‘I’m sorry I’m such a nag,’ she said, honestly. ‘It means a lot to me.’
She was referring to one of the many jobs that needed doing around the house, which he was usually too tired even to think about. He needed to switch off at the week-end, watch a bit of football, read a paper; not that he was a particularly keen fan. He didn’t let the children bother him too much. If they jumped on him when he was watching telly or trying to read, he just moaned at them, perhaps getting just a little tetchy.
‘I know, love, I just can’t decide how I’m going to tackle it, it’s more complicated than you think, you know.’
To her it was black and white. There was a good sized lawn outside her front door, and because he wouldn’t do anything about the fence the kids couldn’t play outside and it was July already.
‘If you got out early on a nice warm day you could show off your muscles and top up your tan at the same time,’ she said, trying to attract him to the idea a bit. ‘Val would love to get a good look from her kitchen window.’
‘Don’t be daft, I’ll get it done soon love, don’t worry.’
She put the coffee cups down on the work surface, sighing under her breath. Her eyes were hot with lack of sleep, her legs leaden. Looking at the washing up, she wondered whether it was worth starting it before there would be another demand from someone. At least while he was sitting on the sofa Jack would forget to pester her for a short while and would play around his Dad’s feet. She started to run the hot water, staring vacantly through the steam at the overgrown lawn. The flower beds were barely distinguishable from the grass. There was a little bed under the window into which she’d managed to put a few pansies from the supermarket. As soon as the children had been asleep she’d set to it, pulling out the weeds, watching the worms steadily retreat from their momentary exposure. She’d enjoyed the smell of the earth; it reminded her of helping her dad with the vegetables as a child. She’d loved to munch fresh peas from the pod, and dare herself to bite into unripe gooseberries and apples.
‘Love,’ he called, ‘he’s asking for juice.’
She filled the toddler cup with squash. Feeling every movement of her hands and every connection of her body with the objects she handled, she would draw sensation from even the smallest humdrum task. This was her mantra.
Today she felt more tired than ever. The younger child had woken more than once in the night, this time insisting on getting into their bed. She had spent the rest of the night with her muscles taut, trying not to fall off the edge or roll onto the child.
Having two children so close together in age was a nightmare of nappies. Just trying to get them to lie down was a challenge. Still, the nappy years would soon be over, the teething would be done and she’d just sleep. Oh! Just to sleep without interruption - was it too much to ask? After the occasional good night’s rest she would wake up as though she were on drugs, seeming to float about. It would be a new planet on these days; her breathing would slow, she would do less housework and play with the children as if she was one of them. She would enjoy the small challenges of the day, taking pleasure in her skills. It was like reconnecting with the human race.
Today she was back on her own planet.
‘Love, I’m popping down to the shop for some fags.’
‘O.K., see you in a bit then.’ Resolving to leave the last few bits until later, she again removed the gloves and hung them over the edge of the sink. There were cries of disappointment coming from the lounge.
‘I want to go with Daddy, not fair, not fair.’
‘Never mind Jack, shall we read a book?’
The toddler reluctantly marched to the bookshelves, stamping his feet. The vibration from the floor made her feel faint. She sat on the sofa, a rush of release spreading up her legs. The child climbed on her knee, his elbows digging in to her stomach. She resisted expressing pain. It was the same book again, in which the toy animals made a boat in order to float themselves down the river. It was quite long and she was hoarse, the tickle in the back of her throat becoming more and more intrusive. Then the baby woke up from her nap before they’d finished the story. As she got up from the sofa the toddler pulled at her clothes,
‘Mummy, it hasn’t finished.’
‘We’ll finish it soon. Katie’s woken up. Let’s see what she wants.’
‘No, no, no.’
As she walked up the stairs the toddler tugged on the bottom of her trousers. She felt she might fall.
‘Stop it, let me move, Jack, let me go.’
He sat slumped on the bottom of the staircase and began to cry, burying his head in his arms.
A call came from the front door. ‘Love, I’m back.’
‘Daddy. Daddy’s home.’ The little boy disappeared to greet him.
She carried the baby downstairs. Katie was walking already, though she had only just passed her first birthday. It was a nightmare of dangers around the house. No small objects could be left within reach lest she should swallow them, and gates barred the kitchen and stairs. You had to watch her with hawk’s eyes.
She looked through the window. Jeff was outside in the front garden with a fag lit up; Jack was running round him in circles. Her heart leapt. She tried to repress her fear, but she couldn’t help it. She put the baby down on the sofa and went to the door.
