The Littoral

Is it kidnapping when
it’s your own children? I hope not. I stole them from their beds at four a.m.,
flushed and yeasty with sleep, their angel hair sticking up flossily; damp,
sticky little bundles of flannel and warmth, which I nestled into the preheated
car.

I pulled away from the house at 4:15 a.m. Dawn was spilling over a wide sky dappled with cirrostratus. I was terrified that James would turn up, or maybe I was hoping he’d stagger into the rear-view mirror as I was reversing. He didn’t.

A friend of mine once
said: “The problem with having children is you don’t realise how much you’ll
love them.” There’s the catch. You protect your old life with a pentagram of
childcare, career, running, painting and whatever else you used to find so
defining. And then, the hidden trap door: you care so fiercely for these tiny
possets of humanity you’d sacrifice your life for them. And you can’t stuff
them back once you realise that. The patriarchy’s got a gun to your head and
you helped put it there.

We’re heading East on the
A12. There’s no traffic at this time in the morning so with any luck we’ll arrive
before six. I glance back at the girls. My chest tightens at the sight of their
solid bodies in brushed cotton pyjamas. I have no idea what I’ll do once I
arrive. I have no plan. Maybe it will be a day out at the beach, maybe I’ll
take them home at the end of the day and pretend everything is normal, or maybe
I’ll commandeer a boat and start a new life in Finland, or fly to a remote
Greek island and raise them on the white sand, spearing speckled mackerel in
the Aegean. I have our passports in the glove compartment. I could get us all
out of the country if I acted fast. Mum would help.

The first time James shook
me, I was so surprised, I thought maybe I’d imagined it. It didn’t feel like
something that could happen to me. I guess people feel like that about a lot of
things: war, getting pregnant, car accidents, growing old, cancer. So I ignored
the first note of this symphony but it continued to unfold predictably enough:
sonata, adagio, raised voices, aggressive insults, the odd bit of grabbing. Once
upon a time I would have left but now there was children, sleep deprivation,
work stress, back pain, etc. I wore this mantra for years, like oversized ear
defenders, silencing the percussive crashing of crockery, the shaking of
shoulders and the wilful ignoring of no means no means no. It was a whirling
Beethoven scherzo before I stopped defending and started listening.

For example, last month
he threw a mug at me and I flinched.

“Why did you flinch? How
could you ever think I’d hurt you?”

“You just threw a cup at
me.”

“Not at you. Near you. How can
you think I’d ever hurt you? What kind of man do you take me for? I love you.”

So I apologised but he
was too injured to accept it and he stormed out.

It’s almost funny, except
this is my actual life. And it’s all a secret; even he doesn’t really know that
it’s happening. I smooth it over, usually by apologising and accepting most of
the blame. I keep reality locked in a lead-lined box in my head.

I look at the girls in
the back, still sleeping, dimpled hands clutching Froggy and Sheepy.

And that’s the gun to my
head. Because if I leave him, I leave part of them too. And they will face him
alone and I have no idea what will happen when I don’t intervene. And how much
of them would I lose? Every other weekend? Every other week?

I glance at the glove
compartment.

My mother retired to a
tiny cottage on the Suffolk shore. I pull up outside her house at 6:03, just as
the first text from James arrives. I turn the phone off and release my sleepy
babies.

“Look, we’re at Nana’s.”

Standing in the open door,
my mother looks at me. She says nothing but holds me a little too long before
she bundles the girls inside.

“I’ll be in soon. I’m
just going to stretch my legs.”

I make my way over the
gleaming ridge onto the littoral. The shingle squeaks under my shoes and the
sky above me is vast. The land here is continually ceding to the sea. There is
a drunken blurriness to this landscape where sea meets sky meets land. The land
is buffered by sand, then shingle, then marram grass, then marsh. It can be
hard to judge where the water ends and the firm land begins. It has a transient
softness to it.

I know that I need to
yield, that some things have to take their own shape. I cannot stay married to
James; I cannot detach my children from their father. We are as woven together
and as distinct as the sea and the marsh and the land.

I remember the girls
eddying away from me on this beach when they learnt to walk, wobbling on their
unsteady toddler legs.

What would I tell them if
they were me? I would tell them to leave, that their children will survive
their father better if they know their mother walked away.

I have not been apart
from my children for a single night of their short lives.

I howl at the sea. I want
to stitch my children into sealskins, throw them into the brine and raise them
on shingle and sea winds. But this is a tale of due process and litigation. I
have to submit to this unconscionable rupture and prepare us for the journey
ahead.

I turn away from the sea
and walk back to the cottage, the wind shuddering at my shoulder, the salt
spray spitting in my hair.