I knock on the door at exactly 9am, and she opens it a few seconds later. Her clothes are all wispy layers of black and she has bright red hair clipped up on top of her head and lipstick the same colour as her hair. She is far more beautiful than I had imagined when we talked on the phone, but also far more anxious – her hands flutter to and from her face as she shows me around, and she apologises constantly for the mess, even though the house is spotless.
She tells me that Riley had a bit of a sleep in today and has only just finished breakfast, but when we go to the kitchen, his dishes have already been washed and put away. She offers to make me a coffee, and seems disappointed when I say I had one on the way here. Straight away, I wish I had said yes, so I’d have something to do with my mouth in the gaps when she isn’t speaking.
The house is fairly dark, as Wellington houses tend to be, but even in this dim light, it’s uncomfortable to look so closely at the setting of someone else’s life: the mismatched couches with rugs over the thinning fabric of their arms, framed photographs of a couple – her parents? – with the colour faded out of them, and boxes of children’s toys in every corner, drooped and dirty like the ‘FREE’ bin outside a secondhand shop. I am most interested in a closed door in the middle of the hallway – I can hear classical music and the occasional loud thud coming from the room behind it – but she keeps it at the centre of our orbit as we lap the house twice, and then says, ‘Let’s head outside.’
The garden is small, but she walks me around all of it. She shows me the washing line, the best place to put out bread scraps for birds, the flowers she is trying to keep alive, and the low part of the fence that Riley throws things over if he thinks they shouldn’t be in the house – library books, borrowed DVDs, food he doesn’t like, and anything new that she buys for herself and forgets to hide in her bedroom.
‘Oh – and the shed!’ she exclaims, as if she had forgotten it existed.
She’s a bit of a musician, although she blushes when she says it, and rolls her eyes so that I’ll know she doesn’t take herself too seriously. The shed is her studio. There are two locks on the door, and she pulls a chain of keys up from underneath her top to open them. I catch myself thinking about how warm the metal of the keys must be.
Inside, the walls are covered in posters of Leonard Cohen, Nick Cave, Tom Waits and Patti Smith. The large wooden benchtops are a scramble of records and sheet music. There are two guitars – one electric, one acoustic – standing against the wall, and a drum set in the corner. It looks like a magazine photo of a loft in New York City, but when I start to compliment it, she cuts me off.
‘If all goes to plan, you’ll never really be in here. I think it’s important I have my own zone, you know.’
We go back into the house and she demonstrates ‘how things are done around here.’ Mix together bleach and toilet cleaner, rather than use one or the other – you get better results that way. Dissolve the laundry powder in a cup of warm water and leave it sitting on the shelf beside the washing machine until the clothes or bedding in the machine are totally submerged in water, then pause the machine, pour in the mixture, and restart it. Rinse the dishes with cold water and then re-stack them to the right of the sink, clean the brush with antibacterial soap, fill the sink with hot water and bubbles and wash the dishes thoroughly, remembering to rinse each dish under the hot tap before you put it on the drying rack. Always use a fresh towel from the drawer to wipe them. If you need to let them air-dry, cover the dishes with a tea towel to protect them from dust and germs.
She kneels on the bathroom floor with a bucket of soapy water, climbs up a stepladder to unlock the cupboard where cleaning products and medicines are kept, checks the care tags of the clothes in the laundry hamper to see which ones can be washed together, and changes the sheets on the bed in the spare room so I can understand how best to make sure the fitted sheet is wrinkle-free. I follow, the sole audience to this one-woman dance performance. I try to look relaxed and comfortable, but I feel the heaviness of my hands hanging limply at my sides, while hers rush around.
I have been here for more than two hours when she takes a deep breath, lets it out loudly and says, ‘I guess you better meet Riley,’ gesturing towards the only unopened door.
He is a small head propped up on a pillow, poking out from under the colourful duvet that hides his body. He has cropped dark hair, freckles, and long eyelashes. It’s somehow not what I had been expecting – he just looks like a normal twelve-year-old boy. He is perfectly still, eyes closed. It’s hard to imagine that serene face having anything to do with the person she described on the phone last week, who was suspended indefinitely from school because the staff don’t feel safe around him.
