Silent Child – Sarah A. Denzil

The day I lost Aiden was the day I realised what it meant to lose control. People talk about losing control of themselves all the time, whether it’s from drink, drugs, passion, or anger. But they don’t know what it’s truly like to lose control, and I’m not talking about my emotions, but about my life. I lost control of my life. Everything around me fell apart while I remained the impotent bystander. I’ve heard it said that you can only control yourself and how you behave in any given setting. You can never control the circumstances around you. You can’t control how other people react, only how you, yourself, act. That’s the great tragedy of life. One moment everything is perfect and the next it’s all in tatters because of the circumstances happening all around you. And what are you supposed to think when your child is taken from you? That it was fate? God? Bad luck? How are you supposed to move on? When it comes to the birth lottery, I lucked out. I was born in the kind of bucolic loveliness that lulls you into thinking nothing bad will ever happen to me. Guns and violence may litter the news, but nothing like that ever happens in Bishoptown-on-Ouse. We were nestled in the sweeping landscape of a John Constable painting, with long stretches of rolling green pastures and dry-stone walls. We were safe.

At least I thought we were. On the twenty-first of June, 2006, at two o’clock in the afternoon I donned a great waterproof coat and a pair of Wellington boots, and stepped out into the worst flash flood that Bishoptown-onOuse had seen since 1857. The cottage I shared with my parents and my six-year-old son, Aiden, was set slightly back from the quiet street. As I stepped outside that day, the stream of water took me by surprise with its strength. It splashed up my wellies and spattered across my crotch. My heart had already started to quicken, because I was worried about getting to the school. The teachers had rung around all the parents asking them to collect the children because the rain was getting through the roof at school, and there was danger that the banks of the Ouse would burst. We had known about the torrential rain, but no one had predicted this. It fell in a sheet from above, relentlessly soaking my face and battering the hood of my Karimor jacket. The Ouse twisted through our tiny village like a boa constrictor through a sandbox.

It was picturesque and pretty, this too-big river in our tiny town. Bishoptown had two pubs, a B&B, a church, a school, and a population of around 400 people. It was the second smallest village in England, and the smallest village in Yorkshire. No one moved out of Bishoptown and no one moved in. If a house went up for sale it was because someone died. We all knew each other. We grew up together, lived together, raised our children together. So when the phone rang and Amy Perry—a teacher at the primary school and one of my old school friends—told me to pick up Aiden, I knew the situation was bad. Otherwise, Amy would have walked the children back to each and every house in the village. That was how much we trusted each other.

I’d heard the rain drumming on the windows, but I’d been lost in my own world yet again, looking at photos on Facebook of my school friends who had been to uni and since gone travelling. I was twenty-four. I’d finished my A-levels with Aiden in my belly and watched my friends leave for university with the world at their feet while I remained in my parents’ house. I saw some of them leaving for new pastures as I gazed down at the bus stop from my bedroom window, one hand on my swollen stomach. Since that moment, I had spent more time than was healthy reading about my friends on Facebook, opening pictures of Thailand and Paris while I nursed a baby. There was no way I could drive in this weather, and I was the closest to the school out of my little family, so I decided to walk there. Rob—Aiden’s father—was working on a construction site outside York. My parents had their own jobs, too. They would be too far away to help, trapped by the weather. I didn’t call any of them right away because I didn’t think I needed to.

Bishoptown was a small place, and it would only take me ten minutes to walk to the school. But the school building was also on the other side of the Ouse, which did worry me slightly. If the rain was as bad as the news suggested, the river could burst its banks. I trudged up the road through the rainwater with my heart beating a rapid tattoo against my ribs. The slanting rain made it difficult to keep my eyes open as I walked against it. I lowered my head and gripped the strap of the bag over my shoulder, with my hands already soaked and cold to the bone. “Emma!” The voice was only just audible above the hammering of the rain on the tarmac. I turned around to see my friend Josie waving to me as she hurried up the hill in my direction. She was an accountant at the small firm where I was working part-time as a secretary. It jolted me to see her so dishevelled, her hair plastered to her head and make-up running down her face.

She had no coat, no umbrella. Her pencil skirt was soaked through. “Jo! Jesus, get inside.” “Emma, I’ve just been across the bridge. The banks are breaking. You need to go home.” “Fuck. I have to get Aiden from school.” “They’ll keep him safe,” she said. “But if the river bursts and you’re close to the bridge you could drown.

