A SMALL PRINTED card offered extra towels, if they should need them. They hadn’t been provided in the first instance, Leah read, because the guesthouse was eco-friendly. The card was cream coloured, expensive and embossed with an unfamiliar font. Leah rubbed the corner between thumb and forefinger, tilting her head to one side. Normally, she could pick card stock with her eyes closed. Oh well: she propped it back on the marble bathroom vanity, angled just so. In the mirror she caught a glimpse of her wrist tattoo, old and shabby, the black heart more blue smudge these days. She rotated her forearm back and forth, watching the tattoo appear and disappear in the mirror, like it belonged to someone else, someone a long way from here.
Leah was in the Barossa Valley, and this was the poshest guesthouse she’d ever seen. The only other time she was somewhere nearly as posh was their wedding night last year. They were in the city then, at the Hilton. She remembered Patrick telling her that hotels say ‘eco-friendly’ because it’s trendy, when really they can’t be bothered washing your extra towels. He was standing in a pair of green satin boxers when he said that. She remembered watching his clean, pale body as she folded the second-hand wedding dress and laid it in the pearly cardboard box provided by the hotel. How sure Patrick had seemed then, how his eyes shone with certainty – about the towels, about all sorts of things.
He was asleep now. He lay stomach down, one arm dangling over the side of the bed, his face slack, lips fuller than usual. Patrick looked different asleep: loose, even the texture of his skin. Watching him sleep made Leah uneasy, as if she might be called upon for something she wasn’t capable of. When Patrick was a newborn baby, his mother told her, he slept all day, and all she did was stare at him. ‘Hours and hours,’ his mother told her. ‘And intuitively, I just did it intuitively. I didn’t know anything about attachment theory back then.’
Shona had dropped in unexpectedly and seen the box of Pregnosis on their kitchen bench. Even though Leah and Patrick had said they weren’t going to say anything until it had actually happened. It was an ‘agreement’. So many agreements. Leah was left thinking, What the hell is attachment theory?
Getting pregnant was the reason they were here, but it didn’t really make sense; the second MasterCard was for emergencies only. Patrick had said that, but then he used it to book them this suite. One night in this guesthouse was the same as a week’s mortgage repayment. Plus, Leah could have got them something for under $100 on lastminute.com that still would have been nice. Not as nice as this, for sure. She picked up the miniature toiletries, one by one, put them back down again. They were so much prettier than their full-size versions. Just like real babies. They were Aveda too. Expensive. Her mind wandered to eBay, as it did. With the insertion fees it was hardly worth it for something so small. If she had more, though, she could arrange them into gift packs, start them at .99 cents. They’d go off at .99 cents. Might finance an entrée in the restaurant, she thought ruefully, or one of those little chocolates with coffee. She slid her fingers down the smooth cabinetry and pushed: a gentle, satisfying click. She squatted to inspect the open cupboard: black hairdryer, single roll of toilet paper, a small pile of white paper bags. No stockpile of Aveda. Leah stood and let her eyes wander 360. She hadn’t properly taken it all in when they’d first arrived, just a quick glance around before Patrick pulled her to the bed. He’d used the word ‘weighty’ as he placed their bags into the alcove of the thick sandstone wall. ‘Weighty’ was a Shona word: odd – not one that people would normally use to describe a guesthouse. Patrick’s mother was a psychologist and had lots of ‘buzzwords’. Even still, Leah could see what Patrick meant: this place was weighty. The en suite was total luxury: white and cream and chrome. The spa bath was deep and long, big enough for two people lying head to toe. Above it was a tiled recess lined with glass jars filled with pastel-coloured salts and other jars holding unlit tea lights. A chrome rail-thing lay across the bath and held a bar of handmade-looking soap. An oversized yellow rubber duck sat next to the soap. The duck was purposely out of place, Leah knew that. It was meant as a novelty, like that artist-lady Shona always invited to her ‘soirees’: Tubby, Tabby, whatever her name was. Leah had casually asked how to spell it and then typed ‘soiree’ into her phone. Why don’t you just call it a BBQ? she wanted to say to Shona.
