Sarah waited by the letterbox, at the end of the cobbled footpath under the tall green trees that filled the front yard and concealed the house from the street in summer. Even though it was too early, and she wasn’t expecting anything, she checked for mail. The supermarket fliers from the day before were already in the recycling bin.
Across the street, George sat on his walking frame, eyes closed, chin pointed towards the sky. Sarah watched as he soaked in the morning sun. Perhaps sensing her watching him, George opened his eyes and looked at her directly but without acknowledgement. Sarah smiled and waved, a kind of apology, for breaking the peace of the moment.
“Good morning,” she called out to him.
George said nothing.
Sarah assumed he had not heard her.
But then, he gripped the black foam handles of his green metal frame, and pushing his paper-skinned hands against it, he lifted himself unsteadily onto his feet. Then, he shuffled, taking side step after side step in a semicircle until he was facing completely away from her. Sarah stared at George’s back while he stared down the length of his driveway, a long column of grey concrete lined with weeds and broken-down fencing on either side.
From inside the house, Ella cried. Sarah’s bosom ached.
“Hey sweetheart, how are you?” Sarah asked.
She lifted the small red-faced baby from her basket and pulled a cushion closer so she could prop up her arm as they sat down together on the sofa. Ella’s tiny mouth opened and closed like a fish gasping for air. Sarah lifted one side of her T-shirt over her throbbing breast; white droplets of milk leaked through her nursing bra. Ella quietened as soon as she was latched, her small nose pressed in against Sarah’s breast, her tiny fingers with specks for fingernails gripped and released Sarah’s T-shirt in time with her feeding.
The house felt smaller now that Sarah was there all day and night. Before Ella, Sarah had looked forward to time spent in it; she had come home from work and was relieved to walk down her street, past the fish and chip shop and the new pizza place on the corner. Lake Pupuke was hidden somewhere in the distance. Whenever she reached their house, a white bungalow with a forgotten garden and rusted roof, she had relaxed in an instant: sanctuary.
Now: six weeks into maternity leave, to being at home with Ella, just the two of them ... sunlight poured through the windows and into the living room but still she forgot and left the lights on all day. Already Sarah’s pyjama bottoms were wearing thin around her thighs and her slippers were scuffed and faded from walking to and from the letterbox several times a day. Her hair itched with knots and grease and her eyes were dry from interrupted sleep. She hadn’t cleaned the house. She hadn’t left the house since returning from the hospital. Had she forgotten how to do that?
Dust motes floated in the air over Ella’s soft cheek and Sarah blew at them gently as the baby fed. With her free hand, she stroked the baby’s soft dark hair, she traced the side of its head, the spiral of its delicate ear like a shell. Time to swap sides. T-shirt down then up, bra hooked and unhooked.
Small towers of baby clothes in pale shades of pink and yellow were laid out on the dining table and the chairs like a sprawling city. Next to her, on the sofa, Sarah’s own clothes were unfolded, scrunched up, discarded. From beneath a purple towel, a small tuft of grey and white fur quivered. The neighbour’s cat. She had snuck in and made a nest. Sarah didn’t know the cat’s name or which neighbour it belonged to or how it always got in without her ever seeing it, but it had been coming for weeks now, for as long as she and Ella had been home together. Sarah was grateful for the company.
Ella was born holding one hand curled inside the other, both tucked under her chin. Sarah had held her and cried. Jack had squeezed Sarah’s hand and kissed her forehead. Ella’s hair was dark, like Jack’s. She had blue eyes, like Sarah’s. After two days in the hospital, Jack had bundled Ella up in blankets and they all left together in the dark. The air was thick and warm. Cicadas chirped. Once home, the clocks were abandoned: day and night merged; feeding, changing and sleeping were all that mattered. Sarah thought: We’re just animals after all.
Sarah lifted Ella from her basket and checked her nappy before grabbing a new one. Ella stared out into the room, her eyes focusing on nothing in particular. Maybe the baby would catch the outline of the brightly coloured pom-poms that Sarah had hung from the ceiling to her window. The neighbour’s cat was mewing outside.
“It’s morning, little one,” Sarah said.
She wiped Ella’s face and hands with a warm cloth.
“Shall we go out today?”
During the first two weeks of Ella’s life, when the midwife had visited most days, she had told Sarah to “get outside”. It didn’t matter whether Sarah had showered or not. “The world doesn’t always expect a smile,” the midwife said. And though she’d agreed and didn’t want to stay inside, the thought of leaving the house filled Sarah with dread. Sooner than she expected, the midwife stopped coming and Jack returned to work. When Jack asked Sarah where they’d been during the day, she’d got into the habit of lying.
Sarah decided to walk Ella to the dairy. This would be manageable, surely. Locking the front door and un-latching the front gate she took a deep breath and turned the buggy towards the sidewalk. The outside had become smaller, too. Sarah struggled to keep both wheels on the footpath, cars rolled over undulating roads and roared too close to Ella. Trees reached over them as they walked, great twisted vines and leaves providing a kind of shelter. Sarah imagined they were holding her and Ella safely away from the traffic.
