The baby was huge. Its mouth. Mike stared at the drooling face. The face was about to swallow the universe. Currently, Mike’s universe was this car and the sense that if Rachel did not come back in the next two minutes, they were going nowhere. Because there is nothing in the world more humourless and indifferent to your troubles than an airport queue. Mike turned back to the wind screen and closed his eyes. Then came the scream.
Initially there was an impulse to scream back or even, on especially bad days, to slap the baby. But you had to fight it back. Slapping babies did not make any sense. Seconds later, Mike took out his lighter and turned it on twenty inches from the baby’s face. Deep in his heart, Mike knew it was a cheap trick and despised himself for doing that. However, it always worked. This time, too, the baby saw the blue flame and slowly, evenly the crumpled features smoothed out into something soft, curious, vaguely intelligent. Half a minute later the baby was asleep, and Mike saw Rachel hurrying down the porch.
Rachel for Christ’s sake.
She got into the car, slammed the door and looked inside her purse. Suddenly Mike could not find a word to say. The gate was about to close, this flight was costing him over a thousand pounds, and he had nothing to tell his wife. She slammed the door without even waking the baby, and Mike knew that he was losing this one.
The words wouldn’t come. What came was the screeching sound of the engine as Mike tried to do the desperate U-turn and get the hell out of there. But yet again – she stopped him halfway. Rachel was rummaging through her purse with the kind of confident exasperation Mike had come to expect from his wife.
“Stop it, Mike. Stop it”.
Oh what now? The charger? The hairpin? The chewing gum?
“Rachel, you can’t be serious. We are late already”.
“Mike! We are not going anywhere”.
Mike stopped the car and the baby woke up. There was no logic behind it.
Oddly, he still cared. Like there was an outside chance they could arrive on time. Like there was a God and this God could draw a deep breath and blow the traffic away from the roads. Like there was a smiling airport girl in a blue miniskirt telling them to jump the queue.
“It’s for Marty”.
“That merry-go-round thing. You know we need it. You know he needs it”.
And as if to show just how he needed that merry-go-round thing, the baby started to cry. One of those rasping, gut-bursting cries that came from a different world and told Mike that he was faking it as a parent and as a human being.
“We really need it”.
“I have my lighter”.
“No way, Mike”.
The car frozen midway, she got out of the car. It would take her fifteen minutes to place the toy, find her favourite reflection in the mirror, check her fingernails and get back. Mike turned around and saw the drooling face. The face kept swallowing the universe. It was Mike’s turn to scream:
“Rachel, get back inside! I’ll go. Where is that thing?”
That merry-go-round thing. A toy that looked so old-fashioned as to seem fascinating. Marty immediately fell for it. As did Rachel and Mike. Seeing those red and white horses spinning around, those rainbow colours swinging hypnotically, Marty smiled or stopped crying or fell asleep. Of course, Mike’s lighter could pull that trick just as effectively, but Rachel did not approve. For her, it was a disruptive influence. “Showing a cigarette lighter to a baby? To your own child?” So it was only when Rachel was not around, when it was just Mike and the baby, or Mike, the baby and the new novel, that he took out the lighter and turned it on twenty inches from the baby’s face.
Hurriedly, Rachel spoke about their bedroom and one of those impenetrable drawers he never cared to open. Mike should have asked why there, why not on the desk or by the fireplace or in some other reasonable part of the house, but he had no time to lose. Los Angeles seemed farther and farther away with each second wasted, and Rachel’s explanations never worked anyway. She either said too little or too much.
Inside the house, running up the stairs and tripping over toys and boots and cups, Mike felt self-conscious about himself. He thought about all those American readers and critics who would be sitting in the hall listening to a middle-aged Briton read out and clarify his favourite excerpts of the novel. What if they could see him now, clumsy and insecure, with that rabbit-like expression in his eyes? Hopping about his bedroom, opening drawers like a jealous husband or a brainless burglar? They would think Mike Carrington was a fake and his second novel was not worthy of a dusty school library in North Dakota. So far, America seemed chummy and hostile.
It did not take long. Mike opened the drawer and saw it straight away, buried underneath Rachel’s old stockings and paperback detective stories. Mike took out the toy and gave it a quick spin. It was a lovely thing. Solid-built, made to last. “He will love it when he grows up”, said Helen or Lizzie or Paula, unwrapping Marty’s Christmas present. “I had one just like that when I was seven”. Sixteen months later Rachel had to stop the car in the middle of the road and risk Mike’s first American book tour for the sake of this toy.
Mike stood up and was about to push the drawer back inside with his left knee when something else came to his attention. It was just one tiny edge sticking out of Rachel’s underwear, but even that was enough to experience a strong sense of unease. Slowly it was working its way through Mike’s entire body – like a minute drop of water would seep through a giant masonry wall. Mike took out the mask and put it on. There was no particular reason to do that, but in the end that’s what masks were about. You were supposed to wear them. Later he took it off, examined carefully and pinned back to his face.
Underneath, a hundred miles away, Rachel blew the horn but Mike was not listening. Instead, he heard the cluttering sound of wine glasses as groups of anonymous guests kept sliding past him again and again. It was like a gigantic aquarium filled with poisoned water.
