The in-laws had come down to see the baby. She was their first grandchild so they were very excited. They weren’t really the in-laws because Peter and I weren’t married, but since the baby came that hadn’t seemed so important.
When we opened the door, Peter’s mother flew across the threshold. A practical beige trench coat swung open at her sides like wings.
‘Oh and here she is,’ she cried, zooming towards the baby. She took her from my arms. This involved some awkward tangling of sleeves and rewrapping of muslin, but we got there in the end. ‘Little sweetheart,’ cooed Sal, that’s Peter’s mother’s name. ‘Little Ruby-dooby-doobs.’ The baby’s name is Ruby. Sal rubbed her nose on Ruby’s nose.
In those first days, all I felt was that my breasts were huge and sore. I was so conscious of them, especially in front of Bryn, though he seemed more embarrassed about it all than me. Bryn is Peter’s dad and on that visit he wouldn’t look me in the eye. He wouldn’t look at any part of me. In fact, he looked away from me altogether unless I was holding Ruby, in which case he focused on her. Every time I looked down there was breast milk curdling on my t-shirt in big wet circles.
Sal wanted to take the baby out everywhere, all the time. I wanted to stay home and wait for my mother to come. She wouldn’t arrive until the next week because Ruby was three weeks early and she couldn’t afford to change her flights.
‘I don’t know what to do,’ I said to her over the phone.
My older brother had three kids, so my mum wasn’t as bothered as the in-laws.
‘Do about what?’ she asked.
I sighed. ‘I don’t know what I’ve gotten myself into. There’re too many people here. And I’m tired.’ I didn’t sound old enough to have a child of my own. At that moment I wished I was someone who cried at just anything.
Then my mum laughed. She actually laughed. ‘Of course you’re tired,’ she said. ‘You’ve just had a baby. It’s exhausting. Stop worrying, you’ll be fine.’
‘I’m not worrying,’ I said, in a new grump. I heard Sal calling my name down the hall. ‘I have to go now Mum, we have to go out.’ As though the emphasis would change things somehow.
We sat around a table in a café we’d never been to before. It was a popular place for people with kids. They had biscuits topped with hundreds and thousands and a grimy toy basket full of dog-earred books and rabbits with broken paws. Ruby wasn’t old enough for these things, so we all ordered coffees while she slept. I ordered a flat white.
‘Shouldn’t that be decaf?’ said Sal. When I didn’t change my order she stage-whispered to the waiter, ‘Breast-feeding,’ then jabbed a finger towards my huge, ridiculous breasts strapped away inside overalls. The waiter glanced at my chest and as he looked away his cheeks flushed, but only just enough to notice. He put his docket book back into his apron and adjusted his sleeves just so, so we knew that this was fine for him — he wasn’t embarrassed, no, not at all.
On the third day of the in-laws’ visit, I phoned my friend Nina after breakfast. I used our landline, which we’d only got installed after our parents insisted. They didn’t agree that it was easier to reach us on our cellphones.
Nina sounded sleepy.
‘Did I wake you up?’ I asked.
‘Of course you bloody woke me up, it’s nine o’clock in the bloody morning on a Saturday.’ Nina didn’t have any kids. She didn’t even have just one boyfriend at a time.
‘Is it Saturday?’ I asked.
Nina didn’t view this as a real question. She yawned, ‘How’s it going with the in-laws?’
‘Okay, I guess. Peter’s mum keeps making us go on all these outings. I just want to sit around and feel fat and disgusting and not let anyone see me.’
‘Well I can relate to that, ‘ said Nina, almost laughing, but it was still a little early. ‘How about Ruby then?’
‘Well, she’s Ruby of course. I’m trying my best, but they’re all mad on doing everything for me. I barely get to hold her. Then, the thing is when I do, she just starts to seem like this bundle of endless need, you know?’
‘Not really,’ said Nina, and I could tell she was losing interest.
‘Well, it’s like, if she doesn’t need changing she needs feeding, or else she’s cold or hot or tired, or just screaming for no reason at all. I thought I knew this stuff before she was born. I thought I was ready.’
‘You are ready,’ said Nina. ‘You and Peter are wonderful parents.’
Nina hadn’t actually visited yet, so I wasn’t sure how much weight to give her opinion.
‘You know what I’ve realised? No one ever tells you the truth about how relentless little babies are. Well, I’m telling you now. Relentless is the only word for it. You don’t have one so you can’t really understand—’
‘Thank christ,’ she interrupted.
‘—exactly. You’ve been warned.’
We were both quiet for a few beats, our breaths passing back and forth across the line.
‘So what are you going to do?’ Nina asked.
I was surprised. This wasn’t a question I was considering. ‘Oh god, no. That’s not what I meant. I mean, all I’m saying is, sometimes I just feel like I’ve got to get out of here for a bit.’
‘I thought the problem was Sal making you leave the house all the time.’ Nina’s voice was deadpan.
I imagined her tangled in worn flannelette sheets in the attic bedroom of her flat. The sun would be streaming into her eyes if she’d forgotten to close the curtains before bed. I wondered if she felt alone.
‘Yeah,’ I said, ‘but that’s different, you know.’
‘Yes,’ said Nina. ‘So just go.’
We said goodbye and she promised to come visit. We didn’t arrange a day. I went to check on Ruby, who had just woken for the second time that morning. I took her into the lounge with me and put on the TV.
‘It’s a lovely day,’ said Sal, knotting the ties around the curtains and smoothing them down. ‘I made these for you,’ she said. ‘Tidy up the view a bit.’
