The Listening Place

On the last night, knowing every night was a last night, the musician played. No one knew he existed. He came, someone said, with the last wave. There had been over three hundred, and what each carried was ignored; some felt there were too many and argued for turning them away. Others said the end was upon everyone, three hundred more would make no difference. Sure enough, they were the last group and the old and young continued to die in the night, and on that last night, of all the last nights, the musician played.

It had been a while, he said, as he tuned the guitar. The mothers whose children were gone took the toddlers and babies, whose mothers were dead, into their laps. It didn’t matter by then. The older children sat at the front, the meagre firelight splashing their faces. The adults and the elderly sat or lay on the dead grass. Some wept. When the musician could play no more, a woman sang a song and then another and then one more. Three men stood and beat a rhythm on their thighs. Two boys danced along with the beat then sank into the clinch of wide-eyed children.

The musician played a final tune. The people clapped, some stood and some smiled. Most staggered back to their huts or blankets, others slept at the listening place, peace settling them on that last night.

In the morning the early risers dragged the dead to the pit, some were from the listening place, where music had dulled the suffering. One of the dead was the woman who sang. Others were hauled from their huts. The musician, mercifully, slept on, the guitar gathered in his arms.

When the last dead of the morning had been rolled into the pit, the last words and the keening done, the food and blankets were redistributed. A child, only ten, who had danced to the thrum of hand on thigh that last night, began to weep. A woman bent to him in comfort. ‘Who,’ said the boy, ‘will dance with me at the listening place, who will drag me to the pit if you go before me? Who will say the last words for me?’

last_night

Neo-Natal

neo-natalHe is barely ten hours old when the neo-natal retrieval team arrive. They attach him, my first-born, to an electrocardiograph, they wrap him in what looks like pliant aluminium foil, they place him in a space capsule on wheels. They turn on the oxygen. They close the lid. They will take him to the airport and to a city hospital where they will look after him. I watch him roll away from me, I listen to his heartbeat until the maternity ward’s wide doors close and he is gone.

I know as soon as he is born there is something wrong. His first cry is a mewl of complaint, not wholesome newborn outrage. His stomach retracts with each breath, he pouts ferociously and for a legitimate reason. He is born too early. ‘Why,’ the retrieval team doctor asks, ‘was he induced two weeks early?’ I want to reply, ‘Because I trust my doctor,’ but offer only this; ‘My doctor said that even though it was two weeks overdue the foetus was too small.’

I join him 24 hours later. I am re-admitted to hospital. I endure, as all postpartum women must, the tedium of having my weight, height, blood pressure and other details recorded yet again. Finally, I visit the neo-natal intensive care suite. They have tied down my baby’s arms. A tube sprouts from his chest, just above his midget heart. He cries but I cannot hear him; another tube is threaded down his throat. ‘We have to restrain his arms, he keeps pulling at his tubes,’ the dark-haired nurse says. ‘He’s the biggest bub here at the moment. His lungs aren’t quite developed yet, but he’s a fighter.’ I am too easily read; she pauses then says, ‘It’s okay. You can touch him. Talk to him. He’ll recognise your voice.’

Later, exhausted, I sleep and dream. I take my baby to a staff meeting. My work mates are polite, they smile but we must work; there is no time to praise my newborn. There is only one place I can put my baby; an empty aquarium. I lower him into the glass casket and he sleeps. I contribute to the meeting, I watch him through the glass but the aquarium fills with water. His blankets are soaked, the water rises, the wet swaddling drags him under.

I wake before I can reach him.

Two hours later a doctor from the neo-natal unit walks into my room. My baby is fine, she says. The clip board with his medical details are her shield, a black pen her sword. ‘Tomorrow,’ she says, ‘we will try to feed him through a tube, one millilitre only of the breast milk you expressed for him. We won’t give him your milk today. There was a little problem this afternoon. Do you remember the tube that drains fluid from his lungs?’ I nod. ‘For some reason, it became blocked.’ She moves her shield so it covers her heart. ‘We had to drill a second hole in his chest and start the drainage again. There is nothing to worry about now.’

‘When,’ I ask, ‘did this happen?’ She tells me and I count the hours since I arrived at the hospital.

While I slept, my son almost drowned in his own mucus.

The Chairman

Photo: Caleb George

Everyone hoped he’d make some changes, do the right thing because Jacinta was one of the 30%: tall, attractive, well-educated and highly motivated.

