When I opened the door she was so backlit by the afternoon sun that I couldn’t focus properly. In the confusion of her coming inside I think I forgot to welcome her. It’d been a long time, but she looked the same, with her straight brown hair and blue, blue eyes and her strange fragility, her fingers brittle as twigs. That was the first thing I remembered: how when she relaxed, her twiggy fingers softened. How when she was drunk, her fingers became anemones. She used to wind her hair around her fingers and I’d wonder how the hairs didn’t slice through those pale tendrils. I didn’t know what to do with my own hands so I crossed my arms and we went into the lounge room. She put her baby down on the filthy carpet, and I was embarrassed.
‘I’ll get a towel,’ I offered, blushing. ‘Or a clean sheet, or something.’
‘Oh, she crawls around now. She won’t stay there long. Besides, dirt is good for babies. Builds their immune systems.’
I felt stupid, like I didn’t know anything about babies, or what they do, or their immune systems. I also realised I couldn’t remember the baby’s name, although Kath had told me on the phone just a couple of days ago. We both looked at the baby for a minute or two. It felt that long, but it was probably more like five seconds. Then I offered to make tea. She followed me to the kitchen and sat down at the kitchen table. I tried to concentrate on the kettle, the tea bags, the proper order of things. I tried to remember if I had put the ashtray away this morning or if it was still on the coffee table.
‘Back in a sec,’ I told Kath. At the lounge-room door I stopped, caught off guard by this tiny person in a pale blue jumpsuit lying on my disgusting carpet. The baby saw me, but seemed uninterested. She lay there sucking her thumb and staring at the ceiling. I edged past her, like she was a feral cat or something else that might suddenly jump up and attach itself to my leg. The ashtray was on the coffee table, full of butts and Anticol wrappers and tiny pieces of orange peel. I grabbed it and walked past the baby again. This time, I paused to look down at her. She had Kath’s dark hair, and her eyes looked similar, but other than that I couldn’t see the resemblance. Had she really made that? Had it, she, really grown inside her, like a fat little seed? The baby looked pretty content to me, so I left her staring at the ceiling and tiptoed out of the room.
In the kitchen, Kath was standing at the sink, staring out of the window. Her untouched cup of tea was steaming gently on the bench, and the dust motes and the curling steam played in a sunbeam that seemed to shoot through her, as if she was a conduit for this particular stream of light.
‘Matt never empties the ashtray,’ I explained, holding it up. ‘But I don’t think there’s anything else in the house that would be dangerous to a baby.’ I excused myself and reached around her legs to shove the ashtray in the cupboard under the sink. When I straightened up she was staring at me, and then she leaned forward and put her head on my shoulder. She clung to me and I stroked her hair and listened to her tell me, in between gulps and sniffs, why she couldn’t stay with Mick. As she listed his various failings I tried to listen and stay tuned in but her hair smelled faintly like sandalwood the way I remembered it and her body was warm and her arms were surprisingly strong when she stopped crying and started pulling me down the hall. I dragged my hand out of hers as we passed the bathroom and ducked inside. I needed a second to think, to try to figure out what was going on. I swore to myself, last night, when I knew she was coming. I promised I wouldn’t let this happen.
As I closed the bedroom door behind me I remembered the baby. ‘She’s very quiet,’ I offered, not knowing what to say. It didn’t seem right, leaving a baby alone in a strange house. Kath assured me that she would be fine on her own for fifteen minutes or so. ‘She’s always quiet. She’ll go off to sleep. I borrowed your throw-rug and wrapped her up while you were in the toilet. She’s probably already asleep.’ Kath fished a packet of pills out of her bag and swallowed one. ‘Want a Xanax?’
I shook my head, knowing I must seem old and boring. Then I had to ask, unable to leave it alone: ‘Will the baby be okay if she wakes up?’
Kath gave me a funny look. ‘Yes. She’s very independent. She’ll just explore your house. She won’t be any trouble.’
‘That’s not what I meant.’
She sighed, took off her shorts and climbed under the sheet. She lay on her back, staring at the dusty paper lantern light fitting that had been here when I moved in and that I hadn’t bothered to change. ‘In the hospital,’ she said softly, ‘one of the midwives came to see me late at night. They’d done blood tests and a whole host of other shit – God knows what they did to her. Anyway, this nurse snuck up to my bed and handed her to me. She said she’d have to take her back downstairs to the nursery, but that she thought I should hold her for a bit. And then she leaned in close, like she was scared somebody would hear her, and she said: “I don’t think they’ll find anything wrong with baby. I think you’ll find she’s just a little quiet one.”’ Kath yawned, and turned her head to look at me. Her eyes were a very deep blue under their puffy lids. I stood next to the bed and cursed her for knowing, as she always had, how much this meant to me. She smoothed the top sheet and smiled.
