Here is a story I wrote as a teenager and never quite finished.
WHY MARY WORE BLUE
It was a bright shiny morning the day my boy went out to die. He was lucky. It could have been raining. He was lucky too, he was only six years old. He didn’t have a clue about much.
When my baby was born I said to him, Hello baby, welcome to the world. It’s big and crowded and sometimes scary, but you’ll be okay. I’ll look after you. When he was around I thought, Child, I don’t know what to do with you. Sometimes I am confused that you came from me. Sometimes I enjoy doing things for you. Making you fish finger sandwiches, scooping chocolate ice cream into a bowl for you. Other times I resent it and I wish you had not been born. Now I would say to him, Child, when you died I never got over it. You went out on a bright shiny morning and you never came home.
In my head you are always there, my lovely angel boy. In my head you are glowing sulphur, magnesium-bright. You fizzle across the sky, crackling like a dodgy radio. I can see your pulse banging and two London eyes shining out of your face and your wide wide smile. I can hear you screaming, I don’t know how to make it stop.
Please let me tell you about my boy. He’s all I talk about so I am sorry if I am boring. Look at him, he runs along the sandy beach with the gulls going wawawawaaaa and the sea sighing. Don’t sigh, I used to say to my husband. What have you got to sigh about? I haven’t got a husband who sighs anymore or any husband. It’s okay though, I’ve got my boy. We watch the sun rise pink and uncertain over the sea. This is my happy place, I play with my boy, chasing him and tickling him and making him laugh like a crazy boy. I kick spray at him and drape wet seaweed round his shoulders so he screams. I hold him down in the sand so he can’t move and I eat him mouthful by mouthful. We make sandcastles all day long. We write our names in the sand and watch the sea smooth them away like ruffled velvet. We curl up on the grassy embankment and we see the moon rise so peaceful over the water.
Please let me tell you about my boy. He’s so gorgeous. I love you to the moon and back, I tell him but it’s not true. I love him more than that. I love him beyond words, beyond measurements. There are no words or numbers that can quantify my love. Look at him, will you love him too?
He shouts profanities into the wind. I taught him to do this, I do it myself all day long. There is no-one here to mind. He shouts RUN LIKE THE WIND BULLSEYE and yeehars along the beach. The gulls wheel and cry wawawawaaaa. The sun shines paper-white and the sky stretches, blue as my boy’s eyes. This is my happy place. We are Lone Rangers me and my boy, every day fighting crime; one swift hug, one battered smile at a time.
He came into the world like a tornado. Born in a rush of clear liquid, eyes open. And in my head the child is roaring red yet this is after the dust and rubble have been cleared, after the smoke has risen. When the blood has rushed back to the stricken faces, when we have brushed ourselves down, stitched ourselves up, put Germolene on the cuts, blinked the dirt out our eyes, had a cup of tea and got back to work like good respectable Englishmen and women. This is the aftermath and there is no boy, there is just the sky or whatever illusion that is before the blaze of galaxies, a mess of split seams, half-unravelled spools of knotted thread like when the cat or your boy has got into nanna’s sewing box. Looking straight above is a deep pewter grime as the muddy underbelly of God’s flying goose, but lower it fades, diluted to a milky hue and undulating pale ribbons as if another layer beneath the torn outer edge, and the filmy chase of the bleached scud of clouds like the dismal swirl of the dirty lace of soap suds left in the sink. It looks as if you might raise a finger to swirl the mass of it, as if it were soup, a slush of watery mud and powdered milk. It looks as if you could part liquid spirals through it, leave rivulets, spin sluggish patterns, but then you raise your finger and see the great distance. The gulls, hardened weathered wiry old sailors, are whips of startling fluorescence on this autumn day years after my boy came bellowing fire engine-red into the world, and they know the miles and miles between their small selves and the swirling sepia bowl, a thick fluid potion of gas or liquid. The sheen of their oily feathers makes not a dent, their vicious yellow beaks and blank eyes. Heaven is far though the sky is really all around. Was it John Lennon who said something like that, about the sky? How if you follow it with your eyes you realize you are standing in it? Well I don’t know why he’s the one that got the credit for mentioning that for I know it is here, I know I am here. I am trying to find Heaven but I am not sure it exists anymore. I mean Heaven used to be bathing my baby boy. Heaven used to be a cup of tea while he slept or quietly played. Heaven used to be this beach and my boy running and running. Well I think Belinda Carlisle got it right: Heaven is a place on Earth, or it was, and now I don’t know what to do.
The seagulls know the curvature of the Earth and they scree and wheel, thrown by wind and riding it, one moment a contradiction to the next. Below the sea curls brown and white. If we notice these things for long enough we might see how little we matter and perhaps the pain would be lessened. But I can’t help recalling that that sea used to be perilous it seemed to me and now, well now it’s only the world isn’t it.
The name that my mother gave me is as tree, bush and nut: Hazel. The wand of hazel symbolizes protection and authority but I wouldn’t know much about that. The Celts believed that the consumption of hazelnuts gave one wisdom and inspiration but I wouldn’t know much about that either, I mean the only thing I have ever known is how much I loved my boy. I wrote to God once but then I thought perhaps it would be best to write to the Virgin Mother because of how she might understand a bit more and seeing as how God is probably very busy, I imagine, reading through all the letters from the other mothers or getting admin to send automated replies (of course I am joking because God doesn’t ever send any blinking replies). Not that I am sure I believe in him anyway. But I believe in you, Mary, I don’t know why. I feel as if you have watched over me my whole entire life. It is the Catholic in me, I can’t help it. It’s like how people love the Royals. I do too you know, it’s mad. But I think our love of Mary is our innate yet unknown desire to worship femininity, to worship the creation of life: that power that swells with life and brings it forth roaring and kicking…
Mother of God, Mother of Jesus, wife of St. Joseph, you are the greatest of all Christian saints. You were after your Son exalted by Divine Grace above all Angels and Men. And yet your one defining magic was an act as common as death, more common in fact for most women although that’s true of brushing your teeth too. However that did not in the least decrease my mother’s devotion of you. She had an image of you in a locket around her neck with her rosary beads and a plaster Madonna figurine on the windowsill above the kitchen sink, but she was strung out on pills like a cliché so I don’t know how much you could trust her. She was searching for something and even you the Mother of God were not the answer.
I imagine you, Mary, at twelve, thirteen or whatever age you were, and the Angel Gabriel bright and dream-like before you and the terror that would have enveloped you on the Unmerited Favour like the pounding wings of some great bird of prey. I imagine you on the donkey to Bethlehem, huge and melancholy with child. I wonder what Joseph thought about you being up the duff with someone else’s kid. I wonder if you loved Joseph. And I wonder how you felt when your boy was killed for everyone. I am sure you didn’t care about everyone. I bet you just wanted to keep your boy.
I used to sing that song Mary Mary quite contrary to my little brother and sister and I used to tell them how it was about the Virgin and the Garden of Eden and about how all these lovely things, silver bells and cockle shells and pretty maids, they were all here because of her son, though of course it wasn’t about her, it was about Mary Tudor, but how was I to know? You know what they meant when they sang How does your garden grow? and no I’m not making a dirty joke. They meant how the graveyards were filled with Protestants as old Bloody Mary kept lopping their heads off and burning them at the stake and the silver bells and the cockle shells were instruments of torture and the maids meant the Maiden which was the guillotine and I suppose in a way she wasn’t so different to you, Holy Mother. After all you let your little boy be crucified just like I never saved my boy and you let the gardens of graves grow and grow. I feel you are a mother to us all, Mary, just as Mary Tudor as Queen was married to the country. You just watch as your people slaughter each other with food and drugs and guns and bombs.
Mary, I wonder if you’ve been waiting for this. I am not sure that you have. You probably wouldn’t know what to be sorry for. You don’t know how you can be blamed. But maybe you do and maybe you’ve been waiting for your chance to apologize, well tough shit, love, I’m not giving a return address. This is my monologue. You can listen if you like, you can hear my sails creak. This here could be my one and only chance. There might not be another. This chance could be as lonesome as it most undoubtedly will be futile for you see once the full stops come I get worried: each time a breath held, the lungs go granite yet pulsing, the lights ring as sun-white fireflies or the reflective lamp-like eyes of nocturnal animals blinking at the periphery of my vision. Each time my boy gets closer, you might see him too. But we go on don’t we, we don’t know how to stop, it’s not in our nature. Our brains race trying to solve each and every problem. Not even neat vodka stops us, not even the lovely pills from the doctor. We try and what do we do, we get our stomachs pumped and more pills crammed into us, we get a drip and a grief counsellor and the counsellor’s a drip too if we’re honest though there are worse things to be. She is a nothing woman, inconsequential in her pastel blouses, pastel cardigans, with her washed-out face and thin greying hair. She could bleed into the beige room. Her voice is gossamer-soft. She knows nothing about losing a child, though it is such a strange expression to use for I never lost him: I know where he is. To lose is to drop fail squander forget, to lose is to surrender or waste, it is a failing to maintain, but then of course I must agree that that is only right for my boy did not maintain life and I was not able to keep him.
He was omitted, the rush and ebb of six-year-old boy, for I think that children are as water: elemental, capricious; they are slippery, elusive, you cannot grasp them fully in your hands for long, and they will eventually meet the ocean, vast aimless collision of people, stewing poisoned soup of humankind, or as my boy they will evaporate into the transient twist of sky, the easy open arch of heaven (but he didn’t! he didn’t! When I close my eyes I see him). So yes we get crammed with pills and other shit and we get more days and we see spring in the next turning: shoots push through the rime and the days they just keep getting longer. I used to feel the deep-rooted primitive grief on the longest day of the year in June. I used to feel fear at the shortening of the days, the distant onset of winter. But now, now I am glad. I am not scared of the dark anymore, it’s having children that sorts that out.
I wonder if the boy’s mother is ever scared. I wonder if she ever thinks of the cold walls, seasonal depression, with the clang of metal, the ripple of tattooed arms, all around dull eyes, a seething rage or an ancient apathy. I wonder if she thinks about the gravestone that says BELOVED SON. What did we do I wonder that our boys have ended up where they have?
I will tell you a secret first though because I don’t have anyone else I can tell this secret to, my husband has gone you see, I chased him away with angry woe and asperity, and you can believe what you like, we all seem to don’t we, we believe whatever sounds nicest, and a lot of it you might not believe for you may be educated or cynical, I mean we all are nowadays aren’t we, or both, but I know that my boy is screaming even if no-one else can hear him. I know that my boy is chasing dogs and scooping up sand and making mud pies and snow angels. My boy was like any six-year-old, self-possessed and internal, run on simple desires, held in the reverie of his amusement or wonder, in his thread of imaginings, laughing at dogs, splashing in puddles, crying to mummy, because she had familiar arms that enclosed him, at imaginary terrors. He never experienced the strange inexplicable affliction of growing up: the loss of unregainable things, as innocence, disposed of with baby fat; the accumulation and dissipation of memories, later possibly scooped up like the cast-aside remnants of an old faith. Sporadic mindlessness is traded for a constant ocean of thought.
I miss the lack of conscience of childhood, the lack of blame. Seven I believe is the turning number, pinnacle of early youth, age of change, birth of understanding; age of opinion, of decision, of clearer remembrance. Seven, my mother-in-law once said to me, is when we become Actual People (her words, not mine). People without learning or experience; dangerous people, wilful, stubborn; beginning to compare ourselves to others, to distinguish the individuality of ourselves. Although maybe it is that our minds begin to close, narrow down to decision-making, to selfish yet calculative will, to compassion and yet influenced prejudice. To love with fervour, hate by decision. My boy did not make it to seven. I wonder what my mother-in-law thinks of her reasoning now when her grandson is frozen in time at six years and four months old, although of course he is not frozen: he feeds indifferent earth, impervious worms, impassive trees.
Sometimes, and this is the secret here, sometimes I AM GLAD. When I see the litter swirl round the homeless in the alcoves of the banks that eat up our money. When I see the young people on telly with liver failure from drinking too much. When the women sell themselves to get money for crack and when the government is a guillotine and when the advertisements blare through the living room, trying to sell me home insurance and shampoo, and when the clothes on the high street are made by slave children. When I think of these things, when I see these things, sometimes only sometimes, I am glad my boy doesn’t have to see them too. And I am fortunate indeed to have had those six years and four months with my boy and I am so bitterly fortunate that I at least can think of these things for I could live a long and lusty life and knowing my luck I will. And if one day they find me, when I have diluted my blood with alcohol and I am grey and cold, at least my jaw might be clenched into a hard eternal grin at what I will have died thinking of. Thinking of you, thinking of us, of the whole indifference of people, thinking of how we have got to where we are.
What it is is it started with Boy. I call him Boy because he was the First. It started when Boy grew big and strong. Before you see, Girl and Boy, they weren’t much different, thin and narrow, all shoulder blades, knees and elbows, the warm spheres of their skulls like sunny eggshells. Then Girl shot up like a beanpole, grew rises, turned to dips and curves and valleys. Boy followed a little after only he grew taller and wider in the shoulders, broad across the chest, and found his hands fit in Girl’s dips, he could scoop her up as if she had never been taller than him. And Girl she found something else. She could feel her children stir within her and grow and map out the inner walls of her and Boy could not. And it is these two facts that made it all the way it is.
And fire came. The battles rage behind my eyes. The blacksmiths spark and hammer and forge. Clubs were replaced with maces. Flint spears and knives and axes. Swords for the warriors, the knights and errantry, while peasants wielded wood and died uselessly and sadly. I’m not claiming to know a lot, I’m not claiming to know much at all, but I know what we’ve always been: we’ve always been pawns, they’ll send us out and let us die and make us fear to rise up because of our children even though we rise up for them, and make us work and work and send our kids into childcare and make us glad of it, as long as we have our tellies, it’s always been the same only we didn’t always have tellies, and then we die. There was Greek fire. It lit up the battleground. The smoke was like gathering souls drifting lazily into the sky, black and acrid and vicious-looking. I wonder if their mothers had stood by, hoping they would ride out their anger until it was small and wasted and could fit in a jar. Yet gunpowder came later and that’s where that started. SNOW FROM CHINA they called it: sulphur, saltpetre and carbon. Mostly used for firecrackers it was but I’m not trying to be clever here. All I know is that there was SNOW FROM CHINA and it killed a whole lot more than it burnt pretty blooms across the sky.
The Victorians had books about how to grieve properly. The constraints, the clothing, the length of time. I had wished such rules were still followed. Those bodies gilded in black lace and folded away in the holes of their station and the relations pale and unhappy and orderly so. I still wish that, kind of. Not shrill animal shrieks, a raw and naked pain. Not my little boy in a frail sunbeam, a cut-out piece of solid bitter smoke that when the substance had been blown out remains, a tongue of aftertaste. And with pill after pill I smudge him away. The Victorians they had a grieving period for each death. For child and parent they were the same for, husband or wife was the longest. We all want our suffering to be the most when we suffer. We all compete, it is our nature.
It’s worse for me, I said to my husband in my head. It’s worse for me. I was his mummy. His MUMMY goddamn you. Our guilt is greatest, our sadness, our misfortune. To the parents of dead cancer victims I thought, At least you knew. At least you had time. Your grief came softer, bit by bit: each blood test, bruise, nosebleed, each serious doctor, each failed transfusion. Each time a small grasp of what it would be like. Each time you understood a little more. And I still don’t quite understand. My mother-in-law believed that there is a time when sorrow becomes self-indulgent. But she never lost her little boy. She never had to survive that.
And sun rises every day as a vinegar pool and anaemic moon takes its place, casting pallid rays. The salt of oceans are its tears, the hills were arisen from the build-up of violent pressure deep within the earth, and trees grasp with keen caustic fingers. Tired earth pushes up life, a world turned in on itself. But of course we see what we see, we hate and the sun and the moon and the oceans and hills and trees none of them care. The universe carries on with sparkling indifference. Secretly each part could tear away and burn, embers could fly and ashes smoulder, the sky could unroll and peel away, chimneys might shatter, trees uprooted, smoke may unravel in ghostly fingers across the ruin, the ground could crack and shudder apart, heat may spill dark liquid, but I look up and it is quiet and still and smooth like a painting, there is sun and rain, there are people with umbrellas as if they care about getting wet, there is a couple arguing, their voices loud and silent, and the pigeons flap squawking from cars as if they would know if they died, as if they would care, as if death isn’t around that next corner, as if their death will be better than a twisted smear on the roadside when it will probably be worse, legless and stinking in a drain turning the rainwater to sewage and as if that would matter anyway. The sky is brownish and sludgy like the slush left over after snow and everyone is pale, they are points of jealousy and love and anger and most of all want, they are want and longing, it’s all that’s left of us: we just want and want, we want less or more, it doesn’t matter. We want like it is a verb when really Want is something that eats away at us, it kills us, it killed my boy, it’s killing me.
And I realize that you probably don’t want to be hearing these things. I mean it isn’t nice: it’s angry and bitter and you know what it’s dull, it’s casual. That’s death, it happens to the best of us, it happens to the worst. It features in most stories. It’s practically the reason for all religion. But there are things in life which you can choose. You can choose for example if you will read this or not. But you cannot choose and I hope I won’t say this again although I probably will, you cannot choose when and how your little boy dies. You can’t choose either who you fall in love with. And you can’t choose when and how you stop loving them. I have made choices in my life and a lot of them, in fact probably most of them haven’t turned out good. I’m no saint, we none of us are, not even you, Mary, whatever they might say. We just muddle through life, picking up the shit left by the ones in front of us and leaving our own shit for the others behind. It’s aimless and it’s sad but because we’re us we think it important. All our little meetings and all our little diaries and the dates in our calendars and all our little dramas and all our little tragedies and our hopes and our losses. We think it so important don’t we? And then we look back, much much later we look back and we laugh, we laugh with derision, with lemon hearts, and we look at what we are and we look at what we are not. And we are not glad. We are not glad.
On the beach now and my boy is still there screaming. It is ever so tiring. It is ever so tiring being sad.
MUMMY! my boy shouts into the wind. Can you hear him? Do you him hear him like I do. MUMMY!
He is running. He is always running.
The pebbles creak like snow under my feet and the sky is white and my little boy runs, he has a kink in his fringe and a bitter flush in his cheeks. The wind is salty and the boy’s face is as plump as a tulip-head. He is wearing a Superman t-shirt and orange tracksuit bottoms. His hair is blonde and he has round Harry Potter glasses. He loves Harry Potter. He is six years old.
The boy runs through the world. This boy haunts me every day. My heart opens and floods, it is an ache and rising as bread dough in heat.
I hear you, darling. What is it, my love?
I get out a pack of Silk Cuts and I blow the smoke until my boy disappears. I inhale inhale inhale until I am black tar charcoal sky filthy chimneys inside, until my ears ring and I cannot hear the boy. The seagulls scream, they sound like newborn babes. I blow smoke at them.
MUMMY MUMMY MUMMY
This is what is left, Mary. This.
We are a happy family, perhaps happier than most. My husband Matthew is a solicitor specialising in property and probate. We have a lovely flat in the town centre, near the river. I love the briny smell and the sound of the gulls. Every morning our little boy jumps on our bed. On his first day of school he bounds in in the morning like an eager puppy. He is so gorgeous. I could eat him up.
It took me a long time to get these letters in order, I didn’t know where to begin. Perhaps here then, on the boy’s first day of school. This is my boy, he is small and blonde. He is five years old, he is soft with baby fat, he has little round glasses like Harry Potter. When he is shy he holds my hand and tucks his head under my arm and peers out. He has a big wide smile and pearly teeth, he never lost a single one. When he wears his coat he puts the hood up and takes his arms out the holes and runs around like Superman. His trainers light up when he runs. He loves to run, he is faster than lightning.
He crawls in between me and my husband and he kisses me good morning and touches my face with his hand. Hello, Mummy. The light through the crack in the curtains turns him blue and white and gold. This is my boy, loud and solid and real, for always and always, I can almost believe it. My boy is like Jesus, he is resurrected every moment. He jumps on our bed with jewel-eyes and a smile that pulls and holds and centres and fills, he does it again and again and again, he is as tangible as breath and heartbeat, he fills my dreams. I am sorry to gush but how can I not? You would be heartless to stop a mother gushing over her lost child. He is the centre on which my world turns rather than the aimless, seamless roll of before. A whole universe shines from his eyes. They are a colour that is not on the spectrum that human eyes can distinguish, how is it that I only know it now?
Hello baby, I say to him. Are you excited for school?
My little boy nods his head, of course he is. Uh-huh yes yes yes. I want to say to him, Don’t you trust authority figures little boy. None of them, not even your teacher. Especially not your teacher. Don’t you let them tell you what is right and wrong. Just look at the world, you do what you’re told and is it right, I want to scream, IS IT RIGHT? But I’m not sure if you’re meant to do that as a parent or not. I never really knew if it was best to follow the rules or break them as I only ever wanted the conventional thing.
So instead I say to my boy, You’re a good boy aren’t you?
My husband says from the other side of the bed, Of course he’s a good boy. He’s half me, isn’t he?
Yes he is, I think. And half me too. I look at the boy in wonder. I am not thick you know, I am amazed by everything, there is a difference. When I first heard my boy’s heartbeat it sounded as if it came from the ocean deep. He had seemed so far away even as he grew inside me. Sometimes I am glad he did not grow any older. I could not have beared the distance in his eyes.
When my husband gets out of bed and the child follows him out the room chattering away, I miss them both. I get dressed quickly so I can make my husband his coffee. He pours Cheerios and milk into a bowl for the boy while I make his coffee and a cup of tea for me. The boy jiggles up and down on his seat as he eats his Cheerios and he crosses and uncrosses his legs and he chatters away. He does not know that there is a universe inside him like water.
My husband goes to shave and when he comes back he is clean and sharp. His eyes are china blue. He says I look nice. I am wearing tracksuit bottoms and a grey t-shirt and my hair is a right state. I smile and kiss him. Don’t be late home.
This is the sentimental domesticity a parents imagines before they meet their child. Would Mary remember that? Before Jesus was born did she dream of these moments that we take for granted until they do not happen anymore, until they are impossible? But then I suppose she wouldn’t know about taking anything to do with her boy for granted, would she? She knew more than most how we are all born with a death sentence and I never even think of it when my boy is so excited for his first day of school. He makes sure he has his book bag and his PE kit. When we walk down the street he doesn’t step on any of the cracks. He holds my hand and skips and hops.
But as we get near to the school gate he starts getting nervous. He holds my hand tight and leans into me and concentrates on stepping on every crack like he is stamping on their bad luck-making. We get into the school gate and a girl from his nursery class waves at him. He waves back and then buries his face in my side. What’s wrong, little love? Aren’t you excited about going to school?
He won’t go into the classroom. He won’t let go of my hand. The teacher comes over and kneels down in front of him, What’s wrong?
I say to him, Mummy has to go, and I am blinking and blinking so I don’t cry like maybe how Mary had to try and be strong for her boy when he was nailed to the cross in the burning heat. Look, Abby’s over there. Why don’t you go sit with Abby?
No, Mummy, says my boy. I want to stay with you.
His first day of school: he howls. It starts from the top of your head and slithers down in shivers to an aching core where he used to be. It is the most terrible thing to pry your screaming child’s strong fist from your fingers and leave them crying for you. Children are magnetic: they pull you to them. Every step away is a fight against what is natural. I want to scream in that teacher’s face HE IS MINE AND HE IS COMING WITH ME. My child cries as if he knows his mum should never not ever leave him. Years later I would know that I should not have left him. I should not have left him. I should never have left my boy. In fact my boy should not have been born. He should have stayed curled up inside me, like a mollusc, like a mole. He was safe there. And what was his brain like then? I wonder. Was it dull or did it burn like galaxies? Or was it still and omniscient in the ocean-like quiet of the womb? He never knew the darkness of some men, this tumour, this cancerous growth which is cultured and grown by external forces and not some inherent badness, it can’t be inherent can it? My boy never knew it because he was a little boy, born as good as we all once were. He came roaring into the world. He is emblazoned on the sky.
After I have left him crying I jump on the bus to the seaside. It is a thirty-minute bus ride. I can wipe my eyes and watch all the old ladies out shopping with their little trolleys, and all the office people hurrying, late after dropping their children at school, and cyclists veering round potholes.
The beach is the same as always, yet shifting imperceptibly. It reminds me of being a child, drawing on pebbles in chalk and flinging seaweed. I might have taken all my family here. I squeeze my eyes tight shut, dig my nails into my palms, like making the strongest wishes. When I open my eyes I notice a familiar lone slouched figure trailing up the beach towards me.
He shouldn’t be here. New York Hollywood California Los Angeles the Florida Everglades, words previously prized, touched by a trailing finger whenever come across, whispered in bed into the sad night. Gambling in Las Vegas, spinning his wheel of fortune, streets paved with gold and silk-spun skies and money trees, cocktails martinis pretty American girls cocaine paperclip turns on motorbikes in the rain, a numb and empty joy. Yet now there is the English sun floundering behind filmy English suds on an English sky like scorched newspaper. The wind flaps like a dog at your heels. Smoke trails from his mouth.
He lights up like a Chinese lantern, like a torch to petrol spill.
I put my hand to my mouth and give a little jump and a cry. I have a clear face and a ready certain smile. There is no time to be forgot. There is only this moment and this and the next and the sunny recognition of my boy. The seagulls open sails like dream catchers, their bellies swilling with plastic. The pebbles creak like snow. He says my name again, the repetition to create a certainty, to alter my features into what he remembers, to smooth the lines at my eyes, mouth, to brighten my hair, turn me back into a nineteen-year-old like the greatest of magic tricks, the most universal desire. We are both young and in that moment the reality of middle age zooming towards us, like the bus I got to the seaside, like the bullet that will kill my boy, are unimaginable, ridiculous, so that when he asks me why I am crying I deny it, wiping the tears on my sleeve. He asks if I am crying because of him and I say to him, You’re not that special. I look across the beach at the grey waves. It’s my boy’s first day of reception today. I tell him my boy is four going on five.
His grey eyes flash obscure when I ask him if he is married. Mariana. They have been married a year. It isn’t really working though. He is going to leave her. Then he grins with a sudden flush of that adolescent mischief. Is my little boy legitimate? he wonders. Could I not go against Jesus?
I tell him he should meet my husband, that he is very nice, that we’ve been married six years and we have our own flat and our own car and we go out for dinner once a week, we even have a babysitter to look after our boy. And I wonder why he isn’t in America like he always promised. He had said the word with reverence as if it was a holy land. We all have that, Mary, don’t we? We all have some island dream. America America the land of the free; the stolen land, its history running red. He said he would be down the clubs and bars, picking up pretty girls and having a high old time. He said he would be dead before he was thirty but now look, he only has a year left. I remember imagining him in New York beneath skyscrapers so tall they are falling, an icecream sky, hot-yellow taxis and women stepping out of them, high heels, plump silk-stockinged calves like in a black-and-white movie, and the smell of hot dogs, fried food, kebabs, car fumes and strings of lights, flashing neon signs. He was always a little boy really, I am sure this is what he imagined too. Devin sharp in a suit, Devin the womaniser, the Charming Englishman. Road trips in the South, a sun to burn the back of his neck lobster-red. He had half-smiled at my questions and looked off into the distance with his surprising silver eyes. He had said he was going to get a job painting rich people’s houses or building modern buildings and he would spend his nights down the pubs and bars getting wasted and picking up pretty Yankee girls. He would spend his money on drugs and everything would look even more beautiful than it is.
I ask what happened but he shrugs abruptly and starts to look restless. There is a danger in him, there always has been. He seems to be charged with something, to strangely dimly glow, the dirty orange and electric-blue of a gas flame. I remember when he used to quote On the Road. He did go to America he says. His eyes are tired stars and faded stripes. Then he came back.
And the space between us stretches and snaps. Mariana and America Mrs Fairchild places to be places that had been things to do things to regret. You build your own towers, you cannot knock them down. They grow like tumours, they are never benign. In the end you look around and they are crumbling even as they grow. They graze your elbows, crush your breath. All your dreams made of that builder grower keeper killer: hope.
But I tell him I have missed him and I am glad I say it, even with the flash of his eyes, his not-quite smile. I tell him that I will hear a joke sometimes and I will think, Oh Devin would like that. Devin would laugh at that. Or I will see some shitty programme on the telly and I will think, Devin would have just the right words for what this is. And what the government is. And what the mums are at my boy’s school.
And he stares at me, he really looks. He looks sad but with Devin you can never tell. Then something in his eyes changes like a wind dial turning south to north in an instant. I can feel it, I remember it. Each time a small loss.
He stands up, clatters some coins on the cafe table. He will see me around he says. I ask him for his number. I say he could meet my boy. I would like that. He writes it down for me on a receipt. The numbers make a bridge across the paper and the sky shifts like the cardboard world of a play, dropping the background for the next scene.
Bye then, Devin.
Then he is off along the beach and up the steps onto the promenade. I can’t imagine what he is thinking. I think that he is stone-cold. Before he has reached the steps I slip the mobile my husband gave me out of my pocket and dial in the number on the receipt. It doesn’t even ring. It is just that automated woman’s voice saying the number I have called doesn’t exist as if Devin is just a figment of my imagination. He always did leave women to sort out his errors, broken hearts and abortions. Bastard, I say to myself, grinning after the secretive hunch of shoulders and bowed head as he hops up the stairs of the boy that I once loved more than any other in the world, more than my dad, more than my little brother; it is a flaw in women that runs bone-deep.
My husband Matthew asks what I have done that day and I say I took our grownup boy to school and then I got the bus to the seaside. That sounds nice, Matt says, not as if he heard or as if he heard but not like he listened. That’s alright though: I’ve cooked fish fingers and we have them in sandwiches and Matt has made a salad and we have that too and my boy tells me about his first day at school. He tells me about the kids he played with though he can’t remember most of their names and he tells me about his teacher and that they played with musical instruments. I wonder if my boy will always remember his first day at school. I wonder if he will remember his first teacher and having fish finger sandwiches and I wonder if it matters if he remembers or not. Soon my boy will be dead. I try to remember now if I could taste the gunpowder then, if I could smell the smoke acrid and metallic. The clouds cut across the sky like shrapnel now and that sky is an aluminium sheet and the sun is a hard and small and silver glare through a bullet hole, but I don’t remember it being like that then. I try to remember if I could hear a distant constant ringing but the thing is what I can remember is the sun being warm and yellow like a candle or a bowl of pumpkin soup, and the clouds filled with a soft drizzle, and I can remember how the flat smelled of talcum powder not gunpowder, and crayons and toast. In the mornings now I watch the sky get unrolled like a great sheet of tarpaulin though I can remember how it used to fade slowly into day with the brightness of our dreams as they were caught in the wind of the planet’s sails. It is all about perspective you know. The thing is all I can remember is being very happy and not thinking very much at all.
