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Does she really need to know the truth?


Truck crash

She told the police, the children, their friends. He was doing some chores in town. Taking the main highway. She couldn’t tell them any more. It was all Rob had said. No details, no anomalies. He’d kissed her. She could still feel the tingle from his lips on her jawline, just beneath the ear. How lovely to be touched there.

They’d all been very kind but it was her little grandson Eddie who’d understood it better than the adults. 'Bang crash. Grandpa. Bang crash.' Rob’s boots were found fifty metres from the accident site; the impact of the semi-trailer had sent the vehicle’s contents soaring high, before hitting the ground like a spilt mesh-bag of oranges. His sunglasses, a torn and muddy folded map, his beige jumper, pocket torch and Souths Rugby cap were gathered from the vicinity by police, to give to ‘grieving relatives’.

She was 19 and Rob 20, back when they first met. She’d worn green silk with layered petticoats and Rob a dark suit. They’d snuck out the back of the dance hall, after a brief chat (and an awkward twirl to an uncomfortable jive). Instead of dancing, they’d walked for miles along the streets, down to the river. She carried high heels in one hand, he a suit jacket thrown over his shoulder, tie crumpled up and thrust into right-hand trouser pocket. Sideways grins, sliding glances. She could still remember the touch of Rob’s hand once she’d slipped hers into his, fingers interlaced: a companionable gesture, more childlike than erotic, to start with. Their touch had given her a combination of needy ache and pleasant sedation, a sensation that lingered through the years.

Bang crash. Like the other contents of the truck, he’d hit the ground; thrown several steps from the vehicle. The police woman, with the scraped blond bun and scars from harelip corrective surgery, told her the semi-trailer driver was beside himself. 'Real cut up,' she’d said. 'Saw the look in your husband’s eyes before impact, evidently,' she’d said. Not helpful to hear that. Not helpful at all. Didn’t want to think about his last moments, truth be told.

The kids arrived later that day. Young Jim peppered questions at her, pacing back and forth, closing cupboards that weren’t open. Then he barked orders and made phone calls. Adrenalin, they say. Soon he opened the closet, snatched the broom and swept up imaginary dust. She had never seen her son sweep the kitchen before. Irritated, she unfurled his fingers as he cleaned past her and threw the broom out the back door, where it clattered down the concrete steps to the spongy grass below. Sally just sat at the kitchen table, her left eyelid twitching, silent, letting little Eddie crawl all over her, like the lovely mother duck she was.

How was the funeral? Even worse. The wooden pews had been waxed and she found it hard to breathe without gagging. The incense incensed her. What rot to swing that horrible stuff around the place. Still, she sat calmly with her good pump shoes in parallel position, the matching mauve leather bag in her lap. What did the semi-trailer driver see, she wondered? How was Rob thrown out of the vehicle, if his seat belt was fastened? Why did he join the main road, when he could have gone down the old highway, free from any traffic? Bang crash. Stupid fool. Stupid old fool. Bang crash. ‘Mum,’ hissed Jim. ‘Stop shouting.’ Opening a hymn book, she snapped it shut. What was the use, she thought? You pour all your love into the heart of another, only for them to bugger off and leave you. Stupid man. Idiotic person. 'Mum!' Jim whispered too close to her ear. 'I’ll have to take you out. Are you having a mental break down?'

At last the church bells rang and she was able to escape outside, with little Eddie’s chubby hand to keep her on a steady course. Old Fred Angus came over as she stood under the Jacaranda and mumbled about how dangerous that merging lane was. Lovely Fran Kelsworth asked her over for a cuppa in a few days when she was up to it, adding that those freight trucks travelled at dangerous speeds these days. Even Sasha Mills pressed her be-ringed hand painfully and whined that they needed to fix up the transport system in Australia because, ‘it was not on, it just wasn’t on.’ A purple trumpeted flower landed on her sleeve and she marvelled at the stamen, which seemed strangely erotic to her, its dusty petals were a wonder of sensuality. Well, she was alone for good now, so she shrugged the flower away.

That night she lay in bed, stiff as Rob’s casket. Should have climbed in there with him. May as well, nothing left for her. Except Eddie, that lovely little boy. She’d taken half a tranquilliser but her heart was racing too fast and she kicked the sheets off. Sweating, then, and breathless too. Well, she thought, it happens. Headlines: loved husband gets killed, grieving wife has heart attack two days later. This made sense to her and she welcomed the thought, but as soon as she accepted this new fate, her heart slowed and her face cooled. She went over it again, for the twentieth time. That morning, they woke. He showered. Where was his blue shirt? He’d said. Which one, she’d asked? The deep blue one, you know, the linen one. She ironed it for him and cut up bananas, kiwis and pawpaw. Splash of lemon. Then what? She’d asked what his plans were. Doing some chores in town. Taking the main highway. Then he left. End of story.

Bang crash. Did it hurt? 'Dead on impact,' the police woman had said. But how would she know? The police and ambulances would have arrived at least ten minute after said impact. 'Swung out at the wrong time,' blond bun had said. Bang crash. Flew out through the smashed windscreen. Hit the ground. Bang crash. Baby Eddie knew. Bang crash. Two hours and a useless benzodiazepine later, she rose and showered. Dressed and waited. It was only two o’clock in the morning. She waited until six.

