There is a warm, salty summer breeze coming through the window when I wake. The pale-blue blind is flapping like a child’s blanket on a line, and I wonder if this means he has come back. I imagine myself rushing about the house flinging the windows open in some reckless, belated concession to Cam’s old insistence on fresh air in our bedroom, regardless of the temperature or my disgruntled protests. Cam and I spent the first eleven years of our marriage faux-fighting about this habit of his, as if we were trainee barristers in a mock courtroom, practising at making each other unhappy. We’d try out outrage and petulance and rapid retorts in rehearsal for the real thing.
I’ve been dreaming about sitting in a waiting room – a beautiful expansive space full of books and glass cabinets and leather-seated chairs where none of the clocks work. I don’t know why I’m perched at a giant wooden dining table or what it is I am waiting for – it’s a dream I’ve had before. A graceful woman in a headscarf and rimless glasses is folding a tablecloth, deftly shaking it out and bringing the corners together. Despite her delicate certainty there is real panic in her expression, as if terrible events are about to unfold. Her fingernails are clean and shiny, her neck a lovely line as she looks down. I stand up and try to offer her help with the housekeeping, but she shakes her head and I realise she cannot speak, although she wants to. She has taken some vow of silence, perhaps, or has lost her tongue. I stand near her, gesturing, trying to show that I can be useful. But she grows agitated and then scrawls little signs on pieces of cardboard. When I finally make out words ‘cry’, ‘yesterday’, ‘now’, ‘stop’, they mean nothing to me; they could be cryptic crossword solutions, or some mutilated to- do list. I read the words aloud – as if I am in a butchered game of charades – and shrug pathetically. I ask if she can use her voice at all, manage just a sentence or so to tell me what she means, and she looks at me as if I have failed.
It’s too hot to stay in bed sinking in the dread of my dream’s wordless warning. The window should not be open. James, my neighbour, has often offered to secure the screens shut. But I am postponing this moment – locking Jessie in, listening to her shrieks as she tries to tug the sash up – until after the thiamine treatment and the hospital’s reaction to our appeal on the in-house rehabilitation.
I reach for the faded nightie crumpled on the floor, swing my legs out of bed, and try not to shout. ‘Jessie? Jess?’ She isn’t in the sunroom or on the lounge in front of the television and I begin to search stupidly, as if I were on an Easter egg hunt, trying to locate a tiny treasure, and not a fully-grown woman. I check under beds and behind couches, pulling open doors and ducking my head around them, rummaging in the boxes of papers Cam left behind. I find her in the backyard, digging a hole with her bare hands, naked. I can see every vertebra on her spine. I could reach out and run my hands along her bones. Her breasts are empty sacks of skin. She weights forty-five kilos and she has climbed out the window to escape.
‘What the fuck have you done with it?’ Dribble runs down her chin. She’s wearing my glasses on her head, even though her eyesight is the one part of her that refuses to capitulate – she can see clearly, everything, all the time.
‘Come inside, Jess, we’ll do your teeth.’
‘You’ve hidden him, haven’t you?’ I thought she was digging for gin and wine, but she’s searching for her son.
‘No, no. It’s fine, Jessie.’
‘What have you done with my son? You’re a witch.’
‘You like Wheel of Fortune. We could put that on.’
I’ll be late for the appointment; I’ll be late for work. I’m deluding myself. It’s been more than six months since I could settle her down with game shows. A year ago she would have huddled into the couch until she was comfortable, and clapped her hands in glee if somebody opened the wrong door, the wrong box, the wrong suitcase. She loved people playing the odds, upping their chances, taking stupid risks and losing. Winning made her squirm. Couples beaming with their prizes made her change the channel, face distorted by tired contempt. Now she can’t remember anything; it’s disorienting for her. Who are these people and why are they cheering or frowning? Today she thinks about Cam, tomorrow she won’t know her own name.
