Sarah Dobbs (Lancaster University, UK)
I find her in the snow, my little girl. Her limbs are stiff and straight, the pretty pinkness about her feet that I love still making a faint blush of rose in the white. As the neighbour’s children pat-pat-patted a snow Buddha, serenely erecting a portly monolith on the area that was once the road, I scoop out the white in my garden, and try to dig a place for her in the earth. But it is too hard. The trowel bit the ground. She is so frozen that I am afraid I will break her. And that I will.
And this is how my husband finds us. And I have not yet made supper.
Grief makes you a pariah. Look at them. Lived in this fucking village for decades, and my family before me, and they’ve suddenly forgotten who the hell I am. I get it though, course I do. How can he stand by her? What do we say? Oh, so sorry your wife’s a murderer. There’s an offer on the bananas if you’re interested. Or maybe they just think there’s nothing they can say that would help. But fuck me, grief is lonely. These are people’s cars I’ve started, borrowed sugar from. Knowing people give a damn, some words, even if they are just the hammy So-sorry-for-your-loss variety, they matter. Just say it.
The assistant in the grocery store is new. I haven’t seen her around before, don’t know where I’ve been looking. A new family? She’s all youth and bad make-up, lots of sparkly things to offset the plant pot-brown overall. “I’m meant to say the Christmas trees are on special.” She shrugs.
“Oh well, Merry Christmas.”
I bag up the loo roll and soy milk and bits I’ve never had to think about before, let alone locate.
In the car, I grip the wheel and ride out that heart attack feeling. Amy is dead.
When it passes, I set the bags on the back seat. There are two stray dummies in the back. There are two of everything at home. Things in pink and things in blue. I can’t look at my boy any more without seeing Amy. His face is hers. His face will change and hers will not. I love him and hate him all at once, and I have to stop. My baby in the snow, frozen.
I cap my thoughts and put the car in gear, shunting quickly into third and coasting, whispering, through the slush. I head down the familiar winding roads, past the church and the snowmen. The competition had gone up a level this year. There were a collection of little snow-devils on the cemetery.
I chuckle and turn up the radio. Amy is dead. I close my eyes against the images. My baby in the snow. Had she felt herself freezing? How long had she screamed for her mother? When I hold her she likes to nuzzle my face like a cat. She clings to me, like an adhesive, leaching affection. Clung.
I can’t hold her again. I wait for the vice to let me loose.
My mother has moved in. She’s been on her own a while now.
“Do you want me to make you a sandwich, pet?”
“When I was out.”
“Cup of tea?”
“You’ve got to keep your strength up, pet.”
“With a cup of fucking tea?” I put the bags down on the island counter. The house is a shit tip, despite the fact my mother has been cleaning for days. I grip the roots of my hair briefly. I want to break every door and every thing in this place.
A baby cries. For a second, I let myself think it might be Amy, but I can tell the difference.
My mother pads up the stairs. The sounds of her shushing him, the happiness in her voice.
Adrenalin burns my insides. I hurl the nearest thing.
My mother comes down with Matthew’s head cupped in her wedding ring hand. She hands him to me and sweeps up the pieces. I hold him the same way, reminded that I’ve removed my own ring.
“You need to go and see her, pet.”
I put the soy milk in the fridge and lift the bread-bin lid. Out the corner of my eye I’m aware of the glare of the white garden. I hate the neighbourhood kids who could build the snowmen and tuck themselves back into their clean, unbroken families.
The day I let my baby die I had some bad news. All I could feel was the pain of my husband’s betrayal. Which would I prefer to change? The drugs are sweet-coloured and plasticky. Amy’s pink feet, her little pink, kitten paw’s feet, pale in the snow. I’d been showing the babies their first snowfall. I’d had orange juice that morning that didn’t taste like anything. I’d washed the nappies because David was eco-and-vegan-everything and felt blank blank blank. My eyeballs were furry because I forgot to blink. My muscles stung after twisting the nappies before laying them over the radiators. If it was summer they’d have to go outside. Another job. I liked it when the post came, but it was always disappointing, always for David. Nothing to say I existed. My wonderful husband whose name was on every bill, who paid for everything and made my life perfect.
When the snow dotted the sky it was new. I gathered the babies, wanting them to feel it on their peach cheeks. Wanting to watch them seeing the brilliance of first-time snow.
I had forgotten their coats. I went inside, still holding Matthew’s carrier. David had left his phone that day. It rang when I was inside. When I remembered Amy again, it was dark and freezing and I unearthed her from a sheaf of pure snow. I dug because I didn’t want it to be real. If I could bury this it wouldn’t be true. I didn’t dig because I didn’t want to be discovered. Did I?
