AMONTH after Richie had left I found the baby. It had been a hot night and the apartment had seemed to be shrinking. I'd noticed this feeling of shrinking while I was sitting on the floor of the sitting room listening to old music on the stereo. The kitchen smelled strange and I knew there was something rotten in there but I couldn't locate the source. The bedroom was avoided at night; I couldn't bear to sleep in the large room on my own. I had camped out in the sitting room, bringing out the mattress from the spare room and some blankets – living on take away food, pizza one night, Indian the next.
Outside the sitting room everything seemed like a threat. I would look out the window and see men with long black coats and sinister rat-like faces, school girls scowling as they sucked hard on their cigarettes and spat on the pavement. The song that had played on the radio was an old New Order song; it brought back memories of my childhood in the '80s – record players, Wonder Woman, Dynasty and swimming on a Friday. I wanted to go back home to Dublin but I knew that could be a mistake. It would seem like defeat to return after a break-up with a boyfriend. I had spent three years in Wellington and I didn't want to return with nothing. I took some days off school after Richie left. The seniors were due to leave for exams and were revising; my junior classes were easy enough to manage. But then I went back for the final few weeks and the routine gave me sanity; wake – teach – home. By the time the final term ended I was spent and all I thought about at the staff party was how horrible Christmas day would be on my own.
People had tried to ring me. Friends who wanted to know how I was but I didn't want to speak. Curtains drawn, summer locked out. Then the New Order song played and the apartment began to shrink and I was suddenly out the door and taking a night walk.
It was eleven and there was no one out. I went down Grant Road and past the closed petrol station where a grey cat eyed me up with contempt. I decided I wanted to go to Courtney Place. I would buy myself a drink. I cut through the gateway to parliament and looked over at the beehive. It was a funny looking building, not like our parliament at home. It looked like a dalek that had been severed in half, its head missing, the swivelling eye stalk gone. I thought about the hundreds of times Richie and I walked home this way, drunk, joking, returning from an awful play. Sometimes we would be fighting. A night out in town when drink had got the better of me and my northsider genes kicked in and I started to get angry.
"Your sister that..."
Then the noise. At first I thought it was coming from the hedge. I stepped close to the hedge. There was nothing. Behind me there was just the scalped lawn and the statue of Mr Seddon looking outraged. The noise came again and this time I followed my ear sight. On the bench – a baby. Wrapped in several blankets and placed in a basket. A yellow woolly hat covered the baby's head. He laughed again.
There was no one. Just the beehive, the grass, the lights. I picked the baby up and held his body against me. His face pressed against my neck, his nose giving me shivers.
It was a good thing. Bringing the baby back. The first night maybe didn't feel like it was a good thing but after that things got better. The first night I felt like a criminal. A child abductor. A thief. A weirdo. But I wasn't going to hurt the baby. I wasn't going to do anything strange to it; I was just going to keep him warm and safe. I'd checked the baby for injuries, cuts, sores. Apart from a dirty nappy the baby was in perfect condition. His eyes stared up at me, his nose dribbled snot, he laughed. I put him back in the basket after he fell asleep and then placed him by the side of my bed.
That first night I couldn't sleep.
When I finally did get to sleep I was soon woken. There was crying – he was hungry. I put the baby in the bed with me and held it close, stroking his neck and rubbing his back until he wore himself out from crying. I thought about what I would do if I brought the baby to the police the next day. I would go back to the flat and I would return to living in the sitting room and I would eat and smoke and crap on my own.
The next morning I took my credit card and the baby and I rang for a taxi. I had to get a lot of things if this was going to work. The baby was crying a lot. I got a pram, a basic one at Pretty Babes. Then baby bottles. Sterilizing fluid. Containers. In the New World I got the milk. The list went on. The baby kept crying and I stopped half way through my list and fed him at a café on Cuba Street. His fat lips latching onto the bottle. The waitress who warmed the milk for me looked resentful after her manager told her that it wasn't their job to warm baby milk.
I had to be careful he didn't choke, he was so impatient to get it all down; I looked at the concentrated furrow in his brow and thought about what sort of name I could give him. I thought it would be nice to call him Richie. Richie Junior.
When we got back to the flat and the taxi driver helped unload the stuff I felt a new happiness. The flat didn't seem small anymore – it seemed wide, expansive, like a vista suddenly existed in the sitting room. Just out of the corner of my eye, a panoramic mirage of mountains and trees. This baby and me, we would get through it. I would move on. And things came back to me; all the babysitting I had done for Liz when I was a teenager, the changing of nappies, the burping, the jelly on the gums for teething. Even the lack of sleep didn't bother me. I switched on the news every morning, bought the newspapers every day and yet ... nothing about an abandoned baby. Not for the first three days anyway, then on the fourth day it came on the six news. Junior was sleeping in his blankets when the announcer talked about the woman, sixteen years old – Helen was her first name. Found in the harbour. Suspected suicide. A girl originally from Melbourne who had been drifting all over North Island for the past two years. She had a drug habit and a bad relationship with her dealers and they said she had a baby and then suddenly her mother was on the TV. Asking the public if they knew anything.
"My grandson is alive," she said defiantly to the camera, "someone out there knows something. Someone knows..."