‘I saw you. In the night. With all those people. My son will sue you. He’ll have you in jail.’ This unbridled confidence is new for Jessie; the desperation of her disease has bequeathed it to her. When I first met her and Cam still loved me, she was obsessed with Princess Diana and refused to admit that her father had worked in the coalmines. Jessie had nursed small hopes that purchasing royal-themed bone- china dinner sets would impress the neighbours, although actually hosting a dinner party would have been terrifying to her. It was the idea that counted. She was always wanting objects that would allow her to feel more like everybody else, avoiding being too certain about anything, hesitating and fussing and calling the many bottles of alcohol she downed ‘medicinal sherry’ in a false flirtatious tone.
Now she’s in front of me, inadvertently starving herself, unable to walk some days, and all that furious indignation railing in the gap between the life she wanted and the one she has.
I take her hand, which is limp, and put my arm around her waist. I lead her back to the kitchen and try to spoon some baby food into her mouth. She gags.
‘Will you eat? Try to swallow.’
I don’t know if she hears me. Her skin is as thin as paper. If I grip her too firmly she will be covered in bruises. In the bathroom, I sit her on the stool and try to force open her mouth. ‘You’re a monster,’ she tells me. I squeeze the toothpaste and shiver. ‘Are you a monster? Where’s my son?’
I have been brushing her teeth since I overheard the neurologist whisper to her secretary. ‘Her breath! That woman’s teeth are rotting in her mouth.’ I try not to brush too firmly because her gums bleed and she whimpers. The hospital calls my mother-in-law’s brain damage ‘kindling’. Sooner or later I imagine they will insist she is brought in full-time and diagnose Korsakoff’s syndrome proper. Will they refuse to let me bring her back to the house when she stops speaking or moving or remembering anything at all?
It could be terrible, forgetting all you’ve ever known, and frightening, but on bad days it seems faintly attractive to me. Like going on a long holiday where nobody can reach you on your mobile, or getting shipwrecked on a remote island where there is an absolute excuse for not meeting any of your responsibilities. Nobody would expect anything of you once you stopped being able to move or talk. And you wouldn’t expect anything of yourself.
Before Cam met Helen, when Jessie first came to live with us, she was trying to detox, trying to resist. She said she wanted her life back. But now the doctors say it’s the repeated sudden attempts and failures to quit that have eaten into her brain. It has been her attempts to recover that have ruined her. At night I sometimes whisper ‘You are demented’ to her. I don’t know if she hears me. I am almost sure she does not know what demented means. Perhaps I am reminding myself. Perhaps I am telling her something about me, about how getting older brings you face-to-face with your own capacity for cruelty. Perhaps I am simply getting back at her for the hatred she sends my way during the day, as if we were children.
Now that she is losing speech and forgetting – when she enters a room, why she has come into it, telling inventive if bizarre stories about herself to cover the blank spells in her memory – the doctors are becoming impatient with me. ‘It has to be about her needs, not yours,’ the case manager informs me piously.
But I need her to be here when Cam comes back. I need him to see that I tried, kept trying, did not give up. Every time James visits from next door, holding gifts I do not want – sunflowers, for instance, which are now drooping in four inches of muddy water, or newspapers, as if I might take solace in the world’s famines, floods and wars, or petty local council elections and celebrity divorces – he tries with new degrees of force to convince me that Cam is not coming back. James began predictably, with incitements to try online dating and to join a gym, and then he progressed to what he calls tough love overlain with false promises of deep affection. He said that Cam was having a baby with Helen and knew exactly what he had left behind. In the last few weeks he has taken to the language of the Bold and the Beautiful, declaring that I am ‘destroying myself’ and ‘being an escapist in my own fantasy world’. He tells me that I can’t live as if I am the one with an acquired brain injury, hinting that Cam had plenty of affairs in the time we lived on Mary Street.
Cam and I had loved the neighbours when we moved in: so much community, we’d said. Everyone was so creative, so engaged (we were artists then, or pretending to be; we spoke like that as if the words we used would buy us the lives we wanted). Now I mostly wish they’d just fuck off. I hate their benign scrutiny, how they must think I’m a wreck, silly for waiting around, instead of piling Cam’s things into a skip and finding myself some bored fifty-year-old with three adult children and a settled mortgage. That’s what they’d do, they’d make the best of it, they’d face up to reality.
