Soft grey rain slid across Sarah’s face as she panted up the hill, pushing the pram as fast and hard as she could, up and away from everything. At the top, she stopped and looked out over the city; the familiar streets were blurred and enigmatic. It seemed to her that the city was hunching down at the bottom of the hill, cowering from the castle which loomed over everything, and that it then escaped, terraced streets climbing steeply away. The rain felt intimate. She closed her eyes, savored its touch.
The kids were stacked neatly away in this pram - the baby slung below in a kind of hammock: cozy, safe, likely to sleep in the dark. The toddler up above, master of all he surveyed: a lovely tiny tyrant. They could talk if it wasn’t raining. ‘Were dinosaurs as big as mountains, Mummy?’ or ‘When the sun shines does it mean it’s happy?’ Sarah would laugh and make up stories and say ‘maybe’ and ‘yes, I’m sure of it’. When it was raining, they could make faces through the little top window, and tap secret messages that meant ‘I love you. I’m here’. Sarah walked all day with the pram, every day she could. She walked up and down the narrow pavements of the city, through the park, down past the canal. Carrying all the good things of home; away, away. Away from the cramped terraced house on the hill, the mess inside, the brooding, black moods of Martin.
Peeking through the steamed-up rain cover, she saw that the baby was asleep at last, curled to one side, chubby cheeks and a bald head. David, the toddler, was snoring, his mouth a little ‘O’. She pushed the pram to the bench, parked it at an angle and jammed the brakes on hard. She had a fear of it running away from her down the steep hill, a blood-soaked vision of her precious babies spilling out, their soft heads breaking open. She settled herself next to them, guarding them.
There was no wind, so she opened the umbrella, balanced it on her head and the pram handle. Under this little shelter the damp could steam off, and she could eat her sandwich, look at her phone for a bit. The sandwich was depressing. The mayonnaise had soaked into the cheap white bread, making it slick and greasy, and the cheese was sat on top: waxy, glistening. She squashed some salt and vinegar crisps into it. A bite, two chews, swallow. She looked at her phone and her stomach did a little flip, turned the bites of sandwich she’d forced down over.
(21) missed calls
(10) text messages
All from her brother Robert. The messages screamed out at her:
ANSWER THE PHONE
Urgent!!!! Call me back !!
Her hands started to shake.
‘It’s Dad. It’s serious. Come now, get Martin to drive you. Mum’s with Dad at the hospital, I’m on my way there now.’
‘I can drop you to the station, but I can’t drive you all the way there. I’ve got work to do.’ Martin was ‘finishing off’ his PhD, had been for the past five years. ‘And you know, the train takes pretty much the same amount of time as driving.’ Sarah had once been in awe of Martin; he had been an idol to her, burnished gold. Over time, the gold had peeled off, revealing something tawdry, commonplace.
‘It’s emergency heart surgery. Please, I need you to take me.’ Sarah felt like she might cry. Swallowed down a lump in her throat.
Martin’s face was inscrutable. He turned away.
‘Hurry up and get your things ready, there’s a train in forty minutes.’
The tears that had welled in her eyes receded. Like the ebb of a tide on a shallow beach, they went far away quickly. Martin was not going to help her. Between them there were too many broken things; half buried jagged pieces of metal, sharp glass that would cut you.
Sarah’s voice was emotionless: ‘OK. Will you put the pram in the car?’
The train was crowded. Sarah stood next to the stinking toilet with the pram. There was something obscene in the way the door kept lolling open, revealing the piss on the floor, wafting out a wave of stench. Lots of people jostled past, all elbows and bags and boozy breath, some with little paper hats, probably on their way home from office Christmas lunches. The baby had woken up and was crying. Sarah rocked the pram. It was too cramped to get her out easily. She ignored a man who was tutting and rolling his eyes at her. Making a show of trying to read his paper.
Sarah knew women who had had affairs - the way they told their stories, the affairs sounded glamorous. Sarah’s hadn’t been like that, so she hadn’t told anyone. Kept it a careful secret. She had met Lucien at a cafe last year, and he’d started talking to her, something about the rain in England, and he’d gone on talking, about how he was a Master Patissier back in France, and was looking for work here. He knotted his scarf at his throat - a silk scarf? Probably viscose. He had long eyelashes and hooded eyelids.
‘You know, you are really quite pretty,’ he had said.
Sarah thought he was a bit stupid. Vain, too pleased with himself. She thought of what it would be like to have sex with him. Really, he was beneath her contempt, and she felt how there was something ugly and delicious and disgusting about that. They’d had sex for the first time a week later. He had put his hands round her throat, choked her. He didn’t ask if it was OK, and she didn’t say that it wasn’t.
