Wheels That Roll Straight
8 December 2009
Beep Beep Beep Beep.
I grope for the bedside clock radio.
For a moment in the early hours of this morning I’d forgotten. It was probably only for a few seconds but the worry was gone. The hazy phase of inevitable sleep. Now I’m awake it’s returned.
I feel Derek get out of bed.
‘You OK Hon?’
I open my eyes and focus on the hairy line that runs up his belly.
‘I hardly slept.’
‘Why don’t you stay in bed for longer?’
When he turns the shower on I get up. I straighten out the sheet and doona. Flip the pillows over. Then go downstairs to the main bathroom. Usually I don’t flush while the shower’s running upstairs. But this morning I do.
In the kitchen I empty the dish rack, cut three oranges in two, squeeze the juice. Then put out two cups and set the kettle to boil.
I am sitting at the table trailing my tea bag in the hot water when Derek comes down the stairs.
‘How are you feeling?’
I look at him. He’s freshly shaved, hair still wet, wearing his dark blue pants with a white shirt.
‘Tired,’ I say.
He kisses the top of my head then goes into the kitchen. I hear familiar sounds behind me—pantry door opening and closing, rattle of the cutlery drawer, kettle being poured. He comes to the table with his instant coffee and glass of orange juice.
‘Is that all you’re having?’
He nods, raises his cup to his lips. Sips. Puts the cup back down.
‘Do you want me to ring up and make the appointment?’ he asks me.
‘I’m not sure.’
He shifts the knot of his tie. He glances out the window then back at me.
‘Think about it,’ he says. ‘Have another read of the pamphlet. We can go over it again tonight.’
I can hear a faint whump outside and the high-pitched whine of an engine reversing.
‘Don’t tell my parents.’
‘Why in the world would I do that?’
‘I don’t know.’ I loop the tea bag string around the handle of my cup. ‘Don’t tell yours either.’
‘Of course I won’t. It’s our business.’
He takes a gulp of coffee. Grimaces. Switches to the juice. Then takes his cup and glass to the sink.
‘I’ve got to get going.’
‘It’s only quarter to.’
‘I know, but I have to do some paperwork I was meant to do yesterday.’
He comes over and gives my hair another peck.
‘I should be back by seven,’ he says. ‘Are you going to be OK?’
‘Yes,’ I say. ‘I’ll be busy on the mural.’
I say it without thinking.
He squeezes my shoulder then goes to the foyer and puts on his shoes.
I stand in the doorway and wave as he drives away.
I have my shower and get dressed. I look at the pamphlet lying at an angle on the table. In the same place it was dropped when we got back from Dr Phillips’ yesterday. I pick it up and walk over to the couch and sit down.
I open it and read. It involves an ultrasound, a syringe and a needle. I’m not talking about your routine vaccination needle. I’m talking about a ten centimetre long needle that goes right through your belly into your uterus. It’s to suck out some of the amniotic fluid that surrounds your baby. At the lab it’s filtered to collect the baby’s skin cells. Then the genetic analysis begins.
It’s not just about Down syndrome. They can pick up all kinds of disorders including spina bifida and cystic fibrosis. The full results can take up to three weeks to come back. Three weeks. Mini-Me would be nearly twenty-three weeks grown by then. Almost viable. The stage at which most neonatal intensive care units will try to save them.
I skip to the last heading. Potential Risks. I read over it several times. Each time seems worst than the last. Ruptured membranes, amniotic leakage, bacterial infection, inadvertent placental puncture, spontaneous miscarriage. I’d gotten the impression from medical shows that an amniocentesis is no worst than having a simple blood test. Wrong, so wrong. Whoever heard of a blood test causing your baby to die?
I place the pamphlet back on the table and go outside.
I sit on the blue bench and look out across the unmown lawn toward the wild forget-me-nots spread out at the base of the apple tree.
One in two hundred. The odds of an amniocentesis causing a miscarriage. Some people would say that’s not much. But think about it. Really. If there was a one in two hundred chance of, say, next time you had a shower of slipping over and dying, would you ever turn those taps on again?
