And then I was pregnant, and we realised we had no space for a baby.
We looked at all kinds of houses: big, new ones with columns and render; little cottages with beaten weatherboard; a yellow brick monstrosity with a paved yard where there should have been grass. But we were drawn to the rolling water. And our heart stayed behind when we left.
Heather and Dave have found the perfect place to raise their first child. The house has character, but it's the garden that really makes it: red-faced impatiens, pockmarked gums, six upright pittosporums to keep the neighbours out. It's a jungle. A hiding place. A refuge.
And then, without warning, that life is over.
Heartbreaking, fearless, and ablaze with a coruscating beauty all its own, The Paper House tells the story of a woman sinking into the depths of grief, and the desperate efforts of her loved ones to bring her up for air. A sharp-eyed, bittersweet depiction of the love between parents and children, and the havoc that love can wreak.
My heart fell out on a spring morning – the kind that rose coolly in the east and set brightly in the west. I had imagined it happening, of course, given as I was to paranoia and unease, but it had come as a shock nonetheless. I lay on the empty apartment floor for hours, awaiting the tapping of her feet or the pulse of her breath, but heard only the rush of blood in my ears and shouting on the street.
It had been a long time in the planning. When we were first married, Dave took a secondment and we found ourselves in a squat house in the desert. He taught all the classes at the local school and I took phone calls at the cultural centre and in the evenings we sat together under the expanse of black and silver sky. The days were hot and long but a refrigerated truck brought ice-cream once a week and the local kids ate it with their bare feet in the dirt. Everything in the desert was red; not deep like cherries, or bright like Ferraris, but fluid and changeable. Overhead, the whir of one-person planes. Below, the ancient earth rumbled.
The town of Marree sat red and dusty on the Oodnadatta Track, near the salt plains of Lake Eyre, up through the wine region and the port towns, into the land of the Dreamtime. It had been a roaring hub of activity when the trains were still taking supplies along the old Ghan line, but that had long since been diverted to somewhere easier, faster, more efficient. It had one main road and a general store, a cultural centre and a caravan park. And a pub, of course. Even the towns on the Track that didn’t have permanent populations all had pubs.
In the desert, morning always arrived in one moment, from dark to light without interruption from hills or sea or clouds. It was dark and then it was light. Dave and I walked and talked with our hands linked, kicking up the dirt and breathing the hot air. Derelict steam engines nudged us as we walked past – giant cicadas with unblinking eyes.
‘It’s so nice here,’ I said.
‘It’s so nice here with you,’ Dave said, in all his marriedness.
The ladies at the cultural centre loved tea breaks. I went with them to the edge of the waterhole and they told me stories about the Dreamtime and laughed with the inside of their throats. The water was always still, like glass, even when the trees around us moved in the wind. Once the tea was finished I showed them how to look for patterns in the leaves, and Nell rubbed my shoulder and they all gleamed with promise.
We were so newly married, so fresh to our combined life, that everything reminded us of how permanently we would be joined. In our shared car, the only late model four-wheel drive we could afford, we drove into the Red Centre and we saw ourselves there: we were the pair of jabirus with their feet in the mud; we were the endless revitalisation of the hot springs; we were the infinite hum of the salt plains.
What plans did we have then? Dave with his hand on my shoulder, my hip, my belly. Dave with his face between my thighs, around my neck, on my mouth. Everything with its right time, its best time. In the evenings we put our feet on our iron window frames and rolled out the first bars of ‘Graceland’ across the flat land and we were invincible because it was impossible we could be anything else.
After two years, Dave’s secondment ended and we strode through Melbourne, red against its greyness, salt in our veins. I climbed aboard electric trains and heard the rattle of the wind in the old windows, the thud of a missing sleeper, and listened to the emphysema breath of the man asleep on my shoulder. I had breakfast on the kerb-side of an inner-city street and heard the shouts of the shoeless children, the thunder of the crop duster overhead. Every day on the train, with the dadum-dadum-dadum and the whirring of someone’s laptop and the too-loud conversa- tions, I was upright, packed, ready for the next adventure.