The baby was still crying. She sounded hungry. Sarah picked her out, making the pram top heavy. David was happily watching something on her phone, in his own little world. Holding the baby in her arms, she wedged herself against the wall, pushing up with her head against the window frame to steady herself. She had to press her weight down on the bottom of the pram with her foot, and wedge her elbow on the handle to keep it steady. She felt sick. Too hot. She shushed and kissed and soothed the baby, managed to pull up her top, let the baby latch on. The tutting eye rolling man was peering over, thirstily drinking in the sight of her breastfeeding. She shouted ‘fuck off’ inside her head at him.
Feeding the baby made her calmer. She thought of Christmas when she was little. They would decorate the tree on Christmas Eve, always a real one. Carefully they would unwrap ornaments. Boxes and boxes of them down from the loft. Special precious glass ones, gaudy tinsel ones. One or two glass ones would have broken, and Sarah would pick up the pieces, hold them to the light. Her mum would make jelly ‘My mammy always made jelly on Christmas Eve,’ she would say. Then the smell of strawberry or lime or orange jelly would mix with the smell of the pine needles. If there were any cubes of it left, Sarah would bite into one, examine her teeth marks. Her dad would be in the kitchen basting the turkey, and he’d pass Sarah and Robert an illicit mince pie as they peeked round the door in their new matching Christmas Pajamas. Later, Sarah and Robert would solemnly swear that they would stay up all night and see Santa.
Martin said it was a waste of money to buy a real tree every year. So Sarah and Martin had a fake one. A cheap fake tree, the top bit all bent out of shape. She didn’t think they would put it up this year. The baby had finished feeding. Sarah kissed her soft squishy cheek, looked at how beautiful and precious she was.
Her dad looked small in the hospital bed, shrunken somehow, older now he was asleep. Everything was quiet here in the ICU; there were just beeps from machines to measure oxygen levels and heart rhythms, hushed conversations, labored breathing. His bed was tilted up, his chest dressed with bandages, pajama top left open; she could see that the skin next to the dressing was stained with iodine. His hair had been combed so that he had a neat side parting like a little boy’s. ‘He’s lucky to be alive, he’s a fighter’. That’s what the nurse had said, but Sarah thought he looked defeated. On the side table there was Lucozade, a jug of water, little plastic cups, a packet of fruit-flavor boiled sweets. Red and green and yellow and orange and purple. Sarah opened a red one, crackling the cellophane wrapper. The synthetic strawberry flavor reminded her of jelly at Christmas when she was little. She felt old now, as old as the world. It smelt like ill people and disinfectant in here, and something else, that smell when you peel off a plaster and the flesh underneath is bright pink, showing blood through it, not quite healed.
Visiting time was up. The nurse came over, picked up her dad’s chart from the end of the bed and started entering figures into it, vital statistics from the machines that were measuring out his life. Sarah leaned over and kissed him on the head, stroked his hand. The wrinkles on it felt soft, dry, velvety. Sarah had a profound feeling, a kind of premonition of what it would be like to hold her dad’s bones, for them to be heaped in a pile. She would place them in a suitcase, carry around her dead dad’s bones.
Sarah walked down to the cafeteria; it was deserted, closed. Lit only by the lights from the vending machines. She found some change and got a coffee - white with two sugars - and a Twix. Then, she sat by the window, looking out into the dark night for a little bit. There was a crescent moon, and the sodium lights on the side of the hospital threw shadows across the car park. Robert had taken her mum and the kids home, and the kids would probably be in bed now; tucked up and soothed by her brother’s girlfriend, who was eager to play house. Robert was bringing their mum back - she was going to stay the night, keep vigil in the waiting room.
Sarah got out her phone and called Martin.
‘Hi, I’ve been trying to call you. I really need – ‘
‘Sorry, sorry I saw your missed calls, and your texts! I’ve been mad busy. And well, I’m glad your dad’s ok,’ he cut her off, talked over her.
‘We don’t know that for sure yet-’
‘So, this turkey, should I freeze it? Only I’m thinking I’ll go to Jenny’s for Christmas dinner. I’d just be in the way down there with everything that’s going on.’
‘Ok that’s fine Martin. But listen - .’ Jenny was an ex-girlfriend. Once, if Martin had told her something like this, anger would have risen in her: anger over the injustice of not being supported by him. Anger caused by knowing he was trying to inflict another little cut, make her jealous. But nothing happened. She was inviolable. A smooth, hard, piece of marble. She would escape, find peace.
‘Yes, and you know she’s got a proper wine cellar. She went to France this year and went to lots of good vineyards. Also, I know we didn’t buy each other Christmas presents… So well, I want to get this book. It’s the new book about the Haitian revolution. It’s forty pounds. Do you think you - ’
Sarah held the phone away from her ear, left Martin still talking. She put it down on the windowsill and took a long swig of cold, bitter coffee, drank it all up. Then she scrunched up the empty cup, held down the off button on her phone. Outside it was getting dark. Big soft flakes of snow had started to fall. It looked like a different world.
Sue Starling is a writer from Liverpool, UK. She likes to think about objects and their meanings, and abstract thoughts.