Ours is a private neighbourhood. Tidy gardens, no rubbish in the gutter. There’s a polite hello as we pass on the street, but no one stops to talk. Nobody offers to carry groceries up the steep paths to the front doors. Driveways are swept and the recycling bins are hosed down after being brought in. Parents grip onto the soft hands of their children as they walk, in this lockdown life.
I can’t settle at anything today. There’s washing to be folded, an email to be sent. Dinner won’t cook itself. I prowl the perimeter of my garden. I pick the last of the summer flowers – white roses whose heads are woozy on spindly stems, gerberas the colour of a child’s cheek, long sprigs of rosemary and I strip their stiff and pungent leaves from the base of their stalks and let the needles fall onto the lawn. Spicy confetti.
I take this harvest inside and arrange it in a vase. Place it on the sideboard, making room next to the crystal bowl that contains eggshells I’ve found on my walks. Porcelain white, this one creamy and speckled like the throat of a thrush, one that’s navy blue. Each egg is cracked and open, and I wonder if a baby bird fought its way out of each of these shells, or did the egg fall from a tree and break, the unready bird dying inside. I pick up the bowl and blow, dispersing the dust that has settled amongst the eggs. I place the bowl back down next to the vase. Enjoy the angles, the contradiction of what is alive and what is not. These eggs are found treasures, a symbol of life, birth, the future that is suddenly so uncertain.
How long is it since I’ve been for a walk? How long since I have felt the heave of my lungs as this hill that I live on steepens. Tasted the memory of salt from the drift of sea air that snakes up the road. Known the rhythm of my legs. I put on my walking shoes, grab a jacket, my house keys.
I zip up my jacket, and the sound is a starter’s pistol. No one’s out on the street today. I could be the only person alive, I think, and I take long strides against the incline of the hill, enjoying the thud of my shoes on the footpath. I brace myself, on this downhill portion. Working against the momentum that wants to run me down the hill. It takes a few minutes to find the measure, the tempo, but soon all there is, is my breath hot in my mouth, the muffle of my shoes on the footpath, the hiss of leaves in the trees.
And now I am reckless; a rule-breaker. I step into the middle of the road and stride the centre line. Confident during this time of lockdown and seclusion that there will be no traffic in our quiet neighbourhood. How wide the street seems, away from the safety of the footpath, the dip of the gutter.
Around the corner now, and into the next street and now I’m going uphill, this wide swing around the ridge that overlooks the sea. Working hard now against the gradient; thighs, lungs, arms pumping me forward. Stopping to find my breath, bending forward, hands on my hips, sweat on my forehead. Lips dry as my cast-off breath escapes me.
And then I see it, a tiny blue eggshell in the grass. What luck, I think. What are the chances? My hand reaches out, reaches down and it’s shaking from the lactic acid that courses through me, and I squeeze my fingers into a fist. Open them and as if from a distance I see my fingers pick up the egg and lay it reverentially in the palm of my other hand. A miniature jagged opening at its narrow end – an escape plan for a baby bird. Café au lait freckles, and I see the inside of the egg is shiny white, this tiny incubator.
Such subtle beauty. I close my eyes and I can barely feel it cradled in my hand, yet I know it is there. I open my eyes, and yes, it is still there, pale muddy blue against the flesh of my palm. How lovely you will look with the others, and my hand closes carefully around it. I tuck my hand into my pocket; further protection for this most delicate of objects. And now I know I must get home.
I turn and retrace my steps, downhill where just before it was uphill, turning right, where I had earlier turned left. And around this bend in the road I see them. A father with his baby in a front pack. A toddler in a blue sweatshirt and pants is scooting along on a balance bike beside her dad. Her yellow hair flies out behind her and she squeals with the joy of movement, of acceleration, of physics. Her small body is brimming with possibilities. They are going down the hill as I am going up.
Hello, I say as we pass. The father smiles and says hello in reply. He strokes the head of the baby in the front pack, as though this is part of the greeting. The toddler calls out, look at me, as she races past. Be careful, I want to say. The hill is steep just ahead. But of course I don’t say anything. And the eggshell is safe inside my hand, inside my pocket.
I keep going, my prize urging me homeward.
A car races around the corner. A car, in the middle of this lockdown. In this street that I have assigned the preserve of the people. These are pedestrian days. The car swings out onto the wrong side of the road, rights itself. You’re going too fast, I think. I go to wave, to warn it to slow down. There’s a small child just around the corner. But I can’t get my hand out of my pocket, my hand won’t release itself, as it protects the eggshell there.
And then I hear the nauseating shriek of the car’s brakes, and an unbearable silence, and then the wailing begins.
Jackie is a novelist, playwright, short story writer and creative writing tutor, who lives in Wellington, New Zealand. She holds an MA in Creative Writing from Victoria University and is the author of two novels, both published by Penguin Books NZ Ltd. She has been published in New Zealand, Australia, Japan and the US and has won and been placed in numerous short story competitions. She has also had short fiction broadcast on radio. She writes for both adults and children. You can read Jackie’s short story Reading the waves here.