I knock on the door and take a step back. Clare, the new graduate, smiles tightly at me. Her dark hair falls to her shoulders in spirals.
She has large brown eyes, and she has a small scar near the corner of her mouth. She performed well in the interviews, apparently, but our team leader already has doubts about her. It is her second week.
‘What do we do if they’re not home?’ she asks quietly.
‘We’ve got a few options,’ I say. ‘We can go to the car and ring the house – people will often answer the phone rather than come to the door. Or we can come back tomorrow. There might be some work we can follow up back at the office before we visit again.’
I knock again, louder and longer.
‘Yeah, I’m coming,’ a woman responds, and I hear shuffling footsteps. When the door opens, I see that she is not much older than twenty-one, twenty-two.
‘Hi,’ I say. ‘Are you Angie?’
‘Yeah.’ She looks at me cautiously and then glares at Clare. ‘Who are you?’
Clare drops her gaze as I begin the familiar explanation. ‘My name is Janet Keene. I work with the Department of Human Services in a child protection team. We were hoping to have a chat about your daughter, Jess.’
Two hours later, Clare and I are in a waiting area of the Children’s Hospital. Jess is playing with a book that makes different animal noises when you push the corresponding panel. Each time she selects a new plaything from the pile in the corner, she looks to Clare for approval. She sits cross-legged in the plastic seat, her knees forming right angles – perfect defences against the world. Or not so perfect. Clare and I have already seen the bruises on the little girl’s body, and the doctor will put dates to them, check for past breaks. Evaluate her overall health.
By 4.30pm we have delivered Jess to a temporary foster home. The paperwork has been completed; a magistrate has approved the protection application. In the car, the windows are closed against the early winter chill. At the Clarke Street lights I look across to Clare. Her brown eyes seem even larger, and she has a faraway look. She hasn’t eaten anything all day. She turns to me, taking some time before speaking,
‘How can someone do that to a child?’
I answer as best as I can, all the time thinking, just wait till you see a baby.
I drop Clare at the office car park.
‘Tell Laura I’m heading home,’ I say. ‘I’ll catch up with her in the morning.’
Clare smiles at me. ‘Thanks for today,’ she says.
Gerard isn’t home yet. I fall onto the orange sofa cushions and loosen the belt of my trousers. I can see the pile of unwashed dishes by the sink. I don’t dare look at the answering machine, and play a game with myself – if I wash the dishes before checking the messages, it will be good news. Something easily fixed, commonplace. But I can’t resist walking into the study. The red light is flashing: once only. I can’t begin the dishes now. I press play.
‘Hello Janet, it’s Maureen from Dr Alvin’s office. We received your test results today; Dr Alvin would like you and Gerard to make an appointment for later this week. I’ve got some late afternoon slots that might suit you.’
The next morning I’m at work by eight. Laura is waiting for me.
‘It’s good to have another morning person in the team,’ she laughs, gesturing across the empty office space. We brew coffee, and sit in one of the interview rooms. Laura closes the door.
‘How did Clare go yesterday?’
‘Hard to say,’ I reply. ‘She didn’t take much initiative, but it ended up being quite complex, so I wouldn’t have expected much more.’
Laura looks quizzical. ‘C’mon Janet, you’ve seen new workers jumping out of their skins to get into the action – what did she do? Talk to the mum? The kid? Do the paperwork?’
I lie. ‘Yeah, she was good with the kid, and she did the paperwork. The mum got aggressive, but Clare kept her cool.’ I rub at the coffeecup ring on the table. ‘She’s got a quiet manner, that’s all. She’ll be fine in time.’
Laura nods. ‘Look, maybe I’m wrong,’ she sighs. ‘It’s just an instinct. Anyway, I spoke to her yesterday afternoon. She said it was good going out with you, she learned a lot. I’d like her to work with you again this week, if there’s a chance.’
When we leave the room, everyone has started work. My carrel is two places from Clare’s, and I greet her on my way to my seat. Her hair is tied back with a scarf, accentuating her cheekbones. She is wearing a long black skirt, and something about her appears firmer, more competent. I feel better about lying to Laura.
I begin to enter details of yesterday’s visit into the computer system. Laura approaches our carrels. ‘We’re one down in the phone room today,’ she says, ‘because Alison and Ray are in court – are you ready for a stint on the phones, Clare?’
