[CABIN FEVER]

By Caitlin McGregor

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Whenever I’m struggling to find a memory’s place in time, I look at its home. We have lived in a new place every year (chasing cheaper rent, usually, or a little more space)—our ages are tied to places. I organise the timeline of our shared life by identifying the tiles in the backgrounds of photos: That’s the Casey Street kitchen, so here you’re one year old.

five/twenty-five/twenty-five [B— Street, Castlemaine]

When B and I decide that we’re going to live together, I’m giddy with the thought of living with another adult. It’s been years since there was a flesh and blood person who would reliably be around to talk to in the hours between O’s bedtime and mine. One of us can go and get milk without it being a big expedition! I will be sharing the rent!

And, I love him. I love the way he fills a room, the way he chews at problems. I renew the B— Street lease: it will be the first time since O was born that I’ve stayed in one place for longer than a year. The house grows. B brings his belongings, his friends, his ideas, his stories, and the house inhales—the outside world comes further in than I’ve ever let it before.

in utero/nineteen [Mitsubishi Magna]

Shortly after finding out I’m pregnant, I take my drivers’ test. I hit the curb on a right-hand turn, and fail on the spot. On my second go, I have a new examiner—he doesn’t understand why I sit for so long before making that turn again, but he does give me my licence.

My first car is a 1991 Mitsubishi Magna. My parents buy it for me—I am flat broke—for $1500, from an elderly couple who have only ever used it to drive to and from the supermarket. It breaks down frequently in the heat, and never reminds me to turn its lights off, so runs out of battery regularly. But driving it still feels like an unprecedented kind of freedom.

I have moved back home, and am living with my parents, my brother and my two sisters. I feel like a child again/I am still a child, but I am also literally expanding: my belly is so huge now that I can’t see my own feet when I’m standing. I am taking up more space, a new kind of space, and I don’t fit into any of my old spaces in the way I used to. One afternoon, my parents leave the house to go somewhere after my mother and I have another fight (we have had bitter fights for what seems like forever, but they are getting worse and more frequent). I leave too—I get into the car, and drive out into the bush to feel alone.

I am not alone in the bush. I bring the car to a stop in front of a large Eastern Grey kangaroo, who brings herself up to her full height and stares at me and my car. I think she seems affronted, which would be fair enough. My phone rings. ‘We didn’t get you that car so you could drive off in a huff without telling anyone,’ says my mother. ‘Your siblings are worried about you. Go back home.’

zero/twenty [D— Drive, Junortoun]

3 am. The body in my arms is getting heavy. Every night I walk this corridor, up and back, up and back. The clock chimes every fifteen minutes and its notes reverberate inside my skull. The rest of my family is sleeping, including the baby, who will only stay asleep so long as I walk the hall. I am the only awake person in the world.

I will tell people this was like losing my mind, but it isn’t really. It’s more like being trapped inside of it while it loses control of itself. I watch Lisa Eldridge’s makeup tutorials on YouTube while the baby naps during the day—they soothe me—but then at 2am everything merges, and the baby’s face floats before me, grinning, fully done up in Dramatic Black ‘Cat Eye’ Liner Makeup. The floor tilts; the walls warp. There is rage in my body and I conjure up holograms of people I know, imagine they’ve hurt the baby, and hurl their flickering bodies into the bedroom wall so hard they snap and crumple to the ground.

I know that sleep deprivation is poisoning my mind, but I don’t understand where the rage is coming from. Next year, after I come across Chekhov’s short story ‘Sleepy’, I will carry the weight of it in my belly for weeks. Thirteen-year-old Varka is chronically sleep deprived, and forced to look after her masters’ infant without rest:

Varka… understands everything, she recognises everyone, but through her half sleep she cannot understand the force which binds her, hand and foot, weighs upon her, and prevents her from living. She looks round, searches for that force that she may escape from it, but she cannot find it. At last, tired to death, she does her very utmost, strains her eyes, looks up at the flickering green patch, and listening to the [baby’s] screaming, finds the foe who will not let her live.
That foe is the baby.

The rage is a trapped, tortured person’s desperation to escape (to sleep). I need the holograms because the violent panic trapped inside my body has to be directed somewhere, anywhere, other than its source (Chekhov: Kill the baby and then sleep, sleep, sleep). This new type of love is an exercise in staying, through pain and discomfort. I need to learn to exist in small spaces with grace. I need to learn to stay put, and stay still, in peace.

