Biology

Had a biology/careers teacher (teachers, you know that feeling) who I mentioned I wanted to be a writer to. She said, what are you interested in? I said, writing. She said, if you want to be a writer you have to be interested in everything. I suspected she was right way back when in Hawkley Hall science lab but did nothing real about it until the last year.

Having a facebook brownout at the moment and really enjoying my own company. I get a bit sick and tired of being nice about other people’s suggestions/organisation/planning and there is that bit of me screaming, but I just want to be free! But I do this: Oh yeah that sounds ace (I don’t want to do it) and when do you want picking up? I’m sure I’ll get sick of myself soon enough (though possibly not, think am awesome 🙂 ). Been spending a lot of time with my mum and dad. We’ve got a mountain to climb with my brother’s friend, Peter (in Wales, not being metaphoric) and there is a sneaky part of me trying to resist taking off on my own to do it. It will be a nice day. Need to ‘master’ a salchow (skating jump) and there is an intensive circus training thing in August I need to do. Also, buy a spinning pole (quit job and teach this??!) whilst trying not to let students see any of the pictures (this is an unusually monumental effort)

A couple of summers ago I took piano lessons for a few months, just to have a little window of time that was purely mine. I was shit. So I bought a digital one this Christmas and played a bit everyday and it’s like a little anchor. You get to think through puzzles and all the hours blur (I have told my new neighbours to hammer if they get frustrated). I used to need to be amazing at anything I would attempt but all that has diffused. I just want to enjoy myself, to progress, to feel. And it all trickles into your life in intriguing ways.

So here is a little snippet of what I have been enjoying. Like I say, loads of mistakes,  have figured out what the pedal does, but it’s fun and it’s a good feeling not to ignore my careers/biology teacher’s advice…

 

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I haven’t been writing at all lately (zero time, zero inclination) and have noticed this has turned me into a complete cow. So I went to Neros and whizzed myself up on those nice dark chocolate espresso balls and have managed to do some of that thing that makes me feel a little bit more myself. Can feel my shoulders unlatch a little and my brain align. Deep breath. It’s still not particularly joined up but suits the work I think (I hope). The novel goes back and forth in time and points of view, between Clare and David.

Finding Muna (extract)

‘I love that rainbow!’

Sometimes Muna could be effervescent too.

I thought of these times like the title of a storybook: Muna and her Mother.

‘I love that earring!’

And bend down to pick it up, or to stroke the oil that had made the rainbow in the road. Always me wenching her up and down, closer when she stretched away. Even before Ernest Burrows and his notebook, the dizzying calendar of times and notes and sketches of our child in dynamic action. As if she was always trying to leave me.

‘I do not want to wear that sparkly dress! I have better sparkly dresses. Do not make me wear the blue sparkle!’

I would chase her, naked, thundering downstairs, to the backdoor, wrest her off the handle.

‘Muna!’

David would call down, hand over a work phone call before he even set out on the day to go-and-be-important. ‘Sweetheart, you know how beautiful daddy thinks you look in the blue dress.’

I would wonder how it had ended up like this, me the Oxford-educated parent, David: 42, Tyneside College, HNC Building Studies.

‘Mummy,’ Muna drawled from the back door. ‘Can you go and get my O-ber-jeen coat and my O-ber-jeen scarf with the yellow ducks?’

 

We’d go to a café in the day and she’d inform me about what she was colouring, why, how it represented (not her word) the songs we were learning that week on the piano. A strong coffee for me, some garlic bread for Muna.

‘That’s lovely, sweetheart.’

She’d shake her head. ‘It doesn’t look like the music, mummy.’

I’d watch her, my curious girl, and fall in love.

Once, when I went to pay I turned back and she was stood at a deaf man’s table, leaning against the edge, one hand on her hip. ‘Well I’m off this week,’ I could hear her saying. ‘School has been very hard, sometimes enough is enough isn’t it?’

The disquiet sat in my stomach. Where does a four year old hear something like that. A teacher? Had David said it? Was he talking about me?

She sang the whole way home. I told her she could choose whether she held my hand over the field we walked or not, if she would stop singing. She narrowed her eyes and I watched the cogs turn in her brain, the melody stuck in her throat for a beat, and carried on singing.

