You turn off the car engine and sit for a few moments. You let your body sink into the quiet, taste a rare second of calm. The kids woke you nearly five hours ago. It’s not even mid-morning. “Make the most of every minute”, they say. “Time will go so fast”, they say.
Double yellow lines but you’ve bumped up onto the grass verge beside the hedge. Easier to park here than struggle the extra yards up the hill with a toddler and a baby. You look over to the houses. Yawning windows, silent front doors, keepers of family secrets.
“Are we there mummy?”
Looking in the mirror you see your son’s face, straining to get out. There is a crust of milk across his top lip. Flash of annoyance, how have you missed this?
You reach across the front seat for your bag. Your phone has slithered out. Stuffing it back in, you pull out your lipstick and slick it across your lips. You wish you’d had time to wash your hair. Butterflies dance in your stomach. One more glance in the rear view mirror. You open your door. A lull in the traffic. Take your chance while you can. This road is perpetually busy. You step out, hoisting the bag over your shoulder.
Damp, grey. Bare branches drip wet seconds. A solitary bird chirrups overhead. You can’t see it but its presence is somehow comforting. In the distance you pick up the hum of the dual carriageway. Deep breath. Earthy. Grounded. It might rain later. You hope you’ll be home before then.
Only just past 10 but you’re exhausted. Always exhausted. You know you will never get used to being woken at 5am. Baby birds with permanently screeching mouths. You hadn’t expected resentment as part of the family package.
You’ve been putting this morning off. But your feeble excuses no longer stand up. Your in-laws mean well, so your husband tells you, but the clifftop they preach from is too high. Offhand comments pierce: ‘I always left my babies to cry. Never did them any harm’. You will perch on the edge of the sofa, while the baby screams in her grandmother’s stiff arms. Your little boy will stroke their old dog too hard, too long, too close to its gunky eyes and clever retorts will fail you. You will leave as soon as politely possible wearing a Failing Mother badge above your heart.
You open your son’s door. Undo his seatbelt.
“Come on Jonny. Give me your hand. Let mummy help you out.” His eyes are excited. He slides out of his seat clutching his plastic dinosaurs to his chest. Too many. One slips onto the floor. You sigh impatiently,
“Can’t you just take one?” But his hands are too small to hold them all. He bends to pick it up. Another falls.
“Honestly, this is ridiculous. You know they have toys inside.” You are cross now. Why does he always have to be so annoying? The baby beside him watches intently, grinning, dribbling. You make a mental note to put more cream on her chapped chin.
You fold your hand round Jonny’s as he clambers down from his seat and lead him round the back of the car onto the grass verge. Muddy. He slides around gleefully. His wellies leave perfect imprints. Your frustration now starting to boil, you grab his shoulders a little too roughly.
“Just stand still beside me while I get Evie out then we’ll cross over the road.”
You open the door and lean across the baby. She giggles happily, flapping her arms in your face, accidentally catches your nose. Your eyes water. Boiling over now, you push her arms down and fiddle with the seat clasp. It never opens easily. You hate it daily. Gritting your teeth you glance up.
Through the car window in a stretched second you see your little son, blue jumper, skinny legs, head down, running across the road. In the corner of your eye, hurtling towards him, thunders a speeding van. A predator charging his prey. It probably only takes a millisecond to stand up and react.
You are sure you see the terror on the face of the driver as he careers closer to that tiny running figure. You think you can see his eyes widen and feel his foot desperately pump the brake pedal. You think also, although you knew he was facing away from you, that you can see the determined look on your son’s face as he charges for the other side of the road.
“Jonny!” You scream.
People will try to tell you time is linear. That sixty seconds make a minute and sixty minutes an hour. That there are 84,600 seconds every day and since time has been measured, that number remains the same. It doesn’t stretch. It doesn’t elongate. It doesn’t change. But that morning time moves differently. In the same way that one raindrop rushes from heaven to the ground below while its twin nonchalantly saunters down a window pane, time melts and curves to fool convention and spin you into a parallel world. The universe looks just the same. The bird is still singing, the grass is still green but there are pixelated patches which will never, ever, become clear.
Can you call it a miracle? Your little boy turns, his head still down and runs back towards the verge. The van careers past.
