Amanda steps on the clutch and drops her hand to the gear lever, shifting up to fifth as the freeway straightens out. Surrounding her is an ocean of nodding yellow wheat with an asphalt ribbon running through it. Heading towards her on the other side of the road is an older style S class Mercedes. She recognises the shape. As it rolls closer she’s compelled, as always, to look. She studies the driver in quick glances. A hint of familiarity in the curve of his nose and the heavy shoulders quickens her pulse, but the glasses are wrong. Her gaze flicks back to the road ahead. It wasn’t him. It never is.
As she drives, she pictures Frank stepping off the ladder and onto a narrow platform to catch his breath. Two thirds through the long climb to the cabin of the construction crane, he is high above the building site surrounded by a still-sleeping city. The sky is grey but touches of gold kiss the horizon. A stiff breeze ruffles his shirt. What was he doing up there?
The shrill ring of the phone jolted her awake that morning. A hushed, hurried conversation in the hallway was followed by a pensive silence and a moment’s indecision. Then the kettle went on for tea. Shaking hands placed her mug on the counter and distractedly doled out the tea bag, milk, and on that occasion, sugar.
Staring out at the road ahead, she imagines him turning back to that ladder. The white painted rungs are still damp with dew and cold to the touch. It would be a strenuous climb, that last third, with the crane swaying slightly in the breeze. His breathing is ragged when he reaches the top. Is the cabin locked? Does he carry a key? Inside the metal box, high above the world, he pulls the door and latches it behind him, shutting out the white noise of the wind. Silence fills the room. All is still. Was that when he collapsed?
She had hurried through the shower, dressing quickly in practical slacks and a jumper, and all the while her mind had raced to gather details she didn’t have. Scenarios formed like spun sugar in her head, wispy threads of fact and supposition. They had wound and unwound, filling her brain with fog and numbness. She had, at last, phoned her sister.
The road is flat and featureless. She imagines the silent metal box a the top of the long ladder. The two way radio on the floor just beyond his reach, whispering his name over and over.
“Frank, come in.”
“Frank, come in, over. Where are you Frank?”
His pale blue S class Mercedes was in it’s regular spot outside the site office, in the Site Manager’s reserved parking. The office light was on and his radio was missing from it’s dock but Frankie was nowhere to be seen. They searched the construction site, hailing him on and off for forty minutes before someone climbed the ladder to check the crane.
Her sister had picked up on the eleventh ring, groggy with sleep. There had been some misunderstanding before the message got across.
“Missing, not lost. They’d found him, but he’s gone.”
Tears had come then. Her sister hung up, she would be over in ten minutes. Who to call next?
She skirts a pothole. How do you get the body of a six foot man down a hundred meter high ladder? That macabre question haunted her.
It’s ironic that we can go without really noticing a person even though we see them every day. Then one morning a phone call changes everything and suddenly we see them in the crowded supermarket, disappearing around the corner of busy city streets, or driving along lonely stretches of road. It might not be the whole of them. It may just be familiar lines on a hand as the man next to you at the cashier passes coins across the counter. It might be a slight limp or a long stride as a figure hurries across a road and vanished between buildings. It might be a familiar curve in a profile, or a muscular shoulder that gets your attention – a detail that snags a memory and yanks you back only to find that you’ve fixed on a total stranger. Your mind plays tricks, tests your resolve, threatens your equilibrium.
Amanda inhales, counts to five, exhales. Sometimes the memories cut off her air, suffocating her, but not today. The road slowly rises as the landscape changes and Amanda shifts gears. She knows her car’s small engine struggles up these hills. As she reaches the crest, the clouds shift and late afternoon sunlight washes the road in it’s golden glow. The swaying wheat nods lazily as she coasts past, heading home.