Josie was happy to look after Christopher’s child. But not on her own.
He’d said, “Back soon, Josie girl. Two hours, tops.” But that was years ago, and she hasn’t heard from him since.
She’d had no children of her own and this one was only a freckle past a newborn when he presented him to her, wrapped in a dirty blue bunny rug. Josie knew nothing about babies, her life had been hollow of them and so many other things until she met Christopher.
The baby was called Cabbage. She laughed at the time Christopher told her, but didn’t ask if this was his real name, and the baby had no words to tell her otherwise.
Cabbage has grown like his namesake but that is where any connection ends, everything else is as normal, as much as she would know. Except he stopped talking at the same time that Christopher left, and she is too far from help to ask for it.
He’s not well, Josie thinks. She wishes Christopher was here, for what does she know about childhood illnesses?
Cabby, as she calls him, is not outside chasing the chickens or playing with his dog, Sherpie, the little white terrier he loves so much. She sees him sitting on the armchair, the one with the flock coat that’s balding in places like an old man’s head.
Josie warms some milk on the stove, taking care that it doesn’t heat so much as to spill over the pan. She pours it into Cabby’s favourite mug, cradles it in her hands, feels the warmth ease the stiffness in her fingers. “Here you are lovely boy, milk to make you feel better.”
But Cabby is no longer in the chair. Placing the mug on the table, she shouts from the back door: “Cab, Cabby.’ She smiles, it seems like she’s calling an errant taxi. She brings her hands to her face then snatches them forward to focus. They look like her grandmother’s. She touches one hand with the other, traces the wrinkles, frowns. She was only twenty-five when Christopher brought Cabby to her.
Josie walks out into the farmyard. Everything looks the same but the trees have grown tall and the ducks and chickens have gone. Stolen, she thinks. Or taken by dingos. She squints towards the horizon, sees that the night is coming, wonders if she should set some traps. Her gaze draws around the fence-line, stopping at the old magnolia tree which, in contrast to everything else, is blooming. Soft apricot flowers like coupling butterflies are tip-massing on branches otherwise as barren as the earth. A breeze tickles her hair, sending it to cover her eyes, but she pushes back its greyness with fingers thinner than her memory.
Who was she calling? She feels the residue of something not right, something to which she cannot put a thought. Her stomach feels tight and her hands are shaking. Josie calls again, but this time not a name.
“Come on, come on now.”
A black cat with a white smudge on its nose stretches out from under a rusting car-body wreck, its claws driving the sand before them. It yawns, and walks a crooked path to her. She knows this cat, but she cannot remember what to call it. It follows her into the house and begins to scratch the old armchair in a rhythmic pawing. Josie takes the cup of milk and pours it into a bowl near the front door. She sits down, wraps herself in her arms and watches the cat drinking. Tiny flicks of milk spatter the floor like dandruff.
The pictures are clearer if she shuts her eyes, but then there is always the threat of sleep from which she fears she will never wake.
She rises and takes the cup to the sink, sees a note stuck on the fridge with a purple magnet. The cat’s name is Bobby, the note says, in a scrawl that is only decipherable by its size.
“Bob-by.’ She tries the name; her voice sounds empty, the syllables robotic, like a child learning to read. The cat looks up from the plate, there is milk on its whiskers and its eyes are staring. Josie turns away, reaches into the sink and sluices water through the mug, watching it swirl down the plug hole. She sees the greasy kitchen curtain, the edge of its faltering hem stuttering in the draught. The window behind is dirty and someone has written something in the grime. She lifts the curtain and reads: Turn off the stove. She stretches a bony finger and writes her name next to it: Josie. She leans back and stares. The writing is the same.
Then she writes: Christopher.
She closes her eyes and sees an image clearer than life.
“Josie girl, you have a photogenic memory,” he once told her. She recalls laughing. “Don’t you mean a photographic memory?” “No,” he said. “Photogenic, you remember the past more beautiful than it really is. Even the dark you turn grey.”
When she met Christopher she was attracted to him in a way she found hard to set to words. He was freedom and promise wrapped in a package. But she’d stopped trying to peel back the layers when she found nothing holding the structure.
Josie wipes tears from her eyes with the back of her arm and notices she is wearing her nightdress and dressing-gown. She wonders if it is morning and she has just got up. She rummages in the drawer until she finds what she is looking for. She pulls at the material on her sleeve. She wants to write: Go and get dressed but the fabric slips and the pen only writes the first word: Go.
Christopher was the man at the corner store. She saw him every time she went there with eggs to sell or cheques to cash. She has no eggs now and a woman brings meals to her house and puts them in her freezer. She reminds Josie of her chickens. She makes funny noises in the back of her throat. The last time she came, she kept shaking her head as well.
Then people came in two cars. Josie saw them coming. She hid in the bush- scrub surrounding her farm and waited, crouched like a dingo, swirling her fingers in the red dust, making circles that spiralled to nothing.
It was dark by the time she got home, and they had gone
Where was Sherpie? Cabby loved that little dog, he was always taking it for walks, she remembers. Maybe he’s gone for a walk with it now.
But no, Sherpie is dead. She closes her eyes and sees a picture of the terrier, its white turned red with blood.
Then she sees Cabby standing over the body. She quickly opens her eyes and sees him again in the chair. He is not well. That is why she made him the milk. Milk to make you feel better, my lovely boy.
It’s been so good since Cabby came, Josie thinks. The wonder of childhood is hers now.
He reminds her of Christopher. He looks like him, with his blue-green eyes and pale skin. His hair is as fair as Christopher’s was, with the same under-streaks like tiger’s stripes.
But now Cabby is gone again.
