The grey house on the corner is a loud house, and full to the brim. There’s Ma, and Dad, Noel, Abby, James, Aida and Baby. Baby is the eldest of the three girls, a half-sister to the others, her birth mother gone these past fourteen years. Baby shares a bedroom with Abby and Aida, just as her brother’s share theirs. It’s a shouting up and down the stairs type of house. A pots and pans clanging in the kitchen type of house. Always the bathroom steaming, clouds like mist through the valley, always the fuzzy slippers to trip upon, dog-chewed, and only the left one. Bedheads festooned with socks and bras, music drifting from every room, and there’s another child on the way to bring new life and sounds.
Baby watches Ma’s belly with fanciful eyes. So wide, these eyes, that people worry for her. She dreams of wife-dom, carried around four dollies when she was small. Kept them fed and changed, forever fussing with their little socks and blankets. She drifted along on daydreams of baby fingers, imagining they smell like warm milk, and her own skin. Dear little ones. Baby is sixteen now, and her sisters get all of the cornflakes for breakfast, for she’s too busy imagining.
“You’ll have stretch marks, you keep carrying on like this.” James always has an unwise comment, this one directed to Ma with her plate stacked high with toaster waffles.
Dad burns the toast, and gives the lightest piece to Baby, his baby. A scraping of butter, not too much and not too little. He drizzles honey for her.
“Not like that Dad, like this.”
First one way, then the other. Milky tea, no sugar now. Banana in her backpack for lunch. She read her favourite singer weights 51 kilograms exactly, and the number is fixed in her mind for her own body too. Until, until.
“Take some proper food, will you? Take this.” A piece of bread, slathered with peanut butter and wrapped in clingfilm.
“Thanks Daddy.” Kiss-kiss, and out the door. The house groans, and sighs.
None of the boys in her class are very good looking. She eats the peanut butter, chews slowly, looks through and away. Baby is an average student, with no one to distract her, and no one to impress. Sometimes the day is long, and sometimes the day is short, and she pays just enough attention to keep up with her classmates. One of her teacher’s likes to put his hand on her shoulder and squeeze, and she wonders how she’s supposed to feel about this. He’s not bad looking, but old. Old as the hills, old as Grandpa. Does he have wee ones running about at home? If he’s ever shared stories of real-life with the class, she’s long forgotten them. There are some older boys that hang around the park across from the school, smoking, jeering when the girls come out. Baby feels thrilled and humiliated by the daily onslaught of catcalls. Gross. Satisfying. The boys that work have money, and this is discussed often. They can buy presents for their girlfriends, like Dad buys for Ma. They are on the very edge of their adolescence, they could be something. On the bus ride home she imagines a life with each one of them. What colour would the children’s hair be? What sort of wedding dress would she wear? Something that shows off her figure. All the girls in school roll the waists of their skirts to make them shorter, and Baby does it too, because she’s one of the pretty ones. Not like the ones who are weird.
As far as she knows, life is this: Look good while you can. Never pass a mirror without appreciating what you see there as it’s liable to change before you know it. You’ll catch yourself passing in the street, in a shop window, a stranger there. Ma’s told her about this. Find a good man, get married before he has a chance to think he could do better- he can’t, he’s just fooling himself. Have lots of lovely little babies together. They’ll rub your feet when you’re old, if they love you. Make sure they love you. If you strike, use an open hand. You can smoke to curb your appetite, and draw attention to your red lips. Eat a mint before you kiss your husband. Enjoy a light beer, gin and lemonade in the summertime. Cup after cup of tea by the kitchen window. What are the neighbours doing? Scoop the dog shit in the yard, and peg it over the fence, the left side, not the right, because on the right is the Allen family and they’re good friends. About to become family by the marriage of some cousins. You have many cousins. You’ll never be lonely. Life is cousins and births and weddings and christenings and death and funerals and soccer matches. Always at the doctors. Life is olives and cubes of cheese at a party, and there’s a birthday just about every month. The same arguments every time, the same broken bottles and bruised fists. Baby has heard it’s because they love each other. They fight because they love so much. Silence means terrible loss here, and raised voices mean home.
