I read that The Cure’s album ‘Disintegration’ was released thirty years ago. I was never a fan of The Cure, but my friend Heather played the LP over and over. During the winter of our last year of school we would lie on her bed and ride the waves of textured sound. The endless afternoons when school had finished for the day, the fine solstice sun slanting through the windows, spinning the black circle, flipping it over, and spinning it again. It was hypnotic.
Our friendship had an endpoint, so gathered intensity as it reached its horizon. We grew up in a small town. It had been planned long in advance that when I finished my compulsory schooling I would study away. Heather was going to stay and work on the farm, and then maybe do something else.
The town straddled a wandering river. As it passed by it looped the assembled shops and warehouses before drifting into the distance. The river was lazy. In living memory there had never been a flood. As a kid I would spend summers floating downstream in an inflatable tube, getting as far as the next dot on the map before catching the bus back. I would lie back with my eyes closed, the sun golden on my face, water cool on my skin, the smell of sun warmed rubber mixing with the smooth scent of river stones and water.
In a town that size you are either friends with the people your own age or you ignore them. It was too hard to dislike someone you see every day. My friendship with Heather narrowed as our peers started to leave school. Boys would stay away to help on the farm, girls left to find work in the local shops or in the larger towns downstream. By the end it was just Heather and I. Because we were matriculating we were both given leave by our parents to spend our time after school studying, but all I can really remember of those afternoons was the sound of The Cure and the light that passed through her window, strips of illumination and darkness that patterned the walls and ceiling. I liked that we didn’t have to say anything to each other, and just listen to the record.
Like most teenage boys, I had no idea what was going on. My adolescent world was a confused set of images and emotions that I can only now understand through the eagle eye of hindsight. At home I would find myself grinding my teeth in corked fury at words uttered by my parents without knowing why. I can remember sitting cross legged in class, trying to conceal a spontaneous erection with my clothes or books because of a girl’s perfume.
It was only after things played out that I could see what took place and how the circle closed.
Before I started my second year of university my parents had sold our farm and followed me to the city where I studied and now live. My mother said it didn’t make sense to hang onto something that only reminded them that I was gone. They picked up regular jobs and things just resumed. Everything was the same but in a different place.
I visited my parents once before they sold the farm, a few months after my course started. It was the only time I ever saw Heather. I rode my bicycle to her house, along back roads bordered by oak trees. It was late autumn. The trees were dropping their leaves in a blustery wind, their winter skeletons emerging from the yellows and reds. The sky was the intense blue that preceded winter. You could almost feel the seasons turning beneath your feet; time passing, the earth slowing down.
Heather stood on the porch, her mother in the doorway. Neither moved. Immediately it felt strange, as if things had changed, and suddenly I didn’t know what to expect. Any expectations I had of the afternoon evaporated. From what I remember the conversation went like this:
Me: Hi, I was hoping you would be home.
Heather: Tom, you should have called.
Me: Is there something wrong?
Helen: Maybe you should ride home before the weather changes.
Me: Oh, ok. I just thought I would drop by and say hello.
Heather: Well hello, and goodbye.
I looked at Heather’s face. It was utterly blank. She was wearing a charcoal turtleneck, her face luminous against her dark hair and clothes. She turned away from me, towards her mother, and the front door. I wheeled the bicycle around and rode down the driveway. I could feel their eyes upon my back as I rode down the driveway, the sound of the crushed gravel under my tyres, the wind in my ears. The whole ride home I tried to think of what I could have said, and what was wrong. My eyes were dried by the wind. I couldn’t have cried.
That night I asked my mother if she had heard anything about Heather. My mother is one of those people who refuses to talk about what they haven’t seen. When I pressed her she said that there were rumours that Heather got into trouble with a boy. She didn’t know who. Not everyone in the town was as scrupulous as my mother. I asked around and heard a range of stories and small town speculation. The only thing that was certain was that Heather rarely left home.
When I returned to university there was a letter from Heather waiting for me in my mailbox. In it she apologised for what had happened when I visited. I’ve kept the letter all these years, tucked into a note book and forgotten. I dug it out last week. I won’t bore you with the small talk, but the most important sentences are these:
Tom, if you ask around you are probably going to hear a whole lot of talk about me. Nobody knows the truth, and I’m not going to tell you. I’m hoping you don’t ask me.
Over the next week I made a few attempts at writing a reply, but never finished anything that I thought worth of sending. The only excuse I have is that I was young and felt rejected. There is no way to change the past. I should have taken the bus to my hometown and seen her. I don’t have much patience for my younger self sometimes. Through inertia or deliberate negligence I let it go. The circle of time spun, and what seemed intense and important at one moment gradually faded and was replaced by something else. I didn’t mail a reply to Heather, and never heard from her again.
So last week when I read an article about ‘Disintegration’ my first thoughts were of Heather, and the year that we finished school together. It’d be lying to say that she hadn’t crossed my mind in the intervening period, but I drew a line when I left my home town. As life gathered momentum the past ran further and faster downstream. I’d never run a search for her on social media, or entered her name on google.