So what I do now is when I wake up I go through what my day used to be like in my head. Sometimes I pick certain days and replay them in my mind. The grief counsellor said this isn’t healthy but I said to her, You really think I care about my health? What I do is I think about my boy running into school like a tornado and having to grab him for a kiss goodbye because you see he never needed settling after his first day. And after I have planted a kiss on his head for him to wear through the day and handed him his book bag and told him, Be a good boy, I pop to the shop for some chocolate Digestives and then I go home and put the kettle on and the telly and I do some tidying. Matt is taking us out this afternoon to the cinema. We are going to see an animated film. I can’t remember what it is called but my boy is excited as anything and I know Matt is too, he likes the kids’ films, but he says it is for the boy. I love my husband. Bombs are going off left right and centre, or so the news seems to say, and in some places people are starving or getting their heads hacked off while paedophiles roam the parks and teenagers bring knives into school and meanwhile celebrities are talking about their films and having babies and catwalk models are prancing up and down and flicking from one channel to another you don’t know whether to laugh or cry, I’m telling you we’re all mixed up as hell. They want you feeling grateful you’re not going through what some people are going through like hunger malaria cancer beheadings war and then they distract you with fashion and gossip and the royal family and the footie so then we just get on with it, don’t we, and forget how empty it all is. Well I’m not trying to get you down here, Mary, I’m just saying I loved my husband and he loved me and we both loved our boy more than anything else in the world. That is all I am trying to say really. I wonder if it is enough.
So I have a cuppa and a few chocolate Digestives and then I sort out the washing. I empty the machine and I hang the washing up on the clothes horse and then I go through the basket, sorting everyone’s clothes into piles. I never mind doing this. I think it is ever so relaxing. The only problem is black socks. I always hate finding the pairs. Matt does it when he isn’t at work. I work through them slowly and patiently. There is nothing much going on in my head. I am singing, Dooon’t gooo wasting your emooooootion, LAYYY ALL YOUR LOOOOVE ON MEEEEEE. I always loved Abba, my boy does too. When he is in the bath I put it on the stereo in the lounge and turn the speakers up nice and loud and we sing along, me and my boy, and then Matt will come in and he will sing along too. I’m not trying to make out my life was some sort of flawless fairy tale and I was some sort of saintly mother like you, Mary. I was in no way perfect but he’s dead now my boy so all I can do is remember the good bits. He could be a right terror you know, he could howl and whine and whinge and scream, but he was lovely too and he slept so peacefully and sometimes I can feel him, warm and soft in my arms, burning fever-hot, and it makes me melt with love.
You know when he was very little, two or three, if you were to give him a toy, a truck or a cat or an aeroplane, or you were to take him to a new park or a new playgroup, his eyes would go big and luminous in his face like Catherine wheels and his smile would spread wide like a beach parasol and he would turn up to you and say, Mummy. LOVE it. You couldn’t say no to a little boy like that. When we had to leave somewhere his cries would be heartbroken, I could never bear it.
My boy was a fat baby. There is nothing in this world better than a fat baby. Then he was a chubby boy. He had chunky legs and the chubbiest cheeks I had ever seen. I squeezed them all day long. They made me so happy. Sometimes the boy would have a terrible tantrum and my husband would film it. And sometimes my husband would hang his wet towel on my almost-dry washing and I would want to kill him.
When my boy is six years old he roars down the street on his scooter on the way home from the cinema. Gosh does he love that scooter! He seems to be scootering at seventy miles an hour ahead of us. He is six years old, yelling with life. We none of us have any idea what is roaring towards him, how can we, even at the last second, how can anyone?
Matt says why don’t I have a break from cooking, he’ll order us a takeaway, and I smile, there’s a plan. He doesn’t know the things I have kept from him. If he did I don’t think he would order a takeaway to give me a break, I don’t think he would have married me in the first place. It is funny the kind of things you don’t tell your husband. It is funny the fierce joy you get in a life built from the substance of unsaid things. If you looked close enough you would see it was a house built without foundations. It was brick without mortar and flimsy cardboard walls.
We get home to our flat. It is a beautiful flat. I am ever so happy with it. We aren’t renting, we have a mortgage, and this makes me very happy. It is not a very big flat but all the same it is very nice. My husband paid builders to do it up when we bought it and they did it up ever so lovely. When I look round at it it makes me smile. I like to go round the rooms and look at them, I am like a little girl playing house. I know you might not believe any of this and you don’t have to if you don’t want to but I had the perfect life, I really did. I was a good mother and an alright wife and you don’t have to believe that either but I did my best, and our flat was very clean and tidy and my husband and my boy were well-fed and well-loved. We didn’t want for much, we had it made really.
My favourite room in our flat is my boy’s room. He has a Buzz Lightyear duvet cover and a Thomas the Tank Engine night light and a Ben 10 clock on his bedside table and he has drawings stuck up on his walls. I like to stand and look at them when he’s at school. You can’t really tell what a lot of them are since some of them are quite old but underneath I have written it down. There is an orange and black squiggle, it is a tiger. There are two people hand-in-hand with big red smiles. It is my boy and his daddy.
My boy storms upstairs yodelling and whooping like a cowboy or a Red Indian or possibly an alien. He makes all the racket only a six-year-old boy can and me and my husband follow after him thinking about what sort of takeaway we will get. When we get to our flat my boy is stood on the landing running his toy car along the banister. I drop my keys and my husband smacks my arse when I bend down to pick them up. OW, I think. My boy shouts, MUMMY MUMMY MUMMY and I go, What what what? and my boy shouts, NOTHING and he laughs his little head off, his mouth wide open, showing every little tooth in his shining pink gums. He can be a naughty boy but he laughs a lot and I am glad about that.
I make my boy macaroni cheese while me and my husband wait for our curry. My boy puts his fingers through the tubes of cheesy pasta and grins at me, hands splayed like starfish. Naughty boy. You shouldn’t play with your food. He says his daddy doesn’t care and I tell him that’s because his daddy is a naughty boy too though really I have never had someone be so sweet and gentle to me as my husband. My husband is a solicitor but if I am honest with you I am not completely sure what exactly that entails. He goes out at eight in the morning in a shirt and tie and he comes back at six in the evening five days a week and he never really talks about it but at least my boy has a dad with a job and a suit and tie. I think maybe my boy would prefer it if his dad was a builder like Bob the Builder or a fireman like Fireman Sam. He might prefer it if his dad had a job that he knows what it is like a policeman or a postman. My boy would have loved it if his dad was a policeman. He would have talked about guns and sirens and baddies till the cows came home, he would have shown off to all his friends, and he’d have stolen his dad’s hat and he’d have held up his toy gun and gone, COME OUT WITH YOUR HANDS UP. POWPOWPOW! When my boy was a little younger he was always shooting me. I would fall to the floor groaning and my boy would howl with delighted laughter and I would lie there on the floor completely still for such a while that he would creep over, almost nervous, and when he was leaning right over me I would open my eyes and grab him and tickle him until he was a screaming squealing wreck of beloved little angel.
My boy says, I love you, Mummy and I think, That’s kids for you isn’t it, they come out with sweet things when you least expect it and when you do want a bit of comforting that’s when they’re screaming or sulking. But that’s what’s lovely about it when they say it. They don’t even think about it, it’s like saying I’m hungry, I’m bored, kids are so used to those words and they’re so used to I love you they don’t even think one jot about it. They are looking the other way, playing with their macaroni cheese and thinking about Clifford the Big Red Dog. I say to him, I love you too, angel and I stroke his curly blonde hair. I know I was his mother so I can’t say this without it sounding biased but my boy was a beautiful boy, lots of people told me so. There was something about my boy that people just couldn’t help themselves. You wanted to touch his curly head like a lucky charm. You wanted to stroke his soft cheek. You wanted to hold him tight and never let him go. He makes little noises while he eats, making songs and stories in his head. He was only six years old. He runs his toy cars along the table. RRR RRR. BEEP BEEP CRASH. He was such a gorgeous boy, I don’t know how it was me made him. I had him for six years, if I had had him for one hundred-and-six it wouldn’t have been long enough.
When me and his dad put him to bed he is all over-excited. He is bouncing in his bed like popcorn, kicking his legs. He is grinning and laughing. HAHAHA. I’M NOT TIRED. Well me and my husband are, we are getting annoyed and God I haven’t a clue why. We should have cherished every second. We should never have put him to bed. We should have let him laugh and laugh until a new sun came up and me and my husband were both turning grey. I used to say to my boy, You’ll look after your mum when she’s old, won’t you? He’d said, Of course, Mum, we’ll live together and I’ll mash you up banana cause you won’t have any teeth HA HA HA. I suppose there’s nothing I can do now.
When the boy is finally asleep, me and my husband put our curries out on plates and pour ourselves some beer and light a couple of candles and settle ourselves down on the floor. I try some of his curry. It isn’t spicy in the least. My husband is not what you would call a Macho Man. My dad would not have liked him. Where I came from men had vindaloos. They didn’t like them, they sweated and swore and teared up and got the runs the next day, but as my dad said, it was part of Being A Man. Matt has a forkful of mine and opens his mouth in a capital O and puffs air. I laugh. It is hardly spicy at all and I’m not just saying that.
My husband would ask me silly things sometimes. I expect Joseph asked you some silly things too, Mary, though I bet nothing as silly as saying you had God’s child growing inside you, an angel had told you so. Not that I’m saying I don’t believe you, Mary. I would never say that.
Matt said to me once, Do you ever wish you could change things? and he had a different voice suddenly. I don’t know how to describe it but it was changed somehow. I said, What do you mean love? without really listening because I was making sure my boy’s rice pudding was done just how he liked it. Matt wondered did I ever wish things were different. Better. Did I ever think we were selfish bringing a child into the world?
I thought of my boy flinching inside me in terror at the toast popping up like it was a mine exploding. I thought about all the stars winking like conspirators knowing the world is spinning to oblivion. Every bitter thought raced through me like poison. Yes I do, I said. I think everybody does.
My husband thought that was very sad. My husband Matthew came from what you might call an Established Comfortable Middle Class Family. There were lots of things he had time and education to think about and there were also lots of things he was very ignorant about. He would think some thoughts were original but really they had been thought on thousands of times every single day usually by Single Working Class Mums when the electricity has been cut and they’ve been getting letters with official windows and big red writing on them and their children are crying and crying like children do and they don’t have the strength or the energy or the joy to console them. It was alright though. My husband was a good man. It’s not your fault where you’re born.
I ask my husband does he think we are good parents. I think about the boy having Cheerios and pancakes for breakfast and I think about when I let him go to bed without having a bath when he really needs one because I can’t be bothered with the fuss and I think about letting myself wonder sometimes what my life would be like if I had never had him. Matt says he thinks so, don’t I? I suppose that we are. I ask him if he thinks our boy will ever have a little brother or sister. And he smiles then and his eyes have such a sad shine, I think that is what I first noticed about him. Well, he says and he leans in and kisses me long and warm and sad. We don’t talk about that other child, that lost monkey creature that never made it back from the hospital, but I can see her in his eyes, shining. For a few minutes we forget about the curry. We get a bit lost in each other.
When we settle down my husband tells me that one day, he would like a little girl.
For some reason the thought of having a little girl always used to scare me. I think I was worried they would turn out like me. That is the problem I think with having children. Of course there are lots of other problems too like being worried sick all your life and not having a career or any time or being able to wear nice clothes or them being shot dead by maniacs but one of the worries is that they will turn out like you. I mean they could turn out to be criminals, they could be wife-beaters or druggies, they could be depressed or run away or get bullied or a hundred other things. They could hate you, in fact they probably will, although I’ve never had a teenager, my boy didn’t live long enough to hate me. But I don’t think I could have beared the terror of looking into my daughter’s face and seeing a reflection of myself. So I say to him, Maybe. Or maybe a little brother for the boy. They could play with each other and when they’re older they could look after each other. And our lips meet again. It is very hard to let go.
I wonder what you know about that, Mary. Did you love Joseph? The sky is just metal and concrete now and everyone’s faces are grey and similar, but I remember the love I had for my husband, not fierce and urgent like what I had for my boy, but soft and warm and comforting. When my boy was dead it was very hard to look into my husband’s face. All I could see were blue eyes that were just the same as my boy’s blue eyes and a hole in his head and the blood drip-dripping down over his Roman nose and his dark lashes and his sad mouth and his frown lines until there was no face left. I could just see my boy and it broke my heart.
We went to see the fireworks the year my boy was six going into the year he would have been seven, me, my husband and the boy. It was amazing. I am sure up in Heaven you get much better displays, I mean you have the resources don’t you. I am sure it is like Gandalf’s fireworks up there, I bet Jesus doesn’t expect any less. Well you see I don’t come from an exciting place like London and the most we ever had on Firework Night were a few poor rockets and a Catherine Wheel because it was my mum’s favourite so I am telling you, I am almost as excited as my boy on Christmas Eve. The boy he is jumping around all day, I can’t get him to sit down and eat. He is yak-yak-yakking about this and that. He is telling me all about how fireworks are made, such a clever little boy: They are called shells Mummy the container is made of pasted paper and the fuse means the shell can get up high high high so it goes off in the sky and to make it go off there is this black powder in the middle of the shell: BOOM! It explodes! And then he says, I learnt a new word Mummy B-RI-SAN-CE it means (he picks up the little dictionary my husband’s mum had given him) the shattering effect of a high explosive. I say, Wow lovely boy you are clever now get your coat on we need to be out this house in exactly three seconds. He grabs his coat and shouts 3 2 1 and bursts out the door like a firework himself.
Yet on the train the tiredness hits him. He has burned himself out. His eyes are big and dark in his white face. He is quiet staring out the window. Outside the night is black and gorgeous like Jesus’s pet panther stretching. The stars are silver, how could I know they are like bullets, like pinpricks of emptiness? My mother told me stars are souls patiently shining until they are planted in an embryo. Well I know the truth now. The galaxies glitter and each pale blaze is a blind spot, a hole as if from a cigarette burn. I didn’t know it then.
I have never seen anything like it. It is royal. It isn’t meant for the likes of me. It is as if God has hung up some giant golden chandeliers for us in the sky. We go 10 9 8 and I can feel a soaring gladness rising inside me, a deep shuddering joy, a searing hope, because look, we are here, the whole entire world it feels like, a mass of people all joined together, hearts beating hotly, blood gushing, we are all of us here for the same reason, 7 6, and my husband has his arm round my waist and his other hand clutching our boy’s, 5, and I look into his eyes and I know it is all going to be alright, 4 3 2 1 HAPPY NEW YEAR! and BOOM! BOOM! BOOM! (aquamarine heliotrope scarlet emerald sapphire gold) It is as loud as gunfire. My boy’s eyes are about as wide as the London Eye. They reflect the fire in the sky. The night is ripped asunder and everyone is cheering and hugging and kissing and oohing and ahhing and then Auld Lang Syne-ing and we all know it is going to be okay because of a made-up calendar with made-up days and made-up numbers, we all suddenly think we are going to be better and that the next year is going to be better than all the ones that have come before. It is as if the fireworks spell out REVOLUTION, we are all so happy and hopeful. And I can remember seeing Parliament all gothic and resplendent, but under the shower of gunpowder explosions it might be set alight, it would make a bony skeleton, charred and smoky and emptied, it is a promise of things to come. I cheer and laugh with the rest as London’s night is detonated.
I wonder what you think of us up in Heaven. We can’t help it, we’re just so empty and alone, as soon as for one moment we feel a fleeting primal connection we go wild. And then the fireworks end and the singing stops and we keep drinking and drinking to try and forget how scared we all are. And then I sort out the washing and tidy the flat and watch telly and drink tea and I don’t think much of anything at all. I just think about socks and holidays and Abba. It’s alright, it keeps the emptiness at bay.
In the dark crease of the year my husband kisses me awake. The pillow smells lovely, like sweet blind dreams. These dreams exhaled are caught like lamb’s wool in a hedge. Sometimes afterwards I will find them captured as I seek a cool patch on the pillow and will wake, for one second half-enraptured, joyous. And that is when I will know. He did not die. He didn’t know how.
Matt’s hand touches my thigh, slowly riding up. My lips curve upwards. You’ll be late, I say but I turn onto my back so he is leaning over me. Doesn’t matter, he says. Then our little boy runs into the room like a wild thing and jumps on our bed. He is so happy being alive, he can’t waste any of the day. Wake up, lazy poos!
What’s that language? I say to him and Matt grabs our boy and tickles him. My boy screams with laughter, he loves his dad. I lie back on our bed and grin at my two boys. Matt chases our boy out the room and down the hall to the kitchen for pancakes and Cheerios. I know it’s not a very healthy breakfast but it makes my boy happy.
I get dressed and go for a wee and then I go to find my boys. The same journey every day, it is my favourite journey of any that can be, made down the hall to the kitchen to my boys. I love this journey, it will be made forever. This path is trodden and trodden yet never worn and never wearied of, I don’t care how corny that sounds.
I make my husband a coffee and I make myself a tea and I pour my boy his orange juice. It splashes brightly into the glass. Matt tries to flip the pancake but it just flops in the pan. My boy shouts, MUMMY YOU DO IT. I flip the pancake perfect, brown and yellow, and my boy claps and cheers like his mum just scored the winning goal in the penalty shootout.
Matt gulps down half his coffee and kisses me, a brief kiss that might not have happened. I stop him, he has buttoned his shirt wrong. I put my hand on his arm and he turns and I button it for him like he is a little boy, with swift capable hands, and then I do his tie and I kiss his cheek, the tender intimacy of a mother. Bye, love. Then he gives the boy a high five and then he is out the door. Sometimes I imagine what we must look like from a satellite, going about our days like ants, and I can never tell if it would seem purposeful or aimless. Now, now, I know the answer, and yet I want to go back. I wish the past exists and we are still there, ignorant and trapped in time like hamsters on a wheel. Matt would wish it too of course. That high five would give him such pain. I drew myself away. He could not save me, he had not saved my boy. I think my husband needed to be held. I would be sitting on the sofa in the living room, staring at nothing, staring through my mind tunnels, you can see a lot through them tunnels: you can see all the ghosts and angels in their real solid selves with their blonde bouncing ringlets and their Superman t-shirts, laughing their little heads off. And Matt he will be talking about something and I won’t be listening and it will just crack him, like a bad egg, though he wasn’t a bad egg, he was a lovely boy, almost as lovely as the little boy we made together. He never could bear it when I didn’t listen to him. And he will be so sad. I CAN’T REMEMBER, he will scream. I will jump. My eyes will flash up to look at him, crying all messily, red and wet. He was a handsome bloke but who isn’t an ugly crier. I CAN’T FUCKING REMEMBER, Matt will say. Did he kiss him? Before? Did he kiss him? He keeps thinking about it and sometimes he thinks he did but then… he doesn’t know. He can’t remember. And it is killing him. It is fucking killing him.
And he will look at me, baleful, shuddering, weeping, and wanting so much for such a little thing. He will look at me like maybe I can save him. But I will be so cold to him. I will remember when he had been my little boy to look after. But when you have your own real flesh and blood little boy you realize how irritating and ridiculous those men are who act like little boys, those silly little men-boys, who will do anything, who will kill the planet and drop bombs and spread hate and kick people onto the street, just for money, just for more. Not that my husband was like them. But he will be a sad little boy and he will not touch my heart. I will not want him. I will want my little boy. He will not be endearing anymore. But I will say to him, You did. I remember. You kissed him on the top of the head. In his ringlets. Because that is what we do for each other. And Matt will kneel down on the floor at my feet and cover his face with his hands and knees and cry. And what I should do then is get down on the floor and hold him and rock him and we will fall apart together and then we can fix each other, we will see all the breaks and lick them so they heal into ugly scars, we will know the breaks because we will mirror each other. We can sew the seams. But instead I will sit on the sofa, back straight, legs folded beneath me, and I will sit there and stare at him, and I will be Pluto, lonely, blue and cold, but I will not be lonely, I will be alone, there is a difference. I will look at him like an ice sculpture, he will be a puddle on the floor. I will look at him from the greatest distance you can imagine. You see he was a man and I will never be able to help blaming him for that. I will see men’s love of war. I will see all the priests playing with little boys, the strangers down dark allies, the lying politicians, the brutal policemen. I will see the Muslim women in hijabs to protect them from the VIOLENT LUST OF MEN. I will see all the preachers at pulpits telling us to thank and pray to and love the Man In The Sky. And then I will get up and walk out the room.
Okay baby, I say to my boy. I serve him his pancake and spread chocolate spread on it for him and then I sit down next to him with my tea and stroke his curly head. These are the things I remember: his flaxen curls under the palm of my hand, catching the light, whitish, smoke-pale, buttercup-yellow; his velvet neck thrumming with the hot rush of his life; his luminous skin, the golden warmth that radiates through the cream velvet surface; the fiercest heat; his simple joy. These are the things I am blessed to remember, these are the things that knock me to the floor. These are the things that mothers know.
Lovely boy, I breathe with a religious devotion, a love that goes beyond heavenly promises, godly terrors, a love that is the one god, bequeathing life, holding and delivering, almost possessing, though do we have children or do we receive them for we do not have the power to retain them, however much this love endeavours beyond anything to preserve its gift. It calcifies a woman, turns her hard and stubborn and intractable, it is more everlasting than bone, but I do not know if it rather turns one to china, enamel, with a bold pearly gloss yet as fragile as glass, and once broken irreparable.
I love you, Mummy, says my boy licking his fingers.
I love you too.
There is some sun in my teacup. I have a cup of sunshine. These are the signs we search for: the good. I should have looked for omens, appealed for portentousness, hunted for the dark, for sunless harbingers: the dead pot plant, the suicidal plunge of its browned crisped leaves, and the creeping shadow of mould, the flickering light bulb, the gas flame that silently perished, the vacant colourless hole of the sun. These things should have been noted and feared. We might have run. We might have burned herbs, etched magical signs into doorways, hung up red ribbons, sprinkled salt, tied ropes round each other’s legs so even if one were taken the others would follow. You think these things are ridiculous until you have a child. You think you would not watch your child sleep to make sure they do not stop breathing but you will. Suddenly the gap between train and platform could swallow your child. Suddenly streets are war zones, minefields. You think you are rational and then you have a child.
When he has finished his breakfast we swoop into his little bedroom. We are birds, we are aeroplanes. We shed our feathers and whir our propellers. We jump on his bed and fly round the room.
Now little boy, we’ve got to get you dressed for school.
I open my little boy’s drawer and I choose for him his little blue Superman t-shirt and his orange trackie bottoms and his little boy pants and then I kneel down on the floor in front of him and unbutton his pyjama top and he shows me his little round belly as smooth and white as butter and I tickle his little round belly and I help him pull his t-shirt over his head and he slips off his pyjama bottoms and I help him into his pants and his trackie bottoms. He is old enough to dress himself I know, Matt always tells me I baby him, but I can’t help it. If he was your little boy you’d have done the same. I wonder how long you helped Jesus into his robe.
Kiss me, I say and he gives me a big slobbery kiss. Oh my baby. I squeeze him so tight. Aren’t you my lovely boy?
YES, he shouts with all the assurance of a beloved child, of a happy indulged little boy and he wriggles out of the squeeze and he runs around the room. I am your lovely boy, aren’t I, Mummy?
I tell him, You’re my cheeky boy. Come on, gorgeous, let’s get your things.
And then we collect up all his things and we leave our home behind us.
My boy runs ahead of me down the street. The sun is very sure and yellow like the yolk of an egg sunny side up and the sky is a very certain blue although if you squint you can see it is only eggshells and wizard smoke, a fragile illusion. My boy turns back at the end of the street to wait for me before we cross the road. You see he is a very good boy. I swing his book bag in one hand and when I reach him I hold his hand and we cross the road and my boy’s hand is small and sticky and the sun is a bright pool making shadows and there is all the evil in the world and there is me and my boy and the streets and the trees and the picture books in my boy’s book bag and the pancakes in his tummy and his blue blue eyes like suns beaming. When you have a child you see you rearrange the world into beauty for them even as you imagine the dangers. It is all about perspective. For my boy I wanted goodness and I showed him all the good things and the dangers clutch your heart.
My boy shouts BYE to me when we get to the primary school and he runs into the playground. I wait and then he stops and he turns round and blows me a kiss. I blow him one back but he is already gone, a blur of orange legs and yellow ringlets.
I see Fran outside. She has a little girl called Abby in my boy’s class and two other children, Max and Laurie (I don’t know why I am telling you this). Fran asks me do I fancy going for a coffee and I say, Yeah why not. We have the whole day ahead of us. My boy has numeracy and story time and colouring and playtime and school dinners, and me and Fran, we have coffee and tea and shops and housework and daytime telly. We have the day spread out like a bright map of things to do, it is very nice.
Fran and I go to a café down the road from the primary school. Later I will stand in front of the red brick school and move to take a closer look at him. I will remember wetting a comb and sweeping it through his sunny fringe. Matt bought that photo and framed it and put it on the mantelpiece. He sent one to his mum too. But this one will be blown up life-size, hung on the wall like a banner, and all around will be flowers and teddy bears and mini footballs. I will stand and look into my boy’s eternal smiling face. Printed above him will be the message ALWAYS IN OUR HEARTS. Blood will roar. My voice will be harsh with grief when I say slowly and carefully to my husband, They don’t care. He was just another six-year-old. He was nothing special. All he did was get shot. And now they’ve stuck him up there like the SUFFERING FUCKING CHRIST. Matt will put his arms round me. In my head I will be screaming and screaming and screaming.
Fran and I both have teas. They are too weak, they don’t taste of anything much. I would tell you what we talk about but the thing is you probably wouldn’t be very interested. We talk about children and husbands and Fran tries to gossip with me about some of the other mothers but to tell you the truth I have never been much of a gossiper and we talk about money and worrying about things and holidays and changing sheets. Honestly you’d be asleep if I told you. I am a simple girl though, I haven’t got much to say about the world really. I mean I have opinions about the government and the country and landowners but to be honest most of those opinions contain words I don’t think someone like you, Mary, would ever say and I don’t think my opinions would ever be thought on much. I mean most of them are just WHY AREN’T PEOPLE JUST NICE? It might seem like a simple question but really the answer is MONEY and I don’t think that is a good enough answer. It’s strange thinking of this sitting in that café sipping tea and listening to Fran talk about her all-inclusive holiday to Barcelona and her Lazy Fat Dickhead ex-husband. The thing is if I was put into that café with Fran now and she started telling me about how much money Lucy Jo’s mother spent on her daughter’s haircut I would probably start screaming and I don’t think I would know how to stop.
No-one warns you. That is what Fran and I decide and it is I think the first thing to remember. Did the Angel Gabriel tell you that motherhood is a life sentence of fear? Did the Angel Gabriel tell any of us fuck all? My husband would say it too. NO-ONE WARNS YOU. No-one warns you of that agony, how deep it goes, further than bone, to the very core of the Earth till it feels it must split the ground like a madman’s axe or a lightning strike, it should raze the mountains and forests from the Earth. My husband had thought his mother had prepared him well for the world but there are some things not even mothers can do.
Fran says she finds herself wondering if it is just her that sometimes hates her children and nobody says anything because they never feel like that. She says that she is always afraid that she is doing it wrong and everybody is looking at her and just knowing, just from her eyes or her smile or her clothes or from her children’s lunchboxes or their hair that day, as if they could tell the struggle it was that morning to get Max to eat his breakfast and brush his teeth, as if they could tell how Abby had screamed because she didn’t know what to wear, and that Fran has a house of discarded clothes and spilt cereal to clear up when she gets home. Fran wonders what we must do when we have no guardian angel to follow and guide us. I suppose we just learn ourselves, I say to her. We just get on with it. That is normal people the world over: just getting on with it as if there isn’t any other way to go about things and maybe there’s not, I mean what do I know but that little boys can be stolen and in the whole scheme of things it hardly matters at all.
When I get home I make myself a cup of tea and some toast and I turn the telly on. I put Countdown on catch-up which might seem a bit sad to you but it was always a comfort to me with the numbers all adding up to something and the letters all making words. It is such a comfort to me that the world can be ordered into symbols. In the end we are all just a bunch of cells ourselves aren’t we. You can write us down as an equation. Our feelings are only chemicals. A mother’s love is evolution, nothing more special than a survival technique for the human race.
When Countdown is finished I wander round the house tidying while The Jeremy Kyle Show is on. While I am hoovering there is a woman on talking about how suspicious her boyfriend is of her, how he always accuses her of cheating how he checks her phone her friends her knickers. I watch the people on telly talk about the bad things they have done and the bad things they have had done to them, and the audience who have paid to watch them break down their lives piece by piece, and there is probably lots of things that you could say about all that but in the end I just hope they’re all alright. When you’re happy you just think in the end everything will be alright. When you’ve got your boy and your husband and your lovely flat that builders did up, you are usually the stupidest woman in the world.
After I am done tidying and hoovering and washing up, I clean all the kitchen surfaces and I sweep the floor with a dustpan and brush and I tie the curtains back in their little loops and I look at our little flat and it makes me happy. I go into my boy’s room and I make his bed and I tie his curtains back in their loops and I tidy his Lego away and the book his dad read him the night before and I put his Millennium Falcon up on the shelf and then I stand and look at his drawings. The corner of one of them has peeled off so I stick it back. It is a good picture, a recent one. There is a yellow and orange swirl of sun with beams skidding across the page and stubbly green grass and a thick line of blue sky at the top of the page and there is a little boy wearing a Spiderman costume like my boy has and he is holding what my boy informed me is the Millennium Falcon and around him are some purple things and next to the purple things is a drawing of a woman with yellow hair and a huge red smile. On the back of the drawing Matt has written: MUMMY AND SPIDERBOY FIGHTING OFF ALIENS.
My boy is so funny. He does make me laugh. The night before after his bath he ran round the house stark naked except for a cape which was really a towel and he pretended to be Superman. Superman isn’t naked is he? I asked him and my boy turned and looked at me with solemn eyes and said, Mummy. Superman has a willy, and then he carried on running.