In the evenings I sat with Dave at our table for two by the balcony and we looked out to the streets and to the people. We watched them with their grey faces and their shiny shoes and imagined them going home to their neat houses. Their Golden Retrievers would sit beside them as they watched the news, expressionless. Dear, forty people were blown up in Afghanistan
today. Dishes in the sink. That’s too bad. And look, a big sale at
Harvey Norman. Missionary style please.
‘Isn’t it great that we’re not them?’ we said, and touched our feet together.
I went to my job in a tall city building, watching people with briefcases and busy faces drink their lunches from cartons. I typed words on a screen and answered the phone on my desk, and on Fridays we went to the pub for a forced happy hour. I wore a blue skirt, a pink skirt, one in black and white herringbone, and only once did I remember my mother the day she came home with her hair cut short.
‘Let’s have a baby,’ I said to Dave, while I cooked. ‘Yes, let’s have a baby,’ he said.
And then, six years after we had left the tea leaves at the water- hole, I was pregnant, and we realised we had no space for a baby.
We looked at all kinds of houses: big, new ones with columns and render; little cottages with beaten weatherboard; a yellow brick monstrosity with a paved yard where there should have been grass. We looked in towns that lolled under a rainforest canopy, towns that yawned at the bottom of mountains and towns built clumsily where mine carts once rattled. But we were drawn to the rolling water. The long Victorian coastline offered seaside towns for every kind of person, whether they were the market-going type or the surfing type. We stood with the dreadlocked and salt-encrusted at Lorne, and drank lattes with the Lexus crowd at Portsea. After six weeks of looking and imagining, we ate teacakes on the western side of the peninsula and our heart stayed behind when we left.
‘That’s the place,’ I said, and Dave said, ‘That’s the place.’
If we had known, maybe we would have chosen a different house. But we stood on the hilltop and breathed the salty air and we were filled with love. It was a small place with unusual rooms, and a bull-nosed verandah in colonial green draped in a curtain of wisteria that disappeared under a haze of bees. It had white shutters and curls of worked iron. It had a name – Cabbaga – which hadn’t been on my list of criteria but which I immediately added. And the garden; a maze of established trees and crouch- ing shrubs and flowers with bees on them and the faint trickle of water. A garden in which to wander, in which to get lost. For picnics and parties. It breathed in time with me and spat me out into the afternoon air, where the sea caught on the updraft and shot through the corridors. I watched it heave and change as day became night.
The settlement took us into the perfumed spring. Knowing that the house was waiting for us made our apartment smaller and darker. Dadum-dadum-dadum. My body changed daily; a swimming, tumbling, hiccupping circus. I prodded tiny feet and the curve of her spine and she pushed against my hand with all her might. While I tried to sleep she rolled and flipped and I knew each infinite possibility of her.
On the very last day, we went to visit Gran. I could barely squeeze myself into a seatbelt by then; it pulled tight across my belly and we laughed while I did it because I was a grotesque, indiscernible mammal.
As we drove I said to Dave, ‘She’s been very quiet today.’ ‘The books said she would run out of room,’ he said, and that seemed reasonable.
We pulled into the circular drive, past meticulous planter boxes, and waited in the pink and grey reception area, everything glossy with vinyl and lacquer. The nurse led us to the room, though we’d been a hundred times, down in the corner over- looking the lake. Gran lifted her chin to greet us, or a version of us.
‘My darling!’ she said, and her eyes were loose in their sockets. ‘Hello,’ I said. I didn’t say Hello Gran. They had told me not to, that it might upset her. I hugged her and my belly was a hard obstacle between us. She rubbed her silken hands over it, warm through my shirt.
‘We’re going to have a baby,’ she said. ‘Yes, we are.’
‘I can’t believe it, Shelley. I’m too young to be a grandmother!’ And her hands went around again, her hands on the body she thought was my mother’s. The still and silent body, where the baby had run out of room.
Later on we took sandwiches across the lawn to the spot we always went, underneath the magnolia tree where there was a white picnic table. The day was cool. The air scraped on our skin. ‘Shelley,’ she said, with sandwich crumbs falling from her mouth, ‘let me feel the baby kicking.’ I pulled her hand to my
round and swollen body. ‘I can’t feel it.’
‘That’s normal,’ I said. ‘She’s running out of room.’
