Prakash stared at the face of his sleeping son. As the soft light of the hallway seeped into the baby room he stayed there watching for what must have been ten minutes. Little Ali's stomach rose and fell with his breathing. Peaceful and perfect. He seemed small compared to his big new cot, the difference as striking as the sound of quiet breathing to the earlier screaming. The instructions on the spray said he should watch for a full five minutes. 'Just in case' the chemist had said, going on to say that it had been extensively tested, and the caution was there just to satisfy parents. After four months of what seemed like constant crying, Prakash thought he could watch for ever. He wanted to call out for June to join him, but his months of dread at the waking cry silenced him.
Every night since Ali was three months old; Prakash had put him to bed. At first it had taken two hours. Then it was only one and a half. He suffered with his small son, whose baby cries shattered the evenings. Nightly, Prakash experienced horrendous heartburn, starting from bath time and only receding when Ali had been silent for 15 minutes. It must have been that long now, as he was no longer aware of every inch of his oesophagus. Yet it had not taken long tonight. He had put the boy down and listened to the strains of Ali's cry only for five minutes as he made up his mind to use the Trilocylene. The Chemist's voice was in his head – 'Just because our parents didn't have it doesn't mean we can't use it – you think the kids enjoy the screaming?'
As the instructions had said, he sprayed the mist three centimetres from Ali's mouth at the height of a cry. Just thirty seconds later, Ali was in a deep sleep. Breathing deeply through his nose and mouth simultaneously. His stomach pushing against his pyjamas in a rhythm as old as time.
The next day he felt a different kind of tired. He had slept for 8 hours, waking and disbelieving his watch. Touching June and motioning to the clock. Her eyes saw the time and went wide with joy. Then, as it always came, the dread was there. She ran down the hall to Ali's room. He lay back on the covers, ears waiting for the scream that would tell him his life was ruined. It did not come. He rose and walked down the hall, straightening his dressing gown. She was mimicking his stance of the night before, watching the beauty of their sleeping son.
Seven hours later at his desk, he had finished a call and was taking a screen break. Rolling his neck and shoulders, he removed his ear piece and stared at the photo of his wife and son. Ali, at three weeks, mouth open with the ghost of a smile on his impossibly tiny body. Obscuring June's smiling mouth, though her eyes shone, slightly out of focus behind the baby.
He heard a colleague talking, not to him: 'It was just the most peaceful place. Really amazing. I saw all these people that I hadn't seen in forever. I was in like a garden, or an oasis. Just so special. And I woke up feeling really happy, even that dick I just spoke to couldn't ruin it.'
'It wasn't too hot.'
'Yes it was, you fool. You don't believe me ask the little man you just burned.'
His hand fell with what was almost force down onto the bench. Ali's cries grew fainter as June took him to the other end of the house. He pushed his hands together, forcing the emotion down, remembering his conflict training.
She re-entered looking for the nappy, Ali whimpering. She muttered about uselessness, and all training was forgotten in a red loud crack.
'What the fuck do you want woman? I work harder than anyone for him. Why don't you do the bath just for fucking once?'
'You want a medal do you? You think you work so hard but if you were only organised you might finish just one job. Just one job, can you manage that?
'I wouldn't know, you bark so many orders from that couch! Look you're moving and working after 6pm, this must mean we're having a fight!' He called down the hallway, 'Night Ali, don't worry, Daddy will be doing everything again by tomorrow!'
How was it still hard, even when the baby was sleeping? He shifted weight for the 7000th time. Fight or no fight he should have slept like a log, or at worst, a baby. The fights had become a staple part of conversation since the pregnancy and perhaps he should be used to it. No, here was the insomnia, the guilt, the replaying and, worse, the reasoning. All the variables in the universe that made it her fault every time. He hated it because he felt so much better doing it. He hated it because he knew it would never occur to her that he was right. He hated that she had no empathy. He hated that he thought that.
He wanted Ali to wake, just so he could save the day. And be right. Every time he lost his temper he gave up being right. Every time.
On the bench was the second spray bottle. Sleep potion for babies. The wonder drug. He was sure the stocks were rising, not that they had any money to invest.
He rose and walked over, looking up the hallway toward their bedroom. 'I'm sorry', he whispered, not sure if he meant for the fight, or that they fought. He knew he meant it.
He raised the spray. Released and breathed. He carefully replaced the bottle and walked back to the couch. He smiled, realising he was already falling.
There were walls somewhere, he was sure, but he knew it didn't matter. Only that he was here. On a bright summer day amongst the pear trees that seemed to know his name. The grass underneath caressed his feet. He moved forward, feeling like he had found an old friend, towards a jacaranda in full bloom. The leaves stroked his face and danced gently in his palms. The breeze was a song he had known since birth, and in breathing he sang a counterpoint melody. Together they disturbed the ferns that swayed happily in their music.
He moved without walking; to his right a stream ran steady, attended by weeping willows and a smell from his mother's kitchen. His left showed his father, an old teacher and Ron from the mail room deep in discussion. They broke to wave to him. He returned their greeting, with no need to speak. Crawling towards him across a picnic blanket lost on their honeymoon was Ali, smiling gummily, years of friendship in his eyes. June was behind him, cutting fruit and laughing at a joke he had told her. Her hair shone.
