Out of a Clear Blue Sky

I can remember when kids played there only a couple of years back, under the shade of the big oak, away from the heat of the summer sun.

Now, nobody goes to that part of the park. It is forever cold: sends shivers up your back as you hustle past. To me, it always smells like a gardener has piled the compost a little too high. The air is a fug of some strangely familiar odour; part jasmine, part musk, total decay.

Some folks think they hear things: the sound of a baby crying; a mother’s sobs; the call of a strange bird high in a tree; the mutterings of an old man who’s seen it all – and then some.

I still like it though, it’s a quiet spot and I can sit on a bench for hours watching the neighbourhood.

A couple of years had passed and yet nobody said anything about the strangeness. Then one day a toddler, all angelic innocence, spoke the word that none of the other locals had dared speak.

I remember it well. The park was busy with fun and games that sunny Sunday and the toddler’s word ricocheted around the neighbourhood like a gun shot. All the neighbours nodded. They all knew about Jenny but were too afraid to say anything.

Maybe they didn’t know everything. But they knew enough. Throughout the neighbourhood there was a strange sense of relief that the whole thing was out in the open.

* * *

The way she told it to me, Jenny had met him in London where she’d been living for two years working for a law firm.

She had begun to think seriously about returning home as she Was missing her family. Her parents were divorced. Her younger brother lived with her mother, but Jenny was closer to her dad, Michael, a lawyer like herself. She especially missed her grandpa Jack, an avid birdwatcher, who was dying from a tumour in his lungs. For all Jack’s faults they were close and shared a special bond. His illness had rocked her, and his sudden downturn in health was enough for her to return home.

One night her workmates – expats in the main – talked her into going to the pub after work. The pub was a not-so-quaint, new style London pub for suits and Jenny despised the fake familiarity of the place.

Whatever it was that drew her there that afternoon delivered him to her.

Ed wore a single-breasted suit the colour of hail-laden sky. He stood in the corner with a group of others and she noticed him straight away. He was tall. He looked beautiful. Not rugged. Not handsome. Not manly.

Beautiful.

Ed smiled broadly, drank his pints quickly and his American accented voice seemed to radiate from his core. Though young, he seemed to weave a spell over his older colleagues. Jenny noticed they hung on his every word.

Through the smoke haze and the dim lighting she watched him the whole night. Late, after most of their friends had gone home Jenny went to the bathroom and when she came back Ed was sitting on her bar stool.

‘I’ve been watching you,’ he said smiling. His words lit a tiny pilot light inside her.

‘I’ve been watching you too,’ said Jenny. She felt that speaking the words gave them authority over her future thoughts and feelings. Maybe they did. Jenny’s specialty was contracts – she knew the power of words.

Ed was beautiful up close too, his eyes were the most intense shade of chocolate Jenny had ever seen. Jenny’s nostrils filled with his scent when he leant forward on the stool so that he could whisper without anybody hearing.

‘I’ve got tickets to Shakespeare this Saturday night. Would you like to come?’

‘Yes.’ Jenny surprised herself.

He slid off the stool and motioned for her to sit.

‘Great,’ he whispered. ‘Macbeth. It’s playing at Stratford. Give me a call and I’ll pick you up. Here’s my card.’

Jenny’s eyes scanned the print before it clicked.

‘Stratford? Stratford-upon-Avon?’ she asked him urgently.

He nodded.

‘But, but that’s miles away,’ she argued.

Ed swallowed. ‘What’s your name?’

‘Jenny.’

‘Jenny,’ he said quietly, almost to himself. It was as if he tasted her name on his tongue like it was cognac.

‘But Stratford,’ Jenny continued.

‘I know it’s miles away, but it’ll be wonderful Jenny. Trust me.’

She did. And it was.

Ed grew up in Jersey and had a wicked sense of humour. He worked in Manhattan as a securities trader, and was in London on secondment from his firm. Ed told Jenny how much he loved England and that he wasn’t really looking forward to returning home to New York in a few months.

Jenny learnt all this and more as they raced up the M40 on a gorgeous summer’s day. Ed had borrowed the Rover from a colleague and they made good time once they got beyond the M25. Though she knew better, though she knew she ought not to, Jenny was hopelessly, totally, tragically in love with Ed by the time they crossed the Avon by way of Clopton Bridge.

They turned left into Waterside, collected their tickets from the Swan Theatre, dined quickly and settled in to watch the play.

In the middle of Act Three Jenny was startled by the movement of Banquo in the shadows. Ed reached over and gently touched the back of her hand.

‘Relax. It’s just the ghost,’ he whispered. ‘You do believe in ghosts, don’t you?’

She leant across and kissed him tentatively on the cheek, thankful for his being there.

After the play, they stayed the night in a charming B&B on Evesham Place. In the morning, over a fully cooked breakfast, Jenny kept her eyes downcast and smiled slightly as the other diners assigned faces to the noises of the night before.

* * *

Tun Street Gardens was where I watched Jenny do her growing up, where she climbed trees and ran and played. Now though, it was a playground full of lost opportunities.

