‘Directions’ – a Short Story by Justin Sheedy
It was a hot mid-morning, my brow sweating slightly under the weight of the grocery shopping I was carrying home. The car had approached from down the road ahead of me and stopped level by me on the footpath. Through the open window, I saw the driver was a pleasant-looking older lady, possibly the grandmother of the young girl in the seat next to her, across whom I now replied.
‘Right, you’ve just gone past it. It’s down the road behind you, but you can’t go back that way ‘cause this is a one-way street. So you’ll have to keep going the way you are, take the first right, then right again and go back along the street parallel with this one, keep going round the block to get back there.’
The lady squinted as she grappled with my formula.
‘Okay …thank you,’ she concluded, the concerned look on her face suggesting to me she might have to ask a few more people en route. I had tried to be as clear as possible, yet it was hot, perhaps I was a bit frazzled from the weight of the shopping, and I think the lady was already flustered herself.
In the second before the car pulled tentatively away, I registered the face of the young passenger for the first time, suddenly aware that she had been staring at me, completely statue-still for the long moments of the exchange. Her hair was deep brown, straight, a red cloth band with white polka dots above her fringe. She must have been about 8, a very pretty little girl, blessed really, the kind to grow up into a beautiful young woman, a face to break hearts, be admired, envied, loved, win the heart of a lucky man. I hadn’t caught the colour of her eyes, except that they were very dark, almost black, eyes that stay with you. The disarming thing was, even at a glance, these jewels were set in a face which, despite its natural beauty, was blank. Beneath eyes somehow searching, albeit frozen in that single expression, her mouth had been slightly open, also frozen that way. Though living, breathing, this little soul was a still photograph, her face as if captured forever in that single moment at which a child asks, ‘But why?’ As I walked on with my shopping, the car well down the street behind me by now, the girl’s face lingered in my mind, and I realised what I’d just seen.
The mute, blank expression had been that of a mentally disabled child. Dressed in her ‘party best’ by parents clearly with good taste, she was being driven by her grandmother, or perhaps a Society Matron doing charitable work, to a garden party for mentally disabled kids at Admiralty House, all turned out for the Governor-General. I got home just a few minutes later, put the shopping away, went out onto the balcony, lit a cigarette and went over it all in my mind just as many times before.
How could God allow this to be so? The eternal question. The eternal answer? Wrong question: He’s Non-Interventionist. All the pain, suffering, death, infant mortality in the world is not God’s Will, as espoused by a teacher back at school, now hopefully extinct. God bestowed upon the Human Race the divine gift of Free Will, in a world where we, as His children, must decide between Good and Evil, thus rendering our acceptance of the Lord a deliberate choice, all the bad, cruel, seemingly senseless things in life serving to test our faith. At least, that’s how the ‘enlightened’ Christian rationalizes this innocent child being born unable to relate to her world like other kids around her.
In any case, I thought, this child, though deprived of so much, clearly has the love and devotion of her family and carers, who obviously keep her healthy, as happy as possible, and wanting for nothing materially. Though probably unable to dress herself at age 8, she has been dressed, and beautifully, by her parents, and is being driven to a garden party as the guest of the Governor-General himself, an event she will enjoy as much as she can enjoy anything. In that red polka-dotted band, her hair looked really lovely for the occasion too – Presumably her mother had washed, dried and styled it for her. Despite her condition, I drummed into myself, there must be great Good in her life. Beats me why I was closer to the verge of full-on tears than I’d been in a long time…
I pulled myself together, took several deep breaths, and told myself not to be stupid: The young girl’s expression wasn’t one of ‘But why?’, it was one of cerebral torpor no fault of her own. Except, somehow, vivid in my memory even now, there seemed something behind those eyes, something silent, desperate. I always feel sad when I pass by disabled children in the street, disabled adults too. But this was just a young child and she stared me directly in the eyes and held it. A stare I will never forget. I can’t get away from it: It was ‘But why?’
My mother once told me of an experience she’d had during religious work at a retirement home for mentally disabled women. These were women who’d spent their whole lives within their conditions, and now their lives were drawing to a close. Mum remarked privately to one of the nuns who ran the place that all the ladies were fine around her during their activities. All except for one. Mum described to the nun how, whenever she happened to be looking in her direction, this woman would be staring hard at her, something looking almost like malice in her eyes. What could be the matter?
‘Ah,’ the nun replied knowingly. ‘Of all our ladies, that one’s the most aware.’
I’d like to ask for Directions.
To God’s house.
If he was home I’d ask if I could come in, and if we could sit down. So He can explain it to me just one more time.
* * *
NOR THE YEARS CONDEMN.
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