Heather McQuillan

Heather McQuillan was a winner in Best Small Fictions, 2017. She writes short stories and even shorter stories. She also writes novels for young people. Heather is Director at the School for Young Writers.

When writing, I discover truths in what I have written. I don’t intend these truths when I start out — they arrive on their own. I must then rework the pieces so readers can discover these truths for themselves.

An Epiphany of Gravity

There’s this baby on his chest, with appleseed eyes that stare unfocused over his shoulder into a rectangle of light. He examines tiny white spots on her nose, ears curled like dried apricots, the lack of chin. When he rests his lips on her head he feels the vibrations of her buzzing mind. There she is, he tells himself. She is not just staring at light; she is forming shape and shadow, fathoming distances, learning perception. Hamish registers that this is a moment to savour. He closes his eyes and allows his other senses to absorb the smell of skin only recently exposed to air, the sound of breath in unused lungs, the rate of her quavering heart, so fast, so fast. His daughter has her mother’s colouring, gifting her protection from New Zealand’s harsh sun. He subtracts a miniscule amount of responsibility.

When the nurse is called away, he sees how she is torn between two duties. He doesn’t blame her. Hell, he doesn’t trust himself! Now, with Daisy in the shower, he is alone with his daughter, his torso wrapped in a sheet to prevent his bare back from pasting with sweat to the vinyl chair. The midwife made him remove his shirt and laughed at his reluctance, not cruelly, just in that brisk ‘don’t be a duffer’ way women use with men in their domain. “Come on, I’ve seen it all before. Babies don’t judge.”

Hamish feels precarious, as if he’ll slide off the chair and his little girl will smash to the floor, her head made of china, but even as he thinks this he tells himself he will let his own head smash first, that he will cushion her in his soft, white belly.

“It helps the father and child to bond,” the midwife had said. This was a revelation to Hamish despite all the reading he’d done on the Internet. These are not things men talk about and, if they are, then not the men that Hamish works with. From them he’s only heard the ‘welcome-to-our-suffering’ sort of jokes. “No more sex for you for about 18 years!” Guffaws that cut off as they picture Daisy, realise that he may not be joining their ranks after all. Hamish is offended on Daisy’s behalf but says nothing. Of course he says nothing.

When his cheek rests against the silky black hair on his baby’s head, he recalls a white rabbit. Maybe it was kindergarten; they were sitting cross-legged on the mat. He remembers being told to pass the rabbit on. “Everyone needs a turn.” But it wasn’t that he didn’t want to share the rabbit, it was that he hadn’t stopped wanting it yet. He didn’t have the words to explain the difference. Hamish’s childhood memories are mostly white – white bread, milk drunk straight from the bottle, white-wire drying racks slung with damp towels and underpants. He was a maggot child. No, not a maggot, maggots squirm over and under brothers and sisters. A singular huhu grub then, soft as scrambled egg inside. My daughter will have better, he promises.

Hamish watches the dent on his daughter’s head pulse and imagines now that each pulse is a thought of womb safety. He wonders how long he has before she will discern between dream and reality and blame him. Her hand lifts, experimenting with the newness of air, and drops back again with an epiphany of gravity. He tests her weight in one hand before he lets go with the other, just for a moment, to tuck the cotton throw back over her arm and shoulder. The movement distracts her from the window light. For a moment her eyes find his and he misses a breath.

When Daisy returns from the shower, she finds both of them with their eyes closed. Hamish startles awake and Daisy is smiling but it is that smile of hers that contains both a scold and a willingness to endure. He wonders how long before he sees that smile on his daughter’s face. He’s read that it will only be wind before six weeks. The baby’s lips pucker and suckle and Hamish worries that she’ll try to latch on to his hairy nipples. He passes her to Daisy and, when he clambers out of the chair, the sheet sticks to his back. His heart must race to bring blood to his brain in order to readjust the pressure. He is suddenly aware that he is far too big for this room. Daisy sits and beckons for a pillow. Hamish hears his own heart beat as if he is in a womb and her gesture is under water. He stands there dumbly.

