Bill Nagelkerke is part of WORD Christchurch 2020 Spring Festival
When Mo was born her mother fractured into tiny pieces, her father disintegrated and her family broke up completely. Mo was left in the care of a variety of foster homes, some good, some not so good, the last being the most stable, secure and long lasting. The last home also had a library. But by then it was already too late. One inconspicuous day, Mo pushed her few belongings into an old duffel bag and left to begin life on the streets.
‘But it’d been decided well before I was born,’ Mo told her best friend, Park.
‘Explain,’ Park demanded.
‘Mum had already chosen my name, nine months before the big day.’
‘Huh?’ said Park. ‘I don’t get it.’
‘I didn’t either,’ Mo said. ‘It wasn’t until I was living in my penultimate home that I understood at last.’
‘Penultimate. It means second to last,’ Mo explained.
‘What’s with the words?’ asked Park. It was a question he asked repeatedly. The conversation that followed never altered much. Park liked that.
‘I love words. I eat them for breakfast,’ said Mo.
‘They can’t keep you warm,’ said Park.
‘They can, in a sort of funny way,’ said Mo.
‘Or fill your belly,’ said Park. ‘Even if they are your breakfast.’
‘Breakfast, lunch and tea,’ said Mo. ‘But no,’ she agreed. ‘They just fill your mind.’
‘In a funny sort of way?’ Park suggested.
‘You were saying what you understood,’ said Park.
‘I was,’ said Mo. ‘I did. I discovered that my mum had schizophrenia and depression.
She was broken and that’s why she called me what she did.’
‘Maybe I’m broken, too,’ said Park. ‘But you know I’d never throw you out.’
Mo laughed. ‘It’s a public park. You couldn’t if you tried. I wouldn’t let you.’
‘Bet I could,’ said Park. ‘If I tried.’
‘I’ve learnt some kung fu along the way,’ said Mo. ‘So don’t try.’
‘Nuh,’ agreed Park. ‘Wouldn’t want to.’
‘We’re mates,’ said Mo.
‘Mates don’t turn on each other,’ Park agreed.
‘Anyway, she must’ve been bad – sick bad, I mean, not bad bad – not only to have fostered me out but to have given me the name she did.’
‘Mo?’ said Park. He shrugged. ‘Nothing the matter with Mo as far as I can see. No better or worse than Park.’
‘But you chose your name,’ said Mo.
Mo looked up at the trees, how they sheltered the sky. And at the park railings, where hedging was pushing its way between the bars like wire mesh poking through a mattress. At the small swathe of grass encircling them, their nighttime shelter. At the sadly broken seat with its sadly faded plaque remembering Molly and Joe Walker, Walkers in the Park, which offered them a place to lie when the grass was damp with summer rain.
‘No,’ Mo added. ‘We can’t see very far, can we? None of us can. Except . . .’
‘Except what?’ asked Park.
‘Except sometimes,’ said Mo, on the point of revealing her last night’s vision.
Park could tell there was something she wanted to say to him but was hesitant to reveal. He waited a while, but Mo stayed silent. Luckily, Park was neither pushy nor impatient.
‘We’d better get going,’ he said at last.
They stood up. Soon the gardeners would begin their rounds, which seemed to include picking up strays like litter at the sharp end of a stick, and throwing them out. Mo had never attempted her kung fu on any of them.
‘It’s going to rain again soon,’ Park announced, glancing at the ink clouds massing in the southwest. ‘The bus lounge?’
‘I guess,’ said Mo. ‘Pages will likely be there, though.’
‘What did you call it?’ Park asked. ‘Iconic?’
‘Ironic,’ Mo corrected.
‘Ironic,’ Park affirmed. ‘You like words. He likes books. Pity he’s psycho.’
‘I guess he has his problems, like the rest of us,’ said Mo. ‘But you’re right. People who read should be able to see the world as bigger than it is. But who really knows, maybe he does.’
Pages always had a book in hand. Books seemed to calm him down but sometimes they inflamed him, causing him to rant against the world and anyone who happened to be standing near him at the time. The police came regularly to check up on him but Pages usually managed to slip away before they arrived. The bus lounge was a place filled with tension as well as imagination.
