Truth or legend?
Ernest Hemingway, renowned for making every word count, supposedly penned this powerful short story on a napkin while lunching with other writers to win himself a $10 bet.
Bike Helmet. Free. Never Worn.
There was a knock at the door.
“It’s for you, Toby,” Mum shouted. “Special delivery.”
A present from Gramp’s! He can’t be here for my birthday, tomorrow. By the shape of the parcel, I’m pretty sure Gramps present is a bike helmet, just what I wanted. I add it to the pile on the coffee table.
Dad took off my trainer wheels yesterday. We practised in the yard ‘till dark. No wobbles, no crashes, no disasters. Next week, he’s promised to take me to the BMX track. The track is awesome. It’s got hills and bumpy bits and sharp corners. When you’re really good, you get to go on the narrow, windy bush rides, up and up into the bush and then down the other side.
There’s a thin present on the coffee table from Mum’s sister, Aunty Marge in England, another ‘educational’ book like always. Last year, she sent one about dinosaurs. Didn’t she know that at seven I was over dinosaurs? The universe, planets and stars is what interested me. Gramps gave me a mini telescope and when I stayed with him in the Hokianga, we gazed at the stars every night and he taught me the names of the constellations. This year, I’m all about extreme sports. I hope Aunty Marge knows that!
Gramps won’t be at my birthday party tomorrow. Mum said he had a bit of a turn.
“What does that mean?” I asked when she told me he couldn’t come.
“Just something that happens when you get older. Don’t you worry about it, he’ll come right. He always does.” Gramps isn’t old and he’s the most fun adult I know. When I stay at his place in the Hokianga, he lets me do whatever I want. Climb the highest tree, row the dinghy in the estuary, alone, zoom over the paddocks on the three-wheeler. “Don’t tell your Mum about that. She’ll go spare,” he’d said.
I’m sad Gramps can’t come this year. “You’re feeling disappointed,” Dad said.
“Disappointed. Means you feel let down, like something you’ve been promised has been taken away and it’s unfair, like Gramps not coming this year.”
Now I’m really worried. What if he doesn’t come right?
Disappointed. That’s the word Dad used when he and Mum came home from the hospital. Mum had a tummy- bump. It got really big and although she was tired a lot, she was happy. I hoped the baby would be a boy, a girl would be boring. They came home from the hospital with neither, and Mum was really sad for a long time.
I heard Dad say, “I know you’re disappointed love, but in time, we can try again. I’ll do more hours to raise the money for another round.”
“No, no more Steven. I’m done,” and she stormed out of the room. Dad sat on the couch and cried into his hands. I’ve never seen dad cry before.
Sometimes they call me their miracle child and cover me with kisses and big hugs. I giggle and squirm and pretend to like it. I don’t mind when it’s just us, but I wish they wouldn’t do it when other people are around, like the time at Gramps seventy-fifth birthday, and there were all these strangers. Gramps tells them not to smother me, not to wrap me in cotton-wool. Weird, the stuff adults say, even Gramps.
Mum’s in the kitchen fiddling with the butterfly cupcakes for my party. She makes them every year, says her own mum used the make them for her. I think they’re a bit sissy but I don’t tell her that. I only wanted sausage rolls, heaps of cheese balls and pizza. Oh, and fried chicken wings.
“Don’t be silly, Toby. A party’s not a party without some fancy stuff,” Mum smiled. She’s really pretty my Mum, ‘specially when she smiles, much prettier than anyone else’s Mum. She’s not been this happy since before they came home from the hospital.
My birthday cake is the best! It’s a figure eight BMX track. ‘Impressive,’ Dad said, hugging Mum. There’s crumbled Orio biscuits that look like dirt, covering the chocolate icing and little plastic BMX bikes with riders, around the track. One bike, lying on its side is crashed in a ditch with a trickle of red on the riders head.
I point to the bike closest to the finish line. “That’s me,” I say.
