‘Why don’t you phone Karen and walk to school with her?’ Dad said.
He peeled the skin back from a banana, sliced it into slanting rounds on the breadboard. ’You know I’d take you but your mother wants a couple of fresh nighties brought up to her.’
But I didn’t want to walk with Karen that Wednesday morning. Karen was my best friend. She lived around the crescent from us and although her mother and mine didn’t have much to do with each other they were both in hospital together but in different wards. My mother was having problems.
Dad overlapped the slices of banana on buttered bread, tapped the edge of a teaspoon to sprinkle brown sugar. We’d both slept in this morning. It was only Mum phoning from the hospital that had woken us. We’d stayed up late watching reruns of the lift-off of Apollo 11 and then when it was really late we had put on our ski jackets and taken mugs of cocoa down to the garden to sit on the swing seat by the orchid house and look up into the sky.
Dad pointed out the Southern Cross to me and I tried to imagine what it would be like up there in space. It was hard to know from where I sat, but it looked lonely out there. I wondered if Mum and all the other mothers in the maternity ward were watching the sky like me and Dad; sitting on their hard beds with the plastic sheets she had told me about on the phone. I imagined them staring out their windows, hoping for their moon babies to come. I closed my eyes and wished for a shooting star to appear but when I opened them the clouds had skiffed across the sky in front of the stars.
After a while we just sat and said nothing. I knew Dad was worried about Mum and the baby. The doctors were monitoring the baby’s heart beat. He had stopped talking on the phone each time I came into the room in the last few days.
And it was the same that Wednesday morning. The fog was thick, a real pea-souper Mum would say.
‘Perhaps by this time tomorrow the baby will be here,’ Dad said.
He opened his arms to me. There were blue-grey shadows under his eyes. I felt the rough bristles on his cheeks where he hadn’t had time to shave.
‘I’ll see you after school,’ I said.
There were patches of black ice on the ground. Some cars pulled over to the side of the road to better concentrate on the broadcast. Others crawled through the pedestrian crossing outside the school with their lights still on high-beam, the passenger window down, the sounds of the radio blaring from inside. A man cycling past me held a small transistor radio to one ear to listen and he skidded on the ice and fell. The batteries from the transistor rolled out into the middle of the road and a woman in a car pulled over to help him but he just laughed when she asked if he was all right.
‘Touchdown,’ I heard him say.
But there was nothing up there, when I looked up into the grey cotton wool that was the sky, no indication at all that anything was different, that up there beyond fog, cloud and stratosphere Neil Armstrong was about to step down the rungs of the space capsule and out onto the surface of the moon.
In the classroom the landing was broadcast through the PA system and when it finished Miss Wilson walked up to the blackboard. She drew the moon, the earth, and our school with a pointy roof over it, (which, I said to Karen, it didn’t have) and she wrote our motto over the roof: ‘Walk Tall’. She connected us all up with wiggly lines and then she drew speech bubbles. For your impressions, she said, your feelings on this day in history.
‘This is so mental,’ I said to Karen, but she wasn’t listening. She had her hand up shooting it back and forward, her fingers pointed into an arrowhead. I didn’t need to look to know what Karen would write. I waited until last, until Miss Wilson had to call out my name and then I wrote ‘one small step for man’ in my speech bubble. Someone at the back of the class groaned and Miss Wilson told him to keep his thoughts to himself and then she gave me the dusters to take outside the classroom doors to bang on the bricks.
I avoided Karen after school, doubled back across the playing field and came into the classroom after the cleaners had finished mopping out the toilets. I rubbed out the words in my speech bubble and left it empty. Karen had written: ‘Moon Babies, Yay.’
Miss Wilson clapped her hands at that.
There can’t have been much going on in my life outside of school in 1969. I had turned twelve. Sport? Hobbies? No, I don’t remember there being any of that. Mum had lost a baby at the beginning of spring two years before. I remember because they were selecting teams for summer sport and I didn’t bother giving Dad the notices about that then.
Nowadays I walk for fitness, not in the way Karen and I walked all those weekends when there was nothing else to do, and nowhere to put ourselves, it seemed. Now I walk with a pedometer. Back then we mooched with our heads down towards our chest, too shy to show the bumps that were forming on our chests. Our hair hung across our cheeks. We had a circuit; along the road from my house, up to the main road intersection and then left into the shops.
