The shooting started at around 4.30 pm; most of the neighbourhood mothers had herded their kids inside and were probably doing what she was right now, preparing snacks, filling baths. She paused, as did Amber and Rusty. The crack was loud, echoing like whiplash, but it was weird that the main thing she noticed was the sun refracting through the half-open venetian blinds, the way it made haloes around her kids’ heads. They both looked so angelic.
She’d quickly ushered them into their bedroom with orders to keep far away from the curtained windows (Not again! whimpered Amber), and promised them an extra Kit Kat if they stayed in their beds – that usually worked. Back in the loungeroom the temptation to close the blinds was strong; she peeked through the window, her body close to the wall. Apart from some flitting shadows the communal area was empty, its concrete still cleft and grimy, and the broken swing dangled like a severed limb. But no dead bodies there today. That’s a change.
At another crack, alarmingly nearby, she thudded to her knees and crawled away, coughing at the dust from the carpet. Christ, that needs a good vacuuming. The blinds could stay open.
In the kitchen she poured herself a Fanta, slid back to the floor and slumped against the dishwasher. The lino was thin, glacial; perhaps she’d go to Vinnie’s next weekend and hunt down a cheap rubber mat for this room. Winter was coming, as they said, and god knows how many times she’d be hugging this floor. The Fanta was hardly relief for her sore throat and she cursed herself for forgetting to buy cough medicine. Hopefully the blankets were on the kids’ beds; weird that she couldn’t remember. But she was so tired; she’d had little sleep last night and the days at the shop had been long, more than the usual drudge. Boredom was sucking the few atoms of energy from her spine. She thought of her bed – it wasn’t the best mattress but it was still a measure of escape, repose.
The shots kept ringing like fireworks, oddly rhythmic, reminding her of a tune she hadn’t heard in years. A song by that old band REM; her mother had played it too often. She could only recall a few lines, something about an orange crush. She la-la’d the chorus in her head and, strangely, it pulsed in time with the gunfire.
A pause; she’d counted about ten shots and twenty shouts and screams. A few more than last time.
‘Are you all right, guys?’ she called to the bedroom.
Their voices chimed back, overlapping.
‘Yes…Can we come out yet?’
‘Just stay there, okay? Until I tell you. You know it’ll prob’ly be over soon.’
The pause persisted, teasing; she decided to wait another five minutes before rising. A sob wailed from the communal yard below, someone yelled something unintelligible. She, probably like everyone else in the housing commission complex, had dialed 000, but she still couldn’t hear sirens. The police were no doubt as bored by this as she was.
Bored by gang warfare. In one of the few books she remembered from school she’d been struck by a description of war as being both insufferably tedious and terrifying – long waits, then the unspeakable horror of attack. That, she reflected, slurping the last drops of Fanta, was very similar to this moment. Maybe far more grim, but…
The clock on the kitchen wall said 4.45pm. Still no sirens, but the yelling had halted, and the cracking sounds had tapered. Worryingly, the sobbing continued; with some luck no one was hurt too badly.
As she rose her front door shot open (hadn’t she locked it?). A young guy with a dirty balaclava shoved up his forehead stared at her, his eyes wide and shaky, his mouth swollen; his top lip, scarred a crooked red, dripped. A shotgun perched on his shoulder, huge against his slight body, like a spear or javelin. They both froze; her glass smashed on the lino as the boy closed the door, and locked it gently. He swung his gun and pointed it at her. All strangely slo-mo, she thought.
‘You’re bleeding,’ she said.
He blinked a few times, his scowl dissolving into confusion, then pressed his finger tips against his mouth, as if to hide it.
‘It’s nothing,’ he barked. ‘Get on the floor.’
She sighed. ‘My kids are in the bedroom. Can you leave them be?’
The lino beneath her face really stunk, of rancid bacon and stale tomato sauce; she thought, morosely, that she’d cleaned it properly, but obviously floor-mopping was something else she hadn’t mastered. She could hear him fiddling with the blinds, then slurping from the tap; some water splashed on the back of her thighs. His jeans, too close now, smelled of dirty laundry and his boots were mud-caked; a hint of something red glistened on the vast heel.
‘What’s that?’ he asked curtly.
She twisted her head upwards. He was pointing towards the corner. His finger, like his eyes, shook.
‘A dressmaker’s mannequin.’
‘It’s used for sewing. I’m a seamstress,’ she rasped; her throat was swelling. ‘Not many of us left these days. I alter clothes for the neighbours.’
He glowered at her, unconvinced.