When I’m finished crying I go back inside. I go to the nursery and start working on the mural.
Ellie’s Diary, 30 November 2009
Just tried Derek’s mobile again but it keeps going through to message bank. Can’t wait to tell him.
I went down to Knox to look for a Christmas present for him. Ended up in Wendy’s Arts and Crafts. Swear I can’t walk past that place without spending money.
I was looking at the racks of paints. Decided to get some more white just in case, even though there’s still spare in the studio. I really wanted the Rembrandt brand but got guilty on the cost.
I was hanging the tube back up when I felt it!
It was definitely there. No question this time. I know they say it’s like bubbles or butterflies, but to me it was more like a gentle poke.
I put my hands down the front of my jeans. I felt it again!
I couldn’t help it. I hopped in excitement.
When you’re about ten and you’re snooping through my stuff (You’d better not but who hasn’t as a kid?), I hope you at least read today’s entry.
The day I first felt you move.
‘Hi,’ I call back.
I hear the front door close and the shoe chest open followed by a thump.
‘Where did that pamphlet Dr Phillips gave us go?’ Derek asks a few seconds later.
He’s standing in the living area in his socks, looking at the table.
‘I’m feeling OK at the moment,’ I say. ‘Thanks for asking.’
He has the good grace to look embarrassed. He comes into the kitchen and gives me a hug. I pull away to put the salad bowl in the fridge.
‘What did you get up to today?’
‘The usual,’ I say, closing the fridge door and turning back to him. ‘Worked on the mural. Did a load of laundry. Thought about having a big needle stuck into me.’
He moves towards me again. I open the oven. A waft of heat comes out.
‘We’re having lasagne.’
I feel him watching me as I slide the casserole dish in. ‘It should be ready by eight.’ I go to the sink and start rinsing a head of broccoli under the cold tap. ‘Do you want to watch TV or read tonight?’ I ask.
He reaches over and turns the tap off. Little droplets of water sink into the florets. ‘Shouldn’t we talk about it?’
I shake the water out of the broccoli and place it on the chopping board.
‘What’s the point?’
‘What do you mean?’
‘I’m sick of talking about it.’
‘We only found out yesterday.’
‘And ever since then you won’t shut up.’
I cross over to the dining area’s French windows and look out.
‘I shouldn’t have bothered with the first trimester screening. What a waste of time!’
As soon as I say it I know what’s coming next. Another one of his clinical spiels. About how the first trimester screening gave us a base rate for Down syndrome. About how we wouldn’t know the current odds if I hadn’t had that first test.
‘I don’t want to hear about it OK,’ I say, not giving him a chance. ‘I just wish I could go back and say no to having all of these stupid tests.’
‘Honey, that doesn’t make any sense.’ I see his reflection in the window coming closer. ‘Everyone has those tests. Just because we don’t like the results doesn’t mean we can ignore them.’
I move past him and go and sit down at the table.
He joins me. He looks around. ‘What did you do with the pamphlet?’
‘I threw it out.’
He goes silent for a moment.
‘So you’ve decided then.’
I had. I thought. At least twenty times today. Sometimes yes. Sometimes no. Sometimes … ‘I’m not sure.’
‘Are you scared of the procedure?’
I am a bit. But that’s not the point.
‘Why do we have to know anyway?’ I say.
‘We don’t have to. But don’t you want to?’
‘Well. If the results came back normal then we wouldn’t have to spend the rest of the pregnancy worrying.’
‘But is it worth risking the baby just for that?’
‘The risks are low Ellie.’
‘You’ve said yourself that you’ve seen them cause miscarriages.’
His expression shifts. He runs his hand through his hair. ‘If you don’t want to go ahead that’s fine.’
I know he doesn’t really mean it. He’s just withdrawing, pretending the decision’s all mine. ‘Don’t put it all on me!’ I say. ‘It’s your baby too.’
‘I’m not putting it all on you. I just thought you’d want the amniocentesis. And now I know you don’t. And that’s OK.’
