Extract from Missing Christopher
Copyright © Jayne Newling 2014
ublished by Allen & Unwin, June 2014
Overlooking the edge of the cliff from where my seventeen-year-old son died, I watched as a blond-haired toddler ran towards his mother and screamed. He had fallen and grazed his knees ten metres below, on the same rock Christopher’s body thumped and splintered. The boy’s white T-shirt was stained with red splotches, remnants of an icy-pole treat perhaps, and his blue tracksuit pants were split at the knee which he held with both pudgy hands as his mother tried to inspect the damage. She picked him up and carried him to the warm sand. I walked down the pathway, past the picnic bench and the now-consoled toddler who was distracted by his bucket and spade.
Large boulders formed a barrier between the cliff and the beach. Beyond, where the waves crashed over the rock pool at high tide, a high mesh fence protected bathers from falling rocks.
I knelt down to the rock for evidence of the toddler’s blood. There was nothing but the indent of my son’s broken body and if I closed my eyes, all I saw was blood gushing from his cracked skull into the black ocean, his right leg bent back, snapped in two. I saw a girl cradling his head with his favourite cream woollen jumper, begging him to open his eyes. I saw myself hyperventilating and restrained behind the fence by a policewoman. She shoved a brown paper bag over my nose and mouth and held it there against my will and ordered me to breathe deeply. I saw paramedics lifting my little boy onto a spinal board. I felt nothing. I heard nothing.
That was eleven years ago. I can now say my son is dead. I used to say we lost him, as though he was caught in some ephemeral haze and we were waiting for it to dissipate before he could be reunited into our family fold.
I used to say, when asked, that I have two children, as if Christopher, bookended by Ben and Nic, never existed. Then I tried saying three, to see if that was easier on my heart. I’d say Ben’s the eldest and Nic’s the baby and state their ages.
‘And the middle one?’ they would ask.
My heart would plummet and my eyes would throb with the weight of hot tears.
He’s dead. That’s it. There is no going back—except in my head.
In my head Christopher is now twenty-eight. I know what he looks like because his best friend, Ben ‘Murgy’ Murgatroyd, still comes to see me and they are like twins. They have the same shade of blond hair and their eyes are the blue on a kookaburra’s wing.
They have the same muscular frame and tanned skin and they smile with just enough teeth to be alluring. They both light up a room.
In my head Christopher hasn’t married yet. He wants to ensure he picks the right one. He’s in between jobs, surfing with Murgy in Bali.
He is much happier now. He isn’t frightened his depression will turn him into a freak. He is now a man, confident and self-assured, not the teenager who hid his fears from friends and family. He is not the boy who gambled with life and lost.
In my head I am home on the night he drives to the southern end of Avalon beach on Sydney’s Northern Beaches, kicks his car mirror and throws it and his mobile phone over the cliff. We are sitting in the kitchen drinking a cup of hot chocolate.
He is crying and I kiss the brown birthmark on his neck. He isn’t drunk and angry but sad and quiet. We speak in whispers. His fears, once expressed, evanesce into the four walls surrounding us. He goes to bed. I mould the doona into the undulations of his tall and lean frame and stroke the thickening stubble on his cheek until he falls asleep. And in my head he is there in the morning, dressed for school, eating a large plate of bacon and eggs with sourdough toast and baked beans.
That was me then. Eleven years ago before I lost my son. There was always tomorrow and it didn’t matter how hard life was, my husband Phil and I could survive anything. We’d been together since high school and our love was strong—we were still best friends. Even when Ben developed depression at sixteen and hid in his room for six months, followed shortly after by Nic who saw the walls moving in and wanted to kill people, we worked together to try to free our children’s minds. Then, several months later, Christopher went off the rails and the impact was like someone had thrown a Molotov cocktail into our living room.
There’s another place in my head which I never talk about. If I do, I fear I’ll have to live there, forever. But it’s there—just for me, like a dormant cancer cell waiting to splay its tentacles. It takes over me, paints me black and smells of bleach. It’s insidious and it’s always there behind my sane veneer, pretending to be padlocked by time. In this place I see a little boy trapped on a train.
He is screaming, tears falling in rivulets down his reddened, crushed face. His tiny fists bang soundlessly on the window. I’m on the platform running to jump on but as I do, the door closes. The train goes round and round a circular track and with each circuit the boy loses energy until he is no longer there.
And in this same place, his grown body is plummeting through the cold, dark air. There is no moon, there are no stars. The only illumination is the twinkling of streetlights across the beach to the next headland.
He is on his back, an inverted parachute, arms and legs to the heavens. He falls past his dented car mirror and the many parts of his shattered phone dot the precipice like jewels. Jagged rocks fly by; an errant dandelion, closed for the night, bows to the sudden disturbance, and the black mass of concrete and sandstone waits.
How long would it take? What was he thinking? Did he change his mind? Was he scared? I know he hated the dark.
In this place it is my fault. I didn’t love enough, listen enough, care enough. There are no beautiful memories here. In this place, I am forced to go back to that Thursday night in August 2002, and watch my son die over and over and over again—in slow motion.
It was just before midnight. It was dark and I could just see the ghostly outline of a woman standing on a rock, purging herself in regular spasms, gagging like an injured animal.
