Irene and I are on the verandah at her grandparents’ house, in the two chairs we’ve managed to clear of spiderwebs. The baby is awake in her arms.
‘Did you sleep?’ I say.
‘Yeah, a few hours.’
She offers no sign of agreement.
The sunset is orange, the sky scattered with clouds. We’re eating pumpkin and lentil soup out of bowls from home. I didn’t think it was necessary to bring them, the cupboards here are well stocked, but Irene insisted. She says they’re the perfect size. Also, she read in her online mother’s group that the glaze on old crockery often contains lead, so our modern bowls are safer. That’s one of the things about having a baby, you have to think things through. You’re no longer just eating from this bowl or that, you need to consider it all, how the bowl was made, how the food will affect Irene’s milk, then the baby’s digestion, her growth, etc. From production to final consequences. It’s an unsettling development.
Irene’s food is untouched. ‘Eat something,’ I say, and I put my bowl down and take the baby, who stares, seeing me or not, I’m never sure.
‘Do you think we made the right decision, coming here?’ I say.
Irene shrugs. She can’t answer, because how would she know what a right decision would look like? She shrugs again. ‘We’re here now.’
It’s just like her to say that.
We moved out here with a three-week-old baby so we could have time alone together, get to know one another, in our new formation of three. Now we have never been more alone, together.
Irene picks up her bowl, rests it on her lap, but still doesn’t eat.
‘I remembered something,’ she says. ‘My grandpa was missing two fingers. I’d forgotten. Isn’t that weird?’
‘Not whole fingers, just from there,’ she drags a finger across her top knuckles.
‘I guess that explains his furniture construction.’ I rock from side to side on my chair but she looks alarmed, since I’m holding the baby, and I think better of making light of her recollection.
‘He always told me different stories. I was fascinated, so it’s weird I would forget about it, completely. Like if you’d asked me yesterday how many fingers he had, I would have sworn black and blue, five normal fingers on each hand.’
‘I guess being here, it reminds you.’
‘But it’s funny that being in the place is different to thinking about the place.’
‘And it’s also the baby, you know? I just remember things because of her.’
We look at the baby. As if this is something she has done. Our baby is called Raia, but we’re not used to calling her that, so we mostly still say ‘the baby’.
A whirring sound starts up, it’s hard to pinpoint where it’s coming from.
‘Is that an insect?’ I say. ‘What is that?’
Irene knows the sounds of all the insects. She can tell them by name.
‘I think it’s a frog.’
‘That’s a frog?’ I don’t believe her.
‘Well, I’m not an expert on frogs,’ she says. As if I’ve forgotten she is only an expert on insects.
I look at the baby to see if she’s hearing it too. It sounds as if a giant dial-up modem has sprung to life in the depths of the property, although I am not sure how I would ever explain that. All the layers of knowledge it takes to understand any one thing. Where do you begin?
The baby stares. I am sure she hears it.
I wake alone in our bed; Irene stays with the baby in the living room overnight so I can have a solid block of sleep to better manage things during the day. We have a mattress on the floor and everything Irene needs is positioned within reach. When I come in she is feeding the baby by the window and reading aloud:
at the bottom of the ocean
is a layer of water that has
She marks her page, closes the book. Irene has not slept much. I don’t ask the details but she recounts statistics: nappy changes, feeds, one long hour of crying and rocking. Her voice is thin, she is far away, bunkered inside this scaffold of routine.
I make her breakfast and a cup of tea, a cheese sandwich for me, then I pack the baby into her carrier, set a timer for her next feed, and we head out the back door.
This is what we do each day. The baby and I. She’s strapped to my chest and we head past the gum trees at the top of the paddock then down towards the creek. She seems to like the rhythm of walking, the sound of long grass against my boots and the movement of my chest. She sleeps longer this way, while Irene has more time to rest.
As I walk I begin a new podcast, about a man who robbed a tobacco shop one Saturday afternoon. With the robbery complete, the perpetrator went for the door just as an elderly man was entering the shop. It was unclear to witnesses whether the old man was trying to interfere with the crime, or whether he was caught by surprise, but the pair scuffled and the gun went off. The old man was shot and the perpetrator ran along the street towards a local park where he was captured by police a short time later.
The baby’s head is turned to the side. I can’t tell if she’s asleep yet or whether she can breathe freely. Sometimes I hold my phone out and snap a photo to see how she’s positioned: I see a squashed cheek and misaligned mouth. She’s okay. She’s asleep.
