The Paper House

My heart fell out on a spring morning – the kind that rose coolly in the east and set brightly in the west. I had imagined it happening, of course, given as I was to paranoia and unease, but it had come as a shock nonetheless. I lay on the empty apartment floor for hours, awaiting the tapping of her feet or the pulse of her breath, but heard only the rush of blood in my ears and shouting on the street.

It had been a long time in the planning. When we were first married, Dave took a secondment and we found ourselves in a squat house in the desert. He taught all the classes at the local school and I took phone calls at the cultural centre and in the evenings we sat together under the expanse of black and silver sky. The days were hot and long but a refrigerated truck brought ice-cream once a week and the local kids ate it with their bare feet in the  dirt.  Everything in the  desert was red; not  deep like cherries, or bright like Ferraris, but fluid and changeable. Overhead, the whir of one-person planes. Below, the ancient earth rumbled.

The town of Marree sat red and dusty on the Oodnadatta Track, near the salt plains of Lake Eyre, up through the wine region and the port towns, into the land of the Dreamtime.

It had been a roaring hub of activity when the trains were still taking supplies along the old Ghan line, but that had long since been diverted to somewhere easier, faster, more efficient. It had one main road and a general store, a cultural centre and a caravan park. And a pub, of course. Even the towns on the Track that didn’t have permanent populations all had pubs.

In the desert, morning always arrived in one moment, from dark to light without interruption from hills or sea or clouds. It was dark and then it was light. Dave and I walked and talked with our hands linked, kicking up the dirt and breathing the hot air. Derelict steam engines nudged us as we walked past – giant cicadas with unblinking eyes.

‘It’s so nice here,’ I said.

‘It’s so nice here with you,’ Dave said, in all his marriedness. The ladies at the cultural centre loved tea breaks. I went with

them to the edge of the waterhole and they told me stories about the Dreamtime and laughed with the inside of their throats. The water was always still, like glass, even when the trees around us moved in the wind. Once the tea was finished I showed them how to look for patterns  in the  leaves, and Nell rubbed my shoulder and they all gleamed with promise.

We were so newly married, so fresh to our combined life, that everything reminded us of how permanently we would be joined. In our shared car, the only late model four-wheel drive we could afford, we drove into the Red Centre and we saw ourselves there: we were the pair of jabirus with their feet in the mud; we were the endless revitalisation of the hot springs; we were the infinite hum of the salt plains.

What  plans did we have then?  Dave with his hand on my shoulder, my hip, my belly. Dave with his face between my thighs, around my neck, on my mouth. Everything with its right time, its best time. In the evenings we put our feet on our iron window frames and rolled out the first bars of ‘Graceland’ across the flat land and we were invincible because it was impossible we could be anything else.

After two years, Dave’s  secondment ended and we strode through Melbourne, red against its greyness, salt in our veins. I climbed aboard electric trains and heard the rattle of the wind in the old windows, the thud of a missing sleeper, and listened to the emphysema breath of the man asleep on my shoulder. I had breakfast on the kerb-side of an inner-city street and heard the shouts of the shoeless children, the thunder of the crop duster overhead. Every day on the train, with the dadum-dadum-dadum and the whirring of someone’s laptop and the too-loud conversa- tions, I was upright, packed, ready for the next adventure.

In the evenings I sat with Dave at our table for two by the balcony and we looked out to the streets and to the people. We watched them with their grey faces and their shiny shoes and imagined them going home to their neat houses. Their Golden Retrievers would sit beside them  as they watched the  news, expressionless. Dear,  forty people were blown  up in Afghanistan today. Dishes in the sink. That’s too bad. And look, a big sale at Harvey Norman. Missionary style please.

‘Isn’t it great that we’re not them?’ we said, and touched our feet together.

I went to my job in a tall city building, watching people with briefcases and busy faces drink their lunches from cartons. I typed words on a screen and answered the phone on my desk, and on Fridays we went to the pub for a forced happy hour. I wore a blue skirt, a pink skirt, one in black and white herringbone, and only once did I remember my mother the day she came home with her hair cut short.

‘Let’s have a baby,’ I said to Dave, while I cooked.

‘Yes, let’s have a baby,’ he said.

