- Published: 30 March 2021
- ISBN: 9781760895556
- Imprint: Hamish Hamilton
- Format: Trade Paperback
- Pages: 304
- RRP: $32.99
Her baby’s fingers look like small furled leaves and Louise lifts them to her lips to kiss. They are lying together on the spare bed in the nursery, quiet and peaceful. Dolores – or Lolly, as they like to call her – should be in her cot but sometimes, often, it is easier just to lie down with her and get her to sleep this way.
How lucky that they had nowhere else for the spare bed. But is it luck, or foolishness? Her mother says she is making a rod for her back, but there are so many rules when it comes to getting babies to sleep, so many rights and wrongs, and none of them help. Louise often gives up and does whatever works, and today that is lying down with her daughter and humming nursery rhymes. So here they are, mother shelled around the little pearl of daughter, curtains drawn against the dying light of the day, and sleep upon them both. Nothing could be lovelier.
Louise shifts onto her back and closes her eyes, though only for a minute. Steven is in their bedroom packing for his week on the road and if she wants to spend time with him before he leaves, she should get up now. Put Lolly in the cot now. But there are thorns that prickle when she thinks about the conversation that will spill from her – how she wishes he wasn’t back at work only two short months after the birth, how lonely she gets – and the mix of guilt and appeasement that appears on his face whenever she brings up these things swims into view.
But in the end, there is no conversation. She’s closed her eyes for a fraction too long and now her limbs have loosened and she drifts away from the soft rasp of pillow against her ear. It’s strange, this drift. She hears a car purring along the street and is following it without leaving the bed. How? She is not outside but she is no longer in the bedroom either; she is floating away on the sound of her breath into the vast, silent world that awaits. And what is that sprinkle of soft light? Stars? Stars. They are up with the stars, for she sees that Lolly has come too, and now they are like earth and moon, dancing around each other in a slow spin. A spin of love. Around them, in turn, black folds of velvety night circle ever higher, ever further, expanding outwards into infinity.
A great feeling of joy washes through her. An exultation. She and Lolly, boundless. She hadn’t known her heart was capable of this endless cascade of feeling and she never wants it to end.
She feels such wonder as the gentle points of light get brighter.
Perhaps too bright.
One of the stars is becoming a sun. Pulling them off orbit. Soon, they are hurtling towards it. She can hear a voice. Her mother’s voice. Scolding. Warning.
She startles, the rush back to earth complete.
‘Come on, darling.’
It’s Steven. He’s only whispering, though it seems so loud. She blinks, her vision blurring with the effort it requires.
‘Shall I lift her up for you?’ He’s leaning over her, smiling, his glasses dancing before her delirious eyes. ‘We can’t do this, love. It might be dangerous, remember?’
Louise jerks fully awake at this, heart hammering as she checks the peanut shape of her baby snuggled in to her side. But Lolly is fine, just asleep. Sound asleep with a smile on her face, still dancing with the stars. Louise sighs, relaxing back onto the pillow.
‘Lou . . .’ Her husband is on the verge of saying more, but instead cocks his head, looking down at her. Then he slips onto the bed to cradle her as she cradles Lolly. A family making its own constellation. She lifts a hand to fondly, drowsily, pat his cheek.
If only it could stay like this.
Dolores won’t eat. Louise has tried straining apple – lovely, homegrown orchard apple – and serving it in the Beatrix Potter dish decorated with cavorting bunnies, but Lolly won’t look at it. Won’t eat the pureed carrot, the mashed banana or the gruel that passes as cereal for toothless beings. Nothing. These are Louise’s first thoughts as she wakes, hot and dishevelled, from a nap.
She sighs and sits up.
Morning sunlight washes through the window, drenching a pot of Bridal Veil in the corner. A fly drones lazily at the pane. It’s so quiet. Lolly screamed all day yesterday, all last night, and for the better part of the early morning, so the house hasn’t been this still in days. Louise cocks her head to listen, but only the warbles and caws of the birds in the garden can be heard. Her daughter must still be sleeping. Hurrah!
She slips her feet into her old black flats and pads down to the kitchen. The saucer of greying apple sits on the highchair tray. Earlier, she had pushed lumps of hot apple through the wire strainer and blown on it so it wouldn’t burn her daughter’s little mouth. But at the mere sight of it Lolly had waved her hands and screamed, so Louise had left the room. She leaves her daughter in rooms a lot lately. She has to, the shrills go right to her bones. She also left the dish in front of her daughter so that Lolly might put her fingers in the strained apple, smear it on her face or in her hair, hoping that some of it would end up in her mouth.
Louise now flings the saucer of untouched mush into the sink, where it shipwrecks on the bowls and graters and saucepans from the other failed attempts to feed Dolores this morning. Truthfully, she wishes her daughter had tipped up the saucer – flipped it onto the floor, leaving slugs of food everywhere – so she could have yelled at her. Screamed back, just once. She longs to yell when her daughter does.
