“Can you hear a baby crying”, Miki asked from inside the lounge. I looked up at her from my seat on the windowsill and said, “No sweetie”. This wasn’t the first time she’d asked that question and definitely wouldn’t be the last.
“Are you sure,” she asked again, more insistently, slightly desperately? I paused, taking a few seconds to listen carefully, weighing up my answer. “Really, I can’t hear any crying”, I replied to her, smiling patiently, more patiently than I felt.
I looked out the window at the road below. It was late afternoon and very noisy. Cars were hooting at each other as they made their slow, bumper-to-bumper, start-stop way across the traffic intersection directly below the building. Spin Street is the southernmost street north of the Company Gardens and it joins the east of the city with the west of the city. Vehicles of every shape, size and colour use it all day and night to cross the heart of the city. During rush hour, it often gridlocks if just one impatient driver forces his way into the middle of the intersection seconds before the lights change, thinking he’ll get home that much quicker.
From sun-up to sunset, pedestrians cross the intersection, north-to-south, making their way to and from the bus, train and taxi stations to work, home, school and a myriad other interesting and not so interesting places. Most of them aren’t bothered to wait for the lights to change in their favour and jaywalk across the intersection. Collisions and near-collisions between cars and pedestrians happen regularly. Groups of school kids blithely cross the intersection at any time, prompting hooting, brakes to screech and girls to scream.
Amongst all that noise, I definitely couldn’t hear a baby crying.
“I can”, Miki replied. “It’s very soft, sounds far away, but sad and insistent,” she said. I looked closely at her, checking to see who was present. I couldn’t be sure, but it looked like Mommy Miki, only sadder. I’d seen that look before, many times. It’s always heartbreaking.
“Come over here, sweetie,” I said, “let’s listen at the window, maybe we’ll hear something.” I knew we wouldn’t but there was no ignoring the situation now; I could see that she was into it completely.
She stood up and hesitantly walked over to the window. “Wait,” I said quickly, “there’s one of those buses downstairs.” She stopped immediately, reflexively jerking to a standstill, as though she’d walked into an invisible wall, turned around and quickly covered her eyes with one hand. Miki was trembling and I had no doubt that if 7’teen had seen the bus there would have been hysterics – there always were.
I watched the beige and red tour bus, with that visceral, fear-inducing logo emblazoned across the side, inch its way across the intersection, taking the turn very widely; pale, Asian tourist faces peering out from the air-conditioned interior, trying to get a glimpse of the Hanging Tree, Church Square, and the Slave Lodge, while half listening to a well dressed tour guide give a rehearsed speech about the violence that surrounded those historical landmarks. You could hear the bus’ big diesel engines all the way up at our window. Eventually, the red back of the bus slipped out of sight and I turned back to Miki. “It’s safe, you can look now.”
She turned back to face the window and walked up to me. “Can you still hear the crying, sweetie,” I asked, reaching out to take her hand. She stood very still, staring out the window, not looking, but listening.
“I’m not sure,” she said, “it’s very noisy outside. I don’t like the noise, it hurts my head.” I could hear 7’teen coming through, even without the bus to trigger her. Her face was all knotted up and she was on the verge of tears. Blue veins stood thick and swollen on her temples.
“It’s OK,” I tried to reassure her. “Don’t worry about the noise, you were listening for the crying baby, remember? Can you still hear that?” I asked, trying to distract her from the noise and focus her on the original subject. Perhaps, I shouldn’t have, perhaps I should have kept her distracted, let her forget about the crying but it didn’t occur to me at the time.
Our apartment building is in central Cape Town and it’s surrounded by residential, apartment buildings in all directions. Some buildings are quite small, while others are much larger. Behind those windows, some dark now, others flashing brightly with the setting sun, it was statistically possible that there was a small baby living inside. In fact, there was a gay, European couple that lived in the building across the road from us that had recently adopted a small, African baby. But, as much noise as a baby makes, we would never hear it against the constant background noise of the city.
I looked over at 7’teen, watching her apprehensively. She was standing rigidly, her face contorted with concentration. “No, I can’t hear it anymore. It’s too noisy. The noise is starting to bang and smash around inside my head. It’s getting very loud. I want it to stop. Please make it stop.” She pleaded desperately, looking very unhappy, tears welling up in her eyes.
I took her hand and led her away from the window, back to the relative quiet of the lounge. I sat Miki back down on the couch and she slowly started to relax.
To be honest, I sometimes did hear a small baby crying, far off in the distance. It usually happened when I was in the shower, or when the cold, winter rains splashed against the windows. But, I knew it was my imagination, an auditory illusion. If I was in the shower and I turned off the water, the crying would stop, or if it were raining, I’d check in on Kai and find him sleeping quietly. I never took it seriously when I heard it.
“What happened,” she asked, turning to look at me? “You don’t remember? You asked me if I heard a baby crying. Then when you walked over to the window to look out, you became very emotional. 7’teen must’ve become present,” I answered. I knew she’d switched completely because when Miki switches out completely, she’s always disorientated when she returns and can never remember what happened while an alter was present.
“I can hear the crying again,” Miki looked at me, her expression begging for an answer from me.
I looked across our open-plan apartment. “Well, Zee and Ryder are building Lego. Zee’s building a big fortress, or it could be a spaceship that transforms into multiple, smaller spaceships. Ryder’s got all his Lego figurines lined up and he’s rearranging their heads, hats, bodies, armour, and legs, making variations of the original.”
“Do you know that he’s got names for each one, and that he remembers exactly what he built?”
“Kai’s hanging around both of them, trying to pick up a piece of Lego to suck on, but no, none of them are crying. All accounted for… all happy.” I answered her reassuringly.
She pulled her legs up and hugged them to herself, her sight turned inwards. “It’s Meisie then, inside my head,” she said, emphatically. “It’s Meisie!”