New Aotearoa Fiction: An excerpt from Baby
Annaleese Jochems' debut novel Baby was barely on the shelves when a reviewer praised her as a writer of 'horrific skill.' And she is: this psychological thriller by the 2016 Adam Prize winner has topped the bestsellers list and captured readers.
We asked Jochems to choose a chapter for you from Baby. The story follows Cynthia who steals money from her father to pay for the boat Baby, a sanctuary for her, her dog Snothead and Anahera, her fitness instructor and the woman of her dreams. But the reality of life in the Bay of Islands isn't what she hoped for, and the waters soon turn murky.
I was visiting a friend the other day, and he said he’d like to play me a song he found meaningful. I didn’t really understand the meaningfulness of the song, and made a lame joke right in the middle of it. My friend, Bob, told me today that after I made my joke and he realised I didn’t appreciate the music, he just sat there and couldn't wait for the song to end.
I’ve been unemployed lately, and some conversations I’ve had with particular people have given me a similar feeling to what I think he had while the song played; that other people’s impressions of value trump mine; that it’s somehow my job to convince them of the value of the things and activities I love; and that my failure to do so indicates a failure of value.
I picked this chapter from Baby partly because I think it’s quite funny at some parts, but also because it feels relevant to me right now. I want to think about work and employment and the way we value each other. People’s lives feel full and meaningful to them when they’re in their lives, but few people’s sense of personal meaning will withstand the mean, cold and detached kind of scrutiny that is routinely applied to the unemployed. Cynthia is someone who has felt sure all her life that she’d never suffer a loss of personal value under the gaze of others, but that certainty can only come from ignorance and wealth, and Baby is a story of what's left when her wealth is stripped away.
Cynthia watches Anahera paddle, trying to understand how she was getting it wrong the night before. How do you know where you’re going without turning to check? Anahera looks at Cynthia, who has dressed up very tidily. ‘Do you know how to ask for a job?’
Cynthia adjusts her blouse where it’s tucked into her pants. ‘Can I have a job?’
‘No,’ Anahera says. ‘That’s wrong.’
Cynthia stares up at the sun.
‘You say, “Hi, my name’s Cynthia.”’ Anahera puts out her hand and beams when Cynthia shakes it. ‘Then you say, “I was wondering if you happen to have any jobs going?”’
Cynthia makes a joke. ‘This isn’t the kind of role-play I want to do with you.’
Anahera pauses, pursing her lips as if she doesn’t get it, then says, ‘Say it back to me.’
‘Hi, my name’s Cynthia. I was wondering if you happen to have any jobs going?’
‘Sure,’ Anahera says.
Cynthia squeezes her sandwiches in their plastic bag.
Cynthia crossed this very same bridge only last night. Now, she trudges over it mutely, bringing up the rear. They go right past Snot-head’s tree, and she can’t remember how she hoped things would go today. She looks down the street before they cross it, and remembers the glow of the streetlights and how they led her to the bar like they were taking her home. They’re so high and dull now she’d miss them if she didn’t look up.
They arrive in town, outside the tourist shops. ‘Back at the wharf in an hour and a half,’ Anahera says, ‘and focus on restaurants and cafés, I think.’ Then she goes off in a direction.
Cynthia stands outside a café, and looks in the window. There’s a boy in there, grimacing and vigorously wiping a table. He looks up and smiles. She walks into a gift store next door and inspects a watch. A kindly grey-haired woman approaches, smiling.
‘Can I help you?’
The lady waits.
The lady smiles and tells her to have a good day.
Cynthia decides to go back to the school and have a lie down where she left Snot-head. Then she’ll come back, and go into more places. It’s a small town, and she doesn’t want to ruin all her chances in a rush.
She settles on her back and eats her sandwich slowly. There’s a boy squatting low under the slide at the playground. He’s wearing very, very tight denim shorts, and a loose long shirt. She looks closely, and he’s holding a spray can. He turns and pulls the fingers at her, then waits, struggling to maintain his balance, to see what she’ll do. She pulls the fingers back. He’s a cute kid. He nearly topples, but rights himself and keeps spraying.