The podcast resumes in the present, a man introduces himself as James. He has pleaded guilty to armed robbery and murder, and now lives with a sincere-sounding regret for his actions. He thinks every day of the old man who was killed and of the family who miss him, he says. But there’s always more to it in these stories, isn’t there?
Sometimes I drift off into a podcast as I walk, then I come to with a start as I picture my boot catching on a fallen branch or a rock, my body coming down against the grass, baby crushed against me. I think this is normal, to constantly check that your baby is still alive and to imagine all the ways you might accidentally kill her. She’s our first baby. Our only one, I mean. So I tuck a hand around the shape of her. She stirs, then sleeps again.
My alarm chirps. It’s time to turn around.
Irene has her feet up on the verandah rail and leans back in her chair.
‘Did you get a nap?’ I say.
She shrugs. There is a pot of tea beside her. Her laptop rests on her thighs. I pull back the side of the carrier to show the baby’s sleeping face, her mouth slack and cheeks piled against my chest.
‘I thought I could hear crying.’
‘No, she’s fine.’
Irene closes the laptop and places it on the floor. In the sunlight I can see the long veins that run along her ankles.
‘When we first came up here I was planning on tidying this place,’ she says. ‘But I’m not sure if there’s any point. It just has this smell, doesn’t it?’
This doesn’t make sense to me right away.
‘What does it smell like?’ I say.
‘I don’t know.’ It seems she’s given up, but she goes on: ‘Do you remember how strong smells used to be when you were a child? The smell of other people’s houses, so different and unpleasant?’
I do remember that. It’s true.
‘But you could never smell your own house,’ she says. ‘It has no smell, except just for a moment, when you come home after time away, a holiday. You smell it for a second. It’s unfamiliar – then it’s gone.’
At first, when the baby would wake on our walks, I would find something nice to show her, let’s lie under this tree and watch the leaves in the wind. Do you see the flowers, the kookaburra? And the baby would take it all in, or seem to, but then a switch would flick and she would begin to scream for milk. She won’t take a bottle, or I haven’t tried enough, and once she’s screaming the screaming only escalates. Screaming only goes in one direction, you know, so it’s hard to do anything but wrap my arms around her and rush through the bush back to her mother.
So now I run a timer on my phone. How long until the next sleep, the next feed? It’s all about time, with babies. We measure their lives in days and then weeks: once trivial blocks of time that must now be counted, changes catalogued, remarked on. But it’s a slippery slope, isn’t it? The accounting of time, that’s where it begins. How long until I can sleep, how long has the baby slept, has she had enough sleep or am I doing something terrible to her brain by not knowing how to make her sleep? And yet, the days grow so long when you’re not going to work, immersed in routine, that time on the larger scale begins to unravel, reflect. You forge links with your own childhood in this way, reconnect with the long past while the life you had just months ago becomes distant, foreign.
My alarm chirps. I turn back.
Most evenings Irene sleeps while I hold the baby on the couch and watch shows on television or the laptop. The baby’s cries signal the end of my shift and I wake Irene so she can take her place in the living room. I go off to bed and fall asleep right away. It’s all the walking, I’m not used to this level of physical activity. Until now exercise was always planned, not something incidental, and never unavoidable. Sleep too was something I could schedule or delay and not the driving force it has become.
I dream I am travelling on a train. It is dark and I cannot get a bearing on the landscape outside, which at times looks like either desert or forest. The carriage is empty, although I have a sense of various people passing along the hall. At first I wait for them, I know they are looking for me, though I can’t recall why. As my anticipation grows I begin to question their intentions, and a mood descends – I must escape. I head into the corridor, lugging my backpack. It is large, equipped with straps and pockets for hiking, the kind of bag I haven’t travelled with since I was nineteen or twenty and still committed to an image of myself that would have been compromised by a suitcase. I make it to a window and see that we are now travelling over a bridge above an ocean or some other body of water. There is no one out here, but I know they are coming, so I hurry towards the end of the carriage and force open the toilet door and shove my backpack through. The zip splits and there is a terrible cry. A suspicion has been growing but now I am certain; the baby is inside. I have forgotten about my baby.
