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Fiction

Fiction | Under the curdled arms of the galaxy

The second time we bring Danny home from the hospital, no-one brings us flowers. No-one texts, no-one calls. No-one sends baby hampers or little foil balloons that say, It’s a boy! Not even my own mother. But I don’t mind. Nothing can spoil this moment.

In the hospital carpark I tilt the mirror down to sneak one more look before we go. I watch those tiny, wrinkled fingers feeling out the shape of a nose, a chin, the mystery of the mouth. I admire his perfect skin—like cooling wax. My face aches from grinning.

That outfit though, I mean, I didn’t want to say so to Laura, but really? Still, I can always change him when we get home. It’s no big deal.

Laura closes her eyes as the car starts and she leans her head against the window. We get every green light. We get every single green light and before we know it, we are home. We pull into the drive and Laura doesn’t move. She doesn’t even turn around when he wakes up.

I leave her there to rest. I get him out of the car and hold his sweet, warm head to my chest. When we get inside, by the time my eyes adjust to the light, he’s already holding my gaze. Hello. Hello there.

Perhaps it’s different for men. Maybe because there’s no time, no hormones to prepare you. One day you’re free, the next, you wake up and you’re cradling a baby in your arms—you, the protector of this most precious and fragile being.

I kiss him, and his head is like velvet on my lips. I breathe in that clean, sweet smell. When I stroke his cheek, it draws a little smile. My precious boy. I clear my throat and say it aloud this time, ‘Danny. My precious boy.’

Work has been generous about the whole thing, about the time off. I have a few months. It’s a weight off my shoulders, so you think she’d be happy. But when I tell Laura that I’m staying home to look after Danny, she just gives me this look. What am I supposed to do with a look like that?

She needs time, yes, but I don’t think she realises just how lucky she is. How lucky we are. I can see that I am going to have to be the strong one here. She looks terrible. She should go to bed and rest. So that’s exactly what I tell her to do.

 

I try not to think about when Danny was sick too much. After all what is the point? Considering where we are now. But still, some things stay with you.

When we first got the news about Danny, I wanted to scream but nothing came. Instead something terrible vibrated its way through my body, my bones, the plaster on the walls around us, the glass partitions, the ceiling, shaking everything loose from its essence. No, not my boy. Not Danny. It was as if I’d been scooped from the ocean and gutted through; my gasping for air just a reflex.

Sitting in the car, under the curdled arms of the galaxy, time became thin—almost transparent. In other places, it collected in dark pools. I sat there, suspended, thoughts rolling and pounding. Why should I be forced to move my body from one place to the nextto eat, to shitwhile he grows weaker? While they give no answers?

I don’t know how but I pulled myself together. Someone had to be there for him. And thank god. Laura wasn’t coping. They had to keep her in for a few days, which then became weeks, months. The diazepam was only ever supposed to be short-term. I was on my own then. I did what I had to do. When she was discharged, the doctor warned us that it may take her some time. Yes, but how much time?

Watching him through the plastic, his little belly rising and falling, I tried my best to look past the tubes and the monitors. The lights made him look worse than he really was.

‘Yes, I can bring in your toy stingray. What else? Well, the doctors say Mummy needs rest. Okay, I’ll tell her that. Tomorrow, tomorrow. Sleep, my beautiful boy. Sleep.’

I got down on the floor and held my knees. I dug my nails in deep, to wake whatever it was from its slumber, and I whispered low: Tear me to tiny fucking pieces, I will do anything, but please, not Danny.

At a certain point, I must have drifted off. How was it fair that I got to rest—when nothing was changing? When the doctors kept saying all the wrong things?

It was like being trapped on an endless night flight—those hospital corridors—wandering through the dimmed lighting, the constant hum of hidden machinery, the confusion of odours.

When I finally found the nurse, I had to corner her to get her attention. ‘Hello? Hey there, I’m not going to bite.’

‘Sorry, sir?’ she stammered.

‘I don’t know how you do it. Do you ever get a break? I haven’t seen you on this shift before.’ I held out my hand. ‘I’m Danny’s dad.’ I took another step forward.

Her face tightened. ‘Look, sorry, how can I help?’

‘Actually, I just wanted to ask—’.

I leant in and she pulled away. I only grabbed her tag because I wanted to know her name. ‘Rachel. Stay, please. Hey, Rachel! Please.’

Five minutes later, she was back with security. Can you believe it? In this country?

Surely, she could understand—I was out of my mind with grief. And the way that guard stared at me, hand on hip.

So, I’m not allowed to talk with nurses now? I’m not allowed to be grieving?

I could feel the guard staring through my back. It wasn’t right.

I returned to my seat, next to Danny. As if that was where I belonged—but how could it be? This was not our home.

 

Then it happened, the next morning.

A new surgeon, one I hadn’t met before, asked to see me in his office. He began speaking as soon as I entered and his voice was low and steady.