My boy is an eccentric little boy. When he was very little he went through a phase of loving statues. When we went for an aimless walk round town to fill time like you do when you have a little kid, we would have to go to every statue that we knew of in town. If we missed one he would howl all the way home. When we found a new one he would tell everyone about it. At each statue we would stop and stare at it and he would ask questions about it. For example at the statue of Queen Victoria he asked me who she was and I said she was the Queen of England, she married a man called Albert and they were very in love but Albert got sick and died. When my boy was three he was so scared of death. I never knew a child to be scared of their own death. He must have thought about Prince Albert dying all the way home. When we got home he said, You won’t die will you, Mummy?
I said, Not for a very very long time.
He looked at me with a wobbly lip. Will I die? he asked me.
I gasped at the thought. Everybody dies, I said.
His lip wobbled and wobbled. He clung to me and clambered up me and opened his mouth and with a shuddering panicky breath began to cry. He gasped and shook and clung to me. But I don’t want you to die, he cried. I’d miss you.
He howled in terror for our lives, death was round every corner.
When Jeremy Kyle is finished I turn off the telly and I put on my coat and scarf and I go down to the supermarket. I like the supermarket. It has a rhythm to it. It is cool and dry and bright and orderly under its superficial strip lights. There is something restive and clinical about it like a hospital. There are rows and labels. You don’t have to think much or I try not to anyway, because then you realize it is like a conveyer belt of people, all ending up at the grave. I try not to think how if all the energy ran out right now me and my boy and my husband would all be dead in a few weeks. We wouldn’t know how to survive. I try not to think about things like Princess Diana and John Lennon who only tried to be good and loving and got killed and how we just carry on doing all ordinary things like going to the supermarket as if it is normal for good people to just be murdered for no reason. You see I have a little boy and a husband and handmade curtains and I like pushing the trolley down the aisles and deciding what to buy. It is much nicer than when I was younger and we had to worry about money. You had to check every single price for the cheapest, you had to search out all the deals, if you saw something was cheaper in another shop you would go over there to get it. Well because my husband has a Well-Paid Job we don’t have to worry. We aren’t rich but we are nowhere near poor and I like deciding what to buy on how nice it is and how much my boys will like it instead of how much it costs. When I walk down the aisles I smile at the other shoppers. I have my list with me. I wrote it the night before. I am always very prepared. I place the tins in the bottom of the trolley with all the heavy things and I make sure the fruit and veg and crisps go on top. For tea we are going to have my boy’s favourite: mashed potato fish fingers ketchup peas broccoli. My boy is a good boy he always eats up his greens he isn’t fussy. I am excited about picking my boy up from school. I always get excited. It is two when I get to the checkout. If I had stopped and looked out the window I would have noticed the sudden violent flap of the pigeons erupting into the sky and disappearing like a trail of smoke. It is about quarter past when I get out the supermarket. My whole world has ended but I don’t know it yet.
It is half past two when I get home. I pack all the food away neat and tidy and I think about how lovely and horny Matt was the night before. These are the things people think about before their world ends you see. My husband was sat on the end of the bed taking off his socks and he asked me, Why don’t you wear that sexy black nighty you used to wear? Well I reminded him I had a baby and therefore I have got wobbly bits (I know it was six years and four months ago but I have never been much into exercise if I am honest with you) and he said that he happened to like my wobbly bits so then I had shimmied out of my clothes and he had pulled me towards him. And I am thinking about this as I straighten my coat. I am thinking about my husband’s tongue and his broad shoulders and the stars stuck in his eyes. I am thinking about this and not that child who had been whorled like a shell at the centre of me, who should have been forged in fire for all the love and wonder he made. I am not thinking of the universe beneath the blurred youth of his eyes, that stillness, that truth, that is the water that contains us in our mothers’ wombs like bubble wrap, more even than that, the deep seamless consciousness where all souls are sewn together. I am not thinking about my boy and I hope you don’t blame me, Mary, and I pick up my keys when the phone rings. It is twenty minutes to three. Hello?
It is Fran. She had gone into school to help out with reading in her son Max’s class. A trickle of cold trundles down my spine. I have to come to the school straight away. There’s been an accident. What?
He’s been shot, says Fran. Your boy. He’s been shot.
My heart bangs like a time bomb. The shock is like a gunshot itself, it sends me, sprawling it sends ripples in my blood. I am crouched down on the floor gagging because I knew, of course I knew, as soon as I answered the phone, no, long before that, it was as soon as I felt the butterfly flutter of my boy inside me, as soon as he was ripped from me into the turmoil of the world I knew. Is he alright have they taken him to hospital have they given him something for the pain oh God he must be in such pain oh my God Fran were you there did you look after him can you tell him Mummy’s coming I’m coming Mummy’s coming—
I drop the phone and start running. I run faster than even my boy in his trainers that lit up when he ran. RUN LIKE THE WIND, BULLSEYE! my boy used to shout in his Woody outfit. Well I do, Mary, I run faster than Bullseye. There is a moment when you are very happy and you are not thinking much about anything at all, if there were a god that bothered at all with the lives of men he would have killed my boy for my apathy, despondency, for my poor empty head, there is a moment when you have got all your shopping packed away and all your flat clean and tidy and God you’re thinking about sex and then like the gulls riding the wind or tossed flailing by it there is another moment when you are gasping and choking crouched down on the floor just for a second and then you’re not even breathing you’re running out the door you don’t wait for the police to come and tell you what you already know in the deepest recesses of your being beneath the brittle layer of useless motherly fear your fear Mary (and how right that you should be martyred to birth and raise a child destined to die before his time) though how dense and vast and mighty that terror seems and you’re running down the stairs and you’re not breathing your ears are ringing like you’re running from an explosion only it’s the other way around isn’t it and you’re running running down the street and you must be breathing now the wind is full and bitter in your paper lungs inflating on each raw breath the incredible cold but you’re not crying you’re calm you’re not thinking at all the words ring in your ears HE’S BEEN SHOT YOUR BOY HE’S BEEN SHOT but it’s only an echo your brain can’t make sense of it you’ve just been thinking about fish fingers and ketchup and sex and now it’s best not to think at all you’re just running it’s the simplest thing in the world primal instinct away from danger or towards food or to save your child though your feet your stupid human woman’s feet your thin weak legs are so slow your arms are weak and useless though they were the first to hold your boy they’ve held him so many times thousands of times yet it seems you can count them on your fingers and the sky is heaven-blue. It’s okay it’s okay in years to come he’ll show that bullet to his grandchildren it will sparkle like their eyes. And then you see the police cars with their blue lights flashing and you see the police tape like a beacon or a warning a threat and there are parents rushing out of cars and there are police in fluorescent jackets and even their professional calm faces are winter-coloured and there is you there still running and you’re being held back and all you can think is Where’s my boy? Where’s my boy? He’s wearing a blue Superman t-shirt and orange trackie bottoms and he has little round glasses like Harry Potter can you see him officer can you see my boy where’s my little boy WHERE’S MY BOY? WHERE’S MY LITTLE BOY? and somebody is still holding you back and you can’t understand why. You’re not screaming. You are trying to look for your boy. And then you see the teacher who was meant to be looking after your boy her white white weeping face she is going, I’m so sorry I’m so so sorry and you realize and you scream and you think the world must have come undone unravelled the planets toppled. You scream and scream the deepest richest most immeasurable scream that can ever be made and your legs won’t keep you up you fall against whoever’s holding you the officer if they weren’t holding you you’d be on the floor you must black out and all that is left is him at the end of the street in a shaft of sunlight waiting for you so he can hold your hand and cross the road and he ran across the playground but then he stopped and he turned round and blew you a kiss. That’s all that’s left. And they won’t let you see your boy.
I grapple with the police officer I can’t help it. The teacher’s face is like plaster, I can peel it away and make it different. I can without all the king’s horses and all the king’s men put my world back together again. All I have to do is peel that teacher’s sorry white face away and paste a new bright one on her, because of course my boy isn’t dead, I flipped a pancake for him this morning and he clapped and cheered. But my legs are too weak to stand. My mind is too weak to take it. How cowardly, how traitorous to my boy, that I black out to nothingness instead of feel what he has left.
They called Matt and he comes straight to the hospital. I am stood in the corridor under the fluorescent strip lights with empty arms. I keep expecting my boy to come shooting round the corner grinning, arms outstretched like wings, and stopping in front of me and looking up and going, Mummy. LOVE it. He would have loved coming to the hospital he would have found it so exciting. That was my boy he was excited by everything.
Matt treads carefully round the corner, he should have been more careful before, we should have known we were walking on ice. He is grey and his eyes are wide and his mouth is open. I remember my mum saying to me when I was sat at the kitchen table gormless, thinking nothing much like usual, You catching flies, sweetheart? Matt sees me and he’s staring so hard at me, trying to work it out, trying so hard for it to have been a mistake, but I don’t smile and go, No sweetheart, it’s fine, they made a mistake, our boy he’s fine, of course he is, he’s just doing some colouring in there. When Matt gets to me he wraps himself around me and I can feel him shaking like an earthquake or a frightened animal and his tears and snot and dribble wet my hair but I cannot hug him back. His pain is too heavy. I am crushed torn asunder like the London night had been torn piecemeal. Matt grasps me as if I am a lifeline, a log in a heartless river, as if we can be swept away together, as if we can almost save each other. But you see I am a hollow log, I am far away. He cannot reach me for he did not save my boy, neither of us did, and it makes him useless to me. It turns him into only the evolved ape Man when before he had been my husband and the father of my child, though we know of course there is no difference. Now we are both empty vases. We have no flower to give life to. We are stagnant water without the rush and ebb of our boy. It all makes sense now. I can feel myself drifting.
Matt doesn’t want us to go back to our flat. He wants to go to his mother’s. He says he can’t bear the thought of going back. He can’t bear the thought of going back to a boyless flat with the smell of boy still in it, like milk and pasta and soap, like a wild animal with briary fur, like Neapolitan icecream and my boy’s Buzz Lightyear duvet cover and his Thomas the Tank Engine night-light and the green peg on the wall with his name on where his parka should hang. We’ll go to Mum’s, he says. I don’t say anything. I don’t say I do not want to go to his mother’s. I don’t say I hate his mother and her stinking prissy little house. I do not say anything. My boy is dead and words have lost their meaning. There are no words that can describe that rawest deepest agony.
When we get to his mother’s she is crying and it is giving me a headache. I go to bed and I lie there in bed and I can hear them murmuring and crying and going on and it makes me sick that they can go on so, it makes me sick that they can eat when my boy, my lovely angel boy isn’t here anymore. In my head is 4 3 2 1 BOOM! BOOM! BOOM! and my boy is glowing sulphur, magnesium-bright, he fizzles across the sky, crackling like a dodgy radio. I can see his pulse banging with each explosion and two London Eyes shining out of his face and his wide wide smile. BOOM! BOOM! aquamarine heliotrope scarlet emerald sapphire gold and BOOM! the silence before he could even scream and yet in my head he did every moment. He’s still there screaming, I don’t know how to make it stop.
On the narrow slip of beach in my head there he is, flushed with birth, howling, emblazoned on the sky… I will tell this story until there is no-one left to tell, until my tongue is dust in my skull. (Only later will I sigh in relief that the past is all just content, a fact sheet, an official document, and that really reality is as substantial as dreams.) I will say, I am a careless woman…
I am a careless woman and my carelessness cost me and therefore what I say may have value to you. My boy came into the world like a tornado and yet his heart just stopped like that. All that effort, all those nine months of pregnancy, those thirty-six hours of hard labour, all those years of feeding him and bathing him and soothing him and dressing him and taking him to school and worrying about him and loving him, all of that in one entire second finished, caput. But I was a careless woman and perhaps I deserved that loss because if I had kept him, if I had kept feeding and bathing and soothing and dressing and taking to school and worrying and loving, I would not think on anyone’s pain except as a passing gladness that I was not them. So this here is perhaps, Mary, a story of redemption. Perhaps too it is a warning. But really, what it is in its entirety, is a prayer.
When the grief counsellor finally gets me to speak, and I can hardly stop once she does, I don’t tell her how perfect he was. Actually it is not her, it is Anger, it came at the beginning of the world. I tell her our propensity to hate is stronger and more immediate than our propensity to love and that when I found out I was pregnant I was scared right down to my bones. It is a bright cold day outside but I hardly know that. Every day smoulders into the next, ash before they have the chance to burn. I think about the beach long and white. The beach is a dirty white like crushed pills. I walk so slowly, the sun is a pinhole.
I sing one of my boy’s favourite songs as I walk up the beach. I sing it quiet and high like a mosquito. There’s a starman waiting in the sky. My boy loves music. He used to get me to put the Jailhouse Rock video on Youtube and he’d copy the moves. My boy runs ahead of me now and the prayer inside me is bigger than the sky, it fills me up, I ache from my head to my fingertips to my toes. He told us not to blow it cause he knows it’s all worthwhile.
I tell the grief counsellor that there are two things I was always meant to do: make tea and make babies. The counsellor stares at me with a notepad and pen clasped in her lap. She has hair my nan would have called DITCHWATER. I can tell her anything because I don’t care what she thinks of me.
I say to her, Those were my ambitions.
As long as I have my babies I have a purpose, as long as there is tea in the cupboard and milk in the fridge everything is okay. They don’t teach you those things at school. I may not be intellectual but I have a heart of gold. Or I did anyhow, swear to God.
I always knew what I wanted to be. I wanted to be a mother. It was always very clear to me. I played with dolls until I was far too old. I did it secretly in my room when I was at secondary school. I would cuddle them and whisper to them, I would stand in front of the mirror with a doll on my hip admiring myself. I used endearments like Love and Darling and Sweetheart when I was far too young. People thought I was being ironic or silly. I was just so filled up with love. You wouldn’t believe it now if you saw me. But I was always warm from head to toe, I was bursting with love. I had sex like snacks, orgasms were my life’s punctuation. They used to say I was mad for the boys but in truth boys made me so sad. I just wanted to make them happy because they all seemed so lost to me. I wanted to gather them in my arms, rub their backs, stroke their hair, squeeze their bums so they smiled. I felt boys were not as strong as girls. I wanted to be a mum to them all.
Then my boy nestles in, he is neither boy nor anything remotely considered human, discluding beliefs of the Catholic Church and I think it often best to disclude the beliefs of the Catholic Church if you would pardon me, Mary, for that sinful confession, he nestles into his warm dark bed and I would tear him out with my fingernails if I could. I don’t like the world one bit, it all flashes across my mind like fire. It is toxic, it’s all death and destruction, a baby all soft and white and fragile is not safe in a world like this. The February air is wrought with peril. The blackish leaves like Halloween decs are ripped screaming from their branches. The puddles are frosted glass, cracked and splintered. Breath fires lungs, gusts vicious white plumes. The sun is more like a snowflake, pale and sharp. My mum always said, It’s a dangerous world out there, love, she was only joking, well only half-joking, she was a big worrier. Well she was right, I choke on my own spit. Through the hot black tunnels of me is a tiny beating heart like a beetle clicking. Four weeks old and pulsing angrily. It could be the centre of the world.
But it is very cold that February and the cold makes me sad, I think he won’t want to be born into a cold world. It is all treacherous ice and dark mornings, it is old people slipping and breaking their hips and dying frozen in their living rooms. He wouldn’t like it out here, I think. He’d be sad. But his heart is loud as thunder in my ears. You see all these men sending other men to war and you see pub fights and you see people sleeping in the street and you see the Prime Minister lying so smooth and bland and you can’t help it, you just love them all. God gave me ovaries, I don’t know if he counted on love.
I have such strange dreams when my boy is inside me. They are dark and bright like the Universe. There are twinkling lights like shooting stars, they have furious purpose. Above them like God is the largest brightest orb and in the lashing flicker of their comet-tails I can feel their eagerness to reach the orb, if only we all raced so hard to God. In the dream I am floating among them. I feel like an astronaut in orbit. Then I wake up with tears running down into my ear. I lean my face against my husband’s warm back and feel him breathe steady and sure. He always sleeps so deeply. I am so glad I have him. You dream of men like him sweeping you off your feet but you never truly believe they exist. You never imagine they will pick you.
This is what I believe: first and foremost, my boy he is forged in fire. The sperm he had been was a burning comet, lightning-swift to a fiery ovum. Sparks flew as they soldered together. The other millions of eggs were dull pearls jostling around my half-boy glowing. In the dream the God-ovum must be my half-boy for I have never seen anything so bright.
February turns into March, winter into spring, the frost melts and the rain comes and I don’t tell my husband. It is my little secret, it makes me numb. I stop in the middle of the road, cars beep their horns, I leave my change, my shopping, the cashier runs after me with a strange look. Then it is May and I am four months gone and I tell my husband and he is very happy, I can’t tell you. I say I am four months gone, there were No Signs. There were no signs, I say. I might not lie to you but I have said some corkers in my time.
At night my husband, who is a lawyer and a mummy’s boy and a good sweet man, cups my face so gentle as if I am made of the most delicate china. He’s still here now, all strong and weak at the same time and I know this isn’t true anymore but I have to believe it, otherwise I will go insane. As much as everyone else might think it I am not insane, not yet, although if the grief counsellor keeps going on and on at me about anger and acceptance and saying my boy’s name I surely will be soon enough. He says, Don’t cry, sweetheart. I smile at him through the salty blue veil. Will it be okay? I ask him. I mean the child but he isn’t to know. He says, Everything’s going to be fine. It is not the answer I am looking for and I rest my forehead in the kiss of his neck and shoulder so he will not see the graceless flash in my eyes.
This is the child so you might understand the wound. He is the reason I am writing this and he is all I think about really so I am sorry if I am boring. We are born many of us from liquor (I say liquor because my friend Devin with his dreams of America did, though I haven’t heard anyone but him and country singers say it; Devin thought he was a Texan cowboy) and this child was no different. Conceived from liquor I thought he might be sickly for it but he never was, he was a child wonder, a marvel, a medical anomaly. Nevertheless (this word is from Devin too and all long words I have in my vocabulary. My writing style is copied from his letters from across the Atlantic, sailed over in a big metal bird, all wonderful burning words), I imagine him as all things pale and unsure, white and fragile and coiled like a shell. Really though he must be red or purple like the crushed velvet of kings, fiery vermilion, a bold pulse burrowed safe in his thick blood-rich bed. Not that I would know, I’m no scientist, I can tell you that. Barely got a GCSE to my name, let alone any kind of degree. There are a few things I know though, like making tea and curtains and stroking a man’s head at your breast like a mother so he knows it will all be okay and another thing I know is this: this is the child and he is the most beautiful thing in the world, I wouldn’t lie to you. He spirals inside me, I am sure you can feel him too and if you don’t yet you will. He is as strong as any child can be for he did not bleed away and they do you know, it’s hardly surprising. They fuse and divide and nestle in like strange dark diamonds, yet coal-common, and tear away in a red flood, or they might last a little longer, coiled in crimson tangles, hearts and tails, or longer, stretching taut their harbouring walls but not surviving the precarious pilgrimage into the world, or lasting that and those days afterwards, where breath is new and light is startling, then other perils wait, other small deaths: gas flames whispering off, lorries of acrylic acid stuttering to a halt, dirty cuts, hurtling cars, half-cooked chicken; dying all our lives. I don’t know the statistics but it seems to me a miracle that any of us are here at all.
This is the child, poor child, who survived those first fragile weeks: cigarettes (tar arsenic cadmium formaldehyde chromium acrolein carbon monoxide nitrogen oxides ammonia hydrogen cyanide and a whole lot of other poisons and chemicals: the mistakes of its mother bound in classic white paper and inhaled) and the further mistakes of alcohol takeaways genetically modified crops the pesticides antibiotics and hormones used in plants and meat caffeine sugar and pollution (hydrocarbons carbon monoxide volatile organic compounds ozone benzene particulates) and shampoo and conditioner moisturizers deodorant lotions creams perfumes makeup. Devin would have told me not to get so hung-up on it but I would say to him, These are the things this child survives and more. I am sure he would look at me in perplexity, he never understood how you could get so attached. These are the things this child survives and more. He is a 21ST CENTURY BABY, a child at the beginning of the New Millennium. Kicking limbs strong with his mother’s love, he is a city baby, transparent and steely, petrol blood, eyes the yellow-brown and dull opal of smoke and pollution and the phosphorescent skyline, bullet-hole pupils, with a heart that beats rhythmically as the ticking of a machine. A thin hungry child, exhaustive and wanting. I have high hopes for this child; he is my first after all, you will have to excuse my devotion, blind and warm in his acid bath, that in-between world, an ocean inside me, a universe expanding. He unfurls inside me like a plume of smoke, like a blossom, leaf-curled and alien-strange, and my heart beats fiercely for him. My blood races for him. My heart hammers hot and loud. It must be like bombs to him, gunfire. He must pulsate, shudder, with each thud and BOOM.
I don’t think of that though. You see I don’t live in a war zone, or well maybe I do but it’s a different kind. I think of bland things, like the presenters on daytime telly and the weather. I think of ordinary things like how this child could be amazing. It could discover the cure for cancer, it could overthrow governments, it could have twenty children of its own. There are no guns here, well only in my head. I imagine silken skin, grasping fists and golden crowns. We are all born kings, to the kingdom of our mother’s arms and breast.
These are the things I imagine as I do as Mary did only my child will be no saint. I mean I’ve heard this is not the age for heroes, not even little boys in Superman t-shirts. Devin once said to me that heroes are nothing anyway, what heroes we have. They are romanticized, like most dead, my boy included probably, silk-spun and gilded to auroral angels, the odourless arseholeless glow-eyed stuff of legend, martyred by death and time and hearsay, while the real heroes, living, breathing here on Earth, are crucified in headlines and headlights, or unknown, nameless, faceless among us in this stinking vagrant sea. The child will rise above it, haloed and bewinged.
When the child stirs secret inside me and I wake with tears running into my ear, I pretend to my husband that I am soothed by him in the strange night, and he lays his head tenderly on the rising hill of my centre, it’s the second-oldest action in the world. I imagine the child with my husband’s eyes, Mediterranean-blue. My husband loves and respects his mother and this I know is a good indication of the kind of man he is. He has dark hair and needs glasses to read. I wonder if this child will ever need glasses. My husband presses his ear to my stomach as if listening to the child’s dreams.
And then later the days rise and fall and the nights are long and quiet and the child is so white that he is blue and yellow and green and grey, he is stiff and cold, his eyes are shut, his hair is no longer flaxen but red, there are storm clouds under his eyes, he is very very small. This is the child in my head then, when he’s been all born and lovely and grown like magic and then got all dead, I can’t believe it. They never let me see him so I just imagine him, I can’t help it, he keeps on flashing across my mind like watching a horror film with a strobe light. The child grew and grew like magic, I couldn’t believe it. Do you ever imagine it, strange aliens, big-headed and tiny-limbed and curled-up, pickled foetuses, eyeless and green, spine, heart, umbilical cord, amniotic fluid, all of it sinister and mysterious and then there’s more, there’s always more, it gets bigger and bigger, then it’s a baby mad with fear, gasping for a drink of milk, and the woman leaks from everywhere, blood and milk and tears, and the babe crawls and then totters, it unfurls into an upright child and gets slimmer and more proportioned, its body catches up with its head, and then it broadens out and becomes a man, not my boy though, he only went to primary school, he didn’t get older than Year One and fish finger sandwiches.
I can’t help this science lab in my head. I can see my boy on a slab, white and cold, his glasses broken and wonky on his face, and there are all these pickled foetuses up on the shelves glowing palely and a professor doctor man is jabbing my boy and peering at him and writing things down and hurrying round the room and I know that he is God, experimenting. I don’t know what I’m talking about really, I am just trying to describe to you what is going on in my head. There is always my boy cold and white on a slab. My mum would say that God is testing me. Maybe that is what death is and life and all the things in between, maybe it is the Universe having its experiments, checking the variables, examining the results, jotting everything down. Maybe the Universe is run by hurrying men in white coats peering and jabbing and writing. Mad Millie in the prison said the Universe is run by tiny little creatures. She’s seen them. They hurry round giggling and snorting, they make all the cogs turn. I asked her, What have they done with my boy? She said that they have taken his soul to grease the cogs, they are always doing this, it keeps the world in order. I told her I don’t like the idea of that but maybe it is true because he was always running and jumping from here to there so I am sure he helps the cogs go very smooth and strong.
When the child is dead and gone in bed, Matt feels me shaking and wraps me in his arms because he is a sweet man, I’ve told you that but I can’t say it enough. There is a lot of sadness in the world though. I should know. I lost my son.
On the beach now and my boy is still there screaming. It is ever so tiring. It is ever so tiring being sad. This feels like deja vu.
I hear you, darling. What is it, my love?
I get out a pack of Silk Cuts and I blow the smoke until my boy disappears. I inhale inhale inhale until I am black tar charcoal sky filthy chimneys inside, until my ears ring and I cannot hear the boy. The seagulls scream, they sound like newborn babes. I blow smoke at them.
MUMMY MUMMY MUMMY
My mother would have said these moments were Not Coincidence. She would have said they were Meant To Be. These moments, she would have said, are Meant To Be. All over the world these moments are happening, like in the Movies, all over the world small miracles. Come to think of it though is there anything as miraculous as turning water to wine? I mean I haven’t heard of anything yet, except for my boy and all mums say that, it can’t be true of everyone. From Space these moments would look like sparks, like sudden flames igniting, small plumes of smoke and spitting sparks like miniscule glow worms, a sudden blaze of HOPE in the world, in humankind, in God religion fate. Me, I don’t believe that. I believe in CHAOS. Randomness Chance. Stars ricochet across the vacuum of universe. Galaxies form violently bright. People get drunk and make babies, the fastest sperm of that batch wins. My mother would despise me for it but then she was Catholic, idolizing the Virgin whose one defining magic was an act as common as death, more common in fact for most women, did I say that already?
Hazel? he says. He is from such a long time ago that he could probably be a ghost too, as substantial as my boy racing through the wind. He is an inkling of doubtable truth but he is very beautiful nonetheless, lighting a cigarette. In its bloom is the tilt of his jaw and his rainy arcane eyes. It’s funny but I can see what he looked like when he was a little boy, all thin and milky and freckled. I can see what he would look like with a hole in his head.
I blink and gaze past him to look for my boy but my boy is gone. There is the whip of gull circling the curvature of the earth. The salty iron throw of sea. But no little boy, it’s to be expected.
He says, God what are you doing here?
Me, I murmur like I don’t know myself, like he might not mean me. I brush a strand of hair off my face. Devin…
It’s the same stretch of beach as before, the pebbles grinded small and hard and raw and the sand like grit and salt and everything is very different. Now he is only wearing a t-shirt and his bare arms are pale. There is a tattoo on one, green ink in Celtic twists and he’s got his hands in his pockets, his shoulders hunched further it seems, like he has got older than what time has passed. There is no burn or velvet warmth, no creeping want. There are no goosebumps in the watery sun. I can smell brine, the crayfish grey in their buckets, salt, ozone and the sewage in the seagulls’ bellies. I can smell days at the seaside and the road blown in on an autumn gust, petrol and asphalt and roadside nettles, and in a flash I can see always the arc of the sun travelling across the sky. I can smell him acutely or what I imagine he must smell like. Cigarettes and baking earth and popcorn and the chlorine smell of clean sweat. And the graze of his jaw and the simple cut of his smile. I can see his skull bleached and brittle like cuttlebone and the smoke spiralling in his lungs, painting them with tar. I wish I hadn’t heard him or pretended at least and walked on and kept on walking until my body gave up. My mind won’t give up, it is such a pain to me.
We go to the same café we went to last time. He sits across from me. The breeze drifts cool. It buckles shivers. It blows unexpectedly.
So, I say, how are you?
When I first kissed him he had tasted of cherry lollipop and salt. I had smelt the sweaty animal stench of lust coming off him, it was lovely. As a lit cigarette ripens, blossoms on inhalation, Devin had inhaled me, set me alight. I wonder if he remembers that.
Alright, Devin says, the easy answer. His rainy eyes unsettle me, narrowed to unreadable slits like a cat’s. I feel small and velvety like a mouse. He could snag his claws on the soft and weakness of me. Instead he runs his hand through his sandy hair as if that will teach him something new.
He asks me how I am and what I want to say is that my little boy got shot and my husband left me and so at some point soon I will do what any sensible person would do and I will try to kill myself, I will most probably use supermarket own brand vodka and the lovely pills from the doctor, but then most probably I will end up having my stomach pumped, it’ll be just my luck and this, Mary, is what will happen as I am sure in Heaven you know. Instead I tell Devin that I am good, that I just dropped my little boy off at school, that he loves school, not like us eh Dev.
Devin doesn’t smile but he is softer somehow, though I don’t know if it might not just be the dull autumn light. It reminds me of the haze of heat on a summer’s day turning the air to a delirious shimmer, somehow he is altered. I think it is that I never imagined him to think of other people all that much. Devin’s dreams and ideas and philosophy and politics gave him a buoyancy so he was slightly raised above normal people. Stars and stripes and cars and lights. Letters to the most special of his fan club of girls and to his mother and to maybe an artist friend, a musician perhaps, who he held in high regard, the words burning off the page, a violent scrawl as if he couldn’t get them down quick enough, racing across the page in scurrying lines, chasing each other, vicious fiery insects. I wish he was wearing embroidered glossy leather cowboy boots and a black leather cowboy hat and I wish he was wearing a gingham shirt, it would make it all a lot easier I reckon. He always took himself so seriously though and I was always too insecure to laugh.
He says he’d love to meet my little boy. I say he should, he will. My boy would like him, I know he would. He has blue eyes like his dad. He loves his dad. I made him pancakes this morning.
Devin stares at me. His look is steady and unreadable. I’ve missed you Haze, he says.
I look back at him. It isn’t hard. I have been hollowed out with a scalpel. The day burns on and on. I think, Devin would have loved my boy. He would have taken him to the park to play footie and he’d have let my boy ride on his shoulders like it was the top of the world, my boy would have reached up his hands and splashed them in the leaves, he would have clung onto Devin’s hair and Devin would have winced and swung my boy down and up into the air and back down again, my boy would have screamed with joy. This thought hovers and shudders over the sea and the sky and the beach, then fades. I can see my boy out of the corner of my eye in his orange tracksuit bottoms.
I don’t smile. I tell Devin he gave me the wrong number. He doesn’t smile either. It is easier that way. If my boy wasn’t melting sinking squirming lifeless, if he wasn’t screaming in my head I would be angry. Instead I fray like old ribbon. I gaze past Devin to my boy who is shouting into the wind in his Superman t-shirt. He is shouting profanities again. I would love the old women sat on the bench nearby to hear him. I smile at my boy and Devin clears his throat until I look at him instead. He is still married to a woman called Mariana but my mind is so empty except for my boy. I cannot imagine her, I cannot imagine them. So I tell him to come back to mine. I don’t want to say please but then I do. My boy has made me weaker not stronger.