‘Jacinta handled her promotion exceptionally well,’ he said finally.  ‘She did exactly what we asked. Pruned the  inefficient members of her team without too big a stir. Shifted three more staff into different departments and dealt competently with the complaints. The new work practices she introduced are spot on. I thought them unusual at the time but productivity has certainly improved.

work-practices
Photo: Jeffrey Betts

I’m going to ask her to run an in-house seminar. Outline her methods, give the department heads an idea of what’s possible. She can help them implement her ideas. Her people skills are excellent. Her entire staff attended her wedding last month, as did I. Great food and an excellent band. Yes, Jacinta Freeman, now Mrs Jacinta Walton, has served this company well.’

chairman_board
Photo Mary Whitney

The board held its collective breath. ‘So I’m positive Jacinta will understand; it’s Geoff Hardcastle’s turn, despite his recent troubles.  When your wife gives birth to twins, that makes things … difficult. But the twins are, what? A year old now? Mia Hardcastle was at Jacinta’s wedding, she was beaming, coping,  she said, really well.’ He didn’t add that Mia looked great in that low-cut dress now her figure was back, or that she told anyone who’d listen she’s looking forward to returning to work. Made a point of including him in her smile, almost winking at him. Of course, there was that unaccountable little incident when Geoff danced with the new girl from sales, but only a few people saw it. Jacinta whisked Mia off, made sure she had another coffee and extra cake and everything was fine again with no one the wiser. And Geoff? He’s solid, a good man in a scrum.

‘Yes,’ said the Chairman, ‘Geoff is on track again and deserves a break.’ And again he didn’t say what he was thinking, that Jacinta is married, probably a mother herself soon; he saw her cooing over photographs of the twins on Mia’s mobile. ‘I’m giving it to Hardcastle,’ he told the waiting board. ‘Hardcastle’s the man for the job.’

Sauce

He mustered the ingredients, fished the saucepan and measuring jug from the cupboard and the wooden spoon from the drawer, then challenged her. ‘Okay, show me how you do it.’

She warmed the butter until it was a golden puddle roosting in the bottom of the saucepan. Reducing the flame, she added the flour then turned off the gas. Her spoon was a paddle battering flour and butter to a roux.

‘The milk,’ she said, ‘is added slowly.’ She melded a bare dessertspoonful of white liquid to the flour and butter, a process repeated and repeated until the mixture became a slithery white ink.

‘This is the tricky part.’ Her left hand and wrist worked the spoon, her right gripped the pan’s handle. ‘It’s tempting, at this point, to add the milk too quickly. It’s important not to rush.’

More milk, more stirring, though the bruising had ceased. Time, he thought, it’s taking too much time. I’d be done by now.

Then it was over. The last of the milk fell into the pan. She returned the pan to the stove, reignited the flame and the stirring resumed.

‘You’ll never get a sauce from that,’ he said, ‘it’s back to the consistency of milk. You’ve made it too thin.’

She stirred, her hips swinging slightly, her breasts bedevilling the bodice of her dress, her silence a censure. It was a waste; butter, flour, milk, all wasted. He’d have to start again.

The wooden spoon circumnavigated the pan. A bulge appeared in the surface of the liquid, the discharge a sigh more than a ‘pop.’ He peered into the pan. There was a sauce, a thick, lambent creamy sauce. She lifted the coated spoon, slid her finger along its back, forged a pathway through the sauce. She turned to him, placed the sauce painted finger in her mouth, watched him as he watched her slowly withdraw it.

The spoon clattered on the bench top. She turned off the heat and walked away. ‘That’s how I do it,’ she said.

utensils

Sparks

At first only sparks, fragments of light that died and died again. Finally, despite her shuddering hands, a flicker, a glint of flame that swung wildly, spluttered then settled into something more.

‘Minuscule flame,’ she intoned , ‘stay alive, stay alive…’

A sound from beyond the night: familiar footsteps, the flood of stamping feet dislodging snow from the sole, and the door opened. Her body defended the flame but once the door shut she turned. He held a tight pyramid of dried logs in his arms. ‘It needs time to grow,’ she said, ‘before we can load one of those onto it.’ She pulled kindling toward her, fertilised the flame with it. Under her breath she repeated her prayer, ‘Stay alive, stay alive …’ this time with vigour, the energy of her words driving the flame into the farther corners of the hearth, into the frosted marrow of her bones.

They ate well that night; a small portion of the meat, some of the root vegetables. They slept warm before the hearth  while winds clawed at their door. He lay swaddled in their sleep, muttering through the dreams, ‘Stay alive, stay alive, stay alive …’