We waited, Gran looking up at me with her eyes wide. ‘Was that it?’ she said. ‘I felt a bump.’
And maybe it was, but on the way home Dave said to me, ‘If you’re still worried in the morning, we can get her checked out.’ and I waited for the tremble of knees but there was nothing.
So we went, in the morning, to the hospital. The maternity ward was full and they couldn’t help us right away. Dave and I sat in adjoining vinyl chairs, and the TV in the corner played infomercials. Time passed in the maternity ward as it did in a casino, fluorescent and artificial, and after an hour or six hours, the nurse returned and attached a band around my middle. ‘It’s called a non-stress test,’ she said. ‘When you feel the baby kicking, press the button.’
She came back after the morning news, a smear of blood across her forehead. ‘Sorry, Heather. It’s chaos here today.’ She pulled a strip of paper from the machine and looked at it. Dave looked at it. I looked at it.
‘What does it mean?’ Dave said.
The nurse turned to me. ‘How many times have you pressed the button?’ she said.
‘None,’ I said.
Everything moved, except her. The hospital moved around me and I moved inside the hospital until we were spinning in concentric circles and the midday movie was playing somewhere far away, somewhere I wasn’t.
The nurse called my name, and I pretended it was someone else’s name until a minute had passed and I had to go. Dave went too, walked with his arm around me, which was a bad idea because I could hear the panic churning in his bone marrow and I wanted to run from the radiology department but equally I didn’t want to rupture and die in the hallway.
We walked for a hundred years. I listened to the people in the wards, at the beginnings of their lives and the endings of their lives and the parts of their lives that don’t have time attributions. At the end of the hallway we went into an ultrasound room and my body climbed out of the window and I stood there naked, just the torn and bruised shreds of my uterus in the blue room.
The doctor came in and I lay my uterus down on the bench and she ran the machine over the top of it, but I already knew, and we already knew, and I put my hand to the purple organ crying on the bench and it sighed and wept against my skin. Dave stood in the corner and watched the screen and he knew it last of all, when the doctor pointed at the white smudge where the baby was and said, ‘I’m sorry.’
All the breath went out of the room in a second and I heard it rush back up the hallway and back to the waiting room and back to the home with Gran looking up at me. Dave squeezed my hand and the doctor left the room and we sat with my defunct womb between us and I cried and he cried, and we were both sitting in the blue room, crying. I called out the window for my body to come back so we could go home, but it was standing on the riverbank watching the storm come in.
The doctors said I might bleed out at any time so they installed me in a bed with plastic sheets. I sat in limbo in the nighttime. A nurse came by periodically; later, a different nurse. Dave touched me as though hunting for an off switch, frequently and without tenderness. His face was drawn.
When night had slipped away the hospital moved around us. Women arrived with their fat bellies and left with their frog-legged babies and the currency was yellow lilies and bursts of sunflowers and glittering foil balloons from the gift shop. From the starched sheets of my own small room I watched them learn from the new faces in front of them: What does that cry mean? Are you tired? hungry? dirty? They pulled and poked at their fleshy miniatures, their rolling legs and tight fists and, when they had by chance touched on the cause of all the tears, the women laughed. They laughed with their throats and their eyes.
I tried to learn the same way. Are you windy? bored? cold? But there was no way to know. There was just my heartbeat. Only mine.
The doctor, who had a nice white moustache and a voice like dark coffee, pushed up his glasses and said, We’re going to do the surgery at eleven, you’ ll be fine, with rehearsed sympathy. And then he continued on his rounds, leaving Dave to collect me as I crumbled like a sandcastle to the ground.
I didn’t move, burdened as I was by this slick of grief. I communicated in low grunts and shuddering sobs. My body became the gnomon to my sundial, and I watched the shadows pass across my bed, just waiting. I listened to the ease of Dave’s breath, the gentle rhythm of his shoulders, and pressed my cheek against his flushed skin until the memory was burned in: the last time we would be together this way, still minutely hopeful, still able to believe it might be different. He pushed his fingers through my hair.
‘Can I get you anything?’ Dave said.