We walk slowly and we are silent. I grind my teeth to a salty grit. I was never the brightest, Mary, but there are some things I just know. I know the soft push of the earth, its rise and swells and dips like the curves of a woman. I know the arc of the sun travelling across the sky. I know the taste of dust, the sting of grit in your eye, tang of rain, bite of insect, burn of match flame. As an animal I know thirst hunger physical pain, and as a human want and emotional understanding. I know what I know: the certainty of the earth, the predictable seasons, the mindless warmth of animals, desire for touch in my belly, for sweet things on my tongue and how light draws out the plants and water makes them foot within the ground and the bite of snow and the gasping cry of orgasm and the ripe bubble of song and somewhere inside me I know the sound of the guns that boys shoot and their whooping shouts. I know the simple things I know the calm of nature I know the everyday I know the feelings everyone has and not much else. I used to know the love of my boy in his radiant beams of joy and his hot sweaty rosy tears and his small grasping hands. And I know what Devin wants because of course he does, I can see right down into his stretched lean soul. In the end I think everything just might come down to sex. It’s like money but you don’t have to be rich to have a lot of it.
We don’t have to wait for the bus. It sails towards us as if helping us in this deceit, encouraging us. We sit on the top deck and we are silent. I lean my head on the window. It vibrates against my skull. My brain drums with an old dull pain. I imagine it simmering like old porridge up there. The bus roars. In my head as most things are nowadays there is a mild spring day spreading its clean linen over the fields to be whipped dry in the April sun. Spring arrived and the dead rested peacefully, pushing up the daffodils. Devin told me the corpses, not the prayers, help the flowers grow. I called out to him after church like Jesus would have wanted me to I reckon, Mary, though I don’t presume to know your boy’s mind. The Our Father had warmed the walls. I wish I could still believe in these things. Now all I think is that God is dead and Heaven is a dream. Out the window my boy runs a stick along the railings shouting FOOTBALL CRAZY FOOTBALL MAD.
Devin never believed. It was harder for me to cast aside childhood ritual, mother’s prayers, rosary beads, in order to seek what Devin called That One and Only Honest and True and Absolute God. In the end what Devin said to me is that we are all of us and all of this, Mary, stardust. And how in Chaos we abound by chance. But my mother never believed in chance. She believed in you, Mary, and she believed in her children. And she believed that everything happens for a reason. And when I saw Devin there, a lone figure on the beach, I could not help believing that my mother as always was right. What I want now of course is for my boy to be in Heaven, spinning and spinning until he is dizzy, falling laughing to the floor, but then there is no point in life on Earth is there, then this is only an audition. What did your son say Mary? The Kingdom of Heaven is within. Is that where my boy is now? Inside of me? And yet look, there he is, running in circles like a dog chasing its tail, bouncing and leaping in a world too small for him.
I wonder if Devin is remembering me glancing across the church, searching, and there he was, pale and sharp as a blade in the dimness, a smirk curving his mouth. He caught my eye and I knew what he meant. I just couldn’t help myself. I know that sounds weak but it was how it was. We’re all sluts: the married women the old men the schoolgirls the priests. Outside church I called across the road to him and he turned in a shaft of sunlight. His eyes squinting and his jawbone hard and certain. He offered his arm like a gentleman. The berries glowed in the brambles as we made our way up the hill to the field. It was spring that brought its rimy violet dawns and its orange-skied mornings and Easter, Mass, the Lord arisen like bread in the airing cupboard and your abundant, impossible joy, you lucky lucky cow, Holy Mother. And it was spring that brought me and Devin to the field like all the rabbits, the sheep, the birds. Everything was fucking. Even the earth was impregnated with seeds, it was rich and full with life. Only the winking bushes saw, only the whispering tree sentries, the stoic fences, as we pulled our tops off over our heads, as he undid my bra in one swift practised motion. Only the birds heard our cries. I thought, This is heaven. And afterwards we lay naked together in the grass and Devin said to me, God is an infinite silent ocean made of small man’s dreams and desires. Jesus is a man that has walked this Earth, sprinkling his spirit into the outstretched palms of the people. I looked up at Devin like he was Jesus himself.
What I used to see in him, Mary, was the devilish rebel of Jesus, the Jesus that nobody saw, the sin and temptation in every good man, coiled and clenched to an honest hot pebble. The part of Jesus that wanted to be young, that saw the weakness in everyone and laughed at it, that saw the Jerusalem equivalent of NYC and felt neon lights pulse in his bones and glittery jealousy and glittery possibilities surge through his blood, making chemical reactions happen, and didn’t care for the poor and the sick even if he felt the injustice in the powers that let it be so. I wonder if there was that part of Jesus and I wonder if you saw it, Mary, glimmering red-hot somewhere beneath his prayerful peace, and maybe his anger at the money-lenders in the temple was his anger at that acquisitive spirit he saw inside himself, because we are all flawed aren’t we, Mary, it is what makes us just as earthly and human as your son. I know why I am so angry ever since my boy died, I am angry at myself, and later I will see that anger in this boy beside me, man now. He was my childhood sweetheart and he left for America just like that, it was all that drove him, limousines and heaven-reaching buildings and cowboys, even as I throbbed with lust beneath him. He was fireworks. He was a magician at a show, a conjurer who bloomed obscurities, who gave illusions and then disappeared. Every twitch and glimmer of his face was mischief and certainty.
We are silent now and we are careful, like we have forgotten how to be with each other, like we have forgotten speech, or have grown out of it, as if words have become too small for what we mean to say or perhaps too large. Perhaps there is only our self-absorption, our own perception of our feelings and their criminal malice: that remorseless fire. We are careful not to think what is going to happen when we get to my place.
I unlock the door and say, This is my flat, like an idiot because I mean who else’s would it be, although actually maybe it is best not to answer that. Devin follows me inside. He doesn’t look nervous. I wonder if he is. I drop my keys on the kitchen table and then I hop up onto the sideboard and take off my top. Devin stares at me. He has eyes like silt. I reach behind me and unhook my bra and he stares at me, he is a stranger. My nipples harden in the cold. He is a stranger, he was always a stranger. He would say that we are all strangers. I am very certain though and he is too as he leans in and kisses me. It is a grownup kiss now, something altogether different. There is no hunger, there is no fear. I could be anyone to him now, he is far away. He is lifting me up onto the sideboard, pressing into me, and now there is the hunger but the fear is gone with the tide. His fingers are not clumsy inside me, there are a hundred girls between the thin heedless eighteen-year-old and me now. We don’t speak. I pant quietly. Feeling explodes in my stomach and trickles down my thighs. I hit him then. I can’t bear it. Fuck, Devin gasps and then he grabs my arm and pulls me into the bedroom. For a little while my boy stops screaming.
Devin, he used to talk to me about things I didn’t understand, politics in England and politics in America and the car he was going to buy when he was old enough to drive. Now he is like a sun rising over me. When he laps at my neck, tugs at my hair, faceless and impassioned, he could be my husband, he could be Matt. I push upwards. I want him to fill me up. My cry pierces the world. It rattles through valleys, soars past chimneys, the oily feathers of birds, greasy pelts of animals and sour wool of sheep, it slips through the gaps in clouds. I am hot and wet, we are fucking in blood. BOOM! BOOM! The hole in his head pulses thick and black. I want to scream but it gets lost inside me and when I open my eyes later he isn’t there.
I sit up on my bed and there is the sour smell of human grief, similar to human decay. Would you recognize it, Mary? I suppose it would be different in your day. There was probably the smell of dust and dirt and smoke and wood and hemp and sweat and incense. What I smell is the grime of sleep, broken sleep, and the clothes like bodies on the floor, sheets soft and discoloured with overuse, twisted and crushed under demented sleepless old me, and breath gone in and out and in, the same overused tired breath, and cigarette smoke. The room is a tip, Mary, my mother would be ashamed. There are plates, cups and a plant pot used as ashtrays. There are tissues everywhere and grimy glasses and sticky spots of spilt squash and the posh drinks my husband saved for dinner parties. It looks like a war zone, I suppose it almost is: a quiet mad battle against broken-boy marionettes flailing suspended in the air and yelling glittery-eyed husbands and grim-faced mothers and Fran wondering if it was only her that sometimes hated her children and my boy with a hole in his head going, There is this black powder in the middle of the shell: BOOM! It explodes! This is what happens Mary: the sky bleeds morning dirt-grey and wound-pink and I just lie here because there isn’t a lot else to do really and I hide from the sliver of day burning through the rip in the paper shutters like some glimpse of truth narrowing down on me, needling my skull. I can smell stale air and unwashed body and dead flowers and I know that Devin must have smelt it too. But I don’t care, I just want him gone. Please God, I think. Please God let him be gone. Because this is it, this is where he will see the wound, the huge gaping hole, raw and ugly and infinite, in the quiet domesticity, in the pictures on the walls and the tidy array of cushions and the curtains tied back in their loops, and I can’t bear it. I can’t bear him seeing my little boy’s room, his painted handprints on the fridge under the magnet that says Best Mummy in the World.
I hope that he sees a woman with power in her nakedness when I step into the little living room. It is so strange him being here. He turns round when he hears me. He is fully dressed. He looks like a polite guest. It is as if nothing has happened. I wonder if he is thinking about the softness of the skin under my breasts or the fragrance of the hollows of me, my throat, my armpits, the creases in my hands, my soft naval. Maybe he is thinking about rising house prices or global warming. Maybe he is thinking about going on holiday to Majorca. He could be thinking about fish swimming in the sea for all I know, I mean I hardly know him at all do I? I wonder if he is thinking about Mariana. Maybe he will use this as the excuse to leave her. Maybe he will tell her so that she will break up with him and he will not have to say those words. I have been a part of it. He will use my name as a weapon to cut himself free.
He is facing the mantelpiece. Is this your little boy?
I nod. I know what picture he means. Devin picks it up and I feel such an urge to knock it from his hands. Don’t touch it! I want to say. Instead the quiet presses in, expands, gives me a headache. I wonder if silence could be so heavy it could become substance. The cloying smoke of what we cannot say or what has already been said. The silence that rings and smokes and we realize the darkness of each and every particle on this here Earth.
Devin doesn’t turn round for longer than is polite and I know he doesn’t want to look at me when I am naked. He doesn’t want to think about what we have just done. He wants me to put on some clothes so he can say goodbye and leave. That is what Devin has always done. He is fleeting, he is like fireworks. All that is left behind is a gust of sour grey sulphurous smoke and a sense of anticlimax, cold feet and disappointment. He isn’t special. I know that. He was always just a boy. You could not hate him, you could not blame him. You loved him and he was gone. He did not have time for consequences.
He asks me where my husband is and still doesn’t turn round. I don’t say anything. I am waiting for him to look at me. When he does I wonder if it hurts. It doesn’t but I wonder if it could. I say, At work. I say it twice because I need to clear my throat. Outside sound lands, vibrates. The sun takes its time but it arrives eventually. Mountains grow and the land around them recedes like diseased gums around broken teeth. People smell of their own rotting life. They rot and heal and glow and fail. I am sick with the taste of their tiredness.
Maybe I should go, Devin says and I tell him maybe he should because I am so angry suddenly it scares me only nothing scares me anymore. It’s only that I feel used. I feel recycled into something I never intended to be. This was a pity shag was it because he didn’t do it last time did he on my boy’s first day of school? Or maybe he was so horny he would have done it with anyone and now he has had me and he wants to go home. The rage fills me. It makes me transparent. I can see the sun glint off my metal. I can see the glow of radiation in my bones. The sound waves break in my bloodstream and cause it to surge suddenly like lava. I think, Go on, Devin, off you go. Like you always do, always leaving someone behind. Like you did me, like you have Mariana. I don’t say any of this. I wish I could make my presence felt. I wish I could burn tirelessly, beautifully, but I am cold and naked and it is very quiet. My pubes are dense and wild, it’s embarrassing, girls wax all over nowadays like porn stars, it’s called a Hollywood. The Devin in my memory would have laughed.
I wonder if it is awkward. It has been hard since my boy died to know how other people are understanding things to be. It is hard to know how to act and how actions are perceived. Now when I am angry I shudder and weep and lash out. When I am confined by sympathy I scream until they leave me alone. It is very hard when your life is just bones. When you can see the foundations, the shapes of what it was. It is very hard when all you have are holes. I feel those holes then so sharply, things like sons and husbands are often most conspicuous in their absence you see, and I tell him not to leave even though I just told him maybe he should. I am very lonely you see, I can’t help it. You would call me a silly slut, Mary, and maybe you would be right.
Devin asks what about my husband but He’s at work isn’t he, I reply. But Devin needs to go he tells me. Back to Mariana is that right? I never knew I could be jealous. It is the oldest sharpest feeling in the world. In my head are empty raging words that I do not say: Because you love her so much because she makes you so happy because if you’re without her too long you go crazy because you just ache with loving her—
He tells me then that she is pregnant and that they are going to the scan today. She is about twelve weeks. This is the first scan.
I feel concrete shovelled wet and then harden and expand. I feel how slippery everything is and how hopeful. I am very far away but at the same time I can feel the cold of the carpet under my feet. I can feel my heart beating and the air in my hands. Devin stares at me and his eyes are granite. They are obstinate but underneath he is afraid. Like the sturdy crust of the Earth when beneath it slowly moves the pressure builds it can rupture the crust. There is one grey hair on his head. I spot it. It makes me feel better. You see how malicious grief makes us, Mary? You see the strange false joy we get in the failure of others, even in only their inevitable aging? Your son he must despair, he must always have despaired. The goodness of him was from surface to core for he loved boundlessly and impersonally just as a parent loves their child. Devin is someone’s little boy too, it makes him hard to hate.
I ask him how Mariana is and he tells me she is glad. Glad, he says. Just that. She knew that he was going to leave her of course she did if she knows Devin at all and she thinks the baby will make him stay.
Devin looks back at the mantelpiece at the picture of my boy. What did your husband do, he asks me, when you told him you were expecting your boy?
I shrug and go into the kitchen. I find my knickers on the draining board and put them on. They are a bit damp but that is what happens when you get passionate by the sink I suppose. Then I open the fridge and take out a bottle of white wine. I drink from the bottle and come back into the living room and sit down. I don’t offer any to Devin. Instead I tell him that my husband was happy. He picked me up and swung me round and then he put me down and asked me how I was feeling. Then he took me out for dinner and we had non-alcoholic champagne and he rang his mum and told her.
Devin says, God. Sounds awful. He has a crease of smile in his eyes.
I stare at him. Why would you think that?
He says, You didn’t enjoy it did you? and I grin. Nah. Course not. Then I draw my knees up to my chin and drink some more wine. It is sour and cold. Half the bottle is nearly gone when I free it from my lips. I swipe the back of my hand across my lips and stare at the floor because there isn’t a lot to say now. I just want him to leave. Maybe I will try and kill myself today. It is not the worst idea I have ever had. But Devin starts talking about my husband and my boy, Mary, and I can’t have that. I don’t want to think of what my boy would say if he could see his mum now. Devin says my husband isn’t coming back is he. I tell him of course he is but he won’t stop. He is a dog with a bone. Or your boy, he says. I tell him to shut up but he says he looked in my boy’s bedroom. He was a beautiful boy, Hazel.
I go mad at that Mary. I scream at him. SHUT UP. YOU SHUT UP RIGHT NOW I’LL KILL YOU DEVIN I’LL KILL YOU WITH MY BARE HANDS IF YOU TALK ABOUT MY BOY. YOU HAVE NO RIGHT. YOU HAVE NO RIGHT.
Hazel, Devin says softly, you’re a fucking nutter.
I wish I could be paper folded up by a soft-handed Japanese man. He could make a box out of me or a bird. I would love to give such an innocent pleasure to his young children, to be stared at with love for their father for his quick clever hands, in private awe at their own existence, at the capabilities of humankind, even in only those small paper constructions. I once had a dream where I made a paper plane with such a sharp point it cut the sky and I tugged the rip further and the sky tore away like a poster and on the other side was my boy running and running, chasing after the plane as it sailed through the air like a bird. But we’re in a cul-de-sac now, or I am, because Devin still has meadows and oceans and forests of life with Mariana doesn’t he, and their silver-eyed children, and I can see them prancing, clumsy, stupid and lovely like gazelles through the world that their parents will carefully pave and cushion for them, and I have my legs drawn up to my chest and I sob like a child into my arms. I am primitive and ancient, I am a savage, I am the truth, the pain and grief that knits us all together, and Devin stands awkwardly, it is always awkward with the truth curled up howling in a room right before your eyes. He was a beautiful boy. I recognize those words as if he only just said them. For a fragment they burn in bright blue coils and then sizzle like sausage fat and land black and smoky. He was. There is a small sticky hand on my leg. HELLO MUMMY. I stop, look up, and there is the yellow-white imprint of a little six-year-and-four-month-old hand in the dimples of cellulite on my thigh and then Devin, Devin’s eyes, as dry and warm and indifferent as sun-warmed stone. He watches me cry. He does not say sorry. He is the first person that isn’t sorry. Ropes of sun gently tear skeins of sky. The day flees into the closing heads of flowers.
Devin says he has to go. I wonder though, does he see my boy’s room? Does he see it? My boy dead and his child growing and us two here and the soldiers fighting the wars and the people dying and being born and some people starving and poor and some people rich and greedy. Does he see how it all balances out? How we all fit?
But he just opens his mouth to cut in. He goes, Look Haze— and I snap at him, I know you got to go. Go then! And he turns and opens the door and I throw the wine bottle at his retreating form. It smashes on the wall next to his head.
I will see him again. I will get the bus to the seaside and there he will be on the promenade with Mariana. He will have his arm round her waist and he won’t be smiling and nor will she but you don’t have to smile to show you’re happy. The sea will move with light under the yellow sky and the blue clouds. I won’t be jealous. I won’t even be angry. Seagulls will wheel screaming. My knees will ache. It is going to be alright for them, I will think. I will imagine I am that baby safe in Mariana’s womb, a pale coil in dark water, unformed, primeval, from microorganism to fish to monkey creature, the whole human evolutionary process in nine furtive months. I won’t be sure if I want to be born in a few months, I am not sure any child is.
When I have heard the front door shut downstairs I lie down on the sofa and look down at my brownish nipples pointing up to the ceiling. I never imagined my life would turn out like this. Even when I was married or especially then in fact when I was so happy and there was never much going on in my head but the little worries that are good to have because it means you have your little boy to have those worries about and your husband too. I never imagined any of it and I don’t think most people do. We all feel old one day, old and weary, weathered not stronger, pressed into hardness, but craven, malleable, made weak and yielding by continued force. Perhaps for me it was becoming a mother. Maybe for most women it is. Like I said my boy has made me weaker not stronger. And love just tires you out.
I wonder what you know about any of it. You know, Mary, I do hate you for having your boy. Little boys are made for keeping even though what you might say is that they are only borrowed, born wild so that one day they may flee their nests. You cannot tame them though it is a parent’s job. That is what you might say. They are gifts to us. We never own them, we never lose them. My boy’s time with me is done. I am sure that is what that boy’s mother would say and perhaps even what my own dear mum would say too. Possibly I did not deserve him. There are lines in the sky like it has been raked. There are cracks running as if somewhere in the distance something broke through. I wish I could give you poetry. I wish I could give you pretty haikus, even the boy’s mother. She would be happy, I think, with three lines seventeen syllables. But I can’t stop. Now I have started I can’t stop. We cannot help what connects us, it is such a bitter binding rope, this death, these deaths, this suffering: the tears in the fabric, the great gaping holes in that streaming seamless soul. Where is that mighty power that can sew us all back together? Who gains, who wins, in the deep earthly unhappiness of us all? Where is God or are we just like Humpty-Dumpty and He’s given up hope?
Dear God give me back my son, I said nonetheless but I can’t have that so I’ll settle for this writing then, like the grief counsellor told me to do, as if words coiling from the pen might build a bridge to a common certainty, a fresh hope, and I hope you feel it, God I hope you do, else there isn’t much point in me writing this then is there? I don’t know why I am writing this in the first place, that stupid woman didn’t seem to know much. Maybe it is because I am thirty and my husband has left me and I haven’t got anybody else. I am ever so lonely and maybe you are lonely too. Maybe this is like confessional, me confessing my sins to you, to the boy’s mother perhaps, because all I can do is think of her reading this though it is not like I owe her anything. It is her that owes me. She owes me my whole world. They said she was divorced in the newspapers so she would probably know how it feels to lose your husband. We are in a similar predicament me and he,r neither of us have our boys safe with us. I think the worst thing about my husband leaving me is how much I didn’t care. I just went on with my life like a zombie and I didn’t look left or right and definitely not behind and barely forward, I dragged my eyes to just above everything so I never had to look at what I was seeing. When I got a bit of money I went down the offie and got a bottle of vodka and a pack of fags and if I didn’t have any money I stole the vodka stuffed it up my top and went without the fags and I got home and I poured the vodka into a glass and drank it straight beautiful necessary water and then I poured some more and took a couple of the pills the doctor prescribed and swallowed them down with some more vodka and then a couple more pills until the world swam and my head swam and all the edges that usually sliced me to ribbons were blurred like I was under water I was a submarine. Sometimes I would sit in the bath for hours, just sit there, with my head on my knees and the tap dripped for hours and I stared at the tiles. This was what happened when my boy died. This is now or it was, it’s all gone downhill. Tits up my mum would said. A mother is a fortress but what happens when there is nothing left to guard? She crumbles to a ruin. I am a ruin. Where my boy was cut from the world there I stand and moulder and am forgotten even by myself. When strangers come to look at me they wonder that I have not been knocked down completely there is no point preserving me. I am a warped blot in the plastic faces of the crowds that mould themselves before the mirror every day into something resembling what they are meant to be. I used to be almost pretty and now I am broken to too much more than nothing and people used to tell my mum I was spirited and now I am made of wax and glass like a voodoo doll sticking pins in myself. You would not love me, you could not hate me. I am a contradiction to myself, I am a fire that consumes itself. Of course I am nothing as grand as that. I am a silly self-pitying woman but don’t hate me, Mary, even if I hate you because I have lost my son and my husband and my mother and there is nothing to anchor me to the world anymore.
I lie there in my knickers, my tits making pools of flesh in my armpits, and all I can do is remember, it’ll be the death of me. You see my boy was destined to die, aren’t we all? Devin once told me that infinite regress is impossible and at some point there is a cause, I think we all know what it is although even that too has a cause: it could be the tradition of the wealthy to send their little boys to boarding school when they are seven or it could be power and money but I think that it is blind ignorance. And I tell you what, it stretches back further than you can possibly believe: all the events of all time leading up to these small endings, these small nothing tragedies. They are blinks in time, a hundredth of a millisecond. My pain is not even a blot on the Universe. The stars sail by. It does make you realize but it doesn’t make it hurt any less.
There were some lovely times before our boy died though and I would like you to know that. When our boy is dead and we are back home from Matt’s mother’s in our boyless flat I know that my husband wants to go back, poor love, don’t we all? We had some good times you see, even before my boy got to be. I reckon my husband wants to go back to those times, maybe to when I was twenty because that was when we met and I had slim legs, lucky me, and a bad fringe I was growing out. I suppose being twenty is no excuse for what I did, most women would hate me for it, but I was young and I was free. Our boy wasn’t here then, I can hardly imagine a time before he didn’t exist, before I didn’t love him, before I didn’t miss him. Nevertheless my husband wants to go back. Maybe he wants to go back further. Maybe he wants to go back to a time before he met me.
But he comes in with a cup of tea in the morning anyway when our boy is dead and gone and he puts it on the bedside table next to me and he stands there a moment strangely certain and I know he is asking me, Are you getting up today? I don’t say anything to all the unsaid words my husband is screaming. There is not a lot going on in my head but I know if I start speaking what will come out won’t be very nice and I won’t be able to stop. When I look past my husband to his mother’s floral wallpaper he gives up and sits on the bed with his back to me. He doesn’t want to know. Maybe he is seeing my boy too, in the set of my face, in the yellow of my hair. I think his mind must be a whirlpool of all the things he doesn’t know how to say. But he surprises me then. He always did surprise me. I never liked surprises, I still don’t, you tend to go off them when your boy gets randomly shot dead by a maniac. I bet you know what I mean about surprises most of all Virgin Mother. But I think I always underestimated my husband. His back is a rock in a wide wide sea. He says to me, Do you remember when we met, Hazel? I want to say to him, Of course I remember, you idiot, but the words can’t get past the prison bars of my teeth, the trigger of my tongue is locked, I am as cold as metal. I want to remember with my husband though and I will tell you all about it because I want you to know how my boy got to be.
Matthew Fairchild was a solicitor. This meant he was smart. He still is a solicitor and maybe he still is smart, then again he married me and he never did save our boy so come to think of it maybe he weren’t so smart in the first place. I was just admin there at the solicitors, I filed and photocopied and answered the phone, it was alright, I felt sophisticated and grownup.
Matthew Fairchild was a young clean-cut lawyer. I brought him his coffee and files with a smile. I was twenty and slim and hopeful and I liked Matthew Fairchild whose coffee and files I brought to him and I didn’t care a jot about anybody else. We smiled at each other in the corridor. I had once complimented his shirt. I thought he had a nice smile, a smooth unburdened face, with cloudless eyes and good cheekbones. He had a nice face like somebody who hasn’t seen much, who’s not had much worry, like a little boy only seeing the good. To him the EVIL IN THE WORLD was just something he heard about occasionally, the things he saw on BBC Breakfast in places where he didn’t go. I think that is what I liked about him: how he was just a little boy who I could look after. I suppose that is the only thing I have ever wanted to do yet I do seem to do a shoddy job of it. I liked making his coffee for him. He liked it milky, no sugar, I think his wife told him he was getting a beer belly, though he was only about twenty-three or maybe twenty-four, but I always slipped in a single sugar lump (of course he was already sweet enough). I brought it to him with a smile that I had just lipsticked in the toilets or in the reflection in the coffee machine. I liked the way he didn’t look at my tits. That’s a laugh though when he told me later that what he remembered was my smile when I brought him his coffee and files and he remembered my tits and my swaying arse as I walked away and he thought, She is a STRONG WOMAN. And now that is a laugh too isn’t it and he probably knew it as well by then. Maybe when he saw me in the hospital corridor, when I didn’t look strong, when I didn’t even seem to be a woman anymore. That was the moment, he said, where he wanted to be dead. He wanted to lay down with his boy. He wanted to fold his small broken body into his arms. He wanted to join him. The cold earth could swallow them in its rich black embrace. How could we ever know what was coming?
At Christmas there was a work party and I stood in the corner on my own getting drunker and drunker. Getting drunk is my forte, I have always been good at it. I suppose we all have a talent. I cracked open a window and lit a fag. Outside lights were strung across the streets like shining abacus beads. I had thick gold hoops in my ears and a spritz of nice posh perfume nicked from my flat mate on each wrist and a tired face. I was ever so tired.
He came up to me I’ll have you know. His eyes were not quite blue and not quite grey but somewhere in between. He smelt of expensive aftershave. He asked me if I was enjoying myself and I shrugged and smiled with lowered eyes. I never blushed, I was never a blusher, but the drink made me hot. He looked very tired himself. There were shadows under his eyes and he made it look like it was pretty blooming hard to smile although actually I have heard it uses more muscles to frown. I remembered he had a wife, of course he did, the good ones always do. Her name was Elisabeth though when he was sweet to her she was sometimes Ellie and she was sometimes Beth and she owned her own business. I bet she was very pretty. It gave me a funny feeling inside. But there was something in the way he said that yes he was married that made me think UNHAPPY MARRIAGE or maybe I was just looking for it, but he had a closed face like putting up his defences, yet there was a flare of openness in his eyes, like regret, like longing. And you know what I was tired and I was only twenty, I should not have been that tired. It must have been the wine. I just wanted to put my head on his chest and have his arms around me. I reckoned I would feel ever so safe there.
And I was braver than I am now. We kissed by the photocopier, then outside by the entrance. He was a very good kisser you know, soft and hard at the same time. I could feel the longing in him. He was very strong, I was surprised. I took him back to mine and we smoked some of my flat mate Zoey’s weed, it was pungent and made me even sleepier, and he told me about his parents’ divorce and about his mother, he told me he loved her very much, and he told me about his wife, how she was very clever and very pretty, they wanted different things, sometimes she scared him and he hurt her. We were sat on the sofa and I took his hand and guided it to my tit. When he kissed me it was like sharing a secret. It felt kind and earnest. I felt warm-cold sensations like trickling liquid all the way down me, through me. My ovaries didn’t explode or anything but it was a lovely feeling nonetheless. Usually I closed my eyes when they came, I didn’t like the way it changed their faces. But this time I kept them open. He looked just like a little boy.
And I told him about where I was now which wasn’t really anywhere, and about my flat mates Tanya and Zoey, and I told him about being younger. I told him my mother was strung out on pills like a cliché and my friend Devin, a cliché himself, dreamed of America like it would save him. He would give the Statue of Liberty a good old snog, that always made me laugh. I told Matthew Fairchild that I had always just wanted to be a mother. And my husband who was not yet my husband told me I was beautiful. And he didn’t say it like it might sound. He said it like he had listened and he had understood and he thought that I was beautiful on the inside and the outside. And I wanted to show him my tits again, I wanted to show him everything, and it went on for a year and then he divorced his wife. I was the Other Woman but I wasn’t a Home-Wrecker, they didn’t have any children you see.
I remember when he told me he had left his wife. Neither of us was vindictive or triumphant, we were both of us sorry. It was in the evening and I was in the flat I shared with Tanya and Zoey. Both of them were out and I was watching Friends and eating icecream. I never liked Friends but Matt did. When he came in he looked older. Years later I would see that again, I didn’t know it then. I didn’t touch him or kiss him, it wouldn’t have been right. I just looked at him and he sank down on the sofa and I got him a drink and he swallowed it down like it was nothing and looked into the bottom of the glass as if all the answers were swimming around in there and he just needed to put them in the right order so that they would make sense.
She already knew, he said. He had gotten angry. He had yelled at her. He had said if she had known why hadn’t she said anything? Why hadn’t she fucking confronted him? And she just gave him this look. And she said, Because I was waiting. I was waiting for you to come back.
