He lay on his back, on the Indian rug, and held the baby in the air with his arms up straight. Woogle-google shake shake shake, kissy on the lips. Yeurgghhh, all dribbly, but soft and podgy the baby's cheeks, the smell of lotion, talc and something indefinable—baby, probably. Lin, he called out, are you making coffee? No, she replied from the kitchen, I'm reading the paper. He went back to playing with the baby, bringing it down over his head until its fontenelle was touching the rug. Daddy's going to eat you. Starting with your stomach, nibble nibble, the baby spluttered and made what could have been a chuckle. But then its face went sour and a little bit of milk dribbled from its lips. He sat up and reached for the white rag they used to wipe the baby's spills and wiped the baby's lips. There you are, Danno, all clean you up, be a nice clean boy, like your daddy. After wiping the baby's mouth he held the rag in front of his face, between him and the baby, like the dance of the seven veils; he hid behind it and then popped out, BOO! the little lad laughed to see such fun, and chuckled like a drainy wainy, then daddy went away again, and came back again, and went away again. Bleughhhhh, said daddy, with his eyes all popping and his tongue clacking back and forth between his lips, making the sound go up and down in tone. The child sat still and watched the moving tongue, entranced; and the face of its owner, he would come to know as daddy's face, when it came around the corner of the hallway at the end of the long day alone with mummy: the face that said Play!
"Here's something," said Lin, walking into the lounge holding the local paper. "'Local businessman requires part-time assistant for light secretarial duties and help with home-office. Three mornings per week, would suit retired person.'"
"Why don't you ring it?" he answered, leaning on his elbow pretending that his thumb and index finger was a bird flying down to take away the baby's nose. Here he comes, here he comes, here he comes—here comes the bird to take off your nose; there, got it and flown away. See? See the soft ball of his thumb peaking through his index and middle fingers? That's the baby's nose. The baby didn't understand, only the flapping hand getting closer, then the gentle pinch on the nose, a sensation of outside coming in, breaching the boundaries. Me, self and not meself—the warm summer sunlight steaming on the wet leaves of tall trees outside the window, the baby watches, his attention suddenly caught by the moving of a shadow across the bamboo-pattern wallpaper and then attracted by the silent moving leaves he watches out the window, his blue eyes perfect like the glint of stones beneath crystal water. And daddy sees him, by reflection, how fresh that looking is.
"I think he's crapped himself. I'll go and change him."
"Hmmmm," she replied, absently, while reading the rest of the small-ads.
Right, Danno, let's have a look what you've got down here. Laying the baby onto the changing mat on the dresser in the bedroom, to be waist height, so not bending, he unstucked the tabs of the nappy and pulled back the flaps to reveal the parcel. See, Danno, remember that face—it's the one that means there's something's nasty. Pooh! You wouldn't want to eat that, if you were alone in the jungle. He wiped as much of it away as he could by smearing with the nappy, then moved it aside, away from waggling kicking feet, then took the wet-wipes and pulled the packet open with one hand, the other holding on the baby's chest to stop him twisting, because he was all fresh and open now, the cold air against his wet skin. He wiped the bottom clean, in all the cracks, and squirted some white lotion on to final wipe with cotton wool; still some smears of shit on there even after wet wipe. He dropped the wad into the bin and kissed the soft pink belly where the babygrow was open. A spluttering sound like air escaping from a wet balloon, and the baby chuckled. Stand up and look at the baby, with a big smile, then kiss the soft pink bellybutton and make the baby laugh. Laugh and stop, laugh and stop, laugh and stop. It comes in waves and daddy loves you.
"Here you are, have your son. I'll go and make a coffee," he said, handing him over all clean in his fresh babygrow, the distended belly bulging out like a Russian doll.
He came back into the room with the coffees and put them on carpet where the baby couldn't reach without crawling. He sat next to her on the floor, their backs leaned against the sofa, wiggling his toes so that the baby could try and squeeze them. Her hair is long, lustrous and black. It partially covers her cheek as she leans forward to read the small print. Through its glade he sees her ear lobe—a small indentation where the piercing healed—, and smells its scent, not shampoo, the smell of air between the hair and skin, her body breath. He notices the soft dark down at the back of her neck and kisses her there. She responds, but slightly; that's how it should be, but slightly noticed. With his hand he moves her hair so that he can read as well, tucking the strand behind her ear as if she'd done it for herself.
