© C R Burman
YouWriteOn offers publishing for writers to help them reach new readers who like their writing.
Click here to email us for details.
The baby tugs at Raine’s hem, hoisting himself up her skirt. Raine ignores him. She stands on tiptoe, grunts, ‘Ugh’ and lobs the sodden sheet across the line. The effort thrusts her backwards, heels bumping flat to the earth. The baby's pink fists uncurl from Raine’s hem, flail at air. Raine snatches at a hand, saving him from a tumble down the muddy slope into the gully. He wails his panic.
‘It’s okay, Stevie, you’re all right.’ Raine scoops him up, presses his dark head against her shoulders, shushing him. She sways from foot to foot. ‘Hush, hush, nothing happened, there, there.’
The wailing sinks to a hiccoughing sob. Raine sways on, patting Stevie’s back in a matching rhythm, wanting to comfort her own hurts.
It’s only been a month. It’s been a whole month.
The boy from the post office in the tiny town below Raine’s hillside home had panted up on his bicycle that tactlessly sunny April morning. He had pushed the buff envelope into Raine’s hands, muttering, ‘Telegram.’ He hadn’t waited for a reply, or asked for a glass of water despite his sweating red cheeks. He had lifted his feet to the bicycle’s pedals and bumped down the stony track between the towering eucalypts. Raine remembers the clatter of the wheels on the loose stones, a tuneless accompaniment to the raucous mockery of the kookaburra cackling from his red gum.
Had the kookaburra known? Kookaburras herald stormy weather. Perhaps the bird had an inkling of the suffering the telegram held.
Raine hadn’t opened it immediately. Whatever the kookaburra’s inkling, Raine knows telegrams are carriers of grief. Telegrams spell ‘final’ in broken hurried type. She had left it on the pine table all morning, leaning it against her unwashed cereal bowl while she tended a waking, crying Stevie with all the emotion of a puppet. When she had opened it in the evening, after she had laid Stevie in his cot and patted him to sleep, after she had made herself cocoa and taken it to the sagging couch, drawing her legs underneath her and placing the cocoa on the table beside the arm, after she had done all that and taken a deep breath ... she had indeed found grief.
Stevie’s cries turn to gurgles. Raine pats his back and feels herself slipping into memory. Teddy’s thin face close to hers, his green, hazel-flecked eyes unmasking griefs of his own. His handsome mouth made ugly by its downward curl.
Stevie squirms like a captive possum. Raine sits the baby on a patch of couch grass. ‘Stay there.’ She hands him a wooden peg as an ersatz toy and strides back into battle, unravelling the sheet, pulling it taut against a moist wind which soughs through the branches of the stringy barks lining the top of the ridge, whispering that all Raine’s efforts are in vain.
That would be right.
An abrupt sob constricts her throat. She swallows it down and reaches for a nappy. Stevie grizzles, a complaining frustration to match Raine’s own mood. In Raine’s case, add a heavy dose of anger, throw in a soupcon of bitterness.
The grim morning darkens. Raine glances up, scowls. Scattered drops of water plop onto her row of boiled nappies, taunting her.
‘Bugger, bugger, bugger.’ Raine has grown fond of profanity. Like the glass tumblers presented to her as a wedding gift, she brings it out on special occasions. There are more and more special occasions these days.
Raine tries rational thinking. It’s only weather. The weather doesn’t have it in for her. Her eyes fill with tears anyway.
Stevie lifts his face to the cold water and brandishes the inadequate peg above his blinking eyes. His grizzle blossoms into a rebellious wail.
The drops coalesce, fall faster, whipped by the wind, harder, chillier. The wet sheet cracks like a jackeroo’s whip.
‘Bugger, bugger and bugger,’ Raine cries into the wind.
Stevie’s sobs gather fury. He reaches waving arms out to Raine, pleading for the dry comfort of the house. Raine dashes the wetness from her lashes. She tries to throttle the sob snaking up her throat like a soldier on the attack. But as she leans to pick the baby up, the sheet kicks out a sharp, wet edge. Smack! The edge catches Raine’s eye, blinding her. She sweeps it away, gasping. Her tears break through this lapse in the defences, gather reinforcements in the streaming water soaking her hair and face and clothes and refuse to surrender to her gulping intakes of air.
Thunder rumbles. Stevie lets loose a full-throated cry of terror. Raine bends down, wraps her arms about the soaked child and runs to the house. She dumps the screaming Stevie onto the bare boards of the narrow verandah, draws in a breath and runs back into the attacking storm to rescue the laundry basket and its sodden contents.
Dried and changed, Stevie bounces on a bunny rug in his playpen, waving a rattle in his fat paw.
