The Soundtrack of My Life

by Alison Stedman
Phoebe watches the news update dispassionately, slumped on the green sofa with the white cushions around her like a fortress. So far a politician has promised to do something, a policeman has got in trouble, a Polish ballet company has wowed audiences in Auckland. So what? She wants death, destruction, pain; something to attach to. She stares with eyes half shut at the flickering screen and listens to the drone of the sports commentator. "...their chances of winning were dealt a blow by a blow dealt by the southerners..." Blink. The TV flickers again. They will need a better aerial soon in this house. She doesn't really want to sit here feeling cold, listening to the pitter-patter of rain on the roof. She wants to walk along the river at home and stop at the café and drink a sour lemonade with two black straws and a sliver of lemon, in the sun. Except—now it isn't home. She has to remember that. It belongs to a nice couple with a little baby girl who will grow up loving her home and then be forced to leave just when she is starting to appreciate it.

The rain stops, and Phoebe is walking now, in the park. She hasn't been here before but there are tall ghostly poplars and two fields and nothing else. She thinks there is a graveyard over the other side. Bono whispers, walk on. She walks. She likes the wind. When she stands up straight and holds her arms out she can feel the wind seduce her and she isn't cold anymore. Phoebe thinks that maybe she is thinking. Not thinking with the two little voices on study leave, one saying what was it that Alexander did in 323 BC? and one saying chocolate lollies sunshine what will happen if I hold my mouth open this way?  Not like when she prays, with one firm now, dear God, thank you for this lovely day, and another persistent when I die they'll all be sorry.  No, this type of thinking is the thinking she does when she's not thinking.

Phoebe feels angry and she starts feeling cold again. She doesn't want to return to the new house, but eventually she gives in and wanders back wearily.

/

It seems wrong catching a bus to the new house. She doesn't know any of the drivers. They all seem glum and baggy-eyed. She sits down on the shady side of the bus and feels gloomy. They drive around a mall and when they stop, she stares emotionlessly at the man with the machine painting new white stripes on the road. Phoebe likes the look of fresh white paint, especially on roads, but she would rather he did it with a generous black brush. He meets her gaze and she doesn't have enough energy to look quickly away. She can tell he thinks she is odd. She looks back down at the white paint until the bus pulls out onto the road again. She feels an unaccountable irritation every time the driver jumps up to push the broken door closed. Bono sings, you've got to cry without weeping, talk without speaking, scream without raising your voice.

As it gets darker Phoebe notices that they are driving behind a beautiful square of red lights. She thinks maybe it is not a truck after all but one of those wicked fairy rings that lure innocent humans into them who are never seen again. "Twilight," she whispers, shivering, and the man in front of her looks around in alarm.

Bono sings, into the half light and through the flame.

Phoebe has to walk through the park to get to the house. She pauses outside the graveyard.

/

In the graveyard at the top of the incline is an angel. Her arm should have been reaching out towards the grave below her, blessing the little girl called Maud whose body is within, but sometime in the last seventy years it has broken off, along with the tip of her wing. Maybe it was weather, maybe it was simply gravity. Phoebe doesn't want to think that it could have been done by a living person. The angel's face is bittersweet; she is tender and gentle but she is in mourning, perhaps for the parents of the child and their sorrow. There are streaks of red under her eyes, as if she has been weeping blood; Phoebe thinks of Gethsemane.

The ground around the angel is overgrown with dead yellow grass. Lichen creeps up the granite statue and soon 'Let the little children come to me and do not stop them' will be obscured. The rusty iron fence that stands proudly around the grave has not kept anything out. Just through the grass you can see the concrete of the grave itself, collapsed, and the stony dirt below it, and Phoebe tries to believe that there is a body under that dirt.

Silence is overwhelming here. When she first wandered in this afternoon, she turned off her music at once. Somehow Bono didn't seem respectful enough. She doesn't even want to breathe loudly—it's not because she's afraid of waking ghosts or disturbing spirits at rest—she just feels it's not right to act here like you would act anywhere else. It is not a sad silence. It is a peaceful silence; there is a rhythm to it. It could be angry if someone polluted it. This is the place of the dead, not of the mourners. All they ask is that you let them rest undisturbed and that you remember them, she thinks. That you wonder about their lives and that you remind yourself of what life is—by their mortality.

It is ironic that next door to the graveyard is a preschool. Phoebe can even hear the laughs and screams of the children, packing up to leave after a long day. The most alive playing by the side of the long dead.

/

Phoebe can't stop thinking about the angel. The next day she leaves the house, and looks from the other side of the park; she sees fire quivering through the tall, spectral trees and she panics. She walks over nervously but firmly, sure she is risking her life for the angel's sake, but she can't turn around. Bono cries, bullet the blue sky.

The sky is grey, the grass is dull, the trees are a nondescript mud and the fire is golden, dancing challengingly, laughing like a witch in an explosion of crackles, inciting her to be careless. The angel rises gracefully out of the flames like Joan of Arc.

She stops halfway across the second field. Two old men in Swanndris and jandals are throwing dead branches onto a little bonfire on one side of the graveyard. Phoebe can't help feeling a little disappointed. She wanted to help the angel. She supposes that fire is like Satan; it wants you to think it's more powerful than it really is.

She doesn't go to the angel now.

/

Phoebe leaves the house that evening. It is dark and it is cold but Phoebe wears a red coat and a black scarf and she feels merely interestingly chilly. She slowly winds her way to the park and stops in shock as she sees it lit up like a stadium, a few indistinct people running around like ants. The grass is so much greener at night. It is a strange sight, this cocoon of light.

She skirts the field, treading quietly, staying out of the harsh white light, feeling happier and less concrete in the dim softness of night mixed with day. She walks along the dark soccer lines, balancing carefully. Is she really perched precariously on this thin tightrope over a chasm, or is it her imagination? Above her, light; below her, the pit. She thinks, resentfully, that not much is holding her up, if all that is needed to do this to her is to change houses.

Bono sings, all I want is you. Tears fall from Phoebe's eyes, and she keeps walking.

/

The graveyard is wrapped securely in darkness. Only the angel's head catches some of the light from the street nearby. Phoebe stands at the side, feeling reckless. She can hear the faint buzz of cars, the sleepy swish-swish of the trees, and a few stray yells spiraling their way over the fields from where the girls still play soccer. Nothing moves in the graveyard. There could be mass murderers and rapists hiding behind every tombstone, Phoebe thinks, and she climbs over the fence.

The angel is the only part of the graveyard that doesn't look grim, yet Phoebe walks somewhat hesitantly towards her, not wanting to let go quite yet. The graveyard stirs, and rolls over in the wind; the trees wake up, grasping and pleading; teeth chatter in the big pine trees on the darkest side of the graveyard. Phoebe's heart jumps, but she won't let them stop her. The angel looks down at Phoebe with a small smile, as if to say, trust me.

Phoebe does. She goes home.
Alison Stedman is a senior editor at Halfway Down the Stairs. For staff biographies, click here.

© 2006, Alison Stedman