She undid the plush bathrobe she’d found on the bed and then pulled it in tighter round her waist. She didn’t feel like having a bath anymore. She checked her new Fiorelli watch – had only just stopped feeling guilty whenever she looked at it – five-thirty. Another one-and-a-half hours before dinner. She would wake Patrick in an hour, at the latest. They’d argued again till two this morning, the usual topics – sex (he said it was like she wasn’t there), finances (why were they going somewhere so expensive if they couldn’t even manage the mortgage?), her (he said ‘anger issues’).
The restaurant was part of the guesthouse, and sort of famous. It had been on Postcards on TV and also in the SA Life magazine she’d seen at the doctor’s. The magazine said it could be hard to get a booking in the restaurant, that you had to be organised and plan ahead. She and Patrick had a booking at seven.
Sex was out of the way. It was feeling more and more like the article said it would. The article was like a self-fulfilling prophecy. ‘Keeping Your Sex Life Alive While Coping With Infertility’ – it was by someone called Judith and she had a PhD about it. Judith said that sex was once spontaneous and fun and about passion and lust, but now it was more like a task and just about the calendar and when the woman was ovulating. Leah was ovulating now, that was certain – she could feel it: the pulling ache down one side of her pelvis. It wasn’t as if they’d had any of the tests yet – it was still early days. ‘You’re both very young,’ the GP told them, and she managed to smile and frown with the one expression. ‘We’ll try for another twelve months before we’ll start worrying about anything.’ She said ‘we’ as if she’d be trying too. It was Patrick’s idea that they see the doctor. He’d thought they’d get pregnant the first time he didn’t use a condom.
It was just like Patrick to find that article. And to organise this. To try and find solutions for problems that didn’t even exist. ‘Somewhere really special,’ he’d said. ‘It’ll be romantic, even if it doesn’t happen.’
When Patrick talked like that – sentimental – Leah twitched and squirmed like the baby guinea pig those kids brought over to show after work last Friday. Those kids had no boundaries: they were always jumping the fence to show Leah and Patrick things – a gecko with no tail, new skateboards, boxes of fundraising chocolates – and the little one, the girl, she was too young to be jumping fences and visiting strangers’ houses. Leah would know. ‘You can have a hold of Cappuccino if you want to,’ the boy had said. Leah put her hands in her pockets, in case he forced the guinea pig on her. She was slightly repulsed by the rodent-like thing, but she felt sorry for it too, writhing away in the kids’ hot small hands.
LEAH WORKED AT Joe Barnett’s printing shop: out the back. She told people ‘retail’ but really she was out the back, stacking and packing orders. When people asked Patrick and he said ‘electrician’ or ‘sparky’, Leah felt proud and annoyed. That was a proper job that needed a piece of paper. She’d left school at the end of Year 10, back when you still could – it was hardly a choice. If she had a chip on her shoulder for not finishing high school, the new night job at Coles wasn’t helping.
Last week she’d seen Patrick’s brother’s new girlfriend in aisle four. Always ‘Patrick’s brother’ when she thought of him now, never Scott. His girlfriend had described to Leah the shortfalls of the new beauty salon next door. It might be open after hours, she said, but it was irrelevant because they were hopeless and that was why she had the big red blotch between her eyebrows: they’d practically burnt her with the wax. She could sue, probably. Leah had kept stacking. She liked the part where you lined the tins into perfectly neat rows and she didn’t really blame the girlfriend for going on – it wasn’t as if she had a uniform or anything.
‘Oh! What’re you doing?’ the girlfriend said and only then did Leah remember her name: it was Jess. Patrick’s brother had a new girlfriend every month.
‘Working,’ Leah said, ‘I work here.’ She laughed lightly.
‘Oh. Oh! Sorry! I thought you worked at the printing place in the main street? Does Joe Barnett still own that?’
‘Yeah.’ Leah rolled her eyes. ‘Mortgage.’ She didn’t say anything about trying for a baby. Jess nodded slowly, like she was doing quiet calculations.