—/fifteen [D— Drive, Junortoun]

Whenever I am having a panic attack, I shut myself in the bathroom. I put the fan on, so the rest of my family know the bathroom’s occupied, and I sit on the toilet and wait until the attack passes. At some point, a sentence starts to recur in my mind through these attacks: I want to go home. But I am home; I am sitting on the toilet lid in the bathroom of my family’s house. My family is a stable and loving one, and I am safe. I’m not sure where this other home could be, or what it is that might make it home, but the phrase returns with each panic attack regardless.

five/twenty-five/twenty-five [B— Street, Castlemaine]

Shortly after B has moved in, we rearrange the house. B gets on a roll—he gets this glint of determination in his eye, and marches through rooms picking things up. Where does this go? Can we throw this out? At one point he holds up a small chair. This can go?

I am horrified. That chair was mine when I was three, and my dad recently upholstered it for O as a Mother’s Day present to me. I tell B to put it back down and then I go outside, trying to lower my cortisol levels. They start to rise again whenever I walk back into the house.

This place is full of objects that B doesn’t know the history of, and for the first time this fact feels devastating. The house is momentarily transformed into an alien space, and I start to wonder what we’ve done.

one/twenty-one [Casey Street, Bendigo East]

When I tell my dad that I think I need to find my own place, he looks hurt. ‘Are we not supporting you enough?’

I am too exhausted to explain. I am a child, not a child, expanding. ‘It’s not about that, Dad. I just…need my own space.’

I find a one bedroom unit for lease, twenty minutes away from Mum and Dad’s house. It’s walking distance to town, and is just behind a supermarket. On the day I get the keys, Mum and I are both still hurting from a fight we’d had the night before. I awkwardly say goodbye into the silence between us. She hugs me, and warns me that living on my own with a child will be harder than I’m anticipating. ‘There will be mornings when he doesn’t want to go to childcare, and you’re the only one to get him there. There will be nights he doesn’t sleep—you’ll be the only person there. You’re going to need to cook, clean, change nappies, the lot. I hope you’re ready for it to be hard.’

It is hard, but it’s not the torturous, trapped kind. It’s good, hard work. Casey Street is where I learn to make a space into home for O and me. It’s where I start the lifelong process of learning, and working on, who we are as a family of two. We build routines: walks to the park to feed the ducks, watering the zucchini seedlings in the vegie patch. O takes his first steps in the unit’s little loungeroom. At the end of the year we pack up and move again, this time to Melbourne.

In the coming years, whenever I’m driving to my parents’ house from Melbourne or Castlemaine, I will tell whoever is with me as we pass the Coles on the highway: ‘We used to live just behind there!’ My parents both do this in the inner-northern suburbs of Melbourne, where they spent their early twenties. I used to drink at that pub! I used to live just round the corner there! I know that, Mum, you tell us every time. I was annoyed at my dad once, as we walked through Parkville shortly after I’d moved there, for overriding my present with his past (This is where the Uni Blues trained!).

But in time, I will do the same thing. O won’t remember the year we spend living on Casey Street—he is too young—and it’s a year when we’re particularly isolated from friends. I will be alarmed when I realise that significant periods of my life have passed by without witnesses.

‘We used to live there!’ I will tell O in four years, as we drive past Coles. He will roll his eyes. ‘I know that. You tell me every time.’

—/eight: [McCaskill Street, Numurkah]

The two mirrors in this room face each other. If you sit on the toy box between them you can see iterations of yourself, and nothing but yourself, going on and on forever.

We are moving to a new town soon. I write my name on bits of paper and hide them in cracks in the wall at the back of the wardrobe. I want whoever lives here next to know I was here.

five/twenty-five/twenty-five [B— Street, Castlemaine]

In my five years of parenting, I have never shared my (our) daily life with another adult before. I’ve never had much time for people commiserating about how hard single parenting must be—navigating a relationship at the same time as parenting has always sounded to me like the much more difficult task. But living with B, I’m starting to value things I didn’t even know I’d been missing. The practical help definitely makes life a lot easier, but the thing that strikes me the most is having someone else there to witness the little things that happen each day; I realise fully for the first time that outside of his childcare teachers, I have been the only person who has been witnessing O’s growing up in a day-to-day way. ‘O’s balance is really coming along,’ says B, and it’s intoxicating to have someone else notice.

one/twenty-one [Mitsubishi Magna]

One afternoon, despite my parents forbidding me to—the Magna is only supposed to be for driving around Bendigo—I drive down to Melbourne, so I can take O to a medical appointment. O was born with bilateral clubfoot, and needs to go to the city regularly for check-ups and brace fittings. This is the first time I’ve driven him down by myself—I drive down the highway euphoric, feeling like an independent adult. Like a real parent.