After I dress Jessie, I fold the washing. I fold her underpants, trying not to be revolted by their resemblance to a child’s: pink and white, size six. I find the sling she wore when she was more mobile and snapped her arm, when it was accidents we had to worry about, the falls she had when she was stumbling about, drink in hand, full of motion and euphoria and impatience.
I pull the sling over my head and rest my elbow in the crook of it. Jessie vomits up toothpaste into her lap. I look at myself in the mirror. Strangely, the sling suits me. I seem invulnerable, demure, brave and not at all self-pitying. My bones could be healing behind the sling; my body could be repairing itself by being carefully held in place. I wipe Jessie’s face and pack her bag for respite care, and phone the hospital to say we’re on our way for the B1 injections. I keep the sling on.
While I am putting Jessie in the car, James runs out after me. ‘God, what have you done to your arm?’
I am already forgetting. ‘What?’
‘Is it broken?’ I enjoy being at the centre of a story that is not about the mistakes I have made and the ones I am still making. Accidents and mistakes are not the same thing. ‘Oh, I dislocated my shoulder lifting her out of bed.’
‘You poor thing. Ouch!’ He exaggerates a grimace, as if acting in a bad pantomime.
‘No, you know what? I’ll drop her … I have to get to Adam’s sports day in Preston.’
‘It’s on the way, I promise. And you can’t drive with a dislocated shoulder.’
He takes Jessie’s bag and her elbow. ‘You have enough on your plate, Abs. Seriously.’
Because I am running early and not late, I walk to the tram stop. I kick my feet through autumn leaves and pretend I am a kid. I wave to the man who makes coffee in our local cafe. I feel like a person again. I feel like somebody on their way.
Without Jessie to support I feel weightless. I hold my elbow gingerly, cradling my injury, walking like a woman who has to protect herself from further hurt. I don’t know why I haven’t sold the car. It feels so good to be out in the air. I am free of the detritus-filled Holden that Cam and I bought when we thought I could still have children and that children would save us. I’m free of its mess of yellowing newspapers, and pharmaceutical prescriptions and half- smoked cigarettes and the shopping lists in Cam’s neat, girlish handwriting that I haven’t been able to stop looking at, as if they might hold a hidden message that tells me everything: ‘I will get bored of you, very bored, and begin to think you have robbed me of some crucial experiences and I will find a very pretty, very sunny woman who thinks life is “great … most of the time” and who uses too many exclamation points in her emails and I will leave you.’
I climb onto the tram and people shuffle to make room until a balding man in his thirties offers me his seat. Once Cam used to lie in bed with me and say he couldn’t believe how good it felt to feel my skin on his skin. Once he said he wished he knew sign language, or braille, or even mime so he could tell me how much he loved me in as many languages as possible. He would tuck my hair behind my ear, stroke my neck and say it was impossible to imagine that he hadn’t loved me all his life. After he lost his job writing scripts for video games and I told him I would give up on the acting and get a real job so he could work on what he always called ‘the project’, he said ‘You’re kind’ as if he couldn’t believe it.
‘You’re so good to me, too good,’ he said. Maybe goodness is a quality that needs to be dispensed carefully, like insulin or sleeping pills. Maybe too much goodness evens out to nothing, to a coma, to a numb constant.
I’m stupid. I am waiting for something to happen that will undo the events of the last two years. ‘You think you’re being generous,’ Cam said later, when I told him Jessie could live with us and that I’d make sure she didn’t deteriorate. ‘But you just want people to like you.’ Then came the comparisons to Helen at his work. ‘She knows what she wants. She goes after it. She’s cheerful, she knows how to look for the upside. You’ve seen her. She is always smiling.’