Raine is composed also. She grimaces at her son. ‘Noisy brat, aren’t you?’ She hangs the wet garments on the clothes horse by the stove, padding around in old bed socks worn thin on the soles because Raine uses them as slippers. Like the cabin’s corrugated iron roof is worn thin with rust in patches, letting the damp soak through to paint brown-edged stains on the warped ceiling.
She should stoke the stove, breathe more warmth into the place to dry the washing faster. She peeks sideways at the wood basket and puffs out her cheeks. Damn basket must empty itself. It had been Teddy’s job, the wood.
She sniffs. Get on with it, Raine.
Stevie cheerily bangs the rattle against the bars of his playpen. He’d come to no harm in there, not in the five minutes Raine needs. She grabs the small axe – a sort of joke birthday present from Teddy when they’d moved to this three-roomed hut high in the hills with its wood burning stove – drops it into the basket and scuttles through the downpour from the back door to Teddy’s cherished wood shed.
Building the shed was the first thing Teddy had done in this their first, own home. How he’d glowed when his father nodded approval of the structure’s attractively redundant hammer-beam roof: a more weatherproof roof than the one which shelters Teddy’s family. Teddy had kept the shed stuffed to its swanky roof with split logs and piles of kindling.
Raine hacks at the logs, fragments of memory jerking into the cold air with each stroke. Like asking Teddy for a chicken shed. She’d rolled her eyes at the wood shed roof and told Teddy chickens didn’t need such splendour. Privacy to lay an egg and a sanctuary against foxes is the be all and end all of chicken dreams, as far as Raine knows.Teddy had nodded and muttered about not adding any more value to this rented property for the sole sake of their farmer landlord. The chicken shed was left unbuilt. Raine’s fresh eggs continue to be bought from the same farmer landlord’s white-feathered Leghorns.
A tangled heap of splintered sticks lies at Raine’s feet. She’s breathing hard, her cheeks hot with effort. Her arms ache. Her back aches. She stretches her shoulders, puts a hand to her stomach and closes her eyes against more invading tears.
It can’t be. It simply can’t.
Her mind flashes with the image of the fortune teller’s hooded, over-mascara’d eyes, the last time Raine had been to Luna Park; her and Teddy and Maggie and Arthur, daring each other to learn their fortunes in Madame Zola’s crystal ball. Raine had giggled, telling the others, ‘Zere will be much looovvve in my life and ze lotsa lotsa children...’
Teddy had been tightlipped about his own fortune. ‘Nothin’ I couldn’t have worked out for myself,’ he mumbled when pressed by Maggie. He had eyed Raine as if she’d mutated into a poisonous snake.
Raine swallows hard and scrubs her eyelids with the back of a grubby hand. She has to go and see what Stevie’s up to. Can’t stay out here in the shed blubbing like a five-year-old.
She tosses the kindling into the basket, adds more logs than she knows she should carry and staggers to the hut. Stevie is on his feet, clinging to the playpen bars as if they’re driftwood and he the shipwrecked mariner. His bandy legs are spread wide, bent at the knees. He grins as widely as Teddy did when the wood shed was completed.
‘Open wide! Here’s the train going into the tunnel...!’
Stevie leans forward in his high chair to shrink the distance between the spoonful of mashed pumpkin and his eager mouth.
It was a game Teddy played with his son from the time Stevie was weighing up whether he would bother with real food or stick to his diet of mother’s milk. He’d refuse the solid stuff if Raine was near.
‘You’ll have to feed him,’ Raine had sulkily demanded of Teddy. She was rebelling too, not wanting the bond to be broken.
So Teddy had fed the baby.
Raine would return from hovering outside where she’d been pretending to hang washing or weed the vegetable garden. ‘He ate it all?’ she’d ask, eyeing the scraped-clean bowl.
Teddy would laugh. ‘Course he did. Do anything for your ol’ man, hey, Stevie?’
The grin they shared could make Raine jealous or her heart go pitter patter. Depending on how the other parts of her day had gone.
Raine is wiping orange mush off Stevie’s screwed-up face when the front door opens. An icy draught blasts through the gap, carrying the rowdy cascade of water tumbling off the verandah gutters. Raine jerks around.
A dripping leather-shrouded head peers through the door. ‘Only me, Raine.’
Raine hasn’t heard Alf’s motorbike above the clattering of the storm on the tin roof.
‘Uncle Alfie,’ Raine tells Stevie with a quick frown. She picks the baby out of the high chair and settles him in the playpen.
Raine’s soaking visitor squelches inside and shuts the door on the slap of the downpour. He peels off his wet coat and leather helmet and hangs them on the pegs nailed into the wall. ‘God awful weather,’ he says. He pushes his hair back with his hands, forcing it to sit up in short nut-brown spikes. Raine is reminded of Mrs Tiggy-Winkle. She smiles properly for the first time that day.
