I’m no more your mother
Than the cloud that distils a mirror to reflect its own slow
Effacement at the wind’s hand.
—Sylvia Plath, “Morning Song”
Before Mabel comes for the weekend, we have to turn the heating off for forty-eight hours.
It’s January and cold. Outside, on the untreated roads of our modern estate edging an austere north Pennine town, snow has hardened to grey, intractable ruts. Inside, Alice and I move between clouds of breath, clamping our arms to our bodies, rubbing our numbing fingers. We wear extra layers of clothing to combat the cold: near forgotten woollies, scarves and bobble hats retrieved from the bottom of drawers and smelling faintly of camphor and lavender.
On Friday afternoon, Alice’s alert, diminutive figure waits on the icy pavement. Wearing one of my baggy jumpers, trailing below her knees and flapping at the arms, she looks like a child from her infants’ class who’s raided her father’s wardrobe. A black estate car pulls up at the kerb. Alice takes Mabel immediately from the attendant and hurries back inside, leaving me to sign the forms and thank the attendant and the driver, each of whom solemnly shakes my hand. I watched the car depart, its tyres spinning over the frozen snow.
On Alice’s instructions, I’ve muted all forms of communication. Mobiles switched off, the wireless router and landline unclipped. For good measure, the TV unplugged, the radio silenced.
I follow Alice’s careful tread on the stairs and stand beside her in the nursery pristine with fresh paint and new carpet, pink and cream furniture, and cloud wallpaper. Above the cot, a mobile of capering monkeys.
I look at Mabel in the cot, recollecting hours spent poring over the baby-naming book. How difficult it was to agree a name we both liked, after ruling out those of the miscreants I’d taught, or Alice had supported as a teaching assistant, and would rather forget. I remember what it said about the derivation of Mabel: from the Latin amabilis, meaning lovable. We hadn’t come across a Mabel; a name too old fashioned, it seemed, to have gained popularity in the classroom, even among the little ones Alice helped.
Alice pulls off my jumper and dumps it on the floor. Two crusty stains mark her shirt where her breasts have leaked. Her socks have dug seams into the putty of her shins. Her face is white and drawn, nostrils raw, and her short brown hair dishevelled by constantly raking fingers.
She reaches out and places a fingertip on Mabel’s cold and spotless forehead.
“What about bathing?” she asks. “Hygiene?”
Her body shrivels from my consoling arm.
“What about it?” I say, gripping the frame of the cot, trying to control the incredulity in my voice. “You want to take a bath?”
“Nobody said anything about keeping her clean.”
Unwelcome formality slips from my lips. “They have a way of dealing with that,” I tell her, “fluids, preservatives, and such like.”
At night, I turn in bed and hear Alice’s voice through the thin walls speaking softly to Mabel. Later, I fall into a light sleep, listening to the faint, erratic pulse of her sobbing.
Troubled dreams haunt what little sleep I have. A powerful snake coils around me, squeezing the air from my lungs in tightening contractions. When I awake, sweating and shivering, the dream has faded to images of the most crushing truth: of Mabel’s lifeless head emerging from Alice, the pale tentacle of the umbilical cord – her lifeline, her noose – wrapped around her neck.
I make tea, mug after mug, and take it to Alice, her stare glued to Mabel in her cot. Later, I collect the cold mug from the bedside cabinet and pour the contents down the sink. Through the kitchen window, the fell surrounding the town is a vast, white horseshoe merging with the sky.
Saturday and Sunday are soft-edged and insubstantial as snowflakes. Day blurs into night, and dusk melts into dawn. My cautious footsteps stalk the house, and I prepare meals that are barely touched.
In the early hours, Sunday morning, Alice puts Mabel in the pram and sets out in the biting cold along the road into town. Flurries of snow, blown off the fields, swirl around the corners of dark stone farm buildings. There’s no moon, and, without a torch, the dimly luminous snow and dull glow of the nearby town is the only light by which to see. I follow, dutifully, one step behind and help when the wheels of the pram stick in the snow.