In his first days as a ‘suit’ he had begun certain rituals. A coping mechanism for his new life as a bequest officer or 'suited alms requester' as he put it. There were the walks through the alleyways at lunch time, taking a book to the lobby and reading on Fridays, the occasional potato cake. He had become his father and embraced it, down to the charity. Each day the beggar stood respectfully near the escalators of the station. In his brown coat, his bearded face was obscured by his lank black hair. Never bothering, never hussling, simply shifting weight from foot to foot and holding a paper cup. Thanking warmly anyone who contributed.
Placing a coin in the cup became a part of the day. On his worst days, when he helped no one at work, it was his certainty. On his best days, it was still the only thank you he got.
Today the beggar stood with his eyes open wide. His head was tilted slightly back and his feet were still. As the procession of people moved past, a steady patter of dropping coins danced around his feet. His cup overflowed, mostly gold coins. Still people were reaching into their pockets, some placing a coin at his feet.
Prakash looked at the beggar and knew that the beggar was him. In a different body. He didn’t give him money, instead giving him an awkward embrace as he passed. The beggar's eyes opened, yellow around a blue iris and his lips shuttered and smiled, just slightly. Prakash stood with the beggar for ten seconds, as the coins danced around their feet.
‘Everyone’s using it now, except for Sirojini and Catherine. They say they just can’t trust it.’
‘More they don’t trust not suffering. Wasn’t Sirojini the one who had the four-day labour?’
‘And will talk about it every day until her daughter is fifty.’
They laughed, she had the song in her voice that had been gone for months. He hadn’t notice what had changed until it came back. She passed him the mash pumpkin in the plastic purple bowl. Ali played a rhythm with his spoon on his high chair. He sat down in front of his son and began blowing on the spoon to cool the food. She kept speaking as she stirred the pasta.
‘I feel so much better. Like I’ve remembered who I was after being uncertain for ages.’
‘You weren’t uncertain, just tired.’
‘I know who you are too.’
She said it quietly, with a smile that kept a secret. His hand paused on the way to Ali’s mouth. He looked at her and she him. Smiling like statues. ‘I’m glad you know.'
He was running late when the headline caught his eye: SAFE STREETS – VIOLENT CRIME FALLS, when he ran into the man. He staggered and looked, the man was huge and hulking. All beard and tattoos. As pedestrians scattered, Prakash's mind raced to the first week in Melbourne, the men who broke his windshield and called him darkie. He reeled like a frightened dog.
'I'm sorry sir.'
A massive hand fell on his shoulder; Prakash looked up at a scarred face that beamed at him. 'No worries mate, have a great day.'
It was only then Prakash noticed woman and baby behind the man. The baby was fast asleep.
The boss had been talking for 12 minutes. His voice rose and fell with each PowerPoint.
Watching him, Prakash shifted his weight from foot to foot and wished he had a chair, even though he sat all day. He kept his face as even as he could and did not shake his head.
‘An unprecedented rise in revenue has come from the bequests team this month. Their figures have risen 38% against last month and have fallen well into the green zone.’ Applause from all, he clapped along, even though he was in that team. 'We're unsure of the reasons behind this rise in donations but we're well placed to capture the change in market'. He sounded like a machine from a long time ago.
He hadn't wanted to call. He had tried five times. He had stared at the photo of Ali for a full minute before he had dialed the number. He was doing it for him; the entire job was for him.
'-its tax deductible and in line with the eight registered goals of the United Nations.'
'I'm sorry.' She sounded distracted, speaking to someone else for a second. 'I'm going to put you through to Angela.'
He felt his forehead crease. He was expecting a no. A deep female voice came on the line.
'This is Angela Parkin. What's your name?'
He told her. Reached for his glass of water. Touched it but didn't drink. His mouth went dry. He listened to the eighth richest woman in the world speak to him. She had never donated any of her money, he knew that.
'I realise you were speaking to Joan, but I think you won't mind talking to me. I want to help.'
'Thank you for taking the time Ms Parkin. I was saying to Joan...'
'You help people, right?
'I want to give you 40 million. More when I die, but 40 million now.'
He paused 'Thank you.'
'I'll pass you back to Joan for the details.'
'Ms Parkin, your actions will help thousands of people.'
There was a pause, Prakash wondered if the line had dropped out, but then Angela's voice returned. 'I've been apart so long. We're all together, aren't we?'
'Do you ever dream that we are all together?'
He touched his water again. 'Yes ma'am'.
'Things have changed since I became a grandmother. Do you have children, Prakash?'
'My son Ali is 8 months old.'
'Does he sleep well?'
'Maybe your Ali and my grandson have the same dreams, maybe we can all be together again.'
He was walking with his feet in the stream splashing slowly, moving underneath a willow tree. Its branches moved in the air above his head and as he emerged from the foliage he watched two cormorants fly slowly across his vision. He walked towards a patch of clover and lay down. Watching the trees around him dance. From somewhere he heard a bird call and Ali giggle. He knew there were many others here, the garden was vast. His fingers caressed the grass and his chest rose and fell. The water cooled him, the sun kept him warm, he was home amongst all that loved him. It was enough.