It was after their evening meal and Tom was anxious to get to the TV to watch the evening news. His wife Eva was still busy placing the crockery into the dish washer. It irritated Tom as he was wearing his hearing aid to understand the news better. All those noises from the kitchen made him grumpy.
‘Can’t you stop that?’ he demanded of his wife.
‘Stop what, Darling?’
‘This racket you are making with the plates,’ he called to the kitchen.
‘Sorry, but I have to do this.’
Just then the news came on and one could see a tram with something underneath and Tom could hear the voice-over:
‘In a tragic accident, this afternoon, a seven year old girl was hit by a tram in St. Kilda Road, St. Kilda. It is understood that the girl was on the way home from a nearby school. When the ambulance arrived a large crowd had already gathered. Our reporter talked to one witness.’
Tom listened in disbelief and he could feel something coming up within himself.
‘Come here, Eve. Schnell, schnell.’
‘What happened?’ Eva asked from the kitchen.
‘A schoolgirl was killed by a tram.’
‘Unfortunately accidents do happen….,’ came her reply.
‘But this happened to me,’ Tom said.
‘Don’t be silly, you weren’t hit by a tram, But some times I do believe you were hit by something or other,’ Eva joked as she walked into the living room. She found Tom ashen white and looking like he was trying to see something in the distance. Tom did not hear much of the news any more as he felt an overwhelming sense of guilt coming over him; like a rash taking over his whole being.
‘You don’t understand, it might have been my fault that the girl, I mean Erika, was hit by the tram’ he told Eva.
‘How do you know this girl’s name is Erika and what have you to do with it? I think the news is getting to you lately.’
‘No, no, not this girl. But it reminded me of something that happened during my first year at school, maybe in 41 or 42, when I was six.’
‘This is ancient history. Forget it!’ Eva told him.
This was easier said than done, as the saying goes. Tom could remember the fateful day, but not all details, but most of them. Erika had moved to the street recently and as they went to the same school ground they met on the way to school and within a short time became good friends. Tom did not like walking with all the other boys from his street and had made a point of walking slowly enough for Erika to catch up with him. He found it much easier to talk to Erika, who was of the same age. Tom had a black satchel and Erika had a beautiful brown one with a nice pattern stencilled on it. Her two short plaits swung around as she moved her head. Tom thought she looked cute and much nicer and prettier than his nasty sisters.
Erika was happy too. She liked the street they had moved to recently. There was so much to see from the window of their living room. There was the largest tree across the street she had ever seen in her life and not far was a beautiful park to play in. And the boy she was walking with she liked too. He looked so funny with his nose pointing to the sky. And best of all that morning her mother had told her, that she was going to have a baby sister or brother, soon. She could not wait to tell Tom.
‘I will get a baby brother or sister.’
‘How do you know?’
‘My mother told me. That’s why!’
Tom, while kicking a shrapnel from last night’s air raid and picking it up, was thinking that he would not like to have a new baby in the family. Mum would have even less time to look after him and his sisters. His mother was a working Mum and Dad was in the army fighting a war.
‘Do you want this shrapnel, Erika?’ he asked her.
‘No, you keep it. I only get in trouble bringing it home.
Tom put it in his special satchel, containing his sandwich for play lunch. The satchel was hanging off his neck and was swinging in front of his belly. After walking downhill a long stretch of a street they came to an intersection. They, instinctively, grabbed each others hands and crossed the road together carefully. And on they went. Once more they had to cross a busy intersection. There, cars came around corners and trams stopped. Their Mums had told them to be careful and as they came closer to the intersection they saw more and more children on the way to school. The school consisted of two buildings, one for girls and one for boys. During the big break the children had to walk in two separate circles that met in the middle of the school yard. When Tom saw his younger sister he touched her hand and when he saw Erika going past he waved and smiled at her. When the bell announced the return to classes Tom called out to Erika,
‘Wait for me after school!’ Erika shook her head and let her plaits fly, indicating ‘No’ but her big smile said, ‘Yes,’ and that was what Tom understood.
Tom was happy that, as usual, he would be able to walk home with Erika. But fate has a way of interfering in our lives. The boys in Tom’s class were practising writing letters and numbers for a while and the teacher had written the correct way on the black board. It was hard work for Tom and he was especially keen to get the figure ‘5’ right as he had been in trouble with his mother only a few days ago. His mother was so infuriated about his fives that she beat him and sent him to bed without his evening meal. She could not understand that it was difficult for him to write neatly and she assumed, that he just was being careless.
For now, he concentrated very hard on the ‘5’, and soon time was up. The teacher came around and looked at all the copy books to check on what the boys had done. When she came to Tom she smiled at him and said,
‘Oh my goodness, you really made a great effort. Today your fives look like fives and not like drunken question marks.’ Tom was very proud and decided he liked the often abrasive teacher after all. And when she asked at the end of the session for a volunteer to wipe the blackboard clean his hand went up in a flash. The wiping of the black board did not take that long, but the teacher involved him in a little conversation regarding his efforts and grades and finished with,
‘So, hop along, your Mum will be waiting for you with lunch and don’t forget with a bit of more effort, like today’s, you could get better marks.’ Of course his mother was not waiting for him but he did not want to contradict the teacher.
