It’s dark in the room. The curtains are thick to block out the council placed street light which makes the night time day. I have asked for it to be moved countless times. Petitioned and written numerous letters. Apparently it is not an urgent matter and will be dealt with when there are sufficient funds. I have even broken the bulb which lights up my dreams. When we first moved into the house I threw stones at it from the bedroom window. The council were pretty savvy at fixing it the very next day. How urgent it must have been. Where do my taxes go I had asked? I had been sent a detailed letter from a certain Mrs. Downsvall accounting for my every penny that I pay into the council’s purse. My own purse paying out for thick curtains that tell me it’s night time.
The only light in the room creeps in from under the bedroom door, illuminating the washing basket at the end of the bed, it’s over flowing contents have started encroaching into the room. I never liked the basket with its woven wicker snake charming lid. I have learnt to not mention it. I can tickle it with my toes when I stretch out. When we make love it is often knocked over, it being a tale of innocence in the morning. I pick it up wondering if it was watching, listening. Looking shamefully away it holds its head low. No love making tonight.
I’m in bed. The brown duvet is thick and heavy, I need to be cold to sleep, and opening the window with these thick curtains doesn’t help. I’m not allowed a fan to cool myself down. I’m a grown adult. I hang one leg over the edge of the bed, the cool floorboards trick my brain into thinking I’m cold. My other leg searches the bed for a lesser hot space. I have to keep turning the pillow for the cool side.
I close my eyes and try to sleep.
I’m lying on my back after another argument with my wife Susan. She has gone off to see our youngest. Jessie has just turned two and has been screaming for ten minutes, and this was exactly what we had been talking about, loudly.
Why was it always Susan, Sue, Suse?
“Me not you Paul who tends to OUR children”?
I hadn’t always wanted children. Knowing how selfish and hurtful they can be I had always thought I would be a lonely grumpy old man, living alone in sheltered housing. Susan had wanted them. I made my point clear. Thomas was an accident. I would never tell him that. I have two children. Now I want them. I love them.
Susan had repeated her question, repeated her arguments attack line. “Me not you Paul who has to get up and deal with OUR screaming children.”
I couldn’t answer that question, not at this moment. “It’s always me. Admit it,” she had stated throwing her side of the heavy duvet over me. With a sigh she climbs out of bed.
I didn’t admit it. I didn’t have the energy. I just lied there.
This was all I needed. Tomorrow was ‘my day’ at the office. After all these months work and research I had only a twenty minute presentation to take to the shareholders at tomorrow’s meeting. And a lousy presentation at that, I hadn’t even had time to talk it over with my colleagues. It was all my own doing, or rather all my own undoing, as far as I could see.
I had not slept for three days and the one time I do join my wife in our marital bed, I have to get up and deal with a child.
As I got into bed I could tell Susan wasn’t asleep, she had said the night before.
“Paul come to bed, I can’t sleep when you are not there.” So now she pretends. Jessie has been crying all the time I was finishing up downstairs, whilst I used the bathroom, getting changed out of my sweat in-crusted suit. She had been crying this whole time, and I hadn’t heard it. I had been reading and re-reading the script in my head. What sense did it make? It doesn’t make sense to me now as I lie here, and now I have to explain myself to my wife.
My caring wife, Susan
“We are all behind you on this Paul,” many months ago now. All I want to do is sleep and get some rest before sweating all again tomorrow.
The bedroom door slams shut and heavy footprints cross the wooden floored landing to the children’s room.
Thomas, our oldest child could sleep through a bomb going off at his bedside. He doesn’t react to the tantrum Susan is playing out. I had tried to wake Thomas up one morning but he had taken so long to come round I started to panic. Gently slapping his face and pinching him, he woke up screaming and crying.
Now he sleeps soundly whilst Susan picks up Jessie and rocks her to sleep. Little Jessie has been having a bout of nightmares, she screams and shouts, using words she doesn’t even know, all without opening her beautiful green eyes. She waits for the cuddle to protect her, to reset her balance, and she’s away again, dancing with the fairies.
Maybe she screams for me. Maybe she can see my future. Maybe tomorrow she’ll sleep soundly through the night. Maybe tomorrow night I’ll be able to eat something solid and keep it down. Maybe I’ll be able to rock Jessie to sleep and read Thomas a story as he fades out from a day on earth. This is on my mind as I faintly hear Susan creep across our floor and climb into bed. She takes my leg in hers tightly, naked. I’m wearing a pair of boxer shorts. She reaches her arm across my chest.
“I’m sorry Paul.” Lips on my cheek. She sleeps on my shoulder. It’s uncomfortable but I leave it alone. I can’t sleep.