I took the empty glass from him then and refilled it, it is how I fix most problems in my life now, and when I came back he had his face in his hands. I put the drink down at his feet and he looked up at me and he said, I love you. I think it was the least he ever meant it but it was the most fervent. He thought he meant it more than he did. And when we had sex I knew he was still thinking of Elisabeth. And I knew then that what he wanted most was to be justified. He always wanted to be doing something for the good of all. And that is why being a Cheating Shitbag killed him inside. And later that is what killed him too. When our boy was dead and everything he did was wrong. Because when a mother loses her child everything everyone does is wrong. And everything that everyone has ever done is wrong. Especially what she has done. And I think that my boy deserved better than Cheating Shitbag parents. I think he deserved better than anything we could ever have given him.
But I do remember when he was born my husband Matt did not stop crying for three hours. I put my hand on the broad rock of his back then as we sat on the bed with the cup of tea going cold next to me. I could feel the warmth radiating off him. He flinched in surprise and then pressed into my hand like a cat arching its back when it wants to be stroked. When our boy was born Matt did not stop crying for three hours and when he had stopped crying he rocked our baby in his arms and sang Fleetwood Mac’s Songbird to him and outside the leaves turned over on the trees and you could imagine for a moment that all the wars stopped in the world, just for one moment, but of course they never did. The guns never stopped for my boy.
And the wars don’t end do they? Once a plane crashed into a tower, once an archduke was assassinated, once a man said illegal drugs were PUBLIC ENEMY NUMBER ONE. Wars happen, sometimes we can pinpoint their beginning and sometimes we can’t. I never knew how they spun out of control but I think it begins long before the actual beginning. It builds and gathers. It can start with the death of a boy maybe but it can start too with a flash of teaspoon when you have come back home from your mother-in-law’s to a quiet boyless house, narrowed pupils for an instant to pinholes and then they shoot out again, and the teabags are silky wet, plop plop in the bin, and leaves shimmy to the ground like taffeta off a lady in the prurient wind, and the bangles on your arms scream together. You could stay here forever making tea, it would make everyone quite happy: a constant circuit, singing REACH FOR THE TEABAGS in your head, not even that, such a quiet thoughtless process: reach for the teabags, softly drop them in the pot or in the mug, and the kettle rumbles like a hungry belly and the whole world is in its place and calm. You could stay here forever pouring the nicest colour in the world, stirring and stirring, clink clink. You could stay here thinking nothing, empty as a shell, for the longest time you can imagine.
Matt says he is thinking but I don’t hear what he is thinking because I am stirring in the one sugar for him and the three for me. You might never have a sugar in anything but I don’t mind about thin legs and a nice waist. Besides, sugar is good for shock and so is vodka, I will tell you about that in a minute.
Matt says, Hazel. I look up, What’s that? I wish I hadn’t. He has more lines around his mouth than I remember. He says he was thinking about going away for a while on a holiday. I am only half-listening, I am concentrating on being a robot transporter for the teas, careful to be straight and sharp. He says we haven’t been on a proper holiday just us two in ages, but I remind him how we went on holiday last summer. I sit diagonally from him and slide my hand onto his thigh. We went with the boy. He was so excited on the ferry. He ran up and down shouting. He pretended he was a pirate. He was a pirate seagull with his arms out like wings. Matt smiles at the memory but it isn’t quite a smile. I think he is disapproving and sad. He doesn’t want to be talking about these things. I hug my mug with my hands and look off at nothing, remembering our boy, his bright pale face in the wind. LOOK MUMMY LOOK, he had shouted and he had run up and down ARR like a pirate and squawking like a seagull. We had gone to Normandy. It was the first time my boy had gone abroad and he was so excited. It was the second time I had. The ferry had made me queasy and so had the food at the restaurant Matt took us to but the boy was happy he went Bonjour bonjour and all the French people smiled and waved at the little English boy with his blonde hair and pearly grin.
But we haven’t got a little boy to take on holiday anymore so I just blow on my tea. My breath skims the surface like wing beats over a lake when the geese fly south.
Matt says it would be nice to go away but I tell him how nothing is right Away: the water tastes funny and the food is different and you don’t know when you might next have a cup of tea. I am trying to say no in a nice way, I really am. I’m not moaning. I am trying to be light-hearted. And Matt looks at me. It is very quiet. I sip my tea and wait for him to do the same. It worries me him leaving his tea sat there all unwanted, losing heat by the minute. Haze, he says. I’m trying to help us.
Help, I say like I have never heard the word. HELP ME MUMMY! my boy screams in my head. HELP ME.
Matt says, Don’t you think that’s what we need?
I think about that. What we need/want/need. I think about the tiny pills the nurse gave me at the hospital after my boy was shot dead by a maniac, innocent as daisy petals in the palm of your hand, dry and acrid on your tongue. Line them up: make a train to slumber, to safe black oblivion, a moving senseless land, a curving path to dreamy bleak content. I suppose it is true what they say: we all turn into our mothers. This is what you need, the nurse had said to me like maybe my mum had said to herself as she pop pop popped pills like a dutiful twentieth century housewife should. A Little Help. I think about how different the word Help can be even when it means the same thing: an offer or a plea, aid, guidance, a balm, a remedy, or an entreaty for assistance, for deliverance. And I do not know which one my husband means. I wonder if the maniac who shot my boy had thought the bullet was A Little Help. Maybe he was saving my boy from the EVIL MEN OF THE WORLD. Maybe it wasn’t the other way around.
There was a picture of my boy in the newspaper. I got letters you know from other mothers saying how sorry they were, how their thoughts were with me, and in the end Matt would open them because I couldn’t bear it. COULDN’T. BEAR. IT. You’re not on your own, Matt would say. He would get ever so angry. You’re not the only one who’s hurting. You’re not the only one who’s lost their little boy. And he would be so stiff and there would be tears in his eyes and I would look at him falling to pieces and I didn’t feel anything for him. I sat there for a minute watching him falling to pieces and then I picked up all those stupid letters from those stupid women and I ripped them in half and then in half again and again until all those sorrys and all those thoughts were just confetti and then we both just stood and sat there staring at each other with the hole in the shape of our boy between us and the hole was filled up with our rage and our grief and our guilt our own harrowing wisdom and it swelled and swelled and it looked like hate and it was all the broken souls in the world and the lost tempers and the madness and the sadness and the gunshots and the knives and the pills and the love that went wrong and the poison that seeped into every crevice all the kings and executions all the stinking compost of paupers the women burned at stakes the religious wars the terrorists the oil the abductions the child brides and the violent zest of it and its absurd worthless potency and the anger that dysfunctional camouflage of shame and sadness that useless accusatory rebuttal the hot red cheap blame and easy remorse and the savage wounds flayed and picked at and opened and cauterized and the dreams Gone Up In bitter Smoke. Matt said to me, What have you turned into? And I didn’t even feel sorry for him, not one bit even, with his blue eyes that were my little boy’s eyes and the soft break in his voice.
Matt asks me what I am thinking but what I am thinking about are the lines at the corners of his eyes and I can’t tell him that. The want in his face to understand, to give, to concede and conclude in some way a bad chapter, to turn to a fresh page, to shuffle and clip together into wholesome sense all that had been until it wasn’t messy, to make it neat, to make it simple, like rounding up all the problems in your life into one concise overused cliché. And I have always known that I am simple but the thing is I can see the mess too and it stretches further than Matt knows and it is more complex than he can grasp, however clever he might be, and I am not sure if it is because I am a mother or because I am a woman but I think that I get it a lot more than he does but at the same time I think he is only pretending and he can feel it too, like leaving your stomach behind in a great plunge. I want to apologize but only because I feel sorry for him. I don’t have the conscience to be guilty, I don’t know how.
I say very gently to my husband, It doesn’t matter where we are. It doesn’t matter if we are in our home with his pictures on the fridge and his crayon marks on the walls or if we are in a foreign country thousands of miles away. Our boy is still dead and it won’t stop hurting if we’re riding camels in the desert or fucking in a hotel room in the Champs Elysees.
He flinches at the word ‘fucking’, maybe it is the softness of my voice, maybe it is because that word is not right for husband and wife. We’re just animals, I think to my husband but I don’t say it. We’re just animals: we run on lust and the instinct to survive. We hurt we break we burn we get sick and we get tired, but we keep on going and going, we don’t know how to stop.
I don’t know who you are anymore, he says and I can see the saliva in his mouth. There are tears pouring down his face. It’s just me, love, I start to say but I don’t think he can see or hear. I DON’T UNDERSTAND. I’M MEANT TO MAKE IT BETTER. I’M THE MAN I’M MEANT TO FIX IT. WHY CAN’T I FIX IT HAZE? WHY CAN’T I FUCKING FIX IT? And he stands up then and he walks across the room and opens the door and leaves. My boy puts his arms around my neck and stares out the window at the hunched-up figure of his dad on the pavement.
I sit there then looking at where he had been sat and I feel bad for him but I cannot care enough. And I think that is when you know. When your husband can’t do the DIY on the whole structure of what you have and you don’t even care and you don’t even care that he cries. I think that is when you know you are made up of a load of cells and not much else. And that is how it’s always going to be. And I am going to write this to you personally because I think that you will understand and I am going to tell you about that. I am going to tell you about how one bit of metal can turn you upside down and shake every last drop of anything from even a simple girl like me and leave a shell who just hurts like an animal hurting and being angry and bitter and not much else. And I am not going to tell you that it gets better. I am going to tell you the truth and I think that is very important. Even my boy knew that and he was six years old.
That night I went to bed alone and I waited for Matt to come home. Maybe he was at the pub or his mother’s or at his friend Simon’s. Maybe he was driving round and round in circles. Even my boy was quiet, I knew he was worried about his dad. Don’t worry, darling, I said, Daddy will be home soon. It’s past his bedtime now, he’ll be dog-tired. My boy just curled up in bed with me and tucked his feet in my belly like he always did for comfort and didn’t say a word, poor love.
I was just dropping off to sleep when I heard the key in the front door. I lay there and waited for Matt to come in. When he did at last he was very quiet, he didn’t want to wake me. My boy snuffled in his sleep and turned his head away from me. I could feel him humming with dreams.
Matt slipped into bed next to me and lay there on his back looking up at the ceiling. I turned over so I was facing him. I hope you don’t think badly of me but I just couldn’t bring myself to say sorry. Everyone was sorry and I was sick of it and to be honest with you I think my husband was too. Where have you been? I said instead.
Just driving, he said.
He probably shouldn’t have been driving in that state but it is hard to know what to do when your only little boy is dead. This was Matthew Fairchild, the well-respected lawyer, he had a leather briefcase and lots of big long words, he had his own office, he had a mother who loved him, he had qualifications galore, and he was tall and handsome and kind, and what he did now was he drove round and round in circles, up and down all the streets where he had kissed his wife and drunk his pint and hummed on his way to work, up and down all the streets where his little boy had scootered at seventy miles an hour, and then he came home and lay next to his wife and for all his big long words and for all his qualifications he didn’t know what to say. And I lay there and my boy was less tangible than smoke and there was a massive great hole inside me and its edges were raw they pulsed throbbing pain with my heartbeat I just ached and ached I was so empty I slid my hand down my husband’s pyjama bottoms. When you’re that empty you just want to be filled up, you just want something to take your mind off it all. My husband looked at me in the dark. I could see how frightened he was and he could see how frightened I was. In the dark his eyes were as bright as marbles. He started kissing me and I squeezed my eyes tight shut I ached and ached and maybe if I believed hard enough the aching I felt would be lust. Sometimes I do get so confused with what I am feeling. I ached and I was empty so I thought maybe if my husband made love to me I would feel better. He was kissing and licking and biting me, I didn’t recognize him, he felt almost angry, I think he was so empty too. For a moment I was so glad he was there. I leaned into him, I was kissing him frantically, we were both of us frantic to keep the emptiness at bay ,I leaned into him so he was lying back on the pillow and I sat astride him and I could feel him wanting me and I was so full of pain and lust it felt like rage and I gripped the skin on his chest and clawed my fingers I wanted to hurt him and he gasped and then he had his hands around my waist and he rose up to meet me he was kissing my throat and he was inside me and he was pulling my hair and I felt so hot and shivery and lovely I just gasped and sighed and rocked his hands were big and strong on my waist it was so familiar and so strange he was my husband and he was a stranger and I gripped his hair like I would pull it out of his scalp I was so far away and then just as we came in synchrony I heard that BOOM and the clatter of my boy’s broken glasses falling to the floor and I gasped and held my husband tight to me and pressed my face into his neck and I knew I would never be able to escape it.
The next day I got up at seven and I was so blind drunk when my husband found me at half-past nine that I couldn’t stand. There was a broken wine bottle next to me and there was snot and tears down my face and a little bit of sick in my hair. When I saw my husband stood in the doorway in his dressing gown I wanted to kill him so he wouldn’t look at me like how he was looking at me again. So when he squatted down in front of me with his sad blue eyes and his morning stubble I picked up the broken bottle and I swiped it across his lovely face. It was just scratches across his face, they weren’t deep, but there was blood running down his chin and his neck and into the hair on his chest and I had to squeeze my eyes tight shut so I wouldn’t see it and the whole world was spinning. When I opened my eyes again my husband wasn’t there.
A little while later with my boy and my husband both gone Christmas came. I wasn’t fussed about Christmas but it came along anyway and it was quite an eventful Christmas, I will tell you about it. What I want everyone to know is what it is like to be a mother without a child so they might understand how endless and eternal a mother’s love is, so they might understand that mothering is the foundation of life, the bricks and mortar of human solidarity. I want everyone to feel how a mother can love without bounds or restraint, even when she has no child to love, and then I think they all might come close to realizing what I mean to say. For I realize now why I am writing this, for it is something that we all must know, it is something that we all already know, this fossil primordial knowledge, this fundamental philosophy dormant beneath our skin which compels that deepest science as hot as burning comets in our life’s blood. Maybe the boy will come home then. Maybe they will all come home.
My boy loved Christmas. He wouldn’t be able to sleep the night before. Father Christmas won’t come if you’re not asleep, I would tell him and he would giggle and snuggle under his covers, I AM ASLEEP I AM ASLEEP. There would be his stocking at the end of his bed and his Thomas the Tank Engine night-light making a sleepy glow in the corner. I would sit on his bed and stroke the trembling lump until he poked his head out all rosy and glowing such a happy little boy my boy was and he would grin at me showing two perfect rows of perfect little teeth. He had such a cheeky grin it would break my heart every time. Get to sleep now little man, I would say to him and then I would lean in and kiss his forehead and then his nose to make him giggle again and then I would get up and he would go, Stop Mummy and I would have to lean in again and he would give me a big slobbery kiss on the cheek with his lovely pink tongue and I would go, Bleurgh you little monster but I wouldn’t tickle him because that would get him even more excited. Night-night baby, I would say instead and blow him a kiss from the doorway and he would snatch it from the air with his little hand. NIGHT-NIGHT MUMMY.
I can almost hear him now. I can hear him rattling his bed MUMMY MUMMY laughing his little head off at whatever little boys love to laugh at and I can hear him go quiet and then MUMMY THERE’S A MAN IN MY ROOM and then MUMMY MUMMY HELP ME MUMMY screaming because he’s so scared even though he was my brave little soldier and I can hear the gunshot that shattered everything and a maniac’s laughter because you’d have to be a maniac to kill my boy, there is no other explanation.
I wish I could describe the sky to you that Christmas, how it was sulphur and charcoal and a bloody red as if the sun had set over a spent war, a strange amalgam of earth metal smoke embers, oldest sun and crimson cardinal rivers, and the tops of the trees were groping at it like lecherous old men, and when I looked out the window at the black garden it was like the world tipped forward ever so slightly even though when I was little they told me we’re spinning round all the time. God that’s mental, I’d thought. It was so quiet in the kitchen. In the living room there was the road that filled the walls with noise and lights but in the kitchen it was so quiet it made my teeth ache set me on edge. I was all wired up electric. I was sat at the table writing and I’d got a nice cup of tea and I had lit some candles which were nice they smelt like birthdays or churches and you know what it was times like that that even though I was all alone it didn’t actually seem so bad. I could picture my boy in his little bedroom with his posters on the wall one of Harry Potter and one of the planets and his Buzz Lightyear duvet cover and his gorgeous sleepy head and I could imagine Matt had gone out for a bottle of wine and he was going to be back in a minute and we would drink the wine and I would smoke some cigarettes even though Matt always hated that I smoked. And we would check in on our boy before going to bed and he would be sleeping so peacefully. Then me and Matt would get into bed together but we wouldn’t have sex we would just cuddle up real close. It is the simplest joy in the world to have a family safe and healthy under a roof within walls. That is what I imagined and I don’t think it is a bad thing to imagine even if it was dangerous because sometimes I would get so caught up in it I would almost forget my boy is dead and I haven’t got a husband. Or I have but only on paper. It was dangerous because there my boy was breathing in the next room and I was there in the kitchen very mature like I never imagined I could be in my own flat married with a child and a cup of tea and there look my own handmade curtains and my husband would be home soon and he loved me so much and I loved him and we both loved our boy more than anything else in the world.
That Christmas I popped out to the offie late at night for some fags and some Curly Wurlys and there was a man selling roasted chestnuts on the street corner. I was walking fast because it was cold I could see my breath and I had my arms crossed over my thin wool coat. I was wearing some awful white sports trainers. They didn’t make much noise on the pavement when I was walking. When I looked up at the sky I could see the moon and even a few stars which is unusual in the city I’m sure you know up in Heaven looking down on these grimy splodges dotted all over the Earth. The night sky in the city is swollen and bruised with light pollution and air pollution it is the colour of grease stains and fag ends and the secret violence in your husband’s eyes. I was walking down the street and as I came towards this man I thought I heard something. I stopped. My eyes were wide. They shone black with reflections. You wanna buy some chestnuts? I didn’t speak. I was waiting. A bus zoomed past in the street ahead. I was waiting and waiting still as can be. The moon was fat and silver in the fat brownish sky. I knew it was pulling the tides lighting the forests. And then there it was again. Clearer than anything had ever been before. Clearer than shouting than cars than people selling chestnuts than knives and bombs and screaming clearer than religion and war and police cars wailing clearer than the mothers in labour and the guns shooting. MUMMY. Are you alright lady? asked the chestnut man. Do you want some chestnuts? MUMMY. MUMMY. What baby? MUMMY. What you little monster? I LOVE YOU. Oh God baby I love you too more than anything oh my baby I love you so much. It all spilled out of me there in the street and I was crouched down on the pavement cradling myself crying and crying like a crazy person and people were walking past me. I didn’t blame them. I would have too.
Here love have some chestnuts, said the chestnut man and he thrust a warm bag into my hand. It felt like a living thing a kitten or a baby. You get on home now. He helped me up. Come on now. You get home to your boyfriend.
I haven’t got a boyfriend, I told him. It’s just me and my little boy. Then I ran down the street. I ran and ran it was lucky I wore them trainers after all because my boy was home on his own wasn’t he what a terrible mother I was leaving him alone and when I got home the flat was dark and silent and I curled up in my bed shaking and shaking and listening to the quiet put things where they are meant to be: dead little boys and unwanted play things and husbands that you have lost to the world.
And when I had calmed down I got to thinking about the boy’s mother. For some reason I was wondering what type of person she was at school. I bet she was clever because she went to university and she was a teacher. I never liked school. I wasn’t any good at the lessons the spelling and the equations and algebra and all the oceans and atoms and molecules God it went right over my head and I would sit there looking out the window thinking not much because of I wasn’t a big thinker I might have mentioned that already but what can you do you’re born how you’re born. There are kids at school who are clever and try hard and kids who have to try to get the good grades and there are kids who are clever as anything and just can’t be arsed teachers hate them kids and there are the kids who just aren’t good at school. They just aren’t right that way. You might call them STUPID and I suppose maybe you would be right but there are all different kinds of stupid. There is no way I was clever I was no good at maths or writing or anything but I can sew curtains and I can make the perfect cuppa and God if I weren’t good at anything else I was just perfect at loving my boy. I wasn’t a bad wife either. Some men would love me as a wife. I never complained I had dinner on the table for when my husband came home even if it was mostly frozen food oven chips and that and I ironed his shirts I was hardly ever in a bad mood honestly only when Matt wasn’t home from work and sometimes he didn’t come home till early morning and I wouldn’t sleep until he came in I would just lie in bed waiting and if I did fall asleep he would wake me up he always did I was a light sleeper. Then it would be me got up early in the morning for our boy because Matt had been at work all night and when my boy was a baby it was me got up to feed him and Matt would tut and sigh because he had work didn’t he as if it was my fault our baby did what all babies do and screamed the house down. I’m not complaining though. I never did complain well maybe occasionally but it was always a shock to Matt when I did because you see it was hardly ever. But anyway all I want you to know is that I decided enough was enough that Christmas when my boy was dead and my husband was gone. I used a bottle of vodka and the lovely pills from the doctor. Like I might have mentioned it is true what they say: we all turn into our mothers. I was falling apart at the seams. So firstly I had a couple of pills. I held them on my tongue like pearls under my tongue crushed them in my teeth and then I lined up some shot glasses and filled them with vodka and then went 1 2 3 and downed one two three four five shots of vodka and then I got a mug from the draining board and poured some more vodka into it and had some more pills and let the vodka soak them up. I chain-smoked for a while. The cigarettes blossomed in the dark. I let them burn my lips. And then I got out some paper and a pen and I sat down at the kitchen table and I wrote my letter to God.
Dear God, I said with the sour ball of my finger tip pricking yellow-white on the pen. Dear God I know you done some good things in the world. I used to see them every day. You make pretty days with sunshine and you make wonderful beaches I seen glossy and blue in magazines and you make some people lovely and rich. I know you done good things in the world because you gave me a wonderful man for a husband. Even if he weren’t the world’s best husband he’s still a wonderful man. And you gave me my boy. Then you gone and took him away. And I won’t lie to you God because lying is a sin. I hate you. I hate you for taking my boy. He was such a beautiful boy God and I’ll bet you know that and maybe that is why you took him because you wanted him with you although if you are as all-powerful as they say then surely you could have made a boy just the same up in Heaven? I’d have had rainy days and been poor for the rest of my life if only you’d have let me keep my boy. What I have found out though God is you don’t do no bargaining or such maybe cause you don’t have no hands to shake on a deal I like to think but it is probably that you just don’t care enough to make them. My sister when she was young said you were dead. She said it was all a fairy tale all them stories about Joan of Arc and the one about the bloke who got swallowed by a whale. I know that’s blasphemy but I don’t think you care anyways. If you don’t care about taking little boys from their mothers then you sure as hell don’t care about hurt little girls having a go at the stories in your book. I don’t know how you had hands to write that book though God when you don’t have no hands to shake on a deal and give my boy back to me. I know your son got killed God and I know you might be angry about that but you got your boy back and that is all I am asking. For my little boy back with me here with his football shirt and his hair like a field of corn been cut down. Fish fingers with mash and ketchup because that was his favourite. And the gorgeous smell of him. Like a mixture of milk and soap of wild animal with briary fur and Neapolitan icecream. So good and sweet and clean and just plain good because little boys never do any wrong. Not my little boy anyway. My husband’s mother said my boy was an angel and she might have been wrong about most things but that was one thing she was right about.
Well I know you didn’t do all the bad stuff in the world God and I reckon all the rage and sadness in the world is connected I think a war could start just as easily from a burnt piece of toast or a speeding fine as it could from religious extremism. I mean it is people that start wars innit not religion. I have never heard of a Bible or a Qur’an picking up a gun or throwing a grenade I mean they don’t have hands do they? I don’t know what it is that makes us all so selfish and sorry for ourselves but I’ll tell you something I am the very worst I am so full of hate I am sick with it. I am rotten from the inside out.
Anyway God all I am saying is for you to put your scissors away and stop cutting these holes all over the place and leaving these big ugly gaps in the world and making homes into Swiss cheese. It’s not on God and I should know you took my son. I hate you God. I hate you in the east and in the west and in your heavens and in your vengeance and most of all in your sweetness in a mother holding her child for the first time. I hate you for your thievery and for the love you bestow.
I had to stop writing then for the sting of salt the shudder of my spine. And when I had had enough pills I went into my boy’s room and it was a miracle: there he was my gorgeous gorgeous boy with his cheeky grin like a slice of sunshine big as watermelon. My prayers were answered. The pills were rosary beads the vodka holy water. God had answered me quicker than I’d expected which was good seeing as I didn’t know his address. Hello Mummy are you going to kiss me goodnight? Of course angel boy, I said and I hugged him so hard and fierce and he didn’t say anything he just let me cry and snot and dribble all over him. My precious baby my gorgeous lovely angel boy I love you so much oh God I love you. And I lay there with him for a while. It was lovely. We didn’t talk much. I just looked into his little rosy face and he smiled at me letting me look at him with the tears running down onto the pillow and I stroked his face and I told him how much I loved him. I love you. You’re my boy. I love you.
When he was asleep I went for a bath and I took the phone in with me because we had a phone you could take off the hook and walk round with. I stripped off while the water was running and I swept my hand round and round to get the right temperature then I got in with the water still running so I could imagine I was swimming under a waterfall and I lay there in the bath and I rang my friend Paula. Paula, I said sweet with joy. I turned the water off so I could hear.
What? It was about three in the morning and Paula’s voice was low and scratchy with sleep.
I said I needed to tell her something. It’s alright, I said. Everything’s alright now. I told her he isn’t dead. My boy. He’s asleep in his bed. He’s a little angel sleeping. I told her I am so happy. I told her it is going to be fine. Me and my boy we’ll have pancakes for breakfast in the morning. We’ll have whatever my boy wants. He can have ketchup and chocolate sauce and marshmallows. He’ll be so happy. He’ll get it all over his face in his hair he’s such a messy pup but I don’t care. I love him so much.
Paula said she was coming over. She told me to stay there not to move alright. She would be right over. Then she rang an ambulance and gave them my address and then she drove over to mine. I think I must have realized that maybe my boy wasn’t really in his bed after all because she found me under the water with the tip of my nose just above the surface. Everything was floaty and far away it was very nice. Paula pulled my head and chest out of the water and I threw up everywhere and she tried to get me out of the bath so she could get me into the recovery position and get me dry but I was all floppy and messed up. This is not a tragedy Mary this is a love story but I don’t think Paula saw that she didn’t see the hope shining in the whites of my up-rolled eyes. She tried to wrap a towel round me and hold my head up so the vomit didn’t run into my lungs and drown me. I don’t really remember this. I kept blacking out. When the paramedics came I was unconscious. I woke up in hospital. I had my stomach pumped it was awful.
Paula contacted Matt. When he came he was very white. He looked quite shaken. I knew I looked like shit. I could see it in his face. God Hazel. What have you done to yourself? I thought he could at least have made a joke. Maybe had a laugh at me lying there all sick and wan in a hospital bed like an old lady. But he didn’t he just looked at me. He was wearing a smart black coat and he had a briefcase which he put on the floor next to the chair when he sat down across from the hospital bed as if he was self-conscious of it. He looked very inadequate. I remember thinking, Who do you think you are? You’re just a man. Look how sensible you are and boring and pointless. You’re no better than me. He looked so tired. I looked away from him. I stared out the window at the whitish sky. A pigeon’s wing made a scratch in the clouds. The sun was big and pale and watery and I could see my boy’s face in it like in the Teletubbies. He looked like a silver shield guarding the city.
Matt said to me I needed help. I didn’t say anything and he cleared his throat like he found it awkward like I was being difficult. He said he could get me support. He said he would pay for therapy. I told him I didn’t want his money. I told him I didn’t care what it was about. I told him I didn’t want help and I didn’t want him. I just wanted to be left ALONE. And I closed my eyes. I waited and waited for it to stop hurting. I wonder now if you can understand the love from the pain. When I opened my eyes in the hospital my husband and his briefcase were gone.
So I just lay there and waited for them to tell me I was better. It seemed to take a long time. The night was uncoiled and unpinned outside or perhaps it was unfolded and pinned up by the stars and it knocked at the windows and breathed over the sheets and settled and then rose and scuttled and called and then lay still again as blankets over a restless sleeper. I lay there awake and imagined towns and cities with lights spilling pinkish oil and burping traffic and neon signs and the shouts and retching of drunks. I imagined fields blacker than the sky and narrow unlit lanes and the open mouths of ditches. I imagined the world outside and I was glad of it. I was glad of the lorries trundling along glittering roads all across the country. I was glad of the takeaway joints the spitting fat and the girls licking their greasy fingers and clacking their heels and the smoke of a thousand cigarettes gathering into the bruised swollen sky brownish and close with pollution and the moon obscure cold and distant and comforting and the pricks of stars. It was a comfort to me knowing that there were others who shared the night. The ones tossing and turning in their beds too the ones fingering their worries like rosary beads praying to gods they do not believe in. And the lorry drivers and the prostitutes and the party-goers and the women running with their children from abusive boyfriends and the drunks and heroin addicts and crackheads and the couples chatting with wine and weed changing the world or imagining they were with their words and the feverish writers and the sick children and the nurses strolling up and down these hospital wards giving moments of reprieve. It was a comfort to me that there was a world outside that room harsh and brash and violent and electric. It was a comfort to me with the other patients warm and sick in the other beds along the ward that there were people out there enduring enduring and enduring for those small brief sought-after seclusions of pleasure interludes of respite. In the hospital bed I thought about the dreams of people big bloated balloons hovering above them the loose strings in their fists tauter and tauter tearing slices in their palms. A Hollywood star a lollipop-red Ferrari dying young of drugs or a hairpin bend on a motorbike in the rain a princess Beyoncé a back-up singer for Aretha Franklin. And I thought about Being Realistic. And watching the balloons vivid scores of them heaving bright bob into the halo-coloured sky. But somebody still hauls theirs down blows and blows filling it with stardom success it inflates MOVIE STARS FOOTBALLERS SUPERMODELS ASTRONAUTS OLYMPIANS ROCKSTARS and they rise and rise. What I wanted was to know that there are people out there who want to be goat-herders in the mountains with no shoes and a house made of clay and straw. People who are just happy to see the sun rise over the mountain and to feed the goats before breakfast. What I wanted was the comfort of knowing that out there in caves in mountains and valleys in makeshift shacks on sunny hilltops are people waking up and going fishing in lakes and cooking the fish on fires of bracken and looking up at night and seeing the same stars as me when I looked up at night out of the hospital window. I was just so tired the thought of everyone rushing about made me sick.