But when Louise had come back into the kitchen after the screaming had stopped, she’d seen her daughter slumped in the highchair, little legs protruding from beneath the tray and the blonde hair on her head waving then drooping, then waving again, caught in the breeze from the rotating fan, adorable, and she had rushed over to kiss her forehead. She’s always kissing Lolly. She can’t help it; Lolly is such a lovely pudge of child.
But her daughter had pushed her away. It was hot, even that early in the morning, and Lolly had closed her eyes as though she, like Louise, was tired of these same four walls with nothing to look at but a calendar from the butcher with its different monthly cuts of meat. November is osso buco, and who in their right mind wants to stare at that for thirty days?
Louise picks up the dishcloth and vigorously wipes down the empty highchair tray, giving her hands something to do. She should get on with the rest of the housework while Lolly is asleep. Nothing has been seen to for days. Even as she thinks this, she trips over a few pot plants in her tiredness, and has to use her feet to soldier them closer to the wall.
Yesterday she brought all the pot plants inside to save them from the heat and the kitchen has become a jungle, lush with greenery. They line the countertop, brush the cupboards and crowd the edges of the sink, fronding and leafing and flowering. It’s completely claustrophobic and she will have to remove them before Steven gets home. He doesn’t like mess. She, on the other hand, likes the company.
The dishcloth traces the stitching along the seat where all the food her daughter won’t eat has collected. Bread and cold rice. Muck. It’s no use feeling superior about saving a few plants when she can’t even persuade her daughter to put food in her mouth. Sometimes she feels like a useless mother.
She stops her scrubbing and glances at the clock. Steven is hours away. He’ll still be on the road or at the office, and he doesn’t have much to offer in the way of help, anyway. He has never spent more than an hour or two alone with his daughter, so has no idea of how the walls can close in. And Uncle Raymond, who comes to see Lolly some Fridays – to amuse her, rock her, save her mother – should be here already. If I don’t come by nine I’m not coming, he says. Like a few others of that older generation, he never wanted a phone, so she can’t call him. She briefly closes her eyes hoping he is just late this particular Friday. Please, please, sweet Uncle Raymond. She could use another nap.
Louise dumps the dishcloth back into the sink. She has been up for more than twenty-four hours, or thirty-six. She can’t recall. It might be weeks. It feels like weeks. Certainly, she stood in this same room all night as Lolly screamed, sometimes holding her, sometimes staring out the kitchen window with her dressing gown slipping off her shoulder, and the outside light turned on to keep away the bogymen. The outdoor light had blazed white across the tops of plants, forcing the dark to rake the flowerbeds and pool beneath the magnolia, backing the shadows into the corners, where they dripped silently as the night went on and on, as it does when Steven is away.
And when he is not, he sleeps right through Lolly’s screams.
Louise strokes the spiralling extravagance of a fern frond. Its furled tip is tight and she lets it go to watch it spring. Last night she wanted to – but didn’t – have a cigarette. It’s a mystery why she smokes the few she does because she can’t stand the tarry growl in her throat at the first suck, and the smell belongs to her mother. Instead of smoking, she stood here at the kitchen window amongst the plants and sang. She must have sung several albums, some Patsy Cline and Loretta Lynn, Tom T. Hall and Tanya Tucker – she loves the line about lying with someone in a field of stone.
She rarely sang when she was a child because it made her mother cry, so Louise used to climb into a wardrobe to sing in secret, and sometimes, when the bath was running, she sang softly in there as well. Now, in her own house, she sings loudly to Dolores. Dolores loves it, and this morning she sang until the sun rose in all its muscular glory. There is nothing to be afraid of now, she tells herself. The sun is up and reaching into all the dark corners and Lolly will eat soon and—
The phone’s loud ringing breaks into her thoughts.
Louise hurries close to where it hangs on the wall, then hesitates.
It might be Steven – he didn’t call last night – but it might also be her mother. They talk every day. But Louise is so tired, and with the sun piercing the windows and birds sewing the air, the day is like an overdecorated Christmas tree and Mother’s voice will be too much.
The ringing stops. Then it starts again.
Louise picks up the receiver. ‘Hello?’
‘Go ahead, Gladys,’ says Joan, the operator. She’s not supposed to say anything when putting through local calls but she does because Benalong is small and they all know each other like family.
‘Louise? Darling? I had a premonition. What’s wrong?’
Louise feels the blood rush from her cheeks. Her mother can see through walls. ‘Nothing.’
‘Don’t tell me “nothing”, I felt it.’
‘Lolly won’t eat.’
‘There you are. Vivian was laughing at me but I knew. Your mother always knows.’
Louise listens as her mother repeats all this to her Aunt Vivian. How clever she is to have known. How marvellous she is with her intuition. And she is. Her mother always knows.
‘Mother. Mother!’ It takes a moment for Louise to regain Gladys’s attention. ‘I don’t know how to get her to eat. She’s teething and—’
‘Sometimes they won’t, darling. Listen, I’m in the middle of a hand.’
‘Well, Beryl’s down from Nangateen so it’s a bit earlier than usual, but I have a life outside of you and your father, you know.’