Patrick’s brother had a new franchise with Donut Delirium. Jess was the company’s accountant and had helped with the start-up. Patrick’s brother was always starting business ventures. ‘The population up here is going off,’ he told Leah, ‘and you have to grab your market share.’ Girlfriends were found wherever he went; the old were dumped, or he’d kid them up and try and keep two or more going at once. He found girls at The Barker, in cafes, down in the city at clubs, once on a football trip to Melbourne, a rodeo trip to Alice Springs, and once, half passed out on the street: that was Leah.
Leah was replaced by Kate, the American twice his age he met in Cambodia. Leah fell harder than anyone expected. In the space of two weeks, she lost six kilos and it showed. Shona had stroked Leah’s cheek, said perhaps she might like to stay for a bit, to get back on her feet.
‘Sometimes I’m scared my brother is amoral,’ Patrick said to her. ‘I mean, that he has no conscience. That he doesn’t even care about other people.’ He’d taken Leah to Millie’s, where he bought her a hot chocolate and a shiny custard tart. She felt him staring at her mouth while she ate. She’d seen parents of small kids lean forward like that, watching every mouthful for the satisfaction of those calories in.
LEAH WALKED AROUND the bed and quietly pushed the louvred doors dividing the two rooms of the suite. She let her fingers drag across the black marble top cut around the stainless-steel sink. Everything in here felt like this: heavy, shiny, deep. The walls themselves would have to be a foot thick. Nothing was skimped, cut back or faked. Not like their house. They’d taken the cheapest option for everything and sometimes, no option at all: no flywire on any of the screen doors and no floor covering in the spare room, just bare cement. It wasn’t like she had imagined, not perfect, with everything neat and clean and matching, like the Harvey Norman catalogues.
It all seemed so unbelievable in the beginning – an impossible fantasy – like pressing her face against the window of Deanne Helly’s dollhouse; that girl didn’t know she was alive. The one afternoon Leah had spent at Deanne’s house had been a revelation. She’d wanted to shrink herself. She’d wanted to sit on one of those little burgundy velvet couches with the turned mahogany legs in that tiny perfect lounge room with the real wallpaper on all the walls. Her skin had tingled at the back of her neck, like it always did, when she wanted something badly. It travelled down her back, exactly the same, when she and Patrick drove around the new licorice-black streets of Gladeview Park estate.
Leah liked to chart the progress of other people’s dreams. Up they went, frame by frame, brick by brick. Saturday afternoons she spent reading AVJennings floor-plan pamphlets like they were romance novels. It was her biggest, most consuming desire and the desire itself was soothing, a rush of calm, like a drug coursing her veins.
Patrick worked double shifts – he’d sold his car to pay his brother’s creditors and there was the wedding too. And then, incredibly, Lot 39 was theirs. They had champagne with Shona and Patrick’s brother and his new girlfriend Bec, manager at the new Gloria Jean’s on Morphett Street.
For months, Leah and Patrick went to the lot alone, after work and on Saturdays and Sundays. They’d pick up McDonald’s Meal Deals and have picnics there, play ‘what room would I be in now in Blueprint 155 or Aurora 130?’ games. They cancelled their Foxtel, stopped doing Friday nights at The Barker, moved in with Shona. What they were building would be real and solid. That was how they felt, even though the walls of their new home were only paper thin.
Leah pushed her knee into the wall of the guesthouse and felt its resistance against the side of her hip. You couldn’t dent these walls. At home, they cracked and collapsed against the heel of your shoe. Six weeks in the new house and there it was, the first splintered gash in the plasterboard.
Leah wanted to say this: it wasn’t a big deal. It looked worse than it was, than it should have been, than she’d meant it. And it wasn’t as if she’d hurt a person: it was a wall. Patrick was all wide-eyed and quiet. It would have been so much more straightforward if he’d yelled back, maybe kicked something too. But the hole was in the lounge room, at the front of the house – they’d gone with the Aurora 130 – where everyone could see it.
And so Leah had agreed to see Jane.
‘Perhaps,’ Jane offered, after their third session of going nowhere, ‘perhaps you feel…angry that…do you think, maybe you feel some jealousy…toward Patrick?’
Leah turned her head and looked Jane in the eye. Jealousy toward Patrick? She wondered then if Jane had talked to Shona. Wasn’t there a privacy thing, even if Shona was paying?
