My daughter, two-and-a-quarter, burns her comet’s trail around the problematic space of the sitting room, narrowly negotiating the adult terrain of armchairs, rugs, and bookcases.
With both hands she flips over a large footstool, shaped like a box, bought before she was born. It was intended for another setting, child-unfriendly, a distant memory. Once butter-soft suede, the stool is now a sticky testament to her tenacity. It rocks like an upturned turtle. My daughter flings herself onto its precarious under-carriage. She finds her feet, braced like a sprinter at the starting line, fingers and toes splayed, but she’s too near to the edge and wobbles, dismounts, climbs back on. She tests her balance before straightening to her full height of 90 centimeters, and proceeds to bounce up and down.
I bite down the instinctive, “Be careful,” and continue to read aloud from the book in my lap. I am hoping to intrigue my reckless, breathless daughter, to tempt her to my side, into a tableau of mother and child. It is nearly her bedtime.
She is racing, rocking, bouncing. I continue reading. Every so often she flicks a glance across her shoulder, the way a dancer will fix her focus on a spotlight at the back of the auditorium in order to remain orientated and avoid dizziness while turning, turning.
I offer up the jewel-bright pages of the book. She climbs into the armchair opposite mine, lies on her back for a moment, kicking her heels in the air, then twists like a fish and flops to the floor. All this she achieves without a sound or any discernible increase in her pulse rate.
I finish the story, close the book. In the silence that follows, my daughter turns to look at me across the battlefield of play — spent marbles, toys to be nursed back to their proper shapes, balloons she has learned to juggle two at a time — and raises her eyebrows. I offer the book. She comes and takes it from my hands.
“Again?” I suggest. “Do you want Mummy to read the book again?”
I hold out my hands, palms upwards, to receive it. She ignores me, taking the book to the vacant armchair, climbing up, and turning her back on me. She turns the pages rapidly with both hands. Reaching the end, she closes the book, opens it carefully, and begins again.
“Is it a nice book?” I ask. “Shall Mummy read it to you again?”
My daughter shakes her head emphatically.
I have a presentiment of her adolescence: secretive, sceptical. Unassailable. She sits in silence with the book, hoarding information the way an animal will hoard food for the long winter months ahead.
Redundant for the time being, I sit with my hands in my lap. I need a manicure, and file this information in the bottom drawer of my mind. Tomorrow, for the first time, I am taking my daughter to a swimming pool. The manicure will have to wait.
My sister says she was unable to read books for a year after her first child was born. “My brain wouldn’t let me concentrate,” she confided. As if it had been rewired for the task in hand — the feeding, the changing — everything re-routed via the motherboard.
My experience has been quite different. Until recently I could surprise in myself a grim determination to preserve an aspect of the person I was three years ago. Manicured, Manolo’d, poised for action, or flight. I carried an image of this person in the back of my mind, the way some people carry in their wallets photographs of loved ones, or bills to be paid. It’s little more now than a ghostly imprint on my retina, the sort you get from staring too long at an artificial light.
Sometimes in the night my daughter wakes and lifts her head and smiles at me through the bars of her cot. A hazy, golden, unguarded smile. I crouch down, craning my neck to catch its warmth, the way a cat will track a patch of sunlight across a carpet, basking. She has a milky moonlit smile when she is less awake and I react like a cat to that too, lapping it up. My daughter puts her face down on the sheet, slipping back to sleep. I stand too quickly, seeing a swarm of spots, giddy with love.
It’s morning. My daughter greets me with a sunny smile, standing at the foot of her cot with an armful of her favorite toys, ready to be picked up, for her day to begin. A blue bruise trophies her temple. I sport its twin on my breastbone, the result of an unguarded moment during yesterday’s fling.
Her smile threatens my defenses, exposing serious cracks in my rational armor. I want to scoop her up and smother her in kisses. I restrain myself. Smothering is not recommended, in any book I have read. Mothering, yes. Smothering, no.
Instead I lift her to my shoulder, holding her there for a moment while I wish her good morning. She butts her head at me then lifts her face to mine and shines the full force of her smile into my eyes like a searchlight until, satisfied that I’m not about to embarrass either one of us, go weak at the knees with love for her or coo or gibber, she relents and makes a bobbing movement, saying, “Up up,” to remind me the day is underway. There are things to do. Rooms to be raced around, havoc to create, danger in the face of which to laugh.
Our life is full of these tests, my daughter always on the lookout for signs of my frailty, seeking assurances that I am not about to betray our unspoken pact of respect for one another’s autonomy.