I think about my childhood.
It was never my father that tendered to us as children. My mother, as not having to get up early for work would deal with our screams. In today’s world women want equal rights, and with that equal responsibilities should too be shared. Equal opportunities and equal wages. Open the door, pay for the bill, and resign your seat to a lady. Equal rights when it suits them. I know I should be a better husband, father. But I can’t tonight, not tonight and not my father.
I never met Susan’s father. He had died when she had been young. Susan would tell me about what she could remember, of the thirteen years they had had together.
Story time at night, how his stories would make her too scared to sleep, of Easter egg hunts where he would hide the eggs in the garden but never in his prized flowerbeds, always in the long winter grass amongst the weeds and decaying leaves.
How he would tell her stories about planes flying up to America and down to Australia. To the point where Susan thought the world was in layers. It was an embarrassing school lesson that had taught her otherwise. She had hated her father for making her believe the myth he had bestowed upon her. She told it me through laughs of pain, through gritted teeth of guilt at being that selfish young girl. He had gifted Susan a light-up globe as an apology. She still believed the world was in layers and the teachers were wrong. It was always to remain their little secret.
She had told me how she believed every word he had said, and not wanting to believe the last ones. How the words didn’t settle on the ground, and if she was ever lonely those words would keep her happy through all of her life. All she had to do was look up and listen.
Her mother had never remarried, stating her trust in one true love. Bringing up Susan with this belief had made her weary of teen boys and student crushes.
When Susan fell for me, I was walking across the road in front of her. She tells me she knew I was the one. Apparently that’s how women work. That’s how Susan works. I soon learnt how impulsive she was. Susan’s mother had been driving as they stopped at a crossing. I had been with my two best friends John and Nick. I was twenty two then. Susan twenty. Her mother had pulled over and watched her daughter. Susan hadn’t even noticed the car stop. She turned to face her mother who just smiled and nodded
“Go on my love. I saw your face.” As Susan closed the door her mother had shouted after her: “Be careful!” more to herself than her only child.
That night had been the best night of my life, I didn’t sleep one wink, had my neighbours banging on the ceiling below at three in the morning. We ignored the banging front door of my tiny flat as me and Susan lay naked in a heap. It was all like a school boys dream. I met my future mother in-law two weeks later. Instantly making me feel at home she thrust a plate of biscuits into my hand and asked me to take the rubbish out.
Now I haven’t seen my friends for years. I found out that John was trying for kids with his wife I had never met. She was getting broody. Unlike me, John came from a strongly devoted family. Always looking out for each other and helping each other. I felt like a brother to him and his family acted like mine. Always buying me presents when his parents went on holiday. I have more happy memories of John’s mother than my own.
It wasn’t the same with Nick. His parents were divorced. He lived with his alcoholic dad. His younger siblings lived with their mother so the school playground was a way for them to have some sort of relationship.
They would share homemade cakes in the doorway of the music room. He didn’t care what the other boys thought of him. He would often get laughed at for hanging around with the junior kids. That was just another reason to bully him. His hair was too cool for school, his coat too retro, his attitude, his whole being too grown up for fighting, but still the other kids tried to wind him up.
Nick lost contact with his brother and sister shortly after leaving school. He fell out with his dad over who the beer belonged to in the fridge.
After moving out at the age of seventeen we would hang round his flat on the high street listen to music and get high. Nick always wanted to do something with music. He loved it. Lived for it, breathed it in every breath. He played bass. I wanted so much to play the guitar. I couldn’t and still can’t.
We would write immature love songs between us and pretend they weren’t about John’s sister Hannah. John getting upset in his over protected older brother role.
The last time I spoke to Nick he was buying his flat and working in a music shop, dating Hannah. A good few years, I wonder where he is tonight. His favourite pub was the rough and ready ‘Crown and Sixpence’. The landlady had a copy of his credit card behind the bar. That had always made us laugh.
I’m lying here now, unable to sleep again with all these thoughts flying round in my head. Feeling sad that I’ve neglected my mother, and for blaming her for everything. Tears swell my eyes, I’m angry with myself for allowing this thought to take over my mind.
I try to think of my own family, Thomas and Jessie my children, Susan my wife. My mind is racing, I’m hot and Susan is breathing gently against my chest. I’ve forgotten about the presentation. I’m thinking of Susan. Of our fights, how I never win.
Our most recent argument involved my faithfulness. As I didn’t have the energy to copulate with my wife, I must be having an affair. As I didn’t have the time to read my children stories at night, it was because I was sleeping around. I was late home, I was working all weekend, and I was not there when I was needed. I was automatically cheating.