‘Sure.’ She stands up. Next to Laura’s stout figure she looks tiny. Laura turns back to me and winks.
Dr Alvin comes into the waiting room at twenty past five. ‘Sorry for keeping you waiting,’ she says.
She leads us through to her office, where Gerard and I sit in the high-backed chairs facing her desk. Unlike the carrels of my colleagues, Dr Alvin’s office is devoid of family photographs. The only frames contain her numerous qualifications.
‘Okay,’ she says. ‘Let’s get to the heart of the matter before I explain what the results mean, and what we’ll do next.’ She places her palms face down on the paperwork and takes a breath. ‘Unfortunately, the tests haven’t come up with anything conclusive. This is quite common – I see it a lot in my practice. The term we use in this situation is unexplained infertility. The most positive thing I can say in relation to this diagnosis is that the tests haven’t shown us anything that is actually preventing you from getting pregnant, Janet. And the other thing you have on your side is your age. Thirty-two gives us scope to try a few different things. By the time a lot of my patients come to me, they’re toward the end of their childbearing years and that creates another set of problems.’
Dr Alvin goes on. I watch Gerard nodding. He looks at me, then at her, his jaw moving back and forward. He grinds his back teeth when he’s concentrating. I almost remind him to stop grinding and it’s then I realise that I’ve lost track of what Dr Alvin is saying. I stare hard at the wall and for some reason I think of Clare. I wonder how she’s coping in the phone room. It requires a lot of concentration and the paperwork can be up to five pages per call. And then there’s the information overload: call after call about neglect, all kinds of abuse. I picture her wide eyes.
‘Janet?’ Gerard is addressing me.
‘Sorry,’ I reply. ‘I was…’
Dr Alvin smiles. ‘No, I’m sorry. I was going a bit fast there. It’s a lot to take in late in the day. Do you have any questions?’
All that comes to mind is nonsense. Bits of words, and even a song that was on the radio in the car earlier. I try to remember the verse; it’s something like: all the places we’d never belong … when tomorrow’s gone, tomorrow’s gone. Suddenly, I’m afraid that I’m going to laugh and it’s all I can do to stifle the rising emotion. But worse than laughter is the low wail that I hear come out of my mouth, and I press my palms into my eyes to stop the tears.
The next morning I beat Laura to work, and open the office with my master key. I walk around turning on lights, then fill the urn in the kitchen. There are faxes piling up in the admin area – copies of paperwork from the after-hours service. I put the pages in order, staple them and place them in Laura’s in-tray. I purposely don’t look at their content. I make myself a coffee and sit in front of my computer. I look through the phone messages from yesterday and arrange them in order of urgency. On top is a message from Jess’s mother, Angie. The receptionist has written: Wants to organise supervised visit in our office. I decide that Clare can return the call, set up the visit and supervise it.
Mid morning Laura suggests we head to a nearby café. When our coffees are in front of us, Laura looks around then leans toward me conspiratorially. ‘I’ve got news!’
I take a sip of my latte.
‘I’ve got a secondment to head office,’ she says. ‘Starting next month I’m going to be on the training team!’
‘Fantastic!’ I say. ‘That’s exactly what you wanted.’
‘I know,’ she says, grinning now. ‘I wasn’t allowed to tell anybody I was even interviewing for the position. It’s twelve months to begin with, but after that, who knows…’
I begin to congratulate her but she stops me. ‘No, there’s more,’ she says. ‘They asked me if I knew anyone who could take on my team-leader position for at least the next twelve months and I suggested you! It’s perfect timing, Janet – you’re so ready for this…’
I run my hand through my hair and look down. All I can hear is Dr Alvin’s voice. After I’d got my emotions in check, she had explained the program to us. ‘It’s very demanding – physically and emotionally,’ she’d said, looking straight at me. ‘I’ll be honest, Janet, a lot of my patients take leave from work, even go part-time while they’re embarking on this. And few of them have a job as tough as yours. Promise me you’ll at least think about it, discuss it with Gerard…’
I exhale and look at Laura. ‘Look, thanks for suggesting me, but at the moment…’
Laura’s face falls. ‘C’mon Janet, I know you’re ready; everyone in the team loves you – and you know your stuff. I’m not taking no for an answer – we’ll work on your CV next week. If you don’t do it now it’ll never happen.’