Collapsing onto your knees on the wet grass you pull his skin and bone body into yours. You fall sideways against the car. He falls with you. You tremble, gripping him. He lets himself be squashed tightly into you. In those stretched moments you share the same fierce heartbeat. You are conjoined. Fused. Attached by an everlasting umbilical cord. His soft cheek is cold against yours, tinged with a chill from the brief run. You smell his shampooed hair, the cotton imprint of his pillow. Your nose tickles the curl of his ear. All there. Every part intact. He is yours. Still yours. Gradually you loosen your grip, move your hands up and down his arms. You cup his soft cheeks. The bird still chirrups on the branch above you. Seconds tick once again. You look into his always enquiring face and gently wipe the milky crust from his top lip.
“Good boy.” You try to keep your voice still. “Now, hold onto me while I get Evie out of the car.
Your husband warned you he would be late home. Something to do with a team meeting. There’s always a valid reason. You wonder sometimes if it’s a deliberate ploy, that he just can’t face the mess of baby bedtime. But today you need him. Today you have nursed the images of the morning. You have caressed them, stroked them, grown them, banked them in the vault of mother guilt. You now need to off load, to bathe in his sympathy.
Coffee with the in-laws had passed in a cotton wool numbness. You sensed their concern but excused yourself saying you felt a cold coming. Jonny was so good. He remembered to take his boots off by the front door, drank his glass of milk and busied himself prancing his dinosaurs across the carpet. You talked about schools, camping holidays and the price of petrol. You were outside your body, teetering on the precipice of normality.
You let your in-laws hold Jonny’s hand back across the road. Let them hold open his door, clip him into his seat and hand him his dinosaurs one by one. You held the baby inside your coat then lifted her into her seat. They stood together waving as you drove off. You wished they’d just disappear.
The day slid on almost without you. You merely played out the moves. Whatever systems you might try to put in place were as fleeting as the head of a dandelion – perfect, fragile then gone. You need to tell him all this. You need him to help you build a fence around your dandelion patch.
You hear his key in the door. Jonny charges out of his bedroom and downstairs,
“Daddy!” He puts down his bag and picks up his son,
“Hey boy, what’ve you been doing today?”
“I’m a monkey, Grandpa says so. Let me dangle.” Your husband opens his arms wide and Jonny dangles, arms clasped tight around his father’s neck, legs kicking. They’re both laughing. A flash of irritation. You know bedtime is hard work if the children are over-excited. He moves into the kitchen and tickles his baby girl who squeals with delight in her high chair.
You are right. It takes two stories and the promise of a third in bed with mummy in the morning till you’re finally back downstairs. He’s changed into his jeans. He’s already poured his glass. You push yours towards the bottle,
“Yes please”. This is adult time and adult time always begins with a glass of wine. It’s become a habit but one you feel you deserve. It doesn’t take much, just that first sip, maybe the second. Normally you feel the muscles in your neck, shoulders, chest relax. But not this evening. You walk to the fridge, pull out a ready meal. You don’t meet his eye.
“How was your day?” Although you are desperate you don’t want to leap in straight away. His turn first. Another sip of wine. He launches into detail about people you’ve never met, never will meet but who infiltrate your lives because of the effect they have on his day. You paint an interested look on your face while inside you are screaming.
You take the meal out of the microwave and divide it onto two plates. Conscience makes you tip a few salad leaves into a bowl with a handful of tomatoes. You sit beside him, always beside him, at the breakfast bar. You hesitate. He notices. His hand rests lightly on your thigh. Asks what the matter is. And in that single moment, with that casual prompt, the chasm on which you were teetering tears open so loudly you will swear you heard it. Falling in, you spill everything. You are airborne, releasing the terror, the guilt, the frustration, the resentment and the fear. You hope his arms are open wide to catch you. With your eyes on his face, you tell how you’d climbed so carefully out of the car. How you’d held Jonny’s hand all the way round to the other side. How you’d reached in to release Evie and how in that split second, that half second, that stretched, elongated, time-stood-still second you nearly lost his precious son under the wheels of a van. His eyes glue to his plate. He doesn’t turn to look at you. You’re not sure if he has even blinked.
“I don’t know how it happened.”
He takes his hand from your thigh. His head is still down. Your blood pounds in your ears. You try to stem your waterfall tears with your fingertips. Too scared to leave your seat to grab a tissue.
“I need some fresh air.” He pushes back his stool. He turns his back to you. Walks into the hall and grabs his coat. He’s out of the front door, pulling it closed behind him. Click. The air in the kitchen is silent but you sense every molecule in it is supercharged, chaotic. If turmoil is contagious, it has spread from inside your head into every room in the house.
The kitchen clock has a loud tick. Regular, relentless. You try to adjust your body to its rhythm. Breathe in. Hold for ten. Slowly release. Breathe in. Hold for ten. Slowly release. You stare at the uneaten food. Gulp back your wine.
