Annaleese Jochems’ Baby is out this month through Scribe Publications. Cynthia is twenty-one, bored, and desperately waiting for something big to happen. Her striking fitness instructor, Anahera, is ready to throw in the towel on her job and marriage. With stolen money and a dog in tow they run away and buy ‘Baby’, an old boat docked in a beautiful bay, where Cynthia dreams they will live in a state of love. But strange events on an empty island turn their life together in a different direction.
Baby is a sunburnt psychological thriller of obsession and escape by one of the most exciting new voices in New Zealand fiction.
Baby appears gradually from behind all the bigger, more robust boats, dancing like something imaginary. The water lifts her sometimes, then drops back under, exhibiting her dirty underneath.
Snot-head runs around fast, sniffing everything, and Cynthia watches on. Big houses with a lot of glass windows look down on them from the hills. That must be where the boat salesman lives, she decides.
Anahera goes back in the dinghy for the rest of their stuff. There are windows, curtains and lots of little cupboards for Cynthia to open. There’s a trap-door in the ceiling, so they can keep things up there. A little cabin, with a short, narrow bunk bed. It’s all wooden, which Cynthia likes. She finds that the tops come off the built-in seats on either side of the table, and that inside them are long panels of cushioning, presumably to make up another, third bed. Opposite the table is a kitchen sink, a small counter and some cupboards they’ll keep food in. She opens a little door and finds a toilet, and a sink. The boat has everything a house would – a toilet, beds, sinks, only smaller and more fragile, like a tiny set of organs. It’s all perfect for Snot-head; he’s little too. At the back of the boat there’s a steering wheel, and an unsteady seat that flips out under it. There’s a ladder which can be pulled up or dropped into the water. Along the boat are bars to hold while you walk its perimeter, and a thin panel for your feet, one after the other. At the front there’s a washing-line, and a flattish area underneath where they can lie down, although of course it won’t be safe there for the dog.
The boat has everything a house would – a toilet, beds, sinks, only smaller and more fragile, like a tiny set of organs.
This is what Cynthia has now: her boat, Anahera and Snot-head. Her money was like water, in its big nothingness and the way it slipped away before she really had it. She doesn’t mind. Money runs downwards, and people are always trying to position themselves under it like drains, but she’ll never involve herself in any of that ever again.
When Snot-head’s sniffed everything twice, he goes to sleep in the cabin. Cynthia crawls in after him, to touch the lift and fall of his little ribs. He’s a very soft dog, with a nose he only occasionally lets her touch and ears he can stick up but never does. He’s golden, and wrinkly, with a diva walk; he’s got a big little swingingly seductive bottom. Sometimes he likes to stretch his legs apart and press his crotch into the ground, that’s one of his cutest things. She lifts his ears and looks in them. They need to be cleaned, she’ll remember that. She shuts the cabin door quietly, and sits at the table to wait for Anahera.
They’re together, newly, looking at each other newly. Cynthia doesn’t know how to work the gas, so Anahera puts the kettle on, then she says, ‘We might not have any parties.’
Cynthia shrugs, that doesn’t matter. It was only something she said, not her dream. Anahera pours boiling water carefully over her coffee, and Cynthia’s herbal bag. The boat shifts gently right and left, and Anahera doesn’t adjust her body in any perceptible way.
‘Do you know my dog?’ Cynthia asks.
‘Yup,’ Anahera says. She’s lying down on the wooden bench, half obscured by the table.
‘Well,’ Cynthia says, and begins: ‘When I was fourteen I cried every single day. Sometimes three times. I wasn’t my best self then, and I was bad-looking. I had no friends. I looked at myself in the mirror every day, crying. Sometimes I’d watch myself cry for whole half hours, in my pocket mirror, in my bed. I caught my tears in a jar, but they always dried up.’ She peers over the edge of the table to check Anahera’s listening, and Anahera sees her and nods.
Cynthia’s pleased. She continues: ‘And one day, my dad asked me what I wanted, you know. It was our best moment of love together. He didn’t hug me, but if he’d been that sort of guy I know he would have. He told me he’d heard my crying all that time. I felt better then, when I knew he’d been listening. He said,
“What do you want? I’ll give it to you.”’
‘And?’ Anahera asks, although she must already know.
‘So I got Snot-head.’ He’s on her knee, looking up at her and listening. He looks like he’s been hit in the face with a plate, a bit. But that’s how he always looked. He’s just got a head that’s squarer than other dogs, with their pointy noses.
