It was Christmas morning, and they’d run out of milk because Colin refused to get involved in the pre-Christmas shopping frenzy. So, Michelle went out to the local corner shop – thankfully open – bought the milk, and tripped on the doorstep while trying to push Eddie’s buggy back inside. No snow this year, just wind. Cold, cold wind. She undressed both children. George tried to remove his coat, but the zip was too tricky with his gloves.
From upstairs, Colin heard her struggle and smiled his smile.
She pushed the hair from her face, exhausted, and set about preparing their Christmas breakfast. Colin remained in bed. It was the way things were, and was the way that things (almost) always had been.
She asked for help, but there was always some reason why he could not give it.
She asked for love, but his inability to love was obvious and painfully clear.
She asked for answers, and he replied only with vicious questions.
She ate slowly, scared at offending him. He ate quickly, face plate-adjacent, shovelling food into that wide, cruel mouth.
She was now lost. But he had been empty from birth.
He slept better as a result of her upset. She slept only due to exhaustion. There was no peaceful slumber for Michelle.
‘It’s a pirate ship and it’s sailing on the waves,’ her son told her, in a confidential aside, when asked what his little brother was drawing. It was a good job that George could see what others couldn’t, because with Eddie being non-verbal, George was his interpreter. Michelle couldn’t be that person, so lost was she.
Breakfast was over and Michelle was preparing Christmas dinner. And she was allowed one glass of wine during its preparation, so she slowly drained the liquid contents from her one remaining piece of Limoges crystal.
‘Put in on, Colin, please, would you?’ she asked, looking at the floor.
‘What?’ came a grunt from the other room. ‘What?’ he repeated, accentuating his question with a long belch.
‘Put in on, please,’ she said. Little Eddie stood by her, holding onto her legs, his drawing temporarily forgotten.
‘Put what on?’
She wanted to say ‘The turkey, you numbskull. It needs to go on now to be ready for dinner. The dinner that I paid for and I am cooking and I will wash up and you are going to eat’. But she didn’t.
‘The turkey, please,’ she said.
‘My God, you’ve really surpassed yourself. It isn’t even noon yet. Are you still pissed form last night, or is this new pissed from the morning?’
‘Neither. I had one glass of wine, like I always do when I’m making the Christmas dinner. I’m not pissed. I just have my hands full with dinner, and Eddie needs me.’
Colin, instead of helping with the oven, grabbed their son from his wife. Eddie immediately began to wail.
‘You do it,’ Colin demanded. And Michelle, though she had images in her mind of throwing the turkey at her husband, instead placed it carefully into the oven.
Colin’s face told her that she must not comfort Eddie as he cried. She wished she could. As a child, Michelle had tried to change what was going on around her, and had succeeded. But any skills she’d had were all gone now. All she had was the children and her thoughts.
The only living allowed her was that she found within her own mind. And so she dreamed, and thought some thoughts, and wrote a novel of escape and freedom within the confines of her head.
The noise of a police helicopter overhead drones like the flight of a humming bird and is as dense as the drone of a storm of angry wasps. It stops, only to leave me with a colliding momentary silence, which is immediately replaced by the groan of lawnmowers and the persistent chatter of loud and crude kids. As a distant low-key buzz emerged from nearby motorways, like a background noise of industrial, metallic grey, a hovering persistence like the buzz of the refrigerator and the filling up of the cistern. Noise. Noise. Noise. No wonder my head hurts today. I can’t get out. I must be here with him.
Noise. Even with noise cancelling headphones all I can hear is the circulation of blood inside my own skull, my joints cracking, and the crunch of strands of hair being moved in my ear canal as I press my ears shut. Noise and silence. There is no balance.
Orange leaves dazzle against the white-grey flecked sky. Branches pierce the clouds. The grass, a little longer than it had been in autumn, now has its winter jacket on. No longer is it a shaggy green rug with pile as deep as snow and sweet as pea stalks. It’s brown. It’s muddy. It’s crushed and squashed under the weight of too many wellington boots. I watch a dog as he scampers and wonder if a large dog could be said to scamper. All he wants is a furry companion to run with, but none are forthcoming, so he stands, then lies, then sits, with ears ever upright to hear the call of an as now unknown canine companion. He faces me now, standing with nose in the air, waiting now, even for non-canines, as even they would be better than being alone.
I am away from the park now. I’m in the waiting room. In the hospital. Specially designed for children, this floor is patterned with an aquarium print – angel fish and zebra fish and giraffe fish and God fish and invisible fish… The green cushions of cross-shaped pouffe intersect. Another pouffe seat – mustard, orange and red – in the shape of a flying saucer, is occupied by a baby girl of about 3 months old. Her mother comforts her and explains to me that her ears are painful. The child ignores everything: the toys her mother pushes into her face, the activity centre, the bottle… Outside the waiting room I see a doctor standing at the reception desk, through a screen of green and purple lines, while the telly plays a cartoon full of pointy-faced underwater people. I pick up a leaflet advertising the hospital’s radio station, and put it down again. There is nothing more to read. A little boy comes in wearing a blue school uniform on and his bloody, banged eye stands out over his ringletty blonde curls.
At nursery, toddlers gurn, their hands waving. On a slide, off a slide, in the play bed, toys all over… handfuls of happiness. The teacher comes with chapped hands and chapped lips and chapped personality – and the toddlers stop. Nursery. Is it fun or isn’t it? Who’s to judge? Toddlers crying, playing with bricks, dressing up and stacking sticks. More gurning, more sliding, drinking cordial and eating raisins, then time for sleep, a story and home. It’s the end of another busy day. Toddlers yawning, too tired for tea. Mummy singing. Night night sweetheart, sleep well my sweet. Same again tomorrow, love you loads darling.
‘Favourite band?’ she asked. ‘Abba,’ George said.
‘Favourite food?’ she asked. ‘Bananas,’ he said.
‘Favourite animal?’ she asked. ‘Pig,’ he said.
‘Favourite person in the whole wide world?’ she asked. ‘Mummy, of course,’ he said, and she knew, she absolutely knew that it was the only true answer yet.
‘Favourite cartoon?’ she asked. ‘Peppa Pig,’ he said.
‘Oy,’ he said. ‘Oy,’ he said. ‘Oy,’ he said.
The voice was deeper than that of George. It was Colin, now in the kitchen, poking his wife. ‘Seriously, you’re mad, you. Staring at nothing. Mumbling to yourself. You need locking up.’
And though her mind told her to take a knife and stab, or to take the kids and run, Michelle just looked at the kitchen unit, took up the vegetable parer, and began to scrape the carrots for Christmas dinner.