacket and the table I spoke her name, again and again, and gently stroked her as she died. I gave her my love and I told her she was dying, but told her not to worry. The restaurant owner called her owners and a distressed mum and two weeping daughters arrived to collect her. Fireworks can mess with a dog’s mind and send them running. A dying dog carried off the street into a restaurant can mess with your dinner.

The wallaby died. I could feel the softness of the fur, the warmth of the body and the tremble and relax as life left. I massaged the stomach to see if there was a pouch with young but felt nothing. Wallabies are wild animals, living with us but not part of us. I did not want him lying on the road, divorced from the Earth, to be crushed by more passing vehicles. So I picked him up, held him to my chest and walked down the street ‘til I found a patch of grass and earth for the wallaby to connect with, for the spirit to flow. I woke with the dawn light and found a slightly better place to leave the wallaby for the Earth. He had been young and healthy, full-grown and heavy to carry — a loss to his kind.

That afternoon I listened to my neighbours. The back of my yard is separated from them by some empty space and the front of their house faces me from across their street. They are a young couple, with a young son and daughter. A Perfect Couple. I hear their fights. Mum losing it with the kids. Dad losing it with the kids. The kids sobbing and squabbling.

Out the front of the house, which they’ve obviously bought and are making a symbol of their success, is another symbol — a current model station wagon. On the weekend Dad cleans and polishes it. Today, Dad was playing cricket with the kids in the dead end street. I could see him lining up to bowl, wearing Shane Warne-like ‘blade’ sunnies and a jacket in bold colours with advertising — ‘HDT’ — or some such. His shorts bear a logo, the Nike ‘swoosh’; everything is nylon. He was saying that a street sign was the million-dollar sign. If they hit it they would win a million dollars. Money is important. The kids are wearing Nike swoosh shorts. The shoes are definitely Reebok.

He bowls… ‘Awww… catch! WHAT were you doing!’ ‘I was trying, Dad!’ Inside, I can see Mum and daughter making dinner. The cricketers go inside. A while later, I see him sitting by himself in front of the open garage. In the garage he has a sporty, flame-red and black, four-wheel drive. He coughs and I see that it is because he’s using a spray-can of degreaser, like RP7, on a car part. It looks like part of a diff. Mum and the kids are inside where I can see the TV is showing something like ‘Temptation’. He gets up and walks down to the footpath to wash oil and degreaser off the car part into the gutter. I hear a yell of rage from the daughter and then the cry, ‘Dad!’ He goes inside.

I think of Wallaby, bleeding and dying for no good reason. Of a discarded hamburger wrapper, for no good reason. Of where we are taking the Earth, for no good reason.