Something we have lost

It is late when you stumble to the end of the laneway and see the man’s body. He’s right there, almost in front of you, half in the gutter of the intersecting street. At first, you think that he’s a discarded mannequin, left with the boxes of rubbish in front of the shops. His face is turned away and his hair is too thick and straight. Artificial. There is a seam line on his wrist.

A girl in white jeans and a luminous club singlet tips one of the larger boxes near you onto the footpath, scattering cardboard and chunks of packing foam. She rummages and then pulls an opaque sheet of plastic, which might have been wrapped around a refrigerator a few hours earlier, from the depths of the box. Her thin arms unfurl this like a tablecloth and she drapes it over the man, tugging at the corners until he is covered. You can still see him through it, but only just—the curve of his head and an aqua t-shirt with bold lettering. He is on his back. It’s only when you notice how his hips twist sideways, the shape his collapsed knees make beneath the plastic, that he becomes real. A person.

You stand in the dark of the alley for a moment, no longer tired and hungry and footsore. The signs you were searching for in the pale streetlight and the map that had to be somewhere in your backpack don’t matter anymore. Just a few more steps and you would have tripped over him. The air becomes warmer and heavy with noise: the distant pulse of a discoteca, the squeal and thump of garbage trucks prowling the streets, a low whining.

The girl starts a little as you emerge from the shadows and barks a word you know means shit in Spanish, because it sounds so close to the French. Merde and mierda. She tries to wave you away and you say, “He needs CPR. A bloody ambulance.” You point, miming the handshapes, your right hand over the left and pumping rhythmically. The acronym hangs in the air between you.

You kneel close to the man and you want to help, to lift the sheet, but so much blood has already poured from his still lips and pooled on the street. You rock back on your haunches and take a deep breath. The air is still redolent with the earthy smell of his sweat. Along the street, just three or four shopfronts past the three of you, an open-topped cruiser is parked aslant across both lanes of the road. One headlight is out and the windscreen is a bowed spiderweb, tarry with blood. Looping skidmarks scrawl the distance between the man’s body and the vehicle. Its engine unclenches into the soft night, metronomic clicks with a lengthening pause.

Two young Spaniards stand near it, jousting in their rapid language, alternatively counting on their fingers and prodding each other’s chests. They shoot glances in your direction and you see the worry creasing their faces. You want to tell them how lucky they were not to have hit one of the wooden power poles also or skidded through the plate glass of a shopfront, but you do not have the words. The girl who covered the body is still beside you. There is a circle of blood on the right knee of her jeans and her drained face seems to hover in a horseshoe of hair.

She cuts out a tumbling sentence and you climb to your feet, shrug and show the flag sewn on your pack. She makes an exasperated sound and swings back to the cruiser, firing sharp syllables at the men as she pushes past. They stop arguing and look at you and then back at her. The one on the right holds out something to her with a wavering hand. He sways slightly, shocked, or maybe drunk, and you hear the clink of car keys as they strike the road. The girl scoops them up and climbs into the driver’s seat of the cruiser. She ratchets it forward, adjusts the rear mirror and grips the steering wheel with both hands, checking that it is at the right height, checking that it looks like she was driving. There are lights above the shops and in the apartments opposite. A siren in the distance.

You are watching the girl and do not see the dog at first, this black-and-white bitser who skulks to the body and claws at the sheet. Back on the farm, your dog Belter used to hook his paw around the flyscreen just like that, rock it back and forth until the worn latch clicked. He was pretty bloody cluey, old Belter, when he wanted to sneak inside. How did he know a closed door wasn’t just more wall? The sheet peels back, exposing a brown wrist tied with a thin leather bracelet and more blood dulling on the asphalt. The dog sniffs uncertainly, its nose so close that you think it must be licking the abraded fingers.

“G’orn, get out of it,” you hiss, but the dog ignores you. Then you notice its collar and lead, and you sigh. The Spaniard who dropped the keys strides over, waving his arms and shouting. The dog shies for a moment and your exhaustion flares. You stand in his path, close enough to see the wine staining the cracks in his lips and say, “It’s the dead bloke’s dog. Jesus, mate, just … back off.”

The Spaniard sneers for a long second before his lips uncurl in a disgusted pah. His hands sketch angry shapes in the air, but no-one else is watching. Not his friends and not the dog, who regards you for a moment, then curls and settles, resting its muzzle on the dead hand. The siren becomes Policia and people file out of the apartments. They mill in their slippers and stare at the body with their dark eyes and behind them, everywhere, doors are closing.
‘Something we have lost’ was first published in Verandah.