Clatter of cutlery

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Amanda is eight months pregnant with their third when three things are decided:

  • she can’t be bothered with playgroup,
  • she’s too tired for whole movies,
  • she’ll no longer cook.

They load up the car and go the wedding, though.

Confined: restless

from restraint

road-drone becomes

a mantra.

Scenery blurs dull

green as a backdrop, the same trees

overoverover.

Distance is elastic,

yet fixed by random

signposts (other cars, fallen

branches, rotting

kangaroos).

Sit in car, sit in car, sit in car.

Sit still! Keep quiet!

Sit still in the car, boys.

For five hours they are trapped in the car. All the way to Perth.

Stop the car! Amanda yells outside Armadale, knowing they’re watching as she runs into trees, tearing at branches.

Afterwards, when she clambers back in, Stu drives off as if nothing’s happened. No one speaks.

The car is newish, bought after a recent promotion. It is red, this car, and already showing signs of rust.

*

Amanda forewarned her sister about raising stressful topics.

It’s this pregnancy, she said, and her tone was hopeful, pleading.

Around Terri’s one week later – on the verandah-with-water-views – Amanda’s sister starts on the politics of desire.

Amanda sips her half glass of wine.

It’s not as if we really need men, Amanda’s sister is saying; you’re just socialised to think you do.

With high flung karate kicks, Arlen and Jack cut gravel spray from the driveway. Amanda witnesses the peppering of Stu’s car.

Be careful, boys, she says as they run out of sight. She shifts in her chair as if it’s possible to give chase.

Amanda’s sister looks up, smiling, guilty. I’ll go, she says.

Terri offers a platter of fruit, cheese and biscuits. There are watermelon crescents, pink as undercooked lamb. Amanda says no, takes another sip of wine.

Not long to go, then, says Terri.

No, says Amanda.

When is it?

Amanda’s expression is blank.

The baby?

There is laughter. Amanda caresses her bellyhump and stares at the water.

What was she thinking? Nothing. Nothing at all.

*

At playgroup there’s an organised activity, dress-ups from a thrift shop, dolls’ houses,  jigsaws, balls, bicycles and blocks.

The boys commandeer bikes.

Round and round the hall, roundandround. Clipping mat edges, mangling discarded clothes, trundling across wooden boards.

Other children cling to peripheries, look to their mothers with wideopen eyes.

Arlen! Jack! calls Amanda.

Round and round the hall, roundandround.

There’s fruit for morning tea and everyone sits in a circle while the ladies sing grace.

Thank you for the food

yum yum

thank you for the birds that sing-a-ling

thank you God

for everything. Amen.

Someone carries aloft a cake lit by two candles.

Sit still, says Amanda to Arlen and Jack, but they’re off on the bikes and the ladies haven’t begun Happy Birthday yet.

Amanda cannot move.

How much longer? the woman beside her asks.

Amanda stares.

The baby –

Oh, that, says Amanda, her voice distant. Ages, she says, or it could be soon. Whichever, the child whose birthday this is has just blown out her candles.

*

Two slabs of shop-bought vanilla sponge sandwiches with chocolate icing.

Paper plates of sliced apple and pear, peeled mandarin segments and carrot sticks, a sprinkling of sultanas on top. Cores, pith, peel, all the tooth-pocked rinds are collected in a Tupperware bowl.

Most of the children eat the icing, leave the cake.

*

Amanda lies down each afternoon while the two boys watch videos.

She forgets to go shopping.

Her hair is feathered by Kane’s sharpest scissors and streaked the silver of whisked egg whites. Amanda knows Kane’s best friend was consumed by AIDS, and Stu doesn’t like him, but it’s worth his aggro for the haircut.

She wears long-sleeved tops in crushed velvet; colours next to her skin are dulled. Eggplant rather than royal purple, muted shades of teal and sage green.

Terri sat nearby at dinner once. When she turned to speak, Amanda knew it must have been something about the children, so she nodded and smiled. There’s no need, you see, to repeat words over the clatter of cutlery.

*

Poached mushrooms and spinach on a cake of polenta, sulphur-yellow and heavy on china.  A welt of chilli in chocolate coloured sauce. Amanda held her teeth against nausea and fork tines.

Sticky coconut pie with cream. Coffee and port, and turkish delight that Amanda had been given as a gift that Christmas. Her contribution to dinner. You didn’t think she’d cook?