He had a colleague overseas—some very promising results, especially in this age range, with this sort of condition—it wasn’t in the local system—but there were no barriers—yes, a transfer of sorts—another chance—it’s in the early stages but there are clinical trials taking place right now—he would like to recommend Danny—with my permission, he’d make some preliminary enquiries. We are grabbing the reins of nature and steering it towards a gentler future. I loved that line.

How could we not take this opportunity? Laura, listen, no, listen. Of course it will be. It’s a gift. There’s no question of not accepting. No question at all.

Then time did its thing.

His cry has a frequency that cuts through the night. I’m out of bed before I know what I’m doing, but I do it anyway. I warm up the formula, holding Danny in one arm, and I feel his tiny body tensing with hunger, pulsing. It’s incredible really, the suction of his mouth on my little finger.

When he gets his bottle, he gives a little sigh, and his body relaxes back into my arms. In a way it’s easier that he doesn’t need to be breastfed this time. It keeps things simple. Frees us up to be who we really need to be. We have been given another chance. This time it will be different. I made a promise. For you, Danny, I have all the patience in the world.

I lay him down on a clean white towel and massage the cream into the crown of his head, his neck, his soft joints. They were very particular about that. And the light too. It must be nearly dawn, so I make sure the curtains are closed. Before we know it, little pinpricks of light will appear, winking like the most distant, unnamed stars. We don’t need to go out anyway, do we? We’ve got everything we need right here. Danny bites into his ducky. It squeaks with approval and I laugh out loud.

 

A few days ago, we had to let the cleaner go. There are other things we’ll have to do without too, but I think it’s probably for the best.

Laura says her sister might be able to help, but then I point out, wouldn’t that just be a waste of my being on leave, and don’t we want some peace and quiet, just the three of us, and isn’t that what Danny needs right now? I’m just thinking of Danny. So, we make do. And it’s kind of nice, really—just us, making do. No distractions or complications.

I put Danny back in his bouncer while I do the vacuuming and his big eyes follow me around the room. I blink back at him and pull all the faces and he squawks and hoots.

She must hear us messing around down here. I’m not going to ask her again. I’m sick of the excuses. I clean the walls, the door handles, the light switches, all the neglected crevices. Every last trace.

One evening, the doorbell rings but I don’t answer.

After only two weeks, Danny can hold up his head and feed himself and by the end of the first month he’s started walking.

 

Sleep is thick and heavy with nothing to lap against. Then the shape of the room starts to fill itself in.

‘Danny, is that you?’

‘Yes.’

‘Is that really you?’

‘Good morning, Daddy.’

My eyes sting. I shut them tight. My heart. Danny.

‘Hello.’

‘I’m hungry.’

His voice is like a tiny glass bell.

‘Well, we better see what we can do about that. Come on then.’

I hold out my hand and he threads his fingers through mine. Like it’s the most natural thing in the world. It is the most natural thing in the world.

Sitting by the kitchen window, Danny watches the trees dancing in the breeze, stopping every now and then to study the bite-shapes in his toast. He raises his eyebrows to his fringe, then lowers them again. The tiny freckles on his face glowing in the gentle autumn light. The shadows of branches flicker over his elbow, his shoulder, his neck. Here we are. We are finally here. I feel like maybe I should wake Laura.

I don’t.

 

Danny must have been six, the first time we went camping. He was so excited when we got there that he couldn’t get to sleep. He sat on my lap by the fire and started counting the stars. Whenever he missed his place, he’d start all over again. We laughed so much. He’s such a clever kid. That big sky, the long slow breath of the ocean, reminding you just who and where you are. Danny loved it there. Our little spot. Danny, you’re going to love it.

I want it to be a surprise, so I wait to tell him about the camping trip until the night before. About all the things we’re going to do. I take him to the shed and we go through all the gear and I show him his old sleeping bag and head lamp. He doesn’t have to say a thing. I can tell that he’s excited.

That night I lay out some of his favourite clothes. He should fit into them by now. But in the morning, he chooses something else to wear. It’s no big deal. I get it. He’s his own man.

 

Then we’re almost ready to go when she starts up again. He shouldn’t have to hear this. I shouldn’t have to remind her.

We’ve always had a rule about devices on holiday. I thought we were clear on that. You have to know when to stop and when to pay attention. You have to be discerning about these things. Am I wrong? Tell me I’m wrong. It’s bad enough the way it eats away at our time, but this is Danny’s holiday. Let’s not spoil it with all those other voices in our space—all those opinions. It’s too much. And those women, I ask her, are they really her friends? I mean, really? All that talk. Who knows what they talk about. A week without it will be good for her. She needs real time. Time with her family, not fake time. Why are we even having this conversation?

‘Of course we’re going. Darling, relax, please, this is the best thing that ever happened to us.’

‘No, Danny was the best thing that ever happened to us.’

‘Look at me. That’s what I’m talking about, Danny! I’m talking about Danny. Hey, that’s exactly what I’m talking about. Come here.’

