Protection, by Emma Salkild

‘You’re making a mistake,’ Louie says to me as he strokes my belly. ‘You’re here for a reason. You don’t need to go anywhere.’
I walk away from him to the kitchen where I pull out a pack of Tim Tams and bring it back to the lounge room. I offer him one but he declines.
‘I’m going to miss these,’ I say as I bite into the soft chocolate biscuit.
‘How is she?’ he asks, motioning to my belly.
‘Pretty bloody settled,’ I say.
He smiles at me, his eyes softening. The hairs around his temples are going grey. It makes him look sexier, more distinguished. Me on the other hand, I’ve noticed the crow’s-feet around my eyes are deeper and my toes look like sausages. At least my hair is thick, although, no one gets to see it because it’s always stuffed under a wig. Except Louie, he gets to see me for who I am: brown hair and green eyes. I think about when I first arrived here and Louie had insisted I stay indoors all the time, but after a month he relaxed and I could go out as long as I was disguised. Sometimes a woman can get sick of disguises.
‘See you tomorrow,’ he says, as he makes his way to the front door. He must have thought better of it because he comes back and plants a kiss on my cheek.
‘Good night Louie,’ I say. ‘Sweet dreams.’

My dreams that night are about Nick. I’m about to tell him the news, ‘you’re going to be a father,’ but he’s walking away from me and won’t listen.
My baby kicks my bladder, waking me up. I run for the bathroom, dying for a wee. When was the last time I had more than four hours sleep?
‘Please baby,’ I say to her. ‘Please come out. I want to get on that plane. We need to tell daddy about you.’
I go to send Nick an email. It’s useless because he has blocked me but I do it anyway.

Louie comes over the next morning with croissants and coffee. He sits next to me and puts a hand on my knee. His gun looms out of the top of his trousers. At first when I would see it my heart would start racing and I’d be racked with fear. Now when I glimpse the grey of the gun it’s strangely reassuring.
‘Why are you doing this?’ he asks. ‘It’s not worth your life or hers.’ His eyes glued to my belly. I raise my hands to my head and massage my temples.
‘Just because Rupert is locked up doesn’t mean all his mates aren’t out there looking for you,’ he says.
‘I’ve made up my mind. I should have told Nick ages ago about …’ I look down to my stomach, ‘well, I should have told him the truth, and I’ve left it so late no airline is going to let someone 41 weeks pregnant on to their flight.’
‘What you’re doing is bloody suicide. You’ve annoyed off a lot of people by putting Rupert away, and rumour has it that he’s got a price on your head for £50,000.’
‘Enough,’ I say holding up my hand. ‘I don’t want to talk about it anymore.’
I pick up my croissant, break some bits off and dunk it in my coffee. Little bits of crumbs fall around me.
‘I thought the Poms were supposed to have good table manners,’ he says as he picks up a crumb from my ballooning belly. I shrug. Usually this would have resulted in some playful banter, a quick quip from me leading to his witty retort. When was the last time Louie made me laugh? He leans in to kiss me and coffee goes over my top.
‘Ouch! Jesus, Louie,’ I say, but I don’t have the energy to stand or to rub the coffee off me. I just sit there, watching him as he shakes his head and walks away.

I check Nick’s Twitter, Facebook, Flickr… anything I can find. He’s dating someone else, a bleached-blonde who now has a diamond on her finger. When I scan through the photos of them I try and read his face for a strained smile or a teary eye. The two of them look so innocent and I wonder if maybe he is happy, maybe it’s best if he doesn’t find out what actually happened and the true reason behind why I left. I touch my tummy, ‘be a good girl and come out soon. We got us a flight to catch.’

Louie comes back that afternoon.
‘I’ve been assigned a new case,’ he says. ‘No one can force you to stay in witness protection.’
‘Okay,’ I say.
He nods. The strained smile and teary eye that I looked for on Nick is clearly on Louie’s face. I stand up and take a step towards him, but then decide against it and sit back down on the couch.
‘You’re a nut case, you know that, a fucking nut case,’ he says to me. His face is red and his fists are clenched.
‘I’m sorry,’ I say.
‘Forget it. Just forget it. You’re on your own,’ he says as he leaves.