‘Riley loves Mozart,’ she whispers in my ear, lips almost, but not quite, grazing my skin. ‘He finds the music very relaxing.’
Riley reaches an arm out from under the duvet and waves us away, without ever opening his eyes, and his mother grabs my shoulder and pulls me out quickly, closing the door very gently.
‘If he tells you to leave, you leave,’ she explains in the lounge. ‘Do you want to meet him again before you sign the paperwork?’
‘Oh, we can do paperwork.’
We spend an hour going over tax codes, non-disclosure agreements, safety plans, and pay rates. I’m thinking to myself that it must be time for Riley to get up and have some lunch, spend some time with me so we get to know each other better, maybe even do our first educational activity – something simple, like playdough or a puzzle, so I can get a grasp of where he is at – when she stands up and says, ‘This has been a busy day. Feel free to head off now. Are you sure you’re happy to come back tomorrow?’
‘Oh, yes. Absolutely.’
‘Great! I’ll see you at 9. Thanks for today.’
I arrive 5 minutes before 9, and she is already at the door waiting to unlock it and let me in.
‘I’m getting used to you sneaking up on me early,’ she laughs, ‘but every morning, I just think to myself how terrible it is that I haven’t organised for you to have your own key yet – it’s been weeks!’
‘Oh, I don’t need one, you’re always here to let me in.’
She smiles. ‘That’s a lovely colour on you,’ she says, stroking my t-shirt sleeve with the back of one curled finger. I have a headache from changing antidepressants last week, and my temples throb in time with her talking.
Today her lipstick looks just like her real lips, but smoother. There is a big, brass moth pinned to her collar, and she has a black beret perched on the back of her head. As usual, I rolled out of bed this morning and straight to the car, after another bad night’s sleep, muttering at traffic and not noticing my collection of crinkles and stains until now, when they are highlighted by her careful gaze.
We go to the kitchen and make coffee, then drink it in the lounge. She always perches on the edge of the couch, leaning forwards, and holds onto her coffee cup with both hands like it’s the only thing she’s sure of – I like that; she looks how I feel. She drinks slowly and takes appreciative breaths in through her nose between sips. She tells me about the mediocre made-for-TV music documentary she watched yesterday before bed, and I tell her about the university assignment that I still haven’t written.
‘Riley is doing well,’ she says, ‘a bit of head-banging as usual, but he slept through the night.’
‘That’s good to hear.’
‘I didn’t have time to do the dishes, though, darling – I was wondering if you could maybe do them? I’m a bit embarrassed, though – it’s my dishes too, not just Riley’s, and you’re supposed to be looking after him, not me.’
‘No worries at all!’ I jump up, but she stands too, and blocks my way into the kitchen with her body.
‘Don’t race off and do them right now. Settle in first, make yourself at home.’
I stay standing. ‘It’s nice to feel useful,’ I tell her, ‘I feel like I spend most of my time here just watching you work.’
Her cheeks seem to sag, and she sits back down. ‘Oh God, I’m sorry! I just hang around constantly, you must be sick of me.’
‘No, it’s your house. But why don’t you head to the shed and play the guitar? Or go for a walk, even? Make the most of your chance to have a break.’
‘You’re right – I’m going to leave you alone tomorrow! I’ll ask my sister out for coffee. We’ll go somewhere nearby, so you can call me if there’s an emergency.’
‘I don’t mean to send you away.’
But she heads off to her bedroom with her cellphone and makes plans for tomorrow morning, while I start rinsing dishes ready to be washed. It’s funny how much easier it is to do someone else’s dishes than your own. I wash and dry and put away and it actually gives me a sense of satisfaction, while at home my bedroom smells of dried baked bean juice from the plates I’m too tired to carry to the kitchen sink.
A few dishes in, I hear a loud bang from Riley’s room, and go in with a bubble blower to try to calm him down. I blow bubbles until I’m lightheaded, but he just stands in the corner crying loudly, banging his head against the wall over and over again. Eventually, she comes in and takes Riley into her arms, kissing his face and holding him tightly as he starts to bang his head against her face and shoulders instead. She makes eye contact with me across the room, and signals that I should leave with a jerk of her head.