I pull her in and hold her tight. Can’t she see that this is exactly what we need right now? What he needs? I think she can. Just wait until we can smell the sea air, I tell her. Just wait until we can feel the sand under our feet.

I need to remind myself that it was always going to take a little more time for her to come around. Perhaps it’s only natural for a mother. Is that what it is? Do I have to remind her what it was like before? When we were getting no answers. When the doctors were saying all the wrong things.

I stand with my face to the ocean and my back to the evening sun. The seaweed drapes around my feet, like piles of old, unspooled tape.

I never dreamt we would be back here, together, under this sky. I feel like I should say something, mark the moment. I look out beyond the break of the waves, admire the way the water cuts the light into gems that sparkle and vanish.

I look back to Danny. He’s hopping over the rock pools, singing to himself, counting anemones. He didn’t want to play beach footy today. That’s okay, we still have three days left camping. Danny always loved footy. Danny, you are going to love it, you’ll see. I squat down and scoop water over my face. The incredible energy of the ocean, Danny, listen to it—churning away for billions of years. Imagine. There is no rest.

After dinner I put the remaining food back into the cooler and heat up some water for the dishes, while Danny lies on the grass playing with his shells. Laura is reading her book, again. I feel like I’m doing everything I can here.

I finish cleaning up and double-check the zips on the tents. I turn on the lamp and I light the mosquito candles. I collect some more wood and go to check the fire, and that’s when I notice.

‘Laura, where is he?’

She doesn’t look up. ‘I don’t know.’

‘Seriously, Laura, it’s getting dark.’

‘I said, I don’t know.’

‘Come on. You must have seen where he went? While I was cleaning up? I mean—’.

Laura just shakes her head.

My skin prickles. Jesus, can’t she do anything? I’ll do it then. I’ll do it myself. I put on my boots and grab the torch.

Only then does she look over at me, her face bunched up, turning on the tears again. ‘You bastard!’

‘What? What?!

She’s standing up now. Coming towards me, stabbing at the air. ‘You. You used him up. You used him up and then you used him again!’

‘Laura.’

‘You used him up with all your tiny fucking expectations. Our son! How could you? How could you?!’

‘Jesus. Laura, stop. This is bullshit. I’m going to look for him. Someone has to look—’.

‘No. No. I want to hear you ask for forgiveness. For Danny. For … that thing. From his mother.’

‘You’re his mother!’

‘I am Danny’s mother! I loved him! I love him. I love him.’

Not this again.

‘Laura. It’s just you, me and Danny. Let’s not spoil this.’

‘Get away from me! Get away! You have no idea. You didn’t have to carry it! The way it squirmed in there. In Danny’s place. That was Danny’s place! And for what? I have to live with that now. Me! Me!’

‘Okay. Okay, but what we need to do now is find him. Let’s think about this. Laura, please, it’s getting dark.’

‘He’s gone.’

‘What? What are you saying? Laura, I have to find him. Laura, what have you done? Where is he?’

‘He’s gone. Do you understand? And that poor thing. I can’t even stand to look at it. How many times? He’s gone. Danny’s gone.’

‘What are you talking about? Laura! Where is he?!’

‘Stop! Stop it! Let go! You’re hurting me! Stop!’

‘Keep your fucking voice down. I swear I’ll—’

It’s at that moment that Danny appears. Great. To see this. To see this little performance. She should be ashamed. As a mother. I have tried so hard to protect Danny from this sort of thing. I’ve tried so hard to be reasonable, to make things right, but she’s constantly goading me. Is that what she wants? Is that really what she wants? She doesn’t know how lucky she is. What we have. I am not the bad guy here.

Danny is swaying and staring at the ground, at the space in between us. Why can’t she see what I see? Our boy. Our boy. I breathe in deeply through my nose and out through my mouth. I face my palms outward. I do the counting. And I do it again.

No-one moves. The ocean breeze feels its way through the trees. The shadows are drawn back into the night.

‘Okay, Danny, it’s time for bed. Isn’t it? That’s right, isn’t it? Laura? Laura? It is. It really is. Come on guys. Both of you. Hey, you know we’ve got a big day tomorrow. Let’s do this.’

I go to my tent. I put the awning away and I tie the ropes down. I take off my socks and my shoes. I carefully brush the sand from my calves and my feet. I close up the tent and I get into my sleeping bag. They should be doing the same. They really should.

‘Lights out in ten minutes,’ I call to them. But all I hear are the crashing waves. The coast being broken into tinier and tinier parts of itself.

 

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Drew Roberts is a writer, editor and educator living in Melbourne. His work has appeared in Overland, un Magazine and on ABC Radio National.

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Comments

  1. Captivating Drew – in both senses. That growing sense of unease at where this father’s account is going until we end up in Laura’s ‘uncanny valley’. Well done!

  2. This left me with absolute shivers — perturbed until the last. Love when spec fic is so close to reality you believe it’s real.

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