Josie wandered into the front room. She was bored. A stack of her mother’s CDs drew her eyes; their bright covers looked nice. They made music. She pulled at one of the plastic casings until the disc fell from the box. Josie picked it up and looked at her reflection in the shiny metal. She pulled open other boxes; the discs would make a nice necklace.
“Josie!” The child jumped.
“Look what you’ve done. These aren’t toys. You’ve scratched them - look! You mustn’t do this. It’s naughty, naughty! Do you understand?”
The little girl nodded, close to tears.
“Why don’t you go in the garden and play on the swing…Mummy’s busy.”
Josie wandered into the back garden. But she wanted someone to play with. She heard the sound of laughter and went around the side of the house into the front garden. There was a group of big children on the green opposite, across the road. There were a few girls there, older than her. She recognised one of them - Zoe - she lived two doors down the street. Sometimes Zoe would be nice and say “hello”, but other times she didn’t take any notice of her.
She crossed the road to the group. Mummy had told her not to go into the street on her own, but Zoe was there. She watched the group from the edge of the green. The big boys were making the girls yell and laugh. But Zoe looked cross. She kept staring at a big boy trying to tickle another girl, who kept screaming and jumping away from him.
“What you looking at?” Zoe shouted. Josie shook her head. What had she done wrong now?
“Go away. Don’t stand there staring at us. What d’ya think we are, animals in the zoo?”
Josie went back to her side of the road. She saw a disc, like one of Mummy’s, next to a van. She picked it up and sat on the edge of the kerb. She would give it to Mummy as a present to say sorry for making her cross. It was dirty, though. But she had her hankie with her and could make it clean. A woman walked past Josie without saying anything; her heels were clicking. They made a nice sound.
Josie twirled the disc on her finger. It reminded her of a song. “The wheels on the bus go round and round, round and round.”
Josie heard a door slam. There was a loud noise; someone shouted; the van blew black smoke into her face.
Tom Hughes looked out of his side window. It was just his luck to live next to the green these days. Things had changed. It was bad enough people letting their dogs shit everywhere without clearing it up. But now the yobs were here again leaving rubbish and making a nuisance with their noise. He had already told them off for chucking cans in his garden. Why can’t they leave people in peace? Politicians talked about “community”, but there was no community anymore, not like there was in the street fifty years ago. Parents then wouldn’t have allowed teenagers to annoy older people the way they do now.
He looked across the road. There was that little girl - the one from number 15 - sitting almost in the road, playing with something. He saw the delivery driver heading fast toward the cab of his van. Tom’s chest tightened; the man hadn’t checked his rear. He needed to reverse to get out of the space. Tom flung open his window. The driver started his engine.
“Look out, stop!”
“Why are you in such a strop today?” Ann-Marie asked Zoe.
Zoe glared at her. “You know why. Don’t pretend you don’t. You know Darren and me have been hanging out together. You’re just been leading him on all day.”
“What you on about? There’s nothing in it. We’re just having a laugh.”
Darren ran up and grabbed Ann-Marie under the arms; she shrieked, looking pointedly at Zoe.
Zoe turned away. She saw the kid from number 15 staring at her from the edge of the green.
“What you looking at? Go away. Don’t stand there staring at us. What d’ya think we are, animals in the zoo?”
The girl flinched and walked away.
Zoe sat down on a bench. Anne-Marie and another girl were playing tag with Darren now. Anne-Marie had grabbed the tail of his tee-shirt and he was pulling her along behind him. She was squealing.
“Look out, stop!”
The urgency in the male voice made Zoe turn toward the sound. She saw Misery Guts hanging out of his window waving his arms. She looked across the road. The van was reversing toward the kid from number 15.
Kate Palmer had walked home instead of catching the bus. She needed to walk off her anger at her office manager.
“Haven’t you finished those invoices yet, Kate?” Queen Bitch had said, in front of the juniors. She heard one of them giggle behind her back.
“We’ve only just had the dockets from dispatch. It’s not that easy…”
But the Bitch had already turned away. “Please have them ready by the end of your shift, Kate.”
Kate had been landed with more work lately and the juniors were next to useless - on some sort of government scheme - and couldn’t care less.