There hadn’t been the chance to find the semi-trailer driver at the scene; she felt sure the police would be a dead-end, if she tried to enquire. However, she’d seen the truck, with its ‘Grangers of Goulburn’ lettering in dark green and gold, hauled over on the road’s shoulder in an awkward position. So, Goulburn it was. It was ten o’clock by the time she drove past the Goulburn nursery, the Goulburn Country Women’s Association and the Goulburn United Church. She swung through chain-metal gates and into the parking yard of Grangers. A fiercely-tattooed semi driver lifted two fingers, as he bailed out through the same gates, skidding slightly before belting the engine along the main road. She swallowed some rising bile and headed for a mozzie screen door that might be the office.

Important to look well-groomed when meeting new people, she had thought at 2am. Now, however, she noticed she had grabbed odd shoes. She had one tan moccasin and one tan ballet flat. Similar styles, she now realised, but not the same. An automatic gesture, of hand moving up to check hair, reminded her she hadn’t thought to consult the mirror. She had, however, brushed her teeth. Smooth and clean. That would have to do.

'Hello. Yoo hoo,' she called, as the door stuttered shut behind her.

'Yep?' said a large gentleman, one leg resting on the other knee.

He was lounging on a dirty brown couch, its loose faux-suede cover shrugging off the back support. Three desks overflowed with paperwork and a water-cooler, empty, hiccupped air.

'Perhaps you could help me. I’m looking for one of your drivers. He was in an accident four days ago.'

'Nup, don’t know anything about it, lady. Must be some other trucking company.'

'Is this Grangers of Goulburn?'

'Sure is, but there was no accident with us. Sorry.'

A toilet flushed in an adjacent room and a second man emerged. Thin, with shaggy grey hair and yellow teeth. Hollow blue eyes and a smoker’s yellow skin. Bang crash. He stopped mid-step and whatever greyish pallor there was, drained away, leaving a waxy sheen to the poor man’s skin.

'You were driving the semi, weren’t you?'

He nodded.

'Don’t have to talk about it, mate.'

'All right with me. It’s all right.'

The large man muttered and stomped outside.

'Would you like a tea? My name’s Ted.'

She glanced at the sink, full of unwashed cups, stained plates and several hovering blow flies, lazy in the morning sun. Even though she was suddenly very desperate for tea, she shook her head.

'Take a seat?'

The only seat was the rumpled brown bear skin falling off yellow foam, punctuated by an emerging metal spring. She sat gingerly on the corner.

'Fire away,' said Ted.

'You saw my husband’s face? You saw him in the cabin? Was he wearing a seatbelt? Did he make a mistake? Was it an accident......did he pull out in front of you? Was it on purpose?'

The man named Ted appeared to shrink. His shoulders sank, his head receded into his neck. His knees seemed to buckle a little.

'I need to know the truth,' she said.

'I will tell you the truth,' Ted said. 'I owe you that…because…an accident. And ...I should have said...I’m sorry for your loss.'

'Thank you...was his seat belt on?'

'Yes, I saw it. It was on. Must have been faulty.'

'Did he pull out right in front of you? Was it on purpose?'

'He pulled out in front of me, but with plenty of time to move ahead, but his gears must have stuck, cos his vehicle seemed to falter. Must have been engine trouble....but that truck was a write-off so you’ll probably never find out exactly what it was. I’m real sorry for your loss.'

She felt tired, then, as all the extra worry drained away. She must have had rocks in her head to think up such a far-fetched story. Rob would have been cross with her for making such a fuss, thinking he did it on purpose. What a melodrama, he would have cried out...and laughed. She always liked when he chuckled at her silliness. Those recent months (of what Sally called depression) were a hoax, a misdiagnosis. She’d always felt that. And this? This had just been a bad accident, an awful misadventure. No more. Seat belt failed. Gears deficient.

It was with extreme exhaustion that she climbed back into her car and drove home. Must water the plants, she remembered, after a week of neglect. Must write some thank you notes for the flowers and condolence letters. Should ring Sally and offer to babysit sweet little Eddie. Bang crash. Yes Eddie that’s right, bang crash.

Behind her, inside the airless offices of Grangers of Goulburn, the large man wandered back inside.

'You tell her the truth? That he drove straight at you? That you saw him unbuckle his seat belt just before impact?'

Ted shook his head, grabbed the keys from peg number six and headed out to his rig. Bang crash.

Prudence GibsonPrue Gibson is an art and fiction writer, author of The Rapture of Death and lecturer at UNSW. She is working on a new book charting 'plant cyborgs in an age of extinction'.

Truck crash image by Shutterstock.

Topic tags: Prue Gibson, short fiction, creative writing



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Existing comments

Wow! What an evocative piece. I cannot recall reading anything so moving for a long time. Your power with words is an enviable gift, and I thank you for sharing it so generously.

Dennis Sleigh | 05 November 2014  

Congratulations, Prue! Good to see the art of short story writing is still practised in Australia and deemed worthy of space in Eureka Street.

Uncle Pat | 05 November 2014  

Thank you for this short story that holds lightly and carefully the complexity of tragic events such as this. I loved its ordinariness and true to life quality.

alex | 05 November 2014  

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