I knew the correct answers: ‘Nothing’, ‘I’m fine’, ‘Just a glass of water’. My voice was not in my throat; it had dropped down to my ankles and they throbbed with the words that I couldn’t force out, words that I saw reflected in his stoicism, Please give me back my baby.
‘No,’ I said. It was ten-thirty. A nurse with pink skin hovered in the doorway. Babies cried. I cried.
‘Heather,’ Dave said. And in the moments that followed I saw my life stretching out ahead of me, the expanse of childlessness, everything relative to this day, numbered in days since and years since and the hour of my very old age when I might sit in a bed just like this one and think, Sixty-three years having never learned a single thing more about you than what I know right now. And I clung to that man with the tired black eyes and I wished
but still the nurse said
It’s time to go
and Dave had to wait behind.
When I emerged later – anaesthetic blurred, stitched, taped – he ate my tray of grey sludge and we sat at the edges of the world and watched it pass between us.
Dave slept in the blue glow of the hospital television, which I knew was costing an extra eight dollars a day. Late-night chat shows shouted at me, displaced and upbeat. ‘Don’t you know we’re in a hospital?’ I said. Celebrities I couldn’t place from my life before blinked back at me. Tuneless songs. Laughless jokes. In the corridors, women coped poorly. Their babies wouldn’t latch. Their milk wouldn’t come in. They hadn’t slept for twenty-six hours. Their baby was too quiet, too loud, too yellow, too floppy. All of their parenthoods were imperfect.
I drifted in and out of sleep. Pain slapped at me. Through the window came the clear white of the moon and the deep blue of space. After midnight. My throat burned with acid. The hospital room was so quiet, quieter than the night, quieter than a tomb with its cold walls. I felt the breathless child with me. I touched her face, recoiled at the cool clamminess of her skin. Her eyes were closed, thin slips of black eyelashes like stitches. I tried to pry her fingers out of their tiny fists, but they seemed frozen. With eyes hot and wet, heart pounding, breath caught in my chest, I pulled the baby from where she was trapped in the in-between and held her against me, searching for a smell or a sound or a feeling to take with me, knowing that this would be the only chance I had to store it away.
As the medication wore off, pain burned through me like salt. A bushfire. Acid, chilli, lightning. My heartbeat danced between breaths; hundreds of tiny hands squeezed my blazing flesh andante. The room swam. It cracked, it shattered. My body heaved and gave way beneath me and I screamed. A tired nurse looked at my chart. ‘Oh, caesar,’ she said, with nothing in her voice. ‘I’ll get you something for the pain.’ And her face was a dragon, flames licking the colourless walls, claws drawing blood from my skin, red and angry like a wound, and the TV asked, Which Friends star turns 48 today? Dave slept.
In the morning he filled forms with unspeakable labels. CAUSE OF DEATH. ‘Why is there a doll in that plastic crib?’ I said, and they wheeled it away. They moved me to a different ward and told me I would spend at least four days recovering and sipping tea. I had become the least sick, the least sad. In the far corner near the window, a middle-aged man dressed the stumps where his girlfriend’s legs had been. A woman with a tangle of white hair and a man with no hair at all had squeezed into one bed; I couldn’t tell who was the patient, and maybe they both were. The bed next to mine was empty, but the flowers were still in their vases. The whole day went by without a single visitor; just the immediates, the carers, the obligated.
When dinner arrived – a stodgy lump of mashed potatoes; a pile of flat peas – Dave put his hand on mine and sighed like a man who had spent a week sleeping in a vinyl armchair. We looked at each other. He touched his fingertips to my face. ‘I have to go to the house,’ he said.
‘The house,’ I said.
‘Everything is just in piles and boxes.’ The boxes: a half-built crib, hand-me-downs from friends, a silver heirloom teaspoon. ‘I need to do something useful.’
‘For when we have to live there.’
‘Right, Heather. For when we have to live there.
‘Okay,’ I said, and he kissed my forehead.
I felt it right in my heart, which no longer beat in my chest but hung weighted in the pit of my guts, as heavy and still as a stone amid the hum of the machines and the shrill ring of the bedside phone (three dollars a day).
‘Hello?’ Her crowded, hollow voice. ‘Mum?’ I said.
‘Heather? Is that you?’ A click, and darkness.
