Whenever I’m there, she is too. It’s nice to have her company though we are separated by both bricks and water. I see her no matter whether I’m feeding, soothing, winding or watching the world go by reflected in the canal outside my house. She is in a room like mine, often sitting, sometimes standing or pacing, baby on one shoulder. Even when the canal is ruffled by the wind, pock marked by rain, in fragments and shards she’s there; I’ve come to think of her as a friend.
Tonight, I can see her again – our babies go to bed at the same time – when most people are coming back from work or school, or wherever else they’ve been that is not home. Outside the cars queue and beep exuding fumes, inside are the tinny chimes of the cot mobile and the post-bath scent of clean baby. I feed my son and look down at the reflection of the other houses in the inky water, the sodium glare of streetlights as they flicker on. I see her there too, sitting in her chair, holding her baby. I want to fall into her world, like a snow globe, shaken upside down. I think maybe she would welcome me. She’d place her baby down in his bed, offer me chilled wine, a shoulder to cry on, confidences to keep.
My son settles from his feed and I cradle him low, balanced on my knee. His eyes track the movement of car headlamps before drooping towards sleep. I nuzzle his face into my neck, lie him down on the brushed cotton sheet, a wail and then silence. I am free – but for how long, who knows? In the pit of my stomach I am wary of this peace.
Out on the canal, the moon is a bright Catherine wheel riding high on the water, sparks of light cascading in the ripples. More cars rush past, eager headlights and vapour trails heading for home and comfort. I wonder about them all – I’ve forgotten what it’s like to rush anywhere. My life is governed by a pint-sized terrorist who holds me hostage with my own heart. Beyond, brakes squeal in imitation of a baby’s cry. I flinch in anticipation of an answering wail from the cot, but am spared this, the evening is still mine.
I loiter in the room for a moment, putting off the evening chores. I see her doing the same and then imagine her, toned body perched on a sofa in an immaculate, still sitting room, wine in a glass on a table, the news on a slick flat screen. No gossip sites for her, whinging mummy friends bemoaning their lives. She sits and waits, only springing to life for a wail on the baby monitor or a key in the door. I leave her be. I know we’ll be back many times before it gets light again.
I am settled into a deep bath, a Fifties siren in a strapless dress of bubbles, wine in a plastic tumbler. Yellow ducks bob over my breasts, nest in the hollow between my thighs. Forty-watt light flickers over the dusty edges of the tiles, mouldy bath toys, a cluster of half-used bath products. No doubt he’ll remind me of this, of another chore not done. A wail comes over the monitor. I wait a beat and the noise comes again.
We’ve not done badly this evening – takeaway, TV show, wine and conversation. Other nights are fragmented with me running up and down stairs, tits out like a Freudian Benny Hill sketch. I think back over the days since I became a mother. In my mind’s hazy blur odd images stand out like a strip of negatives. A laid table for two, but only one meal eaten. A pile of dirty clothes but clean work shirts hung up to dry. A suitcase by the door but only one plane ticket. I am not the only lonely one.
I thrust damp limbs into unflattering flannel pyjamas, struggling. I am so clumsy these days, unaccustomed to my new size, still big. As I am reminded all too often, I have not yet shrunk back down, though I feel so small most days. I hurry along the corridor before the cries become a siren, rousing daddy out of a hard-earned slumber. Now is my night’s watch duty begun – just me and the baby together until sunrise tints the canal into a fury of pink and copper. In the darkened nursery, my baby is delighted to see his beloved mama again, little joyous noises and claps greet me; warm pudgy arms twine around my neck, grabbing fistfuls of hair, an entirely different lover’s embrace. No matter how I lack to others, I am perfection to him.
Outside the street is quiet bar the odd car. A late commuter treks on, homeward bound. In the dimness, I can see my friend is up too. The rain pitting the water of the canal blurs the lens of her reflection with a Vaseline smear. The soft light is intimate, encouraging whispers across the water. We are sat in our respective chairs, rocking in time, babies dozing, hypnotic. The room is warm. The milky scent of sleepy baby mingles with the artificial sweetness of my vanilla bath gel and overfull nappy bin.
I wonder about her bedroom. I imagine an expensive scent, gardenia, tuberose, musky under layers. I imagine her in a silky robe sitting at a dressing table carefully creaming her face, massaging it in, pulling the skin taut across her cheek bones. She sits in her chair in clean pressed pyjamas, fresh cotton, baby matching. Who wouldn’t want to wake in the night to be greeted by such a paragon, enfolded into a soothing embrace, cool hands on a fevered brow, ushered from nightmare into wakeful dream.
At last, I can take a lungful of air, as if I have held my breath all day – her presence across the water relaxes me. I wish she was here in the room, in front of me. She might ask me in whispers how was my day? What have we done? How am I? She will look right at me, she will really see me. Would I be able to tell her the truth, all of it?