When I wake I am lying on my back and there’s no sound. I can’t hear Irene or the baby. I creep along the hall and open the door to the living room. Irene is asleep on the floor bed, the baby curled in the crook of her arm. It all looks so peaceful by comparison, and I am tempted to lie beside them but I don’t want to disturb a rare moment of rest. I wait in the doorway until my breathing has calmed and I am confident the dream has been replaced.
The curtains are open but it is too dark to see anything outside.
The next morning Irene tells me the baby has cried all night. She doesn’t think she has slept at all, and I am not sure it would be helpful to contradict her.
Instead I make breakfast, then I strap the baby into the carrier and we set out. She stares into the distance as we walk, blinking into the sun for a few minutes before the rhythm takes her to sleep. I continue the podcast about the tobacco store robbery. It goes on for a while about the investigation, the court case, the whereabouts of the stolen cash. Now the reporter is asking the man convicted of the crime, James, about his memories of that day.
James is silent for a long time.
‘I was in the park when they found me.’
His voice is rough, hesitant.
‘Yes, but what do you remember about that, exactly?’
The baby wakes. I can tell by the way she tenses, squirms against me. I do a deep bend of my knees and bounce to calm her.
I’m testing a new app, a pedometer to track the length of our walks and the routes we take across the property towards the creek. I open it to see a blue line curved across the map. It seems to lag a moment or two behind what I estimate to be our actual position, so I pat the baby as we wait for it to catch up. It jags across the map as if I have just now turned a right angle. I turn to correct a few steps, still bouncing my legs. She is almost asleep, but the line continues to move without us and I draw a breath in protest (keep bouncing, do not wake her). I can’t tell to what degree this is an issue with the app, or just because the signal out here is patchy. But the baby is now still. I abandon the app, slide the phone into my pocket and wrap my hands around the baby’s ankles as I walk. I am surprised to feel her skin. One of her socks has slipped off and her little foot is bare.
I switch the podcast back on.
It’s revealed that James can’t in fact remember anything about the crime he’s been convicted of but has never doubted his guilt because he was a drug addict for some years. He can’t recall a lot of his life from that time, he says, and what he does remember is pretty bad, so this crime is conceivable as something he must have done.
The transcripts of James’s police interviews don’t suggest coercion. He couldn’t give an alibi. We are reminded that he was in possession of the gun used to shoot the old man. And so, as advised by his lawyer, James pleaded guilty.
‘Do you remember anything about the gun?’
‘Yeah. I remember the gun in my hand.’
‘No. Actually, no. Just having it.’
‘So it’s possible you found it? Or someone gave it to you?’
James is silent.
‘Have you seen this? It’s CCTV, from the robbery.’
The reporter narrates the footage as it plays: A man enters the tobacco store, balaclava over his face. He pulls a gun and, regardless of the low resolution, you can tell his hands are shaking. By comparison, the man behind the counter and the only customer, a woman in her fifties, do not move at all.
Now the reporter pauses the video, draws our attention to the height of the man in the balaclava against a stand of chocolate bars. He has measured the stand. The same exact stand, in the same store, it’s still there and it’s one hundred and eighty centimetres high. That’s a bit over five-ten, he says. The footage shows the man with the gun is no taller than the stand. He couldn’t be more than five-ten, the reporter surmises; James is a clear six-foot-four.
‘Is that you, James?’
James shakes his head, we’re told. And when he speaks he sounds more confused than relieved.
‘It’s not me.’
Irene has found a box of old hats in her grandparents’ closet. She tries hats on the baby and takes photographs and posts them on social media. Off to the opera! she captions one. On another she writes, Has anyone seen my pipe? The photos rack up likes and comments; what a character, a sweetie, etc.
In one of them the baby wears a sailor hat. It must have belonged to a child, but it sits crumpled and oversized on her tiny head. Ahoy! Irene has written. But there is something off about this photo. It preoccupies me as I lay in bed, my recollection of it, of the strange look in the baby’s eyes.
I think I must be misremembering and so I reach out in the dark and flick open my phone. I scroll to find the image, but it’s as I recall. Something dark reflected in her eyes.
No one has liked it.
As the days pass our walks grow longer and the baby more alert.
Her head tilts back and she stares with eyes and mouth wide at the bright sky. I show her the kookaburra, the grasshoppers, but the rhythm of the grass against my boots still lulls her to sleep, her little head arched back, mouth gaping at the size of it all. We haven’t found the creek. Is there a creek? We haven’t reached the end of the property, but we must be coming closer. Sometimes we hear the sound of running water and I pick up my pace, but still …
We return from a walk and Irene is not on the verandah. The baby is awake yet calm, and so we head inside. Irene is in the kitchen, on her knees beside a bucket of water. The cupboards are open, contents spread across the bench.
