“I think he’s just going to crawl along the couch, but he rolls over onto his bottom and then begins to rise like a helium balloon”: a metamorphosis by Grace Tong
Abi is late. I’ve scrounged the last available section of newspaper — Property, dear lord, and it’s mostly just adverts, rows of sun-drenched houses begging to be loved, lived-in, perfect starter homes, or perhaps a down-sizer, to add to your portfolio. The polished and styled heads of real estate agents grin at me beside the best views money can buy and incredible outlooks.
I lean forward, resting my arm on the table, and it wobbles under my weight. I sit back, and it wobbles again. Coffee sloshes out of my up-until-now ignored flat white. The sugar packet resting on the saucer’s edge is dampened, a light brown stain creeping up its length. Still, I shake it, tear the end off, and let the crystals pour into my coffee, where they rest on the froth.
My distorted reflection glares at me from across the room, impatient inside the mirrored surface of the coffee machine. The coffee cups stacked on top resemble a row of hooded teens. Abi was a sullen teen. Where is she? My watch ticks irritably, not-here not-here not-here. I resist the urge to loosen my tie and instead sip my cooling coffee. The man at the table next to me rises, shuffling papers into a worn backpack, and heads for the door.
The stack of scones on display is diminishing by the minute. I look down again, feeling forced to peruse the holiday homes queueing on the page before me. Lake views versus beach access versus sunny deck versus bushwalks galore. Perhaps I should sell the rental. It’s going to be vacant soon, the tenants moving out next week. They were a bit of a drag, the latest ones, and I’m dreading finding more.
Perhaps Abi isn’t coming. The café’s door has opened so many times, letting in wind and coffee-seekers, rustling hair, napkins and newspapers. I pull my phone out of my pocket and reread her curt reply to my message from the night before.
A young woman with a baby in a pram sits at the table beside me. She looks about Abi’s age, or perhaps a little older. I hope she doesn’t think I’m judging her, but she seems young to have a child. The baby is tucked in against the wind with a little blue blanket with a row of trucks parading along the hem.
A gust of wind grabs my attention and Abi is briefly framed in the doorway, the wind sending her hair into a proper mane about her face. I’m distracted by the baby in the pram, straining against the belt holding him down. His face is reddening, and he balls his fists and scrunches his eyes closed, beginning to wail.
“Sorry,” says the mother to me, “but I can’t take the baby out — he’ll just float away if I do.”
Abi interrupts, pulling out the chair opposite me. “Hi Dad.” She sits down before I have time to stand up, kiss her cheek, greet her properly. The baby continues to wail beside me, until the mother pops a dummy in his mouth, and he settles a little.
“Darling,” I say, “you look wonderful.”
And she does. Clearly on her way to work, yet somehow doesn’t look out of place in the beachside cafe. I wasn’t sure it was a good idea for her to move to this side of town when her and Joe first got a place together, thinking the commute would be hard on her — “it isn’t actually that long,” she’d argued, “and the beach will be amazing on our front doorstep.” And it was. Beach access and sunny outlook — the whole package.
“Thanks Dad,” she grins properly and I relax. I remind myself it is fine when it’s just the two of us. Abi saves her sullen performances, reminiscent of her teen years, for when Tania is around. It’s worse with her sister too. How does it happen, these little ones who belong to us so wholly become so distant.
“I already got a coffee,” I say, apologetic. “But what do you want?”
The jangling cellphone of the woman beside me prompts us both to glance over at her. She fumbles through her handbag, the cellphone getting louder, and I’m worried it will set the baby off again. Finally she answers with a snap. “What, Matt?”
I look away from her, trying not to eavesdrop. Abi stands up. “I’ll just go and order,” she says.
Alone at the table again I have no choice but to listen to the woman beside me.
“Honestly Matt I don’t know what I’m going to do. He’ll have to stay with you if I can’t find a place this week. I can stay with a friend, it’s fine. But can you just step the fuck up this once?”
I stare at the paper, hard, pretending I’m not hearing. Her voice is visceral. Now she really reminds me of Abi, the long-standing bitterness. It’s such a cliché, daughters not liking their stepmothers. I wonder if the woman beside me is talking to her partner, ex-partner. The baby’s father.
The baby is staring at me. He starts wriggling, kicking at the blanket with his little legs. There’s something about the way babies’ legs spring away from their bodies, propelled by some instinctive need to flail about, separate from whatever the baby is focused on. He gets an arm free, then a leg, exposed a foot adorned with a stripy sock, and takes the opportunity to grab his foot, pulling at his sock.
Abi has sat back down across from me while I’ve been distracted by the baby.
“Dad? Earth to Dad?”
“Sorry,” I say, “was just a bit distracted by this guy.”
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen you take an interest in babies before.”
“I was when I had my own babies.”
She raises an eyebrow. “I mean, Mum was the one who stayed at home with us.”