‘See?’ She pointed to the other corner, the angle hurting her chest. ‘There’s my sewing machine.’
He surveyed the room, the narrow windows, then nodded, murmuring something she couldn’t hear. Her neck ached; she lowered her cheek against the putrid lino.
‘Come and help me, woman,’ he growled. ‘And don’t do anything stupid.’
He was dragging the mannequin towards the window. It wasn’t heavy, but he was clutching his side, pressing and grimacing.
‘Are you hurt?’ she asked. ‘I’ve got a first aid kit –’
‘Just carry it over here.’ He peeked again through the blinds. She lugged the mannequin to where he stood, a foot from the window. ‘I hope you’re not gonna damage it,’ she said. ‘It belonged to my great-grandmother.’
He kept peering at the yard, his eyes flitting from one building to another, his lips moving but saying nothing. She realised she was hungry – tea-time approached and she hadn’t eaten lunch. The kids were probably starving.
‘Excuse me,’ she said. ‘How long are you gonna be? Last time you boys carried on like this it was over in an hour or so. The cops are probably on the way. Can I least feed my children?’
As he stomped towards her, she was, for an instant, frightened; then he collided with the mannequin. It crashed to the floor.
‘For god’s sake!’ she tutted, and lifted it gently. ‘It’s not very stable, you know – it’s old.’
‘Hold it up. From the front.’
She did as he asked, the fear lingering in her spine; too exposed to the window, to him. He rested the shotgun’s snout on the mannequin’s shoulder, fiddled with some machinery on its top then squinted through the telescope. She could feel the gun’s coldness near her ear, hear the echo of his fingers tapping as he tinkered with different parts.
‘Good, good,’ he muttered. As he straightened, inhaling deeply, he flinched and pressed his fingers into his torso again.
‘Let me take a look at that,’ she said, and swiftly plucked his shirt from his trousers. He jerked then, scowling, but allowed her to investigate the laceration on his trunk. ‘Gunshot, eh? Lucky it got you on the side. But you really should be in hospital.’ She nodded towards the kitchen, her palms in the air. ‘Just let me get a bandage and some Dettol.’
As he studied the pus in his flesh his face paled. She grabbed the antiseptic from the overhead kitchen cupboard and caught him as he teetered, then clumsily lowered his buttocks onto her sofa. His sweat was sweet, pubescent, but his panting breath was sour. She wondered what – or when – he’d last eaten.
‘What’s your name, lady?’ he asked.
‘Blanche,’ he repeated thoughtfully. ‘That’s my grandmother’s name.’
‘Well, your grandmother wouldn’t be proud of you now, would she? It’s a real sorrow what you boys keep doing. How many times this year already? You’re all gonna get killed. You know that, don’t you?’
‘You don’t understand. The land here –’
‘The land here is crap. Who wants it? You boys are crazy fighting over it as you do.’
‘Do you have a son?’
‘Don’t even think about it’, she snarled, and rammed her palm against his mouth. ‘Don’t even think about getting my boy involved.’
‘Ouch!’ He jerked his head away. ‘Don’t touch me there!’
His mouth was bleeding. Soft black fluff on his chin covered some of the pimples dotting his face; he wasn’t that much older than her son. She stuck a bandage against his lower belly, but as she began to pat his lip with cotton wool he jerked his head away, hiding his mouth again.
‘It’s okay,’ she said quietly. ‘My husband had a lip like yours too.’
She waved her fingers at his harelip. ‘As I told him, it’s nothing to be ashamed of.’
‘You know nothin, lady! Nothin! Shut up or you’re as good as dead!’
For a second she considered leaning back into the sofa, closing her eyes. She could forget everything in sleep.
A shout like a command from beyond, then the ricochet of more bullets. The boy jostled her aside, gently, and squinted through the blinds. The sun was ebbing low, the few unbroken streetlights beginning to flicker.
‘Mum?’ Rusty called from his room.
‘It’s okay, baby,’ she called back. ‘You and Amber just stay put, yeah?’
‘Shut up!’ the boy yelled again.
The voice from the housing estate’s communal zone echoed again in a woolly growl. The boy nodded at the voice, pulled his phone from his pocket and tapped it harshly. ‘Fuckin phone,’ he hissed.
‘They don’t always work up here,’ she said. ‘We’re in a black hole.’
He cursed again, then hurled the phone at the lounge, wincing as his side was stretched with the lob.
‘C’mon,’ she said. ‘Take it easy.’
Thundering across the room he shoved his face into hers; for a moment she was certain he would hit her, and she cried out.