And then, six years after we had left the tea leaves at the water- hole, I was pregnant, and we realised we had no space for a baby.

We looked at all kinds of houses: big, new ones with columns

and render; little cottages with beaten weatherboard; a yellow brick monstrosity with a paved yard where there should have been grass. We looked in towns that lolled under a rainforest canopy, towns that  yawned at the bottom  of mountains  and towns built clumsily where mine  carts once rattled.  But  we were drawn to the rolling water. The long Victorian coastline offered seaside towns for every kind of person, whether they were the market-going type or the surfing type. We stood with the dreadlocked and salt-encrusted at Lorne, and drank lattes with the Lexus crowd at Portsea. After six weeks of looking and imagining, we ate teacakes on the western side of the peninsula and our heart stayed behind when we left.

‘That’s the place,’ I said, and Dave said, ‘That’s the place.’

If we had known, maybe we would have chosen a different house. But we stood on the hilltop and breathed the salty air and we were filled with love. It was a small place with unusual rooms, and a bull-nosed verandah in colonial green draped in a curtain of wisteria that disappeared under a haze of bees. It had white shutters and curls of worked iron. It had a name – Cabbaga – which hadn’t been on my list of criteria but which I immediately added. And the garden; a maze of established trees and crouch- ing shrubs and flowers with bees on them and the faint trickle of water. A garden in which to wander, in which to get lost. For picnics and parties. It breathed in time with me and spat me out into the afternoon air, where the sea caught on the updraft and shot through the corridors. I watched it heave and change as day became night.

The settlement took us into the perfumed spring. Knowing that the house was waiting for us made our apartment smaller and darker. Dadum-dadum-dadum. My body changed daily; a swimming, tumbling, hiccupping circus. I prodded tiny feet and the curve of her spine and she pushed against my hand with all her might. While I tried to sleep she rolled and flipped and

I knew each infinite possibility of her.

On the very last day, we went to visit Gran. I could barely squeeze myself into a seatbelt by then; it pulled tight across my belly and we laughed while I did it because I was a grotesque, indiscernible mammal.

As we drove I said to Dave, ‘She’s been very quiet today.’

‘The books said she would run out of room,’ he said, and that seemed reasonable.

We  pulled into the circular drive, past meticulous planter boxes, and waited in the pink and grey reception area, everything glossy with vinyl and lacquer. The nurse led us to the room, though we’d been a hundred times, down in the corner over- looking the lake. Gran lifted her chin to greet us, or a version of us.

‘My darling!’ she said, and her eyes were loose in their sockets.

‘Hello,’ I said. I didn’t say Hello Gran. They had told me not to, that it might upset her. I hugged her and my belly was a hard obstacle between us. She rubbed her silken hands over it, warm through my shirt.

‘We’re going to have a baby,’ she said.

‘Yes, we are.’

‘I can’t believe it, Shelley. I’m too young to be a grandmother!’ And her hands went around again, her hands on the body she thought was my mother’s. The still and silent body, where the baby had run out of room.

Later on we took sandwiches across the lawn to the spot we always went, underneath the magnolia tree where there was a white picnic table. The day was cool. The air scraped on our skin.

‘Shelley,’  she said, with sandwich crumbs falling from her mouth, ‘let me feel the baby kicking.’ I pulled her hand to my round and swollen body. ‘I can’t feel it.’

‘That’s normal,’ I said. ‘She’s running out of room.’

We waited, Gran looking up at me with her eyes wide.

‘Was that it?’ she said. ‘I felt a bump.’

And maybe it was, but on the way home Dave said to me, ‘If you’re still worried in the morning, we can get her checked out.’ and I waited for the tremble of knees but there was nothing.

So we went, in the morning, to the hospital. The maternity ward was full and they couldn’t help us right away. Dave and I sat in adjoining vinyl chairs, and the TV in the corner played infomercials. Time passed in the maternity ward as it did in a casino, fluorescent and artificial, and after an hour or six hours, the  nurse returned  and  attached  a band  around  my middle.

‘It’s called a non-stress test,’ she said. ‘When you feel the baby kicking, press the button.’

She came back after the morning news, a smear of blood across her forehead. ‘Sorry, Heather. It’s chaos here today.’ She pulled a strip of paper from the machine and looked at it. Dave looked at it. I looked at it.

