She was out walking along the Merri Creek path with the baby in the pram when her father rang. She was near the electrical plant and the power lines overhead, huge, arcing, frighteningly close, interfered with her phone so his words came through drifts of fizzing static. ‘… had to happen I s’pose … told you I saw him last week … bloody mess, I mean he looks like a drug addict, eyes bulging, hands shaking …’ His voice lunged from the fuzz in angry bursts.
Along the banks of the creek the low shrubs were festooned with rubbish—faded beer cans and ribbons of torn plastic bags, brown with silt. Yellow foam collected near the banks and in the places where groups of rocks trapped pools of water from the rest of the flow. Miranda’s baby looked up at her from the pram, and his eyes were big and dark.
‘Shit, Dad.’ Miranda stared into the baby’s eyes and tried to rouse herself, to come up with the right words.
‘Yeah well it’s just, it’s …’ There were tears in his voice. ‘I mean …’ (static, a watery sob) ‘… sort of thing you never think as a parent … just, what can you do … feel so helpless.’ The line cleared for a moment, long enough for the honk of his nose-blowing to reach Miranda’s ear with perfect clarity.
Through the thick-headed feeling that she couldn’t seem to dislodge, Miranda felt a throb of shock and pity. A thought registered, faintly: she had never seen—or heard—her father cry before. ‘Oh, Dad,’ she said dimly. ‘Shit, Dad. Bloody hell.’ With an effort she dragged her eyes from the baby’s. One hand on the pram handle, one with the phone to her ear, she began to walk again along the path. ‘Can we visit him? I mean—should we?’
‘Yes.’ A heavy sigh. ‘Later today. They’re getting him “settled in”, apparently. I’ll let you know.’
She stood in the hospital foyer with the sleeping baby in her arms, scanning the signs next to the lift, struggling again with the head-fog. Milk-brain, the nurse at the Maternal and Child Health Centre had called it, laughing. ‘You can expect to get a bit of that.’ And it did seem to be more than just tiredness, more than sleep deprivation. She seemed to have become so ineffective. Whole days passed and she got hardly anything done beyond feeding the baby, changing his nappies and making herself toast. The strange thing was that she didn’t mind. It was such a cliché, she knew, but when she looked at him, at her child, and when he smiled at her, when he looked back, so deeply, intensely, everything else just fell away. ‘You have a love affair with them, really,’ her mother had said on one of those first days in the hospital, in the flower-filled room, the baby a neat blanket-wrapped form on the bed between them. And she was right, it was like falling in love, when the rest of the world dimmed into shadows and only one other being shone in the spotlight.
Her finger hovered. Outpatients, Day Clinic, Psychiatric Ward, Crisis Assessment Team. Psychiatric Ward, it must be. She pressed the smeary button and the lift heaved into life. Miranda stood watching the floor numbers light up in sequence, and something penetrated the fog, a stab of apprehension. All she wanted to do was go back down, out the doors, get back in the car and go home. She took a deep breath, breathed in and out, steadily, the way she did when catching a plane, in those minutes between the doors closing and take-off, when she always had to fight an urge to jump up and scream, to make them let her off, quick, before it was too late.
The lift stopped and the doors opened.
There was a smell. Fusty and cloying, fried food and cigarette smoke. And people—there was the smell of unwashed people, hair grease and body odour. Miranda stepped out of the lift and tightened her grip on the baby. The head-fog had completely lifted and she had that feeling like when you drive past a car accident, and suddenly you’re wide awake, every sense sharp and clear, sitting straight in the seat, hands careful on the wheel.
It appeared she was in the ward. There was no entry point, no reception. They—the people, the patients—were right there, all around. Miranda couldn’t help glancing behind her at the lift. Couldn’t they just walk out, just leave? There was a card-slot under the buttons to the right of the firmly shut doors. Anyone could come in, but to get out you needed a card, or someone with a card.
Directly ahead there was a kind of office behind glass, with a counter. A man in tracksuit pants and thongs leaned against it, the bright-lit, tired face of a younger man inside visible over his shoulder. The tracksuit-pants man was talking in a low voice. Miranda looked down at his feet, his heels, blackened and cracked, one side of one thong worn down so much half of his foot was on the floor.