‘Yes,’ I said from my seat on the couch where Ruby and I had been watching infomercials. ‘Thanks for that.’ I changed the channel to a cooking show.
‘I thought we’d go to the beach. Take a picnic and make a day of it.’
‘Which beach?’ I said, although really I was listening for what was coming up after the break. It was pineapple pancakes with a fresh coconut sorbet, which wasn’t as tricky as it sounded. Sal was suggesting beaches.
I said, ‘No thanks.’
Peter walked into the room. ‘No thanks what?’ he said, sitting next to me on the couch and taking Ruby onto his lap. She was asleep again.
‘I don’t want to go to the beach. I’m going to stay home today.’
Sal turned from the window. ‘You don’t want to go to the beach? Peter, she doesn’t want to go to the beach.’
His face grew red and hot as our eyes burned into him and I felt sorry for all men everywhere, ever.
There was a long silence during which I moved my attention back to the TV, and Sal busied herself touching things above the fireplace. Ruby woke up and vomited on Peter’s trouser leg.
‘Oh dear!’ said Peter and Sal in unison. I didn’t say anything because the piece on pineapple pancakes had started. Sal rushed over and took Ruby out of the room.
I felt Peter’s eyes on me. ‘So you’ll stay home today?’ he said.
Once they were gone, the TV was boring. Before they’d left, Peter had come in and said, ‘I’ll take Mum and Dad for lunch after the beach. You’ll have the whole day to yourself.’
Without looking at him I couldn’t quite find the sarcasm in his voice, so I kept my eyes on the TV.
‘Ruby’s sleeping soundly,’ he said, then quickly kissed my forehead, like we did to the baby in her cot.
I opened my eyes and realised that I must have dozed off. I wondered how long I had been sleeping. The cooking show was over and Sesame Street was on. I would not become a mum who watched kids shows even when the kids weren’t around.
I got off the couch and went into the bedroom. I opened the wardrobe and changed out of my pyjamas into a blue cotton dress that I hadn’t worn for a long time. It was a little tight, but still zipped up. My favourite yellow purse was pushed right to the back of the shelf, as though it was something I didn’t use all the time. I took it down and looked inside, removing a crumpled stub from a movie ticket, a couple of grey cigarette filters and a tube of lipstick missing its lid. I put it all in the bin and refilled the purse with my wallet, lip balm and keys from the desk. I discovered I didn’t like my sunglasses anymore and decided to go shopping.
I walked to the bus stop at the end of the street. Our car was in the driveway, but I felt like taking the bus.
There was one other person in the shelter, a guy about my age dressed in a suit. His trouser legs were too long and the fabric pooled around his ankles. His tie was crooked. A boy, I thought. He held a bottle of chocolate milk in one hand, and a burnt down cigarette in the other. He glanced at me and I saw his eyes move to my stomach. He turned away and let the butt fall, grinding it into the concrete with his heel.
‘I’m not pregnant,’ I almost said, but then didn’t.
The boy uncapped his bottle and as he did, a dribble of milk escaped and ran down his hand. He noticed and licked it away before it reached his drooping cuff. He didn’t seem bothered that I had seen. He took a sip from the bottle and didn’t notice that the cap in his other hand was dripping onto his trousers. I felt smug, but then quickly a strange sadness. I wanted this boy to be playing dress-up. I wanted him to go home and take off his father’s suit, and for that to have been his first and only cigarette.
The bus arrived and the boy fumbled in his pocket for his pass. He noticed the milk on his pants and tried to wash it away with a dampened hand. I stood up from the bench and walked back towards home.
In front of our house, there was a woman getting out of a taxi. She struggled with a suitcase and then stood on the footpath with it propped against her leg. She was wearing a long skirt and a white t-shirt but her breasts were small and her figure was youthful because she had me when she was only sixteen.
‘Mum,’ I said when I was near enough. ‘You’re here early.’
She smiled, ‘I managed to change my flight after all. Is everybody inside? I didn’t ring because I thought you’d all be home.’
I was on the porch by then and I put my arms around her. She pulled me in and pressed my face into her neck. My swollen stomach pushed us apart, slightly.
‘Me too, Mum,’ I said, the words muffled by her skin. ‘Me too.’
‘What’s that, darling?’ she said.
I pulled back, taking her hands. ‘I mean, I am home Mum. I am.’
She squinted at me and tipped her head to the side so her long brown hair covered half her face. She’d only recently started dying her hair. I was twenty-three years old.
‘Come inside and meet Ruby,’ I said. ‘She’s not old enough to open the door.’
I stepped quickly in front of Mum. Once we were inside she called, ‘Hellooo,’ into the empty air. She’d been to our place plenty of times before, so she already knew the layout. My only choice was to keep walking, staying one step ahead. She was asking one question after another. She didn’t seem to notice that I wasn’t responding.
The bedroom door was closed. I didn’t think I had left it closed.
Mum stepped in front of me, unable to contain her excitement any longer.
‘Is Peter in here?’ she asked, then called, ‘Hellooo,’ again as she swung open the door.
Ruby was there. Awake. Drinking from a bottle. Cradled in Peter’s lap.
‘Raylene,’ he said, his face opening into a smile.
‘Oh Peter,’ said my mum, gasping through the words. ‘I almost thought nobody was home,’ she laughed.
‘Yes,’ he said. ‘I decided to stay home and look after Ruby today. Can’t leave her home by herself, can we?’ Peter lifted Ruby and the bottle towards Mum. ‘Come, hold her.’ She moved closer and gathered them both into her arms.