When I confronted my wife with these accusations I had to ask ‘where was your proof?’ Quietly, calmly and to the point of being bored with the situation I would add sternly ‘I work in an office full of sweaty masculine macho meatheads, and the last time I checked I was not that way inclined’ which would usually work for the time being, an apologetic smile would cross her face. I had won the battle but the war raged on.
We had had the argument so many times I was beginning to think that I actually was having an affair. The latest women I’d apparently been with happened to be the mother at the end of the road.
I don’t know her name, I don’t know which end of the road she lives at and I’m not sure if I would have the ability to have an affair with someone who lives within shouting distance.
It turned out that Thomas had been to the accused ladies house to attend a birthday party and was asked ‘How is your father?’ Susan jumped to the conclusion that we’d been seeing each other. I got home that evening to be told I was sleeping on the sofa. I was too tired to argue.
It was from this moment on that I started to fantasise about actually having an affair. It wasn’t with anyone that we knew. My dreams bought me mystery women, an imaginary friend, my phantom lover.
Susan was very attractive. She was perfect. Beautifully proportionate in every way. Her long brown hair waved its way down her back, eyes that sparkled and sang. Some people’s features seem too disproportionate, their heads too small. Not Susan. Susan’s eyes were just the right distance apart, her legs just the right length, her bottom and thighs so delicately shaped they mesmerised those who looked at her. And her breasts, those two shapely rounded, firm, glowing antennas. She was perfect but very straight.
She fell for me. I had never the courage to approach a girl the way she had approached me. I was flattered and extremely embarrassed.
The only women I had been with prior to Susan I had met on drunken nights out. Chasing girls across dance floors forgetting their names and leaving early the following morning. Nick and John would be snickering with jealousy.
Susan was beautiful, still is beautiful.
My mystery women turned out to be everything Susan wasn’t. In my dreams she would turn up drunk. I never named her. I would be sleeping in my bed, in my marital bed. Susan would always be in the house, cooking or doing something that would keep her occupied. I was never in risk of being found out. Although in my dreams I would sometimes fantasise that Susan walked in on us. Something I found to be quite a turn on. I would get slapped awake and experience things that only inexperienced adolescent males dream of. I would often wake up wet, needing a shower. This only drove Susan to more conclusions that I was washing off the women from the night before.
I asked her ‘smell me before I get in the shower.’ She never did. And so I was in the clear for a week, or till the next time I work late, next time I have to go to work on a weekend, next time I take a phone call and walk out of the room, it all starts again. And my secret lover turns up to teach me something I hadn’t thought was humanly possible.
Susan is now asleep, playing the little spoon in what looks like, to an innocent bystander a perfect marital bed time.
I close my eyes.
I block out everything.
My mother is talking to me. Tears rolling down her face, I’m nine years old.
Something I don’t understand has happened.
I shrug it off and try to sleep.
Why was he always looking for a fight? Every time I ask a question he sighs before deliberately not looking at me, counting the coloured rings on his favourite socks that sit below his discarded suit trousers, noticing the cracks in the floorboards.
We had our children together. I sometimes feel he thinks I did it on purpose, got pregnant. Like me asking him to tend to our children is reminiscent of his mother asking him to clean his room. Like it’s a chore, something that should be done, but life can go on if it isn’t.
Well Paul, I feel like saying: “Your life won’t go on as it is if you don’t do it, clean your room-tend to our children.”
We had the conversation so many times he must think I am his mother, always on his back. I do love you Paul. I say it in my head.
The room is full of people I love. I love them all. I love you Paul. Why don’t you see it, what you put me through every time we have the same argument? You think I like looking after two children twenty four hours a day without a break, then having to chase up after you too?
I’m staring down at my husband, I want to take his hand but I can’t bring myself to stop rocking. I’m shaking, the tears have stopped as shock and profession have kicked in.
Having dealt with so many cases like this, I tell myself it’s not my husband. I tell myself I am sat at another patient’s bedside, taking notes and waiting for the doctor to come and tell me what he wants done. More of this or less of that observe, observe, observe.
I’m in a daze.
A hand touches my shoulder and I look at the shoes of the person beside me. I can’t look up. If I look up I’ll start crying too. I hear the voice, the plea, the inevitable question. I take a second to wonder why I should go. Why I should want to. Then I get the news. The story engulfs me and I feel sick. I try to stand but my legs are weak. I rest a moment then rise again. I look at my mother’s face, but I don’t see her.
I do as I’m told and head for the canteen.
My mother had insisted.
Paul’s mother had looked at me with a distant look in her eyes. She couldn’t think about anyone else at the moment. She looked at me as if I was a stranger. She hadn’t spoken to Thomas, she had held Jessie at a distance for a few minutes before my mother took her back, I could sense the uncomfortable feeling she was having. Not again, not her second son.