‘Shall we head up to the Bay?’ Karen would say every Sunday.
The Bay, that’s what we called it then. We would walk for miles, through the closed shops and down the steep hill to the beach. Hoping to run into someone. Maybe, maybe not.
On that Sunday, the Sunday after the moon landing everything in the Bay was closed, just like always and I don’t know why, but I felt that things should have been different somehow.
‘A parade would have been nice,’ I said to Karen.
My mother was still in the hospital. My father had stopped saying that the baby could be born any day. He would sit down on the swing seat in the garden when he got home from work and chain smoke. He had stopped making my lunch and gave me money each day to pick up something from the tuck shop. If I was worried about the ash from his cigarettes falling into Mum’s fish pond, I didn’t say anything.
Karen and I headed for Patel’s Dairy at the end of the shops, walked past the TAB, Charmaine T’s Fashions and Uncle Arthur’s Gift Emporium.
‘Back in half an hour?’ I said, reading the sign in Patel’s window. Someone had written five minutes, scribbled it out and changed it to half an hour. ‘Even the Indians have got somewhere to go.’
‘What’s the time now,’ Karen said.
I looked at the town clock, the hands of it frozen at ten minutes to four since the last Easter weekend.
‘Four-ish?’ I said and Karen laughed.
Fleming’s the grocers was next door to the dairy. Mr Fleming and his wife were both in their display window. He was half way up a ladder and when he looked down and saw us standing there he gave Karen a thumbs-up sign. Karen waved back to him. He had personally delivered one of their moon baby gift baskets to Karen’s mother at home.
Mrs Fleming stood at the base of the ladder. I could see that she didn’t like us staring in through the window at her like that. It was like she and Mr Fleming couldn’t get away, were caught inside some huge television screen. She had taken her shoes off. They were a pearly cream colour with a little bow on the front of them. I suppose she was afraid of slipping on the pink and pale blue satin material that they’d lined the floor of the display window with.
Mrs Fleming looked flustered that we remained there and I felt pleased about that. I smiled and she gave me her look. Mrs Fleming was a woman who could smile without any teeth ever showing. We watched her stretch up on her tippy toes to take one end of the banner Mr Fleming was handing down to her. There were silver cut-outs of stars hanging from the ceiling and various phases of the moon.
‘I don’t like her,’ I said.
‘She’s just mean.’
Mr Fleming tugged at the silver ribbons sellotaped to the ceiling and the dimpled bunches of balloons bobbed low when they fell, bobbed just once or twice around Mrs Fleming’s pudgy ankles.
There were still three of the four gift baskets left in the window display. I had asked Mr Fleming on Thursday when it looked like they were going spare if I could have one. I wanted to have it ready for Mum when she came home. He had started to get one out of the window when I ruined it.
First, I told him that the baby had been born ten minutes late and he said, that’s all right, your Mum’s a good customer and we can bend the rules just a little. But then I felt bad about lying and I told him that the baby hadn’t actually been born yet and that was when Mrs Fleming came up behind us.
‘Rules are rules dear,’ she said and she put her hand with her long painted fingernails on my shoulder. ‘Just tempting fate,’ I heard her say as she turned to another woman at the counter.
‘Come on,’ Karen said, ‘Dairy’s open.’
She bought a potato topped pie and I bought a packet of Spaceman cigarettes just to be funny and I smoked them as we headed along through the shops. On the left were the public toilets (you only went in there if you were busting), the school and the library and petrol station. On the right hand side were the shops. At the end of the township the road dropped steeply away, almost vertically down to the beach. We called it a beach then but to see it now, I would call it a tidal inlet.
A low concrete and pebble wall edged the beach and in the fartherest corner there was a boat ramp and a few tyre swings and a see-saw. Sometimes in the summer I would come here with my mother and father. One time we had been there, when I was still in the primers. My mother had been pregnant but she wanted to swim with me. There was a high tide and we both floated off the edge of the boat ramp and played starfish. A few kids from my class were there and Mum timed them to see how long we could stay under the water. Mum could stay under the longest by far. But that wasn’t why the baby died. There was some other reason for that, Dad said.