I’m about to knock when I remember the week-old key in my pocket. I let myself in, close the door gently, and hear the eerie quiet of the house. She’s not in the lounge or the kitchen.
When I finally find her, she’s sitting on a white plastic chair in the doorway of the shed, wearing too-short pyjama pants from The Warehouse and a David Bowie t-shirt with no bra underneath. Her nipples pucker the fabric like two little stars, one on each side of Bowie’s face. Some of the blu-tack holding the posters to the wall has lost its stick since I first saw inside the shed, and they hang lopsided now, only one or two corners still clinging to the damp concrete. I’ve still never heard her play any of the instruments.
The door is open, but she isn’t watching the sparrows outside, staring instead at the magazine on her lap. The fine china cup that she always uses for her coffee is empty now, pressed between her left shoulder and neck above a strangely bent arm, the contortion of a woman who doesn’t know she can be seen, seeking comfort from something so small and hard.
I can imagine exactly how she got here, having witnessed the routine so many times before. An hour ago, she would have been hopefully cradling her first cigarette of the day between two fingers, as her other hand tipped cream into the coffee cup, still steaming. But the coffee will have gone cold beside the kettle as she wandered the house, the cigarette getting lost in the greying roots of un-dyed hair behind her ear when her hands became busy with things that seemed less selfish. Right now the only part of her that looks comfortable is her right arm, leading casually down to the cigarette that is finally burning.
I don’t want to disturb her, knowing that she will stub out the cigarette when she sees me, and wave her arms as if she can disperse the smell of smoke. I creep back to the kitchen, make myself a coffee, and sit in the lounge alone, switching between Facebook and news headlines on my phone, not really reading any of it.
She jumps backwards in fright when she comes into the room and sees me, then turns to look at the clock on the wall.
‘Fuck, sorry! I really lost track of the time!’ She pulls her arms protectively across her chest, and bends forwards as she rushes towards her bedroom door, calling over her shoulder, ‘I’ll just go get my dressing gown!’
She comes back in a man’s bathrobe that almost reaches the floor.
‘It’s two years today since my best friend killed herself,’ she says gently, as if I’ll be more upset than she is. ‘I’m taking things a bit slower this morning.’
I nod silently and wonder how different her life was when she had a friend.
‘Sara used to bleach my roots for me, ready to dye,’ she says, as if she read my mind, ‘Adding colour is pretty simple, but bleaching is trickier … I’m going to try doing it myself today, though – I got it done at a salon the last couple of times, and the prices are crazy.’
‘They can see the back of your head, though,’ I joke. She smiles but doesn’t laugh.
‘I dreamed last night that Riley was talking to me,’ she says, after a pause, ‘Really talking. Sometimes in my dreams he says one word, like ‘mum’ or ‘please,’ and we get so excited about it because it’s his first word. In other dreams, he and I are just chatting away, and the fact that he’s talking is absolutely normal. Last night was one of those. Are you having the talking dreams yet?’
‘About Riley? No.’
‘Oh, every carer he’s ever had has ended up dreaming that he talked to them! It’ll happen soon, I’m sure.’
‘Maybe it already has,’ I say, embarrassed. ‘I never remember my dreams.’
Last night I dreamed that I was trying to answer complex theoretical questions that didn’t have answers, because they weren’t real questions; they were random streams of words and feelings that my sleeping brain had invented. I woke up hyperventilating four times through the night, and marked each of them on the chart that the university counsellor told me I should keep. As I pulled on my clothes this morning, I decided academia just isn’t for me – I’m good at it, but it seems to drive me crazy. But as I pulled up outside her house, I decided I have to keep studying so that I won’t spend my whole life just coming here, because this drives me crazy too.
‘Do you think you could help me?’ she asks, shyly, ‘with my hair, I mean. I know it’s a bit inappropriate, so do say no if you want to, but you could do the bits I can’t see?’
‘I can do my best.’ I touch my own hair, imagining lifting hers away from the back of her neck, tucking it behind her ears, letting my fingernails send tingles across her scalp as I massage the bleach into her roots. I’m not sure whether I’m ready to touch her. ‘Will you tell me what to do?’