I rest my forehead on my arm which is resting on the table. ‘I don’t know what I want.’
Neither of us say anything further for a while. The fridge starts humming. I smell melting cheese.
‘We need to decide pretty soon,’ Derek says eventually.
‘I know,’ I say to the table beneath my face.
‘Should we make a list of pros and cons?’ he asks.
We’ve tried that with other things. It rarely works.
His chair scrapes. I hear the rip of paper. He sits back down. ‘OK then.’
I lift my head. He’s torn the shopping list off the pad by the phone and drawn a large cross on the blank sheet beneath with the words Pros and Cons on the top. ‘We’ll take turns,’ he says. ‘Until we run out. I’ll go first.’
He makes a one and circles it. ‘Pro. If it comes back as normal we don’t have to worry.’ He writes down two and looks at me.
I stand up to go check the oven.
‘Hon.’ He taps the chewed end of the pen on the pad.
‘OK. OK. Pro ——’
‘I don’t know if there’s any others.’
‘Yes there is.’ He starts to scribble. ‘Pro. There’s really very little risk with the procedure. Pro. It doesn’t take long to do. Pro. It hardly hurts at all. Pro. With
‘THEY’RE NOT PROS!’ I scream, sweeping the pad away with my arm.
Derek sits still. He looks at the short line of blue on the wood.
‘What do you mean?’
‘They’re not pros.’
I rub at the scraped skin the pen left on the back of my hand. I sniff. ‘That’s a list of minimised cons.’ I sniff again.
He bends over and picks the pad off the floor and puts it face down on the table.
‘OK. Let’s go by gut instincts. What do you think?’
‘What do you think?’ I say.
‘I think maybe we’re overreacting. I think that if we go ahead with the amniocentesis it will come back as normal.’
‘What if it doesn’t?’
‘We’ll talk about it then.’
‘No. That’s cheating.’
I look past his shoulder to the trees outside. We’ve danced around the pit for two days now. Funny thing is it hadn’t even been a thought when I had the first trimester screening. But now it’s for real. A one in fifty chance our baby has Down syndrome.
‘There’s no point having the test unless we know what we’d do if something’s wrong.’
The elephant is out.
I study Derek’s face. He doesn’t say anything. He’s looking out the window. At the fading light outside. He rubs his front teeth with his lips.
‘Well?’ I don’t go further. I don’t need to.
‘I used to think I’d never no matter what,’ he says. ‘But as you get older so many definites become maybes.’ Now he looks at me. ‘It would be your decision. I’d support whatever you chose.’
I get up. I need to know which way he’d lean. Not just hear a ‘Your body Your choice’ cop-out.
I ignore him and go up the stairs to the second level.
The mural in the nursery. It’s changed. Nothing’s moved from where I left it three hours ago. Not the speckled drop sheet spread out at the base of the wall. Not the mini tubs of paint sitting on the newspaper. Not the rags and cleaned brushes lying next to them. Not the large-print Peter Rabbit book clipped open on the easel.
But the charcoaled sketches on the wall. What had I been thinking?
I should have done them properly from the start. Stuck to the originals, not tried them in different poses. It would’ve been easier that way, to get their clothes and faces right. I mean look at Peter Rabbit’s jacket, its sleeves don’t even match; Tom Kitten’s playful expression is just plain creepy and as for Jemima Puddle Duck, her head’s shaped like a snake.
I pick up a stub of charcoal and roll it in my fingers. Maybe I should just paint over the whole thing and start again.
‘Honey, can I come in?’ Derek is standing in the doorframe.
He comes in. A blowfly begins bouncing off the nursery window.
‘You want me to have the amniocentesis, don’t you?’ I ask. I look at my husband. He has enough honesty not to say no, but not enough to say yes.
‘It might help.’
‘You mean help decide whether to abort our baby.’
I go over to the window and open it. The fly disappears into the warm sky.
‘It might help us to know what we’re dealing with,’ he says behind me.
‘What we’re dealing with? We’re dealing with our baby!’
I kick out at a mini tub. It hits the wall and rolls away.