I’m a bit startled. I know I haven’t always done right by the girls but it’s a bit shocking to hear how little Abi thinks of me. Anyway, I thought if I was to get credit for anything it would be for when they were younger — sure, when they were teens I became distracted, neglectful even, starting with the divorce and then Tania. But I was there.
“I won’t argue with you, love.” I say.
“Fucking hell Matt. Can you not help me out for just a little while? You’re his goddamn father.”
We both look at the woman beside us as her voice rises again, cutting into a sudden lull as the song playing has come to an end.
The baby has pulled his blanket all the way away and is threatening to drop it on the floor. Now I notice how much he’s straining against the straps of the stroller, leaning right forward and appearing almost raised, as if there is an invisible cushion under his feet.
“Sorry,” the woman says to us, her voice shaking. “I’m — I’m just in a bit of a pickle. I’m sure you overheard. It’s just — you know, every man is a good father until their son starts levitating. As if that excuses it when you fuck off and drop everything.”
I’m not sure what to say. I feel a little awkward. Abi, ever the hero, pulls a packet of tissues out of her bag and hands it to the woman.
“I’m okay,” she says, “just — you don’t happen to know of anyone looking for tenants do you? We’re tidy — it’s just me and Charlie,” she gestures at the baby, “I pay the bills, I’m no trouble.”
“Actually,” says Abi, with a look at me like do this, Dad, “I can think of the perfect place.”
Abi is in the car with me when the woman from the cafe, Louisa, rings. I’ve picked Abi up from work because I offered to hang some pictures in her house this evening.
“Louisa, good to hear from you. Still good for tomorrow?” I don’t say Abi is in the car. It feels a little rude, having someone on speaker, but it’s only Abi and it’s only Louisa, so I’m sure it is fine.
“Yes, all is pretty good thanks, I just wanted to ask a quick question.”
“It’s just about the fittings in the house — I saw in one of the pictures there’s a ceiling fan.”
“I know the one. I think there’s a switch with the light switches — “
“Yes, that’s not the concern, actually. I — um.” She pauses. “It’s a bit of a hazard, for the baby.”
“Right.” I stop at a red light and glance at Abi, who shrugs. “I mean, I can take it out, if it’s a big deal for you.” Abi nods. The light turns green.
“Really?” Louisa sounds relieved.
After the phone call, Abi says, “I hope you are a good landlord, Dad.”
“I didn’t think ceiling fans were a hazard for babies,” I say. I’ve turned onto Abi’s street and I’m hunting for a park.
“Well, you know.” Abi smiles.
“No. What? What is it?” She’s taking pleasure in my thick-headedness. “I do have a vague idea of what it’s like to have children, Abi.”
“Yeah. But her situation, you know.”
I’m silent. Is Abi making a jab about single mothers?
She continues. “Well, think helium balloons.”
I reverse into a space and don’t say anything. I’m lost at this point and Abi isn’t making it any clearer.
“Thanks for the ride, though, Dad.”
“Did you want me to do these frames?”
“Actually,” and her hand is on the doorhandle, “Joe texted — while you were on the phone — and tonight isn’t great. Can we do another time? Sorry.”
“No, no trouble.” I say. “It’s your pictures, your house.” Yet I feel like I’m the one who is being done a favour.
When I meet Louisa by the flat, she’s got Charlie resting on her hip and a small backpack slung over her shoulder.
“Hope I didn’t keep you waiting,” I say, and she smiles.
“No, we just got here too. My mother wants me to get a harness for Charlie, you know, but I just think they’re so barbaric, child harnesses.”
She seems to volunteer an awful lot of information, all the time.
“The last tenants were students,” I say as we come into the front hall, “and they used the lounge as a third bedroom. They left a couch in there as well — I’ve been meaning to get rid of it. You are welcome to keep it if you like, however.”
“Oh, thanks,” she’s peering into the first bedroom. Charlie is watching me, clinging to his mother. He’s got the dummy in his mouth again. I didn’t think mothers used dummies as much these days — but perhaps its just the new-age all-natural mothers I see in my suburb. I don’t see the problem. Mothers are goddesses, in my eyes, so anything they do that makes life that little bit easier seems reasonable to me. As long as they don’t do any harm. But we fuck up our kids in unexpected ways no matter how hard we try.
I push at the hall rug with my foot. “Shall I show you the rest?”
Through the lounge, with the faded green couch, and then the kitchen.
“It’s nice,” Louisa says.
“You can look in the cupboards — it’s got a nice big pantry,” I say. “I’m just going to make a phone call — I’ll leave you to look around.” I didn’t need to make a phone call, but she seems so uncomfortable with me there. I want to let her have a proper look around, and maybe she’ll relax if I’m not watching.
After what seems like a suitable amount of time I head back inside. Louisa is still in the kitchen, Charlie still resting on her hip. He doesn’t have the dummy in anymore, and he’s got that slightly concerned look babies have sometimes.