It is nearly an hour later before you hear his key in the door once more. An hour that has undone something you thought so tightly knitted. You try to hold your feelings down, rising to meet him at the door just like Jonny a thousand hours before. You reach out your hand to touch his arm but he carries on walking past you. No smiles. No monkey business for you. You are hollowed out in your own home.
He goes into the kitchen. You hear the ping of the microwave as he re-heats his food and the scrape of the stool on the tiled floor as he sits down to eat. You wait five minutes that seem like five hundred until he has finished. Then the silken cord that tied you together on your wedding day pulls you into the kitchen once more.
“I don’t understand how you could have let this happen. What on earth were you thinking? Jonny is only four years old yet you completely ignored him.”
“It wasn’t like that. I had him right beside me.”
“Well you clearly didn’t, did you?” He looks directly at you. His top lip tightly folded into his face. There is no wriggle room and no answer. Because he is right. Because for those few seconds you ignored your little boy. And in that heartbeat you nearly killed him. You know there is nothing you can say. You let it happen.
Tidal waves of shame and misery wash over you. There was a yesterday, a happy life-is-good yesterday but now there is today and today has crashed down. You hover beside him. You want to put out your hand to touch his arm, his shoulder, to run your fingers along his cheekbone to the tender skin behind his ear but your hand stays still. You know it won’t be received. Touch has always been his thing, his love language. He needs handholding, hugs, skin on skin but now it is a language on mute. You know there will be no cuddling up on the sofa in front of the TV, head on his shoulder. He will not offer to make a cup of tea before bed or go to the children if one of them wakes. He will climb into his laptop and say he has work to do before tomorrow. The air will stay cold and you will sit alone in your misery.
You know he is more than angry, he is confused. The pedestal he places you on has been dislodged. You wonder if he has seen into you. Maybe it’s a mask you’ve been wearing, this motherhood, this home-maker. Maybe it’s slipped. Fear. Guilt. Failure. ‘Let’s have a baby’ seems so long ago when neither of you could see into the future. You consumed self-help books as a ladder towards excellence. Feed the right foods, establish sleep patterns, put in boundaries. You were kidding yourself you had it sussed.
He has often said that to him you are perfect. You’ve wondered each time how he can think this but you’ve been happy to receive his adoration whilst secretly believing he is actually the perfect one. Now you’re not so sure. Jonny is asleep in his bed. It was an accident that didn’t even happen. Maybe it’s him who has made the mistake. You would never have dared think this before.
He goes up to bed before you. He has not looked at you again all evening. You wait until you hear the flush of the toilet and the pad of bare foot-steps from bathroom to bedroom. The house is silent. You climb the stairs, follow his footsteps, toilet, wash, bed. His bedside light is already off. You undress, dropping your clothes onto the floor. The sheets are marble cold. You cannot warm yourself against his flesh. Clutching the edge of the mattress, you weep into your pillow.
In the morning he leaves the bed with the dawn chorus. You hear the wood pigeons coo-cooing outside the window. Always in pairs. He goes straight to the bathroom. Showers, dresses swiftly. Evie cries. He walks out of the bedroom, down the stairs.
“Your daughter needs you or is it her turn to be abandoned today?”
He is gone. You remain silent under the duvet. You are bruised. Empty.
Your day passes just as it has done for the last days, weeks, months, with the innocent unabashed love of your babies. But today you do not resent the tantrums, the spills, the time it takes to complete the simplest task. You sit with them on your lap reading their favourite books. You play dinosaurs with Jonny. He loves it. You melt into Evie’s huge dribbly grins. Jonny hears his Daddy’s key in the door just before bedtime and you assume a loving smile as he spins his children around before you take them up to bed. When you come down he has poured the wine for both of you. Now he looks straight at you. Now he pulls you close. Now he wraps you in his arms. You breathe him in. Minutes pass. You are fused together. He asks you how your day has been. You know he has moved on.
But you look at his face and you re-read it. You see judgement and self-righteousness where once you read appreciation and confidence. You see remorseless and patronizing where you read ambitious and helpful. You wonder what he reads in yours. Devotion? Or duty? What will you now admit to for fear of retribution? Will you cover your mistakes, disguise your fears and conceal your disappointments? Will you wonder when carefree left?
You cook his favourite meal, ham, egg and chips. You suggest another visit to his parents at the weekend. You even say the sorry you have been practising during the day. This evening you are entwined, insatiable.
But as you bury your shame, you bury a slice of happy-ever-after. You are damaged. From now on you will assess his reactions. From now on you will question his judgement. From now on you will learn to keep secrets.