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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.