During the summer holidays when I was twelve my neighbour shot his three sons. I was at home with my brother when it happened. We were experimenting with a magnifying glass, colouring strips of card with different pigments to see which would burn first under the focussed triangle of sunlight. I remember the sound of the gun was a huge and deep boom. I could feel the concussive force even through the walls of our house. I heard a shot, a scream, two more shots, and then silence. Three shells fired from a breech loaded shotgun, each containing nine double aught spherical pellets, their destructive force expressed onto the children next door. The boys used to play in the yard. I would see them almost every day. They were all younger than me, twins and an elder, one at school. My mother would look after them from time to time when theirs wasn’t well. I tried to teach them how to play cricket.
My brother dropped the magnifying glass and called triple zero, the rotary dial of the phone taking an interminable time to whirr back to the start with each digit. Then we hid under his bed. I can’t remember how I felt, but my brother had wrapped his body around mine, and for a while, the only sound I could hear under the mattress was our breathing, amplified by the silence and close quarters. And then there were sirens, almost imagined at first, then so loud they defeated thought, their two note drone announcing the arrival of the police. At some point, before the police turned up my neighbour hung himself from a beam in the ceiling. I can imagine his plum face, punctuated by bulging eyes, garroted and suspended above the carpet. I used to wonder why he didn’t turn the gun on himself instead. Perhaps he wanted to feel it.
I watched the subsequent events from the window of my bedroom, overlooking my neighbour’s front yard. They are distorted by time and emotion, as if I am squinting through a piece of smoked glass that you could use to watch a solar eclipse. The lingering memory I have of that afternoon is of the boy’s mother fainted onto the footpath. My parents later said that she had taken the family car grocery shopping and come home to the police blocking the road. That year in school I learnt origami in Art. I would painstakingly fold coloured card into delicate cranes, and when they were beautiful and symmetrical I would pound them into the bench with the heel of my clenched fist, before starting over. When I remember the boy’s mother I see her as a crushed paper crane, smashed into the concrete.
These events were long before there was any kind of public discussion of domestic violence or White Ribbon Day. There was no counselling. I was only ever asked what happened rather than how I felt, and after being questioned by my parents and the police there was nothing left to say. I asked my brother about it the next evening when we were watching television. The blue screen reflected onto his face as he turned to me. He shrugged his shoulders and turned back to the television. There was no expression on his face. I felt as if there were layers of blue silence.
Now that I have sufficient emotional vocabulary to express myself I recognise that my reaction to these events was one of horror. I felt under a cloud that no sun could pierce, and was gripped by moments where I felt that if I moved or spoke I would break into pieces. At school, I was temporarily a minor celebrity due to my proximity to the tragedy, but I couldn’t tell anyone much more than what was already in the papers. The crowd moved on. One of my teachers asked me to stay back after class and asked me if I was okay, but I didn’t know what to say. I can still see her face pinched with concern, the harsh fluorescent light of the classroom making her pretty face look old, while inside I was unable to recognise what I felt and so couldn’t speak.
The afternoon of the murder-suicide the police strung blue and white tape around the perimeter of my neighbour’s house. That night when I lay staring into the darkness I could hear it flutter in the wind, even when I pressed my hands to my ears. Over the next two weeks, the house was visited by different people, some uniformed and some not, but no one ever lived there again. The mother had packed her possessions into a moving truck, and gone elsewhere to live with her sister. The house was left empty. The police tape faded and eventually broke under the sun and wind. The plastic line trailed on the ground, still attached to the boundary trees on the nature strip, but stopping no one. The grass grew long and unkempt, thistles standing proud in the layers of browned out green. My father once mowed it all down but gave up after the first attempt saying it wasn’t his responsibility. The house attracted outsiders. Kids would ride by on their bikes and stop out the front. They would speak to each other quietly before pedaling away. Unfamiliar cars would drive by at slow speeds, the occupants voyeuristically staring at the sight of the tragedy, imagining the violence that took place inside the four walls but not feeling the impact. I first noticed a broken window one winter afternoon when coming home from school, and after that, the house became a target for thrown stones. My father nailed on a few sheets of plywood to cover the broken panes, and soon the house looked derelict.
The local council ended the vandalism by deciding to acquire the property, knock down the structure and build a park on the block. A memorial plaque dedicated to the boys was going to be included in the construction of a playground. I’m not sure if my parents had lobbied the council to take this decision. I asked my mother what she thought, and she said that by removing the house the tragedy could become history. For me, history was in books. I had heard a child scream so it wasn’t a story.
The day before the works were to begin next door I decided that I would see what the house was like inside. When the boys were alive I had played with them in the backyard, but my excursions onto the property were limited to the exterior. My mother was the only person in my family who had gone through the front door.
