The breeze gently sifts through her hair with its usual background stench of exhaust pipe fumes. On the afternoon school run to collect her son, buggy and baby in tow, she feels the residue of the vapors on her lips, her hair, her fingertips. Traces of black soot, unidentifiable to the naked eye, but there nonetheless.
Car ignitions and muffled engines sound out their afternoon song. Mothers mumble, fathers throw their arms up in the air complaining about Brexit, teachers stand tall and proud at the school gates like bouncers, mothers move to pick up their children. Some mothers charge, and some mothers meander. Some mothers wear pajamas, others wear make-up, some wear barely anything at all. Most are silent.
It was two in the morning. The drum of sadness beat inside her until the building pressure pushed tears out, until she could only see the blur around her. She knew then she was residing in the dark place.
The first way to rid the world of her rotten existence was to drink some kind of poison, arsenic perhaps. But immediately she conjured an image of burning alive from the inside out, flames of self-loathing sizzling like a vortex until she disappeared into an infinitesimal speck of bogey or excrement. She looked outside the rain-stained kitchen window. The sun continued to turn its back on her behind the clouds. There were so many layers to try and see through before she got to the sky; it seemed impossible to see or feel the end of the world.
The summer sun beats down, and she can feel beads of sweat on her temples. Her forehead is slippery when she wipes it with her forearm. She looks ahead with glazed eyes. The heat. London is cruel in the summer. She crosses the road instinctively to seek protection in the shadows of the terraced houses, hundreds upon hundreds connected to each other, wall to wall, roof to roof, crammed like sardines and looming above her. These Victorian monuments are more than 100 years old. Some houses remain true to their original birth state, but most now have colored exteriors, myriad brickwork styles, and all manner of slapdash paintwork. There’s a busyness to it. She has an urge to go back in time and marvel at them, before homeowners decided to mark their territories with pebble dash and plastic like pissing dogs. The houses. Her life. There are irritants everywhere. She rolls her eyes and resentment is upon her, black and empty.
On the other side of the road, another mother catches her attention. This mother charges forward with a screaming child behind her. The child is dragging his feet. He is flailing his arms about and his mouth is open wide, tears running down his cheeks. He is wearing a little rucksack. Every few steps, the mother yells some words at the boy in an unfamiliar language. There is grit in her voice. The boy ramps up his wailing to a high, piercing screech, but then he falls over and is suddenly silent. His chest is rising and falling with panic. Will his mother stop for him? Will she pick him up and hold him? Will she whisper playfully in his ear that she loves him? She faces him. She walks toward him quickly, grabs his bag and drags him. It’s passive, and it’s silent. Her son is a blind spot, something in her peripheral vision; dealing with him is a chore. The mother drags him by the scruff now, muttering coldly under her breath. The boy has stopped crying now. The two of them blur into the crowd.
She shudders. Cruelty and bitterness are on the faces of everyone here. Even the houses frown at her with their sullen curtains.
If she had a gun, she could shoot it straight between her eyes leaving an indelible hole, a portal into her own thoughts. She imagined she would see Jesus immediately, and he would welcome her into the kingdom of heaven, a glorious land of light and forgiveness, just as her Sunday School teacher had told her when she was seven. Although she was a fierce agnostic and fought for her right to remain so, she had always liked Jesus, and that made her feel a little better about the inevitable journey into death. Anyhow, a gun would require acquiring a weapon, and she was no soldier or drug lord. She was a mother. This was not an option.
The wheels of her buggy run through a piece of dog shit coiled neatly on the pavement. She stops and shouts “shit” to no one in particular. The inevitability of wheeling through crap is nothing short of fate in action, serendipity. She heaves a sigh and wipes the buggy wheel with a piece of old tissue from the undercarriage, wincing as she does it, gagging at the smell. She can taste the vomit in her throat. She makes passing eye contact with her baby then stands straight up and moves on in the crowd. She feels sick now, her head aches like one single enormous pulsating vein, and the haze, the nausea from last night, creeps closer.