‘Lady, please. I’ve got something I’ve gotta do, okay? Just let me do it and I’ll leave,’ he said.
‘Mum, are you okay?’ Her son clung to the doorhandle, a cricket bat wedged in his hand, his skin as blanched as her hair. As the boy lifted his shotgun she threw herself across the room and shielded Rusty.
‘Don’t you dare!’ she screamed.
The boy paused, the hunted scowl on his face shaded with something else, maybe fear. His phone rang.
‘Don’t move!’ he ordered.
Her throat was stinging now; the sweat on her forehead hinted at fever. She wrapped her arms behind her and around Rusty, and he hugged her waist, trembling. ‘Shh,’ she said, uselessly. ‘Stay still.’ Rusty nerves resounded through her sinews, heightening her fever. What a stupid time to get the flu, she thought; tomorrow was stocktake and she had to be in the shop, she’d get fired if she didn’t turn up.
She almost laughed at herself.
‘Right,’ the boy said. ‘You’re gonna help me line up my gun on your manny-thingo…your doll…and you’re gonna keep your mouth shut or…or I’ll shut it up for yer.’
‘How old are you?’ she asked abruptly. Rusty squeezed her chest.
‘What’s it to you, old lady?’
She snorted. ‘See this boy, Rust?’ she said over her shoulder. ‘He’s sweaty and bleeding and I suspect doesn’t have much idea of what he’s doing.’
‘Shut your mouth! I told you to shut up!’
‘Yet I remember him as a little thing at your school, a few years above you but he was an ace at soccer. I’m right, aren’t I?’
He eyed her, saying nothing; his harelip pulsed.
‘Too bad he didn’t stay at school, but these things happen.’ She lowered her voice. ‘Your mum died, didn’t she? She was a nice woman.’
‘How did you know…?’
She waved her arm. ‘We all know everyone around here. Maybe not names, but the faces rarely change. Some faces get older, some get…tougher. Crueller.’
Silence; Rusty squeezed again, painfully. A car horn squealed in the distance, a low plane rumbled above. The crying outside had ceased and even the gunfire had lulled.
‘But you’re not cruel, are you? You were a sweet kid, always looking after your little sister. How is she?’
‘Lady, you gotta stop. I don’t know you at all.’
‘You just don’t remember me. Fair enough, you’ve got a lot on your plate. Your name…you’re Eli, aren’t you? Rust, this boy, Eli, is worried that if he doesn’t do what that rude young man in number 63 says, then he’ll have to pay.’ She took a step, Rusty like a leash around her waist making her clumsy, and held out her hand. ‘Yes, I know your boss or whatever you call him is the bloke in number 63. Everyone knows it. But, Jesus, we’re all so tired of living with this, aren’t we?’
Eli had lowered both hands; with his quivering lip he seemed on the verge of tears. His shotgun dangled downwards.
‘You don’t need to do it, Eli, you don’t have to do what he tells you to.’
His phone boomed like a cannon.
‘Yes,’ he barked into it, and pointed the gun’s barrel at them. ‘Yes, yes! I’m doin it. Where is he?’ he strode to the window, kicking at the tangling blinds. His eyes roamed around the common courtyard and then he said, ‘Yeah, I see him. It’s good as done.’ He balanced his shotgun on the mannequin’s shoulder. ‘Just stay back,’ he said to her, his voice now dead, his face as remote as when he first arrived.
‘Who are trying to kill?’ she said, her words drenched in saliva.
But no one heard her. As his gun exploded through the window a scream erupted from below. ‘Got him!’ shrieked Eli.
‘Who?’ she bawled.
Eli clicked his gun and tossed it over his shoulder. ‘I don’t know, but I’ve done it. What I was told to do.’
‘How can you not care? How can you not know?’ she cried.
‘Survival, lady. That’s all that matters.’
As he opened the door of the flat he pressed his forefinger against his lip, then pointed at Rusty. ‘Make sure you lot keep your mouths shut. If you know what I mean.’
He silently closed the door; his footsteps receded on the hall tiles. The room was bare, quiet, in the cold dying sunlight; a breeze jangled the blinds. The mannequin had fallen and lay like a corpse on the ruffled mat.
‘Guess it’s time I get some dinner ready, eh Rust? We can clean all this up later.’
The child smiled. ‘Okay. I’ll go get Amber.’ He skipped towards the bedroom. ‘What’re we having tonight? I’m starving.’
‘How about eggs on toast?
‘With buckets of tomato sauce?’
Rusty spun around, his arms wide, his grin flawless. ‘Perfect!’