I watch YouTube clips of the day Rupert Rogers was led from the courtroom, handcuffed, into a car. He got what he deserved. But what about me? Did I get what I deserve? Being forced to leave my home and become someone else.
‘For his own good we suggest you don’t see your boyfriend again,’ they had said to me. ‘Otherwise, you risk putting his life in danger. You must block all correspondence with him.’
Ironically, the blocker became the blockee and six months later when I tried to contact Nick I couldn’t. Thoughts run through my mind, did he shut me out because it was too painful? Does he love me still? Would he want this baby? Do I even love him after Louie and everything that has gone on between us? I slam my laptop shut and visualise throwing my computer against the wall when I am hit with an incredible pain. It feels as though my stomach is being wrenched into a tight ball. The pain lasts for about 30 seconds and I am left breathless. A dull ache throbs through my back and I go to the fridge, grab some crackers and a glass of water and then sit on the couch, mobile phone in hand. Another bolt of pain pierces through me and I bend over, clutch my stomach and breath heavily. Again it only lasts about 30 seconds and once it’s over, I dial Louie.
He answers straightaway.
‘It’s happening,’ I say, ‘my waters haven’t broken, but … I think this is it.’
‘Are you okay? Are you doing everything we discussed in the classes?’
‘Yeah, I’ve got food and drink. I’m sitting upright.’
‘Good, good. I’ll be there soon.’
‘Thanks Louie,’ I say, but he’s already hung up. I fall back into the chair and try to doze through the contractions.
Louie is at my door within an hour. He rushes over to me. Kneeling down, he takes my hand and guides me to my feet. He knows where my hospital bag is and he grabs it on our way out. I am led down the stairs, into his car.
We go to the hospital. I tell them Louie is the father and when I say this I think I see a flash of pride across his face. He waits patiently as they prod and poke me. I do a urine sample and take a blood test before I’m taken to my birthing room.
‘She’s cold and shivering,’ he says to the midwife, who suggests I take a bath. We enter the room and I’m surprised at the size, there’s even a private loo and bathtub.
‘Wow, you get a lot in the public hospitals here,’ I say. The midwife smiles as the two of them help me into the tub. The water is warm and soothing and just as I’m comfortable another contraction takes me over. I grip the edge of the bath and when it’s over I look at Louie.
‘You’re so calm all the time,’ I say to him. ‘It drives me crazy. You’re like a robot programmed to support me. Why? I want Nick. I don’t want you.’
Pain flashes across his face and even the midwife turns away from me and my venom. I’m about to start another tirade when another contraction comes.
‘Okay, we’re in the first stage transition period now,’ she says.
‘I want to push,’ I say.
‘Pant,’ she says, ‘or blow? It’s not time to push.’
‘You can do it,’ Louie says to me so softly I barely hear it. ‘Pant and blow, just like we practiced.’
I nod at him and puff out my cheeks. Resisting the urge to push, I focus everything I have on panting and blowing.
It’s only three hours later when the time has come for me to push. I’m squeezing two of Louie’s fingers. They say more can result in fingers being crushed. There is only 20 minutes of pushing before my baby girl is born.
When they pass her to me a wave of happiness and relief washes over me. I can see Nick in her, but mostly I see me. Louie pats my shoulder and smiles. The smile says he is proud of me. I’m proud of myself too.

Later that day Louie and I sit on the bed together, watching my baby, stroking her fingers and cooing at her.
‘I’m sorry,’ I say to him, ‘About what I said.’
‘You were a real bitch, but I don’t for a second believe you meant it.’
He lifts my face up to his and kisses me and when he pulls away I am beaming at him. This moment is so perfect and I don’t want it to ever end.
‘If you want to stay here, in Australia,’ he says to me, ‘I’ll parent this baby with you. You’ll be safe from Rupert and his gang. You and your baby.’
‘I’m sorry but I can’t Louie. I owe it to Nick to tell him what happened.’
Louie nods. Maybe he knows it is inevitable.

I call Louie from the airport.
‘I lied to Qantas and said my father had just died so they would put me on the next flight. I had to be rushed through customs. It was great. My flight is going to board any minute. Lucky my parents are already dead so it’s not like I’m jinxing them,’ I say, forcing out a laugh that sounds more like a squeak.
‘I’ve just got this terrible feeling,’ he says to me, ‘that they’ll find you and then …’
‘ … don’t worry. It will be fine.’
‘Call me when you get to London.’
‘I will. Goodbye Louie.’
I board the plane, my baby asleep in my arms.

