She hears her child’s call through the darkness, from a far off place as if in a dream. It’s really just from the bedroom across the corridor, through a layer of night and sleep. The beam of her bedside clock says 1.45am.
Mothers seem to instinctively hear that cry, that scream. They’ll sleep through the fatal car crash down the street, the rain on the iron roof, the party next door, but be instantly awakened by the slightest stirring of their child.
The child’s voice is now distressed, pleading. The Mother raises herself away from the cold empty space beside her in the big double bed. She fishes for her wedding ring on top of the book that had put her to sleep, The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood. She slips on the ring, wraps her dressing gown tightly around her and moves to the child’s room.
“It’s okay” be soothing, “It’s alright,” be a good mother. “Mummy’s here now”, it always scares away the monsters under the bed, the frighteners in the cupboard.
How do these visions develop in a three-year-old’s mind?
How does someone so innocent just out of nappies, just mastering his own body to walk, create such fearful thoughts.
He is calmer now. The sobbing resides. She hugs him tightly. “It’s okay, it’s alright.”
“Mum, there was someone. Someone was here.”
“Pardon?” She looks around, nothing seems to have moved. She would have heard something.
“Someone was here.” He hugs her tight, “Red shirt.”
“It’s okay, Max, it was just a dream.”
“The window” Max points again to make sure his Mother knows. “It was a dream, Max. There’s nothing there. Come on I’ll show you.”
“Window, red shirt” he whispers as they get closer. She pulls open the curtains. The rings clatter loudly as they race along the rod. Max jumps slightly and his hands tighten around his mother. They see their reflection in the window.
Mother and child. Looking inseparable.
Beyond it is just a black veil. She feels a breath of air sneak in through the window.
It is open. Max feels the breath of air as well and buries his face in his mother’s shoulder.
“It’s okay, Max. See, it was just the wind coming in. Silly Mummy, I thought I had closed it.”
“Wind”, says Max raising his face from its secure hiding place, “Silly Mummy.”
“Silly sometimes, thankfully not always.” She smiles, “See, Max, there’s nothing there.”
They both look out into the black. They see nothing.
Max grabs his Mother’s face and forces her to look straight into his eyes, “Can they see us?” he asks.
“They can see us?”
“Who, Max? There’s no one there.”
“They can see us.” She pulls the curtains shut quickly, trying hard not to acknowledge the ripple of cold that has just shot down her neck. “I’ll tell you what, Max, why don’t you come and cuddle in next to me tonight?”
“Buddy as well?”
“Sure, let’s bring Buddy as well.” She grabs the bear from Max’s bed. It looks happy and pleased with itself, totally oblivious to any problem. “What problem?” It seems to be saying.
“Come on Buddy.” She passes the bear over to Max who hugs it tightly.
“Come on Buddy” he repeats.
The light is switched off and the room fills with darkness and shapes. At the window, the curtains billow slightly. She has left it open to the night.
It’s a small bar, hidden away in the suburbs somewhere. It’s a Tuesday night, so it’s as empty as the streets outside. The Patrons that have ventured out into the cold have places that are even more unwelcoming than this bar on this evening. Or they have homes where they’d rather not be.
She sits alone, nursing a white wine; a house white. It’s not bad she thinks, better than I usually drink, it’s either chardonnay or riesling, but then she wouldn’t have a clue, it could be something else.Who cares, she doesn’t. Company is company no matter what form or shape it comes in. She twirls her wedding ring on the bar.
“Hello”, she hears a voice to her right.
“Hello”, she responds.
The man smiles slightly. She looks away. It is no one she knows.
“Do I want to be alone?” she thinks to herself. She turns and notices he is still just standing there, smiling uncomfortably. She slips on her ring and turns back to the bar, “Why is he standing there, what should I do?”
“I’m sorry,” he says, “I know it looks like part of the stool, but you’re actually sitting on my shirt.”
