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Authors: Fiona Kidman

Ricochet Baby

ricochet baby
RICOCHET BABY

Fiona Kidman

For Lauris, with love

contents

Title Page

Dedication

Acknowledgements

 

one

Family Connections
;
Roberta

 

two

Bernard and Orla
;
The Unclean Box
;
Sarah

 

three

Breathing Lessons
;
Moon Shadows

 

four
 

Glass
;
Orla
;
The Third Daughter of the Earl of Maudsley
;
The Cage
;
Scarlet Ribbons

 

five

Walnut

 

six

Life in the Country

 

seven
 

Breaking Rules
;
Turkey
;
Thoughts About Leaving
;
At the End of the Year

 

eight

A Letter to Roberta
;
Returns
;
16 Digglie Street

 

nine

Clearing Wreckage
;
Roberta’s Baby

 

ten

Birth Notices

 

eleven

Regrets
;
The Water Bearer
;
Grief
;
Recognition

 

twelve

Poultices

 

thirteen

Roberta

 

fourteen
 

Edith
;
Only the Lonely
;
The Woman in the Paddock

 

fifteen

War Woman
;
Snot
;
Rockin’ Rollin’

 

sixteen
 

Renunciation
;
Correspondence

 

seventeen

The Counsel of Fools
;
Roberta
;
Wallflowers

 

eighteen

Milking
;
True Virgins
;
A Mandelbrot Set

 

nineteen

Sarah

 

twenty

Roberta
;
Cat Twists
;
Some Aspects of Sexual Desire

 

twenty-one

Mrs Blue Eyes
;
Home TIme

 

twenty-two

Josh

 

twenty-three

Family Remains
;
An Application
;
Unease
;
Conversations Abroad

 

twenty-four

Infinite Chaos

 

twenty-five

Exodus

 

twenty-six

More Recipies for Disaster

 

twenty-seven

Exposure
;
Choosing Truth

 

twenty-eight
 

Roberta and Sarah
;
An Ordinary Gran
;
Going On
;
Wendy
;
Nathan

 

twenty-nine

Inside

 

thirty
 

Roberta

 

About the Author

Copyright
 

I wish to thank Michael Harlow, who has been generous with advice; Themla Puckey and Dr Rob McIlroy, who supported my research into psychiatric care; members of the Post and Ante-Natal Distress Support Group; Elizabeth Smither for helping me to research crop circles; Joanna Kidman and Amelia Herrero-Kidman who advised me about songs;
Holmes
programme staff; Victoria Forgie; and Anna Rogers, for her unfailing patience and good humour while editing. Jane Tolerton’s
Convent
Girls
and
The
Gardens
of
Russell
Page
, by Marina Schinz and Gabrielle van Zuylen, were two particularly invaluable reference books. My thanks, as ever, to Ian Kidman, who makes computer
technology
work for me.

Permission to use the following songs and poetry is gratefully acknowledged: ‘Scarlet Ribbons’ by Evelyn Danzig/Jack Segal (
Reproduced
by permission of Warner/Chappell Music Australia Pty Ltd. Unauthorised Reproduction Is Illegal.); ‘Moon Shadow’ (Sony).

Victoria University Press for lines for ‘Instructions for how to get ahead of yourself while the light still shines’, from
Moving House
by Jenny Bornholdt.

While working on this book I was the recipient of a grant from the former Arts Council of New Zealand Toi Aotearoa (now Creative New Zealand).

FAMILY CONNECTIONS

W
HEN
R
OBERTA
FALLS
pregnant her whole family is filled with joy. Fallen is not exactly how Roberta would describe it, for she and Paul have planned the baby and it has been conceived at exactly the time they chose. But that is how their mothers speak of it, as if there is something wanton and abandoned about the conception, and in a way this pleases Roberta. Both sets of parents immediately arrange to visit. We’ll have a party and celebrate, they say. Her mother and father drive over the hill from the farm, more than two hours away, and Paul’s come from across town.

Fay and Milton, Paul’s parents, bring good champagne, with a clean, crisp bite. Edith and Glass bring a bottle of gin. Paul raises his eyebrows in mock astonishment, but Roberta pretends not to notice. Of course you won’t be drinking now, they all say.

‘I’ve brought you some silverbeet, Edith tells her. ‘The iron is good for you. Seafood’s good, but for goodness’ sake be careful. And milk. You never liked milk, but if you can just try to get it down. Six glasses a day? Well, you are taking motherhood
seriously
.’

