The nurse washed me down. I was weak on my legs. The bloody flannel between my legs didn’t embarrass me. I was flying as high as a kite. Delirious. Forgetful of what was to come. My baby had black hair and blue eyes. He didn’t have a name yet. He would need a good name. A name that symbolised a new start, the turning of a new leaf. He was change; he was joy; he was redemption. When the two women came in, I didn’t at first recognise their faces. One tall, one stout. Both were too solemn for the occasion. Their impassive expressions didn’t reflect the magnitude of my achievement.
Could they not see my miracle lying in his plastic cot? Could they not see that he was the most beautiful baby boy in the whole hospital? Could they not see the love etched into my eyes? ‘It’s time,’ the tall one said. A small piece of toast came up from my throat, whole, as though it had never been swallowed. It tasted poisonous. ‘No.’ I flung my body over the cot. These two women were surely not evil enough to rip the beating heart from my chest. A sob rolled up from the depths of me. They couldn’t have him. He was my flesh and blood. He was the only good thing left in my life.
He was mine. Disconnected, I heard a wail echo around the hot room and noticed it was my own. My body shook, electrified by a wave of agony. ‘You remember what has been decided?’ the tall woman said gently, like I was a child or an imbecile. ‘If you fight it, you’ll only make it worse,’ the other woman said, almost in a whisper. I saw tears in her eyes. Her pity was unbearable. I straightened my body, clinging to the edge of the cot with both hands, neck bent, transfixed by his tiny face. I had tried to prepare for this moment. There was no way to prepare for hell.
His little gunky eyes were closed. He was the embodiment of peace and innocence. Two states of being that I had forgotten existed and would never feel again. My hospital gown was damp where my breasts had leaked. They would leak empty. Like my soul. I kissed his frowzy head and felt a yearning that was so penetrating it was as though I were dying. As I watched his tiny little body leave the room in another woman’s arms, I knew my life was over. CHAPTER ONE Through the diamond-shaped panes of glass, I could see my mother at the stove under the warm kitchen light, stirring something. The children’s colourful plastic mugs sat in waiting, bright and garish against the white backdrop.
My heart was racing and my palms were clammy. I hesitated, my keys dangling at the lock. I couldn’t go in. Not yet. I needed five minutes. Before I opened the front door, before the three-hour onslaught of the bedtime routine, I stepped back and climbed into the soft leather of my car and closed myself in, bracing myself. When Rosie and Noah were very small, I would tell them that I was their sunrise and their moon; that I would always be there to kiss them in the morning and to tuck them up with a story at night. This week, I had left too early in the mornings to be their sunrise. But every evening, at six o’clock, I hurried on up the hill from the train station to be their moon, and every evening, the closer I got to home, the less I wanted to go back in. Dog-tired and dried-out after a long day at work in the City, I felt as though I was about to step onto a stage to give the performance of my life, again, having had very average, if not appalling, reviews every night for ten years.
In the mood I was in, I didn’t know how I would get through tonight’s drama without ad-libbing and strangling both my children in the Second Act, or at least wanting to. I imagined all the other mothers out there wafting through bedtime, singing and laughing with their naughty little charges, and I wished with all of my heart that I was one of them. The thought of this mystical, capable breed made me want to shrivel up and die, to leave an inadequate puddle of blue suit and white shirt in the driver’s seat: the vanishing act of a working mother. I laid my head back against the smooth, cool headrest. Just a few more minutes would be all I needed to slow my heart. The car faced our tall, black gates and dense hawthorn hedges, behind which our 1930s Arts and Crafts house dominated the small, grassy roundabout of Virginia Close. The five other houses that wrapped around the top end – or bulb – of the close were of the same era, mostly without extensions or big gates like ours, but equally as pretty, with their low-sloping roofs, solid red-brick walls and elegant casement windows. They faced each other like a circle of friends chatting. And I guessed our house was probably the least chatty of all five. A fox darted out from the hedge.