‘Come back in, Jack, it’s not safe pet.’
‘He’s all right with me, love, I’ll watch him.’
‘I don’t want him out there, this is a bus route, it’s not safe.’ She stepped out and extended her hand to the boy. ‘Come in Jack.’
‘I want to stay with Daddy.’
Just then Jeff’s mate Richard appeared round the corner, walking his dog. He frequently came along this route between his flat and the park and sometimes gave her a wave if she was at the kitchen window. He was really Jeff’s mate, but he’d also been the first person she’d been out with at school. He was a bit rough at the edges, but he always had time to speak and he was great with the kids. Jack particularly liked him. He called Katie ‘Princess’ and let them play with his dog. Jeff and Richard had a mutual interest in motorbikes, but Richard still rode his regularly. Jeff just got his out in the summer a couple of times and would disappear for a weekend to ride over the speed limit on country roads that had endless distant horizons to aim for. Before the kids had come along Jeff had taken her with him on such rides; clutching his leather jacket she’d entrusted him with her life. They’d ridden the bends like one body.
Richard crossed the road with a wave. Jack ran to meet him. The dog made him chuckle with his sniffs. Richard unfastened his leash and the boy made a game of letting the dog chase him around the lawn.
‘Hi, how’s things?’ Richard asked, looking over at her after he’d given Jeff a friendly punch.
Katie had come to the door now and was pushing her way past her legs, eyes firmly fixed on the dog and the fun.
‘Worn out as usual,’ she replied, grabbing Katie and trying to hold on to her tightly as she wriggled and writhed.
‘Dog, dog.’ The little girl stretched out as far as she could, pointing and bouncing in her mother’s arms. It would have been so easy just to drop her, in that moment; the exhaustion instinctively seemed to demand it. She would land on the concrete below, probably breaking an arm or a leg and would be rushed to hospital. Then there would be the chance to give up, let the doctors take over, let her sleep. But she would never sleep again if she did something like that, and she knew it.
‘Give her to me,’ said Richard, handing Jeff the dog’s leash. As he took Katie from her she looked into his sparkly blue eyes, and at the soft growth of hair on his face, fair and wayward; he smelled just the same as he had all those years ago. In that moment he was her saint. For a few seconds she imagined that he was hers again. What would it have been like if they’d stayed together and she’d never been out with Jeff?
She became conscious of what a wreck she was looking. There were some days when she’d never even get round to looking in the mirror. Sometimes, when she’d got to go out for some reason, to take the kids to the doctor or to get some shopping in, she’d get the kids all dressed up and wiped over, then, as she prepared to open the door, she’d remember that she hadn’t even brushed her hair. God knows what she looked like. Having a shower was like planning the invasion of France. She’d been primed by the health visitors never to leave the children unsupervised, yet how was she to shower in the morning? Usually she’d fasten Katy in her little chair and sit her in the bathroom leaving the door open for Jack to come in and out. She would have to check every room for dangers first and secure the safety gates. Then she would put on a favourite video in the lounge, and hope that Jack would stay in front of it for long enough. Inevitably he would not, and instead would come to the bathroom when she was barely done and poke Katie, or shout at her, then twirl himself in and out of the towel she was trying to dry herself with.
She stood in the doorway and watched Richard play with the kids. He was so easy in his movements; he didn’t seem to mind getting down on his knees or rolling about in the grass. Jeff had finished his cigarette and had tossed the stub into the road. She watched it expiring, then saw it run over by a car, its innards splayed out. The dog shot out into the road to sniff at the entrails.
Then, from somewhere in the depths of her abdomen a scream seared its way up through her middle as Jack tottered out after the dog. The scream sliced the air, floating out above the sound of car brakes and the confused shouts of the men. In an instant Jeff and Richard lunged toward the child who was standing stock still, frozen with fright. Richard moved fastest and furthest, a singular look of horror in his eyes. He reached out for the child sweeping him off the road in one monumental effort. The vehicle didn’t seem to be stopping. She saw it all before it happened: Jeff’s face fixed on Richard and Jack in utter disbelief, the car swerving to avoid Jeff, then the silence, lasting forever until Jack let out the most horrible cry she’d ever heard from the mouth of a child. Tucking Katie under one arm she ran out round the front of the car. Jeff was screaming now, but she barely heard him.