On the way back to Bendigo—on the Calder Freeway, just past Kyneton—steam starts billowing out of the Magna’s bonnet. The engine cuts out. Swearing, I pull over to the side of the freeway and call my dad. Then I lift O out of the boiling car, and we wait on the edge of the freeway for Dad’s friend to come and pick us up and take us to Kyneton. When he arrives, we pack all our things into his car. I leave the Magna on the side of the road with its key on the tyre, like the mechanic on the phone told us to. I’ve pushed it too far: it’s cooked. We never see it again.

two/twenty-two [Park Street, Brunswick]

Even before we move in, the Park Street apartment is a place I know well—my friends Mac and Issy used to live here. I have been drunk in this loungeroom several times, in the brief window between finishing high school and falling pregnant. It felt so grown up, having friends living in an apartment on the edge of the city. When I stand on the balcony now, I remember a friend leaning over its railings and drunkenly spewing onto the concrete two floors below.

Now I’m back, and it’s home for a while. I set up O’s cot in the room that, for some days after we move in, I still think of as Issy’s. But I’m surprised, given all the memories that live here, by how quickly it starts to feel like our own space.

three/twenty-three [Brunswick Road, Brunswick West]

The first bout of illness O has had since his diabetes diagnosis: a fever. A bit before midnight I check his blood sugars. 4.9. They were nearly 12 when he went to bed, they’re dropping quickly—my guess is, he’ll be hypoglycemic within the hour. I lie down next to his sleeping body and decide that I’ll check his bloods again whenever our upstairs neighbour finishes having sex. My neighbour’s girlfriend is a very loud sex-haver, and as her noises have become more and more familiar to me, the regular vocal performance has started to remind me somewhat of a pop song. Consistent rhythm; only superficial variations, from one time to the next, on what is starting to be a comfortingly predictable formula; the fade-out ending (which Slate’s William Weir declared dead in pop music in 2014, but is still evidently in practice in underground/overhead ways); stubbornly catchy. I give it three minutes after fade out, just to be sure it’s over, and then I get up to load a test strip into the glucose monitor. I lick his finger to check for any sugar that could mess up the reading; push the finger prick device down; draw the blood up into the machine. 3.7. “Bud, wake up. You’re low.”

He refuses to accept any glucose tablets into his mouth. He is screaming. The screaming will be dropping his sugars. I am lost in this proxy fever and the too-close proximity is making this a lot harder than it should be, the shared body heat is making this surreally difficult, neither of our heads is cool but I am the adult and I should not have wrapped myself around his fever even when he begged me to.

I rush to the kitchen, the glucagon is in the fridge door. Step 1 flip off the seal from the vial of glucagon powder Step 2 remove the needle cover from the syringe DO NOT REMOVE THE PLASTIC CUP FROM THE SYRINGE Step 3 insert the needle into the rubber stopper on the vial then inject the entire contents of the syringe into the vial of glucagon powder. The powder dissolves and watching it do so is a little trip: time stops while, in slow motion, the liquid becomes fully opaque. Pretty. Then the clocks start again and so does the screaming and I load up a syringe, I remember the first time I injected his little body with anything he was screaming and in my memory he is looking right at my face but I wouldn’t know that, I can’t know that because I would have been watching the needle not his face and it’s the too-close proximity that is making this a lot harder than it should be.

I don’t end up needing the glucagon—O eventually accepts some tablets, eats some biscuits, and goes back to sleep. It always ends up being okay, but the stress of managing his diabetes often leaves me sleepless. Weeks later another of my neighbours tells me, ‘Make sure you let us know if you ever need help!’ Why can’t I knock on her door? I’ve become so protective, and so insular, that even when we’re literally surrounded by neighbours, our apartment walls can feel like the finite boundary of the world.

five/twenty-five/twenty-five [B— Street, Castlemaine]

It’s not working. B and I are suffocating each other—the house is closing in on us like shrink wrap. When I’m stressed, which is increasingly often, I don’t know how to deal with the fact there’s someone other than O living in my space. I’m out of practice. We argue: I am critical, inflexible; he has brought the wrong bits of the world in.

—/three [Wattlebrae Street, Reservoir]

My earliest memory is this: I am three, our house number is three, and I am in the car with my dad explaining that when I turn four, we will have to move to a house with a four on the front. Dad wants to know if I won’t miss the bedroom I share with my brother, and the ferns in the backyard. Probably I will, but this is how I understand the world to work: I will turn four, and it will be time to move on.

four/twenty-four [B— Street, Castlemaine]

I have finally finished my degree, and with nothing holding us in the city anymore I start thinking about moving to the country, where rent prices are cheaper and we might be able to afford a bit more space. We no longer have a car, so we start taking the train to Castlemaine on weekends to go to house inspections.