‘Don’t you think something smells off in here?’ She holds a sponge in her hand.
I squat to get closer.
‘All I can smell is cleaning spray.’
‘No, smell through that,’ she says.
I stretch my head into the cupboard. ‘I’m not sure how.’ The baby begins to squirm, unhappy with my crouched position. I stand and unstrap her.
‘It’s driving me up the wall,’ Irene says. She washes her hands and carries the baby to the sofa and so I take over the cleaning. There’s a lot of dust; we should have cleaned this sooner, it’s the kind of task that, once begun, reveals the extent of the dirt all around us. I scrub the rest of the cupboards as Irene feeds the baby and the two of them rest in bed. I stand on a chair and do the top cupboards, too, and my shoulders ache when I’m done. After a while Irene brings the baby out to the kitchen. She stands and assesses the smell.
‘It’s still there,’ she says. ‘Underneath.’
I dream of a train passing over a bridge, a body of water. I carry my backpack reversed, on my chest, and the straps wear lines into the skin of my shoulders. Sometimes there’s a muffled cry and I am overcome with a sense I have been here before.
‘You know how my grandfather always said there was a creek at the back of the property?’
We’re in our chairs on the verandah. Irene rests her feet on an upturned basket she has found in a cupboard somewhere. The baby is between us, lying on a crochet blanket.
‘I thought there was a creek,’ I say.
‘Have you seen a creek?’
‘I thought you told me there was.’
‘Haven’t you been up there?’
‘We never get that far before she needs a feed.’
‘Are you sure?’
‘What do you mean am I sure?’
‘It’s not that far,’ she says.
I shrug. We walk for hours. I don’t know what to say.
On warmer days I wear my jacket over the top of the carrier so I can remove it without disturbing the baby. I dress her in cotton but it’s difficult to judge her temperature against my own. There is no avenue for the communication of subtleties with a baby; she is crying, or she is not.
Today she is not and I set a determined pace to lull her to sleep. After a short walk I pause to snap a photo and check her position; her bottom lip has collapsed inwards, her deep-sleeping face. I turn on my podcast, the episode begins with a conversation with James, who we now know probably did not commit the crime at all.
‘Why do you think you never questioned it?’ the reporter asks. He hypothesises that James must have carried some residual guilt, for something, in order to be so placid about his fate. James has no reply.
‘Do you think you felt you deserved jail?’
And because the weight of the reporter’s psychological insight cannot be shrugged off, James comes to admit that he was in fact guilty of a crime, a murder he was never charged with but which he remembers well and which continues to weigh on his conscience.
He recounts a time, outside a bar of some sort, a rough part of town. He is accosted by a man, the man wants his money, or drugs, he can’t quite remember the start of the altercation, but the man has a gun and he points it at James. But James, who as we have learnt is six-foot-four and, now we also learn, quite strong, wrestles the gun from the would-be attacker. With the gun in his hand he could threaten to shoot, he could frighten the man or simply run away, but he does not. He shoots the man in the head, point blank.
So, the narrator asks, it all balances out, right?
There was a murder and now there is punishment. I suppose this is deliberately provocative. But then another twist as we delve further into James’s past. ‘So was that the first time you’d shot someone?’ the reporter asks.
‘Yes,’ James says, and then, ‘No, not exactly.’ He explains he has held a gun to someone’s head before.
He has held a gun to his father’s head.
‘Your father? A loaded gun?’
I hear the whir of frogs rise up beyond my headphones.
‘It was a game he made me play. Sometimes it was loaded. Sometimes not.’
What follows is a depiction of a childhood fragmented by violence. It is difficult not to be moved by the idea of this child so betrayed. So, then, who is guilty and what is the nature of guilt? When it’s placed in a story it’s all so neat – the childhood, the drugs, the murder, the cycle – and the answer to the question it frames, who is to blame, seems complicated yet clear at the same time.
In the throes of all of this I think about the frogs (how are there frogs if there is no creek? are there frogs that live without water?) and walk further than before, deep into the property. I must have forgotten to set an alarm. I check the time, but it’s meaningless without a reference point. When did I leave home?