‘Because, you know, that would be very understandable, Leah. Very understandable, when I think about some of the things you’ve told me, some of the things you’ve told me about your own childhood…all that chaos?’
Jane was leaning in, sitting on the edge of her trendy yellow chair. Leah saw that a strand of her frizzy orange hair was stuck to the corner of her mouth. She tried very hard to imagine all that hair straight. Would it even be possible, Leah wondered, to use a straightener on hair as frizzy as that?
Chaos? Jane didn’t know the half of it, nobody did.
‘Okay, then,’ Jane said, crossing one leg over the other and leaning even further in, ‘what is it about Shona, do you think, that makes you soooo mad?’ Jane growled and huffed through the word ‘mad’, as if Leah needed it acted out. Had she said that Shona made her mad? She couldn’t remember, maybe she had. She looked around the room trying to remember how they’d got to here – had she missed something? She’d been thinking about what she’d put on Jane’s desk, if it was her desk – certainly not that ugly ceramic elephant. Maybe an oversized hourglass, like the one in the gift shop that was always closing down.
‘You love me, don’t you, Leah?’ She could barely look at Patrick when he’d said that. She’d been telling him about Jane’s hair, about how orange and crazy and frizzy it was. Patrick often laughed at Leah’s stories and impersonations. She thought he might find it funny, with her joke about Jane practically falling off her chair. They were pulling into the driveway. Those words came out of Patrick’s mouth like they were spring-loaded.
‘What?’ Leah said, climbing out of the car, smoothing her jeans. ‘What do you mean? Of course.’
LEAH HEARD RUSTLING and a small groan from the bed. Patrick had turned his body, shifted the pillow under his head and pulled the waffled blanket over himself. His eyes were still closed. It felt weird poking around the suite while he slept. She felt as if she was in a bubble, not really here, as though these moments didn’t properly count for anything. She watched his bare shoulder roll faintly back and forth with his breath. Patrick had the same pale freckled skin as his dad, something Leah had learnt from photos. Patrick’s dad wasn’t dead but he was as good as dead (Shona’s words). He’d run off with Heather Schmidt – one of his parishioners – when the boys were teenagers. The two families had been close friends. Back then, it was church on Sundays, youth group on Fridays, camping trips, car-pooling to footy practise and tennis clinics – even Christmas dinners together. It wasn’t something they chose, Patrick’s dad had explained to his family; it wasn’t about choice. He told them that he and Heather were soulmates and were moving to Byron Bay. When he didn’t come to Patrick and Leah’s wedding (too difficult for everyone), he’d sent a long letter instead. They were building a straw-bale house, Patrick’s dad wrote, and it was nearly finished. Patrick and Leah were invited to come and stay. We both can’t wait to meet her, the letter said. And the guest room, where they would sleep, had an ‘honesty window’, which meant they could look through it and see that the house really was made of straw. Patrick had laughed at that, hard and fast like a machine gun. Then he folded the letter over and over until it was a tiny square and tossed it in the drawer with his Duke of Ed certificates and old school reports. He’d barely seen his dad since he was sixteen, he told Leah.
Patrick was always meant to go to university. But then it was just about money and how to get it quickly. It was Shona who went in the end, starting with the STAT when the boys were finishing high school and then slogging away until she had an undergraduate science degree and then honours and then her proper psychology degree. Everything about his mum had changed, Patrick told Leah, even her hair and the way she dressed. My mum is amazing, Patrick told Leah.
The boys were still part of the youth group, were still going to their dad’s old church when first Leah turned up, skinny and gothic and tied to nothing and no one. ‘You, young lady, are staying for dinner,’ Shona said when Scott brought her home like a stray mangy cat. Then Shona said, ‘Lasagne!’ like it was a big announcement and she pulled a massive pyrex dish out of the oven like she was used to feeding football teams, as if she was the greatest woman who ever lived. Garlicky beef and burning cheese and smoky acidic tomatoes filled Leah’s nose and she realised she was starving but also nauseous and weirdly light-headed. Scott’s hand resting inside her thigh under the table. Patrick watching her and his brother from the opposite side.
