First Night Home
When I wake up, he is standing over me with something in his arms. There is a subdued wailing in the room, like a distant car alarm.
‘You need to feed the baby,’ he says.
He looks tired too, his voice is thick with sleep.
‘We don’t have a baby,’ I say. I’m too startled to pretend, but I can see right away that was a mistake.
‘The baby,’ he says. ‘This baby.’
He holds it out then; an actual, real-life baby, and I have never seen it before in my life.
From the bed where I sit, inexplicably sore, I can see a straight line to the front door. We always leave the keys on the shelf beside it when we lock up. I could run for it. I would turn left, to where the park is, where I know a few of the neighbours by sight. I wonder if they will let me in, a woman clutching a baby in the middle of the night. But, somewhere, there are parents missing a baby.
‘Are you OK?’ he says.
The room is cast in a strange half-light, a light I associate with illness. There is, in fact, a bowl next to the bed and a large glass of water. A packet of painkillers. Someone has put towels down on the bed.
I push back the covers and put my feet on the floor. Stalling for time. He watches me. ‘I’m fine,’ I say, gently. ‘Give me the baby, OK?’
He looks immensely relieved and puts the baby in my arms. I get the briefest impression of a small wet mouth, bony limbs drowning in white fabric.
‘You need to feed her I think,’ he says uncertainly.
With the baby crooked awkwardly in my arms, I lift up my T-shirt. The baby knows better and shifts its head away. I realise that the droning sound in the room is the baby crying.
‘You could try the feeding pillow,’ he says.
He hands me a circular pillow, stiff and striped blue and white. He helps me lie the baby on it. I flex my feet against the wooden floorboards. A straight line to the front door, snatch up the keys. My bare feet slick on the wet pavement. The lock is stiff when it rains. Somewhere out there, someone is missing their baby.
In the sick-room light, the room takes shape. A wooden trestle with a basket resting on it. The rug pushed back. Shutters left open, rain against the glass. The kaleidoscope shifts. Shutters dropping in my mind.
The T-shirt I’m wearing is my husband’s. We took three with us. The first two sit balled damply in a carrier bag at the foot of the bed. A thin plastic hospital bracelet is on my wrist with a date on it and my name in biro. The baby has a similar tag — it just says, baby. The striped pillow, which my friend dropped off a few weeks ago. It works for some people, she said. Give it a shot.
We had a baby, I think.
By Genevieve Herr