Sometimes the Baby sleeps. This is no time for complacency. We use the time to clean the walls, re-stock the muslin cloths, wash the soiled nappies. If the walls are clean, we clean them again: the Baby’s health could be at risk. There is no end to how clean we can make its environment. We draw a vacuum over the big, soft armchair. We polish the large, voluptuous rattle. We have to stop often because the Baby has woken, is crying for food, needs to be burped, has shit itself. Every job is related to meeting the Baby’s needs, whether it be neurological stimulation exercises or coring apples for pureed fruit.
We try to teach the Baby things. It is unable to learn. It has an irritated temperament and kicks at the squashy picture books we give it. It knows no words and has not progressed in learning any, even though we have been here for some time now and even though we have asked Camille, who is the most charming of all of us and has the most soothing voice, to tell the Baby a story about a chimp that made friends with a bird. The Baby didn’t care. It wriggled and cried so loudly that her words were drowned out. Huge watery tears rolled down its cheeks. In the tea room, we whisper between ourselves, spinning theories about why the Baby is so angry. It is so recalcitrant and so mean. Different people have different ideas. Camille says the Baby cries because it can’t articulate itself. To Camille, the cries are cries of frustration. Melodie, who has a compressed median nerve from rubbing the Baby’s back too much, thinks the Baby has a bad karmic load from a previous life. Gustav is ruthless. He thinks the Baby has brain damage. According to Gustav, it hit its head on something hard when it came out of the womb.
Members of the Baby’s family are people of high influence and lofty diplomatic standing. Consequently, they are at greater liberty to speak freely and behave as they want, as opposed to most other people, who, in this region, must behave as if protection of the Baby— obsession with the Baby—is the highest purpose possible. I can see the utility of working for the Baby. If I didn’t work for the Baby, I wouldn’t have income. But other aspects of life with the Baby feel dishonest and forced. Like, for example, the idea that serving the Baby and the Baby structuring social and political life is an organisational strategy much richer and more effective than how things work anywhere else.
Sometimes I have conversations with Camille about what people in other regions do. What do they eat for breakfast? How do they spend their afternoon hours? When I imagine the places outside of our city, I think about white flowers and narrow lakes. I don’t know where these images came from. Maybe my mother told them to me. Maybe I heard them in passing, from overheard chatter on the street. I could have read about them somewhere. But, if I did, I don’t remember where.
Someone at work offers me a one-month contract. He has noticed how quietly and selflessly I have acted, how diligently I have gone about my day and scrubbed stains from the Baby’s clothes. The one-month contract means I can get away for a little while. The instructions are very specific. He tells me to catch a train to a city four hours west. In that city, there is one of the Baby’s aunts. She has a life full of freedom and frivolity. In that city, she has been saying mean and untrue things about the Baby. She has been saying that the Baby is only a baby, and that what the Baby needs is a good smack. The task I am given is to convince this aunt, using subterfuge, to return to the city, where she will no doubt be reprimanded or locked up or something. I’m not really on board with using violence, but I don’t want to pass up the opportunity to travel four hours west.
I know that, if I complete this task successfully, I could get a promotion. Honestly, it’s not an unattractive carrot. I’m sick of the room I rent. The way it goes is you either spend the majority of your income on a room or on food. If you spend your money on food, you have to sleep in a hall at work. Because I pick the other arrangement, I pretty much live on tinned chickpeas. Apart from hummus you can’t do much with chickpeas. I’ve tried it all: chickpea cake, chickpea soup, chickpeas with milk. The others can keep their chanterelle mushrooms, their bushels of green apples, their merlot wine. All they do in the sleeping hall is become drunk and steal blankets from one another.
Other people have been sent out. Paul returned after being away for a while. When he came back, he was lifted out of primary care and into administration. Apparently he started smelling of vodka—acrid and hot—and bought a blazer with sky-blue lining that he cared for, meticulously. Amelia was sent out a year ago. We never speculate where she went, but I do privately, in my head. She might have used the contract as an opportunity to run away. I imagine her hitching rides on alpine trains. I imagine her eating hunks of bread and young cheese. She might be sleeping under pine trees and curled up under a blanket made from fine wool.
