Park

Day is dawning. Early runners are out already, jogging along the bike track in grey light. The trees in the park are brightening slowly from the tops of their canopies down to the shadowy branches below. The playground is still, waiting. Nobody is there to see a figure slip furtively through the safety gate with a baby in her arms. Nobody sees her take off her jacket, wrap the baby in it, and place it, carefully, under the slide. She turns away, and then back, and then away again, three times. She leaves. The bright horizon fills with clouds. The rain hesitates, then softly begins to fall.

When Frances bought her apartment 30 years ago, it was for the smooth green lawns and the well-tended flower beds in the council park next door. It was rare to have such a good view from a second storey and she snapped it up, in those days when a single woman could still buy an apartment in the inner city. Those were the days. She was still single. She was still wayward and ornery and difficult and she still didn’t give a fig what people said about her. She still smoked cigarettes on her balcony and tapped the ash so that it drifted down onto the heads of anyone walking below, like grey dandruff. She still had no maternal instinct and she still couldn’t be bothered with a man in daylight. The only thing that had changed was the park. The new council had dug up the flower beds and destroyed a huge patch of lawn for the sole purpose of installing a playground, practically under her window, where children shouted and wailed and generally caused a ruckus all day and teenagers shouted and swore and generally caused a ruckus all night, climbing on the roundabout and going at it like animals on the steps of the slide. She was looking forward to the peace of a rainy day, when nobody would come but dog walkers, and she could sit near the window and feel the greens blurring together, washing away the ugly straight lines of climbing frame and swings, returning to gentler times while she completed her crossword and rolled her eyes at the news.

The runners are leaving as quickly as they came, off to hot showers and dry clothes. The wind is picking up now, pushing one of the swings. Under the slide, rain is staining the sand a dark blonde. The baby cries. A dog walker pauses outside the fence to tear off a plastic bag from the roll near the bin, while her dog dashes through the open gate into the play area and heads straight for the slide. ‘Rex!’ she shouts at him ‘heel!’. He ignores her, growling at something. Last time he behaved like this, he ended up biting a smaller dog. She dashes towards him, hand out to grab his collar, but he turns and runs off. She strides after him, slamming the gate behind them.

Hannah usually keeps her promises but today will have to be an exception. Yes, she had promised to take them to the park, just like every other Tuesday, and yes, she had said they could have an icecream from the kiosk if they were good, but sometimes, kids, plans change. It is wet, it is cold, it is muddy, and to be honest she is feeling a bit under the weather herself. No, they will not go even in gumboots. There is point in crying about it. Look out of the window. No other kids will be there. There will be no-one to play with. The slide will be freezing cold. They can stay at home instead and play with their many toys. OK, even the ipad. Hannah cuts her losses.

Frances’ bedroom blind is rattling and knocking in the wind. She strides across to the window and glances out. Someone has left a jacket or something under the slide. If she were a kinder person, she would go out there and hang it up on the gate where it could be seen. Then again, they might just as well come and look for it where it is. She closes the window firmly and goes back to the kitchen, turning the radiator on, on the way.

The playground smells of rain and damp earth; wet sand and concrete and thirsty leaves. The wind rises and drops again, sighing and keening. A fine sheet of droplets swooshes across the grey sky, a curtain of water sweeping the ground with its hem. The temperature drops. The rain eases. A lonely runner marks the perimeter of the fence, at last breaking his stride to open the gate. He jogs on the spot for a moment and then takes off again, on his way to the toilet block. Something catches his eye. He turns his gaze ever so slightly and then moves on. A small thread of water clings underneath the slide and then falls, drip, drip, onto a tiny, cold hand.

Kayla sits in the back of the class staring into space. Under her tracksuit, she can feel herself bleeding and bleeding, so much blood that she wonders if she has turned vampire-white and, if so, whether anyone will see. She had changed her pad as soon as she got off the bus and then again after maths but she isn’t sure now that it has been enough. She zones out, and then in again, and then out again. Outside it is raining. Maybe it doesn’t matter now. She shifts in her seat.

