There’s something to be said of the fact that I’d decided to return to a specific place, to the creek in Prospect, to remember Kirby. Walking down the gentle slope of my old street I thought that, even though I had no desire to ever go back to the “Westie” suburb of my childhood, as I tried to write about Kirby on the narrow front balcony of my rented terrace in Surry Hills the words on the page sounded forced, fictive, like I was being dishonest.
“Come on, Kirby!” my brother and his mates used to say.
They’d always chide each other with this phrase while playing cricket or footy in the park behind our childhood home, the park in Prospect I was on my way to now. I never knew back then where the phrase derived from, but if one of the guys was run out or dropped a ball, if one of them wasn’t fast enough to avoid a tackle, or if he showed any sign of weakness, emotional or physical, the others would say, “Come on, Kirby—get up, ya wuss!”
A life cut so short is a pain felt forever.
I’m returning to Prospect after twenty years, to the creek that is no longer a creek, as I recall, but a flat open space where a generation of memories had been gouged out by the metal claw of a backhoe; the creek, which is not a creek, at the far end of the park that my childhood home backed onto. It’s twenty-five years, almost to the day, since Kirby died. Leukemia. At just thirteen. And the creek is, or was, I suppose, the only place I have to re-connect.
A life cut so short is a pain felt forever.
Funny, it’s his hair I remember the most because I remember him saying that it “doesn’t always fall out,” that day we walked across the park to the creek. I remember that mass of loose curls because of the contrast they produced against the pale thinness of his face, his large dark eyes, and his limbs that made his shorts and t-shirt seem huge. I took Kirby to the creek to catch tadpoles. We sat under the small footbridge and it was the first time I’d heard another boy my age talk about dying. He had his arm around me, fascinated by the tadpoles in the glass jar, eager to know how long until they would change to frogs.
“Come on, Kirby,” I said when Kirby’s strength gave out as we were climbing back up the creek bank. I was instantly flushed with guilt, although there was no way, surely, he could have known why. I held out my hand. “It’s O.K., Kirby. I’ve got you.”
We were both relying on the other’s strength. I should’ve known better.
After that, we could only ever play in the house, in his room, and even that was rare. And soon, I stopped going around. Kirby faded away, first in mind (mine) and then in body (his), but the haunting guilt that I’d left him just as lonely as he had been before I’d made contact always remained. I’m sure I know that I wasn’t to blame. That I am or was ever held, in any way responsible. But it’s something that’s haunted me over the years, something that presses at me, which I’ve been unable to shake and, until now, to even write about.
It’s been so long since I’ve been to Prospect I’d almost missed the exit off the M-4. The familiar church, St. Bartholemew’s, was my landmark that, also, was fairly much all but forgotten until I saw it there up on Prospect Hill. The church had been closed to the public for as long as I can remember. I still recall when the cast iron covers were first bolted over the windows to prevent break-ins and petty vandals from rocking the stained glass. And because of this, because of those extremely heavy lids, St. Bartholemew’s always looked as though it had been put to sleep. An effect of the childhood fairytale imagination: something sublime with all its beauty and terror rendered frightfully mysterious, if not harmless. But the iron covers, I’d noticed, had since been removed. It had been awakened.
It really wasn’t surprising to me, walking past the familiar houses, that the place hadn’t changed much. I was sure, driving from Surry Hills, that it would look the same, if not worse with age. And for the most part I was right. Except that two or three of the original houses had been demolished and replaced with something new that almost took up the entire lot. Next to no front yard. Before my family left, second and third wave residents were moving in and already it was changing. The meticulous pride Gina and John next door took in their front yard had gradually become lost beneath dying bushes and foot high grass. Still the same, I noticed as I passed. And over the last few years of our time on this street, the back fence that opened on to the sports park was being covered in graffiti tags. One by one, the original homeowners on our street were selling and moving on, and, one would think, up.
Stopping on the driveway of my old house felt, suddenly, as though there was an extremely thin string between the house and myself, a thread of a spider’s web, fastened to my wrist and pulled taut. But I pulled back at the sight of the place. The thread snapped. What kinds of people were living in my childhood home, I wondered as I stood on that driveway, to allow it to go to hell the way it had? The houses probably looked better than this. A school friend who lived in the housing commission used to say we lived like kings on this side of the park. If she could see it now. Mum’s immaculate garden was overgrown in some places, half-dead in others, the lawn was bald where cars had been parked, and the vertical blinds—the same ones we had left behind twenty years ago—were missing sections, the house mocking me like some old, pitiful, toothless creature.