On the weekend, Baby sleeps in as late as possible. If Ma needs help with the youngest, she stumbles from her bed, sleep rumpled and petulant, into the kitchen. Her pyjamas have frills. There’s a pile of toast on the table each sunday morning, and sausages and eggs. Orange juice, no pulp, and very little in the way of real oranges. A pot of tea too, spilled sugar. There’s a small telly in the corner of the room, which is a new and startling luxury, and everyone fights over what they should watch. Talk shows, the cricket, a cartoon. Baby chews her breakfast carefully, the egg first, while it’s warm. She fantasises about the handsome weatherman, and how he might fall in love with her if ever he met her in person. Oh, the places he would take her! She paints her toenails, a colour called ‘Bubblegum Doll’, whatever that means. Someone will yell-
“Don’t do that in here!”
She’s waiting for her real life to begin, and can’t be meeting it with chipped nails, can she? There’s an anklet she wears that shimmers in the morning light. She’s got a silver toe ring. No part of her is left unadorned. Meghan Nichols once called her a slut, because only sluts wear toe rings, but she’s just jealous. When you’re a beauty, you take the sweet with the sour. Baby thinks that, practically speaking, it’ll be much more fun to be pretty when she’s a little older, and doesn’t have to go to school to be seen, picked over. She’ll be mysterious, she’ll only go to nice places where no one would dream of calling you names to your face. For now there are teachers with raised eyebrows, and always someone’s little brother hanging around and trying to get a look up her skirt. When she’s all grown up there’ll be no hanging around in the fish and chip shop, wasting hours. Just a handsome man who worships her, and an expensive wedding, and then lots of lovely babies. They’ll be beautiful, like their mother. Beauty breeding beauty. It needn’t be more complicated then that.
One day Baby meets a boy. He’s lanky and cloaked in bravado, but she thinks there might be someone decent underneath, good, even. He’s new to the area, moved with his parents and sisters, and works in the fish and chip place. She can tell he thinks she’s cute, when she comes in to buy dinner one rainy thursday night. He pretends to be busy, but there’s nothing to do once he’s given the cook her order. He stands, legs apart, chest out, a faint blush around the ears. Ah, boyish charms.
“Yeah… what’s your name?”
“It’s Baby. No joke, it’s Baby.”
“How old are you?”
“Nearly seventeen.” Her little white lie. He’ll believe anything she tells him, because he wants to believe.
By the next night they’re shagging in the stock room, amongst massive tins of canola oil. A dark and dusty place, for an up against the wall rendezvous. It’s a little grotesque to see food in such large quantities. Baby looks with fascination, at a jar of pickles, and then turns her face away to see him, only him. Aaron. He makes a distinctive sound when he comes, which she finds deeply endearing. She thinks she could listen to that desperate cry every evening, for the rest of her life. Maybe even in the mornings too. Afterwards, he cleans them both up, even pulls up her underwear and straightens her skirt.
“I really like you.” It plants happiness within her, small and precious, to be held like a secret against her heart. To be cradled like a baby. She strokes his cheek, she wants to keep him close. Maybe they’ll even get married.
“I really like you too,” she smiles, and knows so much, and knows so little.
On the walk home, the cold air smarts her cheeks and she’s pink nosed and sniffling when she steps inside. Warm, loud, abundant house. Ma is asleep on the couch, one hand on her belly where a new brother is housed, and the other loosely grasping an empty chocolate bar wrapper. Dad is out back, doing who knows what in the potting shed, the radio on so loud she can hear it from the kitchen. Noel and James are fighting in the hall, small fists flying, never hard enough to leave a bruise but they do have a tendency to bite. Abby and Aida, singing into hair brushes, are wearing Baby’s heels though they didn’t ask. She steps into her role as it’s all that’s missing; lying on the bed with a can of diet soda and a copy of a magazine which tells her that her soulmate’s name begins with the letter E, M, or A.