‘What are you doing all the way up here?’
Alf shrugs. ‘Had a half day off work. Wondered if you needed something.’
In the storm. An hour’s ride from the city sprawling like a sleepy sunbather on the flat plain below. Raine can’t protest. Her objections will fall on deaf ears, or worse, will wound.
‘Hello, Stevie.’ Alf reaches into the playpen to pat the coarse black curls springing from the baby’s scalp.
Stevie grins, stretches out his arms. ‘U’!’ he squeals, bouncing on his bottom to show Alf how ‘up’ can be done.
Alf understands. Stevie crows his victory from his rescuer’s arms with a shifty-eyed glance at his mother. Raine is unmoved.
She tilts her head at the wood basket. A willing slave is not to be scorned. ‘Could do with heaps more kindling chopped and a load of logs brought inside.’
‘Sure, good as done.’ Alf hands Raine the baby and heads for the axe leaning by the back door.
‘I’ll make us a brew, and thanks Alf.’
Alf sets a log on the block and lifts Raine’s axe. He puffs in annoyance at the instrument's ridiculous lightness, drops it to his side and turns a full circle searching for the bigger axe Teddy kept in the shed. The axe is hidden behind a canvas sheet which also covers the front of Teddy’s dusty motorbike with its flat tyre. Alf tests the edge of the axe. Sharp. Good. Or not. He could’ve spent more time with Raine and Stevie, sitting on a stool by a roaring stove, honing the axe. He relishes the fantasy, rhythmically swinging the blade into the logs, loving being needed.
Raine looks peaky, he believes. Not a surprise. Is she sleeping? He’s sure she’s thinner. Are her eyes puffy, like she’s been crying?
Alf gathers wood into the basket, thinking, has she cried at all? Well of course she has, only not in front of Alf. A tiny hurt pricks his gut.
A small mountain of kindling fills a corner. The basket overflows with more. Should last a while, even in this chilly weather. Alf hides the axe behind the canvas sheet against the possibility of thieves, checks the motorbike is chained to a wall support and carries the wood through the sheeting rain back to the house.
‘Anything else?’ Alf twiddles with the handle of his tea cup, scanning the planked walls and low ceiling for jobs to be done, repairs to be made. He notes the brown ceiling stains, tells himself he needs to do something about the roof before winter sets in properly.
Raine clasps her cup in two hands, elbows on the table. ‘Place hasn’t fallen apart yet, Alf,’ she chides. ‘Not this soon.’
Alf tilts his head, choosing not to mention the stains. Raine’s doing okay, really, despite Alf’s guilty wish she wasn’t, that she was falling apart and needed him for more than baskets of wood.
‘Yeah, I suppose not. Anyway –’ the needed roof repairs nudge Alf into saying this ‘– you’re not intendin’ to stay up here, are you?’
Raine subjects her tea to detailed scrutiny. ‘It’s too soon to think about that.’ She says it gently, like a rebuke to a child who should know better.
Alf is shamed into silence. It’s too remote, too far from friends and family, dangerous with just her and the baby ... all the rational arguments scuttle into their holes like crabs on a beach.
The silence goes on. Stevie breaks it with a tired whine which has Raine pushing back her chair. ‘Better put him down for a nap. Give me some peace.’
Alf jumps at the chance of a redeeming topic of conversation. ‘He’s a good kid, Raine. Doesn’t fuss a lot.’
‘Yes,’ Raine admits. ‘Didn’t inherit that from his daddy, huh?’
So much for redemption. Alf’s plump cheeks redden on behalf of his boyhood friend. He slurps the last of his tea and follows Raine into the baby’s room, where she lays Stevie on a blanket on the chest of drawers. The chest is a shabby pine piece bought cheap at a second-hand shop. Alf had helped a pregnant Raine bring it home in the tray of Mr Greene’s ancient pickup and he and Raine had painted it white and glued on transfers of lugubrious dancing bears and beady-eyed monkeys wearing hats and red waistcoats. They’d cracked jokes about the nightmares a sleeping baby might suffer surrounded by the garish images and had laughed harder when Raine had shown off the spruced-up chest to Teddy when he got back from work.
Teddy hadn’t laughed. He’d pinched his lips and said, ‘I was going to make the baby’s chest.’
Raine had ignored her husband’s pout. ‘With curlicues and beading and carved whatnots?’ she’d teased him.
Teddy had frowned. ‘What?’
‘Thinking of the wood shed.’ Raine had smirked, drawing Alf into the joke with a quick glance. She had thrown out a hand to the chest, sticky with transfer glue. ‘This is all we need for now. You can make a bed later, a toddler-sized bed. I’ll sew an eiderdown for it, ask Faye to embroider a pillow case.’
