White clouds scud high in a late autumn sky and a cheerful breeze teases the washing on the line.
Raine hasn’t thrown up.
She washes the breakfast dishes, makes her bed, changes the sheets in the baby’s cot, sweeps the floor.
It’s all procrastination. The good weather and not throwing up are omens, telling her today is the day to visit her in-laws. And it’s Sunday, which means Mr Greene will be home and Maggie too, to mediate if necessary.
She dresses Stevie in the navy corduroy jodhpurs and matching jumper with red teddy bears which Nana Greene bought for him. It will save Raine having to hear the woman demand to know if the clothing she willingly buys for her grandson out of (here she offers a martyred moue) her own housekeeping, isn’t good enough. Raine navigates Stevie’s short arms into his coat, buttons him up, stuffs baby paraphernalia into a string bag and packs both baby and bag into the pram. She checks her purse. Yes, she has enough for the fares.
She goes to the door and peers skywards, willing a black cloud to materialise, grow monstrous and toss down a deluge all in a moment. The blue sky holds firm. She can find no reason not to go. Apart from not wanting to suffer the frowns and muted cries, the hand held to the mouth and the fluttering eyelids her mother-in-law affects when it all becomes too much, as she moans in her cockney twang.
No. Raine has to take this step. It’s for Stevie and the un-named one.
She wriggles into her jacket and bumps the pram down the track to the bus stop under a warming sun. The magpies warble their approval.
The journey, reliant on Sunday timetables, takes an eternity. Stevie is an angel, dazzled by the range of faces which present themselves at the pram to praise his luscious black curls and red-lipped beam, before peeking sideways at Raine’s mousy locks and pale, thin cheeks to say, ‘Takes after his daddy?’ Raine assures them that yes, the baby is the spitting image of his daddy. Even her mother-in-law sees this evident truth.
The walk from the final stop along the new concrete footpath to the new timber frame house in the new suburb is too short. Raine’s feet grow heavier with each step. She shouldn’t have come. It will be awful.
Maybe they won’t be home. Maybe they’re enjoying the sunny Sunday with a drive in the hills in Mr Greene’s barely second-hand Ford Prefect, twisting their leisurely way up the road with a trail of similarly blessed car owners chugging behind them.
Raine reaches the house. Two young pencil pines are journeying up the wrought iron arch framing the driveway entrance. The wrought iron gates are closed, the gleaming Ford Prefect perched on the gravelled drive within. She pushes the pram along to the narrower gate, the one for mere foot traffic. The fledgling lawn struggles in the recent heavy wetness which hasn’t troubled the pink primroses, violet pansies and blue forget-me-nots bordering the crazy-paved path. A red-capped dwarf fishes in a round, white-pebbled pond.
Raine compares the colourful picture with her own garden, neglected since the summer. Thank goodness it’s she who’s doing the visiting, not the Greenes coming to her.
Maggie answers the summon of the door chimes.
Her sister-in-law’s genuine joy sends Raine’s dread clunking earthwards, relief see-sawing high. For now.
‘And my favourite nephew!’ Maggie swoops to the pram, clucking and cooing.
Stevie giggles, holds out his arms.
‘C’mon, tiger, come to Aunt Maggie. Have you been a good boy?’ Maggie sets the baby on her generous hip and waltzes him into the hall, calling cheerfully – as if it is always thus – ‘Guess who’s here? Put the kettle on, Ma.’
Raine leaves the pram on the porch, takes her handbag and the bag of baby stuff and shuffles after her son and sister-in-law. The two of them wear twin grins beneath their matching black curls. Maggie reaches the kitchen. Mrs Greene exclaims, ‘My Stevie!’ and Maggie says, ‘Here’s Nana and there – see – is Papa.’ A pause. ‘Okay, you take him and I’ll make the tea.’ Mrs Greene takes over the cooing and clucking.
