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She dreams of a bath while pregnant with Ella and they never touch except to pass keys, money or salt.
The water in this dream bath is icy and she kneels, throat arched around the tap, as if drinking from a fountain. With forearm tendons taut as strings, her dream self plunges both hands repeatedly into the iciness.
This image she carries for days like a suitcase across uneven ground; the memory leaving an ache she mistakes for the unborn child.
Big Crystal met her at Heathrow. What happened to your hair?
Really, she started, you needn’t have bothered – then stood transfixed by snow swirling beyond sliding glass doors.
Big Crystal laughed. You’ll soon get sick of that, she said.
The bath in the squat was green-tinged and air shrilled through a broken window. She could not imagine lingering in this space. Even the toilet – scaly with mineral deposits, winking brackish water – needed scrubbing. A one pound coin rested in the S-bend.
In case of emergency, said Big Crystal, laughing.
For the week she stayed, taking her bearings, they slept three or four to a bed and she made do with a flannel at the kitchen sink.
Help, she sang out to her grandmother over the phone, but not too loud. She didn’t want to hurt their feelings.
She wrote down the train details from Euston station to Shrewsbury and, by the next morning, was gone.
There were metal bars for leverage around the bath at Pearl’s place. Bird of paradise bushes surrounding the backyard dunny they named Pearl plants, and the paired frangipanis flanking the back step were Pearl trees.
Pearl had gone to a retirement village.
He was so much younger than her. He set up screenprinting equipment in the garage and his instruments filled the sleepout. Nights he spent as a roadie with his mates.
On the bathroom floor, mosaic tiles were always chilled and bit lozenge patterns into the soles of bare feet.
All summer, she wrote stories on his Brother electronic typewriter and swore over heat-seared typos.
He stayed in the garage until, at the first sign of even a faint sea breeze, the rolla-door trundled open to reveal rows of finished T-shirts seemingly bloodied and raw as wounds.
They’re very good, she said. Band names she barely recognised.
He smiled as they shared a beer on the back steps. His thigh against hers.
Beneath a bare limb of one frangipani tree, he leaned over to kiss her. She was surprised to see, beyond his ear, a pouting bud and could not determine if it would form a leaf or flower.
In the bath with all the other girls, she fights for a share of the soap.
Already the bathmat is squelchy with slipslop overflow and the room is speared with shrieks.
When Jackie’s bearded brother enters, sharper screams erupt, and the girls cover their concave chests.
Get out of there, yells Jackie’s Mum, and the brother cackles all the way down the landing.
Should have seen them, he is saying, like they’ve got anything worth a look.
Leave them alone, says Jackie’s Mum.
Where’s your Mum gone, then? someone asks.
To see my Dad, she says.
Where’s your Dad?
The other girls stare.
She wonders if her Mum will remember to come and get her, take her back home.
In the bath, suddenly it’s changed, no longer one of them, she can only watch as the girls lather up each other’s hair and chatter in posh voices.
I’ll have mine with more height to it than last time, says Jackie.
Jackie is peering at her reflection in the tap. Much better, dear. Hubby will be pleased.
Their bathroom was being done over in cedar and, what with the gaps around the bottom where skirting was meant to be, she couldn’t leave Ella on the floor.
I’ll look after her, he said. Go on – take a shower.
The plumber was supposed to come at eight, so they’d have no water for the rest of the day. She’d already done the dishes, filled a kettle.
Thinking through the list of things to be finished, she couldn’t recall whether the hair she was rinsing had been conditioned.
And the plumber’s here any minute, she told herself, conditioning again, but quickly to get back to Ella so he could leave for work.
Water beaded on the new cedar panelling and she sponged down the bath surrounds like he’d instructed.
It was his idea, this bathroom makeover.
What about the cedar? he asked not long after visiting friends in the hills who’d built a sauna out in the middle of their bush block.
The smell was potent, like crushed pine needles.
We’ll have to seal it, though, the cedar, he’d said. Make sure it doesn’t go mouldy.
Wiping down the grainy wood panels, she sniffed and had to admit there was no trace, no scent at all.
Although the house on Vine Street is close-curtained, silent, she can see Ricky’s bike leaning against the gate.
Walking up the driveway, she realises her breathing has quickened and stops, hand on heart, to settle.
Ridiculous, she thinks, like a girl again. That was no use, it makes her giggle, and the words she summons – wife and mother – ring hollow, jar.
She will not back out.
Up the driveway, round a row of oleanders, the path leads to a back door and he calls Come in before she’s knocked.
Heard your heels, he says, and she knows it’s alright; knows from the way he’s looking at her.
Her step-father fills the bath with water that’s heated on the stove. Four pans, all of them going at once, and still it takes an age.
Where’s Mum? she asks, and he tells her again about the hospital, a burst appendix, and she knows it’s all lies since Aunty Yvonne let slip about the pregnancy only yesterday.
But what about my sister? she wants to say, knows she can’t. She likes the idea of a baby, someone to play with. Even a brother might work out.
Her step-father gets her to lean forward so he can tip warm water across her back. Their breath mists in the bathroom, and she’s covered in goosebumps.
I’ll do it, she says, holding stomach muscles rigid. I’ll do it!
The bathroom door shuts softly. She’s left to wash herself.
There’s a clawfoot in Ricky’s bathroom. The bath is set in the middle of a wall, out from the corner, so you can’t shower into it, even if you wanted.
What about Ella? asks Ricky.
She’s with Mum.
Ricky shrugs. This is what I mean, you see, he says. You know what I’m really asking – don’t you want her here, with us?
She glances from the terracotta floor to the gilt framing of a full-length mirror.
Here, she thinks. Looking out the window at Ricky’s cedar-clad shed she’s reminded of the cedar that lined their bathroom. Sealed until it was scentless.
She tells Ricky that she’s always had a thing about baths, water, and that someone once told her it was regressive, this tendency, like wanting to return to the womb.
You’re avoiding my question, says Ricky.
I really have to think of Ella, she says.
Ricky nods. So you’ll bring her?
Deja-vu, she thinks.
Ricky is watching.
I’m sorry, she says. It’s this room. I can’t think straight.
She dreams of him, her husband. He’s lying back, stretched full length in a bath. His eyes are closed and, when she touches him, there’s the cool taint of white china, nothing like skin.
Wake up, she says, but his eyes stay shut.
That’s when fear wallows calm and deliberate inside.
Don’t worry, she says, more to herself than him since she’s certain they’re in a dream space.
Climbing into the bath, water disperses and, when she blankets her husband, the skin she strokes is completely dry.