Baby, by Annaleese Jochems

Baby, by Annaleese Jochems (Fiction)

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Cynthia can understand how Anahera feels just by looking at her body.

Cynthia is twenty-one, bored and desperately waiting for something big to happen. Her striking fitness instructor, Anahera, is ready to throw in the towel on her job and marriage. With stolen money and a dog in tow they run away and buy ‘Baby’, an old boat docked in the Bay of Islands, where Cynthia dreams they will live in a state of love. But strange events on an empty island turn their life together in a different direction.

Baby is a sunburnt psychological thriller of obsession and escape by one of the most exciting new voices in New Zealand fiction.


Annaleese Jochems was born in 1994 and grew up in Northland. She won the 2016 Adam Prize from the International Institute of Modern Letters for Baby, which is her first book.


Praise for Baby

‘Sultry, sinister, hilarious and demented, Baby blazes with intelligence and murderous black humour. Heavenly Creatures for a new generation.’
—Eleanor Catton

'Patricia Highsmith meets reality TV in this compelling debut. Jochems nudges up the tension until we can’t bear to look – and can’t bear to look away: thrilling, dangerous and deliciously funny.’ 
—Catherine Chidgey

‘This funny, sexy, unnerving novel challenges received ideas and delivers jolts of pleasure and disquiet throughout. Jochems, like her extraordinary creation Cynthia, is a force to be reckoned with.’
—Emily Perkins

‘Taut, savvy, biting, and at points piercingly beautiful – Jochems's sentences shift from deadpan humour to lyrical simplicity to emotional menace with deft, edgy style.’ 
—Tracey Slaughter

Cover by Keely O'Shannessy          

From: Baby, by Annaleese Jochems

1.

Cynthia can understand how Anahera feels just by looking at her body. Today Anahera’s wearing a pair of loose orange shorts. Their quality is obvious from the way they stretch at the crotch when she lunges. Her singlet is very tight, and Cynthia thinks it must be one of those sophisticated ones that button up between the legs. Anahera’s quite tall, so if it is that sort it must be extra tight down below when she leans or bends.

That’s just it, the leaning and bending—that’s how Cynthia knows. Anahera yearns for strain, she courts it with her every movement, and Cynthia can see this, because she feels precisely the same way herself. She’s squatting now, and she’s been squatting for minutes. The agony in her thighs and ass is desperate and profound, but she continues to squat, as instructed by Anahera.

Classes are held on Anahera’s lawn, surrounded by bushes; forceful, gloriously cultivated bushes that spill against each other and onto the lawn, pressing against the seven members of Anahera’s class. It hurts, the squatting, but Anahera wants it to, so Cynthia holds the pose. Anahera herself is over by a lavender bush, kneeling and telling motivating things to a very puffed-out middle-aged woman. She can’t always be motivating all of them, Cynthia understands. They’ve got to take turns because Anahera doesn’t have a microphone and her throat gets sore. Now she yells that it’s time for everyone to plank.

How to describe Cynthia’s feelings? How to catch the sensations so hot in her body, and hold them still enough to measure their edges? It’s out of exhaustion, not disrespect, that she stops planking, and sinks down into the grass for a brief rest. Her whole body hurts in the most exquisite way. There are daisies, and she spots three of them by her nose in a near-perfect line, evenly spaced. She picks one and dabs the soft yellow at its centre, smears gold on her wrist. The lawn isn’t wet, but it’s got that good grassy taste and smell. Something big is happening inside Cynthia, and all around her. She feels herself on the cusp of some enormous event of infinite meaning. She licks some grass thoughtfully, then nibbles a bit and spits it gently back out. She loves the blades, furry and soft on her tongue, and pauses to wonder—how must it feel to be Anahera, to instruct? There’s such luxury to Anahera’s body, such glory in it. All of her is the same brown, flexing into shades under the sun. Just looking at her helps Cynthia feel the stirring and readiness for action held in her own belly.

Soon, she feels sure, Anahera won’t be able to resist her in such repose among the other exercisers. She’ll press a shoe into Cynthia’s back, and Cynthia will get up, panting, and work out a bit more. For now, she watches the little bugs. They’re very fit, clearly, jumping from blade to blade and scuttling along the edges. Bugs don’t have feelings, and if there’s one thing Cynthia’s learned from Anahera’s classes, it’s that feelings are a hindrance in the game of physical excellence.

The shoe doesn’t come. Cynthia looks up, and Anahera’s marching past a big bush to stand on the deck beside her barbecue. ‘Alright,’ she shout-talks hoarsely, ‘weights.’

Cynthia puts 1 kg on either side of her bar. Everyone else has at least 2.5 kgs, but that doesn’t matter. Anahera’s already told her not to compare herself to the other ladies, and to put her bar right down each time she needs to change her grip.

‘Where are your muscles?’ Anahera asks them all. ‘I want to see them.’ Cynthia feels like a child but also sexy, like always at this part, and she tenses obediently. This is the sixth lesson of Anahera’s limited participant class, and Cynthia’s attended all of them, although she’s known Anahera for longer.