Please not again.
She looks back down at my husband from the end of the bed. Refusing to take a chair she stands there like a guardian angel, looking up sometimes as if in prayer, with the same eyes, the deep eyes, the look of sorrow and fear.
I remember the first time I met her. Those same eyes had been so welcoming. And then suddenly so hurt as I told her we had been dating for six months. I had had lots of catching up to do. It hurt her even more when Paul started telling his own mother about my mother. Proof that we were an established couple and proof that Paul had hurt his parents on purpose. I had wanted to see her, to see both of Paul’s parents. Paul wouldn’t let me. It wasn’t as if he had had lots of girlfriends and was embarrassed to introduce yet another lover to his mother.
He never did tell me why. There was always an excuse. If I believed all that Paul had told me, his parents would have travelled the full length of the UK. Every weekend they were up to something. Or we were planning a trip. I can’t say it was all them. We were constantly making plans to go to the beach, parties and festivals.
Life was simple then. I think to myself how I wouldn’t change anything, the late nights, the ill feeling driving drunk and being sick in the foot well. The car breaking down ten miles from Glastonbury festival, all the other cars going our way were full of people and belongings. We stole two shopping trolleys and walked the miles to the gate. Blisters stung our feet. When we got there our beer was so warm we made a foot bath and soaked our poor soles. Now we aren’t going to get chance to be drunk, to drive, to party, to stay up all night being sick.
Paul is lying in front of me.
He is unconscious.
He hasn’t made any movement in the past two hours. Two hours, it seems like three days. This is the thing I would change. This is my only regret. I can’t help but blame myself.
I leave Katherine, Paul’s mother with Thomas asleep on the chair, and my own mother has Jessie.
I walk slowly.
Past the three wards that separate the room my family have occupied and the staircase to the canteen. Noticing for the first time the children’s paintings that are blue-tacked to the ward designated to the infants of the hospital. I had even posted a few of them, the older ones. I hadn’t been on this ward for some time.
No-one had removed any but instead stuck new ones over the edges. Some of the ones behind were completely covered. I walked to the end section, the section which housed the drawings done by children who had died.
It was bare. Perhaps by request of other parents, maybe even the mothers of those lost souls had removed them.
No nurse could bring herself to remove them. You sit by each child on this ward. You know everything they know, their favourite colour, the name of their pet, the name of their cuddly toys, their family secrets, quietly and lovingly portrayed to them by their devoted parents.
You find out who they want to be when they grow up. What food they like. If their older siblings pick on them or look after them, you find out what they want for Christmas, how much they got from the tooth fairy for their first tooth. You give them paper and pens to draw with and they draw you, in your blue uniform. Your new friend gives you the simplest of gifts, a thing they have created with their very own hands.
You look forward to your next shift. You change quickly and make polite conversation with the nurses who you are relieving, finding out how busy the day is.
You smile at the receptionists.
You walk into the ward to find your favourite child has gone home, or worse.
You walk back to the nurse who should have gone home, who sits uncontrollably shaking in the locker room.
You embrace them, without talking you share the pain. Together you walk to the wall where you are encapsulated in the images of little hands that drew you.
It’s easy to see which nurse is which, the hair, the body shape. A child’s imagination never lies.
Today I stare at the wall. Not a trace was left behind. I walk on.
She was already in the canteen. She stood up as I enter and although it was early the cooks were turning out main meals of curries and fish and chips, alongside English breakfasts.
Night shift I thought, this is their evening. I wasn’t hungry. The smells are beautiful this morning. The aromas are mingling to leave a sweet smell in my nostrils.
I look her up and down, she is looking at my feet. Nothing special I think as I enter the busy room.
I don’t stop walking. I don’t make eye contact I don’t know how to feel.
I walk up to the table and with an awkward pause we sit down together. There is already a jug of water and two glasses on the table.
A wet bundle of cloth I make out to be a dress is dripping water onto the floor from a corner opposite me.
We don’t say anything. I sit there staring, our eyes meet, I was angry, but I couldn’t be now, not with what I had been told.
Not with the news breaking through and my mother’s compassion matching my own.
Her hands were on the table clasped together in a sorrowful apology.
She looked small, tiny, wet and ill, dressed in the medical issue blue gown that I myself had wrapped so many people in.
I sit there for a few heartbeats, allowing the shock and pain to pass. We make eye contact for a brief second, a fleeting moment, almost a smile in recognition.
I encompass my hands around hers. She starts to shake and I try to understand.
I cry, for her, for my husband and Paul’s mum, for Thomas and the children.