This is where she let Snot-head go, and she wonders, where might he be? What might he have eaten this morning? She makes sure not to think of the shops, the people in them, or of Anahera. She closes her eyes and breathes in, then out.
A breathing noise that isn’t hers. She looks up and it’s the boy, puffed from jogging over. She shuts her eyes into slits, and watches him.
‘Don’t call the police,’ he says.
She opens her eyes completely. She’d never have thought to call anyone.
He’s a bit tubby, and red from the short run. ‘I’m quick, I’d just sprint off. It’d be embarrassing for you,’ he says. His face is concerned, squinting.
‘You’re not quick.’
His mouth falls open. She half expects a glob of spit to land on her.
‘What were you drawing?’
‘Aw.’ He’s ashamed. ‘Just a dick.’
‘I’ll come look at it,’ she says, and gets up. He’s much taller than her, but not yet properly formed. He doesn’t know how to hold his elbows, and they jut out like they might injure somebody. His face looks like putty.
‘Dicks are classic,’ she says, to reassure him.
He covers his mouth with his hand, but smiles and lollops after her to the slide.
‘Now listen,’ she says while they walk, ‘have you seen my dog? He’s a French bulldog. Quite ugly, but you know—a sweetheart.’
He listens closely. ‘Nah.’
The dick’s black, and he’s barely started filling it in. ‘What does it mean?’ she jokes, pointing at it.
He scrunches up his face, puzzled, and answers, ‘It’s a dick.’
She laughs to let him know she was kidding, and he smiles. Cynthia doesn’t want to go and lie alone, guilty in the grass, and she certainly doesn’t want to go into more shops asking for jobs. ‘What hobbies do you have?’ she asks him.
He starts spraying again. He’s at a difficult age, and she can see him deciding whether to trust her. He finishes the left ball, and says, ‘Creative destruction.’ The huge shirt he’s wearing has a picture of a dead duck on it. He taps the dick with his spray can to indicate it as an example of his activity. Then looks around, for witnesses.
‘Seems good,’ Cynthia says. ‘I don’t know too many people who’re into that.’
He takes a big, proud breath and begins the second ball. ‘Yeah, well, me and my friend were supposed to pee over the wharf onto the tourist boats last night, but he didn’t show.’
‘It’s okay,’ he tells her. ‘He’s only thirteen, prob’ly wouldn’t be able to reach anyway.’
‘Did you go without him?’
He sprays a little over the line. ‘Nah.’ Then smudges it with his finger, making it worse, and pats the problem spot with the pad of his thumb. ‘Keep an eye out for teachers.’
She nods and sits down in the bark, then asks him, ‘Are you bored?’
He shrugs, but looks down at her, differently now. ‘I’ll give you forty bucks for a twelve-pack of Cody’s.’
‘Nah,’ she says.
She hears him spray a little more, then stop. He coughs, and says, ‘You want something, or . . . ?’
‘No,’ Cynthia tells him, adjusting herself in the bark. Anahera’s probably found herself four jobs by now. He doesn’t start spraying again, and she looks up at him for a moment. His hair’s orange, a very bad attempt at blond. He almost definitely thinks it looks good. ‘You don’t have a job, do you?’ she asks him.
His eyebrows scrunch down, and his mouth puckers for a moment, then he says, ‘I wash the windows and sweep the floor at my house. And I go to school.’
‘Well,’ he says, ‘what do you even do?’
She should tell him off. Instead she says, ‘I have a boat.’
‘Whoa!’ He lifts up and down at his knees. ‘With Wi-Fi on it?’
Cynthia remembers she’s wearing her best blouse, her best pants, and that her shoes are black leather with sensible but serious heels. ‘Of course,’ she says.
‘Fuck!’ He switches his can from one hand to the other, then back again.
‘Yup!’ Cynthia nods. ‘It’s quite big, I guess, too.’
‘I’ll bet,’ he says, solemnly. He touches a finger to his mouth for a moment. Then asks her, ‘Do you drive through the rock hole?’
Cynthia doesn’t know what he means. ‘I have a girlfriend,’ she says. ‘We live on it together.’