"Are you going to ring?" he asked again, after an interval.
"Might do, ummm…" She didn't finish it.
What was she going to say? It died on her.
"I think you should. I could have Dan those mornings and go into work in the afternoon instead."
"But then we won't see you till late at night," she said, picking up the bone-china coffee mug, so thin it was almost transparent but for the yellow painted flowers on it.
"It's only three days a week. It's worth it, for the money. Does it say how much?" he asked, taking the paper off her.
"No. I'll ring him in the morning."
"It will be nice for me to spend the mornings with Dan," he said, putting his hand inside her thigh and rubbing against the blue denim.
"Won't they mind at work?"
Work? Work? He looked at the cover of a book that was face down, open in the middle, splayed, on the low coffee table. My Life on the Steppes: a Nomad's Tale. A different sense of time, a different sense of place. No time, no place. They crowd in on you and try to shut you down, shutting out the beauty, the streams that flowed across the heather, the bitter cold mornings, the sun rising and warming up the earth, the native spirit lifting. I'm not coming out. I'm not going back to work. It's a riddle, the world is full of them, before the news became distressing, but must it always have been distressing, to someone? No, it said so in that book. It was hard but they got it right; something—but they had no books!
He picked up the baby and sat him on his king of the castle knees and let him fall through the middle. Wonder what it feels like? Is it scary, to have no control, and they just throw you around physically while making whooping noises? How would they like it, if it was done to them? Some giant scoops them up and swings them round then shakes them in the air while laughing, then lets them fall but not quite to the floor and keeps repeating. Would they like it? It's a sensation you remember in your dreams, like all the others, when you are falling and then you stop, or your body is swimming, or is that earlier? swimming and sucking and sleeping and listening; what is that river that I always hear flowing and the sounds in the distance like thunder on the plains, far away but getting closer then Yelp! a day of stress and pressure, the cold, the noise, the assault on your senses—a sudden brightness—you're out, and it all begins: birth is pain, said buddha woulda. I've started so I'll finish—somebody else said that.
"Yeah, it'll be alright. Just change my hours on those days, as long as I'm there for the meetings, no-one will mind."
"What do you want to do today?" she asked, smiling happily at the baby. "Danno, you podgy pinko, you eat too much. Are you hungry? Do you want some milk?" And she lifted him into the crook of her left arm and lifted her jumper with the right, releasing the panel of the nursing bra, all in one go, in one expert gesture, he clamped on, not comfortable, extract and move, his eyes alarmed, then clamp again, eyes shut, chomp chomp, eating mummy's fattened breast.
"Let's call Sean and Alice, see if they're around," he said, remembering the taste, the time she'd had too much and was swollen like a big pink watermelon, she let him drink it, hot beneath the bed covers it was sweet and lovely.
"We went there last Sunday."
"They won't mind."
"Okay, but we won't stay long."
He lay on his back and looked at the ceiling while she suckled the baby. He heard the sound of it, a mouth-filled pleasure chuckle until it goes wrong and then it whines immediately. Okay, okay, okay, slow down a bit, you greedy guts. And then calm again.
"Why don't we move somewhere else?" he asked, dreamily, with the least amount of effort.
"Okay. I'll go anywhere. Would you get a job?"
He shrugged in answer, but she couldn't see a lying-down shrug so he said, "Yeah, I guess so. You can sell cameras anywhere."
"You'd have to speak the language."
"I could learn it."
"And I could go back to nursing, when Danny is older."
"It depends where we go, I suppose; whether they recognise your qualifications."
"I could always convert them, wherever we are," she said, removing the sated baby from her tit and passing him to his father. She put it away and pulled her jumper back down. Then she took one more sip of her now cold coffee. "Why? Why did you ask that?" she asked, that.
"I dunno. I'm just bored, and we can never afford anything. I want to do something different."
It's hard. It's hard everywhere. Now the baby was satisfied, the father put his head in the mother's lap. She looked down and stroked the hair, gently running her fingers through it. It was young blonde and lustrous, glinted like the sand on their favourite beach. "Let's see what happens if I get that job," she said, then kissed him on the temple, a soft reassuring touch, it all works out if they stay together.
And across the steppes, the sound of bison moving means it's spring. They know to move on, the little tribes, the men and women pack their buffalo tents and load their sledges. And sometimes the children get to play, while the adults are packing, they chase each other round the dogs, their dark Slavic eyes laughing like a stream inside a forest.