Its eyes glinted at me through the fog that had rested on the top of this hill and around the house like a lazy cloud for days since September had struck, shrouding a breezy, warm summer, which was gone overnight. The animal stopped and looked at me as though I was the imposter. The muscles that gripped my womb began to cramp. The baby wasn’t big enough to kick inside me, but it was enough to draw me back to my dawn and dusk responsibilities. I eased out of the car and crunched across the gravel to my front door. I heard a rustle behind me. The fox was sloping away through the hedge into Mira and Barry’s garden next door, where it would, no doubt, prey on their chickens and leave the feathery detritus of its massacre strewn across our lawn. The moment my key entered the lock, I heard Rosie and Noah’s feet pounding the wooden floors, and the thought of catching that first sight of them gave me butterflies. The locks clicked and sprang from the other side. I put my keys away and let Rosie open it herself.
Before I could put my bag down or take off my coat, they had both bounded up like puppies, wrapping their arms around me to squeeze me with all their might. I took Noah’s face in my hands. ‘Hello, my little one.’ His peachy skin and thick, blond eyebrows melted my heart. I buried my face into his neck and breathed him in, while Rosie clung to the back of me. Twisting around, I stroked her long, black hair and kissed her on the lips. ‘Hello, beautiful. Good day at school?’ ‘Charlotte stole my rubber and then pretended she didn’t,’ she cried indignantly. ‘That’s shocking! Did you tell the teachers?’ Rosie shook her head earnestly. ‘I don’t tell on people, Mummy.
I’m ten.’ ‘Mummy, come see,’ Noah said, taking my hand and dragging me through to the kitchen. ‘Look what we made!’ ‘Hi darling,’ my mother said, pulling a pan of milk from the stove. Her movements were slow, as if the pan weighed ten tonnes. The purple of her veins pushed through the liver spots on the back of her hand, the veins like snakes around her bones, clinging to her skeleton for dear life. ‘Hi Mum.’ I kissed her on the cheek. She smelt of sugar and soap. Her blue eyes blinked too much, like a little girl might bat away her tears to be brave. ‘Look, Mumma! We did these all by our own,’ Noah exclaimed.
A pile of fresh chocolate muffins sat in the middle of the kitchen table, next to the cold cottage pie covered in plastic wrap that I had hoped they would have eaten by now. ‘Wow, Noah, did you really make them all by yourself?’ I corrected, avoiding eye contact with my mother in case the disappointment showed on my face. The mound of picturesque muffins had morphed in my head into thousands of grams of sugar, into piles of the evil white stuff, literally flowing over the edge of the children’s recommended daily intake. ‘Can we have another one?’ Rosie asked, grabbing the biggest one from the cooling rack. Before I had the chance to say no, my mother said, ‘Just one more then.’ My look of incredulity fell dead onto the tiles behind my mother’s back as she turned away from me. ‘Thanks, Granny Helen!’ Rosie cried, racing off before I could stop her. ‘Rosie!’ I called after her. ‘Have you done your homework?’ ‘I told her she could do it after a bit of telly.’ My mother poured two large mugs of hot milk.
‘Is the pie in?’ I asked, feeling a throb in my temples. ‘I was just about to put it on.’ Exhaustion rolled through my body. It was already a quarter past six. Supper and homework should have been done by now if we were to fit bath, stories and bed in before midnight. I downed a large glass of tap water. My mother picked up the mugs. ‘I’ll just take these through and say goodbye to them.’ I had a pang of fear about our separation. I would be alone and I worried about how well I would cope, knowing how bad it could get.
When she returned from saying goodbye, she slipped on her coat and looked into her tiny handbag. ‘Glasses. Phone. Keys. Good, I’ll leave you to it,’ she said. ‘You don’t want to stay for a cup of tea?’ Her gaze slipped across my face. I clicked through my flaws. My black hollow eye sockets, my frizzy black hair, lank at my shoulders, my paper-thin skin that never sees sunlight. When Peter first met me, he said that my features were beautifully unruly, that my smile was all teeth and cheekbones and eyebrows, like a mischievous child’s. I had liked the idea that I might seem to him unrulier and less grown-up than I felt.