I sat beside her and wondered at the shadows not cast.

A puff of wind blew up and caught Jenny’s attention.

‘Penny for your thoughts,’ I said.

Jenny paused briefly before speaking. ‘I’m thinking about the way the dry leaves fall. It’s just like the way I imagine the winter snow falls in Helsinki.’

I’d heard Jenny’s Helsinki story a thousand times or more. What neuron brought that disconnected image to her mind at that solemn instant? Why now, such a reminder of love’s happiest happiness gone?

Two men in matching suits wandered through the park holding hands. We noticed them kiss furtively, unseen, as they strolled like lovers on a holiday. Were they happy? Did it matter? Had they ever visited Helsinki? Had they ever walked down Finnish streets to visit the Presidential Palace – the arctic wind smelling of sea and salt and sex whipping through the summer evening long after the sun should have set?

Jenny shook her head at the thought of it all. A wry smile played upon her full lips. Literally, all of that happened a lifetime ago.

* * *

After Stratford Jenny and Ed got a new perspective on London as a couple, then visited Helsinki on a whim, and stayed at the wonderful Palace Hotel.

Jenny was saddened to hear that Ed was being forced to return to Manhattan despite requesting he be allowed to stay in London.

On bended knee, before he departed that morning in September, he asked for Jenny’s hand in marriage.

Ed’s proposal threw a spanner into the eternal machinations of Jenny’s future dreams. She had already resigned from her job. She reasoned that London without Ed was no town for her and so she was Melbourne-bound in just over a week.

‘Go home and see your folks,’ Ed said. ‘Then come over to New York and marry me.’

Jenny was lost for words.

Ed added a sweetener. ‘We’ll fly your family over when the time comes. It’ll be swell.’

Jenny suddenly grew warm and a tear came to her.

‘We’ll even fly your grandpa over. He can go birding,’ Ed continued. ‘Maybe he’ll see a bluebird. I never have.’

Jenny was too stunned for words.

Ed asked her again. ‘So, will you come to the States and marry me?’

Jenny mouthed the word, ‘Yes,’ then without pause she added, ‘I’m pregnant.’

‘You’re kidding.’

Jenny shook her head and her auburn hair fell forward to partially cover her face. ‘How?’ Ed asked. He reached out and gently swept her hair away from her face so he could see into her blue eyes.

‘What do you mean how? Stratford. London. Helsinki. We weren’t exactly careful.’

Ed paused and Jenny thought she actually heard the earth stop turning.

‘Wow. That’s terrific,’ Ed said finally, happily. He kissed her flush on the lips. ‘I hope it’s a boy.’

‘I’d like a girl,’ Jenny said.

‘No way. The Yankees are always in need of talented pitchers.’

Ed landed in New York on the third and they spoke three or four times a day until Jenny finally left London. She landed at Tullamarine on the tenth – a Monday.

Exhausted, she visited Jack in the hospital to show off her engagement ring and to tell her the story of Ed and the happiness he had brought her.

‘Jennifer,’ her grandpa said, cutting her off before she could finish the story properly, ‘I’m so happy for you.’ His words were barely audible.

She smiled, ‘You’d like him grandpa. He’s a nice man.’

‘Tell me, is he a birdwatcher?’ Jack asked.

‘He is,’ lied Jenny.

‘Good. Never trust a man who doesn’t take the time to commune with nature.’

A nurse came into the room. ‘You better let him rest, love. He’s frightfully tired.’

Jack nodded, ‘You can finish telling me your story tomorrow.’

* * *

Jenny and I sat on the bench seat in the familiar park.

Above us, an airliner, heavy with possibility, stayed aloft in the cloudless sky as if by will alone. The airliner’s white belly shone in the sun. It resembled a mechanical pelican, only with a red tail and devoid of a pelican’s unintended humour. It banked gently and traced its way towards Tullamarine and terra firma.

Also overhead, high up in an oak tree, a bird, no more than eighteen centimetres in length, watched over us. I’d seen it countless times before. It had a body as blue as the clear sky, a cinnamon breast and a white abdomen, its voice was carried away on the breeze. It too seemed lost in the winds of uncertain certainty.

I heard Jenny sigh as she saw a pair of school children cross the park.

Both were about sixteen: he in black blazer, she in blue. The boy looked gawky, out of place, she, a lawyer’s daughter. Jenny probably imagined the girl might grow up to be Prime Minister some day. She witnessed the two teens lost in love’s embrace. Jenny swallowed involuntarily.

‘What’s up love?’ I asked.

‘Just a feeling.’

‘A feeling of what?’

‘You’ll laugh.’

‘I won’t. Promise,’ I said.

‘I felt Ed’s warm palm on the small of my back – like when we danced at the Palace in Helsinki.’

Jenny looked up to savour the blue winter sky. Just as her eyes settled on the vast blueness she caught the briefest glimpse of the lone jet as it disappeared behind a tree. A horrible image came crashing to the front of her mind.

* * *

Jenny told me she had heard the term spinning in infinity somewhere before, but she never realised it was penned for her.