‘Of course, darling, I’m not expecting magic. It’s just a bit of bleach, and you brush it onto the brown bits and not the red bits. Let’s go into the bathroom – it’s a lino floor in there, so it won’t matter if it drips …’
She races off to gather equipment, then pops her head back around the door to say, ‘Finish your coffee before you come, there’s no rush.’
Riley has broken routine and done today’s poo a few hours early, so I am still wearing my coat while I try to hold down all four of his limbs with my two hands.
She cleans the brown goo from his bottom and testicles and pubic hair with multiple warm facecloths that have BOTTOM written across them in permanent marker. She seems so calm and relaxed that she is almost happy. I take shallow breaths through my mouth and try not to gag as Riley moves around more than at any other time of the day. I tell myself that he can’t possibly be doing any of this on purpose, and that it is the fault of his digestive system that his poo is always so soft with such a rotten smell. I am not entirely convinced by my own argument. Every part of my body is repulsed by him, as he smells and kicks and wiggles soundlessly.
She finally gets him clean, covers him in baby powder, seals his fresh nappy, and pulls a pair of trackpants on top of it. She drags the changing mat out from under him, but he stays on the floor, finally still and calm, as we leave.
In the kitchen, we scrub our hands with antibacterial soap and the cherry blossom flavour cuts through the last of the foulness that lingers in my nose. She follows the soap with a squirt of vanilla moisturiser and offers the tube to me, but I shake my head.
‘You need to be careful, sweetie,’ she tells me, lifting my hand from where it hangs at my side, and running her fingers over mine. ‘Your nails are peeling, and it’s been getting worse lately. You should moisturise, but you should also look at your diet. Dry nails are usually a sign that something’s really wrong inside.’
‘Okay,’ I say, and my breath catches in my throat as she squirts more moisturiser into her palm and massages it into my hands.
As she turns away and reaches up to a high shelf for a new packet of coffee grounds, her top rides up at the side, and I see a particularly black bruise tucked into her waist.
‘Oooh, he got you pretty badly there! Are you alright?’
‘It’s nothing,’ she puts the bag of coffee onto the bench and pulls her top down firmly.
‘It’s hard, though, being hurt by someone you love,’ I say. This is uncharted territory.
‘Well, it always hurts to really love someone,’ she tells me, turning away to spoon coffee into the plunger. ‘And we want to share that hurt with them, so they know how much we love them. We want to squeeze them so hard that our arms go right through them. That’s why people hug and kiss and hold hands – we want to be wrapped around each other.’
I nod, which is useless as she still has her back to me. I wish that I was brave enough to try to comfort her – pat her on the shoulder, or just rest my fingertips on her arm.
She continues, pouring boiling water onto the coffee, then getting cups from the cupboard, ‘Riley doesn’t do hugs and kisses, but I think his aggression is very similar, really. If he digs his teeth into my skin, or bangs his head against mine, we’re sharing an intense, physical moment together. We’re as close as we can possibly be, both hurting.’
I don’t know what to say, so I say nothing.
The door swings open in front of me while I’m still rummaging through my pockets for the key, and she is there, dressed, groomed, and grinning.
‘We’re going to have company today!’ she tells me.
‘Builders! Housing New Zealand is sending them to fix up a few things. They usually send really cute young guys!’
She walks, humming, back to her bedroom, and I go to the kitchen to make coffee.
I drink the coffee slowly, but when I finish she still hasn’t come back, and there’s no sign of the builders. I go to check on Riley, and find him standing beside his bed, staring at the wall.
‘Do you want some bubbles, Riley?’
He doesn’t react.
‘Do you want me to bring you the playdough, Riley?’
He waves me away, and I leave.
‘How’s Riles?’ she asks, when we meet in the kitchen.
‘He seems pretty calm,’ I say. ‘He’s not playing with toys or listening to anything, though.’
‘Oh, well,’ she says, ‘Look – the builders are here!’