Teddy had shrugged and later, after tea, he had sketched a plan for the bed, with curlicues and beading and carved whatnots. Alf wonders where the plan is.
Raine lays Stevie in his cot. ‘Sleep tight, little man.’
Finger to her mouth, Raine steals from the room. Alf puts his own stubby finger to his full lips and grins. He quietly pulls the bedroom door partly closed. Raine goes to the sink and fills the kettle.
‘If there’s nothing needing, I’ll head off home,’ Alf says. He goes to the window where the rivers of water running down the glass have thinned to trickles. ‘Rain’s stopping, wind’s dropped too.’
He waits, hoping for a last minute instruction. When Raine slowly shakes her head, Alf urges his body towards his coat and helmet. ‘Good,’ he lies. ‘Promised Mr Greene I’d give him a hand with a bit of extra work he’s taken on.’
He sees Raine stiffen. Damn.
‘How are they?’
It’s a polite question, pretending she cares. Well, maybe she cares about Mr Greene. Mrs Greene has never given Raine any cause to care about her.
‘A deal upset, like you’d expect.’ Alf drops his gaze to the dark-stained wooden floor, sorry he’s mentioned Mr Greene. He shuffles into his coat, delves into his pockets for the motorbike key and his gloves.
‘Blaming me?’ Raine’s voice is hard.
‘I don’t know, Raine. They don’t talk about you. Not to me.’
‘They don’t want to see Stevie, their only grandson?’
‘I don’t know,’ Alf repeats. He wraps his fingers around the helmet and tugs it onto his head. ‘Should I ask? Suggest they come visit you?’ He means it to be helpful. It comes out aggressive, as if he thinks Raine is being obtuse asking her question.
‘Would it do any good?’ Raine’s drawn out whisper suggests she lacks the energy to parley with her in-laws.
Alf shrugs, not wanting to drag the topic deeper into swampy waters. Raine wrinkles her nose in understanding.
‘Thanks for trekking all this way, Alf,’ she says. ‘It’s really good of you.’ She steps to his side and stretches up to give him a peck on his cheek. ‘You mustn’t feel obliged though.’
Alf opens the door, squints into the misty drizzle. More like winter than autumn. ‘It’s no obligation, Raine.’ He takes the two steps to cross the verandah, halts at the edge and turns back. ‘I’ve always looked out for you, haven’t I? Right from the start.’
Raine huffs a reluctant smile. ‘Yes, you have.’
Stevie’s squalls drill holes through Raine’s skull. She needs to go to him, lift him out of the cot, cuddle him.
She vomits into the bucket. She’ll have to go to the doctor, get something to make the sickness stop. By Raine’s own calculations, it should have stopped of its own accord by now. It must have happened in February, she’s worked out. Hot nights and naked bodies licked by the hillside breeze drifting through the open bedroom window.
Yes, she’ll see the doctor. At least this time she doesn’t have to take her big sister along for moral support.
Stevie’s crying has disintegrated into sobs of abandoned distress. Raine hears the soft thud of his head trying to break out of his wooden prison. She struggles to her feet, using the washbasin stand to keep herself upright, splashes cold water on her face. She sits on the edge of the claw foot bath, waiting for the shaking to stop. Sooner than she should have done, she totters out of the icy bathroom, through the kitchen-living area into Stevie’s bedroom.
‘C’mon.’ Raine leans over the railing. ‘Mummy’s feeling better.’
Stevie stares up through red eyes, his skin blotched, wet cheeks swollen. He lifts his arms to her and Raine’s heart breaks all over again.
‘Congratulations, Mrs Greene. You are indeed pregnant.’
Kind and elderly Dr Fopp smiles with his cracked lips shut which means Raine doesn’t have to take in the sight of the doctor’s nicotine-stained teeth. Raine trusts Dr Fopp. He saw her through Stevie’s birth, as casual as if he delivered eight pound supposedly pre-term babies daily.
‘Mr Greene will be thrilled, hey?’ Dr Fopp pushes back the sleeves of his grey cardigan and nods knowingly. Us men, we like to show how virile we are.
‘Yes.’ Raine has no energy to tell the kind doctor about Teddy. What can he do about it? She bends down to Stevie, stolidly chewing a rubber toy at her feet. She strokes the boy’s head to signal her gratitude at having another little one to care for. This soon. Bending down also hides Raine’s glistening eyes. She hasn’t wanted the certainty of knowing.
‘The sickness should go soon. Drink lots of water and eat regular, light meals.’ Dr Fopp chuckles. ‘Keep in check the need you young wives have to feed your man well. For you, young lady, soup and toast for a time.’
Raine hopes her wan smile will be ascribed to sickness.