At least I can tell her I am lonely. Beyond all else, lonely. I speak to no one and no one speaks to me. I see no one, we go nowhere, it is just me and my baby, shut up in this house. I speak to my child of course, words of love and adoration, questions that I answer myself. But otherwise I am that person who engages checkout staff for longer than necessary when I purchase groceries.
“Yes, we’re having a lovely day thank you, he does have a beautiful smile, he’s 7 months. No, not crawling yet. Sleep, what’s that then?”, followed by a polite laugh.
I can sense them looking over my shoulder at the queue of shoppers building, feet tapping. On the bus, pity the person who sits near me, comments on my son. I can see them looking for ways to end our conversation, the stink of my desperation nauseating them.
I want her to wrap me up and take me home with her, teach me all her perfect ways. Though she’s up like I am, she naps when her baby naps, she has family that pop round, Tupperwares full of casserole, cakes, handy with the washing up and laundry. And she has friends too – yummy mummy types, buttery blonde hair, pre-pregnancy jeans tucked into long boots, concealing masks of make up one and all. And her husband, he hurries home to her, delights in her. Why wouldn’t he?
The baby has finished his feed. Snuffles emanate from the crook of my arm. The rain is so hard, I can barely see her, I hope she’s still there. I press a palm to my window in farewell, anxious not to lose even the slightest bit of contact. I dread waking in the night and her not being there. I tuck myself under our quilt. I imagine her in her bed too, strong arms enfolding her. I am reassured by her perfection. If it is possible for her, it must be possible for me.
His cries tear into my dreams, a nudge and a kick at my ankles from beside me. I am up and out of bed, shocked by the frigid air of the nursery before my eyes are even fully open. The moon sears my retinas, I clutch my warm baby to me, adjusting to the upright rocker, the hungry mouth latching on ferociously. Figures roam in the shadows, my body is here in this room but my mind is still in the club of my dreams, still dancing and weaving and waving in and out of consciousness. The music pounds, making my ears ring, my blood sing. My breathing is slow to return to normal and when it does, I can see figures outside my window – and she is watching them too, black eyes in a white face, up against the glass.
I can see acres of flesh on display despite the cool night air; heels ring on flagstones, shimmers and scatters of sequins, jewels, glossy hair spinning out. The clubbers have come home, taxi taillights disappear round the corner. I envy their pure carefree evening with a fierce burn. I lack spontaneity in my life, dancing, music, substances that make me feel outside of my skin. There is no passion or excitement for me now, only the monotony of a life revolving around routines – eat, sleep, play. Over and over again.
I miss it all so much. The preparation, the careful choice of outfit, getting together to get ready – that mainstay of youthful female friendship. Downing cups of cheap sticky-sweet alcohol at home before hurrying onto public transport, a pride of chain store clad peacocks. We didn’t care what we looked like, did or said. The only limitations were self-imposed, responsibilities a bourgeois excuse for stopping our joyride of pleasure fulfilment.
I watch them now from my window, shrieking with laughter, arms around each other, revelling in their beauty and style. I can see she is watching too. I wonder if she feels like me, the ashy bitter taste of envy on her tongue. I doubt it. I imagine her carefully curated Instagram account makes the yummiest of mummies jealous. Designer handbags purchased “by accident”, new heels that just fell into her ASOS basket “on sale”, pulling together “natty” little outfits for her NCT meet ups.
She isn’t sitting in silence on the sofa every Saturday night watching Strictly and X Factor, walking on eggshells, worrying about the imperfection of her cooking, laundry, housework. A slob in a slanket and onesie, a takeaway for two on the table, miles between them on the sofa. No, I can picture her emerging sleek and groomed from a car, following her husband through darkened, discreet doorways into members-only clubs. Or out with her other mummy friends, drinking cocktails, strappy sandals dangling from feet, high stools at high bars. She will be the centre of attention, not groping for the right words to make small talk with women she doesn’t know and is afraid of.
A sharp twist of acidic jealousy in my throat as I imagine her with other friends, without me. I know I need her more than she needs me. I need her to be sitting there at all these times because I can’t think about how to survive without her; to be locked inside my head with these thoughts, trapped. And this time, when I need her, where is she? I’m scared at night, when the real worries come flooding in, adrenaline coursing through me. I could leave, I could have a better life I am certain, but then I am pulled back under. What would she do if she were me?
I am so lost in thought I do not notice that the clubbers have gone, leaving behind a scarf fluttering in the wind, its faded sparkle casting pinpricks of light across the canal. I put the baby to bed and leave the room with no backward glance. I pull down shutters in my mind, lock away the dangerous thoughts I harbour.