When I get to my stop, I stand and university students scuttle out of my way. The sling. I keep forgetting. I get off the tram at the end of Collins Street, where lawyers and public servants seep into neutral cafes with overpriced sandwiches, tourists wish for something to see, bank workers hurry back to the office. Gary moved the business here after a stray review in Epicure deceptively pitched our van as part of a new food revolution. We went from camping out in the inner- west and serving pissed teenagers at 3am, who’d regurgitate what they’d swallowed not ten feet away, to becoming part of Melbourne’s bemusing desire to eat more pedestrian foods at greater prices in smaller spaces. The people who wanted to drink coffee in a Richmond garage where there was no room to sit, or to sip boutique beer on plastic crates in a fenced-off car park, also want to queue for savoury doughnuts in what we now called our ‘pop-up mobile restaurant’. Gary began serving sauerkraut and potato buns alongside chive-and- pepper pancakes. We were accidentally part of the zeitgeist. The doughnuts were microwaved and deep-fried, but this was meant to be part of the experience.
Gina and Gary are unloading when I arrive, heaving the goods out of their plastic packaging and into the cooler.
‘Is it broken?’ she asks me.
Gary cups his belly fondly and sighs. ‘We can’t have you at the fryer. Can you use your left hand?’
I tell them it’s my collarbone. ‘You can’t put it in plaster, so I have this.’ I shrug then bite my lip.
‘Should I send you home?’ Gary weighs up the money he’ll lose through slow business, impatience, one person doing a two-person job. Gina is too busy watching her micro-documentaries on her phone. Every morning she records three-minute monologues – sometimes she talks to the camera, other times she films herself getting dressed, brushing her teeth, reading a book – and edits them. If I ask her what they are for, she becomes irritable. She is young. ‘They’re not for anything.’
I have spent hours aching for Gina’s life. To sleep in, to work four shifts a week, to study painting, to have boys lie on lawns with me and talk about all the things we’ll do – together or separately. I want her Nirvana posters, I want her broken spring mattress, I want her Chagall on the wall, her drunken dreams, her abandoned craft projects, her competitive, intimate friendships, her high hopes, her shifting plans to be a human-rights lawyer, an installation artist, a painter in Mexico, or a drop-out documenting everyday life and waiting to become famous. Why can’t it last forever, this sense of becoming? Why have I failed so entirely at being an adult? I want to go to afternoon matinees, to reward an assignment completed on time with gulps of cask wine, to have men look at me again, to have someone say, as Cam once did, ‘When I am fucking you it feels like falling.’
Gary puts me on the cash register and I try to remember not to reach with my right arm, the sling one. Gina is talking about Christmas. She was meant to go to Indonesia but has decided to stay until January so she doesn’t miss all the parties. She stole a Christmas tree from Coles for her friends who live in a squat.
‘Does Coles sell Christmas trees?’ I ask, freeing twenty- dollar notes from their thick pile under a rubber band.
‘Uh, no, Abigail, they don’t … I took the Coles one, like, you know, the one they have for customers to see and think they’re a festive corporation.’
I am aghast at this girl and her nineteen-year-old nonchalant beauty. ‘You took the charity tree where people leave food for poor kids?’
‘Fuck, no. I’m not … I took the cardboard one they have at the door saying Merry Christmas from Coles.’
‘How did you do it?’
‘We just walked up – it was Sarah and me – and picked it up and just walked out. Nobody even blinked.’
I wince. I wish I were the sort of person who knew how to walk out, walk away from things.
‘Shit, Abigail, is it hurting?’ I nod. ‘How did you even do it?’ ‘I fell in the shower,’ I say. ‘I wasn’t looking. I slipped.’
Even when the day turns wet, our regulars come. Gina loads their orders onto paper plates and they all ask about my injury. They tell me stories of daughters and boyfriends and siblings with broken collarbones and bad backs. They tell me not to put strain on myself. They joke about the walking wounded and ask if I am going to be okay. They say you can’t drive for six weeks. They say the bones you can’t put casts on heal slower. They tell me not to push myself.
All day, while Cam is in his new house with his girlfriend who may or may not be pregnant and Jessie is in hospital getting thiamine injections, people look at me and see the sling. What happened to you? they say. What happened to you?