‘What do you want to do now?’ Karen said.
A breeze whipped in across the channel. It lifted the two curtains of Karen’s hair from the sides of her face. She looked pretty. Further out in the estuary the breeze lifted the shallow brown tide from the mud flats, made whipped cream heads on the water further out of the bay. On the horizon I could see a couple of little P-class yachts bobbing along. I didn’t want to be there anymore.
‘Don’t know,’ I said.
‘When’s your Mum coming home?’ Karen said.
‘We don’t know. She has to stay there now. Until the baby’s born.’
‘Come back to our house? You can see our baby.’
I looked up at the diluted blue of the sky, the fingernail of new moon that hung there.
‘Ok,’ I said. I didn’t want to be there either, but there was nowhere else to go.
Karen’s house had belonged to her grandmother. The grandmother didn’t like Karen’s mother and Karen said they had to live for years in a state house in the South Island before the Grandmother died. Then they got the house. Karen didn’t remember ever seeing her Grandma.
Fingers of orange undercoat remained on the weatherboards beneath the windows that faced the street where Karen’s father had long ago begun preparing the house for painting and then stopped. Inside, in the lounge room, paint flaked from the window sills like scales. I often sat there with Karen peeling the slivers from the wood.
Karen’s father worked for the Council, The Ministry of Works it said on the truck parked outside their house. The truck dropped him home each afternoon and we could see it with its little green shed with the tarpaulin over it where they had their tea as we turned the corner from my street into the crescent that was Karen’s. As we got closer I could hear that the engine was still running. Karen ran ahead of me down the street towards the truck and the lights of it flashed on and off a couple of times as she approached it. The driver was a big, heavy man. He looked uncomfortable the way he was wedged in behind the steering wheel. The front passenger door swung open and Karen’s father’s legs appeared under the open door on the grass verge, but he remained for a moment longer in the seat and cupped his hand over the flame of the match he held to the cigarette in his mouth.
There were two other men in the back seat of the cab and they raised a beer bottle to Karen’s dad as we walked towards the letterbox of her house. Her father called out something to them which I thought sounded like Maori and I was surprised he knew how to speak that. It must have been something funny because one of the men in the truck leant out the window and raised a beer bottle to Karen’s Dad, and laughed in a high pitched giggle as the truck lurched away from the curb.
Karen’s father did not look like mine, or anyone else’s I knew at school. Both her parents seemed young yet tired. Her father wore his long hair tied back in a pony tail and there was always a copper bracelet on one wrist. This day he wore a heavy yellow raincoat, it flapped open showing his green jersey, the one he always seemed to wear and his trousers at the bottom were caked with yellow clay and bunched over the top of his gumboots.
‘Honey,’ he said to Karen and he put one arm across her shoulder as we walked up the front steps to the house. At the top step he put one finger up to his lips.
‘Sssh,’ he said and we looked in through the window to the scene in the lounge.
Karen’s mother was lying on the settee. She had a wedge of toast in one hand and when she saw us there she waved it above her head in a hello. The room was warm inside. There was one bar glowing on the heater that Karen’s mother rested her crossed feet on. The room smelt of cooking and of cloakrooms on a wet day. The baby was asleep with his nappy off. He lay on the floor on a creamy yellow sheepskin car seat; it still had the straps on it to attach it to the seat of a car.
‘Get Daddy a beer?’ Karen’s mother said and Karen ran off to the kitchen.
I crouched down on the floor to look at the baby.
‘You can have a little hold love,’ her father said.
I didn’t want to. I wanted to hold our baby but it still hadn’t arrived yet. It didn’t feel right to hold Karen’s but Karen’s father was lifting the baby up and wrapping him in a cuddle rug.
‘Sit down,’ the mother said, ‘here beside me.’ I could smell the sour milk smell of the baby and urine, and I swallowed hard and I thought I was going to vomit and then he was in my arms and the cuddle rug opened and in his sleep he squirted a stream of urine into the air. Karen’s mother hooted with laughter. Karen’s father picked up a tea towel from the pile of washing on one end of the settee and dabbed gently at the baby. The baby opened his mouth and gave a weak scratchy little cry like a kitten.
