Zoe Deleuil – City of Fremantle T.A.G. Hungerford Award Shortlist

Read an extract from Zoe Deleuil’s manuscript She Came to Stay and an interview with the author.

Describe your manuscript in your own words.

It’s a psychological suspense novel set in east London. Jane is recovering in hospital after the traumatic birth of her first child when her phone rings. The person on the other end is asking her about her baby, but Jane doesn’t recognise the voice. An hour later, an oddly familiar woman named Rachel appears at the hospital. A few days after this, she comes to stay at their apartment. What is she doing there? And when will she leave?

What inspired you to write it?

Lorrie Moore wrote that having a child is like blowing up your entire life, and the baby is the best thing lying in the rubble. I find that kind of black humour very comforting, and wanted to write about a character going through the transition from carefree adult to exhausted parent in a way that made sense to me and hopefully other readers.
The character of Rachel was inspired by the many stories of tricky house guests in the post-birth days that I’ve read about on parenting forums. Anonymous message boards are a great source of anecdotes and wisdom as people are so brutally honest.
The spooky gothic interiors of the V&A Museum of Childhood in Bethnal Green and the unrelenting bleakness of the 1960s Barbican Estate, both in London, were also inspirations.

How long have you been working on it?

I had a few notes and ideas floating around, but I only started writing in earnest about three months before the deadline, spending a weekend at the beautiful Katharine Susannah Prichard Writers’ Centre in the Perth Hills to get the word count up.

What does it mean to you to make the shortlist of the 2018 City of Fremantle T.A.G. Hungerford Awards?

It means a lot to me. While I had a great time writing this story, I had no idea if it was any good, so being told that the judges liked it enough to shortlist it was both an honour and a bit of a shock.

From She Came to Stay by Zoe Deleuil

Day four. I bathed the baby. It was getting a little easier now, keeping his slowly uncurling, slippery body supported in the water. My hands were becoming accustomed to the movements of his body, the weight of him. I dressed him in a newborn nappy, then a white bodysuit and finally the cardigan Rachel had knitted him, and given to me at the hospital, a tiny pale blue thing of very tightly packed wool, as if each stitch was pulled very hard. He looked compressed in it, densely packed like armour against the cold. I couldn’t see beyond him, beyond his little body. It had all vanished.

Last night we finally gave up on the bassinette around one in the morning. He hated it, didn’t want to sleep on his own, and I wanted him closer to me too.

So by the early hours of the morning he was in bed with me, sleeping. I woke on my side, curled around him, one arm below his wrapped legs, the other supporting my head and circling his head. The arm above his head was freezing cold and stiff from the weight of my head and from being so still and exposed to the flat’s cold morning air.

I got up, my head aching from unbroken sleep, and had breakfast, and just as I was about to have a shower, the doorbell rang.

It was Rachel. She was wearing a thick, smoky layer of makeup on her eyes, with some glitter mixed in, and a tightly fitted dark pink dress with a sparkly silver trim, the kind of thing I would love to own, that I would have loved wearing before I had a baby.

I was still heavy from the pregnancy, and wearing billowy clothes that enabled me to breastfeed. I care, but I don’t care. Beside her was her leather suitcase, old but expensive-looking.

She avoided my eyes as she said hello, looking beyond me, into the apartment. Before I could even say anything, or invite her in, she was inside, heading for the lounge room as if she had been here before, and knew the apartment well.

‘How are you getting along?’

‘Not too bad.’

‘Can I have the baby?’

Is that a weird question? I’m finding it hard to have even the simplest conversations without getting confused. But I know one thing, the baby is still and peaceful in my bed, after a restless night, and she can’t disturb that.

‘He’s sleeping at the moment.’

‘Oh, I meant, can I just look at him?’ She walked away from me, down the long corridor to our bedroom, and I found myself following her silently as she opened the door and stepped into the dark mess of our clothes, our unmade bed, the intimate smell of our shared sleep and, in the squalid lamplight, because I haven’t bothered to open the blinds yet, the baby asleep in the middle of the bed.

But she didn’t seem to register my embarrassment as she sat down on the bed, still wearing the coat she would have travelled here in, sitting on filthy urine-soaked and grime-stained Tube seats.

She leaned closer, and started stroking his head, right at the fontanelle where I knew that there was no bone protecting the brain, just a layer of skin. I only touched it once myself but she stroked it, again and again, and I had to bunch my hands into fists to stop myself from clobbering her.

‘Oh, my god, he’s so beautiful. I’m sorry, I just have to pick him up.’

He startled in his sleep, the falling-from-a-tree Moro reflex that the baby books tell me he will eventually lose, and I had to fight down an urge to take him from her.

She’s related to him by blood. It’s only normal that she would want to hold him. I have to get used to sharing him, I tell myself. I’m being precious, and possibly unhinged.

As he woke and started to writhe in her arms, clearly unhappy, I wanted to ask for him back, but forced myself to wait for her to offer. I always used to hand babies back when they got restless, there was nothing worse than holding someone else’s crying baby. Yet she seemed oblivious. She held him up, laughed at his little cries, put him over her shoulder and patted his back in a way I already knew he hated.

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