‘I love that doggy!’

‘Yes, Muna, it’s a lovely doggy.’

*

I suppose it was when I started saying things like ‘lovely’ in my messages. Hope you had a lovely day. Have eaten a lovely meal in the Wheatsheaf in Corbridge. Lemon meringue. Lovely. You’d love the church I had to visit today – it was lovely. We should go sometime? And not, I so want to fuck you. Where the fuck are you and why is that not in my fucking bed?!! Magnets. The lovely-thing happened, not over sex or owt, but on one particular trip. I can’t remember where. I don’t remember how to date anyway, so all we’d had is a collection of nights, pushy and passionate, and surfaced craving fresh air, strapped on walking boots and gloves and all that. Some good routes up around Hexham.

*

The squish and thump of my baby’s heartbeat, the tick of her pulse in the hot skin of her forehead against mine in the night, how I imagined her heart racing when Ernest Burrows would not let her go. I was not there to warm circles on her back, to soften her tension, to ease taut limbs. There, there, baby. It’s okay, don’t be afraid, mummy’s here.

*

Before Muna, David quashed flies between his palms. Clap! Mr Miyogi. Daniel-San. Etc etc. Though he wasn’t remotely dexterous enough for chopsticks. The man who, when we were first meeting – just a drink just a drink – would say, fuck it, let’s take off and see where the road takes us. Got your passport, lass? He should have been Christoper Columbus. No, he should have been Leif Erikson, the Icelandic explorer purported to have landed in North America long before his Italian counterpart. My Viking. With all his straight bloody angles and man shrugs and sexiness. The shrugs at my worries over small things – my difficult students – kid’s a bastard, get rid. But his mother would be so disappointed, I’d say. Shrug. David who made my fingers catch my throat when he’d kick a snail off the path. Shake spiders out the bathroom window for me, because I used to be daft about these things. Even before Muna, I would always think of its legs sprawling, its silk trying to catch. It would have seconds, if that.

Even when Muna was born, David’s luggage for our holidays was always just a backpack. And, of course, it would have everything he required (the he being the point here, an  attribute I’d accepted long ago. If I was honest, it was a strength of self, an independence that I’d admired anyway.

After Muna, David flung the front door open one day, my day off, no students. A few weeks ago, he’d decided we needed a pond and when he would get in after his long days, he’d change his boots and clothes to similar boots and clothes and disappear until dark and the last of my students had been collected. ‘Clare!’

I rushed to the stairs, stomach tight. ‘What?’

‘There’s a bee in the garage!’

I narrowed my eyes. I couldn’t see, but could feel him waiting. The door slamming (my demonstrated uselessness). I’d crept down and hovered, to watch. It was spitting. I could smell the earth – petrichor it’s called – David had told me this. I’m embarrassed that I remember when, exactly. What are his memories of me? How are they laid out? Does he walk through them as I do?

Petrichor. When rain hits soil.

‘You could leave it?’

Stone (petra).

Blood of the Gods (ichor).

When it rains, you smell blood, David had said, on one of our trips. The window creaked as he unwound it, a manual tick.

It had been raining, soft and summery, blurring the windscreen and the view of the fields, iridescent gold and green. The air tacky on my bare shoulders. A need for him cinched my body. I gritted my teeth. I slipped onto his lap.

‘You could just leave it,’ I say now.

He turned to me, as I blinked through quiet rain, this man who quashed flies and kicked snails and liked his steak sky fucking blue if you will, love. ‘But it’ll die.’

I rolled my lips together. I took a deep breath. Ventured into his space and dithered near tools and things greasy with the scent of oil. I picked up a bucket with cigarette butts in that I didn’t comment on. Wafted the bucket after the bee. Watched it, heavy-bottomed, struggle out below the door and up to sky.

David nodded and turned his back. I wanted to apply myself to him, rest my cheek against his back and feel the heat of skin through cotton. For his chest to tighten and slacken against my arms, buckled around him. And I would whisper, I’m sorry, but I’ve got this. I’ve got you.

‘Time’s tea?’

‘Should I know?’