We have been in the air for 50 minutes and it’s another 14 hours to Abu Dhabi. My baby is a week old, and she is perfect. I keep checking on her to make sure she is breathing. If anything bad happened to her it would kill me. An image pops into my head of blood and a dark alleyway. Usually when I start to remember that night I just get my laptop and go online and stalk Nick, or call Louie who would come over with Thai and watch funny movies with me. But now there’s no Internet and no Louie and the image won’t stop playing over and over in my mind. It had been an icy cold evening. There was a cutting wind, the kind that numbs your face and stings your eyes. I had been to Boots chemist before popping into a Pret café. The hot chocolate I had bought was smooth and comforting like they always are from Pret. I guzzled it down before going to the toilet, grateful that no one was in there. I took my time, taking out the box, reading the instructions. Then finally I peed on the stick, some of it splashing on to my fingers. I sat on that toilet seat watching the little pink line come up when all of sudden I felt so claustrophobic. It was as though the thick toilet air was choking me. I pushed my way through the bathroom and saw an emergency exit. Opening the door, I wound up in an alleyway where I buckled up and began to vomit. All I was thinking was that Nick and I had been together two years and not once had we discussed babies. I had the feeling he wouldn’t want it. I thought of abortion clinics and white lab coats and it made me vomit more. When I finally stopped spewing I looked up. There was a man there. He had a large frame, and long brown hair like mine, although his was under a beanie. He had a woman up against a wall. Her vibrant red hair fell in soft waves around her shoulders and back, and her skirt was up against her stomach while her stockings sat around her ankles revealing the whitest legs I have ever seen. Memories are a strange thing, I learnt that from testifying, but I’m certain that even in that cold night I could see sweat trickling down her face. In a swift movement, the man raised a gun to her temple and pulled the trigger. Bits of her face flew on to his and I couldn’t work out what was blood and what was her crimson hair. I began to vomit again and this time when I looked up, the man’s eyes were on me while the woman (or what was left of her) was slumped on the ground by his boots. I don’t know what he did next because I ran. I ran and I ran until I saw the Leicester Square tube sign. Bolting down the stairs, the only time I stopped was to grab my oyster card from my handbag that thankfully still hung over my shoulder. Swiping it at the ticket gates, I ran through a tunnel that had a no entry sign. It meant I was going upstream, against the crowds, past commuters wearing headphones or with their faces down, not making eye contact. I could hear the rattle of a train approaching and the whoosh of the wind passing me by. Finally I was on the platform. The train had pulled up and its doors opened and I had the strongest sense that I just needed to get on it to be safe. I was about to jump on when a policeman stopped me.
‘Miss,’ he said as he grabbed my arm, ‘you’ve come in the wrong way. You could cause a collision.’
I don’t know where the strength came from but I took hold of his arms and pulled him onto the carriage with me. The tube doors closed behind us and as soon as the train moved I collapsed on to his chest and burst in to tears. The pregnancy test was still in my shaking hand as the confused cop put an arm around me.
My baby stirs and I adjust my bra and gently move her so she is close to my nipple. It’s been three days since the breast milk has set in and she seems to love it. The midwives at the hospital had said I was lucky in many ways. Lucky for an easy pregnancy, lucky for an uncomplicated birth and most of all, I was lucky for an easy-going baby who slept well and ate well.
She makes a little ‘tuck tuck’ noise as she latches on which makes me giggle. Ever so gently, she drinks for about ten minutes or so before she drifts back to sleep.
The stewardess brings me my dinner and smiles down at my little girl.
‘She’s so beautiful,’ she says to me and we both stare down at her peaceful face.
‘I know,’ I say with a kind of pride and happiness I’m not sure I’ve ever felt before. Louie is right. I’m making a mistake.

***

The Australian Literature Review
www.auslit.net

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4 Responses to Protection, by Emma Salkild

  1. Pingback: Short Story, Protection, published online « Emma Salkild

  2. Pingback: March Short Story Comp – Shortlist | The Australian Literature Review

  3. Pingback: Basics of Life anthology | The Australian Literature Review

  4. Pingback: Portia & Sibylla: A Collaborative Epistolary Story, by Lia Weston and Emma Salkild | The Australian Literature Review

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