The mask. It happened five years ago at a fancy-dress party put together by Hank. The party was a dull mess, which made sense if you cared to look at Mike’s life at that point. He was writing his first novel, and it felt like melting a brain tumour. Every character was a masked villain. Every page like a new monster from a vicious computer game, with its new powers and ingenious ways of killing you. Each time the doorbell or the phone rang, Mike bounced away from his desk and wished it was a tax collector with a warrant or an old friend with a ticket to every single pub in South London. Anyone to get him out of this place. When Hank phoned, Mike was at his lowest point and it was almost too late. “Do you have a mask?” Mike said no. “Well, then you will have to buy one”.
Which Mike did. Anything to get him out of this place.
At a time when Mike was trying to distinguish subtleties in energy drinks, Hank’s five-pound wine from Sainsbury’s tasted of luxury. He held nothing back. At around midnight, two full bottles away from unimaginative jazz and masked people dry-humping each other with dull conversations, Mike put his mask back on and went outside.
She was sitting on a bench in Hank’s summerhouse. Masked, just like him. Alone.
“Are you drunk?” she asked him as he approached.
“Your walk is unhealthy”.
“What about your voice?”
It was past midnight, and the talk was easy. At times it felt like they were trying to win some sort of argument against the grass crickets and all the dancing noise coming from the house. Mike said her dress was pretty and she wanted to know all about his first novel. She even had a few suggestions, and he was keen to listen. Two hours of straight talk, and he knew neither her name nor what she looked like (he never had the courage to ask her to remove the mask). He could only see her cardboard face, so black and so stylish, and her girlish white dress, light and breezy in the night.
Outside, someone blew the horn for the second time, and Mike removed the mask. The stylishness was gone and the black colour seemed too intense, but it was not just that. It was something else. Still, like a teenager trying to hang on to a wet dream, Mike lay on the floor and put the mask back on.
God knows how the morning came, and why. The hangover wasn’t too bad, but the memory was vague. Mike remembered the dancing around the summerhouse to get warm in the cold night, and even the improvised kiss through the masks.
“White dress? Mask?” Hank sounded husky and surprised. “Well, Mike, I’m afraid you will have to give me more than that”.
But that was all. Mike insisted Hank should go through the list of all the guests and find out all about that girl in a white dress, sitting in the summerhouse and talking to him. His life depended on it. His first novel. Everything. Hank said he would help (Hank was one of those friends you do not deserve), but could not promise anything.
“A few guests dragged their friends with them. Besides, they all had masks. Are you even sure the dress was white? You were drunk and it was late at night”.
He was and he was not. The only thing Mike knew for certain was that he could not write the novel. The computer game got him to some dodgy level protected by a passcode, and he had no idea how to crack it. Energy drinks no longer helped and the passive waiting was the worst torture.
“Why so long?”
“Fuck off, Mike. Two days”.
“What have you got?”
“Her name. Her address. Everything”.
Mike knew he was safe now. Suddenly he had a novel to write and possibly a life to live.
“Her name is Rachel. She is very pretty”.
It was a blind date in a café bearing some Italian name, and Rachel did look Italian. The straight black hair, the dark complexion of her oval face. Rachel placed the coffee cup on the table, put away her book and looked up at him. Mike tried to catch his breath. Hank was a fool: Rachel was not pretty. ‘Pretty’ could not begin to describe it. It was like she had selfishly sucked all the beauty out of the rest of the world and left a bleak corpse wherever she went.
As Mike opened his eyes and tore the mask away from the face, it was like days, weeks had passed. What got him back in the moment was the strong desire to smoke, the clear daylight outside and the familiar sense of unease he had experienced earlier. Mike laughed, but the laughter was not genuine. Rather, he laughed like a man unable to cry. Because the ragged black mask he was holding in his hands now, five years later, it was a wrong mask.
How drunk could you get? How blind? And how stupid? Because deep inside his head he could now hear the voice from the summerhouse, and it was a different voice. And the mask had never been this black. And has Rachel ever cared about a word he’s written? Has she ever had one suggestion? And has there ever been anything, anything at all, after Marty was born?
Overpowered by questions, the mask clutched in his hand, Mike ran downstairs to find out.
The U-turn unfinished, the car was still blocking the road. Through the sun-lit window, Mike saw the baby. But could you trust your eyes with babies, whether they were screaming or sleeping or doing something else? Weren’t all babies supposed to look the same? Then Mike saw Rachel who was of course not Rachel but someone else. It was a wrong face, pretty but plain, the face of the summerhouse girl as he had imagined it that night.
“That was quick, Mike”.
It took time to realise there was no irony in her voice. It was a different voice, and it was not Rachel. Mike got into the car and completed the U-turn.
“Do you have the toy?”
No, he did not. He had left it on the floor of their bedroom.
“Well, never mind. You still have your lighter. Come on, Mike, we don’t have one second to lose”.
But now the car wouldn’t start. To help him, or perhaps to confuse him even more, she unstuck the mask from his fingers and put it on. Mike closed his eyes, then slowly looked to his right and saw Rachel smiling back at him. Finally, he could start the engine.
At the back, the baby was silent. “Babies”, Mike thought. So small and harmless and innocent when they were sleeping.