We’d done this so many times before, but always young, always drunk and stoned, always with an alibi. I never thought I’d do it sober, in daylight, with nothing to hide the spread of my stomach or the way my breasts slopped to one side as I lay down. But she kissed me and I forgot all of that. The sky behind the venetians seemed to darken. We could have been back in the city, in that unspeakably dingy flat above the Thai takeaway, two angels high on purity.
Kath slept. I watched her like a child who has been conned into shoplifting by a friend, who waits to be told: ‘now do this’. Her eyes looked bruised, and her long fingers were curled into balls and tucked under her chin. I had no idea how long we’d been in bed. It didn’t seem long, but I was dumb with the wonder of her being here again. Everything was dreamlike and soft around the edges. I was restless, though. The moment kept fraying, and I couldn’t gather the bits together. I was anxious about the baby. I pulled my dress back over my head and snuck out. As I padded up the corridor I knew already that the baby wouldn’t be in the lounge room any more, but the emptiness of the room still startled me. I looked briefly in Matt’s room, holding my breath against the smell. I checked the bathroom, the spare room and finally the kitchen. No baby. Finally, worked up into real panic now, I noticed the back door was slightly ajar. I was sure I’d closed it.
I pushed open the back door. Sunlight slapped me in the eyes, but I made myself squint under my hand and scan the backyard. There was a pale blue lump on the overgrown grass, and I plunged down the back steps, fearing the worst, expecting a limp little tragedy. But the baby was okay. She lay on her side, sucking her thumb and staring at nothing in particular. I bent over to pick her up, no longer caring if I didn’t know how, but she didn’t look at me. I made some idiotic cooing noises and waved my fingers, and the dark blue eyes focused on me for a moment, but there was no accompanying smile, no real flicker of interest. That’s when it hit me, and all the house seemed to quiver with a horrible stench: something vile and painful and adult and unforgiveable, and I didn’t want to go back in there. I picked up the baby. I picked her up and turned her around and put her on my shoulder. The baby didn’t make a sound. She was soft, and warm, and so little. So very, very small.
‘You poor little thing,’ I whispered. ‘You don’t expect anything do you?’
I was pretty certain that Kath hadn’t brought a bag or anything with her. Shouldn’t the baby have some milk? I didn’t have any milk. So I went out the back gate into the alleyway and I carried Kath’s baby all the way to the shops. At the milk bar, the teenager with the attitude problem didn’t comment on the baby. She just scanned my items and put them on the tab, silently, like she does when I come in to buy cigarettes, or the newspaper. I carried the milk and the new plastic baby bottle and Kathleen’s baby home in the heat and the quiet of the January afternoon. The city had emptied itself. I thought of my friends and the beach where they were staying. Their children would be playing in the shallows and the mothers would be talking and grinding their city-toughened heels into the sand with their caftans wrapping wetly around their spray-tanned legs. The fathers would be sitting out the back on the new foam longboards they bought for the kids to learn on, and after the beach they’d all troop back to the holiday house for prawns and dolmades and Campari on ice. I’d been politely invited and I politely declined. I love the beach, but I hate caftans and prawns. Mostly I hate that tiny pause, that moment where the mothers, comparing notes about little Noah and little Sienna and what cute things they did that day, would stop and remember I was there and be embarrassed for me, like I was an amputee at a fun run and they’d forgotten that I couldn’t join in.
When I got home my arm was aching from holding the baby, and I remembered that the microwave had stopped working. I switched the baby to my other arm and squatted to get a saucepan from under the bench. There was no sound from the bedroom. The baby was getting restless. She began to make little mewing noises, and I jiggled her around, saying stupid things like ‘there’s a good girl, not long now’ and ‘not long now my pet’ as I warmed up the milk. I tore off the plastic wrapping from the bottle and had a moment of blind panic when I couldn’t work out how the silicone teat fitted on, but I figured it out eventually. Like a garden hose; the plastic over the rubber. I had to put the baby on the floor while I poured the warm milk into the bottle. She began to cry for real then. I tried not to look, but I saw her as I fumbled with the stupid teat – I saw her little face squashed up and real tears streaming down her red cheeks. She cried silently, too, which made it worse. I spilled a lot of milk, but I got the bottle filled, the lid on, the baby up off the floor and the bottle in her mouth. She lay in my arms, gulping milk in between tiny sobs at first, and then sucking with such an air of gratitude and bliss that I found my own eyes pricking and my nostrils flaring with god knows what emotion.