‘Okay,’ I say. My body is tired of battles.
In the afternoon, Clare prepares to supervise the access visit between Jess and her mother. We go through the plan together. The foster carer will drop Jess at our office at 3pm and return for her two hours later. Angie will arrive at 3.30pm. Clare is to stay in the playroom for the entirety of the visit. Along with aiding a smooth visit, Clare is to observe the mother for the report.
‘Under no circumstances can you leave the room,’ I say, ‘and under no circumstances can Angie take Jess from the room. If you have any questions, call my extension from the room.’
Clare nods, taking down notes in her tiny writing.
‘And you know about the panic button?’ I ask. She frowns and shakes her head. ‘Okay,’ I laugh. ‘In every interview room, and the playroom, there’s an alarm. It’s under the desk. If anything happens, you just push the alarm and the team leader on duty will come to the room straight away.’
Clare nods again. ‘So … under the desk?’
‘Yeah,’ I say. ‘But I’ve been in this office for three years now, and no one’s used it. The only time it ever went off was when Laura was doing an interview once, and she tried to cross her legs under the table and accidentally knocked it. There were three team leaders in the office that day and they all came running.’
Clare finally smiles. ‘Okay,’ she says. ‘I’m set.’
Clare rings my extension toward the end of the access visit. Angie has some questions about what will happen next in the investigation, just some procedural questions that she wasn’t confident answering.
When I enter the room, Jess and her mother are sitting on the floor putting pieces of a puzzle together. Angie is drinking intermittently from a large soft-drink bottle, but when she gets up and stands in front of me, I can smell alcohol on her breath. I look at Clare to see if she has any inkling, but her face is blank.
‘So, when do I get Jess back?’ Angie asks.
I’ve explained all this before. ‘We need to complete a full investigation…’ I begin.
She interrupts me. ‘Things just aren’t happening quickly enough. I’ve heard how you people work – it’s not right! Jess has a home and she should be there with me.’ Her voice is rising, and her face has reddened.
‘Look, I know it can be frustrating…’
‘No, you don’t know,’ she interrupts again. ‘You don’t know anything about me, and you couldn’t give a fuck about me. You know nothing.’ She drinks from the bottle and takes a step toward me. ‘Do you have children?’ She stares me in the eye.
‘That’s really not relevant to this situation…’
She sneers at Clare. ‘What about you? How old are you? I bet you don’t have kids! You wouldn’t know what it’s like.’
Clare straightens up and pushes her hair to one side. ‘Actually, I do know what it’s like – I have a son…’
Suddenly I’m staring at Clare, unable to hide my surprise. I don’t even hear Angie take a step closer to me, and I hardly feel the blow to my right cheek. All I hear are her words:
‘How d’you like this, you stupid barren bitch?’
After Clare has pressed the panic button and Laura has appeared – after Jess has been taken away by her foster carer; after I have held an ice pack to my cheek; after the incident report has been completed – I look up at the clock in the office. It’s 7pm, and I ring Gerard. He offers to come and pick me up, but I refuse. ‘Nothing’s broken, I’m okay,’ I tell him. I’ve given my statement to the police officers who came to our office, told them every detail I could remember: the soft drink bottle, the alcohol on Angie’s breath, everything except those words. I won’t press charges, because to do that, I would need to repeat them.
Clare is still in her carrel, typing furiously.
‘I didn’t know you had a son,’ I say.
She smiles. ‘Yeah, he’s two now. I was young when I had him.’
‘What’s his name?’
She reaches into her bag and pulls out a photograph. She hands it to me. A denim-clad toddler is standing proudly at the base of a play frame. ‘Lucas,’ she says.
When I’m alone in the office, having persuaded Laura that I’m fine and she has left, I open my drawers. I find a clean garbage bag in the kitchen and fill it with make-up, CDs, USB drives and books. I take the suit I wear to court from the back of the door. I write a note for Laura listing my current cases, my computer password, and I place it on her desk with the key to my filing cabinet and the office master key. I make two trips to my car before returning to my empty carrel. As I walk past Clare’s carrel, I notice the picture of Lucas is now propped against her computer. I check my left pocket – Dr Alvin’s card is still there – and I know in the morning I will be counting down the minutes before her receptionist arrives and I make that phone call.