Before the main street of the town, we reach a playground, and Alice lifts Mabel from her pram. Under granular light from a single street lamp, she shows Mabel swings fronded with hoar frost, a roundabout bearded with icicles, and a sandpit clad in a thick pelt of snow. Black, wind-torn trees, sheathed in ice, become ancient ice-monsters; the glistening turrets of a slide the home of a beautiful, but wicked, snow queen; a broken sign on a post a magical, white bird pinned in flight by the frozen air.
When Monday morning arrives, and the car comes to collect Mabel, Alice won’t let her go.
Avoiding her defiant glare, I prise her fingers loose as gently as I can and hand Mabel to the mortuary attendant. Yellow buds of cotton wool plug her tiny nostrils. Beyond a fractionally open lid, a distant crescent of eye white.
Alice waits. The attendant places Mabel in a stainless steel casket, the back of the estate car clunks shut, and then she dashes to the car, seizing the attendant’s arm.
“No,” she says, quietly, calmly. “You can’t.”
“I’m sorry,” he whispers.
“No. You can’t, you can’t have her.” Her grip tightens on the attendant’s coat sleeve.
The attendant, his neck flushing above his white shirt collar, looks at me, imploringly. “Sir, I wonder if you might…”
With little choice, my treacherous, restraining hand perches on her slender shoulder. She stares at me vacantly, and then utters my name once, snarled like a curse: “Grrrreg!” I shake my head, and eventually something unsaid gives between us; a delusional and fragile breakwater breached in the moment her hand unfurls, relinquishing her grip on the attendant.
The car pulls away, leaving a veil of exhaust fumes hanging in the air.
Headlights tunnel into moorland darkness. A Wednesday night, in April, and I’m driving home after a support group meeting in Bishop Auckland. Alice is asleep in the back. The radio turned down low; the subdued electronic music a comfort after the earnest exchanges of the meeting.
Beside me on the passenger seat is a gleaming cherry-wood box; Mabel’s memory box that we shared at the group. Inside are two framed photographs: one of Mabel, tiny in my outsized arms, the other of her with Alice, set against the pretty primrose wallpaper of the cramped hospital room. Also, a silver bangle and a floral dress from Alice’s parents; a thumb sized teddy and knitted bunny from my mother; the monkey mobile, all tucked neatly into the satin-lined compartments.
Here and there, the headlights reveal lingering pockets of snow. Alice’s even, childlike breathing rises and falls, and her perfume carries a sweet potency. For the support group meetings she makes the effort to change out of her baggy house clothes. While I hurriedly remove work shirt and tie, shower, and pull on a sweatshirt and jeans, Alice changes into a softly tailored suit, or a blouse and skirt, ties up her hair that has grown into brown curtains over her pale forehead, and applies a thin layer of foundation and lipstick.
We climb a steep incline lined with snow poles flickering out of the blackness, and then, without a wisp of warning, impenetrable fog shrouds the car. I stop in the middle of the road and sit there for a while, pondering what to do. But it’s no use; we’re enclosed, trapped on hundreds of square miles of open moorland.
Alice rouses and sits up. “Where are we?” she asks, groggily. “Have we broken down?”
With headlights disintegrating into the fog, I decide to put the car in first gear and edge forward, hoping for the best. “I’m concentrating,” I say.
Alice rubs at the window. “Can’t see a thing out there.”
“Typical. Came down like a shutter.”
She flops back in her seat. “Don’t know why we ever chose to live in this miserable place.”
She’s right, of course. Five years ago, when I grabbed the first job available in a Teesdale comprehensive school, the tranquillity, the balance of security and freedom seemed so perfect for raising a family. But ultimately, it had been selfish to locate to this part of England, hundreds of miles away from her family in Kent, the garden of England.
The car crawls forward into a slipping whiteness that thins just enough to discern a silvery eye hovering before me, and I slam on the brakes. Alice pitches forward, grabbing my headrest, her face twisted with horror. Her warm gasp licks my ear.
“My god! Is it broken?”
I look into the foot-well, where the box has clattered down. “It’s okay,” I say and lean over to pick it up.
She rushes out the back and flings open the passenger door. “Give it to me,” she demands.