Off to one side of the office was a hallway lined with doors, all closed. On the other side was a big room with couches arranged in clusters, and plastic tables and chairs. Most of the people were grouped around the television, some sitting, some standing, one pacing and muttering. On the far side of them was some sort of balcony or terrace, the hunched backs of smokers visible through a glass door.
It wasn’t light enough, the whole place—a combination of failed fluorescent overhead lights and walls painted an awful, flat grey-blue. With the exception of the glassed-in staff member everyone was shadowy. Miranda tried to scan the room without obviously looking at anybody. A figure detached itself from the television group and came towards her—a woman, skinny, head hanging, arms wrapped around her own torso as if holding herself together—and Miranda stood frozen. But the woman passed without looking up and turned and went down the hallway. Miranda concentrated on her breathing again, in, out, in, out. This was ridiculous, being so afraid. Patronising, even. These were people with genuine illnesses who needed help. This could be her in another life. One of these people was her brother.
She scanned again and there they were. Justin on one couch and their parents on another, facing, all leaning forward as if watching something on the floor between them.
‘Hi.’ She stopped at the end of her parents’ couch.
‘Hi.’ Justin looked quickly up and then down again. He was smiling in a shy, embarrassed way, and Miranda felt the same smile on her own face, a smile that said, This isn’t us, really, is it—these things don’t happen to us.
‘Hi, Miri darling—come and sit down.’ Their mother reached out an arm, and Miranda lowered herself cautiously onto the shiny, worn couch, settling the still-sleeping baby on her lap.
‘We can’t seem to speak to a doctor or anyone with any kind of qualification,’ said their father, flicking at something on the knee of his trousers.
‘Yes, it’s very frustrating,’ said their mother, as if they were at the airport waiting on a delayed flight. She turned to Miranda and squeezed her shoulder. ‘And how are you going? Goodness me!’ She leaned over to peer at the baby’s face. ‘Mister Chubs! He’s grown since last week!’
‘Oh, yeah, how’s it all going?’ said Justin in a quiet, polite voice, but he was looking in the other direction, and Miranda saw the impatient up- and-down jiggling of his leg and how his hand dipped in and out of his pocket, checking for his cigarettes.
There was a silence, and for some reason Miranda thought of Christmas, of the Christmases of her adolescence, and of Justin’s, when one or both them would behave abominably, refusing to play the game, crushing their mother’s attempts at family conversation and her childlike pleasure in the opening of presents with surly silence or outright rudeness. Until their father would lose his temper and go on about how bloody ungrateful they were and would it really kill them to lighten up a bit, to just be pleasant for a change, even just pretend. And their mother might cry, and if she did it was always Justin who went to put an awkward arm around her shoulders.
‘I’m just going for a smoke.’ Justin got up and went across the room, and they all watched how he moved, that shambling, odd walk of his.
‘Remember,’ Miranda’s mother said suddenly, ‘when we got home in the car and we saw him that time, Miri, when he was just a little boy, in primary school? And he was coming down the hill, walking in the funniest way—sort of bobbing along, almost jogging but not quite—and he stopped at the gates and looked at his watch, that digital watch he loved so much, and pressed a button on it. And we said “What on earth are you doing?” and he said “Timing myself, to see how fast I can walk home from school.”’ There was a smile on her lips but it was thin and stretched. ‘How fast he could walk—not run.’ She put her hands between her knees and gave a small shivery laugh. ‘He was such a funny little boy.’
Home again, Miranda went into the kitchen, and the sight of it, all so safe and normal and calm—the scatter of papers on the bench, the bowl of fruit, Paul with his back to her at the stove—brought exhaustion down in a swamping tide.
Paul turned. ‘How was it?’
Miranda sagged against him. For a moment she just stood, leaning, breathing his smell—laundry powder faint in his shirt, and his skin, his own friendly smell. She could hear his heart beating. Then she sighed and straightened up. ‘God I’m tired,’ she said.
‘Here—have some wine. Just a splash. It’ll help.’