Though that face, the one that he had fallen in love with, was a little past forty now, and I doubted it held the same charm. ‘You’re looking awfully thin, darling,’ she said. ‘No pregnancy glow then?’ I laughed thinly. ‘Are you working too hard?’ ‘I never thought I’d hear you say that.’ ‘I’d better go,’ she said. I hadn’t wanted to be rude, or to throw us back to my teenage years. What I had really wanted was a warm hug. When the door closed, I could have sworn I heard the sucking of air, as if I were being sealed into a vacuum. My eyes felt dry. A sense of isolation and dread slumped across my shoulders.
I imagined my office, shadowy and quiet. The documents in the centre of my desk, neatly placed by Lisa, ready for my meeting at nine o’clock sharp. Work life was strenuous, but I could predict the outcome, mostly. In the television room, Rosie and Noah were curled up together in the corner of the wrap-around sofa, cosy under the faux-fur blanket. Their feet rested on the newly upholstered ottoman. They looked warm and comfortable together. Above their heads hung the oil painting I had bought Peter for his birthday last year. The figure’s naked torso was thrust over her thighs, in dance or pain, I didn’t know. The colours clashed. Her back was a series of huge, undisciplined arcs.
I imagined the artist’s arm must have tired from the bold brushstrokes. The work expressed something that resonated with me deep down. I wished we had more art across the expanse of white-washed walls in our openplan house. From the outside, it was quaint and wonky, a stream of sweet peas climbing up the south-facing wall, while the inside was groomed and tweaked: clean lines, honed modernity, sleek, bleak cabinetry and silver-plated fittings. ‘What are you watching?’ Neither of them looked away from the television. An annoying American accent whined out of the flat-screen. ‘Hello, earth to Rosie,’ I said more pointedly. ‘Could you move, Mum. I can’t see.’ A big part of me wanted to leave the two of them there.
Peter would have told me to. He would have told me that Rosie could catch up with her homework tomorrow, and he would probably have nestled under the blanket with them. But I couldn’t. Homework was important. Routines were important. Everyone knew they made children feel safe. I was not their friend, I was their mother. I clapped my hands, making the decision. ‘Upstairs both of you. Rosie, maths homework.
Noah, reading books please. Come on, shipshape.’ They groaned and began to roll off the sofa. ‘I hate fractions,’ Rosie said. ‘It won’t take long and I’ll have tea ready for when you’re finished.’ I clapped again, annoying myself as I did it. But instead of going upstairs to her desk, Rosie nipped past me towards the kitchen, saying, ‘I’ve just got to get something from outside.’ I followed her, leaving Noah, who turned the television back on. At the back door, Rosie was putting on her wellingtons. My jaw clenched.
‘Rosie, what are you doing?’ I knew I shouldn’t fear my daughter’s potential to outwit me. A better mother might handle her more adeptly than I; but then again, I’d like to see them try. ‘I’ve just got to get something.’ ‘What an earth do you need to get? It’s dark out.’ ‘It’s for Charlotte.’ ‘What is?’ ‘Never mind!’ she called out behind her as she disappeared into the fog. ‘Hurry up!’ Rankled by Rosie’s rebellion, and worried about how I might claw back the lost homework time, I kept a close eye on the kitchen clock, hoping she would come back in of her own accord. The pie would take three quarters of an hour, which was how long Rosie’s homework should take, if she stopped wasting it by messing around outside. After fifteen minutes, I shoved my own boots on and stormed out into the gloom, across the uninspiring expanse of lawn, which had always struck me as rather plain and boxy, underused and overshadowed by two high, wax-leaved hedges that blocked out our neighbours on either side. Behind the clumps and wisps of fog, I imagined the hedges as a rigid row of shoulder-to-shoulder sentries, keeping watch as I marched down to the bottom of the garden to do battle in the tangle of woods.
