For Charlotte Perkins Gilman.
Isla and Frederich were expecting a baby when they finally moved into a small house of their own, free of the squalling and messing of housemates who refused to grow up or give in. It was a little house with two tiny bedrooms, a kitchen with space for hanging garlic and saucepans and a courtyard thick with ivy. Isla asked her tummy and the baby curled inside what they thought of the little house as they stood there, an almost family, at the empty inspection. The baby had kicked out at that question, the first kick from the inside Isla had ever felt, and they knew then that it was the house for them.
Since Frederich had known her, Isla had grown her hair long and knotted—blonde hair with strands of silver. She had told him on their first date that the silver strands had started appearing when she was just fourteen years old, and that her mother had told her it was because she was a witch, and the most important kind of witch as well: one who has the wisdom to be good as well as evil. Frederich had been enraptured with Isla and her knotted blanket of hair, and the idea of Isla being a witch made his pelvis ache. The day they moved into their own little house Isla went to the supermarket and came back with a bob cut. Frederich had to remind himself to smile, and as they fucked in the new bedroom that night he had nothing to cover his chest with, nothing to chew on or pull at. She looked younger above him and he had to rub his eyes before his orgasm. Isla seemed happy with the cut, and cupped her stomach gently as she rocked.
Having lived in the small rooms of tall sharehouses for all their years together, Isla and Frederich did not have much furniture. To save money, Isla had fashioned them a bookshelf made of red bricks and something old and broken from Freedom Furniture, and their bedside table was an upside down canary cage draped in a Venetian hotel curtain Isla had liked so much she had taken it with them when they checked out. Their bed was a perfumed mattress on the floor that Isla had lifted slightly with short piles of books they no longer read, and they did not own a desk. All they had ever needed was incense to hide the smell of unwashed dishes in dirty kitchens, and clean sheets. Now, it seemed to Frederich that they had been living in poverty and squalor and he could not imagine how they had coped. Isla’s humming as she walked about the empty rooms, caressing her stomach and smiling out her dimples, irritated him, and he felt that he would have to be the one to face reality—for it was so apparent now that Isla never would.
Frederich meant well. Each night as he fell off the edge of consciousness into sleep he would plan the following day, and each night the plan was to buy furniture—to spend the next day in the company of shop assistants, pretending to know about types of wood and signs of sturdiness. It was each morning that undid him. When he woke, Isla would be sitting up soft in the bed, humming and knitting, or looming towards him with fresh, hot tea and such a contentment to her face that he would feel it was not time, that he should wait until she was ready, for she was the one looking after their little baby with her juices and vitamins and womanly parts. His feelings these days were unpredictable.
Isla wasn’t a feminist. She wanted Frederich to take the lead, even though his mother pointed out that Isla only wanted him to take the lead because she knew he wanted her to want that. Frederich’s mother would have filled every room with furniture by now. Frederich knew he could tell Isla what he wanted: a normal life and something to sit on near the window, and she would happily encourage and provide. But every morning something stopped him, and they curled together on the mattress balanced on books with the heater going full and Isla’s clock radio playing AM down low and didn’t leave the house at all.
They began getting boxes of food delivered. It seemed like the best way to stay near each other which was what Frederich wanted, and Isla said she wanted too. What was in the boxes was always a surprise and led to Isla making strange soups for dinner, or spaghetti made out of giant yellow squashes. The baby talked to them now, through different kinds of kicks and ‘rumbles’, as Isla called them, when she felt the creature somersault inside her womb like a monkey. Neither asked the other why they hadn’t furnished the house, why they never left it. It was simply a relief not to have to put on a jacket, or shave. Occasionally as he dropped off into sleep, Frederich imagined the house lined with dressers and side tables, a big dark mahogany table in the centre of the dining room and a cot next to their bed, but the urgency had gone. The little house felt special, almost, with its mostly empty rooms, and Isla filled them with light, anyway.
One month before the baby was due, Frederich’s mother arrived to stay. She had not told Frederich she was coming, and ignored him when he answered the door, pushing past with a large suitcase towards the rounded, tulip-cheeked version of Isla who sat cross-legged on the floor making faux bunting out of pieces of cardboard cut from their food delivery boxes. Frederich’s mother was tall and her name was Lila, but she was similar to Isla in name only; a coarse, aggravated woman with a helmet of auburn hair, she had no time for soul searching, and he had been dreading the day she would see the unfurnished little house, for he knew she would understand it even less than he did.