It didn’t help being part-time either. She had to do the work of a full-timer on half a wage these days. But she needed to shake off her anger before she got home, otherwise there’d be another argument. Things were going from bad to worse between her and Roger. He’d never been very communicative, but he had shrunk into himself since being made redundant and hardly spoke to her now.
What’s that child doing sitting in the gutter? It’s that Josie from number 15 playing with something. What’s her mother doing allowing her in the road like that?
She saw the delivery man heading fast toward his van; heard the engine start.
“Look out, stop!” A shout came from across the road.
Kate suddenly realised what was happening. She turned to see the rear of the van rise and fall.
Eileen shoved the washing in the machine. Having the kids at home was doing her head in. Jack was all right, he was old enough to take himself off with his mates. But Josie needed constant attention. She’d become very clingy ever since Dave had left; always asking when he was coming back. And it had been one long, “what shall I do now?” since the start of the school holidays. It was worse when the weather was bad; the days then seemed to drag on forever. It was tempting to just plonk Josie in front of the telly. But at least she could go outside today.
Eileen looked out of the kitchen window. She couldn’t see Josie in the back garden, but she could be at the side just out of view. Eileen felt unsettled. What was it?
It struck her: Josie would normally make some sort of noise, even when on her own.
Eileen went into the back garden. There were no birds singing today. It felt strangely quiet.
“Josie.” There was no answering call.
“Josie, where are you?”
She threw her hands to her face, covered her mouth. Something was wrong.
There was a scream from the front of the house.
The scene in the road kept replaying in Tom’s mind. He could still hear the screams of the woman from down the road, then the demented wails of the mother as she rushed to and fro beside the van.
After the accident, the neighbours had come swarming from their homes; had stood there long after the police had gone. It was if they needed to be together. Tom had given a statement to the police and then had watched the tableaux from his room. There seemed no point him joining the others on the pavement. What could he say?
He was best left to his own thoughts. Tom remembered the death of his wife eighteen months earlier, and struggled to contain the resentment he still felt. Only two of his neighbours had been to express their sympathy at the time; most had just got on with their own lives, oblivious to his grief.
Toward evening the group on the pavement started to fragment, individuals broke away and drifted back to their homes. Then Tom saw someone arriving with a bunch of flowers and left them next to a tree close to the accident spot. Then another bunch arrived.
A child came with a teddy bear, another with a woollen rabbit. Soon there were six bunches of flowers and a collection of soft toys around the tree.
When the mother returned that night from the hospital, neighbours came out of their houses to comfort her. The woman - the one who had also seen the accident - had come running up and draped herself around the mother, weeping loudly.
Tom could hear her wailings from his window: “Oh, I’m so sorry … so sorry. I can’t imagine how you must be feeling. That lovely little girl.”
He turned away. Her grief seemed more for public consumption, than about giving genuine consolation to the mother.
Kate replayed the scene over and over in her head: the girl sitting in the road; the driver hurrying toward his cab; the fear that suddenly struck her when she heard the engine start.
At the time, it was as if she was looking down on herself: a middle-aged woman, hands clawing the air round her face, screaming. Then the mother was there, shrieking back and forth beside the van. Kate became conscious of others rushing forward; heard the driver saying over and over, “I didn’t know she was there. I couldn’t see her in the mirror.” Then there was the police, an ambulance, even a fire engine, with uniformed officers cordoning off the pavement.
Shaking uncontrollably, Kate had returned to her house after the accident. Roger was there, slumped on the sofa, watching football, television blaring out, oblivious to the events outside. She lost it. Yelled, swore, flung stuff at him until he grabbed his coat and stormed out. The girl”s mother, Eileen, had returned later that evening. Kate could not contain herself. She ran down the road and embraced Eileen, who looked at her with dull eyes.
“Oh, I’m so sorry … so sorry. I can’t imagine how you must be feeling. That lovely little girl.” Why didn’t you tell her not to play in the road? Why didn’t I say something?
Eileen had stood there unresponsive. Other women came, put their arms round her and led her into her house. Kate walked back to her home. Roger hadn’t returned yet. She didn’t care.
Zoe stood by the shrine. She placed one of her old dolls alongside others. Someone had put a bunch of pink roses with a card: “You are safe with the angels now. We’ll miss your lovely face.”
Zoe remembered the child’s face when she had shouted at her. She wept.