She pounds down this fear, this panic; she is very experienced at this. She is also able to ignore the thumping in her head. Tiny sparrows chatter above. She looks up and notices they have nested in the roof of this house. The sparrows flutter in and out of the roof with energy, twittering away, oblivious to the school-run bustle below. Beside her, the cars that are parked still have their engines running. Her lungs fill, she coughs, and now the sparrows are gone. Once again, she is ahead, she is nowhere. She moves through the school gates to pick up the boy.
She could slit her wrists with a kitchen knife, but she had already tried this and failed. She recalls a paper cut she got from a magazine that she didn’t have the energy to actually read, and recoils when she remembers the stinging pain, the tears she cried over the magazine that promised to turn her life around in just 10 easy steps. Tiny droplets of blood coating letters on the page, she had mumbled bitterly to herself, “You don’t know what you’re doing, stupid idiot.” It had prompted a whole tape of repeats in her head about how inadequate she was, how her coping mechanisms were failing her in every possible way, and how the wing of a butterfly could change the future of everyone. Why wasn’t there a butterfly beating its furious wings to turn back time and undo all the little things, all the big things, all the things that led up to this moment?
What was your day like?
Who did you play with?
Muhammed and Joseph.
What did you do?
What did you have for lunch?
What did you learn about today?
You didn’t learn anything?
What about a letter? Or a number?
No. Can we go to the sweet shop?
Sweets are bad for you.
Can we go to the park?
Mother, boy and buggy journey in silence to the park. The colors around are muted and drab, faded reds and yellows of the odd poppy and dandelion, the jades of grasses in different stages of growth. She is aware of the mothers around her as she walks. She notices their skins, kaleidoscopic. This mother’s skin is blue-black and shiny like a wet chalkboard. Others have skin that is brown like leather, some burnt orange and shaded like newly spun pottery, some pasty peach, some creamy like beef gravy, others wrinkled and lined like beech wood. If you wanted, you could peel the clothes and the skin off like fruit; underneath, they would all look the same. Same muscle and fat. Same bones and throbbing viscera. Also hidden are the thoughts, the memories, the experiences of these women. They are for those mothers to live with, to deny, to love, to forget, to bend until misshapen. To invent.
She absorbs the scene around her— the mothers, the children, the love, the exhaustion— and try as she may she cannot mute her thoughts; she cannot mute herself. Why is she even here? She hates the park. But not going would make her the mother who doesn’t do things with her children, who doesn’t love her children, who doesn’t really like them either. Perhaps she is that mother. It feels like a dangerous confession, to not like your own children. Pang: shame.
Babe in arms and pacing, she found herself in front of a mirror. There it was, her stark reflection. Although clouded by tears, she liked what she saw. Her baby was caught face on, and she took a long deep look into his eyes. He was handsome; his hair golden blonde, his skin pasty and fair, his eyes blue and bright like the Mediterranean coastal seas. She liked her own reflection too. Olive eyes like earth, she was tall and slender, skinny as many of her friends recently reported, despite having given birth only weeks before. Her body was mending miraculously. There was barely a trace unless you looked down her knickers and clocked the war wounds, the scars of torn skin where a head had bulged through flesh. Her red cheeks were inflamed with grief, her hair greasy and lanky, her eyes bleary and clouded like froth. Her bony shoulders protruded. Anyhow, the reflection pleased her. It struck her as a balance of utter devastation and pure innocence, of new life and old.
The boy complains about the sun, so she puts a hand on his shoulder to soothe him. She did not bring a hat. The mothers who hoard together in small groups are like tiny mobs. She approaches a familiar group tentatively, smiling as much as she can muster. Back in her school days, she never fitted in with other groups of girls. She preferred to be alone, but then felt totally self-conscious and exposed as if she actually was alone. For this reason, a crowd around her felt protecting. It gave her a sense of belonging. It validated her existence. But existing in that crowd as one person stuck inside a tangled herd, she only exhausted herself trying to be someone she wasn’t. She would say things she didn’t mean, pretend, laugh when she didn’t understand jokes. She was a master of illusion. But in this very moment, standing with other women, lost in the friction-born heat of her pulsating blood, it is only nothingness she feels, a cruel kind of apathy. It’s the empty feeling again; the one she spoke to the doctor about last week. She notices it inhabit her as she says hello to the group. Distracted by small talk that doesn’t interest her, she loses sight of the boy. The baby cries, and she lifts him out to explore the grass.