LEAH KNEELED TO open the bar fridge. It fit neatly inside a mahogany sideboard, custom made, no doubt. French champagne, a row of three whites, two cans each of tonic water and dry ginger ale, a block of Green & Black’s organic dark chocolate, and a small stainless-steel carafe three-quarters filled with milk. She closed the door, stood up. Above the sideboard was a wall-mounted shelf holding two hardcover books on luxury ecological hotels of the world. Next to these was a line-up of miniature bottles – tiny spirits and liqueurs. She reached for the Belvedere vodka. Ran her thumb over the embossed white winter-tree branches wrapping the bottle. This wasn’t shoplifting, because you were supposed to help yourself to a minibar. But the impulse felt familiar. Anyway, she’d cut back on that – just a few small things – watches, bracelets, rings, and only when she was down in the city. She never did it in Mount Barker and only did the chains: Witchery, Sportsgirl, Diva, Dotti. Most of it she sold in the evenings, on eBay, when Patrick was watching TV. It was only keeping things that made her feel guilty.
She twisted the tiny black lid, split the paper label and pulled out the miniature cork. Vodka hit the back of her throat and spilled across her lips. She wiped her mouth with the back of her hand, jagging her lower lip with her engagement ring. She pressed a palm to her lip and laid the empty bottle at the bottom of the small black bin, carefully covering it with a tourist brochure. She reached for the mini single-malt whisky, split the foil lid and drank that too. Then the Bombay Sapphire gin, in its pretty turquoise bottle. The Cointreau rolled sickly sweet in her mouth and burnt the back of her throat.
She tried to remember how last night’s arguing had started, but all the words – his and hers – seemed grainy, blurred, like they had no meanings. She tried to bring them forward for close inspection, tried to remember why she was trying. This was how she felt when Jane did the hypnosis. Jane said hypnotherapy could be very useful with memory trauma, though she didn’t use it with everybody. Jane wanted Leah to relive the whole thing with her mum and the boyfriend with the Kawasaki 250, from when she was five and they were at the river. She still had the burn scar, mottled and sloppy, like she’d spilt her own skin down her ankle.
Jane wanted Leah to talk to her five-year-old self, to comfort and reassure her, to tell her that she was safe now, that she could leave all that hurt – all that chaos – behind. Over and over Jane droned on: all is well, all is well. Leah lay back in the recliner like Jane said, closed her eyes even, breathed in that slow, measured way. She imagined stacking tins of tuna and cans of chopped tomatoes and boxes of Barbecue Shapes. It was like one of those old-fashioned video games and she had to stop them crashing down, blip-blip-blip, as she stacked.
When Jane asked in that flat, funny voice she was using for the hypnosis, ‘Can you see her, Leah?’
Leah had whispered, ‘Yup.’
‘Why don’t you hold her hand?’ Jane had suggested then.
What? Leah thought: I don’t want to hold her stupid hand.
‘Okay,’ she’d said, clearing her throat, and Jane whispered: ‘Great.’
LEAH ROLLED HER tongue across her lip, blood metal and the beginnings of a blister. She pressed her finger into the puffy rise and then moved her hand away, stretching it in front of her. Her fingers were long and fine – ‘Piano hands!’ Shona had declared on that first night, clutching them in her own and giving them a squeeze.
Leah wriggled her fingers, as if she were playing piano midair. Her engagement ring and wedding band swung around, still too loose, even though they’d been refitted twice now.
Patrick had bought the diamond ring without her knowing – without anyone knowing – secretly had put it on lay-by at Sheils and paid it off slowly.
One night in the middle of summer Patrick took her to a Thai restaurant down in the city (Leah had never eaten lemongrass and he couldn’t believe it). On the way back up the freeway he’d turned off at Eagle on the Hill. The air was still, as though a breeze had never blown and never would again. She was wearing a floral dress with a girlish bow tied at the back, found at the op shop and not really her style. Her thighs were sticky with sweat, her stomach bloated from all the rice.
And then Patrick was kneeling in front of her, one knee up, like in fairy stories and movies. ‘Leah,’ he said, and he pulled the red velvet jewellery box from his jeans pocket. Later she realised he must have had it there all night. All through her talking about moving to Darwin and the things she said about Scott. ‘I can make you happy,’ Patrick told her. ‘You should marry me.’ He opened the box, took out the ring, and said it again: ‘I can make you happy.’ Then he slid it onto her finger, where the diamond swung around and hung loosely out of sight. ‘We can get it resized!’ he laughed, as if he’d solved the only thing that would ever stand in their way.