The first wet drops pattered from the trees.
‘Better get going,’ Park repeated. ‘I don’t like having to run. Draws the eyes on you.’
They sidled from their hidey-hole, took the paths leading down from the park to the ring road, crossed over at the pedestrian crossing, skittered past the strip-mall to the buzzing bus lounge, reaching it just as the skies opened and the rain sheeted. Once there, they couldn’t really be stationary for long, otherwise they got looks and speculations. Mo had found that the best spot to be was a partially screened off corner of the lounge. Here, the city library had installed a few shelving units stocked with library cast-offs, suitable for people to read and take and swap as they pleased. It was the best place and the worst. Pages tended to hang around there, too.
‘He’s there now,’ said Park.
‘Let’s walk a bit then,’ said Mo. ‘I’ll tell you about . . . about the vision I had last night.’
‘Vision?’ said Park. ‘What’s that when it’s at home?’
His favourite line, because ‘at home’ was nowhere and everywhere. It was a distant dream, a longing, something half remembered and never completely forgotten.
Mo paused for a moment in their meandering.
‘I knew there was something on your mind,’ Park slipped into the pause.
Mo smiled. ‘In my mind,’ she corrected him. I was going to wait for the right moment to tell you, but when is it ever right? I don’t know. A vision, well, it’s something out of the ordinary. Something that doesn’t happen every day. I woke up when it was still dark. The stars were brilliant. The moon was a banana, high up. I felt hungry.’
‘Nothing out of the ordinary about that,’ said Park.
‘I saw a staircase leading up to the moon,’ said Mo.
‘Right,’ said Park. ‘That’s, like, just a little bit strange.’
‘Each step was lit up by a star,’ Mo continued. ‘Like those lights you get in a movie theatre, showing you the way.’
‘We haven’t been to a movie for ages now,’ said Park, sadly. ‘Not since they did something to those emergency exit doors.’
‘They fixed them, that was all,’ Mo reminded him.
‘Why would you want to climb to the moon?’ asked Park.
‘Why not?’ said Mo. ‘Going up in the world. Heading for the light.’
‘Nice dream,’ said Park.
‘Except it wasn’t,’ Mo reiterated. ‘It was a like a dream but I was awake and I saw the steps, if that’s what they were, going all the way up, ladder-like.’
‘Come on,’ said Park. ‘We’re getting some looks.’
They continued to circle the bus lounge until they ended up back at the library shelves.
‘He’s moved on,’ said Park. ‘For now.’
‘Good,’ said Mo.
They went to the shelves and began to browse.
The rain continued. It slashed the windows. It pelted the pavers.
Mo didn’t know if Park could read or not. She’d never asked. But whenever they stood there at the shelves he invariably chose, assuming there was one, a graphic novel, tracing the pictures with his finger, his mouth moving in time to a story that was not the story told by the bubble words. Mo could lip-read well enough to know they weren’t the words, but ones invented by Park himself.
‘Coffin Girl’s come inside now,’ said Park, interrupted in his silent story making by a glance through the window.
They had both seen Coffin Girl when they’d reached the bus lounge. She was nearly always outside, her distinctive coffin shaped backpack at her feet, her violin (which lived in the coffin) at her chin, her arm conducting the bow and making music for the passers-by. Some dropped coins into her pack, others low value notes, others did nothing but listen for free before moving on to catch their bus or hurry to wherever they were hurrying to.
If Pages was ‘and the Beast’, then Coffin Girl was ‘Beauty’.
Park loved her and Mo admired her. The bus lounge was the only place they saw her. She talked to no one except Pages when he was loitering there and even then you could hardly call it talk, they just walked round together, Beauty and the Beast side by side, barely touching but somehow in step with each other and the world, the whole time.
‘Wonder what she sees in him,’ Park had commented more than once.
What does he see in her? wondered Mo. Was their relationship similar to the one between her and Park, sailors adrift on an urban ocean, no one else to look out for them except for them, watching each other’s backs, sharing the same small spaces and stopping-over places?