Anahera sits up, and nods again.
‘Yeah, and I still cried. But it was better. I always had Snothead in bed with me, and he knew.’
‘That’s actually really nice,’ Anahera says.
‘Yeah. He’s my true love.’
‘Okay,’ Anahera says. ‘We’ll keep him.’
Cynthia hadn’t considered it up for question, but she nods.
‘Where will he shit then?’ Anahera asks, looking around their new boat.
Cynthia hadn’t thought of this.
‘In kitty litter,’ Anahera suggests.
‘We can get it tomorrow, he only needs to once a day.’
‘Okay,’ Anahera says.
The thudding happens again while they eat, but Cynthia isn’t frightened, she’s expecting it.
The sea is gentle with their boat, and very blue. They find romantic novels in a little cupboard above the door, and read them together sunbathing on the deck, under the washing-line. The sun’s going down – so Cynthia goes around the side of the boat for blankets. There’s a loud thud, which Anahera says is just her weights. When it’s too dark to see they go back inside and Anahera makes some miso soup with broccoli and other stuff in it. The thudding happens again while they eat, but Cynthia isn’t frightened, she’s expecting it.
While Anahera’s cooking, Cynthia finds a small fresh circle of spew on one of the cushions in the cabin. Snot-head looks up at her, and she pats him three times slowly on his head. His eyes close and he nuzzles into her hand. Tomorrow she’ll sneak the whole cushion into the water. He only needs to adjust.
She kisses him and leaves to ask if Anahera needs help with anything. She says no, but Cynthia sits and watches her cook. She cuts the broccoli quickly, then slides it into the pot. Everything’s simple, when she moves.
They sit and eat. Anahera says not to worry about the dishes, and Cynthia stands back to watch her puzzle the table into a bed. There’s a steel pipe holding it up, and Anahera loosens a screw so it can contract. Then, it’s level with the seats. They lay the cushioning from inside the seats over it, and it’s a bed. Cynthia gets their sheets and pillows, and Anahera sets it all up. It isn’t till
they’re settled in and warm that Cynthia remembers Snot-head. He hates sleeping without her, but she’s caught in Anahera’s warm and quiet, and she says nothing. At ten, when Anahera’s asleep and she almost is, she hears him under them, scratching. He whines. Cynthia’s on the wall-side, so she’s got to clamber over Anahera to reach him. Anahera shifts her legs, but stays mostly sleeping.
Snot-head twitches and settles into Cynthia’s spooning, and Anahera lies close and breathes gently.
In the morning Cynthia wakes early, excited, and it’s like she’s slipped into reality, but not out of her dream. She moves quietly, and dumps the spewed-on cushion into the water outside. Under the sunrise, she eats a packet of biscuits and watches the cushion float, sink a little, and float away.
Anahera comes out, yawns in the sun, and gives Cynthia a good-morning smile. Her shoulders are postured soft, and her hair’s a sweet mess on her head. She ties shampoo and conditioner to the corner of the boat – they’ll be washing their hair in the sea. While she’s back inside putting her togs on, Snot-head retches twice more on Cynthia’s knee. Nothing comes out either time, which is great.
Then she dives into the sea, cutting a smooth, perfect hole, precisely the size and shape of her body.
Anahera’s togs are an old-fashioned black one-piece, which exposes the solid bones of her hips and the smooth of her back. She stretches her arms and legs, and her smile while she does so is peaceful and controlled, almost religious. Then she dives into the sea, cutting a smooth, perfect hole, precisely the size and shape of her body. She emerges metres away, and Cynthia and Snot-head watch the sun wrench the last of itself from the horizon while she swims towards it. When she’s vanished, Cynthia takes her dog in to feed him. He doesn’t chew, he just takes hunks of jellymeat between his teeth, lifts his head backwards so his neck squashes into rolls at the back, and lets them fall down his throat.
There are ten texts on Cynthia’s phone, all from her father. They’re all one long continuous message, split by his cellphone into parts. They say, ‘Hello, Cynthia. Now, I see that you have stolen $16,400 from me, and some of my clothes. Without even mentioning the intensely hurtful nature of your behaviour, I must emphasise that I consider this a serious issue. I expect to receive contact from you in the near future, wherein you will apologise, and describe a detailed series of steps through which you plan to make this up to me. Sincerely, your loving father, Thomas.’
She reads it twice, and composes two draft replies but doesn’t send either of them.