I hand over the box with a long sigh.
“I told you, it’s fine,” I complain.
Alice walks away clutching the box to her chest.
I unclip my seatbelt and follow. I can just make out the vague outline of the road veering sharply to the left before floating into nothingness. I reach out a shaky hand to touch the reflective warning disc at the roadside sparkling in the headlights. Smooth and cold, it leaves fine grit on my fingertips. A yard or two ahead, I sense the precipice, the drop into emptiness, and feel cool dew settle on my face. I move a few paces towards Alice, but she steps away. When she turns to face me, even at the short distance between us, her slight body appears almost completely consumed.
Terry, the caretaker, whistles in the corridor and jangles his keys. It’s gone eight, locking up time. I’ve been at my desk for hours but accomplished nothing. To one side is a pile of untouched folders, and my mark book, open but without any new entries.
Terry enters, secures the workshop windows, and then clears his throat.
“Sorry,” I say. “You must be ready.”
“Not a problem,” says Terry. “I’ve got a few more rooms to lock up first. Another ten minutes?”
I go down the list of names in my mark book, enter a quick estimated mark, and pack my bag, ready to leave.
Driving home, through the open window, a curlew pipes into the dusk. At the head of the valley, it descends in a slow parabola into dense heather.
It’s the evening of Alice’s first get-together with a few work colleagues from the infants’ school, part of a gradual reintegration back to normality and an eventual return to work. Parked outside, the porchlight of our house casts an ashen glow on the overgrown strip of lawn. The mock Georgian windows silvered by the ebbing day. With little desire to cook for one, I reignite the car and head into town. The wide, cobbled main street occupies the slope of a long hill, and rows of terraced houses run off it in steep gradients. The top of the main street ends at a crossroads, a cluster of shops, and a tall, narrow pub with a church tower lurking behind it. I stop to buy fish and chips and a bottle of red wine. “Hiya, sir! Enjoy your chips,” a girl’s voice hails from a scant cast of teenagers gathered on the benches near the war memorial. Raising a desultory hand, and receiving an ironic cheer, I hurry back to the car.
At the kitchen table, I pour a large glass of wine, eat half the fish and chips and throw the remainder in the bin. Greasy fingers smudge the wine glass. I pour another glass, then another, until the bottle’s empty, and doze off in front of the TV news.
Rousing, from the corner of a bleary eye, a white shape moves in the back garden. I put my face to the window and cup my hands around it. Nothing. Only a need to trim the unkempt hedge, mow the grass, and deadhead the few flowers that struggle perpetually to grow in the meagre soil.
I open the back door and step outside, cool air lagging my skin. Even during summer, the land remains frigid and unwilling. Beyond the hedge, the fell spreads across the fading horizon, the road into town a grubby ribbon.
Alice appears unexpectedly from the far side of the garden shed dressed in a flowing, white nightdress. “Jesus!” I say. “You nearly scared me to death.”
She smiles, flatly, her eyes puffy, hair damp and tangled. Fine hairs curl above her ankles, and her bare toes dig into the clumpy turf.
“I thought you were going out,” I say.
Her fingers, ending in welts of jagged nail, pluck at her nightdress. “I couldn’t face it. I got half way and turned back. You looked so peaceful, asleep in front of the telly. I didn’t want to disturb you.”
Later, I listen at Alice’s bedroom door, open it a crack. She’s lying on her side, facing away from the door. “I’m okay,” she murmurs, motionless. I close the door and go to the bathroom. And, as I shower, scrubbing the loofah across the wide slab of my back, Mabel’s name emerges on the steamy panels, where Alice’s fingertip has scrawled it repeatedly on the fogged glass, covering each beaded panel top to bottom.
The top of the ladder opens out a view of torrents cascading off the fells, silvery rills joining from each side. A chill wind ushers huge, inky clouds across the sky. Soon, the fell will be white, the roads choked with snow. The rain stopped, I’ve taken the opportunity to clear the gutters for the winter, tossing down sticks, and scooping out leaves rotted to flaky gunge, spidery legs trembling, and brown, icy gutter-water trickling down my sleeve into my armpit and snaking across the back of my neck.