I begrudge this waking, yet again here are my feet plodding down the hall, the cries aggressive as I enter the room. My eyelids droop as I sit in the chair, again. I force myself to stay awake though and instead look across for my friend, hoping she will be there too for this darkest time of night. It is always so still at 4am – everyone who has a home to go to is in it, tucked up in their beds, asleep – never do I feel lonelier than now.
I don’t recall being up at 4am pre- baby, aside from early wakings for travel and holidays, or the odd illness. Now 4am is a familiar time to me, we are old friends. It is a secret time, when dreams and worries blur, become one in my head. Am I here, clutching my child to me, his frenzied mouth at my breast? Am I awake in another bed, in another time, a warm arm around me, pulling me back under the waves of musky slumber? Am I just lost in a darkness, a blind corridor, doors opening, a child’s wail that I can never get to?
I look across but the canal is shrouded in darkness, the outside lights switched off, there is no reflection and I am alone. This is it, all it comes down to. A little person and me all alone in this world. How is this fierce love alive inside me and at the same time how can I want to dissolve, disappear, dive into the canal, relax into its watery depths?
It’s hard some days, the thoughts so tempting, the slow drip of poison into my ear. What is it they called it – a history of ill health? Is that how they describe it, the tears of blood weeping down my arms? I picture doing it so often, the relief it might bring. A sharp kiss of pain and a blooming instant of oblivion. No one knows about these thoughts that get me through. The promise of disappearing. Because I am not learning my lesson. I am not getting better. I am not perfect. But I couldn’t – wouldn’t – ever really do it, I don’t think. I’d never leave my baby behind.
She isn’t like that. I know she is a good girl, a good wife. I so wish she was here now, outside my window. I would reach forward, a palm against the cold glass, mouthing these words to her.
“How do you do it?”
I want to feel her hand pressed up against mine, suck out her perfection by osmosis, her class, her elegance, her mothering. But instead I am here, in faded pyjamas that smell of milk and stale sweat. The baby is asleep again. Each time he jolts me awake my brain whirrs up and on, questioning querying, but there is no one to hold me close, nurse me, wipe away my tears, erase my pain and take all my fears away.
The only thing I have for certain at 4am is love. Blindly nosing into me, rootling around, making a nest inside me no matter how reluctant I am. Love pummels and reams its way through my veins, carving a channel straight to my heart. Reminding me to stay alive, to keep breathing, to keep beating. It tears me up inside, the need to keep this small person safe, loved, warm. I feel like I will never be enough for him. Nothing is good enough. Perfect is a constantly moving feast, I might die trying. I take his small warm body, put it in his bed. Again. I crawl back to my bed, I am broken with the love, with the lack, with the loss of it all.
This time I am not awoken by the baby, though the alarm’s cries are no easier to ignore. My husband slaps his phone, and then again ten minutes later. And then again ten minutes after that. I nudge him. He needs to get up; he needs to get his train. As he heads into the shower, I go downstairs to prepare breakfast. The table has been laid by me already, just the way he likes it. I make the porridge, add hot water to a tea bag. When he walks in the room it is all there ready. He brings the baby monitor, “Someone wants you.” And he settles at the table with his food and his phone, just enough time to eat.
I scurry upstairs, scooping my son up for yet another feed. He fusses and his little hands bat away at my face but soon settles. And I see that she too is calming waving arms, talking down to a little face, telling her baby that it is morning, about all the fun things we will do that day. The places we will go and the people we will see. I suspect she is not wondering how she will manage a shower, brushed hair, clean clothes. Our babies finish their feeds and we move as one, getting up from the rockers, placing our babies onto their changers, unsnapping footed pyjamas, little pink legs waving about, kicking out from puffy nappy-clad bottoms. I adjust a dropped toy, she switches on the mobile – I can almost hear the echo of chimes through the water. We transfer our cleaned-up babies to their bouncers.
As my husband enters the room, so does hers. We each turn slowly to the doorway, to our respective partners. I can see hers is saying something, the angry questioning shapes his mouth makes, the forceful gestures. There is a pause, a heartbeat. His arm seems to move in slow motion and when his hand connects with her cheek it is shocking in the stillness. Her perfection has not protected her.
But when I look down at our reflections in the water, the red mark is on my cheek and the raised arm is behind me, attached to my husband. Somewhere, far away it seems, a baby begins to wail.
Rebecca Williams loves the darker side of fiction and is currently working on a novel about two housewives on a vigilante crime spree. She also dabbles in flash and shorter fiction – you can find her work in EllipsisZine, Spelk, The Cabinet of Heed, Retreat West and more. She can be found on Twitter @stupidgirl45 or for more short pieces and information visit https://rebeccadmwilliams.wordpress.com/