I never thought I would be lying in a hospital bed after trying to kill myself I expect most people never do think that. I lie in that bed for two days and I stare blankly at the serious doctors and the cheery nurses. I stare at the visitors who come to see their sick families and sick friends. There is a rosy wailing little girl a hand-clasped couple. There is always more. The dips in the earth the moist push and swell of it the rising steam the loop of a bird and its oily feathers and its sloe eyes and the tangle of nettles and berry bushes and frayed tails of clouds all of this stardust. I chew the inside of my cheeks. I hate, I think but don’t finish though there is so much to add. The crisp hospital sheets the judder of my brain just trying its hardest the hangover that never quite surfaces but hums perilously beneath my skull the warped shapes of the trees the pinched haunted faces of the men and women who have suffered so much more than I ever will the governments that allow that the wide twist of the sky and the paper chain drapery of leaves the people everywhere in the hospital on the streets in the fields the houses in the planes that draw lines and which I imagine rattling suddenly an acrid filter of smoke a sudden awesome burst of heat and then pulverized dust and grit and sailing bodies imagine so fiercely I almost see it. I lie in the hospital Mary and I wish that I was dead.
But the hospital food isn’t great and I know my boy must be waiting at home for me so I put on the clothes Paula brought me and I walk out of that hospital onto a bright December day. And you’ll never believe it Mary but my boy comes bounding to meet me only a street away. He is smiling and clean so I know the woman in the flat below must have been looking after him. She did that sometimes you know when the babysitter wasn’t around. My boy wants to go and stand on the bridge over the river so I let him drag me along. I am laughing Mary with my boy telling me to come on Mummy come on for goodness’ sake because he always was too fast for me. And when I look out over the river I can see how it is a wound through the land. A snake rippling with muscle gnawing and sucking at sodden earth and slime and stone it passes holding reflections in its succulent brown body and we watch it from the bridge me and my boy slurping and guzzling hungry snake. Where are its eyes the half-glazed yellow beams of the sunning snake? But it doesn’t need eyes does it for it holds images of the world along it. It feels blindly its path swallows evidence to spew back up again later or to keep shelter and hold a belly full of secrets. Me and my boy looking down from the bridge we can see ourselves distorted and shimmering in its fluid skin and my boy waves and there is the sky blue as his eyes. We wonder what that snake thinks shimmying through the city all these years hearing and feeling it building itself up and breaking itself down burning and growing and heaving and crying and sighing and never being saved. All the different skies this snake has had floating on its surface all the people waving down. Let’s not be sentimental though. It’s only a river. It’s only a lot of people going about their lives. It don’t even matter that in the foul stinking bottom is the decay of body upon body. It is an open grave surging through the city but I swear to God that don’t matter at all.
Nothing matters at all because like God I HAVE A PLAN. For the first time since my boy got shot dead by a maniac I HAVE A PLAN. My boy is delighted with me. He says, That is a BRILLIANT plan Mummy. That is the BEST PLAN EVER. I tell him, Thank you very much darling. Who would have thought your mum could be so clever?
It is funny how a six-shot double-action revolver chambered for the .44 Magnum cartridge can give you such beautiful plans. It is funny how at the time of its introduction it was the most powerful production handgun and how its power snakes through time from 1955 to the present and suddenly you are searching for your childhood sweetheart so that he can help you with your big plan. It is funny how of all the guns in the world he had the one that Devin always wanted a revolver because he wanted to be a cowboy and he thought the revolver was just beautiful. Those are the words he used. Just beautiful. I’ve looked it up on Google images. It is as huge as the whole universe. It is sleek and glossy and terrifying. It is the ugliest thing I have ever seen.
May Day has come around again and I am quite upset that it has because what is the point in the weather getting nice when you have no little boy to take to the park and play footie and Frisbee with and buy icecream for but that’s how it goes innit May Day comes around of course it does it always will. Until the earth implodes spring will shamelessly thrust its way up out of the ground it don’t know not to. It is one year two months and twenty days since my boy died.
I think it is time for a Spring Clean. My mother loved to clean I channel her spirit. I know my boy is ashamed of me and it must be a terrible thing to be ashamed of one’s own mother. Silly mummy, I say to him brushing my teeth. Silly mummy what’s she like? I clean the flat and carefully shove all that my husband left behind in a bin bag and I tidy and dust and scrub and wipe down and sweep. I leave my boy’s scribbles on the walls but I take down his pictures on the fridge and the magnet that says Best Mummy in the World and put them away in a box. I leave my boy’s room but that is alright. I am worried if I tidy it away in boxes he won’t visit anymore even though I know in a secret part of me he shouldn’t be visiting. But he does and he needs somewhere to sleep.
I put on Beyoncé’s Single Ladies and I choose my clothes carefully. It is the first time in more than a year. I look in the wardrobe. When you have a plan you must wear a good dress. It is very important. You must feel good and powerful and sexy and strong. You must feel like you can take on the world.
I put on my pink cotton shift dress because it is the brightest thing I own. Underneath I am wearing a matching bra and knickers set. I have got ever so skinny. My ribs and hip bones shine harshly white. My tiffany wedding ring wriggles and sparks on my finger. In my head I keep thinking I HAVE A PLAN. I HAVE A PLAN. It is funny how a revolver with as many shots as my boy had years can do this to you. I put on a bit of makeup. I pinch my cheeks and lipstick my lips. What a beautiful lady! I say to the reflection in the mirror and then laugh high and girlish. My boy laughs with me. Outside is a very pretty day. The flowers are in bud and the sun makes bright squares on the pavement and the leaves are spangled with light. I have a cup of tea and I put on the nice black suede ankle boots my husband bought me. £90 they cost him. We could have bought my little boy so many nice things with that. Don’t worry, Matt said reading my mind. I bought the boy something too. It was a remote control helicopter. My boy’s face beamed out rays of joy. It whizzed round the house flashing and whirring. It made him the happiest boy in the world although I don’t know if Matt bought it just for the boy because you see it was very hard to get it off him when he had a go. I smile when I think about that. I am so glad my boy had his dad. I am so glad his dad bought him a remote control helicopter that flashed and whirred. I am so glad.
I put on my boots and finish my cup of tea and then I put on my leather jacket and I go out into the world.
I find Devin on the high street with his banjo. He has his cowboy hat upturned at his feet. As always he is wearing a white t-shirt even though there is a spring chill in the air and faded jeans and dirty Pumas. He is playing the banjo half-heartedly and I can see the rage of frustration in his shoulders. Poor boy, I think. I have a plan don’t worry darling. We will rebuild the world greater and mightier than ever before.
Howdy cowboy, I say.
His eyes widen when he sees me. I am glad I put makeup on. Hey baby, he says.
I almost say Don’t call me that but I bite my tongue. Maybe I could be his baby. Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad.
Drink? he says. I don’t know what has happened to him. He used to have so many words. He is drained now the passion is gone. He is pale and old on the first day of spring. Where are all the big long words? I want to know. Where is that clever arrogant boy? Make me believe in you. Make me believe full stop.
It is me with the plan though. I have a plan NA NA NANA NA. My boy shouts FOOTBALL CRAZY FOOTBALL MAD again. He loves to shout he could be so loud. When he sang Abba in the bath sometimes I would hold my ears and he would laugh and sing louder. I watch my boy shouting at the pigeons and say to Devin, Yeah go on then. He packs up his banjo and we go to the pub and I tell him my plan.
First of all I begin with what Devin is too tired to say. Princess Diana and John Lennon, I say. The War on Drugs the War on Terror oil bombs nuclear weapons deforestation the ring of elite paedophiles hunger. I don’t know all that much but I have a lot of passion. It is for all these reasons, I say to Devin, that sometimes only sometimes I am glad my boy doesn’t have to see them too.
What are you talking about Haze? he says. He thinks I am mad. But I know the truth. I tell Devin all about my boy. I even show him a picture. Look Devin, I say, this is the child fiery vermilion. This is the child so you might understand the wound. My little boy is dead and suddenly I have found a way for him not to have died in vain. I have found HOPE FOR HUMANITY I am delirious with joy. I am so simple I am such a silly simple girl I think I will show them a picture of my boy and the whole world will look at him and they will put down their guns and say How about a nice cuppa? This is what happens when your baby dies you don’t want anyone else’s baby to die.
We can have an adventure Devin, I say. Like you always wanted. We can travel the country you with your banjo and me with my boy. It’s going to be okay darlin. We’re going to make it better.
I don’t know what has happened to Devin. He used to jitter with energy his leg was always bouncing up and down he could never keep still not for one moment. Now he is quiet and sad and dull. He is a washed-up cowboy he is tumbleweed. There is a tremor in his hands but it isn’t youth. What’s happened baby? I want to ask him. What’s happened to you? Instead I say, Drink up Cowboy. And as he drinks he becomes shiny and new.
We will rebuild the world greater and mightier than ever before. We have God on our side.
I take Devin back to the flat and I get out the old video and I put it in the video player. It is Elvis Presley Las Vegas 1970. I say, This was my boy’s favourite video. He loved Elvis. In the video Elvis is all in white. He glows like a 70s Jesus. My boy would always go quiet when the music stopped and the stage went black and then bang the lights come on and Elvis is in a different position and my boy cheered like mad and tried to copy him. I start with Elvis because he was a lovely sensitive boy just like my boy he loved his mother all he wanted was to buy his parents a house he didn’t drink and I know my boy would have been just as lovely and sensitive as Elvis only I have a suspicion that my boy was too lovely and sensitive for this world and he would have turned to drugs to soften the edges. I always have this feeling that my boy would have died young anyway. He was too sweet a boy and the world is harsh. He was too sweet and lovely a boy for a world such as this.
So it starts with Elvis. Then I show Devin my boy’s scooter he would roar down the street on it seventy miles an hour. I show him my boy’s parka and his Millennium Falcon and his Lego. I show him all my boy’s pictures of bright felt tip pressed too hard into the paper. I put on my boy’s favourite songs Starman Grandma’s Featherbed Banana Boat Song Rolling in the Deep. I sing Here Comes the Sun to Devin because I used to sing that to my boy when he was a baby. Then I take Devin’s hand and I take him round every single one of the statues in the city that my boy loved. I show him Queen Victoria and I tell him what I told my boy about Albert getting sick and dying and I tell Devin how my boy three years old howled and clung to me at the thought of death.
I walk along beside the river with Devin just like I used to with my boy. I show him the café where we used to have breakfast sometimes me my husband and my boy. I show him my boy’s primary school. The children stream out it’s three o’clock and I ache for my boy. This is love don’t we know it Mary. Don’t you and I know. Doesn’t Devin feel it in the terror for his unborn child. We will rebuild the world greater and mightier than before.
There is not that much I know Mary maybe you’ve guessed. I came from an ordinary family we didn’t have much but we just about got by I don’t have GCSEs or A Levels or a university degree I’ve only lived in two places in my whole life I’ve been abroad once I’ve worked two jobs I only had one husband I only had one boy we lived in our little flat I only knew the borders of my small world. Well your boy was from humble beginnings I’m sure people wouldn’t have thought you knew all that much but what I’ve decided Mary is that you and I what we know is just about enough. What we know is boy-shaped Mary and wider than the heavens. What we know fits right in our hearts. What we know could put the world to rights and I’ll show them I swear to God and you I’ll show them.
What happens is I end up in prison. The pervy old wind billows up skirts. I go to Tesco and I steal a cheese twist and a packet of wine gums and then I go to the park and sit on the swings. There is the seesaw that me and my little boy would play on and the tops of the trees. Being beautiful and strong being outrageous. I don’t know what is more important being good or being bad. I don’t know who decides these things. I watch my boy play in the sandpit.
Then a bloke comes up to me and sits on the neighbouring swing. His name is Joe and he likes writing poems and he has just taken an almost fatally large amount of ecstasy. I imagine his heart hot and furious and his gushing poisoned blood. I imagine his brain is lightning-bright a rainbow explosion vigorous threads bolting sizzling journeys of chemical impulse. How strange, I think, that his happiness now is so superficial and yet so unboundedly true physically and prolific and astounding. How strange that joy is only chemical just like love and through powder can be obtained this most immense explosion of scintillating fidelity. It is not real for a lifetime of good will not hold such awesome giddying intensity and yet it also is.
His jaw swings a little when he speaks. Alright? He has a beautiful neck. It is like a swan’s. The blackness of his pupils startles me. You could fit the whole universe inside them. He looks more alive than Matt had than Fran had than Paula. The world to him is distorted and maybe he is less alive I don’t know but at least it is honest. Alright, I say and I offer him a crisp. He takes a couple and grinds them between his teeth. His jaw swings a little and his eyes jitter. He swallows the crisps and he says, Guess what. He looks amazed at the feel of the crisps down his throat but I don’t think he notices. I think he is amazed at the tops of the trees the energy in his legs. Guess what guess what. Maybe if my boy was alive I would be scared of this man. Maybe his eyes would be wild and yellow like a mad wolf’s. What love? He says, I know and he chews his tongue. You know. It’s like that. You know. I tell him, Yeah. I know. And Yes! he shouts. It makes me smile and he grins at me. It is a mad grin holding nothing back. He offers it all there. He glows radiantly toxic-bright. You know. I know. That’s what it is. I’m Joe.
I’m Hazel, I tell him. What’s that? Hazel.
Oh hi Hazel, Joe says. You’re really pretty. I want you to know that. Don’t believe anyone who says you’re not alright? You’re really pretty. I want to touch your tit but I won’t. I’m not a pervert. I tell him, That’s alright Joe. He says, When people say you’re not don’t believe them alright? You are. You’re a good person. Some people don’t though. They think they’re bad. It makes them bad thinking that you know. You know yeah? You know when you know.
I put my thumb in my mouth when he says this and suck it like a little girl. I twist a lock of hair round my finger as I do it and stroke my nose. I shove the empty crisp packet in my pocket. Leaves curl away from wind. Oil turns iridescent on the road. We are all afraid and the everyday is beautiful you see it only once. I think of my husband his morning stubble his slow smile. I think of his big hands on my waist I think of him in his smart black coat. I think of him swinging his boy up up up into the air his easy joy. And I think of Devin’s white arms his whiter t-shirt and his hands in his pockets shoulders hunched. In the bloom of his cigarette the tilt of his jaw his rainy arcane eyes and New York Hollywood California Los Angeles the Florida Everglades gambling in Las Vegas and silk-spun skies money trees cocktails martinis pretty American girls cocaine paperclip turns on motorbikes in the rain a numb and empty joy. I tell Joe about Devin. He was good you know, I say. Joe asks, At it? and I say, Yeah. I smile. At it.
You build your own towers you cannot knock them down. They grow like tumours they are never benign. In the end you look around and they are crumbling even as they grow and they graze your elbows crush your breath. Builder grower keeper killer: hope. I say to Joe, I did love him. And Joe says, People smell of their own rotting life. And I have thought it before. Rot heal glow fail. I am sick, I say. I am sick with the taste of their tiredness. Joe says, Me too. The sun takes its time but it arrives eventually. SO WHAT? I think. SO FUCKING WHAT? I had a little boy, I tell Joe. He got shot. And I can’t remember if I could taste gunpowder or smell the smoke before he died. I can remember being happy. I didn’t think much of anything at all.
We sit there Mary and we are equals like the whole stew of people in the ground.
You can say what you like about ungrateful people, I say to Joe, but really I think sometimes you can’t help being unhappy. Who chooses to be unhappy? I told my husband before we had our boy I said, If I ever have children I am not going to show them the ugly things in the world. I am not going to tell them about all the starving people everywhere and the half-blind children working in factories and the beaten women and the rainforest being cut down and the dying planet. I am only going to show them the beautiful things. Because even if sometimes things need to be put into perspective if you’re unhappy thinking about people being worse off than you isn’t going to make you feel any better. Especially if you can’t do anything about it. Although Mary you know and I know that that isn’t what this is about. And I know that if my boy had grown a little older he would have found that out too.
I want to say to the boy’s mother you met my boy and sometimes at least sometimes I want you to think of him because I know that that will hurt you. You were very pretty. I am sure you still are. You had such nice hair. I remember it went the way I always wanted mine to the perfect curl in a ponytail. I remember at parents’ evening you said, Your boy is very bright. He is especially good at numeracy. Look I have his numeracy book here. You can look through it if you like. I looked through all the columns of numbers that my little boy had written and I looked at all the red ticks down the side and I was very proud. Then you said, Your boy is a very smart engaging boy. He is friends with almost everybody in the class. I am very happy to teach him. My husband Matt and I we were very proud and we took our boy out for icecream and at night we read him a story and stroked back his fringe and kissed his forehead and then we went to our bed and said, Haven’t we got the best family in the whole wide world? I used to look for signs well I don’t do that anymore but at that time when I had my little family all safe and happy all the signs I ever saw were good. There was the double yolk in my egg there was the clear night on the full moon there was the penny heads up there was my boy’s first ever tooth fell out. All these things meant the world was good I am sure you would agree. My husband had quite a bit of money he might not have thought so but I certainly did and we could go out for dinner once a week and we could afford a babysitter to look after our boy and we never ran out of things to say. I wonder if you know what it is like to run out of things to say. Maybe that is why she divorced her husband. Maybe her son was messed up by that. I wonder if you can imagine the quiet that swells and swells it is all the unwanted thoughts it is all the unspoken bitterness it is really quite frightening sometimes more frightening than the terrorists we are meant to hate more than we hate the government and other times it is simply sad. It fills up your mouth it invades your head and gives you a headache it makes you want to throw something it makes you want to become very small and disappear. You see all the other glamorous couples chatting they are so into their conversations they lean forward so close they can see each other’s freckles they have gone pink they are very bright like Chinese lanterns and you see all these couples and you want to be that woman you want to be in her life in her gorgeous sparkly dress that shows a lot more cleavage than you would be comfortable with. And you are looking at your husband and you are seeing him wishing that too. That you were that woman and he was that man. And it makes both of you very sick. Me and Matt don’t speak anymore. I am sure you understand.
But I wonder if she is reading this the boy’s mother and I wonder what she is thinking. I want to say to her, I hope you are okay. I hope you are okay enough that this is landing somewhere deep. I’m okay. I think it’s important to realize that. Sometimes you have to sit back and think, Well maybe everything’s shit but look. Look. I’m okay. Even though of course I’m not I’m a mess but what can you do? I tried dying it didn’t work: I got my stomach pumped and then they gave me some more pills they stuffed me full of them and they stuffed me full of other shit. Look Mrs Fairchild you’re not on your own. There are other people just like you. Well guess the fuck what no there aren’t I am all on my own because nobody else lost my boy only me and my husband of course but he gave up on me. And I can’t help it I am turning to anger you can hardly blame me it is the easiest thing to do in the world. It is alright really being angry. I mean obviously it’s not but it is better than being sad. I think angry people are sad people. They are magicians they trick everyone. Because I am so angry because I am so sorry. I am so sorry for my boy. I am sorry because in the end it was only ever my fault because I was his mummy and it was my job to protect him from all the EVIL MEN OF THE WORLD. And I think the boy’s mother is sorry too. So that makes two. Two sorry women and a whole world of other sorry men and sorry women. And a whole lot of good that does any of us. And maybe when I have finished with all this writing I will run myself a bath and while it is running I will get a bottle of vodka and my pot of pills from the doctor and I will do what I done last time only I won’t ring my friend Paula I won’t ring anyone and I will maybe add some cranberry juice to the vodka and I will add bubble bath to the bath so I smell nice when they find me even though of course this is impossible but a girl can dream can’t she? I know it is morbid but I am not trying to be morbid or dramatic or tragic. I am not trying to make you sorry for me. I just want you to know that I was a good mother. I wasn’t perfect no mother is but I loved my boy so much. My boy would have got all good grades and he would have gone to university and lived on beans on toast and met a pretty girl and gone to cafés with her to drink hot chocolate and she would have worn cable knit jumpers and silky flowers in her hair and my boy would have loved her and he would have loved university and he would have studied something clever like philosophy or physics and he would have come to see me at the weekend when he was hung-over and I would have made him a fry-up and tousled his hair and one time he would bring the girl and I would know she was The One. Or maybe he would have been gay and The One would have been a lovely handsome chap with good teeth and good manners. I wouldn’t have been surprised if my boy was gay I mean he always did like dressing up (I hope that isn’t homophobic Mary I don’t want to be one of those people who put everyone in boxes like products you buy in a shop). Sometimes I can still imagine this. I bet the boy’s mother still imagines the same for her son and I bet sometimes it is so tangible she can almost believe it. His skin like lemons and hotness when I kiss him Hello darlin boy and him all shining when he introduces the girl (I always did imagine it would be a girl I suppose that’s what we’re brought up to presume). This is Rosie ma, he would say or Ellie or Isabelle or Flo and she would have long hair and a nice jacket and she would be so lovely I could never hate her for taking my boy from me.
I tell Joe that I am so angry that my boy died. That’s how it always goes, Joe says with eyes like wells and a jaw like a seesaw. Everyone’s angry ain’t they? We’re sewn together by our anger even though it breaks us apart. I am so angry, I think, it scares me only nothing scares me anymore. I feel used, I tell Joe. I’ve been recycled into something I never wanted to be. I am so angry. I want to make my presence felt. I wish I could burn tirelessly beautifully but I don’t tell Joe that.
I’m a poet, Joe says. I could write a poem about you. Cause you’re pretty. And sad. I wouldn’t write about your boy though. That wouldn’t be right cause he’s yours he ain’t mine.
I tell Joe, I never wanted to be anything. I never wanted to be Something. I didn’t care if I was remembered or not. I just wanted to be a wife and a mother.
Joe says he has a kid. A little girl. My ex took her, he says. I tell Joe I’m sorry and he says, Me too. Sorry sorry. That’s how it goes though innit? It always goes like that. Everyone’s sorry. It is very hard when your life is just bones. When you can see the foundations the shapes of what it was. It is very hard when all you have are holes. You’re alright Joe, I say. You are. Joe says, Yep. I wanted my dad to be proud of me. That’s what boys want innit? And God. I wanted God to be happy with me. I wrote them poems thought they might please someone.
I say, You can touch my tit if you want Joe but he says, That’s alright. He grinds his teeth together. You got any money? I tell him Nah and he goes Oh and he gets up and walks away.
When I have chewed the last of my wine gums I drop the wrapper on the floor and I hope that it kills a couple of pea-brain fish if it eventually makes it to the sea. Then I kick off from the tarmac and swing my legs and push my body forward and back and I rise and I sail through the air. I swing like a pendulum forward and back up and down and up. My boy disappears from the sandpit. I can see him at the end of the park by the railing. There is a woman there I think she might be my mother. She holds out her hand and leans down a little towards my boy when she speaks to him and he takes her hand and I can see him chattering away. He never really understood you shouldn’t talk to strangers. I look away then and watch the tarmac zoom in close.
Then there is the policeman standing over me like a Power Ranger hands on hips. Are you alright love? I used to call my husband that, I tell him. He asks me if I need anything else and I say, Probably. But I’ll probably be alright. I always am. It’s a bit of a nuisance really. The officer holds out his hand to help me up. I wobble when I stand. A trickle of warmth runs down my neck. My chin bleeds. I can feel pain like prayer.
The officer asks me for my name and I tell him, Hazel officer. Mrs Hazel Fairchild. He asks me where do I live and I say, In my husband’s flat on Newbury Road. It’s very nice. My husband paid builders to do it up. And where’s your husband Mrs Fairchild? asks the officer. Oh he’s left me, I tell him brightly, but don’t be sorry I think I upset him. Our boy died see and I wasn’t really feeling up for comforting Mr Fairchild. I don’t think you would be either if your boy died. He was shot dead by a maniac at his primary school. He’s all I talk about really so I’m sorry if I’m boring.
The officer looks very serious. I almost want to laugh. But my boy has gone off with my mother and I think she lost the right to him when she chose pills over her children. They have disappeared from the railing I am gasping and shaking trying to find him. Suddenly all the children in the park seem to have his cheeky grin and apple-blush cheeks it is breaking my heart.
Perhaps you’d like to come with me, says the officer and then there is a woman officer strolling towards us with a serious face too and all of it is making me nervous. What’s happening here then? she asks all friendly and straight-faced. I could rip her with my talons. I could fold myself up into a paper plane and sail away on the pervy wind. But I don’t I tell her I fell off the swing. But I am going home now. I need to make my boy his dinner. I try to turn and walk away but the male officer grabs me by the top of my arm. He says, I think it’s best if you come with us Mrs Fairchild. I say to him, I think it’s best if you get your hands off me. Then I punch him right in the noggin. There is blood pouring out everywhere it makes me scared and like a trapped animal I am throwing myself everywhere trying to get out of their arms it is reminding me of when that officer held me back from my boy. I am screaming and thrashing about like a bear in a trap. And that’s how come I go to prison. That’s how come I go where my boy’s killer is.
They ask me if I want a solicitor. I think of Matthew Fairchild. I say no. They give me some water. There is no-one at home to call. They ask me question after question. Sometimes I answer sometimes I don’t. I tell them my name is Hazel Fairchild I am twenty-eight years old I weigh 129 pounds although they don’t ask me that last one I tell them anyway. They ask me about my boy and I get agitated when they ask me because I can’t tell them he’s gone off with a stranger. They would take him away for good then wouldn’t they? I can’t tell them I need to go find him. I have to go, I say. They tell me, Mrs Fairchild we’re trying to help you.
I have to go!
They don’t know what to do with me so they put me in a cell for the night. All the hospital beds are full after all. People keep getting sick they can’t help it. It’s the stress I suppose and how toxic the world is. I am surprised my boy lived as long as he did.
I lie on the bench in the cell. One of the officers gave me a pillow and a blanket I thought he had my boy’s soul sweet and sorrowful in his eyes. I dream of sparks and stars and ovum gods. I dream of the wide net of the heavens. Mary Mary quite contrary how does your garden grow? I hum in those weird relapses into wakefulness. The silver bells jangle like a gypsy woman’s skirt and knell like funerals everywhere or weddings and the cockle shells clack and crunch Devin grinds them under his feet like Joe ground crisps in his teeth he says to me, I’m going to America. As soon as I’m done with school I’m off and I say to him, What about me? and he smiles that half-smile that is not really a smile at all and looks off into a distance I cannot see and he swings Mariana’s baby up up up into the air the silver-eyed sandy-haired baby crows and he nestles her to his chest and promises he will always be there though the pretty maids line up in a row. Then my mother-in-law is there she stares so solemn at me. She has been smoking a cigarette and the butt stands in its own cremation blowing sour smoke. All through the prison the inmates moan and groan in their own restless sleep.
But Mary they let me out the next morning. The sun is very bright. It is peroxide-yellow. It makes the sky shine like corrugated metal and it makes me nervous. I think it would have been best if they had kept me in. I think it would have been safer for all concerned. I get the bus home to my flat with the change the officer gave me and there are envelopes on the doormat with scary red writing and one in a curling familiar hand which is probably scarier. I am not scared though. I am acceptant. I am docile almost relieved.
I sit around for a bit all on my own and then I do what any sensible person would do and I decide to go and see the Prime Minister. I have a lot to be angry about after all and I have absolutely nothing to lose seeing as I have lost everything already. Maybe the Prime Minister is not the person to talk to maybe it would be best to talk to more powerful men but I have never been the most complicated person and I only see the world in the most uncomplicated way and so all I know is that the Prime Minister is supposed to be the leader of the country so I will go to him with my troubles. I will say to him all the normal things that you might say if you met the Prime Minister about young carers homeless people kids shoved in childcare the war on drugs the war on terror why people might want to blow other people up Islamophobia house prices low wages cut benefits oil big billion-dollar businesses bombs nuclear weapons Princess Diana the ring of elite paedophiles the celebrities and MPs and ministers deforestation poisoned rivers towns and cities made of the West’s waste poverty hunger. I don’t know a lot about it but maybe the Prime Minister will take pity on me. Maybe he will realize I am not as educated as him but that I have a lot of passion. And Prime Minister, I will say, it is for all these reasons sometimes only sometimes I am glad my boy don’t have to see them too.
And I will tell the Prime Minister all about my boy. Maybe I will bring him a picture. Look Prime Minister, I will say, this is the child fiery vermilion. This is the child that made me want a better world for him and this is the child that makes me want a better world for all the other little children in the world. This is the child so you might understand the wound. I will tell the Prime Minister all the ways my boy might have died. I will say to him I don’t know the statistics but it seems to me a miracle that any of us are here at all. And I see the map that is a body I see what connects us all. The belly button that ghost of connection that scar the silvery lines where my stomach had stretched to accommodate my boy. I always thought Prime Minister that my boy must have been forged in fire that the sperm he had been must have been a burning comet lightning-swift to a fiery ovum that sparks flew as they soldered together. The millions of eggs jostled together my half-boy glowing there. But Prime Minister we are each of us not so different from another and I would have loved the product of whatever ovum and whatever sperm had married together for that is a parent’s love irrational and impersonal like agape like Jesus. Look Prime Minister, I will say, can’t you love him too? I will tell him all the things about my little boy that I have told you Mary and if the Prime Minister don’t listen I will say to him, Don’t you know this system you are at the head of this is what killed my boy? I will scream it for all the world to hear. You killed my boy, I will scream although of course I know it was not really him it was all of them together and all the ones that had come before in powdered wigs with shark-eyes it was all of them that only cared about one thing and it had nothing to do with little boys who hardly know the meaning of the word. I will forget about all the itty-bitty details that make up this sorry world I will be like the Sun I will make a good headline. YOU KILLED MY BOY. You see I am a crazy person and like a lot of crazy people I blame the rich and powerful for everything but can’t you see in this whole crazy world it might be true. I know the Prime Minister ain’t so powerful but I don’t care I don’t know much.
And London will stop in its tracks. Parliament will erupt into silence. They will be so scared suddenly. Because they will hear how all of London has stopped too. And all the businessmen and businesswomen and the housewives and the café workers and the teachers and the dustbin men and the police officers and the fire-fighters and the gardeners and the prison guards and the daytime television presenters and the homeless and the unemployed and the students and the drug addicts and everyone will all be so angry and even the Prime Minister and the MPs and the ministers and the heads of state and the bishops and the corporate leaders will all hear how a mother can roar with her love and scream and glow and flare. And they will see my little boy too. They will see him running in his orange tracksuit bottoms and his Superman t-shirt with his trainers that light up and his little round glasses like Harry Potter and his gorgeous blonde hair and his blue eyes beaming and they will not be able to believe that they had cared so much about money and profit when really what they wanted was for everybody to be happy. I hope this doesn’t make you cringe Mary but my little boy is dead and suddenly I have found a way for him not to have died in vain. I have found HOPE FOR HUMANITY I am delirious with joy. I am so simple Mary I am such a silly simple girl I think I will show them a picture of my boy and the whole world will look at him and they will put down their guns and say How about a nice cuppa? This is what happens when your baby dies you don’t want anyone else’s baby to die.