My wife has come home today. I feel like she has been delivered from the hospital, a new wife. New-born, her faulty chemistry corrected with bloody pill popping.
I put my wedding ring on this morning, before I went to collect her. I keep shaking my fingers, trying to get the circulation back.
My wife looks at the floor.
My mother is getting her things together. The doctors, contrary to what I would expect, seem to think it is better with just us four. Three. She hands over the baby to me as a taxi glides up. The snow is grey and sullied. Those ice drinks you get at the cinema. The last time we went to the cinema Amy wasn’t born. She was still the subject of conversations smiled under the covers late at night.
The park is boggy. My boots are leaking and my spine is tight as I hold the buggy’s handles. It is one of those dual ones with room for another baby underneath. We have filled the empty space with our son’s spare nappies and general stuff. It’s lighter, easier to move. Life is easier, with just one. God.
As I play the loving mother, pointing at ducks and making my voice lively, I feel my husband’s gaze. Am I going to push the buggy into the pond?
I turn. But his eyes are on the Cleggs’ family as they amble past in a blur of kids, colour and raised voices. They pretend to tsk-tsk at the kids who are being loud but not particularly rowdy, so they don’t have to say hello. My husband’s shoulders slope where they used to be level and strong.
Is he thinking, why couldn’t it have been their family? Why mine? Why my wife? Because you fucked her. You fucked her. But that’s not it, that’s not why. Is it?
My husband turns, hands in pockets. His smile just a twist of the mouth.
David is due to return to work in two days. I am trying to fight the rising panic. I think of the bland furniture and fuzzy silence.
The pan boils, whiting the windows. My husband is watching football. Crowd roaring, screeching whistles. Matthew is asleep in his arms. Jealousy. I cannot hold Matthew like that. The one we are left with.
It is creeping towards New Year. I have this feeling that when the year turns, my little girl will be lost forever. I have only a few hours left. And then? And then we will be expected to be shiny and new. Fresh skin after a burn. Pull yourself together.
He picks up his mobile.
Is he texting her? Are they continuing this thing? Even now?
My stomach flips. The things I think about in that brief second shock me. The violence I want to inflict. Is this me? I did kill my baby. No, no I didn’t.
The pan bubbles over.
“Damn.” I pull it off the heat.
My husband is suddenly in the kitchen space, with the other baby. I see Matthew’s nostrils twitch and hear a thick click in his throat.
“Is he sick?” I ask.
My husband navigates around me to the fridge and pulls out a beer.
“Feel his forehead,” he says.
“I’m sorting tea.”
David looks at me.
“Just feel his head. I’ve got my hands full.”
“You’ve got a baby and a bottle of beer.”
“What now?” he says.
I look at him, frowning.
He goes back to the TV, head shaking.
“Were you texting her?”
Over the opening and closing of cupboards, “What?”
I breathe out.
“What did you say?”
My pulse ticks off beat. “You left your phone that day.”
I brave a look, hoping to see something that would knit the divide between us. I want him to hold me, but then I remember that woman’s voice on the phone, my little girl in the snow.
I sink to the ground.
David stands over me, Matthew is waking up. “Get up.”
“Or what, you’ll go back to her?”
I hear the hot plate hiss. I should mention it’s still on.
As David looks at me, I look at my feet, drawn up close. There is a hole in one of my socks. My toe is peachy, not pink.
My little girl’s pink toes in the snow.
“Didn’t mean it. Sweetheart.”
I squeeze my eyes shut against the endearment.
Her limbs straight and stiff.
David leans against the counter top and jerks. Matthew slips down his body. David bends his legs to cushion the fall, grabs an arm. Matthew’s mouth tugs but he doesn’t cry. His hands find the hole in my sock, tiny nails pricking my skin. I jerk away.
Matthew’s eyes close and the cry erupts.
I want to reach for Matthew. But he is not right without her.
David stays upstairs with Matthew. I hear the wave of football noise, the bathroom tap and the clunking pipe. The fizz and settle of the toilet. David’s footsteps as he creaks over the landing, putting our child down for the night.
I sit on the kitchen floor, staring at my feet, and make a resolution.
It is a relief that she knows. If I’m honest, I wanted her to know. I wish I could explain how I’d missed her after the babies were born.
I roll over in bed; it’s a quarter to midnight. In a moment, I’ll go down and see when she’s coming to bed.