She wanted to slow everything down. She wanted to catch up. She wanted to say: Wait! I don’t feel well. I don’t like this dress. It’s too hot. My mascara is all smudged.
She kissed him.
And then Patrick became all serious. ‘Leah, I believe something,’ he said. He held her face in his hands. ‘I believe that we’re meant to be together. We’re meant to get married.’
She nodded, lowered her brow and said, ‘Yeah.’
The effect was like a spreading virus. For a moment she was quiet, transfixed by the notions assembling in her mind. ‘Imagine…’ she said, and she looked into his shining eyes, beads of sweat pooling in their corners. ‘Imagine…’ she said again, ‘…if I’d never left Sydney? If I’d never come up here that night, no idea where I was? Patrick, you know I had no idea where I was! Imagine if your brother hadn’t seen me at the bus stop? Imagine if I’d never stayed, never gone to the youth group? Imagine if you’d stayed home that Friday night? If you hadn’t played that game of footy? If you’d still been on crutches? Imagine if none of those things had happened?’ And she laughed, incredulous, amazed.
Scott’s new girlfriend – Kate – and that stupid holiday in Cambodia, was suddenly, strangely irrelevant. All the other girls too. Then and there, Scott became ‘Patrick’s brother’.
Leah could still recall the fleet of expressions that passed over Shona’s face when they got home and announced the news and presented Leah’s new ring. Patrick’s mother turned Leah’s hand in hers, and stared hard at the diamond as it slid around, back and forth like it was a small but dangerous creature that had made its way into her home. Very softly, her voice strange and high at the end, she said, ‘Patrick.’
LEAH TURNED AWAY from the sideboard and the fridge and the shelf and leant across the small breakfast table, toward the covered window. The man in Curtains and Blinds had demonstrated raising a roman blind when they’d gone in for a quote last year.
‘There’s no point, then, is there?’ Patrick said after they’d moved into their new house. ‘No point in saving for that blind.’ It was a question, but his voice was pleading.
‘What d’you think?’ Leah had shot back. ‘Jeez, Patrick, they were just shitty old sheets. I wouldn’t have done it if we had the new blind. As if I would’ve ripped a new blind.’ Part of her believed it. She did lose her shit sometimes, it was true, and she wasn’t proud of it, but it was never at people. And apart from the hole in the lounge room wall, the only other holes were in the wall of their walk--in ’robe, not in any public space. Not anywhere people could see.
So they still had ugly old sheets tacked over all their windows. In winter, it would be freezing.
She angled and pulled the cord on the Roman blind and wound its slack around the bird-shaped chrome hook. Her mouth pushed against a smile. It had to be the prettiest time to come to the Barossa Valley. Row after row of shiraz vines, some with leaves still in faded green, others deep red or burnt orange, others completely naked, with dark, knotted limbs. Streaks of sunlight cut through the vines and the grey of the cool afternoon. Small brown sparrows hopped and dipped through leaves littering the ground. The perfect place to make a baby. Beautiful Patrick was right, absolutely right. Coming here was an excellent idea. She wondered why she’d questioned it? Because being here did make sense. The skin around her cheekbones slackened, her shoulders dropped in that familiar and lovely way. Her breath was slow and relaxed. She had a thought about alcohol but it was vague. Was it something she’d discussed with Patrick? Jane? Or maybe it was both?
No, that’s right. She remembered. You weren’t supposed to drink alcohol when you were pregnant or trying to be pregnant. Or was it only when you were actually pregnant? She checked her watch. And that. She would stop. The shoplifting was just a little habit, like those women who ate too many carbs and those men who looked at too much porn. Something she could control, absolutely.
She made her way to the bed where Patrick was sleeping. She lay down next to him and pushed her face into the back of his neck. He groaned and reached a hand behind him, placed it across the back of her thigh and gently squeezed. ‘Hey, baby,’ she said.