I didn’t know at the time why it was important to me to go in there. No one dared me, and I didn’t want to tell anyone what I was going to do, but I thought I owed it to my brother to let him know. He was the only other person left who had heard the shots.
I remember very clearly what he said to me when I told him. The sun was slanting across his bedroom, the light divided by the venetian blinds that crisscrossed his window. My brother has pale blue eyes, but with the angle of the sun, the iris verged upon translucence, almost absorbed by the white of the sclera.
Why would you want to go there, you fuckwit? What do you think you are going to find?
Why are you so upset? I’m not asking you to go.
You’re a dickhead. Just let it rest. Just forget about it, just let it fucking go.
The next afternoon I found myself in the backyard next door. The grass was long and brown, growing in uneven tufts. The garden beds, once so meticulously maintained by the previous owners, were now almost indistinguishable from the rest of the yard, grown over and forgotten. The frosted window next to the back door was intact. Using a tack hammer and a towel to muffle the noise I tapped through the pane of glass. With the fabric protecting my hand I reached around to the door handle. The door was a simple pop lock that granted entrance with little effort.
The door swung open soundlessly into the laundry. The appliances were gone and the cupboards were empty. Circular red rust marks on the tiles showed where the washing machine once stood, but otherwise, the room was bare, as was the entire house. Every room was completely empty. There were indentations in the carpet, but little else suggested that a family once lived here.
Before I went next door I didn’t know why I wanted to go, or how I was going to feel when I was in there. I expected that I would experience something, some kind of sadness or anger at what had happened. The late afternoon light illuminated the rooms through the gaps left in the curtains. The broken and boarded panes allowed the window furnishings to sway in the breeze that passed through the spaces, leaving the light to dance and sway with the movement of the air. Although my father had boarded the windows, water had leaked in, and some windows frames had swelled under the moisture. Otherwise, the house seemed undamaged.
I knew from the news reports that the boys had been murdered in their bedrooms, and the father had committed suicide in the living room. In the living room there was no sign of self-violence. I looked up at the beams that spanned the ceiling. There were no rope marks or signs of wear on the timber. The carpet below was unblemished. In the silence of the house I could hear my heart beating in my chest, but it kept a regular time. I expected to sense some kind of menace, feel some kind of brooding darkness in a place that had seen such evil, but there was only an empty quiet. I couldn’t detect sediment of any kind.
When I had imagined the children’s rooms I had expected to see spattered patterns of blood on the walls, or deep red black poolings permanently ingrained into the floor coverings. At the very least I thought there would be puncture marks in the walls, where pellets had passed through the children and perforated the plaster. There was nothing. No stain or signs that any brutality had taken place the previous summer. It was as if nothing had happened. These were simple empty rooms, devoid of anything other than the regular fittings that were part of a house. Other than the shadows cast by the broken planes of glass and boards, it seemed completely whole.
As an adult, I know that there are people who clean crime scenes. It is their job to make it appear as if nothing has ever happened. Carpets are cleaned, walls are wiped. Perhaps they even patched and painted damaged plaster. I imagine they did this in the two weeks after the murders, when visitors were frequent.
But standing in the house as a twelve year old, in rooms that should have echoed with the resonance of death, the sterile state of the home shifted inside me. It was as if the world had forgotten what had happened, and I was the only one who cared. My brother’s closed denial, the mother’s consignment of the children to history, the empty unmarked dwelling, the impending destruction of the house. Nothing had happened. Nothing mattered. You could magnify and concentrate sunbeams forever and nothing would catch fire. Life would go on, unmarked and unblemished, everything buried by time. I felt that I was the only one who remembered. The lives of three children would become an unnoticed bronze plaque next to some play equipment.
Now if I told you what happened next, you would think that I was making it up. You might think that I wanted to add weight to my story, to make it more relevant or notable. But before I left I went into the twins’ room and pulled back the curtains to look across the fence to my house. The window in the twins’ bedroom looked directly into mine, and staring across the overgrown garden, the fence and the shadows behind, I could see where I slept. The wallpaper, the posters of surfers, pin-up girls and racing cars, the bed, the desk, the bookshelves. Yet in front of all of this I could also see the three next door children, standing at my window sill, looking back at me. They were in my place, and I was in theirs. I could only hear my breathing, and my heartbeat, quickening under my ribs. The eldest boy raised his hand, and before I had a chance to raise mine the children were gone, and I was staring at nothing but my own bedroom. You probably think that I imagined it, and perhaps I did. When I look back I recognise that my head wasn’t quite right that year. But there is a crust of human emotion over almost every inch on the planet. Sedimentary rock layered with love and violence, hate and compassion. We can clean things up, build over the past, and pretend that nothing that has happened before ever took place. Yet who can say that there isn’t some kind of inheritance of what was before?
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