“Is he ok on the grass?” says one mother.
“Oh, yes. I think he’s fine,” she replies. The baby promptly picks up a cigarette butt and shoves it into his mouth.
“God help me,” she says and removes the butt, now covered in dribble.
She feels the eyes of other mothers. Other mothers and their secret lives. She remembers waking this morning to the feel of her own tears on her cheeks, to the sound of her own muffled whimpering. She knows that no one else cries as they wake and as they fall asleep. Nobody else feels this hollow. Surrounded by women, she is consumed by festering rage. She has been cheated. Other children are not like hers; of course they’re not. Her children are manipulative and angry. They are discontented and impossible to please. They can’t follow instructions, they don’t eat vegetables, they always look a goddamn mess, and above anything else, through their birth, they snatched away the life she once had. She holds the cigarette butt and flicks it casually behind her, into the grass, sparsely decorated with empty crisp packets, blobs of chewing gum, broken glass over there, apple cores, bits of plastic, the odd condom wrapper (but no condoms today).
Next to her, a small girl around three years old, raises a huge liter bottle of fizzy drink to her mouth and catches her attention. The fizz slithers over white teeth and down the child’s gullet like some kind of grotesque orange snake. Some of it spills out of the corners of the child’s mouth. Seeing it makes her wretch. The liquid is luminous. She looks at the girl’s mother in disgust. The mother boasts fat on her stomach that rolls out from the top of stretchy jeans like sleeping sausages, and she is yelling something in a coarse East End accent. Her accomplice, another mother next to her, exudes tacky glamour. Her face is painted in heavy make-up, hair pulled tightly back, a little miniskirt on. Her breasts are spilling clumsily out of her white top, and huge gold earrings swallow up the sides of her face. This mother raises a cigarette to her mouth and puffs into the air lasciviously, one hand on her hip, the other gesticulating to her daughter, shooing the little girl away.
The mother looks accusingly in her direction, and she realizes her mouth is gaping wide open. Horrified, she closes it and pretends that she was yawning. She looks away. Embarrassed by her own thoughts, her own cruel judgments, she realizes she is not better than anyone, not better than any other mother here. She feels suddenly dirty and realizes she hasn’t showered in a week.
An overdose was far too cliché, obviously. Overdosing was for famous people, for drug-addicted movie stars or singers, for meth heads and homeless people fatigued with the sheer effort of being alive, of being known by everybody or known by nobody, loved to the point of idolatry or repulsed to the point of total disgust.
“Mum, can I have a snack please?”
She panics and sees every other mother around her with boxes of rice cakes, seedless tangerines, grapes cut in half, bananas, olives, sandwiches with mature cheddar inside and the crusts cut off, crafted carefully into ergonomic triangles. There are breadsticks. So many breadsticks. She has brought nothing. Not even a sandwich with the crusts still on.
“Goddammit,” she says. “No. Sorry.”
“Why?” He begins to cry.
“I said I’m sorry.”
“Would he like half a cheese sandwich,” another mother asks tentatively. It’s a mother she knows quite well. An acquaintance, a school gate mother. A mother with snacks. Snacks and drinks, drinks and snacks.
She glows red with embarrassment.
“No thanks, I’m sure he’ll be fine.”
“No really, honestly. It’s no problem,” the mother persists.
The boy cries quietly to himself. She promptly changes her mind. “OK, thank you so much,” she says. “I haven’t brought anything, again. I don’t know how I forgot. I haven’t slept in a while.”
“Sure, I know the feeling.” The other mother is warm, her voice is understanding. She leans in toward the boy. “Here you go, buddy.”
He takes the sandwich, munches a bite and skips off. The baby is cooing over some grass and dirt he has found.
“Your children are wonderful,” the mother says.
“I think so, too.” She says the lie and bites her tongue so hard that her tooth punctures the skin. The blood tastes like rusty aluminum. “They are hard work though,” she adds.