‘Are you getting heartburn?’ Fay wants to know.

‘A little.’

‘They say it’s a sign the baby will have lots of hair. I had it so much you wouldn’t believe.’

‘I don’t remember that,’ Milton says. ‘Paul didn’t have much hair.’

Fay laughs. ‘I didn’t say it was true.’ But she looks uncertain, as if there is faulty recognition in her memory.

Edith has brought the christening shawl that has been in Glass’s family for years. ‘It needs some airing, but plenty of time for that.’

Her husband’s eyes widen. ‘Where did you find that?’

Edith looks embarrassed, as if she’s been caught in some illicit act. ‘It’s odd what you find when you’re spring-cleaning.’

‘So there’ll be a christening?’ Fay asks, more eagerly than she intended. Paul and Roberta had had a secular wedding in the
farmhouse
garden.

‘If they waited until the summer I could do a mixed pink and blue cornflower border. No? Then I could make it all white, which might be nicer.’ Edith is at her sharpest and most charming best, as if everything is decided.

Fay and Milton exchange glances which they think nobody sees.

‘Have you told Bernard and Orla?’ Roberta asks her mother, hoping to change the subject.

‘Time enough for that,’ Edith says easily. ‘They’re so busy, now the season’s starting again. You’ll have to let Michael know.’

‘You know how hard it is to get in touch with big brother.’

They nod, they sigh.

Paul’s parents have brought a matinée set wrapped in tissue paper. The pattern is like shells and foam, delicate, precise, not a stitch out of place. We know babies wear stretch-and-grows and all those modern cute little clothes and we can’t wait to start buying them, they say, but Milton’s mother knitted these before she died. It was her
ambition
to live long enough to see her great-grandchildren, … well, it can’t be helped, but it seems a nice way to start your layette.

Layette. It’s not a word Roberta has heard since she was at school, when girls still talked about their futures.

The two families move on to prams. One will buy that, the others the bassinet, but who will buy which?

‘Shouldn’t we leave the pram till the baby’s born?’ asks Glass.

‘Why?’ They are all instantly curious.

‘Oh, I don’t know. Something I heard.’

Superstition. You can feel the unspoken word settle on them, lightly, like an echo dissolving into their laughter. But nobody wants to know what will happen, if they don’t follow through, now that the matter has been raised. Once you’ve stated the possibility of disaster, then everything has to be done to avoid the risk. Besides, pregnant women are unsettled by such talk; there’s no knowing how their fancies will stray if they are fed with ideas. The mother is host to the mystery, her child the unknown person in their midst. She must not be disturbed.

‘We can wait until the baby comes then,’ says Milton,
appeasing
his daughter-in-law’s father. ‘As long as we decide on who’s doing what.’

They will toss for it. And there in the startling sunlight, the coin spins and twinkles, and rolls down the path so they have to
run after it. Heads, they call, tails, and everybody is happy with the outcome.

‘We’re going to open a special bank account for education,’ Milton says. ‘You can’t start early enough.’ Milton is a public
servant
. He is well placed in the ministry, as he tells them in an easy and charming way.

This day will come to seem like a dream to Roberta. Although it is midwinter it feels like early spring, a day on which their house is suffused with sunshine, and they are able to open the windows to the sea. An early dusting of snow lies on the hills but inside their courtyard it is warm enough to bring tables outside. The trees will grow, the families say, looking at the gums and kowhai Roberta and Paul have planted. We’ll be able to sit in the shade of them some day, and this baby will be climbing in their branches. You can build a tree-house for him, Paul. Or her, as the case may be.

You won’t find out the sex of the baby, will you? It doesn’t matter what this one is, as long as it has all its fingers and toes. Have you thought of a name? And they all look expectantly,
hopefully
, towards the young couple, then avert their collective gaze, hoping to disguise the naked longing in their eyes. Edith. Fay. Glass. Milton. Well, maybe there is nothing in these names for young people. They will have their own ideas. The parents don’t voice their thoughts.

The sky above is as blue as a thrush’s egg and the far below sea a dark navy that stains the Wellington horizon. They all feel drenched with blue and gold light and full of hope.