“How is everything?” I say.
“Oh, it’s great.” She smiles, bouncing Charlie a little. “Would you mind holding him for a moment? I just need to use the bathroom.”
“No trouble,” I say, glad she seems a bit more at ease. She hands Charlie to me and I bounce him a little. He kind of glares at me, and I worry he’s about to start crying. Louisa has left the kitchen already. I head back into the lounge and sit on the couch, balancing Charlie on my knee. He’s lighter than I expected, although it’s been a while since I held a baby. He strains against my arms, leaning towards the couch, so I let him go, and he wriggles off my knee onto the couch beside me.
I think he’s just going to crawl along the couch, but he rolls over onto his bottom and then begins to rise like a helium balloon.
Louisa appears at the door and lets out a shriek. “Charlie!” She runs forward and grabs him by the ankle. He’s unfazed by the commotion and reaches up to touch the lampshade.
Still holding him by the ankle, Louisa glares at me. “I asked you to hold him!”
“Sorry —” I’m not entirely sure what to say. “I didn’t realise — I didn’t know — I mean, does he always —”
“Float?” Her glare deepened into a frown. “You got a problem with that?”
We stare at each other for a moment, and then she tugs on Charlie’s leg and he descends into her arms. He buries his head in her shoulder. I feel I have somehow offended her.
Louisa rubs Charlie’s back and doesn’t say anything more, remembering, I suspect, she wants to rent this house from me.
I smile at her, “no, not a problem at all,” and hurriedly change the subject. “Do you want to have a look at the lease?”
This time, I’m the one who is late. As I come through the door a blast of wind rustles through a newspaper left open and abandoned on a table beside the door and Abi is waiting at the same table we sat at last week. She stands up to greet me, leaning across the table and letting me kiss her cheek. Sometimes I do wonder how this professional young woman is the same person as my little girl who used to run wild, her hair always tangled, her knees always scabbed.
Never one to mess around, Abi parses through perfunctory greetings straight through to asking about the house.
“So are you going to lease the flat to Louisa?”
“I’m not sure.” I say.
Abi surprises me with her next comment. “I went for coffee with her yesterday,” she says.
“You did? That’s —” I’m not entirely sure what it is. “That’s very friendly.”
“She’s pretty isolated, Dad. And you can understand why. But it’s fucked. People have been so awful to her, and honestly it makes me wild.”
We pause in our conversation as our coffees arrive. Mine lands rather roughly in front of me, the milk sloshing a little. Abi takes hers from the waiter rather than let him set it down. I eye the crimped ends of the sugar packets poking out of the jar in front of us, and wonder if Abi will judge me for having sugar. It wouldn’t be the first comment she’d made about my cholesterol, or blood pressure, or whatever, but I didn’t think I could take it today, so I leave the sugar alone.
“Dad, you have to let Louisa have the flat.”
“I’m still checking references,” I say.
“So, were you surprised then?” Abi says, and I consider pretending to not understand, but nod instead.
“Of course — she could have said something. She had me hold the baby and I let him go and he just floated away! Like a helium balloon.”
“To be honest, Dad, you’re not the best listener. She told us at the cafe last week.”
“Why did you ask if I was surprised, then?”
“Because I knew you weren’t paying attention.”
“Well, I think I did a pretty good job of playing it cool.”
“Good. Good. I mean, your face isn’t too expressive, so — ”
She was grinning at me.
“I miss you, sweetheart.”
“I’m right here, Dad.” She sips her coffee delicately, testing the temperature, then sets it back down on the saucer.
“You know what I mean,” I say, and then I sip my coffee too. “Tania would love to have you round for dinner sometime. You and Joe, of course.”
“Tania would love it, would she?”
Ignoring that, I bluster on, “ — and your sister, if she wants to — “
“Leah won’t want to. Not since last time.” Abi lifts her cup again and takes a larger sip, a proper gulp this time.
“Well, alright then, just you and Joe.”
Abi’s cup lands back on its saucer with a sharp rattle. “Don’t push me, Dad. Coffee is nice, but honestly, you have to give us space.”
“I’ll give Louisa the flat,” I say.
“To apease me?” Abi scowls. “Don’t be a dick.”
Fuck. Not what I meant. “No.” I say, “no, of course not.”
“Good. Just checking. Let me think about it. Let me talk to Joe.”
I reach across the table, touch Abi’s hand. She’s staring deep into her now-empty coffee cup. Then she looks up at me. I think she understands. I think she looks just like her mother.
“Look at them,” Abi says, gesturing to a man and a young girl sitting at a table by the wall. On the table in between them rests a small soft toy, a little lamb with perfect white whorls of wool making up its coat. A father and daughter. Then the cafe door slides open again, and a gust of wind sends Abi’s hair afloat, momentarily framing her face.