“Oh,” she jumps as if someone had said she was sitting on a bed of hot coals, “I’m so sorry. I didn’t know…”
“Don’t worry, someone spilt beer on it and I took it off to hopefully dry,” He peels it off the seat and folds it carefully, “That was this afternoon, I had forgot all about it.”
“I’m sorry, I just thought it was a decoration… draped over … the … you know; I wasn’t paying much attention. And I’ve never seen a shirt so red.”
“No please don’t worry, really. You probably saved me ironing it.”
She laughs slightly embarrassed, “Well, I’d give it a good wash as soon as I got it home”. “Let me buy you a drink for looking after it at least.”
“Oh, no, no, I couldn’t. I’m just here, you know.”
“Are you waiting for someone?”
“No, but …”
“I hate to tell you but I don’t think they’re turning up at this time.”
“Well, no, I’m not actually waiting for anyone. ”
There’s a silence between them. Even the music coming from the speakers in the ceiling works its way around them. It’s something soft, something that asks those listening to go home.
He decides to burst in, “Well, anyway, thanks for looking after it, have a good evening” She smiles and twirls her ring around her finger. “Maybe you should be somewhere else already.” He says motioning at her hand and the shinny round ring that is displayed there.
She looks down at her finger, “Oh, no, no, … it’s a relic from a previous life.”
“Right, so it’s your safety blanket, just in case someone turns up trying to claim their shirt?”
She laughs, “No, more like a wart I can’t get rid of.”
“Right, I might just grab my shirt and …”
“Oh, look, why don’t I buy you a drink? As long as it doesn’t have an umbrella in it. The least I can do after trying to iron your shirt and making such a hash of it.”
He looks at her tentatively, wondering whether he should or not. “Sure, why not. I don’t really like umbrellas. I think if God had wanted umbrellas to be in the drink he would have made it rain Vodka.”
“Mum!! Mmmuuuuum!!” She hears her son calling. “Mum, where are you?” She feels the cold space next to her. It wasn’t like that last night. His body was warm and soft. She can’t remember his name. “I’m coming, Max.”
She opens the door to find her father on the step. He smiles happy to see her. “Hey, Dad, come on in.”
“Thanks, Janice. How is it going?” he says looking around, a few boxes still can be found in the room. “Looks like you have moved in pretty quickly.”
“Yes, everything just seemed to fit in. It all went pretty smoothly.”
“That’s good. It’s a nice place. I hope you’re very happy here.”
“How about a coffee?” He takes a considered pause before responding.
“Ah, sure that’d be nice, but I do have to get away, do a few things.”
She takes the espresso machine from the cupboard and screws it open.
“At least you don’t have far to go to. ”
She removes the stainless steel filter and fills the base with water. Cold water, she always remembered that it had to be cold water but was never sure why.
“Handy isn’t it” he says watching as she goes about the process. “Just four houses away. Counted them on the way over.”
“Well, you’re lucky there weren’t five or we’d never know how many houses separated us.”
“What …” then stops. The penny drops and he gets the joke made at his expense.
“Funny girl. You always were a funny, funny girl. It’s good to see you getting your humour back.” Then to himself, “I’m sure there are some people who find that humorous”. He smiles cheekily at his daughter who laughs.
The filter goes back in and she spoons in the finely ground coffee as her father sniffs the air, “I love the smell of coffee.” “Mmmm, so do I” she adds.
She screws the top back on to the base, flicks on a gas burner and sits the espresso maker on it. She turns and notices her dad just standing there watching her, like an actor not knowing what to do with their hands.
“Please Dad, sit, please.” he responds obligingly looking over for a chair. “Let me just get a biscuit,” she says as she opens a cupboard in search.
“Oh no, really don’t want to be a bother, I just dropped in to see how you were. And anyway, I’ve already had breakfast.” he reaches for one of the chairs, but then decides on another, closer to the door. “Nice chairs.”
The coffee maker starts its reassuring gurgling noises. Both look over, thankful for a distraction.
“Thanks, Dad, those chairs are beautiful. Over 100 years old and French Country house chic …”
“Of course,” he interrupts, “they can’t just be ‘chairs’ anymore? They have to be French Country chic?”