Anne-Marie put her arms around her. “Don’t cry. We’ll get a collection up for a wreath to put here.”
Zoe fought back her resentment. If it weren’t for you, I wouldn’t have shouted at her.
She blew her nose. “All right.”
Tom hesitated by Eileen’s front door. He knocked. It was opened by the son, Jack.
“Is your mum in?”
“She’s lying down.”
“OK. Look, I live across the road. Just tell your mum I called. I … I’m very sorry about your sister. Tell your mum, I’m happy to do anything to help; maybe cut the grass for her, or whatever.”
The boy looked at him blankly, but nodded.
“Who was that at the door?” his mother asked him later.
“It was the old man opposite. Said about cutting the grass, or summat like that.”
Eileen saw Dave arrive. He had brought a huge “J” shaped wreath of flowers. It dominated the shrine. He had looked toward the house, hesitated, but then got in his car and driven off. They’d had a shouting match on the phone. His initial shock had turned to questioning. “How come she was in the road? A five year old! Where were you?”
She had poured out her anger and hurt on him. “Where were you, you, you! I’ve had to cope with the children by myself … you’re a useless, selfish, shit!” She’d slammed the phone down; the vibrations ran up her arm.
Eileen went to the shrine. Dave had left a card. “To my darling daughter. To beautiful, Josie, cruelly taken from us. I’ll always love you. Forever. Daddy.”
Eileen wanted to rip the card to shreds, stamp the flowers into the gutter.
I’ll always love you. Forever. This “love” hadn’t stopped him clearing off when she and the kids had got on his nerves and he’d found someone else to shack up with.
Kate took her own wreath and laid it with the others. She noticed it was the second biggest there: white roses shaped into a five pointed star, together with a printed card in red letters.
“Another angel is shining down on us. You are always in our hearts. Rest in peace.”
There were now over twenty collections of flowers and an assortment of soft toys; a pink woollen elephant dangled from a branch of the tree. Some bunches, trapped behind transparent wrapping, were beaded in condensation and had wilted in the heat; their scent clung sweetly in the air. The police had told her there would be an inquest, then the funeral. But this could be a week or so away. Kate felt on edge, shaking with restlessness; she needed to do something now. It struck her: she would organise the neighbours for a prayer and hymn meeting at the tree; a weight fell away from her.
Tom had seen neighbours arriving the following days with flowers, laying them down, reading the cards, and talking together in small subdued groups. Josie’s mother had come outside at one point and the other woman in the street moved protectively toward her.
A note had been pushed through his door earlier in the day: “Community prayers, hymns and other songs for the soul of Josie Tanner”. The street gathering was scheduled for the following evening at 6.00pm. “All meet at the flower shrine”. It was signed, “Kate Williams”.
Tom didn’t believe in souls, or prayers. When you’re dead, that’s it. He could understand people wanting to come together in sympathy for a dead person - particularly a young child like Josie - but he could not imagine himself standing there tomorrow among them, mouthing prayers and chanting to a God he didn’t believe in. He had not bought any flowers for the shrine - he hated to see cut flowers wither and die.
Yet he felt he wanted to pay his own tribute, in his own way, to Josie. Tom had no children of his own. He and his wife had tried for one, but it was not to be. Maybe it was for the best anyway; he had never felt completely at ease around kids, although he envied them their spontaneity.
He waited until dark and the street was empty. He cut a dahlia from the bed he tended in his back garden. His wife had always loved and grown these flowers and he had taken over their cultivation when she died. Tom took the bloom to the roadside. He placed it at the edge of the shrine and stood for a moment remembering the child and the life she might have had.
The neighbours came out of their houses and gathered by the shrine. Around thirty people had arrived and Kate had prepared a song and prayer sheet; she bustled round giving them out. Zoe, Anne-Marie, and a few other teenagers, stood on the edge shuffling uncomfortable, drawn to the group, but reluctant to be a complete part of it. Eileen and Jack came out of their house.
Kate waited until the street was quiet.
“We want to express our deepest sympathy to you both, and to all your family.”
There was a buzz of sympathy among the group and they instinctively moved closer to mother and son.
“Josie was a lovely, lovely little girl.” Kate looked about her, warming to the task.