I go past him and back down the stairs. I go to the couch and sit down. I close my eyes. I take some deep breaths in and out. I feel the couch sink as Derek sits on the opposite end.
I open my eyes. I don’t look at him. I stare at the glowing red standby light on the TV. What if our baby is disabled and I find it hard to love?
‘I don’t think I could,’ I say.
‘I don’t know. Maybe if it’d been much earlier. But not now. I can feel the baby kicking. I can feel it moving inside me.’
Tiny pops and hisses come from the kitchen. The lasagne will be ready soon.
‘I don’t think I could handle going to hospital. Having an anaesthetic. Then waking up and no longer feeling the baby there.’
‘Oh Hon,’ Derek says. ‘It wouldn’t be like that.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘You’re twenty weeks pregnant now. You’d have to be induced.’
‘Yes. Be given drugs to bring on labour.’
‘You mean I’d have to give birth?’
I see myself in hospital. Lying on a bed. Crying out, legs apart. Feeling the pain as I bear down. Giving birth to —— ‘You mean we’d actually see our dead baby?’
‘Yes.’ He looks away. He’s holding back.
‘Well … occasionally they take a few gasps.’
‘A few gasps? You mean they’re breathing? Do they try to save the baby?’
He looks back at me. Of course they wouldn’t. Silly me.
‘OK. That’s it. I’m not going to have an abortion so there’s no point having an amniocentesis.’
Derek nods. We sit here for a while.
The smell of lasagne’s getting stronger. I should probably go and take it out.
‘As long as you’re sure,’ he says.
‘You could still have the amniocentesis. Just because we wouldn’t abort, doesn’t mean we don’t have to know.’
Anger hits me. ‘What is your problem?’ I shout. ‘Are you deaf?’
Ellie’s Diary, 11 December 1994
Finally got a chance to sit down. It’s been a busy shift with Jill leaving the ironing (tempted to repay favour next time she’s on after me), vacuuming, and Gary messing his bed again. Robert’s still outside. Silly bugger. I can understand why he’s upset but it’s hard enough working here without him playing up.
Wish I was with Tanya and Celeste. Just got another postcard from them yesterday. Raving on about Venice. Bitches. I bet they’re just sending them to torment me. What a party animal I’ve become. Spending the summer here working full time. Still, I need the money. And the pay’s not too bad. I guess it has to be. I know the intention’s good, but are we really integrating these poor guys into the community?
After tomorrow have three days off. No plans. I need to get off my arse. Will force myself to jog around the lake twice each morning. Maybe I’ll bump into that guy Derek again.
Just checked out the window. Robert’s still sitting there. Wish he’d get out of that suit and tie, he must be so hot. But there’s no use wasting my breath. Sunday’s always suit day.
He looks so lonely. I don’t know why they don’t house him with someone else with Down syndrome. At least he’d be able to talk to them. Feel like ringing up his parents. Giving them a what for. Something like: Get your arses down here right now. You know he expects you every Sunday. Surely you can spare a measly hour a week? Yeah right. I’m full of shit. Still, it would get some of the tension off. Me that is. Robert’s been tense all day.
First it was his hair. I recombed it. Then it was a few wrinkles in his shirt sleeve. I got him to take it off and reironed it. Then it was his hair again. Then one of his black Velcro laces wouldn’t stick. Then his tie knot was too loose. Then it was too tight. Then he noticed a tiny stain on his pants’ knee. That was it.
‘I need to wash it off,’ he said, or something like that.
‘Robert, we can’t stick your suit in the washing machine,’ I tried to tell him. ‘Sarah can take it to the drycleaners tomorrow.’
‘But mumndad are coming today!’
‘They won’t notice that little spot,’ I said. I wanted to remind him that they might not even be coming but I didn’t—he was upset enough as it was.
I wiped it with a damp rag. It didn’t make any difference but I thought he’d settled down. Hah! Ten minutes or so later I was pouring out their breakfast when Robert came out of his bedroom again. He had his red parka on over his suit.
‘Where are you going?’ I asked.
