The child was screaming. Again. And she could tell by the way his screams echoed that he’d been put outside again. In the alley.
It was dark in the alley, and overgrown with weeds, littered with rubbish and sometimes needles.
She stood by her back door, listening. Every now and then she heard him shriek, “Mummy, let me in,” but the door to his house stayed shut.
The sound of his screams frayed at her edges. She pulled her cardigan closer and hunched her shoulders. She wanted the sound to bounce off her, but it soaked in, like blood into an old sheet.
She opened her back door. The screams were louder; they pulled her outwards, towards the fence, making her stumble on the broken footpath and bang her head on the clothesline arm.
The old fence was made of palings hammered onto a frame. The nails protruded, as if the wood was squeezing them out, a millimeter at a time. Her fingers touched the rough palings, caressing the splintered edges, as she listened.
His screams had subsided into loud sobbing. He knew, and she knew, that he wouldn’t be allowed back inside until he’d been quiet for at least five minutes. Maybe longer, if his mother was on the phone or in the shower or watching a good TV show.
She pulled one paling aside. The window opposite blared with yellow light; the kitchen with its dark brown cupboards was empty. Dishes piled on the sink and benches, a container of margine and a dirty knife lay on the laminate table.
The boy stood next to the door, as if to make sure his sobbing carried straight into the house. Why didn’t he stop? Why didn’t the mother come?
It was pointless wondering. It was always the same.
She pulled the other two palings away and bent sideways, struggling through, catching her cardigan on a nail and pausing to carefully unhook it.
The boy stared at her, but kept sobbing.
“Hello,” she said.
The sobbing died down into crying. Crying was much better.
“I’ve made hot cocoa and biscuits,” she said. “Do you want some?”
His eyes widened but he didn’t reply.
She held out her hand. “Want to come and visit me for a while?”
He kept crying. Why did he keep crying? Didn’t all children like hot cocoa and biscuits? What was the matter with him?
She stepped forward and he shrank back against the door. He kept crying.
“I won’t hurt you,” she said crossly. “I just want to help. Don’t you want nice hot cocoa?” She grabbed his hand. “I’m your friend. I live over there, behind the fence.”
He shook his head and tried to pull his hand away. He began the ungodly shrieking again, all of a sudden, as if the noise was in a bottle inside him and he’d popped the cork.
She felt a shriek of her own surge up her throat and let him go, clapping her hands over her mouth. The shriek came out as a stifled howl.
She reached out and shook him hard. “Look what you made me do!” Then she scrambled back through the fence, panting, gasping, ripping her cardigan on the nail, staggering across the yard and into her house, slamming her door hard. She sank to the floor, held her breath, listened. Silence.
“Good boy,” she said.