Tom grabbed his satchel, swung it onto his back and rushed out of the door. He remembered Erika and that she would be waiting for him. He flew down the stairs and through the main door onto the school yard. He looked for Erika but the school yard was almost empty, only the janitor cleaning up. No children to be seen. The classes for the older pupils were still going on and some voices could be heard through some open windows. Tom decided to wait a couple of minutes in case Erika turned up from somewhere. But there was no sign of her. Where was Erika?
Erika had finished her lesson on time, packed her satchel and went outside to look for Tom. She saw some boys from Tom’s class leaving the school building, but she could not see him. Had he gone without waiting for her? Packing her bag could have lost her a minute or two. The school yard emptied and no more boys could be seen.
‘I better run and catch up with him,’ she thought to herself. She grabbed the shoulder straps of her satchel and started to run. Around the corner and onto the main street. Boys always hang around, he can’t be very far, she thought. Only 200 meters to the next intersection, which was a busy one. Two main roads were crossing there with plenty of cars, even in those days, and trams in short succession. It was a very wide street with the tram line running embedded through the centre. Erika checked for cars, nothing. She spotted a tram coming from the south. Erika reached the island in the middle where the tram-stop was. People were jockeying for positions to be able to get onto the tram that had come a bit closer. On the other side of the road she saw a boy, among the other people, she thought could be Tom, her heart ran faster seeing this boy.
‘I can catch him if I’m quick.’ Erika thought and heard the bells and decided that the tram would stop right there. But no, the tram was still creeping forward and the driver was applying the bell because he could see the people getting anxious. Erika wanted to push through the barrier of people when an old man stepped in front of her and she had to make a sudden movement to the left and the last thing she heard and saw, before the permanent darkness took hold of her, was a squealing dog. She was suddenly propelled forward into the path of the still moving tram. People screamed, but Erika did not hear anything any more.
That was about the same time Tom was waiting in the school ground. After making sure, once again, that there was no sign of Erika, he started to walk and hoped he would soon catch up with her. He took the same way as Erika did before and when he came to the intersection saw a crowd milling around at the tram-stop. The tram was still there and Tom was wondering what that was all about. He looked up at the grown ups and tried to hear what they were saying. The people where shaking their heads in disbelief and talked only in soft voices. What Tom could understand was, that someone, maybe a child, was run over. Tom looked towards the tram and he could see something covered up by a blanket. Nothing else. He could not recognise anything.
Tom had no time to waste and continued across to the other side of the street. He started to run now as his yearning for his friend increased. He soon came to the steepest part of the street, up the tallest hill of the city. This hill was actually a sand dune formed at the end of the Ice Age. Tom ran uphill without stopping and reached the crest of the street from where he could see the rest of it going downhill from there on. Nothing – there was no sign of Erika. He slowed down now, reconciled with the thought, that he would not see her today any more.
The rest of the day played out as it usually did. During the night there wasn’t even an air raid and they all could sleep through the night. When Tom got up, Mum was already gone to work. Their Great-Aunty Marie helped him and his sisters with breakfast and getting ready for school.
When Tom stepped out, onto the foot path, he was looking for Erika. He decided to wait for a moment. A few boys from his street came out of their buildings and started their long walk to the school. One boy, seeing Tom, stopped and said in a singing voice,
‘Waiting for your girl friend? You can wait forever for her!’
‘What do you mean?’ Tom wanted to know.
‘She is dead, stupid!’
‘Liar, you are a stupid liar.’
‘You ask Kutte. She was run over by a tram yesterday,’ the boy said and the other, Kutte, nodded.
Tom was dumbfounded but started to walk.
‘So, that is what had happened yesterday,’ he thought. That explained everything to him.
In school he heard more about the accident and he became saddened. He knew about death, his Grandmother and Grandfather had died only a few years ago and he excepted that people disappeared after they died.
After a few weeks he did not think so often about Erika any more. She was gone, that was a fact of life. Another fact was, that Erika’s mother, wearing black all the time now, was pregnant. Tom watched her from now on. When she had her baby, it was a girl and after about two years one could see that she looked very much like Erika. At least that was what Tom was thinking. Soon after Tom was send away from the city because of the air raids. And when he came back, after a year, Erika’s family did not live in the same street any more and he never saw them again.
After all these years, Tom, who had never forgotten the incident and the loss of a dear friend, was nevertheless taken aback by the news report. Especially the thought, that it could have been his doing, that Erika walked home alone and he could not protect her. She must have thrown all caution to the winds in order to catch up with him. He realised now, that he must have meant as much to her as she to him. And all because he wanted to please his mother and write a better number five. Tom was musing about the vagaries of life sixty five years later and mulling over the thought of his possible guilt.