I have never seen her dismiss Riley this way before, and now it occurs to me that she probably doesn’t like him. She loves him, of course, but he is too old to be cute any more, and he doesn’t speak or show affection, so there’s nothing to cling on to when things get bad. She is trapped in this house, tip-toeing around his strange, silent demands.
‘Oh God, there’s four of them and they’re all cute!’ she squeals, pulling me closer to the window. ‘Or am I just being a desperate old lady? They’re your age, really.’
‘None of them are my type, though,’ I sigh, trying to play along, ‘They’re all a bit too manly, you know.’
I don’t know if she even hears what I say – she is off, unlocking the front door, oozing charm and excitement. ‘Good morning, boys! Does anyone need a coffee before you get started?’
Her hands are fluttering around, touching them all on their arms and their shoulders, while her smile shows all of her teeth at once. It’s more than I want to see. I’m embarrassed on her behalf – she doesn’t seem to realise that after these guys leave her house, they’ll all laugh together about the middle-aged lady who couldn’t keep her hands to herself.
I go back to Riley’s room. He tolerates me standing inside the door for ten minutes, hiding from the visitors. I scroll through lecture notes on my phone, taking nothing in, and he holds a picture book in his hand, staring blankly at its cover.
When I wander back to the lounge, she is smiling on the couch, two men on each side. Her coffee cups look so delicate in their big hands. They are laughing, leaning forwards to talk to her, elbowing each other, tapping her shoulder or the back of her hand as they compete for her attention.
When they notice me, they go quiet and polite, their smiles more forced. I guess she’s not the embarrassing one after all.
‘This is who I was just telling you about,’ she gestures towards me, ‘Honestly, one of you guys should marry this girl – I don’t deserve to have her all to myself.’
One of them gets up and walks over to the drinks tray set up on the table. He pours the last bit of coffee from the plunger into a clean cup, adds sugar and milk before I can stop him, and hands it over. I smile and nod and pretend to take a sip, dipping my top lip in its sweet lukewarmness.
‘Her contract says she cares for Riley,’ she continues, ‘but the poor girl spends half her time looking after me instead …’
‘That’s not true.’ I’m still standing up, because all the couch space is taken. They’re in a line, heads bent back, looking up at me like a row of school kids. The silence goes on for too long. They look away and start to shift in their seats, then empty their cups with quick gulps and stand up.
‘Well, we’re not getting paid to sit here drinking coffee,’ one says. ‘We better get to work.’
She shepherds them off to look at the cracks in the wall, and I go to the kitchen. I hear them start laughing again on the other side of the house. She’s already done the dishes, wiped down the bench and emptied the bin. I wash the coffee cups, empty the plunger, make myself some fresh coffee and sit down in the middle of the couch to drink it, the cushion still slightly warm underneath me.
As I walk up the front path, I can see that she hasn’t done her usual 8:30 lap of the house to open the curtains and windows.
Inside, her bedroom door is closed too, and Riley is in the kitchen, in his pyjamas. He is sitting on the floor, surrounded by chocolate chip cookies. He must have ripped open the packet and exploded its contents. He is eating a cookie, examining it closely before every bite.
‘Well done, Riley, you made your own breakfast!’ I say, impressed by him for the first time since we met.
He leaps up, drops the last few bites, and dashes to his bedroom, crushing a few cookies underfoot on his way. I remember his mother telling me, on the day we first met, about Riley throwing things over the fence if he didn’t think they belonged in the house. I wonder if the cookie-stealing is a throwback to that phase of their lives. I’ve never seen him open a cupboard, let alone go out into the garden, but she doesn’t borrow library books anymore, either.
I get the brush and dustpan and sweep up the packaging, cookies and crumbs, tipping the whole lot into the bin. She wouldn’t want him eating anything that had touched the floor. I cut a cinnamon bagel in half and put it into the toaster, pour a mug of milk, and begin cutting up fruit on his red plastic breakfast plate. I spread butter and honey on the bagel, and then deliver the plate and mug to Riley in his bedroom.