I enjoy the train ride out of town. My carriage is empty, and there is sharp coffee in polystyrene cups. I expected life outside the Baby’s region to be populous: that there would be noise and people and that the countryside would be colourful and festive. Instead, outside it’s silent. Everything is covered in a foot of snow. The snow has a muffling effect. I can’t identify anything under it, and the landscape, from behind the window of the train, looks uniform. Fields look like houses, which look like trees. There are no animals I can see. I try to quash the deep feeling of unease that this landscape gives me. It’s a feeling that, actually, life is more uniform than I thought. Maybe people in other regions don’t have it better. Their life is equally full of struggle. Perhaps the snow banks them in, foiling their plans and keeping them immobile.
In the new city, which, as expected, is similar to my own, I would like to put off finding the aunt. I would like to walk in it for days without direction. It is a great luxury to have so much space between the Baby and I. It gives me a delirious, dreamy feeling. If I am not careful, I will forget myself and my task.
I start at cinemas. She’s not in the first one, but I stay and watch a little of the movie anyway. On the screen, people are flying through a forest of bamboo. The aunt is loitering in the doorway of the second cinema I visit. I recognise her for her exuberant clothing, her grey ringlets. Her skirt is the colour of a Vitamin C tablet, and she is wearing patent grey brogues. I follow her inside. In the corner of the foyer, there is a lady selling ice cream cones with round chocolate shells. Something smells like butter.
We sit in the theatre and watch a film. The film doesn’t make sense. First there is a woman with blonde curls around her face. Before her, there’s a mirror with old-fashioned lightbulbs. The woman’s mouth forms a sudden o—in ecstasy or in horror. A creature, dripping goop, emerges from a lake. Next, a pilot wearing goggles in an airplane careens over tiny fields. The fields are jewel green. The shot begins to flicker in and out of focus. It looks as though the pilot is going through a series of clouds.
The screen goes violet. There is a low droning sound. From the chair beside me, the aunt begins whispering into my ear. Her breath smells like peppermint, and she whispers all the usual stuff, the stuff I was warned about, the stuff I have to be resilient agains—the Baby is a foil for faceless power; it is delicious to run naked down the side of a mountain; there is heady power in choosing your own outfits, like, for example, hot pink or tulle. The words she uses and the way she puts them together are beautiful and musical. They give me chills. The woman and the creature and the pilot begin to make associative sense. I see the possibility of sea monsters living near cities living near pilots living near actresses living near lakes. Sense can be drawn from the conflation, if I can slow down enough to draw it out.
I look beside me and see that the aunt is gone. Clumps of chocolate shell from her ice cream melt on her seat. I could try to find her again. But it’s useless. I know I won’t be able to control her. I won’t be able to convince her anything I’m saying is true. I am not strong enough to manhandle her ideas or her body, even though her frame is slight and aged. This is because the things she says are too aberrant and too powerful. As soon as she speaks, I get hot and cold with shame and longing. I imagine myself as an older woman like her. How thrilling to have grey hair and roam the streets muttering. How thrilling to eat ice cream messily. How thrilling to live in this dirty, disgusting city and still behave like life is a joyous joke.
I know it won’t be long before they send some type of guards. I won’t know what the guards will look like until they’re here. The guards could be wearing black shirts or the guards could be wearing white shirts. The guards could be in stripes, or dressed like supermarket clerks. There are guards at my work, back with the Baby. Outside the doors of the Baby’s building, there are a group of guards carrying machine guns. I have never heard those machine guns go off, but, when I pass them, I see small circular tips where the bullets come out. It might be exciting to hear the sound of those guns break out. But I doubt, when the guards come for me, that it will be anything that monumental. When I realise what’s happening, it will probably already have happened. I wish the aunt would come back and help me. I wish to see white flowers and narrow lakes. I wish for some type of deliverance. I want to live long enough to be a fugitive. I want my hair to turn a brilliant and silvery grey.