Whenever they do weights the same 50 Cent song plays, and the same lady, Evelyn, puts out a small snooty puff of air about it. This time she exhales only three seconds in, long before the lyrics have even started. She’s wearing a blue tracksuit, and Cynthia puts a glare on her. She’s got a kid doing puzzles inside, but that’s no reason to be superior.

The singing starts. ‘Damn, baby—’

‘Oh my gosh! I am so embarrassed. I really will sort this out,’ Anahera says—like always, in a rush—picking up her bar and not moving at all to change it. Cynthia nearly laughs. ‘Lower,’ Anahera says, calm again. ‘Yes, and lower. Hold.’

After twenty-five minutes with the weights they all lie down in the grass, even Anahera, who shows them how to kick their feet in a very specific way to work their abs. Cynthia closes her eyes and tries to keep moving in the same pattern. It feels right, it feels good. But, ‘No,’ Anahera’s head says, appearing above her. She takes a firm grip of Cynthia’s right foot, and moves it so it’s no longer comfortable. ‘Alright,’ Cynthia says, because her whole body’s been repositioned. Anahera gives her ankle a little rub before moving on, and when Cynthia closes her eyes again there’s sun caught and sparkling inside them.

A car parks at the roadside, Cynthia hears it and looks up. It’s a red Toyota, not so flash, but obviously regularly washed. That sort of guy then, and he is: a puffy, pinkish man with floppy hair and a fake pocket sewn at the left nipple of his shirt. He gets out and leans over Anahera’s fence, sighing and impatient, waiting for her to notice him and stand up. ‘Kick, kick, kick,’ she finishes saying to the assembled exercisers, then looks up at him.

He sighs again, seeing that she’s not going to stand. ‘Ana, where’s my laptop? I’m supposed to be at work.’

‘Kick, kick,’ Anahera says, nodding at Cynthia. ‘Then go to work?’

‘But I need my laptop. I’m just asking if you’ve seen it around.’ His hair’s a dull, light brown, the same colour as his chinos. His mouth hangs limp at the end of his question.

‘I don’t know, Simon, I’m instructing a class.’

‘You haven’t seen it then?’

‘I don’t know, Simon.’

‘Bloody alright then.’ He marches past them all, up the garden path and into the house. Anahera says, ‘Kick, kick,’ again, but stands to watch him go in, scratching her eyebrow. Cynthia tries to kick, but she’s lost it now, completely.

Minutes later he comes out with nothing under his arm, looks at them all, and drives off.

What a bland man! Just another part of the world which simply isn’t adequate, not for Anahera, and not for Cynthia either; not with all its roads leading to more roads, its lines and lines of houses, its dogs on leashes, and all these ladies in Anahera’s class, on her lawn, so heaving and entitled. The feeling is boredom and disappointment to the point of excruciation, and Cynthia understands it absolutely.

She first attended Anahera’s muscle class at the gym nearly a year ago, and she went to those classes for months. One day, and it was a bad day—the third in a row of non-stop rain—she heard Anahera speaking sternly to the gym manager in the hallway. ‘I don’t care,’ Anahera said, then, ‘No, I’m not going to.’

He spoke sternly back. ‘If you care about your job, you might—’

‘I don’t care about my job,’ Anahera said, Cynthia heard it clear as day. Then she was coming down the hallway, towards the corner, and Cynthia ducked into the bathrooms. A week after that, Anahera left his employ and offered Cynthia and six other select individuals places in her limited participant class.

Once they’ve stretched, Anahera comes over to see how Cynthia’s feeling. She pats her own hot cheeks, and Cynthia does the same. They exhale together. The only male class member’s petting his poodle at the gate, with one of the ladies. Cynthia can’t think of much to say, but she smiles and shrugs. Anahera grins back, and everyone follows her inside.

Anahera’s house is quite big, Cynthia supposes, and there are things around: half-read books and not-completely-drunk teas. A big dog roves in circles at the edges of rooms, pausing at the doors, shut inside because of the poodle. The snooty woman, Evelyn, gives her kid a mandarin from Anahera’s table.

Cynthia’s about to go after Anahera, to help make everyone’s drinks, but Evelyn sits down at the table and says, ‘Hmm,’ in a very pointed way.

‘Mmm,’ another lady says, her friend.

‘It isn’t just me then?’ Evelyn says. ‘The quality of these classes is definitely slipping.’

‘Sorry, um—you just stole her mandarin?’ Cynthia says. She looks around the table but there are no expressions of outrage on her classmates’ faces. Several people are nodding, slowly. Particularly a woman in a bright orange sweatband, Evelyn’s main friend, her sidekick.

‘Well,’ the friend says, her eyes glimmering with excitement, ‘at the facility her classes were incredible. I mean, really, she was the best—’

‘Excuse me, just a second,’ Cynthia starts up, surprised at the high noise of her own voice. ‘Anahera’s mum died, do you know?’

‘That was well over a year ago,’ Evelyn says quietly.