‘What does it mean?’ Dave said.

The nurse turned to me. ‘How many times have you pressed the button?’ she said.

‘None,’ I said.

Everything moved, except her. The hospital moved around me and I moved inside the hospital until we were spinning in concentric circles and the midday movie was playing somewhere far away, somewhere I wasn’t.

The nurse called my name, and I pretended it was someone else’s  name until a minute had passed and I had to go. Dave went too, walked with his arm around me, which was a bad idea because I could hear the panic churning in his bone marrow and I wanted to run from the radiology department but equally I didn’t want to rupture and die in the hallway.

We walked for a hundred years. I listened to the people in the wards, at the beginnings of their lives and the endings of their lives and the parts of their lives that don’t have time attributions.

At the end of the hallway we went into an ultrasound room and my body climbed out of the window and I stood there naked, just the torn and bruised shreds of my uterus in the blue room.

The doctor came in and I lay my uterus down on the bench and she ran the machine over the top of it, but I already knew, and we already knew, and I put my hand to the purple organ crying on the bench and it sighed and wept against my skin. Dave stood in the corner and watched the screen and he knew it last of all, when the doctor pointed at the white smudge where the baby was and said, ‘I’m sorry.’

All the breath went out of the room in a second and I heard it rush back up the hallway and back to the waiting room and back to the home with Gran looking up at me. Dave squeezed my hand and the doctor left the room and we sat with my defunct womb between us and I cried and he cried, and we were both sitting in the blue room, crying. I called out the window for my body to come back so we could go home, but it was standing on the riverbank watching the storm come in.


The doctors said I might bleed out at any time so they installed me in a bed with plastic sheets. I sat in limbo in the nighttime. A nurse came by periodically; later, a different nurse. Dave touched me as though hunting for an off switch, frequently and without tenderness. His face was drawn.

When  night  had slipped away the hospital moved around us. Women  arrived with their fat bellies and left with their frog-legged babies and the currency was yellow lilies and bursts of sunflowers and glittering foil balloons from the gift shop. From the starched sheets of my own small room I watched them learn from the new faces in front of them: What does that cry mean? Are you tired? hungry? dirty? They pulled and poked at their fleshy miniatures, their rolling legs and tight fists and, when they had by chance touched on the cause of all the tears, the women laughed. They laughed with their throats and their eyes.

I tried to learn the same way. Are you windy? bored? cold? But there was no way to know. There was just my heartbeat. Only mine.

The doctor, who had a nice white moustache and a voice like dark coffee, pushed up his glasses and said, We’re going to do the surgery at eleven,  you’ ll be fine,  with rehearsed sympathy. And then he continued on his rounds, leaving Dave to collect me as I crumbled like a sandcastle to the ground.

I  didn’t  move, burdened  as I  was by this  slick of grief. I communicated in low grunts and shuddering sobs. My body became the gnomon to my sundial, and I watched the shadows pass across my bed, just waiting. I listened to the ease of Dave’s breath, the gentle rhythm of his shoulders, and pressed my cheek against his flushed skin until the memory was burned in: the last time we would be together this way, still minutely hopeful, still able to believe it might be different. He pushed his fingers through my hair.

‘Can I get you anything?’ Dave said.

I knew the correct answers: ‘Nothing’, ‘I’m fine’, ‘Just a glass of water’. My voice was not in my throat; it had dropped down to my ankles and they throbbed with the words that I couldn’t force out, words that I saw reflected in his stoicism, Please give me back my baby.

‘No,’ I said. It was ten-thirty. A nurse with pink skin hovered in the doorway. Babies cried. I cried.

‘Heather,’ Dave said. And in the moments that followed I saw my life stretching out ahead of me, the expanse of childlessness, everything relative to this day, numbered in days since and years since and the hour of my very old age when I might sit in a bed just like this one and think, Sixty-three years having never learned a single thing more about you than what I know right now. And I clung to that man with the tired black eyes and I wished but still the nurse said

It’s time to go

and Dave had to wait behind.

When I emerged later – anaesthetic blurred, stitched, taped – he ate my tray of grey sludge and we sat at the edges of the world and watched it pass between us.

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