“I need a pillow.” Her tone tells him that her patience has been snipped along with the umbilical cord. He grabs a pillow from the bed; it is full and heavy, the pillowcase crisp with starch. He settles it beneath her elbow. Daisy undoes a few buttons and composes the baby into the crook of her arm. She manoeuvres a swollen nipple into the baby’s mouth. The baby’s lips move rhythmically sucking, faster and frantic as the milk releases. Hamish is aroused and, a heartbeat too late, knows shame. He flusters, says he just needs to get a drink of water. In his haste he almost forgets to put his shirt back on so that, when he shambles into the corridor, he is still tucking himself in. A woman in a purple dressing gown glares at him. Her judgement balances his pitching emotions. In a way he is grateful to her for restoring normality.

Hamish doesn’t need others to point out the unevenness; he feels the way he and Daisy tilt the world every time they’re together. In the Philippines people looked from Daisy and up to him and gave approval. The kids on the street called out to him. “Kiwi! All Black!”
Back in New Zealand no one mistakes his bulk for rugby prowess, and when people see them together he hear the whispers even if it is just their nostrils twitching.
“Mail Order Bride.”
“Couldn’t get a real kiwi woman.”

Hamish walks down the stairs, three levels to the ground floor. The back doors slide open to reveal a park bench surrounded by cigarette butts crushed in the dirt. As he sits he feels the weight of his phone in his pocket and remembers his promise to post up a photo. He scrolls through and selects one of the baby with her eyes open. It will be shared rapidly around the globe to all Daisy’s relatives, to a family dispersed like wind-blown seeds. One of the nurses snapped a photo of his daughter on his chest. A rectangle of light from the window exaggerates his whiteness. He blames himself for his thick neck, pasty-dough-face, pale eyebrows over backwash eyes, and for his ineptitude at smiling for the camera. He thinks, you cannot help but be a fatalist when you are born with a face. Imagining the trolling if that ever went viral, he deletes the photo from his phone.

Hamish scuffs the cigarette butts with his shoes. A scrawny young man with tats and dirty jeans leans back by the door under a No Smoking sign. Today, they have enough in common that Hamish does not immediately drop his eyes and is therefore the recipient of one of those chin lifts that young men use.
“A boy,” the guy says, prideful, sucking in nicotine, tar, and carbon monoxide. He doesn’t look old enough to be a father.
“Girl,” says Hamish.
“Cool,” says the guy.
Hamish hurries inside disquieted by a fleeting sense of responsibility for this man’s child too. At least I don’t smoke, he thinks. If I did, then I’d give up for her. Instead of finding virtue in quitting smoking, he takes the stairs. Three flights up, each one becoming an increasing, yet satisfying, struggle. He promises himself that he will take the stairs from now on.

His daughter is swaddled in muslin, tucked into the metal hospital crib. Her eyes fasten on his but when he moves they fail to follow. He sees the weight of the ceiling press on her eyelids until they flutter closed. He thinks he sees a personality already etching itself across that face.

Hamish took one of those tests where personalities are categorized (like some sort of scientific astrology) into twelve types. When he read his result, he was so angry he ended up with a stomach ache, which you could say proved it wrong. He suffers from emotions like a seasickness, carries a dread that one day the churning will vomit out in great purging retches. And he does not lack empathy. He recognizes all too quickly the thoughts of others, sees them ripple across faces like electronic tickertape. The boss often mentions that they are a ‘people-oriented company’ – as if other companies served microbes or A.I. – and that the sort of people they want working there are ‘people people’. Hamish figures that ‘people people’ only like people who are also ‘people people’ which makes them ‘people people people’.

I don’t need anyone else, he tells himself. Just Daisy. And the baby. But Hamish is being sent home alone. The midwife is brisk when she tells him loudly, “Have a shower and some sleep and come back tomorrow. Let her rest.” He hears that it is his fault entirely. He should have thought of this nine months ago and restrained himself. When she mentions the word shower, he realizes he never put deodorant on before they rushed out last night, wonders why these things don’t occur to him until too late. He bends to kiss them both and the thought leaps into him that now he has two people and it is a joy weighted down.