I take my headphones out and look around. I think I hear running water, but it’s so distant I can’t be sure. We’ve never made it this far and I want to go on, just to see it, prove it is there. I continue a few steps but the baby stirs and the sound slips from my grasp. I reconsider and we head back.
By the time I reach the house the baby is crying anyway, clawing for a breast. I could have gone on – what difference, a few more minutes?
Irene stands as we approach, begins to unbutton her dress.
‘I thought I was imagining it,’ she says.
I pull the baby from the carrier and pass her over and the crying becomes muffled and stops.
‘What happened?’ Irene says.
I don’t tell her I forgot the timer. I am out of breath and unsettled by the baby’s cry. I take a chair and sit and catch the back of my leg on a nail that’s sticking out.
I forget to ask about the frogs.
As I hold the baby on the couch that night, I push in my headphones to listen to the rest of the podcast. Something about it has left me uneasy and I am keen to be done with it, for reasons I can’t yet unravel.
The reporter first speaks with a lawyer about the future for James and the likelihood of a retrial. The wheels turn slowly, the lawyer explains, yet because of the podcast they are now at least turning. This ties things up, but the reporter is not satisfied. He will now investigate the story behind James’s real crime; what the podcast and all of its fans have been calling the point-blank murder.
I begin to google as I listen. The status of James’s case remains unchanged in the weeks since these interviews occurred. I search the point-blank murder, an urge to undercut the manufactured suspense of the podcast, but my scrolling and clicking unsettles the baby, so I relent and slide the laptop closed, press the baby tight against my chest. When she continues to stir I stand and the two of us sway across the dark living room of Irene’s grandparents’ house, with its exposed wood ceilings and bookcases stacked with non-fiction. The curtains are open but there’s little to see outside. A slim moon, acres of dark bush.
Through a conversation with police, the reporter reveals that there is no physical evidence of the point-blank murder. Nothing has been found at the location described, certainly no report of a murder that matches this description.
We head to the bar in question – a surge of background noise sets the scene. The voice of a bartender, the owner, the voices of regular clientèle. The place has not changed at all, they say. The reporter shows them James’s photograph and explains the story. The owner scoffs, some of the patrons laugh, their answers are all the same. There is no way someone was point-blank murdered here, they say. There is no body, no murder, this is not that kind of place.
Again, a pause; what is truth, after all, the silence seems to say, in the smug tone of the podcaster.
The baby is crying. I can no longer quiet her with my movements, so I head to the bedroom where Irene wakes and slides from bed to begin her night shift without a word. I bring a glass of water as she feeds the baby on the sofa, then I ready her blankets, kiss her cheeks and go to bed.
I don’t listen to the rest of the podcast. I know how it will likely end: meditations on the unreliable nature of memory. Unable to define the size and complexity of a single life, it will sketch the shape of a universal meaning instead.
I climb into bed, but sleep brings erratic dreams, a sense of unease. After some time I sit up and reach around in the dark for my phone. Squinting, I open a map and wait for the icon to indicate my location. It takes a moment for my eyes to adjust, then I zoom in and assess the property’s boundaries, as I have before. They are unclear, a block of green. I attempt to zoom in closer, but the blue lines that would represent a waterway are absent. No rivers, creeks or other bodies of water. But what do I know of creeks? Do they shift, evolve? There was no creek here before. Perhaps there is now.
I flick on the bedside lamp and find my jacket, my sneakers. On the back of the wardrobe door is a grey shopping bag I use to carry a water bottle and spare nappies. I take it, fill the bottle from the bathroom tap and head along the hall. I open the living room door.
Irene is asleep, pillow pushed onto the floor. Her head rests flat on the mattress, the baby curled beside her. Our baby, Raia.
The curtains are open and there is enough light to make out the shape of our chairs on the verandah. Beyond that, a mass of shadow, a slim moon.
I take light steps to the kitchen and choose a banana from the fruit bowl to add to my bag.
At the back door I turn the knob as slowly as I can. Even so it makes a creak. I swing the door open a fraction. Night sounds enter, a wave, a weight. Louder than traffic, yet not made of anything I can recognise. I am sure it will wake Irene and Raia, and so I freeze, searching for a way to explain what I am doing, where I am going, and why. But they don’t wake, and in the end I wait so long that tiredness settles over me again, a resignation, and I close the door, locking the three of us away from it all, in here, together again.
The quote on page 33 comes from Anne Carson’s book Red Doc> (Jonathan Cape, 2013).