Except that, once during the afternoon, when they have eaten lunch, fresh salmon seared quickly and cooked with a slice of brie and a dash of chablis, and a salad, and soft focaccia bread
containing
whole grapes, Roberta looks up and sees a dark unease in her father’s eyes, as if he can see into the future. This frightens her because she knows that sometimes he does. She looks across at her mother. Something about Edith, sitting in the sunshine, makes her think of a buttery-coloured frog. Beneath the weathered skin lies a pallor as if she is recovering from an illness, which, in a sense, she is. Hers is a chronic ailment.

Later, Roberta opens the bathroom door and finds Fay sitting on the edge of the bath. Her air-brushed, permanently suntanned mother-in-law, arms laden with gold bangles, is crying. Roberta supposes this is the effect of Edith’s gin, and that Fay is not used to
it in such quantity. When she looks up at Roberta, her face is ugly with grief, but Roberta is mature enough to know that women have regrets as they grow older, regrets that can catch up with them in unexpected moments and go away as quickly as they have come.

In the evening, a sudden storm from the south whips itself up into a frenzy and she and Paul lie in bed with their arms wrapped around each other and listen to the rain and say what a good day it has been.

As Glass and Edith drive home over the hills towards Walnut, the air is thinning with cold, and on the other side, away from the wind, frost settles on the roofs of barns and sheds.

ROBERTA

A
LL MY
LIFE
, I have felt like a person on the move. In all my dreams I am moving.

When I was a child I was a gymnast, my body perfectly tuned to perform on the beam, hovering over space with immaculate poise. It is as close to flying as I will ever come, my body like a machine or an instrument, with an infinite capacity that I was always testing. My medals still cover the wall of my old room at the farm I now think of as home, the place where I grew up from the time I was a small child.

Before that, my mother roamed over one or other of the farms we lived on, across the wide Waikato Plains, holding me buttoned under a man’s rough jacket and singing to me as she worked. I’m not sure whether I recall these details exactly, but my mother described it to me once, and I believe I remember. She told me in one of the rare moments when she sought to be close to me, and, I think, at the time, I pretended not to hear her. Or perhaps my father came in and distracted us. There is a certain violence in his eyes which I find quite beautiful and compelling, and so does she. But there is a memory of ineffable joy which comes to me
sometimes
in the middle of the night when I’m lying awake beside Paul, and I suppose it is this that I’m remembering. Tonight I can’t sleep, and I wake him to ask him what he thinks, whether this beating wing of happiness in my heart is memory. I wouldn’t do this as a rule, but I’ve been thinking about today. Already the baby has
created
a host of new sensations, which are crowding in on me, and I wonder if they have already begun to change my perception of the past.

‘You’re supposed to know how people feel,’ I say. Paul has a degree in psychology. He is what’s described as a human resource consultant, meaning he hires and fires people for his company. Communication and skills are his business.

‘Go back to sleep,’ he groans.

‘Interpret their innermost thoughts.’

‘You’re feeling inadequate again, Roberta,’ he says. ‘Can’t we talk about it in the morning?’

‘Why do you say that? Who says I feel inadequate?’ I have a half-finished degree in accountancy, which is the only specific thing I might feel dissatisfied about, and that’s only temporary, because one day I’m sure I’ll finish it. I work as a data processor in the tax department.

‘What’s the matter? Have you had a bad dream?’ His skin is rumpled round his eyes like a premonition of age and I feel remorseful for waking him up. Paul has a shock of brown hair and slightly prominent upper teeth which give him interesting hollows in his cheeks.

‘What will it take to put you back to sleep?’ he asks, placing his hand gently on my stomach, letting me know that he
understands
why I’m restless. ‘Roberta, honey, I’m really tired. We’ve both got to go to work in the morning.’

‘I just can’t stop thinking.’

‘I can’t stand thinking at two o’ clock in the morning.’ He puts the light out.

‘Paul,’ I say, quietly in the dark. ‘D’you reckon I’ll be a good mother?’ For this is what I need to know so badly. The trouble is, I don’t know exactly what it means. I’m thinking about Edith and Fay, and neither measures up as the role model I’m seeking, though I can’t explain why. My mother can’t be so bad; I am her obedient child, and so far I have not done too badly in the world.

Paul is asleep already; it’s a trait I envy in him, this ability to drop straight into oblivion. I try to lie very still, staring up at the glimmering dark of the ceiling. I’ll come to think of this moment, like the day that has gone before, as part of something nameless. Nobody knows what the most unforgivable act in the world is until they have done it. In the end, I will have to name it.

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