Kate stared down at the photographs. As usual, she felt disappointed. Through the viewfinder the babies seemed so fresh and alive, but their vitality never came out in the pictures she took. Instead, they gazed up at her, row upon row of them, their faces as blank as sea-smoothed pebbles on a shingle beach.
It was as if some mysterious chemical reaction had drained away their energy, leaving nothing but the not-quite-rightness of waxworks. Once, at a friend’s place, she’d met someone who took passport photographs. He’d told her he had exactly the same problem with the stuff he did. He’d said there was no point worrying about it.
He’d been right, of course. She began to pick out the pictures she was going to use, sliding each one into its own ‘deluxe presentation folder’. It was stupid to even think about it. After all, none of the babies’ parents ever seemed to mind.
She had a lot to get through today in any case – and she needed to be vigilant if she was going to avoid mistakes. She’d been worried yesterday when someone had complained about a folder with a strip torn off one side – Rudi must have used it without thinking – and last week there’d been the family whose baby picture had featured a large ring from a coffee mug cutting right across their child’s face.
Kate had managed to sort out these glitches without anyone from the Tinkerbell head office hearing about them, but she was afraid she might not be so lucky next time. Given the number of extra prints she’d been making lately to get material for her own purposes, she couldn’t afford to attract any unnecessary attention.
The smell in the room was intensifying. It distracted Kate from what she was supposed to be doing. She looked across at Rudi, who was heaving in another gulp of smoke. His eyes were closed and the fingers of his left hand gripped the joint tightly. Watching more smoke unravelling from its glowing tip, Kate tried to ignore the increasing uneasiness it brought with it.
It had been the unexpected fear the drug had awoken in her that had made her stop using it in the end. With hindsight it was easy to see that she should have given up much sooner. She’d wasted far too many evenings worrying that she might forget to breathe, while trying to ignore the suspicion that the people she was sharing a joint with were emissaries of Satan who could read her mind and knew that she knew who they were.
Not that it had always been like that. When she and Rudi had first been together , she’d actually enjoyed smoking. She’d liked the way the drug relaxed her. She’d liked the cloudy soft-cornered view of the world it created. She’d liked the impression it gave that something had been slipped between her and reality, some invisible substance that cushioned her somehow.
She’d never thought till then that she was going to need that kind of thing, but just about that time she’d started feeling quite unlike herself. A terrible sense of emptiness had suddenly grabbed hold of her – it was as if a void had opened at the centre of her life. It had come up on her so fast, that frightening awareness – for a while she’d thought she might be losing her mind. And the drug had really helped her during that strange period – it had let her almost forget how bad things had become.
Yes, smoking had been a comfort, if she were absolutely truthful– and at the start Rudi had been too. She hated to admit it, but she’d been looking for a kind of guru and for a while she’d imagined that he would fit the bill.
Of course, he’d only been in the country a week or two when they met for the first time. Maybe that had made a difference to the impression he’d made. He’d been full of excitement and uncharacteristically energetic. Perhaps that had given him a false allure.
He’d just finished his national service, Kate found out later. He’d been discharged one morning and caught a plane the next day. He’d had to get away, he said, he’d had to escape the straitjacketed conformity of his own little homeland, its narrow minded love of regulations, its rigid obsession with control.
‘Did you use soap powder today?’ Rudi’s words came out jerkily, cutting through Kate’s thoughts in little staccato bursts. His face was contorted from the effort of speaking while trying to hold in the smoke he’d recently inhaled. Stacking up the folders, each embossed with ‘Your Baby’ in raised gold letters, Kate pretended she hadn’t heard. Rudi had found a recipe for organic home-made detergent somewhere and had brewed up jars of the stuff. Noticing them on the windowsill when she’d come over to see if Kate could baby sit, Sheila had asked if Rudi had begun recycling his own snot.
‘I don’t think you care about the environment at all,’ he announced suddenly, letting out his breath in a wheezing rush. ‘You know what damage the surfactants alone do.’ He balanced the joint on the edge of a saucer and picked up a mug of tea, which he drank from noisily. He put the mug down and looked directly at Kate. ‘You will destroy everything,’ he said, scowling at her. Then he wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and picked up the joint again. He put it to his lips and drew in another deep lungful of smoke.
That was a bit unfair, Kate thought, especially considering all the trouble she’d taken growing her vegetables. Rudi had wanted them to be completely chemical-free, so she’d knelt out in the garden every evening, cleaning the pests off each plant by hand, painstakingly, leaf by leaf, never using snail pellets or derris dust, let alone anything stronger. And after all that Rudi had taken most of them and put them into the vegetable drier he’d insisted on buying. He’d laid them out reverentially, as if he were performing some kind of religious service.
Kate spotted the thing amongst the clutter on the table. She dragged it towards her and peered inside, trying to make out the snow peas and tomatoes she’d nurtured with such care. It was difficult to get a clear view of anything within the circular container. Although it was made of perspex and had been transparent originally, a coating of mould covered most of the inner surface now, making it impossible to see through to the shelves where the vegetables had been arranged.
The preserving powder must have been the problem, she thought. According to the booklet that had come with the drier, you were supposed to sprinkle everything with it, but Rudi had been convinced that that was completely unnecessary. He’d said it was just more evidence of the big multinational conglomerates trying to rip people off. ‘It’s the same with shampoo,’ he’d explained, ‘they always tell you to wash and repeat on the bottle, but repeating is just a way to get you to use more.’
Kate swept the photographs she wasn’t using into a plastic bag. She looked over at Rudi, who appeared to be having trouble with the final part of the joint. She wondered if he was staying in this evening and, if he wasn’t, whether he’d be coming back before morning. More and more lately he seemed to end up at friends’ places, crashing out on the floor or a sofa, too stoned to make it home.
He pulled a pair of tweezers from his tobacco pouch now and began manoeuvring them onto the stained and soggy butt. ‘I’m babysitting at Sheila’s tonight,’ Kate told him. He was concentrating too hard on what he was doing to look at her, but his lips twitched in what she took to be a smile.
Having secured the bedraggled object between the tweezers’ metal prongs, he lifted the thing towards him with tremendous care. Then, still clutching the tweezers, he inserted the damp, tobacco smeared scrap of paper into his waiting mouth. At last, he closed his eyes and took a long, deep drag.
He gave Kate a tiny wave with his free hand while he did so, a mere flap of the fingers really, as if he were dismissing her from a regal audience. The soap powder issue seemed to have slipped from his thoughts already – or perhaps he’d simply absolved her, magnanimously, on this one special occasion.
Kate turned away. She felt she had to. There was something so avid and intense about the way Rudi was sucking at that thing. She felt like a voyeur intruding on some intimate and very private act.