” She waved me towards her but I stayed where I was. “I have to get Aiden,” I said, shaking my head. The school was too close to the river for me to feel comfortable leaving my six-year-old son with them. If the rain was already coming in through the roof, what state was the school in? “Be careful. I heard they’re sending help but there’s hardly anyone by the river right now, no police or anything, and it looks bad, Em. Don’t come back across the bridge, okay? Go to the White Horse or something. At least you can get a Chardonnay there, right?” She grinned at the joke but I could tell it was a nervous smile. She was genuinely shaken up, which wasn’t like Josie at all. “All right. Get home safe.

I’ll see you at work when this bloody weather has calmed down a bit.” I returned the nervous smile, trying to ignore the nest of snakes in my abdomen. My dad had volunteered in the Royal National Lifeboat Institute when he was younger and he had always told me that if there was one thing in life you did not mess with, it was the sea. Our tiny bit of the sea gushed through Bishoptown today. When I reached the bridge, the sight took my breath away. Josie was right: The Ouse was dangerously close to bursting its banks. Usually tranquil and slow, that day the river surged beneath the bridge, hitting the stone arches in waves. The water seeped up onto the sodden grass banks, and some of it dribbled down the hill towards my parents’ cottage. I took a step back and pulled out my mobile phone. There was no answer at the school, which did not assuage my worry.

I phoned Dad next. “Emma, are you all right?” he asked. “I’m at the office and the rain is so bad I think I’ll be stuck here.” “Don’t try to get home, Dad, the river might burst.” Dad worked just outside Bishoptown as a civil engineer for a construction firm. “I’m going to the school to stay with Aiden until help arrives.” “Emma—” “I’m fine. Just… don’t try to come home, okay?” “Emma, the bridge—” I eyed the short, stone bridge with trepidation. “I’m already past it. I’m on my way up Acker Lane to the school.

” He let out a sigh of relief. “I’ll call your mother and tell her to stay at the surgery.” “Okay, Dad. I love you.” “Love you too, kiddo.” It was silly, I know, but my eyes filled with tears as I cancelled the call. The time on my phone said 2:10pm. It had taken me ten minutes to walk just half the way. I needed to hurry up and get to my son. I strode up to the bridge and tried to ignore the water level, hoping that my hurried strides would somehow make it less dangerous.

Water poured across the bridge, almost ankle deep. I didn’t know if it was rainwater or water that had come from the river, or a combination of both. The only thing I knew was that I had to hurry up. But as I took the last step down off the bridge, a wave of river water hit the bridge hard and chunks of stone dislodged, crumbling beneath my feet. It sent me off balance and I stumbled forward, dropping my phone into the river. My breath left my body as the freezing cold water hit me side-on, almost knocking me straight into the churning waters. I took a long sidestep like a crab, feeling the current trying to drag me along with it. But the riverbank was soft and muddy, which allowed me to ram the heel of my wellie deep into the earth. The suction gave enough of a foothold to propel myself forward, clawing my way up the river bed towards the road. My left boot came clean off.

With my sock dangling from my foot I climbed my way up to the road, gasping for air as the rain pounded from above. When I was away from the bridge, I turned around and watched my boot slip under the water. I tried to find my breath, soaked down to my bra. That could have been me, and then who would be there to take Aiden home? No, I wouldn’t be bringing Aiden home, not with the river like this. I’d have to stay with him at the school. What an idiot I’d been. I’d ignored my dad’s warnings about water. A hard lump formed in my throat as I turned my back on the river. One misstep and I would have fallen into the same water as the stones, my phone, and my Wellington boot. One mistake and I would have been floating beneath the current where the water is calm, with my hair gliding out around me, an ethereal water-nymph who would never breathe again.

Another dead young woman. A statistic in a tragic flooding incident. A selfish woman who left her six-year-old motherless after lying to her father. I shook my head and made my way up Acker Lane like I had just told Dad. The road followed the direction of the river for a mile, before turning left onto the school road. The school road carried on for another half a mile before coming to the carpark of Bishoptown school. I noticed that the water had pooled in the car park, where it was halfway up the tyres of some of the cars. There was little chance of all these people making it home for the night. I turned my attention back to the school—it was my school, too, where I’d carved my name into the floorboards in the assembly hall to impress Jamie Glover; a boy who would later break my heart by kissing Fiona Cater on the rugby pitch in secondary school. By this time, of course, it was my son’s school.

