“Have you had a burglary here?” Rhonda asked, glancing around the kitchen.
“Rhonda!” I almost spat my coffee out. “Not another burglar! We had someone sneaking around in the front yard three years ago and Nikki frightened him off. Is that what you’re picking up?”
She thought for a moment, then said “No, it’s definitely in the future. And it’s not too far away. I’m sorry, I’m just warning you so you can take evasive action. You can change things if you know about them in advance.”
I didn’t really want to have this conversation, but I knew it was important. “What can I do?” I asked.
“Lock all the doors and windows if you go out. It’s in the daytime, on a weekday. He’s a big man, and he comes through a small window. I can see him squeezing through it – not easy, he has big shoulders and the window is narrow.”
“Ah well, this house doesn’t have any narrow windows.” I pointed out. “Look, they’re all ….”
“Sorry love,” she interrupted, “but I can see it clearly. I don’t explain what I see, I just say what I see.”
I took another sip of coffee and noticed my hands were shaking. Rhonda had been accurate too many times for me to doubt her.
“And he’s writing things on the wall.” She added. “Probably dirty things. I don’t know, I can’t see what it is. Just make sure you lock doors and windows if you go out, ok?”
“Ok” I said quietly, and shuddered at the prospect of Mum being in the house if and when an intruder broke in. She wasn’t ready to leave the house and I doubted she would ever be strong enough. Her walking frame was cumbersome, and it was difficult – even painful – to get her into the car. Facing the stress of people and noise and activity in the outside world was too much for her to cope with after years of suffering and isolation. The last time she’d been out of the house was for her mother’s funeral nine months ago, and she’d slept for two days afterwards.
However, Mum’s improving condition provided more opportunity to leave the house for trips to my favourite city bookshop, and I wasn’t about to change my life because of something Rhonda said. She couldn’t be right all the time, I told myself. All the same, I took care to lock every door and close every window before I left on this day in July 1993.
When I arrived home at around 5pm that day, I vaguely wondered why the hanging baskets on the back verandah had been lifted off their hooks. I didn’t dwell on it. Perhaps Mum had been feeling so much better, she had decided to do some re-potting. She loved gardening (“there’s nothing can beat getting your hands in dirt”) and she missed being able to sit on the ground in a garden bed and pull weeds.
As I opened the back door, Nikki greeted me frantically. While she was always enthusiastic, she had never been so happy to see me. The kitchen was a mess –vegetables and dirty dishes covered the table, spilt gravy stained the stove-top, and worst of all, Nikki had lost control of her bowel in a most alarming way, all over the floor.
“Mum?” I called out frantically. “Mum, are you there? Mum?” I searched the rooms. There was no sign of her.
“There’s a note here!” Barry called from the kitchen. I had met Barry when I attended a writing course he was teaching, and over the past few months he had become one of the family.
“A note?” I called back, stumbling in an effort to reach the kitchen quickly and understand what was happening. My mind was in a whirl. My mother was not here! My mother was always here. My mother didn’t just … go out and leave a note. Other people’s mothers and wives and sons did that.
I snatched the note from Barry’s hand and tried to comprehend what I was reading.
“Your Mum had a fall but she’s ok. She’s in the Monash hospital. Signed Constable Davies.”
“Oh my God. Oh my God. We have to get to the Monash. Oh my God. Come on.”
“Wait a minute …” Barry cautioned as he cleaned up Nikki’s mess on the kitchen floor.
“NOW! We have to get to the Monash. Now!” I yelled.
“But Nikki.” Barry reminded me. “Does she need to be fed? And is there anything you should take? Nightdress, toiletries?”
I thanked heaven one of us had a cool head. I ran around the house gathering up essentials, took Nikki outside for a few minutes – and waited for her on the back doorstep while I pondered the situation – then put her dinner on the floor and assured her we’d be back soon.
When we arrived at the hospital, Mum was still in the emergency room.
“Oh, thank goodness you’re here.” she greeted me. “I’ve …. er …. I’ve done my hip. I’m so sorry.”
“Don’t be sorry!” I leant over to kiss her cheek. “I’m sure you didn’t do it on purpose!”
Her face began to crinkle, and tears flowed.
I tried to comfort her. “Hey hey, it’s ok. It’s ok.”
“Can I come home?” She looked at me pleadingly.
“Home?” I asked. Did she seriously believe I could smuggle her out of the emergency room with a broken hip. Perhaps they had given her painkiller drugs and she wasn’t thinking clearly.
“Of course you can’t come home! You need to stay here until they mend you, silly!”
“No, I mean …. after. When they fix my hip.” Her tear-filled eyes were still fixed on me.
“Well where else would you be going?”
She sighed deeply and her face relaxed. “Thank you. I thought … I thought you might send me to a nursing home.”
“Oh Mum! Don’t be so damn silly. Of course I wouldn’t!” I squeezed her hand and she cried again, this time more from relief.
“Now, tell me what happened.” I said.
“Oh, I was so stupid. I was cooking a stew and Nikki wanted to go outside, so I went to the back door and unlocked it. She was in such a hurry and you know what she’s like, jumping up and trying to get out before the door’s open. She got under my feet and I fell against the door.”
I sat beside her and listened as she described the pain she felt in her hip as she hit the floor, and the hour or more she spent in excruciating pain, unable to move.
“How did the police find out?” I asked, silently beating myself up for not having been there.
“I had that big old cordless phone in my apron pocket.” She explained. “I don’t know why I had it, it’s so heavy I always leave it on the table. Then I didn’t know who to call. The only number I could remember was the doctor’s surgery, so I called that. They phoned the police.”
“How did the policeman get in?” I asked.
“Oh that was a real fiasco. The only door not locked was the back one, and I was up against it so he couldn’t push it open. We talked through the door and he said he’d find a way, even if he had to break a window. I told him to try and not do that because you couldn’t afford to replace it.”
“For heaven sakes, Mum!” I scolded. “You’re laying there with a broken hip for hours and you’re worried about me having to pay for a window?”
“Well anyway, he didn’t have to. The bathroom window wasn’t locked so he came in there.”
My mind suddenly went into overdrive. The bathroom windows! I had completely forgotten about those. On either side of the cabinet was a small, narrow window, each no wider than half a metre.”
“Was he …. did he happen to be …. was he a big man? With big shoulders?” I asked hesitantly.
“Yes, poor man. He had to squeeze through it. He didn’t break something, did he?”
“No, of course not. But ….did he also …” Nah! I dismissed my theory as preposterous.
“Did he also what?”
“Did he happen to write on the wall? I know that sounds silly, but did he …..”
She thought for a moment. “Well, I guess so. Sort of. He had to leave you a note and I had things all over the table. He leant his notepad against the wall and scribbled on it.”
Rhonda had been right again! But this time, she had understandably misinterpreted what she’d seen so clearly – a big man squeezing through a narrow window during a weekday, and writing on the wall.
Thank heavens for the big man!