It’s a tiny glimpse of her authentic self, a vulnerability she loathes to confess. They are hard work, such hard work that she wants to burst into tears immediately. She is suddenly naked and ashamed. She holds her breath for a second. The other mother looks at her intensely, with an empathetic frown, but doesn’t say a word. The silence is overwhelming. She panics. The tears are coming. Big tears. Here they come. She pinches herself on the arm with her fingernails, hard. Really hard so it hurts. She sucks back. The dam is held firm.
The other mother says, “Sure, I know. Kids drive us to distraction, but you love them anyhow.”
The relief is palpable.
“You’re so right.”
She looks off into the distance, pretending to watch the boy, and considers last week when she held a knife to her left wrist and put pressure on the blade, enough to make her squirm, enough to test her resolve, enough to bail out and go to bed.
Her back turns on the other mother, and she pulls out her phone. This is to say: please don’t talk to me, I’m busy. She thinks about the tiny little white pills in her bathroom cabinet, the ones that her doctor prescribed last week.
“What you feel and what is reality are two different things,” the doctor had told her. “You feel inadequate. You feel a failure. But the reality is that you are not.”
It had been the first time she had considered that feelings and reality were not necessarily the same thing. Or were they? How can feelings feel real without being real? She thinks about the last few months and how, since giving birth, she slowly morphed into someone she did not recognize. She has forgotten who she was. In her twenties, she had been vibrant and alive. There are memories of laughing, socializing, love-making. There is a feeling that she once made choices based on her own wants and needs, whatever they were. Tired? Go to sleep. Bored? Go out, have a glass of wine, phone a friend. Hungry? Prepare a meal. And now? She is tired every second of every minute, every minute of every hour, wishing away the days like they were little coins in a well. Contemplating her own inadequacy and failure was now a nasty, time-consuming habit. She uses up the rest of her energy changing nappies, dressing the children, feeding the children, and repeat. Repeat a thousand times. These are activities that she knows she should be enjoying because, as everybody knows: They’re only young once you know! Don’t wish this precious time away!
Without warning, unstoppable memories flood over her, and she is awash with dreaming. Dreaming with her eyes open, dreaming, recalling, erasing the bad bits, but first off: remembering. She winces and strains to think about something else, to distract herself and squeeze out some other sour sap from her mind, but the memories come all the same with fearsome clarity.
Gasping with the inevitability, she now considered the purpose of dying. Was it simply doing everyone else a favor, ridding them all of herself, whoever she was, a pest and a nuisance, a dark and depressed weight? She wouldn’t even be around to grieve her own life and that felt suddenly very tragic. She flashed forward to the shame she would feel in her grave when her children grew up knowing that their own mother had bailed on them, abandoned them with absolute and violent finality. She couldn’t do it. She wouldn’t do it. Would she? She shut her eyes and squeezed out the tears with fierce energy so that her eyeballs hurt. The night unfolded then in a state of heavy mist. She slept at some point. The baby stopped crying at some point. She awoke when the sun rose.
Flushed with panic at these memories, these permanent indentations in her brain, she swiftly scoops the baby up into her arms and holds him intensely in a squeeze. Never in her life has she loved and hated something with such energy, such completeness. He is heaven and absolute hell, he is both evil mugger and philanthropist, robbing her of so much and yet giving her more capacity to love than any person on earth. His eyes sparkle, his toothless grin evokes a frightening warmth in her stomach. Seeing his mother quivering, the boy runs over to her and holds her legs desperately tight.
“Are you ok?” asks the mother beside her.
She bursts into tears and sobs freely without restraint. The mothers who before were chatting together move toward her tentatively. First, they rub her arm. Then they take the children away so that she can be held for a moment, and she is held. She has bodies all around her now, holding her. Through swampy tears, she notices that the eyes of the other mothers don’t look dissimilar to her own. Is it possible that these mothers too are submerged in grief-love, in both resentment and ecstasy, twisting, turning, doing what they can with the resources they have? Clasped tight in their embrace, she is all at once lost in weeping relief. Although she wobbles, she is supported on her feet by the bones and hearts of the other mothers as they gently whisper in her ear. She is loved.