She emerges into the hallway as I make my way back to the lounge. Merlot-coloured lipstick is flaking off her mouth like long-dried blood, and a mixture of eyeliner and mascara has spread down towards her cheeks, tracking wrinkles that I had never realised were there. She has trimmed her own fringe too short again and it’s sticking straight upwards. Without the messy hair, the blurred makeup would look like bruises, but the chicken-tail fringe makes it seem funny instead of violent. Her face is tight, though – she doesn’t like to be caught like this, with yesterday’s togetherness now a broken mask.
‘I slept in my makeup, like the idiot I am,’ she says. ‘Sorry I’m so horrifying!’
‘It is an interesting look on you! But I prefer the usual.’
She smiles, apologetic rather than happy. Her eyes don’t crinkle the way they usually do.
‘I’ve started having these sort of … nightmares, or panic attacks, when I’m sleeping,’ she leans against the side of the doorway, and looks down at her own hands, ‘It used to happen all the time when Riley was first diagnosed. I guess they’ve flared up again because I’m coming to terms with the fact that he’ll never go back to school. This is my life now.’
‘Oh that’s awful,’ I reach out and pat her arm, and it feels like such a long way down when I lower my hand again. ‘I get those too.’
‘Honey! What do you have to worry about?’
‘Oh, nothing serious.’ I already regret saying anything. ‘Just university stuff really. It’s stupid.’
‘You’re probably expecting too much of yourself.’ She’s thrilled to be giving me advice. ‘You should try doing some affirmations before you go to sleep. Say, “I’m intelligent and I’m doing my best,” and “I don’t need to be perfect” – things like that …’
‘Yeah. I’ll try. I’m seeing a counsellor; talking about it seems to help a bit.’
‘That’s good. My doctor is always telling me to see a counsellor. As if talking about my problems is going to make any of them go away!’
It’s the perfect opportunity for me to give her some advice. I practice in my head, ‘Maybe you should create some excuses to leave the house – like, go shopping, instead of getting the groceries online. It’s quite a nice ritual to walk through the supermarket, and you get to meet local people there, see new things … You must get so claustrophobic, just being in this house all day, every day –’
But she’s talking again. ‘And hey – if uni is too much for you, you’re welcome to work for me full time. Riley and I really love you, and nobody else has applied for the other days of the week, so you can have the shifts if you want them. At the moment, all his funding is just sitting there unused.’
She has a packet of cleansing wipes in her hand. Before I can say anything, she holds them up beside her face.
‘Time for damage control!’ she says, and heads to the bathroom.
I already know that I will remember those wrinkles under her eyes long after she has wiped away the black lines that told me they were there. I imagine myself at her age, following a well-dressed elderly woman around the house as she fusses and cleans, with an adult Riley punching holes in his bedroom walls and covering us both in bruises.
She comes back, make-up free.
‘Phew!’ I say.
‘I still look pretty scary,’ she jokes.
‘No, you look very nice.’
‘Oh you’re such a sweetie, I could just kiss you!’
She bounces into the kitchen to make coffee.
It’s nine o’clock and I’m not at her house. The doctor says I need four days of total rest. I’m not even supposed to look at any sort of screen. My flatmates found it amusing for one evening – recommending their favourite podcasts, and playing cards with me with the lights on dim – but now they have gone off to carry on with their own lives. I got bored and called Mum, but hearing her nag is worse than listening to another audio book.
‘Brain injuries are cumulative, you can’t just go back and get hit in the head again, you need to resign.’
‘Well, I’m not going to.’
‘You’re being physically harmed by someone on a regular basis. If you knew someone who was in an abusive relationship would you encourage them to keep going back?’
‘This isn’t comparable to that, Mum! This is a kid who’s disabled, and he hurts himself a lot more than he hurts me.’
‘Do you even like this job?’
‘Everyone has things about their jobs they don’t like. You hate doing paperwork, and you spend half your life doing it.’
‘Paperwork doesn’t give me a concussion! How could his mother let this happen to you?’
‘She’s getting hurt every single day. She takes the brunt of it. This is the first time anything serious has happened to me, and it was my own fault for getting close when he was stressed.’
‘The kid sounds like a nasty piece of work. Can’t you go and work with some sweet girl with Down Syndrome, go for walks and pick flowers or something?’