She laughs and places a plate of shortbread biscuits on the table. “Your favourite.”
“Really, you mean these are ‘biscuits’? They’re not Scottish Farmhouse chic?” he says with a sly smile cracking his lips. She follows with a laugh as she flicks off the burner. She pours coffee into a cup “And this is just coffee, ok?”
“How surprisingly ordinary of us.”
As quiet as two mice, they sip their coffee. The shortbread sits abandoned.
“You know, Janice, I’m really glad you moved in here, so close.”
“You’ve told me that before, Dad, but thank you again.”
“I’m glad as well.”
“Good.” he looks up at her with a fatherly expression, or at least he is trying his hardest to make his face appear as one. “You know it’s just the two of us now and … well …”
“There’s Max as well don’t forget, that makes it three.”
“I’ve never forgotten about Max …”
He moves in his seat uncomfortably. The chair gives an audible 100 year old squeak.
He leans forward and looks at her directly, “Janice is everything all right?” She breaks his stare by reaching across for a shortbread biscuit, “Yes, of course, Dad, you worry too much.” She meets his stare. “We have moved in really well.”
“Good.” He sits back and takes a sip of his coffee. She looks down at her shoes, “There is one thing that is different.”
“It’s only a little thing, I’m sure it will fix itself. It’s Max.”
“Yes, he keeps waking at night, calling out for me.” She looks up and catches his concern. “He is seeing things, people in his room.”
“Janice have you been back to the doctor?”
“I’m sure it will fix itself. I can feel its getting better every day we’re here.”
“Janice, have you been back to see the doctor?”
“No. Dad, there’s no need, really.”
She lies in the dark, awake. Her bed no longer a refuge as it used to be, but just one of a number of places to stop off at.
“You know, Max, your Grandpa was here today. While you were at Day Care.” She speaks as if to no one, softly. “He came and we had coffee together. Can’t really remember the last time we did that.”
Max is fast asleep in the bed next to her. She can hear his deep breathing coming slowly out of the darkness, making its way to her.
“We need to look after him now. We’re all he has.” She twirls the wedding ring on her finger. Slowly round and round. Then she removes it and places it on the bed stand. She turns and closes her eyes to sleep.
Her eyes open and they stare out into the shadows. She reaches over and picks up her ring, puts it back on and twirls it slowly, round and round and round.
She sips from a tall glass. The liquid is red and the greenery extends out of it like a tree. He is smiling like a little boy tucked into his red shirt and drinking beer like it was milk.
The bar is empty.
Just the two of them tonight and another couple not talking, reading magazines and wondering what happened to their lives.
“So” he says,”you like action movies rather than romantic comedies, that’s a very attractive characteristic in a girl.”
“Why thank you muchly,” she says enthusiastically. “Give me Sigourney Weaver in Aliens to Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman any day.”
“Okay, then what about Speed?”
“With Sandra Bullock?”
“That’s the one, and Keanu Reeves and Dennis Hopper. You have high action and a rom-com wrapped into one.”
“It’s the happy endings that get me.”
“You don’t like happy endings?”
“Happy endings are great ways to end a movie, but they’re hard, they’re an illusion.”
“Come on, what do you mean?”
“Okay,” She pauses as she thinks of a good example. “That stuff doesn’t last. Sure Sandra Bullock is happy then. She’s just been saved from a raving lunatic and a runaway train. Who wouldn’t be happy?”
She continues. “But what happens the next day and the day after that? Keanu comes home all perky reeking of explosives. ‘You won’t believe what happened to me today, honey,’ he says.” She pauses for a drink and takes a long sip of the bloody alcohol. “What will it be today? you think. Saving a baby from a suicidal maniac? Dealing with hijackers strapped with sticks of dynamite around their genitals? etc etc. ‘Oh dear’ you say. ‘That’s so interesting. Oh my.’ Flutter of eyebrows and a coy look at hubby. I mean, how do you compete with that? What do you say to his question, ‘And how was your day, darling?’ you look at him and say ‘Well, I burnt the fucking toast at breakfast and my day went pretty much downhill from there. How the fuck do you think it went?”