‘Jack, Jack,’ she roared. He was on the kerb, still locked in Richard’s embrace. Richard lay motionless, his legs trapped between the car and the parked van, blood on his head and shoulders. Jeff screamed at the driver to back up, then yelled at him to phone for an ambulance. Other vehicles had stopped behind the car and people were getting out in order to see what was happening. She lay in a heap with her two children, all of them sobbing. Jeff came to them and tried to coax them to get up. She could say nothing but, ‘My baby, my baby, he’s all right, he’s all right’, her whole body contorted with the pain of her sobbing. She couldn’t move and the children clung to her.
People gathered round to assist, bundling her and the children into the house. Jeff stayed outside and waited for the ambulance. A member of the public had ascertained that Richard was still breathing and he had put him in the recovery position. Someone had put the dog in their car with some difficulty and she was barking manically in the window. Old Mrs Finch, next door, had managed to stand by the window in her dressing gown and someone had seen fit to go and talk to her. The two men stood in vigil by Richard’s side for what seemed like an eternity. When the ambulance came Jeff went with Richard, taking nothing with him but the packet of cigarettes stuffed in the back pocket of his jeans. He didn’t come inside to say goodbye to the kids, or offer a word of comfort to her. Two women were taking care of Jack and Katie, plying them with drinks and snacks. Her sweet tea stayed on the work surface untouched; the sound of Teletubbies seeped through the wall.
The police arrived and asked a lot of questions, writing everything down in notebooks. The WPC desperately tried to offer words of hope and encouragement while she gathered up the cups and plates and washed up. It was the strangest thing to see someone else’s hands in her washing-up bowl, checking the interiors of the coffee cups and stacking everything neatly on the draining rack.
The road became a mess of cordons and chalk markings. The car driver was taken to the police station. Finally, she was alone with the children. In the interim before the inevitable phone call came, she tried to plan her actions and words, moving around the house taking an inventory of the contents of each room. The children followed her about listlessly, the pink blotches still not faded from their faces. She tried to prioritise what she was doing, but in the end she just pulled down the suitcases from the top of the wardrobe and worked without thinking. She made sandwiches and drinks and packed them neatly into her Mothercare bag. She filled up baby bottles with milk and juice and shoved in all the nappies she could manage.
When the phone call came she listened with steely composure. Richard was not dead, but there was a high likelihood of brain damage. Jeff would stay with him until his sister had got there. Was she all right, he pleaded with her, did she blame him, no, please, did she? She placated him with facile reassurances and let him talk to Jack and Katie, who said nothing back; they only stared up at her as they listened to the disembodied voice on the end of the line.
He didn’t deserve what she was doing. He was only an ordinary bloke trying to earn a living and make ends meet. But she knew this place was no longer her home. She had no home; perhaps she had never really had a home, except the bungalow where she’d helped her dad pick the vegetables and fruit. But that place had long since changed hands; the vegetable patch dug up to make way for a patio and pergola. Her Dad had given in to lung cancer a few years after her mother had died and Jeff’s parents were now sunning themselves permanently in Spain.
She wrote a poorly thought out note to Jeff, and rang for a taxi. She went through the ritual of cleaning up the kids, putting on new nappies, wiping their faces.
‘Where are we going Mummy?’ Jack enquired as she fastened the buttons of his little jacket.
‘Seaside, pet, we’re going to the seaside.’
She took a look in the mirror, running Jeff’s comb through her hair as she’d packed her own. She splashed her face with cold water and held cold wet fingers over her eyes.
When the taxi arrived, she could see Mrs Finch at her bedroom window, her nose and mouth covered with a handkerchief. No one else seemed to be around, which suited her very well as she hadn’t the energy for explanations. She waved affectionately to Mrs Finch, although she’d barely spoken to her these three years. Everything she knew about her had come second hand from the man who brought meals on wheels and the social worker. The old woman waved back, taking the handkerchief away from her mouth to reveal a smile. She smiled and nodded almost excessively and waved two hands at her triumphantly. This seemed to be Mrs Finch’s finest hour.
She bundled the children into the taxi while the driver loaded the luggage into the boot. Fastening their safety belts and then her own, she felt more as though she was boarding a spaceship. Her chest felt light and ticklish. She pressed her hand onto it to steady her breathing.
‘Isn’t Daddy coming?’ Jack asked.
‘No, pet, he’s got to stay and look after Richard; he’ll be o.k.’
As the taxi set off for the station she could almost taste the salt air in her mouth, and she felt wide awake.
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