Saturday short story: Hayfever, by Alice Tawhai
"Each time she held her lighter underneath the pipe and sucked the smoke into the back of her throat, the promise was there": a New Zealand tragedy by Alice Tawhai.
George had put Baby Girl to bed the night before, and had given her kisses, and said, “now don’t you bloody get up.” But of course when the morning stretched in, all blue and early, she did. Her mother Hana was already asleep. She had gotten tired a few hours before. Her body had been sleepy for a long time, but she hadn’t actually slept for days, because her mind had been so wired. It didn’t come to rest until the sun started to rise like a golden yellow helium balloon, and the string of her consciousness slipped through her fingers. George was looking at the sun from the same bed; which was still unrumpled by sleep at that point. He turned his head away because it was burning his eye sockets out, and his melting eyeballs were trickling down his cheeks.
Baby Girl tried to talk to George, but he didn’t hear. And Hana had the weight of several days sleep on her. Her skin showed the shadows of tunnels beneath the surface, and Baby Girl wondered what was burrowing underneath her mother’s face; entering through the scabs Hana had picked on her own cheeks with her short ragged fingernails.
Cat was awake with her, and seemed to notice her, tracing figure eights lying on their side as he smoodged around and through her legs. Cat was fat. Baby Girl spoke to Cat, because Cat spoke back. “I can’t reach the cornflakes,” she said. “I can’t reach anything. I’m hungry.” “Same as last week then,” said Cat. “You need to go out and find breakfast somewhere else.” Sometimes Hana would look quickly over her shoulder and ask who Baby Girl was talking to, and Baby Girl would point to Cat, but Cat was always gone. Hana and George never saw him. Baby Girl remembered a time when Cat had broken something on Hana’s dressing table, and Hana growled her instead.
She had to climb up onto a chair to open the door. Cat helped her with encouraging words so that she wasn’t scared when she wobbled. Eventually, the door swung outwards. Her father’s big silver and blue helium shark balloon, the special one that he had a remote control for, was sucked out of the hallway and out of the house by a draught; as if the big world outside had pulled the house inside out and was trying to swallow its contents. Baby Girl scrambled down from the chair in a hurry. George was not going to be pleased when he found out. She knew that her father and his mates had spent a lot of happy time in the living room that summer, getting it to swim around and around the TV. She remembered her amazement when they’d whooshed the air into it with the pump, and the flat lifeless piece of foil had swelled into what it was supposed to be, when she never thought it would.
Outside, the shark balloon was already too high for her to reach. Up there, the sky was Pixi Portrait blue, and the clouds were the same curly lamb’s wool white as her memory of the hair of another girl who used to go to Kindy with her. Baby Girl couldn’t remember the girl’s name now, because she no longer needed it. Kindy was at the last place they stayed. Now they stayed in a cottage not far from the sea, and she didn’t go to Kindy at all. She turned back to look at their house. It had no fence; it was just a cottage on the grass with no boundaries or edges. Despite the daylight, the windows glinted with escaping electric light, because every bulb in the house was on, including the one in Hana and George’s room. Hana switched them on compulsively, finding the light comforting. Only Baby Girl’s own window was blank and dark, because her mother had borrowed the glass bulb when her pipe was lost.
Hana had thought having a baby, a child that belonged to her, would stop all those days when she felt as if she was underwater and she just wanted to go back to bed and sleep, or not get up at all. But when they placed Baby Girl in her arms at the Maternity Hospital, she had taken one look at her and burst into tears. And from then on, each day had weighed her down more and more. So when she’d had her first pipe, and all of that was cancelled out, she’d felt fantastic. Blue became the colour of summer skies, not the colour of drowning. The hot wet tears that rushed through her veins, and left an ache in her heart and at the tips of her fingers, stopped coming.
It didn’t last of course. Each time after that was a little less wonderful than the last. Now, she still found that getting on the burns gave her plenty of energy, but being happy was something she aspired to, rather than something she achieved. She was paranoid, anxious, and worse than ever when she couldn’t get it. But each time she held her lighter underneath the pipe and sucked the smoke into the back of her throat, the promise was there. The promise of reclaiming that time when it was all new. The key was surely more, more often, or better purity.
Outside, a plane flew across the sky. It flew towards the biggest cloud, and when it reached it, it disappeared as if it had been erased out of a drawing. It reminded Baby Girl of Cat. Sometimes bits of him were rubbed out in the same way, as if they had grown misty, and she could see right through him where his tail or his fat stomach should have been. Baby Girl walked down the road. The sea was in the distance, like a pale blue pond, smelling of salt. Sometimes Hana took her swimming with her, holding her in her arms out deep. So she knew that even though it seemed calm on the surface, underneath yellow brown ribbons of kelp would be swaying back and forth with the rocking of the water. Baby Girl’s nose started to run. She wiped it with the back of her hand.
Hana was still deep under sleep. Next to her, George was locked inside himself. He often dropped a trip at the beginning of his days off. He couldn’t afford to smoke weed, or to have meth in his system, because they drug tested at his job. Working on the rigs was good money, and they needed it with Hana’s habit. George was a giant or a man. He could absorb a lot. He dwarfed Hana and towered over Baby Girl. When people saw him in the street, they stopped and stared at him, and drew each other’s attention to his height. He could take care of himself, but it was hard taking care of Hana.
Baby Girl used her sleeve, but her nose kept running. Hayfever. She hated it, but she was used to it. At home, when it came, she sneaked into the kitchen and opened the door of the freezer compartment of the fridge, which was down at her level. She would sit with her face towards the cold that escaped from the wall of ice speckled with opal blue; sapphire blue. It helped to calm the stinging behind the bridge of her nose and the pain behind her eyes.