Kathleen came in just as her baby was finishing the milk. She yawned and sat down on the other chair. Her hair was messed up and her cheeks were flushed with sleep. She yawned again and smiled. I didn’t smile back. I tried to look at her objectively, tried to see her for what she was, in reality, without my stupid, shameful feelings gilding her. Kath put her elbows on the table and her chin in her hand.
‘She conned you into feeding her. She’s such a con artist. Aren’t you, Poppy, you little brat?’ She sat back in her chair, ran her long fingers over her flushed cheeks, pushed her hair behind her ears and hitched up a shoulder strap that had slipped down. I focused on the baby. On Poppy, this baby I had carried five blocks to the milk bar and back again, whose little features had been twisted in hunger and now were soft and on the edge of sleep.
‘She would have been alright you know. You didn’t need to feed her.’
‘She looked hungry. She cried.’ It came out like a plea, rather than an accusation, but I didn’t care. Poppy had fallen asleep in my arms. Kath got up and stretched, and I could see it, finally. I saw the performance, the coquette at work in this woman I thought I loved. This woman I did love, even now, even after everything. Kath came and leaned over my shoulder. I could feel her breasts against my back and her breath warm on my cheek but I ignored her. She leaned over to wipe a dribble of milk from Poppy’s tiny lips. ‘You’re so good with her,’ she crooned. ‘I knew you would be.’
‘She’s a lovely baby,’ I said, astonished at the affection in my voice.
‘She’s asleep,’ whispered Kath. ‘Give her to me; I’ll put her to bed on the couch.’
Not on that couch, I thought. Matt spills beer and drops ash on that couch. He farts on that couch, for God’s sake. And you want to put this beautiful little creature down on that couch and play games with me? No way.
I carried Poppy to my bed and placed her carefully in the middle so that she wouldn’t roll off the edge. I pulled the sheets up and tucked her in. I could see the wetness leaking out of her nappy and staining her jumpsuit as I fussed over her, but she’d have to wait for somebody to fix that. There were no clean nappies, as far as I could tell. I made sure the baby was safe, and then I turned to leave. Kath was leaning in the doorway and watching me.
‘I had no idea you were so maternal.’ There was a definite edge to her voice. Then she smiled and put both arms up to block the doorway.
No you don’t. I thought. Not this time. I tried to make my voice reasonable, and I even managed to look her in the eye. ‘Poppy needs her nappy changing,’ I said, crossing my arms. ‘Do you have any nappies in the car?’
She let her own arms fall and put her hands in her pockets. I didn’t look at her, but I felt her displeasure, ghost arms still reaching while the real ones were tucked away. I knew, hadn’t I always? I knew those ghost arms had clawed fingers that were reaching for my throat. That was always the way when people crossed her.
‘Actually, nappy police, I do have nappies in the car. And baby wipes and nappy cream and bottles and formula, which she should be drinking instead of cow’s milk, by the way, and a change of clothes and rattles and dummies and all sorts of shit. I may have an alcoholic wife-basher husband and no career and no fucking life, but I am, believe it or not, quite a good mother. If you don’t believe me, why don’t you go and fetch the bloody nappies yourself?’ She pulled a slender set of keys from her pocket and threw them at me. I caught them left-handed and she stepped out of the doorway. I didn’t even look up as I edged past her and headed, maybe a shade too quickly, for the front door.
The car, a newish white Toyota, was parked across the street. I knew it was Kath’s because of the bumper stickers – animal rights and Amnesty, as usual. The car was crammed with bags and clothes and pillows, but I also saw parts of other objects: books and soft toys and a pair of long leather boots and a lamp, shoe boxes with taped-up lids and plastic shopping bags full of food. Everything was tightly, ingeniously packed, like the mobile nest of an ultra-organised hoarder. As I searched for the baby’s bag I saw a piece of notepaper with my name and address on it. The top third was folded and tucked firmly into the air vent in the right hand corner of the dashboard. And the letters of my name had been written over and over and over again in blue biro until each letter looked like it had been tattooed onto the cheap notepaper. I stared at the note for way too long, trying not to over-think those engraved letters and failing. I found the nappies in one of the larger bags. As I locked the car and turned to cross the road I saw Kath, lit by the softening daylight, smoking a cigarette in my doorway. ‘Took you long enough,’ she said, and stood back to let me enter.