So I decide to get all ready and go and have a shower and shave my legs but before I can finish shaving my legs for my trip to Number 10, there is a knock at the door. It goes rattatatat. Tat tat. BANGBANGBANG.
Alright alright I’m coming!
I am only wearing a towel. God, you look delicious, Devin says. I tell him to shut up and he starts kissing me then. I try fighting him but it don’t work so I go limp until he stops and when he lets go of me I slap him across the face and then start laughing. What do you think you’re doing, you bastard? I say when I am done laughing, but he starts laughing then too so we just have a little laugh together like mad people. He does look a little mad, stormy-eyed with what could be love or rage but that we know is blind fear. I ask him, Cuppa tea? wiping my eyes, although really I need to be setting off for London soon. He says, You got anything stronger? I say, You mean like coffee? He says he means like Irish coffee.
He strides in like he has been here hundreds of times and then starts opening all the cupboards. Christ, how are you still alive? I watch him for a minute before shutting the front door and walking past him into the bathroom and finishing off my legs. Then I think I might as well do my cunt for good measure. The hairs curl like smiles. When I come back into the kitchen Devin ain’t there. I put the kettle on and search for him. He is stood in the living room staring out the window, his back to me. He has a glass of something in his hand. I don’t say anything. The morning sun turns his hair to ash and umber and the stud in his ear glints. I step towards him slowly. We are near enough to share a breath if he was to turn around. I reach my hand up and caress the back of his neck. He is very pale except for the back of his neck. I think, He has been working on building sites. He should have worn sun cream. Skin cancer is on the up.
I can feel all the sadness knotting him up inside and I can see the American flag billowing inside him and I can see it scrunched up in a ball and tossed away. I can see him whizzing around in his dad’s car, to the seaside, to college, to the cinema with one of his girlfriends, and I can see his father’s shame, of being a copper and having a son like Devin. His father had hated crime of course but it was Petty Crime that got him the most. He thought all law-breakers should be banged up, shoplifters, stoners, speeding drivers, benefit cheats. But he always got Devin out of trouble. And I know that Devin always thought, Just don’t bother. I would rather be chucked in a cell than have to spend another minute with you. I can see Devin watching his dad break his mother’s heart. I can see him watching her letting him.
He downs the rest of his drink, an easy familiar gesture. He says, I don’t want to be my dad, Hazel. And I look at him and I realize that maybe I should put off my trip to the Prime Minister. Maybe Devin could help me. He could write down what I should say and he could help me choose a photo because the thing is when I start looking through pictures of my boy I just start crying and it is very hard to stop.
Devin is all big and tall and majestic, he looks like he can see right through me. I think, Oo haven’t you grown up, sweetheart. I never thought you would but you have. You’ll never be as old as me though. Never, not in a million years. I thought, I can see all the burnt things in your eyes. I can see all the sunsets. I thought, Poor lovely boy, I could look after you. I thought, I could make you tea. I could give you cuddles when you were sad. What I would do is I would lay a blanket out and I would pick you up and drop you softly on the blanket and I would roll you up like a bug in a rug, like a roll of soft white rice, and I would squeeze up next to you and hold you tight. And I would keep on getting up and making you cups of tea and cooking you food and going to the shops and coming back and making sure you were alright, I would keep busy so I wouldn’t think about my boy. My boy is the gnawing emptiness in us all. My boy is the hope and the love, my boy is the despair.
So I let Devin stay with me. I mean, since my husband’s gone I haven’t had anyone to make a cup of tea for. And I want to tell him about my boy. How he was good at school and his teacher liked him and how he put the hood of his coat up and slipped his arms out so that it was like a cape and he thought that was the coolest thing and his eyes went round as coins when his dad showed him a magic trick. I want to tell Devin these things. I want to say to him, I lost my boy and that is my excuse for all the crimes I will ever commit, all the hurt I might inflict, all the miniature wars I may begin. I want to tell him that sometimes I am glad that my boy died because I do not think that the world is a beautiful place at all, not in any way beautiful enough for my little boy.
My mother-in-law couldn’t believe how sad it was. That’s what she said. I can’t believe it. It’s just so sad. I told her to Shut The Fuck Up. Scuse my French, Mary, but I never did mince my words. It was the first time I saw something that wasn’t cold in her eyes and it made me want to scratch them out. I have a grief counsellor and she wonders why I am so angry. I told her, Ask my mother-in-law. Ask her how sweet my boy was, how bright and blonde and kind. Ask her how her son just picked himself back up again and cried when I didn’t do the same. And look out the window and see how the world just carries on and then maybe you’ll be fucking angry too.
I want to tell Devin all these things but the words just stop in my mouth, so when he asks me what I have been doing all the time he hasn’t known me, I tell him I have Been Around. Devin says, Of course you have, you dirty slag.
We spend weeks together. We spend days in bed talking and fucking and drinking and smoking. We only get up for food and booze and the toilet. Devin could talk for England. He talks about the government and the country. He talks about God and religion, the justice system. He talks about the America he dreamed of since he was a little boy, all long, straight, wide, empty roads, the wheels blowing up yellow dust as he whizzed from yodelling hillbillies with checkered shirts and guns who fed him apple pie and played the banjo and taught him to love God, to brash, clipped-tongued New Yorkers who thought they were the centre of the world, the wild marshlands and azure mountains and the concrete jungles that at night turned into neon festivals, and all the girls in sequinned dresses with cocktails and false lashes and glossy legs, black-eyed African-American beauties and screaming white country chicks and velvet-tongued Hispanic madams and tiny brown Asian dolls, leaping into his open-top Cadillac and the orange-sauce horizon a naked flame and Devin the captain of this wild, roaming ship in this endless, teeming, gorgeous sea. He talks about America, the girls, the lights, and the hunger that eventually drove him home. He had to ask his dad for the money for the flight. He said the shame almost killed him.
I ask him about Mariana and he tells me that she was a friend of a friend and they met on a night out. Her dad is Spanish and her mum is Argentinean and she is very Catholic. She is very clever but she is not very real. She is from a different world to us, Devin says. He can’t explain it. She is beautiful, Bohemian, intelligent. She has got dark hair and small tits. Devin says that she is very different to me. She gets pissed at Devin when he goes out and she gets pissed at him when he don’t do anything. He don’t talk to me about the baby.
He asks me about Matt. When I say he looks a little bit like a young Colin Firth he snorts. He can just imagine him he says, a posh twat in a suit with a briefcase and an expensive wally haircut, calling me darling and beautiful and looking like a poor little whipped puppy if I ever have a go at him for pissing on the seat or something. Devin bets that he is a right tit. He bets he was always late home from work but he would take me out for dinner to apologize at some fancy restaurant and he would tell me what to wear and order champagne. Devin bets that my husband had had specific days and times when he would have sex with me and it would always be the same, like a proper Englishman, him on top groaning and me just lying there with his breath in my face waiting for it to be over.
Shut up, Devin, I say. He was my husband and I loved him.
Devin says to me that I just want a world in love, a world ruled by love. I burn and burn with my desire, with the vexation at my harnessing lack of articulation and power. I want that most disparaged, ridiculed and underestimated idea of a world in love, in love with everything, with living, in love with every pleasure, every simple, necessary joy, every brief touch, every mouthful of food, every slanting graze of sunlight, every cool blandishment of rain, but most of all in love with each other, in love with the idea of each other and the actuality, in love with each other’s love, each other’s desires and happiness, each other’s suffering, loss and grief, in love with each other’s beauty and ugliness. Devin is not wrong, Mary: I want everything to be done out of love, out of agape, the selfless love commanded by your boy Jesus, an unconditional love which requires nothing in return. Devin says to me, Love replaces law: it is the only rule. Love is the only means. I bet that is what you want, Haze, you dirty bitch. Everyone fucking each other and loving and loving and loving.
And he is right, Mary, I won’t lie to you, and yet there is so much anger in him it is almost beautiful. He is self-destructing, he will combust. He is lithium chloride, burning red. I want to say to him, This is the child, so you might understand the wound. This is the child, nudging, squirming. This is the child, wordless and without knowledge, a curved, hot, watery existence. This is the child born in a rush of clear liquid, eyes open. This is the child bellowing with life. I want to say to Devin that within me, within Mariana, within the Virgin Mary, is the secret formula to all the world’s problems: that trust in a deeper capacity, of a spiritual nature, the primordial instinct of pack animals to live and work together, for a common good, the basic genetic connection, and yet, with our human intelligence, an even greater bond, the deep snaking root of remembrance, and therefore a love and understanding of a higher order. I want to tell Devin that I hold faith as an impossible star, but that I am filled with hate more than I am filled with hope. I want to tell Devin that all I ever wanted was that one desire that has kept the human race alive all these thousands of years, the primeval will of the most ancient instinct, and that was to keep my child safe. I want to tell him that I was not perfect, but like you would take the nails, Mary, I would take the bullet a thousand times over. I want to tell him that as you must hear the thud-thud-thud of the nails being driven into Jesus, I hear the guns. I want to tell him that I bet you cried, GIVE ME THE NAILS. I bet you wished you could take the nails instead. I want to tell him all these things that I have told you, Mary, but I still do not think he will understand. There is just so much bitterness in him.
But I try, Mary. I tell him he has to go back to Mariana. Devin pours himself more coffee and he asks, Who’s paying for this place? Housing benefit, right? You on jobseekers? Cause I’m pretty sure you’ve got to prove you’re actually, you know, seeking a job. I tell him to grow up, but he don’t stop. You see, Mary, it is very hard to make hurt people listen. But you own it, don’t you? he says. You paid off the mortgage? Or your fancy-boy husband did anyway. Landed on your feet you did, Haze.
I eat my toast and gaze at him. Mary, I will try to make them listen. You know, I say to him, this is how men have got it hard. Because you get a choice. You can leave if you like. You don’t have to look after your kid. You don’t have to deal with sleepless nights, changing nappies, the crying, the loneliness. You can be free.
Devin tries to stop me. He asks me what did my husband do, owning a flat in town outright. Must have been a good earner. I carry on though, because I know at some point, he will feel the tide too, it is pulling us all in. Women don’t have that choice. Because they feel their baby grow inside them. Their heart pumps harder for their child, their blood races through them. Their baby unfurls like magic, faceless, sexless, and then becomes the centre on which their world turns. A child traps a woman but she loves her child more than herself. A man loves his child too but not so vitally. He can leave. But that love will chase him to the ends of the Earth.
Devin says, You’re still married, aren’t you, Haze. He’s still sending you money. This coffee, these cigarettes, that gin, it’s his fucking money. I can feel the anger radiating off him. His face is dark and mad. You think you can talk down to me, you think you know everything, but you’re here living in the flat your husband who doesn’t even live with you bought, eating and sleeping and living out of his FUCKING POCKET. He throws the coffee mug and it smashes against the wall and lands in a shit-coloured puddle on the carpet, and I gaze at him, and he looks like a little boy. Why are you so angry? I say and Devin yells, BECAUSE YOU’RE FUCKING ME! YOU’RE SUPPOSED TO BE WITH ME!
I stare at him. He is a little boy. He doesn’t know what to do. Devin, go home, baby. Go home to your wife.
I think he does go back to her. I think he slips quietly into the house at night when Mariana is in bed. The shadows obscure the hazel tree tattoo on his arm so it might be anything. In the lonely dark of the night I can see that boy who I had once loved more than any other boy in the world with his sterling eyes under the shade of Jesus’s pet panther stretching and I can see the dim glimmer of land across the bitter brine wrapped around his heart still, even when he has been and come home hungry and faithless. There are some hungers that cannot be fed, there are some aches that cannot be eased, when what is wrong of course is something inside, yearning for perpetual fill, and we must sit and breathe and smile and know that we are content, but could Devin ever do that, when he leaps and bounds from this woman to that, to this lucid dawn from that burning night? And yet there is this child, whorled like a shell, who will peal like a bell, ringing out the changes. And there is this woman who holds it within her. I think she pretends to be asleep as he watches her for a while. I think inside herself she sighs as he strokes her hair. And I am glad.
The only problem now is that I haven’t got anything written down for the Prime Minister, have I? But it is hard to feel angry now when I have seen Devin and he is just a lost little boy. There are a hundred things I want to do Mary I have always wanted to go travelling I used to want five babies until I had my boy and knew he was the only one I needed I would like to go to America and of course most of all I would like the little flat with my little family I would like that most of all but I can’t have that so now I don’t know what to do I don’t really have anyone else. I don’t know what happened to your parents Mary. Maybe they were given sainthoods too. Maybe there are statues of them somewhere maybe they are carved in stone. Well if my family were anything they were transient. If it wasn’t shallow horizons it was drink and-slash-or drugs or war or running away to the Big Smoke or shotgun weddings or any number of things that might have turned out alright but usually just were sad.
I make myself a cup of tea and I sit at the kitchen table and the sun shines in through the window onto me. It is so lovely and warm. I look into my cup of tea. It is the nicest colour in the world. I close my eyes and I just enjoy all the simple things because there is nothing else to enjoy. If my boy was here I would say it to him. There is nothing but the simple things the leaves on the trees and the sun in the sky and a nice cuppa and a chinwag and not being alone. I used to be scared of being alone and then my boy died and my husband left me and I don’t mind so much anymore because I have gone a little bit crazy it is the only way I can deal with living with myself. And vodka of course. My husband sends me money I spend it on vodka.
He came to visit me once. My husband is stood on the doorstep like a broken record. He is wearing a light blue shirt and black jeans and his hair is neat though his face is not it is all unravelled and then stitched unevenly back together I suppose mine must be the same but maybe worse. I wanted you, I think. I married you. Look at our failure. Look at our skeletons humble dry and not quite eternal. Matt is carrion. He pecks at the flesh that is left on the ruin of me. I have said about foundations about holes well this is the foundations of me and he is tearing the brick and mortar away he is finding jagged bone. He says to me, Don’t cry but I am not crying. I never cry. I don’t say anything though. I stand there in my white t-shirt and navy-blue Nike shorts and I look and look with knife eyes. My glare shimmers but it don’t burn. I am amazed. He is untouchable I think. He is invincible. I am angry now. I am angry that he don’t look at my tits. Why are you such a gentleman? I think. He is a shining knight. He is only metal and beneath there is nothing. He is armour and nothing else. I am blinded and small.
When I look at you, I say, all I see is my boy.
And he looks back at me. He looks back at me with my boy’s eyes but I know my boy’s eyes were clearer and wider they let in the whole light in the world and they were also blurry with all the things I never knew and it is seeing these differences because Matt’s eyes are small and narrow and pale it is seeing these differences that make it make sad sense and it don’t hurt me anymore. I realize suddenly that it was Matt who got me out of prison like Colin Firth in the second Bridget Jones. Inside I burn lawless like a forest fire.
He sweeps me with his eyes. He says he wrote to me and I ask him, Why did you write to me? Why didn’t you send me an email on your fancy Apple Mac? Why didn’t you get someone to do it for you? And he starts to say how he thought a letter would be more personal but Christ would he ever shut up? Oh God, I say, you don’t have to explain yourself. Why do you always feel the need to fucking explain yourself?
I fling myself onto the sofa my boy goes WHEEEEEE and I smile at my boy. I am not angry. If I was angry there would be love. There would be disappointment there would be blame. There would be wanting more from him than he could give. But we are here two people who have lost one little boy and you can add it together as much as you like it will never make three it will never make two it will just be three ones that never add up to any number under the sun. I smile up at my husband expectant listening with my whole self and he tells me he is engaged. Well I know he is I read his bloody letter. I may be poor but I can read. The only trouble is he is still married to me. I wonder if he has told his fiancée that. And he looks at me. He hasn’t. Well of course he hasn’t. He’s a man isn’t he and he was never the most honest of men. I should know. I was his wife. All those nights he didn’t come home until early morning. Not that I didn’t do the same once or twice. But he says to me then, Don’t be difficult Hazel and now that makes me angry.
Who are you to talk about being difficult? I spose you don’t know much about Difficult do you love? Well I can tell you what difficult is. I can tell you difficult is being told by the father of your dead child that you have to get out of his flat cause he’s getting married she’s probably up the duff as well with a boy who is going to replace your beautiful dead little boy and you’re going to be on the street aren’t you? Well aren’t I a lucky bugger? Haven’t I just drawn the long curly fucking straw in life? And what have you ever gone through that’s remotely difficult you rich spoilt bastard?
Matt’s eyes flare like firecrackers at that. Alright Hazel, he says. You keep on pretending. You pretend you’re the Virgin effing Mary some Immaculate Conception and losing our little boy didn’t kill me too.
He is white with anger. It makes me laugh the way his face twitches. When I laugh he clenches a fist and rams it into the wall. Just like that BANG and there’s a hole in the wall. I think of my boy watching telly and the programme came on and he yelled loud as happiness, HOLE IN THE WAAAALLL! Then my husband swears. He is holding his fist in his other hand cradling it to his stomach. FUCK. FUCK! He is thunder all noise and no light. I stand up step calmly past him and go into the kitchen to fetch him some frozen peas. When I come back he is still stood there clenched and rimy and when he sees my offering his face twists I don’t know what with. He asks me for a drink but the thing is when I have any drink it just gets drunk straight away so he sits down quietly on the sofa then without a drink and I just look at him a moment at the bow of his shoulders the curvature of his spine and he is just a man tissue sinew bone. He is just a man there is only a very very small part of him that makes him any bit different and even the size of that is the same as everyone else: that point between the eyebrows. I don’t know what to say to him. I can see his skull that’s always a bad sign. So I ask him, What’s her name then? to keep for just a small while the emptiness at bay.
He starts at my voice. I think he is nervous. It is strange that I can have an effect on him like that. I slip in next to him on the sofa like he is just an old friend come over for a chat which in some ways is the whole truth sealed and swallowed like a vitamin. Julie, he says. And he tells me about her like all those years ago he told me about his first wife. He tells me she is a little older than him more than ten years in fact and that she doesn’t have any children. He tells me he wants to be happy again. And that he feels guilty for wanting that. And I tell him it’s not bad to want to be happy. That it is the most innocent thing in the world.
I put some music on and I tell my husband to dance with me. Me and my husband spin two marionettes loose-stringed and hallowed in each other’s arms singing Bye-bye Miss American Pie weeping by the end of the second verse Bad news on the doorstep. I couldn’t take one more step. I sing with my whole heart seeing as I don’t have a little boy to use that heart for. I reach up on my toes and kiss my husband and I know that this is definitely goodbye. It is not as sad as I thought it would be. I know that I feel thin in his arms and I know that he is remembering me pale and blonde in ‘a simple cut of alabaster crepe de chine with lace detailing’ as I had whispered to him in a poor imitation of his mother’s arched intimate tones. He had asked me, Are you happy? I had had to stop myself from rolling my eyes. And I had reached up to kiss him and said, What do you think? And now I can see in Matt’s haunted eyes our boy roaring down the street. He always seemed to be roaring. He was a lively boy. His love was noisy and vivid and urgent. And I can see in Matt’s sad wanting eyes him bathing our boy when he was tiny scooping the water over the crown of his little head his plump little limbs kicking. And watching him as he slept as a baby fists either side of his head clenching and grasping and his mouth going as if he was still suckling. In the letter Matt wrote to me he said how after our boy was dead he would watch videos of him as a baby staring with wide eyes and then giggling at whatever Matt or me or Matt’s mother are doing behind the camera and how after our boy was dead he would sit drinking in front of these videos at his mother’s house and that it only stopped when his mother found him one day with sharp life hovering in silver over his wrist at the kitchen sink like a half-hearted finger over a half-hearted candle flame. But he said to me he wouldn’t have done it. He knows he wouldn’t have. He wasn’t strong enough. He was always too weak. He couldn’t even save his little boy. And I know that now he is remembering feeling our unborn baby nudge against his ear and my screams as our boy entered the world and the roaring boy and outside the autumn fell in yellow and brown whispers. All that is left between us are these snapshots over-bright suspended in reverie nothing tangible enough to draw blood. All that is left between us is what we have shared.
When he is gone I go and make myself a cuppa of course. I look into my cup of tea and there is the smell of primary school of Play Doh and carpet and whiteboard pens of school dinners and the outside world gravel and blown leaves windswept hair child sweat. All the children are sat on the floor facing the whiteboard as the teacher holds up some cards, What does this say? Well done! And this? Good girl Abby! And what does this one say? Almost Harry! They are puzzling through the words. They are thinking of their hands as they stare at them of the corn silk braids of the girl sitting in front of the snacks their parents will bring them and they are thinking about how hailstones can be so big they can kill you about how cheetahs are the fastest animal about the stripes of zebras and they are thinking of the skateboard they want of the china mermaid on their windowsill of their grandmothers of how they should sit up straight because their mothers and teachers tell them so. They are thinking nothing much. There are fifty minutes left of that day at school and the next day will dawn again in a few hours after Cbeebies and dinner bath time stories and sweet dreams. Outside a seam appears to have split in the sky. The sun tumbles from under a bruised line of clouds. They can hear running footfalls along the corridor outside. You aren’t allowed to run in school. Some of the children turn their heads. The teacher carries on talking. The door flies open. They all turn now even the teacher and the assistant. Time falters and decides to stop yet both adults’ hearts thunder as if in one pulsating moment suspended and adrenaline explodes through them in transparent bubbles a petrol rush and the blood bleeds from their faces though the children do not seem to comprehend the danger. The .44 calibre handgun is as huge as the whole universe. HELLO MOTHER, he says stood in the doorway like an avenging demon. He is sixteen years old with a sickly pallor to his skin and eyes as dark as fallen angels. His hair falls in a glossy flop over half his face. The teacher is standing now too very inadequate and ordinary in her knee-length linen skirt and silky blouse. Her face is the unhealthy off-white of crushed pills and the slush of old snow. There is a gust of worry in the children suddenly. Their fear becomes palpable almost excitement. Is that a real gun? is the whisper over and over. It’s real! They have their own toy guns they play games with them they have killed each other over and over POWPOWPOW. I told you Mary my boy is always shooting me. I will fall to the floor groaning and my boy will howl with delighted laughter and I will lie there on the floor and pretend to be dead for such a while that he will creep over almost nervous and when he is leaning right over me I will open my eyes and grab him and tickle him until he is a screaming squealing wreck of beloved little angel. Now some of the children are crying curling into themselves like woodlice as if their pipe cleaner arms and pipe cleaner legs can protect them from guns from bombs and fists and knives and acid from the violence of broken men. Behind his eyes the battles rage the blacksmiths spark and hammer and forge Greek fire lights up the battlefields the smoke like gathering souls black and acrid and vicious-looking and then gunpowder sulphur saltpetre and carbon killing a whole lot more than it burns pretty blooms across the sky. He holds this history in his hand in heavy ice-cold metal and he holds his own history in his head you might see it in his carob eyes beneath all the madness is the fear and beneath the fear is the love and he does not know how to make it right. And he ran in with his gun and his lunacy and all their white faces like upturned daisies. WHO LOVES THEIR MUMMY HERE? WHO LOVES THEIR MUMMY? And my little boy he only wanted to please he only wanted to tell the truth he put up his hand didn’t he because he loved his mummy. He loved his mummy. And I will tell the Prime Minister that HE SHOT MY BOY IN HIS SWEET INNOCENT FACE. And I will tell the Prime Minister that it is ALL MY FAULT.
And I will tell the Prime Minister how I waited for him the maniac the poor little boy. The walls were high and grey like how you would imagine them to be and the guards had clinking keys and when they checked me I felt almost as if they would find something as if I had finally come home to my rightful place. This is where no-one has a little boy and yet if you do have one somewhere he is all that you have: that all-encompassing longing the aggression of it as hard and unyielding as the metal of a gun as soft as powder as explosive as constant as the ringing after the blast and I thought, I would fit in with those women. I would lie in my bunk beneath or over another of them with my photograph and my calm rain and when anyone asked I would say, That’s my boy and if they asked more I would say, He’s with his dad but his grandma helps out a lot. He’s doing very well at school. I’m so proud of him. I don’t want him visiting though. I don’t want my boy coming to this place ever. I’ll see him when I come out. And I would bite my tears then and they would grimace understandingly and pat my arm and say, He’s a handsome little love and leave me to my vigil. I thought about this as I waited and as they came to their families and friends with tired eyes and the bleached colour of the waiting and hands were held and smiles passed with the trivial information that matters like what breakfast the children had that morning like what colour Auntie Sheila’s hair is now like what programme the family are watching together on the telly at the moment like if the rosebush in the garden has opened its velvet gifts. I thought, I wish I was you.
He didn’t come. I pretended he had in my head. I imagined he came out and I was surprised he had grown up. He had a small build but he was wiry and he had a strong jaw. I stroked his jaw. I said, Hello love. He looked humbled and I felt so pleased with myself. I could see my boy beaming out of his face. My boy was so proud of me. I could feel my tits leaking milk. I was so happy. It was like my boy had been put back together again. It was like my baby had been put back in my arms. It was like Devin had found America just as he had hoped. It was like everyone had found America just as they had hoped. We all have an America Mary. My America was the standard dream a house with a garden and a husband and children. Well I had got it all back. I had found a lost little boy and he had my boy’s face too. Oh sweetheart, I said because there was such a hard sad look in the boy’s eyes. Oh darlin it’ll be alright. It will all be alright. And I put my arms around him.
But of course he didn’t come. I imagined he had washed his hair and his skin was dry from the prison soap. I imagined he curled into his bed with his hands over his ears and his eyes squeezed shut or wide open and amazed because you see THE GUNS HAVE GOT INTO THE PRISON. That’s a lot harder in a British prison but it happens and for him it is a .44 calibre handgun. The weight of the universe snapped his skinny arms and the shock was the weight at first then the blast and it broke his wrist and the power filled his whole body it jarred his bones it boiled his blood and for one moment he was God. Outside of him the whole world exploded in noise and light and then it was only him and the noise and light were inside him thunder and fire and brimstone and then the greatest calm. I will tell the Prime Minister this and I will explain to him that I cannot hate him anymore if I ever did because in my head he has my brother’s face and my dad’s slumped shoulders and my sister’s gritted teeth and my mother’s sad eyes. He is everyone all blown apart and put back together again he is all the broken bits. I cannot hate him anymore Prime Minister because I would remember how my boy told me that he wanted to be a soldier. And I thought he would forget about it like he had forgotten he once wanted to be a fireman a policeman a dustman a postman an astronaut a builder. I thought he would forget like he had forgotten all his other fickle dreams. He was six years old he had blue eyes like pieces of sky and blonde hair and little round glasses like Harry Potter he was perfect in every way. I want to be a soldier when I’m older Mummy. I want to have a gun and go POWPOWPOW. One day they are six-year-old little babies and the next they are on the front line these are the boys we make Prime Minister. And then I think that the Prime Minister will begin to understand.
My mother did not believe in Chaos or Randomness or Chance. My mother believed that everything happens for a reason and I am beginning to think that maybe she was right. And it is hurting my heart. I think about the Universe and the Earth growing changing absorbing nutrients repairing itself versatile and volatile growing adjusting developing chaotic and wild or predictably serene in perfect correlation or at war with itself yet on the whole continuing to enact its job that is eternally changing with time. The universe came about by chance beginning simple chaotic and over a vast amount of time evolved sprouting new parts building expanding becoming more intricate yet only in appearance for nature’s simple rules are applied and followed by all throughout. Eternal change extinction of creatures the evolution of species: the imperfection of it the mistakes the random shocking natural disasters of floods and volcanic eruptions. I realize the Universe is just like a mother. Shit happens and it just keeps going and going it doesn’t know how to stop. And I will tell the Prime Minister that we are CHILDREN OF THE UNIVERSE I will tell him we are all of us made of stardust we all came from the same mighty force and can you not love the Earth Prime Minister as you love your mother for we were all propelled into existence roaring we are the water and the light and can you not love the people as you love your children for we are all of us Prime Minister the same? I wonder what the Prime Minister will say when I tell him I love him and I wonder if when he sees my boy he will melt with love and the shot will ring out like the unfelt heat and unheard noise that came from the birth of the Universe and it will scorch him and he will feel all the anger and sadness where the love should be.
Mary I had a new dream last night. It went like this.
There is a red and blue kite and a purplish one with black tails. The sky behind them shakes and rolls like someone tossing a picnic blanket up and down until it lays straight. Kites, my little boy informs me solemnly and I nod to tell him I see them too because the air is very thick and it feels like a word might split it open like a summer plum too plump for its skin a match lit in a gas chamber. Roots chase moles and voles worms unaware are stabbed maggots roil and twist green shoots burst from the moist earth chatter in the god-holy wind purple static toothache eardrums pressured pop. The hills heave up up up giants inhaling … and then down again and then up up. The wind a clatter a hailstorm of leaves stones cacophony of wing beats insects lazered from flight—
It’s coming, I say. And it does. My boy sneezes. So do I. The sky opens spills its load the earth is soaked burned broken. Wow. Wow, says my boy. His eyes reflect the storm clouds battleship-grey platinum heliotrope flash flash knife-white and his hair fizzes skin fizzes butterfly-blue obsidian. Wow. The grass is an ocean the Earth only rock it will crack shatter millions of pieces of rock and miniscule lumps of tree chips of ice slate roofs marble staircases hospital beds castle turrets windmills pubs satellite dishes hurled unrecognizable pulverized dust glitter into Space bodies split veins popped hearts slammed open eyeballs explode breast implants rocket through the skies collide with stars and melt. This is the end of the world and it is very very easy to die. Wow Mummy. The wind lurches suddenly the force smacking my lungs. The door of a car is ripped away. Jesus Christ! I yelp. A girl’s hair extensions laugh through the air. Planes arc dizzyingly knocked from their courses birds sizzled to smoking crisps. I reach out a hand for my boy’s. But he doesn’t take it. I look down.
Sometimes the expected is even more shocking. I had imagined the death of my boy. I had seen the promenading bus veering onto the pavement. The doctor’s words slicing like the hairdresser’s scissors through the yellow rings of my boy’s hair. A rabid dog the plastic farm animal blocking his airways. But you can’t live your life in the expectance of tragedy. We live expecting the good expecting what we believe we deserve what is owed to us of life. My little boy is gone and I see the blood then. The arm of the girl who lost her hair extensions sails past a lone child’s shoe and the panic in everyone’s faces like an open wound humble chalk of splintering bone. In a daze I see it, removed from their terror. I climb to the highest point of the cliff top. Arms outstretched. Close my eyes. Through the lids I see lightning rain down. Chaos. I wonder if you would know from the insular glow in my eyes what pulls me down what anchors me. I wonder if you would know that.