It was his time to make memories and carve his name into wood using the sharp point of a compass. It was a small Victorian building, built like a modest church, with steep gables and oldfashioned leaded windows. There was more than a hint of Gothic about it. Dragging my soaked sock, I ran to the entrance and let myself in, almost tripping over someone in the doorway. When I straightened up I realised that it was Mrs. Fitzwilliam, the same woman who had been headteacher when I was a child. When she saw me, her face paled, and her gaze moved from my eyes to somewhere above my head. There was something about the change in her countenance that made my stomach drop to my sodden feet. “What is it?” I asked. A dribble of rain water trickled down the wall behind Mrs.

Fitzwilliam. We’d called her Mrs. Fitz when I was a child. She had always been firm but fair. We were a little afraid of her red hair, but it was almost completely grey now, and her stern expression was softer as she finally met my gaze. The tears in her eyes forced my heart to resume into its tattoo against my ribs. I clutched hold of my chest, trying to calm myself while my heart seemed to have been restarted with defibrillators. “Ms Price… Emma… I’m so sorry.” I took a step forward and she took a step back. Her expression told me that mine was wild.

She put both hands up in front of her as if in surrender. “We’ve called the police and they’ll be here soon.” “Tell me what happened,” I demanded. “Aiden slipped away. Miss Perry was with the children in classroom four. She was performing a headcount. We had collected all the children from year two in that classroom because the roof leak wasn’t as bad. But somehow Aiden left the classroom. We’ve searched the premises and we believe he has left the school.” I clutched my chest, as if such a paltry action could alleviate the pain that radiated from my heart.

“Why would he leave?” She shook her head. “I don’t know. Perhaps he was curious about the rain.” I crumpled in on myself, folding over like paper. Of course he was curious. Aiden was curious about everything. He was an explorer. He climbed trees in the park, he scurried over five-bar gates into fields filled with cows, he hid in the heather on the moors around Bishoptown, and played hide and seek in the forest. I had nurtured that side of him. I wanted a wild, brave child.

I wanted that for him; I wanted him to grow into a strong man with a penchant for exploring. I’d pushed my wanderlust onto him. But I hadn’t wanted this. I hadn’t wanted him to wander away from safety during the most dangerous flood in over a hundred years. “You’ve searched the school?” I asked. “We’re still looking,” she said. “I’ll help.” The rest of that day was a blur. I checked each classroom myself, tripping over buckets placed under leaks and snatching open cupboard doors, screaming his name until I scared the other children. It was no use.

Aiden was not in the school. I’d searched every nook and cranny of the school, even trudging around the carpark and the football field. Eventually Amy got me to sit down and Mrs Fitzwilliam brought me hot coffee. The police had shown up hours later, along with search and rescue. Somehow amongst all that I’d been given an extra pair of shoes. No one had found Aiden. There was so much for the authorities to deal with. Search and rescue and the police were stretched so thinly that my boy, my missing boy, stayed just that. Missing. And now, do I resent that? Do I hate the parents whose children were taken to safety in boats and helicopters as the Ouse finally burst and covered our small village in its murky lifeblood? No.

I can’t. I can’t begrudge the men and women who worked tirelessly to help the living. But as I watched everyone moving around me, watched the rest of the children reunited with their parents, and watched the half-drowned people of my village receive blankets and hot cups of tea, I realised that my life was no longer in my own hands. On that day, when I lost Aiden, I lost all control of my life, and with him gone, I would never get it back. 2 All that wasted potential. That was the phrase I heard over and over again when I fell pregnant with Aiden in year thirteen of school. I had just turned eighteen when I pissed on the stick, and had already sent my UCAS application to several universities—universities that I had expected to accept me to their humanities courses. However, Rob, my boyfriend at the time, had not applied to any universities. He was hanging on by a thread, and when I announced my news, the thread finally broke. Rob was never the kind of boy you took home to your parents.

He was in a band at fifteen, tattooed at sixteen, and almost completely gave up on school at seventeen. He had stayed on at Bishoptown School to do his A-Levels, but when I look back on that time now, I wonder if he’d stayed to hang out with me more than anything. We were very much in love but it was young love; passionate and idiotic, full of mistakes and drama. The biggest drama was my pregnancy, which prompted a family meeting between the Prices and the Hartleys to discuss what should be done about the whole ordeal. At one point I wondered whether they might send me away somewhere for nine months to have the baby in secret. It all suddenly seemed like the early twentieth century, not the early twenty-first. This was a small village of rich, rural people. My mother was the general practitioner for Bishoptown. Rob’s family owned the boutique B&B in the village and several holiday cottages outside York. We were supposed to have a future.