“Call me before you go to bed,” Daisy says. She hands him the ward number.

He shuffles between the shadows of buildings and the glare of a low winter sun, worrying about the cost of heating their flat to protect the lungs of a baby who should have been born in the tropics. He considers how long it will be before Daisy says she must go out to work too. He had seen her eyes glance at the Filipina nurses in their pastel print tops, seen her calculating how little money he earns and thinking that, when her papers come through, she will be able to send more money home. Hamish has a sudden flush as he sees himself as the caregiver and Daisy the breadwinner. This idea is so rational. She will earn more, he is tidier than her and he can learn to cook. Once the baby is weaned it would make sense – he will take the baby for long walks, he will lose weight. He dismisses the idea.

Hamish rests on a bench by a playground. His phone buzzes with the first of the emojis. He looks up from his phone to the playground and the children with their weekend fathers. He envisages a few years ahead, a better version of himself with his daughter – her bundled against the cold, cheeks flushed, eyes bright as he waits nervously beside the slide, his hands hovering ready to catch her. Then he sees one of the fathers take a step towards him. I’ve got the gist of you mate, flickers across the man’s face, and only then does Hamish become aware that he is holding up his phone and he is looking at children on a playground. He wishes he could walk over, show them the picture of him with the baby on his belly. I am not what you think, he wants to shout. He gets up quickly, too quickly maybe, and hurries away home.

He opens a window before the last of the sunshine goes, and just stands and breathes. Most days he has such a deep longing for the sort of solitude when he can be still for a moment without causing offense that he grasps at it in greedy gulps. But today it does not satisfy. Today, the flat has extra walls, huge block-work creations that echo back at him and he wants Daisy and the baby home making little noises, and he wants to get in their way. He wants to watch Daisy breastfeed and pass her a glass of water and make her small treats to eat. He wants to see her nibble on chocolate biscuits in the way she has, tiny bites around the edges, licking her fingers.

There is a white-framed mirror on the wall in the baby’s room. He searches for signs of fatherhood but his usual fat boy-face looks back, although now, his beard’s ginger is tinged grey around his lips as if he has failed to wipe away cappuccino foam. This is the face that the baby will see when her eyes come into focus. He tries to recreate it to become the face of a father, but he doesn’t have much to go by, just old sitcoms, and look what happened to Bill Cosby.

Hamish has never written goals. Get rich. Get hitched. Buy a yacht and cruise the Islands. He’d say wrong order, mate, but just to himself. Actually he’d say, defining goals defines your limitations. Let the world happen. Or nothing. He’d say nothing. Of course Hamish second-guesses himself, questions if his philosophy is just an Internet meme and his excuse for laziness.

Later he touches the empty space beside him and remembers that he has not called Daisy and now it is late. He worries that the nurses will scold so he doesn’t call. Sleep eludes him, or grabs onto him in snatches and then throws him back to wakefulness.

In the morning he realises that the baby is now more than 24 hours old. He picks up the phone and it rings. I was just about to call, he says and it sounds like a lie. Daisy wants him to bring in her cardigan, the one with the lace trim. He shoves two of Daisy’s cardigans in a supermarket bag. Both of them have lace trim and he cannot work out which she wants.

In the hospital gift store he sweats and stammers when the assistant approaches him, so ends up with a pink teddy, a balloon and a bouquet of flowers, all wrapped in cellophane and too expensive. As soon as his credit card is back in his pocket he regrets the purchase, not because of the cost but because it is the thoughtless, last-minute gift that a guilty husband buys. As he passes by the lift, one of the doors opens and it is empty. He has already arrived in the lift, his finger already pressed on the button for the third floor before he remembers his promise.

Next time, he promises his daughter, next time I will take the stairs.