Like a little colobus monkey, seven year-old Martha clambered up the paling fence in the back yard and peered into the neighbours’ property. In a repeat performance of countless other times, Martha’s skinny knees scraped against the rough wood of the old fence as her little ears strained and her dark brown eyes almost bore a hole in the neighbours’ back door. She waited silently, hoping to catch a glimpse of the invalid child. The sudden creaking of a door made Martha’s heart race and her thin frame quiver with anticipation. There was a pounding in her head as a rattling noise heralded the arrival outside of the bed-on-wheels. There, in the sunshine, on the bed’s stark white sheets lay a forlorn little polio-ed figure. Motionless and pale with a pair of piercing blue eyes emphasised by a halo of very fine fair hair, the total stillness of the child’s body transfixed Martha. Hardly breathing, hidden by the branches of a straggly cypress tree, Martha stared hard into the face of the invalid child and then, scrunching her eyes up tightly, Martha willed the rainbow colours into her head. As the colours came, Martha’s mind buzzed as a trance-like state took over and a feeling of lightness lifted her up high into space. Reaching down, in her meditative state, Martha took the hand of the invalid child and together the two small girls spun in a misty, whirling dance; crippled limbs and cares dispersed to far off spheres. Slowly the rainbow colours faded, the whirling dance ended and normalcy returned, Martha, on her perch, opened her eyes and again focussed on the bed-on-wheels. She bade a silent farewell to the child and scrambled down her side of the fence. The next day Martha was there again. Once more, in the rainbow trance, she took the hands of the invalid child and together they danced in a sensation of unbridled joy. Such rhapsody of colour, light and dance was as much Martha’s need as Martha’s gift to the invalid child. No words were ever spoken. There was no-one else involved in the fastening of this invisible bond between Martha and the invalid child. One lovely summery day, the parents of the invalid child had bravely wheeled the bed-on-wheels up and down the street. People came silently out of their homes to look. But look is all they did. And surreptitiously - from beneath bowed heads - as they swept paths and tended gardens. Two or three children blatantly stared, but no-one spoke to the family who courageously pushed along the small iron bed which held the little scrap of what used to be their lively child. Much to Martha’s disappointment, the parents apparently used up all their courage in that one excursion, for it was never repeated. “Poor little soul!” was all that the neighbours said. Martha’s over-the-fence surveillance continued. Every day, if she could manage it. It became her obsession. Martha’s mother, in that worn-out tired voice which Martha was getting used to ignoring, would tell her to stop looking into what wasn’t her business. But Martha found a part of the fence, out of her mother’s line of vision and, hidden by the faithful branches of the old cypress tree, kept up her vigil. Becoming quicker all the time at being able to summon up the whirling rainbow colours, Martha was able to increase the luminescence and make the dream-like state more real each time, as she and the invalid child joyously floated together in their airborne pas de deux. Sometimes, when Martha was sure there was no danger of adults appearing, she would reveal more of herself to the invalid child by climbing higher up on the fence. She knew that the invalid child could see her well and, after smiling a quick and knowing greeting, Martha would first stare hard into the deep blue eyes of the invalid child before leading her into the rainbow whorl. Several times, Martha intensified the state of delirium to enable her to take the invalid child off into the misty greenness of distant paradises. There they would run unimpeded over mossy ground into dark green depths of beautiful forests with clear, sweet-smelling air. It was always a disappointment when the mystical colours and sensation began to fade and reality returned. But Martha would look keenly at the invalid child and feel an acknowledgement of shared secrets before making the silent farewell. The return of reality was a double blow for Martha, for she had troubles of her own.