Now, she lingered under a dogwood tree, with its flowers lying against its branches like small plates. Her blue eyes were too big for her small face, and her sparse golden hair stood on end. A minute ago, in the sunshine, it had been almost invisible when the light shone through it. Cat had disappeared entirely, and there was no one to talk to. She knew he had gone because she could feel the absence of his presence. Walking again, she set off to find him again. It was already hot, and the sun was burny on her skin. She headed towards the dairy. It was always open; early or late. Baby Girl thought she saw Cat’s paws walking from right to left behind the space underneath the yellow, white and blue plastic strips hanging in the doorway to beat the flies, but when she got inside the dairy, there were only shadows, and no sign of him. There was a solitary blue bottle fly in there that had beaten the screening system, staying well out of reach in the gloom of the ceiling. Its buzzing rose above the buzzing of the air conditioning. “Don’t touch anything if you are not going to buy it,” said the woman behind the counter.
Baby Girl went to the freezer, and reached up above her head and slid the lid open. The cold air avoided her nose and went straight up towards the fly. The shopkeeper came over. She wore a light blue sari with silver and copper thread, and her hair was dyed copper except for the silver roots and a layer of black hair by her neck. “If I give you an iceblock, you have to take your snotty nose and go away,” she said. Baby Girl sucked it till her lips turned blue, and her mouth was like a beautiful shiny flower made out of jelly, with the stick protruding from the centre. She splashed sneezes onto the stick; little lemonade droplets. She felt disorientated. When she sneezed, she shut her eyes, and no light got in. Blowflies buzzed around her head, gaining power from the sun.
She saw a fat pumpkin, the same faint blue colour as distant smoke on a clear day, in a field by the road. At first she thought it was Cat curled up, but it wasn’t. Nothing every seemed to be what she wanted it to be, or what she expected it to be. She sat down again on a little mound. It was a drought summer, and the stems of the pumpkins were shrivelled, and the earth was all dry and cracked. Tiny red ants marched up her leg, like an army being deployed. They were so small that she couldn’t even see their legs. A thin, clear trail of mucus left a shiny diagonal trail across one of her cheeks as it dried. Her eyes itched, and her head felt as if it was stuffed with the lamb’s wool hair of her former kindy friend. She was still hungry, and thought about whether it would be possible to get some of the pumpkin out so that she could eat it, but she couldn’t even scratch the surface with her fingernails. Eventually, she found a stone, and tried to hack out a B for Baby Girl. The Kindy teacher at the place before had taught her a B. It came out like a figure eight lying on its side. But she couldn’t get nearly deep enough to get to the flesh.
Her nose was now pink, as if it had its own internal heat, separate to the burn of the sun. Her brain felt feverish, like her eyes. Squinting, she could see the blue and silver shark balloon further down the road, hanging lazily in the air, glinting in the shine. It looked as if it had come a bit lower. Maybe it would land, and she could take it home before George found out it was gone. Maybe there would be something to eat when she got back.
The balloon hung in the clear empty space above a scrap yard. Below it there were wheels, and bed frames and an old fridge, all heaped up in plies. Baby Girl looked upwards, but the sun got in her eyes, and the shark was higher than the cornflakes had ever been. A small fire smouldered at the edge of the yard, started by paper under glass. Dirty smoke drifted around her head. Baby Girl’s nose felt as if blue bottle flies and red ants were at war in her sinus cavities.
She climbed over some chairs with no seats left on them. Perhaps Cat was in that fridge, cooling his own nose. She had the feeling that he was somewhere near by. The door was slightly open. She couldn’t actually see Cat in its dimness, but Baby Girl heaved it open and pulled herself up and in to make sure he wasn’t hiding in one of the compartments. Just because she couldn’t see him didn’t mean he wasn’t there. Gravity creaked, and the door clicked shut behind her. The seals around the edges were still intact. She tried to push it open from the inside, but she couldn’t. No light leaked in or out.
The shark began to sail slowly away, out to sea. Baby Girl was pleased to find that Cat was with her in the fridge after all, curling up in her arms while her tears dried and her nose stopped running as she got sleepy from the lack of oxygen. The pain at the back of her nose and underneath her eyes drifted away.
It was some hours before George’s mind and body recomposed itself, and he began to wonder where Baby Girl was. Hana was still asleep, safe in the only place she was free; wound up in ribbons of golden kelp, rocking with the motion of a dreaming sea. He couldn’t find Baby Girl in the house, and that gave him a twinge of uneasiness. What would other people think if they had found her, without breakfast and without parents? He set off in search of her, with his dreads swinging and his giant strides getting longer and longer, as he navigated the diary, the pumpkin patch and finally the junk yard.
As soon as he saw the fridge, he knew. He had seen her so many times at home with the lower freezer door open, trying to cool her nose. “Close the door!” he always said, conscious of the waste of power. It was bad enough with Hana turning all the lights on. “You’re letting all the cold air out! That’s why it ices up like that!” Today, his huge body sprang across the pile of junk and rubbish as if he was a nimble cat instead of a heavy man, and he opened the door and yanked her out. He wondered briefly if this was just a bad trip, and he was actually at home, lying on the bed, hallucinating; but somehow, he knew that this was real.
He lay Baby Girl down on the ground. Her skin had a faintly bluish tinge to it, matching her lips where the juice from her iceblock had dried. The blowflies showed no respect, trying to land on her and him, but he hardly noticed them, nor the faint brush of what could have been a cat tracing a path of infinity symbols as it wove itself around his kneeling figure. And George leaned over, desperately trying to remember what he’d learned on that work First Aid course the year before; pumping thirty heart compressions to her chest for every two breaths he filled her lungs with. Trying not to break her. Desperately waiting and hoping for Baby Girl to breathe again.