He swore and something metal clattered against metal. I still loved his voice, whatever he said. The timbre of it. I wanted him to say nice things to me. You’re beautiful. It’s not your fault. Of course I still love you.

I hadn’t conceived, really, perhaps in light of everything we’d gone through, that there could be an end point. Where one of us said, enough is enough.

A good while after he’d left me, I was in the bathroom cleaning the windows. I watched a spider fingering the window with its legs. It could fall off, I thought. I stretched and it found my thumb, ticking up and onto the back of my hand. I brought it inside, let it find its way onto the tiles. Let it have some purchase. I put my chin on my fists (potato potato) and watched. It’s raining. I cannot smell blood.

 

Wonderland

Well this is pretty odd. I seem to be writing a novel about a couple who’s child is abducted. And I came across this story that was published in Swamp while I was still completing my PhD – anyone at the point where they forget things they’ve written?! It’s quite nice to look at it though and think, oh, I’m a bit of a better writer than that now, but have similar conceits, things I want to do with the work. Anyway, sharing it as it prickled a few ideas for my new novel back into the forefront.

Wonderland (first published in SWAMP journal 2000 and fricking something – 11?)

I find her in the snow, my little girl. Her limbs are stiff and straight, the pretty pinkness about her feet that I love still making a faint blush of rose in the white. As the neighbour’s children pat-pat-patted a snow Buddha, serenely erecting a portly monolith on the area that was once the road, I scoop out the white in my garden, and try to dig a place for her in the earth. But it is too hard. The trowel bit the ground. She is so frozen that I am afraid I will break her. And that I will.

And this is how my husband finds us. And I have not yet made supper.

.

Grief makes you a pariah. Look at them. Lived in this fucking village for decades, and my family before me, and they’ve suddenly forgotten who the hell I am. I get it though, course I do. How can he stand by her? What do we say? Oh, so sorry your wife’s a murderer. There’s an offer on the bananas if you’re interested. Or maybe they just think there’s nothing they can say that would help. But fuck me, grief is lonely. These are people’s cars I’ve started, borrowed sugar from. Knowing people give a damn, some words, even if they are just the hammy So-sorry-for-your-loss variety, they matter. Just say it.

The assistant in the grocery store is new. I haven’t seen her around before, don’t know where I’ve been looking. A new family? She’s all youth and bad make-up, lots of sparkly things to offset the plant pot-brown overall. “I’m meant to say the Christmas trees are on special.” She shrugs.

“Thanks, no.”

“Oh well, Merry Christmas.”

I bag up the loo roll and soy milk and bits I’ve never had to think about before, let alone locate.

In the car, I grip the wheel and ride out that heart attack feeling. Amy is dead.

When it passes, I set the bags on the back seat. There are two stray dummies in the back. There are two of everything at home. Things in pink and things in blue. I can’t look at my boy any more without seeing Amy. His face is hers. His face will change and hers will not. I love him and hate him all at once, and I have to stop. My baby in the snow, frozen.

I cap my thoughts and put the car in gear, shunting quickly into third and coasting, whispering, through the slush. I head down the familiar winding roads, past the church and the snowmen. The competition had gone up a level this year. There were a collection of little snow-devils on the cemetery.

I chuckle and turn up the radio. Amy is dead. I close my eyes against the images. My baby in the snow. Had she felt herself freezing? How long had she screamed for her mother? When I hold her she likes to nuzzle my face like a cat. She clings to me, like an adhesive, leaching affection. Clung.

I can’t hold her again. I wait for the vice to let me loose.

“Jesus.”

.

My mother has moved in. She’s been on her own a while now.

“Do you want me to make you a sandwich, pet?”

“I’ve eaten.”

“Really?”

“When I was out.”

“Cup of tea?”

“No thanks.”

“You’ve got to keep your strength up, pet.”

“With a cup of fucking tea?” I put the bags down on the island counter. The house is a shit tip, despite the fact my mother has been cleaning for days. I grip the roots of my hair briefly. I want to break every door and every thing in this place.

A baby cries. For a second, I let myself think it might be Amy, but I can tell the difference.

