Blesok no. 94, January-February, 2014

Radio Baby

Deborah Kay Davies

I’m pretty sure mother is going mad. There’s only me to notice. Now the new baby is snuffling in the small bedroom on the top floor, well away from us. I stand and listen to the baby from the bottom of the stairs. Mother says to turn on the radio whenever the baby starts to wail. She says the baby doesn’t mean anything when it makes that sound, just turn up the radio, for God’s sake. If she suspects I’m moving to the foot of the stairs to listen, she calls me back and scolds me like I’m a six-year-old. I’m thinking, perhaps I am; perhaps that’s what I want to be. When I tell her the baby needs her, that he’s hungry and cold, she gives me the look she used to when I was little and had been caught out in a lie. There is a perfectly good explanation, she says calmly; the child is tuning in ahead of me.
I caught a glimpse of the baby yesterday, when mother arrived home. We weren’t expecting her for another two days; she discharged herself ahead of time, phoning for a taxi, so father and Tamar were still at gran’s. Me on my own for the first time. I had plans to clean the place up, maybe buy some flowers, at least get a meal ready, before she got out. I was in the bath, my hair thick with shampoo, when there was a knock on the front door. I stayed where I was; there are so many weird people calling these days, and I had no reason to expect anybody I knew. The knocking didn’t stop, so I got out of the bath and ran to the half-open landing window and peered down. There was mother leaning against the porch wall. I could see her thin blonde hair flying around her head and the pink seam of her scalp, like a plastic baby- doll’s skull. Under her arm she was holding a bundle; on the ground a big blue sack was sliding sideways. As I stood there with the chilled shampoo-froth snaking down my shoulders, I was so tempted to leave the door unanswered. I knew when that door was opened anything could happen. So I stood for a while watching, as mother shifted the bundle onto her hip and tipped forward to rest her forehead on the door.
In the kitchen I tried to hide the mountain of dirty dishes in the sink. I offered mother a cup of tea. First things first, she said, and manoeuvred the baby from her hip. It was a big, cumbersome boy with a rash across its upper lip. Mother unwound the bundle of blankets and dangled the baby over her shoulder like a little wad of damp laundry. I disliked the way its head lolled back and forth. His neck seemed too weak for the job. Mother didn’t look natural with the baby, and all the time she held it, her face was contorted into what at first I took to be a smile. It came over her when she heard the baby crying; most people would have been fooled, but I’m not. After she had stood a while in the kitchen and looked at everything as if for the first time, she whirled around, saying she would put the baby in his place. Mother has changed into her prettiest dress; marshmallow- pink with ruffles on the sleeves and around the hem. It’s too wintry for this dress and her arms have erupted into goose bumps. I bring her a cardigan, but she says, no, it was so hot in there, she needs time to cool down. She hasn’t washed since yesterday, and she needs to. If I get up close, I can smell souring milk and something else I can’t identify. She refuses to answer my questions. I think she doesn’t even hear them; she is listening for the baby, her body straining towards the hall, her mind’s eye travelling up the long, unlit passageway until it stops short at the closed cream door. The pink dress is girlish, too tight across her breasts. The mound of her belly pulls the front up so that I can see her bare knees. She is seeping milk into the bodice. The drying milk leaves the material stiff. I can tell her breasts are sore; she cradles them tenderly in her crossed arms. Her face is flushed. I think she is developing a fever. All the time the radio plays. If she hears even the smallest scrap of commentary, she starts forward, instantly animated. Oh no, she says, no words, no conversation, no stupid chat for God’s sake, and fiddles with the dials to find music. It would be good to find ‘Moon River’, she says quietly, but anything will do. When the room pulses with notes again, she subsides.
Neither mother nor the baby is eating. I prepare her favourite. A dish of baked eggs and cream. I take great care with the tiny triangles of toast. To make them look neat. But she looks at me with sly knowledge, as if she knows something about the food that I don’t. The baby’s cries have changed key, moved down an octave; he’s tired of calling to her. When she fell into a brief, restless sleep earlier, I crept up and stood outside the bedroom. I tried the handle but it was no good, mother had locked the door. I haven’t seen the key. From inside the room I could hear a faint, thin, grizzling sound.
Now mother is rushing round the house closing the curtains. Something’s coming, she says, something very important. I ask her what, what, but she doesn’t answer me. As she walks away, I see that smudges of blood are blooming in the seated pink fabric at the back of her dress – some fresh, some older and darker. Over her shoulder she says, we could go out, if it wasn’t for the radio. I follow close behind. And the baby, I say; we mustn’t leave the baby. She turns slowly to face me. Mmmm, yes, the radio-baby, she says, and nods, narrowing her eyes and tapping the side of her nose with an index finger.
Throughout the day the door has been knocked on several times. She indicates no, I’m not to answer, and blocks my way with her body. But mother, I say, it’s probably the district nurse, come to check you are all right. She tells me not to be silly. A nurse? It’s not as if I’m ill or anything, she says. She disconnected the phone when she found me trying to ring my father. Phoning will scrabble the soundwaves, she says.
It’s late in the evening now, and mother has been perched for hours like some crazy bird on the arm of a chair in the lounge. Sit there, she coaxes me, pointing vaguely. The baby is silent. The radio is singing in the kitchen. Here in the lounge the record player is on. Messages are about to come through, she tells me. We must listen for instructions, make sure we’re tuned in. I ask, will there be anything to tell us what to do about the baby? She slides down from the arm of the chair and reclines crookedly on the seat like a rag-doll, her legs apart. Her face gleams dully in the small light from the on switch. Keep still, she shouts, I’m about to take a message. Find a pen and some paper. I’m counting, she says in a playful, childish tone. If I get to ten and you’re not back, I’ll come and find you; then the fun’ll begin.
Mother has counted to eight by the time I get back to the lounge. I sit opposite her and see she has been counting on her fingers. This way I don’t make silly mistakes, she says, holding both hands up. We sit and listen to the radio. Mother starts to doodle on the paper, every now and then stopping to listen. I ask her what she’s drawing. I’m portraying the child in the room upstairs, she says, and holds up the page. She has drawn a naked baby lying in some grass. From the neck down it appears normal, but where its head should be there is a radio. Notes float up from the radio’s mouth. Then I see that instead of an umbilical cord the baby has an electric flex coming out of its navel. The flex floats up towards the top of the page and ends in an unconnected plug. I ask her, what does it mean? It’s the radio-baby, she says patiently, as if I’m incredibly stupid. We sit on in the room. Mother struggles with the heavy record player and drags it onto her lap. The wires are pulled taut across the arm of the chair. She adjusts the controls. From out of her pocket she pulls a piece of cloth and starts to wipe the radio section with great care, patting and stroking it at intervals. Soon I’ll know what to do, she says. I’ve only got to wait. The message will come through eventually.
I try to keep watch, but soon I feel myself falling, swooning into sleep. Through my dreams the radio plays, and far, far off, in amongst the notes, a baby cries, like a little interlude, and then is abruptly quiet. I wake up. The curtains are open and the radio is silent. There is an atmosphere of waiting that seems to tremble off the pale walls of the house. I hear mother treading heavily down the stairs. She pushes the lounge door open and walks towards me. I see a bright, wet smudge on her cheek. There, she says, giving me the bedroom door key and dusting her hands, I’ve turned off that radio for good.

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