I don’t want to admit that that’s the job I was imagining when I applied for this one. I try to ignore the guilty echo in my head of my own voice, as I told my flatmates last night, ‘This kid is straight up evil, honestly! And his mum is a crazy bitch. She never leaves the house.’ I had enjoyed having their sympathetic attention for a while; mostly I avoid contact whenever possible, worried that they hear me crying at night and talk about me when I’m not there.
‘This is my job. It’s important to me.’
‘She’s not as trapped as she thinks she is, that woman. She has made a lot of choices to get to this point.’
‘No, listen. I’m not saying she chose to have a kid like that, of course not, but she could have put him in care, she could be medicating him more, she could be employing people who actually know what they’re doing …’
‘And you’re not trapped at all. You’re so young. You could be doing so many things …’
I hang up.
She has a doctor’s appointment this morning, so she asked me to arrive at work an hour early, to give her time to get ready. I don’t know why this was necessary. It is 9 now, and I’ve been sitting in the lounge, drinking coffee and ignoring Riley since I arrived.
I feel a twinge of guilt, and decide to go and peek my head into Riley’s bedroom so that it seems like I’m doing something. As I walk past the bathroom door, it swings open, and she is standing there with no towel wrapped around her. She is pink from warmth, becoming even pinker as she rubs her skin roughly with a cream-coloured cloth. A blue towel is coiled around her hair, standing high, with a twist at the front, just like a model in an advert.
It is a surprise to see her this way, but there is nothing shocking about it. If I had ever imagined her naked, this is just the image that my mind would have created; her skin not stretched as tightly around her form as it probably was fifteen years ago, nipples the same pink as her bare lips, the triangle between her legs far darker than the unbleached roots of her hair have ever been. She looks like a naked woman in an art-house movie, thankfully, rather than a waxed, pouting, Cougar-In-Your-Area-Looking-For-Sex naked woman like the ads that pop up on my laptop. I have never seen her look less vulnerable – the bruises on her arms and chest are like war paint or abstract tattoos. She looks up and sees me, still and staring, but does not flinch.
‘How’s Riley doing?’
‘I was just off to find out!’
I rush to Riley’s bedroom, my face flushed. He is lying in bed with his eyes closed, classical music playing on the stereo beside him.
‘I don’t know what I’m doing here, Riley,’ I whisper, ‘I don’t think I’m helping anybody.’
For the first time since I met him, he doesn’t wave me away as soon as he hears my voice. He stays perfectly still. Maybe he is dead, or maybe he has fallen asleep.
‘I still don’t like you,’ I whisper, and then jump nervously and turn, thinking she has walked in behind me and heard. She isn’t there.
I go the lounge and start searching job vacancies on my phone. When she comes in, I quickly put the phone on my lap, screen facing down.
‘You looking at something cheeky on there?’ she laughs, then, ‘I hope I didn’t make you feel uncomfortable? I guess I didn’t think about it – I feel very close to you, we spend a lot of time together.’
‘Yeah, no, totally.’
‘I better race off! Thank you so much for staying with Riley on your own, I hope everything goes alright. If not, I’m only a phone call away.’
‘You’re an angel! I don’t know what I’d do without you! Really.’
She lets herself out, and pauses at the gate to turn and wave, somehow aware that I am standing by the window watching her leave. I sit down, close the job-search window and start playing Tetris instead. It’s stupid to think I could cope with a real job at this point, after eight months of being paid to spend most of the day on a couch drinking coffee. This is my life now.
Riley walks in, shuffling his feet, his nappy weighed down between his knees with poo. I haven’t seen him leave his bedroom for weeks, but it’s also been ages since his mum went further than the front door, so today is an adventurous day.
‘Riley, buddy,’ I say gently, ‘She’s coming back soon, but we’ll be okay without her for a while, won’t we?’
He turns and walks back to his bedroom. I take a deep breath of clean air, grab some BOTTOM cloths, and follow him in. I relax into the mission at hand, peel the nappy away, and take a few kicks to the face and chest while I wipe him down and hold his hands clear.
As I fasten a fresh nappy around his hips, I’m so calm I’m almost happy.
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