“You bet, Buddy. The Champ!” Mum agrees. “Our little miracle,” a cloud films her eyes. She turns away.
“Please Mum, can I open just one present? Can I open Gramps present?” I plead.
“We’ve talked about this, Toby,” Mum says, dusting the cupcakes with icing sugar. “Remember what your Dad said.”
“Yeah, yeah. Good things come to those who wait. I get it, but…”
“No buts. If you want something to do, you can fold that washing in the hamper or ride your bike in the yard.”
I opt for riding my bike.
I ride up and down the lawn close to the flower beds. The Swan plants are thick with Monarch’s this year, fluttering from plant to plant. I weave in and out of the fruit trees close to the back fence and round and round the lawn. The thrill of not having trainer wheels has worn off. If only I had Gramps helmet. I look into the lounge where Mum is folding washing while watching TV. Dad’s on an errand that’s taking an extra long time.
I wheel my bike to the gate, flick the catch on the gate hoping it won’t squeak and manoeuvre my bike out onto the road. A large Monarch sits on my handlebar. Our cul-de-sac is extra quiet today. I ride back and forth a few times then swing onto Weatherly Road. Weatherly’s great ‘cos its got hills and corners. I stand on the pedals, and with my bum in the air, pump my legs hard to get up the hills, then free-wheel down the other side, swooping around the corners. At the end of Weatherly, I decide I’d better get home before Mum finds me gone. She’d be more than a little mad at me.
As I swing across the road into our cul-de-sac, I notice the Monarch still clinging to my handlebar.
A flash of blue, I see the drivers bulging eyes, open mouth, hear a screech of brakes and wham! I’m flying through the air, weightless, spinning around like a feather on a breeze. Clouds, tree-tops, a man walking a dog flash past. Thump, bounce, hit the road. Roll and stop. Leaves in the gutter. A metallic taste in my mouth. A speck of bright light at the end of a tunnel twinkles like a lost star. The star grows bigger, brighter. Pictures flash through my mind. Gramps, pointing to the ‘heavens’ at a lone star as I peer through my telescope, Dad unscrewing the trainer wheels, Mum dusting the butterfly cakes.
A blurry shape hovers above me. An arm cradles my head. A distant, muffled voice, “Toby, Toby can you hear me?” I splutter, gagging on the metallic taste in my mouth.
“I’m sorry Mum. I’m sorry, I’m sorry.” I’m shouting at her, screaming at her. But there is no sound.
I float toward the blinding light.
The wrapping paper crinkles as I cradle the helmet in my arms. Should I remove the paper before the people come to collect it?
For a year, the helmet has sat on the top shelf in his room alongside the telescope Dad gave him.
A year to the day.
A year since I knelt on the road, one arm tenderly cradling his head, my body rocking on the tarmac, numb to the pain searing my bare knees. A year since I held my child, tears streaming down my face.
Thick blood oozing from his mouth coursed through my fingers, seeping into a pile of dead, damp leaves where a Monarch butterfly quivered.
A mournful, mewling wail from somewhere else, hung in the air then crescendoed to a high-pitched blood-curdling screech.
From where did that deafening noise come?
As hands from behind encircled my torso, I realised the noise was me. Nestling my head on Steven’s chest, we wept.
A year since he drifted from our lives… forever.
A year to the day since I stood at the bench dusting butterfly cakes, Toby tugging on my sleeve, pleading, ‘Please Mum, can I open just one present? Can I open Gramps present?’
Say ‘yes,’ an inner voice urges.
If only I’d said ‘yes’.
A blur of colour catches my eye as a Monarch floats through the open window. Sitting on the sill, the Monarch’s wings quiver then flaps with urgency. Taking flight, it flits around the room to descend on my shoulder. I shiver.
I drift through the window. Mum is sitting on my bed, holding a bright coloured parcel. Frantically I flutter my wings and hover around the room to settle on her shoulder, “It’s me, Mum. It’s Toby.”