My wife was always the up and downer. Me the soother. The flatness after the twins were born I initially mistook for calm. Motherhood had tamed her moods.
I stayed late for a few drinks after work. One night to begin with, then two.
I’d worked with Marnie for years, yet I still had no idea what the name was short for. She was not more beautiful nor more interesting than my wife, just more interested.
One night I came home full of stories, pulling off my tie in the kitchen as my wife juggled pans and switches.
“She actually said,” I started, head in the fridge, “that I looked like I worked out.”
“Potatoes,” my wife said. “I didn’t get chance to get anything livelier.”
“D’you hear what I said?”
“Do you have to raise your voice?”
“Great. They’re crying.”
Fireworks whiz and pop outside, dragging me back. I creep downstairs.
Rachel’s still on the floor.
“That can’t be comfortable.” I extend my hand.
We go to bed. She fits in my arms as she always did and I hold her tight.
“We could try again,” I whisper.
I ache for her to say yes. But her breathing is long and deep.
I draw a kiss from my husband and creep past my child’s room. My other child is alone in the dark, lost. Matthew will be just fine.
I leave the warmth of the bed, plant my palm on the twins’ room. The familiar sadness does not swell. I’m excited.
The snow is falling, my child calling.
David’s arms had been tight around me when I woke. I’d turned towards his sleeping face, then looked to the window. Glimpsed the gentle sieve of snow.
He had whispered to me in the night, about love and children and future.
I see my child in the snowfall, I hear her voice in its quiet descent; she fills the sky. I pull off my nightgown. While the world sleeps, I step out into the night.
Standing in the garden, the snow feathers my shoulders, lashes, breasts. They’re swollen because I have not expressed today. It ices my hips, melting over still-pink stretch marks, winking in the moonlight. The cold fills my lungs.
As I sit down on the grass against the back wall, the snow covers my arms and knees, my feet and nipples. I watch it knitting together patches of white. Keeping me warm.
I stay, closer than ever to my daughter.
I wake up early, my brain full of dreams and possibilities. My wife is not in our bed. I check on Matthew who has slept through for the first time. I watch until I am sure he is breathing.
My wife was sick. I should have seen, I should have supported her. It is as much my fault.
I am not concerned until I see that the back door is open. I peer out and call her name. I call her mobile but it buzzes from underneath a newspaper on the coffee table.
Frowning, I put the kettle on to boil. She’s probably just out for a walk or getting groceries. She’ll be back soon. I sit at the kitchen counter, leaving the back door ajar. Why, I don’t know. It’s unusually warm and I wave my hand over the hotplate and swear. I twist the switch and set to making my cup of decaf.
I sip the coffee and flick through the paper. It has last year’s date. I smile. A new year, things could be good again.
I switch on the news. I check the fridge but there’s no milk for Matthew. I look out the back door, the sky is white. Snow is falling with no signs of stopping.
As Matthew’s crying rises up, I feel suddenly queasy.
“Hold on, buddy.”
I push my feet into slippers. I need to check outside. My legs are weak as I head out.
I know before I get there.
There is a snowman on the lawn, against the wall. It is sitting down, the torso upright and the legs stretched out. The contours of the legs are so lifelike: calves, thighs, the indentations in the knees. So familiar.
I try to make myself wonder whether my wife made this before she went for her walk.
But I know.
There are pink toes peeking out from the snow.
I raise my hand to the snowman’s face, the panic just about contained, or numbed, or just dead. I lower my hand before I spoil the perfection and sit down, my own back against the wall. We watch the snow fall around us.
I breathe and watch the world get softer.
And then I hear Matthew’s cries, insistent, strong; alive.
Adrenalin hits. I climb the stairs and gather him up. I press his warmth to my chest. This small, breathing body. His tears and cheeks are hot. We stand by the window and for a moment I am overwhelmed, running through everything I have to do now, rocking until Matthew is soothed. Milk, the police, my mum, her parents.
I go to the back bedroom window with Matthew and look out onto the garden. I can’t see her from here, either of them, but I know they are there. I stand with my child tight against me and watch the snowfall.
I joined her in the snow, my little girl. The pretty pinkness about her feet that I love, blushing rose in the wonderland.
Sarah is currently completing her PhD in Creative Writing at Lancaster University. She works as a Lecturer in English and Creative Writing at the University Centre Blackburn. Her work has been broadcast and published by the BBC, Flax and Unthank. Her novel was recently shortlisted for the Cinnamon Press novel competition. Follow her on @sarahjanedobbs