‘I’m pregnant.’ Raine holds the black telephone handset against her ear with one hand and jiggles Stevie on her hip with her free arm. Half an eye is on the big-wheeled pram parked outside the telephone box. The sky broils with grey and white clouds, the wind as pregnant with moisture as Raine is pregnant with Teddy’s baby, and Raine has forgotten to bring the shower cover for the pram.
‘Pregnant? Again?’ Faye’s voice comes tinnily through the earpiece. Or she’s screeching.
‘Can you come over?’
Faye has a car, an ancient Ford which is reliable thanks to Charlie’s hours of tinkering.
‘Of course. I’ll be there as soon as I can.’
The clouds darken, but pass without emptying their loads. Raine catches the bus to the stop at the bottom of the farm track. She toils up the stony road, the pram’s thin wheels crunching their usual protest at this unseemly journey. She makes her bed, straightens Stevie’s cot, washes up the lunch dishes and sweeps the floor. The clothes horse, overwhelmed with steaming nappies and bibs, will have to loiter brazenly by the stove. It’s only Faye, her sister, who’s coming, not the Queen of England. Faye would have understood if there’d been mess, only Raine wants to show how well she’s coping. How she can manage, without Teddy.
A soft snort erupts through Raine’s nose. Without Teddy leaving a trail of work clothes from the door to the lean-to bathroom every evening and without having to cook proper meals like Dr Fopp expects, life should be easier. Raine had grumbled about the clothes. ‘I’m not your mother,’ she’d scold. ‘I don’t pick up after you. You’re a grown man, not a child.’
She had picked up after him. For all the good it had done.
She stares at the floor, wishing into being a raggedy line of grubby work clothes with sawdust trickling from the pockets onto her swept boards.
‘When are you due?’ Faye stretches her arm to keep the hot cup of tea out of Stevie’s reach. He’s balanced on Faye’s knee, fingers waggling greedily.
Raine gives Stevie a spoon. ‘November.’ She twists her mouth into a wry grimace. ‘The thirteenth.’
Faye arches her manicured eyebrows. ‘Oh.’
They sip in silence.
‘Do you remember how we used to have a cuppa at the station cafe before going to visit Pop?’ The memory has slipped into Raine’s head, an oblique observation on what the date, the thirteenth of November, means to her and Faye. She chooses to recall the hot, steamy air of the cafe, the smell of damp coats and perfumed women faintly overlaid with body odour at the end of a working day. The chatter and clatter. Not the antiseptic silence of the hospital ward.
Faye sighs. ‘It’s not like it was years ago, Raine. Not long ago at all.’
‘Two years and six months.’ Raine knows the timings exactly. ‘We left home two years and six months ago and life changed forever.’
The spoon drops to the floor with a brittle clang. Raine scoops it up, swipes it through her tea to clean it and returns it before Stevie’s complaint becomes audible.
‘We should have stayed in the country,’ she says. ‘Cities are too dangerous.’ Raine remembers Teddy’s tales of the London blitz, the rubble of the East End, of his own home’s empty windows, of friends buried, burned. Raine shivers. ‘Too dangerous,’ she repeats. ‘They can kill you.’
Faye gathers Stevie in closer. ‘Cities might be dangerous. You can’t stay here though.’
‘It’s too far from everybody.’
‘And where am I going to go?’ Raine snaps. Why does everyone want her to up sticks and leave? She doesn’t want to leave. It’s her and Teddy’s home. She can’t explain that to Faye. It isn’t practical enough. She flies to the attack instead. ‘Perhaps you haven’t heard there’s a housing shortage? And it’s cheap here.’
Faye mutters she knows this.
‘Perhaps I could move back in with my in-laws? Huh?’
Faye shakes her head, seemingly defeated, then uses this bandying about of Raine’s in-laws to launch her own attack. ‘Have you told them about the baby?’
Raine rolls her eyes. ‘I only found out two hours ago.’
‘Mm, yes, sorry, of course. You will tell them soon, won’t you?’
Raine leans back in her chair to fold her arms over her stomach. ‘When I can face it,’ she huffs.
‘They deserve to know before the world does.’
‘Yes, yes, I understand, don’t preach.’ Raine grits her teeth. ‘Can I at least tell Mum first?’
It’s the wrong thing to say. All Faye’s older sister confidence returns, to pounce like a cat on a mouse. ‘Why don’t you go and live with Mum?’
Raine isn’t to be shaken. ‘Sure.’ She quivers her eyelids, exaggerating the sarcasm: ‘There’s such a lot of room there with the kids. Another adult and two babies will hardly be noticed.’
Faye presses her lips together. Stevie has dropped the spoon and is contorting his body in an effort to jump from his aunt’s hold to rescue his toy. Faye lifts him from her lap and sits him on the floor. He grabs the spoon and bangs it against her leg.
‘Ow, that hurt, you monster.’ Faye glares and Stevie giggles.