We were middle-class children whose parents had worked hard for our future, and we’d pissed it all away like I’d pissed on that stick. I could have had an abortion, and believe me, I considered it. Mum even sat me down and described the procedure in a calm and neutral way. Girls like me often chose that route. It’s often what they feel is the best decision for them. But there was something about that little bean I saw on the ultrasound scan that made me wonder whether there was a little magic growing inside me. I had the magic bean forming in my womb and I wanted to see how it would all turn out. Maybe there was some selfishness to my decision. Maybe there is some selfishness to every decision. But that was my choice.

My choice was Aiden. And I never regretted it. Not when he split open my skin coming out of me, not when he screamed bloody murder instead of taking a nap, and not when they found his red coat floating in the River Ouse three days after the flood. No, I never regretted my choice, not even seven long years after the flood when I finally, officially, had my son declared legally dead. “Emma, do you want to open this one next?” I blinked, and found myself back in the teachers’ common room, sat on the not-so ‘comfy’ chairs that had been arranged around a small coffee table. The left wall was covered by the teachers’ pigeonholes, and behind me was a small kitchen area with a few cupboards containing old cereal packets and a sink filled with mugs and teaspoons. How long had I been thinking about Aiden? From the looks on the faces around me, I’d not been paying attention for a while. “Sure! Sorry, I was miles away.” I tucked a strand of loose hair behind my ear and bent my head as I smiled and took the present from Amy’s outstretched hand. Ten years ago, when Aiden died in the flood, I would never have imagined that I’d be working with the woman who allowed my son to wander out of school.

But life moves on and people evolve. Despite everything, I forgave Amy for that day. She’d been stretched beyond her capabilities during the flood, and when her back was turned, my son did the improbable: He walked straight out of school, down to the dangerous river, and got caught up in the current and drowned. Those are the cold, hard facts. But whenever I thought of them, I disconnected myself from the reality of them. Sometimes I wondered if I’d disconnected from Aiden’s death completely. I wondered if I really believed he was dead, not just living like a wild thing on the Yorkshire moors somewhere, frightening hikers by jumping out from the heather and then scampering off to a cave to live like Stig of the Dump. I pushed my thumbnail under the Sellotape and slowly peeled open the present on my lap. It was wrapped in a pink ribbon with pink wrapping paper of pretty birds and flowers. The paper was thick and hard to tear.

Amy hadn’t just nipped to the newsagents on Bishoptown Hill for this, she’d gone to Paperchase or Waterstones for such pretty—and trendy—paper. Beneath the birds was a box with a clear plastic front. “It’s beautiful.” I exhaled slowly, holding back the tears pricking at my eyes. “Is it okay?” she asked, a quaver of anxiety evident in her voice. “I know some mums don’t like people getting such girly presents for their babies. But I saw it and it was so gorgeous that I just had to.” I met her watery gaze with my own. I’d known Amy since I was thirteen or fourteen, though we’d never been close. She was someone who would hang around in the same circles as me, but not someone I would call on a Saturday night for a veg out and movie night.

She had always been somewhat mousy, and would have been pretty if it hadn’t been for the long front teeth that prevented her mouth from closing completely. She had something of a stereotypical librarian demeanour. She was quiet, uneasy and awkward with most people, and I know Aiden’s death had weighed heavily on her mind all these years. Eventually, after my crippling grief had slowly faded, I’d ended up feeling sorry for her. “Oh, it’s lovely,” cooed Angela, head of year seven. “Pretty,” said Sumaira from the English department. “I want to go back to being a girl and get one myself,” said Tricia, the other school administrator. I looked down at the doll resting on my lap and tried hard to push the memory of Aiden out of my mind so that for once, just once, I could think about my future. It’d been hard, this decade, harder than I’d ever imagined life could be, but it had not been completely filled with misery. There had been beautiful moments, like marrying Jake and finding out I was pregnant with his child.