At noon, the sun breaks through the clouds, yellow as butter. The close sounds of wind and rain are swept away by birdsong, the conversations of office workers on their lunch break, the brushing off of benches, the opening of sandwiches, the checking of phones. Parents enter the playground laden with bags and prams, children tucked under their arms. Puddles are jumped into. Knees are bruised. A toddler stumbles and trips around the slide, proud to be walking, while his mother keeps an ear out for disaster. In the shadows, he comes across a coat and inside it, a baby. He pokes at it, but there is no sound. He goes to tell his mother. ‘Ba ba’, he says. ‘Yes!’ she responds enthusiastically, ‘You’re my baby’. He is used to being misunderstood. He sits on his bottom for a while and then shuffles off towards the climbing frame.

Frances lights a cigarette and hangs over her balcony, watching the activity below. So many people on their phones. She is not a fuddy duddy, but even the parents stare at screens while they ignore their children. What has the world come to? The jacket is still under the slide. Someone surely will pick it up soon. If only they’d look up. Not her job. It irritates her, nonetheless.

Kayla had expected it to hurt but she hadn’t been prepared for the loss of control, the way the process took over her body while she spun anxiously outside herself, powerless to do anything but watch as she spasmed and clenched and turned inside out with pain. She was genuinely worried at one point that she was going to die, but when the head came out, gruesome and alien between her legs, she found a new determination, and pushed and shoved and expelled the thing from her. She hadn’t expected the afterbirth, like something from a horror movie. She hadn’t expected to lose consciousness, briefly, on the bathroom floor. The baby’s hands were chubby but wrinkled at the same time, her miniature fingers creased like they had just been unpacked, which in a way, they had. The feet had come out last, slipping so quickly behind her that Kayla, dazed and befuddled with shock, had needed to check that she had feet at all. Her toes were surprisingly long. Kayla had expected them to be squashed together like a doll’s toes, perhaps not even separated. The next morning, she had no idea how she’d managed to clean up and get back into bed. It was as if someone else had done all those things, and also run her over with a truck and also left a baby in the bottom of her wardrobe wrapped in a hoodie and crying like a kitten. The clock was moving too slowly. She needed a new pad before the end of class. She put up her hand.

Late afternoon, two hours from nightfall. The park is emptying again. The slide is giving back the sun’s borrowed heat. A possum has woken and is scratching itself in one of the trees. A rat sniffs around the playground looking for food. It comes across a human baby, alone and still. It climbs curiously into the coat. The baby’s ears are small and meaty. It considers them.

Hannah is stir crazy. She should have taken the children out to the park, rain or no rain. Why does she never learn? She bundles them into their jackets. They don’t want to go now, of course. Gabriel screams and flops like a rag doll in protest at being dressed. Rafe stubbornly clings to the ipad until she tells him he can take it in the car. She sits in the driveway for a minute, deep breathing. The fresh air will be worth it.

Frances closes her curtains early and turns on the lamps. The jacket under the slide nags at her, like a hang nail, or the sight of an open cupboard door. She should have just gone out and fetched it.

Kayla steps off the school bus and glances in the direction of the park. The enormity of it overwhelms her. She can’t look. What if, what if, what if. She turns resolutely in the other direction, feeling all the time as if she is being watched. Passing a public phone box, she hesitates and then turns back. She has never used one before but it’s not difficult. When the operator answers, she is not sure which service to ask for, police or ambulance or fire. She makes her voice low and hoarse. ‘Somebody has left a baby in the playground on the corner of Morris St and Adelaide Lane’ Then she hangs up. At home, she goes straight to her room.

Frances turns on the news at six o’clock. Just breaking, a baby girl has been found abandoned in a park and is now in hospital in a stable condition. Police are appealing for the mother to come forward and seek medical help. She can’t believe it. Look at the state of the world.

Photo by Ksenia Chernaya on Pexels.com

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