“But where is all the furniture?” Lila asked Isla, as Frederich had imagined she would. Isla was at the stage in her pregnancy where words didn’t quite get through sometimes and she didn’t answer, just held Lila by her shoulders and smiled a big, wrinkle-nosed smile. It took Frederich hours to try to explain, and as he stood there, waving his arms about as if to make the place full of something, using words like “simplified”, he thought to himself that it would have been easier to fill the place with things. Sometimes possessions were more than just what they could do for you, he realised suddenly, and the spaces he could see from the living room where they stood looked so hollow that he felt like crying.
The next morning after Isla had made buttermilk pikelets and guava tea, the three set off to the nearest Ikea megastore, a place Isla stated on the way that she had never been to, and had only heard of in conversations she had not actually been a part of. Her voice was breathless as she told Lila and Frederich this, and her cheeks were painted with tiny red circles like the wife of a clown. She looked beautiful. Frederich watched her, lovingly, from the back seat of Lila’s long, narrow car and placed his hands on her shoulders to steady her. As they walked through the snake aisles of Ikea, Lila picked things she thought they should like and Isla cooed at everything. Frederich even began to enjoy himself a little, and to picture their house becoming a home. He helped Isla to pick things that were practical, as she had a tendency to enjoy frivol over ration, and they had fun together—pointing at lamps and trying out armchairs whilst Lila frowned and consulted a long list she had scrawled on the back of a faded Mitre 10 catalogue. By the time they joined one of the teeming checkout lines they had two trolleys piled with things, and Frederich’s chest tightened slightly as he listened to Isla and Lila discuss the positioning of each piece in their little house. He wanted to move forward, he did, but he wasn’t sure that Isla was ready, and there was a baby coming very soon who he didn’t even know yet.
Lila stayed for five weeks. By the time she was leaving, on a cool day that leaked sun all over the new brown and cream rug, he had grown used to her expectation, her energy like tiny birds searching for the biggest crumb. That afternoon, lying with Isla on the L-shaped couch with his head resting on her belly, was so quiet and small and safe that he felt like there should be guilt in his veins, but he was too tired to feel anything much. Isla was also silent and sleepy; she was overdue, and it had changed her personality. Where the usual Isla would have asked him if he needed anything there were pursed lips and tight eyes, and where she would normally fill a room with her happiness sat a small pile of something flat and pale. She had even suggested visiting a doctor after standing in front of the calendar for over an hour staring at the big pink circle she had made around a date that was now in the past. Frederich did not wish for either of them to have to visit a doctor just because the baby was big enough to push on something inside of Isla that changed her, momentarily, and he said “no”, for both their sakes. It seemed wiser to close her up inside the bedroom that night, tell her she should not come out until her water broke and to make her a chamber pot out of an old punch bowl covered in dancing yellow and orange flowers.
However, the baby would not come. The next day each time he went to check on Isla she was pacing, her stubby legs moving quick below her unwashed nightgown. She asked to sit in the living room, to be able to hear the birds hopping around the honey gem grevillea that stood flush and golden outside, but he thought it was best that she didn’t. Inside his head Isla was sitting in one position, crafting something brightly-coloured with her hands. He didn’t want that image becoming blurred, or slashed. He needed her constancy.
The last time he went to check on her before bed she told him the walls were bothering her. “There are bubbles of paint I want to pop in here,” she told him at the door, her hands pulling mildly at his shirt buttons. “Can I come out and sit with you? Thinking about the baby is making me lonely.” Frederich himself did not want to be distracted. He was waiting for Isla to go into labour, and had decided he would deliver the baby himself in the bedroom, watched by the yellow walls. He had read a book about helping newborns into the world and had practiced the rhythmic inhaling through nose, exhaling through mouth that was recommended when the baby was coming. Cutting the telephone cord had been easy, and Isla would likely not even remember why they had not called the midwife. Maternal amnesia would help him keep the house safe and small and quiet. She would thank him in the end.
Isla went into labour that evening. When the baby came out at five o’clock in the morning it dropped onto the rug and Frederich watched it wriggling there, mewling: a sticky limpid mess. Isla was waxy and wet and he noticed as she lay dripping on the carpet that she had ballooned around her neck and throat. Where he had once loved to kiss her there were now rolls of skin and fat. He wondered if this was just the end of pregnancy, and whether her grace would reappear. She reached for their child and he saw that her arms were plump too; ripe like sultanas in the microwave. Lying together on the floor, he picked up the baby and lay it close across her breasts. Frederich watched Isla’s cap of hair above her shoulders and saw that the strands of silver were now grey. He sat there, barely breathing, as they fed.
Image: Hauke Morgenthau
Laura McPhee-Browne is a writer and social worker from Melbourne, Australia. She is currently working on what she hopes will be her first book, a collection of ‘homage’ or ‘echo’ stories inspired by the short fiction of her favourite female writers. You can find her at https://lauramcpheebrowne.squarespace.com.