Rosie was sitting underneath the canopy of the oak tree on a sawn stump for a stool with her head-torch lighting her lap. ‘Whatever are you doing?’ She ignored me and continued to work, head bent over a mass of leaves on her lap. Moving closer, I saw how she was twisting wool around dried oak twig cuttings. ‘Come on, don’t mess about, Rosie, I’m too tired,’ I sighed. That overused phrase. Under Rosie’s spotlight, I watched her fingers work adeptly, her concentration unbreakable. I shivered, feeling the chill air circulate under the cotton of my shirt. ‘Homework time, please, Rosie.’ ‘It’ll only take a minute.’ ‘You’ve been out here for twenty.
’ ‘Just two more minutes, please.’ As I waited, wondering if I should go back in or continue hustling her, I looked around at her den, her favourite place to be. I was touched by the care and attention she had taken to build this little world of hers. There was a blue tin kettle resting on a collection of twigs in a circular pit of stones, and an old wooden table laid with bark plates and twig knives and forks. From the tree, a plastic bucket dangled from a climbing rope. ‘Does it still work?’ I smiled, tugging at the pulley-system that connected with Mira and Barry’s garden next door. For the first time, Rosie’s attention was on me. She looked up. ‘I don’t know.’ Rosie had discovered it on the first day we had moved in; left behind by the little girl who had lived here before us.
At first, Rosie had secretly continued the previous owner’s game, sending little posies of sweet peas to Mira in the bucket, which Mira had sent back filled with homemade biscuits in tinfoil and little notes attached. When we found out, I had agreed she could use it occasionally, with permission from a grown-up. ‘Why didn’t you let me use it?’ ‘I did!’ ‘Hardly ever!’ she protested. ‘I was worried it would bother them.’ ‘Why?’ Rosie said, bending to her work again. The rope was damp and mildewed. As I pulled it, the blue bucket bounced and bopped along the rope towards the shared hedge. Just as the bucket reached the top of the hedge, I pulled the other rope, reversing the movement and returning it safely home. ‘Because people like their privacy, that’s why.’ ‘But she lets Beth go through her garden to my camp.
’ ‘Hmmm,’ I said disapprovingly. ‘She doesn’t mind, it’s the truth, Mum.’ Knowing it was a sticking point, I changed the subject. ‘Come on, Rosie. Enough of that now. Time to go in.’ ‘But I need to do this before tomorrow.’ ‘No, you don’t. Now come on.’ Rosie continued wrapping and tying.
‘You don’t understand, Mum. It’s really important.’ ‘If you don’t come now, Rosie, I’ll ban your games this week.’ ‘Don’t care.’ I braced myself for a fight. ‘I won’t tell you again.’ ‘Just two minutes.’ I stood there like a fool, wondering how to persuade her to come back inside, short of dragging her by the hair. And then she raised her head, dazzling me with her head-torch, brandishing an intricate autumn wreath of oak leaves, which was dramatically backlit by the torch beam. I took it from her and rotated it round in my hands, admiring her work, charmed by its originality, distracted from the goal of getting her to do her maths homework, which suddenly didn’t seem so important.
‘Rosie, that is really beautiful,’ I said, returning it to her. ‘It’s for Charlotte.’ ‘She’ll love it.’ Hand-in-hand, we ambled back across the garden, the wreath crackling as it brushed against her knee. I gave her hand an extra tight squeeze. I felt a pang of fear, as though my grip on her was tenuous, as though she had never really been mine to hold on to. They say that you only have temporary custody of your children, that they are not yours to own. How true this felt in that moment. She was her own little person with her own journey to make. How much influence I had over her narrative was anyone’s guess.
‘Can I do my maths after supper?’ ‘Okay. Just this once,’ I said, knowing I’d been duped. ‘Thanks, Mummy.’ ‘How d’you get away with it, eh?’ I grinned, pinging off her head-torch and switching it off. ‘Because you love me so much?’ she asked cheekily. ‘That’s exactly why,’ I agreed, laughing, and kissing the top of her head. When Rosie and I were getting along, I felt at peace in the world. It was all I had ever wanted for us: to enjoy the journey as mother and daughter, to feel I was guiding her towards a happy future. And as we went back inside, I hoped the sense of calm would last.