‘What’s the matter now?’
‘That’s what Larry is, Louise.’
‘Only as much as he is your husband.’
‘Well, no one says ex-father, do they?’
Louise sighs, picks up the dishcloth again and runs it around the rim of the sink. Her ghostly reflection does the same in the kitchen window and she prefers this version of herself with faded brown hair and a featureless face because it more accurately shows how she feels: uninhabited.
‘This is the second day,’ she says. ‘And yesterday she cried all day. Nonstop.’
‘Does she have a fever?’
‘You can’t tell from the forehead, you have to—’
‘I’ve checked the back of her neck. She doesn’t have a fever.’
‘Then what are you worried about?’
Louise cannot help her sudden, shocked laughter, and in the next instant, she daringly hangs up. How can her mother be so blasé? So thoughtless?
Half a minute passes. She doesn’t move. The phone rings again.
‘Go ahead, Gladys,’ says Joan.
‘Don’t hang up on me, Louise. You know it panics me.’
Louise shuts her eyes.
‘Now, why don’t I come over and see Lolly for myself?’
That opens her eyes. She can’t have her mother see the house, see the state of things. ‘I’m going out. Taking Lolly out.’
‘Don’t be silly. Where could you possibly go? I’ll just pop over for five minutes,’ her mother says, ‘and put a hand on her neck and—’
Voices in the background interrupt. Her aunts. The three of them, like sisters from a fairytale, as plain as her mother is fair. Their cackling voices are quickly muffled; Gladys has placed her hand over the receiver for a confer.
They will be sitting around a card table, with scones or biscuits or some other mid-morning snack. The cards will be dealt, with tea at the ready. They are all fanatical about bridge. And five hundred. And canasta. They will be impatient with Gladys because none of them have babies to care for anymore.
Her mother’s voice is crisp. ‘They want to know whether you’ve tried gripe water. I told them that of course you will have tried gripe water. Have you?’
‘Of course you have, darling. Edna says to put some jam in an eye-dropper with warm water and squeeze that into her mouth.’
Louise straightens. She hasn’t tried this. ‘Thank you.’
‘Well, there you are then. Let me know how it goes or I’ll come and see you in a bit.’
But the line is dead, save for muted clicks and the faraway echo of Joan’s voice as she continues to connect calls across the country town.
Louise pulls cotton buds and face washers from the cupboard beneath the bathroom sink, searching until she finds the eye-dropper she and Steven once used to feed an injured bird. It was just a skeleton with feathers, but she sat with it for hours after it eventually stopped moving, holding its lightness.
In the kitchen, after removing the orange bulb and sterilising the small glass tube with boiling water, Louise drizzles jam into it with a teaspoon. Then she adds warm water. Tiny strings of pectin float in the soiled liquid. It doesn’t look appetising, but now she has something ready for when Lolly wakes up.
As she walks down the hallway towards the nursery she treads lightly. Mustn’t wake her daughter. Still, a floorboard creaks beneath the hallway runner and she freezes. Waits. The hallway, which stretches from one end of the house to the other, is draped in darkness – except where it intersects with the small entranceway to the front door. There is a patch of light there, and beyond it, outside, birds singing. Birds that suddenly seem to Louise as loud as tractors or graders, hoeing up the garden with their chirrups and trills. But that is silly because babies sleep though anything. That’s what the books say. What her mother says. Steven says it is she who wakes Lolly from her sleep, by checking on her too often.
The light in the nursery is dim. Louise creeps over to the cot, not wanting to wake Lolly for the world, but needing to see her in a state of rest. A state other than screaming.
But Lolly is not in the cot.
Louise backs up to the door to flip on the light. Not that it helps – with the drapes still drawn, everything in the room looks flat and colourless. Even the bright blankets her aunts crocheted – one pink, one blue and one yellow, folded neatly at the end of the cot because they are too hot against the skin in this weather – are virtually indistinguishable from each other in the low light. And Lolly is not in the cot.
Louise combs her hair back from her face, summoning order. It’s not the first time she’s popped Lolly down to sleep somewhere other than the cot. Dolores has slept on top of the sunned sheets in the wicker washing basket, and in the linen press with the door open, and on the couch, banked by a pillow. Once, she even slept on the bathmat while Louise took a shower. So she’s not missing exactly, she’s just misplaced.
Louise could have sworn she put Lolly down in the cot before drifting up the hallway to her own bed. But then she was only going to nap for ten minutes herself and the kitchen clock said an hour had passed, so clearly what she thought happened and what actually happened are two different things.
The phone starts ringing again.
Ethan Salt tip-toed to the very edge of the tenement rooftop, rolling his special poster into a perfect telescope.
The boy gasped for breath, hair in his mouth, before the next wave slammed him back against the bottom. He tumbled, the fizz of bubbles around him.
As Marie prepared to break into her father’s bedroom, she felt a little pool of guilt well up inside her for betraying him.
It would be easy not to notice him. Just a small thing. Dappled with dried bracken and dirt.