Raine hefts her son to her own lap. ‘Perhaps we’ll go and live with Auntie Faye in her toy and washing-free flat,’ she tells him. She dips a biscuit in her cooling tea and offers it to the baby in exchange for the spoon. He clutches it like it’s the first food he’s seen. Sodden biscuit oozes down his front. Raine watches as Faye eyes the gooey mess the same way a child might eye the puppet-swallowing leviathan in Pinocchio. She pushes her advantage, bending her head to sniff at the baby’s lower half. ‘Phew, Stevie, smelly babe!’ She smirks at Faye.
‘Well ... I suppose you could ...’ Faye’s offer stutters to a halt.
‘No Faye, most generous.’ Raine dismisses her smirk. ‘It wouldn’t work. Me and Stevie can manage here. Farmer Burrow’s a good man. I ... I’ve told him ... about Teddy ...’ Raine swallows. ‘He’s said if I need anything, I only have to ask. And not to bother too much if I fall behind the rent for a time. Says Teddy’s wood shed makes up for a bit of rent arrears.’ Raine’s laugh is strained. ‘Who would have thought that damn wood shed would pay its way?’
The bakelite wireless murmurs in the background. Raine is trying to come to grips with household bills while Stevie naps. A depressing task in normal times. These days, with no wage coming in, Raine’s terror has trumped depression. Anger bubbles in her throat. How is she supposed to cope?
‘...the majesty of this hydro-electric scheme, which, when finished, will bring power to thousands of Australian homes ...’
The words from the wireless worm their way into Raine’s consciousness. She puts down her pencil and listens.
‘... men from every country in the world, working as one to fulfil the ambitions of their newly adopted nation ...’
The Snowy Mountains scheme, she realises, and remembers. They’d officially opened the scheme in October ’49. She knows the date because it was Teddy’s birthday. Teddy had acted like it was his special gift, as if this gargantuan undertaking had been wrapped in decorative paper, tied with a bow and presented to him for his personal amusement.
‘Stupid idiots,’ he’d said about the mostly migrant workers flocking there, including his own mates from the camp, like Arthur and Sep. ‘Who in their right mind would willingly spend time in that wilderness, in the snow and ice? Brrr...’
Stevie will be awake soon, whining for food. Raine lets the radio burble on as she fills a dented saucepan from the tap and sets it on the stove. Boiled eggs tonight. They will eat together, a family of two, Raine dipping toast soldiers into the rich yolk. Stevie will giggle and grab at the yellow toast and Raine will sacrifice a soldier for her son.
And boiling eggs will be quick. Or it would be, if Raine hadn’t let the stove cool. She stuffs dry wood into the open range door. She shouldn’t let it go cold, not in this weather. Those household bills had distracted her however. The butcher had eyed her warily when she’d bought lamb’s liver and calf’s brains after the visit to Dr Fopp a few days ago. Perhaps he hoped Raine might offer to pay cash or – high hopes indeed – settle her bill. Raine had kept her eyes from the butcher’s face and the man had been too kind to confront her. Where Raine is going to find the cash to pay him, she has no idea. It’s the same with the erratic electricity which comes to the house via the dodgy extension from the farmhouse’s power pole. Alf had fixed it for them when they first moved here, with Farmer Burrow’s blessing and an agreement to pay a little extra on the rent each month for the privilege. Raine makes sure she keeps the paraffin lamp filled and a stock of candles in the cupboard, same as her mother had done during the strike in ’49. Raine briefly thinks of the strike bringing its sudden dousings in darkness, the scramble to light candles, the kids complaining they can’t finish their homework and her mum lighting the Tilley lamp, telling the kids to hurry up their homework and get themselves to bed where darkness is a help, not a hindrance.
And the other blackout. Not the strike this time – stupid youths playing silly games to welcome the new year. A joke.
Ha ha ha.
Which brings her to her in-laws. Faye’s right. They deserve to know about their second grandchild. Mr Greene will want to help. Raine has a glorious vision of the butcher’s grinning relief as she pays her bill. She bites the end of her pencil and stares at the account book, weighing up the humiliation of taking money from the Greenes versus unpaid butcher’s bills. She and Stevie may have to become vegetarians, like those Seventh Day Adventist friends of her old work colleague, Ronnie. What’s Ronnie doing these days? Married with kids, or being chased around by yet another middle-aged solicitor begging the chance to make those sad muddy eyes bright with lust?
The sun shines. White clouds scud high in a bright blue sky. The washing on the line dances an Irish jig, Raine’s dresses shamelessly lifting their hems, Stevie’s nappies clapping in time.
Raine hasn’t thrown up.
She washes the breakfast dishes, makes her bed, changes the sheets in the baby’s cot, sweeps the floor.
