‘I wish we lived here all the time,’ Clem says wistfully, wiping sandy palms on her coat. ‘I love it at our beach.’
‘Maybe we can,’ Leigh murmurs, thinking frantically, don’t tell her that! Trying not to sound too hopeful, ‘I’m glad you like it here.’
Clem frowns in irritation, turning away.
Leigh shivers. She should seek help, present at a dole office, something. She should make the kid put some shoes on. Her fingers go to the flask in her pocket.
The beach is monotone in the pre-storm light. She would have known this exact shade in oils, once: white gold like her wedding band. Her hand feels strange now without it, oddly light.
Again she sees the ring flashing away in the dark. She had stopped the Merc on a dangerous twist of road, hazard lights flashing. Clem stayed asleep in her car seat while Leigh stumbled back along the verge. She sensed rather than saw the edge of the cliff, the place where the land broke. Scrabbling around on her hands and knees, she searched and searched.
But the ring was gone. It had belonged to Mark’s great-great-grandmother, passed down through the family, all those mothers, to him. The joy on Mark’s face as he pushed it down over Leigh’s knuckle; her white dress vacuum-sealed for Clem; hot press of his lips; the gaze of their friends.
What should she do with all that, now?
They took out the mortgage on the beach house in the month before Clem’s birth. Mark stood with his back to the house squinting out over the water.
‘Bloody breathtaking.’ He took Leigh’s hand, squeezing. She pulled away to blot her brow.
‘Dream home material,’ he went on breathlessly. ‘The parties!’
As they waited for the auction to start, he talked of the life they would have; the walks they would take, the fresh fish they would catch and eat.
They were inner-city people. Met in a bar. Enjoyed cinemas and restaurants and reading in bed. The life Mark outlined was familiar only in that it contained the two of them.
The life Mark outlined was familiar only in that it contained the two of them.
‘Drive up Fridays after work,’ he said. ‘Imagine it!’
But he barely ever came.
The auctioneer called a start to proceedings. Mark had his phone out, dialing their accountant.
He covered the mouthpiece, ‘What do you reckon?’
Leigh found herself nodding. Behind her, the dull roar of the ocean: an animal breathing.
On the beach, Clem is knee-deep in Antarctic water, catching cold, needing feeding and bathing and putting to bed. Leigh tries to light a second smoke from the first, but the wind is too strong. The sky and waves roll toward land, grey against grey. She wants a cuppa, warm slippers.
‘It’s gonna rain I reckon, sweetheart,’ she calls, frightened by the rust in her voice. ‘C’mon.’
An image flashes – Mark jackhammering that stranger – but she shoves it away. Clem pretends not to hear and runs in the opposite direction, squealing as though there’s a game going on.
‘Come back!’ Leigh cringes at the rising note of frustration, hating herself. How far she is from the mother she had hoped to be. ‘I’m losing my patience now, Clem!’ Anger fuels her across the sand. When she grabs Clem, it’s too rough.
Clem tries to yank her arm away. ‘Mummy! Ow.’
Good, thinks a tiny, shameful voice deep inside, but she lets go.
‘You need to listen!’ Leigh struggles to calm her breathing. Her smile takes all her strength. ‘We can do a puzzle when we get back, if you like.’
Clem is circumspect and impatient and won’t be won over. She draws her arm across her nose leaving a silver trail on her sleeve. ‘But you already said that I could watch a whole movie!’
Later, Leigh wakes on the beach house couch. Crick in her neck, aftertaste of whiskey and tobacco. Clem is there, drowsy but awake, sucking her thumb. The television blares, some late-night crap. Leigh puts her hand on her daughter’s leg and sees that the child has been crying.
Clem shrugs her off. ‘I’m hungry.’ Red-rimmed eyes slide away, fix on the screen. ‘You wouldn’t wake up.’
Leigh sighs, pinching the bridge of her nose. ‘Alright.’ She struggles to sit up. ‘I’m awake now.’
But she has failed to pack properly, there’s nothing for them to eat.
‘Bath first tonight,’ she says quickly. ‘Then I’ll sort something out.’ The clock above the stove reads 1:00am.
There had been a moment during labour when Leigh convinced herself that the pain of it would kill her. Naked, on all fours, fierce contractions washed down through her spine. In their wake, she shuddered, shocked. The pressure of the baby’s skull would smash her up. She prised her eyes open just long enough to grope for Mark, feeling the bones in his hand crunch sickeningly.
‘I can’t do this,’ she tried to say, tasting the salt of her sweat. She gleaned from his face that she was failing to communicate the critical nature of the danger. ‘It’s too much.’
‘It’s okay,’ he whispered, and she shut her eyes. ‘You’re okay.’
There had been a moment during labour when Leigh convinced herself that the pain of it would kill her.
‘Baby needs you to push now,’ the stern midwife cut in, putting down her clipboard to knead Leigh’s back. ‘Come on, Mum.’
Leigh sobbed, ‘I can’t.’
The nurse’s face dropped down, close enough to kiss, but her voice was cold. ‘Baby’s heart rate is dropping. You need to push, now.’
Bellowing helplessly, Leigh leaned into Mark, feeling herself split apart.