I’m on gardening leave until the investigation is completed. I picture the boy at the band saw, cutting wood with his attention elsewhere, just like me. It was only the tips of boy’s fingers, but there’d been blood, and plenty of it. Children running amok in the workshop, others stricken with panic. A girl had fainted. I was summoned to the head’s office. McKay was sorry, but there really was no option at this stage other than suspension. My school keys and laptop were confiscated, and I was escorted to reception, to skulk to my car and drive away.
I store the ladders and go indoors to wash up, where Alice waits. Though it’s true, since her last visit to the doctor, she’s appeared somewhat better; her eyes are bright with the kind of anticipation that can’t be solely attributed to a change in medication.
“I’ve a surprise for you,’ she announces.
As I scrub the black gunk from behind my finger nails, her close animal warmth behind me is thrilling, the most intimate we’ve been in months.
She reveals her surprise.
“A second honeymoon,” I repeat her words, dubiously.
“Yes,” she says, her hands, with the gravity of ritual, sliding under my shirt.
On the island of Kalymnos, from the villa’s patio, I gaze upon the roofs of myriad buildings clinging to the mountain. Somewhere, nestled between dusty olive groves and limestone cliffs plunging to the bright blue Aegean, is the defunct hotel where we first honeymooned. Further on, the harbour side taverna we liked and are returning to this evening.
A jewelled lizard dashes across crazy paving, enclosing the swimming pool, and clings to a pot of geraniums. Beyond the gleaming, white balustrade, cicadas buzz drowsily from treetops, while an endless file of ants, mandibles loaded with head-sized crumbs, parade back and forth, in and out of shade. Alice’s cherry red toenails performing a little salsa, my eyes slide over her legs hooked on a patio chair, to the bare rotunda of her tummy, then upwards to her neat breasts, slender neck, and serene face framed by a new spikey, elfin hairstyle. She removes her headphones, and smiles, dreamily, and then wanders back into the bedroom, where soon the taut skin of her ribcage once more slips through my fingers like warm paper.
At the taverna, we choose a table overlooking the sea and drink sappy Retsina. Across the terrace, tea lights tremble at each table, and floor lights wash over white stone.
The sound of the sea mingles with the murmurings of the taverna. Over its sequestered walls, salutations and sporadic laughter carry on the night air; a distant motor drones out at sea; and scooters whine through the mazy streets of the town.
Voices waft from the kitchen, and the scent of grilling meat and seafood comes in fragrant waves. We eat lamb kebabs and a Greek salad and, afterwards, drink Greek coffee served foaming and strong, with glasses of cold water.
Over Alice’s shoulder, at the far side of the terrace, I notice diners stirring at their tables. A waiter leans over the harbour wall, shielding his eyes and looking out to sea. He raises a hand and waves, calling out beyond the wall. The diners near him begin to stand, and soon a small crowd has gathered.
“I wonder what the commotion’s about?” I say.
“Let’s find out,” says Alice, dabbing her lips with a napkin and standing.
We weave between the tables, a tall, thin man, with a drooping moustache, hurrying before us. Most of the other diners are now standing, craning their necks and gesturing to the crowd at the seawall. The buzz of an outboard motor drowns out the rising clamour.
The moustachioed man barks orders, and people stand aside to make way for him. I recognise him as the owner of the taverna. Staff rush across the terrace from the main building.
We stand at the fringe of the crowd. Alice grabs my hand and squirms to the front where there’s a clear view of the scene below. A haze of petrol fumes rises to meet us, and a host of waving arms and jostling bodies, crammed into an inflatable boat, are tossed to and fro as the flimsy craft is dashed by the tide against the seawall.
The beseeching eyes of men, women and children catch the light from the taverna in slick currents. Older women and men lurch into teenagers loaded with suitcases. Mothers, clutching their babies, crush against children anchored to the legs of fathers.
Pleas for help intensify; cries in English, ringing above the uproar: “Mister, help! Sister… Mother… help us, please!”