Like any first-time mother, I routinely resort to platitudes: “What a clever girl!” “You’re so pretty!” “Oh well done!”
My daughter legislates for these lapses. Not yet speaking she has stockpiled an impressive arsenal of expressions. The raised eyebrow. The flicking glance. This smile at first light, and last light, when we are both a little dazed by the dawn or dusk, still finding our feet.
At the swimming pool, alien sounds slap us in the face. Half a dozen children are thrashing water, their shrieks exploding like shrapnel off the walls and ceiling.
My daughter stiffens in my arms. I hold her firmly but not fiercely, saying, “Look! Water! Like a big bath! Like the sea!”
The sea is the reason we are here. In two days time I’m taking her to see it for the first time. Small children, I’ve been warned, can be scared when meeting the sea for the first time. My daughter may feel intimidated, overwhelmed. I hope to soften the blow by bringing her to this place, where the water is temperate, sanitized, one part per million chlorine to each 45 cubic meters of pool. It’s years since I was in a swimming pool, crawling after perfection. I’d forgotten the way the water moves between the walls, swollen like a blister. I’d forgotten the noise.
I head for the shallow end, wondering how I’m going to negotiate the steps with a small and increasingly malcontent child in my arms. My daughter is rigid with resistance. She isn’t making any sound but her face is going through a series of warming-up exercises, the preliminary to crying.
I continue my enthusiastic chattering. “Splash splash!” I say. “Isn’t it lovely?”
I manage the steps, trying not to betray the anxiety I feel as my feet fear slipping and my one hand hopes for the best on the wet handrail.
We are in the water. If anything, the sound is louder. The taut water strikes the sides of the pool like thunder. My daughter starts to weep.
A girl of about eight swims up to us, holding out a foam bar shaped in an enormous boomerang. With this, she pens us into the right angle near the steps. My daughter looks up at me, astounded.
The girl, her feet kicking furiously, says, “Doesn’t she like the water?”
“It’s a bit too noisy for her,” I explain. “It’s the first time she’s been here.”
“What’s her name?”
I tell her. She repeats the name, as if she’s interrogating a suspect, pushing her face as near as she can get it to my daughter’s.
My daughter has had enough. She butts her head into my shoulder and wails. I make for the steps.
In the changing room I struggle to remove her swimsuit, to dry her and dress her while she stands and weeps. I pick her up and hold her, and rock her, and pet her, but she’s getting cold so I put her down again and again try to unpeel the wet swimsuit that’s stuck to her like soggy duct tape.
Into this nightmare scenario walks the girl with the boomerang. She circles us with menace. “Doesn’t she like getting dressed?” she demands.
I smile wanly and struggle on. My daughter, inconsolable and soaking wet, slips on the floor, clutching at me for support. I reach for her and almost lose my balance. We cling together, teeth chattering, like the traumatized survivors of a shipwreck.
The girl with the boomerang towels her hair, a study in superiority.
This is my first time at the English seaside. I holidayed in cities, distant neon-lit sky-scraping capitals of glitter and artifice.
The drowsy air is puckered by the sting of salt and the chanting of gulls. To our left is a neglected pier, its rust-charred skeleton softened by the watered silk of the sky. To our right, an open sweep of beach. Behind us, the promenade with its new cycle lane marked in turquoise paint that chaffs the feet. Before us, the sea.
My daughter’s eyes grow wide as saucers. She looks down at her bare toes, feeling something she’s never felt before; the tide has washed the sand to soft brown sugar beneath our feet.
I take her hand in mine. We make our way towards the sea, pausing only to observe with interest the way in which the wet sand sucks at our footprints and swallows them up. The first wave, uncurling towards us, tickles our toes.
My daughter strides out into the sea until it embraces her waist. I give up trying to keep her dress dry by holding it twisted like a tail behind her back. I let it go, using my free hand to balance us better against the thrust and suck of the tide. An incoming wave inflates the striped skirts of her dress, the sudden swell of the sea sweeping the pair of us up onto our toes like dancers.
I sense my daughter draw a breath, steady herself. She arches her back and takes another step forward, her small body plucking at the waves, catching the rhythm of the sea the way a kite will catch the wind’s and moving in time to it, tense at first and then triumphant.
There is no single fixed point, they say, in the universe. No spot on which the revolving mass of the earth can fix its focus, as I fix mine on my daughter, as she sometimes fixes hers on me.
Everything in the universe is spinning, all the time, to infinity.