Perhaps the knock at the door reveals a stranger, desperate and pleading, a smear of blood on his face and a nose gone crooked after it smashed against the steering wheel of the car that’s currently lodged in a tree at the end of your drive. He places a trembling hand on yours as you dial emergency services, as though touching another’s skin can make everything all right again. You bring him inside because he’s alone and cover him in the soft, worn blanket that belonged to your grandmother, ordering your husband to fetch hot, sweet tea. Then again, maybe you follow him to the car and try to figure out how to free his wife from the suspended wreckage without causing any additional pain. With all that screaming, you guess she must have broken something. Should you move her at all? But what if you get there and the car is silent, showing no signs of life? In that instance, you worry about his wife’s chances, wonder how you will continue to live somewhere knowing a person died in a car wreck that involved your tree. A tree you can see from your bedroom window. Another option is that you embark on an affair with the man – more unusual things have been known after such tragedy – and it could be the happiest time in your life, even though others will snigger about the age difference and make comments about your behaviour, especially at your time of life. Every time you finish making love, you glance out at the tree, smoke a cigarette that will eventually kill you, and shudder with guilt because it reminds you of his wife, whether she’s dead or alive.
On second thoughts, maybe the knock is your brother, back from his self-imposed exile in some unpronounceable suburb of Queensland. He’s still got that arrogant air and the chip on his shoulder has grown boulder-sized, but there’s something in his face that is softer, youthful even, despite the fact that he’s several decades older than the last time you talked. He’s come to apologise to you for the extended absence. He always wanted to write but didn’t know how to word what he had to say and time accidentally frittered away. He’s come to spill his heart in a puddle on the table, tell you all about his partner, Pete, that he never thought anyone (especially not in this middle-class-conservative-suburban-hellhole) would ever accept, not even you. You get to throw your arms around him like you used to when you were kids, which seems such a very long time ago now. Or maybe he’s right and horrified, you shrink back – your brother, little Marty, gay? Not in a million years! – so you turn away, ignoring his pleas. You hear the rustle of his coat, a deep I-knew-it sigh and the gentle click of the front door closing. You feel thankful for the extra draft exclusion you bought last winter, so he couldn’t slam the door even if he wanted to. Of course, it could be that your brother simply wants to tell you he loves you, because he’s never done it before, not even via text message. Or maybe he wants to say it to you again – just like he does, several times every day – because he knows there’s not much time left (for you? for him?) and those words can never be heard enough.
The knock could be a courier with a huge bouquet – it is your birthday after all – and you find an impressive arrangement adorned with a mystery card. It contains all your favourite blooms; peony roses, Peruvian lilies, gerbera and tulips, wrapped in ferns with a plastic frill. Could it be a secret admirer? Or is it the thing your mum does every year, a thinly-veiled act of disapproval because she always hoped you marry that nice young man, Jack, from the college even though he beat on you once, then twice, and you quickly got rid. (You never did tell her about that, did you?) But wait! Your birthday’s not until September… You read the card, shudder, and fall against the wall as the message sinks in: ‘Commiserations on your loss. Barbara was a wonderful, generous woman. May she rest in peace.’ Someone thinks you’re dead! Your husband comes running when you scream and the bouquet hits the ground, petals spewing across the step as you throw up on his trousers. He picks up the message, chuckles and throws his arms around you, making the world warm and safe again. Or maybe he reads it and his face shrink-wraps into a scowl, he spits something that sounds like, ‘the bitch’ and stomps off down the garden path, smashing the bouquet against the gatepost. Out into the day he marches, leaving you wondering where he’s going and whether he’ll ever return. Or maybe after the initial excitement of receiving flowers, you realise the spray’s for someone else and your stomach churns as you tell the courier it’s for another woman, with a different husband, who still remembers to send her flowers on their anniversary.
And here’s yet another scenario; the knock belongs to a clown – yes, big red nose and floppy shoes, that’s the one! He’s advertising the imminent arrival of Gambolini’s, the last great circus on earth. You accept a leaflet and get lost in its colours, conjuring the scent of candyfloss and horses, the feel of your old dad’s hand leading you towards the big top lights and its gaudy music. Or maybe it reminds you of the time you went on a circus date with the boy in your swim club and he kissed you – your first time, his second – like a trout. In a less optimistic scenario, you take the leaflet and realise the clown is holding a knife in his other hand. As he leans in, the tip of the blade glints in the light coming from your doorway. You slowly back away, allowing him to enter and take what he pleases so long as you don’t get hurt. The neighbouring houses are all holiday homes; it’s out of season and screaming would be futile, so you sit and sob quietly, trying not to anger him. Or perhaps you do let rip, screaming your lungs out until your Muslim neighbours (the ones you never used to speak to but will soon become your closest friends) run instantly to your aid, catching the intruder and holding him captive until the police arrive on the scene. It’s always possible we’ve got the poor creature completely wrong and he’s on his way to a children’s birthday party and is simply lost, in need of directions. You give him your only map because you suffer from a phobia of clowns and want him the hell off your porch. Or maybe you give it to him because clinging to your sister’s road map won’t bring her back, no matter what, and you can’t drive anyway.
The knock sets you thinking – when was the last time you banged on someone else’s door? Was it last summer, when your sisters and nephews flung the door wide and a flurry of arms greeted you, wrapping you so fast and so tightly you couldn’t tell whom each limb belonged to? Or was it the visit to your mum when she hovered in the crack of the door, staring out vacantly like she couldn’t see you at all, and you swore you’d never return. If there’s no answer when you do eventually call, will you try again? Perhaps when no reply comes, you walk away and leave things be. Actually no, you crumple to the floor and weep. No! You panic – something must be wrong – and skulk around the house looking for entry points, praying please don’t let him be dead, please don’t let him be dead. When you find a window and climb inside – you’re not as fit as you used to be – he’s had a stroke. (Your father? Your lawyer? Your alcoholic son?) Looking at the sight of his twisted, paralysed face and limbs, you think death might have been a better option. Then again, perhaps you never did have the courage to knock on any door. After all, what would you say when it opened?
Maybe, just maybe, you’ve been waiting for this knock but when you answer, there’s no one there. A whip of wind, you reason, even though the night is still. Or perhaps you were drifting off to sleep and imagined it; despite the fact your eyes don’t feel weary at all. You notice the sky’s grand display of stars and you find yourself watching for one that falls. When it finally does, a momentary blaze of white and blue, you don’t bother to make a wish. Why trust your dreams to something that’s already dead when the naked eye sees it? Better to keep your dreams with you for company through the long nights. Then together, when a strange knock comes, you can take your time deciding whether or not to leave the mystery outside.