Outside the dairy were buckets of sunflowers and small bunches of red and white roses. Magazine covers for The Listener, Woman’s Day and Metro were trapped flat inside wire cages, propped up against the porridge-textured wall that was painted orange and soiled with black marks from school bikes and skateboards. The front window was painted with a giant yellow star: Play Lotto here!
But the buggy was too wide to fit inside the dairy. She should have known this. The shelves of bread and biscuits and lollies were packed in together, snaking up and down the linoleum floor. Tall fridges filled with milk and energy drinks hummed as Sarah’s heart raced and sweat dripped down the back of her neck. Don’t panic. Though she couldn’t make them out clearly, there were people behind her and shadows waiting in front of her. She was blocking the doorway. She was holding everyone up.
“I’m really sorry,” Sarah said, to no one, to everyone.
She parked the buggy by the buckets of flowers. Ella jostled with the sudden movement and started to grizzle. Please don’t cry.
Ella curled into Sarah like a caterpillar, sucking the neck of her T-shirt. With her wallet tucked under her arm Sarah carried milk and a loaf of bread to the counter. The owner was bagging sweets and watching Neighbours on a small TV hung from the ceiling. He smiled at Ella sucking Sarah’s T-shirt.
“Is Mummy a good cow?” he asked.
Sarah hadn’t heard that one before.
George waited in line behind her, with a bottle of milk and a block of butter. He pushed his items onto the counter next to Sarah’s. She wrestled with returning her card to its wallet. As she turned to leave, George called out to her.
“Good morning,” he said.
“Good morning,” Sarah replied.
He smiled. But then, George’s face crumpled and turned red, just like Ella’s had started to in the evenings. He patted his chest, and then his hips. He began to speak, but stammered and started to leave, awkwardly forcing the walking frame forward.
“I’ll get that for you,” Sarah said.
“No, no,” said George.
“It’s no trouble, I promise.”
And though he looked uncomfortable, George let Sarah pay.
He waited by the flowers as Sarah lifted Ella, still grizzling, back into the buggy. They walked down their street together, saying nothing and listening only to the sounds of birds and cars coming and going, all of it punctuated by Ella’s grizzling. When they reached Sarah’s house and she opened the front gate, George said: “Thank you.”
In the morning, there was mail. An unaddressed envelope. Inside it there were coins, some gold and some silver.
Ella had slept well when she was first born. She would feed and then Sarah would lift her into the basket beside her bed and they would all sleep. Now, almost three months later, Ella cried well. Ella would feed, sleep and then wake soon after. She would feed and then cry. She would be sick. She would cry and refuse to feed. Her nappy would leak. She would writhe with the pain of wind in her belly. She would not sleep. Ella only ever seemed to cry.
Jack slept in the spare room so he would be rested for work. Sarah googled “endless crying + babies”. She scrolled through streams of comments on parenting blogs and Facebook and babycenter.com. At first, Sarah was soothed by this, she wasn’t doing anything wrong. Minutes of scrolling turned into an hour. It became clear that no one knew what to do. Sarah’s mind flooded with images of other mums and their babies trapped in houses, awake at night, alone, wired, unable to sleep, googling for solutions when they knew they should be sleeping themselves. She imagined them all picking through the details of their days, calculating time between feeds, length of naps and crying periods. Sarah recorded all this in a notebook. There had to be a pattern. THERE WAS NO FUCKING PATTERN. Sarah’s cheeks were wet. She put the iPad away in the kitchen and walked out to the letterbox in the dark.
She stood under the trees that filled the front yard, branches reaching up to the moon like bent and bony hands. There were no leaves. The neighbour’s cat hissed, its yellow eyes wild and its back arched.
“Shhh, it’s just me,” Sarah whispered.
From across the road there came a faint beeping noise. Sarah looked up and saw a flashing red light; an ambulance was reversing from George’s driveway. She watched as it drove away, silent.
Sarah took the knitted blanket from the back of the sofa and wrapped it around her, like a cocoon. As soon as she lay down, her mind began to race. Stop it. Her eyes would not be still behind her eyelids. She curled in towards the sofa. Was that Ella crying? She stayed as still as a stone and crossed her fingers.
Sarah jiggled Ella to and from the letterbox as the baby cried. She had her iPhone in her pocket blaring white noise into the garden as she patted Ella’s back and tried not to collapse. The morning air was so fresh. Across the road, George sat on his walking frame, dressed in a black suit with a white shirt and a grey tie. His head was hung low, burrowed into his chest like a boulder. Sarah did not call out. A car pulled up and a couple, not much older than her, helped George into the back seat. They put his walking frame in the boot.
Sarah checked for mail in her raincoat and gumboots. George sat on his walking frame across the road, in his pyjamas, getting wet. Sarah went back inside and made two ham and cheese sandwiches. She wrapped Ella in a small raincoat and blanket and carried the lunch across the road with an umbrella.