Raine is superfluous. A sandpit at the beach. An icebox in the Antarctic. She wrinkles her nose. A spare dick at a wedding. Ha! She should say that one out loud, in the kitchen.
‘There you are, Raine.’ Tall, greying Mr Greene strides through the kitchen door to meet Raine halfway. He holds out his long arms and Raine walks into them.
For a moment she lets herself rest her head on his chest, breathing in pipe smoke and old cardigan. Memories of Pop holding her close while urging her to be brave about whatever current fear Raine held, tickle her eyelids. She draws back, crinkles the corners of her eyes. ‘How are you?’ she says.
‘Good, good, considering.’ Mr Greene offers a quick headshake in denial of his words. He takes hold of Raine’s arm and guides her to the kitchen.
Raine is a reluctant miniature liner being coaxed into an enemy port by an oversized tug boat.
‘You, Raine? We haven’t seen you …’
No, they haven’t seen or heard from Raine since they dealt with the telegram and its contents. They haven’t come to her, she hasn’t come to them.
‘It’s been difficult to get away, with Stevie and …’ Raine excuses her own side of this not seeing business.
They’ve reached the kitchen. Stevie bounces on his nana’s capacious knees, which makes her burgundy skirt ride up to exhibit full, stockinged calves. Mrs Greene grasps the baby’s arms, clapping his hands, grinning into his face. Stevie squeals his happiness. The kitchen smells of Sunday roast and cigarettes.
The kettle shrieks its ultimatum and Maggie picks it up from the gas stove before it blows its spout skyward. ‘Sit down, Raine, sit down.’ She waves at the table and turns back to pour boiling water into the family-size teapot.
Mr Greene pulls a chair out and takes his own paterfamilias seat at the end of the chrome and laminate table. Mrs Greene tosses her daughter-in-law a sideways look and goes back to baby-bouncing.
‘Do we have biscuits, Ma?’ Maggie opens a pink cupboard door, exposing boxes of cereal, porridge, tea and flour.
‘Not there. There.’ Mrs Greene flutters a short-fingered hand and Maggie bends to the correct pink cupboard.
‘Here we go.’ She pulls out a packet of milk arrowroot biscuits. ‘Stevie adores these, don’t you, baby boy?’ She rips open the end and hands the creamy brown oval to Stevie. He clamps it in his hand and shoves it into his mouth in a good imitation of the starving European refugees featured on newsreels after the war.
Raine waits …
‘Mummy not feeding you?’ Mrs Greene’s tone is acidic. She prises the biscuit from Stevie’s fist, breaks it in two and gives back the partially chewed portion before Stevie grumbles.
‘Stevie’s doing well, Raine.’ Mr Greene’s intercession is ignored by his wife.
‘He’s the most beautiful babe in the whole of the state, no the whole of Australia, no the whole of the world!’ Maggie sings. She rattles a teacup and saucer onto the table beside Raine and turns to pour other teas.
‘How have you been, Raine?’ Mr Greene asks a second time.
Raine stares into her tea. No point dilly-dallying. She lifts her head to meet her father-in-law’s hazel eyes. Their kindness is clear, despite skulking below heavy brows.
The only sound comes from the tap of the saucer against laminate as Maggie sets a teacup at her father’s elbow.
There are no claps of delight at this family extension. Raine’s stomach churns. She shouldn’t have come, shouldn’t have told them.
‘It must have happened just before …’ She stops. They don’t need, or want, the technicalities. She finds another way. ‘Due in November, middle of November.’
Maggie rallies first. ‘That means …’
‘It doesn’t mean anything.’ Raine glares at Maggie. She’s not going the same route twice.
‘How can we help?’ Mr Greene asks.
His hand reaches for Raine’s, lies warm on top of hers. She stiffens her fingers and Mr Greene tightens his grip, gently. Don’t throw me off, his grip says.
‘Help?’ Mrs Greene’s thick lips quiver. ‘Help?’ She glares at Raine. ‘Is it Teddy’s?’