He laughs “You’re right. They’re doomed.”
She joins in with a soft smile, watching his big smile that shows all his teeth. An attractive smile definitely she thinks. She feels him move closer. She feels his arm brush hers as it tingles and sends a shiver through her entire body.
They are naked, in bed, holding each other close. She is afraid to let him go, afraid that he may disappear. Again.
“Muuuuuuuum.” She hears max from the other end of a tunnel. He seems far away and faint.
Its dark, the place next to her is empty and cold. Her eyes open and grey shapes and smoky shadows blur together to form the bedroom around her. “I’m coming, Max” she says in a tired whisper.
“I’m coming”, her voice quiet and resigned. She looks over at the empty space. “Was it last night”, she thinks as she slips on her nightgown. “Why can’t I remember?”
There is unease in her at this lack of memory. What she normally does when this happens is reach down to her finger and twirl her wedding ring. It helps soothe that feeling.
Tonight, something stops her from doing this. In the darkness, she feels for the bedside light. Its harshness snaps shapes into blinding focus. She looks down at her finger. Her ring is missing. It’s not there.
It is not on the floor or under the bed. Did she leave it somewhere? But where? She never removes it except at night, in bed.
“I’m coming, Max. Hang on.” She moves toward her son’s room, then stops. She looks back at the bed, at the crumpled, slept in side next to the neat empty space. The part that is missing.
“Last night”, she thinks, “Damn.”
“Mumm. He’s gone.”
“Who’s gone, Max?” she says to the corridor.
“Buddy. Buddy’s gone, Mum. Buddy’s gone.”
She looks toward the door, then back at the bed.
“He’s gone, Mum, Buddy’s gone.”
“Hello, it’s me.” She talks directly into the phone. She can hear his voice, tentative, questioning.
“Hello? I recognised your voice.” He says.
“Look this is a little embarrassing for me, but I have to question you about something.”
“Ah, right.” He tries to answer casually, “Please ask away”. It doesn’t work. The crackle in his voice, the hesitation does little to hide the obvious discomfort.
“How can I put this,” she says, forming the question in her mind before pushing it out. “My wedding ring is missing and Max’s toy, Buddy, has also been taken.” She can feel confusion on the other end of the line, but continues.
“Look, I’m not calling you a thief …”
“Really?” he interrupts. “I’m not sure why I would …”
“Well, they’re missing” she exclaims. “And you were here the night before.”
“What? I was where? The night before what?”
“It’s just funny that they went missing following your stay last night.”
“Oh, whatever,” she’s frustrated with herself, with him, with everything. “Fuck, this is not going well. You may have left during the middle of the night, like you normally do, or first thing in the morning while I was still asleep, like you normally do.”
“Wait a minute,” he says.
Defensively, she thinks. “Yes,” she continues. “Like you normally do. It’s always cold when I wake up; it’s always cold.” Don’t cry, please don’t cry, Janice, she says to herself. “Why don’t you ever stay?”
“Janice, I wasn’t there last night.”
“Oh, okay, maybe my memory is just playing tricks on me and it was the night before…”
“… Or the night before that. I can’t remember anymore.”
He can hear the tears in her eyes; he can hear the effort to hold them back. He listens to them traveling across the wires like messengers with bad news. Then silence.
“Janice, are you okay?”
“Yes, I think so.”
“Janice, I haven’t been there since we were divorced.”
She sits in the dark; in the silence, looking at the empty wall in front of her. Surely it’s too quiet. Too quiet. Too dark. Too lonely. No, she thinks, not lonely, there’s Max. He’s there sleeping in his bed.
It is quiet though. So quiet. No cars outside. No dogs barking. No cats in heat. She raises herself from the sofa. She can feel her feet far below taking a step, then another. It’s cold, so cold. How late is it?