So I searched. It turns out she was easy to find.
Heather was listed as a missing person seven years after I last saw her, and was found decomposed in a river some time later. Her hands and feet had been chained to concrete block, but a seasonal drought lowered the water level, leading to her discovery by a local farmer. The coroner believed that Heather had been asphyxiated by her partner prior to disposal, but due to the state of the body it was impossible to be certain. A charming gentleman who was a sergeant-at-arms in an outlaw motorcycle gang was eventually convicted of her murder and given a life sentence. Prior to her death Heather had committed a string of petty criminal offences, mostly the result of concealing the crimes of others or through illegal prostitution.
I started making phone calls. The first was to my mother, through whom I was able to thread a string of connections. Eventually I found Heather’s mother. Helen was in a nursing home in the regional centre nearest my home town, and in between bouts of crippling arthritis, was apparently quite lucid. I made the road trip to see her last weekend.
The nursing home was on the banks of the river I tubed down as a child, but miles further downstream. I had forgotten how bleak winter could be on those open plains. When I tried to get out of the car the wind blew the door shut, and I needed to lean my shoulder into the blast to reopen it. Then door was then blown out of my hands, stressing the hinges. I had bought a bunch of flowers, and gathered them in my coat as I made my way inside.
Helen’s room would be bright and sunlit on a clear day. Along the riverbank willow trees wept into the water. Clouds scudded along in the wind, threatening to rain but not quite pregnant enough to do it. Helen was asleep. Her skin was almost translucent across her cheekbones, the deep creases life had marked upon her softened by time. There were photos in frames. One was of Heather; her final school photograph. I had been in the room when the image was taken. We were the class of 1989.
I picked up the frame. It utterly displacing, as I was two people at once, looking through time via my past and present self. I half expected to hear the opening notes of ‘Disintegration’.
I looked over. Helen was awake. She eyes looked tired.
I always wondered if I would see you again. You look like I expected you to.
There was a pause. Clumsily I handed her the flowers. She smiled, but I couldn’t detect any warmth.
Helen. I was wondering if…
You were wondering whether you could find out about Heather.
Yes, I guess. How things turned out the way they did.
It’s long story. Some days I am just so exhausted. But you drove all this way.
She turned her face to the window. There was a break in the clouds and the winter sun shone through the glass.
Heather became pregnant just after she finished Year 12. She never told me who the father was, but you know, I’ve had my suspicions. She did away with it, but then became pregnant again about a year or so later. This time I knew who the father was. He left before the child was born, but it didn’t matter. The baby was stillborn.
Helen stopped for a moment, took a drink through a straw from a glass on her bedside table. There was a daily pill organiser on the side table, a few coloured capsules still left for the day. When she put her glass down she grimaced.
It was more or less downhill from there. She left the farm, left us. Disappeared for a while, and then came back. She was addicted to heroin by then, so didn’t stay long. I never saw her for more than three weeks in a row after that. She’d call and ask for money, disappear, show up again. If her end wasn’t so nasty it would have been a blessing. I know that’s a terrible thing for a mother to say, but I didn’t know her by the end. Her life was cruel. It’s hard to see your child become someone else.
When she finished Helen looked at me. I don’t know what expression my face was wearing.
I often wondered what became of you Tom, and I wonder what life would have been like for Heather if you’d stayed. If your future wasn’t so fixed.
I couldn’t speak. Heather’s life had been a long slow disintegration. I closed my eyes and tried to find the moment of silence between where a breath starts and stops. In that room at that time it was hard to find. Eventually I begged off, thanked Helen for her time and information and left. The flowers were left on her bedside table, still wrapped in paper.
My mother always taught me to tell the truth and shame the devil. Now I don’t believe in much that I can’t see, but I do believe in being honest, at least to myself. The night before I left my home town I rode my bike to Heather’s house. We lay on her bed and she put ‘Disintegration’ on the turntable. It was late summer and the heat of the day clung to the corners of the room. The fan revolved lazily above, matching the spinning record. I can’t remember any of the songs after ‘Pictures of You’ as I fell asleep. The stultified air, the music, the season, and the heat of her body were a lullaby. But I do remember what happened next. Heather’s lips on mine. Her kissing my face and moving down my neck, across my body, our clothes being pushed away. The record coming to its end. The silence that followed. The last heat of summer. The ride home in the dark.
If I could have seen into the future I think I would have acted differently. That’s easy to say from the comfort of my current situation. Hypothetical choices have no consequences so they are always simple. But who can say which way things will go? The needle runs along the groove of the record, the speaker amplifies the sound, the songs play. All the way to the end.
Martin Toman is a writer of contemporary fiction who lives in Melbourne, Australia. He studied at Australian Nation University and the University of Canberra before becoming a teacher of English Literature. Martin has been published online and in print, and recently in publications such as Across the Margin, Anti-Heroin Chic, Fresh Ink, The Raven Review, Haunted Waters and Literally Stories.
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