*

At the wedding, Amanda’s cheesecloth dress is shirred at the ankles and filled by belly. Everyone says so.

There is a problem at the service: tension grows in the too-heavy silences, ominous and sweaty.

Later they will realise it’s the father of the bride who disapproves of this marriage between first cousins. Not until the reception does he disgrace himself by letting them know what he really thinks.

How could you? screams his daughter, the bride.

*

Chicken breasts in white sauce with green lumps that could be capers or olives. A string quartet plays Mozart, Vivaldi. Waiters pour champagne.

There’s a choice of desserts. Chocolate mousse, lemon souffle or tuilles with strawberry coulis. The wedding cake’s on display but doesn’t get cut, and Amanda’s sitting rigid with indigestion.

*

An overnighter at The Boulevarde is Stu’s idea. He makes the booking and they leave the boys with his mother.

Amanda tells everyone she feels gluttonous, guilty.

Don’t be silly, they say. Go ahead, enjoy yourself before the baby comes.

Amanda takes their advice.

At the restaurant she orders prawns and scallops then discovers she has room for nothing else.

Stu finishes the wine.

When Amanda stands to leave the restaurant, thinking they’ll walk along the beach, Stu heads for their room. He gets upstairs with the paper. A tinny from the bar fridge on an armrest.

Amanda switches to the movie channel on in-house TV. It’s Basic Instinct and she climbs onto the bed.

Soon she will be under the covers.

Soon, she tells herself, Stu will finish the paper, get in beside her.

And he does. They smile at each other. Then he is asleep.

*

When she is nine months pregnant Amanda decides the baby’s dead insider her, never to be. She spends hours on the phone to her mother, cries behind a closed bedroom door.

Stu goes to the carwash.

He doesn’t care, Amanda wails to her mother.

I’ll be down straight away, darling –

But Amanda doesn’t want that on top of everything else, so she stops and acts contrite.

Her sister still comes over, though.

*

At breakfast there’s porridge steaming from the microwave for Arlen.

Too hot, he says over and over. Too hot.

Jack has Weeties that are soggy as soon as milk’s poured yet form solid mounds when left to dry.

Stu eats sliced banana on Weetbix, thick slices of toast, marmalade, coffee, says yes to another slice, reads the paper, a kiss and he’s gone.

Would you like me to cook you an egg? asks Amanda’s sister.

Amanda says no. On the table in front of her there’s rubbery gone-cold toast.

Food, thinks Amanda.

You must eat, her sister says, sounding just like their mother.

*

It’s the first cool day in March when Terri has everyone over for lunch. For symbolic reasons, she says, they’ll light the fire.

Amanda’s wearing a jumper the colour of pumice stone, her lips and eyes are grey-leached.

Watching Janice struggle to eat over the baby on her lap, Amanda thinks she’d better enjoy this lunch.

There’s a platter of potato and crabmeat salad.

Shell pasta in pumpkin sauce.

Terri has made her meatless moussaka and Janice is drinking a mocktail.

The room becomes stuffy with talk and heat and children who come and go through openshut french doors.

Of all my friends, Janice says leaning closer to Terri, I think my husband would most like to run away with Amanda.

They are eating shortbread, their mouths and fingers slick with butter.

What makes you think that? asks Terri.

Janice shrugs. Because Amanda’s an ideal, she says. Because Amanda never complains.

*

Amanda phones her sister once the contractions start. They sit and wait, drinking lemon tea until three am when Amanda decides to wake Stu and they leave for the hospital.

The baby is born at six thirty in a rush of amniotic fluid so foul the doctor says he can’t believe the monitor failed to detect stress.

It’s a boy.

Amanda stops herself thinking it’s another boy. Tries to believe gender doesn’t matter. She’s disappointed all the same.

Time I went and had the snip, says Stu, nursing their baby.

Amanda dwells on the numb, turgid drag of battered flesh.

You do that, she barks, and Stu looks up, surprised.

*

One bowl of toasted muesli served in thick brown plastic. There’s milk in a jug, silver-wrapped butter pats and plastic honey cubes.

Of course the toast is cold.

Amanda makes a face, says she’s starving.

Here you go then, love, says the woman wielding the food trolley. Her next door won’t be wanting this.

Beneath the brown plastic lid there’s a nestling of crumpets, soft, warm, golden. Nursery food.

Amanda wields a knife, slathers the lot with butter and honey and starts to eat. Only then does she notice, like some never-heard but persistent soundtrack, the screaming of her-next-door.

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