‘You better take him, love,’ Karen’s mother said.
Her father reached down for the baby. He kissed the baby all over its face and under its chin. He made sucking noises at its skin. Karen’s mother hoisted herself into a sitting position, she reached up under her shirt and I could see her bra.
‘He wants the tit,’ Karen’s father said.
I felt myself flush. I looked out the window for a moment. I could hear rustling of fabric as Karen’s mother arranged herself. I turned back to see the mother’s breast, the nipple a purpley red, being pushed at the baby’s mouth.
‘How’s Mum?’ her mother said.
The baby was sucking and smacking its lips. I looked back out the window. The milk truck was idling outside the letterbox, the man was clinking milk bottles into the crate.
‘Dad’s taking me to see her tonight,’ I said.
‘Baby?’ her mother said.
I felt a tearing feeling somewhere down near my tonsils. I wanted to be somewhere, anywhere but here.
‘I have to go now, ‘I said.
Visiting was from four to six. Mum’s room was near the top floor of the hospital. I stood outside the entrance way while Dad went back to the car park to check the doors were locked. There were daffodils in the grounds of the hospital. They grew in clumps beneath the trees that were made for climbing.
I had picked a few of Mum’s favorite camellias and Dad came towards me raising the empty jam jar for the flowers that I had left on the floor of the car by my seat.
‘Give your Mum a wave,’ he said. ‘She’ll be watching us arriving, go on, give her a wave.’
I put one hand up across my forehead but I still couldn’t see my mother there, it seemed a long way up, but I waved hard anyway. A little girl was running around the base of the trees, singing to herself and I wondered if Mum could see her from her window.
We pressed the button in the lift for the top floor. It stopped with a lurch on the second floor and a couple of men in green gowns got in pulling a trolley between them. There was a woman lying on the trolley and she opened her eyes and looked at me for a long moment and then she closed her eyes again. There was a taste in my mouth of metal and vanilla mixed together. I always tasted this just before I fainted. I started taking deep breaths like Mum had taught me. The doors opened on the eighth floor.
‘Here we go,’ Dad said.
There were windows all along one side of the corridor and sets of double swing doors with lists of the mothers that were behind them. There were not many lights on in the hall. I could hear the sound of babies wailing.
‘Mum’s along here,’ Dad said. His voice sounded strained.
He pushed open one half of the glass doors into Mum’s ward. I stood behind him. There were perhaps six other beds in the room and I squeezed around the side of my father to see balloons in the room here and there, and baskets just like the ones in Flemings on the ends of the some of the beds with soft toys and soap and baby talcum powder underneath the layers of pink or blue cellophane and on the window sills every available inch of space was taken up by huge arrangements of flowers in jars.
A woman in the bed nearest the doors seemed to recognise my father and she brought her hand up to her mouth.
‘Oh,’ she said and looked at me, ‘the little girl.’
At the far side of the room the curtains were drawn around a bed.
‘Wait here,’ Dad said and he let the door swing closed behind him.
I stood there on the other side of the glass door. There were hundreds of little squares on the glass each edged in black and my eyes found just four of them and made a frame to watch Dad walking towards the curtains but he didn’t go inside them. A doctor came out from behind the curtains to meet him. It was as though he was expecting Dad there and he put his hand on Dad’s arm and Dad just backed up a couple of paces still holding the empty jam jar.
I let the door close and walked over to the windows in the corridor. From up there I could see lots of daffodils spreading across the grounds of the hospital; I could see the road winding away from the car-park and through the domain and cars moving like beetles along the roads.
Down below in the car-park where the daffodils bloomed underneath the trees near the exposed roots, a child was there picking bunches of them. The child looked very small from where I was, up there outside Mum’s room, but she could have been about my age. It was difficult to be sure about anything from up there.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Fiona Mitford completed a collection of short stories for her MA at the IIML this year. Moon Babies is the title story. She left city life 13 years ago and now lives on a farm in the Gisborne ranges. There are two water crossings to traverse on the last 4K of the gravel road home, and in winter when the rivers rise, they are often too deep to cross. She has very much enjoyed being in Wellington at the IIML for two days of each week this year.