It’s all procrastination. The good weather and not throwing up are omens, telling her today is the day to visit her in-laws. And it’s Sunday, which means Mr Greene will be home and Maggie too, to mediate if necessary.
Raine dresses Stevie in the navy corduroy jodhpurs and matching jumper with yellow teddy bears which Nana Greene bought for him. If Stevie appears in an outfit not chosen by his nana, the woman will demand to know if the clothing she willingly buys for her grandson out of (here she offers a martyred moue) her own housekeeping, isn’t good enough. Raine scrunches up her nose and navigates Stevie’s short arms into his coat, buttons him up, stuffs baby paraphernalia into a string bag and packs both baby and bag into the pram. She checks her purse. Yes, she has enough for the fares.
She goes to the door and holds her hand to her forehead, peering skywards, willing a black cloud to materialise, grow monstrous and toss down a deluge all in a moment. The blue late autumn sky holds firm, resisting winter’s forays. Raine can find no reason not to go. Apart from not wanting to suffer the frowns and muted cries, the hand held to the mouth and the widened eyes her mother-in-law affects when it all becomes too much, as she says in her cockney twang. No. Raine has to take this step. It’s for Stevie and the un-named one. She wriggles into her jacket.
Under a warming sun, Raine bumps the pram down the track to the bus stop. The magpies warble their approval.
The journey, reliant on Sunday timetables, takes an eternity. Stevie is an angel, dazzled by the range of faces which present themselves at the pram to praise his luscious black curls and red-lipped cheery beam, before peeking sideways at Raine’s mousy locks and pale, thin cheeks to say, ‘Takes after his daddy?’ Raine finds it hard to unearth her smile to assure them that yes, the baby is the spitting image of his daddy. Even her mother-in-law sees this evident truth.
The walk from the final stop along the new concrete footpath to the new timber frame house in the new suburb is too short. Raine’s feet grow heavier with each step. She shouldn’t have come. It will be awful.
Maybe they won’t be home. They could be enjoying the sunny Sunday with a drive in the hills in Mr Greene’s barely second-hand Ford Prefect, twisting their leisurely way up the narrow road with a trail of similarly blessed car owners chugging behind them.
Raine reaches the house. Two young pencil pines are journeying up the wrought iron arch framing the driveway entrance. The wrought iron gates are closed, the gleaming Ford Prefect perched on the gravelled drive within. Raine sighs and pushes the pram along to the narrower gate, the one for mere foot traffic. The fledgling lawn struggles in the recent heavy wetness which hasn’t worried the yellow primroses, violet pansies and blue forget-me-nots ablaze either side of the crazy-paved path. A red-capped dwarf fishes in a round, white-pebbled pond.
Raine compares the colourful sight with her own garden, neglected since the summer. Thank goodness it’s she who’s doing the visiting, not the Greenes coming to her.
Maggie answers the summons of the door chimes.
Maggie’s genuine joy sends Raine’s dread clunking earthwards, her relief see-sawing high. For now.
‘And here’s my favourite nephew!’ Maggie swoops to the pram, clucking and cooing. Stevie giggles, holds out his arms. ‘C’mon, tiger, come to Aunt Maggie. Have you been a good boy?’ Maggie sets the baby on her generous hip and waltzes him into the hall, calling cheerfully – as if it is always like this – ‘Guess who’s here? Put the kettle on, Ma.’
Raine leaves the pram on the porch, takes out her handbag and the bag of baby stuff and shuffles after her son and sister-in-law. The two of them wear twin grins beneath their matching black curls. Maggie reaches the kitchen. Raine hears Mrs Greene exclaim, ‘My Stevie!’ and Maggie telling the baby, ‘Here’s Nana and there – see – is Papa.’ A pause. ‘Okay, you take him and I’ll make the tea,’ and Mrs Greene takes over the cooing and clucking.
Raine is superfluous. A sandpit at the beach. An icebox in the Antarctic. She wrinkles her nose. A spare dick at a wedding. Ha! She should say that one out loud, in the kitchen.
‘There you are, Raine.’ Tall, greying Mr Greene strides through the kitchen door to meet Raine halfway. He holds out his long arms and Raine walks into them.
For a moment she lets herself rest her head on his chest, breathing in pipe smoke and old cardigan. Memories of Pop tickle her eyelids. She draws back, crinkles the corners of her eyes into a hello smile. ‘How are you?’ she asks.
‘Good, good, considering.’ Mr Greene offers a quick headshake in denial of his words. He takes hold of Raine’s arm and guides her to the kitchen. Raine sees herself as a reluctant miniature liner being coaxed into an enemy port by an oversized tug boat.
‘You, Raine? We haven’t seen you ...’
No, they haven’t seen or heard from Raine since they dealt with the telegram and its contents. They haven’t come to Raine, she hasn’t come to them.