She thinks. I have no idea of the time. What time is it? Maybe I can figure it out; what was the last thing I did? It’s cold. She rubs her arm to smooth out the goose bumps.
Max, she thinks, we’ll do something nice together tomorrow. Maybe go to the zoo.
“What do you think, Max?” she says audibly to the room as she snaps on the night light. “We could go to the zoo.”
In the soft glow she can see boxes. Three boxes, all tapped shut. One has “toys” scribbled on it, another has “clothes”, and the third has “books”.
“Oh, God, where did they come from? I thought I had unpacked all your stuff, Max.” She reaches out for the ring on her left hand. She needs to twirl it, to try calm the feeling rising inside her. She looks down. The band is missing. Gone, she thinks. Stolen even. There is just a band of smooth skin where the ring used to be.
It’s quiet, so quiet, and so cold. The boxes stare back at her. The empty bookcase tries to hide in the shadows.
There is a child’s mobile lying alone on the floor. The animals – a bear, a zebra, a lion, a rhinoceros – lay there lifeless. How did they get there?
She thinks as a blast of cold air hits her. The window is open and cold air is pushing in through its gaping mouth.
Did I leave the window open? No wonder it’s so cold in here. Why is there so much dust on the cupboard? She opens a drawer to find it empty. That feeling, strange, she can’t describe it, like there is something missing, a hole is growing.
She looks over at the cot. A creation with long, wooden bars that Max always felt comfortable in until recently. It had been a present from her father. High sided, enclosed, comforting and safe for Max. But tonight it was empty.
That feeling, what was it?
The tiny bed inside it had been made. The sheets tidily tucked in, the pillow was sitting up sadly.
Where was Max?
That feeling. It was there engulfing her, swallowing her.
Where was Max? S
he looked back at the window. Was it laughing? Did she hear a laugh?
“Hello, Janice. Oh, I’d fallen asleep on the couch …” How had she got to the phone? She didn’t remember dialling a number.
She heard her Dad in the background. He was talking about “… in front of the TV, can’t remember what I was watching. The phone startled me, so if I sound …”
“Dad, please.” She interrupts.
He hears the panic in her voice and asks quietly, now fully awake, “What is it, Janice?”
“Max is not in his bed. I don’t remember, but please, oh please tell me I left him there.”
“Please Dad, tell me you’re looking after him and he is there asleep.”
“No, Janice. He is not here. You know he is not here.”
That feeling, oh, it’s so strong now. She can barely hear her father. It’s so strong it is pulling her down. “They’ve taken him, Dad. The window was open. They’ve taken him. I need to go find him.”
“Janice, no wait. I’ll be there in a minute.”
“You’re too far away, Dad.”
“I’m only a few doors away. I’ll be right there.”
“It’s okay, I’ll find him again. You need to look after Mum.”
“Janice.” The phone line has gone dead. Silence. He quickly dials a number. “Hello, this is an emergency. My name is Michael Barnard and I am at 23 Shorely Drive. Please, I need an ambulance. My daughter, her name is Janice, she is 28 years old is having a …” why can’t he ever remember the name of it, “…oh I don’t know what you call it … but i am afraid she will hurt herself.”
Tears come like always as he listens. “It’s some kind of post stress disorder … Yes, I am listening … No it’s not the first time…Yes, she does need help … desperately …Medication? I’m not sure.”
He can hear his daughter in the background, “Max,” desperate shouts “Max, where are you?”
“I need to go … sorry? … No, that’s not it. She lost her son, died, a few months ago. Still thinks he is alive.”
“Maaaaax” He listens to the operator’s instructions, “Yes, I will be here.”
“Yes, I will.”
“Please hurry.” He puts the phone down and rushes outside.
The TV glowing with figures and action, listens in silence, the sound muted. It listens to the voice outside.
“Dad, Dad, Max is gone. I can’t find him. You have to help me. They’ve taken him again.”
The tiny lounge room, empty, warm, and comfortable, sits quietly listening as the wail of an ambulance approaches.