My sister still refers to it nostalgically as her house. I don’t and haven’t. But standing before it was the first time I realized that it wasn’t mine anymore. And I had nowhere to go but away, standing there staring off with a house I used to live in.
But I’d come back to Prospect, as I said, to remember Kirby.
The only thought I had of Kirby as I walked back up the street away from my childhood home, trying to impress him onto the surface of this streetscape, was that he’d never seen it, had probably never even been on this street. He’d never been in my room. The first time I saw Kirby’s house or, rather, the first time I knew it as his house, was before I even knew Kirby. But it was the day I learned the significance of that name on my brother’s lips and the impact it would have on me to this day.
Kirby’s house was on Lancelot Street, the main artery that ran through the centre of Prospect. It was the house next door to where my brother’s friend lived across the park. “Can Kirby come out and play?” My brother and his mates called tauntingly from the footpath this question that had an eerie quality to it, like they were summoning something. At that stage, to my inchoate mind, Kirby was little more than a presence. I didn’t know if Kirby even existed or if he was just part of a story they’d made up—the boy with a disease—but I kept silent as I looked up at that dark second-storey window. I don’t recall exactly what I was feeling at that time. I do remember, however, walking up my old street, wondering if the boy inside was looking back at me while my brother and his mates called out, “Can Kirby come out and play?”
Two doors up on the other side of the street a neighbour dressed in tracksuit pants and slippers stared me up and down as I headed towards the laneway that connected to the park behind my old house. Was it me, or this place, that had become strange? In any case, I had the sudden feeling, as I entered the laneway, of just how powerful a hold memory has over us, to deceive us into a sense of dominion, of territoriality, despite distance or time. But, like old friends, we’d grown apart.
Would it be trite to say that memory is like a fog, something suspended, disembodied — that fog, like memory, appears full and solid in the distance, sometimes in the very near distance, almost close enough, but always just out of reach? That the closer you get to it, no matter how far you wander into it, you’re always left standing within a circle of nothingness, the fog still unable to be grasped, just ahead. Is this what memory is, I pondered, something we walk through, like a laneway, a negative space between street and park, only to come out at the other end without having touched it, or without having been touched by it? Maybe that’s why some of us are compelled to return to a given place, I thought, stepping through the laneway that now looked like a slum, the path broken up and pulled out, the fence palings on each side dilapidated, barely holding up. Places carry so much of our past. My brother and I marked this laneway with our initials at the park end when the cement was first poured, still moist enough for us to score the surface with a stick, to press my thumbprint into the site, as something inerasable and indelible, as I must have then thought, naively so.
But it had all been left to decay into rubble.
From the end of the ruins of the laneway, I could see clear across the park—an athletics track, two soccer fields, and a netball court—to the line of trees where the creek used to be. Like Kirby, I fell into the creek once. Trying to copy my older brother jumping from one side to the other. He laughed when I didn’t make it. Come on, Kirby. Embarrassed, I climbed out, otherwise unharmed except for the large green leech that had attached itself to my thigh. One flick and it was gone. A water-diluted blot of blood remained on my leg where the leech had taken hold. But that’s it. I didn’t get sick. My immune system hadn’t been rendered so weak, so fragile, that the creek water almost killed me.
Would it be trite to say that memory is like a fog, something suspended, disembodied
I could’ve taken a beeline walk straight across to the creek, get it over with, but I didn’t want to force it. I wanted to stroll. I had an excuse at any rate. Saturday sports were taking place. It was soccer season and every field was being used. I was glad to see kids still played soccer in the park—didn’t just stay inside, like so many of today’s kids, connecting to the world through social media and taking for granted what’s right outside. Recently, I asked my niece what she and her friends get up to on the weekends. “Nothing,” she said, her eyes releasing themselves like Velcro from her iPhone, but just briefly enough to say, “Nothing much.” I decided to turn left at the end of the laneway and make my way around the top of the park. I remember Kirby had an Atari hooked up to his own T.V. in his bedroom with about thirty game cartridges and I’d told him he was lucky. My siblings and I had shared, and fought over, our Atari and I envied Kirby’s sole possession. He was an only child. I didn’t understand that neither of these things made him lucky. Walking past the tennis courts, staring again out across the soccer fields dotted with red-and-blue clad boys and girls toward the tree line, I thought about how lonely, thirty years ago, Kirby must have been up in that dark room across the park.
