I pulled my laces tight. Before I moved to Herston the clean, black joggers sat peaceful in a box, tucked snug in crepe paper at the bottom of David’s side of the wardrobe. They fit snug, and women’s joggers at the shops were always so lurid and obnoxious. He wouldn’t have noticed that they were gone.
Daylight sank towards the earth leaving the sky dull and heavy, propped up like a bedsheet cubby house by streetlights that always switched on too early. I jogged out to the main road toward the larger campus, leaving behind the medical school where I studied. The bottle-green windows of its newest building glowed through a jumbled pageant of paper bark tree silhouettes. The night was warm and it pressed gently against my skin. I quickened my pace. The shoes were beginning to rub and my body was beginning to ache, but I kept on. Through buildings and the smell of wet cement, and coffee dregs congealing at the bottom of garbage bins. I took stairwells three steps at a time mostly for the momentum, but also because bushes would rustle. I reached the highest point on campus and the lights of the city danced in my peripheries. It’s okay, I thought. They’ll be late.
I plodded through streets lined with sad little trees. Apprehensive possums clasped their branches, their claws like a baby’s hand on a father’s thumb. People watched me from their verandahs. Every time I walked this way I would make sure to pass the nicer houses. There was an open plan mini-mansion where I could see straight through the massive pane of the living room window. The first time I’d seen it, it had felt to me as if I’d stumbled into an inexplicable cross-section of the lives of the people living inside. I could see the kitchen and through to the bedroom-lined hallways. The lights inside were switched off but there was still an afterglow, or at least the feeling of one. It came from the gaps beneath the bedroom doors, and I imagined it leaking across the floor like syrup. Owned homes were a bizarre novelty in a university suburb where the median age was something like twenty-three.
When I got out of the shower I gave the bathroom a wipe-over, and then the kitchen. I rearranged some pillows on the couch in the entryway where he would put her bags. The house had wooden floors and good bones. When humidity and age caused the ceilings to droop, the rent dropped. It was enough incentive to sign the lease for another six months, even though there were places closer to campus. I changed into a button-up dress, tucked my hair into a knot at the nape of my neck, and sat in the green velvet rocking chair on my front verandah to wait for them. My Aunt Pauline had given it to me before she died. I used to sit in the chair tucked in the warmth of her dressing gown, sometimes with her and sometimes alone. Sometimes we’d rock together until we both fell asleep. I remembered her taking my child hand and placing it on her pale skin, in the space between her clavicle and areola. The lump I’d felt there, floating below the surface, had been the size of a grape.
I closed my eyes until I heard the sound of his Camry pull into the driveway. I kept them closed a little longer, and when I opened them David was standing at the passenger window. Madison had her hand pressed down on the lock so he couldn’t open the door. He coaxed her, his voice hushed but assertive. She wouldn’t budge, so he opened the back door, adjusted the seat and grabbed her under the arms. I wondered what we’d do when she grew too big to be pulled from her safe place. I had to remind myself that nobody grows too big for that.
David and I had been trying for the daughter he wanted before I applied for med school and our marriage untangled into nothing. It had made me think for the first time in years of my baby sister, who never made it out of the hospital. My mother had kept her ashes in a jade urn in my bedroom when I was a child. She would tell guests that my sister was watching over me when I slept, though she knew that sleeping below the ashes of the sibling I’d never have would only ever give me the terrors. My mother and I shared nightmares about death, and they were the only secrets ever kept between us. I knew Mum had problems with her health, but I’d never find out what they were until something got the best of her.
Madison had grown, learned to walk and said her first word: Dadda. She had never once let me hold her without crying and struggling free. Standing behind David, she watched me under his arm, her little brown eyes wet and swollen from crying. She reminded me of Mum. David rested Madison’s rucksack against the railings, took out his phone and looked at it for a few moments before addressing me.
‘Holidays are over, so she’s got school this week,’ he said, ruffling her short hair.
‘So do I,’ I said.
‘It’s just for a few days, Ab.’
Madison slipped from behind him and ran into the house, David’s eyes following her. His pale skin looked paler in the light of the entrance, and the sad little sags in the corners of his mouth were getting saggier. I wondered how I looked, to him.
‘She’ll keep to herself,’ he said.
‘Coming in?’ I asked.
I walked into the house and put the kettle on the stove. I made two cups of chamomile and dolloped honey and a dash of cold water in Madison’s, the way David had told me she liked it. She had locked herself in the bathroom; I had heard the latch click from the verandah. Standing in the pool of light seeping from under the bathroom door, I imagined another mother somewhere, reading to her Madison in bed and sharing eskimo kisses. I knocked and called to her, the girl who was my daughter.
Image: Rodion Kutsaev
Grace McCarter is a Brisbane-based writer and design studio assistant with a BFA in Creative and Professional Writing from QUT. She has written for Stilts, FourThousand and Celapene Press, and was the recipient of the 2015 SLQ Young Writers Award. She tweets at @GraceMcCarter.