Monday, 10 September 2007

Short Story 2 - Mittens.

The Baby's name is Daisy. I have known her for 6 weeks, during which time I have been waiting for maternity. So far, it hasn't arrived. Nothing. I have a tiny stranger living in my house, sleeping in the little room once piled high with racks of wine and cushions, where James and I would curl up away from the world. It is her room, now, and there she lies: red and wrinkled as an aging apple. She has chicken pox, so the world has already made her angry.

I care for her. I make crooning noises as I dab her with calamine, rock her, feed her, kiss her, bite my lip until it bleeds. I do not have a beautiful baby. I do not wish to spend every waking moment in her company. As the shadows lengthen I know there are friends out there drinking too much wine, complaining about work over dinner. Here I am, gritty-eyed at six o'clock, staring at a squalling, itching infant. I would rather be anywhere but here.

I feel coated in guilt. I imagine it as an oily residue on my skin that no amount of washing can remove. How do I not love my child? I have never been a cold person. I have friends, family. Why does Daisy fill me with such dead indifference?

Dear God, will she never stop screaming?

I watch her, helpless. I have changed her, bathed her, covered her sores, sung to her, stroked her head. I act the caring mother with skill, and I know she can't tell the difference. When James comes home he will rush to her cot, gather her up like the missing piece of his soul and hold her close, but she behaves no differently. I watch as he settles her beneath his chin, Castle Dromore a comforting rumble in his chest. Sing hushabye loo, low loo, low lan, hushabye loo, low loo. I smile, arrange my features into doting approval, and all is well. I wish I could say I was jealous: of James, of Daisy. That would be an explanation, somewhere I could begin. I'm not jealous. I couldn't give a damn.

I know the faces I should pull, the words I should say, and I say them just as my own mother did. James hugs me, kisses me, makes love to me with awful grattitude. He is a man whose woman has carried his child. He brings me flowers, makes me mugs of tea, tells me to put my feet up, I deserve it. There was a time I'd come home from work to find paint all over the kitchen floor, half-finished canvasses piled by the back door, and James drinking single malt from the bottle. Bone weary, I'd scream at him. He'd laugh, yell, grab me, fuck me senseless, as the viscid paint smeared hands, thighs, intertwined fingers. After, we would lie spent and quiet, cocooned in each other. It was enough. Now he teaches art at a local school and I'm Daisy's mother.

Daisy has slipped into an uneasy sleep at last. I lean on the bars of her cot and look down, willing my heart to turn over. I see puckered lips, wet with spittle, and scarlet cheeks. Angry scabs speckle her cheeks and chin. In her sleep she tries to scratch, but I've put mittens on her hands:
a barrier between skin and nail. It seems thin protection for one who can be hurt by a touch.

I switch on the baby monitor and slip out of the room. I plan on catching forty winks but find myself standing in front of my wardrobe, staring at the clothes inside. Those hanging up I barely wear any more. The clothes of motherhood don't need hangers; they lie crumpled on chairs, or stuffed into drawers. I reach out and touch my blue dress, the colour of summer midnight - low cut, floor length. I have worn it only once, to a company ball. I was given an award that night, but it seemed small to someone buzzing with secret joy over the life inside. I drank nothing, which Jane noticed (of course she noticed), and soon all the secretaries knew. Before the night was over there was no longer a secret to protect, and people's eyes changed.

Daisy mewls on the monitor, but quiets on her own. I reach out and take down the blue dress, stroke the silk with my fingertips. It catches on my rough skin. I am tempted to put it on, but I could never do it up over my flaccid belly. I go to the bedside table and take out a pair of nail scissors. I run the blade, once, over my thumb, then calmly attack the dress, slashing little holes until it's nothing more than rags. Then it seems logical to turn to the pretty sundress hanging beside it - much easier to destroy its floating gauze - and then my favourite, Chanel suit. It cost over three thousand pounds. I snip each button with a flourish, watching as they drop to the floor and roll in different directions. One vanishes between a crack in the floorboards. The others come to rest not far from my bare feet.

When the suit is nothing more than charcoal ribbons on the floor, I return the scissors to the bedside table and go back to the wardrobe. This time I reach up, stand on tiptoe, and bring down my old travelling suitcase. A faded baggage tag stabs the corner of my eye, causing it to water. Frankfurt. Typical. I lower the suitcase tenderly and open it, leave it lying like a gaping maw.

For several moments I stare at the wardrobe. I picture the clothes inside the drawers: cotton maternity dresses; baggy jumpers, easy to lift for breast feeding; elasticated jeans; vast, comfortable pants - white, pink, grey. These are the clothes I own. This is how I dress. I go to the top drawer and pull it open. The suitcase waits, open-mouthed.

The monitor crackles. Daisy gives a whimper, which crescendos into a miserable wail, and moves restlessly. Before I think I find myself at the cot, reaching down to her. I see at once she's hot, and lift her carefully from her grobag. She screams and waves her hands in despair.

"No, no, no," I croon, resting her against my shoulder, "no, no, no."

I lay her on the changing table and dab calamine on her spots. She tears the air with her cries, but calms once the cool lotion touches her skin. I pick her up. Her sobs dwindle to a sad little grumble. I look into her face as she nestles in the crook of my arm and she blinks up at me. She lifts a hand.

"No," I begin, but instead of clawing at her scabs she reaches up and touches my face. The mitten is soft and warm, resting against my cheek. Then she gives a little, hiccupping sigh and her hand drops. She turns her head, mouth working, and I feed her. She drinks only a little before dropping back to sleep.

I hold her in my arms for a while. I take her hand and gently peel the mitten over her fingers. I slip one of my own into her grasp and she grips tightly in her sleep. Her skin is warm and dry, her nails white against red. I notice, too, that her fingertips are slightly flared, like mine.

She breathes deeply, sound asleep. I slide the mitten back on and button it securely. I lay her on her back and brush a light hand over her head, watching as the hair floats like down.

I go back to the bedroom and pack my suitcase with the clothes I have destroyed. Then I take it down and empty it into the dustbin in the garden. Leaning against the peeling fence, with the stink of rubbish in my nose, I cry violently. Then I go inside and wait for James to come home.