* * * * *
Martha had tried the rainbow effect with Edgar without success. No matter how hard she concentrated, or how tightly she scrunched up her eyes, instead of rainbow colours, only a terrible blackness enveloped her. On reopening her eyes, exhausted and defeated, Martha would once more face the wretchedness of her brother’s existence. Try as she might, she was unable to block out the noise, the flailing limbs and the drool. These things remained, mocking all attempts at escape. It took Martha by surprise one day, as she tried again to find her internal rainbow to share with Edgar, to find in the black shadowy depths, a tiny pin-point of incandescence. She fought with all her might to focus until she managed to enlarge the speck of light. Using all the mental strength she could muster, Martha willed herself into the white light and, with a faint “whoosh”, left all darkness behind. This was not the light of her invalid child’s rainbow. There was no whirling dance. It was a light for Martha alone. There was no Edgar, and within the light, Martha was free to feel whatever she wanted. The encumbrance of Edgar simply no longer existed. All blackness erased and Edgar with it. It was with reluctance that Martha returned to reality but she held on firmly to the sensation of peace that it gave her. So, now, at last, she was able to create a world where she could be just herself. A world of peace and comfort where she was Martha in her own right. Just Martha. Not Martha, the Mad Boy’s sister. It wasn’t that she didn’t love Edgar. It was, in fact, her deep love for him that made it all so unbearable. Martha shuddered as she recalled the day some neighbourhood children gathered at her font gate. Racing down the driveway, hoping to greet playmates, she found that there were others with them. Children she did not know. Amongst the strangers was a fat boy leaning on a bike. She remembered his ugly grin. When Martha reached the gateway, he had called out something, urging his companions to leave the scene as fast as they could. And the whole group of children ran off screaming. Just another taste of life’s inequities for Martha, as the children ran to escape the imagined danger of catching whatever scourge it was that plagued Martha’s house, causing Edgar’s condition. According to the fat boy with the bike. Wasn’t it bad enough that no-one came to play? No-one invited them to visit and no-one felt inclined to visit them. Wasn’t it bad enough that the father couldn’t stomach it and had gone away? And, then, one day the invalid child was gone too. Gone! No explanation. Nothing. Martha hid among the branches of the cypress tree for hours on end; days on end, waiting and watching. The house looked different somehow. Somehow deserted. The bed-on-wheels parked, empty, on the back veranda. Being without her invalid child and their rainbow dance of escape made life even more desolate for Martha. She now had to work harder on the oneness of her “Martha light” to escape the burden of Edgar. When the noise and the mess became too much, she fought through the blackness and emerged on the other side to find her own special light and solitude. When Edgar wrecked her room and her possessions, she found refuge beyond the shadowy depths and bathed in her light’s peaceful splendour. There were times when she tried to avoid the inevitable return to reality and she learned to stay for longer and longer spaces of time. But nothing could replace her back fence fantasy. She yearned for the invalid child and the joyous rainbow light. She hid in the comforting branches of the old cypress and tried to conjure up the familiar vision. Once or twice she thought she saw the invalid child but the mirage disappeared as quickly as it came. And Martha’s life progressed without the invalid child - and with Edgar.
* * * * * Time passed. It was now fifty years since Martha had climbed the back fence to see the invalid child. At 57 years of age, the memory of the rainbow colours, the whirling dances and the invalid child remained vivid in her mind. The years of upheaval had exacted a heavy toll. The mother had died, exhausted some years ago and Martha, herself, was almost a spent force emotionally and physically. Edgar had survived so far almost into old age. His disturbed brain and body had deteriorated even further into a horrible jumble of noisy, messy demands and unpredictable behaviour.
Martha’s car was an old one but it worked well enough for her needs. Once more she drove under the railway viaduct and, through the gloomy night air, looked as closely as she dared at the immense concrete pylon. She estimated the width for the hundredth time and calculated at what point she should make the move. She pondered the wisdom of using the brake pedal and decided against it. It was raining when she returned home, woke Edgar and helped him into the car. As she drove off she reviewed her calculations for the last time. She hoped that the car wouldn’t swing too hard once the passenger side hit the pylon. “Forgive me,” she murmured as the railway bridge appeared in the headlights’ beam. Martha’s foot pressed hard on the accelerator as she turned the car hard left.
* * * * *
Martha struggled through the thick fog in her brain. Voices were coming into her consciousness but the sounds were jumbled and words in sentences were somehow reversed. She wished someone would remove the heavy weights from her legs and chest so that she could get up or, at least, move. She felt herself falling helplessly into a trance-like state. In the terrible darkness that began to envelop her, she suddenly saw a tiny, but bright, pin-point of light. With every last ounce of energy, Martha strove after the tiny far-off glimmer until the flicker became a source of light which grew and grew until its clear and shadowless radiance opened up to reveal a world resplendent in light and colour. In the confused moment before the aurora-like light burst upon her, Martha heard an echo of a voice say, “poor soul” and her mind back-flipped to the “poor little soul” of her childhood and she saw again her beloved invalid child. And then, what joy, when rainbow colours unfolded and she was indeed, once again, holding the hand of the invalid child. And they danced their whirling dance of fifty years ago and Martha was seven years old. As she and her invalid child danced and smiled, Martha thought she heard soft laughter as the invalid child led her by the hand towards a radiance of such beauty that Martha’s joy was almost unbearable. They began to run lightly and Martha had the sensation of another hand holding hers on the other side. She turned to look. The blinding light created a halo around the figure as she fought to see and recognise this other child at her side. And then came the realisation that it was Edgar. A beautiful young Edgar. His limbs were straight and strong, his movements graceful and serene and his smile was the smile of one who knows paradise. With shining eyes Edgar joined his free hand with that of the invalid child and, making a circle of three, the two children in charge guided Martha, the third child, into the warm and beautiful light.