When my husband is gone I get the bus to the seaside. Sometimes I would ring up the school and say my boy had a tummy bug or a temperature and we would get on the bus and go and see the sea. We wouldn’t tell my husband. He would have told me off for taking our boy out of school. But we would have such a lovely day. I would get myself a cup of tea from the café and a hot chocolate and chips for the boy and he would be so happy he would talk to me about sea creatures and boats he was such a clever boy just like his dad. I can’t help thinking of this on the crackling of pebbles that make up the narrow slip of beach where my boy runs and runs in his orange trackie bottoms under the solid mass of sky like frozen milk. The gulls hardened weathered wiry old sailors are whips of startling fluorescence on this day the sheen of their oily feathers their yolk-yellow beaks and blank eyes and they know the curvature of the Earth just as my little boy knew about the life cycle of jellyfish and they scree and wheel thrown by wind and riding it one moment a contradiction to the next and below the sea curls brown and white. Inside me stirs my anchor as snow begins to fall in pale flurries from the white desert of sky. My mother said stars are souls patiently shining until they are planted in an embryo. Then what, I had asked my mother, are snowflakes? She said snowflakes are the souls of dead people swirling above us and drifting down in an attempt to warm us but they can’t do it they aren’t part of this world they cannot warm the living. When winter came I used to brush the snow from my jacket before it could melt into the cloth and wring the damp tendrils with clawed fingers. Later summer came and I knew they still swarmed in their hordes above us. Maybe I will tell the Prime Minister these things. I will tell him how sometimes only sometimes I am glad my boy never grew old enough to know all the bad things in the world but what I would have taught him if he had lived and what I will teach my baby when he or she is born is that we are all connected all of us the rich and the poor men and women the Europeans Asians Africans Americans Australians South Americans the Inuits the Tribes all just people on one little rock. I told my husband before we had our boy that I would not show my children the bad things in the world I would show them only the good but I know now that that was wrong because my six-year-old boy didn’t escape the bad for it was the anger and the neglect and the want that killed him it was all the broken lines and fractures and fear. I will tell the Prime Minister how in my head I see that gun that could have been the whole universe that held the end of my whole universe in it and I see that boy with wild eyes and I see that he was so sad because he never knew his mother’s love not really that love that chases you to the remotest corners of Time and Space to the very edges of everything a love that a mother is saturated with to her very core a love that goes bone-deep. And I will tell the Prime Minister this. I will tell him how my baby inside me causes my blood to pump faster through my body my heart to beat hot and loud. My baby gives me the strength and the love to fight for it. This is my child as substantial as smoke yet fiery vermilion. This is my child the spring in winter seeded planted growing. This is my child that through those first fragile weeks has survived cigarettes and the further mistakes of alcohol takeaways GM crops the pesticides antibiotics and hormones used in plants and meat caffeine sugar and pollution and shampoo and conditioner moisturizers deodorant lotions creams perfumes makeup. These are the things my child has survived as its brother did and more. It is a 21ST CENTURY BABY a child at the beginning of the New Millennium a hard silvery child a foetus of smoke exhaust gas petroleum a roaring child of smog and fire smouldering inside me. This will be a child born in a backward age. For all civilized time we have progressed gradually the poor have got richer the royalty have lost their power the women have fought for their place and now my child will be born in a time where we are unravelling declining and returning. But I wonder if rather it will be the age of ENLIGHTENMENT as we have reached the pinnacle of the material and the heart of us yearns for the simple truth. But my child is weathered before he or she meets the world it is hardy and embittered. He or she unfurls inside me like a plume of smoke like a blossom leaf-curled and alien-strange and my heart beats fiercely for it and it knows nothing. This is the most primitive form the oldest the most precarious and most precious. This will be a Western child living on streets made from the labour of the poor or enslaved was there ever a difference a godless child without religion-made virtue sinning as only an atheist can and this will be a city child in a world permanently superficially lit so that it will never know darkness. He or she will be a child of internet and advertisements of reality television of easily accessibly hard-core pornography. It will be old before its time. It will be of soulless knowledge. And it will be unhappy. These are the things I imagine as I do as you did Mary only my child will be no saint. The foetus grows from me and the food and oxygen that sustain us and I imagine him or her dragon-like with a curved over-long jagged spine a miniscule tail the beginnings of claws and I realize or I realized years ago as we all have that we cannot go on in our little boxes because people get left behind and they get scared and sad and angry. Invisible they must wield a gun they must make noise and destruction to be noticed. And you see how our pain is connected our anger our want. Even the leaders in the world are just some women’s little boys they are all lost little boys they just want to be loved like anybody else they’re mixed up. They don’t know what it is like to have a little boy that they love more than life itself. They don’t know what it is like to want a perfect world for all the little boys and the little girls in the world. Their lives are full of holes too. They try to fill those holes with money and power but what they do not realize is that that money is meaningless and that the power is not in the House of Commons or in off-shore bank accounts and private safes it is not on thrones under crowns it is not at No. 10 Downing Street or the White House. THE POWER IS WITHIN US ALL. And soon we will reach a magnitude and influence all of us in our sore bitter beautiful violently bright masses where neither the BBC nor the Austerity Government will be able to ignore us. And they will see that we are knitted together one body one whole. People kill themselves and alcoholics rot and children are abandoned and angry sad boys hold guns and people slip into pill-induced slumber. It started when Boy grew big and strong when he could scoop Girl up as if she had never been taller than him. And Girl found that she could feel her children stir within her and grow and map out the inner walls of her and Boy could not. And it is these two facts that made it all the way it is.
If the Men In Power could feel for one moment the love a mother feels for her child if they could understand that mothering is the foundation of life the bricks and mortar of human solidarity if they could feel their children stir within them if they could see that everyone is someone’s child if they could love so endlessly without bounds or restraint no gun would ever be made no bomb would ever be dropped no tree would be felled no oil drilled no knife drawn no child starve. No little boy would ever die. The Indian teacher Yogananda said, IT DOESN’T MATTER IF A CAVE HAS BEEN IN DARKNESS FOR 10,000 YEARS OR HALF AN HOUR ONCE YOU LIGHT A MATCH IT IS ILLUMINATED. Once we have one flicker of comprehension one burst of lucidity and understanding once we light that burning match we will chase away the whole dark madness of the world we have built on this planet each of us in the station ascribed to us at birth or to which we clambered to over others to get to. We will see it for what it is and our righteous anger will be luminous and equivocal but it will not be anger at all but LOVE: it will be the infinite eternal omnipresent undying love a mother has for her child. And it will chase the dark away. It will terrify the Elite the Leaders the Wealthy it will frighten them to their very core but if they are clever enough to look they too will see the truth they will see the foundations they will see how skeletons look mostly the same they will see that we are equal and united and they will see through the superficial glittering façade they have built around themselves and they will feel so bad for all the lonely broken isolated people they will feel so bad for the starving children the homeless the drug addicts they will feel so bad for the poor because they will feel a maternal love for humanity.
My husband gave me a little money so I take my boy’s hand and we get the train to London to tell the Prime Minister all these things I have told you Mary. The journey is going very smoothly. In my head are all the moments gathering. The beach salty and bright and empty every twitch and glimmer of my lovers’ faces mischief and certainty each of them rising over me like a sun the graze of stubble on my collarbone and golden September my husband in the raw chill as starlings curved their paths through the sky and him running to me in the hospital corridor with my empty arms and my boy jumping on our bed WAKE UP LAZY POOS my boy’s toy truck a blaring yellow and the hole in my husband’s sock and men in socks in general the heartbreaking vulnerability of their feet the domesticity of husband and wife the strength of it like sentinels and the reality of our life now lost in an amaranthine sea of weary faces black-eyed and angry and Parliament all gothic and resplendent and 4 3 2 1 BOOM! BOOM! BOOM! Under the shower of gunpowder explosions it is set alight it will make a bony skeleton charred and smoky and emptied.
My boy chatters away to the lady in the seating next to ours. She don’t really talk much back to him but he don’t seem to mind. I smile at him. I can’t help it. He is such a lovely boy. I know what is going to happen. I will tell the Prime Minister all about my gorgeous little boy. I will tell him everything I have told you Mary and he will see the love shining out of me he won’t be able to miss it and he will love my boy too and he will gather up all the people that run this country and he will show them my boy and he will say, Look. We need to sort everything out. So that no more little boys have to die. And everyone will clap and cheer and throw their hats and papers and money into the air. And slowly things will start to get better. They will put all the little boys and the little girls and all the people who used to be little boys and little girls above everything else they will brick by brick remove all the structure of things that make the rich richer and the poor poorer and we will rebuild it so that no little boy ever picks up a gun again we will rebuild it greater and mightier than ever before.
But when I get off the train I turn around to take my boy’s hand and he isn’t there. I start to scream. I can’t help it. Where’s my boy? I say. Where’s my little boy? I call his name over and over. Where is my boy? I scream. I run up and down the station I look inside every single window of the train. I bellow like a field of cattle when the calves are taken. But my little boy is a clever little boy. Of course he is heading towards a train conductor. I rush towards him I snatch him up and he starts crying he had been so shocked and scared the poor little thing. He will not stop crying so I say to him, Don’t worry my little love we won’t go to Number 10 today. We’ll get the train back home and I’ll make you mashed potato fish fingers ketchup peas and broccoli because it’s your favourite and because you’re a good boy you always eat up your greens you aren’t fussy. And afterwards we’ll have icecream and you can have whatever flavour you want. Maybe we could even get Ben & Jerry’s seeing as mummy has a bit of money left. Just don’t cry gorgeous boy mummy’s here now mummy’s here. And after a while he is so tired from crying that he just falls straight to sleep in my arms.
So I carry him to the train and he sleeps all the way home. When we get home at last he is very quiet. I plonk him in front of the telly while I rustle up some hot chocolate and biscuits and marshmallows in the kitchen for a treat because he seems too tired to eat a proper meal. I just want him to be happy Mary it is the simplest thing in the world. He gobbles it all down. His face is blank staring at the telly. In just about ten seconds flat he is asleep. I sit there watching him. He don’t smell right but it is okay. He is flushed and dreaming. I will build a new world for him Mary I will build it greater and mightier than before.
The only thing is Mary is that I don’t know how he is doing anymore. Maybe in a way I sought out this vigil: these institutional days the waiting cut into segments of meals and group chats and fights and sleep. Because I hear the guns too. Like that sixteen-year-old boy I brought the .44 calibre in through the guards and the sensors through all the concrete corridors and the metal walls the clanging crying shouting through the quiet through the waiting I brought the gun that killed my boy to the very heart where the other mothers wait and with them I wait too. I would have looked after that boy Mary. I would have. He liked me I know he did. He liked the way I mashed up the potatoes and he liked the way I brushed his teeth for him because what six-year-old wants to brush their own teeth? He was a lot quieter than my boy but that was okay I gave him lots of icecream and we watched SpongeBob Squarepants and we had a lovely time. I think I was a better mother to him Mary than his mum was for she lost him didn’t she? He was all on his own. But I don’t think the women agree because they have stopped talking to me Mary the women with the grey similar faces. They don’t talk to me because I hit one of them well I more than hit her but she is okay Mary and surely that is the main thing. I was telling her about my boy you see and about my husband. I was telling her about our flat that was done up by builders and how we don’t pay rent we have a mortgage and how my boy has posters up on his walls one of Harry Potter and one of the planets and his Buzz Lightyear duvet cover and I was just saying how my boy has Cheerios and pancakes for breakfast and how I know it is not a healthy breakfast but it makes him happy and she told me to Shut up you cow but I didn’t Mary I don’t know why I just carried on I couldn’t help myself. Not much of a mother are you, she said. Getting yourself banged up. She had mean eyes Mary. They glinted and flashed. So I said to her, I am not a perfect mother but I am a good mother and my boy loves me. When I get out of here I will push him on the swings every day and we will play football at the park and hide-and-seek and What’s the Time Mr Wolf? And if he asks for icecream I will buy him it straight away. And if he wants to watch SpongeBob Squarepants for hours I will let him. The woman looked at me then in a funny way. You’re mad, she said. Don’t you know your boy is dead? Everyone was looking back and forth between us like watching a game of tennis. They were holding their breath. I tried to laugh but it didn’t come out right and then none of them believed me they all believed her. So I lunged at her then. There was so much certainty in her face and she was looking at me like I was a lunatic and I couldn’t have that Mary. I may be in prison but I am not a lunatic. I know that boy wasn’t my boy but sometimes it is very hard to know what to do.
So nowadays I just lie in my bed and the child moves inside me like a rabbit trying to fight its way out. I lie in my bed with the women not talking to me and I think about things like the boy’s mother and her poor damaged little child. I wonder if she will read this. I think that she will listen. She was there you see when my boy died and she held him and I am so glad that she was there to hold him even though they told me he was already dead. I am so glad even though she didn’t save him. I am so glad he wasn’t alone. And I am glad that my boy was alive. Even for the six years and four months that he was alive. I am glad that he was here. And I wonder if the boy’s mother will read this and if she will feel these words like bullets. But I want her to know that I don’t blame her. I just want her to know that I don’t blame her that I can’t because what I like to pretend is that she has changed her name to Julie and that she has made my ex-husband who used to be my boy to look after happy. I like to imagine that I saw them once walking down the street her pale in a blue coat and him squinting into the sun and we stopped and had a chat. We exchanged pleasantries. It was nice. We talked about the weather. And when we parted ways I kissed her on the cheek and she looked pleased. I whispered in her ear, I don’t blame you and I don’t blame your boy. Then we went our separate ways.
My husband came a few of times to visit me. His eyes were sad and hopeful across the table. I told him that the dead outnumber the living. They jostle in the ground overcrowded. I told him that I thought that with their brittle bones and gaping mouths and luminous translucent eyes they are glad. And I told him about my boy racing down the beach in my head and how he should be cold in only his Superman t-shirt and orange tracksuit bottoms but he does not look it. He is rosy and glowing. He grins at me in his little round glasses. His footprints disappear from the sand. I love him so much it hurts. But he runs so fast I cannot keep up.
I said to my husband, I don’t think anyone wants to be alone. I said to him, You and Julie and this baby inside me I want you all to change the world. I want you to make sure we have food and shelter and time to look after each other. Because you know sometimes I feel ever so sorry for the boys holding guns.
And when my husband’s face was white and the tears slipped down familiar regions a ceaseless journey south the only thing I could do was put my arms round him. I am a mum who lost her boy it is the only thing I know how to do. This is the fossil primordial knowledge the fundamental philosophy dormant beneath our skin which compels that deepest science as hot as burning comets in our life’s blood. This is the love that cannot die this love is ancient and immortal and everlasting. It shines like galaxies. In my head is my boy running and running along the gunpowder-white beach under the smoke-grey sky in his defiant orange tracksuit bottoms and I know that this is the deeper knowledge the omnipresent awareness which I brush with my consciousness like dancing between worlds. I know we all know there is this seamless fabric this silken holeless net of consciousness and we harness it together unfractured whole beyond us and yet within. And so he cannot die he can never die. Like Jesus he is resurrected every moment. He fills my dreams. He is my Jesus divinity in human form. The Kingdom of Heaven Mary is within us all.
I told my husband all about you Mary radiant melancholy and swathed in holy blue. I told him that you stand for all mothers that the Roman Catholic devotion of you is in place of that apparently unknown bone-deep desire to worship the power of creation: that power that brings forth life that brought forth the Universe in blazing roaring brilliance. I told my husband Mary that you birthed the Saviour the most beautiful metaphor of all: a boy who gave love as the clouds give rain as the sun gives warmth and light a little boy who would try to save us from all the sadness we let ourselves succumb to because we are too stupid and disenchanted and afraid to know any better. He comes down from Heaven with his arms outstretched. He was a pagan god Mary stolen by the Christians he was a sun god and yet he was a man too in my mind and what more is there to worship: the sun and the earth. They stole more the Christians Mary they stole the Winter Solstice Easter and marriage for their own to convert the people who loved the earth and the rivers and the trees. And the pagans Mary had their own Trinity the Triple Goddess: Maiden Mother and Crone. But Mary I don’t know much of these old truths. My mother is gone so I turn to her faith the idolatrous religion with its statues and images and figurines and you Mary exalted by Divine Grace above all Angels and Men. I turn to her faith because I want a mother Mary I want to rest my head in your lap I want you to stroke my hair and bless me I want something solid and real in which to bequeath my love and wonder because all I have now are delusions and mirages and phantoms and Mad Millie who stares at me now with blank eyes dreaming of Elsewhere. I told my husband, I want somewhere to lay my head. I told my husband, Don’t we all? When everything has been stolen from us our gods and our faith our communities our food our songs our stories when it has all been stolen from us and glossed and coated and packaged and shoved back in our faces with a fee when our symbols and our rituals have lost all meaning don’t we all just want somewhere safe and soothing to lay our heads? I am not a hippy I am a realist Mary and I know that we all just want to love each other. Joe wondered if he could find God in each spinning electron like he had when he was young and on acid. I wondered, Could we all if we broadened the great orb of our minds somehow find each other not as individual selves but as one? That’s just it Mary. We can’t help it. Because beneath all the silly little problems the parking tickets the damp towels not hung up properly the burnt pieces of toast the speeding fines beneath all the worries about the children and the partners and what to have for dinner what to buy from the shops beneath all the thinking about when the dinners are with your husband’s work friends and if you need your highlights doing beneath all the ordinary things and within even all the priests playing with little boys and the strangers down dark allies and the lying politicians and the brutal policemen within the Muslim women in hijabs within the men in turbans within all the preachers at pulpits telling us to thank and pray to and love the Man In The Sky beneath all the worry and all the fear within all the children taking exams and the bullied and the bullies within the lorry drivers and the prostitutes and the teachers within the drunks and the heroin addicts and the crackheads within all the feverish writers and the poorly children and the nurses strolling up and down the hospital wards giving moments of reprieve within all the patients warm and sick beneath all the feelings that you are not good enough and all the regret and all the longing beneath all the dreams of Hollywood stars and Aretha Franklin and America beneath all the wild whizzing whirring within everyone fingering their worries like rosary beads praying to gods they do not believe in beneath all of this is this eternal ocean this seamless silken wide wide net of endless boundless silent consciousness this unbroken pneuma and that that is what connects all sentient beings that is the silence from whence the roaring comes.
And I told my husband each night is filled with noise and light SNOW FROM CHINA my night sky burning and burning with my boy glowing sulphur magnesium-bright fizzling across the sky crackling like a dodgy radio his pulse banging with each explosion two London Eyes shining out of his face BOOM! BOOM! Each night burns and burns with my boy and my days they are contented waiting sour sulphurous smoke the aftermath of the greatest magic. In the grey walls with the other mothers I wait. I wait for my boy. For he will come please god. Please Mary I am praying to you. I will not stop praying.
All my love
I still have one more letter. The last letter I wrote I showed to my husband and he said it was too sad to be the last letter. The last letter I wrote three years ago it went Dear Mary Maybe you understand why I have written this now and maybe you don’t but either way I am very glad the grief counsellor said to write in letters and I am very glad that I chose to write to you. I feel that in some strange way you have brought me closer to my mother but it is probably just that in my mind you have my mother’s face. And so maybe that is why I chose to tell you all these things that have happened to me in the past few years. Because I wanted to make her so sad and guilty but then I want her to know too that I forgive her. I forgive her and I forgive you and I forgive the Prime Minister too. Since I am in prison I have not been able to drink or have sex and I think that it has turned me a bit Buddhist. My husband came to visit me today. This was a bit daunting because the last time he visited I spat in his face but I realize now that I only did that because I love him. It’s strange how loving people can make you want to hurt them. Maybe it is because the only feeling as intense as love is pain and sometimes they get mixed up. Well when he came today he looked very peaceable and I think that is because he is not in love with me one bit. I don’t mind. The only thing I miss these days other than my boy is sex and to be honest with you I can always get Emma to help in that department. I always thought I was too boring to do anything remotely lesbian but desperate times call for desperate measures. I told my husband this and he looked quite shocked and it made me laugh. He looked even more shocked when I told him Emma killed her husband. He is married now to Julie and they go round to dinner parties with the people that me and him used to go round to dinner parties with and no-one mentions me. All my love Hazel.
Well when I showed this to my husband he said he liked the lesbian part but that was about it. He said my life had got better and maybe people would want to know that. What has actually happened is that they are going to publish my letters. This is all thanks to the grief counsellor. She wanted to see what I had written and then a few weeks later I was being told there would be a book. What? I said stupidly. Where I come from people don’t write books. She said I had a literary agent who had found a publisher who liked my letters and they were going to publish them. Then I didn’t hear about it for a while and I forgot about it because they were going to let me out soon and I didn’t have anywhere to live.
When I came out of prison I stayed with this lady who helped out ex-convicts only women I think she would have them stay with her until they had got back on their feet. She was nice enough most of the time I was quiet and I think she liked me she would make me cups of milky tea and tell me about her dead husband and the tomatoes she grew in her garden. After maybe twelve weeks I had to leave I was given some money and sent on my way. Well what I did is Mary I bought a tent from Asda and with the tent and the rucksack the lady had given me what held all my belongings in this wide world I took a train to the seaside not the one I had gone to with my boy when he had a day off school a different one. I got the train to the seaside my mum had taken us to when we were younger on our summer holidays. We used to stay in my Auntie Janet’s static caravan on the holiday park there. Well what I did is I pitched up my tent a little way from the holiday park on a grassy embankment overlooking the sandy beach. It was ever so lovely Mary. My boy was ecstatic. Did I mention he came with me? Every morning we would get up and watch the sun rise pink and uncertain over the sea. It was the most beautiful sight in the world. And then I would play with my boy chasing him and tickling him and making him laugh like a crazy boy until the hunger drove me to the nearby town or to the holiday park and I would steal food or beg for change. I think my boy was ashamed of me in those moments because he would disappear he didn’t like to see his mum brought so low.
The thing that worried me though was that little boy locked up without his mum. They took my baby you see Mary I had all the milk and hormones all the love and no-one to give it to I just felt it for everyone. I said to his mother when I saw her I said, Why didn’t you look after your boy better? And she said to me she loved him loves him more than there are words more than there are stars in the sky and bodies in the ground. She did her best she did the best she could. I said, Well you should have fucking well done better. Then I said sorry for swearing. I wish I was a better person. I really wish I was.
The thing is I saw a picture of her boy and he was so small-looking for his age and he looked a bit like my little brother and then I thought maybe it was Robbie. I thought, Oh no she adopted him and he came back to punish me for leaving him with our pilled-up mother. I was so sad then Mary. I thought, WE ARE ALL VICTIMS OF OUR CIRCUMSTANCES. I thought all spiritual and political and Buddhist things I was very wise Mary they would have been surprised back home. I saw everyone’s dreams all glimmering and gone up in smoke. The sky was bright silver. The sun was peroxide-yellow. I saw my boy growing up and self-medicating. I saw my little brother and sister making ribbon-red ladders up their arms and legs so they could ignore the pain on the inside. I saw Saturday night punch-ups on the high street and people pottering about the house on their own and self-reproachful girls looking at magazines and big leafless trees lining busy roads reaching up into the smoggy sky and I saw then how everyone had my boy’s face and how everyone had the sixteen-year-old boy’s face and how they were both the same. They were exactly the same.
We are sat on the hilltop and we can see the town spread out in front of us and Devin says to me, ‘When I was a kid I imagined all the people I might want to be. And then somewhere in my early teens I realized that I could never be any of those brave, adventurous, piratic, hard-drinking, wild, eloquent people, because I was just plain old me. But then I turned seventeen and I was done with school and my dad was a bastard and I wasn’t scared of him and when I went out and I looked at other people I realized that everyone was pretty much the same, and I could be better than them, I could become whatever character my childhood self had imagined. And I went to America and I worked and I fucked girls and I wrote them poems and pretended to be tragic so they would fall in love with me and I pretended they were prettier and wilder than they were. And after a while I was sicker of people than I had been, especially American people, they were so loud and friendly and optimistic, and I came home because I had run out of money, and I decided to grow up. Look at me now, Haze, look at us now, we’ve come from lazy, self-obsessed, depressed young people, to tired, drugged-up, 30-something hippies, and yet it is still as if we were at the same time sixteen and sixty-five, just as we felt when we were eighteen, and it is too like we were foetuses or newborn babes, there is an essential core within all of us which remains unchanged and unmoved by the tides.’
I say to him, ‘Devin, your problem is you can’t just be. You always want something. It’s a cancer, wanting, it’ll be the death of you, just like me, I always want my boy and my husband. But the stupid thing is that when I had them I wanted my husband to be different and I wanted my boy to be quieter. A lot of the time I just wanted to be on my own.’
‘Have you finished all your letters?’
I still have one more letter. The last letter I wrote I showed to Devin and he said it was too sad to be the last letter. Since he has had his little girl he has changed a lot. The last letter I wrote three years ago, it went Dear Mary, Maybe you understand why I have written this now and maybe you don’t, but either way I am very glad the grief counsellor said to write in letters and I am very glad that I chose to write to you. I feel that in some strange way you have brought me closer to my mother, but it is probably just that in my mind you have my mother’s face. And so maybe that is why I chose to tell you all these things that have happened to me in the three decades I have been on this Earth. Because I wanted to make her so sad and guilty, but then I want her to know too that I forgive her. I forgive her and I forgive you and I forgive the Prime Minister too. Since I am in prison I have not been able to drink or have sex and I think that it has turned me a bit Buddhist. My husband came to visit me today. This was a bit daunting because the last time he visited I spat in his face, but I realize now that I only did that because I love him. It’s strange how loving people can make you want to hurt them. Maybe it is because the only feeling as intense as love is pain and sometimes they get mixed up. Well when he came today he looked very peaceable and I think that is because he is not in love with me one bit. I don’t mind. The only thing I miss these days other than my boy is sex and to be honest with you, I can always get Emma to help in that department. I always thought I was too boring to do anything remotely lesbian but desperate times call for desperate measures. I told my husband this and he looked quite shocked and it made me laugh. He looked even more shocked when I told him Emma killed her husband. He is married now to Julie and they go round to dinner parties with the people that me and him used to go round to dinner parties with and no-one mentions me. All my love, Hazel.
Well Devin said he liked the lesbian part but that was about it. He said my life had got better and maybe people would want to know that. What has actually happened is that they are going to publish my letters to Mary. This is all thanks to the grief counsellor. She wanted to see what I had written and then a few weeks later I was being told there would be a book. What? I said stupidly. Where I come from people don’t write books. She said I had a literary agent who had found a publisher who liked my letters and they were going to publish them. Then I didn’t hear about it for a while and I forgot about it because they were going to let me out soon and I didn’t have anywhere to live.
When I came out of prison I stayed with this lady who helped out ex-convicts, only women I think, she would have them stay with her until they had got back on their feet. She was nice enough, most of the time I was quiet and I think she liked me, she would make me cups of milky tea and tell me about her dead husband and the tomatoes she grew in her garden. After maybe twelve weeks I had to leave, I was given some money and sent on my way. Well what I did is, Mary, I bought a tent from Asda and with the tent and the rucksack the lady had given me what held all my belongings in this wide world, I took a train to the seaside, not the one I had gone to with my boy when he had a day off school, a different one. I got the train to the seaside my mum had taken us to when we were younger on our summer holidays. We used to stay in my Auntie Janet’s static caravan on the holiday park there. Well what I did is I hitched up my tent a little way from the holiday park on a grassy embankment overlooking the sandy beach. It was ever so lovely, Mary. My boy was ecstatic. Did I mention he came with me? Every morning we would get up and watch the sun rise pink and uncertain over the sea. It was the most beautiful sight in the world. And then I would play with my boy, chasing him and tickling him and making him laugh like a crazy boy, until the hunger drove me to the nearby town or to the holiday park and I would steal food or beg for change. I think my boy was ashamed of me in those moments because he would disappear, he didn’t like to see his mum brought so low.
The thing that worried me though was that little boy locked up without his mum. They took my baby you see, Mary, I had all the milk and hormones, all the love and no-one to give it to, I just felt it for everyone. I said to Cathy, when I saw her, I said, Why didn’t you look after your boy better? And she said to me she loved him, loves him more than there are words, more than there are stars in the sky and bodies in the ground. She did her best, she did the best she could. I said, Well you should have fucking well done better. Then I said sorry for swearing. I wish I was a better person. I really wish I was.
The thing is I saw a picture of her boy and he was so small-looking for his age and he looked a bit like my little brother Robbie and then I thought maybe it was Robbie. I thought, Oh no, she adopted him and he came back to punish me for leaving. I was so sad then, Mary. I thought, WE ARE ALL VICTIMS OF OUR CIRCUMSTANCES. I thought all spiritual and political and Buddhist things, I was very wise, Mary, they would have been surprised back home. I saw everyone’s dreams all glimmering and gone up in smoke. The sky was bright silver. The sun was peroxide-yellow. I saw my boy growing up and self-medicating. I saw Robbie making ribbon-red ladders up his arms and legs so he could ignore the pain on the inside. I saw Saturday night punch-ups on the high street and people pottering about the house on their own and self-reproachful girls looking at magazines and big leafless trees lining busy roads reaching up into the smoggy sky and I saw then how everyone had my boy’s face and how everyone had Cathy’s boy’s face and how they were both the same. They were exactly the same.
He came out to see me this time. I was surprised he had grown up. He had a small build but he was wiry and he had a strong jaw. I stroked his jaw. I said, Hello, love. He looked humbled, Mary. I felt so pleased with myself. I could see my boy beaming out of his face. My boy was so proud of me. I could feel my tits leaking milk. They couldn’t have been, it had been too long since I had my baby, but I know that they were. I was so happy. It was like my boy had been put back together again. It was like my baby had been put back in my arms. It was like Devin had found America just as he had hoped. It was like everyone had found America just as they had hoped. We all have an America, Mary. My America was the standard dream, a house with a garden and a husband and children. Well I had got it all back. I had found a lost little boy and he had my boy’s face too. Oh sweetheart, I said, because there was such a hard sad look in the boy’s eyes. Oh darlin, it’ll be alright. It will all be alright. And I put my arms around him.
All my love,