When the world changed in a bolt and shriek of metal, the sucked-in harmonies of horror from Christmas shoppers, Caitlyn was 5,438 miles away from her husband in the J Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles. She was considering the white iris amidst a cloud of blues in Van Gogh’s Irises, a lazy palm on her daughter’s unborn shape. Unaware, she would meander through the museum’s city of grey walls and gold frames, crave and find the heaviness of a salted pretzel. As Jon bled out, Caitlyn would be outside, squinting against the sun, teeth ripping apart the ‘pretiola’ of the pretzel’s crossed-arms shape. When the bag was zipped, Jon’s head stuttering as the paramedics latched the stretcher into the van, Caitlyn was indulging a tourist who mimed how beautiful she was with only hand gestures, back bends and the different size circles his mouth could make.
She would think how she’d tease Jon with the story later; their end of day call. Sandy would be scratching in the background; yelping, huffing. On the day Caitlyn would most like to undo, at the precise time of death, she was in a museum of recycling strangers staring at this white iris. Jon’s sister will be the one to tell her. She’ll check the clock. Mistake the early call as sentiment – he’s missing her – as they’d planned – and struggle out the shower in a mix of irritation and delight. She’ll wrap a thick towel around her, toes throwing splashes ahead, snatch the phone. ‘So looks like you’ve got competition -‘
And she’ll be launched into the gallery again. Staring at the iris, palm to her belly.
After, she’ll be in the hospital working on a report that crashes. When she reloads the software package and the computer retrieves the lost data, she’ll think of Jon. She’ll wish with every speck of who she is, that she could restore reality to a previous save.
Some people think that if you talk to your child while you’re pregnant, they hear everything you say.
In the red-black she hears it. In the fa-dunk-a-dunk-a-dunk of the other heartbeat, the occasional stomach growl. In the suspended swish of amniotic fluid, as she drifts while tethered. In the muffle of external voices, all the points blunted, her mother’s plea will spread over her like ink in water. Its need detonates into her. It’s dizzy-tasting, sick.
6 months later
Caitlyn closed her eyes, gripped the wheel of her old blue Vauxhall. ‘Stay calm.’ It sounded like some fluffy self-help slogans. Stay calm and find your bliss. Or, Stay Calm and Carry on. Those stupid British inspiration posters. Jon had had one in their home office. Smug malteser-brown. Stiff-upper-lip. But he wasn’t that type of Brit. And besides, What choice did she have?
It was the belt causing her trouble. The last little trigger trying to spike her into freaking out. She hadn’t freaked out. Not unless you counted the bonfire. It was the one thing, obviously, worrying her mom. Her professional disapproval leaking the entire distance from Montreal. That was it, she’d burned that poster in the fire that night. Watched the roll clench, blacken, smoke twiddle upwards. It died in a protective, furled roll. If she tapped it, she thought it might crumble.
She opened her eyes. Okay, belt. It unlatched on this attempt. She got out, bending her legs. glad to be stood again, her cheeks had been going numb. she opened the car door and started unclipping Charlotte. Her cheeks had flowered with colour, but Caitlyn knew she wouldn’t cry. She never cried. Her daughter blinked awake.
‘Hi. Hi, monkey. It’s momma. Mom-ma.’
Her daughter blinked. Scrunched her eyes as if testing reality.
‘I feel your pain, little one.’
It was Jon’s favourite joke, how she should put an ‘out of order’ sign across her face until she warmed up, around 11. In the interest of public (and patient’s) safety. Caitlyn was a doctor. Well, was on her foundation year. Had been, she reminded herself. What, and be like you? she’d say and he’d stretch gloriously, grinning.
Sandy was barking in the back. Uh. Uh. Her barks changed by the sounds clapping back on her in such a small space. Charlotte’s eyes were a livid blue. As if lit from the inside out. The lashes black and wet-looking. She smelled of talc and sleep.
Caitlyn pocketed the keys, shouldered the diaper bag from the back seat and, Charlotte’s warm weight near her neck, popped the boot for Sandy who clattered out in a russet froth.
‘Hey hey.’ She clicked her fingers and Sandy wide-eyed her. In truth, it was good to see her with energy these days. ‘Go in then! She pointed forward and the dog boomed up the driveway.
The sun shone on her spaniel’s coat, her four-month old was perfect, the house, a modern, clean-looking semi with mature gardens and a green bird fountain out front, was almost picket fence. She’d caved and hired a man with a van, well, about 3 of them, and they were following and would take care of everything. Poppit Sands was a nice part of Wales with good schools, close to local amenities, semi-rural and within 5 minutes’ drive of the beach. And she’d found work at a flower shop.
‘When you’ve got some distance from this, I think it would be interesting to consider why you’ve opted to hide away,’ her mother had said.