Outside, three birds sang to one another. A big one with a throaty voice first: the same dull note three times. A smaller one next, aggressive as though responding to a telemarketer. And a third one, panicked, runs of pitched scales, trying to smooth it over. Then again from the top; big, medium, small, until the sun had passed over and they could move on to the next thing.
Dave came in after breakfast. ‘Did you sleep?’ I said. He hadn’t. He wore the same clothes as yesterday. He had photos of the house on his phone. The roses had given birth to tight buds along the verandah, and he had bought extra cushions for our bed. He showed me a koala cradled by the gum tree on the nature strip. I looked for the house I had seen at the auction, but it wasn’t there; no folded pink blankets or ducks hanging from mobiles.
‘Any water in the creek?’ I said, which was the only thing I could think to say. He scrolled through the photos again.
‘Is there a creek?’
‘Way down the back,’ I said. ‘Maybe it’s on the neighbours’ title.’ ‘Maybe.’
We waited for the doctor to come into my room. Dave read the paper but could tell me nothing about the world’s events. ‘Where did the others go?’ he said.
‘The lady who lost her legs went home,’ I said. ‘I’m pretty sure.’ The one with white hair had disappeared in the night. Maybe there had been beeping, crying. There was no evidence of it, if it were true.
And we waited.
I knew the doctor would come into my room. I knew he would look at my chart and take my blood pressure. I knew he would shake Dave’s hand and wish us well. And I knew he would say, ‘You can go home now,’ and I knew I would stare at him and shake him by his lapels and demand that he tell me – that he stop withholding from me – where this ‘home’ was, and how I might set about getting there.
But he didn’t. A nurse gave me a blue form and told me there had been an accident and they needed the beds.
‘I see,’ Dave said. ‘And you’re sure she’s well enough to go home?’ He squeezed my hand.
The nurse looked over my chart: placenta praevia, caesarean section, stillbirth. ‘Seems so. Doctor’s explained all the impor- tant stuff anyway, no doubt? Driving’s off-limits for six weeks. No funny business ’til she’s fully healed.’
‘Funny business?’ ‘Sex.’
‘Make an appointment with your GP six weeks from now.
If you feel sick, or feverish, go sooner.’
‘What if I just feel so sad that my legs won’t move?’ I said.
She looked at me with her fat red face. ‘We have a pack for that.’ A plastic bag filled with leaflets and forms and despondent women with their faces pressed against windows and more than one sullen raincloud. ‘There’s a group session for outpatients. They meet on Wednesday nights.’
‘What for?’ I said.
‘Well, to talk about how they’re feeling, I guess.’ Sweat beads collected above her eyebrows. ‘This must be a very hard time for you.’ Her hand on Dave’s shoulder. ‘For both of you.’
Dave packed my bag while I stared at the ceiling. I had accu- mulated some flowers, all delivered by couriers. ‘Do you need these?’ he said, and I supposed I probably didn’t. He put them in the bin. ‘And this?’ A plastic bracelet and a sticker with a drawing of a pink bear. I put it in my bag. We moved stiffly and reluctantly. When we had finished packing we took the long way out of the hospital, through radiology and oncology and other ways to die slowly, and the parking was fifteen dollars. ‘I guess we can’t get ice-creams on the way home now,’ I said. My skin stuck to the hot seat. My heart beat against the floor.
We pulled out of the car park and headed south, not north, not into the sun but away from it, through rows of gnarled vines and fields of black-faced sheep and fast along the generic paddocked highway. We stopped at the petrol station by the exit, a place I’d stopped at many times before, with my belly rolling and the air in my skin and my eyes, and he filled the car in silence. It was all silence. The radio was silence. The road was silence. I had filled my ears with the sound of nothing and I was absolutely, definitely, never going to open them again.
The car stopped at a place I didn’t know, on a road I didn’t recognise. Just a house, flickering in and out in the afternoon sun. Dave plucked me from the car and pulled me into his shoulder; he smelled of paint and tape and dust. We walked through the front door the way I must have imagined we would, into the neat entryway that led through to the kitchen, his arm around me but empty, so empty, just skin on his skeleton, and I wanted to sleep for the rest of my life but I didn’t know where the bedroom was.