“Come out, my lovely boy. It’s too late to play.” She hears an old voice, wonders how it’s hers.
He was always a good boy, always happy, never making a fuss. But he’s been too quiet since his father left.
Christopher told her he’d adopted Cabby. It was a year after their wedding, not long after she’d been told she couldn’t bear children. She loved children, she said, when the doctor told her she couldn’t bear them. Doctor Willits had opened his eyes wide and gone silent, but Christopher had smiled at her. He knew her ways. He was the only one who ever had. And when he brought Cabby home she hadn’t questioned why she didn’t have to sign any papers. Why it had been so easy.
And when Cabby had grown more like Christopher every day, she’d laughed and said that’s what she’d heard, that adopted children often grew to look like the people who adopted them.
She recalls one day, when Cabby was just beginning to walk, an elegant lady came knocking on the door. Her breath smelled of alcohol and her fingers shook. She also had no manners, for she barged past Josie and demanded to see Christopher.
“Christopher’s at work,” Josie said.
“Not that one,” the elegant lady said. “The baby, Christopher.”
“My baby’s name’s Cabbage, but I call him Cabby.” Josie recalls saying.
The lady had collapsed onto the old chair; her shoulders were shaking and her face was red. Her hand was clutching her mouth and when she brought it away there was lipstick smudging her knuckles like blood.
“Christopher did say you were a bit simple. He told you the nickname I’d given the baby because he was growing like one. A cabbage that is. He couldn’t tell you the baby’s real name, I suppose.”
Josie was still trying to fathom why the lady thought she was simple. Simple meant easy. Her mother had told her ‘easy’ women were ladies of the night, but she hated the dark.
The lady continued. “I need to see my baby. I made a mistake saying I didn’t want him. Where did Christopher tell you the boy came from? The cabbage patch?” Once more the lady fell back into the chair. But this time her laughter took her to coughing until Josie went to her and banged her on her back. Then the lady looked at her strangely. “Perhaps..,” she said, “Perhaps…” Then she nodded to herself as if she was affirming an unspoken question.
Josie can’t remember how it ended that day. Maybe she’d got her gun, the one she uses for the dingos, and threatened the lady with it if she didn’t leave. Perhaps they had hugged and she’d let the lady see the baby.
Cabby had slept through it all. That much Josie does remember.
Josie lowers herself into the old chair. She strokes the soft fabric of the armrest, watches as the pile flattens this way and that. Her eyes close and the pictures come once again but she hears the words first.
Cabby’s words. Is he speaking to her again? But these words she’s heard before. They are not from today. How could she have forgotten them? They were the start of crying words, for Cabby and for Christopher.
“Mammy, Sherpie has blood on him, and he’s not moving.”
Josie had gone outside and found the little dog lying still, by the old magnolia tree. There was blood on him. Cabby was standing near him holding an axe.
“What have you done?” That was her voice.
“There was a dingo, mammy. I tried to get him. He ran over there.” She saw Cabby pointing, followed the line of his finger. Saw a tawny shape in the distance. There were two others matching it, and feathers scattered like snow, leading a trail back to the hen-runs. Then she saw the axe was clean.
Josie opens her eyes, pulls her dressing-gown around her and rises stiffly from the chair. There is something she wants to see. Outside, the moon is bright and the stars light a path that is strewn with potholes but Josie finds her way to the old magnolia tree. There, beneath its branches, blending with the fence, is a little cross. She remembers Christopher made that cross from a loose paling, and marked Sherpie on it with a burning twig. Now it’s as faded as her eyesight.
Cabby is crying. His sobs punctuate her mind in stabs. Then she hears Christopher’s voice. Josie closes her eyes to see his face. “Poor little bugger,” he says. “He really loved that dog.”
She tries to stop her answer but it comes like a flood. “Chris, why don’t you take him for a drive in the car? I’ll give him a drink of warm milk before you go. It’ll make him feel better.”
Now she hears the car doors slam. “Back soon, Josie girl, two hours, tops.”
She drops to the ground and once more the pictures come, but these have no words. Josie sees the police car with its flashing blue light, sees the policemen walking towards her. Sees herself, a young self, climbing into the car.
Then in a room full of whiteness, a man and a child lying together in death.
When Josie enters the house she walks on slow feet to the kitchen. There’s the note on the fridge. Her voice comes softly: “The cat’s name is Bobby,” she says. Then she glances at the kitchen window, the curtain is still drawn back: “Turn off the stove,” she says to her scribble, her words. Then she looks at her sleeve. Go, she reads. Go where, she wonders.
Josie finds her bedroom, sees the sheets pulled back, sees an impression of a body in the mattress. She climbs into it, being careful to match its form with hers. Then she pulls up the blanket and stares at the wall. She closes her eyes, lets the dreams come but shapes them to her memory with its photogenic lens. Even if she sleeps forever, she thinks, better asleep than this awake.And in the morning the sun will scrawl its shine, write its pictures of brighter days across her mind, lift the darkness to a paler shade of grey.
Myra King, an Australian writer, has written a number of prize winning short stories and poems. Her stories and poetry have been published in the UK, New Zealand, Australia and the US. Amongst other publications she has work in print and online, in Short Story America, The Boston Literary Magazine, Eclectic Flash, The Valley Review, Red River Review, Illya’s Honey Journal, San Pedro River Review, The Pages, and The Foundling Review.
She has a short story collection, City Paddock, published by Ginninderra Press. Her novel, Cyber Rules, was published by Certys UK in 2012. Royalties from her books have gone to help support The Creswick Light Horse Troop and Médecins Sans Frontières – Doctors Without Borders. Follow Myra on twitter.