Newcastle Herald short story competition finalist 2018: A Guilty Moment

WORTH 1000 WORDS: Each day we will publish a finalist in the Herald short story
competition. The winner will be announced on January 27. Picture: Simone De Peak
WORTH 1000 WORDS: Each day we will publish a finalist in the Herald short story competition. The winner will be announced on January 27. Picture: Simone De Peak

THE white scruffy dog ambled down the street with no apparent intent other than to mark the occasional tyre or signpost and fill the day as only dogs can. There was nobody on the street except for Tom and the dog. They could have been the last two living creatures on Earth.

Saturday, November 23, 1963; Tom often remembered that day, that passing moment shared by just him and the dog. It seemed to young Tom that everyone else was in a trance. A hazy daydream. They may not have existed.

It was a group shock phenomenon. Tom recognised that now. News of the assassination of the American President the day before slowly filtered its way into the populous by way of the morning newspapers, wireless and television (for those fortunate enough to have a neighbour in the street with one). He now had vague memories of fuzzy black and white images of a distressed woman being protected by a suited man on the rear of a moving vehicle.

None of the grown-ups appeared interested in their usual daily routines. It seemed to Tom at the time that all the mums in the street were clumped together on the front steps or in backyards leaning over dilapidated paling fences, cane washing baskets by their sides, talking in hushed tones, not wanting to scare the children. “Poor woman, how terrible and what about the kids? … Lovely hat.”

None of the grown-ups appeared interested in their usual routines.

Tom didn’t know why his thoughts often bought him back to that time when he and the dog were the last two beings on Earth, but they did. From an early age, Tom was being told that he was a wool gatherer. He was so excited when his primary school teacher told him that he was a first-class wool gatherer that he ran home to tell his mum and dad that his teacher had chosen a career for him. “I’m going to be a first-class wool gatherer one day”, he proudly boasted to his parents. It was a bit of a letdown when his dad just shook his head slowly, smiled and returned his attention to his newspaper. His mum had to explain that the teacher meant that Tom was a daydreamer and that he needed to pay more attention in class. Tom never did get the hang of that.

If truth be known, many of grown-up Tom’s happiest moments had been spent in a state of reverie. “Who needs drugs when you have me” he sometimes said to himself when the clock appeared to have leapt forward to some distressingly late hour when a term assignment was due in.  

Those around Tom were used to his day dreaming at inappropriate times. Julie his wife accepted that the patterns in the lawn that Tom had just mown were often more curves than the straight lines of the neighbours’ yards. Work colleagues were less forgiving, but accepted that part of Tom’s genius was his partial absence from reality at times.

Tom referred to his day dreaming as “what if” moments. He would just start thinking along some irrelevant line, usually something random that his subconscious pitched up at him, rather than from reality.  

“What if that had happened instead of this?”, or “What if this had not happened?” These questions were Tom’s best friends and also his bread and butter. Risk assessment was big business these days. Who would have thought that the boy who was going to be a wool gatherer when he grow up would find success in other fields?

And again he drifted back to that day and time where he and the dog were the last living souls on earth. What if John F. Kennedy was not assassinated on that day? What if the neighbourhood mums weren’t pre-occupied with the event in their tight discussion groups. What if the dog hadn’t wondered off from the little boy … What little boy? Tom was suddenly looking at his favourite scene from an entirely new perspective, not through his own eyes as a small boy in his striped pyjamas sitting on the front step, but peering through the venetian blind as a third person in the front room of his parent’s house. A little Tom, hoping his mum doesn’t notice the chocolate biscuit tin is now empty, is sitting out the front. There is the dog making his way slowly down the street lined with parked cars. There is the little boy dressed in striped pyjamas like a smaller version of Tom, dragging his bunny blanket behind him, pink thumb in his mouth, toddling along as he follows the dog down the street.

This realisation that Tom and the dog were not alone struck him like a sharp slap in the face that dragged him violently out of his reverie.

Tom slowly realised what had happened, what had driven him back time and time again to that day so many years before. He had been hiding something from himself and had kept returning to that time and place to discover what was hidden, like a dog returning to where his favourite bone was buried.

Tom had blanked out the small boy from the scene in his memory. The boy who became the focus of so much attention in the days following his abduction. Tom didn’t tell his mum and dad that he had seen the small boy on that morning. Tom didn’t tell the policeman that he was probably the last person to see the boy in the street. Tom didn’t tell anyone about the last three chocolate biscuits. Tom kept it to himself. Tom kept it from himself through a sense of guilt.

The little boy was gone, just like JFK was gone.