I hadn’t considered then, as I do now, stepping through the long-jump pit, how the simple act, after building up the courage to ride my bike alone to Lancelot Street and knock on the door of that quiet house, of asking if Kirby could come out and play could be met with anything but kindness. Security door still closed, Kirby’s mother’s soft voice told me, through the darkness, simply yet firmly, to “go away.” I think the words “mean” and “brat” had been used but I’m not entirely sure. Maybe I’m projecting onto myself long-held feelings about that taunting sentence that has hounded me all these years. But she came out onto the front porch as I was picking up my bike and asked my name, her voice as tired as her eyes. She looked around, I didn’t know why at the time, across the street, up and down. I told Kirby’s mum that I lived just at the back of the park.
“Maybe come back next week,” she said.
I knew she thought I was one of them, that group of mean brats, of which my brother was a part, but I didn’t have the words then to exonerate myself.
Walking down to the picnic tables and playground behind the canteen I realize that, somehow, Kirby and Prospect have become one within me. My desire to remember Kirby and my memories of this place are like the interlocking fingers of two separate hands. I can’t remember Kirby without thinking about Prospect, without thinking about William Lawson Park and the creek and the dark window that looked over Lancelot Street. These are the only places I ever really knew Kirby, yet somehow I couldn’t reconcile the two. Every other spot along this track I was taking around the park was so full of Kirby precisely because of his absence.
I knew I needed to get to the spot where, for me, my most vivid memory of Kirby still has a hold on me.
The truth is, even though I knew the creek was long gone I was, nonetheless, dreading its erasure. For me, the creek was still, and always has been, there. A veil of gnats flew up around me as my feet kicked through the grass and the soft hum of cicadas lulled me into a kind of waking dream. I could close my eyes and wander for a few metres, overlaying this landscape with another. I stepped freely along the grassy field beside the netball courts hearing murky voices traveling along the ghostly water, the squelch of BMX tyres against the muddy bank, and the smell that was neither fresh nor repugnant. It was the smell that had wrapped itself around Kirby that day, just as it wrapped itself around me now, mixed up with my own murky voice as it asked the question that had for so long exposed Kirby’s vulnerability. His solitude. His loneliness. I opened my eyes as I walked out of the gnat-filled grass and stepped onto the pathway that had been laid where I imagined the top of the creek bank used to be.
The site of the creek-that-was-no-longer was relieved by the subsidence that had taken place over the years, leaving an imprint on the surface of this end of William Lawson Park. Standing there beside the scar of the creek that had formed on the landscape, it was like my imagination was pressing against the surface of time. A new pond was being constructed along the same line of the old creek. I stepped down into the scar where old and new met, thinking, as I did so, about the jar of tadpoles that fell out of Kirby’s hand the day he slipped into the creek. In our urgency to get Kirby home, we’d left the tadpoles behind, locked inside their glass prison, never to become what should have been.
Now, a six-foot chain link fence surrounded the very spot. A backhoe and a bobcat stood protected by the barrier. A sign was attached to each side of the fence. Danger. No Trespassing. Do Not Climb. I was locked out and the land had already started to be clawed away. Again.
Something was changing there. Something was being replaced. The trouble is, I wasn’t quite sure what that something was, but I was certain, as I stepped away from that new pond that while Prospect, as it had been then, was gone, my Prospect, Kirby’s Prospect, was not. The more a place has changed, I noticed, the more tangible the memories that are attached to it, because the imagination has to work harder to reconstruct what used to be. For some people ruins are just ruins, I thought, climbing up the old creek bank and looking from this opposite perspective back across to the laneway and the track I’d just taken around the park. I could see it, suddenly, as though all the negative space had been filled in and turned inside out. The world inverted so the space of memory was discernible from, yet still a part of, the physical landscape. To those who know what they are looking for, there are secrets not just beneath the surface but all around the ruins. Some secrets will never be shared; some haunt us and need, finally, to be released.
Prospect had changed and was changing still, I thought, as I walked to the end of William Lawson Park and made my way over to Lancelot Street. When we left this place twenty years ago I told my sister, and I suppose I told myself, too, that the memories weren’t in the house but in us, solely.
Now . . . I’m not so sure.
I stood on the grass strip along the footpath of Lancelot Street, across the road from, and facing, Kirby’s house. The breath of cars hit me as they sped past and I was curious as to whether, by chance, Kirby’s parents still lived in that house, unable to leave, held there by memory, or if Kirby’s presence was so strong they needed at some stage to free themselves from their grief.
I stepped off the curb to cross the street, all the while staring up at that dark window, and with each step, one question whispering through my mind.