‘Thanks.’ She sat down, took the glass and sipped. It did feel good, warm on her throat. ‘I don’t know.’ She put her elbows on the table and leaned her face into her hands. ‘It’s a terrible place. Really scary. I just wanted to get out of there. Poor Justin.’
‘How did he seem?’
‘Oh, you know, sort of sheepish, like it was all an accident.’
‘But it must’ve been serious, if they’ve made him a—what do they call it?—an involuntary patient or whatever. I mean, they must think he’s really in danger of—well, suicide or something.’
‘Yeah, I know. And I guess it is serious. But you know what he’s like—I mean, one minute he’ll be ringing Mum and Dad in the middle of the night saying he’s taken a whole lot of pills, and the next he’s there at a family barbecue nodding and smiling, the way he does, all politeness when it suits him. And then they’ll give him money, pay his bills or his rent or whatever, and think it’s all fixed up, until the next crisis.’
Paul brought a plate of biscuits and cheese over and sat down opposite. ‘It’s the pot,’ he said. ‘Every hardcore smoker I’ve ever known has had mental health problems. He just needs to stop smoking.’
Miranda collected crumbs of cheese with a fingertip. ‘It is the pot, Paul,’ she said. ‘But it’s a whole lot of other things too. I think it’s really complicated. I mean, I think he manipulates Mum and Dad without knowing he’s doing it. Sometimes I think they should just stop looking after him. I mean, he’s nearly thirty. Maybe he needs to solve his own problems.’
‘Yeah,’ said Paul.
There was a pause, and then he spoke again. ‘But—you couldn’t, could you? Turn your back on your child, when they were asking for help.’
Miranda looked up at him. ‘Of course not.’
They sat for a while.
‘Your poor parents,’ said Paul. ‘It must be impossible not to wonder if it was somehow all your fault—something you did or didn’t do.’
They had a routine where Miranda got in the bath for some time to herself before Paul brought the baby in to her. Sometimes she read, a bit of the paper, or a book, although since the birth she’d hardly read anything—after a while she would realise she was just staring at the page. Usually she just lay, like she was that evening, looking down at her stomach, still surprising in its new loosened emptiness, thoughts coming and going of their own accord.
That woman at the hospital, that scrawny scarecrow moving towards her, holding herself together. And those others, the muttering, pacing figure by the television, the dirty-feet man at the office counter—did any of them have visitors? And what would they be like? Sisters or brothers who might share that smile, that this isn’t us look? Parents who would sit like delayed passengers, put-out yet resigned, waiting uncomfortably? Or maybe some of them had families who could talk, say it, whatever it was? Or maybe it wasn’t about talking, maybe they touched, hugged, cried— properly, in front of one another, not just over the phone. Miranda wrung out the face washer and draped it over her face, breathing the hot steam. What was right, the right thing to do—for her, for her parents, for anyone in their position? She thought again of Paul’s words: You couldn’t turn your back on your child.
Through the wall she could hear Paul in the baby’s room, talking in his silly baby voice. She pressed the face washer into her eye sockets and felt that warm, flooding feeling that came whenever she saw her husband hold their child or look at him. She let it fill her up, push everything else out. She could never have imagined that feeling before.
Paul’s voice came again, but it wasn’t baby-talk this time. Maybe he was on the phone. But he was moving, coming down the hallway with hurried steps.
She sat up, whipping the washer off, the air cold on her face. ‘What? What?’
‘Is he breathing okay?’ Paul’s voice was tight. He strode over, the baby held out in front of him like an offering.
‘What? Let me see.’ Miranda half-rose, gripping the edge of the bath. It was strange—she could hear herself speaking and it sounded calm, measured. The words seemed to take ages to come out, and suddenly everything looked very far away. Somewhere inside her there was panic, screaming, terror, but her body, the outer shell of it, was not registering at all, was thick and inert, like foam.