O has casts on both his legs from his latest surgery, so I push him in the pram from the train station towards the B— Street inspection. It’s over 40 degrees. I had forgotten how brutal the central Victorian heat can be. At the top of one of several hills, I am certain I am too exhausted to push the pram any further. We stop in the meagre shade of a spindly young gum tree, and I spray O’s face with my water bottle to cool him down. We’re going to miss the inspection. I imagine living for another year in the little Brunswick Road apartment with the ever-leaking kitchen roof, and start pushing again. When we arrive at the B— Street house I am red faced, puffing and covered in sweat. I lift O out of the pram and he starts to look around by scooting along the floor on his butt: a mode of transport that he uses when in casts and has, by now, perfected. I look out the loungeroom window at the big rectangle of grass outside, and imagine O running across it. We move in a few months later.

twenty-four [Carzii]

We get another car—O names him Carzii, after our cat Kwazii, who in turn was named after a character from The Octonauts. I commute to Melbourne sometimes while O is at childcare, and whenever I miss the train I am secretly thrilled. Being alone in a car is one of my favourite things. Alone time as a sole caregiver is a luxury, and I will never get over the particular luxury of being alone and contained and moving at the same time: of being alone and controlling the movement; of moving through the world with autonomy, but sitting in my own space.

five/twenty-five/— [B— Street, Castlemaine]

Shortly after I ask B to move out, I am plunged into a fever. O and I both have the flu, and O calls out repeatedly throughout the night—my body remembers the sleep deprivation years, and it panics. I can’t go back there.

O gets better, but my flu drags on for weeks. I jump at sudden noises and burst into tears over nothing. I don’t know if I can handle B leaving after all; I don’t know if I can do this on my own again; I’m scared that when he leaves, he’ll take the whole world with him.

The fever eventually breaks. B moves out, and the spaces he leaves are conspicuous. There are gaping holes where lamps used to be; I notice the loud absence of a speaker, of a clothes rack. ‘I kind of miss B,’ O says, some weeks after B has left. He looks around our loungeroom. ‘I miss the stuff he took.’

five-and-a-half/nearly twenty-six [Kinder, Castlemaine/Studio 54, Castlemaine]

I have just started renting a desk in a coworking space. I share an office with a community programs consultant, a natural resource management evaluator, a graphic designer, and my friend Wynni, who’s an academic. After years of writing only from home, now that I’m surrounded by people, I am becoming very aware of my own habits. I snack, for example, a lot more than anyone else seems to. Hearing about the others’ projects—so varied, so connected to the world around them—also makes me newly conscious of the limitations of my own work, and of my own thinking.

I circle back to the same ideas. I read widely: I’m trying to claw my way out of my own echo chamber but it’s hard, I’m unfit. I ask a friend what I should write about for my next essay and he replies, have you ever considered writing about motherhood? He is being sarcastic. I am stuck.

I decide to draw, from memory, floorplans of places that I’ve lived. It’s a lot harder than I thought it would be—even sketches of small places, where I spent most of a year’s daily time. Was there a clothesline at Casey Street? I remember how difficult it was to get the pram out of the backyard and past the car that year, so I erase and redraw lines until the space between them feels adequately tight. I have no recollection of a wardrobe being in my room at Brunswick Road, even though I can see it in photos. I erase and redraw over and over again, trying to fit lines around scraps of memory. I forget to include toilets, and have to go back and fit them in.

Memories come back, while I’m mapping from memory, that I haven’t recalled in years. I erase a line to indicate a bathroom door and hear a friend’s voice call out, frustrated, ‘Does this door not shut?’ on his way to have a shower. I sketch the outline of a bed and remember the first time I lay down on it, after a year living in a unit too small for me to have one. I remember the ache of taking apart the baby’s cot to replace it with a bed, and the packing away of the highchair; the gentle dismantling and storage of little eras along the way. I’m re-witnessing tiny bygones.

I get stuck on where to put the fridge in Park Street. I shut my eyes and re-enter the kitchen in my mind—I even try to imagine looking for milk, but I can’t see the fridge.

Eventually I ease my self-set rule: I am still not allowed to work off official floorplans, but I can draw from other people’s memories as well as my own. I send a message to my friend Mac, who lived in the Park Street apartment before I did.

weird question, but in the park st
apartment, did the fridge go on
the left or the right
as you walked into the kitchen?

Left!!

—/—/ twenty-five [G— Street, Castlemaine]

O and I go to visit B in his new sharehouse. It feels strange, unnaturally formal, to visit after having lived together—like catching up with an ex as friends. The house is set on a sloped block, and has trees in the yard and a view of the town. B’s housemate is warm and lovely and has an old staffy called Bowser, who sits in the loungeroom on his self-heating blanket and farts. It’s a good place. ‘Nice to visit,’ says O on the way home. I agree.

It can be difficult to figure out where your boundaries are when you’re not working off a blueprint. What do I need to make room for? Where do I draw the line? For my own sanity, at some point I inevitably have to stop erasing and redrawing lines, at least for a little while. Go over it in fineliner, scan it in, and decide that this, for now, is close enough.

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