‘But your workshop’s not open today.’
He went to the front door. I tried to stop him.
‘I have to go!’ he yelled.
‘Robert, you’ll wake up Gary,’ I said. ‘Why do you have to go to the bus stop?’
‘To wait for mumndad.’
‘It’s way too early,’ I said, pointing at the clock. ‘If they’re coming, they’ll drive to the house. And it won’t be before the little hand gets to the two.’ It didn’t work.
He opened the front door and walked out, slamming it behind him. He was already outside the gate by the time I caught up with him.
‘Come on,’ I said, taking his arm. ‘I’ll make you a hot chocolate with all milk and extra sugar.’
He pulled away from me and kept walking.
I ran and stood in front of him.
‘Robert, you can’t go to the bus stop.’
‘Get out of my way!’ he yelled. ‘You RETARD!’
Great. It was quarter past eight on a Sunday morning and I was standing out in the street being shouted at by somebody I was being paid to look after. To make matters worst we had an audience. A lady outside watering at number 48 and I saw the curtains of number 43 move. I bet there’ll be another complaint.
Nothing I could do though but let him yell himself out. When he finished he was crying. I wanted to give him a hug but couldn’t. It’s strictly against the rules.
It took a while to talk him back to the house. Even then he wouldn’t come in. He wanted to wait for his parents by the letterbox. Somehow he’s gotten it into his head that they’ve forgotten where he lives. We reached a compromise. At least on the porch he’s been out of the sun and I’ve been able to check on him regularly.
By then Gary had woken up and I’ve been at it ever since. Toileting, showering, dressing, feeding him his cereal. Got him on the couch in front of the TV. Usually he’s by far the most work. But today I think it’s almost been equal.
Need to go out and get Robert’s dirty snack plate and see if he wants some more water. Maybe he’ll finally be ready to come in.
It’s nearly five. His parents aren’t coming today.
21 December 2009
It’s the third consecutive day with a maximum above thirty-five degrees Celsius. The sky is hazy from smoke drifting from bushfires up north and in the hills the heat has accumulated to the point where even the flies prefer the shade.
‘You blame me, don’t you? Just admit it.’
Derek glances at me, surprised.
‘It’s not my fault! It could happen to anyone!’ I start to cry. ‘Just because I wanted to wait and now I’m too old.’
I open the glove box and get out a packet of tissues patterned with geese.
Derek slows down, then speeds up to overtake a pair of cyclists going down the winding road.
‘What brought this on?’
‘You were pressuring me to have the amniocentesis,’ I say.
He turns off the radio. He looks at me, looks back at the road, then adjusts the flow of the air-conditioning vent.
‘I wasn’t,’ he says.
‘Yes you were.’
‘I was just saying it was an option. I thought it would help us to know either way.’
‘Well it wouldn’t help me.’
We come to the intersection and turn right towards the shops.
‘This wouldn’t have happened if I was younger,’ I say.
‘We don’t know that.’
Coles comes up on the left and Derek pulls into the car park and looks for a spot.
He parks the car. I open the door and get out. The heat from the bitumen prickles my bare shins as we walk to the trolley bay. Derek tests several trolleys. He chooses one which is litter free and has wheels that roll straight.
The air inside the supermarket is cool. We pass by the silver-tinselled displays of chocolates and Christmas cakes and go to the produce section and start to pick out our fruit.
I put mangoes in a bag without checking if they have bruises. Derek goes to get cherries. He touches my shoulder when he comes back.
‘The odds are in our favour,’ he says. ‘Things will be OK.’
‘I hope so,’ I say. ‘But what if they’re not?’
My name is Suvi Mahonen and I hold a Masters in Writing and Literature from Deakin University in Australia.
I always really enjoy reading ‘Write This’ stories. I particularly liked ‘Crossing the Tracks’ by Oren Stern. I thought the protagonist’s first-person voice was very convincing and I thought he was quite compassionate in the end in his interactions with the woman he met at the tracks. I also thought it was clever how the visual image of the tracks as the setting of the story was evoked so well through dialogue.