‘Music has charms to sooth a savage beast,’ said Mo, out loud, just as Coffin Girl came into view inside the bus lounge and a voice suddenly spoke behind them: ‘Well, if it isn’t the wordsmith and her bookmark! That should be ‘breast’ not ‘beast’, by the way. Written by William Congreve and more often than not misquoted from his play The Mourning Bride.’
Pages had sneaked up on them. For someone psychopathic, he could also be extremely erudite and accurate with it.
‘I knew that,’ said Mo.
‘Where did you read it?’ Pages asked. Already his eyes were staring in a fixed sort of way, a way that Mo and Park recognized, as did Coffin Girl for, having joined the group, she tugged lightly at Pages’ sleeve, urging him away.
But Pages remained unmoved.
‘Dunno,’ said Mo. ‘Somewhere.’
She remembered the library in her ultimate foster home. She thought about her vision, how it was haunting her in the daytime now as much as in the night, how she had wanted to tell not only Park about it but the whole world, too.
How necessary it was to share visions.
‘Somewhere,’ mimicked Pages.
‘I had a vision,’ said Mo, jumping into the deep end.
Coffin Girl registered her interest. Pages continued to stare at everything, at nothing.
‘Don’t tell them that,’ said Park, and suddenly Pages’ attention was grasped and his fixed stare became fixed solely on Mo.
‘Tell.’ He waited.
Park nearly stopped breathing.
Coffin Girl slipped her coffin off her thin shoulders and laid it at her feet. Park shivered at the sight. She unzipped it, exhuming the violin.
People came and went past the shelves, just flickering shadows at the periphery of vision. Time slowed down and stopped.
‘I stepped up a staircase of stars as far as the crescent moon,’ said Mo. ‘And it was like a hammock to sit on and to swing from. The earth was far below, swirls and patterns of blue and white. It was beautiful and frightening at the same time. I felt vertigo and lightness. I saw it whole, the earth, whole and complete.’
‘Wow,’ said Coffin Girl, plucking at a string.
‘The moon,’ said Pages, slowly and deliberately, ‘is mine. And that vision of yours wasn’t a vision, it comes from Philip Pullman’s The golden compass when Lyra begins to climb up into the sky.’
‘Maybe,’ said Mo, who had read that story too. Maybe Pages was right and her vision was nothing more than plagiarism, because she had been longing for a ladder to wholeness, yet she didn’t really believe visions were as uncomplicated as that. ‘If you like,’ she offered.
‘That’s what it was, for sure,’ said Pages. ‘Right?’
‘Right,’ said Mo.
‘And the moon belongs to me,’ said Pages. ‘Right?’
Here Mo hesitated.
Pages stepped up to her as close as he could get.
‘Mo!’ said Park. ‘Say yes.’
But Mo said: ‘The moon belongs to no one and to everyone. We’re all allowed a share in the view from it.’
‘Shit,’ breathed Park. ‘Shit, shit, shit.’
Pages was tensing up like a bowstring, his neck muscles straining, an artery eerily pulsing.
Coffin Girl rasped her bow over the violin’s strings. Its sweet music not only stopped people in their tracks but, sooner than it seemed possible, it also freed Pages from the fist that gripped him tight. But for how long?
‘Go now,’ said Coffin Girl to Mo and Park, the first time she had spoken directly to them, and they to her. ‘I’ll make a tune about the moon and the stars. We’ll all share the vision then, just by listening.’
‘Thanks,’ said Park.
‘Yes,’ said Mo.
Mo and Park, released, vanished into the slipstream of bus commuters who, back on the move, seemed more light-footed now, less harried. Coffin Girl continued to play, soothing the Beast that dwelt within Pages. Her tune was one that somehow conjured up the moon and stars, restoring wholeness not only to Pages but to the universe as well.
And, if that were not enough, for a few brief moments, or maybe for a lifetime to come, it made Mo whole again too, as she should have been from the beginning. It gave her back the name she was born with: intact, sharp and bright with colour, each piece of her fractured story seen for what it really was, precisely shaped and aligned, just so. Made of many single parts but a unified picture nonetheless, a polished, multi-faceted, multi-coloured, shining Mosaic.
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