On the drive over, Caitlyn had been half cheered by the winding roads and huddled houses with pastel fronts and the last of autumn’s colours bright as sweets in baskets and pots outside.
A few steps took her up to the house. She knew the water was out back, the view waiting. She didn’t want to see. This is where they’d said they would retire. The sound of surf, which would have been cars in the city, but was actually the bay, churning.
She’d sipped tart wine from a miniature bottle and looked out at the lights over the bay. Closed the curtains that didn’t quite meet, paused by Charlotte’s room, waiting, satisfied, moved on, pulled chill sheets over her and lay, arms out like Jesus, still too much space in the bed, and staring up at the plain black light shade.
Click on the landing. Sandy must have creaked up.
‘Aright then,’ she tapped the bed and Sandy butted the door, dented it, sighing like a creaking staircase, curled at the bottom, nose in her fan-like tail.
White letters picked out of the grey. Caitlyn started. flashed hot. Ruler straight edges and ledges formed into words. One of the men must have put it on the door. Keep Calm and Carry on.
It was so quiet. Something mechanical clicked in the walls, an infrequent car, the bay whispering like dry grasses. Charlotte swallowing, lips un popping, her resumed breathing over the monitor.
Below that, below everything, Caitlyn could hear the blood in her right ear, akin to her daughter’s swishing heart over the ultrasound. She rubbed at the ear but the mechanical pulse remained. She thought, for one ludicrous moment, that it was the sound of the universe.
He watched the lights fade from inside the house, the location of each disappearing light suggesting the inhabitant’s whereabouts. The back bedroom. In the morning, everything would be different.
Between the Hours of Two and Four
For a while this novel was a little too close to the bone, which was unnerving. But going back now. (I should say this is inspired by Cath Nichols’ poem, which was first published in Cake)
This is how they are assembled, when he comes in from a sleeping outside. Two bodies, arranged on a faded mushroom sofa. Legs and arms stuck into any place there is space, like that childhood game with the straws and marbles.
The infant sleeps in the other room, its breath catching in its throat.
It is 2.31am.
The man’s chest is bare, his stomach toned though slightly slack with impending middle age and his desk job. An open-mouthed sleep in the manner of the exhausted, the oblivious. He is handsome in a worn, gentle way. Much like his manner. The woman is curled on one side of the settee, echoing the shape of the baby in the cot in the flat’s narrow second bedroom. A slip of silk and lace, a fleck of baby food staining the stomach, hangs from knotted shoulders. She frowns in sleep.
Artefacts that contrast their paling relationship surround them. Photographs from places of sunshine, a camel, smiling in sunglasses, coiffured cocktails, the wedding, confetti freeze-framed, walls of books. Travel guides and cook books, conservation. These things belong to the both of them. Both the man and the woman are doctors, one of the brain and one for the body. Separate shelves for each of their professions. Analysis and isms, biology and healthcare.
It is this reason, this goodness and direction, that means she will not experience her child develop. He understands the word; ironic.
The light from the dusty blinds is the colour of crab-meat. It soaks in between the gaps where the blinds don’t quite close. Similar to the slatting of the blinds, the alignment of their bodies. He surmises that, although they look quite snug, it is likely their proximity is more likely due to the lack of surface area on the sofa. Because for the man, there is someone else. Or at least the possibility of that. The dilemma sits with him in waking life, festering between meetings and clients, and suggests itself in dream, blocks of warm feeling he experiences guilt over on waking.
A film plays. Something about aliens and far-off planets. A team of astronauts fleeing a flowering, inevitable cloud of dust. The sound is off. Their screams, within helmets, are mute. The pictures reflect on the woman’s folded, foetal legs. Bands of flickering colour, highlighting the place where he will soon touch her. Directly atop the heart.
When the infant was conceived, the woman saw, or her medical brain imagined, a heightened pulse, the plump of red blood cells, streaming. A sound like twisting rope, and a flash of constructing, binding DNA.
And then, a bracket of silence; the anticipated beat of another life.
When he touches her heart, the skin will pink, as the organs she transplants do when they take and the body accepts the alien. Adapting. It will later deepen to aubergine and begin to pain, like a bee sting. She will wake then with a flash, a clot of breath in her throat, hand to her chest. You would think that’s where it ends. She would slump back to sleep where they had fallen after the long day. But the vision will play on. The woman will witness the excision of herself from life, the dissolution of her interior on fast forward. Greying and decaying. Its inevitable crumble.
But then the baby will cry.
The woman will stumble to her feet and tend to the infant. She’ll hold her child to the bruising, stinging heart and try to soothe it. A tattoo of sweat rising to her upper lip. The heat flushing her body as its cries cut through her. But she will breathe. For a while, at least.
Neither the man or the woman are religious, but this does not matter.