My mother pads up the stairs. The sounds of her shushing him, the happiness in her voice.

Adrenalin burns my insides. I hurl the nearest thing.

My mother comes down with Matthew’s head cupped in her wedding ring hand. She hands him to me and sweeps up the pieces. I hold him the same way, reminded that I’ve removed my own ring.

“You need to go and see her, pet.”

I put the soy milk in the fridge and lift the bread-bin lid. Out the corner of my eye I’m aware of the glare of the white garden. I hate the neighbourhood kids who could build the snowmen and tuck themselves back into their clean, unbroken families.

.

The day I let my baby die I had some bad news. All I could feel was the pain of my husband’s betrayal. Which would I prefer to change? The drugs are sweet-coloured and plasticky. Amy’s pink feet, her little pink, kitten paw’s feet, pale in the snow. I’d been showing the babies their first snowfall. I’d had orange juice that morning that didn’t taste like anything. I’d washed the nappies because David was eco-and-vegan-everything and felt blank blank blank. My eyeballs were furry because I forgot to blink. My muscles stung after twisting the nappies before laying them over the radiators. If it was summer they’d have to go outside. Another job. I liked it when the post came, but it was always disappointing, always for David. Nothing to say I existed. My wonderful husband whose name was on every bill, who paid for everything and made my life perfect.

When the snow dotted the sky it was new. I gathered the babies, wanting them to feel it on their peach cheeks. Wanting to watch them seeing the brilliance of first-time snow.

I had forgotten their coats. I went inside, still holding Matthew’s carrier. David had left his phone that day. It rang when I was inside. When I remembered Amy again, it was dark and freezing and I unearthed her from a sheaf of pure snow. I dug because I didn’t want it to be real. If I could bury this it wouldn’t be true. I didn’t dig because I didn’t want to be discovered. Did I?

.

My wife has come home today. I feel like she has been delivered from the hospital, a new wife. New-born, her faulty chemistry corrected with bloody pill popping.

I put my wedding ring on this morning, before I went to collect her. I keep shaking my fingers, trying to get the circulation back.

My wife looks at the floor.

My mother is getting her things together. The doctors, contrary to what I would expect, seem to think it is better with just us four. Three. She hands over the baby to me as a taxi glides up. The snow is grey and sullied. Those ice drinks you get at the cinema. The last time we went to the cinema Amy wasn’t born. She was still the subject of conversations smiled under the covers late at night.

.

The park is boggy. My boots are leaking and my spine is tight as I hold the buggy’s handles. It is one of those dual ones with room for another baby underneath. We have filled the empty space with our son’s spare nappies and general stuff. It’s lighter, easier to move. Life is easier, with just one. God.

As I play the loving mother, pointing at ducks and making my voice lively, I feel my husband’s gaze. Am I going to push the buggy into the pond?

I turn. But his eyes are on the Cleggs’ family as they amble past in a blur of kids, colour and raised voices. They pretend to tsk-tsk at the kids who are being loud but not particularly rowdy, so they don’t have to say hello. My husband’s shoulders slope where they used to be level and strong.

Is he thinking, why couldn’t it have been their family? Why mine? Why my wife? Because you fucked her. You fuckedher. But that’s not it, that’s not why. Is it?

My husband turns, hands in pockets. His smile just a twist of the mouth.

I nod.

.

David is due to return to work in two days. I am trying to fight the rising panic. I think of the bland furniture and fuzzy silence.

The pan boils, whiting the windows. My husband is watching football. Crowd roaring, screeching whistles. Matthew is asleep in his arms. Jealousy. I cannot hold Matthew like that. The one we are left with.

It is creeping towards New Year. I have this feeling that when the year turns, my little girl will be lost forever. I have only a few hours left. And then? And then we will be expected to be shiny and new. Fresh skin after a burn. Pull yourself together.

He picks up his mobile.

Is he texting her? Are they continuing this thing? Even now?

My stomach flips. The things I think about in that brief second shock me. The violence I want to inflict. Is this me? I did kill my baby. No, no I didn’t.

The pan bubbles over.

“Damn.” I pull it off the heat.

My husband is suddenly in the kitchen space, with the other baby. I see Matthew’s nostrils twitch and hear a thick click in his throat.

