Thursday, April 15, 2021

So Close by Tracy Stevenson

Any one of us could be taken at any time. Death is always so close.
We live in a white cube filled with more cubes of varying sizes, a perfect green square at the front, a wonky green rectangle out the back. There’s the kitchen cube, the dining cube, the bathroom cube…you get the picture. I probably shouldn’t become an estate agent any time soon.

I fry up some skinless boneless chicken and a pack of stir fry veg, adding the Blue Dragon sachet of black bean sauce at the end. I squeeze every last drop out of the plastic pouch and discard it in the bin. I’m doing really well this evening, holding it all together, repeating a familiar pattern, holding on for dear life. He’ll be so pleased with me today.

He doesn’t need to know that the police knocked on the door earlier today. Or that I hid, crouched in a ball in the hall cube where they couldn’t see me as they peered through the leaded lights. They still make me feel like I’m behind bars; they block out half my vision. I can’t ever see the whole picture when I look outside.

A baby cries. My heart leaps. A second baby cries. A third little one squeals with delight. Oh children, mummy’s coming, I think. I grab the stir fry from the gas, heart beating faster. Mummy’s coming. Where is mummy? Where is she?

I find her just in time to move into the lounge cube where the three children make their own distinct noises. Sounds I should treasure and savour. I glance up and see the autumn rain falling through my broken vision. We’ll have to change those windows. I can’t stand them.

“Mummy, look, a truck goes ‘brum’…mummy?” the one aged two says to me, pleading for my response. I find one, “Yes, sweetie, that’s right, it goes ‘brum’,” I choke. Then I reach for twin baby one, the one crying the loudest, as that seems like the right thing to do. I’m always looking for the right thing to do. I’ve read all the books on doing the right thing. Not that I ever do the right thing. Twin baby one continues to cry as I soothe and shush and rock. See, I’m clearly not doing the right thing, again.

The rain hammers hard now. It’s plainly in competition with the children as to who can make the most noise. I walk to the dining cube, hoping that the movement will soothe twin baby one. It doesn’t and the rain is even louder here.

I move back and place this baby down on the rug and before I pick up twin baby two, I check behind and around the TV. They were filming yesterday. You know those ‘nanny cam’ things, well they’ve set one up, here in my home. I know. They think they’ve tricked me, hidden it well but I knew yesterday what was going on. They’re checking I’m doing it right you see.

Making my way upstairs, my burden is heavy; I’m holding baby one over my shoulder with one arm and baby two is curled in my other arm; she’s grasping at my face with one tiny hand and gripping my thumb with the other like she’ll never let go. I will protect you baby, I promise silently, simultaneously feeling there’s nothing left of me to protect her with. Ahead of me the two-year-old is bouncing up the stairs, excited for bath time, shouting rather than singing, Five little ducks went swimming one day, Over the hill and far away. Mother duck said, Quack quack quack quack, And only four little ducks came back! Behind me, guilt is following closely, stealthily. Something heavy pulls at my heart.

I close the door on the small space and feel the four of us trapped, imprisoned. The sound of pouring water floods the bathroom cube. The grey plastic Venetian blinds slice through my vision like knives. I cannot see clearly. Only slivers of the outside world are visible and torment me. The darkness is falling fast, the rain is growing heavier. The tall bare tree outside scrapes at the window like dark fingers trying to poke their way through the gaps to take me away. Maybe it would be better if I was taken away.

Habitually I swirl the bath water with my hand, trying to even out the temperature from the hot and cold taps, bursting so many bubbles as I do so. Nerves flutter around my chest like trapped moths. I release a sense of panic as I breathe out heavily and lift each child gently into the bath water. Splashes and giggles, coos and babbles mingle in my mind, doing battle with the darker sounds that exist there. Other voices tell me to go away, to remove myself from this, to put an end to my pathetic attempts at getting it right.

Much later, lying in bed, when everything feels still, I stare through the crack in the curtain; a tiny shard of the world is visible out there. The world I inhabit feels fully occupied by breathing. From the monitor on my bedside table there’s a gentle rise and fall of breaths interspersed with jumpy murmurs, probably dreaming about trucks or ducks. Two tiny Moses baskets to the side of me contain snuffly, delicate, tiny breaths; breaths that make me tense with every dissimilarity to the last. My own breathing now feels panicked; jagged and rough with responsibility. His sonorous breathing next to me sounds satisfied.

I was right, he had been pleased with me this evening when he arrived home. He tucked them all in and kissed them all good night and we ate our much-repeated mid-week meal on trays on our knees. He’d had a tough day with clients A and clients B; clients C hadn’t even bothered to turn up for the meeting. That whole other world of his seemed so far removed from me. I could only follow the basics; too much detail made me feel like I was drowning. He asked me tenderly about my day, and I told him, “We didn’t get out today as it never seemed to get light. The rain just poured all day.” The images on the TV screen flashed in his tired eyes, he glanced up at me and he nodded wearily and smiled. “I promise I will get some time this weekend. Let’s do something fun,” he said.

I glance at the clock and I know it’s madness, but I decide to take a walk. A beautiful, night-time walk in the pouring rain. He would stop me if I were to wake him to let him know. So, I leave him a little note, thinking how he used to love my spontaneity. Darling, I haven’t been out all day and the darkness and rain are calling out to me. Just a short walk out. I shan’t be gone too long. Love xxx.

I walk out and I breathe in the rain. Deeply. I inhale the droplets. I want the rain to get inside of me somehow. I tip my head back and open my mouth and eyes as wide as I can. As I stand with my head thrown back in wild abandon, I’m drenched by a passing vehicle and I feel a deep sense of pleasure from this, a freedom to not care. I’m given a sense of release, a purpose. So, soaked through to the skin in my thin nightwear, I begin to spin and I can’t stop spinning, it’s like a dance I once started years ago and I never finished and now that I am free I can continue to dance so I whirl and twirl faster and faster with my arms held high in the air and my hands whipping against the driving rain and I laugh and I laugh and the passing headlights are my time in the spotlight and then I think I can run and I can keep on running into the freedom that awaits and into the lights and away from the darkness.


And I open my eyes to the light. I have woken up to a different cube. Pure bright whiteness and light flood in. New shapes take the form of monitors and wires attached to me. A nurse at the side of the bed looks me in the eye. “We’re glad you’re with us lovely,” she murmurs, “I’ll fetch the doctor”.

As I gradually focus, I see him. He looks even more tired and now his breathing is shallow. He seems to have aged; the lines under his eyes are more engrained than they were, and his eyes are imprinted with pain. He’s gripping my hand so, so tightly, his eyes glued to mine. I see both fear and hope in those eyes; “We thought we’d lost you. We need you”, he says. “We just need you so much. Don’t leave us. Our babies need you. I need you. I’m so sorry. I didn’t know how desperate you were. I am here for you.” And I am able to squeeze his hand back, knowing with each moment I am gripping more and more tightly.

© Tracy Stevenson

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