“A terrible, tragedy took her cruelly away from us. But she is safe now in heaven. Let us start our memory of her tonight with the “Lord’s Prayer”…”
Tom looked from his bedroom. The group were now singing “Abide with me”. He could pick out Kate William’s voice soaring above the others. He liked this hymn, despite its religious sentiments; it was one of his wife’s favourites. He spoke the words aloud to the empty room.
“Earth’s joys grow dim; its glories pass away;
Change and decay in all around I see;
O Thou who changest not, abide with me.”
They finished with “You’ll never walk alone.” People stood in silence for a few minutes before slowly returning to their homes.
Eileen and Kate stood together looking at the flowers. Zoe, Anne-Marie and a few other teenagers, including Darren, lingered too.
“There are some lovely bouquets. The street thought the world of your daughter,” said Kate.
“They’re all beautiful.” Eileen felt herself filling up.
“There’s one from us too, see.” Zoe pointed to the wreath from the teenagers. They had all signed a card.
Eileen nodded her thanks at them. “Looks like the whole street has left flowers”, she said.
Eileen and Kate began to read through the cards.
“Mrs Green hasn’t left anything. But she’s not really the full shilling, is she,” Kate said.
Zoe and Anne-Marie joined them. They bent down, inspecting the cards and flowers.
“I can’t see one from Misery Guts across the road,” said Zoe.
“No. And he knocked on our door. Not to say sorry about Josie, mind you, but going on about cutting the grass. It’s none of his business anyway. He weren’t here tonight either. You think he would have been, as he saw it all happen from his window. He must have seen our Josie sitting on the kerb before …” She struggled to contain her emotions. “Why didn’t he go across and tell her it was dangerous sitting there?”
Kate and Zoe nodded their agreement.
They all turned to stare at Tom’s house.
Darren and Zoe stood leaning against Tom’s fence. Darren was kicking it with his heels. The frame rocked with each thud. He slung an empty can backwards over his shoulder; it landed with a clunk on Tom’s pathway. Tom had seen him from his window. He went out.
“Oi! Don’t throw your bloody rubbish in my garden.” He picked it up.
“I didn’t throw it in your garden.”
“I’ve just seen you do it.”
“You calling me a liar, or what?”
“Look, I’ve just seen you do it. And you can stop kicking my fence and bugger off.”
“Or I’ll call the police, that’s what.”
Other teenagers on the green drifted over. “You miserable old bleeder,” said one of them. The others jeered.
Tom struggled to contain his temper. “Is this your idea of having a good time? Why don’t you show some respect for other people?”
Zoe poured out her feelings. “Respect! What about you? You couldn’t even come across the road to pay your respects last night.”
Darren glared at Tom. “You could have saved that kid. You’re always looking out your window, spying on other people, but you couldn’t be bothered to go out and tell her to get off the road, could you?”
Tom felt as if he had been punched. He turned and went back toward his house. Another can flew past his head, spilling its contents on his path.
Tom couldn’t sleep; Darren’s words tormented him. He thought back to the accident. He had reacted when he saw the driver heading for his cab. But shouldn’t he have thought about the consequences of a child sitting in the road?
In the early hours he fell into an uneasy sleep, only to jerk awake. He wondered if he’d heard a noise. He looked outside, but it was still dark and he could see nothing.
In the morning he tried to eat, but had no appetite. He went into the rear garden to sit on the bench. The dahlias were gone; the ground was raw and jagged where the plants had been ripped.
Stunned, he gazed at the empty bed, not believing - not wanting to believe - any of it.
He went to the front of his house. His eyes were drawn to the shrine. The dahlias had been stacked there. Small clods of earth still clung to the roots. He went across the road and stared down at them. They were almost dead.
The shrine had turned grey in the fierce early autumn rains; the ink on the cards had run in blue streams, obliterating the messages. The dahlias had blown away, although one had lodged, black and brittle, in the metal grating of the gutter.
The postman had noticed mail and newspapers piling up inside Tom’s door and alerted the police. The young constables sent to investigate broke in; one came down into the front garden soon after and sat on the step, his face in his hands.
Tom had been dead for nearly a month. His neighbours stood at a distance as the body was removed. A policeman was overheard to say that it was probably an overdose of pain killers.
Kate wondered if she should organise a collection for a community wreath, but decided against it. He was an old man, and not a popular one. It was best for the neighbourhood to just get on with their lives.