“Is he sick?” I ask.

My husband navigates around me to the fridge and pulls out a beer.

“Feel his forehead,” he says.

“I’m sorting tea.”

David looks at me.

“What?”

“Just feel his head. I’ve got my hands full.”

“You’ve got a baby and a bottle of beer.”

He sighs.

I sigh.

“What now?” he says.

I look at him, frowning.

He goes back to the TV, head shaking.

“Were you texting her?”

Over the opening and closing of cupboards, “What?”

I breathe out.

“What did you say?”

My pulse ticks off beat. “You left your phone that day.”

I brave a look, hoping to see something that would knit the divide between us. I want him to hold me, but then I remember that woman’s voice on the phone, my little girl in the snow.

“It’s over.”

I sink to the ground.

David stands over me, Matthew is waking up. “Get up.”

“Or what, you’ll go back to her?”

I hear the hot plate hiss. I should mention it’s still on.

As David looks at me, I look at my feet, drawn up close. There is a hole in one of my socks. My toe is peachy, not pink.

My little girl’s pink toes in the snow.

“Didn’t mean it. Sweetheart.”

I squeeze my eyes shut against the endearment.

Her limbs straight and stiff.

David leans against the counter top and jerks. Matthew slips down his body. David bends his legs to cushion the fall, grabs an arm. Matthew’s mouth tugs but he doesn’t cry. His hands find the hole in my sock, tiny nails pricking my skin. I jerk away.

Matthew’s eyes close and the cry erupts.

“Rachel?”

I want to reach for Matthew. But he is not right without her.

David stays upstairs with Matthew. I hear the wave of football noise, the bathroom tap and the clunking pipe. The fizz and settle of the toilet. David’s footsteps as he creaks over the landing, putting our child down for the night.

I sit on the kitchen floor, staring at my feet, and make a resolution.

.

It is a relief that she knows. If I’m honest, I wanted her to know. I wish I could explain how I’d missed her after the babies were born.

I roll over in bed; it’s a quarter to midnight. In a moment, I’ll go down and see when she’s coming to bed.

My wife was always the up and downer. Me the soother. The flatness after the twins were born I initially mistook for calm. Motherhood had tamed her moods.

I stayed late for a few drinks after work. One night to begin with, then two.

I’d worked with Marnie for years, yet I still had no idea what the name was short for. She was not more beautiful nor more interesting than my wife, just more interested.

One night I came home full of stories, pulling off my tie in the kitchen as my wife juggled pans and switches.

“She actually said,” I started, head in the fridge, “that I looked like I worked out.”

“Potatoes,” my wife said. “I didn’t get chance to get anything livelier.”

“D’you hear what I said?”

“Do you have to raise your voice?”

I frowned.

“Great. They’re crying.”

She disappeared.

Fireworks whiz and pop outside, dragging me back. I creep downstairs.

Rachel’s still on the floor.

“That can’t be comfortable.” I extend my hand.

We go to bed. She fits in my arms as she always did and I hold her tight.

“We could try again,” I whisper.

I ache for her to say yes. But her breathing is long and deep.

.

I draw a kiss from my husband and creep past my child’s room. My other child is alone in the dark, lost. Matthew will be just fine.

I leave the warmth of the bed, plant my palm on the twins’ room. The familiar sadness does not swell. I’m excited.

The snow is falling, my child calling.

David’s arms had been tight around me when I woke. I’d turned towards his sleeping face, then looked to the window. Glimpsed the gentle sieve of snow.

He had whispered to me in the night, about love and children and future.

I see my child in the snowfall, I hear her voice in its quiet descent; she fills the sky. I pull off my nightgown. While the world sleeps, I step out into the night.

I smile.

Standing in the garden, the snow feathers my shoulders, lashes, breasts. They’re swollen because I have not expressed today. It ices my hips, melting over still-pink stretch marks, winking in the moonlight. The cold fills my lungs.

As I sit down on the grass against the back wall, the snow covers my arms and knees, my feet and nipples. I watch it knitting together patches of white. Keeping me warm.

I stay, closer than ever to my daughter.