This should be another happy moment and I wanted to enjoy it. I wanted to live in the present. So I pushed Aiden out of my mind—while saying a silent apology—and thought of the day I would give this beautiful doll to my daughter. It was porcelain, with delicate pink cheeks and wavy brown hair that fell to its shoulders. It wore a pink tulle dress with daisies stitched along the hem, and a butterfly on the shoulder strap. “It’s perfect, Amy, thank you. Where on earth did you find it?” I asked. “Well,” she said. “There’s an online shop that makes them custom to order. But they also had some ready-made and this was one of them.

I fell in love with her and just had to buy her for you.” I placed the doll carefully on the coffee table next to the huge, shiny card decorated with tiny baby grows on a washing line, then leaned forward in my chair and wrapped my arms around Amy. She patted me on the back, leaning over my protruding baby bump to embrace me. “I wish I’d had a bump that neat when I was eight months pregnant,” said Sumaira. “I was out here!” She demonstrated with her arms and we all laughed. “I keep thinking that one day I’ll wake up and be the size of a house,” I said, laughing with them. I’d been active before the pregnancy. Running had helped me deal with the grief and I’d been at the height of my fitness during the early stages of the pregnancy. I still felt some of that strength in my body. I certainly didn’t feel weak or encumbered.

I did get some of the classic symptoms of being heavily pregnant, like swollen ankles and needing to pee twice as much, but I was a far cry from the comedic elephant-sized pregnant women you see on the television. Not once had I burst into tears at work—and I’d managed to get through the last eight months without craving pickles, too. “We’re going to miss you around here, Price-Hewitt,” Tricia said, pulling me into another hug. “I’m going to miss you guys, too. Don’t get too attached to my replacement because I’ll be back before you know it.” “You take your time,” Angela said. “Don’t rush it. Enjoy your time with the baby.” I nodded, taking in her words. No one mentioned Aiden.

No one acknowledged that this was my second child. I bit my lip and fought against the rising tide of guilt threatening to take hold. “Jake will be waiting for me.” I stood a little too fast and felt the blood rushing to my head. My joints ached a little, but the kindness of my colleagues had bolstered my energy levels and I felt strong enough to take on the world. I was ready for the next challenge ahead, especially with Jake waiting for me in the carpark. He had been my rock through the bad times, there with an outstretched hand to catch me when I fell. And believe me, I fell a lot. I had fallen into darkness after Aiden died. “Call us when the baby is born.

We all want to meet her,” Amy said. She bit her lip and I could see her mind whirring with thoughts of my lost boy, the one who’d walked away from her and never came back. “Yes, bring the little one into work, won’t you? It’s been ages since I had a cuddle with a newborn. My Oliver is nearly three now, if you can believe it,” said Tricia, her eyes misty with thoughts of her grandson. “Of course,” I replied. “I can’t wait for you all to meet her.” I bundled up the cards and presents into a plastic bag and picked up the large bunch of roses with the price carefully peeled away from the packaging. We stood awkwardly near the door and for the first time, I saw hesitation on their faces. I saw contemplation, and I knew what they were all thinking about. Amy brushed tears away from her cheeks.

We might not have mentioned Aiden’s existence. We might have all made the unconscious decision to not utter his name while we celebrated the new baby, but Aiden was close, so close I could almost see him standing in the shadows next to the pigeonholes and the corner table. He was in Amy’s tears, and in the knowing smile on Sumaira’s face. He was in my heart, buried in my arteries, mixed into my blood and my DNA, and every atom that made me ‘me’. I said my goodbyes and made my way down the steps and out into the carpark, the same carpark I had run through that terrible day when my Wellington boot had sloshed through the rainwater and my sock had hung precariously from my toes. Then I saw the silver Audi, and Jake’s smiling face in the driver’s seat. “How did it go?” he asked, as I piled the presents and flowers into the backseat. We’d need to sort the baby seat out soon, I mused. It was only three weeks until my due date and there was much to be done. “Good.

You should see the gorgeous doll Amy bought for Bump.” Jake frowned. “You look wiped out. I was going to suggest we go for some tea to celebrate, but I think you need a warm bath and an early night. Shall we order in from Da Vinci’s instead?” I leaned across the gearstick to plant a soppy kiss on Jake’s cheek. “That sounds perfect.” As we pulled out of the carpark, I couldn’t help but turn and give the school building one last look. I’d been working there for five years now, and I should’ve been used to the sight of the old Victorian building by now, yet somehow it brought all those feelings rushing back to the surface. And then, she kicked. I clutched my belly and felt the second kick.

Yes, I know you’re there. There’s room in my heart for you too.

.

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