Cynthia’s loud this time, ‘So? Her mum fell off a horse, rolled down a cliff, banged her head on a rock, and died.’

Everyone is silent. The man coughs, and Evelyn puts on her cardigan. They’ve all noticed at once, a moment before Cynthia, Anahera standing in the doorway. They all look away, at the table or out the window, except Cynthia, who can’t. Anahera blinks, with her hands on her hips, waiting for an explanation.

Cynthia starts choking, but Evelyn interrupts and says in an aggrieved, solemn voice, ‘Some of us have been feeling less than satisfied with your class.’

‘Who?’ Anahera says. ‘Who else?’

Evelyn’s friend tilts her head sideways, as if shy, and puts her hand up. Anahera taps the carpet with her bare foot. ‘Anyone else?’

Two more ladies raise their hands.

Anahera nods. ‘Okay.’

‘I’m so happy with the class,’ Cynthia says, breathing now. ‘I actually think it’s improved since we started at your house. You have a lovely garden, that’s how I feel.’

‘I don’t garden. Those are overgrown bushes.’

‘Oh.’

‘Don’t wait around,’ Anahera tells everyone at the table. ‘The tea and biscuits aren’t part of your fee, they were complimentary.’ Then she says, ‘Anyway,’ and walks off down the hall.

‘Well,’ Cynthia says, ‘that serves everyone right, I’d say.’

The man gives her a nod, or at least she can see him thinking about it, then goes out to his poodle. They all sit and watch him untie it through the window.

‘It’s another structural issue with this style of class,’ Evelyn says. ‘There’s no way to place feedback anonymously.’

Her friend nods, and yanks off her sweatband.

‘Does that thing even catch sweat?’ Cynthia asks her. ‘How much sweat do you have.’

‘It’s a sweatband,’ the friend says, and she and Evelyn get up and leave.

The three remaining ladies look sadly at Cynthia, then they tidy themselves and go too. Just because they can afford Anahera’s $75 class fee, doesn’t mean any of them deserve even to speak to her, let alone learn her fitness skills, obviously. Cynthia picks up aNational Geographic and moves through it quickly, looking only at the pictures: a series of frogs of varying colours, one of a couple of elephants trying to communicate, and then two of sand. She goes right through, then back to the frogs, and she’s looking at an orange one when Anahera sits down beside her, sipping coffee.

‘I’m pleased it’s just you here now,’ she says.

Cynthia nods and waits.

‘I’ve noticed a definite improvement in you, you know,’ Anahera says. ‘You really are getting stronger.’

‘Gosh,’ Cynthia says, and feels herself rocking back and forwards in her seat. Her face is hot. She cradles her cheeks and they’re lifted into smiling, warm and soft. ‘That’s an achievement you can feel amazing about, too,’ she tells Anahera. ‘I could never have improved without you. As for some of those other ladies. Well. They’ll just be fat forever, it’s in their nature.’

Anahera nods and asks, ‘Tea?’ Then she goes to make it.

Cynthia sits, thinking. When Anahera comes back she’s prepared. ‘Okay, so,’ she says, ‘imagine for a second that you start another, even more private class? A one-on-one sort of thing. I could pay. My dad—’

Anahera interrupts. ‘It’s not sustainable, Cynthia.’

‘I don’t care about sustainable,’ Cynthia mutters, and she squeezes Anahera’s arm. It’s astonishing, the solidity of it. Anahera lifts a long finger to her mouth, and bites the knuckle before turning to Cynthia. She blinks, as if coming out of a daze, and with a new, peculiar concentration, puts her hand on Cynthia’s arm. Cynthia’s skinny-fat, and Anahera’s grip pushes through her like custard, and holds her bone.

‘I have $30,000,’ Cynthia says, ‘and I’ve been thinking about leaving this dump-hole city. What do you say?’

Anahera shakes her head, and stands up. ‘Class is on next week, as usual.’

Cynthia nods and moves to sip her tea, but it’s too hot.

Anahera’s trying to get her to go, she wants to be alone—it’s obvious. But Cynthia stays sitting. She drinks a bit of the tea and it’s definitely far too hot. While Anahera stands, still waiting, she prints her phone number out clearly on a scrap of paper, then double-checks it.

Cynthia misses her bus, she doesn’t see it till it’s already driving away, but she doesn’t mind. She misses one more and walks home. Cars pass her but she doesn’t notice a single one of them. She passes houses but doesn’t see them either. At the traffic lights someone swears at her, but she doesn’t hear properly. She should’ve waited, they were probably saying, but it doesn’t matter. There’s afternoon light all over everything, hitting the leaves from the sides and making patterns of glow and shadow. She picks several leaves and crumbles them up in her fingers to smell them, then drops some on the footpath, and more in her pocket.

For months or even for her whole life, Cynthia’s felt a furious desperation to go somewhere, to feel things, and be a real person. Well, Anahera is the over-heated centre of the world, the point of rupturing where it becomes too big and too strong to hold itself, and Cynthia feels close to her now. At last, she’s content.

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