Even so, that first heady week after Clem’s birth, Leigh had still hoped motherhood might come easily. Snug in their bed with the new baby between them, it never occurred to her that they wouldn’t always be this way: skin on skin, milky-breathed, the hardships of the world kept at bay by their lovely home and their vows.
If only she had known then what she knows now she might have made different choices. Finished her degree. Stayed on the pill.
Months passed as one long dark afternoon. The baby screamed; Leigh’s nipples wept. Clem fed often, gumming at scabs. Leigh’s gaze wandered around the kitchen while Mark stood with his back to her in the blue light of the open fridge.
‘You know that Woolworths deliver,’ he said, peeling the lid off a tub of yogurt, grimacing. ‘Don’t you?’
She had called him her best friend, once.
‘I’ll put an order in tomorrow,’ she said softly, but he was busy at the stove.
Clem’s almond eyes were open as she drank. Leigh moved her fingers to the spongy fontanel, gingerly circling the wax-paper flap of skin over the brain. A single blow, a knock, a fall. Never shake your baby, the expert’s book said. Place her somewhere safe and walk away, or hand her to your partner.
Clem wouldn’t sleep. Clem never slept. Those first months, Leigh stopped being able to tell time. She would pace the hall with the baby in her arms just for something to do, to offer respite from the screaming.
She’d seen pictures of friends with babies on Facebook, their jolly milestones. Studying their posts, she looked for clues, evidence of subterfuge, but those other parents were genuinely happy. Enjoying themselves!
When Mark arrived home from work, she was on the front doorstep, waiting to hand Clem over even before he got inside. Take her, take her, take her!
‘Just gotta make a quick phone call, love,’ Mark said, smiling as he stepped around them to go inside.
Even as she felt the marriage harden around her like water freezing, Leigh had watched Mark, searching for the right thing to say. She wanted to tell him that she still recalled the way his skin had quivered, muscles twitching and jumping, her tongue on the stones of his spine. She wanted to share that the maternal child health nurse had called their baby gorgeous; that she was thinking about trying her hand at illustrating children’s books. But it was as though she were deep underwater, soundlessly moving her mouth.
It was as though she were deep underwater, soundlessly moving her mouth.
When she caught sight of herself in the mirror it took a moment to place the haggard face. Clem cried and cried and cried until Leigh had nothing left to give her but acquiescence: she was not good enough.
When she finally, finally learned of the affair, her first instinct was pity for the other woman. Mark’s body had broadened over time with age and overwork. She had already fucked the best version of him, years back. No one else could have that.
But the memory wasn’t protection enough. She soon felt gut-punched, couldn’t stop sobbing, and Mark knew then that she knew. He burst into tears, but made no move to embrace her.
After Mark left for work, Leigh tore around the apartment in Southbank with her face swollen from crying, stuffing damp laundry into a green-bag. Already late to collect Clem from kinder, she grabbed up the child’s yellow raincoat, a paperback novel, handful of mum undies.
She feared the childcare workers’ judgement as they waited for her arrival, the way they would gather together in an accusatory knot by the pigeonholes where the kids stored their bags. They would think that she was one of those working mothers. But the truth was that Clem went to childcare so that Leigh could, what?
Sleep in? Bloody vacuum? Browse around on-fucking-line? If you can’t cope Leigh, just say so!
Now it takes all Leigh’s strength to haul the grey, gritty singlet up and over Clem’s head. In the dark, in the storm, the house seems to rise and fall with the crashing waves, shifting and creaking on its foundations. Gusts of wind blow through gaps in the weatherboards. Rain drums tin.
Clem’s milk teeth are chattering, knees drawn to her chin in the cool bathwater.
‘I said, I want to go home,’ the child whines.
Leigh puts down the whisky in the mug she’s holding. Liquid sloshes onto the tiles.
They should have made more of an effort to do the place up. Renovate. New kitchen. A deck overlooking the view. She still has the paint swatches from Bunnings in her wallet, gone grey with lint.
It was meant to get easier, that’s what people said. After babies started solids, started sleeping through the night. Leigh had harboured the impression that things would go back to normal, back the way they were before. More proof of her stupidity, inadequacy. The mistakes she has made.
Clem’s voice barely a whisper, ‘I want my Daddy.’
‘I want to get out now.’ Clem’s crying in earnest. ‘Mummy, I’m really cold.’
Bleeding, Leigh’s feet have left prints on the tiles. Splinters of ceramic from the broken mug, lodged in the pads of her toes. Her phone never stops ringing in the other room, buzzing against the table like a bug on a light.
Face down in the bath, Clem’s shoulder blades are outlined through the skin of her back. Leigh soaps them carefully, heart skittering. This precious body. Her baby girl. She can’t seem to catch her breath.
Rain sluices down outside the bathroom window. But Clem isn’t screaming now. Isn’t breathing. Hair fanned from her head like seaweed. There is a beat of silence in which Leigh feels her own scream cresting.
Then a car comes careening up the driveway, spitting shale, its headlights slicing sharply through the window and across the ugly tiles. Mark leaves the engine running as he sprints toward the house; she hears it thrumming through the wall as she stands.
‘Leigh?’ Mark calls frantically, the storm raging louder behind him through the open front door. ‘Love? My God. You here?’