He flipped his body over so that his face was close to hers. ‘Hey, yourself.’ He pulled her in closer and she giggled and then lifted her head and found his mouth with her tongue, warm and sour.
He pushed her back to the length of his pale, freckled arm. She ran her hand back and forth across his bicep, arched her neck.
He grabbed her hand still and held it up high. Awake now, he propped on his elbow. ‘Leah! Really? Spirits? Fuck.’ He flung himself back down on the bed, ran a hand through his hair and then covered his face.
She didn’t want him to be sad or cross. She smiled. Yes, she’d been drinking. She was probably drunk. But it felt good. He should see the view from their window. She moved her hands over his chest and hooked her foot over his ankle.
‘Leah, please. What are you doing? How long have I been asleep? An hour? I thought you were going to have a bath. You said you were going to have a bath. We were… Don’t you want…? ’ He made a sound as though he were trying to lift something beyond his strength. He pushed her away and sat up on the bed with his head in his hands. He stayed like that for a long moment, and she worried that he might be crying. She hated it when Patrick cried. Then he stood quickly, walked into the en suite. She heard his feet padding around on the marble tiles. She heard him say, ‘God. We had an agreement.’
She sat up on the bed. Tucked her hands under her thighs.
Patrick reappeared in the doorway. ‘Leah.’ He often did that: said her name at the beginning of sentences, like people did with children. ‘This has got…’ He ran a hand roughly over his face. ‘This stuff has got to end. I can’t keep doing this. Feeling like I’m living in a… I dunno. I don’t know. I don’t even know. What you’re going to do next.’ His eyebrows were bunched, his teeth chewed his bottom lip. ‘Leah,’ he said again, and this time his voice broke on it. ‘I need to know if…’ He gulped for air, his pale, freckled chest puffing and then deflating.
‘Patrick, I just had a couple of drinks. S’fine. You should have one too. You need to relax.’ She pushed herself back onto the bed and circled her stomach with her hands. Imagine if there was a baby in there now. Imagine if an egg had met a sperm and their cells were multiplying together right now, forming an embryo, a zygotey thingamajig…right now, as she lay on this bed. Imagine what they would tell everyone. A baby. She wanted to say this to Patrick, to paint a picture of this possibility, to cheer him up. She heard him slap the doorframe with his palm. Then he knocked his head against the wall.
He said her name again. ‘I need to know if you love me, Leah. If you want to be with me. Please. Just tell me if you love me. You never say it, Leah.’
This again. It always came back to this. She sat up. ‘I do. I do say it, Patrick. God.’
He raised his arms, hooked them over the frame of the doorway and shook his head in disbelief, a small, sad smile across his lips.
‘Okay. I love you. Alright?’
‘I need to know how you love me.’
‘How do you love me?’ His voice was urgent.
‘I don’t know what you mean. I don’t know what you mean, Patrick.’ She felt her forehead tighten above her eyes.
‘How? Please. You said you love me. But how do you love me? Like a friend? Like a brother? Like a father?’ He slammed the palm of his hand against the doorframe again. ‘Just say it. Say it. I need to know.’
‘Patrick. Calm down. I had a couple of drinks. It’s not that bad. Shit. I thought we were supposed to be relaxing. Making a baby, whatever. I thought this was what this…was all supposed to be. Arghhh!’ She put her hands through her hair. It felt thin and greasy, and she remembered vaguely that she was going to wash it in the bath.
‘I need to know, Leah: how do you love me?’ His jaw was clenched. His eyes dark and strangely wide.
Leah felt sick. ‘Alright! Okay, okay.’ She thought she might vomit. ‘I love you like…’ She searched herself. She realised that it was like something. She stood, swayed slightly, felt the robe loosen and fall off her left shoulder.
If she hadn’t drunk the spirits, she’d probably be able to think of what it was, how she loved Patrick, work this out. Because she did love him. But something had been buzzing in the back of her mind since she saw that rubber duck sitting on the bath in the en suite. Something she’d forgotten, from a long time ago. A specific, little memory. Somehow it seemed relevant to this very important question that needed an answer, though she wasn’t sure how.