Jenny’s body clock was turning cartwheels, and now that she was back home in Melbourne she had started to have morning sickness in the evenings. Her father, with whom she was staying, thought it was hilarious.

She visited her grandpa as promised but the story went unfinished. Jack lay on the bed, a shell of a man, and slipped in and out of consciousness. He kept muttering something that sounded like ‘warned, warned, warned’, but Jenny couldn’t be sure. She promised herself she’d finish the story the following day, come hell or high water.

Now that it was Tuesday night Jenny found herself overtired and a little nauseous so she flicked the TV on to try and coax herself to sleep.

There it was. The building on fire.

It was maybe three seconds until Jenny’s brain caught on.

There it was. Ed’s building on fire.

Jenny’s scream roused her father from the study.

Jenny pointed to the television’s flickering images. A pall of black smoke that billowed from the familiar building penetrated the clear blue sky. She held her left hand to her mouth, as if to silence any more screams, her right hand cradled her as-yet-unexpanded belly.

Her mind reached back to London and Stratford and Helsinki and every conversation she’d ever had with Ed. What tower did he work in? What floor? Where was his work number?

‘Calm down,’ said Michael, his primal fears numbed by years of applying reason to action.

‘I’m sure he’s all right,’ Michael continued.

The TV showed images of the burning tower from every imaginable angle while reporters chattered away like monkeys in the zoo. Michael and Jenny channel-surfed and hung on every uttered inconceivability.

The sound of the ringing phone pierced the room.

Michael jumped in fright.

Jenny swore.

‘Hello.’ Michael said into the receiver.

Jenny’s eyes watched her father’s in anticipation of the words he heard.

‘Here she is now, Ed,’ Michael said.

Michael passed the receiver to Jenny.

Jenny, watching the images on the screen, marvelled at how beautiful New York looked. If it weren’t for the burning building it would be quite serene.

‘Ed. Where are you? Are you okay?’ Jenny asked, horribly afraid of the answer.

‘Have you seen it on the news?’ Ed asked.

‘Yes.’

‘I’m ringing to say I’m okay. I’m in the other tower.’

Jenny heard the evacuation sirens in the background. There was yelling.

‘What’s happening? Why aren’t you outside?’

Questions queued to come out.

‘Slow down honey,’ Ed said. ‘I’ll be fine. We’re high up. We started to evacuate but they say there’s no need. By the time we get down they’ll have put the fire out. It’s just the other tower.’

Jenny sighed audibly.

‘They say it was a plane,’ Jenny continued.

More static clogged the connection.

‘It’s such a lovely day,’ Ed said. Jenny sensed the fear in his voice. ‘If we were married, it’s the sort of day I’d play hooky so I could take you down to Central Park. It’s the only place in New York to, you know, hang out with nature. You’re gunna love Central Park, Jenny.’

‘I will. I know I will.’

‘Hey, how’s my little boy?’ Ed asked.

‘It might be a girl.’

Suddenly the world of burning buildings faded into the background.

Ed laughed.

Jenny continued, ‘I’m serious Ed; it might be a little girl. She won’t grow up to play for the Yankees or whatever you want a son to do. Will you love her just the same?’

There was static over the line.

‘Hello, hello. Are you still there?’ he asked anxiously.

‘I’m here. I asked: Would you love a daughter just the same as a son?’

‘Jenny, you know I would. I’d love her just as much as her mom.’

Jenny glanced up at the television again. She caught the sight of it coming in out of a clear blue sky, its metallic belly shining obscenely in the sun.

‘Ed!’ she screamed down the line.

Screaming filled the room. Screaming from the commentators on the TV, from Jenny, from her father who’d witnessed reason die three thousand deaths.

Somehow, Jenny smelt the smoke through the television screen. She smelt charred bodies. She smelt burning fuel. She smelt Ed’s scent from the night they first met. She saw it all again and again and again – on TV and inside her head.

Through the long, long night she heard Ed’s voice, ‘I’d love her just as much as her mom’, and saw his beautiful face. A face that Jenny said was as beautiful as New York in the autumn when the leaves began to fall.

Before dawn, Jenny went to make coffee – anything to help her feel alive.

She rifled through the kitchen drawers and took out the knife her father used to carve the Christmas turkey. Without hesitating she cut the foetus out of her own abdomen and bled to death on the cold kitchen floor before Michael came to look for her in the morning.

* * *

She sat on the park bench beside me and looked up at the sky. I imagined she thought about the bright stars beyond the blue blueness, beyond the vapour trail from the aircraft long since gone from overhead. I knew she wondered if there was a star up there for him.

Edward from New Jersey via New York, London, Stratford and Helsinki.

Just then, a Labrador on a leash passed the park bench and barked furiously in the bench’s direction. Scared, its elderly owner hauled the dog away.

‘Shut up, there’s nothin’ there. You’re yapping at nothin’ but a ghost!’ the local said to his dog.

I turned to Jenny beside me and said with a smile, ‘What would the old bugger know.’

‘Leave off grandpa. He’s not to know we’re here.’