Paul knelt and lay the baby on the bath mat, and from that deep- inside place Miranda saw the little face turning dark, the arms flailing, the gasping lips, bubbles, flecks of white curdled milk-vomit. He was crying, but in gurgled, stuttering snatches. ‘Here,’ she heard herself say, and watched as her own arms reached out. With one hand she lifted the baby’s head and with the index finger of the other probed the little mouth, warm and wet and slippery. ‘I can’t feel anything in there,’ she heard her voice say. It sounded closer, like the foam shell was thinning, and the terror was spilling outwards, taking over. She was becoming aware of the edge of the bath digging in against her collarbone, her armpits. ‘Turn him over?’ She spoke without taking her eyes off the baby. Her voice was getting higher and higher, louder and louder. ‘Oh, God. Shit. Shit. Put his head lower than his body. Isn’t that what you’re supposed to do?’
Paul lifted the baby, turned him, rubbed his big hand over the tiny back. The ragged, gurgling cry came again.
‘Come on, darling boy, come on.’ Paul rubbed and the tiny legs beat the air. ‘Come on.’ The soggy cry again, and then a clearer gasp of air, and another, even clearer, and then, wonderfully, there it was, proper, lusty, real crying—air going in, air coming out.
‘He’s okay,’ Miranda’s voice was deafening now in her own ears. ‘He’s okay,’ she kept saying, and her voice was catching, sobbing. She held out her arms and Paul gave her the baby. She sat back in the water and held him, screaming and still fully dressed. As if it had only just started up she noticed her heart, its hard, fast thumping. She held her baby against it, against her chest. Her arms—her whole body—felt weak, as if she were coming apart at the joints.
‘Jesus.’ Paul rocked back on his heels. ‘What was that?’
‘I don’t know. I don’t know.’ The sobs kept breaking into her words like hiccups. ‘Well, actually …’ she heard herself laugh, a tremulous little giggle that was not a laugh really, was just a different way of crying, and a thin, feather-light ribbon of a thought flew by—I sound like my mother. ‘You know what? I think it was just a bit of reflux, a bit of milk coming up, going back down the wrong way.’ Miranda kissed the hot little crying, screwed-up face. ‘I think that’s all it was, just a bit of a spew.’
‘I know, it was scary.’ Miranda kissed the baby again, and the sobbing continued to carve its way through her. ‘It was scary, wasn’t it, sweetheart? But you’re okay now, sweetheart, you’re breathing.’
In the black, early hours of the next morning, Miranda sat feeding the baby, feeling his sharp, hungry sucking slow and slacken as he filled up and began to doze. She always tried not to wake fully herself, to stay in that half-state of near-sleep, so it would be easy to slip back once he was settled again in his bassinette. It was hard, though. If she had to change his nappy or his clothes. Or just anyway—sometimes it was as if her mind would only decide to sharpen up at these most inconvenient times.
Now a memory rose, played itself against the dark screen of her almost- closed eyes like a flickering home movie. The back garden of the house she grew up in. The cumquat tree—tiny white flowers against the green leaves. Their sweet, clean smell. Her mother, young, bright, lying on the old cane lounge. Her mother’s hair so shiny, gathered in a loose bun, a lock swinging forward against her cheek as she bent her head to the baby curled like a plump blind grub across her body. Justin. Solid and strong and pale in the sunlight, small fingers gripping the material of their mother’s blouse, eyes closed, cheeks working, suckling away. The feel of the warm peeling armrest of the cane lounge as Miranda the toddler leaned against it, tested it with her teeth. Her mother enormous above her, Justin the grub cradled so easily in the curve of her arm. A question. Her mother’s laugh. Justin finishing, pulling off, blinking fatly in the light, an unfocused gummy smile coming and going like a wave. A little orange teacup from the sandpit, her mother wiping out the grit with her skirt and then cupping one full white breast with her hand and aiming an expert squirt, audible against the orange plastic. Taking the cup carefully with both hands. The taste too strong, too sweet. Still warm. Her mother laughing at Miranda’s disappointment as she lifted Justin against her shoulder and rose from the lounge, a giant, moving with heavy, sure steps back into the house.
Miranda settled the sleeping weight of her own son into the bassinette and slid down under the blankets, her back against Paul’s warm back. God, she wished she could sleep. Her eyes were scratchy and her throat hurt. But she kept seeing it, the flickering warm white-and-green garden, and her mother’s smooth young head bending, her mother kissing the round cheek of the little baby, the little baby Justin.
Peggy Frew is a musician and writer.