The owner orders a rope to be thrown over the wall. A teenager grabs the rope and leans his weight against it, pulling with all his strength. With the help of others in the boat, the fragile vessel is hauled from the whim of the tide and steered alongside the wall.
Two waiters carry a ladder, secure it with more rope, and lower it so it grazes the swaying boat.
Alice squeezes past a group of diners, who are retrieving wine glasses from their vacated table, and reaches the top of the ladder.
Animated conversations are breaking out among people who’ve stayed at their tables. Others carry plates of food, eating it like a finger buffet at a party, watching the drama unfold below them.
Alice helps the first of the boat people over the wall.
A brief scramble ensues among the younger men, hands and feet finding purchase on the shoulders of trailing bodies, and heads butting backsides. Families hang back in dignified groups, their few possessions balanced on heads, slipping from shoulders and bulging under armpits. Smaller children are passed forward like parcels. A man falls into the sea, and a woman heaves him back aboard. Afterwards, the woman lies back in the boat, a hand to her distended belly, her face contorted with pain. There are shouts of encouragement, hoots of jubilation, and whimpers of exhaustion.
Several of the diners retreat as the boat people climb over the wall on to the terrace. Many seek refuge near the bar, assaulted by the frightened, curious faces of the new arrivals. Alice helps with fierce determination: grabbing and pulling, supporting and shouldering. I’m at her side, following her lead.
Despite the sultry evening, the staff move tables aside and roll a sheet of tarpaulin over the warm flags for the boat people to rest on. They bring blankets and wrap them around grateful, shivering shoulders. Deliver bottles of water to thirsty mouths.
The last people to climb the ladder are the man who fell into the sea, and the woman who saved him, his wife. The woman comes first, panting, her body shaking from regular contractions. When she’s on the brink of the wall, Alice reaches for her hand, but the woman’s eyes flicker in anguish. Her waters break, and amniotic fluid gushes between her legs, showering the head of her husband below. I help Alice take the woman’s arms and ease her over the wall. The husband follows, wiping his eyes and mouth, a bashful smile breaking across his face.
Almost immediately, the woman goes into labour. “No,” she moans when a waiter attempts to escort her across the terrace, indoors. “Please … sorry, please!”
The owner clears a space on the tarpaulin, and the woman lies down. The husband kneels beside her and holds her hand.
“Please,” the owner says to nobody in particular. “Some privacy, if you will.”
After the prolonged complications of Mabel’s stillbirth, I’m amazed at the speed of the birth. The father hands the newborn, a boy, to the mother, who nestles him in her arms.
“Thank you, thank you,” says the father, beaming.
I feel for Alice’s hand and wrap it in mine. As the owner addresses an elderly English couple, who’ve approached him to complain in lowered voices, the placenta slides from the mother, and the umbilical cord pulses on the tarpaulin. The owner guides the couple away with deft bonhomie, leaving us to watch the husband hand his wife a bobbin of thread, which she ties nimbly around the cord and cuts with her teeth.
The terrace is almost clear of diners when the mother reclines on the tarpaulin to nurse her baby. Other refugees sit huddled together, or sprawled across the tarpaulin. A line of the children sit on the seawall, kicking their legs in unison and laughing. The husband unfolds a pen knife and severs the cord. He gathers the placenta and cord in a carrier bag and empties the contents over the seawall, then returns to his wife’s side.
A siren blares, declaring the arrival of two policemen, who talk to the owner, glancing occasionally at the refugees with disinterested expressions. A squall of gulls swoops beyond the seawall to fight over the afterbirth.
The mother adjusts the suckling baby. Her wet nipple gleams fleetingly in the half-light, and the baby latches on once more. Absently, I begin to massage Alice’s rigid shoulders, and the mother turns, shouldering her son and patting his back to wind him, the baby facing us, our stare returned with unfocussed, quizzical eyes. Then his face scrunches up, and Alice’s shallow breathing softens and expands, buried knots of muscle yielding beneath my kneading fingers, as the baby relaxes in the most luxuriant yawn, milky strands stretching between palate and a small, pale tongue, which probes for a mother’s breast like a tender shoot seeking the sun.