He nods, bored. ‘Do you have a drinks cabinet?’
‘Yes,’ Cynthia tells him.
‘Oh my fucking god!’ he says. ‘I’ll give you my forty bucks if you take me through the rock hole.’
Something about the way his nose twitches reminds her of Snot-head. ‘I’m not sure about the rock hole,’ she says.
‘Ah!’ he laughs. ‘Can’t fit, eh?’
Cynthia scratches behind her ear, thinking. ‘There’s an island,’ she says.
‘Is it deserted?’ he asks, and she nods.
‘Alright,’ he says, and takes two twenties from his pocket. ‘I will give you my forty bucks if you let me come drink four beers on your boat, and take me to the deserted island.’
She looks up at him and his money. She doesn’t want to be alone with Anahera. ‘Two beers,’ she says. It’s probably time to get back to the bridge, so she gets up and walks that way. He follows, gesturing back at his dick. ‘Can finish that another day.’ He gives her the money, and she pockets it.
‘You’ll have to let me stay the night,’ he says, trotting ahead, then pausing to wait for her. ‘Can’t go home to my mum drunk. I’ll text and tell her I’m staying with my boy Roger.’
They’re early, and wait at the metal bridge together, under Snot-head’s tree. The boy lies down and sends his mum what must be a very carefully worded text message—it takes a while—then clicks a finger above his head. ‘Done.’
Cynthia nods. He shifts his legs around, trying to get comfortable, but he never will—not in those tight shorts. Snot-head’s tree droops down and shades one of his legs. She points at its trunk. ‘My dog pooed there.’
‘Aw,’ he says, and that’s all. He coughs then, and she thinks he’s faking. ‘Is she coming?’ he asks, of Anahera.
‘Yes, I said she was.’
‘Yeah,’ he says.
‘Um,’ she asks him, ‘what’s your favourite subject in school?’
He grunts, and as he does so, Anahera appears around the corner with bags of groceries.
‘Look!’ Cynthia says, pointing at the boy. ‘Isn’t he good?’
Anahera peers at him for only a moment. ‘Sure.’ She looks bored, so Cynthia doesn’t say more. ‘There’s nothing going,’ Anahera says, about jobs. ‘Nothing I want.’ She waggles the bags. ‘We’re broke, pretty much.’
The boy’s watching a seagull balance on one foot, pretending not to listen to them.
Cynthia presents the forty bucks, proudly now. ‘I told him we’d show him our boat and some stuff.’
Anahera looks down at Cynthia for a long time. The seagull flies away.
‘We’re broke,’ Cynthia mouths up at her.
‘What?’ But she got it. She walks off down the bridge to the dinghy.
‘Don’t worry about her,’ Cynthia tells the boy, ‘she’s often quite obscure.’
He looks back at her, away from where the gull was. ‘It’s alright,’ he says, ‘my sister’s a complicated person too, she says so herself.’
Cynthia can’t help smiling. She tugs his shirt, and he follows her down the bridge.
In the dinghy he says, ‘I can’t see your boat.’ He’s big and he leans to the right, so the dinghy leans that way too. Anahera laughs and paddles.
Cynthia tells her, ‘I thought we could go to your island, today or tomorrow.’
‘Tomorrow,’ the boy says. ‘That’s what I texted my mum.’
‘He already texted his mum,’ Cynthia explains.
Anahera nods. ‘My island?’ she asks.
‘The one you swim to.’
The water’s gentle around them, and the air’s a little heavy and wet on Cynthia’s shoulders; it’ll rain soon. Anahera keeps paddling, and sucks her top lip. The boy looks at each boat they pass, craning his neck for the big ones, then back at Cynthia. She smiles.
‘What sort of beer will it be?’ he asks, and it starts raining.
Anahera swings her head around at Cynthia, glaring. Then back to the boy. She says, nicely, ‘You won’t be drinking any beer on our boat, sweetie.’
‘That’s fine, I guess,’ he says. He frowns, and settles his elbows against his thighs.
‘Do you want us to take you back?’ she asks him. ‘We’ll give you your money.’