She’d been alone. Had she thought to call the police? Unlikely. But she was too little to be alone. She must have called the police. Well, someone did. Was she seven? Eight? They’d come and picked her up. She sat in the back of the police car, and they drove in the dark across the city. She’d watched the lights blur into one straight neon line of red and blue, green and white. It must have been emergency foster care, just one night. There were a few of them, nights like that, but only once to this woman’s house. Her name was Jean and she didn’t have a husband, but she did have a glass-fronted cabinet filled with tiny dolls from all around the world. Her husband used to collect them for her, before he ‘passed’, Jean said. She let Leah touch them. Dolls in kimonos, in German dancing dresses with their hair in perfect plaits, hair in sleek buns with blunt black fringes. She stroked them and turned them in her hands and lined them up and rearranged them.
Then Jean had run her a bath. The bath was deep and pale pink. The tiles on the walls and floor were shiny black and the whole room was huge, bigger than any bathroom Leah had ever seen before. She sat up in the bath, straight backed, her thin hair tickling her dry shoulders. There was a rubber duck in that bath, probably put there as a toy for kids like her. Leah had watched it bob around her with its black beady eyes and its cold plastic body and she’d thought: Orphan. Being in that big bathroom naked and all alone with that rubber duck had somehow made her feel like an orphan. But not in an entirely bad way. The thought had given her a shiver and for a moment made her feel dramatic and curious. It was a strange mix of feelings.
Jane would love that.
Leah focused her eyes and saw that Patrick had clenched his hand into a tight fist. He slammed it into the doorframe, hard. It made a loud whump, a sickening crunch, like a small bird hitting a window. He pulled his fist back and pushed it hard into his forehead. Blood trickled through the cracks between his fingers, down to his head and across the length of his eyebrow. He pursed his lips, blinking furiously as the blood reached his eye.
‘Like my Grade 4 teacher.’
Patrick groaned. ‘What?’
‘Patrick. I loved my Grade 4 teacher. He was my hero. He taught me everything about the solar system.’ She flung her arms wide to demonstrate the hugeness of the solar system.
Patrick slid down the doorframe, squatting in his boxer shorts, his hand holding his head, clutching at his ginger hair. He leant back into the en suite and reached for a handtowel, wrapping it thickly around his fingers.
Leah slunk to the floor next to him. He dropped down, let his legs flop loosely out in front, rested his head on the doorframe and closed his eyes. Leah picked up his bound hand and unravelled the towel. The fine hairs on his fingers were matted in blood, the white skin across his knuckles split and jagged.
‘Oh, Patrick. Look what you’ve done,’ she crooned. She turned over his hand. ‘Look, it’s okay, okay? Trust me.’ She lifted his chin, and he opened his eyes, squinting as though he were looking into a bright light. ‘Look what you’ve done,’ she said again, and she tutted and clicked her tongue. She moved his hand – limp and unresisting – across her body and placed it on her lower belly. Fresh blood from his knuckles streaked across the velvety white bathrobe. ‘Look. We’re going to have a baby, Patrick. A baby.’ She spoke slowly and firmly, as though Patrick might be waking from a deep sleep. Leah held his hand on her stomach and looked into his face. ‘You still don’t get it, do you? I honestly loved my Grade 4 teacher, Patrick.’
She rocked forward and arched her head around the corner to the kitchenette. The window was almost black now, the vines barely visible. Without the playfulness of light, they were just shadowy outlines, their branches menacing limbs. She leant back against the wall, Patrick’s arm secured across her body with her elbow, his hand still resting across her belly. His head was angled awkwardly against the doorframe, his eyes were closed again, his breath slow and shallow. Then he cupped his hand and gripped the hollow at her waist. He lifted his other arm wedged behind her back and wrapped it round her shoulders. He pulled her into his chest and buried his face into the top of her head. She felt his lips on her scalp.
Leah held the Fiorelli watch up to her face. It was well past seven. They’d missed their booking. They wouldn’t be having tea in the famous restaurant. They would stay here in this room then, just the two of them. She wasn’t hungry anyway. She snuggled back into Patrick’s warm body. She felt the thumping of his heart against her shoulderblades, felt it begin to slow and then, a little later, she noticed that it matched exactly the gentle measured beating of her own heart.