She stopped and began to cry and then the camera shot changed and soon the news was going on about something else, another racial attack in south Auckland. I thought of the smallness of Wellington. Already I had bumped into a teaching assistant from the school when I had been buying baby clothes; it was fat Leslie, a useless lump at the best of times. She had looked at Junior in the pram with an eagerness that disturbed me; she looked like the type that would eat babies if she was hungry enough. I had told her the baby was a friend's; I was babysitting while she visited her sick sister. Cancer I said. Of the stomach. And I looked meaningfully at her sagging belly. That shut her up. Soon the news coverage changed, they began to think of Helen's death as suspicious, a result of an altercation with a dealer. The baby they feared could have been hurt as well. Junior was better off with me, especially when it turned out that Helen had been selling herself.
I avoided going out as much as I could and when I did go out I was careful. The baby began to sleep better and I thought about Santa Claus and decorations and Christmas. What sort of presents could I buy Junior? We would spend Christmas in front of the TV with sweets for me and a teddy bear for Junior and I would buy the Oliver Twist film, the one with the music and Twiggy. I knew most of the words to the songs so I would sing them to my baby. It would be a perfect Christmas.
The phone kept ringing and I kept ignoring it. Until nine days before Christmas and then I finally turned on my mobile phone and the first person who called was Richie. Junior was crying so I took the call downstairs. So much had happened. I had established a new routine. It wasn't perfect, there were times when I got angry with Junior, and there were times I was worried that he was sick and I had realised that if that happened I would be unable to do anything. I had no birth cert, no medical records, and no proof that this child was mine.
"I want to talk."
"Seriously... Arohamai mai mo taku he?"
I turned the phone off. He had some cheek. I went upstairs and played with Junior and tried to forget about the call. I tried to convince myself I didn't care but I knew I was too into the games the baby and I played, there was an uneasy feeling of exhilaration wriggling through the pit of my stomach like some nasty overeager tapeworm. Junior laughed; his cheeks looked red and I looked for the vanilla scented car I had bought him. It was for teething. I put the spongy car on his lap and he looked up at my face and laughed. Maybe he wasn't teething yet.
I knew I shouldn't have, but I did. He was only alone for an hour and he had just gone to sleep. I met Richie down at the local pub and we sat in a corner below a Goldie print. The window was behind Richie's head and I could see heads and shoulders walking past, the street lamp, the rain – I didn't want to look at his eyes. He did most of the talking and I played with my cigarette box, tearing off small pieces of cardboard and folding, crunching, rolling them into tiny balls. By the time he had finished I had started on the sugar sachets, pouring the sugar out into small messes as he talked about where we went wrong, how stupid he was to move out. He walked home and when he came to the door he kissed me. I pulled back and told him that I wasn't ready, that he needed to wait. The door was half ajar and I was worried the baby would cry out.
"When can I move back in?"
"Not yet. And you can't stay here tonight."
"Christmas day. It will make it special. You can come back on Christmas day."
He smiled and I could see that he thought that idea was romantic. He went to kiss me again and I told him to wait until Christmas. After he walked away I rushed upstairs to see how the baby was. He was asleep and oblivious.
On Christmas morning he called and we had a wonderful day. We gave each other presents and walked down to Oriental Bay. We didn't talk about the past, just about the future. We could save up for a deposit for a house. He was going to give up the gambling. I said we could even have a baby. We went to bed early and I woke up at about two in the morning, there was shouting on the street and at first I thought it was a fight but then I realised it was just some people drunk leaving some party. It had been a perfect Christmas day. I looked through the gap at the window but could see no stars. I thought of the baby. He wasn't really Junior. He wasn't mine after all and it was silly to think I could have got away with rearing somebody else's child. On Christmas eve I had given him his last bottle and he was his usual contented self. I dressed him back into the original clothes I had found him in and gave him a kiss on the head before putting him gently back into his basket. And then when it was late enough for the streets to be empty I returned him back to the bench.
Richie snuggled his face into my neck and I felt myself smiling. I had a sudden recall of the day last summer when I sat in the barbers while Richie had got his hair cut. The barber had a wobbly belly. Richie was asking him about 'cut throat' shaves and the barber bemoaned the fact that it was a dying art. No one did it anymore, nobody had the skills or no one wanted a cut throat shave in the barbers anymore. He told Richie how he learnt to do a cut throat shave.
You get a balloon and cover it in shaving foam and then you get your blade and practise on that. You try and remove the foam carefully, smoothly, without piercing the skin of the balloon and making it burst. It's difficult but when you master that, then you're ready to perform a cut throat shave on a real life human being.
Richie had laughed and talked about barbers with shaky hands. And that's what I thought about just before I drifted back to sleep – that single memory and how one day I would like to do something like that. I would like to run a sharp blade along a large red balloon and clean the foam from its skin without making a single mistake. Without causing the balloon to burst.
Meet the author
Robert O'Shea was born in Dublin in 1975, studied as a journalist at Ballyfermot Senior College and then at Maynooth. Moved to New Zealand five years ago and now teaches in Wellington, where he lives with his partner. Is working on a collection of short stories and a novel. This is his first published fiction.
How to Enter
New Irish Writing, edited by Ciaran Carty, is published on the first Sunday of every month and is open to writers who are Irish or who are resident in Ireland. All stories published will be eligible for Hennessy X.O Literary Awards, to be announced in April 2009. Stories should not exceed 2,500 words. Up to six poems may be submitted. Entries (with a SAE) to: New Irish Writing, Sunday Tribune,
15 Lr Baggot St, D2, along with name, phone no. and email address