He looks at the water, and the rain falling into it in plonks, then lifts his shoulders and holds his hands together in front of him. ‘No thanks,’ he says. ‘I want to go to the deserted island.’
Cynthia smiles at him, thankfully, and he grins back. Under his breath he’s muttering the chorus from that one Kendrick song, ‘Sit down, and drank. Stand up, and drank. Pour up, and drank.’
He’s got the lyrics a bit wrong. Cynthia interrupts him. ‘With most things, I’m allowed some part in the decision-making process.’ The wind changes, and a lot of rain hits her face in a slap.
He waits till she’s wiped her eyes and reassembled her face before nodding. Then he skips forward in his muttering to a later part of the song, ‘I wave my bottles, and watch girls all flock. They all wanna—’ Mid-sentence, he looks up and sees her still looking at him. She smiles reassuringly, and he settles, quiet.
‘Cynthia,’ Anahera says, now he’s stopped.
Anahera turns to the boy. ‘How old are you?’
She keeps looking at him.
‘Fifteen, and uh’—he calculates with his fingers—‘four months.’
Anahera looks back at Cynthia.
Cynthia shrugs. He leans forward and takes an apple from their bags. His knees are high up, lifted at least level with his tummy button. She notices his yellow hair again, and touches her nose. It’s got a spot. The water’s a little rough, and the dinghy rocks now they’re out in it. He stretches his legs out, and they’re scabby. Rain runs down them in drops. He’s got broad shoulders, strong thighs, and a wider than average mouth. He shrugs for no reason.
Baby’s much smaller with him on board. They sit around the table, and he kicks the steel pipe holding it up. Anahera and Cynthia watch him quietly while he crunches through a second apple. When he’s done Anahera asks him, ‘What things do you like?’
‘Uh,’ he says, ‘sports.’
‘Oh!’ Anahera jumps up a little in her seat. ‘I’m a gym instructor, and I’m always saying to Cynthia, there’s so much exercise to be had here.’ She gestures to the little window above the sink, which is now being pummelled with rain. Cynthia nods, pleased to see her all perked up.
He breathes in and touches his ugly hair. She gets up to show him his bunk, in the cabin. ‘It’s a lot more comfortable than it looks,’ she smiles and tells him, although she’s never slept in it. As they’re standing there, looking through the little door at the bed, the boat shifts suddenly sideways. She slips onto him, and he holds her up. His mouth smells thickly of lollies and Coke. Anahera’s weights are heavy and moving above them, and Cynthia puts herself firmly on her feet.
‘Cool,’ he says, and laughs, then stands up on the table and knocks the panel in the ceiling. ‘What’s this?’ Neither Anahera nor Cynthia answers, but he jumps up onto his seat, slides the panel back, and sticks his head through. ‘You should renovate,’ he tells them, echoing. ‘Make up here a second floor for lying down in. Hot-box it. Shit-tons of cushions, I reckon. Psyche-fucking-delic.’
‘No,’ Anahera says, ‘get down.’
‘Psychedelic,’ he repeats, as if he’s not heard her. He thrusts himself up onto his elbows, so his feet dangle at Cynthia’s eye level.
‘That’s dangerous,’ Anahera says sternly. ‘Get down.’ Cynthia remembers her weights up there. He sighs, and his feet thump back onto the table.
Once he’s sat laboriously back down beside Cynthia and taken a full minute to look around at everything in their one room, he asks, ‘Where do you shit?’ He’s not looking at them, but up at the ceiling. Cynthia notices paint flaking there where she didn’t before, at the edges.
Anahera gets up to show him the toilet and the bucket you dip into the sea for water to flush it with. ‘It’s on a string, so you don’t lose it.’
Cynthia can’t see his face, but almost hears his mouth pucker. Why did she invite him into their home? They come back and he sits again, beside her. She inhales and says, ‘We’re out of money,’ dramatically, still trying to show him a good time.
‘I know,’ he says, ‘I heard before.’
She forces a smile. ‘Yes, well. We’re unemployed.’
Baby was launched on 14 September 2017 and is available from Victoria University Press.