“I don’t know how to do this,” George said.
“Neither do I,” said Sarah.
They shared the sandwiches and Ella cried and Sarah fed her, there on the berm in the rain.
George lived in a brick and tile unit at the end of a long driveway. It had two bedrooms and at the back there was a deck George had built himself, years ago. There was a set of old swings in the backyard, a sandpit and herb garden. Tūī birds soared from one side of the property to the other, stopping to trill from hidden places somewhere inside the neighbour’s bottlebrush tree.
George’s wife Julie had died in her sleep. She might’ve had a cough, but George couldn’t remember. He had missed her, just like that.
A routine developed. Sarah and Ella visited George for morning tea every Monday. George would come for lunch on Wednesdays and they would wave to each other as they checked for mail every day. Ella would squeal when she saw him and George would smile and wave.
On the windowsill, there was a black and white photo of Julie on their wedding day: her hair folded in around her face like waves, the halo of her white veil blew in the wind behind her. Her eyes were bright and youthful, her smile warm and generous. She was so alive.
George had worked in the city when they were young, building great towers that were once hotels, but were now office blocks with mobile phone stores underneath. He had one son who lived in the South Island. They’d almost had a daughter too, but after that, nothing. Julie had worked in retail, selling women’s clothes in a store Sarah had never heard of. When they retired, they stayed home together and read books or listened to the radio.
George kept all of Julie’s dresses in their wardrobe, her shirts and underwear in their drawers. Her dressing gown still hung on its hook in the bathroom. In the lounge when Sarah and George shared tea, Julie’s seat was never sat in, and the crossword she had been working on stayed open on the table, pen pointing to the place where she was up to. Sarah kept Ella’s wriggling hands and feet very close.
By Christmas, Ella was crawling and laughing and sleeping again. She would follow Sarah outside to the letterbox and grinned with delight at catching up to her mother on these trips. The baby never worried about the stones and dirt that stuck in her hands and knees. Once she reached Sarah, Ella patted her leg to be picked up. Sarah looked down to her daughter. Ella smiled her snaggle-toothed smile with full knowledge of her greatness.
Sarah prepared their Wednesday lunch. She arranged sunflowers in a vase.
But when it was an hour past the time she and George normally ate, she lifted Ella out of her high chair and walked over to his house. As she walked up the driveway she could hear a distant beeping sound, the sound of a reversing vehicle. Sarah’s jaw tightened. She suddenly realised she had no idea how to contact George’s son, she did not know if he had any friends. Who would come to his funeral? She started to feel dizzy. Ella yawned and rubbed her eyes with tiny curled up fists. Had George been sick the last time she saw him?
Once Sarah reached the house she stared at the bright orange Hooker Pacific van. The driver was reversing over Julie’s herb garden and drew perilously close to the swing set. By the open front door there were boxes, stacked on top of each other on a trolley. From nowhere, a large bearded man wearing a black singlet and muddy work boots emerged carrying Julie’s chair.
“Put that down!” Sarah yelled.
Ella’s legs gripped tightly to her mother’s hip as Sarah lunged forward.
“You need to put that back where you found it, right now!”
“Lady ... ” the moving guy looked confused.
“Don’t you get it ... that chair belongs to Julie.”
Sarah gasped for air and cried out: “What have you done to George?”
Ella cried. Sarah sobbed. The moving guy put down the chair and gently urged her into the house. It was almost empty. The crossword puzzle and the table where it had sat were both gone.
George was sat on the floor in the corner of his room, staring at the empty wardrobe. “I’m sorry,” he said.
Sarah wiped her eyes with the back of her hand and kissed Ella’s face. She made shushing sounds into Ella’s ear. The baby yawned and closed its eyes as Sarah sat down on the floor next to George.
“A letter came,” George continued. “When?” Sarah asked.
“Eight weeks ago.”
“A family—they were looking for a house, near the schools ... there was an offer, it seemed like a sign.”
“That it was my time to go.”
“To go where?”
Julie had planned for them to transfer to an aged care facility before she died. George’s mobility had reduced with every passing month and she was unable to keep up with the house on her own. They couldn’t really afford to stay in the neighbourhood but the price the family was prepared to pay would cover George’s stay at the facility and even pay for a larger room. He wouldn’t have to struggle with meals or showers unless he wanted to. He would make friends.
“But what about lunch?” Sarah said. “We should go out,” said George.
The sea and the sky reached as far as Sarah could see, and the sun shone like there was nothing wrong. Rangitoto rested like a sleeping giant on the horizon. Ella had slept peacefully in the car as they packed a small picnic of pantry items George would no longer need, plus the sandwiches Sarah had already prepared. The sound of seagulls and the lapping of the waves against the shore soothed the silence between them as they sat in the shade of the pōhutukawa trees and ate.
“You’re going to be okay, you know,” George said, at last. “So are you,” Sarah said, reaching out for his hand.