‘It’s been difficult to get away, with Stevie and ...’ Raine excuses her own side of this not seeing business.
They’ve reached the kitchen. Stevie bounces on his nana’s capacious knees, which makes her burgundy skirt ride up to exhibit full, stockinged calves. Nana grasps the baby’s arms, clapping his hands, grinning into his face. Stevie squeals, happiness revealed in his toothy grin. The kitchen smells of Sunday roast and cigarettes. A metal ashtray – the sort where you twirl a handle and the butts and the smell are swept by thin blades into the bowl below – sits on the chrome and laminate table.
The kettle shrieks its ultimatum and Maggie picks it up from the gas stove before it blows its spout skyward. ‘Sit down, Raine, sit down.’ She waves at the table and turns back to pour boiling water into the family-size teapot.
Mr Greene pulls a chair out for Raine and takes his own paterfamilias seat at the end of the table. Mrs Greene tosses her daughter-in-law a sideways look and goes back to baby-bouncing.
‘Do we have biscuits, Ma?’ Maggie opens a pink cupboard door, exposing boxes of cereal, porridge, tea and flour standing with labels face forward to assure potential acquirers they have nothing to hide.
‘Not there. There.’ Mrs Greene flutters a short-fingered hand and Maggie bends to the correct pink cupboard. ‘Here we go.’ She pulls out a packet of milk arrowroot biscuits. ‘Stevie likes these, don’t you, baby boy?’ She rips open the end and hands the pale brown oval to Stevie. He clamps it in his hand and shoves it into his mouth in a good imitation of the starving European refugees featured on newsreels after the war.
Raine clenches her cheeks and waits ...
‘Mummy not feeding you?’ Mrs Greene’s acidic tone is directed at Raine; her eyes stay on the baby. Mrs Greene prises the biscuit from Stevie’s fist. His biscuit-caked gums open to protest. She breaks the biscuit in two and gives back the partially chewed portion.
‘Stevie’s doing well, Raine.’ Mr Greene’s intercession is ignored by his wife.
‘He’s the most beautiful babe in the whole of the state, no the whole of Australia, no the whole of the world!’ Maggie sings. She rattles a tea cup and saucer onto the table beside Raine and turns to pour other teas.
‘How have you been Raine?’ Mr Greene.
Raine stares into her tea. No point dilly-dallying. She lifts her head to meet her father-in-law’s hazel eyes. Their kindness is clear, despite skulking below heavy brows.
The only sound comes from the tap of the saucer against laminate as Maggie sets a teacup at her father’s elbow.
There are no congratulations, no claps of delight at this family extension. Raine’s stomach churns. She shouldn’t have come, shouldn’t have told them.
‘It must have happened just before ...’ Raine stops. They don’t need, or want, the technicalities. She takes another route. ‘Due in November, middle of November.’
Maggie rallies first. ‘That means ...’
‘It doesn’t mean anything.’ Raine glares at Maggie. She’s not going the same route twice.
‘How can we help?’ Mr Greene asks.
His hand reaches for Raine’s, lies warm on top of hers. Raine stiffens her fingers and Mr Greene tightens his grip, gently. Don’t throw me off, his grip says.
‘Help?’ Mrs Greene’s dark eyes bulge. ‘Help?’ The eyes narrow to squint at Raine. ‘Is it Teddy’s?’ she snaps.
The tension in Raine shatters like ancient, dried out elastic stretched once too often. She kicks back her chair and plucks Stevie from his nana’s lap. He wails at the sudden separation and kicks out. One foot punches Raine’s stomach. She catches in a breath and lets the sharp, brief pain fuel her fury.
‘It’s all your fault, you meddling piece of work.’ Raine keeps her voice low. She wants the woman to listen, for whatever good it might do. None, she decides.
She shouts. ‘You’re a nightmare, a caricature of a mother-in-law!’ Oh, it’s good to shout.
Mrs Greene recoils. Her hand flutters at her fat bosom like a moth against a candle. Maggie and Mr Greene stare.
‘I have no idea why you hate me! It’s not as if I reached this pinnacle of being, a husbandless mother of two, all by myself.’ Stevie has caught the mood and is wailing his own accusations. Raine hugs him tight while she spits out all the words she’s longed to say. ‘This wasn’t my ambition, at my age. I had other dreams. And then came Teddy ... and those dreams ... ’ Raine’s rage boils. And, like the kettle, she shrieks her own ultimatum. ‘You can keep out of my life. And Stevie’s. I don’t want your evil mind casting spells on my baby. You witch!’ She walks, fast, to the doorway, turns as she passes through. ‘Let’s all pretend this one isn’t Teddy’s baby, shall we? Make it easier on all of us.’