I imagine it to be different. After all this time, I mean. I thought the windows would be darker, the door handle frosted over with rust, the grass withered and curling back into the earth. I play the scene over and over in my head: there, look, a face in the window with eyes as loud as engines. I picture myself calling up to her, Old lady, how are you still alive? She will swing the glass open, lean out into nothingness, and say, No one’s taking these old bones yet!
But that isn’t how it played out. Time moves strangely, like water. It is pulled along by eddies and vapours and wind-harsh currents. If you look hard enough, you’ll see it. A door slightly ajar. Plunket books with dusty spines. Women with giant, lovely mouths. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Perhaps, in telling you, I can piece it all together. How the bodies rolled over us like waves. How my sister Ada looked the last time I ever saw her: thin and allegorical, ready to shed the lot of us.
I suppose it’s best that I start from the beginning. But not the one you might expect. Not the newspaper beginning with its headline: Teenage Girl Drowns in Estuary. Not the funeral beginning, which is really more like an end. Not even the truest beginning, which is the day that I was born, the youngest of five girls, in a house built on a swamp. Picture a man with a lucky face. Standing next to him is a woman. The woman is important; I have inherited her soft grey eyes. There, look, land is taken, water is drained, a house is constructed. But what is a story but a house, a name but a road, a baby but a moon in a sack?
Like I said, time moves differently.
The bus drops me off at the corner. There’s the whiff of estuary, of swooping gulls and rotten eggs. The letterbox, the large bay windows. I can smell my grandmother lying in her bed, flappy-skinned and colourless. It’s the most horizontal I have ever smelt her. The thought of this makes me want to collapse, right there, in the middle of the footpath. I don’t, of course. Instead I start dragging my suitcase behind me. It rumbles along on its tiny black wheels.
When my mother answers the door, she only looks at my face for a second before her eyes sweep down to my belly. I feel as enormous as the house I stand in. I’m convinced that people have forgotten what I look like because it’s all that anyone sees, the circularity of me.
Come in, my mother says, reaching for my suitcase. You shouldn’t be heavy lifting in your condition, Alice. Shame on you.
I roll my eyes because my suitcase is the size of a small cushion.
When I enter the house, the smell of it hits me with full force: Nanny Puddle sleeping in the next room, dust zipping around the ceiling, objects spilling over with age. I follow my mother into the kitchen, where she puts on the kettle and I ease into a chair. I’ve been holding it together well, I think. Here I am for the first time in years and I’m as cool as a cucumber. My mother removes two mugs from the cupboard and places teabags inside them.
I’ve called the others, she says.
I wait for her to say more, but she doesn’t. She’s waiting for me to ask, even though I’ve already spoken to them. Camille and Frankie and Olive. But my mother is playing a game and I’m too tired to back out. I shift uncomfortably, spread out my hips to accommodate my belly.
When are they coming?
My mother is pouring water into the mugs. She looks up and I see the broad flesh of her neck. She is a large woman, with thick shoulders and calves.
The next few days, she says. They’re all flying in.
That’s great, I say.
I haven’t seen my sisters in a long time. When Ada died it was as if something swept through us. A giant toothy wind, or a rush of hieroglyphics. It was the type of thing that made you burn your toast or cry when you couldn’t find your other sock. And it made it hard to pick up the phone and dial the extension for Morocco or Melbourne or the top of the North Island.
My mother brings the mugs to the table, sits down, and slides one across to me.
I’m sorry I was so abrupt, she says. When I rang.
It’s okay, Mum.
When Mum had called, I was at home, engrossed in a koala documentary. I’d just opened the packet to my third lemonade ice block.
Alice! My mother was yelling down the line. Your grandmother is dying!
The shock of these words had catapulted me out of my body. There I was, floating around the ceiling and looking out over my living room. I could see the entire mass of me, slurping away on the couch, watching a smooth-bellied man hug a koala to his chest.
Like I said, my mother is a stoic woman and I wasn’t used to the hysteria in her voice. You should probably know that I am not easily shocked.
When we have finished our tea, my mother says, Shall we see if she’s awake?
My hands start to shake. I am not prepared for it. I will get up right now and run. Sprint out of the house. Leave my mother in the kitchen, my belly on the chair, my grandmother dying in the next room. But then I hear it. A groan. It slinks down the hallway and right into my feet. I’m fixed to the floor, trapped. I’m nine-twelve-fourteen and Ada is ahead of me. She is shouting something, but all I can see is the pale flash of her ankles, the puckered scar on her calf.
My mother interrupts me in a hush: The doctor says it could be days.
Now I’m following her out of the kitchen, down the hallway, into Nanny Puddle’s bedroom. The curtains are shut and the late-afternoon light pushes behind it. Dust swirls in its glow. Nanny Puddle is in bed, covered in a thick down blanket. It’s drawn up to her chin so that all I can see is the bulge of her feet, the caps of her knees, her tiny breasts. Her face looks older than I have ever seen it. Puffed, baggy eyes. Wrinkles as deep as holes. The only thing that is the same is her hair: white and electric, like some cartoon ghost.
Leila? My mother stoops over her. Alice is here to see you.
Nanny Puddle cracks open an eye. It swivels a bit before landing on me.
Ah, she says in the voice I should have expected. Gravelly and ancient, like God.
Nanny P, I say, moving towards her with a half-smile.
Her eye swivels to my belly.
My hands move quickly. I am fanning them across the dome of me. I’m not sure what I’m trying to do. Shield you perhaps? Protect the secrets of my body from her sharp, omniscient gaze? But Nanny Puddle is already looking away. She coughs. Her entire body rolls with the force of it. I see, then, how frail she has become, how time has stolen this from her, the elasticity of her limbs, the years packed away like those television commercials for vacuum storage bags.
You probably know by now who you are in this story. A tiny burst of life. Growing inside me, blood of my blood, like a leech, or a biblical Eve. Too much? You are someone I don’t yet know. And there is my grandmother, bony and lifeless, lying on the bed as blood pools in her ankles, the backs of her shoulder blades, the base of her spine. If I were to lift the blanket she would look halved, like an apple. Perhaps if she were wholly red, if her bones were thick with calcium, if she were twenty years younger, I would walk over to her and shake her. I would shriek, How could you? Picture it: me leaning over her ninety-year-old body and yelling, It is all your fault! And there, look, Nanny Puddle is turning her face towards me, a flash in the dimness, a sliver of moon. See it? She is opening her eyes in a challenge.