Phil and I ran to the only light we could see, a dim torch by the ocean pool at the southern corner of the beach. A policewoman grabbed me and forced me to sit down. Her grasp was like a handcuff and I squirmed against her power. She was stronger than me. I looked at Phil beseechingly but all I saw was the terror mirrored in his own eyes and it scared me to death. We were separated from our son by the 3-metre mesh fence. I couldn’t see him but I heard his two friends yelling against the crash of the waves. I was angry they were allowed to be there and not us. He was our son. I broke free and darted around the fence.
Christopher was lying on his back. There were six people encircling him. Ally, the sixteen-year-old girl he was living with, was cradling his head and his close friend Jack was highly agitated as he stared over the curved backs of the paramedics. Phil and I couldn’t get through the human barrier.
The late night silence was broken by huge and unrelenting waves as they crashed over all of them. Someone screamed ‘Fuck!’ I wanted to go to my son but was held back again. I could feel someone grabbing at my tracksuit top and I pulled away.
Suddenly it was whisper quiet. I was looking down at my son but it wasn’t real. There was an aura, a haze which was surreal and cold. I felt as if I was floating over the crowd, watching dispassionately as they tried to repair my son. There was a huddle of backs and a lone torch shining a dull ring of light on Christopher’s chest. A loud wave suddenly crashed over the pool, the foam like dirty dishwater pooled around him. His body rocked with each new wave. He must have been so cold. I had to find a blanket.
Phil clutched my shoulder as we watched them gently manoeuvre Christopher onto a spinal board. I felt calmer now that they had lifted him out of the cold water. Phil knew our son was going to die but said nothing to me except that he was very thirsty and needed to find water. We walked behind the paramedics up to the car park where the ambulance waited. No one was in a hurry. That was a good sign. He was probably just concussed.
A policeman told us a helicopter had been called. Why? Couldn’t they wake him up in the ambulance? My heart was still pounding but I felt sure this would be just another angst-filled night, one of many we’d endured over the years. By morning we’d be thanking the god I didn’t believe in, the same god who would later give me constant headaches at the exact spot where my son’s head cracked open.
Phil and I hurriedly arranged that I would go in the helicopter and he would go home to Nic, our fifteen-year-old asleep and alone just a few kilometres away; eighteen-year-old Ben was staying overnight at a friend’s place. We waited outside the open doors of the ambulance. The car park was dark except for the warm glow casting halos inside the cavern of the makeshift intensive care unit. Word had spread and a group of Christopher’s friends and parents stood in a huddle on a grassy mound by the picnic table.
I was waiting for breath, mine and his. The paramedics bent and straightened, moving from equipment to Christopher who was still lying on the spinal board. I couldn’t see his face. They were methodical but busy. I saw bloodied cloths, plastic tubes and syringes. My heart had stopped. I was waiting to hear the roar of the helicopter.
Why was it taking so long?
Then I heard it—in the distance. I touched Phil’s arm but there was no reaction.
His head was bent, staring down at the tarred surface; he must have been really thirsty now. The roar was getting louder. I looked up to the headland, up higher to the imagined flight path. Louder, louder. I looked back into the ambulance. The frenetic activity had slowed. The dark sky had quietened. I pricked my ears. I couldn’t hear the helicopter.
‘Where’s the helicopter?’ I yelled out. A policeman grabbed hold of my elbow.
‘They’ve turned it around,’ he said. ‘It’s not needed anymore.’
Thank God. He was awake. He was okay. I crossed my fingers hoping whoever was calling the shots would also spare his legs. He had an important rugby match on Saturday. I smiled as a paramedic offered a big hand and pulled me up into the ambulance. I wanted to hug him. I was already thinking about what gifts I could buy for them. I would also donate money to the ambulance service. As I stepped in I wondered why Phil wasn’t behind me. I still couldn’t see Christopher. Two paramedics crouched over him. No one looked at me.
‘Cricket?’ I whispered.
That was his nickname. Everyone called him Cricket. When he was born, Ben called him Cricketer, unable to pronounce Christopher, and it was thereafter shortened to Cricket.
The paramedic let go of my hand and whispered something I couldn’t hear. I didn’t care, I just wanted to go to my son. As I neared, they stood aside. Their heads were shaking slowly and they stared at the floor. I panicked. Why weren’t they smiling? Why weren’t they happy and relieved? Why weren’t they looking at me?
The tubes were gone and his arms lay inertly by his sides. His eyes were closed and his face was as white as an eggshell. Blood was matted in his hair and despite their efforts to ‘present’ him, red smudges stained his ears and neck and wet blotches marked the sheet under his head. His body was covered to his chest except for one shoeless foot which poked out from beneath the blanket.
My brain snapped silently. I felt the blood drain from my head, down my body and out through the holes in the rubber soles of my ugg boots. I bent down to whisper I love you in his blood-encrusted ear. I kissed the birthmark on his neck and then his cold lips.
I looked over at the paramedics just in case I had made a mistake but they were busy throwing out the used syringes and tubes. I was shaking as I stared at them, wondering what to do. One paramedic saw my panic and helped me down the steps as Phil climbed into the cabin. I couldn’t meet my husband’s eyes.
I felt my heart break. It leaked through me like Christopher’s had through the jagged and sharp edges of his broken rib cage.
I heard my mind explode.
I was the ghost who walked away. Soulless, lifeless. The essence of me stayed behind with him—my son. Life ended there, in the ambulance, in that car park, in this world, and I forgot to say goodbye.
Copyright © Jayne Newling 2014.
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Publisher: Elizabeth Weiss at Allen & Unwin, June 2014.
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Published with the assistance of the Black Dog Institute www.blackdoginstitute.org.au